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Analysts Wonder How Putin Will Further Solidify Power - 2004-03-19

Russian President Vladimir Putin obtained a strong mandate in Sunday's elections, winning seven out of 10 votes and solidifying his hold on power. Observers are now asking what he will do with it.

Speaking shortly after his re-election, President Putin exuded confidence, saying the future of Russia is in safe hands. He says the next four years are not going to bring anything that would endanger either the government or the country.

It is just that kind of confidence that many Russians voters say led them to put Mr. Putin in charge of the Kremlin for another four years.

In 2000, Mr. Putin ran on the promise of delivering stability to Russia, and a majority of the people appear to believe he delivered on his promise. This time, he says, his goal is to complete economic reforms and make Russia prosperous.

Few Russians would argue with Mr. Putin's goals. But what worries many people are the methods he is using.

Konstantin Simonov, the director of Moscow's Center for Current Political Situations, says the run-up to the elections opened Mr. Putin to widespread criticism that he has denied Russians genuine democracy. But he thinks a little autocracy in today's Russia is not all bad.

Mr. Simonov says the president needs all the authority he can get to carry out his program of economic reforms, such as the overhaul of Russia's banking and tax laws. He says, with his strong public mandate and a comfortable majority in parliament, Mr. Putin is set to go to work on his program.

The head of Russia's Institute for political studies in Moscow, Sergei Markov, agrees, but says the president must also build democratic institutions in Russia. He says long-term stability in Russia cannot be accomplished without democracy.

Mr. Markov says stability and development, based not only on Mr. Putin's personality, but on stable institutions, must be the goal of his second presidency. He says prosperous markets and stable political institutions must be built on the rule of law, not the clout of the president.

Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center research organization says she is not optimistic that four more years of Vladimir Putin will bring democratic change to Russia.

"I think, he'll try to keep the system at the level it's reached today," she said. "And I want to stress this is a mild authoritarian rule; in other words, it's not based on blood, but on eager obsequiousness. People are eager to get on with their lives. People prefer to be with the stronger, that is with the state, with the government, with the Kremlin, than to take the risk and be with the opposition. Opposition is something that for all practical purposes does not exist in Russia today."

Ms. Lipman says she expects the president to spend only the first half of his four-year term on substantive policy changes. In the last year or two at the Kremlin, she says, he will likely be concentrating on picking and grooming his successor.

"He [Putin] will pick a successor," she said. "He will give orders to the political machine under his command, to make the successor popular, and to help the successor get elected. And this is a very important task. So, it is likely that two years from now the reforms will have to be slowed down, so as not to antagonize the public because the reforms - namely, housing reform, education reform, health reform - are bound to be painful. The public will have to be kept reasonably content, and it will have to get used to the new face [of] the prospective president."

Meanwhile, she says, Russia's long-term problems, such as the conflict in separatist Chechnya, will likely continue to fester well beyond Mr. Putin's term.