Putin of all the Russias

VIENNA -- For those who still wondered who Vladimir Putin is, the mystery is over. His actions this week show that he is Russia’s new autocrat. He is a Czar pure and simple.

The seven years since Putin assumed power in the Kremlin have been a time of conflicting signals. On one hand, he appears to be an educated and dynamic leader committed to modernizing Russia. On the other hand, with the help of the military-industrial KGB complex – the “ siloviki ” – he has systematically weakened or destroyed every check on his personal power, while strengthening the state’s ability to violate citizens’ constitutional rights.

This week, Putin told the United Russia party that he will place his name at the top of its ballot for the parliamentary election scheduled for December 2, which could enable him to become Russia’s new prime minister after the presidential election due in March 2008. Of course, as he put it, Russia will have to elect as president a “decent, competent, effective, modern person with whom it would be possible to work in tandem.” But what that really means is that Russia will have to choose a man Putin has hand-picked to do his bidding.

If this scenario comes true, it will be a sad day for Russia, but not because Putin will be retaining power – something everyone in Russia knew that he would. True, Putin has concentrated in his own hands more decision-making authority than at any time in Russia’s post-Soviet history. But most Russians think he is a great leader, crediting him with taking the country from the bankruptcy and despair of the Yeltsin era to wealth and prosperity in just seven years. Poll after poll puts his approval ratings at more than 70%.