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Putin’s Undercover Liberalism

When Vladimir Putin was elected Russia's president little more than a ago, people expected the smack of firm government -- something most Russians wanted and most outsiders feared. In politics, they have gotten just that. In economics, however, President Putin has been a stealthy reformer yearning for consensus. His caution may be working better than anyone expected.

When President Putin made German Gref (a reformer from Saint Petersburg, the president's home city) minister in charge of economic development, he ordered him to draw up a longterm strategy for economic reform. Given Gref's reputation, the president knew that any program designed by him would adhere to liberal principles. When the program was ready six months later, however, the government approved only an eighteen-month version of it, not the longterm strategy. All measures touching on reform of the state were removed.

Presidential support for Gref appeared on the wane. As grumbling against his program grew louder, the President asked the governor of Khabarovsk, Viktor Ishayev, to devise an alternative strategy. Ishayev’s plan turned out to be significantly more conservative, and Gref was ordered to incorporate its positive aspects into his program.

What happened next was surprising. Gref's program was diluted only slightly but gained wide support and the President's backing. The general public approved of this seeming compromise. By implicating Ishayev (a representative of the old and the cautious) into the process, Putin created the appearance of consensus, but in reality demonstrated that there is no valid economic alternative to a liberal course.