Vladimir Putin has been Russia's President for seven months, but there is no agreement in Moscow as to who he is or what kind of leader he will be. Indeed, after three weeks here it's clear that various Russians hope for at least four different, conflicting, Putins: a savior of Russia as a great state, a neoliberal strongman, an oligarchical Praetorian and a populist who will save the people from the worst economic depression of modern history.
The "statists"–a broad coalition of security and administrative officials and nationalist intellectuals–hope Putin will restore Russia as a great power or become, as a young KGB general told me, "Vladimir the Savior." The statists see themselves as the only true patriots who can save Russia from the collapse, corruption and weakness they see as Yeltsin's legacy. (Although Putin was created by Yeltsin's Kremlin, this group and many others here see him as the anti-Yeltsin.) They want him to be a modern-day Peter the Great, taking from the West whatever Russia needs–a market economy, technology, foreign investment–and sweeping aside all opposition and obstacles to the nation's rebirth.
In his first State of the Nation address, to a joint session of Parliament on July 8, Putin gave the statists reason to believe he is the leader they want. And there are other signs. Former KGB officials are filling positions of power in the Kremlin and the regions, declaring, as a TV commentator anxiously observed, "All power to the President." Putin has launched a legislative assault on the power and autonomy of Russia's eighty-nine territorial bosses, created a new instrument of executive power in a beefed-up Security Council and indicated a readiness to reassert state control over the country's rich natural-resources monopolies privatized under Yeltsin. There is an ongoing Kremlin effort to rein in what remains of Moscow's independent media and revitalize government-owned media. Putin's brutal war against secessionist Chechnya continues, oppositionist citizens' groups are harassed and the influence of military and intelligence forces grows. "The smell of revanchism is in the air," remarked a veteran KGB official with great satisfaction on a popular TV talk show.
Meanwhile, Russia's neoliberal economists, as they describe themselves, hope Putin will be their Kremlin Pinochet, imposing free-market policies with "a strong hand." They call for "managed democracy" and "enlightened dictatorship" and uncritically praise the former Chilean dictator. German Gref, the new, young Minister of Economics and Trade, is the group's most prominent representative. In late June the Cabinet seemed to endorse Gref's economic program, which an opposition economist calls "son of shock therapy." It is essentially the same as the policy–sponsored by the United States and the IMF and imposed by Yeltsin in the nineties–that led to the country's corruption and economic collapse. The Western media have enthusiastically endorsed Gref's program–the New York Times declared it a "bold economic blueprint"–while ignoring the fact that it calls for slashing essential housing and utilities subsidies, making higher education accessible only to the privileged, endangering the pension system and adopting a regressive tax system, including a flat tax (also heralded in the West as an ambitious reform) that will benefit only the rich and further victimize the poor. A draconian labor code, which has received less attention in the Russian and Western press, proposes abolishing labor rights and permitting a twelve-hour workday.