March 22, 2000 | News Releases on Russia
WASHINGTON, MARCH 22, 2000-Vladimir Putin is expected to coast to victory in Russia's March 26 presidential election, but fixing the problems that plague the former Soviet state-from widespread corruption to a weak legal system-will prove considerably more difficult, a Heritage Foundation Russia expert says.
The debate over whether Putin is up to the task is largely unresolved, Heritage Research Fellow Ariel Cohen writes in the forthcoming (April-May) issue of Policy Review. The ex-KGB officer appears to be a focused, competent, non-ideological ruler who is well-acquainted with Russia's strengths and weaknesses. But Putin's reliance on the "St. Petersburg 'mafia'" of ex-KGB officers and business oligarchs to staff his administration is worrisome, Cohen says, as is the political deal he brokered giving the communist faction an upper hand in Russia's parliament.
Cohen, who works extensively with the U.S. Congress on Russian policy issues, outlines a 10-point checklist of "benchmarks" by which U.S. observers can judge Russia's progress under Putin. For one thing, he says, officials there should support a free media and reject the recent attempts to regulate the Internet and punish journalists who covered the war in Chechnya.
For another, Russian officials must improve their legal system by enforcing court rulings and contracts, which are "more often enforced by the mob than by courts and the police," Cohen says. Such reform should include a crackdown on organized crime and corruption. Well-known criminal leaders need to go to jail, he says, as do high-ranking government officials and oligarchs who broke the law. "Only then will Russians have reason to believe that democracy and the machinery of the state will serve them," writes Cohen, who recently contributed a chapter to the book "Ukraine in the Post Soviet Era" (1999, Rowan and Littlefield, Boston) on the threat of organized crime in Russia and Ukraine.
Reformers should also realize that simply deregulating prices and privatizing industry is not enough to build a functional market economy. "Such market institutions require a competent legislature and a clean bureaucracy," he says.