Just hours after Vladimir Putin took over as acting president Friday, he delivered the traditional New Year's speech to the Russian people on television with a particularly urgent, somber tone--and his characteristic stern visage.
"I should like to point out that there has never been a power vacuum in the country, not even for a moment," he said, warning that "any attempts to breach the Russian law or the Russian constitution will be resolutely nipped in the bud."
It was a blunt statement from a veteran KGB agent who rose to power on a wave of popular support for the war against separatist rebels in Chechnya and has vowed to halt what he calls the "disintegration of Russian statehood." But many politicians and analysts here say the disintegration and chaos of the new Russia extend far beyond Chechnya and that Putin's tough talk cannot disguise a fundamental reality: A power vacuum already exists in Russia today, and he is now at the center of it.
Many wonder if--and how--Putin can arrest Russia's centrifugal forces without going back to the kind of destructive authoritarianism that has characterized this country for most of its history. In the five months he was prime minister, Putin offered few clues--beyond the military offensive in Chechnya--to how he would address the manifest problems facing the country. In a statement published recently on the government's Web site, Putin declared, "Russia needs a strong state power and must have it." But he added, "I am not calling for totalitarianism."
"History proves that all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government are transient," he said. "Only democratic systems are not transient. Whatever the shortcomings, mankind has not devised anything superior."
Putin has pledged not to trample basic liberties as he tries to build a more powerful state. But it is far less clear how, and whether, Putin will be able to confront the disparate special interests that have challenged and co-opted the state--business tycoons, restive regional governors, the sprawling bureaucracy, the generals and others.
Under Boris Yeltsin, these groups heard many presidential warnings but rarely felt any sting. "Yeltsin did not become a dictator, and that's the most important thing," said Valery Solovei, an analyst at the Gorbachev Foundation. But, he added, "His successor may become a dictator. Yeltsin's rule created a longing for a strong hand in society."
Andrei Zorin, a professor of literature and history at the Russian State University for the Humanities, said he was stunned to find how much this longing for a strongman extends to the intelligentsia. "What really scares me is that I could never imagine there was such a strong desire for a powerful leader among the intellectuals," Zorin said. "When my best friends--with light in their eyes--tell me that finally we have a leader in which they aren't ashamed, that's really scary. Not Putin himself; I don't see him as a demonic figure. But it is an enormous demand for this type that influences him."
"If there is such an incredible consensus," he added, "and everybody wants to have a fist before his nose, then maybe people are going to behave accordingly when someone shows this fist."
Irina Khakamada, a leader of the Union of Right Forces, a pro-market party in the newly elected parliament, said: "Most important now is to support Putin as a democratic leader and then basically to create for him such conditions that he could only be a democrat--and no one else."
Putin has expressed little interest in the economy, but it is the source of many of the threats to Russian statehood and stability. Faced with powerful vested interests, the government has grown steadily weaker, woefully unable to enforce a competitive market system. Instead, Yeltsin left behind a distorted capitalism of rich "oligarchs," rampant corruption, capital flight, poor tax collection and widespread barter.
A recent study of the post-communist transition in Russia and Eastern and Central Europe by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found that the actions of the special interests--the "capture" of the state--has become a major impediment to further market reform. "This 'state capture' is the bottom line for Putin," said Al Breach, an economist here with the Goldman Sachs investment banking firm. "Is he going to allow the interest groups inside and just outside the government to continue" to extract from the economy, he asked. "Or is he going to come down on that and try and use some of that to rebuild the functions of the state?"
"That is the crucial issue," Breach added, "and I don't think we know. But I don't think he's going to hit vested interests before a political campaign." Putin is the front-runner among several candidates to succeed Yeltsin by nationwide election in a ballot expected in late March.
Resistance to any reforms will be strong, however, because the special interests are entrenched. "He can't do it all at once," said Thomas Graham, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. diplomat here. "Given the way the system has developed, there are real limits to what he can do. He can't get rid of all the oligarchs who are leeching off the system, in part because the oligarchs, or at least a set of them, are part of his power base."
But, Graham added, Putin might succeed if he can demonstrate that "he's not going to allow everyone to feed off the weakness of the state."
"Everyone in the elite has done well, because the state is weak," he said. "Taking on everyone at once is an impossible task."