GWEN IFILL: Russia and its President. Vladimir Putin is still a little-known figure outside Russia. He's met only one foreign leader, the prime minister of Britain. We start with two reports, the first from Robert Moore of Independent Television News.
ROBERT MOORE, ITN: On the international stage, Russia's new president is still being assessed. Mr. Blair had the opportunity of meeting with him just two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, and all western leaders have declared that Vladimir Putin is a man they can do business with. But they also concede he remains an enigmatic figure whose philosophy and policies have yet to be spelled out.
His war in Chechnya was hugely popular, but its brutality also raised real questions about Putin's commitment to human rights. But his biggest challenge now is economic reform. How he handles the economy and deals with Russia's endemic corruption will be the key signals about what type of leadership he will provide. He has projected himself as a man of action, seen flying into Chechnya in a jet fighter. But beyond such images, little is known about Putin's political program or even his past. For example, mystery still surrounds Vladimir Putin's years as a KGB agent. He was recruited at St. Petersburg University. Fluent in German, he was stationed in the 1980's in the East German City of Dresden. Putin's exact role is unknown, but it's believed he trained agents to target western technology secrets. His favorite sport is known to be judo, but nothing so far will have prepared him for the colossal challenge that awaits him, now he is securely installed in the Kremlin.
Signaling that his will be a new and more aggressive Russian leadership, Vladimir Putin has moved fast to try to establish his authority. Thanking his ministers for his election triumph, they need no reminding of the president's sweeping powers under the Russian constitution. He can dismiss his cabinet at any time, but says he wants a period of stability while at the same time making a break with the past. That past, in the shape of Boris Yeltsin, was celebrating the victory of the man he named his successor.
On the streets of Moscow, Russian voters were optimistic about the prospects for a new beginning. "We hope he'll be a good president, but we've been cheated so often in the past." "We like the fact that he sorted out the situation in Chechnya," this lady said. Yet the truth is that after thousands of deaths in the latest Chechen conflict, it is by no means over yet. And as Mr. Putin works this evening in the Kremlin, he has other daunting tasks ahead of him. He must tackle a Russian economy still in crisis and a culture of corruption in Russia that means that billionaire businessmen can often exercise more influence than many of those in the Russian government itself. To help him do that, Mr. Putin has shown a greater openness towards the West. One of his first phone calls was to Tony Blair. But it was here with Russia's military this evening that Mr. Putin delivered his serious message. The Russian army's campaign in Chechnya, he says, shows Russia can't be pushed around.
GWEN IFILL: Ray Suarez takes the story from there.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on Russia and its president we turn to Anna Vassilieva, Associate Professor of Russian studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She was born in Eastern Siberia and is now a U.S. citizen. Eva Busza, Assistant Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary. And Steven Solnick, Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and author of "Stealing the State: Control and Collapse in Soviet Institutions." Professor Solnick, a run-off won't be needed in Russia. What does that tell us?
STEVEN SOLNICK, Columbia University: Well, it tells us Vladimir Putin was able to win a victory that would be any western politician's dream. He won by more than 20% of the vote against a fragmented opposition without really committing himself to any particular set of policies after he's elected. So, he can now claim to have a crushing vote and mandate to do pretty much anything he wants to do. And in the case of Putin, I think that's a slightly worrisome turn of events.
RAY SUAREZ: Eva Busza, is he out of the shadow of Boris Yeltsin or still seen as Yeltsin's man?
EVA BUSZA, College of William & Mary: I think it was very important that he did win on the first run. And I think one of the reasons why we saw that he was very careful not to alienate any sector of the population was because he did need that mandate. I think with that mandate, he has been able and he will be able to claim now that he is out of Boris Yeltsin's shadow.
RAY SUAREZ: And Anna Vassilieva, what do you make of the size of the victory?
ANNA VASSILIEVA, Monterey Institute for International Studies: Well, I think that the victory is very significant, that one couldn't expect much more from Mr. Putin's victory, and I think that after the legacy of Boris Yeltsin's democratic revolution, Mr. Putin now faces an enormous task that is going to define the course of life in Russia for the next few years.
RAY SUAREZ: What kind of signal should we understand from the fact that the second finishing party was Zyuganov's Communist Party with 30% of the vote?
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, I think very strongly that the large amount of votes that were given to Communists shows that the population is extremely frustrated with the past government of Boris Yeltsin and the way Boris Yeltsin governed the country. This is the vote of people who are disillusioned. This is the vote of people who want predictability and stability of Communism back, and I hope that Mr. Putin will be able to use this support in order to consolidate people behind the policies that he's putting forward so far.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Busza, what about the Communists, the leading opposition party?
EVA BUSZA: I think it's really important that they've done as well as they did. I think they did better than most of us here thought they would do. I think that Putin now has already indicated that he is interested in working with the Communists. He has stated that one needs to put... one needs to give a lot of attention now to improving the welfare of the average Russian citizen, and he seems to be reacting to that mandate. I think that it's... the Communists, by doing as well as they have done, have really helped to position themselves in a way that they can have more of a voice in policy in the next few years.
RAY SUAREZ: The reports from Moscow said that the economy is job one. Professor Solnick, does anything about Vladimir Putin's background give us any hint of how he'll deal with that?
STEVEN SOLNICK: I think we have to remember first of all he has been prime minister for eight months. So we can look at his record as head of the Russian government. His record has head of the Russia government really gives us no clue what he has in mind. He's pulled together a team of experts that have been working furiously to draw up an economic plan. That economic plan was supposed to be released in March, before the election. Then they said it would be a couple of weeks before the election. Now they're saying, well, we probably won't release it until May, after Putin is inaugurated and after he names a cabinet. I think that we have to start to wonder really whether he has any sense of what he wants to do after this vote, and there's nothing in his background particularly to suggest that he has his own well-formed ideas of economic policy. So I think what we're seeing behind the scenes is the same stalemate in economic debate that's paralyzed Russian economic policy making for ten years now.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Vassilieva, we heard a lot about order and stability, maybe as much as we heard in economic productivity. What should that tell us?
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, law and stability, order and stability in the country, are the major needs of Russian people now, of the majority of the Russian people. What is very important is to understand that there can be no concern regarding human rights if there is no statehood. If the state cannot protect the rights of people who live there, there is nothing here to talk about. And the problem of law, of abiding to the law, has been the eternal problem of Russia. So Vladimir Putin now is facing the major challenge of reforming the society, reforming the legal system, reforming the government, so that the rule of law-- he calls it dictatorship of law-- will be a defining structure of Russian society.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of the man-on-the-street interviews that have been coming out of Russia in the past few weeks showed voters who talked about stability and law as an economic issue.
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, it is an economic issue in a way. People are disillusioned. Let me repeat myself. You know, when you go into provinces, you see people who weren't paid for years. They weren't paid salaries for years. Basically the only group of population who have been paid were the people who are retired. And Vladimir Putin really helped the retirees to get their money in time. So they're grateful to him for that. So, for workers, it's not just having the law in the country but also fighting the corruption because the society -- the workers feel that there is a group in Russia who have illegally gained a lot at the expense of the rest of the population. So this is one of the major challenges of Mr. Putin: To make the law equal and necessary for everyone in the country to follow.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Busza, you wanted to add?
EVA BUSZA: I wanted to agree with that. I think that's a very important point to highlight, that there has been almost a convergence between the idea of law and order and economic development for the short run. I think that the problem is-- and I think that what many commentators in the West are concerned about-- is that that law and order will mean the curbing of a great deal of freedoms which in the long run mean a stemming of Russia's ability to be creative in the economic realm. So in the short run, that law and order is very likely to encourage western investment. It's likely to regularize some of the economic transactions that have occurred. But in the long run, I think that it will serve to the detriment of Russia's further development.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Solnick, do you agree?
STEVEN SOLNICK: No, not really. I think what Putin has been able to do in the last six or seven months in terms of paying salaries has been largely a consequence of world oil prices. Russia has been able to collect an enormous windfall in its own budget surplus because of the rise in oil prices. And they've used this to pay off groups that need to be paid off so Putin can secure his victory. What they didn't do in this period, I think, was lay the groundwork for really serious systemic reforms in the economy, in society, in the structuring of relationships between the national and federal government. By not doing that, I think it becomes very difficult to use the word "mandate" as we've been using it here to describe what Putin takes from this election.
What Putin said to people about a month ago was, "I'm not going to tell you what I plan to do if I'm elected because elections are just opportunities for politicians to outbid each other. As soon as I start to tell you what I'm going to do, I start to lose votes." What he's basically saying was you'll like me but only as long as I don't tell you what my plans are. The problem is governing is about that too. Governing is about convincing people that your plans are the right plans. There's been a lot of criticism of Russian economic policy in the last ten years that says that what the Russian government has failed to do was bring the society along on their attempts to reform the government. Putin has just wasted an enormous opportunity to do this. He was never at risk of losing a run-off election if it went to a second round. He could have laid out policies and used this opportunity to convince the Russian people that a whole series of reforms he has in mind, if he has any in mind, are right and then the vote would have been a mandate for change. That didn't happen.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Vassilieva, that doesn't necessarily sound like the instincts of a convinced democrat.
ANNA VASSILIEVA: Well, what I should say here-- I wasn't very sure what the question was because the connection wasn't very good, but I would like to comment on bit on what was said before I was given the floor here. Russia is at war right now. So it is not fair, I think, to ask of President-elect Putin now to have presented the full economic program much earlier because he has to deal with very important issues at the same time. What I think is extremely important now is to trust his word, and he makes it very clear that Russia is not going to turn away from the market reforms. It is going to be open to the western society, and he is going to work towards freedom of...living up to the promises of freedom of speech in the country. This is very important. And point number two is it's extremely important for the Democrats in the country now to unite and work together along with president-elect and be a constructive opposition. That's one of the issues that's very important to deal with in contemporary Russia now.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Busza, one of the first things the new president-elect said was, "we're not changing course in Chechnya." And in his message to President-elect Putin, Bill Clinton noted that, congratulating him but at the same time taking a little edge off that by saying we're still worried about Chechnya.
EVA BUSZA: Yeah. I think that here is sort of the real testimony to Putin's weak relationship to supporting human rights. And I think that it is very important now for the West to stress that Russia is... even if Russia now is able to consolidate domestic order at home, even if it is able to remove some of the corruption, even if Russia is promoting some advancing in terms of our arms control negotiations, that at the same time we're not going to take the eye off the ball in terms of how individual rights are going to be supported -- and that we will be watching to see how, for example, the Chechen campaign continues to be conducted and that we will be pressing them to bring an end to the struggle there.
RAY SUAREZ: Professors, thank you all.