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First year done, Putin still has a big country to fix

Charging through his first year at Russia's helm, Vladimir Putin rarely stepped on the brakes, ramming through measure after measure to consolidate his grip on power. But as he enters 2001, the tasks still look enormous: a seemingly endless war in Chechnya and a populace demoralized by years of crime, poverty and corruption.

"I hope that with time, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will turn from the problems he knows to the real problems plaguing society," said Vladimir Rimskiy, an analyst with the Information for Democracy Foundation.

Boris Yeltsin shocked the nation and the world when he abruptly stepped down Dec. 31, 1999, and chose his prime minister as acting president. But Russians were pleased with the choice, and they delivered Putin a resounding victory in the March 26 presidential election.

Putin quickly moved to remake the relationship between Moscow and the regions, pushed through tax reform and a long-stalled arms control treaty, and toured the world to underline that Russia was still a power to be reckoned with. He said his policies were oriented toward a common goal: priming Russia for reform to reverse the nation's decline.

The economy was buoyed by high world prices for oil, one of Russia's major export earners, but it was widely expected to decline in 2001 as oil prices fall. Putin warned this week that economic growth, which reached some 7 percent in 2000, was already sagging, and that unemployment seemed to be rising.

The popularity he won through raising pensions and salaries _ bringing real income up by 7 percent _ could fade fast if the economy sinks. Putin told Russian reporters this week that he was torn between the need to institute far-reaching reforms and to ease social pressures.

"I always keep in mind that despite all the positive tendencies, a huge number of our citizens endure extreme hardship and live in poverty," Putin told Russian journalists this week. "I would not say that this feeling helps to make pragmatic or even technocratic decisions in the economic sphere. . . . But this feeling helps me to make more balanced decisions and it is by no means harmful for a leader of such a country."

Putin's other big, haunting problem is the Chechen war.

In spite of his vows to crush separatist rebels, the conflict has ground into its 16th month. Putin has shown no sign that he would try to negotiate an end to the war in 2001 _ and rebels have demonstrated time and again that they can hurt federal forces.

The explosion and sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk underlined the decay in the Russian armed forces and the pressing need for long-delayed military reform. Putin said this week that Russia's long-term goal must be a professional army to replace the mandatory draft _ but he said that would take years.

Russians' chief hope was that the new president would reverse the nation's decades-long decline, which accelerated after the 1991 Soviet breakup.

Putin, a 16-year veteran of the Soviet KGB, proved to be a talented political operator.

He deftly disarmed almost all opposition by co-opting dissenting politicians, cowing them or simply pushing them out. The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, acceded to his every request, from cutting the powers of regional governors to passing the nation's first balanced budget. Most of the media fell in lockstep behind him.

Less than a month after winning the presidential election, he persuaded the two parliamentary chambers finally to ratify the 1993 START II nuclear arms reduction treaty, which Yeltsin and President Clinton had signed in 1993 and the former, Communist-dominated legislature had blocked.

But there was also a chill in U.S.-Russian relations. Putin repeatedly objected to Washington's possible deployment of a new, limited missile defense system. More ominously, for the first time in 40 years, an American was convicted of espionage in Russia.

Putin spoke frequently about the need for economic reform, and he surrounded himself with pro-market economists. But with the exception of the tax reform _ which introduced a flat, 13 percent income tax as of Jan. 1, 2001 _ the government did not manage to turn any reform policy into reality.

"This year has been the year of missed chances," said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the pro-reform Union of Right Forces.