Is Vladimir Putin remaking Russia? To many observers, the answer is obvious. The country seems to have changed radically in the last few years. Under its energetic and sober young president, Russia's political system and economy appear finally to have stabilized. Dramatic reforms, including changes to the country's tax code, judiciary, and federal structure, have sailed through the parliament with hardly an amendment. Firmly pro-Western in its bias, Moscow is now racing to join NATO and the World Trade Organization and has volunteered to assist the fight against international terrorism. The economy has enjoyed three years of growth and a stock market boom so impressive that even those foreign investors who fled the country after the 1998 financial crisis are now creeping back. Commentators no longer complain about anarchy and stagnation; instead, they worry that Putin will go too far in his quest for order, crushing the fragile shoots of democracy in the process.
Long gone, it seems, are the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin's stewardship, when crises were a way of life. The economy lurched from one meltdown to the next, as prices soared and the GDP plummeted. Widespread corruption stifled small businesses. A few unscrupulous oligarchs concentrated much of the country's capital in their hands and seemed to dangle Russia's leaders from golden strings. Provincial governors threatened and bargained with the Kremlin while exploiting their regions like feudal fiefdoms. An aggressive, obstructionist Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament) dominated by Communists blocked any attempt at reform. And all the while Yeltsin, alternately indecisive and headstrong, cultivated competing clans of courtiers, each with its own commercial interests.
That all changed on January 1, 2000, when Yeltsin stepped down and appointed Putin acting president. At least, so goes the popular version of events. In this view, Putin (confirmed in office by an election that March) personally put an end to the disorder that flourished under his predecessor. The new president tamed both oligarchs and regional barons and began replacing corruption with a "
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