Putin clinches Russian presidency plans changes

MOSCOW (Reuters)–Former KGB agent Vladimir Putin swept to victory in Russia’s presidential election on Monday and swiftly began considering government changes and work on an economic program for his impoverished nation.

But questions remained about the direction Putin would take the world’s second biggest nuclear power after outright victory in Sunday’s election with 52 percent of the vote. Communist Gennady Zyuganov was second with 29 percent.

Putin–47–who has risen from obscurity to leader of the world’s largest country in just eight months–gave few clues about his intentions in his first commen’s after the election.

RTR state television showed him restrained and business-like addressing a meeting of deputy prime ministers and security aides without a trace of triumphalism–thanking them for continuing to work responsibly during the election campaign.

“(The results) give us an additional push towards working to achieve even better results,” Interfax news agency quoted Putin–who will lead Russia for the next four years–as saying.

“In the near future–(we must) put together all our work (on an economic program) into a weighty document,” RIA news agency quoted him as saying.

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying Putin had asked his ministers to prepare suggestions for government changes–although a new government will not formally be installed until he is inaugurated in May.

Putin has said he backs market reforms but also wants a strong state to ensure that laws are obeyed.

Some liberals fear he will be an authoritarian leader because of his background in the KGB security police and his record of relentlessly pursuing the war in rebel Chechnya.

The war was Putin’s testing ground after being picked by former President Boris Yeltsin as his prime minister and preferred successor in August 1999–although Russia’s have also responded to his energetic–decisive style.

Russian shares–which rallied ahead of the vote–gained a further three percent–and the ruble firmed slightly.

Economic analysts were generally pleased with Putin’s win. Gintaras Shlyuzhius of Raffeissen Bank Moscow said he expected “no surprises” from the new leader. Others said he faced tough economic as well as political challenges.

After a cliffhanger night when Putin’s total crept up to the minimum 50 percent plus one vote needed to win outright–Election Commission Chief Alexander Veshnyakov declared him the victor with 52.52 percent based on 94.27 percent of votes cast.

As in the last presidential election in 1996–Zyuganov came second. This time he had 29.44 percent but failed to drive his Kremlin opponent to a second round runoff. Zyuganov said the vote was falsified–but this was denied by election officials.

International election monitors said the vote was largely clean although they criticized media coverage.

State-owned channels RTR and ORT gave blanket coverage to Putin and often bitterly criticized his rivals. Many Russia’s rely on both channels for most of their news and information.

“It is a common problem how not to let the media detract from democracy but serve democracy,” said Helle Degn–head of an observer team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She criticized a lack of serious policy discussion.

Liberal Grigory Yavlinsky–one of the candidates attacked on ORT–came third in the poll with 5.85 percent. Eleven candidates took part and the final turnout was almost 69 percent.

President Robert Kocharian addressed a telegram of congratulations to Putin Sunday. The Speaker of the Armenian National Assembly Armen Khatchatrian also sent a similar congratulatory note.

"I sincerely congratulate you on your victory in the presidential election. I am sure that Russia has elected a worthy leader capable of leading the country. "In this crucial period for the Russian people–I wish you statesmanlike wisdom and will in exercising your presidential powers.

"I want to assure you of the readiness of the leadership of the Republic of Armenia to continue to develop relations with Russia in the spirit of traditional friendship and mutual understanding. I hope that our mutual understanding will promote a stronger strategic cooperation between Armenia and Russia.

"I wish you sound health and every success. I also wish welfare and prosperity for the people of Russia."

Chinese President Jiang Zemin congratulated Putin and hoped Beijing and Moscow–once rivals to lead the Communist world–would be “good friends.” Japan’s Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Britain’s Tony Blair also spoke by telephone with Putin.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Washington would judge Putin on his actions and not his words. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hoped for a “constructive–fresh start” in relations.

The European Union hoped Russia would be an “even more reliable partner for Europe and the West” and for a solution to the war in Chechnya. Former Cold War ally Poland desired what it called a normalization in frosty ties and a reform of Russian foreign policy.

Putin’s attitude to the West has been to reject criticism of the war in Chechnya but to underline the need for cooperation.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said there could be changes in foreign policy but did not say what they might be. On Sunday he had spoken of continuity in Russian diplomacy.

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