Chechen war is not the only issue 'one-policy' Putin will have to face

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Vladimir Putin has fought the election on just one policy: making war on Chechnya. So far it seems to be working. Even Russians who were not going to vote for him said they favoured fighting the war to the end.

The problem for Mr Putin, the acting president, is that the war shows no sign of winding down despite the capture of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and the advance of the Russian army into the mountains of southern Chechnya.

Even as Russians were going to the polls yesterday the Russian army high command was busy denying that 2,000 rebels had occupied the village of Nozhai-Yurt close to the border with Dagestan. Mr Putin would say only: "We have received reports about the movement of rebels."

The war in Chechnya has masked other pressing economic problems which have fuelled deep resentment against the Russian élite whose vast wealth controls the economy, in contrast to the extreme poverty of most of the 145 million Russians.

From the moment he became leader last August, Mr Putin said he believed his "historic mission" was to "resolve the situation in the North Caucasus". In the lead-up to the election, Russian television has done everything it can to suggest that the war is won.

A key moment will come soon after the election: so far Russian policy in Chechnya has been driven by the political needs of the Kremlin. The timing of the start of the war last October, the slow advance behind an artillery barrage and the refusal to negotiate or even seek credible Chechen allies was geared to enabling Mr Putin to take over from President Boris Yeltsin.

Assuming Mr Putin enters the Kremlin as the elected president will this policy now change? An obvious tactic is for Moscow to try to negotiate with at least some of the Chechen leaders but it may have left this too late. If it does not, then it will have to try to win a guerrilla war without any local allies, something that well-equipped and disciplined armies have usually failed to do.

The war affects Russia in another way. It has enabled Mr Putin to suggest that dissent is the equivalent to disloyalty. Media not controlled by the Kremlin has come under attack. After the election it will be important to see if this stifling of criticism of any of its activities continues.

The war in Chechnya will also limit Russia's ability to take the initiative in foreign policy elsewhere, at a time when the agenda includes arms control negotiations on further nuclear weapons cuts and the possible amendment of the ABM treaty.

President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have both noticeably pulled their punches in criticising Russian human rights abuses during the war. But Mr Putin may pay a price for this restraint as it may be more difficult for him to take the diplomatic offensive over issues like Iraqi sanctions.

The war in Chechnya hasmasked Mr Putin's lack of policy on any other issue. He has produced only a vapid letter to voters and a promise of higher moral values. Given he is so far ahead in the polls it was never likely that he would present his opponents with a target by setting new economic policies.

Russian expectations are, in any case, low. Yesterday voters appeared cynical about Mr Putin's promise to stamp out corruption. Some recall that he was part of administrations in the St Petersburg and the Kremlin notable for their corrupt practices.

Some oligarchs may go, but Mr Putin is unlikely to be able to change the system even if he wanted to.

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