Victorious Putin goes into battle against tycoons

President-elect tells country not to expect 'miracles' but promises to take on the oligarchs who flourished under Yeltsin
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Vladimir Putin yesterday savoured his landslide victory in the Russian presidential election, amid rising expectations that he will set about limiting the power of the business tycoons who have stripped the country's assets while building up their own fortunes.

Although he has yet to make clear how he will revive the economy, tackle corruption or create a strong state, Mr Putin promised during his campaign to win the war in Chechnya, attack the power of the financial oligarchs, and improve the standard of living.

At an impromptu press conference early yesterday morning, he said Russians could dream about a better future but "not to expect miracles". The size of Mr Putin's victory was only a little below expectations, thanks to a stronger-than-expected showing by the Communists. With almost all of the votes counted, he had won 52 per cent of the vote against 29 per cent for the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and 6 per cent for the liberal Grigory Yavlinsky. All the other candidates gained little support.

Leading Russian politicians, some of whom had opposed Mr Putin in the past, were quick to congratulate him on his success. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former prime minister, said the "time of political adventurists and experimenters" was over. Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, said he would "do everything possible to establish normal relations with Putin".

Despite Mr Putin's promise to open an offensive against the oligarchs, including the tycoon-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky, who flourished under Boris Yeltsin, his critics argue they are so intertwined with the bureaucracy that it may prove impossible to make more than cosmetic changes.

Mr Luzhkov claimed yesterday that Mr Putin "would be able to distance himself from politically connected tycoons while forming a new government". More probably, the President-elect will confine himself to moving against one or two oligarchs to show his strength and keep others uncertain about his intentions.

As the election outcome became clear, Mr Zyuganov accused Mr Putin's campaign of electoral fraud, saying the Communists had really got more than 40 per cent of the vote. "They have set up a zone of blanket fraud to cheat citizens," he said. His complaint is unlikely to get anywhere, but the Communists, with one-third of the vote, have shown they are the main party of protest and that their support is not confined to pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet Union. Mr Putin acknowledged that they had done well and the discontent they represented would have to be taken into account.

It is unclear how far the new president will have the instruments of power to carry out real reforms. One cynical Russian joke says that even if Mr Putin decided to invest in a programme to build new prison camps, dissenters need not worry too much because the money would certainly be embezzled before a brick was laid.

Mr Putin's victory was guaranteed by the popularity of the Chechen war, his control of the state-run television channels and, as acting president, the power of being the incumbent in the Kremlin.

He also benefited from general relief in Russia at the departure from power of Boris Yeltsin and his family.

The new president will not be formally inaugurated until May when he will appoint a new prime minister and government. In the meantime, he is expected to present an economic programme, although the state's ability to implement it will be limited. He is also vulnerable to a fall in oil prices.

Mr Putin said the willingness of voters to go to the polls in Chechnya showed they recognised that they were still part of Russia. Even so, there is little sign of federal forces winning a conclusive victory against the guerrillas.