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Kremlin Gremlins

Whether it's a czar, a communist, or a former KGB spy, the person who rules the Kremlin is faced with tiny creatures from Russia's history that can play mischief with its future.

The creatures are the ones who say Russians always want iron-fisted rule, a corrupting elite, no private property, propaganda that glorifies a leader, and wars that glorify a Russian empire.

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A decade of post-Soviet democracy was supposed to have swept the Kremlin of these kiboshing gremlins and persuaded Russians to reject their languishing legacy and em- brace Western-style markets and freedoms - and the West.

Instead, on Sunday, they elected Vladimir Putin, a man with an autocratic past who ran a pragmatic but dirty campaign, making enigmatic statements while waging a secretive war with attacks against civilians.

Oh, and 3 out of 10 votes went to Mr. Putin's chief rival, the head of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, who is his partner in the lower house.

No wonder the West's reaction to Putin's election was one of caution.

At the least, his victory means Russia will see a peaceful transition of power and, for now, an end to the Yeltsin-era succession battles and erratic behavior. Putin brings youthful vigor and a bureaucratic decisiveness that may quickly sort out the contradictory instincts of a man trained in the KGB, but who mouths democratic principles.

But will Putin challenge the Rasputins of his era, the rich oligarchs who have turned a market economy into an unlevel playing field? Will he give the Russian serfs the land ownership that is the sod of any democracy?

Will he let the media be free enough to be checks on Kremlin imbalances and Potemkin snow jobs? Is he a true reformer, or one who sees markets and arms-control pacts as a tool only to revive Russian greatness?

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Even his policy advisers are quarreling over a long-term strategy, a sign that old gremlins may still put glitches in this four-year Putin presidency.

The United States needs a stable, friendly Russia, but one built on openness, markets, and democracy. Helping Putin clean the Kremlin of its fairy-tale past will be the clean break that's needed to build a new Russia.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society