15 Years Ago West Greeted Putin Rise to Power

That's when they thought he was going to dance to their tune like his predecessor

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This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

On December 31, 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned and named his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his acting replacement. Putin was a virtual unknown to many in the West, having only been appointed prime minister the previous August.

Fifteen years later, Putin has cultivated an increasingly confrontational stance toward the West, highlighted by Russia’s conflicts with Western-leaning governments in Ukraine and Georgia and a crackdown on political opponents and critical media that has been widely criticized by U.S. and European officials.

At the beginning of Putin's reign, however, Western officials reacted optimistically to his public statements, which lacked much of the aggressive foreign policy rhetoric that has since become a hallmark of his public appearances.

Addressing Russians as their leader for the first time, Putin said on New Year’s Eve 15 years ago that “the state will stand firm to protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of mass media, ownership rights -- these fundamental elements of a civilized society."

Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright assessed Putin’s words positively. 

"We were quite encouraged by a speech...in which he talked about the importance of freedom of expression, of association, of press, and his dedication to a rule of law. We're going to be watching, obviously, very carefully," Albright said on NBC's "Meet The Press." 

Her comments echoed those made by a senior Clinton administration official, who told Reuters that Putin’s vow to protect such basic rights was "not a bad way to start." 

"Putin has been very willing to meet with American officials and to engage the West," Reuters quoted the official as saying. 

The official added that Putin was "businesslike," "very energetic," and "very focused." 

Doing 'Business'

Many Western leaders initially called Putin a leader they could work with. 

"You can do business with that kind of person. I don't expect a setback for democracy under Putin," Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen was quoted by the Associated Press as saying after Putin’s appointment.

Albright praised Putin as "a can-do person," while U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said the former intelligence officer "seems to have expanded his capability rapidly." 

A month after Putin’s December 31, 1999, speech, U.S. President Bill Clinton said he thought “the United States can do business with” Putin. 

The “business” motif when discussing Putin has continued in Washington, despite soured bilateral ties. 

The White House’s current occupant, Barack Obama, has used the phrase "businesslike" to describe his increasingly tense relationship with Putin.


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