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Election Behind Him, Putin Gets Back to Usual Business

By Robyn Dixon
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

Between congratulatory phone calls from world leaders and a fat bouquet of red roses from his ministers, Russia’s President-elect Vladimir V. Putin went back to business as usual Monday, ordering the government to finalize a strategy for the country’s future and make sure all back wages were paid.

After winning power in Sunday’s presidential elections, one of Putin’s first tasks is to choose his governing team, although the new Cabinet will not be named until after his inauguration, to be held between May 5 and 8.

Because Putin’s pre-election program was sparse on detail and at times contradictory, his personnel changes will be scrutinized for signs of his approach to power: whether he plans to rein in Russia’s powerful oligarchs, for example, and how serious he is about clamping down on corruption.

Before a meeting Monday morning, the Cabinet presented Putin with flowers and a decorative egg topped with a golden crown to symbolize his power.

Putin himself remained curt and low-key, calling on the government to get to work on its strategy, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

“This is needed so that we can present to society a philosophy and a program for the country’s development at the same time as the formation of a new government,” Putin said.

He underscored the importance of the economy, saying that Russia’s economic indicators and tax revenues were in better shape than expected.

But with the economic improvement mainly due to higher oil prices and the effects of the devalued ruble, Putin has to address the underlying weaknesses in the economy, including widespread tax evasion, capital flight and inadequate bankruptcy laws.

He spent part of the day speaking to foreign leaders on the phone, including President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov told reporters there would be adjustments to Russia’s foreign policy to take into account global changes and Russia’s security doctrine. Under Russia’s new security doctrine, initiated 18 months ago and confirmed in January, Russia has elevated the role of nuclear weapons in its national security.

But Ivanov did not spell out what shifts were planned, and analysts predicted minimal changes.

Sergei A. Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, said Russia, still dependent in the West for loans and aid, wanted good relations.

“Putin does not want a hostile environment; he does not need it. He needs some time to find his feet as president. And for that, he must minimize the number of sore points, including a growing confrontation with the West,” Markov said.

Leonid A. Radzikhovsky, political analyst with the Segodnya newspaper, said Putin’s willingness to take on Russia’s powerful oligarchs would be evident in his new Cabinet. Several key ministers in the present government are linked to the oligarchs, including Finance Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov. Kasyanov is regarded as a possible prime minister under Putin. Another possibility would be Railways Minister Nikolai Y. Aksyonenko.

“A sure sign that the oligarchs are still alive and kicking would be if Putin leaves all these officials in place,” Radzikhovsky said.