The Land of Opportunity

In which country can a man from an ordinary background become his country’s leader?

August 1, 2000

In which country can a man from an ordinary background become his country's leader?

Both George W. Bush, the Republican Party’s nominee, and Democrat Al Gore are American blue bloods, with old family wealth and long-standing political connections. Al Gore has been a life-long politician and is the son of a prominent Senator. And ” Bush” is such a well-known political dynasty that the Texas governor is now almost universally called “George W.”

If you are looking for this year’s best political rags-to-riches story, cast an eye on Russia. True, Russia is not typically thought of as a “land of opportunity.” Worse, a handful of Russian oligarchs have appropriated a lion’s share of the country’s assets — and no new name has joined their exclusive club in at least five years.

But on the political front, President Vladimir Putin went from being a complete unknown to president of the world’s largest country in just eight months. Of course, it helped to have the backing the oligarchs, who were eager to nominate a president that would presumably work for them — and protect their vast business interests.

It may bring tears to your eyes, but things have not worked out as the oligarchs envisioned. It turns out that the oligarchs, like the rest of the world, knew next to nothing about Putin — or what to expect of him.

In the weeks following his inauguration, Mr. Putin lashed out indiscriminately against them all — even going so far as to imprison the oligarch in charge of one of Russia’s biggest media conglomerates.

More recently, Mr. Putin made quite a splash at the G-8 summit in Japan. Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who was frequently regarded as an annoyance by his G-8 counterparts, Mr. Putin held his own against the other leaders — even proposing to the startled leaders that they start using e-mail to keep in touch.

In fact, the G-8 summit may very well turn out to be a watershed even in the international arena. Bill Clinton, the current U.S. President who has dominated international politics for several years, used the summit to say goodbye to the other G-8 leaders.

As America turns its attention to electing the person who will take Mr. Clinton’s place at future summits, one thing is already certain — it will not be a man of Mr. Putin’s self-made origins.