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Special Event

Millennium 2000: White House Learning All It Can About New Russian Acting President Vladimir Putin

Aired January 2, 2000 - 4:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BOBBIE BATTISTA, CNN ANCHOR: We begin this hour with Russia's changing political face and how it might alter perceptions at home and abroad. In a moment, a look at how Russians are taking the New Year's resignation of President Boris Yeltsin. But first to Washington, where the White House is learning all it can about new acting President Vladimir Putin. For that, we go live to CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bobbie, the White House says it is watching the new man in charge of Russia to see if he will continue Boris Yeltsin's commitment to democracy or choose another course. Senior administration officials also say that the crisis in Chechnya could very well determine just how long Vladimir Putin remains in power.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WALLACE (voice-over): Vladimir Putin, the new acting president of Russia, enjoys tremendous popularity largely because of his leadership of the military campaign in Chechnya. But that campaign could end up hurting his chances in the March presidential elections, according to the White House.

SAMUEL BERGER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: If this war is still continuing, if the casualties to Russia intensify, as has been the case in the past several days, this could become an albatross for Mr. Putin.

WALLACE: Chechnya is not the only issue on the minds of U.S. officials. In an essay, in "Time" magazine, President Clinton says the challenges to Boris Yeltsin's successor also include battling crime and corruption and continuing economic reform.

The president hailed Yeltsin as the father of Russian democracy and praised his commitment to dismantling communism. He said -- quote -- "If Russia's new leaders, a generation to whom Boris Yeltsin gave the stage last Friday, endorse this as firmly as he did, they will find in America an eager and active partner."

White House officials are encouraged by the fact Putin served as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg when that city was generally regarded as being at the forefront of economic reform. He also worked for years as a KGB agent and headed up Russia's intelligence service. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: He is a tough person. He is -- I have met him, with the president. He is somebody that is very determined, action-oriented. I think we're going to have to watch his actions very carefully.

WALLACE: So far, the president's top advisers say they are encouraged by Putin's statements since he assumed his new role, but add that his commitment to democracy will only be revealed in the months before the presidential elections.

BERGER: I don't think we yet have all the answers as to where Mr. Putin -- what direction he intends to lead Russia. We hope that it will continue to be in the Democratic direction.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WALLACE: And so White House officials say, the test for Putin now, is how does he handle -- quote -- "being the custodian of Russian democracy and a candidate of the presidency.

Kelly Wallace, CNN, reporting live at the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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