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opinion

Control is Vladimir Putin's middle name. He learned it as a KGB agent, rising to lieutenant-colonel over 16 years. He enforced it viciously as Russia's prime minister, when he oversaw the crushing of Chechnya for the sins of its militants.

He is exercising it now as Russia's President, elected in March and inaugurated on May 7. And he is daily extending it, as Russia's NTV television channel noted this week when it said it would remove a satirical puppet of Mr. Putin from its popular program Kukly under pressure from the Kremlin. More about that in a moment.

Control is not in itself a dirty word. Russia could use a great deal more of it: over its endemic corruption, over its organized criminals, and over the business tycoons who pull the political strings to their financial advantage.

However, Mr. Putin's idea of control is more dramatic. Forty per cent of the senior aides and people he appointed after assuming power were former KGB colleagues. "You can't get anywhere without secret agents," he said in a biography published before March's election.

On May 18, he announced the appointment of seven administrators, including two army commanders, a former KGB officer and a senior police officer, to supervise Russia's 89 regions, using the same boundaries as Russia's seven military districts.

This came as a surprise to the governors of those regions. Many of them deserved to be surprised. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, they have taken on the coloration of feudal lords, dictating the terms of local business and setting up trade barriers against their Russian neighbours. Mr. Putin charges that one-fifth of the regions' laws violate the Russian constitution, though this charge must be approached cautiously, since the constitution was rewritten under Mr. Yeltsin in 1993 to give the president greater unchecked powers.

What remains to be determined is Mr. Putin's motive in placing military officers in charge of the regions, and in seeking to remove the governors from the upper house of parliament and to authorize the Kremlin to fire them if they violate Moscow's laws.

It is possible that he seeks to make it easier to bring legal order to a corrupt land, and that such "vertical power" (his words) is benign. It may be necessary to the resuscitation of a country that has experienced recent economic growth (the function of higher oil prices and a less valuable ruble) but desperately needs a fair tax system and a legal infrastructure, including property rights, that Russians and foreigners alike can count on.

Then again, he may be consolidating power because he likes consolidating power, in the service of what he this month called "one strong country, one single state called Russia," what some critics have called authoritarian tendencies and what a group of dissidents earlier this year branded as "modern Stalinism." Interviewed for his pre-election biography, Mr. Putin used phrases with uncomfortable echoes of the Communist Party Central Committee: "From the very beginning, Russia has been created as a supercentralized state. This is fixed in Russia's genetic code, in its traditions, and in the people's mentality."

How one reads Mr. Putin's acts since assuming the presidency depends on what text one consults. This month, the parliament confirmed his candidate Mikhail Kasyanov as Prime Minister. Mr. Kasyanov, an economist, made his name in Boris Yeltsin's administration as an expert in rescheduling debt, and has pledged to cut taxes and clean up corruption while providing relief to penniless Russians. That's one text. The other consists of allegations that Mr. Kasyanov is beholden to wealthy oligarchs such as Boris Berezovsky, the man behind Russia's largest television channel, whose support helped Mr. Putin win the presidency.

Back to the puppet. Mr. Putin's predecessor, Mr. Yeltsin, put up for years with the satirical barbs of a TV puppet on Kukly, and even intervened when overzealous officials talked of prosecuting the show. Mr. Putin has little time for free speech. It is no coincidence that NTV -- which Globe reporter Geoffrey York noted is "the only channel that refuses to follow the Kremlin's official line on the war in Chechnya and other issues" -- is feeling the Kremlin's intimidation, including police warnings that failing to muzzle the puppet would invite "unpleasantness."

Being Russia's president at this point in history is no picnic. Communism's collapse was followed by a dismal attempt at market reform that served mainly to enrich the rich and strip pensioners of their savings. Mr. Putin's consolidation of control may be a prelude to genuine reform that replaces lawlessness with justice and substitutes the certainty of legal redress for the coin toss that most investments have become. That would mean enforcing anticorruption laws even against the powerful, and not replacing a nest of regional fiefs with a neo-KGB run from the Kremlin.

The question is, is President Putin up to it? Does he intend to be?