World

Russia's Saviour?

Long-suffering voters seem ready to put their trust in tough-guy leader Vladimir Putin, even if they know almost nothing about him

Fred Weir January 17 2000
World

Russia's Saviour?

Long-suffering voters seem ready to put their trust in tough-guy leader Vladimir Putin, even if they know almost nothing about him

Fred Weir January 17 2000

Russia's Saviour?

World

Long-suffering voters seem ready to put their trust in tough-guy leader Vladimir Putin, even if they know almost nothing about him

Vladimir Putin is, almost literally, a cipher. Russian journalists have described their country’s new acting president as a “dark horse,” a “black box” and a “shadow.” As an ex-KGB spy—who reportedly once oversaw the theft of advanced Western technology from a secret base in East Germany—he has a biography with many missing pages. And lately, his Kremlin-crafted image has been changing almost daily. As Russia’s tough-guy prime minister and architect of the ruthless war against separatist rebels in Chechnya, he was depicted on state TV in a variety of macho poses: as a judo black belt throwing and pinning a much larger opponent, flying in an Su-25 ground attack fighter, and supervising a missile launch from a nuclearpowered cruiser. But since Boris Yeltsin’s shock New Year’s Eve resignation catapulted him into the president’s chair, with elections set for March 26, a different Putin has appeared. Last week, he was shown sentimentally wiping away a tear as he compared the ailing Yeltsin with his own father, and spoke of his hopes for a kinder, gentler millennium to come. His office claims he recently conversed supportively by e-mail with French actress Brigitte Bardot about animal rights.

At 47, youthful for a Russian leader, Putin has come from virtually nowhere to grab Russia’s supreme political prize. When he was appointed last August, he was Yeltsin’s fifth prime minister in less than two years, and was widely expected to head down the same dead-end road as the others. But Putin won public acclaim with his harsh response to terrorist blasts that killed 300 Russians in September—a full-scale military invasion of Chechnya, the tiny rebel republic accused of harbouring the bombers. That war is currently bogged down with bloody street fighting in the Chechen capital of Grozny, but surveys show Putin is still wildly popular with ordinary Russians. “The war in Chechnya made Putin, and if he’s not careful it can unmake him just as quickly,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert with the daily Segodnya newspaper.

“The battlefield situation down there is turning very ugly.”

Yet after nearly a decade of national retreat, social decline and poverty, many voters seem ready for a strong hand. “All Russians are sick of the fact that Russia is humiliated, insulted, asking for handouts,” said Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, who commanded the Russian forces in western Chechnya until a shuffle of generals last week. “Putin is a symbol behind whom many people march. There is no doubt I am in the first rank.” Thanks to the war, Putin has been able to project a powerful | image while saying very little 1 about what he will actually do if he wins a full four-year term.

For now, Kremlin officials speak of Putin’s confirmation by voters in March as more like a coronation than an election. Even the first opponent to officially throw his hat into the ring, liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, said “it would probably not be a serious proposition to suggest that Putin can be beaten.” Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who took 42 per cent of the vote in a tight 1996 race against Yeltsin, is likely to run again. But the tough-talking Putin, who stands for stronger state power and more social welfare, threatens to steal much of his thunder. Less certain candidates are Putin’s predecessor as prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whose party fared miserably in last month’s parliamentary elections. Exgeneral Alexander Lebed, long touted as Russia’s Napoleonin-waiting, says he isn’t even planning to run against Putin.

So who is this guy? For the front-running contender for leadership of a huge nuclear-armed state, it is astonishing how little is known about Putin. His official biography says he was born in Leningrad in 1952, and graduated from the law faculty of Leningrad University. But his 17-year career with the foreign intelligence branch of the Soviet KGB remains an information blank. Officially, he was based in Dresden, East Germany, for several years during the 1980s, in charge of fostering “German-Soviet friendship.” But according to Stratfor, a private think-tank on intelligence issues in Austin, Tex., Putin was an economic spy tasked with helping to steal Western technology and managerial expertise to modernize the Soviet Unions flagging industrial machine.

Analysts say his mentor was Yuri Andropov, the reformminded KGB chief who ascended to supreme power in 1982 for a brief 15-month spell. No democrat, Andropov hoped to revive Soviet economic might through increased workplace discipline and purloined Western techniques. “Putin is a man of the Andropov generation, which means he believes in the guiding role of an elite of professional and pragmatic experts who wield state power for the good of the nation,” says Vladimir Petukhov, an analyst with the independent Institute for Social and National Problems in Moscow. “This is the most essential fact about him.”

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, Putin retired from the KGB and went to work for the democratic mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and within two years rose to become deputy mayor of the city. Putins oft-mentioned credentials as a liberal-minded reformer date from this period, but Stratfor says he probably never broke his links with the intelligence service. Sobchak was defeated in a 1996 election, and subsequently fled Russia under a cloud of corruption charges. But Putin moved to Moscow, where he was taken into Yeltsins administration. He worked first for Kremlin property department chief Pavel Borodin—who is today at the centre of a Swiss police probe into Kremlin kickbacks and money-laundering—but later rose to become deputy head of the president’s influential security council. In July, 1998,

Yeltsin, looking for a loyal man to head the Federal Security Service—the renamed KGB—handed Putin the job.

Putin’s mystery-man background, and his undoubted close links to the Yeltsin circle, have prompted speculation that he is a puppet of Kremlin insiders. Few doubt that Yeltsin, whose term was due to end in June, quit early in order to take advantage of Putin’s high popularity to propel him into the presidency. In gratitude, Putin signed a decree granting Yeltsin blanket immunity from prosecution for any wrongdoing during his corruption-ridden eight years in power. Yeltsin then embarked on a joyful trip to Israel and the West Bank in his new role as Russia’s elder statesman.

But in truth there is very little to go on, and what there is suggests that Putin will turn out to be very much his own man. He quickly fired Yeltsin’s powerful daughter Tatyana Dyachenko from her Kremlin adviser’s post. And his 5,500word mission statement, published on the Kremlin Web site {www.govemment.gov.ru/english), is guardedly critical of the economic ruin and political drift ofYeltsin’s rule. It warns that Russians are fed up with experiments, either of the communist or liberal sort, and that what they want is a strong state to provide order, security and economic growth. Political analyst Tatiana Malkina wrote in the weekly Vremya MNthat while Russians know little about Putin, “what is curious is that they don’t feel like they need to know. It is enough for the people that he appears to be tough, honest and principled.” The man who is an enigma seems to many a saviour.

Fred Weir