World

Man of Mystery

Vladimir Putin is poised to be elected Russian president. But the question is, ‘Where does he stand?’

Malcolm Gray March 27 2000
World

Man of Mystery

Vladimir Putin is poised to be elected Russian president. But the question is, ‘Where does he stand?’

Malcolm Gray March 27 2000
Even a walk that he describes as “waddling like a goose” has not hampered Vladimir Putins seemingly inevitable victory march to the Russian presidency next week. The latest opinion polls show him with a lead of more than 30 percentage points over his nearest rival. And his supporters see only positives in such traits as his clipped speech patterns (frank and to the point) and his handling of the nagging war in Chechnya (decisive). As for that distinctive gait, Lidia Smirnova, the widely known film actress from the Soviet era, offered an upbeat take on the acting presidents carriage during a Kremlin reception to mark International Woman’s Day earlier this month. “The way a man walks shows his character, perseverance and generally his willpower,” said the 85-year-old actress. “You have a splendid way of walking.”

What more could a 47-year-old ex-KGB spy ask for as he waits to succeed a retiring leader through the ballot box—the first such peaceful transition in Russia’s history? His biggest worry is that fewer than 50 per cent of registered voters will bother to turn out for what they might see as a done deal, thereby triggering a new election. Things have largely gone Putin’s way since the ailing and erratic Boris Yeltsin’s surprise resignation on New Year’s Eve transformed Putin, then the prime minister for the past four months, into a president-in-waiting. Putin had earlier won widespread popularity for his relentless military campaign against rebels in the lawless and secessionist Caucasus republic of Chechnya. His good fortune held again last week, as he personally announced that federal forces had captured Salman Raduyev, one of the most notorious Chechen warlords. Raduyev is hated in Russia for a spectacular hostage-taking raid in southern Russia that he staged in the 1994-1996 Russian-Chechen war. He has not played a significant role in the current conflict, but his arrest helped off-set the recent loss of more than 100 elite Russian soldiers in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

Soaring prices for Russian oil exports, a stable ruble and signs of recovery after a 1998 economic crash have also helped Putin’s ratings. Oil revenues are expected to pour at least $6 billion into the federal treasury this year, allowing the government to cover the costs of the Chechen war as well as minimizing Russia’s need to seek loans from the International Monetary Fund and other foreign lenders. And after the corruption, stagnation and drift of the later Yeltsin era, the president-in-waiting is younger, fitter and far more vigorous— and unlike his predecessor, emphatically not a vodka drinker.

But Putin still remains a mystery to fellow Russians and foreigners alike. He has skilfully maintained his popularity through a deliberately dull election strategy that is short on specifics. Soldiers and defense workers like him because he wants a stronger military with improved weaponry. Nationalists warm to his promise to raise Russia’s fallen international status. And Russians from all walks of life want to believe that he is the strong leader the country needs to improve the economy and bring order and discipline to a society plagued by crime and corruption. Putin even has a venerable Russian political superstition working for him. It holds that the country’s parade of rulers since the czarist era has been alternately bald then hirsute. Yeltsin had a full pompadour; Putin is balding. Game over.

Just don’t ask the five-foot, six-inch tall judo black belt to reveal his plans for change before the election. “I don’t want my program to become an object of attack,” he said last month. “As soon as it is made public, it will be gnawed at and torn to pieces.” He maintained that position in a recent lengthy interview with Moscow’s influential daily newspaper Kommersant (Businessman). Asked how he planned to transform Russian society, he simply replied: “I won’t say.”

Unconventional stuff, but his ratings have held steady as he has also declined to take part in debates with the other 11 presidential candidates trailing him. Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov is the closest, but Yeltsin’s punching bag in the 1996 election campaign appears headed for another election flop. He has been unable to broaden his appeal beyond a hard-core 20-plus per cent and seems unable to devise tactics to counter Putins stealthy approach to campaigning. As for Russia’s politician of the moment, even hawking his message through political ads is beneath Putin. As he put it in inelegant terms that appeal to many Russians: “I will not be trying to find out in the course of my election campaign which is more important, Tampax or Snickers.”

Western leaders and diplomats in Moscow are no better off than the bedazzled Russian electorate in coming to grips with the Putin phenomenon—even though they can see benefits ranging from advances on stalled nuclear arms treaties to investment and business opportunities in an improving Russian economy under a strong leader. “The United States can do business with this man,” declared President Bill Clinton in a recent speech that Putin advisers made sure ran on Russia’s three national TV networks—two of them controlled by the Kremlin.

Rod Irwin, Canada’s ambassador to Russia, has a unique perspective on Putin’s phenomenal rise. Irwin, 58, a bearded and amiable career diplomat who served a two-year tour in Russia during the late 1970s, returned to Moscow in September. “The dawn of the Putin era,” he jokes. While noting that Putin is the third prime minister in a row to be drawn from the security services, Irwin adds that Putin’s pride in his KGB affiliations arouses more concern abroad than it does at home. “Power agencies like the KGB have played an important role at the center of government here for a long time,” Irwin notes. “How authoritarian is he likely to be? For that we will have to wait until after the election.” Still, the ambassador maintains that Russia is unlikely to revert to the closed society that he encountered during the final years of Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev. “There have been too many changes since then,” he says. “Nobody now would put up with the privations they had to endure then.”

As for risk-averse Canadian businessmen considering putting money into Russia, Irwin says Putin has moved beyond the old saw that a Russia with a consumer market of 147 million people and vast resources is brimming with opportunities. For one thing, the 1998 economic crash and devaluation of the 2 ruble severely shook investors’ confidence, and it swiftly cut Canadian I exports to Russia by more than half, s from $379 million in 1997.

Without providing details, Putin repeatedly stresses that he intends to bring in such key reforms as overhauling Russia’s tangled and punitive taxation system and guaranteeing the security of foreign investments. But Irwin predicts that significant Canadian and other foreign investment won’t return to Russia until businessmen are convinced that their money is safe and that laws will be applied fairly. “They will have to feel that they are not going to be ripped off,” he adds. In the short term, that means the Russians are not soon likely to roll out the red carpet for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and a Team Canada contingent of potential investors.

By Putin’s account, it was his personal experience abroad, spying on NATO from East Germany in 1989 and witnessing events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, that forced him to acknowledge that communism was a spent force. He returned to Russia and ended a 17-year career with the KGB. That KGB connection was overlooked by many of the country’s so-called reformers such as Anatoly Sobchak, who taught Putin law at Leningrad State University. When Sobchak became the city’s first post-communist mayor, he hired his former student to fill a high post.

Some critics argue that beneath Putin’s reformer veneer lies an autocrat in waiting. Nikolai Petrov, a political researcher at Moscow’s Carnegie Center, for one, says Putin tends to place people into two categories: those who are for him, and enemies. Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for U.S.backed Radio Liberty, wound up on the enemies’ list. He did so by being one of the few Russian journalists who broke with the official Kremlin line on the Chechen war, which holds that the so-called anti-terrorist operation was meant to eradicate those whom Putin blamed for blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities last fall, killing some 300 people.

Working in rebel-held territory, Babitsky revealed instead that a Russian offensive that relied heavily on high explosives and heavy weaponry was largely killing and wounding civilians. That earned him harsh criticism from Putin and rough treatment from security agents who arrested him as the Chechen capital of Grozny fell to federal forces last month. “What Babitsky did was more dangerous than firing off a machine-gun,” Putin said, defending his government’s decision to trade Babitsky to the rebels in exchange for five captured Russian soldiers.

But Putin took a different approach when asked why he has not moved against Pavel Borodin, his former boss in the presidential administration. Swiss authorities allege that Borodin has received millions of dollars in kickbacks from contractors who were renovating part of the Kremlin. “There’s a golden rule, a founding principle of any democratic system called presumption of innocence,” Putin said in defense of Borodin. To political researcher Petrov, Putin acts on his own subjective interpretation of the law. “He is not a man who sees things in pluralistic terms,” says Petrov. “That approach was ground into him during his KGB service.”

Petrov and others who share his liberal views expect an authoritarian regime to limit the rights and freedoms that Russians have had since communism collapsed. But that prospect does not worry actress Smirnova and millions of other Russians as they prepare to vote on March 26. They apparently feel that democracy has been a mixed blessing—and hope Putin can deliver on his promise of order.