Vladimir Putin

Sphinx without a riddle
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The Independent Online

His cold smile and athletic stride convey a sense of energy and authority. It is not an accidental impression. Vladimir Putin, the acting Russian president, wants to convince Russian voters and foreign leaders alike that at last there is a firm hand on the tiller in the Kremlin.

So far, for a man who was unknown in Russia seven months ago, he is not doing badly. The Chechen war can be presented, at least to voters at home, as Russia's first political or military success since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is solely thanks to the war that Mr Putin will face so little effective opposition when Russians elect their new president tomorrow. Other potentially serious candidates have withdrawn or never entered the race. It is a striking achievement for a man who had the support of just 2 per cent of Russians when he was President Yeltsin's surprise choice as prime minister last August.

Mr Putin was and is a man of mystery, but he and his advisers have skillfully used his enigmatic exterior to his advantage. His lack of a visible past, which might serve as a guide to his future conduct, fits in well with his 16-year-long career in the KGB. It veils his apparent lack of achievement in any job he has ever held. It allows people to imagine that he may know the secret of how to lift millions of Russians out of economic misery and political insecurity.

Admittedly, Boris Yeltsin is not a hard act to follow. Simply by standing upright and staying sober, Mr Putin looks like a welcome change from his predecessor. Nor is this entirely a delusion. Mr Yeltsin presided over a strange medieval court where personal favourites, business oligarchs and members of the president's family competed for favours. Under the new regime, power will probably be less fragmented.

Ever since his meteoric rise started six months ago, Russian commentators and foreign governments have speculated about the personality of the new leader. Does he have one at all? One sour Russian joke, adapting a jibe often used against Soviet leaders in the past, asks: "Will there ever be a Putin personality cult? No, because for such a cult you must first have a personality." For the moment, however, this is all to Mr Putin's advantage. Russians are being presented with a blank screen on which they can see reflected whatever they want.

So far, the new Russian leader has done very little. One Russian observer, commenting on Mr Putin's Sphinx-like demeanour, said: "Yes, he is like a Sphinx, but a Sphinx without a riddle. His only known policy is to fight a war in Chechnya. Apart from that, all he has done is to call for a restoration of moral values and raise the price of vodka."

The mockery may be superficial. Mr Putin is hardly the first politician in Russia or the West to come to power because better-known opponents had checkmated each other. As when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Conservative party leader in 1990, his very lack of visibility made him less of a target against which rivals could concentrate their fire.

Mr Putin's track record is little help here or, put another way, what we see may be exactly what we are going to get. Journalists, diplomats and intelligence services, picking over the details of his past, have produced a meagre haul. Apart from his ability to rise from job to job, Russia's president-to-be has had an unexciting career. He made little impression on his contemporaries either as a KGB spy in East Germany in the Eighties or, after 1991, as a shadowy but influential bureaucrat in St Petersburg.

One theme does emerge, however, from Mr Putin's early life in his home city of St Petersburg, where he was born in 1952. An only child (his two elder brothers died in the siege of Leningrad) and the son of a manual labourer, he wanted, from an early age, to be close to people with power. "Putin wanted to work in the KGB from his childhood," one of his former KGB bosses told a Russian newspaper. "After he finished school, he immediately came to our department in St Petersburg with a question: 'How can I join the service?'" The KGB told Mr Putin, then just 17 years old, to go away and get a university education.

Mr Putin, after qualifying at Leningrad University law faculty, went on to join the KGB and was posted to Dresden. He learned to speak perfect German and seems to have been well regarded by the Stasi, the East German secret police. "He was always very cool, matter-of-fact, someone who did not drink, a well-balanced individual," recalls one of his former Stasi associates.

It was on his return to Leningrad (which was shortly to resume its old name of St Petersburg) that another theme in Mr Putin's character became evident. He was always loyal to his boss and had a talent for winning the trust of men notorious for not trusting anybody.

After 1991, Mr Putin became the lieutenant of Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St Petersburg, a politician always fearful of personal betrayal. Last month, Mr Putin openly wept at Mr Sobchak's funeral. He also came to know Anatoly Chubais, the architect of privatisation and a powerful oligarch, who was to play a critical role in Mr Putin's rise from obscurity.

At the time he worked there, St Petersburg was notoriously corrupt (the city is sometimes called the crime capital of Russia, though there are numerous other contenders for the title). Mr Putin is not known to have personally benefited from the jobs he held. Russian journalists looking to see if he had a luxury dacha hidden in the woods, or other dubiously acquired property, could only find a small wooden cottage with a tottering outdoor toilet and an ill-kempt garden on a lake outside St Petersburg.

But the Russian political and economic élite - largely the old Soviet nomenklatura transformed into capitalists by looting state property at knock-down prices - probably has little to fear from Mr Putin. He may be personally honest, but he has always been closely associated with those who are not and he has never shown any tendency to do anything about it.

On leaving St Petersburg for Moscow, he joined the Kremlin administration, notorious for its insider dealings. By 1998, he had become head of the FSB - the successor organisation to the KGB - where he showed his unswerving loyalty to Mr Yeltsin and his family. When Yuri Skuratov, the Prosecutor General, pursuing corruption in the Kremlin, was shown on television allegedly cavorting with two prostitutes, Mr Putin promptly confirmed the authenticity of the damning video.

The decisive moment in Mr Putin's rise came last year. Mr Yeltsin, his family and associates, looking forward to the presidential election in 2000, were desperate to keep their opponents out of the Kremlin. They feared for their fortunes and their liberty. They considered all options. Sergei Stepashin, the prime minister at the time, says that from March, plans were going ahead for the invasion of Chechnya. Kremlin advisers also discussed the beneficial political impact of a Chechen terrorist bombing campaign in Moscow.

Mr Yeltsin appointed Mr Putin prime minister last August. Events played into the Kremlin's hands so immediately as to create the suspicion that they were secretly orchestrated by Moscow. The day after Mr Putin's appointment, a Chechen Islamic group invaded Dagestan. A month later, bombs started to explode in Moscow and other cities killing 300 Russian civilians. The surge of fear and rage which followed gave the necessary popular support for launching a patriotic war against Chechnya. On 1 October, the Russian army crossed into Chechnya, which Mr Putin later described as "a bandit fortress".

Russian liberals have denounced the undoubted brutality of the Russian occupation of Chechnya and Mr Putin's authoritarian rhetoric at home as evidence of "modernised Stalinism" triumphing in Russia. A better parallel with Mr Putin's approach can be found in the US. The politician the new Russian leader most clearly resembles is not Stalin, Mussolini or Pinochet, but Richard Nixon. Like the late American president, he is a secretive man with an unrelenting desire to power, agile in appealing to nationalist sentiment and unscrupulous in denouncing his opponents as unpatriotic.

In the Duma elections last December, Mr Putin played the patriotic card with a will. The media, controlled by oligarchs, supported him, relentlessly smearing his most dangerous adversaries such as Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister, and Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. The hastily created Unity party, which backed Mr Putin, won a quarter of the votes.

Victory in the Duma elections was decisive for the prime minister. Mr Yeltsin and his family, who had been desperate to keep their opponents out of power, had finally found their man. On New Year's Eve, he replaced Mr Yeltsin in the Kremlin and the election was brought forward by three months. He now looks like he'll be a shoo-in when Russians vote for a new president tomorrow. None of the other 10 candidates pose any kind of serious threat.

The only problem is that the new Russian leader has put forward no real policies. His advisers argue that, since he is winning anyway, why should they give his opponents anything to shoot at. His letter to the Russian electors is vapid even by the low standards normal in any such appeals to the electorate.

"Russia is a rich country of poor people," Mr Putin told voters. There is a little more truth in this than usual since the price of oil touched $30 a barrel. The collapse of the rouble since 1998 has also benefited Russian industries producing for the local market. But most Russians remain miserably poor and insecure. Even in Moscow, far better off than other cities, half the population live below the poverty line.

There is a limit to what Mr Putin or anybody else can do about this. He was appointed as the candidate of the status quo. This was why Mr Yeltsin and associated oligarchs put him into office last year. Once he is elected president he may have more room to manoeuvre, but he has limited ability to take radical initiatives.

There is also the unresolved question of Chechnya. Russian generals are proudly announcing that they have won the war. They have scattered the main rebel formations, but they have not destroyed them. Mass arrest and torture give Chechens little choice but to fight. In just two ambushes last month, guerrillas killed more than 100 Russian soldiers. The Russian army, ill-equipped, ill-disciplined and badly led, is bogged down. Punitive attacks on Chechen villagers get more savage by the day and could easily turn into an extermination campaign.

Mr Putin may talk of restoring power to the Russian state, but this may prove impossible. Fragmentation of authority has gone too far. Surviving industry is decayed. No real political revolution took place when the ruling élite switched from communism to capitalism. Its priority is to cling onto the wealth it acquired in the 1990s and it will fight anybody who threatens its interests.

This is not to say that Mr Putin cannot rearrange the pieces on the political chessboard. He can curtail the power of regional governors, who often act as if they ruled independent dukedoms. He can squeeze the financial oligarchs. He is already putting his own men in place. So many of his former associates have been brought down from St Petersburg to run the FSB security service that its headquarters in the Lubyanka has become known as "Leningrad station".

Mr Putin probably does think that he can restore Russia as a powerful and respected state. But there is nothing in his career so far which gives the impression that he knows how to do so.

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