Shy governor is contender for Kremlin

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The Independent Online
DMITRY AYATSKOV is, in fact, a shy man. But you wouldn't know it from his ostentatious New Age office, with its plant-lined conservatory, full-length azure velvet curtains, and entry sign bearing the single, potent, word: "Governor" (in gold letters, naturally).

You wouldn't know it from some of his pastimes - riding his pet camel at the official residence and visiting his menagerie, which includes two bears, 10 horses, several reindeer, and a pair of donkeys called Mikhail and Raisa, after two ill-starred predecessors from Russia's ruling elite.

Nor would you guess from the bustling manner in which the governor, a bronzed, portly 47-year-old, goes about his business. When he wants to cross his fiefdom in a hurry, he climbs aboard his personal helicopter, dropping in uninvited on hamlets and farms en route.

But Mr Ayatskov is shy. His name has been mentioned among the Moscow cognoscenti as a potential contender for the Kremlin, when (and if) Boris Yeltsin leaves office in 2000. Last month, he inched further into the limelight when the President took him to the G8 summit in Birmingham and introduced him to Bill Clinton as "the next Russian president". The Kremlin later said he was joking.

Yet put such matters to the governor himself, and he becomes a picture of diffidence: "I can't say whether I want to be president or not," he said, smiling opaquely as he sat in front of a signed portrait of Mr Yeltsin and a statuette of Big Ben. "I have first to prove to Russians that reforms here can be developed. After that I will have the moral right to seek a higher position."

Such reservations have not deterred him from preparing plans to launch a new, unnamed pro-reform political party, a move that would place him even more firmly on the national political landscape.

"At the moment, Russia has no strong parties, just fragments - including the Communists. It is not like America, where you have the Republicans and Democrats," he said. "Here we're building a new ideology that can unite everyone."

"Here" is Saratov, a region the size of Belgium on the banks of the River Volga, 500 miles south-east of Moscow. Just over two years ago, Boris Yeltsin appointed Mr Ayatskov as its governor, sacking the previous incumbent for incompetence. Saratov, a former Soviet military production centre closed to outsiders until 1991, was considered by the Kremlin as largely hostile "red belt" territory, a view that was confirmed when it voted Communist in the 1996 presidential elections.

Within three months, however, Mr Ayatskov had changed the political map. He annihilated a Communist opponent in gubernatorial elections in September 1996, winning 80 per cent of the vote. Thus a region that arose around a 16th- century fortress to protect Russia from the remnants of the Golden Horde is once again on Moscow's side.

Mr Ayatskov reinforced his place in the President's good books in November when Saratov passed a law liberalising the sale of land. Mr Yeltsin has been battling for federal land reform laws, but has met determined resistance in the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament. So far, Saratov has gained little, but the move was of great symbolic importance and was warmly applauded within the Kremlin.

But Mr Ayatskov's rise also owes much to a ruthless streak. "He doesn't brook much opposition," said one Western businessman. "He is not above closing down their media."

In March, he made news by supporting plans to open Russia's first legal brothel since 1917. The following month, he was in the papers announcing that he wanted his civil servants to ride bicycles. By April, he had raised his profile to such an extent that he was being mentioned as a possible prime minister - should parliament go ahead with its threat to reject Sergei Kiriyenko (in the end, it didn't). Not bad for a local boy from a region with a population of only 2.7 million.

Economics have helped. In the past 18 months, Saratov has risen from 69th to 10th in the table of "investor-attractive" regions in Russia. Plans are afoot for a new international airport and business centre; Bosch, Swiss Transrail, and Hyundai have arrived.

Russian politics is unpredictable and tough. To succeed you need money, guts and friends (and shares) in the Moscow media. There will be plenty of competition for Mr Yeltsin's job from other regional heavyweights. But there has long been speculation that a little-known candidate may soon emerge from the leaders of Russia's 89 regions and republics. While he plays down a presidential bid in 2000, Mr Ayatskov also doesn't rule one out. If the circumstances require, he would - as a "patriot" - be ready to "defend" his country from a return to its Communist past. This is a man to watch.