Soon we should find out if he really is anti-corruption

"If we live long enough, we shall find out," say the fatalistic Russians.

If we survive beyond the almost inevitable victory of Vladimir Putin in the presidential election today, we shall learn the truth about the enigmatic former KGB agent's rise to the Kremlin. Will he turn out to be the obedient son of the corrupt godfather Boris Yeltsin? Or will he become the scourge of the crony capitalists who dragged Boris the Reformer into the mire?

Even more than his tough policy in Chechnya, his treatment of the so-called oligarchs, the bankers, oil tycoons and media moguls behind the Kremlin throne, will help us to understand who the mysterious Mr Putin really is.

Actions will speak louder than words, for in the theatre that is Russian politics, words should rarely be taken at face value. To hear Mr Putin speak of the need for a "dictatorship of law" and "equal conditions" for all businessmen great and small, one might think that he intends to heed the advice of the former economics minister, Yevgeny Yasin.

The new Kremlin leader should, he said, "continue market reforms but get rid of the Byzantine system by which decisions were made not in public but in the President's bedroom".

In an interview on Russia's Mayak Radio, Mr Putin promised that, if oligarchs were defined as those businessmen seeking to merge "government and capital", they would "cease to exist as a class". On the American ABC television, he went further, saying he would rely on trusted ex-colleagues from his KGB days to stamp out Mafia-style crime and corruption.

So far, this is all in the realm of words. Ordinary Russians can be eloquent, too. "It is sewn with white threads," they say when referring to something obviously dishonest. Perspicacious citizens feel that everything that has happened in Russia since August is, as a crudely tacked, black garment, "sewn with white threads".

Back then, a tide of corruption allegations that had already engulfed the tycoon and "modern Rasputin" of the Kremlin, Boris Berezovsky, advanced further and began to wash around members of the Yeltsin family.

There was the accusation that Mr Yeltsin's daughters had gone on spending sprees with credit cards provided by a Swiss-based firm that won Kremlin renovation contracts from the household manager, Pavel Borodin. He is now a wanted man in Switzerland. Then there was the scandal about the suspected theft of IMF funds and alleged Russian mafia money laundered through the Bank of New York.

Suddenly Mr Putin, himself accused, though not found guilty, of corruption while deputy mayor of St Petersburg, was made prime minister.

The September bombing of flats in Moscow, blamed on "terrorists" from the Caucasus, gave Russians a stomach for the new war in Chechnya, which pushed corruption off the front pages world-wide.

Unity, a new pro-Putin party that Mr Berezovsky later hinted he had created, won the Duma elections in December. On New Year's Eve, Mr Yeltsin said he felt the time had come to hand over to younger politicians and gave his chosen successor the advantage of being acting president for three months before today's election. Mr Putin's first act on taking over was to sign a decree granting Mr Yeltsin immunity from prosecution and privileges for life.

"It was a dynastic transfer of power, clearly thought-out by the oligarchs and prepared by experts," said Konstantin Titov, the governor of Samara and one of the other 10 presidential candidates.

In the three pre-election months while the old President hovered in the background, Mr Putin has given conflicting signals about his intentions towards those who received state assets on the cheap in exchange for making Yeltsin king.

He has sneered at Mr Berezovsky, recalling an occasion when the tycoon fell asleep in a meeting, but has not prevented the media mogul and another oligarch, Roman Abramovich, from gaining a 60 to 70 per cent stake in Russia's lucrative aluminium business.

After the election, if Mr Putin is serious about ending the influence of the oligarchs, these are signs to watch for: Alexander Voloshin should leave the Kremlin team; acting prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, also reported to be close to Mr Berezovsky, should be replaced; Mr Berezovsky should lose the broadcasting licence for the first channel, ORT, when it comes up for renewal in May; and he should even lose his Duma deputy's right to immunity from prosecution and answer the accusations of the sexually compromised suspended prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, that he stole the profits of Aeroflot. If lesser figures are made scapegoats, any crackdown will be cosmetic.

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