Stealth and secrecy hallmark of ex-KGB man

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The Independent Online

He walks with a purposeful military step and interrogates government ministers as if they were his junior officers. His blandest comments and most trivial meetings are treated with religious respect by Russian television.

He walks with a purposeful military step and interrogates government ministers as if they were his junior officers. His blandest comments and most trivial meetings are treated with religious respect by Russian television.

Yet Vladimir Putin remains a mystery four years after he jumped from obscurity to be President of Russia in just a few months. His carefully constructed public image obscures his personality. The habits of secrecy bred during his 17 years as a career officer in the KGB conceal his motives, abilities and aims.

It was a meteoric rise. Born in St Petersburg 51 years ago, he enjoyed only middling success in the KGB, stationed for a time in East Germany, and as a city official in post-Communist St Petersburg until he came to the Kremlin in 1996. He was soon promoted to be head of the KGB and, in 1999, was appointed prime minister. A few months later, suddenly popular after launching the second Chechen war, he succeeded President Boris Yeltsin as acting president, a position later confirmed at the polls.

Mr Putin's instincts are authoritarian. Soon after he was elected he drove Vladimir Gusinsky, the multi-millionaire media mogul, into exile. Oligarchs who sought political power in competition with the Kremlin were crushed. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia and head of the Yukos oil company, was summarily thrown into jail last year.

Such checks and balances to state power as existed when Mr Putin came into office are much diminished. The main TV channels are controlled by the state. Most of the rest of the media is self-censored. In the Duma election in December, Mr Putin's supporters won a two-thirds majority. He sacked his government on 24 February and installed the little-known Mikhail Fradkov, the former head of the tax police, as Prime Minister.

Mr Putin's supporters argue that all these moves were popular. The oligarchs are widely seen as thieves. In the 1990s, the media often criticised the Kremlin in order to blackmail the government into giving them financial concessions. After an era of disorder Mr Putin exudes energy and competence.

He is also lucky. The price of oil has been high since he took over. There have been no shocks like the financial crash of 1998. Mr Putin has thus been largely untested. No doubt he would like to make Russia a powerful state once again, but he still has a long way to go.

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