Mr Clean's dirty little war is paving the way for him to win the Presidential election

HIS SUCCESS may prove no more durable than that of his three immediate predecessors, ejected by President Boris Yeltsin at the first hint they were building an independent power base. But for the time being at least, the one incontrovertible beneficiary of the horrendous war in Chechnya has been the political standing of Vladimir Putin.

From the moment he was appointed last August, amid general astonishment, as Russia's fifth prime minister in 17 months, everything has conspired in his favour.

Other contenders for office in the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections are destroying each other with smear campaigns. A gigantic money- laundering scandal may tar the reputation of the rest of Russia's establishment, but somehow reinforces Mr Putin's image as "Mr Clean."

For the first time, the post-Communist economy promises to generate steady growth. In 1999, expansion may top 2 per cent, only the second year of rising output since 1991. Surging oil and gas revenues mean the current account surplus may top $20bn this year and - miracle of miracles - tax receipts have started to edge up.

Thus the Prime Minister's boast yesterday at a cabinet meeting that Moscow now had money "to use to finance anti-terrorist operations in North Caucasus and on social needs".

It is no co-incidence that these words were uttered four days before an International Monetary Fund team arrives in Moscow.

In terms of the business cycle, Mr Putin has timed his own arrival to perfection - just as Russia pulls out of slump and near-financial collapse, having put the most painful part of the transition from managed to market economy behind it.

Most importantly, his handling of the Chechen war has caught the country's mood, tired of endless international humiliation, exasperated with the patronising and dismissive West and yearning for a display of national power. At which point, enter the new Prime Minister.

"Putin's not someone who brings much joy,he doesn't talk a lot," says Anna Matveeva of the Royal Institute for International Affairs. "But he does things and delivers results. And that, in recent Russian experience, is a novelty."

Thus far, the recipe is working, above all in Chechnya. Russia's generals are waging a more intelligent - if more brutal - war this time than during the previous Chechen conflict which ended in a humbling and bloody defeat. In political terms, this campaign may ultimately prove as disastrous as the one between 1994 and 1996, hastening rather than delaying Russia's retreat from the Caucasus.

But, for the moment, the massive long-range bombardment tactics mean few body bags are returning home.

And ordinary Russians massively support the strategy. The reports of human rights abuses by their troops which caused outrage in 1994 are shrugged off. After the recent terrorist bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities which killed 300 people and for which Chechens are held responsible, the overwhelming wish is to teach the "bandits, terrorists and gangsters" a lesson they will never forget.

Simultaneously, the Government is skilfully feeding off the mood to conduct a far more effective propaganda offensive than before. Western protests are listened to, then ignored. And when Mr Putin politely tells President Clinton to mind his own business over Chechnya, his ratings merely rise further.

Not surprisingly, he is the most popular politician in the country (even though - as his Sergei Stepashin and Yevgeny Primakov can testify - such an accolade can be the kiss of death for Boris Yeltsin's prime ministers).

One poll shows his approval ratings have shot up from 2 per cent when he came to office to 70 per cent today. The figures may be less than trustworthy, but, unarguably, Mr Putin is riding high.

The biggest dangers lie ahead. The war could yet go wrong. If not, and "he's seen as too powerful and too popular, then the smears will start against him too," Ms Matveeva warns. "He hasn't come under personal attack yet, but if things go on like this, he will."

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