Mr Velvet smooths the upward path of Lebed

In English, his name translates as "Mr Velvet" and it suits him. There are few government officials in the world, let alone in Russia, who are as smooth and affable as Alexander Barkhatov. And there are even fewer who have a more exacting task on their hands.

Not long ago the scene in his office would have been unimaginable to any journalist who has tried to crack the shell of secrecy that still encases much of the Russian state. Telephones were ringing non-stop. Press releases, cuttings, faxes lay on the tables. A computer flickered on a desk, disgorging the latest news.

True, these cramped quarters, not far from the Kremlin, could hardly be compared with the plush premises of a Saatchi & Saatchi, even though Mr Barkhatov works for an outfit most leading press consultants would give their right arm to sign up. Yet the mere existence of this hive of activity marks an astonishing departure from the past.

His boss - or, as Mr Barkhatov puts it, his "client" - is Alexander Lebed, chief of Russia's Security Council. With his bleeper on his hip, and his charm at the ready, the PR man is the chief storm-trooper in Mr Lebed's publicity campaign to establish a power base.

Perhaps more remarkably, he also represents the once highly secretive Security Council. Mr Lebed, a law-and-order retired general with a penchant for soundbites, used to call himself "an iron fist"; Mr Barkhatov is his velvet glove.

In the past few weeks, he has been in over-drive. Mr Lebed's rapid ascent has stirred up jealousies within the Kremlin among rivals who fear he is on a fast track to the presidency. His peace mission to Chechnya, though popular with the public, has infuriated senior officials within the military and the Interior Ministry.

Even Boris Yeltsin, his mentor, refused to interrupt his "holiday" to see the general, although the President has invited his old chum Helmut Kohl to Russia next month. With the knives sharpening all around, Mr Barkhatov has been using one of the few weapons at Mr Lebed's disposal to ensure his survival - the media.

Yesterday the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin - who earlier said his peace plan "needed a lot more work" - announced that the President had finally approved it. Mr Lebed was in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan for a meeting with the Chechen rebel chief-of-staff, Aslan Maskhadov, where he hoped to sign a statement laying the ground for a political settlement.

When prominent liberal democrats, including the former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, called an anti-war rally in Moscow to support his peace efforts, Mr Barkhatov again intervened. Knowing the bulk of Mr Lebed's supporters are anything but democrats, his office sent out an acid statement by the general. The organisers were people "hitherto unnoticed in my circle of friends ... I sincerely declare I have never had the honour ever to require their aid, and hope to do without it in the future."

If his client is unusual, so, too, is the organisation behind them both. Since its founding in 1992, the Security Council has remained mostly concealed from the public gaze, maintaining the same air of secrecy as the previous occupants of Mr Barkhatov's office - the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Mr Lebed intends to transform the council into a powerful tool with which he wants to overhaul government. Mr Barkhatov vaguely describes it as both a "connecting link" between government structures, and a body which has "overall control" of them. But, as a former TV journalist, he supports the idea of more openness.

"I don't want all information just to come out of the press centre," he said, "When there are journalists who write about the economy, I will send them to those people [in the council] who understand the economy. I know that, as a journalist, you need an original source."

Journalists will, of course, believe this when they see it. Asked to throw light on Mr Yeltsin's snubbing of Mr Lebed, Mr Velvet smoothly replied: "As a journalist, I could tell you a lot. As a press secretary I can only say 'no comment'."

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