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'."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.
news

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock
tv

Co-creator Mark Gatiss dropped some very intriguing hints ahead of the BBC drama's return next year

News
people

London 'needs affordable housing'

Arts and Entertainment
music Band accidentally drops four-letter description at concert
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines