Vladimir Putin - profile: Russia's avenging angel

The dark presence behind Russia's vicious bombing of Chechnya is not Boris Yeltsin but his prime minister - and he could be Russia's next president. By Helen Womack

Helen Womack
Sunday 12 December 1999 00:02 GMT

When Vladimir Putin speaks about Chechnya, his ice-blue eyes light up with an inner fire. Russians love their new Prime Minister because with his tough - the West says brutal - policy in the Caucasus, he is healing all the hurts and humiliations they feel they have suffered through the Yeltsin years. In four months he has gone from a dry and derided little nobody to the Russians' favourite for president next year. Recent history shows how volatile Russian politics can be, but if nothing changes between now and the presidential elections in June 2000, we are probably looking at the new master of the Kremlin.

The man who is encouraging Russians to feel pride in themselves owes his sudden rise to an act of expediency by Boris Yeltsin who, earlier this year, appeared to be in danger of sinking in the mire of post-communist corruption. Few now remember the Prime Minister's ignominious beginning or stop to reflect that Mr Putin is still linked to the hated Yeltsin regime. The Russians were ready for a national saviour and soon saw Mr Putin as their avenging angel. President Yeltsin's protege has exceeded all expectations and, right across the spectrum, Russian politicians now find it advisable to express support for Mr Putin. Anyone who dares criticise him risks being called a traitor.

All it took for Mr Putin, 47, a former spy and administrator who has never held elected office, to win Russian hearts was one impassioned outburst. After terrorist bombs destroyed four apartment blocks in September, killing Muscovites and other Russians as they slept in their beds, the Prime Minister allowed himself the use of vulgar language: "We will wipe the terrorists out wherever we find them. If we find them sitting on the toilet, then that's where we will do it."

That short sentence expressed all the pent-up frustration not only over Chechnya but over all the failures of the last decade. The average Russian muzhik (bloke) responded to this deliberately aggressive male talk in the same emotional way he once worshipped Mr Yeltsin for showing that he could drink vodka as well as the next man. Russian women seemed to experience an almost sexual thrill - at least one woman confessed in a newspaper article that she had erotic dreams about Mr Putin. At last masochistic Russians had what they wanted, a strong hand and someone else to blame. Overnight, Mr Putin's popularity rating soared from the miserable 2 per cent of public support he could count on in August when President Yeltsin appointed him Prime Minister and declared him his heir apparent.

Then, Russians were angry that the Kremlin leader, casting about for a successor he could trust to protect him from prosecution in retirement, had dumped another perfectly good prime minister, the amiable Sergei Stepashin. They openly laughed at Mr Putin and laid bets as to how long he would last.

But the promise that the terrorists would get their come-uppance, even on the toilet, changed everything. The grey suit - a man who began his career serving the KGB in Germany, went on to deputise for the liberal mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, then helped to run the President's administration and headed the Federal Security Service - suddenly had character. The latest opinion polls show that 47 per cent of Russians see Mr Putin as their next president, almost enough for him to win the election in a single round.

Never mind that he has done virtually nothing to tackle the problems of the Russian economy, apart from reassuring investors that he sees no sense in re-nationalising what has been privatised. On his 100th day in office he was able to give an upbeat assessment to parliament, predicting growth and reporting a drop in inflation, only because he has rested on the laurels of his predecessors, Mr Stepashin and Yevgeny Primakov, and because the Russian budget has reaped the windfall benefit of increased prices on the world oil market.

The financial cost will be felt later, and perhaps, if the war drags on, there will be a higher human price for Moscow as well as the Chechens in terms of lost federal soldiers. For the moment Russians feel it is all worth it, because they are bombing Chechnya, which is not only a place but also a symbol of all that ails them. And no amount of hand-wringing by the West, perceived to have given bad advice in the period of "reforms", will stop them. Mr Putin made that clear last week after President Clinton spoke up for the civilians trapped in Grozny and warned that Russia would pay a high price for the excesses of its "anti-terrorist campaign". In a sarcastic tone, the Prime Minister said he understood the West's concern. Then he showed a flash of the steel underneath. If the US really cared so much, why did it not use its influence to force the "bandits" to free their hostages, instead of putting pressure on Russia?

Later, after the respected Mr Primakov warned of the danger of Russia isolating itself, Mr Putin adopted a more conciliatory tone. He continued to play the diplomat after President Yeltsin, speaking in Peking, reminded Bill Clinton that Russia had nuclear weapons. But the message to the West changed only from "Mind your own business" to "If you don't understand what we are doing, we will explain it to you again". The US leader was motivated by concern for Russia but he lacked knowledge about Chechnya, Vladimir Putin said.

What the West should know, according to the Prime Minister, is that Russian lives, the survival of Russia as a country and even international stability are threatened by the anarchy and terrorism emanating from Chechnya. The Russians are bringing civilisation back to the region, the majority of whose people long for order - or so Mr Putin believes.

The KGB used to employ some of the brightest people in the old Soviet Union. In his years working for the KGB in Germany, Mr Putin saw Teutonic law, order and efficiency. Evidently he wants something of this for his own country. The Prime Minister is often compared to the late Yuri Andropov, the austere KGB chief who was briefly Kremlin leader after the death of Leonid Brezhnev. Andropov never travelled abroad but learnt about foreign countries by watching films in his private cinema. Mr Putin has the advantage of personal experience. He speaks German fluently. Recently, he gave a speech to students at Moscow University. He said he dreamt of the day when a Russian could stand up and say: "I am proud that I was born in Russia."

In Chechnya, Mr Putin is demanding different moral standards from the army that, in the last war, from 1994-1996, disgraced itself by going on drunken and drug-crazed rampages and looting Chechen homes. Russian TV made much of one small incident that illustrates the new Putin creed. A conscript soldier had the chance to go home at the end of his service but, viewers were told, he chose to stay on in Chechnya because he did not want to abandon his comrades. The commander had received some gold watches from Moscow to give to his best men. He had handed them all out and there was nothing left for the enthusiastic young man. So the commander took his own watch off his wrist and gave it to him. It was the biblical message: "The first shall be last and the last shall be first." It was something new for Russia, where bosses behave like gods.

A few days later a group of soldiers spoilt everything by driving into a town in Ingushetia, the region that has taken in thousands of refugees, and shooting dead a girl who refused to sell them vodka because of a local dry law. The words of one of President Yeltsin's discarded prime ministers, Viktor Chernomyrdin, came to mind: "We meant to do our best, but it turned out as it always does."

In Chechnya this time, Mr Putin is using the carrot and stick. The West is seeing the stick - the terrible air and artillery strikes that minimise losses among Russian soldiers, who, because of public opinion, matter more than they did five years ago, but which cause tremendous "collateral damage" among Chechen civilians. The carrot that Mr Putin would like the West to see is the policy of trying to rebuild those parts of Chechnya that welcome the Russians back.

The principle of "divide and rule" is as elementary to Mr Putin, as a graduate of the KGB, as the alphabet. Last week he claimed that family members of the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, had long ago found comfortable refuges far from Grozny. Mr Putin said he wanted Chechens, Russians and the whole world to know that there were two classes of people in Chechnya, the privileged ones, who looked after themselves, and the poor ones, who were suffering. It was all part of his strategy to split the Chechens and make Russian rule more attractive.

In the long term, Mr Putin promises, the political future of Chechnya will be decided not by carpet-bombing but at the negotiating table. However, some important options are ruled out in advance. The Prime Minister has made clear that there is no question of Chechnya winning independence from the Russian Federation. In addition he is relying heavily on members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow, who look likely to form a puppet government in the region. Chief among those loyal or quisling Chechens, depending on your point of view, is Beslan Gantimirev, the former mayor of Grozny, who was recently pardoned and released from prison in Moscow, where he was serving a sentence for embezzlement.

Mr Putin may believe, in theory, in democratic principles but in his short term in office he has shown that, for him, the end can justify the means. There is something frightening about the simmering anger, even fanaticism, that he hides only just beneath his smooth, cool surface.

His future depends on the outcome of the war. If there is no disaster for Russia between now and the elections, the Kremlin appears to be within his reach. Even if President Yeltsin decides, on a whim, to sack him, Mr Putin has taken on a political life of his own.

Russians are too in awe of him to tell Putin jokes. The nearest they come to humour when they speak of the Prime Minister is to recall the satirist Vladimir Voinovich's principle that Kremlin leaders alternate between the bald and the hairy. Lenin was bald, Stalin was hairy, Khrushchev was bald, Brezhnev was hairy, Andropov was bald, Chernenko was hairy, Gorbachev was bald and Yeltsin is hairy. Mr Putin's straw-coloured hair is thin. To those who hope for his ultimate rise, he is balding promisingly.

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