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Grozny, Baby! It’s Vladimir Putin, International Man of Mystery

6 minute read
Tony Karon

Inscrutability is a prerequisite for spies, but it’s not traditionally a presidential attribute. Yet Russians woke up to their New Year’s day hangovers to find themselves ruled by a man who has never given a press conference and whose official biography is only eight lines long. Even those who have probed the background of acting President Vladimir Putin have turned up little about his days in the KGB, his attitude to political and economic reform in Russia and his relationship with the country’s shadowy financial oligarchy.

“Even close friends who’ve worked with him for years say they don’t know him very well at all,” says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. “He rose quickly in the KGB in the ’80s, but by doing what he was told rather than by distinguishing himself. He’s awkward in public and extremely reluctant to talk to the media. And he studiously maintained a low profile until last August, when he seemed to appear from nowhere to be named Yeltsin’s heir.”

These things we do know about Putin: He’s 47, married, joined the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate after graduating college in 1975, and — officially, at least — spent most of his KGB career stationed in East Germany monitoring political attitudes there. He returned to Leningrad in 1989, where he took up a position at the State University and developed a close relationship with key reformist figure Anatoly Shobchak, who in 1991 became the city’s mayor and appointed Putin to various key administrative posts. Having proved himself a capable manager in St. Petersburg (Leningrad’s original name, restored after the collapse of communism), he was brought to Moscow in 1996 to serve on Boris Yeltsin’s presidential staff. Two years later, Yeltsin appointed Putin head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor organization, and last year he assumed control of the coordinating body of all of Russia’s security and intelligence ministries before being named Prime Minister.

Putin’s years in the KGB, followed by his association with some of the key reformers in the post-communist period raise more questions than they answer. “Although some now say Putin was involved in economic espionage in Western Europe, others say he was a low level political commissar type keeping an eye on the loyalty of Soviet staff,” says Meier. “Then there’s a big question mark over his mission in St. Petersburg — whether he, as he claims, had turned into a liberal democrat determined to push the reform program, or had been sent there to keep an eye on the reformers.” In the murky world of post-communist Russia, of course, those two options aren’t exactly mutually exclusive, either.

While his background includes both solid security credentials and an association with Russia’s reformist politicians, it’s clear that the former played the major role in bringing Putin to power — and therein lies a harsh message for the West. Yeltsin had established a working relationship with Washington based on copious infusions of Western cash to shore up his deeply unpopular regime in exchange for Russian compliance with the U.S. agenda on the international stage and lip-service to Western ideas on how the Russian economy should be reformed. But the systematic international humiliation that Yeltsin’s approach brought for the erstwhile superpower reached a breaking point in the Kosovo crisis. After the U.S. bombed a Russian ally over Moscow’s objections, Washington enlisted Yeltsin’s support to broker a peace deal that saved NATO from having to go to ground war and then immediately violated the terms of that deal by taking unilateral control of the province and sidelining the Russians.

“Kosovo opened a rift between Russia and the West that may last for decades,” says Meier. “The Russians had endured NATO expansion into their former sphere of influence and the bombing of Iraq over their objections. Now Washington was talking about missile defense and rewriting the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and turning NATO into an instrument of projecting its power by going to war in Kosovo.”

The first sign of an incipient rebellion within Russia’s security forces was their lightning raid on Kosovo’s airport, which they captured, to NATO’s considerable embarrassment, at the close of the Kosovo campaign. Russia’s politicians from Yeltsin on down were taken by surprise, but the fact that the President later awarded medals to the men responsible signaled that he’d gotten the message. With the clouds of scandal swirling around his office and his immediate entourage, his future would depend on doing the bidding of the country’s security establishment. That was the context in which Yeltsin named Putin prime minister and anointed him as his presidential heir.

Putin proceeded to build a credible political claim through going to war in Chechnya, but that too has dire implications for the West. “Russian enthusiasm for the war in Chechnya is based on a lot more than the actions of which the Chechens have been accused,” says Meier. “From the outset, it’s been very overtly spun as an act of defiance against the West, and that has had tremendous appeal to Russians’ need to restore the sense of national pride that has disappeared under Yeltsin.”

The bloody crusade against Chechen separatists is all that Russians know of their president right now, and so far they like what they see. “To Russians, Putin comes across as the tough cop that’s going to clean up the town,” says Meier. But the rot in Russia is about far more than separatist violence. “The pivotal question will be whether Putin rules the oligarchs or they rule him. Thus far, he clearly has support from arch-tycoon Boris Berezovsky, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll turn on Berezovsky.” The oligarchy may, of course, take some comfort in the amnesty Putin immediately granted Yeltsin and his family. Still, what will follow in the coming months is the next round of furious infighting and deal-making in the political-business-criminal-security elites that make up the “nomenklatura” of post-communist Russia.

Pollyannaish spin from Washington notwithstanding, the transition from Yeltsin to Putin is unlikely to bring good news for the U.S. After all, Yeltsin propelled himself to power by convincing Russians that he was a liberal reformist who would deliver them from the drudgery of communism. If Vladimir Putin wins the presidency in March — and right now he looks a shoo-in — it will be because Russians believe he’ll stand up to Washington.

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