Putin who? Russia's presidential enigma

Former colleagues recall the acting president as invisible, efficient, in control.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Asked to describe Acting President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Savastyanov sighs and reaches for a quote from "Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol, the 19th-century Russian novelist.

"A man who, though not handsome, was not ill-favored, not over-fat and not over-thin. Also, though not overly elderly, he was not over-young," recites Mr. Savastyanov, who was deputy head of the Kremlin administration when he first met Putin.

Like everyone else who has known Putin, Savastyanov says he appears so ordinary that he would be hard to spot at a train station. An excellent quality in a spy, but hardly what top politicians strive for. Putin's continued inscrutability after nearly a month in office has led to an intensive media search into the front-runner in Russia's March 26 presidential election.

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Secrecy has been a constant theme in Putin's career. The portrait that emerges from people who have worked with Putin is of a highly disciplined professional who claims to support Western ways, but whose actions point to a preference for state interference. "Putin ... can resolve concrete problems. He is very result-oriented, but he lacks strategic vision," says Alexander Belayev, former head of the St. Petersburg parliament.

Another trait acquaintances cite time and again is control. Putin keeps tight rein on his emotions, rarely losing his temper or expressing joy in public. He has a black belt in Judo. At receptions he drinks with restraint, in sharp contrast to his colorful predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

"He was a really flat person who tried to preserve equal relations with everyone," says Oleg Sisuyev, a former deputy prime minister. He adds, "The briefings that he prepared for me on weak points of the staff were extremely accurate." Vladimir Churov, Putin's deputy at the St. Petersburg International Cooperation Department in the early 1990's recalls, "We all felt you could make a mistake only once. He did not yell at you, but there was very strong executive discipline."

Putin studied civil law in the 1970's at a St. Petersburg university that was a training ground for the Soviet political elite. After graduating, he spent 15 years as a KGB agent in Germany. Returned to St Petersburg during the late 1980's and early '90's - years of fervent political change - Putin caught the eye of his former professor Anatoly Sobchak, then a leading light of the democracy movement, who later fell from grace amid corruption scandals.

Putin became deputy mayor under Mr. Sobchak, essentially running the city administration. One of his main responsibilities was overseeing foreign investment from the likes of Coca-Cola, Dresdner Bank, and Credit Lyonnais. He earned the reputation of a tough Mr. Fix-it. "He was a black belt with bureaucracy," says Michael Murray, an American businessman.

Putin set up monopolistic, nontransparent bodies to control sectors such as oil and gambling. He resisted privatizing hotels. And he preferred to deal with foreign companies on an ad-hoc basis with no unified criteria. This created suspicions among local parliamentarians, who launched a probe into oil and metals barter deals and into some food-aid shipments that went astray. The case was dismissed by federal investigators.

Several other business decisions by Putin also were challenged, such as discrepancies in property leases granted to foreign banks. Mr. Belayev says Putin was well-intentioned, but that the system he set up potentially nurtured corruption by others. "He seriously believes that strengthening the state's role and nontransparent systems can combat corruption. In my opinion, it does the opposite."

Putin came to Moscow after Sobchak lost the 1996 election. He was summoned to the Kremlin by Anatoly Chubais, masterminded of Russia's privatization program. Kremlin insiders say Mr. Chubais installed Putin in the office of Pavel Borodin, who managed Kremlin property and was later investigated for corruption. He apparently made a strong impression on Mr. Yeltsin, who promoted him quickly, ostensibly in reward for loyalty.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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