To some he is a nationalist demogogue riding a Russian backlash against democracy. To others he is post-Soviet Russia's first genuine social democrat, offering something like a Russian version of a New Deal.
While opinions on Sergei Glazyev diverge widely, one thing is indisputable: He is Russia's fastest-rising political star.
Though his presidential bid against the overwhelmingly popular Vladimir Putin doesn't stand much of a chance, some observers see Mr. Glazyev as Putin's successor in 2008.
By then, Glazyev says he believes that Russia may be ready to take the road to European-style social democracy, which it missed in 1991 when the USSR collapsed and the country plunged into a brutal, winner-take-all form of capitalism.
"We do not have a normal, socially responsible economic system in Russia today," says Glazyev, whose soft-spoken, cerebral personal manner seems sharply at odds with his fire-breathing public image. "Russia's market is controlled not by the forces of market competition but by monopolists, oligarchs, and criminal groups. This is what we must change."
It's a popular theme in Russia that has its most dramatic expression in the current fraud case against super-rich businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
A mid-January opinion poll by the ROMIR agency shows Glazyev running second behind Putin in a field of nine mostly lackluster candidates. In this case, however, second place means the support of just 3 percent of voters. Putin holds the allegiance of 78 percent of the survey's respondents.
Still, six months ago few experts would have even mentioned Glazyev as a potential player on Russia's big political stage. But in December parliamentary elections the left-nationalist movement Glazyev cofounded in August, Motherland (Rodina), came from obscurity to take 10 percent of the vote.
An economist who flirted with the Communist Party for years before forging out on his own, Glazyev argues that previous Russian governments gave away the former Soviet Union's vast natural resources to private tycoons, the so-called "oligarchs," without imposing any social obligations upon them.
Russia, he says, has 20 percent of the world's oil reserves, yet the state's tax revenue from big oil is a fraction of Canada's, or of Saudi Arabia's. A proper tax system, he claims, could yield an additional $50 billion in revenues. "We could easily double pensions, increase soldiers' pay, and provide a decent income to students," Glazyev says. "This is an entirely realistic program, not a populist come-on."
Motherland's other cochairman is Dmitry Rogozin, a pro-Kremlin nationalist. His calls for Russia to be guided by "rational national egoism" strike some as having a twang of neoimperialism. "Russia shouldn't be loved; Russia should be respected," Mr. Rogozin said recently.
During the State Duma elections last month, some liberals warned that Motherland represents Russia's new fascist threat.
"Rogozin is a nationalist. Glazyev is a socialist. This combination gives us national socialism," said Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces (SPS).
Valeria Novodvorskaya, leader of the libertarian Democratic Union, says the dangerous thing about Glazyev and Motherland is that their rise reflects a Russia that is increasingly rejecting democracy. "Motherland's victory [in the Duma elections] testifies to the deep exhaustion of the population," she says.
"The authorities created an environment, beginning with the war in Chechnya and leading to the arrest and humiliation of Khodorkovsky, that encourages the population to give up on freedom and Western values," she says. "Motherland is the vanguard of reaction, like storm troopers without the black uniforms."
A similar point is made by analyst Konstantin Simonov, the director of the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow.
"Glazyev's economics, in the Russian context, will lead us back to the old planned economy and political system," he says. "He doesn't openly promote nationalism, but the social group he appeals to has certain expectations which he knowingly feeds."
Glazyev shrugs off the criticism. "Just because we speak of national interests doesn't make us nationalists," he says. "We think national interests lie in having a democratic society, the rule of law, and prosperity for the population."
The SPS and another Western-oriented liberal party, Yabloko, were virtually wiped out in the December polls, both failing to win the minimum 5 percent of votes required for entering the Duma.
Some experts believe the Kremlin may have encouraged Glazyev and his tough talk of taxing the rich to improve life for Russia's legions of poor, as a ploy to take votes away from its traditional nemesis on the left, the Communist Party. If so, the tactic worked; the Communist vote was halved, to around 12 percent - but Glazyev became an overnight political sensation.
"The Kremlin didn't expect Motherland to be as successful as it was," says Svyatoslav Kaspe, an expert with the Russian Public Policy Center, an independent think tank. "Now some are saying the Kremlin created a Frankenstein that it can't control."
Putin himself appears to have torn a page or two from Glazyev's book.
Last autumn he ordered the arrest of oil kingpin Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky, a politically active tycoon who funded at least two parties opposing the Kremlin, is officially charged with fraud and tax evasion. Putin has warned other oligarchs to be more "socially responsible" and signaled that steep increases in oil and other natural resource taxes can be expected in his second term.
"Putin's brawl with the oligarchs sounds like Glazyev's on the populist level, but they are actually quite different," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of Panorama, an independent political think tank.
Mr. Pribylovsky describes Glazyev as a Keynesian economist, who wants to redistribute income from rich to poor, whereas Putin is following standard liberal recipes for tax reform.
Glazyev agrees, and says he intends to liven up the March 14 presidential election by hammering Putin from the left flank. "The policy of the government and president today is actually aimed at strengthening the criminal system of power and capital which arose when a bunch of oligarchs laid their hands on other peoples' property and the country's natural resources," he says.
And if he does well, some experts believe Glazyev may indeed have a shot in 2008.
"If Glazyev comes in a respectable second he will be able to declare himself the leader of left-wing forces, and begin taking that mantle away from the Communists," says Mr. Simonov. "That will mean there's a new social reality out there."