O N A SUNDAY FULL OF POMP AND GRANDEUR LAST MAY, 2 000 , VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH PUTIN took the oath of presidential office, the first democratic transfer of power in Russia’s 1100-year history. The nationally televised ceremony included a presidential guard dressed in replicas of Russian uniforms from the time of Peter the Great. Military bands played trumpet fanfares. A choir sang the finale from the 19th-century opera A Lifc for the Czar.
In the gilded former imperial throne room of the Kremlin Grand Palace in Moscow, Putin put his hand on a red leather-bound copy of the Russian constitution, swearing an oath to “respect and guard the human and civil rights” of his countrymen. “We must safeguard what has been achieved, maintain and develop democracy,” Putin said in a ten-minute inauguration speech. “We want our Russia to be a free, prosperous, rich, strong and civilized country.
Four days later, armed agents in camouflage uniforms and black ski masks raided the headquarters of Media-Most, Russia’s largest private-sector media conglomerate—and a persistent Putin critic. The agents hauled out files and equipment; prosecutors said the raid was part of an investigation of banking irregularities and violations of privacy laws.
Coming so soon after Putin’s inaugural promises, the raid caused extensive press criticism. In response, Putin declared that “limits on freedom of speech and of the mass media are not permissible.” But he defended the raid. “All are equal before the law;” Putin said, “no matter what business they are in.”
A month later Vladimir Gusinsky, Media-Most’s owner, was put in jail and accused of swindling $10 million from the government in a privatization deal. After an international outcry, Putin publicly questioned whether prosecutors had gone too far, and Gusinsky was released . But the odd drama continued to play out for several weeks, until the criminal inquiry against him was dropped.
Was the arrest an attempt to intimidate a critic? Or was it a signal that Putin intends to enforce the law against big shots in a country where big shots have all too often seemed untouchable? The Media-Most affair has puzzled many observers, who
wonder how Putin will act in the future. “What he does with democracy is the biggest question says Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He’s not aggressively hostile to democracy,, but
he sees some concepts of democracy getting in his way.”
“You Must Hit First”
Putin is a man of nondescript features, but during his long career he has worn several faces. One of them was revealed on the last day of 1999, when Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and named Putin, then prime minister, as acting president. -
At a ceremony in the Kremlin, Putin asked for and received a personal blessing from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy II. A bystander asked Putin what his message was for the new millennium. “Love,” he replied simply.
But not love for all mankind.. Hours later Putin flew down to the war zone in Chechnya, where he passed out engraved skinning knives to Russian soldiers. “You are restoring our honor and dignity,” he reportedly said. Twenty miles away, bombs and shells mercilessly pounded Grozny, capital city of the breakaway province.
Putin makes no excuses for the war. “Everyone says I’m harsh, even brutal,” he said earlier this year. “I have never for a second believed ...... that Chechnya would limit itself to its own independence. It would become a beachhead for further attacks on Russia.”
Asked about death threats from Chechen rebels, Putin, who holds a black belt in judo, responded bluntly: “Only one thing works in such circumstances—to go on the offensive. You must hit first, and hit so hard that your opponent will not rise to his feet.”
Russians glimpsed this truculent side last summer. Attending a planting festival in the east-central republic of Tatarstan, Putin was asked to arm-wrestle a young woman . It was the kind of silly photo op that other politicians would treat as a lark. But Putin was all business. As soon as the match began, he slammed the woman s arm to the table.
“Moscow Is Silent”
Russia’s president is short and soft-spoken, and in photos he is invariably clean-shaven, his hair neatly combed, his suits buttoned, his tie straight. He is an orderly, reserved man, who has given relatively few interviews. (He declined a request by this magazine.)
But in a series of conversations with Russian journalists, published this year as a book, First Person, Putin spoke about his upbringing. His family, Putin explain-ed, was not rich, but in his eyes they were heroic. His grandfather was a cook to Lenin and Stalin; his father, who worked for the KGB’s predecessor during World War II, was injured behind Nazi lines.
Growing up in a communal apartment in Leningrad, Putin chased rats with relish. He also dreamed of becoming a spy. “My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories,” he said. “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.”
As a teenager, Putin asked to join the KGB. But he was too young, and was told that the best way to get in was to attend law school. “So from that moment I began to prepare for the law school of Leningrad State University,” he said. ‘And nobody could stop me “ No one did, and shortly before graduation Putin, then 22, was recruited bythe agency.
He spent some ten years in the U.S.S.R. before getting posted to East Germany in 1985. By all accounts, his career in the intelligence service was unremarkable. Ironically, the most memorable moment may have come in November 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
An angry crowd descended on the KGB building in Dresden. “These people were in an aggressive mood,” Putin said in First Person. “I called our group of forces and explained the situation. And I was told: ‘We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow . And Moscow is silent.’”
The soldiers finally did show up and dispersed the crowd, but the episode remained deeply etched in Putin’s psyche. “That business of ‘Moscow is silent,’” he said. “I got the feeling that [my] country no longer existed.”
Presumption of Innocence
The Soviet Union does not exist, and Putin gives no indication that he wants to restore it. The orderliness of the old regime, however, has a lot of appeal. Like many citizens, Putin is dismayed by the chaotic conditions in Russia, especially its lawless economy. With whole sectors controlled or influenced by organized crime, the need to bring thieves and corrupt bureaucrats and oligarchs to justice is universally recognized as urgent.
Georgi Satarov, deputy chairman of the respected National Anti-Corruption Committee, told Reader’s Digest that “Putin’s chances for solving these problems are high.” Satarov cites the broad support Putin has from most business owners, the public and even political elites to fight corruption. “That is a sort of capital he can use.
Putin himself speaks eloquently of the government’s duty to “ensure property rights and shield the entrepreneur from arbitrary, unlawful interference.” He says that “people have the right to demand protection for their business against a bandit group trying to grab it.”
Still, Putin’s record is not entirely reassuring. One of his Moscow mentors, Pavel Borodin, has gotten himself into legal trouble, in a case involving alleged bribes paid by the Swiss company Mabetex, and other firms, to Borodin and members of Yeltsin’s family. (Mabetex, Borodin and Kremlin officials deny the allegations.)
Although Borodin could be arrested if he leaves Russian soil, he holds a senior post in Putin’s administration. When asked in First Person if he shouldn’t have investigated the case before nominating Borodin, Putin replied that “the fundamental principle of any democratic system ... is called ‘the presumption of innocence.’”
The Black Box
When Putin was a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in 1991, most of his colleagues replaced Lenin’s portraits with ones of Yeltsin. Putin, however, chose Peter the Great. The legendary 18th-century czar forged a primitive Slavic confederation and then dragged it at least partway into the circle of European nations. He also ruled with an iron fist and little regard for individual rights.
Putin would doubtless deny that he aspires to be czar; in an essay published late last year, “Russia at the Turn of the Millennium,” he wrote that “the main threat to human rights and freedoms, to democracy as such, emanates from the executive authority.”
Nevertheless, it’s apparently not a threat that applies to him . Putin said he favors amending the constitution, increasing the presidential term to seven years. What about constitutional amendments to limit the power of the president? “I can’t rule it out,” Putin said in First Person. “But from the very beginning,” he added, “Russia was created as a super-centralized state. That’s practically laid down in its genetic code, its traditions and the mentality of its people.”
Russian newspapers once called Putin “The Black Box,” reflecting his enigmatic reputation. If he has since become a more familiar figure on the world stage, even those close to him profess not to know the real man. Says Mikhail Boyarsky, a popular Russian singer who has been a friend of Putin’s for about seven years, “There is nothing about [him], no special incident, that reveals the inner Putin. He is like an iceberg: we can see the top, but underneath is a whole lot we don’t know about.”
Reader’s Digest Magazine
November 2000. (Pgs. 106-111)
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