Putin Rocked Russians
With Ruthlessness

MOSCOW (AFP) - Vladimir Putin, the poker-faced ex-KGB spy, once tried to westernize a crumbling Soviet Union but has since galvanized a new Russia and is vowing to annihilate the rebels of Chechnya.
"We'll get them anywhere -- if we find terrorists sitting in the outhouse, then we will piss on them there. That's it. The matter is settled," barked Putin shortly after Russia launched its Chechen war in September.
Such talk could have cost his predecessors their job. But it boosted Putin's career.
He became acting president Friday when Boris Yeltsin suddenly announced he was stepping down, and is likely to retain the Kremlin hot seat for years to come.
Yeltsin, ailing and being edged out of power by his closest advisers, named the then virtually unknown security chief as prime minister last August.
He had been running the secretive but omnipotent Security Council.
He has since turned into one of the most admired figures Russia has seen this decade, even his opponents singing his praises. "Putin has enchanted Russia," wrote Vyacheslav Kostikov, a former Kremlin spokesman and current board member of a Media-MOST empire that has campaigned heavily against the government. "I honestly believe that Putin is capable of heroic deeds in the name of our humiliated Russia," Kostikov said.
Yet the 47-year-old prime minister and acting president remains a political enigma.
He helped found a new party, Unity, which rode into the State Duma (the lower house of parliament) on the back of his popularity in December 19 elections.
The party is described as "centrist." But the respected Moscow Times said in an editorial: "There is no particular reason to believe that Unity is 'centrist,' unless 'centrist' is another word for 'unknown.'"
The English-language newspaper added: "But what seems clear is that the Kremlin has been dealt a winning hand -- or the Kremlin has dealt itself a winning hand, depending on one's point of view."
What can be gleamed from Putin's bare biography suggests that he is intelligent and cunning, trusted enough by peers to be handed some of the most sensitive assignments.
Putin "was shaped by the single greatest mission in the history of the KGB," wrote the US-based private global intelligence firm Stratfor.
That mission was the "systematic restructuring of the Soviet economy, Soviet society and Soviet relations with the West in the hope of preserving the state and the regime."
Putin spent the 1980s in Berlin, where intelligence observers believe he slipped into West Germany to learn trade secrets of such companies as US computer giant IBM.
Observers believe KGB officers knew the Soviet Union was in ruins and could be preserved only by revolutionising its lagging technology and attracting investors from the West.
It remains unclear how successful Putin was. But he became the chief liaison for foreign investors after joining the pro-reform team of Saint Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sabchak in 1994.
Local journalists report that it was impossible to make foreign investments in Russia's second city without first contacting Putin.
He then also became a trusted ally of economics chief Anatoly Chubais, who brought Putin to Moscow in 1996 and made him responsible for monitoring regional leaders who were seeking greater independence from Moscow.
One political analyst reported that Putin was told to collect so-called "compromising material" on governors which could then be used as an "incentive" for them to toe the Kremlin line.
Analysts suggest the Kremlin is now repaying Putin by making him the star of a well orchestrated media public relations campaign, one which has put his presidential rating at an unheralded 46 percent.
The latest Public Opinion Foundation poll said Russians were three times as likely to vote for Putin in presidential election due in June than his nearest rival, Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov. "Russia was and will remain a great country," Putin wrote in a 14-page essay entitled "Russia on the Threshold of a New Millenium" published this week on the government's Internet web site.
The message, at once an outline of policy objectives and a philosophical expose, was striking both in its relaxed tone and a novel content that mixed Western democratic and market ideals with traditional Russian mores. "Russia is never going to be another USA or England, where liberal values have deep historic roots," Putin asserted.
"It is a fact that in Russia the attraction to a collective way of life has always been stronger than the desire for individualism."
At the same time, though, the country and its people understand better than many the dangers that a government -- particularly an executive branch -- endowed with excessive power can pose to people's freedom, he said.
"The global experience prompts the conclusion that the main threat to human rights and freedoms, to democracy as such, emanates from the executive authority," Putin wrote.
"The state must be where and as needed; freedom must be where and as required."


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