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Saturday, 1 January, 2000, 17:17 GMT
Vladimir Putin: Spy turned politician
Mr Yeltsin was impressed by Vladimir Putin's loyalty and efficiency
Mr Yeltsin was impressed by Vladimir Putin's loyalty and efficiency
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

Vladimir Putin is President Boris Yeltsin's chosen successor, and the Russian parliamentary election showed he was the people's favourite too.

Yeltsin resigns
Until his appointment in August, he was a little known figure who had spent most of his career working for the Soviet security service, the KGB, including several years as a spy in Germany.

In a matter of weeks he had become the most popular politician in the country, and by the end of the year, the acting president.

Meteoric rise

Mr Putin's meteoric rise began in 1996 when he was invited to Moscow from St Petersburg to start work in the presidential administration, and became a member of the Yeltsin inner circle, known as the "family".

By March of the following year he had become deputy head of the presidential administration, and in July 1998 he was appointed to lead the Federal Security Service, one of the successors of the dismantled KGB.

Putin's rise
1994: deputy mayor of St Petersburg
1997: deputy head of presidential administration
1998: head of Federal Security Service
1999: secretary of Security Council (March); Prime Minister (August); Acting President (December)
Even in this important position he kept a low profile. Far from charismatic, he has an expressionless mask-like face, rarely smiles, and speaks softly.

For years he had a reputation as a "grey cardinal", a man who wields power quietly, behind the scenes.

But suddenly, in August, he was catapulted into the political spotlight, and the former eminence grise quickly came to be seen as a man of action.

In response to incursions by Chechen Islamic militants into neighbouring Dagestan, Mr Putin ordered the Russian army to expel them.

Little is known about Mr Putin's KGB career
Little is known about Mr Putin's KGB career
Then, blaming the Chechens for a series of apartment-block bombings in Russian cities, he told the troops to continue into Chechnya, to root out and destroy the rebels.

In an end-of-year address at a Kremlin reception he said Russia had been duty-bound to restore national honour in Chechnya, where the Russian army was humiliated in the conflict of 1994-96.

"We shall not allow the national pride of Russians to be trod upon," he said. "We are sure of the power and prosperity of our country."

Liberal credentials

But despite his current image as a strong man, Mr Putin has been endorsed by some of Russia's best-known liberals and reformers.

His predecessor as premier, Sergey Stepashin, described the 47-year-old as a "decent and honest man".

After the collapse of communism in 1991 he worked with Mayor Anatoli Sobchak in Petersburg.

Chechnya tank
Mr Putin's popularity has soared during the military campaign in Chechnya
And when Mr Sobchak lost power in 1996 it was another reformer, Vice-Premier Anatoli Chubais, who recommended him for a job in the presidential administration.

In an essay posted on the internet at the end of December - seen by many as his manifesto for the presidency - Mr Putin said he favoured a market economy, but one that was adapted to Russian conditions.

"We can count on a worthy future only if we manage to naturally combine the principles of a market economy and democracy with Russia's realities," he wrote.

He said Russians still relied on a strong, paternalistic state: "There is no point speculating whether this tradition is good or bad. It exists and remains dominant for now. This should be taken into account, especially in social policy."

Russia, he said, was not yet ready for classical liberalism, and would not soon, if ever, come to resemble the USA or the UK.

He had words of criticism both for Soviet leaders, who he said failed to make the USSR a free or flourishing country, and for the post-Soviet reformers who he said had made avoidable mistakes.

However, like Mr Yeltsin before him, Mr Putin maintains close relations with many of these reformers.

In Russia's recent general election he won the public backing of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, headed by two young liberals, former prime minister Sergey Kiriyenko and former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov.

This party's association with Mr Putin helped it to take fourth place, while the party Mr Putin himself voted for - the pro-Kremlin Unity bloc - came second. Mr Putin is the first Russian prime minister with such significant support in parliament.

Although he has now given a statement of his economic and social policies, his abilities in this field remain largely untested.

He has been fortunate that the soaring price of oil has alleviated Russia's perennial cash shortages during his first months in office.

His huge popularity with Russian voters still depends almost completely on military successes in Chechnya, and this is fraught with risk.

Though the Russian army has tried to stay out of reach of Chechen fighters, subjecting them instead to a remorseless air bombardment, there is a risk that Russian casualties will rise.

If they reach the levels seen in the last Chechen war between 1994 and 1996, Mr Putin, among others, would take the blame.

This is one reason why the early presidential election caused by Mr Yeltsin's sudden retirement is to Mr Putin's advantage. With the vote in March rather than June, he has a better chance of being elected president before the Chechen conflict goes sour.

See also:

09 Aug 99 | Europe
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