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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Profile: Putin's foreign minister Lavrov
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

Sergei Lavrov at a news conference in Tehran, 20 June 2007
Sergei Lavrov was Russia's man at the UN for a decade

Sergei Lavrov is the formidable face of Russia's assertive new foreign policy, a minister who clearly relishes his task after fighting his country's corner at the United Nations.

When he became foreign minister in March 2004 - the first to be appointed by President Vladimir Putin - Mr Lavrov had already served as Russian ambassador to the UN for a decade.

Moscow's man in New York during the Kosovo and Iraq wars now tackles the same issues but from a different platform, and with a much stronger hand.

He is the Kremlin's negotiator par excellence, Western analysts say, though he gives the impression of being his own man.

Where his predecessors were low-profile, Mr Lavrov, a tall man described by other diplomats as a "rather noble, masculine figure with rugged good looks", takes over the room.

"I think everybody viewed him as the most powerful personality on the Security Council during his time there, with a rapid mind, with comprehensive and accurate knowledge and awareness of what was going on, and with a capacity for articulate intervention which could easily change the tenor of the debate," one UN insider told the BBC News website.

Music and rafting

Born on 21 March 1950 in Moscow, Sergei Lavrov graduated from the capital's elite State Institute of International Relations (Mgimo) in 1972 and began his career in the Soviet diplomatic service with a posting to Sri Lanka.

Sergei Lavrov (background) with Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at talks in Moscow in June 2007
He's a tough, reliable, extremely sophisticated negotiator
Dr Bobo Lo
Russian foreign policy expert at Chatham House, London

According to his official CV, he speaks three foreign languages: Sinhala, English and French.

After serving as first secretary of the Soviet embassy to the UN in New York from 1981-88, he remained at the foreign ministry when the USSR broke up in 1991.

He was appointed Russia's ambassador to the UN three years later.

Married with a daughter, his hobbies are often listed as playing the guitar and writing songs and poetry.

One poem, which appears to be about turning 40, ends with the line "Weep but keep your powder dry".

Happiness is ... doing a good job and going white-water rafting with friends
Sergei Lavrov
Mr Lavrov is also a keen sportsman. Happiness, he said shortly after his appointment as minister, was "doing a good job and going white-water rafting with friends".

However, his athletic image has to sit with his reputation as a smoker, which made headlines in 2003 when he loudly condemned a ban at the UN as a violation of diplomatic rights.

"He was always looking for a chance to go out and have a drag," a UN old hand remembers.

Soviet old-school

Diplomats who dealt closely with him at the Security Council recall an ambassador who, if not quite as negative as the USSR's Andrei "Mr Nyet" Gromyko, invariably put his own country's interests first.

Andrei Gromyko (image from 1960)
Gromyko was also Moscow's UN man before a staggering 28 years as FM

"He was more powerful as a critic of other people's positions rather than as a constructor of solutions - that was really his power," says one.

"The Security Council tends to respect people who look for collective answers to collective problems.

"Lavrov didn't feature as a problem-solver as often as its members might have wished.

"He had the capacity for flexible negotiation but he didn't look for opportunities to go beyond his instructions often enough and at times he relished messing up other people's plans."

Mr Lavrov's approach, the ex-diplomat adds, was quite Soviet: hard on the West, suspicious of other people's initiatives, wary of diplomatic traps and highly sensitive to Russia being by-passed.

Taking orders

Mr Lavrov projects the image of an independent-minded minister but analysts question how much say the Mid - the Russian acronym for the foreign ministry - can really have under Mr Putin.

Sergei Lavrov (left) with Vladimir Putin at talks in Istanbul in June 2007
Sergei Lavrov shares a joke with the man who promoted him

"The position of the head of Mid has been fairly marginalised over the last decade," says Sarah Mendelson from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"I have the impression that the weight of foreign-policy decisions is being decided in other parts of the government."

Like George W Bush's White House, Ms Mendelson says, the Putin administration is taking a very "hyper-sovereign" approach.

"My impression is that Lavrov is not one of these hyper-sovereign types but he is heading up a policy which increasingly is," she adds.

Dr Bobo Lo, a Russian foreign policy expert at London's Chatham House, notes that Mr Lavrov is considered as something of an outsider in the Russian government, not "part of Putin's inner sanctum".

"He's a tough, reliable, extremely sophisticated negotiator but the toughening of Russian foreign policy has got very little to do with him," he says.

"While he executes his job well, ultimately foreign policy is made at the Kremlin and it is very, very personalised these days. So if you're going to blame anyone, don't blame him!"

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