Russia's Dick Morris

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Vladimir Putin's election as president has produced a new antihero in Russian politics. Gleb Pavlovsky, an owlish political consultant with a taste for casual clothes and an abiding reputation for dirty tricks, is being hailed as a genius by the winners and a cynical villain by the losers. The communists, who claim the March 26 polls were corrupted, say Pavlovsky fixed Putin's first-round win, just as a few months ago aides to Yevgeni Primakov accused Pavlovsky of a devastating smear campaign against their man and his main ally, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. His admirers are equally categorical. Pavlovsky was quite simply "the brains of the campaign," says Alexander Oslon, another key player in the Putin election team.

Pavlovsky dismisses the vote-fixing charges and plays down his reputation as the Kremlin's electoral wizard, describing his role as that of a modest analyst. But it is a sign of the times that Putin's election is not credited to a business tycoon or Kremlin staff member but to a professional political organizer--a former dissident and political exile who scorns the "intellectual poverty" of the Gorbachev years and is bullish on the Internet. His consulting firm, the Fund for Effective Politics, avoids the limelight but enjoys a reputation for achieving the impossible. One would-be client, the President of a Central Asian republic whom the fund refuses to identify, recently asked it to design a strategy for turning his republic into a monarchy. The fund turned him down.

Compared with that, getting Putin elected was a pushover. The operation began last August, Pavlovsky told TIME, when Boris Yeltsin named Putin Prime Minister and declared him his preferred successor. The strategists' first step was to craft a political party for Putin to lead. They managed that trick last fall, constructing the Unity Party just months before the nation's parliamentary elections. The group was almost a parody of a Russian political party, led by a popular but tongue-tied Cabinet minister and a totally nonverbal Olympic wrestler. But Unity swept into the Duma, or lower house, triggering a wave of defections from more established politicians eager to join the new party. After that, Pavlovsky says, the main thing was to keep voters interested enough to come to the polls to elect a President.

Despite the fact that Pavlovsky prefers to keep to the shadows, insiders claim to discern his hand in much of Russian politics--the creation of Unity, for example. And it was never so clear as in the highly controversial destruction of Unity's main rival, a party called Fatherland-All Russia, during the campaign for the Duma last fall. When former Prime Minister Primakov, the most popular politician in Russia, and Moscow's pathologically ambitious Mayor Luzhkov joined forces to form Fatherland, their victory--first in Duma elections and then the presidential race--seemed inevitable. Within a couple of months, however, they had been reduced to bit players. The main weapon employed by Pavlovsky was the Internet. Only a million or so Russians have access to the Web, he notes, but they are the elite--in universities, government offices, security services and the mass media. This makes the Net a powerful yet dangerous tool, Pavlovsky remarked recently. Through it, he explains, black propaganda can easily be "laundered" into "white" press reports.

Pavlovsky demonstrated the Net's strengths and dangers with his assault on Luzhkov, the more vulnerable of the Fatherland leaders. An interlocking network of sites savaged the mayor. One site, www.lujkov.ru (Lujkov is a variant English spelling of the mayor's name), looked like the mayor's official site--until you read the jabs on every page. On another, pictures of Luzhkov and Vladimir Yakovlev, governor of St. Petersburg and another leader of Fatherland, were accompanied by lists of crimes in which the two men were "suspected" of involvement. The information was spread by the media, and the attack proved astonishingly effective. Luzhkov was to have been the bloc's main campaigner. Instead he was deflated, unnerved and marginalized. These days he rarely misses a chance to proclaim his ardent devotion to Putin.

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