The Spy Who Came In From The Crowd

An up-close profile of the former KGB agent who rules the Kremlin and is intent on making the world respect Russia again

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"Strong state" is the ambiguous phrase that reverberates most troublingly around Putin. The vast majority of Russians, sick and tired of the way things are, are perfectly ready to put their faith in the state as their salvation. They clamor for a good Czar. "They believe Russia needs order, and autocracy is necessary for that," says Izvestiya editor in chief Mikhail Kozhokin. Putin's Minister of Information, Mikhail Lesin, waves off the issue. "I can't understand why this creates concerns," he says. "It's very simple, very normal." Besides, says Stepashin, "I know him well enough to know he would never harm the main democratic achievements of Yeltsin."

But for many intellectuals, the words strong state conjure up Russia's long, sordid history of repression. "I believe he has all the qualities to become an efficient dictator," says liberal politician Yuli Rybakov. His deep patriotism isn't questioned, but the way he pursues it is. "He believes people are a mass to be shaped and formed for their own best interests," says Leonid Keselman, a St. Petersburg sociologist. The real issue, says Izvestiya editor Kozhokin, is, "We need a strong state, but not too much. Unfortunately, we don't know if Putin knows where to draw that line."

Part of the problem is that Russia does require strong government to clean up what is, by any standards, an awful mess. And though the country's oligarchs are counting on Putin to let them continue to run their shady businesses with little interference, they may be in for a surprise.

Except for Chechnya, Putin the President exists mainly as a collection of words. No orator, he has trained himself to speak in terse, clipped phrases. They can sound refreshingly candid: when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright pressed him in February on U.S. desires to amend the ABM treaty, she detected a new openness in his response. But the accommodating words he used also left the way open for Putin to object to any changes. His crisp phrasing can also sound quite menacing, as when he promised to "crush corrupt officials like rats." When he meets with Western leaders, he speaks in the urbane, cosmopolitan voice of an equal who recognizes he needs good relations with the West. When he's at home, he talks like an earthy nationalist, who would just as soon rule Mother Russia with the iron fist he thinks his countrymen want.

But Putin is at least someone you can talk to. Businessmen who worked with him in St. Petersburg say he listens, then responds to the point. A U.S. diplomat with long experience talking to Moscow's leaders, including Putin, calls it "co-opt and disarm." The old way was to start with "no" even if you meant "maybe," then to negotiate to "yes." Putin's way is to start with "Yes, I agree with you; thank you for your advice," but to mean, at best, "maybe" and sometimes "no." The trick, says this official, "is to figure out when he means yes and then how to make good on it." On subjects like Chechnya, he neither co-opts nor disarms. Says this official: "He gets thin lipped, hard eyed and says, 'Don't screw with me.'"

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