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  1. Politics
28 February 2000

Russia’s dark horse at the finish line

Vladimir Putin pays lip service to democracy, the Orthodox Church and economic reform. His record do

By Christian Caryl

How odd that Oliver Stone has never made a movie about Russia. As a location, it offers everything to make Hollywood hearts beat faster – garishness, violence, thoughtless wealth, jarring juxtapositions, conspiracy. Especially conspiracy.

Still, even by local standards, this moment is something special. Moscow insiders are calling it “the waiting period”. On 26 March, the country will elect its next president, and virtually everyone believes that the winner will be Boris Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The consensus is amazing enough, given the country’s political and moral atomisation over the past few years. But this new team spirit merely reflects the equally astounding phenomenon of Putin himself. Six months ago, when he was still running the domestic security service, he was a man without any public persona at all. Today, he holds the premiership and the acting presidency, commands the once rambunctious parliament via the tame Unity party, and glories in the obeisance of every political figure who matters.

In the 19 December elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, Putin’s entourage deftly manipulated the state-owned and semi-state-owned media to take a quarter of the vote for Unity – a party with no platform, no history and no identifiable cast of characters.

Until then, many observers (including this one) had taken to dismissing the central authority as a spent force in a Russia where so much power has diffused to governors and oligarchs. The Duma campaign showed that the Kremlin still has no peer when it comes to projecting its will – presuming that its most important inhabitant, and his hangers-on, have the determination to make use of those resources. And Putin has.

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Still, the end of March is a long way away, and there are odd things boiling away under the surface of this new concordance.

For one thing, no one can explain to any satisfactory degree how we got here. To some degree, that extends even to Putin’s own handlers, who have been startled by the magnitude of their own success. It has now become a commonplace to point out that Putin was boosted from obscurity to unchallenged power largely by virtue of the Chechen raids on Dagestan in the summer; the raids allowed the oft-humbled Russian army to gain glory in a small, victorious war. And then there was the strikingly convenient timing of the terrorist bombings, blamed on the Chechens, in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk, which wiped out four apartment buildings and killed 300 people. The surge of popular revulsion carried Putin’s ratings to a stunning high and generated popular approval for the invasion of Chechnya.

Too many questions about the bombings remain unanswered and, strikingly, the doubts are accumulating with time. Despite its own interest in proving the validity of its version of events, the Kremlin has never presented any convincing evidence about who was behind the explosions. No Chechen groups have claimed responsibility.

The FSB, or the Federal Security Service (domestic successor of the KGB which, until last summer, was headed by Putin), recently admitted that none of the 14 suspects now being sought is actually Chechen. Some Chechens arrested at the time were later quietly released thanks to charges that proved, even by Moscow’s standards, embarrassingly flimsy. And then there is the even more suspicious bit about the attack that never got off the ground. A week after the second Moscow attack, residents in an apartment block in the provincial city of Ryazan found a bomb that was apparently primed to go off. Police arrived and evacuated the building; after a 24-hour silence, the FSB announced that it had been merely a “drill”.

Why in Ryazan? What was the drill designed to test? Once again the evidence was whisked away, and local officials have discouraged further questioning.

Two American reporters who recently visited the city discovered that most of the residents believed that the bomb had been planted by the security services themselves. This being Russia, the definition of “security services” can be stretched almost infinitely along a continuum ranging from organised criminals all the way to people at the very heart of officialdom.

These are monstrous theories, to be sure. On the other hand, Russian history teems with stories of government-inspired plots against the government and agents provocateurs who jumped the rails. In 1904, the Russian interior minister was assassinated by a Social Revolutionary terrorist called Evno Azef – who turned out to be an agent of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. (By some accounts, Azef had actually committed the deed to prove his revolutionary bona fides to the group he had been assigned to penetrate.)

It was also the Okhrana that hatched what would later be called “police socialism”, a union movement secretly managed by the government to deflect discontent. That experiment failed when one of the most successful police socialists, Father Gapon, went freelance and triggered the revolution of 1905. In 1911, the then prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, was assassinated by yet another terrorist who turned out to be on the government payroll. As the historian Richard Pipes notes: “Rumours spread that he had acted on behalf of the government. These rumours have not died to this day.” Sergei Kirov’s murder in 1934 offered his murderers an alibi to kill some more. Stalin, indeed, loved using trumped-up charges of individual terrorism as a pretext for all-encompassing state terror.

Critics of the current conspiracy theories would argue that present-day Russia is a world apart from these earlier tyrannies. Perhaps. But old habits die hard, and Putin has yet to prove his credentials as a democrat. Indeed, far from withering away, the conspiracy theories are enjoying fresh momentum. The former prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, another former secret policeman, recently told interviewers that the government had been planning for a limited invasion of Chechnya in the spring, long before the terrorist attacks ever took place.

Meanwhile, sources in the security services have been leaking fresh conspiracy scenarios to the press. Back in the autumn, most theories tapped the oligarch Boris Berezovsky and Yeltsin’s chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, as the architects of the Chechen provocations. Both were accused of contacts with Chechen warlords, allegations that were never really denied. (Even a Berezovsky-owned newspaper ventured that the invaders of Dagestan might have been “lured” there by Moscow conspirators.)

Some of the new theories, in contrast, suggest that Berezovsky’s plans for a “small, victorious war” in Dagestan may have actually been hijacked by a competing faction in the government – the “young reformer” Anatoly Chubais and the hawkish general Anatoly Kvashnin. Rivalries within and among the secret services – the civilian FSB and its military counterpart, the GRU – are clearly fanning the intrigue. And nervousness among Putin’s oligarchic sponsors also plays a role. Berezovsky and Chubais, old and wily rivals, have accounts to settle, but also loyalties to prove.

Even for those who don’t believe in the substance of these intrigues, it is still worth paying attention. It is no coincidence that these new twists come at a moment when Putin’s aura of invincibility is finally being sullied. After some initial successes, the Russian army has been bloodied in Grozny. Even more importantly, the images of the war projected in the media are darkening, and apparently Putin is taking personal offence at the stroppiest of the broadcasters. When the Duma opened earlier this month, Putin’s first move was to scorn his “liberal” supporters by concluding a pact with the more powerful Communists – thereby confirming, to some onlookers, his frank interest in power and his indifference to the ideological niceties of “reform”. (Stepashin, whose incendiary revelations certainly didn’t help Putin, just happens to represent one of the offended parties.)

The strains of Putin’s odd dynastic purgatory – the appointed “acting” presidency without a formal popular mandate – may soon begin to tell. His poll ratings have fallen, if only slightly, for the first time after weeks in the stratosphere.

The explosion of conspiracy theories, in short, is the perfect psychological emblem of the “waiting period”. Opponents are trying to get their last blows in now, in order to bloody Putin while they can. There is a widely shared sense that, after March, it may be too late. After years of bedlam, ordinary Russian society is longing for “consolidation” (an indicative catchword these days), but no one can say with confidence what form it will take under the new regime.

Putin’s few deeds are difficult to decipher. He expresses enthusiasm for democratic values and simultaneously praises the virtues of a “strong state”. He is the man who admired the murdered lib- eral reformer Galina Starovoitova, and who recently drank a toast to Stalin with a group of fellow politicians. He is, apparently, a sincere Orthodox Christian who has managed to reconcile his belief with official adulation of the KGB, scourge of the Church.

The only thing revealed by his moves so far – such as his handling of the parliamentary crisis – is an unadorned appreciation for the realities of power, and after 26 March he will, more than likely, be president of a country where all power starts and ends with the president. Russia has bet on a dark horse, and the bets are off.

The author is Moscow correspondent for “US News & World Report”