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25 December 2000

Meet the cuddly, cooing president

Putin's first year - Chrystia Freeland finds the man in the Kremlin on a charm offensive, but sadly

By Chrystia Freeland

Prepare to meet a kinder, gentler sort of Kremlin chief. Vladimir Putin may have coasted into the Russian presidency last March largely on the strength of his ruthless war against Chechen separatists. He may be proud, sometimes even boastful, of his KGB past, and miss no opportunity to display his bone-breaking judo skills. But, in his studied effort to woo G7 leaders and capture western public opinion, Putin is trying very hard to present a softer side.

He has already smiled his way into the good graces of Tony Blair and impressed Gerhard Schroder with his fluent German. Now it is Canada’s turn. Before even setting off from the Kremlin, in an interview with the Globe and Mail and Canadian television, Putin was doing his damnedest to prove what a nice, sensitive guy he really is.

Consider his positively cuddly thoughts on environmentalism and environmentalists: “To be honest, I’ve always admired people who devote their lives to environmental problems . . . I’ve watched with astonishment as a group of people on a little boat tries to oppose a huge military or industrial ship. I must say this inspires only sympathy.” Coyly, the Russian president even hinted that, when his time in the Kremlin runs out (there is a two-term, eight-year constitutional limit), he may consider a second career as a full-time environmental activist.

“I’ve often thought about what I should do when my term expires,” he told us. “It is a noble task to support the ecological movement. At least, I wouldn’t be sorry to spend time on it.”

It’s not that Putin has suddenly converted from red to green. Rather, the Russian leader – who once told a friend that his KGB training had made him “a specialist in human relations” – seems to have decided that the best way to defuse mounting western concerns about the fate of democracy in Russia is with a personal charm offensive.

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The steel is still there. Putin, whose cool-headed forcefulness came as such a relief to a nation exhausted by the boozy bombast of Boris Yeltsin, remains almost Teutonic in his precision and his control. Even at 10pm on a Friday night he was the model of crisp efficiency. Each of his thinning, blondish hairs was combed neatly over the dome of his head, his white shirt gleamed and his navy suit was freshly pressed. Grey-blue eyes fixed on his questioner, Putin sat ramrod straight, his hands disciplined into stillness, for most of a 70-minute interview. Only his feet, hidden beneath the table his handlers insisted upon, were unruly – tapping with impatience at routine questions and twisting against the parquet floor in response to impertinent ones.

But at eye level, the Kremlin chief was Mr Congeniality himself, smiling, joking and even flirting with his Canadian guests. He offered soothing answers to tough political questions, looked winningly bashful in response to a query about a recent newspaper survey that rated him the sexiest man in Russia, and made cheerful small talk about the best places to ski in the Canadian Rockies. As we left, he even enclosed my palm in a warm, two-handed shake, gave my third-trimester belly a quick pat, and wished me good luck with my baby.

Mind you, he’s still no Bill Clinton. A public figure for barely a year, Putin hasn’t yet figured out how to conceal all the briefing books and PR advice that goes into making a warm, “spontaneous”, personal impression. Obviously prepped on the Canadian passion for hockey and the starring role of Russian players in the Canadian game, the Kremlin chief had memorised a mouthful of Russian-Canadian hockey statistics. When no one asked the right question, Putin, determined that his hard-won hockey expertise should not be in vain, slipped the numbers in anyway, in the final moments of the interview.

Occasionally, a chink appears in Putin’s carefully contrived persona. In what was meant to be a reassuring comment about his support for free speech and a free press, the Kremlin chief let slip a reference to his critics as “hooligans”. A moment later, he swiftly backtracked: “Let us consider them to be the opposition, rather than hooligans,” he insisted. “Although they are not always civilised, in my opinion,” he could not resist adding.

In another effort to assuage fears that his campaign to strengthen the state is at the expense of civil society, Putin offered what he clearly believed to be a winning parallel with the battle of the sexes. The tension between state and society, he said, is like the sexual tension between a man and a woman: “A decent man must always try and a decent woman must always resist.”

We reporters softly tittered at this Stone Age view of gender relations – it was a rare faux pas from the poised Kremlin chief and sure to make good copy. Putin elaborated on his seduction metaphor: like the male seducer, he explained, “the state will always try to create for itself the most favourable conditions and will try to ban everything”. Not to worry, he added in rather hasty afterthought, feminine society has its own defences: “There will always be forces that will resist this tendency.”

Putin’s choice of metaphor underscored the one big doubt that everyone – both friends and enemies, foreigners and Russians – continues to have about his presidency. Simply put, it is this: in his campaign to rebuild Russia’s enfeebled central government, the leitmotif of Putin’s first year in office, does the Russian president understand where a strong state ends and a dictatorship begins?

It is, as even his political backers admit, all a question of where to draw the line. “No normal state could allow itself for long to tolerate the oligarchs [the powerful tycoons who came to dominate Yeltsin’s Russia] in the positions which they held in the past,” Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s first, post-communist acting prime minister and the intellectual mentor of the liberal market reformers in Putin’s cabinet, told me. “But it is very easy to cross the boundary from the absolutely necessary battle with the oligarchs and with oligarchic structures into a battle against freedom of the press.”

Putin is sophisticated enough to understand that Gaidar’s concerns are widely shared, and that they are his government’s Achilles heel. All of his smiles, all of his small talk and all of his scripted answers were devoted to defusing these concerns. As he earnestly pledged in our interview: “There is no danger that the structure of democratic society, which was built over the past ten years, could be dismantled. When we speak of strengthening the state, it doesn’t mean the curtailment of democratic freedoms, because without democratic freedoms – including the observance of human rights in business – a market economy cannot develop.”

Yet just four days after Putin made us this promise, Spanish police, acting on a Russian warrant, arrested Vladimir Gusinsky, the media oligarch and owner of Russia’s only independent national television network. The more convincing explanation is the one Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin’s political guru, let slip very late at night at the end of a 90-minute conversation:

“Putin conducted a surgical operation to liquidate the opposition of the ‘old’ forces. This [the attack on Gusinsky] was politically motivated pressure on the ‘old’ forces.”

Vladimir Putin is learning to talk the talk. But it will take more than a few glib phrases about environmentalists to reassure the world that the man who promises to correct one of Yeltsin’s greatest failures – the collapse of the Russian state – won’t also be the leader who demolishes Yeltsin’s greatest accomplishment – the tentative emergence of Russian democracy.

The author is deputy editor of the Globe and Mail, Canada, and a former Financial Times correspondent in Moscow