Firm grip on power not near an end

The year 1996 began inauspiciously for Vladimir Putin, an aid to St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who had just lost his bid for re-election. After declining a post in the new administration, Putin laid low for a few months before a telephone call from Moscow summoned him to a higher duty.

What followed was a spectacular rise to power that saw Putin assume increasingly demanding responsibilities as deputy chief of the President's General Affairs Administration, head of the Inspector General's Office, director of the Federal Security Agency, secretary of the National Security Council, prime minister of the Russian Federation, and after Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned on December 31, 1999, Russia's acting president.

With the presidential election slated in three months, Putin sat down for a series of hastily arranged interviews that were published in early 2000 under the title First Person. True to the genre, the book is filled with campaign promises, glowing testimonies from friends and carefully selected snippets of the politician's character building youth. In spite of its sampling-by-anecdote and validating-through-hearsay approach, this campaign biography makes for compelling reading now that Putin is nearing the end of his last term in office.

The story begins with Putin-the-roughneck eager to become "the king of the courtyard," then learning to channel his ambition into legitimate pursuits like Judo wrestling and political activism. "I was a hooligan, I was a really bad boy," Putin tells the interviewer. By the end of middle school, however, he gets himself elected head of his Young Pioneer cell.

Next, we read about Putin-the-budding-spy, a starry-eyed ninth-grader, visiting a local KGB office to inquire about how he can prepare himself for a career with the agency. Following the expert advice, he works hard to improve his grades, enrolls in a law school and finally gets a call to join the KGB. Asked by a friend what his new duties entailed, Putin replies: "I am a specialist in human relations."

Then, there is Putin-the-strategist taking Henry Kissinger for a drive through his native city, lamenting the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and echoing the elder statesman's misgivings about Mikhail Gorbachev's hasty retreat from Eastern Europe. "All decent people got their start in intelligence. I did, too," Kissinger tells the Sobchak's trusted aid after learning about his background.

A defining moment for Putin-the-statesman came with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when angry crowds, fresh from ransacking the offices of the hated Stasi police, converged on the Soviet intelligence building in Dresden. An urgent call for help to the Berlin headquarters brought no relief: "We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent," Putin remembers being told at the time. "I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed. ... It had a terminal disease without a cure -- a paralysis of power."

This unsettling experience informed the emergency program that Putin unveiled in May 1997 at a closed-door press conference. To avoid a complete collapse, the nation must turn to the security agencies, Putin told the invited audience. It should engage the KGB cadres, the only force in the country immune to corruption and able to rein in restive regions.

Boris Yeltsin bought into this program, but not Galina Starovoitova. A member of the Russian parliament and a co-chair of the Democratic Party, she pressed for a statute that would make it difficult for party functionaries to re-enter politics and "bar ex-KGB officers for life."

In an interview posted on the UNLV Center for Democratic Culture Web site, Starovoitova explains why such a bill was vital for Russia after 70 years of communist rule and describes the strenuous opposition to her legislative initiative and the round-the-clock FSB surveillance she was subjected to in recent years. Asked what she would do if served with an arrest warrant, Starovoitova responded: "What are you talking about? You don't know our opposition -- this time they will be shooting on the spot."

These words proved prescient. On November 21, 1998, four months after Putin took over as the FSB director, Starovoitova was murdered in the doorway of her apartment building. It is doubtful Putin personally commissioned the murder, but there is no doubt as to what he thought about the critics of the security agencies. He made this clear in his interviews, where he railed against those who "proposed opening up the lists of agents and declassifying (KGB) files." The Starovoitova assassination was the first in a string of unsolved murders and suspicious deaths that claimed the lives of Putin's opponents.

In his 2000 campaign biography Putin sought to reassure the public about his intentions. "I am not a dictator," he told the interviewers. "We are part of Western European culture." "(Ours) is the path of democratic development." "We have to preserve local government and a system of election for governors." "The demands to confiscate and nationalize property (are wrong). That's definitely not going to happen."

Putin's pledge to respect private enterprise was exposed once he went after Yukos, the biggest privately owned oil company in Russia, which was taken over by a state corporation and businessmen close to the president. Other business oligarchs were spared the expropriation after hastily swearing their loyalty to the Kremlin and ceding to the state controlling stakes in their businesses.

Key aids in the Putin administration now preside over corporate boards of major Russian companies. Where else would you find the first deputy prime minister (Dmitri Medvedev) chairing the board of directors of the nation's leading gas corporation, the defense minister (Anatoly Serdiukov) presiding over a major chemical company, and the minister of economic development (German Gref) overseeing an investment firm?

Nor did Putin's promise to respect civil society survive the test of time. Gubernatorial elections were phased out after terrorists seized a school in the city of Beslan. Opposition parties are now routinely denied registration. Human rights groups are dogged with frivolous tax investigations and pressured to cease their activities. And psychiatry is once again pressed into service to silence Russian dissidents.

In 2004, Putin ordered the Yuri Andropov commemorative plaque to be attached to the Lubyanka building and lavishly celebrated the 90th birthday of the ex-KGB chief. Add to this his successful campaign to restore the Soviet-era national anthem, to place the hammer and sickle back onto the state regalia and allow the red star as an official symbol of the Russian armed forces, and you will understand why Russian democrats are wary of Vladimir Putin.

No, he is not scheming to restore the Soviet Union and communist party rule. We can glean his design from the fact that nearly three quarters of the top officials in the Putin administration have an intelligence background -- the very people Galina Starovoitova sought to ban from government.

Putin's legacy is "KGB capitalism," the system with intelligence operatives in charge, vast profits going to loyal friends and liberal opponents subjected to continuous harassment by patriotic mobs.

George W. Bush once intimated after meeting Vladimir Putin that he looked into his eyes, saw his soul, and knew he could trust him. It doesn't seem like President Bush has figured out his Russian counterpart, or he wouldn't have entertained him at his private estate at Kennebunkport, the honor he withheld from other Western leaders.

Professor Dmitri Shalin is the director of UNLV's Center for Democratic Culture.