PUTIN’S CONTINUING LEADERSHIP & PRESIDENCY

In my last two blogs I have given biographical overviews of Vladimir Putin up to the time of his appointment as president on January 1, 2000. Next month, March 2018, he is expected by almost everyone here and abroad to be elected to another six year term. How is it that this man from very poor and difficult beginnings has become the leader of Russia for so many years? The West has tried to “demonize” Putin for some time now. If he is as corrupt as they say, as devious as they say, as manipulative as they say, why is it that he continues to enjoy public approval ratings that no national politician in America even comes close to? Are Russians themselves corrupt and controlling (“almost genetically” driven that way according to the racist James Clapper)? Or is it that they are naive, foolish, ignorant or a combination of all the above? If Joe Biden is right, why have the Russians gotten it so wrong?

I would like to point out the way Putin handled three complex issues that I believe reveal aspects of his leadership that are important for understanding how he was first elected president and has been able to stay in office for so long. Obviously there are other factors, and I have left off his handling of several issues and events.  But the nature of a blog is one cannot discuss everything. This is an overview, not an in-depth analysis. I’ll close with some personal observations on why I think things are viewed so differently here in Russia than in America.

THE “SECOND WAR” WITH CHECHNYA. The first issue I will discuss in Putin becoming accepted by the people of Russia arose at the time he was appointed and then narrowly approved by the Duma as Prime Minister. At that time his positive ratings were between 1-2%. Their attitudes toward him began to change as a result of the conflict in Chechnya and Dagestan. This region was made part of Russia centuries ago. Their location is in the southern region around the Caucasus, rather close to the Caspian Sea. Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia joined together in 1917. Eventually they became part of the USSR. The area is heavily Muslim although Dagestan is ethnically diverse. After the fall of the USSR, Chechnya wanted to leave the Russian Federation. Dagestan did not. In 1994 Chechnya rebelled against Russian rule. They went to war. This “first war” with Chechnya lasted two years and proved to be a humiliating defeat for Russia. Despite its much larger size Russia was not able to control Chechnya. Yeltsin tried at least “to contain” the rebels, but was not successsful. The weakness of the Russian military was evident. Yeltsin signed a peace treaty with Chechnya in 1996.

Upon his appointment as Prime Minister, Putin immediately requested absolute and direct control over handling the Chechen problem. Yeltsin agreed. Chechen leader Shamil Basayev had declared he wanted to make neighboring Dagestan an Islamic State. The majority of the people in Dagestan, as it turned out, did not want to become an Islamic State. In August of 1999 when approximately 2,000 Chechen guerillas infiltrated the region, Putin responded quickly. He announced Russia would drive the Muslim terrorists out of Dagestan and pursue them into Chechnya. Putin ordered bombers and helicopter gunships to attack villages and locations where the rebels were known to be. The residents of Dagestan sided with the Russians. The rebels retreated, and Putin ordered his troops to stay in pursuit.

In response the terrorists carried out a series of car bombs. The first bomb was at an apartment in Dagestan where Russian troops were staying. Then there were two bomb attacks on apartments in Moscow and finally one in Volgodonsk (southern Russia). A total of 305 people (including children) were killed, and 846 were wounded. Putin stepped up the pressure in Chechnya and approved his general’s plan for total war. The rebels retreated to Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya. Putin ordered bombing raids. He received international criticism for these attacks, since obviously citizens were killed. Heretofore, the Islamic radicals had used withdrawing into a city as a means of neutralizing their opponent. The plan did not work with Putin. They were terrorists who had killed innocent Russians within the Russian Federation. After having been repeatedly questioned by the media about the bombing attacks on the city, Putin responded angrily to a reporter’s question: “We will go after (the terrorists) wherever they are. If, pardon me, we find them in the toilet, we’ll waste them in the outhouse.” By January the rebels abandoned Grozny. In doing so they fell into a trap set by the Russians for any fleeing militants. Several hundred more rebels were killed trying to escape the city.

Boris Yeltsin later said he considered Putin’s actions at the time political suicide. He indicated he knew Putin saw it the same way. It was as if he did not care that he would not have a political career afterwards, reflected Yeltsin. Putin was determined to defeat them because of what they had done to the citizens of Russia and Dagestan and believed it would prevent further attacks.

The pundits were wrong, however, about the impact his decisions would have on his political future. His popularity began to rise. In the fall his ratings went up into the 20-30% range. His handling of the crisis with the Chechens gave limited vindication to the reputation of a nation whose citizens had had very little to give them any sense of pride in quite some time.

putin in chechnya

Putin took over as president by appointment on January 1 and prepared for his first election ever, which would be in March. Putin hated campaigning and refused to do it in the traditional way. He brought in Dmitri Medvedev to run his campaign but refused to give “stump” speeches or do TV commercials. He made a rather raw remark to the effect that choosing a president was not on the level of deciding on “tampax or snickers.” The main way chosen to let people know more about him were “biographical interviews” aired on television and then in the print media. In addition to information on his background, he told people how bad he thought the problems were in Russia and what he was doing about them. According to surveys, two things impacted people greatly. First, he did what he said he would do in those first three months. He was the first politician who actually told them what he wanted to do and then showed what he was doing to accomplish those goals. Second, people sensed or believed he had not been sucked in by the corruption and intrigue which they had seen for over a decade in other politicians. When the election was held in March of 2000, Putin won by 53%.

PRIVATIZATION & CORRUPTION. After becoming president, Putin focused on the issue of “privatization” which began long before he became president. In general, privatization refers to the process of transferring assets from the government to the private sector. When Gorbachev came to power, the state (USSR) owned almost all the assets in the country. Gorbachev started market oriented reforms which allowed for some limited privatization to be enacted gradually. But perestroika was not an economic plan. Eventually, some joked perestroika had become “catastroika” (destruction, catastrophy). The process got corrupted early on. In general, those with power were able to take control of the large assets of the government. The more they accumulated, the more they were able to bribe whoever they needed to bribe to get even more. Further, they were often able to dodge any taxes on what they illegally obtained. Oil and gas companies were the primary foci of the corruption. The abuse really increased during Yeltsin’s years. At one point Yeltsin even told those in power, “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” So while the term sounds innocuous enough, it was poisonous for the Russian economy.

Putin wanted privatization to continiue but without being the domain of the oligarchs. Putin believed land and other assets should be available for private owndership, but he wanted all Russians to be able to participate. He also did not believe assets essential to the well-being of the country should be in the hands of these oligarchs who seemed focused only on their own profit margins. He set a course that would allow people to obtain their own apartments, land, farms, etc. He dealt with the oligarchs by agreeing that they were free to pursue their business interests, but, in turn, they had to stay out of politics. Further, he encouraged them to invest in Russia. Third, he simplified the tax code. He implemented a flat tax rate on income at 13%. He reduced the rate of corporate tax profit from 35% to 24%. He insisted, however, that there would be greater penalties if corporations or the oligarchs themselves sought to continue to dodge taxes or play politics. Once in February of 2003 Putin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, perhaps his main nemesis, had a rather sharp exchange in which Khodorskovsky implied Putin was corrupt. Putin responded, “Mr. Khodorkovsky, are you completely sure your taxes are in order?” He replied brazenly, “Absolutely.” Putin responded, “Well, that’s what we are going to find out.” Eventually it did not work out well for Mr. Khodorkovsky.

The result of monitoring the oligarchs and the simplification of the tax system were factors in the increase of the government revenues. There were other important factors as well. Oil prices continued to rise early in Putin’s presidency. That is always a good thing for the Russian economy. Further, the fact that farmers (and others) owned their land resulted in an increase of productivity. This fact supplemented the increase brought about by the main economic assets of Russia—gas and oil.

Additionally, there were events that negatively impacted Putin’s reputation. The sinking of the Kursk, Russia’s most modern submarine, in August of 2000 was perhaps the worst. Putin was briefed on the situation the morning after it happened, and his military advisers gave him a reassuring, albeit very inaccurate, report. They told him the Kursk had plenty of resources for survival. So Putin went ahead with a planned trip to Sochi. Eventually Russia could not get inside the vessel. On August 19 Norwegians arrived and got inside the vessel in 20 minutes. Obviously it was too late. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinksy, two oligarchs who did not care for Putin, controlled the TV news media and presented the news in the worst possible light for Putin. Putin’s popularity suffered.

Встреча В.Путина и М.Ходорковского в Кремле

CHANGES IN PAY/ECONOMY. The third issue Putin faced was maintaining the military and government services while also translating the government revenues into tangible help for the working class. After becoming president he increased pensions by 12% and then shortly thereafter by 20%. The average income in 2000 when Putin became president was 2,700 rubles; the average in 2012 when Putin last ran for president was 29,000. One reason the salary rate was so low in 2000 was because teachers, government workers, medical professionals and others went without pay for many months at a time. For example, last week my wife ran into the lady who taught her English when she was in high school. They began talking about the “old days,” and her teacher recalled how they went for months without pay in the 90s. She once taught six months in a public school without a paycheck. This was not uncommon. People did whatever they could to survive. After classes some teachers from Oksana’s school ran to the flea market to sell packages with imported tights – a part of the wardrobe coveted by many Russian women and girls, but scarce in the communist days. By the end of spring of Putin’s first year in office, all unpaid salaries had been paid.

Putin’s popularity continued to rise over the years. In 2004 he won by 70%. Putin could not serve as president in 2008 because of the constitutional restriction to two consecutive terms. After Dmitry Medvedev was president for one term (while Putin served as Prime Minister), Putin was re-elected in 2012 with 63% of the vote.

After having lived here and trying to familiarize myself with Russian attitudes as much as possible, there are things I see that cause misunderstanding on the part of Westerners, particularly Americans. We Americans tend to get very emotional about our leaders. It is often a love or hate relationship. After Hillary Clinton was defeated in 2016 there were many scenes on TV and in print media showing her followers openly weeping. Even looking at the reporters on CNN or MSNBC one could see the deep sense of personal loss felt by the news commentators. As one friend quipped to me, “Wow, you’d think their best dog just died.” Likewise, I have seen people get very emotional in their support of Donald Trump. If one says something negative about him, there is often a strong cry of offense. Clearly, Trump has been maligned by the majority of media types who just do not like him. The debate or the discussion then becomes heated and emotional. This scenario is how the majority of political “discussions” now take place in America. To a great extent in America, politics is being done at a visceral level.

Now, I’ve seen Russian newscasters and debaters get pretty excited and even shrill, but it is usually over issues or interpretations of the facts. Clearly there are exceptions, but most Russians I know personally or see on TV just do not get emotionally involved with Vladimir Putin either way. Some really like him; some don’t care for him. But when I read that Putin gets an 80% approval rating, I don’t interpret that as meaning 80% of Russians are in agreement with all he’s done or that they fawn over him and get a Chris Matthews’ “thrill going up the back of the leg” when he speaks. Most Russians I know see good points and bad points in Putin. Some I know who are generally favorable to him still think inflation has outrun pensions; many believe he does not give enough breaks to help out small businesses. On the whole, however, most think he does a good job on other fronts. So they look at the total picture and approve of the job he’s doing without being willfully blind to the flaws.

AMERICA AND PUTIN. The sanctions and the expansion east by NATO has strengthened Putin’s support in Russia. Since the first sanctions a few years ago his approval ratings have gone from the low 60s to the low 80s. Last week I was chatting with my friend Yuri. He was a physician in the Soviet navy. He is Ukrainian by birth and still travels home on rare occasions. He became a bit nostalgic about the old USSR days. He said, “We all got along. It was before the West came in and gave money to the Nazi supporters. They split us up. And health care…my patients did not worry about paying. We had free health care.” I thought he was going to tell me he really would like to return to a Communist leader. He continued, “Hal, do the American leaders not know how much they have done for Putin’s support? If it weren’t for Putin, the West would have destroyed our economy and moved their NATO troops within our borders. They want us at war with Ukraine.” Yuri supports Putin because he realizes the West wants global superiority, and he doesn’t want to risk a change in leadership. He’s not a fervant Putin supporter, but he believes Putin cares about the country and will stand up to Russia’s western adversaries.

Then a few days later we were riding back from church in a taxi. The cab driver somehow starting talking about politics and next month’s election. He said, “We have to have Putin as our leader. If it weren’t for him the West would have auctioned off our country by now. Listen to what they say about us. They want to destroy us. With someone else in power, they probably would.”

Biden’s plans are, because of his extreme ignorance and strong political ambitions, misguided and counterproductive. Since he knows nothing of Russia, he and those who share his uninformed views have ended up encouraging the very attitudes they would like to undermine. I pointed out in Part 2 of my response to Biden and Carpenter’s article that the sanctions have actually caused the Russian economy to diversify and flourish. Now Congress has had the U.S. Treasury compile a list of over 200 oligarchs (basically individuals worth over 1 billion dollars) and political leaders “close to Putin” evidently to prepare sanctions against them. Apparently it does not occur to these “Russophobes” that they may be driving these individuals to Putin. Many of them have invested heavily in the West. Putin has tried to get them to invest in Russia. Now they may have to. Even Mikhail Prokhorov is on the list. He is the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. He’s probably as pro-American as any Russian I know of. Yet he’s deemed “close to Putin”? So they want to drive his financial assets—well over a billion dollars—back into Russia? Good for Russia; bad for America. The short-sightedness and, well, stupidity of our Russian policies are amazing.

Putin himself is not driven by emotions. All kinds of verbal assaults have been thrown at him by Western leaders as I discussed in an earlier blog. He never responds in kind to what I have termed their juvenile attacks. He maintains the air of a diplomat. He sets the tone for political discussion here. Until there is a return to informed diplomacy in America, I am sure Putin’s political base is secure. This is not because Russians are foolish or gullible or evil. It is because American leaders ignore authentic and informed diplomacy and continue to allow the “deep state” neocons and neo-interventionist liberals to lead us further down a path of destruction.

ADDENDUM: After writing my last blog on Putin and mentioning charges of corruption I came across this article by Sharon Tennison, who has extensive knowledge of Russia and how things get done here. She lived and worked in Russia for many years and has done much to foster good relations between Americans and Russians. The article makes her experience and research clear on the subject. https://consortiumnews.com/2018/02/06/understanding-russia-un-demonizing-putin/

 

 

Advertisements

VLADIMIR PUTIN: FROM THE KGB TO THE PRESIDENCY

In my last blog I wrote about the early years of Vladimir Putin, addressing particularly his parents’ early life and struggles as well as his own. I ended with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of his time as a KGB administrator in Dresden, Germany. I mentioned my “target audience” was the Western, mostly American, readers who are unaware of much of Putin other than what they read in the daily news. I was gratified to hear from a number of such readers who told me that they appreciated the entry because they knew almost nothing about Putin’s past. It was also good to hear from readers outside the West who already knew the details but had positive things to say about the review. So in this current blog I’ll pick up where I left off. I’ll summarize the years between his departure from Germany and his rise to the presidency of the Russian Federation. “Russiagate” just will not go away in America, and even this week John McCain found a way to interpret the uproar over the releasing of “the memo” as doing Putin’s “work for him.” The caricature of Putin continues, so I think it important to offer another, and I believe more accurate, portrayal.

When Putin left Germany in 1990 he was offered a position at a strategic office of the KGB in Moscow. He turned it down for a lesser position in Leningrad. Leningrad was his hometown, and his parents, who still lived there, were now aged and their health was declining. His work was at Leningrad State University. While his “official” job was in the special affairs department for the Dean of the university, actually he was monitoring foreign students and their documents and relationships with Russian students for the KGB. While there his name was given to Anatoly Sobchak, who had been a law professor at the university while Putin was there. Sobchak was a democrat who would go on to be mayor of St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and become quite an influential politician. He was a very impressive speaker who broadcast lectures on democratizing on Leningrad TV. More than one source says he became the most well known politician in Russia after Yeltsin. Putin had been a pupil of Sobchak’s when he was a student there, but it isn’t clear that Sobchak remembered him.

Sobchak, based on the recommendation and a personal meeting, asked Putin to be an advisor. Putin was hesitant for two related reasons: First, Sobchak had said some pretty nasty things about the KGB. Was he sure he wanted a KGB officer to advise him? Second, what would the KGB think of Putin advising Sobchak? Sobchak assured Putin there was no problem. With KGB approval, Putin became an advisor to the democratic Sobchak while continuing his other work with the KGB.

That situation would soon change, however. The KGB backed a coup attempt on Gorbachev in August of 1991. As soon as Putin learned of it, he resigned his KGB appointment in a rather quiet protest. Fortunately, the coup failed. Sobchak offered Putin a full-time position, and Putin accepted. With all his charisma and insight, Sobchak preferred to leave the administrative work to former government workers.

Some question how it is that Putin could work for someone who had been so vocal in his opposition to Communism and the KGB. As I mentioned in my last blog, Putin was a man of the 70s, a part of a generation consisting of many who never felt a great affection for or devotion to Communism. A former colleague in Dresden has recounted the negative things Putin said about the Communist leaders of that time. After he returned to Russia and saw how bad things had become for the people there, his feelings grew even stronger. He saw the economy no longer worked. Good, hard working people had nothing. The military was a shadow of its former self. The health care system was in horrible shape. He no longer believed in Communism at all.

The significant point that we Westerners often miss is that Putin and many others, e.g., Sobchak himself, distinguished between Communism and the USSR. They wanted to replace Communism with democracy—a “Soviet” democracy. That does not mean they wanted the dissolution of the USSR. The Soviet Union was a UNION of 15 interdependent republics. In the USSR they did not function individually. Some readers may recall that I said Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s “Man in Moscow,” stated in a recent interview that he and others did not want to see the dissolution of the USSR. The republics, they feared, were totally unprepared and would fall into the hands of a few tyrants. The question we cannot answer is what would a democratic Soviet Union have “looked like” or how would it have functioned. We will never know.

One of the interesting questions that some scholars have investigated is how is it that the Soviet Union fell apart so quickly. If there were “true believers” in charge in Moscow, how did the break up come so abruptly? What happened is exactly what Matlock, and others within Russia, feared. Leaders, like Yeltsin and others who had no commitment to the greater good of all, came to power. Corruption became rampant throughout the former republics, which were now nations on their own. The former leaders and others with financial resources exploited the resources as best they could. They didn’t mind dissolving the USSR because they became extremely rich. The truth is that the dissolution of the nation into 15 nations was not by the “guiding hands of an enlightened NATO” as Joe Biden would have us believe. It was a massive power grab. The collapse of the USSR was a horrible catastrophe for millions of people. They descended into an economic and existential nightmare. Twenty-five million Russians were now living outside their own country. Again, the important point is that many like Putin did not want Communism to continue, but they did want the USSR to continue. He commends Gorbachev for recognizing the need for drastic change, but he does not believe Gorbachev had the skills to carry out the change in the right way.

Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Federation in June of 1991. At first he had a working relationship with Sobchak for whom Putin still worked. Putin, as in his days with the KGB, earned the reputation of a hard worker who was not afraid to take on tasks requiring a great deal of meticulous work. He also had to be decisive in handling very different groups. Many still adhered to the old Communist system and ideology. At one point a number of Communists, who worked in one of the newer government buildings in Leningrad, flew the old Hammer and Sickle flag of the Communist days over their building. Putin sent workers to take the flag down. The next day, a new Hammer and Sickle went up. Putin again ordered his workers to take it down. The same thing happened the next day. Putin ordered his workers to go with a crane and cut down the flag pole. It’s a rather humorous anecdote, but it showed the kinds of things Putin did to show his determination.

Sobchak was a different leader, however, after he had power. The corrupt practice of accumulating personal wealth proved to be too great a temptation. Crime ruled in St. Petersburg. (The official name change to St. Petersburg when Sobchak was elected.) The economy was going horribly across the country, and St. Petersburg was suffering as well. The city council tried to get rid of Sobchak in 1993, but Yeltsin came to his rescue and dissolved the council. Still, investigations began into Sobchak’s financial matters. He was widely seen as dishonest. He was defeated in a run-off in May of 1996, despite the fact Bill Clinton came to town in support of Sobchak. Putin was now out of a job. He hung around his office for a few days, but then was told very sternly it was time to clear out.

Putin was extremely disappointed at the loss. He had been named with Sobchak in some of the corruption charges but nothing was ever proved against him. He was charged publicly for corruption, but countersued for libel and won. Now he had no job, however, and his loyalty to Sobchak left him with no options to continue in government work. He and his wife invited his former secretary and her husband over to their dacha to relax and have a meal. Putin referred to it as a “wake” over his lost work. His assistant’s husband and Putin went out to the banya, a steam room located adjacent to the house (very common in Russia). After the steam bath the two men went for a swim in the nearby pond. Suddenly they saw smoke. Putin ran back toward the house. There had been a spark from or small explosion in the furnace of the banya, and the fire reached the house. Putin rushed in the dark house, which was filled with smoke, and lowered his two young daughters to safety. Then he went upstairs to retrieve a briefcase containing their life savings. Firemen arrived quickly, but they had no water. Putin told them to get the water from the lake. They replied they had no hose. Everything burned to the ground.

After the fire they found the money was unharmed. It was $5,000. Putin’s friend later said he was shocked that Putin had been a bureaucrat for so many years and only had $5,000. People at much lower levels in city government had accumulated far more personal wealth than that. The other surprise was for Putin. The fireman sifted through the rubble, but only found one thing unharmed. When Putin had gone with Sobchak back in 1993 to Jerusalem, his mother had given him a small aluminum cross to have blessed at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Putin marvelled that the little aluminum cross had withstood the heat and flames of the buildings burning to the ground. He took it as a sign of hope and committed to wearing it every day.

Putin’s glimmer of hope was quickly realized in the form of certain people who worked in the Yeltsin administration and knew him (Putin) from his work under Sobchak. Sobchak and Yeltsin were no longer allies, but earlier when Yeltsin was running for re-election Putin had worked with people from his re-election campaign in St. Petersburg. Three days after the dacha fire Yeltsin’s Prime Minster appointed a cabinet which consisted of a former city council member from St. Petersburg. Eventually someone convinced him to reach out to Putin as someone who could work in legal matters. So Putin and his family moved to Moscow, he began work in the Yeltsin administration. His wife came to love living in Moscow, but Putin flew back to Petersburg every Friday to visit his parents as long as they lived.

Putin settled in to the task of dealing with corruption. That was a very messy business, because there was a LOT of corruption, and Putin had to be careful not to “ruffle the wrong feathers.” It was a horrible time for Russia. The Russian stock market collapsed in 1998. Russia could not process oil cheap enough to make any profit from sales. The outlook was bleak.

Putin went through three jobs in the Yeltsin administration in three years. He did not know Yeltsin when he moved to Moscow. As he had everywhere he had worked Putin gained a reputation for doing jobs that were difficult and required long hours. On July 27, 1998 he became the Director of the FSB, which was essentially the Russian Federation version of the KGB. Again, he set about to combat corruption and streamline the system. Then, in another surprise move, on August 9, 1999 Putin was appointed Prime Minister and approved on August 16. He was the fifth Prime Minister appointed by Yeltsin in the last 15 months. He was a political unknown, and almost no one believed he would last any longer than the others. Yeltsin had decided, however, he would resign the Presidency. He told Putin he wanted to appoint him President for the New Year. He would have to run for election within three months. Putin initially told him he did not think he was ready or qualified to be president. Eventually, after more conversations, he agreed to Yeltsin’s plan.

Why did Boris Yeltsin choose to turn over the presidency of the Russian Federation to Vladimir Putin, a man he did not really know that well? Yeltsin’s later reflections indicate two main reasons.

First, Putin’s old boss, Anatoly Sobchak was linked with more corruption charges which had, oddly enough, originated in the middle of Yeltsin’s anti-corruption campaign. Virtually no one came to Sobchak’s defense, and he and Yeltsin no longer got along at all. In October 1997 armed guards showed up and brought him in as a material witness in a big corruption case. He was being questioned in the prosecutor’s office when he complained of chest pains. He was taken to the hospital and his wife reported he had had a heart attack, though some doubted her story. He remained in the hospital for a month. Putin heard of his old boss’s dilemma. He arranged funds, papers, and an airplane to fly Sobchak to Finland to a hospital there. Putin called on old friends in law enforcement to get him to the airport and on the plane. Technically, Sobchak had the proper documents, e.g., passport, etc., to leave the country. He was officially under investigation, however. It was not clear if Putin had broken the law or not. What impressed Yeltsin was that Putin was willing to risk his career to help his old boss. That was a degree of loyalty he rarely—if ever—had seen. He admitted to being deeply impressed.

Second, Yeltsin had originally thought Putin was distant or rather cool in his manner. He was impressed with Putin’s work, but Putin always relayed the pertinent information and nothing more. Over time, Yeltsin began to see what others had seen. Putin was not a careerist. He did not try to endear himself to the boss. He would stand or fall on the merits of his work. Putin did not play political games. He was forthright and spoke what he saw as the truth. Putin was what Allen Lynch called a “first rate second rate man.” He saw his job as helping his superiors look good. When he was given orders either by Sobchak or Yeltsin, he carried out his orders without drawing attention to himself. When I was in the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 70s we had a saying: “Ours is not to reason why, but simply to do or die.” I get the impression Putin carried much the same motto.

Did his loyalty ever bleed over into joining in the corruption? Some said yes, but even the chair of one committee who investigated Putin said she thought Putin must have been corrupt, but she could find no proof of it. Obviously the ethical waters were very murky. Corruption abounded in the 90s in Russia. I doubt it was possible to be completely separate from it. I’ve worked in relatively pure waters and still found complete honesty was often a very “fuzzy” thing. One man who became a later opponent of Putin was Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky had worked with Sobchak, but went on to head Aeroflot and other businesses. Berezovsky said one time he wanted to start a new car dealership quickly and without questions in St. Petersburg. He did what he always did: offered a bribe to the official in charge. Putin was the man. Berezovsky said, “He was the first bureaucrat not to take bribes…Seriously, it made a huge impression on me.”

Both Yeltsin and Putin kept their “deal” about Putin becoming President a secret until the last day of the year. Yeltsin taped his New Years Eve midnight speech privately and no one saw it other than those who taped it until it was shown on TV. Even Putin’s wife did not know about it. When someone called to congratulate her, she thought it was just a New Years day greeting. So as January 1, 2000 dawned on Russia, the country had for a new president a man who had never run for office.

putin and elcin