Yeltsin's successor?

Russia: Intimate with reformers, spymaster Vladimir Putin is tough on rebellious separatists.

August 10, 1999

RUSSIAN President Boris N. Yeltsin is so erratic in his behavior that questions may be raised whether Vladimir Putin is truly his final choice for the next Kremlin leader. Even so, Mr. Putin, 47, has outstanding qualifications to rule unruly, corrupt and disorganized Russia, if it comes to that.

His espionage activities in Germany and leadership of the Federal Security Service -- the main successor of the KGB -- have given Mr. Putin a good understanding of the modern world outside Russia.

His work as the first deputy to St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak put him in close contact with all of Russia's reformist politicians. A tireless administrator, he was willing to stay out of the limelight and earned the nickname "gray cardinal."

His tenure as head of the Control Department gave him a good idea about the complaints and aspirations of the 89 regions he oversaw and their leaders. He quickly forged a reputation as a tough "imperialist," who preached and practiced Kremlin supremacy against regional interests and ethnic separatists.

"He will be able to unite around himself those who are to renew Great Russia in the new 21st century," President Yeltsin said of Mr. Putin on national television.

That is a tall order made tougher still by a crisis brewing in Dagestan, a mountainous region adjoining rebellious Chechnya.

Before he was so unceremoniously fired by President Yeltsin, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin had just returned from the conflict area and said Russia may end up losing Dagestan. That clearly is not the kind of talk the president wants to hear.

That's why Mr. Yeltsin called in the "gray cardinal" and "imperialist" to deal with the situation.

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