Putin's past may point to repression

Russia's acting president led spy agency, never has run for an office

January 02, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Vladimir V. Putin was making a little joke. Addressing a group of top security officials during a celebration two weeks ago marking the anniversary of the founding of Russia's "special services," he told them that they had succeeded at last in their mission to penetrate the corridors of power.

The prime minister was referring to himself -- a former agent of the KGB, one-time director of its successor, the Federal Security Service, and since August the No. 2 figure in the government after Boris N. Yeltsin.

It was a joke, of course, because there was nothing surreptitious about Putin's ascension to power; he had been appointed by Yeltsin and approved by the parliament precisely as the law requires.

Today, he is president of the Russian Federation -- having had the job handed to him Friday by a retiring Yeltsin.

Some people here view his promotion as the crowning moment in the resurgence of the KGB (everyone here still calls it by its old name). Others believe him to be a representative of its most progressive wing and, moreover, a tough leader who could be Russian democracy's best bulwark against a Communist comeback.

But in either case he is a product of a system and an organization that puts its stamp on all who work for it.

"In Russia," Sergei Grigoryants, chairman of the Glasnost Fund, said yesterday, "once you're in, you don't leave the KGB."

"It's as though they go through obedience school," said Nikita Petrov, a historian, "and after that, they cannot break the umbilical cord."

What kind of politician can Putin be, asked Petrov, when he was "raised by a secret, closed service"? Where is his experience debating, persuading, making deals, forging compromises?

Indeed, Putin has never run for office. In his four months as prime minister he never had to engage in serious politicking with the parliament. Even his defenders acknowledge that he is not an open person.

"The most frightening thing is that we don't know much about him," said Natalya Gevorkyan, a specialist on the KGB who writes for Kommersant newspaper.

Putin, 47, went to work for the KGB in what was then Leningrad in 1975, and nine years later moved to East Germany to work in intelligence. He was recalled in 1990 and reportedly resigned in 1991 as a colonel.

He spent the next few years working with liberal reformers -- including Anatoly A. Sobchak, then the mayor of St. Petersburg (the renamed Leningrad) -- and in July 1998 Yeltsin appointed him head of the FSB, a retired colonel giving orders to generals.

Putin kept that post, working largely out of the public eye, until Yeltsin picked him as his last prime minister in August.

There are different kinds of people in the KGB, and it's unfair not to distinguish among them, said Gevorkyan, whose father was in the agency. When Putin took command, she said, "he was concerned that he had to change the whole atmosphere. He got rid of the most ridiculous and most orthodox people there."

It suggests that he has shed the old Soviet ways. "But we don't know anything, exactly, about him," she said.

And, judging by Putin's own words, it is clear he hasn't turned on the past entirely.

"Several years ago," he told the assembled security chiefs at that celebratory occasion, "we fell prey to an illusion that we have no enemies. We have paid dearly for this. Russia has its own national interests, and we have to defend them."

This remark, said Petrov, is typical of traditional KGB thinking, which sees the world through the prism of "ours" and "not ours."

Even as prime minister, said Grigoryants, Putin seemed to relish the way the war in Chechnya has pitted Russia against the rest of the world. It has served to draw lines in the sand, maybe even bestowed on Russia some of the sense of purity that comes with isolation.

Putin was not the first KGB veteran to become prime minister in the new Russia; Yevgeny M. Primakov and Sergei V. Stepashin preceded him. Primakov, in particular, brought KGB people into the government, many of whom have stayed.

There's no question, most analysts believe, that the KGB has been flexing its muscles in recent years, probing, pushing to see how far it can go.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was pressure for reform of the agency, but nothing came of it.

"If strict parliamentary oversight had been established, along with judicial review, real change might have been possible," wrote Yevgenia Albats in her book, "State Within a State." "But nothing of the sort happened.

"Rather, we must understand that the KGB was -- and in a way still is -- one of the most powerful and important components of the oligarchy that ran the U.S.S.R., and still runs Russia."

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