Russians see Putin as prince to bring back nation's glories

Incumbent's popularity with voters arises from strong hand in Chechnya

March 26, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KOLOMNA, Russia -- Battles for Russia's future have been fought on this spot just outside Moscow ever since 1238, when the youngest son of Genghis Khan swept through, claiming the town for the Mongol hordes as he galloped toward Moscow.

From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, the future is once again at stake. Rather than hurling vats of scalding water and boiling pitch to repulse a conqueror, the people of Kolomna and their fellow Russians are taking up the arms of democracy, stuffing pieces of paper into ballot boxes to choose a president.

Even so, they continue to hope for a prince to ride out of Moscow, 100 miles to the north, and rescue them from the misery that has accompanied the latest destruction of empire -- the Soviet one. Like many of the princes of old, this one is named Vladimir -- Vladimir V. Putin.

Whether he turns out to be a princely savior, as his supporters assert he will, or a rapacious khan, as his critics suspect, one thing seems clear: Putin has won Russia's voters.

According to all the polls and predictions, the 47-year-old acting president and former KGB agent will easily defeat his 10 challengers and win the election, probably on the first round today, and certainly in a runoff, if one is necessary.

Putin is considered certain to become the second democratically elected president in Russia's history, successor to President Boris N. Yeltsin, elected in 1991 and 1996.

"People want the next president to restore Russia to its former powerful status," says Olga Shunikhina, who writes about social issues for the local paper, Kolomenskaya Pravda. "We expect Putin to win."

Putin's deep appeal is difficult to understand in a way. Until Yeltsin named him prime minister in August, few knew his name outside his native St. Petersburg. He had joined the KGB after graduating from law school in 1975 and worked there until 1990. He joined the Kremlin administration in 1996 and became head of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, in July 1998.

Then Yeltsin plucked him out of obscurity, not only making him prime minister but declaring him the favored presidential successor. At the time, the idea of Putin as president seemed absurd. The former KGB agent was distinguished more by his cold eyes and colorless personality than by political acumen or charisma.

How could Russians vote for a man who had so eagerly joined and loyally served the KGB, the agency that had terrorized the nation for decades?

"It's all about Chechnya," says Svetlana Vorobyova, walking near the wall of the Kolomna Kremlin, the city's 16th-century fortress.

Vorobyova, who is 18, will vote for the first time today and plans to vote for Putin. Like many voters, she hasn't been aware of much campaigning. Though tattered posters from December's aggressively fought parliamentary election cling to buildings, no banners, billboards or posters advertise the presidential candidates. The candidates advertise on television, except for Putin, who rejected the free time guaranteed by law.

He had no reason to make a video, he said, when people could see him at work and judge him on his merits. And he wasn't going to demean himself by packaging himself like a store item, he said.

"These videos are like advertising," Putin said this month. "You don't need to know during the middle of an election campaign whether Tampax or Snickers are better."

But Putin had a singular, gruesome advantage. In September, two high-rise apartment buildings in Moscow and one in southern Russia were blown up, killing more than 200 people.

"I was terrified," says Vorobyova.

The authorities, led by Prime Minister Putin, blamed the bombings on Chechen terrorists. At the time, shortly after an incursion of Chechen fighters into Dagestan in southern Russia, the explanation seemed logical. But no solid evidence has been produced that Chechens were responsible.

Nevertheless, panic-stricken Russians, imagining they were about to be blown up in their homes, supported Putin as he ordered waves of soldiers into Chechnya, the Islamic republic that had tried to break free of Russia in a 1994-1996 war.

"Under Yeltsin, the problem only got worse," Vorobyova says. "Putin has started to settle it in a much quicker way. It's important to win this war and resolve the problem with Chechnya."

Otherwise, she says, there will only be more of the kidnappings and lawlessness that ensued when Russia effectively lost the first war and withdrew, without agreeing to Chechen freedom.

As Putin began to look strong, decisive and, above all, healthy, the ailing Yeltsin astonished the nation. In one of the theatrical touches he loves, Yeltsin resigned the presidency New Year's Eve, instead of finishing his term, which would have expired in June. He made Putin acting president, with all the advantages of incumbency.

Putin soon became all things to all people.

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