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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rutskoi: The Vice President Who Cuts His Own Path

In his two years as vice president and next in line to rule Russia, Alexander Rutskoi has been labeled a nationalist and a diehard opponent of radical economic reform, two tags which have set off alarm bells in the West.

He has defended Russian-speaking separatists in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova and called for Russia to reassert herself as a great power.

He has also vehemently opposed President Boris Yeltsin's economic reforms, calling his team of radical young economists "bandits".

"Rutskoi has shown a real lack of understanding of what economic reform is all about", said a Western diplomat. "To see a man like Rutskoi as president would put in jeopardy the reforms and Western investment so far".

But the distinguishing characteristic of the man who would become president should Yeltsin decide to step down is that he carves his own path through Russia's turbulent political spectrum.

Neither a Communist to the Communists nor a reformer to the reformers, Rutskoi, 45, an air force general and hero of the Afghan War, is guided by the values and habits of his military past.

His years in the military have fostered a strong sense of patriotism that borders on nationalism.

He apparently opposes radical free-market reforms because their chaotic flavor clashes with his reputed longing for military-style order and discipline. He teamed up with similarly skeptical politicians to found the powerful Civic Union coalition of factory directors, collective farm heads and others.

Like a true military man, Rutskoi insists that he is personally loyal to his superior, the president. Yet he has broken with Yeltsin, and accused members of the government of embezzlement and corruption.

The two men have not spoken since early April, according to Rutskoi's political adviser, Andrei Fyodorov.

Rutskoi's accusations of corruption appeared to claim their first victim on Thursday, when Public Prosecutor Valentin Stepankov said he had evidence that Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had abused his position in a swindle involving the property of former Soviet troops in Germany.

Rated at one time last year as more popular than Yeltsin, Rutskoi now maintains a steady place in the polls behind the president as the country's second most popular politician.

At a time of confusion and turmoil throughout society, his straightforward manner has proved appealing, and is likely to give weight to his allegations of corruption.

Rutskoi's words and conduct reflect a man who spent more than two decades climbing his way up through the ranks of the Soviet armed forces.

The charismatic vice president is known best for his heroics in the Afghan War, where he was shot down twice, the second time while serving as deputy air force commander in 1988.

Captured by Afghan rebels, he was quickly released and was promptly made a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor awarded in military service.

In some senses, he is also a modern man. Before joining the air force, he trained in restoring sculptures at the Lvov art school. His wife, Lyudmila - a fashion designer - is now the principal breadwinner in the family. "Just like Hillary Clinton", said Fyodorov.

Fyodorov believes that the vice president's image was boosted by his stoic response to the loss of his bulletproof Mercedes and bodyguards last week - taken away in an apparent attempt to humiliate him for criticizing the president.

"He knew this was done to push him to go to the president and beg him to return the car", Fyodorov said. "But it's not in his principles. It is not his tradition to ask for things".

Rutskoi, who never said a word about the incident, now travels around in a simple Volga with one bodyguard and a radio telephone. He would like to be on speaking terms again with the president, Fyodorov said, "but it is not his style to beg at the door".

Rutskoi has deepened the rift with Yeltsin by publicly declaring that he may decide to run against him in the next elections for president. As head of state, his priority would be to "try to rebuild the national economy and restore the country's place as a great power in the world", according to Fyodorov.

Rutskoi's energy would be focused inward, Fyodorov said, on streamlining Russia's burgeoning bureaucracy, and wiping out corruption, a project which he has already undertaken as head of the State Committee on Corruption.

"He would be very tough on the bureaucracy", Fyodorov said. "In this sense he would be military in his actions".

The fighting between the president and vice president has caused alarm in some circles, but Fyodorov said that for a team representing different political parties, the differences are perfectly normal.

"This is not the Western system, when the president and vice president are elected from the same party", he said. "The vice president should be respected as well".