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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-Putin Adviser Shares Doubts

A year after she helped Vladimir Putin become president, the deputy chief of his campaign staff says she has few regrets but nevertheless has started harboring some anxieties about her country's future under Putin.

In an interview published Monday in the newspaper Kommersant, Ksenia Ponomaryova — once general director of ORT television and a close ally of Boris Berezovsky — gives a glimpse into the way people behind the scenes brought the president to power.

Ponomaryova joined the team of Putin's campaign advisers in the months before former President Boris Yeltsin resigned in December 1999 and designated Putin, his prime minister, as his heir.

Reminiscing about the time she spent on "Project Putin" — as the effort to get him elected was called — Ponomaryova says there was hardly any need for a campaign at all because of Putin's overwhelming popularity.

"The campaign was conducted out of decency," she said. "It would have be offensive for the electorate had there been no campaign at all."

The question that bothered most of Russia's foreign partners and parts of its own political elite — "Who is Mr. Putin?" — didn't seem to bother his election staff much. "We generally understood that, even if the Russian people didn't really know who Putin was, they didn't need to know it that much," Ponomaryova said.

"People were satisfied with 'rubbing out the bandits in the outhouse,'" she said, quoting one of Putin's most controversial phrases, which he used on the eve of the latest war in Chechnya to describe the way federal forces would deal with Chechen rebels.

Ponomaryova said the phrase was "Putin's own," adding that as a rule it was difficult to make him say what he didn't feel like saying. "He was not a particularly flexible client," she said. "Yeltsin, for instance, when you convinced him, liked to act and was able to do it. Putin is different."

Another of Putin's own contributions to his election campaign were the trips he took on various military vehicles — from submarines to MiG fighter planes.

"The wish to enter any kind of machine, whether it flew, sailed or drove — that was him. It was his wish," Ponomaryova said. "We were there to try to stop him: You already flew, you already tried on all the suits and uniforms, put on all the helmets — it's enough."

His wife, Lyudmilla, on the other hand, was supposed to stay in the shadows, and Putin made that clear to his campaign staff, Ponomaryova said.

In the end, she said, the country got "a president who can work," but who is not flawless and can make mistakes, some of which the former presidential PR adviser finds "depressing."

The biggest problem Ponomaryova sees is with the Kremlin's economic policy, which she described as "completely helpless." Chechnya, on the other hand "is not as depressing" since "it was hopeless from the very start."

Another problem is the "rigid agenda" Putin sets for himself. "If a problem is not on that agenda, he waves it away, refuses to see it, pretends it's not there," Ponomaryova said. "That scares me a bit."

But she is not scared of the thing that makes most of Russia's liberal elite anxious — the state of the media a year after Putin's victory.

The president, Ponomaryova said, came to power in a "paradoxical way," and thus "he doesn't have the thick skin that every public politician should develop.

"And do you know what is going on in his relations with the press? He is no enemy of free speech. He simply finds absurd the idea that somebody has the right to criticize him publicly."