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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Repackaged Right Down to His Hair

lehtikuvaSergei Ivanov's diplomatic ID card on file at the Finnish Foreign Ministry. He served as a secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki from 1984 to 1990.
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of profiles of possible presidential candidates.

KEMEROVO -- They must be Russia's busiest men these days.

Acting First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov has been meeting workers, inspecting mines and opening sports complexes across the country. And for every move he makes in front of state television cameras, acting First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev seems to be vying for similar coverage with a jam-packed schedule of his own.

The difference between the two, both seen as leading presidential candidates, is that only one is being groomed to succeed President Vladimir Putin, political commentators said.

That person is Ivanov.

"The play has been written, and those who wrote it know the script," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who tracks Kremlin politics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Ivanov is the No. 2 person in the country."

The sudden resignation of the government and nomination of a little-known technocrat as prime minister Wednesday appeared to support the notion that it is too early for Putin to announce his favored successor. While many in the government were caught off guard by the nomination, Ivanov wasn't.

"He absolutely didn't look like a person who felt disappointed," said Ariel Cohen, an analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation who attended a meeting of foreign experts with Ivanov hours after news of the shake-up broke.

In recent months, public opinion polls consistently have named Ivanov as the favorite to succeed Putin in the March presidential election. He's even considered the top bet by major foreign bookmakers such as Britain's Unibet.

People in Ivanov's inner circle are keeping a close watch on his image, right down to his popularity among bookmakers. "This causes nothing but a smile," an Ivanov aide said of the betting.

Ivanov's camp has good reason to smile. In a matter of months, he has made the difficult transition from a tough-talking, sour-faced defense minister to a silver-tongued, meticulously dressed darling of the electorate.

Sergei Borisovich Ivanov

Born: Jan. 31, 1953

Place of Birth: Leningrad

Education: Leningrad State University, philological degree; attended KGB classes in Minsk and at School No. 101 of the 1st Main Directorate of the KGB (currently the Academy of Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation)

Advantages: Very close to Putin; perceived neutrality; experience living abroad.

Disadvantages: Hazing in the army that he did not seem to curtail under his watch. One of his sons went unpunished after his car hit and killed an elderly woman in Moscow in 2005.

Notable Quotes: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. Private or state holdings, it doesn't really matter." Quoting Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping at an April news conference

"Shortly before his death, Andrei Sakharov said the only organization that commanded his respect was KGB. Do you trust this man's opinion?" Interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2000

"Vladimir Vladimirovich knows what I am capable of, obviously trusts me, and I try to make the grade, so to speak." Interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda, 2000

Buffing Ivanov's Image

The transformation got off to a bad start, and at least one Russian reporter learned the hard way that covering Ivanov can be a risky business. The reporter's mistake was that she reported Ivanov's comments about Private Andrei Sychyov, whose legs and genitals were amputated following a hazing in January 2006. Asked about the incident during a Jan. 26 trip to Armenia, Ivanov, then defense minister, dismissed it as "nothing very serious."

"Otherwise, I would have surely known about it," he said in comments carried by RIA-Novosti, the only news agency that reported the statement.

The quote came at the worst possible time. Medvedev, who had been made first deputy prime minister just two months before, was basking in the media spotlight with promises to allocate money to schools and hospitals as part of his portfolio of overseeing the four national projects. Ivanov, already competing for media time with Medvedev, came across to the public as a callous, heartless tyrant.

"Everybody was outraged. Ivanov was ostensibly outraged," said the RIA-Novosti reporter, who had covered Ivanov for two years. "For me, of course, it was my last trip."

Pyotr Pudov / Itar-Tass
Ivanov climbing down from a BelAZ truck during a visit to the Kemerovo region last month. He gave the driver a watch.
The reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue, said she had called in the quote because it "seemed interesting to me."

Following her expulsion from Ivanov's closely knit pool of journalists, RIA-Novosti sent her on a three-month stint abroad before bringing her back to Moscow to cover a different beat.

More important, the incident appears to have sped up a looming shuffle in the Ivanov camp. Sergei Rybakov, who had handled media coverage for Ivanov, was moved to an analytical position, and officials from the presidential administration took over his duties.

Ivanov's handlers are striving to make sure the public sees Ivanov in the best possible light. They keep a close eye on his media engagements, his adherence to protocol and his interactions with ordinary people. Those who know him say they have noticed improvements -- right down to his blond hair.

"When he was at the Defense Ministry, he had a horrible haircut," the RIA-Novosti reporter said. "Today it's an ideal coiffure."

On the Campaign Trail?

Like Putin, Ivanov also has grown media savvy. On a visit to an open pit mine in the Kemerovo region last month, Ivanov whipped off his jacket and climbed into a giant, 130-ton BelAZ truck. He presented its driver with a watch, started the engine and let it idle for a few minutes. Television reporters asked him afterward whether he had enjoyed the experience.

"The driver has the same name as me, Sergei, and said he has driven it for 10 years and likes it," Ivanov replied with a smile.

A day earlier, Ivanov made a beeline for a waiting camera crew and reporters after his Il-62 jet touched down at the Kemerovo city airport. En route, he asked a spokesman for the regional administration, "Can I go up [to them]?" Apparently receiving an affirmative signal, Ivanov turned on the charm.

Ivanov's aide denied that posing for cameras and frequent trips across the country had anything to do with the presidential election. "These are routine working trips. If it were the campaign trail, it would have a different format," said the aide, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the inner workings of Ivanov's staff. He said he joined the team a couple months before Ivanov's promotion from the Defense Ministry to first deputy prime minister in February. He declined to disclose his previous position.

He described Ivanov's conversations with ordinary people as spontaneous. "Everybody expects us to interact with the people," he said.

Ivanov's trips, however, are anything but spontaneous. Each flower-laying ceremony, factory visit and sports complex opening appears to be managed down to the minute with what Ivanov's team calls "scenarios," or detailed programs. Ivanov has a regular routine: He speaks strictly with plant directors and regional officials and shows an interest in people's lives and hardships, the aide said. Ivanov avoids people with a serflike mentality. "When people say, 'Everything is fine,' he frowns, wraps up a conversation and quickly leaves," the aide said.

Ordinary people have no illusions about why Ivanov is visiting their hometowns.

"This is the start of the election campaign," Tatyana Komarova said as she watched Ivanov attend the recent opening of a sports complex in Nizhny Novgorod.

Many people interviewed during Ivanov's recent trips to the Kemerovo and Nizhny Novgorod regions were filled with praise for him.

Sergei Folyak, the 35-year-old BelAZ driver who received the watch as a gift, said he liked Ivanov and would vote for him. He said Ivanov was "a man of few words."

Natalya Maslova, a teacher from Nizhny Novgorod, also said Ivanov was her preferred candidate. "He always behaves competently," she said. "He knows the situation in the country."

A few people said they had not decided how to vote but felt like they had little choice. Sergei Nagornov, of Nizhny Novgorod, looked puzzled when asked about his choice. "We know this: It will be either Ivanov or Medvedev," he finally said, chuckling.

A Fake Contest

The notion that Medvedev is competing against Ivanov is exactly what the Kremlin wants people to believe, said Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst with U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "This is a sham competition," she said.

In the absence of free and democratic elections, the semblance of a contest between the two top officials is helping Putin keep the whole country in suspense and making it more difficult for various Kremlin clans to rally around a single candidate, she said. "Somebody has devised an ingenious plan," she said, adding that television officials were trying to give Medvedev and Ivanov roughly equal airtime.

Or so it would seem.

Media monitoring company Medialogia says Ivanov is getting more airtime on national television, which is all state controlled. The company found that from November to August, Ivanov received 2,178 mentions on television, while Medvedev got just 1,621.

Television is expected to play a deciding factor in who will be elected president, perhaps explaining why Medvedev trails Ivanov in the opinion polls. Some people vote with their hearts, but Russians "have grown another body organ, and it is called television," said Boris Dubov, a senior researcher at the Levada Center, an independent polling agency.

Kryshtanovskaya, of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the Kremlin was further increasing the suspense between Ivanov and Medvedev by throwing other senior officials into the electoral ring, including acting Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin and Rosoboronexport head Sergei Chemezov, and now prime minister designate Viktor Zubkov. Most of the officials have been getting prominent coverage on television.

Although some of the officials have ambitions of their own, they appear to know they have no chance of winning the presidency, Kryshtanovskaya said. "It seems to me that it was made known in advance that Ivanov would win," she said.

She described Ivanov as a member of a kind of Politburo that runs the country; the other members are Putin, Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev, Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin and Kremlin adviser Viktor Ivanov.

"The Politburo is betting on itself" in the election, she said, comparing the situation within the group to the "mad tea party" from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland."

"They all sit at one table and will move one place over to clean cups," she said.

Ivanov's aides denied repeated requests for an interview with Ivanov, citing his tight schedule.

Friends Speak Warmly

People who have known Ivanov for years speak about him warmly, if somewhat guardedly. Galina Nerush, a museum curator at St. Petersburg School No. 24, where Ivanov studied, said he liked jazz and that when he started smoking, his mother and a teacher, Valentina Klifus, tried to get him to quit. Ivanov is said to be a heavy smoker now, although he is rarely seen smoking in public.

In a brief phone conversation, Klifus said she had taught Ivanov from the fourth to 10th grades and helped raise him. His father died when he was young. Klifus, now in her mid-80s, praised Ivanov, saying, "I wish everybody was like him." She declined to talk further, saying she was not feeling well.

A former KGB officer who helped both Ivanov and Putin launch their KGB careers in the early 1970s said Ivanov had yet to reach his full potential. "I saw how he grew. He progressed all the time," said Felix Sutyrin, a former department head at the KGB branch for Leningrad and the surrounding Leningrad region.

He said he believed Putin was pushing for Ivanov because he knew what his fellow St. Petersburger was capable of doing.

"This is not cronyism," said Sutyrin, who kept in close contact with Ivanov until 1990 and now teaches university students in St. Petersburg.

Ivanov's fortunes have closely mirrored Putin's over the years. President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin as FSB director in July 1998, and Ivanov became his deputy a month later. Three months after Yeltsin promoted Putin to prime minister in August 1999, he named Ivanov as the head of the Security Council.

During his career in the KGB, Ivanov served three lengthy tours in Europe and Africa. His longest stay was in Finland, where he worked from 1984 to 1990 as third and later second secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki, Finland's Helsingin Sanomat newspaper reported April 1, citing documents issued in Ivanov's name from the archives of the Finnish Foreign Ministry's protocol department. The newspaper published a photo of the ministry's card on Ivanov.

Ivanov cut a modern, European figure and stood out from the rest of his colleagues, said Peter Stenlund, who met regularly with Ivanov as secretary of the Swedish People's Party in the 1980s. The party is one of Finland's oldest and represents the country's Swedish-speaking minority. Ivanov speaks fluent English and some Swedish.

Stenlund said he knew at the time that Ivanov was a KGB officer.

The two met every other month, mostly in restaurants, to discuss current affairs, Stenlund said. "I could see he was concerned about the future of the country as well as independence movements in the Baltic states," he said. "He was a skillful representative of the KGB."

He said Ivanov never tried to recruit him. "I guess my position and party background excluded such things," he said.

When Ivanov prepared to leave the country, Stenlund and his wife invited him, his wife and their two sons to a farewell party near Kristiinankaupunki, on the country's west coast.

"We had difficulty opening a wine bottle," Stenlund said, laughing.

Stenlund, now Finland's ambassador to Norway, declined to comment on Ivanov's current activities.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ivanov's chances of being elected were high because he oversaw a range of important issues in the government. But he said Ivanov was not a sure bet and ordinary Russians would have the final say at the ballot box.

While Ivanov seems to be walking and talking like a future president these days, whether he will end up in the Kremlin is anybody's guess for now, said Kachkayeva, of Radio Liberty.

"Everything has been decided," she said. "Or nothing has been decided yet."