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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

‘Military Man’ Exceeds Expectations

MTSt. Petersburg Governor Anatoly Sobchak and Putin in 1993, when he led the city’s external relations committee.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power.

Ten years ago, on Aug. 9, 1999, President Boris Yeltsin told a weary and bewildered country that he was sacking his government again but that his new, 46-year-old nominee for prime minister would be “very useful to the country.”

A former KGB officer who had gone on to work for St. Petersburg Governor Anatoly Sobchak and most recently to head the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Putin was then little known to the public.

The announcement might have been brushed off as the latest in a string of erratic decisions had Yeltsin left it at that. But he went on to say that this was the man he wanted elected next year as Russia’s second president.

Putin said he hadn’t been planning a run for the Kremlin but that now he “undoubtedly” would. “We are military men, and we will implement the decision that has been made,” he said.

He was the last in a line of four prime ministers nominated by Yeltsin in 17 months, with predecessors Sergei Kiriyenko, Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin appointed and replaced in swift succession.

At the time, many were skeptical that Putin — unpolished and unknown — would be any different.

“Back then, everyone was amazed by Yeltsin’s choice,” said Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst for the Indem think tank. “People interpreted it as the death throes of the Yeltsin regime.”

“This is an agony, a total insanity,” Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said in a radio interview at the time. “Who will take a prime minister seriously if they change them like gloves?’’

It was an open question whether the State Duma would even confirm Putin. The year before, it had refused Yeltsin’s request to re-elect Viktor Chernomyrdin to the post.

On Aug. 6, then-Moscow Times editor Matt Bivens wrote in an editorial that Putin was “someone the Duma will never confirm as prime minister.”

Ten days later, however, the deputies approved Putin by the narrowest of margins — just six votes more than the 50 percent plus one he needed for confirmation. Of the deputies present, 232 voted for Putin, while 84 voted against him and 17 abstained.

Putin was an unknown quantity, said Sergei Mitrokhin, then a State Duma deputy for Yabloko, now a deputy for the party in the Moscow City Duma.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Putin speaking to reporters alongside Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov after his confirmation on Aug. 16, 1999.

“He didn’t have a clear public face as a politician, which in itself was a worrying sign,” said Mitrokhin, who voted against his confirmation. “The question ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ for us was a sign of danger.”

The question was posed at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2000 and became a running theme of early coverage of Putin.

Putin’s KGB background also put Yabloko members on their guard.

“We had a wary attitude toward him. He came from the security forces, from the special services,” Mitrokhin said. “Putin was linked to the threat against democracy in Russia.”

Alexander Lebedev, also an alumnus of the security services, said he first met Putin around 1998. By then, Lebedev was already the influential head of the National Reserve Bank. “I think Putin was always quite a big personality and intelligent,” Lebedev said.

“I think he has changed,” he said. “He used to be more accessible. He would have an entourage of five or seven people, whereas now he has a thousand people surrounding him and you can’t approach him. It was more interesting working with him [then].”

Lebedev said he thought Putin later surrounded himself with the wrong people because of “poor recruitment.”

“He is an outstanding person, but it seems that he has surrounded himself with little-qualified officials,” Lebedev said, calling them “friends and classmates.”

Putin’s early entourage included people who were “brilliant,” Lebedev said, giving the example of Alexander Voloshin, his first chief of staff.

Voloshin resigned from the post in 2003 after Putin cracked down on Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev.

Many say Putin’s biggest obstacle was not convincing voters of his competence but shaking his image as a cold and gray personality.

“He made a very pallid impression when he first spoke in the Duma,” said Boris Nemtsov, then one of the leaders of the Right Cause bloc of “young reformers.”

“He wasn’t charismatic, he was weak,” Nemtsov said. “He behaved shyly and indecisively.”

At the time, Nemtsov told Ekho Moskvy radio that choosing Putin as prime minister was “madness” on Yeltsin’s part.

Putin’s personal style changed in later years, Nemtsov said. “He became more charismatic, uninhibited and aggressive — that aggressiveness that many people like.”

Igor Tabakov / MT
Putin as FSB director in 1999.

“He made a rather pathetic impression,” said Nikolai Petrov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “He wasn’t at all known in political circles. He looked like a minor official from St. Petersburg.”

Putin “gave the impression of a person not used to public appearances, who wasn’t very experienced and sure of his abilities,” Petrov added, describing his manners as “provincial.”

He was outshone by the previous prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, who had served as justice and interior minister, Indem’s Korgunyuk said. “Next to Putin, Stepashin looked like a political heavyweight.”

“Naturally, he worked on his skills and did it very quickly,” his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who was working at the Foreign Ministry in 1999 and did not know Putin at the time, told The Moscow Times.

“It was a completely different situation,” Peskov said, referring to Putin’s first few months on the national stage. “The country had practically no knowledge or mechanisms to beat that crisis. It was much more complex to work on crisis management.”

Asked whether he thought Putin would succeed back then, Peskov said: “I’ve never thought about it.”

Putin worked on his communication skills after he first became prime minister, Peskov said. “Of course, he wasn’t such a public person before. He became a public figure and needed new skills to talk to people and to the media.”

In his first Duma appearance, Putin came across as out-of-touch, said Communist Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin.

Putin didn’t “know the life of the country well,” Ilyukhin said. “It was fine when he was reading from a speech, but you can’t read off the answers to questions from a piece of paper. I felt uncomfortable for him because he sometimes gave answers that were way off the mark.”

But Putin improved here, too, Ilyukhin acknowledged. “He came to grips with what is going on.”

As one of Sobchak’s deputies in St. Petersburg, Putin was gruff with reporters, Brian Whitmore wrote in The Moscow Times in August 1999.

Alexei Druzhinin / Ria-Novosti / Reuters
Putin fishing in the Tuva region Monday. He has worked to refine his image.

“When Sobchak didn’t want to deal with the media, he sent the dour Putin — who would scowl, tell us nothing and frighten the more timid among us away.”

In a bid to come across as more communicative, in 2001 Putin began taking part in televised phone-in sessions where he spent hours answering vetted questions from the public.

Style-wise, Putin then was a far cry from now.

While Putin now poses in figure-hugging leisure wear and sports expensive Patek Philippe watches, his style was very different, Petrov said. “He had absolutely no gloss, he didn’t look like a president or a powerful premier. He looked like a gray apparatchik in an ill-fitting suit.”

In a much-circulated photograph taken with Sobchak, Putin is shown coordinating a bottle-green double-breasted jacket and red trousers.

Putin managed an incredibly swift image change, Petrov said. “In two or three months, he was already a different person.”

The transformation can be attributed, in part, to efforts by Putin’s team to soften his image.

“If there was a tennis match, he would be phoned up and asked to come and be photographed with the champion,” Petrov said. Putin also wooed the intelligentsia by going to concerts and once asked Georgian singer Nani Bregvadze for a personal performance after he was late for her concert.

In March 2000, Putin revealed selected details of his personal life in a book called “In the First Person,” which was based on interviews with him and included photographs from his family archive.

Petrov and Korgunyuk stressed the importance of Boris Berezovsky, a key Kremlin power broker and the main shareholder of national television channel ORT, later renamed Channel One. Its nightly news broadcast is the country’s most watched.

“Both [Boris] Berezovsky and the Kremlin were actively promoting Putin,” Petrov said.

“Berezovsky tried very hard,” Korgunyuk said. “He also thought that Putin was a nondescript bureaucrat who could be easily manipulated.”

The self-exiled businessman said he didn’t want to talk about his memories of Putin anymore. “To be honest, I don’t want to comment,” he told The Moscow Times. “I’ve already said everything I think about Putin.”

Putin’s precipitous rise in popularity came when the bombings of apartment blocks in September 1999 switched the public’s mind to security issues, his forte.

After Putin sent troops into Chechnya in October of that year, “he started traveling everywhere and met with the troops. They showed him on ORT,” Korgunyuk said.

The situation changed so much that Putin’s strongman image became appealing, Korgunyuk said. “He was young, active, fit and decisive.”

Berezovsky “helped a lot” with Putin’s image, but he “fit the bill in some ways,” he added.

Putin “became appropriate,” Petrov agreed. “He was confident. He wasn’t afraid to take responsibility on himself. He didn’t hide behind anyone’s back, which was very different from what people were used to under Yeltsin’s regime.”