The Brain Trust Polishing Putin's Image

From ex-spy to pro-West liberal, his top advisers are all over the ideological map

A former dissident and a career KGB man. A young St. Petersburg lawyer and a battle-scarred veteran of Boris N. Yeltsin's team. On the surface they have little in common. But soon they may be trading toasts and ideas in the Kremlin. After three weeks as Russia's acting President--and nine weeks before the Mar. 26 presidential election--Vladimir V. Putin is assembling a brain trust of advisers to help him flesh out his policies and buff his political image.

The new team, mostly handpicked by Putin, is as eclectic as Putin's career. His political outlook has been shaped by two quite different experiences: his Soviet-era tenure as a KGB spy in Germany, and his later effort, in the 1990s, to help the city of St. Petersburg attract foreign investment. If the KGB training nurtured the mindset of a cold warrior, Putin's experience in St. Petersburg instilled what many Western business figures see as a genuinely pro-market, pro-West disposition.

HUMILIATED. Putin's pro-Western side is anchored by Mikhail M. Kasyanov, whom Putin recently tapped to serve as First Deputy Prime Minister. The 42-year-old Kasyanov, who has also kept his old job as Finance Minister, speaks fluent English and is a familiar, reassuring figure to the Western financial community. He aims to repair Russia's long-strained relations with the International Monetary Fund, and he recently spoke out against a new proposal, backed by Russia's central bank but frowned on by the IMF, to require Russian exporters to repatriate 100% of their foreign currency earnings. Putin hints that he may tap Kasyanov as Prime Minister if Putin wins the March election, as is widely expected.

The cold warrior in Putin's inner circle is Sergei B. Ivanov, an ex-KGB colleague. Putin left the KGB in 1990 to work on privatization, while Ivanov, 46, stayed in intelligence and steadily rose up the ranks. In November, when Putin named Ivanov chairman of Russia's security council, he was deputy director of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. Under Ivanov, the security council recently prepared a controversial new national-security doctrine. The revised doctrine lowers the threshold for possible Russian use of nuclear weapons and identifies the West as a potential threat to Russian security.

The new stance stems from Russia's feeling that America humiliated it by proceeding with both the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and the war in Kosovo against Russian wishes. "I am an adherent of the multipolar world concept," Ivanov declared at a Jan. 12 press briefing. "An overwhelming majority of the world's states reject hegemony on the part of any one state." He added that it "never will be the case" that all countries adhere to "the Western, Anglo-Saxon mentality."

For big-picture advice on broad social, political, and economic matters, Putin has chosen advisers who also say that Russia is special and should not try to pattern itself after the U.S. or Britain. In December, Putin tapped German O. Gref, a 36-year-old lawyer from St. Petersburg, to help craft what has become known as the Putin Manifesto. The document, posted on a Russian-government Internet site just a few days before Putin became acting President, tried to sketch a philosophical vision for the country. The manifesto embraces democracy but also supports the creation of "a new Russia idea" that will be distinctly different from the liberal values that have guided Britain and America. Ordinary Russians, Putin says, have both a more collective and a more paternalistic sensibility. They look to the state to take care of them and to define a mission for the society as a whole.

Gref worked with Putin on privatization in the early 1990s, when Putin was a deputy in the office of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. An ethnic German who was born in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union, Gref speaks German fluently, as does Putin. He seems to reflect yet another aspect of Putin--the part that looks to the post-war German economic model of paternal capitalism as a path towards which Russia might aspire. "It is absolutely senseless to talk about a new economic reform," Gref says, without creating social measures to protect the population.

KEEPING MUM. Now, Putin has put Gref in charge of an advisory council with a mission to report after the elections on a plan that will cover everything from modernization of the economy to Russia's position in the world. The council's work is being funded by Russia's leading companies, including gas monopoly Gazprom and electricity giant Unified Energy System (UES), managed by former Yeltsin adviser Anatoly B. Chubais. Both companies are subject to periodic calls for their breakup, so it's not surprising they are using their money to try to influence Putin's economic policy.

Putin is relying on Chubais, 44, for political advice as well as money. Although Chubais is reviled in Russia for presiding over a privatization program that transferred little of the country's wealth to the masses, he is a shrewd political operator. In 1996, Chubais engineered Yeltsin's come-from-behind reelection victory. Now, in addition to running UES, he's helping run Putin's campaign. He says Putin's most important priority is to combat business corruption and lawlessness. "The thing most needed is a radical strengthening of the key state functions," Chubais says.

Chubais has known Putin and Gref for a long time, and he seems to be connected to just about everyone else who matters in the Putin camp. His most recent incarnation may reflect little more than the instinct of a wily political operator for currying favor with Russia's new President. Whatever the case, it seems to be working. Putin listens to Chubais "very closely," according to Alexsei Chesnakov, a consultant who's plugged into Kremlin court politics. Chubais is prized not so much for his particular policy ideas as for shrewd advice on how to get things accomplished.

If Putin's advisers have their way, and so far they have, Putin will say little or nothing about his specific policy plans before the elections. His image-shapers include ex-Soviet dissident Gleb Pavlovsky, 49, from Odessa. In the mid-1970s, Pavlovsky was reprimanded by the KGB for circulating The Gulag Archipelago, the anti-totalitarian opus of Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. More severe punishment was meted out to an associate, sparking accusations that Pavlovsky was a KGB informant, but nothing was ever proven. Now he operates a secretive consulting firm whose chief client is Putin.

Putin's public relations team is quite proud of their creation: a man who appears to be above messy politics and narrow causes. "The image is more important than the policy," says one of Putin's political aides. "He must be outside parties and movements. The main thing is to gather ideologies and put them in a basket for future use."

And what will the "future use" of these ideas be? Nobody, perhaps not even Putin, quite knows. Associates say he has a pronounced cynical streak. It's possible he has grand intentions but, then again, maybe he's a master pragmatist. That may have been on display when the Putin-supported Unity Party cut a deal to reelect the Communist speaker of the parliament in return for key committee posts. Most likely he has not yet settled on a direction. If he wins the election, he'll certainly have to prove he can do more than wage war in Chechnya. His brain trust is standing by, waiting for the President to set the course.

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