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Chief of Staff Cements His Place in Kremlin's Hierarchy

Russia: The official's ties to oligarchs may pose a problem, critics say. But Putin may be hard pressed to find a successor.

June 25, 2000|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — He's a shadowy Kremlin figure who rarely speaks in public and has been described as irritating and reptilian. But Alexander S. Voloshin is the second-most-powerful man in Russia, the iron man at the heart of President Vladimir V. Putin's administration.

The 44-year-old Kremlin chief of staff, whom journalists have dubbed a "social allergen," is the latest in a long line of Rasputin-like figures who have influenced Russian rulers.

He got to the top courtesy of his friend and former business associate, the controversial tycoon Boris A. Berezovsky, who helped push Voloshin into the Kremlin in 1997. Now, some analysts say, Voloshin has more clout inside the Kremlin than his old pal.

He reputedly has close ties with two other heavyweight oligarchs, Roman A. Abramovich, who controls the Sibneft oil company, and Alexander L. Mamut of MDM Bank.

Accused of being a zealot who won't tolerate media criticism of the Kremlin, Voloshin is at the center of a storm about press freedom in Russia after the June 13 arrest of media mogul Vladimir A. Gusinsky.

The arrest provoked calls for Voloshin's dismissal, but despite controversy over his role in the affair, most analysts are convinced that Putin is unlikely to remove Voloshin--at least not yet.

Boris Y. Nemtsov, the leader of the pro-market Union of Right Forces parliamentary faction, argues that oligarchs Abramovich and Mamut are more powerful than ever, thanks to Voloshin. "This is a very great danger, not only for Russia's future development but for Putin himself," Nemtsov warned. "The concentration of economic power in one hand is a real political danger. Someday Putin will wake up and find out that the real president is not Putin but Abramovich."

"Voloshin is a strong man. He's tough," said Nemtsov, whose faction supported Putin in the March presidential election. "He is well organized, which is very rare for the Russian bureaucracy."

He is "an iron man with no nerves, completely resolute," said Andrei V. Ryabov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

Under Putin, Kremlin power is being torn three ways by competing groups. The first includes his former KGB associates, who control the security structures. The second is the Kremlin inner circle known as "The Family," which includes Voloshin and many of the oligarchs and exerts control over prosecutions and law enforcement. The third, and weakest, is a group of pro-market economists in charge of the economy.

Many believe that, at some point, confrontation between the KGB group and the Voloshin group is inevitable.

Voloshin Initially Dismissed as a Nobody

Scoffed at as a nobody when he was first appointed by then-President Boris N. Yeltsin 15 months ago, Voloshin swiftly won the respect, if not the approval, of Russia's political elite.

He masterminded the parliamentary and presidential elections, creating the Unity bloc that defeated a strong challenge to the Kremlin from the Fatherland-All Russia bloc of Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov and popular former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov.

Voloshin is widely perceived as the man who created Putin, pushing him forward for the post of prime minister and maneuvering him into the role of the chosen successor to Yeltsin.

Helping to elbow out two prime ministers last year--Primakov in May and Sergei V. Stepashin in August--Voloshin ensured the continued power of The Family.

Accused of exerting heavy pressure on Russian media outlets over their political coverage, Voloshin is also prone to firing off indignant letters to foreign newspapers over their reporting.

Since last summer, Voloshin has been waging a behind-the-scenes battle with Gusinsky's Media-Most, an independent network that is often critical of the Kremlin. Gusinsky accused him of demanding that the Media-Most outlets toe the Kremlin line, and of offering to pay the tycoon $100 million to leave the country during the elections.

As Gusinsky languished in jail for three days after his detention, Media-Most officials accused Voloshin of plotting the arrest, but Gusinsky last week squarely blamed Putin, announcing that he believed Voloshin did not know about it beforehand.

After the arrest, Nemtsov and others called for Voloshin's dismissal, claiming that a small group of oligarchs exerts huge power in the Kremlin through Voloshin.

Voloshin, who is divorced and reportedly still lives with his mother, has often been described in the Russian media as a proxy in the Kremlin for Berezovsky, with whom he had close business ties in the early 1990s.

Friendship With Tycoon Berezovsky

In Russia, friendship, favors and informal obligations still govern business and government relations, according to the influential Petr O. Aven of Alfa Bank.

"I would say Berezovsky could not come to Voloshin and give him an order. But they're close friends. That's what matters in this country," Aven said.

Voloshin's political instincts, Nemtsov said, are for crony capitalism and byzantine manipulations.

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