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Vladimir Putin's Interview with the Globe and Mail' (Canada) - December 14, 2000

Текст: Geoffrey York and Chrystina Freeland  

Russia's steely leader likes eco-warriors, the ski slopes and the '72 hockey summit. But most of all, he'd like you to like him.

Vladimir Putin has a secret dream. He might be known to the world as the tough-talking KGB veteran who waged a ruthless war in Chechnya, but he confesses that some day he might prefer a kinder and gentler life – as an ecological activist.

"To be honest, I've always admired people who devote their lives to environmental problems," he said. "I've watched with astonishment as a group of people on a little boat try to oppose a huge military or industrial ship. I must say this inspires only sympathy."

When his time in the Kremlin runs out (he is constitutionally limited to serving eight years over two terms), the Russian President coyly hints that he might consider a second career as an environmentalist.

"I've often thought about what I should do when my term expires," Mr. Putin said in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail and two Canadian television networks.

"It is a noble task to support the ecological movement. At least I wouldn't be sorry to spend time on it."

Canada should get ready to meet a softer and cuddlier Kremlin chief when he arrives in Ottawa this weekend.

Mr. Putin captured the Russian presidency on the strength of his brutal military campaign against Chechen separatists. He misses no opportunity to display his bone-breaking judo skills, and last week he reinstated the melody of Joseph Stalin's national anthem as Russia's new national hymn. But on the eve of his first state visit to Canada, he is trying very hard to present a friendlier side.

It's not that Mr. Putin has suddenly converted from red to green. Rather, the Russian leader – who once told a friend that his KGB training had made him "a specialist in human relations" – seems to have decided that the best way to defuse mounting Western concerns about the fate of Russian democracy is with a personal-charm offensive.

In a 70-minute conversation in the Kremlin, he smiled, joked, and even flirted with his Canadian guests. He praised Canada as a good neighbour, paid homage to the memorable 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series, offered soothing responses to tough political questions, and modestly deflected a question about a newspaper survey that rated him the sexiest man in Russia.

For the first time publicly, he confirmed he is studying English, which makes him the only Russian leader in modern times to try to learn the language of Britain and North America. "English is a world language," he said. "For me, studying English is something like intellectual gymnastics. And any language is a glimpse into another world, a different culture. It's exciting."

Still, Mr. Putin – who also speaks German – did the entire interview in Russian.

At the end of the session, he chatted amiably about skiing, asking for the names of top resorts in Western Canada, just in case he has a chance to go there in the future.

But beneath the charm, the steel is clearly there. Mr. Putin, whose cool-headed forcefulness came as such a relief to a nation exhausted by the boozy bombast of former president Boris Yeltsin, remains almost Teutonic in his precision and his control.

Even at 10 p.m. on a Friday night – as the interview proceeds – he is the model of crisp efficiency. His thinning, blondish hair is combed neatly, his face has been painted smooth for the television cameras, his white shirt gleams and his navy suit is freshly pressed.

Grey-blue eyes fixed on his questioner, Mr. Putin sits ramrod straight, his hands disciplined into stillness. Only his feet, hidden beneath the table his handlers insisted upon, are allowed to be unruly, dancing up and down.

Sitting in front of a white ceramic fireplace in one of the ornate, high-ceilinged rooms of the Kremlin, with gold-gilded walls, parquet floors and plush, faux antique furniture, there is sometimes an earnest scholarliness in his desire to please his audience with carefully prepared answers.

Aware that Canadians are keen hockey fans, Mr. Putin memorized a series of precise statistics on the number of Russians in the National Hockey League. When nobody asked the right question, he finally managed to reveal his data in the final moments of the interview, while answering an unrelated question. (Mr. Putin calculated that 408 Russians have played in the NHL since 1975, and 128 have signed professional contracts in the past year alone.)

Asked about his KGB years, he offers an old tale about how he once admitted his spy background to Henry Kissinger, who promptly assured him that "all decent people got their start in intelligence." It is an anecdote he has recycled in his memoirs and in other interviews, but he still relies on it as a way of disarming critics.

He makes it clear he is proud of his espionage work in the Soviet Union and East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. "I served my country, I did it in good faith, and I don't have any regrets," he said. "And by the way, surprisingly enough, I never violated the laws of any foreign countries. It was an interesting, highly professional job."

Despite his studious preparation, he occasionally reveals his inexperience on the world stage. At one point in the interview, he borrowed a quaintly chauvinistic quotation from a film to suggest that a state's efforts to restrict the media are like the sexual tension between a man and a woman.

"A real man should always try, and a decent woman should always resist," he said, oblivious to notions of political correctness.

At another point, he hinted that the opposition media could be seen as "hooligans" for their attacks on him. Then he quickly retreated from the remark, insisting he was speaking hypothetically.

Mr. Putin's public-relations efforts have been highly effective. He remains massively popular in Russia, and he has already won friends and admirers among some Western leaders.

But it remains difficult to glimpse the real Vladimir Putin. Even his close adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, referred to him as a "black box."

There is still a raging debate in Russia and the West about whether Mr. Putin is a would-be dictator or a progressive modernizer who will drag Russia into the 21st century.

One thing is clear: he is determined to create a strong Russian state. Throughout the interview, he spoke of the need to strengthen the state, to force everyone to obey the law, and to "consolidate" political power to assure parliamentary approval for economic reforms.

The key question, of course, is whether a strong state would impose limits on freedom. Asked about that, Mr. Putin revealed a prudishly moral side of his character. Alluding to the erotic programming on late-night Russian television, he expressed envy for Canada's broadcasting regulations.

"In the United States and Canada, many things can be shown only on cable television, for moral reasons," he said approvingly. "Here, unfortunately, anything can be put on the air."

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