Moscow George W. Bush may have looked into Vladimir Putin's soul, but many Russians are still asking: "Who is Mr. Putin?"
On the answer to that question hangs the near-term hopes for reform in Russia, along with the future of U.S.-Russia relations.
After 10 days in Moscow and the Russian provinces, I can report that the Putin mystery is much more complex than it seemed a few months ago. When Vladimir Putin took office in May 2000, Russians debated which of two formative periods in his life would most affect his attitudes toward a market economy and democratic institutions. Would it be the 17 years he spent in the foreign intelligence wing of the KGB? Or his seven years as deputy to St. Petersburg's liberal mayor Anatoly Sobchak?
The world's been chewing over the question for a while now. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in February 2000, I asked a group of top Russian leaders: "Who is Mr. Putin?"
They all refused to answer, perhaps from ignorance or fear.
During his first months in office, Putin sought to establish "vertical power" a Russian euphemism for restoring Kremlin control over obstreperous regional governors and the fractious Duma (parliament). He shut down the media empire of Putin critic and business baron Vladimir Gusinsky. He surrounded himself with old KGB colleagues. Russian pundits were asking whether Putin would impose the "Pinochet model" a reference to Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet's combination of authoritarian rule plus liberal economic reforms.
These days, the mood has dramatically shifted, and most Russians are focused on economic changes.
After the constant chaos of the last 10 years, Russia has finally achieved a semblance of stability. Putin gets the credit partly because he's young, healthy and a hard worker, unlike the erratic Boris Yeltsin. He has also benefited from the windfall of high oil prices. And Russians like his strong image abroad, notably last month's chummy meeting with President Bush, whom he will meet again in Italy this weekend.
But Putin's most important achievements have come in the last few weeks, when his government pushed a package of liberal economic reforms through a Duma once considered hopeless and useless. Up and down the carpeted stairs of the Duma, there was a buzz of energy as members ran to debate bills on cutting business taxes and on the privatization of urban land (most Russian land is still state-owned). The Duma had already passed a 13 percent flat tax on incomes.
"My main criticism was that Putin had created strong power, but didn't do anything about economic reforms," says independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov, who in the past has been a Putin critic. "The economic reforms are coming now."
No one is talking these days about the Pinochet model. Maybe that's because it has become clear that the Kremlin no longer has the means to fully control regional leaders or regional elections. Maybe it's because, as I was told by liberal Duma member Konstantin Remchukov, "You can't have Pinochet with the Internet."
And yet, Putin's political convictions still remain so shrouded in mystery that it's impossible to tell whether his seeming economic liberalism means he's a democrat. The many odd contradictions in his words and acts raise questions about what kind of system he envisions for Russia.
So, when I had the chance last week, I asked Putin how he would describe his political beliefs.
The occasion was Putin's first full-scale news conference in the great Kremlin hall, where the Communist Supreme Soviet once met, where the huge, flat circular chandelier now looks down on the Russian eagle rather than the hammer and sickle.
Was he a social democrat, a liberal, whatever?
His reply: "The question that you asked a year ago, 'Who is Mr. Putin?' I beg you to relieve me of answering this question. I don't want to label myself. I believe we should judge not by what someone says, but by what he does."
I asked if there was a special Russian economic and political model. He didn't answer. Then he launched into a long list of the economic and political reforms he has pushed through the Duma. He put special emphasis on a new reform of political parties, which would shrink the unwieldy numbers that now exist. But it might give his own party a long-term advantage.
Democrat? Autocrat? Putin would not reveal his political persona.
And so the question "Who is Mr. Putin?" must indeed be judged by what he does.