Financial Times (UK)
May 17, 2003
Power Behind the Throne - Alexander Voloshin
This is the man Russian president Vladimir Putin trusts most
By RAFAEL BEHR
Alexander Stalevich Voloshin's MIDDLE name means "son of steel", as if he were destined to sit in the Kremlin, and to tread the same corridors as that other man of steel, Joseph Stalin. And in Russia today, no one is more important or more valuable to Vladimir Putin.
Voloshin - like Putin - was a protege of "The Family", the clique of relatives and businessmen who guarded Boris Yeltsin from outside influence and guided his presidencies. In post-communist Russia, he formed a highly profitable business partnership with Boris Berezovsky, the once powerful oligarch and media baron who for many Russians personifies the smash-and-grab capitalism of the era.
Voloshin began his Kremlin career as deputy to Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin's chief-of-staff. "In any ministry or department there are fixers," says Alexei Mukhin, a Moscow lobbyist. "They are not officially on staff, and might work just as advisers or assistants. But, in fact, they get money for bringing things to people's attention. These are people who don't use the main road but take the tracks by the side of the road, which are faster, with less traffic and fewer checkpoints. Voloshin was a guide along that path."
But regimes change and Putin could not be seen as a stooge of the Yeltsin clan. So, he brought allies into the administration from his native St Petersburg and his KGB past to balance out the existing powers. Today, only Voloshin, promoted to the top job by Yelstin in 1999, has remained of the original coterie.
The key to Voloshin's survival was twofold. First, by understanding the machinations of the state bureaucracy, he knew how to make the system work for Putin. Second, and most important, he showed complete loyalty to his new master. Indeed, Voloshin is said to have personally told Berezovsky, his former business partner, to give up his media holdings or face jail.
Voloshin's continued mastery of the presidential diary has not been entirely well-received. Two years ago, alleged transcripts of phone calls from his office were leaked, presumably by a rival in the security services. The calls were mostly sycophantic pleas from suitors, interspersed with cavalierly dispensed favours. It was a who's who of Russian power: bankers, oil men, regional bosses. "I can get to see Putin faster than I can get to see you people!" moaned one supplicant. "Lucky you," deadpanned the secretary. Crucially, the effort to discredit Voloshin backfired: after this incident, everyone knew who was in charge.
Indeed, Voloshin's remit has continued to sprawl. The presidential administration deals with everything from arms exports to local government reform. Voloshin is the president's man on the board of Unified Energy Systems, the Russian energy company that functions as a virtual state within the state. And in the days before the war started in Iraq, he was Putin's special envoy to Washington.
An ample demonstration of Voloshin's power came in March in Chechnya, the issue that is more intimately bound with Putin's political fortunes than any other. He was elected on a pledge - yet to be realised - to deal definitively with the rebellious province. With new parliamentary and presidential elections approaching, Putin decreed that Chechens hold a referendum on a new constitution. If the Kremlin plan was approved, the logic went, the war must have been won. Numerous politicians made public pronouncements supporting Moscow's plan, but only when Alexander Stalevich travelled to the region to meet amenable local leaders - just weeks before polling day - was the result guaranteed. The significance was clear: a visit by Voloshin was, effectively, a visit by Putin himself. And this was not a vote the president intended to lose. The result was a landslide with more than 96 per cent backing Putin's constitution.
Ultimately, the president trusts Voloshin because he has foresworn political ambitions of his own. He is just the fixer. "It's a tandem, and a strong tandem," says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin adviser. "The Putin-Voloshin link is the strongest link in the political game."