Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

From Factory Floor to Presidential Aide

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

From Factory Floor to Presidential Aide

Article excerpt

Vladimir V. Putin's first high-level appointment as president was Igor R. Kholmanskikh, a tank-factory worker famous for offering to travel to Moscow with colleagues to chase protesters off the streets.

Russia's newest political star, anointed here last week in an elegant conference room, speaks volumes about what matters to President Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Putin's first high-level appointment as president was Igor R. Kholmanskikh, 42, a tank-factory worker from the Urals who is famous for one thing: offering to travel to Moscow with a gang of assembly- line workers to chase anti-government protesters off the streets.

"If the militia, or the police, as it's now called, can't handle it, then me and the boys are ready to come out and defend stability," Mr. Kholmanskikh said during a live television broadcast in December, bringing a broad, happy smile to Mr. Putin's face. "Of course, within the boundaries of the law," he added hastily.

The Kremlin seized on Mr. Kholmanskikh as a living rebuke to the throng of iPad-toting office workers who had materialized in Moscow, chanting, "Putin is a thief" and "Russia without Putin." Mr. Putin was so grateful that hours after it became clear that he had won the presidential election in March, one of his first acts was to reach out to Mr. Kholmanskikh via a video link.

"You showed who the Russian people are, who the Russian working man is," Mr. Putin said emotionally. "You showed that you are a head taller than any good-for-nothings or loudmouths."

Mr. Kholmanskikh's appointment on Friday as presidential envoy to the vast Urals district surprised everyone, and he conducted his first interviews in what seemed to be a state of shock. Some people made fun of the decision; Nikolai V. Levichev, head of the opposition party A Just Russia, commented in mock gravity to the Interfax news service that "the biggest mystery is who will now be named to the vacant position as the head of the assembly line."

But as the day went on, the comments became increasingly serious. Elections in December and March left the country with deep new political divisions, and Mr. Putin has rewarded someone lavishly for offering to threaten the opposition with force. He also seemed to signal a disregard for qualifications among the bureaucratic corps, rewarding loyalty above all else.

"It's a symbolic position -- the envoy isn't the head of the region -- but as far as his status is concerned, he is the most important person in the Urals," said Leonid Volkov, an opposition leader in Yekaterinburg. "And here they put in this nobody whose entire talent is in bootlicking. The moral is that the better you do it, the higher you climb."

"There is one message," Mr. Volkov added. "'I am the czar here, and I do what I want. Enough playing around with democracy."'

Moscow has been waiting tensely for signals of how Mr. …

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