- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

MOSCOW When acting President Vladimir Putin was cultivating a tough-guy image for last December's parliamentary elections, television viewers were treated to scenes of the black-belt judo master slamming opponents to the practice mat.

But in the run-up to next month's presidential contest, his Kremlin advisers are crafting a kinder and gentler Mr. Putin portraying the firm-eyed former KGB spy and unsmiling technocrat as a family man and proud owner of a cuddly white poodle.

In a series of carefully stage-managed media interviews and appearances in the last few days, the acting president has disclosed, among other things, that as a small boy he was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church and that he and his wife are avid downhill skiers.

TV cameras were invited on the weekend to film Mr. Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, skiing at Krasnaya Polyana, a southern Russian resort near the Black Sea.

"He was so self-assured on his skis. And he looked good in his costume," a young woman holiday maker told NTV television. But a young man thought Mr. Putin "looks a bit pale. He'll have to come here more often."

The flashes of steel are still there, especially when he believes the honor and greatness of Russia are being questioned.

"Those who treat us badly won't stay alive for three days," he barked at an interviewer who said the International Monetary Fund was treating the country poorly.

The hard edges, though, are now being softened publicly.

"The war in Chechnya has helped Mr. Putin's popularity ratings, but it also has a potential negative impact," said Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst with the Heritage Foundation's Moscow offshoot.

"The Kremlin is trying to dull that impact and to overcome some of Mr. Putin's recent mistakes, such as his reluctance to discuss the case of missing journalist Andrei Babitsky."

A tightly controlled phone-in with readers of a Moscow newspaper recently had Mr. Putin thanking a teen-age girl who begged to be allowed to help with his campaign.

Mr. Putin has also been pictured telling his Cabinet that Chechen teen-agers should be encouraged to forswear violence and taught the ideals of kindness a remark that contrasts with the fierce Russian bombing raids on the breakaway republic.

The charm offensive peaked with interviews on state-run television two nights last week, when Mr. Putin was shown wearing a gray crew-necked shirt and seated on a sofa in his dacha with the family's fluffy poodle named Chiapa, which means Pooch.

Asked by the sympathetic journalist about the "very playful and touching dog," Mr. Putin explained the family once had a more formidable beast that was killed in a car accident.

"The children wanted to have a little dog, and they prevailed upon us," he said. "It's hard to say whose dog it is, whether it is more my dog, or my wife's dog or the children's dog. It lives here in its own right, as it were."

According to Masha Lippman, editor of the Itogi weekly, the image-makers from Boris Yeltsin's 1996 re-election campaign have been re-hired by Mr. Putin to help him recast his public persona.

Mr. Putin in recent days has acknowledged he is reticent and says he counts only a small number of people as friends. Most go back many years, some to his school and university days. He says he has had no time to see them lately.

He portrays himself as a busy servant of Russia, ready at a moment's notice to do its bidding. Of the government dacha, he says he and his wife look upon it as a "temporary dwelling," like all the places they have occupied during his career as a spy and then deputy governor of St. Petersburg.

For all the atmospherics, little of substance is offered in the touchy-feely interviews. All that is learned of his wife is that she studied languages at the university and does not work outside the home. Nothing new has been offered about the couple's two teen-age children or about his career with the KGB.

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