In the heat of an anti-corruption campaign last spring that targeted associates of President Boris Yeltsin, Russian television aired a lurid videotape that purported to show the campaign's point man, chief prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, frolicking with women in a Moscow apartment.
Skuratov insisted he was being framed because of his anti-corruption work and challenged the tape's authenticity. Then, the director of Russia's intelligence agency announced that the tapes were authentic. Skuratov was put out of action.
The intelligence chief was Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's new choice for prime minister, and his testimony was being pointed to today as an example of his prime qualification for the post -- extreme loyalty to Yeltsin.
Not only did Yeltsin select Putin to head the government, but he ordained Putin as his preferred candidate in next year's presidential election. It is not that Putin's predecessor, Sergei Stepashin, was particularly disloyal, Russian analysts said, but in the highly charged political atmosphere prior to parliamentary elections in December and the presidential ballot next summer, every ounce of loyalty counts.
A key political task for Putin, they added, will be to ease Yeltsin's concern that once out of power, he could be pursued by political enemies on criminal charges.
"These days, you can never be loyal enough to the Kremlin," said political commentator Andrei Piontkovsky.
"Putin describes himself as a soldier, and Yeltsin wants soldiers" added Igor Bunin, an analyst at the Institute for Political Technology here.
Putin's appointment continues a shift in Yeltsin's preferences that have made six prime ministers in eight years profiles in diversity:
From radical capitalist reformer Yegor Gaidar, Yeltsin moved to compromise moderate Viktor Chernomyrdin; from there he went to young, activist reformer Sergei Kiriyenko; then on to go-slow centrist Yevgeny Primakov; then to Stepashin, supposedly a law-and-order choice; now to Putin.
Although trained in law, Putin served in the KGB for 15 years, many of them as a spy in East Germany. After retiring in the early 1990s, he joined the administration of Anatoly Sobchak, St. Petersburg's reformist mayor. He handled the city's relations with foreign countries and defended Sobchak against charges that his administration abused power. When Sobchak lost a 1994 reelection bid, Putin was invited to Moscow by Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Yeltsin's unpopular, crony-dominated economic reform program.
The lean, athletic Putin worked in the department that controls Kremlin property and then in a bureau that watches over the activities of regional governors. Yeltsin named him director of Russia's intelligence agency last July, replacing a man Yeltsin regarded as disloyal. Yeltsin later named Putin to lead the Kremlin's Security Council, which coordinates military and police activity.
He is married and has two school-age daughters.