To his fierce and increasingly worried critics, President Vladimir Putin is a grave threat to post-Soviet democracy, a would-be authoritarian intent on building "capitalism with a Stalinist face," as one reformist leader put it.
But investor William F. Browder sees it differently. Never mind the arguments about a creeping coup by Putin's KGB colleagues, the war in Chechnya, the state takeover of television or even the jailing of Russia's richest man. To Browder, Putin is a true reformer, "the one ally" of Western capitalists who have come to Russia to create a new market economy but have found themselves adrift "in a sea of corrupt bullies."
"What's the worst-case scenario?" asked Browder, who has bet $1.3 billion in the investment fund he runs on the success of the Putin presidency. "That I misjudged and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But I just don't think the objective here is Stalinism."
This pointed debate about where Putin is taking the country is reaching a new pitch as Russia prepares to reward him with a second term in an election on March 14 in which none of his opponents has registered more than single digits in the polls. In another twist, Putin on Tuesday fired his cabinet, including the prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov.
No one has been making the case for Putin more ardently than Browder and others in the small but influential class of Western investors, investment analysts and stockbrokers based in Moscow. They have become the most consistent rosy-eyed optimists about the KGB spy-turned-president -- and they are making money hand over fist in Russia's booming market.
So taken with Putin are they that one of these Western brokers termed the president "Saint Vladimir" in a recent report, while others find ways to tout the latest investment case for Russia no matter what the news. Even the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky last October created only temporary jitters. By last week, the stock market had recovered the 20-plus percent it had lost and surged ahead to an all-time high, making it the best-performing market in the world since Putin came to power in late 1999.
Putin's economics minister, German Gref, warned last week that the market was in danger of "overheating" with all the money pouring in at a time when needed economic reforms have still not been made. But that, too, failed to cause a slowdown.
"I'm one of the Putin apologists," said Eric Kraus, the chief strategist of the Sovlink investment firm here who coined the "Saint Vladimir" phrase. "No bones about it," he added in an interview.
Sounding the alarm about Putin have been independent political analysts and academics, newspaper editorial writers and the dwindling ranks of Russian liberals who found themselves voted entirely out of the Russian parliament in December.
But investment types like Browder, the grandson of an American Communist leader whose Hermitage Capital Management is now the largest foreign investment fund in Russia, have started fighting back.
Their challenge has come in the form of e-mails circulated to thousands of subscribers, daily investment reports, interviews with Western media and prominently placed op-eds in other publications, including Browder's recent paean in the Moscow Times, "Making the Case for Putin." Foreign investment, though still modest, has followed -- $29.7 billion last year, a 50 percent leap over 2002 -- as Russia's oil-fueled economy grew for the fifth year in a row.
"I just don't buy this critique of him as a KGB thug who wants power for its own sake," said Al Breach, another Putin fan and chief economist at Brunswick UBS, a leading Western investment bank here. "If someone's after that, then they're not spending their time on the details of electricity reform."
For many longtime Russia hands, the increasingly pointed debate harkens back to the Cold War feuds that split Kremlinologists into camps that remain to this day.
"Once again, people's views on Russia are really polarized and nerves are frayed in ways we haven't seen publicly since Putin came to power," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, whose analysts have been critical of Putin's authoritarian drift. "There's that sort of energy and emotion to the debate about Russia that I haven't seen in a long time."
Kuchins called Browder the "chief cheerleader" for the Russian president and questioned the reliability of opinions being offered by pro-Putin business leaders who are getting rich from the bullish Russian market.
"Putin dazzled them. . . . I hope they're right, but there's just too much evidence that suggests the contrary," Kuchins said. "If you believe consolidation of a real democracy in Russia is a good thing, it's just hard not to be concerned about what's going on."
For his part, Browder said Putin's critics are armchair experts so far removed from reality that they have failed to account for the president's 70-plus percent approval ratings among Russians. Browder, 39, has spent more than a decade betting on the place. A Stanford MBA, he came to Moscow eager to explore his family's Communist past but stayed on to become one of the first investors here in the early 1990s as a trader at Salomon Brothers. He started Hermitage Capital with $25 million in seed money back in 1996, lives in an apartment in Moscow and says he has no plans to ever leave.
Since Putin came to power, Browder has touted him as a reform-minded technocrat, able to accomplish liberal economic reforms, such as a 13 percent flat tax and private land ownership, that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, only talked about. Browder always disagreed with those who feared Putin, but that difference of opinion has widened into a seemingly unbreachable gulf in recent months as the Russian government has launched an all-out legal assault on Khodorkovsky and his oil company, Yukos.
And in that fight, Browder said, "I would trust Putin any day of the week."
For Browder and many of the other investment types here, taking Putin's side comes as a response to their disdain for Khodorkovsky and the other so-called oligarchs who amassed fabulous riches in 1990s privatization deals.
Browder, who has publicly clashed with Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs over what he considers illegal efforts to dilute the value of minority shareholders in their companies, argues that Putin is the only political leader in Russia to attempt to halt their abuses. "It's like being in a lawless schoolyard where there's bullies running around and beating up all us little people and then one day a big bully comes along and all the little bullies fall into line," he said. "That's what the state is supposed to be -- the big bully."
Indeed, Browder said, in recent years he has shifted his fund's investment strategy in Russia, concluding that it only makes sense to invest in nationally significant companies like Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas monopoly, or Unified Energy Systems, the electricity monopoly. That way, he said, if he encounters problems with management of those state firms, "my leverage is the president."
In the end, his faith in Russia's economic progress has come down to a very personal faith in the president. For Browder and many of his colleagues, debates about democracy are beside the point, "a fairy tale," as Breach put it, that isn't going to come true anytime soon.
"We're taught to believe in liberte, egalite, fraternite as principles you absolutely cannot compromise on," Browder said. "In Russia, without proper institutions all of these just create chaos. It means you end up with seven oligarchs in control of 60 percent of the economy. If the state has to have a bit more power right now, that seems to be the price most Russians are willing to pay."