Man for the People

Dmitry kozak, vladimir Putin's special envoy to the Caucasus, speaks passionately from his seat at the head of a long table. Listening sheepishly in this conference room in Kislovodsk, a spa in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains where the poet Aleksandr Pushkin took hot mineral baths in the 1820s, are the presidents of Russia's southern republics, the ward bosses of the country's toughest neighborhood. They're a hard bunch, more used to putting down armed uprisings and mafia turf battles than listening meekly to a man from Moscow. More baffling still, instead of talking about Islamism, rebellion and war, Kozak is banging on about tourism development and Chinese entrepreneurs. He even brings on a Moscow businessman to pitch a Caucasus "investment road show" in London. The presidents laugh uproariously at the very idea. "What's to show?" they call out--and yet they are intrigued.

By his own admission, Kozak's job is "mission: impossible." His rugged good looks and deep voice are an asset in the macho culture of the Caucasus. But the task is daunting: to bring order, if not some prosperity, to the often violent chaos of the north Caucasus--a corner of the world replete with more than its fair share of mutually hating small nations, radical Islamists and, of course, oil. If Kozak fails, he'll be the latest in a string of defeated Russian viceroys stretching back 200 years.

If he succeeds, however, the repercussions will be felt far beyond Russia's southern borderland. The reason? All the Caucasus' most serious problems are symptoms, not causes, of the chronic diseases afflicting all Russia's regions--cronyism, stealing from state coffers, bribe-taking, police brutality, manipulation of courts and nepotism. "We cannot have a democratic, anticorruption policy just in the Caucasus," Kozak tells NEWSWEEK. "The system has to change throughout the country."

After two years on the job, needless to say, Kozak is not popular with these once scofflaw rulers. When Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov complained last year that he needed more federal money to care for refugees from neighboring Chechnya, Kozak moved them to nearby Ossetia. No refugees, no begging for money. He also fired three presidents, giving the rest something to worry about. One, in Kabardino-Balkaria, he replaced with a local businessman. The president in North Ossetia was ousted in favor of a bureaucrat whose own children were victims of the Chechen terrorist hostage-taking in Beslan, and who therefore could be counted on to cut no corners concerning security. The new boss in Dagestan is a former Communist Party secretary who lived in a modest three-room apartment while other officials built palaces. "In the Caucasus it is important to keep your word," says Kozak. "If you say you are going to put corrupt bureaucrats and thieves in prison, you have to do it."

Kozak ran Putin's first election campaign in 1999 and went on to tackle reform of Russia's corrupt judiciary before being sent south. He keeps local potentates on their toes by showing up unannounced, with a couple of bodyguards who carry only concealed weapons--a rarity in a region where even small-town mayors travel with dozens of Kalashnikov-toting soldiers. His team of metropolitan, Gucci-clad assistants (one of whom never flies anywhere without his personal collection of fine wines) travels incessantly, demanding answers and results. Last summer Kozak delivered a bruising report blasting the Kremlin's policies in the region, particularly the scrapping of elections in favor of local leaders appointed by Moscow. As a result, the report bluntly concluded, "they have no interest in dialogue with local people" and thus only exacerbate the Kremlin's problems.

Kozak's tough reforms have lost him friends in Moscow. Perhaps that's because he has also cracked down on the once standard practice of kicking back large sums to Moscow bureaucrats in exchange for lucrative appointments and grants of federal money. He also warned that corruption of local representatives could turn the people of the region against Putin's government. Just last week, in fact, 14 policemen, one civilian and two rebels were killed in Dagestan during a shoot-out with police; in neighboring Ingushetia the deputy police minister and six others were blown up by a car bomb. (Tourism, anyone?)

The question is whether Kozak can keep up his crusade. Yulia Latynina, a Moscow journalist who wrote a popular novel with a thinly disguised Kozak as its hero, fears he will eventually be worn down. "We live in times when men don't change systems," she says. "The system changes men.