ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin has travelled halfway round the world to show who is in charge of Russia since his return to the presidency last month. The trouble is, no one is sure who he is trying to be.
On Monday, the world saw a prickly, tough and uncompromising Putin grimace his way through a frosty meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama that revived memories of Cold War diplomacy. The body language was reminiscent of the old Putin.
Three days later, Putin was back in his home town of St Petersburg and turning on the charm for investors, speaking of transparency, reforms, the rule of law and a place for protesters who do not break the law. This was a different Putin.
Back in the Kremlin after four years as prime minister, the president is trying to adapt to ruling a different Russia where his tough guy image no longer fits and protests against his rule have become the norm in Moscow.
“We’re back to square one. Who is Mr. Putin? Is it the same man or a new one? The answer is that it’s a bit of both,” said Boris Makarenko of Moscow’s Centre for Political Technologies.
“He is wise and serious enough as a leader who has been in power a long time to see that the world and the country have changed. He is trying to adapt himself to the new situation here and abroad, and he’s finding it hard to reinvent himself.”
It may be that Putin aims to be the man for all seasons with a different face for each occasion.
Foreign investors who gathered at this week’s investment forum in St Petersburg heard largely what they wanted to hear from Putin. There were promises of privatization, more protection of companies’ rights and a crackdown on corruption.
The former KGB spy found a few minutes for a friendly chat with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, one of Moscow’s sparring partners during the Soviet era.
He also spared time for meetings with heads of private equity funds and oil company chiefs, even if he annoyed some of them by turning up late.
“I feel more optimistic after leaving the room,” said Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of French oil and gas company Total, welcoming Putin’s assurance that foreign companies can take part in developing Russia’s energy sector.
But for some veteran investors in Russia, the promises sounded too good to be true. Such people are all too familiar with the many unfulfilled reform promises in Putin’s 12 years as president and prime minister.
“He was saying the right things to this audience, but the impact of those words is becoming less and less,” said Roland Nash, chief investment strategist at Moscow-based hedge fund Verno Capital.
Putin’s meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico was widely seen as evidence that the return of the hawkish Putin to replace Dmitry Medvedev, his more liberal protege, would end the “reset” in Russian-U.S. relations.
U.S. officials said this was a superficial impression. But there was no avoiding the contrast with the friendliness at meetings between Putin and Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, which became known as “The George and Vladimir Show”.
Putin, 59, has also been to China, France, Germany, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan since his inauguration on May 7.
The choice of Minsk as his first destination sent a shock wave through the diplomatic community. Putin had pulled out of a meeting of the Group of Eight industrial powers in the United States and Belarus is led by Alexander Lukashenko, who has been described as Europe’s last dictator.
The decision sent a warning to the West - and a powerful signal to his domestic audience - that Putin was ready to snub Washington to show the importance of ties with a traditional ally that was once part of the Soviet empire.
He also went to Beijing to strengthen economic and defense ties before meeting Obama, suggesting Russia is now looking eastward more than westward for its economic development.
“The choice of where to go was very symbolic. You don’t do such things by accident,” said a diplomat based in Moscow.
Such grandstanding is typical of Putin and diplomats say he is not above a bit of one-upmanship to get a psychological advantage over his U.S. or European counterparts.
Some of his actions inside Russia since his return to the presidency have also been typical of the man who ruled with a firm grip as president from 2000 until 2008.
Burnishing his macho image with antics such as bare-chested horse-riding, he reined in Russia’s rebellious regions, defeated rebels in a war in the Chechnya region and clipped the wings of oligarchs who had amassed political power as well as wealth.
One of the first legislative acts of his new presidency was the passage of a law that drastically increased fines for protesters who violate public order, and police raided the homes of opposition leaders before a rally this month.
Yet on Thursday Putin said there was a place for protests, provided they were within the confines of the law. These are words that Putin would once never have been expected to say.
“I am convinced a democratic political system must not only guarantee the legitimacy of the authorities but people’s confidence in its just nature to protect the interests of the majority. Nevertheless the interest of the minority must be taken into account and also reasonably protected,” he said.
Like the foreign investors wary of counting on Putin’s promises of economic reform, opposition leaders are skeptical about his remarks, noting that he had made clear he reserved the right to crack down if protesters step out of line.
“He can say whatever he wants but in fact his words and actions are clearly quite the opposite of each other, as the police are searching our homes. This is just rhetoric,” said Gennady Gudkov, an opposition member of parliament.
But the message from aides is that Putin realizes the world’s largest country - a nuclear superpower - has changed and that he must change with it.
“His speech (to investors) was addressed to people who understand that we are in a different shape. We have different goals now,” said First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.
“We are the same people and he is the same person in his third term, but the ambitions are different.”
The question for protesters as well as investors is whether Putin acts on his promises or is merely paying lip service to what he thinks they, and foreign governments, want to hear.
“The key with Russian policy now is to see what they do as opposed to what they say,” said Jim O‘Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. “It’s what he does that matters.”
Additional reporting by Douglas Busvine, Maya Dyakina, Megan Davies and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Jon Boyle