Feature

The dictator Russia adores

The majority of the Russian people live in poverty, and the war in Chechnya shows no sign of coming to an end. Yet last month Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, swept back into the Kremlin with a landslide election victory. Why?

Is Putin genuinely popular?And how. His popularity is more than electoral. His picture decorates homes and offices; his heroic status is lauded in countless pop songs, thrillers, and theme restaurants. Buildings into which he has no more than stepped are adorned with honorary plaques. His 50th birthday, two years ago, was celebrated with mass hysteria, and spawned a wild assortment of memorabilia: Putin vodka, Putin carpets, Putin watches, and even frost-resistant Putin tomatoes. And now a pop song, “Someone Like Putin”—sung by a girl who wants a boyfriend “full of strength” who “doesn’t drink”—has mysteriously appeared on the charts, even though you can’t buy it anywhere and the group that recorded it doesn’t appear to exist.

What is his background?Born in 1952, into a working-class family in Leningrad, the young Putin became infatuated with the fictional Johan Weiss, a Soviet James Bond figure, and resolved to become a spy. After graduating with a law degree from Leningrad University, he joined the KGB and enjoyed a steady, unspectacular career, rising to head a regional office in East Germany just as the Soviet regime entered its terminal decline. Disgusted at the KGB’s failure to help Russia’s allies in the East German Stasi, Putin resigned from the KGB and threw in his lot with the new reformist mayor of Leningrad, Anatoli Sobchak. When Sobchak failed to get re-elected, in 1996, Putin used his KGB links to land a job in President Boris Yeltsin’s entourage. Yeltsin liked his directness and loyalty, and felt he had found a long-sought heir. In May 1998, he made Putin his deputy chief of staff; two months later, he gave him control of the FSB (the renamed KGB), and in 1999 appointed him prime minister.

And what sort of man is he?Unlike Yeltsin, Putin is fit, sober, and in control of his emotions, yet he also has a reputation for vulgarity. On coming to power, in 2000, he promised to deal with Chechen rebels by gunning them down wherever they were found, “even on the crapper.” At a recent meeting of leaders of the former Soviet states, he urged them to stop “chewing snot from one year to the next.” Yet when he wants to, he can be charming. George W. Bush declared after their first meeting that he had “looked into” Putin’s eyes and his soul, and “liked what he saw.”

Why has he become so popular?Shortly after Putin became prime minister, there was a series of bombings across Russia. Putin blamed them on Chechen separatists and launched a new military campaign in Chechnya. The tough response transformed Putin into Russia’s most popular politician, ensuring him a handsome election victory in 2000. The continuing fighting in Chechnya has left thousands dead and led to accusations of atrocious human-rights abuses, yet none of this has done Putin harm, not least because the war goes largely unreported in Russia’s carefully controlled media.

Has he been successful in other areas?The collapse of communism was followed by a decade of economic turmoil and corruption, culminating in debt default and the devaluation of the ruble in 1998. This, combined with the escalating problems in Chechnya, left Russians disconsolate and disillusioned. That mood has slowly been changing, however. Land can now be bought and sold, transforming Russia’s agriculture; taxes are being levied and paid; foreign investment is increasing; the economy is growing at 7.1 percent per year; inflation is low; bread lines are a distant memory. All of this has instilled the nation with confidence in the president.

So the economy is his main success story?For now. Long-term prospects, though, aren’t so good. Russia is dangerously dependent on oil and gas. Official figures claim oil and gas provide 9 percent of Russia’s GDP, but the World Bank puts the figure as high as 25 percent. When oil prices are high, as they’ve been this past year, this dependence works in Russia’s favor—but downturns inevitably send tremors through the entire economy. Economic growth outside the oil industry continues to be slowed by corruption, cronyism, and Putin’s complex relationship with the “oligarchs”—the handful of billionaire capitalists who dominate its industries. This year, Putin arrested the one oligarch—Mikhail Khodorkovsky—who was actually conducting his affairs honestly and opening his books to auditors.

Why did Putin do that?In the early days of his presidency, Putin struck a deal with the oligarchs. They wouldn’t interfere in politics; he wouldn’t interfere with how they made their fortunes. Khodorkovsky broke the pact, by heavily funding one of Russia’s genuinely pro-Western, reform-minded parties. This Putin was not prepared to countenance, so in the run-up to parliamentary elections, Putin had the billionaire dragged off his private plane, handcuffed, and charged with tax evasion. The last person with the clout to seriously challenge the president is now sitting in a gloomy Russian jail.

How else has Putin consolidated his power?Shutting down much of Russia’s independent media has ensured that only fawning stories about the president air on television and radio. More ominously, Putin has surrounded himself with former KGB cronies known as siloviki, or “strong ones,” and systematically ousted Yeltsin supporters from positions of power. He has also reinstated the FSB as the key organ of state power, giving it direct control over domestic wiretapping—something he swore to Yeltsin he’d never do.

Muzzling the media

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