Why Russians look to Putin

With approval ratings above 70 percent, Putin is expected to easily win a second term next month.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

For more than four years, his public approval ratings have stayed at above 70 percent - undented despite mass poverty, urban terrorism, and an unresolved war in Chechnya.

Running for reelection in a vote set for March 14, President Vladimir Putin is apparently so confident that he has declined to debate any of his six challengers, and recently told supporters he would not retire from public life before anointing a successor who will "ensure a continuation of what there is now."

While Mr. Putin's popularity in his first term is clear, experts differ on its origins. Some argue that he's simply benefited from high global prices for Russia's biggest export, oil. Others suggest that Kremlin media control and straitjacketing of the democratic process have made public opinion irrelevant.

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But a growing number of observers say the majority of Russians have good reason to believe in Putin as the man who turned his country's fortunes around, spinning stability out of chaos.

"There is a totally different mood in this country from what we had four years ago," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of Politika, an independent Moscow think tank. "Everyone was sunk in depression after all the disasters and humiliations of 1990s. Today there is optimism. The country is moving ahead, and we have things to be proud of again."

A virtual unknown, tapped as former President Boris Yeltsin's successor in 1999, Putin inherited a country reeling from a decade of economic contraction and foreign policy drift, the 1998 financial crash, and a wave of corruption scandals reaching into the upper echelons of the Kremlin. Perhaps most of all, the articulate and vigorous former KGB spy, who assumed power on New Year's Day 2000, shone by contrast with his doddering and sickly predecessor.

"Putin was the un-Yeltsin," says Alexei Pushkov, a leading TV public-affairs commentator. "Yeltsin squandered his early popularity, and by the end was hated by the electorate. But where Yeltsin was drunk, rambling, and buffoonish, Putin was young, sober, fit, and serious. People sighed with relief to see him."

Kicking off his campaign last week, Putin trumpeted his record in a long reelection speech that was broadcast repeatedly on Russia's main state-owned TV channels. In the past four years, he claimed, the economy grew by nearly 30 percent, inflation fell by two-thirds, the battered ruble stabilized, real wages doubled, and Russia's hard-currency reserves vaulted to an all-time high of $84 billion. Much of the good news is true, although Putin did not mention that nearly a third of Russia's GDP is based on oil - an export that is economically unstable, though it has fetched high prices in recent years.

Critics charge that the very style of Putin's campaign kickoff shows what's gone wrong on his watch. While Putin refuses to confront his challengers, Russia's three Kremlin-controlled TV networks keep him constantly in the public eye through carefully tailored news formats that make him look commanding and do not depict him facing criticism or answering hard questions.

In recent news broadcasts, Putin has been shown meeting with cheering supporters, visiting a nuclear sub sporting full naval uniform, and talking with military leaders about Russia's "superior" missile technology. State TV barely mentioned that at least two of the missile tests Putin was supposed to have witnessed actually failed.

By contrast, four of Putin's six electoral challengers were herded onto the first of several free-time slots on state TV last week, and ordered by the host to debate each other. "Bring Putin here and we will have a debate with him," said an exasperated-looking Irina Khakamada, an independent liberal candidate. "Putin is depriving people of the right to choose," echoed Nikolai Kharitonov, the communist challenger.

"Media coverage of the election so far shows there will be no equal playing field," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Moreover, he says, Putin's pledge to groom a successor - much as Yeltsin installed him in the president's job - suggests that the Kremlin is intent on removing power from the realm of democratic choice. "It has now been declared to society that the incumbent head of state will choose his own heir," says Mr. Ryabov. "That's tantamount to announcing that there won't be a free play of forces in the political process."

Russian authorities have exerted de facto control over most of the main media in the past four years and manipulated the party system to reshape elections into mock contests posing little challenge to the Kremlin's writ. So-called "managed democracy" has proved so effective that none of Russia's traditional opposition leaders bothered to run against Putin in this election.

Visiting Russia last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell criticized Russia's political development in an opinion piece in Izvestia Jan. 26: "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Political power is not yet fully tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society - free media and development of a political party system, for example - have not yet attained independent reality."

Putin's style may simply match traditional Russian political culture, which sees a strong leader as the embodiment of the state. Many experts note, however, that the Putin machine will probably stall if a majority of Russians ever grow unhappy with his performance.

"The focal point on one leader helps a society that is increasingly fragmented to feel symbolically united and also situates that leader in peoples' minds above everyday concerns," says Alexei Levinson, head of social research at the Yury Levada Analytical Center, an independent public opinion agency. "Our polls show that when people are asked who is to blame for failures and disasters, such as terrorist attacks, most do not name the president. But when asked who should be thanked for stability and economic growth, most say Putin. That doesn't seem reasonable, but there it is."

Says Vitaly Tretyakov, a political columnist with the state-owned Rossiskaya Gazeta newspaper: "Russia is today a kind of plebiscite democracy, where one-man rule is preserved through democratic institutions," he says, "But as long as there is stability, people will be primed to trust this man, and only this man."

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