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Ten years on, Russia's Putin has gone from 'nobody' to unshakeably powerful

He has used a vigorous image and ruthless political strategy to recentralize state power. Some analysts expect he will soon formally return to the presidency.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2009

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rides a horse in southern Siberia's Tuva region on Aug.3 while on a short vacation.

Alexi Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Reuters

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Ten years ago this week Vladimir Putin, a diminutive former KGB agent with an enigmatic smile, made his first appearance on Russia's political stage. He was Russia's fifth prime minister in barely a year, a virtual unknown plucked from bureaucratic obscurity. He was appointed to a thankless job by an ailing and increasingly out-of-touch President Boris Yeltsin, whose stumbling, corruption-plagued regime appeared to be swiftly falling apart.

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The press at the time was filled with surprise and widespread derision at Mr. Yeltsin's "latest mistake." No one expected the new guy to last more than a couple of months. "Everybody thought Putin was a nobody, with zero chances," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist for the liberal daily Kommersant. "The Yeltsin regime was seen as a sinking ship that had been abandoned by everyone with ability."

What a difference the hindsight of a decade makes. Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, making Mr. Putin the acting president. He won a convincing electoral victory a few months later and has never looked back.

Putin, back in the prime minister's job after two successful terms in the Kremlin, is now regarded as Russia's indispensable leader. He has consistently higher public approval ratings – averaging a celestial 74 percent over the past 10 years – than his handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev. Many experts believe it is Putin who actually rules Russia and, thanks to constitutional amendments rushed through parliament last year, he might well be back for a much longer presidential term in 2012.

Beloved KGB tough guy

Retrospectives in the Russian press have pointed to Putin's blend of KGB-style tough-talking; his patriotic commitment to rebuilding Russian state power; and his often engaging, undeniably articulate public personality as the secrets to his success.

When he came to power, Putin brought good health, sobriety, and an active lifestyle – he is a black belt in judo – that proved a political tonic for Russians weary of the doddering and sometimes incoherent Yeltsin. Putin's action-man image still serves him well. Last week Russian newspapers featured full-page photos of a vacationing Putin fishing bare-chested in a rushing Siberian stream, riding horseback up a steep mountain path, and preparing to dive to the bottom of Lake Baikal aboard a Mir-2 submarine.

He also had a clearly articulated vision of where he wanted Russia to go. Early in his Kremlin tenure, Putin posted a statement of goals online, in which he declared himself a "statist" who aimed to modernize Russia by harmonizing its national traditions with European democratic values. A lot has since fallen between the cracks of that promise, say experts.

"Putin's main idea was to create a strong, united Russian state, and to do this through a strict, top-down system of power staffed by people loyal to himself," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "He tried to position himself in the public mind as a 'good czar,' according to Russian tradition, and he's been pretty successful at that. But his objective of making the state an effective instrument to promote national development has not turned out at all as advertised."