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.
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Mr. Strokan of the Kommersant daily says Putin was the "proverbial man on horseback." He says Putin "came at a time when democracy seemed to be failing, and he had the image of a soldier with clean hands and a firm heart, and that appealed to people ... but it was all a PR operation, of course. Once he had power, he took control of the major media to ensure that no one could use that method against him."Skip to next paragraph
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Within a few years, the Kremlin effectively controlled all national TV outlets and the owners of some of those stations that had dared oppose him – tycoons like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky – had fled the country.
But as the space for public dissent contracted under Putin, the economy expanded – rapidly. That was in large part due to skyrocketing oil prices. But prosperity trickled down and many Russians appeared content to set aside demands for political freedoms as living standards swiftly rose.
Political opponents? Crushed
Not everyone, of course, has a rosy view of his leadership. Putin's years in power have been punctuated by wars and terrorist strikes, which he used to crush political opponents and ratchet up Kremlin control.
Just weeks after Putin became prime minister, Russia was rocked by a series of still-unexplained apartment bombings that killed 300 people, panicked the country, and led the Kremlin to launch a new war against rebels in the separatist republic of Chechnya. In that atmosphere, voters stampeded to support the pro-Putin party in December 1999 parliamentary elections.
The ongoing war in Chechnya, as well as a harrowing attack that led to the poison-gas deaths of 120 people at a theater in the heart of Moscow and another that killed hundreds of schoolchildren in the southern town of Beslan, led to dramatic political shake-ups from which the Kremlin and security services emerged with more power than ever.
"To every crisis, Putin responded with consolidating his control," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Pro et Contra journal published by the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Public politics in Russia are now 100 percent controlled from the top. No other figure can emerge, in any political capacity, without the approval of the Kremlin," she contends.
Putin also stacked the Kremlin with KGB veterans and arrested Russia's wealthiest man – oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky – on charges of fraud, tax evasion, and embezzlement to enforce his new order. Critics say that the "new men" Putin brought with him from the security services to clean up the country have actually spawned more corruption than ever.
"Putin brought these security people in, because it was thought they were the only ones who could be trusted," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, a website that reports on the security services. "But in fact Putin created a state where there is a convergence between big business and the state. The secret services now work more on behalf of corporations than they do for the interests of the country," he says.
As Russia's oil-fueled prosperity fades amid the global economic crisis, Putin may be trapped in the system he created, says Ms. Lipman.
"He stepped down from the presidency last year, while staying on as prime minister, because he cannot afford to leave," she says. "He is essential to the working of the system. If he disappeared, it would quickly become unstable."
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