Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich

Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich
(1952– )
   Politician. Born in Leningrad on 7 October 1952, Vladimir Putin grew up in humble surroundings as the son of a former Soviet sailor and member of the NKVD (the forbearer of the KGB). In his early life, he took up sambo, a Soviet form of martial arts, before moving into judo. At the Leningrad State University, Putin studied international law, and became a protégé of Anatoly Sobchak. During his college years, Putin became a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU); he would remain in the party until it was outlawed under Boris Yeltsin.
   In 1975, he joined the KGB, where he began surveillance on foreign visitors to Leningrad. Ten years later, he received a foreign posting in Dresden, East Germany. In 1990, he returned to his hometown and became reacquainted with Sobchak, then mayor of the city, for whom he served as an advisor on international affairs. During the August Coup, Putin resigned his commission in the security services. During the first half of the 1990s, Putin controlled the Committee for External Relations, handling foreign investment and St. Petersburg’s relations with foreign governments. Unlike many of his peers, Putin reputedly never succumbed to the attraction of corruption during the period of intense economic chaos (while his actual wealth is opaque, officially, Putin’s financial situation is modest for a former world leader).
   During the latter half of the 1990s, Putin rose through the ranks of St. Petersburg politicians, assuming the leadership of the local branch of Our HomeRussia in 1995. In 1998, he attracted the attention of Yeltsin, who appointed him to manage negotiations between the federal government and the regions. Shortly thereafter, he was tapped to head the FSB, bringing the former KGB agent back to his roots, and became a member of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. During 1999, Yeltsin, with the help of the business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, began preparing the ground for Putin’s election as the next president of the Russian Federation.
   On 16 August 1999, the State Duma approved Putin’s appointment for the office of prime minister. His principal rivals at the time included Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov (though neither challenged him in the 2000 presidential election). Putin, though not a member, backed the Unity party in the 1999 State Duma elections, thus guaranteeing himself strong parliamentary support in the upcoming presidential poll. Despite his status as a relative unknown, Putin’s backers deftly used the 1999 apartment bombings and Shamil Basayev’s armed incursion into Dagestan to position the heir apparent as the “law and order” choice at the time when the country lurched toward the second Chechen War.
   On 31 December 1999, Yeltsin stepped down from office, leaving Putin as acting president. The news was broadcast on national television channels as part of the holiday celebrations, and at first, many people thought the announcement was a prank. As a quid pro quo, Putin issued a decree protecting Yeltsin and his family from corruption charges. Three months later, on 26 March 2000, Putin won the presidential poll with 53 percent of the vote, becoming the second popularly elected President of the Russian Federation. He immediately began building what he referred to as a vertical of power through the tempering of Yeltsin’s asymmetrical federalism. He gained the right to dismiss the heads of the country’s federal subjects and began the process of bringing regional laws into harmony with federal laws.
   In 2000, Putin also called a meeting with the country’s oligarchs, demanding they avoid direct involvement in Russian politics in return for the safety of their vast fortunes. Subsequently, Putin began supporting the rise of a competitive clique of pro-Kremlin magnates with close ties to the “power ministries” (FSB, the military, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs) and affiliated siloviki>. His popularity, however, took its first hit with the Kursk submarine disaster of 2000. In the eyes of ordinary Russians, his mishandling of the situation seriously marred his presidency: Putin’s attempt to keep the details of the incident from the public reminded the nation of the Chernobyl disaster and an earlier period when the government did not properly inform the citizenry of catastrophic events. During the remainder of his first term, Russia would suffer from a spate of spectacular acts of terrorism, with especially deadly effects in Moscow and the North Caucasus. Putin’s use of force, however, met with wide approval, as did his reining in of the media after the Nord-Ost theater siege in 2002.
   Prior to his election for a second term, Putin swept out the remaining members of the Yeltsin administration, including Mikhail Kasyanov, demonstrating his intent to govern more aggressively in the future. On 14 March 2004, Putin won 71 percent of the vote. Gennady Zyuganov, the perennial Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) candidate for the presidency, chose not to run, citing the inevitability of the popular incumbent’s reelection. Putin’s approval ratings as president rarely dropped below 65 percent and often ran as high 85 percent. A commercialized “cult of personality” also swept the country, with Putin-themed products and songs, as well as emulations of his active, teetotaler lifestyle. Putin’s “strong hand,” when combined with high oil and natural gas prices, proved irresistible to the electorate, especially given his favorable coverage in the press. At the same time, the Russian press, especially Runet journalists, have increasingly featured Putin through caricature drawings, which, on the one hand, carry a critical stance, and on the other, help promote his popularity among the people.
   In the wake of the Beslan hostage crisis, Putin enacted his sweeping 2004–2005 electoral reforms, which gave the president the right to appoint regional governors (though they must still be confirmed by regional legislatures), as well as consolidating the political party system in the Duma. Collectively, these reforms strengthened Russia’s executive branch and expanded Putin’s personal power. Putin also began using fiscal surpluses to rebuild the country’s anemic welfare and health care systems. Plans for improvement in agriculture, housing, education, and the military were also instituted. In October 2004, federal authorities arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man and the owner of Yukos; his subsequent trial for tax evasion was viewed as punishment for violating the terms of the oligarch behavior stipulated by Putin in 2000. While Putin denied he was responsible for the arrest and prosecution, citing the independence of the judicial system, many at home and abroad viewed the case as a show trial and the first salvo in a war on antiKremlin factions (Khodorkovsky had given money to a number of political parties and was exploring running for president in 2008). During his second administration, Putin became more strident in his defense of “sovereign democracy”—usually labeled “managed democracy” or “neo-authoritarianism” in the West—suggesting that Russia (and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States) enjoyed the right to move toward political pluralism at its own pace. Under Putin, Russia’s weak civil society withered further, particularly after the Kremlin began funding its own youth movements and pseudo-nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) while simultaneously disrupting the activities of foreign-backed NGOs. His continued campaign to control the media—either through state acquisition of television stations or censorship, intimidation, and/or prosecution of journalists—also weakened Russia’s social fabric. Putin’s effective use of nationalism, however, blunted criticism of his actions inside the country even as he suffered criticism as a crypto-fascist abroad. His partial “rehabilitation” of Joseph Stalin, long a hero of the KPRF and older Russians, and campaign to remake the Soviet Union’s role in World War II won him accolades from most Russians, though it rankled many in the Baltic States and Ukraine.
   In terms of foreign relations, Putin demonstrated himself to be a pragmatist, but also a shrewd defender of Russia’s national interest and advocate for Russia’s return to great-power status in Eurasia. Shortly after George W. Bush’s election as president of the United States, Putin met the leader in Slovenia, where they established what was marketed as a fast friendship. In the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Putin—acting against the advice of his cabinet—established substantive counterterrorism links with Washington and backed American plans to deploy military bases in Central Asia to support the war in Afghanistan. In return, Putin won the Bush administration’s support of Russia’s often brutal campaign in Chechnya (which was brought to a satisfactory, if incomplete, resolution by 2006).
   Not willing to pass up an opportunity, Putin sided with France and Germany against the American- and British-led war in Iraq, strengthening Russia’s position within the European Union without doing much damage to Russia’s ties to Washington. Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol won him more kudos from Berlin and Paris. U.S.-Russian relations would, however, worsen during Putin’s last year in office over U.S. antimissile installations in Poland, and spats with Great Britain over espionage and the Aleksandr Litvinenko case also marred Putin’s record abroad, if not at home. Through a combination of economic power and geopolitics, Putin expanded Russia’s influence over the near abroad, especially during his second term when Uzbekistan—long suspicious of Moscow—returned to the fold after Western criticism of its actions during a 2005 crackdown in its Andijan province. He was not totally effective in expanding Russian power, however; due to worsening relations with the Baltics after their admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the Kremlin’s political clout in its former possessions was reduced dramatically. Skillful use of petropolitics, conducted through the proxy of Gazprom, has kept Kiev within the Russian sphere of influence.
   Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Putin developed closer ties with China, and marginalized American influence in Central Asia. Globally, Putin resurrected the superpower image of Russia by expanding arms exports and diplomatic support to a number of unpopular regimes including Venezuela, Syria, and Iran, while simultaneously resuming long-range bomber missions and seeking to control large portions of the resource-rich Arctic Ocean. He was also instrumental in winning the 2014 Winter Games for Sochi, one of his favorite vacation destinations, and Russia’s so-called southern capital.
   As he prepared to leave office in 2008, Putin enjoyed immense support at home, in no small part due to his stewardship of the economy. Russia’s gross domestic product had doubled during the Putin years. Industry grew, as did salaries, while unemployment noticeably decreased. A new middle class had developed, though the wealth gap remained a problem and inflation remained a perennial issue. Furthermore, Russia’s so-called national champions (large enterprises such as Gazprom, Lukoil, and Norilsk Nickel) had become major players in the global economy. Consequently, Putin faced little resistance to his choice as the next president, Dmitry Medvyedev. As promised during the election campaign, Medvyedev appointed Putin his prime minister after being sworn in. As head of the government, Putin has had to deal with severe challenges to his country and flagging popularity among the masses. The 2008 South Ossetian War, though undeniably popular at home, weakened the economy due to massive capital flight in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Shortly thereafter, the effects of the 2008–2009 global financial crisis struck Russia, sending oil and natural gas prices, as well as the Russian stock market, plummeting. In December 2008, Putin—condemned as “Putler” (playing on images of Adolf Hitler)—became the focus of protestors in Vladivostok, Primorsky Krai; new duties on imported used cars angered many residents whose livelihoods depended on reselling the vehicles in other parts of the federation.
   While it is clear that Putin remains the most important figure in national politics, Medvyedev has begun slowly building a power base independent of Putin and has implicitly criticized his predecessor’s actions in some areas, particularly the stifling of civil society. Regardless of Medvyedev’s ability to rally support moving forward, Putin, who was recognized as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in late 2007 for his ability to bring Russia out of chaos and put the country on solid footing, is well situated to run for president in the next elections.
   Putin married his wife, Lyudmila Shkrebneva, in 1983; the couple has two daughters, both of whom grew up in East Germany. Putin speaks nearly fluent German and is learning English. He embraced the Russian Orthodox Church after a near-death experience in the early 1990s, but rarely talks about religion in public. His fondness for dogs and Eurasian wildlife is well documented.
   See also Putin Doctrine.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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