The Putin phenomenon by DMITRY KOSIREV*

August 05, 2009, Wednesday/ 17:06:00
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who will pay another visit to Turkey on Aug. 6, is one of the most influential and popular figures in Russia.President Dmitry Medvedev, who has held office for over a year, has caught up with and even surpassed the previous president with respect to all parameters. Still, many people believe that despite the sympathy toward Medvedev, Putin will always throw him into the shade.

The success of leaders can be assessed by comparing the time when they take over rule and the time when they leave. In this regard, it is no surprise that Time selected Putin as their Man of the Year in 2008, and one can expect to see the Russian prime minister rise in popularity in all international journals.

When Putin became the Russian president in August 1999, it was obvious that then-Prime Minister Boris Yeltsin's health was deteriorating. One could feel the influence of oligarchs on the government. The country had been increasingly dependent on loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and hit by one crisis after another. In the international arena, Russia could not make its voice heard. This became obvious when the US and NATO bombed Belgrade.

For 10 years straight, the Russian nation waited hopelessly for the revival of the country, watching in despair as the state apparatus failed to provide the most basic services. As the Russian spacecraft Buran was placed as a decoration in an entertainment park, the country's ideals for education and advanced technology shattered. The country started to feel the bitter taste of the values it had held in high esteem for so long, such as honesty, solidarity, the priority of science, social responsibility and the restructuring of trade, being sacrificed to wild capitalism.

 The inhabitants of Russian cities no longer felt secure. The Chechen issue gave the country a hard time both internally and in the international arena. When Putin assumed office, this issue was the first problem to be settled. This was greatly welcomed by the Russian people, who longed for security and order. When Putin handed over the presidency in 2008, we saw that the state was shifting toward a strictly central orientation. Nevertheless, even in Chechnya, mosques, schools and theater mushroomed. Numerous public opinions polls agree that stability was attained across the country. The perspective that prioritized popular demands was embraced eagerly by the majority of people. In 2008, the country was ready to elect whoever Putin might hint at as president. And this was how it happened.

Putin put an end to the country's dependence on the IMF. Here, too, the unprecedented rise in oil and energy revenues played a major role. We can assert that a happy middle class has emerged and poverty has been minimized. The people endorsed the work that transformed regions into a large worksite and continued until the crisis. Under Putin's rule, Russia rose from being one of the world's floundering economies to the ranks of future economic behemoths such as China, India and Brazil. Excluding some racist approaches, the Russian people were saved from the feelings of an inferiority complex.

Putin as the son of a plant worker

Many books have been written about Putin, and numerous interviews have been held with him. Many attempted to draw up his psychological profile. A major event in his life was his employment at the State Security Committee of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) after he graduated from Leningrad University in 1975. He also worked as the director of the German-Russian Friendship House in Dresden, Germany, between 1985 and 1989. This was a peaceful mission, and his tasks included establishing contacts, collecting news and running analyses. Putin's career as an agent added to his popularity among millions of Russian voters, though it did elicit a certain coolness toward him among pro-Western Russian elites.

Putin was born in St. Petersburg -- formerly Leningrad -- in 1952 to a family of first-generation workers who migrated to the city from a village. Father Vladimir Putin worked first as a security official and then as a master worker at a train car production plant. Putin's mother was a nurse. If the Russian president had not made it into Leningrad University, one of the best universities in the world, his biography would have been an ordinary one. He came from among the ordinary people, worked hard and became successful.

Another major factor in Putin's popularity is sports. Putin is known as a judoka, i.e., he can protect himself and is aware of his own capabilities. In this regard, Putin's symbolic contribution to the development of sports and its adoption as a mode of healthy life should be acknowledged.

Putin and Erdoğan are alike

The similarities between Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with whom he has met several times, are obvious. Of course, the main similarity is in terms of their political profiles: both started their careers as ordinary men, both secured the support of the majority of society and both had major achievements in domestic and international politics.

Erdoğan is a rare dynamic politician, and he responded harshly to a speech by the Israeli president at Davos. Similarly, Putin clobbered the US for its unilateral and unfair policies in international relations in his Munich speech. Frankly, these are not the sorts of things one can expect from ordinary politicians.

One may ask: as a country that can make up its mind independently, how does Turkey perceive Putin? At the very least, Turkey perceives him with respect and understanding. It is perfectly natural that Putin and Erdoğan may have disagreements on certain issues. Both try to protect the interests of their respective countries in the best way possible. Overall, bilateral relations are improving, and the two countries understand and trust each other. In this, both leaders' roles must be acknowledged.

*Dmitry Kosirev is a political analyst with Ria Novosti.

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