Putin: Russian strongman facing era of uncertainty

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  • Monday, February 27, 2012
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    No arrests were made as thousands of Russians marched in opposition to Putin running for President.
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    MOSCOW, February 27, 2012 (AFP) - Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia almost unchallenged for 12 years in which stability was restored but civil liberties curtailed, is preparing to reclaim the Kremlin in an unpredictable new era.
    Barely troubled by serious opposition and sitting pretty at the top of an authoritarian power structure, Putin was jolted by the mass protests that broke out in the aftermath of December's parliamentary elections.
    While he should still win presidential elections on Sunday at a canter to reclaim the Kremlin after his four year stint as prime minister, the challenges for Putin are only just beginning as Russian society changes at speed.
    Putin initially brushed off the rallies and, in a now notorious remark, mocked their white ribbon symbol as looking like a condom. The authorities then offered cautious political reforms in a bid to placate the protestors.
    Unsurprisingly for a former KGB officer who once lamented the USSR collapse as a "geopolitical tragedy", Putin has shown no sign of softening his tough leadership or his insistence that Russia must be a great and feared power.
    And Putin can point to great successes -- a relative economic stability which banished the financial nightmares Russia endured in the 1990s and a reawakening of national pride in Russians who felt nostalgic for the USSR.
    Yet with an ever growing middle class showing little fear of criticising the authorities on the Internet, the course of Putin's new six year Kremlin term remains anything but certain.
    "People's dissatisfaction has built up and this is not going to end after the elections," said analyst Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. "And this has mostly been provoked by Putin and his system of power."
    For his supporters, Putin is no less than the saviour of modern Russia and for his sharpest critics the latest in a line of dangerously authoritarian leaders that led from Ivan the Terrible to Stalin.
    He presided over the cancellation of elections for regional governors, the emasculation of state media and the jailing of Russia's former richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky in what many saw as a politically motivated case.
    Putin began his career in the lower ranks of the KGB intelligence service, serving in the former East Germany, and never lost the aura of a secret service officer.
    He rose up through the city hall of his hometown Saint Petersburg under his mentor, then mayor Anatoly Sobchak. His meteoric rise continued in 1996 when he entered the Kremlin administration of Boris Yeltsin. By 1998, Putin was heading the KGB's successor, the FSB.
    Yeltsin in August 1999 named Putin his prime minister and when the ailing Kremlin chief sensationally resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, Putin was appointed president.
    He won elections and consolidated power amid Russia's second war against separatists in Chechnya that observers said was marked by horrific rights violations and which came in response to a series of apartment block bombings that were never fully explained.
    Putin surrounded himself with a loyal clique of allies many of whom took key roles at big state energy companies. These were the "siloviki", security figures who came from the KGB, as well as ex colleagues from Saint Petersburg.
    The expiry in 2008 of the maximum two consecutive Kremlin terms posed no obstacle to Putin's grip on power. His hand-picked successor and fellow Saint Petersburger Dmitry Medvedev immediately appointed him prime minister.
    Keeping the highest of profiles, he posed with pretty much every wild predator which could be found in Russia, including a tiger, snow leopard and polar bear. He dived to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a mini-submarine and drove a Formula 1 car.
    But in the last year whispers started that, just possibly, Putin was losing his touch.
    Putin found himself booed by the crowd when he climbed into the ring after a bloody no-holds barred fight. Two ancient Greek urns which he miraculously discovered while diving in the summer later turned out to have been placed there for the purpose.
    His plan to return to the Kremlin was announced at a ruling party congress in September in a manner so carefully choreographed it gave many Russians the impression of being insolently cooked up behind closed doors.
    His private life is described curtly on Putin's official website -- "married, two children".
    Putin has not been seen in public with his wife Lyudmila for months. And a slew of rumours published on the Internet centred on Olympic gymnastics champion Alina Kabayeva has never broken a complete media taboo on the issue.


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