The Putin decade

MOSCOW — He’s met oilmen in the Far East, bared his torso to ride horseback through the fields of Siberia and given rousing speeches at a youth camp devoted to supporting his rule.

As he marks 10 years in power, Vladimir Putin has many memories to savor.

When an ailing and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin appointed the little known KGB spy as prime minister on Aug. 9, 1999, the country was in post-Soviet shambles. Putin’s supporters say he has restored stability and prestige to Russia. His detractors say any stability has come at the price of freedom of the press, assembly and dissent, and has spurred widespread corruption.

Through it all, Putin has crafted a careful image, spawning a cult of personality little rivaled in the world.

His face adorns many office walls, government and commercial alike. “Putinka” is the name of one of the country’s most popular brands of vodka (though Putin likes to stress that he cares for his health and does not drink). He’s starred in a judo instructional video;

 inspired pop songs and movies;

as well as a line of women’s underwear adorned with the words “Vova, I’m with you!”, using the short form of “Vladimir.” The line was unveiled on Red Square last winter. Despite a financial crisis that has decimated Russian industry and spurred widespread unemployment, Putin’s ratings remain sky high. The Levada Center, an independent pollster, recently put his approval rating at 78 percent.

Putin’s image as strong leader, man of the people and unrivalled savior has helped keep his rating high, analysts said.

“All his gestures are symbolic ones that show he wants to be the key national leader and wants to be number one,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Center.

“It’s part of the game,” she said. “It shows he’s the only one that can solve the country’s problems — that he’s tough enough and macho enough to address all parts of society.”

Putin’s latest stunts certainly did the trick. Images of the 56-year-old premier flooded television and newspapers both at home and abroad this week, as a bare-chested Putin rode horseback through southern Siberia, fished in a river and lounged about the rugged terrain like a Siberian cowboy.

The macho photo-ops sit well with many Russians.

“I know many women who like Putin,” said Nikita Borovikov, the leader of Nashi, a Kremlin youth group. “Kids, both girls and guys, like a strong figure.”

About 50,000 Nashi activists recently gathered for their annual camp at Lake Seliger, near Tver, to celebrate their hero and craft strategies to contribute to Russia’s future. Quotes from Putin hung from the trees. His image, along with President Dmitry Medvedev’s, were ubiquitous. Watching Putin’s arrival at the camp this year, you would think the ghost of Michael Jackson himself had descended.

 

Putin’s tough guy image contrasts sharply with that of Medvedev, a quiet lawyer who has yet to appeal to Russians’ sense of bravado, despite his oversight of the popular Russia-Georgia war last year. Many analysts think Putin is poised to run for president when the next elections are held in 2012. Constitutional changes passed last year extended the presidential term from four to six years, meaning many days of Putin could lie ahead.

“Putin wants to be number one and number one can only be in the Kremlin,” Shevtsova said.

“It’s an uncomfortable partnership for Medvedev,” she said. “He’s forced to take the back seat and I’m not sure he likes it. But he’s decent, from a human point of view, and loyal and he follows the deal.”

One move that has analysts puzzled is Medvedev’s announcement Friday that he had ordered Russia’s prosecutor general to investigate the usefulness of the country’s state corporations. The state corporations, like bank VEB and industrial conglomerate Russian Technologies, were the brainchild of Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008 and believes in a heavy state presence in the economy. His allies lead many of the firms.

Still, it is believed that little is done in Russia’s government without Putin’s consent.

Russia is awash in memorials to mark the anniversary this weekend of the Russia-Georgia war last year, and it appears little attention will be given to celebrating the anniversary of Putin’s ascent to the top tiers of government.

Neither United Russia, the party created to back his rule, nor Nashi, the youth group created to promote it among teenagers, said they were planning any celebrations.