Prominent Russians: Vladimir Putin
At the stroke of the 21st century, Vladimir Putin became one of the worlds’ most well-known politicians. Today his name is associated worldwide with Russia’s rise from the ashes – both economically and politically. But the second Russian President’s career had a rather humble beginning.
Vladimir Putin’s parents could hardly have imagined that their beloved son would one day take the helm of their vast country when he was born on 7 October 1952 in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His mother, Maria Ivanovna Shelomova, was a factory worker and his father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, a conscript in the Soviet Navy, where he served in the submarine fleet in the early 1930s.
The family lived in a small communal apartment when 8-year old Vladimir started school number 193, just across the street from his home. Putin’s first teachers remember him as a rowdy pupil. By 5th grade he was the only one in his class not to be a member of the Pioneers movement (a popular youth movement of the Soviet era) – largely because young Putin often misbehaved. All this changed, however, when he reached 6th grade and began practicing sports – namely martial arts like judo. In his autobiography, “Ot Pervogo Litsa” (“In the First Person”), Vladimir Putin wrote that back then his main motivation for taking up martial arts was a wish to emulate the intelligence officers portrayed on Soviet screens by actors like Vyacheslav Tikhonov.
Having graduated from high school in 1970, Putin entered the International Law Branch of the Law Department of Leningrad State University. He became a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and got acquainted with the man who was destined to change his fate later on – Leningrad’s future mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
After graduating from University, Putin decided to realize his childhood aspiration to work in the intelligence field. In 1975 he underwent training at the 401st KGB school in Okhta, Leningrad. He then went on to work in the Second Department (counter-intelligence) before he was transferred to the First Department, where his duties included monitoring foreigners and consular officials in Leningrad.
In 1985 his KGB career took a new twist – a fluent German speaker, Putin was sent to Dresden in East Germany, where Soviet troops were stationed at the time. He still remembers those years with special delight, which he confirmed in an interview on the on the anniversary of the troops’ pullout.
After Soviet troops left East Germany, Putin returned to Leningrad where, in June 1991, he assumed the position of surveillance officer with the International Affairs section of Leningrad State University. But the stint was short-lived – Putin formally resigned from the state security services on 20 August 1991, during the KGB-supported coup d’etat against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Nevertheless, his work at Leningrad State University got him re-acquainted with Anatoly Sobchak, then mayor of the city. It was Sobchak who brought Vladimir Putin into politics.
On 28 June 1991 Putin was appointed Head of the Committee for External Relations of the Saint Petersburg Mayor's Office. He was responsible for promoting international relations and foreign investments, as well as registering foreign business ventures in Saint Petersburg. Putin remained in this position until 1996. Nowadays, even his current political critics say that back then Putin was famed for his resistance to the temptation of corruption – self-exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky is often cited by the media as saying, “Putin never took bribes during his time in the office.”
The future president’s career in St. Petersburg ended with that of his patron. In 1996 Sobchak lost a mayoral vote and Putin lost his job. But his talent didn’t go unnoticed and he was summoned to Moscow to work in President Boris Yeltsin’s Administration.
Just a year later, in 1998, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin to head the Russian security services – the FSB. Yet again, his career at this post lasted for only a year – on 9 August 1999 Vladimir Putin was appointed Russia’s prime minister. In those years of political uncertainty, he became the country’s 5th head of government in less than eighteen months. Few expected Putin, who was virtually unknown to the general public, to last any longer than his predecessors. Moreover, his first premiership came amid a worsening crisis in the North Caucasus, where militants from Chechnya had invaded the neighboring Dagestan Republic – that’s when Putin said his memorable phrase about his “firm intention to kill militants even when they’re in a toilet.”
The Chechen military campaign and Putin’s tough stance against it forged his image in – and outside – Russia, and despite hard-fought campaigns by other candidates for the presidency, Putin's hard-line politics, his law-and-order image and his unrelenting approach to the crisis in Chechnya soon propelled him to victory over all his rivals.
Just hours before the clock marked the New Year in 2000, Boris Yeltsin unveiled a big sensation – in a televised address to the nation he announced his early retirement and recommended Vladimir Putin as his successor - another career change in less than a year. Putin was now a stand-in president of the Russian Federation – a status that changed to acting president after a presidential election in March 2000 that Putin won in the first round with 52.94 percent of the vote.
Vladimir Putin’s first chapter as Russia’s president could be better described as “an up-and-down period in modern Russian history.” Russia’s economy was booming and Putin implemented major changes to the country’s power structure. He also made sure that influential tycoons of the Yeltsin-era, sometimes called oligarchs, would no longer control politics in their favor. Such steps were greeted with support from Russians, most of whom blamed the wealthy businessmen – not always with legitimate backgrounds – for the severe economic crisis of the late 1990s. But amid a growth in the quality of living, Russia went through a difficult and violent time dealing with Chechen terrorists. On several occasions – like the Moscow theater siege, bombings of metro and apartment buildings in the Russian capital and the hostage taking in a Beslan school – the militants made it clear that they were willing to take the Chechen war beyond the republic’s borders. The whole country was gripped by fear. In these circumstances, Putin had to react with tough measures. His hard-line policies towards building security in the country were sometimes criticized by the Western media, but after the militant movement in the Northern Caucasus was suppressed and Chechnya finally saw peace, the Russian public openly declared their loyalty to Vladimir Putin. At the start of his second presidential term (which he again won in the first round with 71 percent of the vote), he enjoyed his all-time highest approval rating of more than 80 percent.
As the country continued its vast economic growth during Putin’s second term, which started in 2004, Russia’s foreign policy came into the spotlight.
Despite being strongly criticized by the Western media during his second term for what it called “autocracy” and “strangling the freedom of the press,” Putin managed to mend the greatest drawback of the Yeltsin-era – Russia finally had its voice heard in the international arena and became an important player in the global decision-making processes. Putin was strongly critical of US foreign policies. In 2007 he gave a memorable speech during a security conference in Munich, where the Russian leader lashed out at Washington’s attempts to govern the whole planet and called for the creation of a democratic multi-polar world, with the rule of international law.
As the Russian constitution didn’t allow the president to run for a third consecutive term, at the end of 2007 – several months ahead of the presidential vote – Vladimir Putin announced that he would support Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. Medvedev, in return, said that should he win the election, he would appoint Putin as prime minister. The result of the vote spoke for itself – having come practically out of the blue, Medvedev won in the first round as well with 70.28 percent of the vote, signaling the non-diminishing support for Putin’s way of controlling Russia’s policies.
On 8 May 2008, Vladimir Putin began his second spell as Russia’s prime minister – a post he has successfully occupied ever since.
PM Putin 2.0: Main challenges
The day after Dmitry Medvedev's presidential inauguration, Vladimir Putin's candidacy as Russia's next Prime Minister was backed by the State Duma, and on May 12th, 2008 he announced the makeup of the new government.
One of the first challenges after this was the conflict in South Ossetia - on August 8th, Georgia launched an attack on its breakaway republic. Hundreds of civilians were reportedly killed in the violence, many of whom had Russian citizenship. Several Russian UN peacekeepers also lost their lives. The Kremlin announced it had to protect Russian citizens and launched a military operation to force Tbilisi to peace. As a result, Georgian troops were pushed out of South Ossetia, which, along with another former Georgian breakaway republic, Abkhazia, was recognized by Moscow as independent. The conflict wasn't only the first serious test for President Medvedev's administration, but for Putin's government as well. Both managed to show strong unity, enforcing the image of a powerful political tandem.
Shortly after the conflict ended, Putin’s government was hit by another problem – the global economic crisis. And if military action is more the President’s responsibility, looking after Russia’s economy is one of the main tasks of the Prime Minister. In September-October 2008, Vladimir Putin announced the first anti-crisis measures. It was decided that state money should be largely used to help cover foreign debts of a number of Russian banks and corporations, restore liquidity and financial stability. Over 3% of Russia’s GDP was used for this. Other measures were aimed at supporting Russia’s car-making industry and raising the custom fees for a number of foreign-made products. The crisis worsened, with a strong decline of oil prices and weakening of the rouble. Nevertheless, according to a World Bank report from March 2010, the Russian economy lost less than expected due to the government’s anti-crisis measures.
In November 2010, Vladimir Putin was named the fourth most influential person in the world by Forbes.
Eurasian Economic Union
Restoring the industrial chains in the post-Soviet area became one of Putin’s public goals by the second half of his term as Prime Minister, which led to the establishment of the Trade Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The organization’s main aim is to abolish trade barriers between the three states, which are among the largest economies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). As a result, by the end of 2011 the three countries managed to increase their total trade turnover by over 40% in just six months.
However, in November 2011 Vladimir Putin voiced another ambitious idea – the Eurasian Economic Union. Based on the foundation of the Trade Union, the Eurasian Union is meant to take cooperation between its members to a whole new level. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan will be the first three nations to form the organization, others are expected to follow in the near future. “This is an event of true interstate and geopolitical importance. For the first time since the collapse of the USSR, steps are being taken to restore natural economic and trade links in the post-Soviet area», - Putin says.
In November 2011, Vladimir Putin came second in Forbes's new list of most influential people, largely due to the Eurasia Union project.
2012 Presidential race
In late September 2011, at the United Russia convention in Moscow, President Medvedev announced that he wasn’t planning to run for a second term and, instead, proposed Vladimir Putin for the country’s top job. Putin accepted, saying that if he wins the election in 2012, Dmitry Medvedev can take the seat of prime minister. No surprises occurred and following March’s presidential election the two swapped chairs - Vladimir Putin returned to presidential duties and Dmitry Medvedev was appointed the country’s prime minister. The inauguration ceremony of the old-new president was held on May, 7.
According to official figures, Vladimir Putin remains the most popular political figure in Russia since 1999, even though his public approval ratings did start declining in 2010-2011.
According to Levada-Center, in the last year of his presidency, Putin was supported by 79-87% of Russians. By late 2010, strong criticism of the government had spread, mainly through the internet and upper-class-oriented press.
According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation in July 2011, Putin’s approval ratings have dropped to 50%, with 21% of the population against him staying in power.
Written by Aleksey Yaroshevsky, RT correspondent