When Vladimir Putin (born 1952) was appointed prime minister of Russia, very little was known about his background. This former Soviet intelligence agent entered politics in the early 1990s and rose rapidly. By August of 1999, ailing President Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister. When Yeltsinstepped down that December, Putin became the acting president. He went on to win the March 2000 election to retain his presidential post.
Putin (POO-teen) was born on October 1, 1952, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. He is an only child. His father, a decorated war veteran, was a foreman in a metal factory. He died in August of 1999, the week his son was appointed prime minister of Russia. Putin's mother, who did not work outside the home, died a year and a half before that. Growing up in Leningrad, Putin lived with his parents in a communal apartment with two other families. Though religion was not permitted in the Soviet Union, his mother secretly had him baptized as an Orthodox Christian. He remains a practicing member of the Church and delivered a Christmas Eve speech in Moscow in 1999.
Though he was a small-built child and is still a short and slim man, Putin could hold his own in fights thanks to martial arts classes. By the age of 16 he was a top-ranked expert at sambo, a Russian combination of judo and wrestling. He attended a prestigious high school, School 281, which only accepted students with near-perfect grades. The institution was the only one in Russia to stress chemistry, which was Putin's interest. However, he soon gravitated toward liberal arts and biology. Putin worked at the school radio station, where he played music by the Beatles and other Western rock bands. Though he attended parties, he was reportedly more mature than others his age, according to one of his fellow students quoted by Michael Wines in the New York Times . Fascinated with spy movies as a teen, he aspired to become a KGB agent.
At Leningrad State University, Putin was the school's judo champion in 1974. He graduated from the law department in 1975. Wines in the New York Times noted that Putin had graduated with honors, but a Newsweek article reported that his thesis adviser, Valery Musin, said he had received "good but not great grades," though he was a "meticulous" student. The Newsweek piece pointed out that his scholastic record had been removed from the university's archives. Later, he received a doctorate in economics as well.
Instead of entering the law field right out of school, Putin landed a job with the KGB, the only one in his class of 100 to be chosen. Though some reports stated that he joined the elite foreign intelligence arm, called the First Chief Directorate, the Newsweek article claimed that his first position was actually in a department called Service Number One in the agency's Leningrad office. This branch was responsible for recruiting foreigners in the country to serve KGB intelligence purposes. Another report by Wines in the New York Times stated that he "was a mid-level KGB agent performing fairly routine duties."
In the early 1980s Putin met and married his wife, Lyudmila, a former teacher of French and English. In 1984 he was selected to attend the prestigious Red Banner Institute of Intelligence, where he mastered German and also learned English in preparation for an international assignment, which he had coveted for some time. In 1985 the KGB sent him to Dresden, East Germany, where he lived undercover as Mr. Adamov, the director of the Soviet-German House of Friendship, a social and cultural club in Leipzig. According to Wines, he spoke so fluently that he could easily mimic regional dialects. Putin appeared to genuinely enjoy socializing with Germans, unlike many other KGB agents, and respected the German trait of discipline.
What Putin did in East Germany has been a matter of some speculation. Wines wrote, "Officially—and perhaps actually—his task was to track the political leanings of East Germans and their contacts with the West." John Lloyd stated in the New York Times Magazine, "His real task was to recruit agents to supply technical and economic information: he may have been involved in setting up a KGB network to prepare for the collapse of East Germany." Insight on the News reporter J. Michael Waller, meanwhile, claimed that Putin oversaw the notorious Stasi secret police force during the 1980s.
Around the time Putin went to East Germany, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was beginning to introduce economic and social reforms. Putin was apparently a firm believer in the changes. In 1989 the Berlin Wall, separating East from West Germany, was torn down and the two began to unite. Though Putin supposedly had known that this was inevitable, he was disappointed that it occurred amid chaos and that the Soviet leadership had not managed it better.
In 1990 Putin returned to Leningrad and took a job in the international affairs department at his alma mater, screening foreign students. However, that was a cover for his continuing intelligence work. Before long, one of his former university professors, Anatoly Sobchak, who had become the first mayor of St. Petersburg (the former Leningrad), asked him to join his administration. In 1991, just as the Soviet Union was beginning to be unraveled, Putin resigned from the KGB at the rank of colonel, in order to get involved in politics. He allegedly quit because he wanted to be part of the important changes going on in Russia at the time, or perhaps because many of his colleagues in the KGB were persecuted after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In any event, he became the mayor's external affairs aide and, in 1994 became deputy mayor. However, a Newsweek report suggested that he might have been an infiltrator there as well.
During his time in city government, Putin "excelled at unraveling the Goridan knots of Russian bureaucracy and building an infrastructure—highways, telecommunications, hotels—to support foreign investment," according to Wines. Although St. Petersburg never grew to become the financial powerhouse that many had hoped, its fortunes improved as many foreign investors moved in, such as Coca-Cola and Japanese electronics firm NEC. Putin gained the nickname "the gray cardinal" in response to his behind-the-scenes influence and low profile. He was investigated in the early 1990s for allegations of favoritism in granting import and export licenses, but the case was dismissed over lack of evidence.
In 1996, when Sobchak lost his mayoral campaign, Putin was offered a job with the victor, but declined out of loyalty. The next year, he was asked to join President Boris Yeltin's "inner circle" as deputy chief administrator of the Kremlin. He left the Kremlin in 1998 to become head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the domestic intelligence arm and successor to the KGB, which had been dismantled. In March of 1999, he was named secretary of the Security Council, a body that advises the president on matters pertaining to foreign policy, national security, and military and law enforcement.
In August of 1999, after Yeltsin had gone through five prime ministers in 17 months, he appointed Putin, who was originally dismissed by many observers as not a viable heir apparent to the ill president. For one thing, he had little political experience; for another, his appearance and personality seemed bland. However, Putin increased his appeal among citizens for his role in vehemently pursuing the war in Chechnya. In addition to blaming various bombings in Moscow and elsewhere on Chechen terrorists, he also used harsh rhetoric in condemning his enemies. As Wines reported, this "established his image as a tough and no-nonsense leader at a time when Russians were seeking just such a person." Soon, Putin's popularity ratings were soaring at 50 percent in a nation where an approval rating of even 20 percent is considered a good showing.
In December of 1999, Russia held elections for the 450-seat Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament. Putin's Unity Party, formed just three months prior, came in a close second to the Communists in a stunning showing. With allies, they were expected to wield just about as much power. Though Putin was not a candidate on the ballot in this election, the candidates rode on his coattails as the obvious front-runner in the upcoming presidential race scheduled for June of 2000.
On New Year's Eve in 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly stepped down as president, naming Putin as acting president. The election was moved up to March 26 in accordance with the Russian Constitution. Many observers speculated that Yeltsin's move was calculated to ensure Putin's success, just in case public support for the war in Chechnya turned and caused his ratings to fall. It was rumored that Yeltsin also wanted to install Putin in order to escape any prosecution, since Putin had been a loyal follower and Yeltsin had long been accused of corruption and nepotism. Indeed, one of Putin's first actions as acting president was to grant Yeltsin immunity from any future criminal or administrative investigations. The decree also granted continued housing, salary, staffing, and benefits for Yeltsin and his family.
Immediately, Western news media and the United States government scrambled to create a profile of the new Russian leader. Due to Putin's secretive background as a KGB agent, information was scarce. Many articles focused on the fact that, despite his popularity, few even in his own nation knew details of his background or where he stood on issues. His history as a spy caused many Westerners and some Russians as well to question whether he should be feared as a foe of democracy. In addition, Christian Caryl wrote in U.S. News and World Report, "Putin's watch at the FSB (from July 1998 until August 1999) coincided, in part, with a series of high-profile prosecutions of environmental activists accused of 'betraying state secrets' (actually publicizing the lackadaisical disposal of dangerous nuclear waste by the Russian military)."
In Putin's first speech as acting president, he promised, "Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, the right to private property these basic principles of a civilized society will be protected," according to a Newsweek report. In addition, Putin rid his cabinet of several of Yeltsin's cronies and relatives, including Yeltsin's daughter, who served as his chief adviser. However, an Economist article dismissed the changes as "cosmetic," saying, "other Kremlin insiders remain firmly in place." In addition, Putin raised eyebrows when, a couple of weeks later, he made a power-sharing pact with Communists in the Duma that effectively shut out most free-market democrats. Still, his popularity among Russians hovered at 50 percent or higher in the weeks leading up to the election.
On March 26, 2000, Russians elected Putin out of a field of 11 candidates, including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, who won 42 percent of the vote in a tight race in 1996 against Yeltsin. Putin won with 52.6 percent of the vote as compared to runner-up Zyuganov, who gathered 29.3 percent. After his election, Putin's first legislative initiative, in April of 2000, was to win approval of the Start II arms reduction treaty from the Duma. The deal, which was negotiated seven years earlier, involved decreasing both the Russian and American nuclear buildup by half. Putin's move on this issue was seen as both a positive step in his willingness to develop a positive relationship with the United States but also as a sign that he would resist American efforts on antimissile defenses. In addition to forging talks with the United States, one of Putin's earliest moves involved working with a team of economists to try to develop a plan to improve the country's economy. On May 7, 2000, Putin was officially sworn in as Russia's second president and its first in a free transfer of power in the nation's 1,100-year history.
Putin, a soft-spoken and stone-faced man, keeps his personal life very private. He and his wife have two daughters, Katya and Maria, who were both in their early teens when he became president. Putin has a black belt in judo and enjoys running. He does not smoke, and does not drink alcohol, or at least drinks so rarely that it appears that way. In early 2000, an American publishing company announced that in May it would release an English-language translation of his memoirs, First Person, which was banned from publication in Russia until after the March 26 presidential election.
Business Week, April 24, 2000, p. 151.
Economist, January 8, 2000, p. 19; January 15, 2000, p. 49.
Insight on the News, September 6, 1999, pp. 6, 18; January 31, 2000, p. 14; February 14, 2000, p. 20.
Maclean's, January 10, 2000, p. 25; January 17, 2000, p. 46.
Nation, April 17, 2000, p. 3.
Newsweek, January 10, 2000, p. 52; January 17, 2000, p. 30.
New Yorker, December 20, 1999, p. 33.
New York Times, January 1, 2000, p. A11; January 10, 2000, p.A8; January 17, 2000, p. A6; January 20, 2000, p. A12; February 20, 2000, p. A1; March 8, 2000, p. A5; March 20, 2000, p. C14; March 22, 2000, p. A1; March 24, 2000, p. A1; March 27, 2000, p. A1; March 28, 2000, p. A11; April 15, 2000, p. A1; May 8, 2000, p. A1.
New York Times Magazine, March 19, 2000, p. 62.
People, February 28, 2000, p. 125.
Time, December 31, 1999, p. 210; January 1, 2000, p. 90.
U.S. News and World Report, January 3, 2000, p. 26.
Wall Street Journal, December 20, 1999, p. A18; January 24, 2000, p. A26.
"Newsmakers: Vladimir Putin," ABC News web site, http://www.abcnews.go.com (May 3, 2000).
"Vladimir Putin: Spy Turned Politician," BBC News Online web site, January 1, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk (May 3, 2000). □
Putin, Vladimir Vladimirovich
PUTIN, VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH
(b. 1952), second president of the Russian Federation.
Vladimir Putin was appointed acting president of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999, and on March 26, 2000, he was elected to the presidency. Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He attended school there and practiced judo, eventually becoming the city champion. As a boy, Putin dreamed of joining the secret police (KGB). When he was seventeen he went to KGB headquarters and asked a startled officer what he should do to "join up." He was told to attend the university and major in law. Putin took his advice and attended Leningrad State University. In his second semester one of his teachers was Anatoly Sobchak, a man who would play a major role in his life. In 1974 Putin was offered a job in the KGB but told he had to wait a full year before entering the organization. In 1976 Putin was assigned to the First Directorate, the section engaged in spying outside of the USSR. In 1983 he married Ludmila Schkrebneva, a former airline hostess. Putin had hoped to be stationed in West Germany, but instead, in 1985, he was assigned to Dresden, in East Germany. While it is unclear what he did there, all indications are that he focused on recruiting visiting West German businessmen to spy for the USSR. In any case, he left as a lieutenant colonel, suggesting that his spying career was less than spectacular.
In May 1990 Putin's former professor Anatoly Sobchak was elected mayor of St. Petersburg, and he asked Putin, who was well aware that both the USSR and the KGB were falling apart, to come work for him. Putin agreed, left the KGB, and by all accounts impressed everyone he met with his ability to "get things done." He was efficient, effective, honest, and decent to the people he interacted with, characteristics that were in short supply at that time. When Sobchak lost the mayoralty in the election of July 1996, Putin quit, but unknown to him he had been noticed by Anatoly Chubais, who helped him obtain a job with Paul Borodin, who ran the presidential staff in the Kremlin. As a result, he moved to Moscow.
Few people would have given the rather faceless and bland Putin much chance of being noticed by President Boris Yeltsin. Yet he did stand out, perhaps because he was so efficient. Equally important, he did not appear to be seeking higher office. Yeltsin took note of Putin and in 1998 appointed him head of the Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB. Then, on August 16, 1999, Yeltsin surprised the world by making Putin prime minister and designating him as his successor. If that was not enough, Yeltsin once again surprised the world on December 31, 1999 by resigning and making Putin acting president. On March 26, 2000, Putin stood for election and won a majority in the first round.
Putin was a new kind of president. While Boris Yeltsin had presided over the collapse of communism and in that sense was a revolutionary leader, Putin saw the job differently. Russia had been through enough turmoil and conflict since the collapse of the USSR. Besides, the country was in a mess. The economy had come close to collapse, corruption and social problems were rampant, cynicism toward the central government was at an all-time high, and on the international level, Russia was almost irrelevant with U.S.-Russian relations at an all-time low. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Russia was considered by many to be "the sick man of Europe."
Putin's approach to these many problems contrasted markedly with Yeltsin's. He was very organized and structured, and as his Millennium Speech (January 1, 2000) made clear, he stood in stark contrast to his Soviet predecessors. He told the Russian people the truth about the depth and seriousness of the country's problem. In addition to taking this straightforward approach, Putin believed that the only way Russia could survive as a viable nation was to rebuild the Russian state. So he immediately began to reestablish Moscow's control over the country's governors, many of whom were paying little attention to the central government. First, he took on the Federation Council, the parliament's upper house, where the regional governors held considerable power. By the time Putin was through, considerable power had been shifted to Moscow. Then he set up seven "super" districts, headed by personally selected "super" governors, to oversee the regional officials. He even succeeded in firing one of the country's most corrupt and strongest governors, Yegeny Nazdratenko of Primorski Krai.
The Putin style of governance avoided spectacular, high-profile actions. Instead, he preferred to work behind the scenes whenever possible. In his view, there had already been too much of the kind of high-profile activity associated with Yeltsin.
Russia was tired of that sort of thing, which in the end generally made very little difference in the life of the average citizen. Military reform provides an example of Putin's approach. How to restructure Russia's armed forces had been a subject of discussion ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union— and even before then. When Putin appointed Sergei Ivanov, one of his closest associates, as defense minister, there was some expectation that he would immediately try to institute major changes. In fact, that did not happen. Instead, Putin pushed the Defense Ministry to make changes, and it has gradually responded.
Putin's style of governance was not repressive, but neither was it democratic in the way the term was understood in the West. Instead, he followed a course of what might be called "managed democracy." He set the parameters of what was permitted and what was prohibited. As long as citizens remained within the parameters, they would have all the freedom they wanted. But if they went beyond the parameters, they would be in trouble. For
example, when Putin took on the media, he made it clear that the "chaotic" press and television of the Yeltsin period was unacceptable. While the media remained free in comparison to the Soviet era, the situation was a far cry from the independent news coverage of the 1990s.
Putin did not have a grand plan for the restructuring of society. He was a problem-solver. Rather than instituting a full-scale reform of the judicial system, for instance, he raised the salaries of judges and increased the money available to the police. The same was true of an even more serious problem, the tax system. The government was bankrupt because no one was paying taxes. Putin dealt with the problem by introducing a 13 percent flat tax to be paid by everyone, and the system seemed to work relatively well. There were still major problems in both areas, but as was typical of Putin, important if partial changes had been implemented.
Putin was also an effective diplomat. When George W. Bush became president of the United States, it looked as if U.S.-Russian relations were going nowhere. Putin showed he had patience. When the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York occurred on September 11, 2001, he was the first foreign leader to call President Bush and express his condolences. He also stood by the United States during the subsequent war in Afghanistan. Most surprising, however, was his ability to remain a close friend and ally of the United States even though he opposed the American invasion of Iraq. In contrast to the Washington–Paris relationship, Washington and Moscow remained close allies despite their differences over Iraq.
Putin also demonstrated that he knew how to make use of events. For example, he used the September 11 attacks to force Russia's anti-American general staff to change its approach to dealing with the United States. On September 24, 2001, just prior to his visit to the United States, he met with the country's generals and admirals, and made it clear that cooperation was the order of the day. The military quickly fell into line and cooperation between the two sides was as close as it had ever been.
Many observers wondered whether Putin's partial but determined approach would provide the political, military, social, and economic stability Russia needed to reenter the ranks of the world's major powers. When his presidency began, Putin was unknown, and few believed he could do anything other than be a KGB thug. Within a short time, without taking the repressive actions that many expected, he had begun to reestablish the Russian state and to restore its status as an important player in the international arena. The economy had begun to turn around, even if it continued to be too heavily based on oil.
See also: sobchak, anatoly alexandrovich; state security, organs of; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich
Herspring, Dale R., ed. (2003). Putin's Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.
Putin, Vladimir. (2000). First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait of Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, tr. Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New York: Public Affairs.
Shevtsova, Lilia. (2003). Putin's Russia. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Born: October 1, 1952
When Vladimir Putin was appointed prime minister of Russia, very little was known about his background. This former Soviet intelligence agent entered politics in the early 1990s and rose rapidly. By August of 1999, ailing President Boris Yeltsin (1931–) appointed him prime minister. When Yeltsin stepped down in December of 1999, Putin became the acting president of Russia, and he was elected president to serve a full term on March 26, 2000.
Early life and education
Vladimir Putin was born on October 1, 1952, in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia. An only child, his father was a foreman in a metal factory and his mother was a homemaker. Putin lived with his parents in an apartment with two other families. Though religion was not permitted in the Soviet Union, the former country which was made up of Russia and other smaller states, his mother secretly had him baptized as an Orthodox Christian.
Though a small child, Putin could hold his own in fights thanks to martial arts classes. By the age of sixteen he was a top-ranked expert at sambo, a Russian combination of judo and wrestling. By the time he was a teenager Putin had begun to display the ambition that he later became known for, and he attended a respected high school, School 281, which only accepted students with near-perfect grades. The institution was the only one in Russia to stress chemistry, which was Putin's interest. However, he soon moved toward liberal arts and biology. Putin played handball and worked at the school radio station, where he played music by the Beatles and other Western rock bands. Fascinated with spy movies as a teen, he aspired to work for the KGB, the Russian secret service.
Work in the KGB
At Leningrad State University, Putin graduated from the law department in 1975 but instead of entering the law field right out of school, Putin landed a job with the KGB, the only one in his class of one hundred to be chosen. The branch he was assigned to was responsible for recruiting foreigners who would work to gather information for KGB intelligence.
In the early 1980s Putin met and married his wife, Lyudmila, a former teacher of French and English. In 1985 the KGB sent him to Dresden, East Germany, where he lived undercover as Mr. Adamov, the director of the Soviet-German House of Friendship, a social and cultural club. Putin appeared to genuinely enjoy spending time with Germans, unlike many other KGB agents, and respected the German culture.
Around the time Putin went to East Germany, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) was beginning to introduce economic and social reforms (improvements). Putin was apparently a firm believer in the changes. In 1989 the Berlin Wall, which stood for nearly forty years separating East from West Germany, was torn down and the two united. Though Putin supposedly had known that this was going to happen, he was disappointed that it occurred amid chaos and that the Soviet leadership had not managed it better.
In 1990 Putin returned to Leningrad and continued his undercover intelligence work for the KGB. In 1991, just as the Soviet Union was beginning to fall apart, Putin left the KGB with the rank of colonel, in order to get involved in politics. Putin went to work for Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, as an aide and in 1994 became deputy mayor.
During Putin's time in city government, he reportedly helped the city build highways, telecommunications, and hotels, all to support foreign investment. Although St. Petersburg never grew to become the financial powerhouse that many had hoped, its fortunes improved as many foreign investors moved in, such as Coca-Cola and Japanese electronics firm NEC.
On to the Kremlin
In 1996, when Sobchak lost his mayoral campaign, Putin was offered a job with the victor, but declined out of loyalty. The next year, he was asked to join President Boris Yeltin's "inner circle" as deputy chief administrator of the Kremlin, the building that houses the Russian government. In March of 1999, he was named secretary of the Security Council, a body that advises the president on matters of foreign policy, national security, and military and law enforcement.
In August of 1999, after Yeltsin had gone through five prime ministers in seventeen months, he appointed Putin, who many thought was not worthy of succeeding the ill president. For one thing, he had little political experience; for another, his appearance and personality seemed boring. However, Putin increased his appeal among citizens for his role in pursuing the war in Chechnya. In addition to blaming various bombings in Moscow and elsewhere on Chechen terrorists, he also used harsh words in criticizing his enemies. Soon, Putin's popularity ratings began to soar.
Acting president of Russia
In December of 1999, Russia held elections for the 450-seat Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament (governing body). Putin's newly-formed Unity Party came in a close second to the Communists in a stunning showing. Though Putin was not a candidate in this election, he became the obvious front-runner in the upcoming presidential race scheduled for June of 2000.
On New Year's Eve in 1999, Yeltsin unexpectedly stepped down as president, naming Putin as acting president. Immediately, Western news media and the U.S. government scrambled to create a profile of the new Russian leader. Due to Putin's secretive background as a KGB agent, there was little information. His history as a spy caused many Westerners and some Russians as well to question whether he should be feared as an enemy of the free world.
In Putin's first speech as acting president, he promised, "Freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, the right to private property—these basic principles of a civilized society will be protected," according to a Newsweek report. In addition, Putin removed several of Yeltsin's loyalists and relatives from his cabinet.
On March 26, 2000, Russians elected Putin out of a field of eleven candidates. After his election, Putin's first legislative move was to win approval of the Start II arms reduction treaty from the Duma. The deal, which was negotiated seven years earlier, involved decreasing both the Russian and American nuclear buildup by half. Putin's move on this issue was seen as a positive step in his willingness to develop a better relationship with the United States. In addition, one of Putin's earliest moves involved working with a team of economists to develop a plan to improve the country's economy. On May 7, 2000, Putin was officially sworn in as Russia's second president and its first in a free transfer of power in the nation's eleven-hundred-year history.
Putin, a soft-spoken and stone-faced man, keeps his personal life very private. In early 2000, an American publishing company announced that in May it would release an English-language translation of his memoirs, First Person, which was banned from publication in Russia until after the March 26 presidential election.
Putin has made great efforts to improve relations with the remaining world powers. In July 2001, Putin met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin (1926–) and the two signed a "friendship treaty" which called for improving trade between China and Russia and improving relations concerning U.S. plans for a missile defense system. Four months later, Putin visited Washington, D.C. to meet with President George W. Bush (1946–) over the defense system. Although they failed to reach a definite agreement, the two leaders did agree to drastically cut the number of nuclear arms in each country. Early in 2002, Putin traveled to Poland and became the first Russian president since 1993 to make this trip. Representatives of the two countries signed agreements involving business, trade, and transportation.
For More Information
Putin, Vladimir. First Person. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000.
Shields, Charles J. Vladimir Putin. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.
Putin, Vladimir 1952-
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999. A former KGB agent, Putin was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin in August 1999. When Yeltsin abruptly resigned at the end of 1999, he named Putin his successor. Putin subsequently won the presidency in elections in March 2000, and a second term in March 2004.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s international relevance ebbed. Consequently, Putin’s presidency has been dominated by domestic concerns, such as the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the new Russian entrepreneurial oligarchs and separatist violence in the province of Chechnya. The former problem arose when young Russian businessmen, taking advantage of a weak legal system that lacked adequate property rights and could not protect contracts, amassed huge amounts of money and influence in the 1990s when the Russian government began auctioning state-owned assets. Putin, in a crackdown on corruption and illegal business practices, embarked on a crusade against the “robber barons,” resulting in the high-profile and controversial arrest of Mikhail Khordovsky, the head of the oil company Yukos, as well as the indictments of many others. While these attacks on Russia’s megarich may have broken the power of the oligarchs, they have drawn criticism for leading to the consolidation of power in Putin’s hands and the suppression of media outlets critical of Putin’s administration.
The problem of Chechnya has plagued Russia since the first Chechen war began in December 1994. The first war ended in 1997 with a peace treaty that was violated when Chechen separatists invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to consolidate power and establish Islamic rule. But the invasion and the subsequent bombing of buildings in Russian cities, allegedly by Chechen rebels, had a galvanizing effect on Russian public opinion, which simultaneously discredited Yeltsin’s administration and strengthened Putin’s image as a strong nationalistic leader, contributing to Putin’s victory in the presidential elections in March 2000. By the end of 2006, the Russian military occupied much of Chechnya, but Chechen rebels had carried out several brutal attacks against civilian targets, including the seizure of a Moscow theater on October 23, 2002, which resulted in the deaths of 130 civilians, and the siege of a school in Beslan on September 1, 2004, in which 344 people, including 186 children, were killed.
While Putin’s legacy in Russian politics remains unclear, he is trying to reestablish Russia’s place on the world stage and to shepherd Russia through difficult political and economic transformations. Putin enjoys personal relationships with many Western leaders, including U.S. president George W. Bush, French president Jacques Chirac, and British prime minister Tony Blair. While Russia has been accommodating toward the West on issues such as counter-terrorism, other concerns such as domestic civil liberties have strained those connections. Putin has come under fire from Western observers for stepping back from Yeltsin’s democratic reforms and moving Russia toward a semi-authoritarian regime. This domestic retrenchment has been accompanied by a halting rapprochement with the West, including acceptance of NATO’s expansion into central Europe and the Baltic states, and gradual economic improvement. However, having failed to diversify Russia’s domestic economy, the country’s economic success rests mainly on the export of oil, casting doubts on the long-term viability of Putin’s reform plan. Critics fear that ultimately Putin’s failure to enact meaningful political reform will undermine Russia’s economic future as well.
SEE ALSO Russian Federation; Yeltsin, Boris
Shevtsova, Lilia. 2005. Putin’s Russia. Rev. ed. Trans. Antonina W. Bouis. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.