Russia’s Formidable but Enigmatic President

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Not many Americans or Western Europeans really know Russian President Vladimir Putin, but friend or foe, it is in our interest to know him well. To know him, we must first shake off some of our cold war stereotypes of Russia and Russian leaders. The Russian Federation replaced the old Soviet Union in 1992, after the collapse of the Communist Party. Boris Yeltsin was the first directly elected president of the new Russian Federation and served until his resignation on December 31, 1999. At that time, he named his recently appointed Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to the office of President. Putin won the March 26, 2000 election running under the Unity Party banner with 53.4 percent of the vote against 11 other candidates. The Communist candidate came in a distant second with 29.5 percent of the vote. Putin served until March 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev was elected President, and Putin was named Prime Minister. Putin was elected again to the presidency in March 2012 and appointed Medvedev to the office of Prime Minister. The Russian Federation is not the Communist dominated Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin are not Joe Stalins. Putin, however, is not an American. He is among the most Russian of Russians. Putin will be 61 on October 7 and has served 13 years as either President or Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, the ninth most populous country in the world with 144 million people, and the largest country in the world geographically. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952 in Leningrad, now known by its original name of St. Petersburg. His parents were Vladimir Spirodonovich Putin (1911-1999) and Maria Ivanova Putina (1911-1998). His father was a Navy veteran and served in the NKVD (state security police) during World War II. He is said to have been a dedicated communist and militant atheist. He later held some minor offices in the Communist Party. His mother, a factory worker, however, was a devout Russian Orthodox believer, who had the young Vladimir secretly christened in the Russian Orthodox Church. She regularly attended services and took her son with her despite the strong persecution of the Communist Soviet government. Her husband knew this but did not report it to Communist Party officials. Besides Putin’s paternal grandfather, Spirodon Putin, who was a cook in one of Lenin’s country residences, nothing is known of his ancestry. The Putin surname is a mystery. Putin attended local school number 193 near his family commune apartment in Leningrad. He did not seem particularly interested in school until the sixth grade, when he began to admire the intelligence officers in popular Soviet movies. Because of this he also took up the sport of Judo, which he practices to this day. In 1975, Putin graduated from the Law Department of Leningrad State University and received a Ph.D. in Economics. His Dissertation was titled “The Strategic Planning of Regional Resources Under the Formation of Market Relations.” Perhaps no subject could have been more providentially influential on his career, which would transition from Soviet Communism to increasing capitalism in 1991. Following graduation from the University, he became a junior officer in the KGB (Committee for State Security), the Soviet agency for internal security, intelligence, and secret police. His job mostly concerned monitoring internal security risks. The latter years of his work with the KGB were spent in East Germany, but he returned to Leningrad after the collapse of the Communist East German government. Putin speaks fluent German as well as Russian. After 16 years with the KGB he resigned and retired with the rank of Lt. Col. to pursue a political career in Leningrad. A strong reason for this change, however, was that he disagreed with the KGB plot to overthrow the reformer Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin’s reputation as a KGB bad guy is exaggerated. He identified with the reformers, and this was later viewed favorably by President Yeltsin and other reformers. Putin’s years as Russian President from 1999 through 2008 were a spectacular economic success, using policies much closer to Reagan capitalism than Soviet Communism. He persuaded the Federal Assembly to pass new tax laws including a flat 13 percent income tax and reduced profits taxes. The Russian economy’s real GDP growth was 72 percent in 8 years. From 1999 to 2008, real income increased by 2.5 fold, real wages more than tripled, and poverty more than halved. Recognizing, however, the amount of control that Putin has exercised from the top, some have called his policies, “state capitalism.” Putin plans to make Russia’s oil and gas resources a major factor in making Russia into an economic superpower. According to Thomas White International analysts, Putin’s success is attributable to “good macroeconomic management, important fiscal reforms, increasing capital inflow, access to low-cost external financing, and a five-fold increase in the price of oil and gas, which constitute the majority of Russia’s exports. Putin’s high public approval polls, ranging as high as 81 percent and never yet below 62 percent, are principally the result of economic policies that have increased real living standards in Russia by substantial degrees. Putin has also pursued a consciously macho public image campaign. Putin is 5 foot seven inches tall (170.1 cm). His weight is a state secret, but it is obvious that he is remarkably fit for a man nearing 61. He is a Judo champion, and his photo ops often exhibit his bare-chested fitness riding horses, fishing, and doing manly outdoor work. Vladimir Putin and Lyudmila Putina, his wife of 30 years, announced jointly on June 13 of this year that they are having a “civilized divorce.” Not much has ever been known of Vladimir Putin’s home and family life. His daughters Marinya (28) and Yekaterina (27) have never been photographed by the press. Vladimir Putin is a formidable political leader and an enigmatic mystery. He should never be underestimated. His ambition is primarily to advance Russia.

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