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From Prime Minister To President And Back Again, Putin Marks A Decade In Power

  • Robert Coalson

In 1999, outgoing Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin wished good luck to his virtually unknown successor, Vladimir Putin (above). "That is all he will need," Stephashin said. "He has everything else."

In 1999, outgoing Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin wished good luck to his virtually unknown successor, Vladimir Putin (above). "That is all he will need," Stephashin said. "He has everything else."

What a difference a decade makes.

Ten years ago this week, Russia was a collapsing state with a dying president and an economy on life support. Regional leaders were increasingly and openly adopting separatist policies, while a fractious Duma seemed to be in a state of perpetual gridlock. The country and the world barely noticed when President Boris Yeltsin -- on August 9, 1999 -- tapped the colorless and virtually unknown former KGB operative Vladimir Putin as his fifth prime minister in 18 months.

And Yeltsin didn't just pick the 46-year-old former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) as his next prime minister. He went one step further -- telling the public he wanted the little-known Putin to succeed him as president of Russia.

In Russia's personality-driven political system, it was a portentous declaration.

Outgoing Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin announced the decision to journalists.

"This morning I visited the president,” outgoing Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin told journalists at the time. “And he signed a decree on my resignation. He thanked me -- and fired me. As acting prime minister he has named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the secretary of the Security Council and director of the FSB. He is a decent and honorable man. I wish him luck. That is all he will need. He has everything else."

Different Place

Few observers at the time realized how prophetic Stepashin's words were. Ten years later, Putin has gone from prime minister to president back to prime minister again -- and in the process, fashioned himself into an unchallenged, seemingly infallible leader of an increasingly powerful Russia.

President Boris Yeltsin (rights) waves as he hands over his office to Vladimir Putin (left) at the Kremlin on December 31, 1999.
However, Russia was a different place in 1999. On August 16 of that year, an assertive Duma endorsed Yeltsin's choice by a slim majority -- just six more votes than were required for confirmation. It is hard to imagine a scenario in today's compliant parliament where 84 deputies would vote against Putin and another 88 would abstain.

Initially, Putin was shaky and unsure of himself. He seemed shy when he spoke to reporters, usually speaking deferentially with downcast eyes. He was a far cry from the confident leader who now regularly appears in macho poses and seems eminently in control of every situation.

Putin also assumed a host of problems when he took the reins of government. The economy was on the ropes. International debt was skyrocketing. And a group of militants from rebellious Chechnya had just launched a violent incursion into neighboring Daghestan.

Then Russia was rocked by a series of devastating apartment-building bombings: the fourth and last occurring in Volgodonsk on September 16, exactly one month after Putin's confirmation. Nearly 300 people were killed in the bombings, which the government blamed on Chechen separatists, but which Kremlin critics have charged was a provocation carried out by the security services to justify a second war in Chechnya.

There was a tremendous need for a new start, and I think Putin capitalized on that. He was sober, diligent, and visibly competent.
On October 1, Russian troops reentered Chechnya, just three years after the end of the first war in the North Caucasus republic. The Russian public -- and much of the political elite -- rallied around the new government, and within months Putin began to show signs of the tough, decisive personality that has become his trademark style.

'Need For A New Start'

As with almost all aspects of Putin's decade in power, opinions are divided on just what kind of situation he inherited from Yeltsin. Some analysts -- such as Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War," who was the Moscow bureau chief for "The Economist" at the time of Putin's appointment -- emphasize the crisis atmosphere and the public's weariness with the perceived weakness of Yeltsin and the central government.

"There was a tremendous need for a new start, and I think Putin capitalized on that. He was sober, diligent, and visibly competent," Lucas says.

Putin supporters emphasize that Russia was on the verge of disintegration and that the dominant and parasitical oligarchs -- first and foremost, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky -- had to be reined in.

On the other hand, Kremlin critics assert that Russia in 1999 was already on the ascent after reaching rock bottom economically, and that the foundations of a democratic system and open society had been laid -- before being scotched by Putin's regime.

"In part following his own understanding of the public good -- formed in the KGB -- and in part carried away by high oil prices, he began to build an isolated model that is incapable of coping with contemporary challenges,” says Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “You can say that he inherited a country on the rise democratically and economically and reduced it to the relatively trivial status of a Latin American power whose prospects for the future have disappeared."

Effect Of High Oil Prices

Former independent Duma deputy and Putin critic Vladimir Ryzhkov has written similarly that "the Kremlin was not able to exploit its huge reserves that it accumulated after eight years of an oil boom by turning its economic power into political clout in the global arena. On the contrary, Russia's global standing has worsened across the board."

Putin, Russia's indomitable National Leader, is shown riding a horse during vacation in the Republic of Tuva earlier this month.
Putin also presided over a massive concentration of political power -- stripping away the independence of the legislative branch and regional administrations. He tamed the country's political parties and brought the national media under state or state-friendly control. He accused independent civil society organizations of nefarious ties with foreign intelligence services and created a parallel network of state-controlled pseudo-nongovernmental organizations.

There is no doubt that Putin's position was bolstered by years of uninterruptedly high global oil prices.

"I suppose the question that I always have is, 'How would Putin look if he'd had Yeltsin's oil price and how would Yeltsin look if he'd had Putin's oil price?’ ” says Lucas of “The Economist.”

But Putin's success in transforming that wealth into sustainable economic growth is uncertain. A recent opinion poll by the independent Levada research center found that a plurality of Russians -- despite their overwhelming support for Putin personally -- believe the gap between rich and poor in Russia is greater now than it was during the Yeltsin years.

One of the key explanations for Putin's popularity -- which regularly measures between 60 and 70 percent -- is the Kremlin's iron grip on all the main national media outlets, another cardinal change from the Russia that Putin inherited. As a result, most Russians see no alternative to Putin except chaos.

"To a large extent, Putin's authority, his recognition, and the willingness to support him springs from this idea -- that there is no one else,” says Levada Center Research Director Boris Dubin. “And [Kremlin] propaganda and the mass media under Putin have done a lot to create just such a picture."

Analyst Oreshkin agrees that Putin's popularity is largely determined by the bell jar-like political atmosphere that he has created.

"Putin's popularity is partly a rating of despair, because there is nothing else to believe in,” Oreshkin says. “We don't believe in institutions; we don't believe in the courts; we don't believe in elections. In this situation, there is one single figure upon which to concentrate all our positive hopes -- Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.
Putin: The Early Years

When Vladimir Putin was named acting prime minister and heir apparent to President Boris Yeltsin, Russia and the world asked in one voice, “Who is Vladimir Putin?” Here are some videos from the early days of Putin – a time when journalism in Russia was a very different thing from what it is now.

1991: This snippet from a Western expose of Putin’s years in the government of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak contains footage of the young bureaucrat trying to present an image as a tough crime fighter.

In this clip from a 1992 interview with the then-independent NTV, Putin publicly acknowledges for the first time that he was a KGB operative.

2000: In this three-part feature, a newly minted President Vladimir Putin shows a group of reporters around his Kremlin office and invites them to his home for tea:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In the late 1990s, NTV’s “Kukly,” a Russian political-satire program on the model of Britain’s “Spitting Image," was wildly popular, offering merciless satire of the highest echelons of political power. Here is a clip featuring Putin’s puppet discussing his views of the program and of NTV, which was the target of a Kremlin-backed takeover attempt.

2008: At the end of Putin’s two terms as president, the Kremlin’s English-language 24-hour news channel, Russia Today, offered this assessment of Putin’s years in power.

2009: In this "Russia Today" clip from May, Putin – now prime minister again -- marks Victory Day by singing patriotic songs with students at a female military school in Moscow. The clip shows how dramatically both Putin and the media environment in Russia have changed since 1999.

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to

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