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Russia: Putin Continues To Enjoy Status As Most Popular Politician

Public opinion polls show Russian President Vladimir Putin's popularity ratings remain high. If elections were held today, the incumbent president would easily win a second term. Economic recovery and stricter control over the country's mass media appear to be behind Putin's popularity. Equally important, it seems, is that Putin is simply not Boris Yeltsin.

Prague, 30 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin is the most popular politician in Russia.

Such are the results of a recent poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, one of the most respected nongovernmental polling agencies in Russia. It found that if elections were held today, almost half of Russian voters -- 49 percent -- would cast their ballots for Putin. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov would get only 13 percent of the vote, with other politicians receiving even less support.

Presidential elections in Russia are scheduled for 14 March 2004.

Just four years ago, Putin was a colorless figure largely unknown outside Russian political circles. He was appointed prime minister by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in August 1999. Putin became acting president in December 1999 after Yeltsin's sudden resignation and was formally elected president in March 2000.

What's behind Putin's dramatic rise as the most praised politician in the country?

Analysts say Putin has benefited from the country's favorable economic situation, as well as increased government control of the country's mass media. Many ordinary Russians are seeing some signs of economic improvement in their lives and associate them with Putin's presidency.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says Putin came to power at a fortunate time, when the effects of the economic crisis of 1998 were ending and energy prices were rising.

"[One of the main reasons of Putin's popularity] is a very beneficial economic situation stemming from high oil prices and the [positive] effects of the 1998 economic crisis, when the growth of the economy became visible for everyone," Petrov said.

Russia's budget gets nearly 40 percent of its income from energy exports, and this trend is likely to continue for some time. Though painful, the economic crisis of 1998 resulted in the restructuring of the Russian economy, making many Russian products competitive both at home and abroad and creating many jobs.

Dmitry Orlov is deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. Orlov says Putin wasn't the mastermind behind Russia's recovery. However, he has improved tax legislation and pushed forward administrative reforms. Orlov says these moves have helped the recovery.

Orlov cautions Putin, however, not to become a hostage of his own popularity. "Many polls say that the majority of Russians would support reviewing the results of privatization," says Orlov. "Will Putin follow this sentiment to become more popular? It remains unknown."

Julian Cooper is a professor at the Center of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Birmingham University in Britain. He says Putin has managed to create the image that he is behind the advances in the economy.

"Many people do feel -- compared with, say, three or four years ago or at the end of the Yeltsin period -- that life is definitely getting better, [that it's] steadily but slowly improving," Cooper says.

Cooper says Russia is becoming a country where people are more concerned with salaries, health care, and retirement and not so concerned about politics. Putin is not above criticism, Cooper says, but his government is more predictable and he has introduced more reforms than during Yeltsin's tenure.

However, few of the promises Putin made in 2000 when he became president have been fulfilled. Putin promised to put an end to Chechen separatism and to make Russia's voice heard in international affairs. The reality in 2003 is different. The war in Chechnya continues, NATO is expanding to Russia's borders, and the war in Iraq occurred -- all despite Russian protests.

But analysts say Russians do not blame Putin for these developments. Increasing government control of the country's mass media, especially the central TV channels, has helped Putin avoid direct criticism.

"This control gives Putin the possibility to influence the public's opinion the way he wants," Petrov says. "There is no serious reporting from Chechnya or criticism of the Chechen war. Putin managed to use for his political benefit even last autumn's Moscow theater hostage crisis. It was presented by the president as a serious reason why Russia has no other way but to fight 'terrorism' in Chechnya with all the means it has."

But Cooper disagrees with analysts who say Russians are restricted in their access to opposing media.

"The press is still fairly diverse, and a growing proportion particularly of more educated, more influential sections of Russian society have access to the Internet," he said. "And on the Internet, you will find an extraordinary range of opinions and judgments and assessments. So I think that this idea that the Russian media now basically says what Putin wants them to say may apply increasingly to television, but I don't think it applies to the other media. So I'm not entirely convinced that it is just the media which produces this kind of consensus of support for Putin."

Cooper also believes Russians are not as interested in politics as they used to be. Only a small number, he believes, really care about NATO expansion, the Chechen war, or Russia's opposition to the war in Iraq.

James Nixey is the Russia-Eurasia program coordinator at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He says there is no need to look for deep reasons behind Putin's popularity. The answer, he believes, is simple: Putin is not Yeltsin.

"The fact is that [Putin] is compos mentis. He doesn't drink and [he] doesn't give the appearance of instability that Yeltsin so often did, [which] makes him popular way beyond anything that the Russians are used to in recent years," Nixey says.

Nixey says Russians are glad to have a young, sober, and strong leader, and see no reason to remind Putin of his unfulfilled political promises.