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Profile: Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin
Putin's strong leadership is welcomed by many Russians

His face may not adorn the rouble, but Vladimir Putin's image is very much stamped on 21st-Century Russia.

The country's citizens are only too aware that the money lining their pockets was largely minted under his presidency.

After the hungry, often desperate years of the Yeltsin era, it is a prosperity few Russians may stop to question.

But his critics believe that it has come at the cost of some post-communist democratic freedoms.

One of Mr Putin's closest political allies, Dmitry Medvedev, is now replacing him - but pledging to build on Mr Putin's foundations. As prime minister, Mr Putin will still retain considerable power.

Friends in high places

Mr Putin rapidly ascended the political ladder in 1999 when Boris Yeltsin first made him prime minister, then acting president in his place.

PUTIN IN THE KREMLIN
Alexandra Smirnova attends funeral of her granddaughter Inna Kasumova in Beslan
2000: Putin elected president in first round; Kursk submarine disaster; restoration of Soviet national anthem with different words
2003: General election gives Putin allies control over parliament
2004: Putin re-elected by landslide in February; a year of Chechen attacks on civilian targets culminates in Beslan
2005: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, jailed for tax evasion
2006: Russia briefly cuts gas supplies to Ukraine in January; St Petersburg hosts G8 events
2007: Putin likens US foreign policy to Nazi Germany's and threatens to target missiles at EU states in response to US anti-missile plans
2008: Putin confirms he will become PM, after Dmitry Medvedev's landslide win in March presidential election

The former Federal Security Service (ex-KGB) director's talents and instincts continue to show through: to his admirers he represents order and stability, to his critics - repression and fear.

Independent media and civil society struggled under his rule and he took a consistently hard line in the Chechen conflict.

Yet he struck a chord with those who remembered the chaos of the 1990s, when basic machinery of state such as the welfare system virtually seized up and the security forces looked inept.

Investor confidence has climbed back since the nadir of the 1998 rouble devaluation, and economic recovery, buoyed by high prices for oil and gas exports, has helped restore a sense of stability not known since communist times.

Political opposition is weak, partly because of a genuine feel-good factor but also because his rule discouraged democratic debate.

In the 2000 election, he took 53% of the vote in the first round and, four years later, was re-elected with a landslide majority of 71%.

The 2004 ballot result "reflected [Mr Putin's] consistently high public approval rating", outside (OSCE) observers noted, but also talked of the contest's "dearth of meaningful debate and genuine pluralism".

Black belt

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin became a KGB spy after graduating from university, and served in East Germany.

He enjoys a macho image, helped by election stunts like flying into Chechnya on a fighter jet in 2000, and his possession of a black belt in Judo.

PUTIN BASICS
Born 7 October 1952 in Leningrad (now St Petersburg)
Studied law and economics before joining the KGB
Served as KGB agent in East Germany 1985-90
Married, two daughters
Speaks German and English
Sound bite: "I'd like the Russian public to see me as the person they've hired for this job"

source: Russian presidential website

He has been described as a workaholic by his wife and mother of his two daughters, Lyudmila.

For many Russian liberals, Mr Putin's KGB past is disturbing, with its authoritarian associations.

A decade after Boris Yeltsin famously offered Russia's regions "their fill of sovereignty", Mr Putin brought in a system of presidential envoys seen by some as overseers for elected governors.

Putin allies control much of the media and his rule saw creeping controls over foreign-funded non-government organisations, which largely focus on exposing human rights abuses.

The man who sent troops back into Chechnya as prime minister in 1999 kept it under Moscow's control through military force, direct or proxy, and strict non-negotiation with the rebels.

The price was increasingly violent attacks by the separatists, which reached a horrifying level in 2004 with the Beslan school seizure.

Mr Putin's patriotic rhetoric and evident nostalgia for the USSR - he once famously called its collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th Century - have played well with much of the public.

But the flip side may be a disturbing rise in nationalism, taking its most sinister form in hate crimes directed at ethnic minorities such as African foreign students.

Wielding clout

Mr Putin gradually eased liberals out of government, often replacing them with more hardline allies or neutrals seen as little more than yes-men.

Young Putin supporters demonstrate outside the US embassy in Moscow April 2006
Putin's face crops up on everything from T-shirts to mouse mats

Yeltsin-era "oligarchs" like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky - businessmen who grew rich in the chaos of the first privatisations - ended up as fugitives living in exile abroad.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once head of oil giant Yukos and Russia's richest man, is now in jail for tax evasion.

Mr Putin's Kremlin was accused of abusing its huge energy clout, allegedly punishing fellow ex-Soviet states like Ukraine with price hikes when they leant towards the West.

Further abroad, Mr Putin allied himself with Washington's "war on terror", comparing Chechen separatists to al-Qaeda, but he also opposed the invasion of Iraq and caused consternation in the US by inviting Hamas to Moscow for talks after their Palestinian election victory.

By law Mr Putin could not run for a third consecutive presidential term. So he threw his support behind his protege Dmitry Medvedev, whose loyalty dated back to their St Petersburg days.




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