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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 13:17 GMT
Why is Putin popular?
Vladimir Putin
Russia's most popular politician
By Moscow Correspondent Andrew Harding

Let's start with the facts. Russia's 47-year-old acting President Vladimir Putin is a former Soviet spy, a judo enthusiast, a fervent patriot, and a man as yet untested in democratic elections.

He is also certain - even most of his opponents concede this - to win Russia's presidential vote on 26 March.

Beyond these bare details, almost everything else about both Mr Putin and this country's strangely muted presidential election campaign is open to the widest possible interpretations.

Dictator or saviour?

The cynical version of both, loudly trumpeted by Russia's dwindling clan of human rights activists, is that Vladimir Putin is a dangerous authoritarian, handpicked by a cabal of Kremlin insiders, and levered into power by a breathtakingly ruthless plot.

Young, energetic and clean, Mr Putin is portrayed as Russia's action-man

That plot allegedly began last summer with the apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities. The theory goes that Russian security forces were responsible for the terrorist campaign, which was immediately blamed on Chechen rebels.

The violence enabled Mr Putin - newly appointed as Prime Minister - to launch a military invasion of Chechnya - an action which turned him, virtually overnight, into Russia's most popular politician.

Once confirmed in office, the argument continues, Vladimir Putin will become a Russian Pinochet, defending the interests of a narrow elite, and slowly turning the country into a new police state.

He is, if you like, our James Bond

Moscow radio presenter Vladimir Solovyov
The military and security forces, according to this theory, will be lavishly rewarded with money and prestige, while civil liberties and the free press will be trampled on. Isolationism and a crude brand of nationalism will follow.

At the other end of the spectrum is a vision of Vladimir Putin as Russia's saviour.

His supporters - and there are plenty of them - see the acting president as a uniquely strong, honest and competent professional.

His decision to launch the bloody war in Chechnya is widely praised as a crucial move to protect Russia's territorial integrity, and to crush terrorism and banditry.

Young, energetic and clean, Mr Putin is portrayed as Russia's action-man - a welcome change from the inertia and corruption of Boris Yeltsin's second term.

The opinion polls show this image has caught on. Strange as it may seem in the West, most Russians are not worried about the lack of detail concerning Mr Putin's economic programme or his previous career in the KGB.

The real Mr Putin

"He is, if you like, our James Bond," said Moscow radio presenter, Vladimir Solovyov, pointing out that the world of Soviet espionage is remembered as a bastion of competence and relative honesty.

So, which is it to be? Will the real Mr Putin please stand up?

His enemies are convinced he will be a dictator

The truth, in all likelihood, is that both versions are wrong. People often like to view modern Russia in terms of extremes. Mr Putin's main campaign slogan - "a dictatorship of the law" - neatly captures the two conflicting visions of his rule.

His enemies are convinced he will be a dictator. His fans insist he will bring law and order to a turbulent country.

But the reality is likely to be more mundane.

For more than a decade now, Russia has muddled through - vast, chaotic, and corrupt - some would say ungovernable.

It is hard to believe that even Mr Putin will be able to make that much of a difference.

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29 Oct 99 | Europe
Analysis: Putin's war
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