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Ten years at the top for Vladimir Putin

Much has changed in the 10 years since Vladimir Putin first became Russia's president. He is now serving as prime minister with a possible view to running for the presidency again in 2012. James Rodgers assesses the rise and rise of the spy who came to control the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with Boris Yeltsin, file pic from August 1999
When Boris Yeltsin resigned as Russia's first post-Soviet leader, Vladimir Putin inherited a war in Chechnya and an economy drowning in debt

Cast your mind back to 31 December 1999. In Moscow, it is the last day of a century that has seen revolution and the collapse of communism.

Everyone in the Russian capital is waiting for reassurance from regions further east, where the new millennium has already started, that Russia's nuclear power stations are still safe - now that the date on their computers has changed to 2000.

He is a street boy turned into a very sophisticated political functionary and manipulator
Sergei Karaganov
Moscow Higher School of Economics

The main news of the day comes as a surprise.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Soviet leader, announces his resignation.

Vladimir Putin takes over as acting president.

There is war in Chechnya.

The economy is still reeling from Russia's defaulting on its debt a year earlier.

Tough, and rough

Mr Putin "came into a virtual failed state", says Sergei Karaganov, a former advisor to Mr Yeltsin, and now dean of Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

Mikhail Kasyanov, file pic from 2005
He was, and is, an old KGB officer who leads, or tries to evaluate all events and future from that angle: how to control society
Mikhail Kasyanov
Former prime minister

He has watched both Mr Putin, and Russia, change.

"He is bright, even brilliant, very tough, sometimes rough. He is a street boy turned into a very sophisticated political functionary and manipulator."

This description sums up Vladimir Putin's great versatility as a politician: he can seem equally comfortable wearing an expensive suit and discussing economic issues with world leaders, or sharing a joke with soldiers and speaking their slang.

He has divided the opinion of those who have lived through his 10 years at the top.

Many ordinary Russians - and, of course, Russia's new super-rich - thank him for bigger paycheques. Others see this as having come at too high a cost to political and press freedom.

Calm after chaos?

One of Vladimir Putin's first moves was to appoint Mikhail Kasyanov as his prime minister. Today, Mr Kasyanov is Mr Putin's implacable opponent.

"He was, and is, an old KGB officer who leads, or tries to evaluate all events and future from that angle: how to control society, how not to allow people to directly participate because that brings risks," says Mr Kasyanov of his former boss.

Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, disagrees.

Vladimir Putin in Kozmino, eastern Russia, 28 December 2009
Versatile as a politician, Vladimir Putin has divided the opinion of those who have lived through his 10 years at the top

He puts Mr Putin's political success down to an electorate fed up with the chaos it associated with Russia's immediate post-Soviet democracy.

"[They] believed... that one needs to have a strong leader. And then Mr Putin appeared, and he was immediately supported by very many Russians who still had expectations for life changing for the better.

"This is how Mr Putin from the very beginning of his era received very strong support from society, from the Russian citizens."

At times he has needed it - dealing with incidents like the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000; the Moscow theatre siege two years later; the killings of Beslan schoolchildren in 2004.

The arrest, and subsequent jailing, of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's richest man, has been one of the most controversial cases of the Putin era.

Tense relations

In 2006, Russia held the G8 presidency. Vladimir Putin welcomed world leaders to his home town, St Petersburg.

The country felt it was reclaiming the superpower role it had lost with the demise of the Soviet Union. Still, under Mr Putin, Russia's relations with the West have at times been tense. The eastward expansion of Nato has infuriated Moscow.

Russia's war with Georgia saw the United States and many European politicians support Georgia.

"Russia has emerged for the West as something very alien, and it's not really a partner, it's not a threat, and the relationships are very ambiguous," says Oksana Antonenko, a Russia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

She believes, though, that Mr Putin has already done enough to guarantee his legacy.

Putin swims in a lake in the Siberian Tuva region
Images of Putin swimming in a Siberian lake this summer seem aimed at promoting his macho image

"Putin certainly has already assured himself a very favourable place in Russian history," she suggests.

"Fifty, 100 years, 200 years from now he will be seen in Russian history as the man who saved Russia from the brink of collapse."

Sergei Karaganov sees a more complicated picture.

"The cost of progress became higher and higher: blatant corruption, over-centralisation, and a decrease of incentives for economic growth," he argues.

"If that is reversed somehow in the next several years, he will be seen as a controversial, but a great politician.

"If not, we will be facing a decline, and he will then be seen as a person who was relatively successful but then failed."



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