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Monday, 13 March, 2000, 17:23 GMT
Russian press puzzles over Putin
Vladimir Putin
Papers ponder what lies behind the steely mask?
By BBC Monitoring's Vickie Maximova

As Russia's presidential election looms, Russia's media have been focusing on the man most likely to win - Acting President Vladimir Putin.

Everyone has his own populism but the acting president has introduced a state monopoly on it

But while Russian TV channels beam upbeat pictures of Mr Putin holding forth from official platforms, or embracing a cuddly poodle while talking about affairs of state, non-government newspapers are predicting doom and gloom for the country under the Putin presidency.

The press has branded the acting president Mr Nobody, a Black Box and a Blank Sheet. They claim he is "hiding his true face behind an iron mask" and question his usual custom of treading the middle ground by backing the proposals of both the Communist Party and the right-wing parties.

Some large-circulation papers, like Izvestiya, see this as Mr Putin's vote-winning formula "Everyone has his own populism but the acting president has introduced a state monopoly on it."

'Man without a past'

Apart from the war in Chechnya, he has done absolutely nothing.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta
Other papers, however, are making an effort to delve beneath the surface. The most serious indictments come from Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Moskovskiy Komsomolets, which have accused Mr Putin of indecisiveness, vagueness and a lack of commitment to democracy and reform.

These papers see Mr Putin as essentially a "grey" politician "without charisma", "without political views", "without a team" and "without a past".

The press acknowledges that Mr Putin's popularity largely stems from what is perceived to be his decisive actions in Chechnya, but they also question whether his decisiveness spreads any further afield.

"All his other actions in the economy and in the political sphere do not merit the word (decisive) for want of action," Moskovskiy Komsomolets' charges. And Nezavisimaya Gazeta echoes: "Apart from the war in Chechnya, he has done absolutely nothing..."

Putin through the looking-glass

Why Russians have flocked in hordes into the Putin camp confounds many newspapers. Some insist Mr Putin's popularity is linked to "people's yearning for a strong hand".

But Nezavisimaya Gazeta seeks its answers outside deeper in the Russian political psyche.

Behind Putin's iron mask people see what they want to see.

Moskovsky Komsomolets
"The collective love of Putin is an irrational phenomenon," it says. "When the main presidential candidate is doing his utmost to remain Mr Nobody, many people have no choice but to amuse themselves by inventing their own Putin."

And according to Moskovsky Komsomolets: "Behind Putin's iron mask people see what they want to see. The military see a strong and combat-capable army. Old people see good pensions and some kind of recognition. Workers hope Putin will breathe new life into semi-moribund plants. Farmers expect land from him while former collective farm members still dependent on state handouts expect state funding to continue."

The voice of dissent in the Russian media may not be loud enough to affect Mr Putin's ratings. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for instance, is a low-circulation paper, and the large-circulation Izvestiya and Komsomolskaya Pravda, while treading a fine line between observation and scepticism, stop short of hard-hitting attacks on Mr Putin.

But this persistent stream of disaffection points to cracks in Mr Putin's armour, which may split open if he fails to meet the multitude of contradictory expectations as his presidency trundles forward.
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