By Andrew Roth
As Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s All-Russia People’s Front continues to build up its membership with various organizations, the Union of Russian Architects has become the first group to publicly abstain from joining the front. Members of the union balked at the prospect of allying themselves with the front and United Russia. The odd tale of the architects union, which was initially enlisted in the front seemingly without its consent, has opened a small window into the chaotic development of the People’s Front. Despite it boasting a vast membership, critics are calling Putin’s initiative to task for its increasing ties with government agencies, the strengthening of a Soviet-esque single party apparatus and a growing sense that the project is a “farce.”
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s speech to the State Duma on Wednesday had the ring of a political manifesto ahead of the 2012 presidential elections, politicians and analysts said. In an apparent dig at President Dmitry Medvedev’s image as a reformer and force for modernizing Russia, Putin warned lawmakers against “liberal experiments” that could mar Russia’s drive to become one of the top five economies in the world.
Vladimir Putin (Владимир Владимирович Путин) was born October 7, 1952 in Leningrad. He served as Russian president from 2000 to 2008 and is currently prime minister. In September 2011 Dmitry Medvedev backed Putin to return to the presidency, paving the way for Putin to serve a third, and possibly a fourth, presidential term.
In 1975, Putin graduated from the law faculty of Leningrad State University, where he specialized in international law. In the mid 1970s, he joined the KGB and was appointed to the First Chief Directorate (PGU), an elite division in charge of intelligence abroad. Putin was posted to Germany and in the mid-1980s spent over three years as deputy director of the House of Soviet Science and Technology in Leipzig.
In the early 1990s, Putin started his career in the St. Petersburg city administration, working under influential Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who would become his mentor. He rose to become deputy mayor from 1992 to 1994, and first deputy mayor from 1994 until 1996.
In 1996 Putin entered federal politics, when he was appointed deputy chief of the Presidential Budget and Management Office. The following year he became deputy head of the Presidential Administration and head of the Main Presidential Control Department. Two years later Putin was appointed head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the following year he became secretary of the Russian Security Council.
Putin’s rise to power continued in August 1999, when he was appointed Russian prime minister. On December 31 of the same year he took over from Boris Yeltsin as acting president and was confirmed in the post in presidential elections held in May 2000, winning 53 percent of the vote.
Putin as President
Putin’s two terms as president were characterized by relative prosperity in Russia and he is widely seen as a stabilizing force. His accession to the presidency in 2000 followed a decade of economic and social turmoil in Russia, as the country struggled to transition from the Soviet Union. This forms the basis of his considerable popularity at home.
During his first presidential term, Putin consolidated his hold on domestic politics. He introduced a system of presidential envoys to seven newly created federal districts (an eighth – the North Caucasus – was added in 2010). In 2004, he also abolished elections for regional heads, moving to a system of presidential appointment. Both of these amendments strengthened federal power over the regions. Putin’s tightening grip was reflected in State Duma elections in 2003, when the pro-Putin United Russia party won 37.57 percent of the vote, securing 223 seats in parliament. In his second presidential campaign the following year, Putin was reelected with 71 percent of the vote.
Putin has been roundly criticized by human rights activists for his actions while in office. He took a hard line on the protracted Second Chechen War, in which human rights violations were reported on both sides. He also suppressed political opposition and allowed harassment of independent media. The most high-profile of these cases was the murder in 2006 of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya had written extensively about the Second Chechen War and conditions in Russia under Putin. Her murder remains unsolved.
Putin’s presidency also saw a number of civilian disasters hit Russia. The Kursk submarine disaster in his first year of office cost 118 sailors their lives, after the government was slow to accept international help. Four years later a Chechen terrorist attack on school No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, shocked the world, when 334 civilians, mostly children, were killed.
Putin presided over a period of economic growth in which Russia recovered from the 1998 economic crisis and high commodities prices stabilized the Russian economy. His tough tactics did have an impact on Russia’s reputation for business under his tenure, however. In 2005 Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then-Russia's richest man was jailed for tax evasion, which was seen by many foreign investors as a sign that negotiating the right bribes and kick-backs is an essential part of doing business in Russia. And many high-profile businessmen, such as Boris Berezovsky, who had made their fortunes in the 1990s, left Russia under Putin.
Putin’s attitude to the Soviet Union has also raised questions among Russian voters and analysts alike. He restored the Soviet anthem, commissioning new lyrics in his first year in office. He has also famously referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
Putin’s brusque style was unpopular with Western leaders. He responded sharply to U.S. plans to place an anti-missile defense system in Europe and was also accused of using energy supplies to exert control over countries in Russia’s near abroad, particularly Ukraine. Following the initiation of Washington’s war on Al Qaeda, Putin successfully compared Chechen separatists to the wider Islamist terrorist community, although he did not support going to war in Iraq without a UN Security Council resolution.
Putin as Prime Minister
In 2008, Putin stood down as president, in accordance with the Russian constitution, which stipulates a two-term limit for consecutive terms in office. Putin backed Dmitry Medvedev in presidential elections and the latter won a landslide victory. Medvedev appointed Putin prime minister in his new government, but many believed real power remained in Putin’s hands. In the same year Putin, who was a member of the Communist Party until 1991, became head of United Russia.
Putin’s tenure as prime minister has been dominated by dealing with fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. He moved quickly to stem civil unrest in one-industry towns, such as Pikalyovo, when wage arrears spiraled out of control following a halt in production. He also introduced protectionist measures to save the Russian automotive industry. In late 2008 he rolled out $2 billion in bailouts for Russian producers and $3 billion in credit for those buying Russian cars. At the same time tariffs for imported cars rose to 50 percent, and trucks to 100 percent. Two years later Putin introduced a car scrappage scheme, which gave those buying new cars a subsidy of up to $20,000. By the end of 2010, automotive production in Russia had returned to pre-crisis levels. In 2010, Putin presided over establishment of the Customs Union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, introducing a free-trade zone and unifying customs duties. Russia is actively encouraging Ukraine to join the union, although so far it has declined.
In 2011 Dmitry Medvedev announced that he will back Putin for president in March 2012 elections, paving the way for Putin to serve a third and possibly fourth term as president. In 2008 presidential terms were extended from four to six years, raising the prospect that Putin could be in power until 2024.
Putin styles himself as an active leader and frequently promotes this image in the media, via a series of strong-man photographs. These include shots of him doing martial arts, fishing bare-chested and hunting exotic animals.
Putin is married and has two daughters, Yekaterina and Maria. He is also an Orthodox Christian. Baptized secretly by his mother, since the collapse of the Soviet Union he has been open about his faith.