Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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Putin's Popularity Running High
November 14, 2001

MOSCOW (AP) - President Bush says he has peered into Vladimir Putin's soul and now trusts the man. Russians are just as captivated by their president, but few would say they know the secrets of his soul.

Putin, currently in the United States for a summit with Bush, continues to enjoy approval ratings most politicians can only dream about, but his countrymen complain they still can't figure out what drives him. A recent opinion poll put Putin's lack of a clear political agenda as one of his most serious shortcomings.

``I still support Putin,'' Natasha Lukhovskaya, 23, a shop assistant, said as she stood under an arch near Red Square to avoid the falling snow. ``But it is difficult to say if he is good for Russia because it is difficult to know what he is going to do next.''

When Putin, the hand-picked successor of former President Boris Yeltsin, easily won the presidency in a special March 2000 election, he did so without explaining how he planned to govern the country. He was known mainly for his aggressive stand against separatist rebels in Chechnya, blamed for a series of apartment bombings across Russia that killed more than 300 people. Putin's promise of tough action appealed to a nation traumatized by the brutal terrorist attacks.

Putin has since won international plaudits for his unflinching support of the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign and his bid to turn Russia closer to the West. Economists have also applauded Putin's tax and land reforms, and his pledge to push Russia further down the path of economic liberalization.

But Russia still has a shaky economy, overly dependent on oil revenues, and investors complain about Russia's weak legal system, excessive bureaucracy and corruption. Human rights groups warn about alleged Kremlin attempts to crack down on media freedom and allegations of excessive force by Russian troops in Chechnya.

``Today, I like him,'' said Nadezhda Karima, 77, a retired professor. A major reason for her support: she now receives her state pension on schedule, something that only happened erratically under Yeltsin.

``Tomorrow, what will I think of Putin? We must wait,'' she said, adding that Putin deserved credit for bringing order back to the government. Now when she takes her daily walk by the Kremlin, she believes the man working behind the walls is in charge. ``Russia needs a strong state,'' Karima said.

When All-Russia Public Opinion Center questioned 1,600 Russians in September about Putin's top qualities, 38 percent named his energy and resolve. Another 25 percent praised his ability to bring order to Russia. The margin of error was 3.8 percent.

But 43 percent of those respondents also said Putin hadn't really changed their standard of living, compared to 38 percent who saw some changes for the better and 15 percent who feared things were worse.

Putin's critics warn that sentiment against him is growing, particularly as U.S.-Russian relations warm. While Russians sympathize with Americans over the Sept. 11 attacks and want to see the Taliban toppled, many believe the campaign is giving the United States too much influence too close to Russia.

Russians remain wary of America, after the first post-communism decade didn't live up to U.S. promises.

But Anatoly Kirilov, 28, dismissed those concerns as irrelevant to young Russians.

``Life was very difficult here before. Now look around you,'' he said, motioning toward the upscale stores around the Kremlin and a shopping bag of newly purchased clothes in his hand. ``As of this moment, Putin is on the right path.''

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