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Three years on, Russians feel President Putin's grip everywhere
DEBORAH SEWARD, Associated Press Writer
December 30, 2002

MOSCOW (AP) -- The holiday season is in full swing in Russia and as shoppers search for that special gift in elegant arcades, scruffy kiosks or outdoor souvenir stands, there is something of Vladimir Putin for everyone.

Squeezed between Van Gogh and Monet reproductions at the Progress book store is a framed picture of the president smiling and holding a shiny pen in his hand. It sells for 1,000 rubles, or $33, about two-thirds of the average monthly pension and twice as much as the Van Gogh, but it's selling well, says the sales clerk.

Three years after Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin, his image is everywhere: in schools, offices, banks, even gas stations -- on a slew of biographies next to the imported Santa candles in a kiosk, and on whimsical-looking Putin nesting dolls.

If this is a Soviet-style personality cult, the president claims he doesn't much care for it. But he does have a marked fondness for old Soviet symbols and they have made a strong comeback in the past three years.

Just a few weeks ago, the red star was restored as Russia's military emblem. The red banner is again the military flag. On Putin's initiative, parliament has voted back the old tune of the Soviet anthem with new words written by an old composer who was a favorite of the Soviet elite all the way back to Stalin.

The mayor of Moscow has proposed re-erecting a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet-era secret police that became the KGB, Putin's employer before he made the leap to running the country in its post-communist era.

A lively discussion is going on about whether to restore the city of Volgograd's old name, Stalingrad. Those in favor are thinking of its World War II glory, but Putin has said on television that restoring the name of the late Soviet dictator might send the wrong signal.

Putin, at 50 the youngest man to lead Russia in modern history, has done more than restore symbols of the past. He has consolidated power, achieved a measure of political stability and led an unprecedented militarization of the political and administrative elite to further his goal of strengthening the Russian state, which had become very wobbly under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

He has also made a firm friend of President Bush by supporting his war on terrorism and by putting up little active resistance to Bush's plans for missile defense or the expansion of NATO into former Soviet bloc countries.

Answering questions on television when he visited Bush at the president's home in Crawford, Texas, a little over a year ago, the Russian came across to the American public as a relaxed, confident and unassuming man -- very different from the rambunctious Yeltsin or any other of his predecessors.

On Dec. 19, in his second annual live television question-and-answer session with ordinary Russians, Putin ignored foreign policy altogether and appeared very proud of rattling off economic statistics: falling inflation and the reduction in the foreign debt payments among them.

A pillar of his economic policy has been a flat income tax of 13 percent -- an audacious move to combat the tax evasion that was bleeding his country.

Russia's economy, however, still depends heavily on the sale of raw materials such as oil. And according to the state statistics committee, a quarter of all Russians live below the national subsistence minimum.

"It's clear there is political stability, but it's not very productive. It's beneficial for the bureaucrats but the economy has benefited very little from it ... growth is falling and investments are falling. Things are bad in the social sphere," said Georgy Satarov, a former Yeltsin adviser who now heads his own think tank called INDEM, short for Information for Democracy.

Political stability and a growing hold on political power by the president and his allies have come at a price.

Under Putin, media freedom that had flourished after the Soviet collapse has been curtailed, and parliament turned into a docile rubber stamp. People in Russia still speak their minds, but many do so more carefully in public.

"Civil society is very weak, and the parliament is in a humiliating position," said Ivan Rybkin, who was Yeltsin's national security adviser. "Such a concentration of power is dangerous for the president."

Putin not only has accumulated power, his popularity ratings now regularly top 80 percent. But the figures may not matter much. Yeltsin's popularity was down to single digits in the spring of 1996 yet he managed to win that year's presidential election. Few in Russia doubt Putin will triumph in the next presidential election in 2004, regardless of ratings.

In many ways, the country Putin rules looks much as it did under Yeltsin.

Russia is a world leader in tuberculosis, AIDS, drug addiction, corruption and crime. Its people die younger than just about anywhere else in Europe and many don't live that well while they are alive.

The oligarchs, businessmen who amassed great fortunes using political connections after the Soviet collapse, are mostly still in place despite Putin's promise to reduce their influence.

Russia's grinding war in Chechnya will soon enter its fourth year and the conflict -- the second in a decade -- shows no sign of ending soon. In October the war came to the heart of Moscow when Chechens seized a theater and the government's rescue operation ended with 129 hostages dead, and a suicide bombing Friday at the government compound in the Chechen capital killed scores of people.

"Putin is a hostage and a captive of this war," said Rybkin, who tried to get informal talks with rebel leaders going this summer. Putin has made clear he will not tolerate any talk of negotiations.

While Russia's military leaders have proved inept at waging war, they have made great strides in penetrating the political and government elite and even the upper echelons of the business world.

A September study by sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya said fully one-fourth of the political and administrative elite in Russia has a military or security background -- far more than under Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader.

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