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Putin Remains Popular Despite Russian Problems in 2002 - 2002-12-25


The past year has been a tough one for Russian President Vladimir Putin. A hostage crisis in the heart of Moscow shocked the country. There is no end in sight to the war in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya. And it was a rough year for the economy. But through it all, President Putin has only grown more popular.

A Russian song by two girls, singing about finding the right man became a huge hit in 2002. But there was a twist. They were singing about finding a man like Russian President Vladimir Putin. Presidents aren't usually thought of as ideal boyfriends or husbands. The producer of the record, Alexander Yelin, said the Russian leader is so popular with the ladies, and nearly everyone else because he is, at the age of 50, a charming, interesting, nice young man. He said compared to Mr. Putin, other politicians look bad.

That statement is backed up by ratings that would be the envy of any politician. According to the latest survey by the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research, 83 percent of people in Russia approve of the job Mr. Putin is doing.

Even a deadly hostage crisis in the center of the nation's capital couldn't dim the President's popularity. In October of this year, a group of Chechen gunmen took hundreds of people hostage in a Moscow theater, demanding an end to the war in Russia's breakaway region of Chechnya. When the crisis ended, all of the kidnappers and 129 of the hostages were dead.

Almost all casualties among the hostages were caused by a gas released by Russian forces to subdue the hostage-takers before Russian forces stormed the building. Despite the loss of life, the crisis didn't tarnish President Putin's image at home. In fact, people seemed to like him even more, and the incident reinforced his image as a decisive and tough leader who won't negotiate.

Many Russian people also like Mr. Putin because they believe he is been able to reestablish Russia's proper place in the world, something it lost after the fall of the Soviet Union.

At the offices of the Russian magazine Yezhedelny Dzhournal, deputy editor Masha Lipman says after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, President Putin opted for a more western-looking foreign policy, something that won him applause abroad as well from voters at home.

"The public in general is not a westernizer like Putin is himself," she said. "However, what they care about is Russia's standing. And the general impression is that under Putin, Russia's standing has gone up. Putin is respected by other leaders. The U.S. needs Russia for its war in Iraq. Russia is becoming an equal partner."

Some of Mr. Putin's international successes this year include signing an agreement with NATO giving Russia a role in the organization and also signing a landmark arms reduction agreement with the United States.

But there have been disappointments as well. U.S. troops are now based in Central Asia and the Caucasian country of Georgia, areas Russia considers part of its own sphere of influence. And Russia has been mired in the Chechnya war for more than three years. That, in particular, is a source of frustration for the Russian leader.

He expressed that frustration in a now infamous comment during a press conference in Brussels right after the hostage crisis ended. A reporter asked him why Russian soldiers in Chechnya are using mines that harm civilians. The Russian leader reacted with a vulgar insult.

Ms. Lipman says outbursts like this are common when President Putin is asked about Chechnya, partly because the Russian leader knows there is no easy way to end the war.

"He does realize he's stuck. He does realize this is a difficult problem, that over three years into the war the Russian army is badly stuck and there is no way out in sight. But he doesn't want the press to tell him that," she said.

But Chechnya will remain a difficult issue and not just with the press. At the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies, analyst Andrei Piontovsky says ordinary Russians also want the war to end.

"The country is tired of this war and the country is demanding, not very loudly but more and more decisively, the country is demanding new solutions, peaceful solutions," he said.

Analysts say another challenge in the coming year will be the economy. "Maybe he himself doesn't realize it yet but I think his most serious challenge is in the economy, because the economy according to emerging assessments is stagnating," according to Mr. Piontovsky.

Economic growth has slowed from eight percent in 2001 to an expected four percent this year. The Russian economy is also still very dependent on oil exports, making it susceptible to every jump or drop in oil prices. While oil prices are high right now, a possible war with Iraq or a further global economic slowdown, could bring oil prices down.

While Chechnya and the economy may be problems in the coming year, for the time being most Russians seem happy with Mr. Putin. If it stays that way there is little doubt the Russian leader will be reelected in the next presidential elections in 2004. That's good news for his admirers among Russian women, and for at least some record sales.

Part of VOA's yearend series.

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