This Sunday [3/2/08], Russian voters go to the polls to elect a new president to succeed Vladimir Putin who has been in office for eight years.
In August 1999, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin -- a little known former Soviet intelligence officer -- to the post of prime minister. On December 31 of that year, he became acting president after Mr. Yelstin resigned.
Mr. Putin was elected president in March 2000 and re-elected for another four-year term in 2004. The Russian constitution prohibits him from running for a third consecutive term, so he will relinquish the presidency in May to the man who wins Sunday's election.
Analysts say when Mr. Putin came to power, he inherited a country still staggering from the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years before -- a country economically bankrupt and politically unstable.
Marshall Goldman, a Russia expert at Harvard University, says, "In 1998, they had just gone through a financial crisis that bankrupted the country, the ruble had no value, there was default on Russian debt. State properties had been taken over by a group of private individuals that came to be called 'oligarchs'. It was really quite dismal. The GDP was down 40-to-50 percent from what it had been in 1990."
At the time, Mr. Putin said he wanted to end the anarchy of the 1990s. Dale Herspring from Kansas State University, says as Mr. Putin saw it, Russia had two major problems. "First, it had no international standing. And second of all, it had basically -- the central government which has always been key for the Russians -- had collapsed. Putin's goal when he took over was two-fold. He wanted to make Russia a country that the rest of the world would take note of, it was an important country instead of being laughed at. And second of all, in order to do that, he felt that he had to try to re-establish central control from Moscow over the regions," says Herspring.
Analysts say that during his eight-year tenure as president, Vladimir Putin consolidated power in the Kremlin.
Michael McFaul from Stanford University says Mr. Putin used various methods to strengthen the Russian presidency. "He weakened the power of the independent media. He weakened the power of the governors. He weakened the power of the parliament. And later in his term, he weakened the power of independent political parties and civil society activists. And all the while, I think it's very hard to point to any political reform that Putin did that actually strengthened democracy in Russia. Most certainly you can't look to the courts; you can't look to election administration. There just aren't any reforms that help democracy."
Over the years, many western leaders, including U.S. President George Bush, have criticized Mr. Putin for his anti-democratic moves. The human rights organization Freedom House rates Russia in the category of those nations that are "not free". In 2000, soon after Mr. Putin initially took office, Russia was described as "partly free".
Analyst Dale Herspring says one of the problems is that Russia and the West have differing interpretations of the word "democracy". "We take the word 'demokraziya' and we translate it and we say it's 'democracy.' And when a Russian translates 'demokraziya, when he hears that word, he doesn't think so much of the town hall meeting, of us voting or fighting over whether or not we're going to allow the local school board to do 'x' or 'y'," says Herspring. "They think of an orderly run system in which the central authorities make the major decisions, but there is no repression. And that's one of the major problems, a deeply philosophical problem. And when he [i.e., President Putin] says he's going to have democracy, in his mind, democracy means Moscow makes the decisions; Moscow is fair in the way it does things and it listens to people. But in many ways, it's still the old democratic centralism."
On the economic front, Vladimir Putin has brought under Kremlin control many of Russia's important industries, including the gas and oil sector. And he has driven many of the oligarchs out of the country. Thanks to high oil prices, the economy is growing at a six-to-seven percent annual rate. Moscow has paid off all of its foreign debt and a middle class is emerging.
Despite the economic boost, Robert Legvold from Columbia University says Mr. Putin has not addressed a major problem in Russia -- corruption. "Not only have they made little progress in addressing corruption at all levels -- both for the business world and in a related way within the judiciary in delivering justice -- but in many ways it has gotten worse," says Legvold. "Russia is more corrupt today by almost all measures than it was three years ago, five years ago or eight years ago."
But Legvold says Mr. Putin has accomplished what most Russians wanted done when he came to office eight years ago. "They simply wanted to be a normal country. They are closer to that with greater freedoms of the kind that we normally don't feature. We talk about freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, which are basic civil rights. But for the average Russian, the freedom to travel, the freedom to make and spend money -- even in many respects, although the Russian Orthodox Church in some ways constrains this, the freedom to practice religion -- is greater than anything that these people have known in their lives, including the older people," says Legvold.
That is why, experts say, Mr. Putin is leaving the presidency with a more than 70 percent approval rating. But he will not leave the political scene altogether. If his chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, wins the presidency as expected, he promises to name Mr. Putin Prime Minister. And analysts say it will be interesting to see how much power Mr. Putin will continue to wield in his new position.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.