Macho but Indecisive, Putin is All Russia′s Got | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.11.2007

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Macho but Indecisive, Putin is All Russia's Got

The Russians love their president. They admire his iron rule, and the way he goes fishing topless. But is it the real Putin they know?

You know you're in safe hands with a leader like this

You know you're in safe hands with a leader like this

The images of Putin at the EU-Russian summit in Samara which went around the world in May fast became iconic. In his natty shades, black designer suit and knowing smile, he came across less like a democratically elected president and more like a professional hit man.

Two policemen on horses in front of a giant pro-Putin poster

"For Putin" reads this giant poster in Moscow

But icy efficiency seems to be exactly what Putin wants to convey. Over the years, he's learnt that cutting a telegenic dash through the world media is an effective way of showing what a tough guy he is.

No doubt with this principle in mind, he made headlines in August when he took a brief break from running the country to go fishing in Siberia with Prince Albert of Monaco, abandoning the formal suits in favor of some camouflage chic. The president then wasted no time stripping down to the waist, showing off a remarkably trim physique for a man of his years.

Although his antics met with plenty of raised eyebrows in the uptight West, this sort of macho posturing is not so much laughed at as admired back home in Russia.

"[Putin] likes to profile himself as a protector, a strong man who's also very sensible," says Russia expert Hans-Henning Schröder from the Foundation for Science and Politics. "He embodies everything a Russian woman wants in a man."

No one to trust

Putin

Putin's more serious side

In reality, his image as Russia's knight in shining armor is wishful thinking. The country has no one it can trust -- which is why it's not so surprising that 70 percent of the public named the president in a recent survey of the most trustworthy institutions.

Only eight percent said they had faith in the unions, 15 percent in the judicial system and just 10 percent in political parties.

"This is to be expected," said Schröder. "The parties change every year and many of them are more likely to be imposed from above than be genuine representatives of the people. The unions don't care about the public and the judicial system is corrupt."

In contrast, Putin must seem like a guardian angel, seen to have guided his people through the turmoil of the 1990s to moderate prosperity and helping secure the country a place within the new world order.

"In fact, Putin cannot take the credit for this prosperity," points out Falk Bomsdorf from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Moscow. "It is largely due to the steep rise in oil prices. But no one seems to care."

"National leader"

Putin in his sunglasses

President or hit man?

But the Russians have undoubtedly never had it as good as under Putin. In the last eight years, wages have grown 50 percent, and the country has seen a slow but sure emergence of the middle class.

"A class of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs has arisen which never existed before Putin," points out Thomas Kunze, who used to work at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Russia. "They have a vested interest in his remaining in power."

As Hans-Henning Schröder observed, few Russians could live off their wages under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin.

"Old people without pensions simply died. Back then, people had to fight to survive," he said.

Unlike in Germany after the Second World War, democracy and a free market economy failed to result in an immediate boost to the standard of living in Russia, he explained. But life improved once Putin began centralizing the economy.

To many, he is still the only man able to run the show, which is why Russia's dominant United Russia party has published a blueprint for formalizing the status of President Vladimir Putin as "national leader" after he steps down as president next year.

Indecisive

Putin at a political rally in downtown Moscow

A series of political rallies have cast the popular president as an indispensable leader

Schröder, however, believes that Putin's public image belies the truth of a far more indecisive character.

Uncompromising as he is on the world stage, Putin is actually strikingly ineffective at home.

"My impression is that Putin has never been very assertive and has seldom made difficult decisions," he points out.

In the last four years, he has steered well clear of controversial issues such as health reforms. In 2005 he hastily backed down on plans for social reform as soon as a few demonstrators took to the streets. Five years ago, he showed similar weakness when he refrained from intervening in a public spat between his defense minister and the head of the General Staff over security policy.

"Had such an argument happened in Germany, one of them would have been fired immediately, if not both," said Schröder.

So why do the Russians still love him? Perhaps it's because the Putin approach is one that many of the more apolitical members of the population can identify with. But, according to Schröder, the president is by no means a typical Russian.

"He's more typically German than Russian," he said. "A typical Russian has a bit more soul and likes to party more than he does."

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