The bizarre cult of Vladamir Putin

Published in The Huffington Post on Thursday, 27th October, 2011.

On the day that justice finally caught up with Muammar Gaddafi, former American Presidential candidate John McCain appeared on Newsnight and remarked that dictators all over the world – including those in Russia – should be nervous. “This is the Spring” he said, “not just the Arab Spring.”

Just days before, Vladamir Putin announced that he will seek to recapture the Kremlin after standing down as President in 2008. Given that he is all but assured a landslide victory, will the fate of his Libyan counterpart be keeping Putin awake at night? I suspect not.

Although he has often been a figure of fun in the West, the former KGB agent has unrivalled popularity in Russia. The press have nicknamed him “Hardman” and his approval rating stood at 80% when his term expired in 2008. Despite switching posts with his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, he has continued to dominate the political agenda as Prime Minister.

Putin’s enduring popularity raises the question: why is Russia so attached to him? The answer can be found by looking at the country’s recent history.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union after years of political and economic stagnation, the newly formed Russian Federation entered a period of extreme upheaval. Initial optimism over the downfall of communism eroded due to a corrupt political culture and an economic collapse that was bigger than the great depression.

And crucially, Russia was weak. Following its loss of superpower status, the West was perceived to be exploiting Russia’s downfall and this left a deep sense of humiliation.

It is within this context that Putin emerged, succeeding Boris Yeltsin as President on Millennium Eve.

He restored a semblance of political stability following the turbulence of the 1990s and, thanks to rising prices and increased demand for natural resources, established Russia as an energy superpower.

This allowed him to focus upon reinstating Moscow’s power on the international stage during his second term. As countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will testify, he did so in a brutal fashion.

It hasn’t all been good news for the Russian people. Like many popular leaders in a newly formed country, the slide towards autocracy has been irresistible. Freedom of expression and autonomy of the press have been considerably weakened, whilst criminality and corruption have become increasing hallmarks of public life.

Despite this, Putin is credited for improving the standard of living for many and restoring a sense of national pride. Here lays the source of his enduring popularity.

Western politicians such as John McCain may continue to paint him in the same light as Gaddafi, but ‘The Grey Cardinal’ looks set to remain at the high altar for some time to come. Putin is going nowhere.

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