|Putin has brushed aside protests against him, and supporters have held massive demonstrations of their own [Reuters]
Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has claimed victory in Russia's presidential election.
With tears rolling down his cheeks at a victory rally on Sunday, Putin said the Russian people had clearly rejected the attempts of unidentified enemies to "destroy Russia's statehood and usurp power".
Putin, 59, the chairman of the United Russia party and current prime minister, served as president for two terms from 2000 to 2008, and is widely expected to sweep aside the candidates running against him in 2012 – the only question, many say, is whether he will do so in a single round, or be forced into a runoff.
While there have been widespread protests against Putin and his party over allegations of vote rigging in the December 2011 parliamentary polls and rampant corruption, attracting hundreds of thousands, his hold over the political sphere remains strong – he is currently polling as high as 63 per cent, according to the independent Levada centre, which puts Gennady Zyuganov (the Communist Party leader who is his nearest rival) at 15 per cent.
Putin has dismissed the protests against his government as being backed by the United States, in an attempt to engineer an "Orange Revolution" in Russia similar to that which unseated the Ukrainian government in 2005. He has held demonstrations of his own, attracting tens of thousands – some estimates say hundreds of thousands – of supporters.
Having presided over a period of economic growth, shrinking income inequality, an assertive foreign policy, and integration of the Russian economy into the broader world economy, Putin’s mantra has been to appeal to citizens to vote for "stability".
While corruption allegations have dogged him throughout his career – from its beginnings in St Petersburg right through to his holding of the country’s top posts in Moscow – he is widely expected to sweep the polls, though the possibility of a runoff would indicate the presence of significant pockets of discontent.
From Leningrad to Moscow, via Dresden
Putin was born on October 7, 1952, to a Soviet naval submariner and a factory worker in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). After completing secondary school, he studied law and German at the Leningrad State University, graduating and joining the KGB, the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency, in 1975.
After serving in various positions in foreign intelligence and at universities, Putin was assigned to the KGB post in Dresden, German Democratic Republic (East Germany), in 1985, receiving a medal for distinguished service for his work while there.
Putin returned to Leningrad after the Soviet pullout from East Germany in 1991, and resigned from the KGB, at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, following the failed KGB-supported coup d’etat against then President Mikhail Gorbachev’s government.
He then began his political career, rising through the ranks at the St. Petersburg mayor’s office to be called up to a post in President Boris Yeltsin’s government in 1996. After serving in several positions, including deputy chief of staff, he was appointed to lead the Federal Security Services (the FSB – one of the successors to the KGB).
By August 1999, Putin had become prime minister, second only to Yeltsin in the Russian government. He soon replaced Yeltsin, when the former Russian president handed in a surprise resignation on December 31, 1999.
Putin was made stand-in president, with Yeltsin’s blessing, and won a presidential poll three months later with more than 52 per cent of the vote – the first time in his national political career that he had stood in an election.
Putin as president
His rule in the first term was marked by a booming economy, a restructuring of Russian power structures to temper the influence of oligarchs and increase Kremlin control; and military operations against separatists in Chechnya. The operations in Chechnya sparked several attacks on Russian civilian targets by separatist fighters, prompting Putin to adopt a hardline stance on terrorism.
Overall, Russia, buoyed by high oil prices, maintained an impressive economic record in Putin’s first term, maintaining average growth rates of around 6.5 per cent, with external debt reduced to less than 30 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.
Politically, Putin tightened his hold over the government when his party, United Russia, won over two-thirds of the seats in the State Duma in the 2003 parliamentary elections.
As such, he easily won his second term in 2004, securing 71 per cent of the vote.
Putin’s second stint as president began amidst several crises: economic growth and investment were slowing, and separatist fighters had increased the frequency of attacks against Russian civilians. On the international stage, Russia was growing more isolated as Putin gave up a policy of rapprochement with the West to assert Russian interests more aggressively. He was criticised in the West for muzzling press freedoms and concentrating power in his hands.
Putin responded to the crises by increasing state controls on political and security structures, while aiming policies at supporting the social sector and modernising the military.
By 2008 Putin’s popularity had not waned, but he was bound by a two consecutive term limit on presidents. As such, he endorsed his deputy prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev to run for president, while he ran for prime minister. Medvedev won the presidential election with more than 70 per cent of the vote, and Putin began his second stint as prime minister on May 8, 2008.
Medvedev’s presidency has been marked by a continuation of Putin’s policies, and while there have been crises (notably in the economy, following the 2008 war with Georgia and the plunging price of crude oil), United Russia’s popularity remains generally high.
While Putin's leadership of Russia has been marked by its general rapprochement with the United States and NATO in general, the relationships remain tense. Russia under Putin has frequently decried perceived "Western imperialism" (most recently criticising the positions of the US and NATO on the uprisings in Libya and Syria).
Particular points of tension have been the planned US missile defence shield project being established near Russia's western borders, and the death of Alexander Litvinenko, an alleged Russian spy who reportedly defected to the UK.
Russia has also has troubled relations with some of its near neighbours, particularly Georgia and the Ukraine. It has used the suspension of natural resource supplies as a tool of foreign policy.
In the defence sector, Putin has said that Russia's military must adapt to the changing nature of warfare, particularly citing the development of weapons based on new physical principles and cyberspace warfare as areas where work needs to be done.
Immigration is a key issue for many Russians, and, compared to his rivals in the presidential poll, Putin has charted a middle-course on addressing illegal immigration concerns.
In a recent op-ed, Putin wrote that any attempt to create a "'national' mono-ethnic state is contrary to our thousand-year history [and] ... is the shortest path to the destruction of the Russian people". He has rejected multiculturalism as a workable policy, but argues that Russia is a "multinational" state that has a long history of ethnic mingling with peoples who are now citizens of its neighbours.
He has called for the country's immigration policies to be reworked such that they provide preferential treatment to those who are more highly qualified and possess "cultural and behavioural compatability". He says that from 2013, immigrants should be subject to immigration status examinations on Russian language, history, literature and civics.
Putin has rejected economic isolation as a policy, and says the Russian economy must engage more with the world in the trade sector. He has also backed efforts to encourage technological innovation by providing tax incentives and to diversify the economy, particularly citing the pharmaceutical, materials, nanotechnology, information technology and communications sectors as candidates for growth. He has promised to continue the process of privatisation in all but the defence and oil sectors. Through these policies, he says his government will also overcome Russia's massive capital outflow problem.
The United Russia leader has also identified a growing gap in the incomes of the rich and poor as being "a source of social tension", and says he plans to address this through the diversification of the economy, the possible introduction of a luxury tax and by providing significant social safety nets -including increased pensions and measures to combat inflation - through the state.
Putin has promised to increase doctors' and university lecturers’ salaries to twice the national average and to improve the efficiency of the health and education sectors by introducing more performance monitoring.
The prime minister has identified housing as a sector where the state should provide citizens with more support, and has made it part of his National Priority Projects programme (instituted in 2005). He says he will reduce home construction costs, combat corruption in the construction sector and make it easier for citizens to obtain affordable mortgages.
Overall, Putin has promised an at least 20 per cent drop in the cost of accommodation.
Finally, on Russia’s demographic crisis, Putin has warned that the country's high male mortality rate and low birth rate threatens to turn Russia into a "geopolitical 'void' whose fate would be decided by other powers", and proposes new measures to combat male alcoholism and drug abuse, incentives for women who have more than two children, improved housing and educational benefits for citizens and a new immigration policy aimed at attracting both foreigners and Russians who have migrated elsewhere.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies