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Vladimir Putin

Russian strongman's return to the top

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am

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The news

Vladimir Putin reclaimed the Russian presidency on March 4, after winning almost 64 per cent of the vote. He previously served as president for eight years (2000-2008), and prime minister for four years.

After the recent election, Putin, 59, declared tearfully that he had won in a clean fight. But opposition parties said there were clear signs of foul play. Some said he would have received less than 50 per cent of the votes if the election wasn't rigged. Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Moscow to contest the election, and hundreds were arrested by the police. The president-elect will be inaugurated in May.

The issues

Man of the wild?

During all his years of leadership, Vladimir Putin has cultivated a macho, sportsman image. He has been seen doing extreme sports, tagging and hugging a polar bear, and piloting a plane to fight a fire. In 2007, the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda showed a bare-chested Putin on holiday in the Siberian mountains: 'Be Like Putin', the headline read.

But now that image is being put into question. Reports of Putin tranquillising a wild tiger in a conservation effort have been called phony.

In 2008, state-run television showed Putin deep in the woods of Russia's far east, on a mission to save the endangered Amur tiger. The video shows him shooting a tiger with a tranquilliser gun, so the animal could be tagged and tracked.

This month, environmentalists and bloggers said the shooting was set up, and the tiger was not wild, but a zoo animal. The tiger had also died in the publicity stunt, they said.

According to environmentalists, the tiger, named Serga, was taken from a zoo in the eastern city of Khabarovsk and driven several hundred kilometres to the Ussuri nature reserve. Serga was tranquillised and placed in a snare. It was forced to lie in wait as Putin got to the site, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a non-profit organisation.

After Putin inspected the big cat, placed a tracking collar on it and, reportedly, gave it a kiss, Serga was taken back to the Khabarovsk zoo. After a few days, the tiger died, unable to recover from the three tranquillisers used by scientists during the publicity stunt.

'It should have been one tranquilliser shot, but there were three, in a short period of time,' said Masha Vorontsova, head of IFAW's Russian branch.

'I'm not even blaming Putin, but the people who do these things for him. All they are interested in is big money. It's against all scientific and human ethics,' she said.

The research centre that organised the project, the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Ecology and Evolution, declined to comment.

Bloggers say they have photographic evidence of the stunt. They compared photos of the tranquillised tiger with photos of what was supposed to be the animal released back in the wild.

'The markings on a tiger are as unique as fingerprints. They don't change throughout its life,' said Vladimir Krever of WWF's Moscow office. 'If the photos going around the internet are what they say they are, it is definitely two different tigers.'

Losing the young's support

Despite Putin's efforts to portray himself as a tough, charismatic leader, he has lost the trust of many, particularly among the younger generation.

Take Alexei Zaitsev, who was born in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

'I don't mind living under Putin if he can change himself and do something good for the country. But I think Putin's big problem is that he can't change,' said Zaitsev, a journalism student at Moscow University.

Zaitsev was a child when Putin first became Russia's president. He was one of the many youngsters who joined opposition protests during the recent election period.

Like others born in that pivotal year in Russian history, Zaitsev has increasingly lost trust in the government. He is also disappointed with former role models, including a childhood teacher who called him a traitor for opposing the leadership.

His first memory of a political event that bothered him was the 1995 killing of a Russian television anchor. The case is still unsolved. He remembered his shocked parents were glued to the television, and he knew something was wrong.

Zaitsev came of age under Putin, but he said he never trusted the leader who was on television every night.

His parents were suspicious of Putin because he was a KGB agent: Zaitsev's great-grandfather spent 20 years in a 'gulag' in Siberia. Gulag is the government agency that ran forced labour camps during the Stalin era after the second world war.

But his real eye-opener came in December, when he volunteered to join the ranks of parliamentary election observers from the liberal Yabloko party. He spent the day at a polling station in his old high school. His two teachers of Russian literature and chemistry were on the local election commission.

After midnight when the votes were all counted, he went home with a signed and stamped copy of the ballot count in his pocket, in which Putin's United Russia party secured only 35 per cent of the votes.

'I couldn't believe my eyes when the next day I found out that United Russia ended up with 58 per cent in my station,' Zaitsev said, shaking his head. 'The fact that this outrageous lie was obviously supported by these people who taught me and other children to be honest was really disgusting.'

This is an edited version of stories from The New York Times, The Guardian, Agence France-Presse, McClatchy-Tribune and South China Morning Post

Timeline

October 7, 1952 Vladimir Putin was born in Leningrad, when Russia was known as the Soviet Union. His parents were Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, who was in the Soviet navy, and Maria Ivanovna Putina, a factory worker.

1975 Graduated with a law degree from Leningrad State University; joined the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, and underwent a year's training in Okhta, Leningrad. As first chief directorate, he monitored foreigners and consular officials in Leningrad.

1985-1990 Stationed in Dresden, East Germany, until the government collapsed. He returned to Leningrad and worked for Leningrad State University, specialising in international affairs.

May 1990 Appointed adviser on international affairs to St Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

June 1991 Appointed head of the external relations committee of the St Petersburg mayor's office; he held the position until 1996.

1994-1997 Became first deputy mayor of St Petersburg and later led the pro-government Our Home is Russia political party. He was also the head of the advisory board of the newspaper Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti.

March 1997 Appointed deputy head of presidential administration by President Boris Yeltsin.

July 1998 Appointed head of the Federal Security Service, one of the agencies which replaced the KGB.

August 1999 Appointed prime minister.

December 1999 Became acting president when Yeltsin resigned.

May 2000 Inaugurated as president.

March 2004 Re-elected for a second term as president.

May 2008 Barred from a third term, he was appointed prime minister.

March 2012 Re-elected as president.

Voices

'Thousands of small people at the foot of this huge system are all crushed by this necessity to publicly lie to support the massive falsifications ... I don't see how they can pull it off without widespread cheating. I can hardly name a young person I know who is going to vote for Putin.'

Alexei Zaitsev, 20, a journalism student

'I don't think Putin has any [beliefs] or that he professes any ideology. In a political sense, he is nothing but a cheap populist, but he is also the kind of crafty man who will cling to the last to this unlimited power.'

Anastasia Rybachenko, 20, a political science student

'Elections don't work in Russia. The last and only way to express your opinion is to go out to the street and protest.'

Dima, 20, who drove 15 hours to attend a protest in Moscow

'We need a democracy in which people can say what they want, write what they want and choose what they want.'

Galina, a protester who contests the election results