20 years of Putin: from the unknown political to the dominant force | News

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Twenty years ago, on December 31, Russian President Boris Yeltsin "stole the millennium".

The sick, alcoholic and unpopular leader interrupted New Year's Eve celebrations by resigning and proclaiming his new prime minister as "interim president,quot; before an early vote in March 2000.

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The prime minister was a political stranger: a former KGB colonel, shy for the media, named Vladimir Putin, who wore large outdated suits and worked briefly as a taxi driver. before becoming a city official in his native St. Petersburg.

Cinderella's political man had a fairy godmother, the omaripotent oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who pressed for Putin.

In 2013, Berezovsky, then exiled, was found hanged at his home on the outskirts of London, shortly after begging Putin to let him return to Russia.

Critics say Putin reversed the democratic reforms of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the beginning of his government, Putin looked at the Western leaders, volunteered to help the US offensive in Afghanistan and told US President Bill Clinton in 2000 that Russia should join NATO.

But Western counterparts never treated him as an equal partner, and Putin gradually changed.

"He is the best ruler of Russia in many centuries," Dmitri Kiselyov, a television host who runs RT, said in February, a state-backed media outlet that broadcasts news in dozens of languages.

Kiselyov praises Putin's revival of "traditional values,quot; and criticizes the West.

Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old political blogger, has a different perspective.

Russian journalists arrested on false charges

"The only traditional institution that the current Russian state respects and strengthens is its autocracy that never doubts in breaking the life of anyone who sincerely wants to benefit their homeland," he told a Moscow court that imposed a suspended sentence of three years on early december. for participating in protests in July.

In 2018, the nation that stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific was shaken by protests over municipal elections, garbage disposal, church building in parks and redistribution of regional borders.

Every protest became politicized and punished with arrests, convictions and draconian fines.

However, some analysts believe that the protests embolden Putin.

"The protests are strengthening Putin's ratings because it consolidates around it public groups that oppose any violent change of power," Alexey Mukhin, a Moscow-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

Failed economy, falling popularity

Critics point out that after two decades in power and despite an unexpected gain of petrodollars, Putin and his allies failed to address Russia's most fundamental problems: their dependence on energy exports, the drop in birth rates and industrial production, brain drain, an HIV / AIDS epidemic and corruption

Several cities saw mass demonstrations against pension reform in 2019 (File: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

"Corruption in Russia ceased to be a problem, it became a system," opposition leader Boris Nemtsov wrote in his 2011 analysis, concluding that Russia's "annual rotation of corruption,quot; amounted to $ 300 billion, a quarter of gross domestic product.

Four years later, Nemtsov was shot outside the Kremlin walls.

The annexation of Crimea in 2014 interrupted economic ties with Ukraine and brought Western sanctions that further hampered Russia's economy and affected its most vulnerable demographic group, which is also Putin's support base, the elderly.

"For a Russian grandmother, sanctions mean fewer opportunities for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, of course, if she wants them to live in a modernized country, not in a besieged fortress," Alexey Kushch, a Ukrainian analyst, told Al Jazeera. .

But Vladimir Evseyev, a 67-year-old pensioner in the central city of Tver, told Al Jazeera: "Putin wants to preserve the peace, but if someone wants to mess with us, he will respond. It's fine if our pensions are 15,000 rubles ($ 250), but we don't want war."

According to a December survey conducted by the independent pollster Levada, 68 percent of Russians support Putin, well below the 86 percent approval rating he enjoyed after annexing the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine.

Save Bashar al-Assad

In 1999, Russia's presence in the Middle East was reduced to a navy outpost in the Syrian port of Tartus.

Today, Putin plays regional king.

Russia's participation in the Syrian conflict helped save the Bashar al-Assad government.

Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad

Russia has supported al-Assad during its country's brutal civil war (File: Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / Kremlin through Reuters)

"The Assad regime is saved and also strengthened in some way. Even in the Arab world, it is recognized unofficially," Aleksey Malashenko, a Moscow-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

Putin also protected Iran from sanctions, supplied weapons and helped Tehran complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

He is reportedly trying to push the renegade Libyan renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar as the leader of the war-torn North African nation, with the help of hundreds of mercenaries.

Reliving a Soviet ghost

Putin's favorite project is the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a free trade block led by Moscow. It includes the economic power of Central Asia, Kazakhstan, its impoverished neighbor Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Belarus.

Uzbekistan, the most populous nation in Central Asia, is considering membership.

Recently he let Russia use its airspace, backed United Nations resolutions against Ukraine from Moscow and signed up for a nuclear power plant built by Russia.

"All these trends make one wonder if Uzbekistan is giving up its political independence," Alisher Ilkhamov, an expert in Central Asia based in London, told Al Jazeera.

The determination of the pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych to join the Union led to the protests of Euromaidan that overthrew him in 2014.

Putin responded with the annexation of Crimea and the support of the separatists in southeastern Ukraine in what Ukrainians see as a major challenge to the existing world order.

"This war was not declared only in Ukraine. It was declared in the collective West," wrote the Ukrainian and Crimean observer Pavel Kazarin at the end of December.

The Kremlin "is not hiding its ultimate goal: to break the old rules and create new ones. Those that will determine another position of an empire once defeated."