Russia is a country of miracles. For ages her people have believed in them so much that they create some themselves. Russias acting president Vladimir Putins meteoric rise from political limbo to the position of the most likely leader of post-Yeltsin Russia could serve as a fresh example of the countrys unpredictable politics that makes any learned prognosis irrelevant.
When, last summer, President Boris Yeltsin appointed Putin not only as the premier but as his eventual successor, the move took ordinary Russians by surprise and evoked cunning smiles from the opposition, more so as everyone was gearing up for the December Duma (lower house of parliament) elections. Allegations of abuse of power by Yeltsins "inner circle" including his daughter and senior advisor Tatyana Dyachenko, coupled with the lowest-ever popular ratings of "Czar Boris" after nine years in power made analysts think his days were numbered. Beleaguered by two major opposition groups-the Communists and the Fatherland-All-Russia block-all set to win a majority in the Duma with powers to alter the Constitution and dismiss the cabinet, Yeltsins team had nothing to do except pray for a miracle, experts claimed.
So nobody took Putin seriously. The newcomer was considered a puppet selected to try to ensure a trouble-free future for Yeltsins family after his full term ran out in June 2000. But most detractors had to eat crow. By November, Putins approval rating had skyrocketed from seven to 60 per cent with other presidential hopefuls trailing far behind. Then came the stunning event-hours before the arrival of the year 2000, Yeltsin made a sensational TV appearance to announce his resignation, which, according to the constitution, makes Putin acting president. Yeltsins decision set the stage for early presidential elections to be held this March-a move that can only further consolidate Putins chances. "I ask the nation to forgive me," Yeltsin said with tears in his eyes, adding that the nation needs a younger generation of leaders.
But 48-year-old Putin remains an enigma for the Russian public. Little is known about his previous career or private life. According to available information, after graduating from the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages as an interpreter in German he made a career in foreign intelligence-having served in East Germany. In the post-Soviet period Putin, returning to his native city of St Petersburg, left the security service and joined the city administration. He was noticed by city mayor and democratic leader Anatoly Sobchak who made him his senior advisor. After some time Putin received a proposal to move to the capital to join the presidents staff-an offer that was to change his life.
What boosted Putins popularity was the proclaimed (and Russian public-approved) war "to a victorious end" in Chechnya. Publicly, Putin has emphasised the need for a strong, stable state, a combination of market and protectionist economic policies along with social solidarity and a fight against corruption, crime and bureaucracy-the right mix for an electorate tired of endless political and economic calamities and unsure of Russias new status in the world. Putin also shows himself to be friendly towards the West, saying most current problems in relations could be settled within weeks. The ideas arent original-the opposition uses them too-but the image of a strong, energetic leader, reflected in state-run media (the premier practising karate or flying an SU fighter plane) have apparently convinced the public, brought up in the Russian-Soviet tradition of respecting a "strong hand", to give Putin a chance. But thats something that can change if the Chechen war drags on.
Another widely debated topic is whether Putins rise is a triumph of Russias democracy. According to Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenytsin, the way Putin was brought to power should be a source of concern. "In a democracy a president cannot name his successor. It is not the president, but a Czar who names heirs."
"Putin will have to gradually distance himself from those who brought him to power. He must take rational economic initiatives and start a real anti-corruption drive with the same zeal he displayed in Chechnya," says Sergei Solodvnik, research fellow with the Moscow-based International Relations Institute. Only time can tell if that will happen, but then miracles, real or imagined, are rather easy to be had in Russia.