Putin Comes To Power

Even before Boris Yeltsin turned over his powers to Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent and judo black belt was the man to beat in the race to be the next president of Russia.

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After occupying the prime minister's seat for only five months, Putin has transformed his image from that of a bureaucrat working largely behind the scenes to that of Russia's most popular politician.

If Russians at first expected Putin would follow his predecessors' example, barely managing to contain Russia's economic crisis, many now see the 46-year-old Putin as nothing short of a miracle worker. He has easily elbowed aside the one-time leading presidential contenders, former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Putin owes his lightning rise to the top of the polls largely to his close identification with the war in Chechnya and his image as a tough, no-nonsense leader.

After years of hearing politicians promise to rein in rampant lawlessness in Chechnya with no success, Russians were ready for a man of action. Putin gave them what so many want: the sense that somebody was taking charge.

When Yeltsin appointed Putin as his fifth prime minister in less than two years and announced that he should be the next president, the taciturn, 15-year veteran of the KGB was almost unknown to the Russian public.

Yet analysts who have followed his career say he is a skillful political operator, who has risen steadily through a series of increasingly important jobs, including posts in Yeltsin's presidential administration, over the five years before becoming prime minister.

Still, timing gave him a huge boost.

Yeltsin appointed Putin on Aug. 9, just two days after Chechen-backed rebels launched a raid into the southern Russian republic of Dagestan. Fighting intensified over the month as Russia sent in increasing numbers of troops, but the war still seemed distant from most Russians.

That changed in early September, when a series of bombings blamed on Chechen militants ripped through apartment buildings in three Russian cities. Suddenly, the conflict in the south was hitting close to home, and Russians took solace in Putin's pledges to strike back "at the vermin." They were even more impressed when he sent fighter bombers, heavy artillery and tens of thousands of ground troops into Chechnya.

State-controlled media have played a huge role in buffing Putin's image, portraying him as a man who can do no wrong and who never, ever hesitates. On the eve of Russia's parliamentary election earlier this month, state television showed the prime minister, a judo aficionado, flipping opponents at a martial arts demonstration.

After several months of being seen as a single-issue politician, Putin has recently been trying to fill out his image. The Cabinet started its new Internet Web site earlier this week with a wide-ranging anifesto from Putin, entitled "Russia at the Threshold of the Millennium."

Appealing to Russians' fatigue with social and economic upheaval, Putin called for more moderate reforms and for restoration of the social safety net for the needy. He also has tapped into an apparent longing for stability and firm leadership.

"Russia needs a strong state power and must have it," he wrote.

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