He is admired by Donald Trump and feared with vehemence by his rivals.
Vladimir Putin grew up in poverty in a small apartment in St. Petersburg and became one of the most powerful men in the world. And now he has been re-elected for a fourth term as president of Russia.
It has governed without counterweights for the past 18 years. And, nevertheless, it remains an enigma. The truth is that he is one of the strongest and most feared leaders on the planet.
A new BBC documentary entitled ” Putin, the new tsar ” reveals the ins and outs of his meteoric career.
“He is a man who has exploited the vulnerability of Western leaders and who has invented new types of war,” says William Hague, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom.
Some, like the former senator of the Russian Federation Sergei Pugachev, describes him as “a weak man, greedy and envious, someone who always lies”.
The truth is that Putin’s mentality has been forged on the anvil of absolute power and the consequences of this for the rest of the world are extremely significant.
Now he has just won re-election that will allow him to remain in power until 2024 in a competition in which he competed with eight other candidates, but in which few had doubts about what the results would be.
Already before the elections, the people in Russia knew that Putin would triumph, says Ksenia Sobchak, a member of a family with whom Putin became friendly decades ago and one of the people who tried to challenge him for the presidency.
“He created a system that only allowed him to win, a system that is unfair,” he says.
But how did this extraordinary rise to power comes from whoever was a modest colonel of the KGB, the state security services?
From the KGB to politics
Maybe it all started in the 1970s when the traces of the “future tsar” still did not appear.
Putin was born into a poor family and grew up in harsh conditions in a neighborhood of St. Petersburg. But he overcame the difficulties of going to university and obtaining a modest position in the KGB, the Committee for State Security.
The employment, however, only lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“I’ve known Putin since 1992. We were neighbors of a dacha (country house),” says former Senator Pugachev.
“Putin had a very low-level position in the KGB, there were thousands like him, he was discarded by the system, by the Soviet Union, on the street, he had no ambitions of any kind … he had no career ambitions, and much less political ambitions, it was by accident that it ended up in the mayor’s office. “
In the chaos of that time, the mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, needed a strong man and the then official of the KGB was the right one for the position.
Thus, after being a humble agent of the KGB, a simple servant of the State, Putin began his political career.
President without elections
In the late 1990s, post-Soviet Russia was about to collapse. The country had an alcoholic president, a war of mafias, corrupt magnates openly disdainful of law and order.
Many believed that the country needed a savior, any kind of savior. The obvious successor to Yeltsin was Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic, eloquent and principled man.
But Yeltsin hated him after he had opposed the war in Chechnya.
There was, however, another possible candidate: Putin, who had come to Moscow in 1996 to work in the government but kept a low profile.
“I was creating a machine that could elect a president, no matter who that president was,” Yeltsin’s public relations officer Gleb Pavlovsky told the BBC, which was tasked with preparing the presidential succession.
“I developed the ‘script’ of the campaign and watched it unfold, I had all the elements for a victory: a young, energetic, athletic candidate, compared to the outgoing president, the old and sick Yeltsin. In my opinion, Putin was adapting to paper extremely well, “says Pavlovsky.
But the elections were only six months away and Putin, who was a total unknown among Russian voters, refused to accept the candidacy.
“Putin said he would not accept,” recalls Sergei Pugachev, who was then an adviser to the Kremlin.
“Then my idea was that Yeltsin would step down and that Putin would be appointed interim president, so Putin would become president without being elected,” said Pugachev, who is now a strong critic of the president.
Many Russians asked themselves, then, who was the man who had become its president.
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From then on, Putin became a public figure, which, according to Professor Ian Robertson, director of the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, had effects on the president.
“If they name you president, that’s a huge adrenaline rush, it’s an extraordinary biological hit on your reward network.”
“Suddenly you are no longer subject to the corporate ideology of the communist regime, now you are the one in charge of a new regime,” adds Robertson, who is one of the leading specialists in how power works in the mind of the being. human.
“Because you have not been educated with the notion that power has limitations, you have been educated in a system where there is no democracy and where there is no ideology, because the communist ideology was over and what he had witnessed then was the ideology of money, the power of money “.
Putin had no background or political experience, he had rarely made a speech and those who knew him then said he was nervous and even surprised to have reached the presidency.
But he was also a clever man. And he spent the first years of his presidency trying to re-establish Russia’s connection with the rest of the world and to gain a seat at the table of the leading leaders of the West.
When the Russians saw their president back on the world stage and the success he had achieved in stabilizing the battered economy, this led to a drastic increase in the president’s popularity.
But it also led to the president wanting a personal reward.
“Nobody thought then of billions, but Putin believed that he was only going to be there temporarily, he thought he would be replaced and, therefore, he should receive a reward, a big one,” says former Senator Pugachev.
“He wanted a reward that would allow him to live the rest of his life in a calm, happy and wealthy way, and that was the keyword: wealth, I have to say that Putin was poor, really poor.”
Then the president began to surround himself with acquaintances, mainly his former colleagues of the KGB.
As part of the process of consolidating his power, Putin changed the rules of the game for large Russian companies.
“At that time, 46% of the GDP of the Russian Federation was produced by privatized companies owned by eight families, this is not known,” Vladimir Yakunin, a former KGB deputy who was Deputy Minister of Transport, told the BBC. in Putin’s first government.
And the dangers of an economy controlled by eight families says Yakunin, “are the same as in any part of the world: inequality, only inequality.”
Putin then focused his attention on those eight oligarchs who controlled the economy and those who had received those companies, and enormous wealth, during the Yeltsin administration in a chaotic auction in exchange for political support.
In early 2003, Putin devised a gladiatorial confrontation: on the one hand, the man who led Russia; on the other, the owners of half the country. The main theme of the clash: corruption.
Mikhail Jodorowsky was the spokesman for the oligarchs and was the fourth richest man in the world. The Kremlin suspected that it intended to convert its enormous wealth into political influence.
But the employer made a fatal mistake. During the meeting, he presented a huge oil agreement as an example of corruption in the country. It was a negotiation that Putin knew completely, with so much detail that many wondered if he had anything to do with it.
Shortly after, the tycoon was arrested and charged with fraud. The government ordered to freeze all its assets and sell its vast oil company, Yukos. First a vodka businessman in Siberia; then to a company controlled by one of Putin’s closest advisers.
Many in the West wondered if this had been a good decision because Yukos was the model of the Russian oil industry and well appreciated in the West. To many, it seemed a high-risk policy, but for Putin to punish Jodorkowski it was so important that economic considerations took a back seat.
And Russian citizens welcomed the measure with enthusiasm. They were delighted that their president was fighting the hated oligarchs.
“Maybe if I had a better understanding of the essence of this regime, as a criminal organization, I could have opposed it more effectively,” Jodorowsky told the BBC.
“I could never imagine a situation in which the president of the country was thinking only of his personal fortune,” he added.
By then, with a new cabinet under his control and with stability and peace in the country, it seemed that Putin had managed, alone, to reverse the years of deterioration in the vast country.
While Putin consolidated his power borders inside, problems began to emerge in his neighborhood. In Georgia, a revolution ended with his allies and a reformer came to power: Mikhail Saakashvili.
For Putin’s intense irritation, Saakashvili began courting the United States, reversing the pro-Russian position of his predecessors.
After came the revolutionary wave came to neighboring Ukraine. This time, the “orange revolution” of 2004 hit Putin’s man in that country, the then president Viktor Yanukovych, who lost the election to his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, considered by the Kremlin as a “puppet” of Washington.
“Putin thought that (Yushchenko’s victory) was the work of the Americans, but in reality, it was an open battle and Moscow lost it,” says Pavlovsky.
This was a huge humiliation for Putin and his most difficult moment in the 18 years of his government. And many in Moscow even wondered if the president would last until the end of his term.
The event was perceived as if Putin had lost Ukraine. The president never forgot that defeat and he did not forgive her either.
Georgia and Ukraine would become central issues in the new dispute between Russia and the West.
Former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw affirms that in these new tensions there have been shared responsibilities.
“From the West’s point of view, this was the end of the story, liberal capitalism had triumphed, it was hard for the Russians, but that’s it, I wish we had handled it differently, we did not calculate what this meant for Russia: We frighten the Russians with this fear that they have always had to be surrounded (by adversaries), “he tells the BBC.
“In retrospect, I think we created those anxieties, and we could have avoided them, from which many of Putin’s later policies emerged,” he adds.
In 2005, however, everything changed. Putin decided to concentrate his attention on Russia and its people.
There would be modernization and attempts to attract the West, to which he now only had mistrust. From then on the new slogan would be: Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin. He would dedicate himself alone to rebuild his nation.
“We take it seriously and we start creating youth and adult organizations,” says Gleb Pavlovsky about efforts to create an internal force around the government.
But there was a problem: in two years Putin had to leave the power, a new president would be elected and the aspirants of the liberal sector of the country already prepared their campaigns, among them the chess champion Garry Kasparov, one of the most well-known and respected men of the country.
“In 2007 there was still an opportunity for Putin to leave, already being probably the richest man in the world, with great influence and even a good reputation,” Kasparov told the BBC.
But his attempt to reach the presidency immediately began to face difficulties.
“In just one week, Kasparov’s campaign began to be blocked, the landing permits of the plane in which he traveled the country were denied, he could not do the meetings in the places he wanted”, recalls the journalist Masha Gessen on the failed application
“There comes a time when things stop being a chain of coincidences and they do not even let him stay in a hotel during the tour,” he adds.
Shortly after, the candidate was arrested and prosecuted.
“Compared to what we see today, those were vegetarian times, 10 years ago for protesting peacefully against Putin, they sent you to jail for 5 or 10 days, today they would do it for five or 10 years,” Kasparov says.
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who had been part of Putin’s first government, an also-ran.
“We had to collect two million signatures to do it and we succeeded, our support in the polls rose from 6% to 18% and one month before the elections they took me out of the race, claiming that they believed that 35 of the signatures were not correct”, remember about the abrupt end of his application.
With Kasparov and Kasyanov out of the running, Putin’s candidate, Dmitry Medvedev, won the presidency, who then – in defiance of the spirit of the Constitution – appointed his mentor, Vladimir Putin, as the new prime minister.
“It’s very clear to everyone in Russia that his successor was there just to take care of his job,” Kasyanov says.
Four years later, after the 2012 elections, Putin came back ar ed for the president-elect -now for an extended six instead of four years and appoint Medvedev as his prime minister period.
During that third term as president, Putin would face a challenge to his authority by an old rival: Boris Nemtsov.
“He had his own relationship with power, for many years he was emerging as the possible heir of Yeltsin and then Putin took his place, Obviously, neither of them can leave the other in peace.” For Nemtsov, I think that for reasons of principle and for Putin for reasons of insecurity and revenge, “says journalist Masha Gessen.
Nemtsov published a book in which he claimed that the Russian president had 58 jets, two yachts, a summer palace and that he was the richest man in the world.
“We began to question the idea that things had improved so much with Putin that we had to let him be a monarch for life, and we denounce many irregularities and serious problems that exist under the bright economic surface,” Vladimir Milov, co-author of the BBC, told the BBC. book with Nemtsov.
In February 2015, Nemtsov is killed in Moscow, in front of the Kremlin walls. He was shot in the back and in the head.
Four men were arrested for his death, but his followers are still wondering who is ultimately responsible for what happened.
“If you stop at the place where it happened, you realize that it can not happen there without permission or order number one,” said Milov.
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After the setbacks in Georgia and Ukraine, the Kremlin began to look for ways to reassert itself in its neighborhood.
In 2008 exploded ‘or in the crisis in Georgia l a breakaway region of South Ossetia. Then, the Russian army concentrated on the border. Putin is sure that the West would not do anything.
“It was clear that we were on the verge of war, so Europeans and Americans began to make statements,” Saakashvili recalls.
“I tried to communicate with Medvedev, who was officially the president, but then they called me Russia’s protocol and told me that Putin wanted to talk to me.”
“He told me: ‘Why do you call Medvedev, I am the one who is doing all these things, I am directing the whole operation.’ Then I said: ‘We are very worried, in addition, look at the statements of the European Union and the White House. ‘He replied:’ Yes, I have seen the statements, they are strong and hard, a lot of paper has been spent on statements, why do not you call your friends in the West and tell them to roll up those statements and put them in the ass? ‘”, counts.
While the rest of the world watched the Beijing Olympics, Vladimir Putin sent tanks for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The West was horrified by the invasion and relieved that it had stopped after a strong message from the White House, but even a five-day war made the Russians feel that their country was strong again.
The European governments, worried, decided that it was time to try to approach Russia again.
In 2014, the Winter Olympics in Sochi was another step on Russia’s path to global domination.
Putin, who was again in the position of president, spent a great deal of time and money on that project. But the Olympic Games also served to distract the world from its next foreign policy maneuver: the invasion of Crimea.
“Putin has developed a very consistent approach to managing problems with neighbors, which is based on appropriating a piece of territory of these countries, which makes it stop working as E sovereign states, ” he tells the BBC Former Foreign Minister of the United Kingdom William Hague.
“This is how it stops the arrival or growth of Western ideas.”
“He is also capable of doing the same in Syria, from my point of view, emboldened by the failure of the West to not intervene,” he adds.
With an unrestrained authority in his country and his closest neighbors subdued by his territorial interventions, the Russian president is now able to extend his influence further.
“It seems very clear that there was interference from Russia in the elections in the US The amount of evidence collected by the intelligence agencies is unlikely to be wrong,” says Hague.
“I think this is part of a pattern, there has probably been interference from Russia in elections and referendums in Europe in recent years, not always because there was a specific objective but to reduce confidence in the democratic process and weaken the unity of the West.” , Add.
Kasparov affirms that the president works with strategic objectives and benefits from the chaos.
“He needs chaos because that is how he installs his authority inside and outside of Russia, he does not want to compete – he can not – with the free world, but when wars and conflicts take place he is the dominant actor because it is very fast for make decisions, “says the former world chess champion.
“He does not have to deal with Parliament, the free press or public opinion, so he immediately seizes the opportunity when it comes in. Look at the world map looking for tokens to negotiate, because for him everything is a geopolitical casino.”
Thus, for the perplexed West, Vladimir Putin may seem capricious and out of control, but for his fellow citizens, he looks like a true Tsar, happy to bypass Western standards of behavior to protect the vital interests of Russia.
But how could this whole process affect the Russian leader?
“One of the characteristics of power without limitations is the acquired narcissism, which leads to a hugely inflated ego, you just feel like the smartest, the smartest, the strongest, the most attractive guy in the world,” he explains to the BBC. Professor Robertson, from Trinity College.
And he warns that with a swollen ego vulnerability increases proportionately.
“Take anyone who has been in power for more than 8 or 10 years and that will inevitably distort their behavior in ways that can be very dangerous .” I do not think Putin was born to be an emperor. the power that he managed to obtain, “he concludes.