Vladimir Putin has a near cult status today. Looking at media coverage over the past few years, most was supposed to make him look good.
Once the seemingly meek prime minister of Boris Yeltsin as the colossus of the old Soviet Union melted away in 1999, Putin came to be seen as not only shrewd but invincible and virile.
You never used to hear anyone boo him in public, for instance, as happened this November when Putin got in the ring to congratulate the Russian winner of a mixed martial arts fight; when the live broadcast was replayed later, the booing was cut out.
On the Internet, angry Russians made clear they had not been razzing the honourable loser of the match, as apologists had hastily suggested, but Putin himself. Putin’s popularity rating had always been in the realm of, well, top of the pops, thanks to control of the media.
The political place-switch broadly appears to be on track between him and President Medvedev. His presidential term after Putin’s first two terms is expiring, so pressure has built up on the former KGB agent to deliver much-awaited change.
Even while Medvedev was in charge, Putin made the lion’s share of important decisions, sporting the Russian ‘alpha male’ image to the younger man’s beta-male — or as Western wags saw them: ‘Starsky and Hutch’. The failure of either man to push much effective reform led to increasing disgust with flashy spectacle.
Many ordinary Russians dismissed rumours of friction. They accepted that the two men have worked as a team towards making Russia strong, with a globally-linked, efficient economy and capital flows, though perhaps less attention to civic rights.
Medvedev’s turn as king fish has been seen by many as a form of legal politeness toward the people, to help pass the pill of one-man-dominant leadership. He and Putin took steps to appear close to the common man, concerned not only for rich and powerful friends high up, but also for the general well-being.
In the Russian parliament, Putin invoked the current darkened state of the world’s economies: “There are still many risks and much uncertainty,” he said, “and it is very important that we work as a team in these storm conditions, in crisis conditions, so that our boat will not flip over.”
While critics fear a tightening of authoritarian rule, Putin continues to strike up the band, telling Russia that his ship will not go down.