If President Bush were to ask his national security team who is the most popular elected leader in the world, they would have to tell him it is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is Russia’s Ronald Reagan, revered in his own time.
The Putin administration may be weak on economics and slough off legal norms, but it understands power and knows how to project it from Moscow across Russia’s vast and sparsely populated land. The population of 140 million is spread over 11 time zones.
Putin has his problems, including the bloody war in Chechnya, rural poverty, an aging and declining population, and the inefficient legacies of communism But he is also the luckiest Russian ruler in memory. With the world oil price heading toward $100 a barrel, Putin has money. He has a carrot as well as a stick, and he is adept at using both.
With the world’s largest natural gas reserves and second largest oil reserves, Russia is a power in Europe and in Asia. It plays rough and it plays dirty. Russia has violated the terms of nearly every oil and gas contract it has signed with the West; it has imposed gross and confiscatory taxes on Western production, and it has increased environmental restrictions in order to confiscate Western leases on Sakhalin Island, a far eastern Russian territory. Yet the energy hungry in the West have come back for more. Last month, France’s Total S.A. and Norway’s StatoilHydro ASA were both elated to get 25 percent positions in a Barents Sea project. In both cases, Putin is said only to have agreed after receiving calls from the presidents of France and Norway. Homage you might call it.
Russians applaud Putin’s toughness in standing up to the world in general, and the United States in particular. But it is his stand against Russian billionaires that most delights them.
In the breakup of the Soviet Union, immense fortunes were made in the privatization of state assets. The beneficiaries are known as the oligarchs, and they are hated. When Putin, with little legal basis, broke up Yukos Oil Company and imprisoned its founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russians cheered. When a dissident and friend of a refugee oligarch in London was murdered with polonium, Russians shrugged, secure that their leader would brook no nonsense. His popularity rating soared above 80 percent.
The Putin popularity poses some questions: Will he really step down next year as the constitution requires, or will he become prime minister and govern that way? Or will he become head of Gazprom, the Russian energy colossus, and become an oligarch himself? Your move, comrade president.