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Have 15 years of power gone to Putin's head?

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

media captionVladimir Putin has been either as president or prime minister of Russia since Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation on 31 December 1999

It was New Year's Eve 1999.

While Russians were preparing for the dawn of a new millennium, their president was preparing a surprise announcement.

"I have contemplated this long and hard," Boris Yeltsin announced on TV.

"Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I am stepping down."

The man Boris Yeltsin chose to succeed him was his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

On leaving the Kremlin, Yeltsin told Putin: "Take care of Russia".

So, has he?

"Yeltsin should have told Putin: 'Clean up my mess'," believes the veteran Russian broadcaster Vladimir Pozner.

"Russia was in a shambles by the time Yeltsin left. And, to a certain extent, Putin did clear things up.

"The local governors are no longer fiefdoms that do whatever they want.

"The movement was to more stability, to making people feel more sure they would have a job tomorrow."

image copyright STR/Getty
image captionAfter Vladimir Putin took over the presidency from Boris Yeltsin, he sought closer ties with the West

Stability and wealth

After the chaotic 1990s, Vladimir Putin - a former KGB officer - brought more than just welcome stability. He delivered a degree of prosperity, too.

"The four years we worked together was a period of reforms," recalls former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov.

"Between 2000 and 2004 we managed to pull Russia out of the crisis to sustainable growth: a rate of GDP growth of 6-7% a year. People's incomes were growing 15% a year.

"The wealth of families, especially in big cities, is now much better. But that's not because of Mr Putin. It's the oil price that saved people."

During his first term as president, Vladimir Putin sought close ties with the West.

In a BBC interview in 2000, he even refused to rule out Russia joining Nato.

But in the years that followed, the Kremlin leader grew increasingly disillusioned with Russia's Western "partners", particularly with the US.

He resented what he viewed as Western attempts to weaken Russia, to encroach on its "sphere of influence".

He accused the US state department of financing the anti-government street protests, which engulfed Moscow in 2011-2012.

Those protests had a profound effect on Vladimir Putin. He felt betrayed.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTens of thousands of people joined anti-Putin protests in Moscow in February 2012

"Putin had made a deal with the middle classes: their loyalty in return for their personal freedom," explains Russian writer Viktor Erofeyev.

"Suddenly these people started to turn against him, like children against their parents. He was humiliated.

"The West humiliated him, too, because it started to applaud these children. He was furious.

"And when - from his perspective - the West started to 'take' Ukraine, he said no. What followed was a thunderstorm. Not of rain, but of blood."

Sanctions biting

An economic storm, too. Western sanctions have helped push Russia to the verge of recession; these sanctions are the direct result of Vladimir Putin's decision to annex the Crimea, and of Russia's military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

This month one Moscow newspaper suggested that recent events had damaged Vladimir Putin's domestic image of the "all-powerful wizard".

If President Putin is losing his "magic", is it because all that power has gone to his head?

"After 15 years, it would be strange if it hadn't," believes Vladimir Pozner.

"When you're a monarch, when you're born into this, then it doesn't go to your head.

"But when you come from nowhere - and Putin comes from nowhere to a large degree - and you become a very successful president, and you're on the cover of Time magazine, and you're Number One on Forbes, and surrounded by sycophants who say you're a genius, how can it not to go your head?"

Under the Russian constitution, Vladimir Putin could run for president again in 2018 and stay in power until 2024. That cannot be ruled out.

Popular in Russia

Despite Russia's problems, he remains popular, with the kind of approval rating (85%) most Western politicians can only dream of.

But such sky-high success will be difficult to maintain in a recession.

"If there is a real economic catastrophe, it's going to be blamed on Putin," predicts Vladimir Pozner.

"And he will fall from hero to zero."

image copyrightReuters
image captionPresident Putin has taken a tougher line in recent times on the international stage

And the fall could be quite sudden: "As far as we know from Russian history, changes will come - not through revolts or revolutions - but through a kind of conspiracy in or around the Kremlin," says Viktor Erofeyev.

"A conspiracy connected with the death of the leader, or weak health or a terrible crash in the economy."

Erofeyev believes it is too late for Vladimir Putin to change his policies or his personality.

"I don't think he could change. After the annexation of the Crimea and this bloody war in Ukraine, it is impossible for him to change.

"No-one would believe him: neither the middle classes in Moscow, nor the West.

"And, probably, not even himself."

More on this story

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