Last Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood before the television cameras. Surrounded by plasma screens with Russian flags continually aflutter, the president spent three hours responding to dozens of questions from viewers at 12 broadcast locations throughout the country. The moderators of the special broadcast, reminiscent of the television productions in the waning days of the Soviet regime and shown live on all the main TV channels, praised Putin for his soaring popularity. And indeed, during the broadcast, more than 2 million questions streamed into the studio.
Some 71 percent of Russians voted for Putin in the 2004 elections. Since then, at least according to the surveys, his support has only increased. The main reason for this is money. The price of a barrel of oil reached $90 last week and, with the exception of the Gulf states, Russia has been the main beneficiary. Every additional dollar or euro that Americans or Europeans pay to fill up their cars flows directly to Russia's deep pockets. This money is the fuel that drives the Russian economy, and to a large extent, it is the key to understanding Putin's power.
The cash surplus has allowed Putin to improve his countrymen's economic well-being. The Russian economy grew last year by 6.7 percent. Russians' personal income jumped by about 12 percent annually during the past five years. Putin also has won many public-opinion points by curtailing the wild privatization and brutal capitalism that characterized Russia during the days of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
And indeed, the questions posed to the president in the television broadcast related mainly to Russia's economic situation: "When will they increase pensions for army veterans?" "Why are the roads always jammed?" "Why do the prices constantly rise while salaries do not?" He was also asked: "Do you like Japanese food?" It is not difficult to discern that in the questioners' eyes, Putin is no longer a politician of flesh and blood, and has become a guru on all matters.
Thus, when the Russian nation is satiated, the media is controlled by the Kremlin, and European countries continually increase their dependence on the natural gas flowing from Russia, Putin can allow himself to focus on fostering national sentiment. This began with the confrontation with Washington over the deployment of an American missile defense system in former Communist countries, and continued with the expulsion of diplomats from Moscow and London in response to the poisoning of the spy Alexander Litvinenko in Britain. Now, after the friendly meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to fly in haste to Moscow, Putin's stock is rising, while Israel recorded no visible accomplishments.
Even Washington and the European capitals acknowledge that it is no longer possible to ignore the Kremlin's stance on central issues. A top Russian diplomat admitted last week that the U.S. remains the world's only superpower, but he noted that Russia no longer hesitates to use its veto right in the UN Security Council to promote its interests - for example, on the issue of Kosovo's independence or increasing sanctions against Iran.
The question that remains after last week is how Russia's foreign policy will look after Putin steps down in March 2008. Putin again promised that these are his last months as president, but he did not comment on the possibility of continuing to rule as prime minister.
After the election of his successor, who is expected to be a particularly weak and dull politician, Putin will apparently continue to call the shots from the prime minister's chair. As long as the price of oil continues to rise, Russian gas remains a hot item in Europe and foreign investors flock to Moscow, Russia will possess all the means necessary to wield its clout in the international arena. As Olmert demonstrated, after 17 years Russia is again a key player on the international stage.
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