20 years of Putin: From political unknown to dominant force

Twenty years ago on December 31, Russian President Boris Yeltsin “stole the millennium”.

The ailing, alcoholic and unpopular leader interrupted the New Year’s Eve celebrations by resigning and proclaiming his new prime minister as “acting president” before a snap vote in March 2000.

The premier was a political unknown – a media-shy ex-KGB colonel named Vladimir Putin who wore oversized, old-fashioned suits and briefly worked as a taxi driver before becoming a city hall official in his native St Petersburg.

The political Cinderella man had a fairy godmother – omnipotent oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who lobbied for Putin.

In 2013, Berezovsky, then an exile, was found hanged in his house outside London – shortly after beseeching Putin to let him return to Russia.

Critics say Putin reversed the democratic reforms of last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the dawn of his rule, Putin looked up to Western leaders, volunteered to help the United States’s offensive in Afghanistan, and told US President Bill Clinton in 2000 that Russia should join NATO.

But Western counterparts never treated him like an equal partner, and Putin gradually changed.

“He is Russia’s best ruler in many centuries,” Dmitri Kiselyov, a TV presenter who heads RT, a state-backed outlet that broadcasts news in dozens of languages, said in February.

Kiselyov lauds Putin’s revival of “traditional values” and lambasts the West.

Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old political blogger, has a different perspective.

 

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