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Yeltsin's Choice

 

When on 9 August 1999 Yeltsin appointed the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin as his fifth prime minister in seventeen months and even designated him as his desired successor, the news was met with disbelief, ridicule, and sarcasm both at home and abroad. Yeltsin’s suggestion that Putin was a realistic candidate to succeed him was interpreted as yet another sign of his woeful mental decline. His exuberant description of Putin’s qualities and potential as the man best equipped to “renew the great country, Russia, in the twenty-first century” certainly stirred amusement.  

 
Russia's first and second presidents. Photo: ITAR-TASS

Most of Moscow’s Kremlin watchers warned that, in any case, a seal of approval from such an unpopular president was as good as the kiss of death for Putin’s political ambitions. Back then nobody believed it possible that this untested faceless bureaucrat, who never in his life had been elected to any position, could ascend to become head of state within six months, winning the presidential elections in March 2000 with almost 53 percent of the vote.

Putin’s rise to power was important beyond the fact that this was Russia’s first constitutional presidential succession since the collapse of communism. His accession has brought ideas, approaches to governance, and new faces to the Kremlin that are likely to define the priorities and character of the Russian government for the next decade and even beyond. His accession has solidified the presence of post-Communist political elites, which support a strong state but not the restoration of the Soviet regime or the undoing of the main accomplishment of the post-Communist era – the division of Soviet state property.

The broad support for Putin among Russia’s regional bosses, the military, and the business community demonstrates that the post-Soviet elite has found its leader. But so, too, have many ordinary Russians. After the fall of the Soviet regime, Russians were looking for a new identity. They wanted a new face, a young and dynamic leader who would end the chaos but would not reverse the reforms. Putin’s first public words and actions made the majority of the Russian people perceive him as their man of the hour.

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