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Determined to boost its protégés chances, the Kremlin hurled the full weight of government-friendly media behind Putin. A bitter, scandal-mongering campaign was launched against his potential rivals in the presidential race, especially those who were seen as a threat to the Kremlin elite. For example, Evgeny Primakov, a well-respected politician and a former prime minister, was depicted as an old and frail has-been; and Yury Luzhkov, the popular Moscow mayor, was painted as a dishonest crook.  

Putin, skiing. Photo: kremlin.ru

But the deployment of the power resources of the Kremlin Family to back Putin cannot alone explain the comet-like rise of his popularity ratings. The forty-seven-year-old former KGB officer managed to project an image of a youthful and energetic leader, a man of integrity and quiet dignity capable of putting an end to the drift and chaos of the Yeltsin era.

In almost every respect, he could not be more different from his mentor. Far from charismatic, he rarely smiled and talked with clipped sentences in an immensely popular, no-nonsense style, reinforcing the image of a doer rather than a talker. His most memorable soundbites are coarse, matching his tough image. Pledging to track down Chechen rebels, he promised to rub them out, even in the toilet. Launching a campaign against corruption, he said officials on the take would be squashed like rats.

Oddly enough, despite having been at the center of Kremlin politics since 1996, he was not regarded as a member of Yeltsins court cabal and maintained a patina of toughness and incorruptibility associated with his KGB origins.

His youthfulness, physical health, and energy were in stark contrast to the aging and ailing Yeltsin. Television images of Putin flying a fighter plane, inspecting a battleship, practicing judo, and skiing down mountain slopes reinforced the message that he was no softy. His youth and vigor quickly endeared him to various sectors of the Russian electorate. Women, in particular, were pleased to see a presidential candidate capable of projecting quite a different image from the traditional Russian stereotype of an unsporty, drinking, and smoking male.

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