Many western politicians have harbored deep suspicions of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimorovich Putin since he first emerged on the Russian political stage in 1999.
This is hardly surprising, given his KGB background, though those with longer historical memories will recall that Yuri Andropov came from the same organization and that the West grudgingly found a way to work with him.
While the worst aspects of the Cold War faded away with the peaceful collapse of the USSR in late 1991, twenty years later, trying to figure out Kremlin politics remains as vital an exercise as ever, and the "Putin era" has provided Washington analysts desperately reinventing themselves to hang on to their jobs with rich fodder.
Is Putin a democrat?
Or something in between?
Place your bets.
What does seem to be apparent, with last week's announcement that current President Dmitrii Medvedev would stand down in next year's presidential elections, is that Putin is a shoe-in to recover the Russian Federation's Presidency, and that, since the term has been extended to six years, Western governments will perhaps have to learn to live with him helming the Russian state until 2026.
But one aspect of Russia that has eluded most Washington pundits since 1991 is the fact that Russia a) has developed a free press of sorts, certainly in comparison to the Bad Old Soviet days, and b) that Putin is genuinely popular with many Russians, an observation that many Western liberals find more than a tad irritating.
But to return to basics - what Putin represents is an awareness that dawned late in the USSR, only with the advent of Gorbachev - the power of the media.
In a weird reversal of perceptions, while Gorbachev essentially ignored domestic opinion to cultivate a Western image of "a man with whom we can do business," to quote Margaret Thatcher, Putin has turned the media equation on its head, appealing to his constituency while essentially ignoring western attitudes.
Suitably miffed, the Western media has rounded on Putin, deriding his efforts to construct a "macho" image a la Indiana Jones, riding horse bare-chested through Siberian rivers, practicing karate, etc. etc. etc.
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