In a Russian City, Clues to Putin's Abiding Appeal

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 24, 2007; Page A01

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia -- The 1990s are fresh in Vadim Ignatiyev's memory -- pathetic wages delayed for weeks, kopeks scraped together to buy food, and a fear of the future blended of helplessness and rage.

The lean, balding 35-year-old, who has spent his adult life working on the line at a glass factory in the suburbs of this city, now sits at a laden table with his wife and 13-year-old son. Behind him is a brand-new television beside a matching CD player, also new. His Lada car, bought recently with a bank loan, is parked outside the family's second-story walk-up apartment.

Nizhny Novgorod's once-drab Pokrovka Street has become a shopping mecca in the past two years, reflecting the revival of the city's industrial base.
Nizhny Novgorod's once-drab Pokrovka Street has become a shopping mecca in the past two years, reflecting the revival of the city's industrial base. (Photos By Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)
Nizhny Novgorod

"I feel much safer now," said Ignatiyev, whose family recently took its first vacation abroad, a package tour to a Turkish resort. "I have a good job, not a prestigious job, but a good living." In just the past two years, his salary has more than doubled, to $700 a month, reflecting his factory's growing sales.

For the first time in post-Soviet history, a majority of Russians feel optimistic about their own and their country's future, according to the Levada Center, an independent polling agency. The sense of personal and national resurgence, clearly visible in long-depressed Nizhny Novgorod, with its now-plentiful factory jobs, foreign stores and construction cranes, is a key factor in the consistently high approval ratings enjoyed by President Vladimir Putin.

"I believe the president has given people the possibility to work and to make money," Ignatiyev said. "If five years ago I might have had some doubts about him, now I have none. I don't see any alternative."

According to the Kremlin's opponents, the president's standing -- his approval ratings now exceed 80 percent -- is an artifice. They say it is built on an increasingly autocratic political system and fueled by a tidal wave of petrodollars that may not last. With a slavish press, a docile parliament, a restricted menu of political parties and a willingness to smother dissent, Putin is glassed off from real democratic competition, his critics argue.

"Everything is based on the oil pillow," said Yuli Nisnevich, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "But the system itself is not stable. A system that stands on its head and not on its base cannot be stable."

Yet while Putin -- who has never debated a rival during two presidential election cycles -- benefits from the country's closed political process and fawning institutions, his ratings cannot be dismissed as simply the fruit of propaganda, according to Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center.

"He combines the renewed hopes of the people and the restoration of authority," Gudkov said. "He spoke the language that many people could understand."

Putin's predecessor of the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin, had to contend with low oil prices, bankrupt state finances and an economic restructuring, including the world's largest sell-off of government property, that bred widespread resentment. Millions of Russians fell into poverty as well-connected tycoons became fabulously rich. An enfeebled Kremlin was seen by many Russians as the handmaiden of a triumphant West.

Now Putin is trading on an enduring nostalgia for the Soviet past, when Russia stood tall in the world. As the country grew to become the world's second-largest exporter of oil, he adopted a prickly and increasingly assertive foreign policy that is widely cheered by Russians.

At home, Putin has used careful stage management to position himself as a figure above politics -- the people's czar who reins in ministers, bureaucrats, tycoons and even the politicians of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party that he will head in next month's parliamentary elections.

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