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9 Aug, 2009 05:48

10 years on, Vladimir Putin still riding high in the saddle

Ten years ago a relatively unknown Vladimir Putin stepped onto the world stage for the first time. Now he is Russia's most recognized politician, a tough leader who brought Russia back from the brink.

In 1999, Putin entered the stormy waters of Russian politics as the nation’s fourth prime minister in less than two years; needless to say, not many people expected Vladimir Putin to last. Just ten years ago, Russia was economically weak and torn by internal strife; regions and republics were demanding independence; the battle against Chechen militants was going awry. But Vladimir Putin was quick to show the world that he was up to the challenges that confronted Russia.

“We'll pursue the terrorists everywhere,” Putin promised at a press conference on September 23, 1999. “If we catch them taking a crap, we'll waste them right there in the shithouse.”

The tough talking, non-nonsense approach has been a fundamental part of Putin's leadership: It is not only a display of strong emotions, but an integral part of his image.

Vladimir Putin biography

Born: October 7, 1952, Leningrad (now Saint Peterburg), USSR
1975: Graduates from Leningrad State University with a degree in law
1975: Joins KGB
1983: Marries Lyudmila Putina
1985-1990: Stationed in Dresden, East Germany
1991: Leaves service and becomes aide of St. Petersburg mayor
1994-1996: Serves as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg
1996-1998: Serves as Deputy Chief of Staff in President Boris Yeltsin's administration
1998-1999: Appointed as Head of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) and Russia's Security Council
1999: Elected Prime Minister
1999: Becomes Acting President as Boris Yeltsin resigns during New Year’s Eve address
2000: Elected President of the Russian Federation
2004: Re-elected President of the Russian Federation
2008: Prime Minister of the Russian federation

“All these phrases, they form a 'macho' image, a decisive man,” explains political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “But it is by no means spontaneous, but very carefully planned.”

“Like when he was asked if he really wanted to hang Saakashvili by a certain body part and he answered, 'why just one?' That is what we call a well-planned improvisation: an image maker's tactic that fits Putin's personal style. And it works, because many people actually like it. But how related is it to reality, well, that’s a different issue,” says Oreshkin.

Putin’s first presidential term was tough. Although the war in Chechnya was formally declared over, a string of terrorist attacks rattled Russia’s nerves.

But by his second presidential term, however, Vladimir Putin looked undeniably comfortable at the top.

“It was a very subtle change,” comments stylist and image maker Vlad Lisovets. “His image lost some of the simplicity that was there in the beginning. He's a very attractive man, a very strong personality.”

“Clothes are not his top priority, but his suits – they changed. At first, they looked like they were not the right size; they were a bit too big. But the wide shoulders, they suit him. They complete the tough-guy image,” concludes Lisovets.

That image, alongside Putin's no-nonsense approach transformed the Russian politician from a powerful man into a powerful brand. As Putin says, ‘the weak get beaten;’ and Russia was not going to be weak on his watch.

His straight talking was sometimes unsubtle and hardly diplomatic. His delivery style oftentimes put translators at a loss.

“If you want to become an Islamic radical, and want to circumcise yourself, well, then I invite you to Moscow,” Putin said in reply to a question in Brussels. “We have many specialists, including in that field. They'll do such a good a job you won’t have anything growing there ever again.”

Shocking audiences became his trademark, and the tough-guy stance continued as he returned to the post of Prime Minister. Ten years on, Putin is still attracting attention both at home and abroad with his physical prowess, which has taken him to the bottom of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake, to the skies aboard a supersonic fighter jet. And who could forget those recent shots of the Russian leader enjoying his vacation on horseback without a shirt in Siberia?

After ten years in the international arena, Putin the man has become Putin the brand. Today, that brand is almost synonymous with Russia. And maybe that is why, when Vladmir Putin commented that “nothing will stop Russia on the road to strengthening democracy and ensuring human rights and freedoms” many took his words as a personal guarantee.