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Stalin's Bash Doesn't Hold a Candle

Russia: For President Putin's 50th birthday, the nation piles up the gifts and the accolades.

October 08, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin's 50th birthday Monday gave Russians from all walks of life a chance to bow and scrape before this nation's unchallenged leader, with several TV specials, a crystal crocodile ("the only animal that never backs down") and a $50,000 jewel-encrusted crown fit for a medieval czar.

Putin's jubilee dominated news columns and prime-time TV, as commentators tripped over one another to recount the steely determination with which he has tackled the country's disorder and brought about a prouder, more disciplined and more respected state during his two years and nine months as president.

Any shortcomings of his term, such as the quagmire of the war in the republic of Chechnya, predictably received scant attention.

"What is happening around Putin dwarfs even the celebrations of Josef Stalin's 70th birthday back in 1949," said Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of the Independent Institute for Strategic Studies here. "The scale of those festivities was much more modest."

But it would be wrong to accuse Putin and his functionaries of orchestrating a cult of personality, said Moscow State University political scientist Yelena Shestopal. The truth is that hero-hungry Russians have been willing to do it on their own, she said.

For instance, a bookstore on Moscow's tony Tverskaya Street reports that its "Presidential Section"--devoted exclusively to Putin books, portraits and calendars--outsells everything in the shop but Harry Potter items. And one ordinary Russian family has been coaching its dog to bark Putin's nickname, "Vova."

"Putin's unprecedented popularity stems not so much from the personality of the president himself but from the need and desire of the society to be ruled by a person worthy of all the people's love and adoration," said Shestopal, head of her university's political psychology department. "People needed someone onto whom they could pour their feelings, and Putin was a perfect choice."

In addition to a hodgepodge of imaginative presents, from the very weird to the very wonderful, Putin has received priceless publicity that seems quite likely to be used to launch a campaign to reelect him in two years.

A one-hour special on state-owned RTR television featured a kitchen-table chat with Putin in which the president, dressed in an open-necked shirt, spelled out his goals and methods. The prerequisite for any state official is love, he said, love of the country and its citizens. State-controlled TV 1 aired a similar interview.

Speaking on RTR of his reform program, which has included implementing a flat 13% income tax and allowing private land ownership for the first time since 1917, Putin said he never forgets about the least privileged.

"It is clearly necessary to advance, but in fact we should not forget about the rear," he said. "We should not forget that all these reforms are carried out not for the benefit of some extraterrestrials but for our citizens."

Putin also said he is worried that Russia has yet to develop a strong middle class.

"Resources are concentrated in the hands of a limited number of people. And this gap between the poor and those who can boast of having accumulated millions and billions is unacceptably wide," he said.

Asked by TV 1 what he had given up by becoming president, Putin said, "My freedom." And the last time he had been able to sit in a cafe with his wife? queried the interviewer on RTR. "Don't remember," the president replied.

Piontkovsky said the broadcasts on the government-controlled networks meant that Putin's reelection bid had begun.

"This should leave every Russian still capable of independent cerebral effort dejected," he said. It "means that those who brought him to power two years ago do not know how to do anything but organize and run campaigns."

Among the gifts offered Putin for his birthday was a replica of the Crown of Monomakh, traditionally used in the coronation of the czars centuries ago at the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Assumption.

An original present was created by Gabit Sabitov, the former deputy prime minister of the Russian republic of Bashkortostan: three pages of text addressed to Putin made up only of words beginning with the letter P. It finishes with the sentence: "Po Planete postavyat pamyatniki Pervomy Prezidentu Planety Putinu," or "All around the planet they will put up monuments to the first president of the planet, Putin."

But if Russians really want to make Putin happy, they should put their noses to the grindstone and work hard, said Sergei Mironov, chairman of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament. "The less fuss about his jubilee, the better he will feel."

The object of the wishes himself seemed to take the same advice. Putin spent most of Monday in Moldova at a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a grouping of former Soviet republics, though he did throw himself a birthday dinner with high-ranking government and military officials when he returned to Moscow.

And lest there be any taint of personal profit from the celebration, the Kremlin issued a statement saying all the gifts would become state property--presumably including the crystal crocodile, a gift from the Moldovan president.

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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