The Russian media recently reported that Vladimir Putin was named the world’s most powerful person in 2012 by the US magazine Foreign Policy, ahead of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. This characterization was later challenged, as the list of the world’s most powerful politicians and business people was not the magazine’s annual ranking but a separate ranking compiled by one of the magazine’s regular contributors, political analyst Ian Bremmer. Nonetheless, no one would deny that the Russian president stands at the helm of global politics, and here is why.
Putin is an unusual politician, not only because of his personal qualities, but because the leader of Russia cannot be an ordinary politician by definition. The personal factor means much more in Russian politics than in the West. The Russian president can rule Russia as he sees fit. Unlike in the West, he does not have to seek the approval of parliament, the Constitutional Court or his party. Unlike his colleagues in the European Union, Putin does not have to reach consensus with allied countries on every little issue. He does not have to cede authority over his nation’s budget and finances to Brussels, as Germany does, and he does not have to accommodate Washington on strategic matters.
Putin is a modern-day tsar who shapes Russia’s national idea and actually directs security agencies, foreign policy, the budget and the economy. He has strong command of the facts and figures on life in Russia, and more importantly, he has a better grasp of the issues than some of his ministers.
It is not official propaganda that cultivates the image of Putin as a strong leader, at least not primarily. Following the shocks of the 1990s, Russians above all wanted social guarantees, a stable economy and a strong and independent foreign policy. Putin managed to deliver on these priorities.
But many in the West fear Putin’s unlimited power and are hostile to him as a result. However, Putin has succeeded in laying the foundation for a multipolar world. Russia has forged an important alliance with China on this issue, and their union has born its first fruit: last year, Russia and China prevented a Libya-style intervention in Syria. The West was not pleased.
At the same time, Vladimir Putin must use all his power to achieve some very important domestic goals. There are three main goals. The first is corruption. Putin must throw his weight behind efforts against bribery and attempts to create a new oligarchic system in Russia. Second, the Russian economy must be reformed so that the country produces more than oil and gas; this will require efforts to strengthen small and medium businesses. The third and final goal, which is very important to Russia’s domestic and foreign policy, is to create a solid foundation for an effective Eurasian Union and to convince Ukraine to join it.