Putin Popular Despite Tight Control

At times, Russian President Vladimir Putin's enormous popularity seems to catch even him by surprise.

When Putin took office two years ago, many in the West saw him as little more than an ex-KGB thug. Today, despite a 70 percent approval rating, he remains something of a puzzle, a man of contrasts.

It turns out he has a remarkable common touch, grieving with victims of a terrorist bombing, begging for a bite of a little boy's ice cream.

He is also right at home with all the trappings and power of a czar.

He's supported market reforms. The economy is improving. And he's been able, for the most part, to pay wages and pensions on time.

Words vs. Actions

But there are critics.

"Every democratic institution in Russia today is weaker than it was two years ago, when Putin came to power," says Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University in California. "He says the right things, but he does the wrong things."

Putin has run the independent media out of business, weakened the parliament and used the war on terror to justify a brutal war in Chechnya. He openly courts Iran and North Korea, at the same time pursuing a firm friendship with the United States.

In the end, Putin may not be all that different from some of the other leaders who ruled from behind the Kremlin walls. He might be called an authoritarian reformer.

What's interesting is that the United States, which usually prefers to cast Russian leaders as either good or bad, seems willing to accept a more complex view of this man.

And Russians seem willing to trade some liberties for stability. They like a strong leader who flies in a fighter plane over Chechnya and shows off his judo.

In fact, a Soviet-style Putin cult is blooming — complete with a board game called "The Manager" in his honor. He says he doesn't like the fawning. But then again, when the press here offered a more critical view, Putin shut them down.

ABCNEWS' Claire Shipman contributed to this report.

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