Pride, Putin and Too Much Police Power?

There's something self-confident about Vladimir Putin's Russia. We recently returned from a two-week tour around the country and wherever we traveled, we sensed pride and even a little cockiness in Russia's return to a powerful position on the international stage.

One of the most revealing signs was the respect, some even say infatuation, afforded President Putin.

He is the master of the grand entrance -- long walks down red carpets accompanied by ceremonial music.

He has resurrected the swarming military parade across Red Square, complete with marching soldiers and long convoys of missiles and tanks. And he is also at the center of a devoted cult of personality.

There's a pop song with the chorus, "Putin is a man of strength," which makes the "Obama girl's" love song about Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., seem mild by comparison.

This week, a photo of a shirtless Putin on vacation in Siberia was splashed across the front pages of Russian newspapers.

Strong Government or Dictatorial Leader?

President Putin seems to have all the trappings of an old Soviet leader, but with a difference. He is hugely popular.

His secret is strength.

"Putin created an impression that Russia can get even with the world leaders after a long period of weakness. Russians do like a strong leader,"  said Russian TV news anchor Alexei Pushkov of TV Tsentr.

For some in the opposition, praise for Mr Putin is undeserved, even frivolous.

Some here say the president has helped create a dangerous environment for government critics, blaming the Kremlin for the poisoning of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London last November and for the murder of anti-government journalists, such as the well-known writer Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in October 2006.

Gary Kasparov, the one-time world chess champion turned fiery opposition leader, is leading an unlikely challenge to a government he calls dictatorial.

"They call it managed democracy, sovereign democracy, but at the end of the day, it's a police state," Kasparov said.

Following him for a day, we saw just how difficult it is to stand up to Putin. Police stopped his car, demanding his passport, though they certainly knew who he was.

And at a rally in a downtown square in Moscow, police carefully searched every opposition supporter. Someone -- Kasparov blames the Kremlin -- even played a laugh track from a truck as he addressed the crowd.

Though the rally drew only a few hundred people, the security cordon around it was suffocating. 

We counted three different kinds of police. There were regular police officers, army troops and police special forces. It's the kind of reception Kasparov's supporters get whenever they gather in public and it often ends with violence.

Economic Success Seems to Squash Protests

At a St. Petersburgh rally in April, Russian police beat protesters with their batons and sent many to jail.

Today, one Kasparov aide reportedly said she was sent to a mental hospital and force-fed medication after criticizing the government.

Despite Kasparov's stand, Russians largely ignore him. He commands just single-digit support compared with Putin's 70 percent approval rating.

Now, with Russia's huge oil reserves making it richer than ever, many Russians have different priorities, like Elena Kuchirivi, a marketing manager in Moscow.

"When I was a kid, we had to queue to buy bananas," she told us, sitting on the couch of her and her husband's richly appointed living room. "That is nonsense now."

That's because Elena and her husband, Genady Kuchirivi, are living the good life in Moscow, enjoying newfound luxuries and salaries 20 times what their parents earned.

They, like many here, credit Putin.

"He's a kind of modern man," said Elena Kuchirivi, "He represents better the current generation." 

  I asked Kasparov what he thinks when he hears such praise of Putin, especially since his own opposition party's support is so paltry.

He replied, "Look, in 1989, 1990, the support for democratic change looked even smaller, but soon the Soviet regime had collapsed."

If he's expecting a similar collapse for Putin, however, he is virtually alone here. The only question some commentators are asking here is whether Putin will handpick his successor in presidential elections next March, or change the Russian constitution so he can serve a third term. Today's Russia is Putin's Russia.