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Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999. A former KGB agent, Putin was appointed prime minister by Yeltsin in August 1999. When Yeltsin abruptly resigned at the end of 1999, he named Putin his successor. Putin subsequently won the presidency in elections in March 2000, and a second term in March 2004.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s international relevance ebbed. Consequently, Putin’s presidency has been dominated by domestic concerns, such as the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the new Russian entrepreneurial oligarchs and separatist violence in the province of Chechnya. The former problem arose when young Russian businessmen, taking advantage of a weak legal system that lacked adequate property rights and could not protect contracts, amassed huge amounts of money and influence in the 1990s when the Russian government began auctioning state-owned assets. Putin, in a crackdown on corruption and illegal business practices, embarked on a crusade against the “robber barons,” resulting in the high-profile and controversial arrest of Mikhail Khordovsky, the head of the oil company Yukos, as well as the indictments of many others. While these attacks on Russia’s megarich may have broken the power of the oligarchs, they have drawn criticism for leading to the consolidation of power in Putin’s hands and the suppression of media outlets critical of Putin’s administration.
The problem of Chechnya has plagued Russia since the first Chechen war began in December 1994. The first war ended in 1997 with a peace treaty that was violated when Chechen separatists invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to consolidate power and establish Islamic rule. But the invasion and the subsequent bombing of buildings in Russian cities, allegedly by Chechen rebels, had a galvanizing effect on Russian public opinion, which simultaneously discredited Yeltsin’s administration and strengthened Putin’s image as a strong nationalistic leader, contributing to Putin’s victory in the presidential elections in March 2000. By the end of 2006, the Russian military occupied much of Chechnya, but Chechen rebels had carried out several brutal attacks against civilian targets, including the seizure of a Moscow theater on October 23, 2002, which resulted in the deaths of 130 civilians, and the siege of a school in Beslan on September 1, 2004, in which 344 people, including 186 children, were killed.
While Putin’s legacy in Russian politics remains unclear, he is trying to reestablish Russia’s place on the world stage and to shepherd Russia through difficult political and economic transformations. Putin enjoys personal relationships with many Western leaders, including U.S. president George W. Bush, French president Jacques Chirac, and British prime minister Tony Blair. While Russia has been accommodating toward the West on issues such as counter-terrorism, other concerns such as domestic civil liberties have strained those connections. Putin has come under fire from Western observers for stepping back from Yeltsin’s democratic reforms and moving Russia toward a semi-authoritarian regime. This domestic retrenchment has been accompanied by a halting rapprochement with the West, including acceptance of NATO’s expansion into central Europe and the Baltic states, and gradual economic improvement. However, having failed to diversify Russia’s domestic economy, the country’s economic success rests mainly on the export of oil, casting doubts on the long-term viability of Putin’s reform plan. Critics fear that ultimately Putin’s failure to enact meaningful political reform will undermine Russia’s economic future as well.
- Jack, Andrew. 2004. Inside Putin’s Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? New York: Oxford University Press.
- Shevtsova, Lilia. 2005. Putin’s Russia. Rev. ed. Trans. Antonina W. Bouis. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for
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