MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin has an answer for Russians worried that his return to the presidency next year will usher in an era of stagnation: study the careers of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Charles de Gaulle.
Putin could be president until 2024 if he wins the maximum two successive terms and by then would have ruled for almost a quarter of a century.
His decision to reclaim the presidency has brought frequent comparisons with Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose 18-year rule of the Soviet Union until his death in 1982 is widely seen as an era of political and economic stagnation.
But Putin, who has remained Russia’s paramount leader even as prime minister since 2008, prefers to hold up the examples of long-serving Western leaders to justify his return to the Kremlin, which is all but certain in next March’s election.
The former KGB spy’s history lessons also give a sense of how he views himself and could provide clues about what his next presidency will hold.
Asked about his decision to return to the post he held for eight years until 2008, Putin corrected an interviewer who referred to Roosevelt, the longest-serving U.S. president.
“Yes, Roosevelt was elected three times,” said Konstantin Ernst, the head of the Pervyi Kanal (First Channel).
“No,” Putin, 59, snapped back, wagging his finger at Ernst. “Four times.”
Roosevelt won elections in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944, and died in office in 1945, months after the Yalta Conference where he, Soviet leader Josef Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill carved up Europe at the end of World War Two.
“He ruled the country in the toughest years of economic depression and in World War Two and was elected four times because he was effective,” said Putin, who won presidential elections in 2000 and 2004.
After praising Roosevelt, Putin went on to list other long-serving leaders including Helmut Kohl, who was German chancellor for 16 years. He also said he liked de Gaulle, France’s president from 1959 to 1969.
Like Putin, Roosevelt, De Gaulle and Kohl rose to power in tumultuous times but used iron will and considerable popularity to gain almost complete dominance.
Styled by his ruling party as Russia’s “national leader”, Putin says his biggest achievement is to have saved Russia from collapse after the chaos and humiliation that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin, and some of the people who own chunks of the world’s biggest energy producer, believe he is a ruler who can ensure stability, at least for now.
“He thinks of himself as a national leader,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
Heroes of their time to supporters, Roosevelt, De Gaulle and Kohl forged fiercely independent foreign policies but, like Putin, were criticised for accruing too much power.
Opponents say Russia’s stability is a mirage because Putin’s decision to stay in power makes a brittle and atrophied political system too dependent on one man.
By focusing on Western leaders, Putin is also underscoring to Russian voters his own image as the stout defender of the country’s interests in the face of what is often portrayed as Western hypocrisy.
“By invoking de Gaulle and Roosevelt, Putin hints that foreign criticism of him is based on double standards, and presents himself as the country’s defender, willing to stand up to hypocritical foreigners who are unfair to Russians,” said David Woodruff, senior lecturer in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
For the leaders of the United States, China and Europe, the message is clear: Putin will accept no lecturing but he also wants to be accepted at the top table of world politics.
Even at face value, there may be other parallels.
De Gaulle put down dissent in Syria, Lebanon and Algeria. Under Putin, Russia has been accused of human rights abuses in Chechnya and other republics of the rebellious North Caucasus.
Kohl was criticised for turning a blind eye to party corruption. Putin’s ruling United Russia party has been branded “a party of swindlers and thieves” by opponents.
Roosevelt’s record stay in the White House prompted Congress to pass the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prevents presidents from serving more than two terms.
Putin also admires Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore. Such is his regard that some of his closest allies have taken up reading Lee’s books. Lee led Singapore for more than 31 years until 1990 but remained senior minister and then minister mentor until May this year.
Putin’s use of bumper oil revenues during his first presidency to boost living standards and cement his rule while other economic problems went unsolved has drawn analogies with Soviet leaders, in particular Brezhnev, under whom economic decline was masked by strong the income from oil sales.
“The analogy with Brezhnev is being made... all such analogies are lame and senseless because we live in a different country, a different world,” said President Dmitry Medvedev, who was swept into the Kremlin in 2008 to get round a constitutional ban on his mentor Putin serving a third successive term.
Putin has remained the more powerful of the two men in their power-sharing arrangement know as the ruling tandem.
For such an overtly patriotic Russian leader, Putin has made few references to tsars and Communist Party general secretaries, all of whom ruled large empires.
Among the tsars, Putin has preferred comparisons with Peter the Great, a ruthless leader who built Putin’s home town of St Petersburg and laid the foundations of the Russian empire.
“Putin reads all the time, mostly about the history of Russia,” his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said. “He reads memoirs, the memoirs of Russian historical state figures.”
Opinion polls show Russians’ most popular historical figures are writer and poet Alexander Pushkin, Peter the Great, Josef Stalin, Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and Putin.
For Russians, they outrank Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great or scientist Isaac Newton.
But Peskov said Putin had a keen interest in Tsarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin and Russian Orthodox philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who said Russia should plot an independent course between dictatorship and democracy.
Putin has made no secret of his respect for Stolypin, who crushed dissent but also introduced land reform as prime minister from 1906 to 1911 under Tsar Nicholas II.
Putin said in July that a statue of Stolypin should be placed outside the Russian government’s headquarters in Moscow.
“A true patriot and a wise politician, he understood that both radicalism of all sorts as well as stagnation, a lack of reforms, were equally dangerous for the country,” Putin said.