Putin boasts of Russian power at EU summit

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The Independent Online

Against a background of increasingly frosty relations between Russia and the European Union, President Vladimir Putin took time to boast of his country's economic power during a visit to London yesterday.

Russia provides one-third of the EU's oil supplies, he pointed out, and said that the country's economic growth in the oil and gas sector "has enabled the nation to lead a more independent foreign policy".

There have been fears that the EU could become too dependent on Russian energy supplies. But Mr Putin said Russia was a "very reliable partner".

Tony Blair said the two sides had discussed the Chechnya conflict during the EU-Russia summit talks. But he and Mr Putin made it clear at a news conference that economic relations were becoming the core of the relationship.

"We want to work to take the relationship between Europe and Russia to a new and more intense and strengthened level," Mr Blair said. " This is a relationship in economic terms that can only grow and prosper and strengthen."

At home, Mr Putin's stock is high as the world's largest country luxuriates in record oil prices, enjoys an unusual period of political stability and holds its head high on the world stage.

The fact that the Kremlin's control of the economy and the media is getting tighter is of little concern to ordinary Russians. Their prime concern is their quality of life, and Mr Putin appears to have understood that, repeatedly telling his 144 million fellow Russians that raising living standards on the back of a strong economy is his priority. With his approval rating at around 70 per cent, no real challenger to his power has emerged and the opposition remains weak. Most Russians would like Mr Putin to stand for a third term in 2008 when presidential elections are held, regardless of the constitution limiting him to two terms.

Mr Putin has become noticeably more populist of late, pledging to increase social spending by more than £2bn, a huge figure in a country where the monthly average wage is about £200. He has also vowed that hospitals will be re-equipped, that doctors, nurses and teachers will get sharp salary increases, and that the state will pour money into new homes and a more practicable mortgage system.

"We must not tolerate the fact that 25 million of our fellow citizens are living beneath the poverty line and that quality social services are not available to all our citizens," he said recently.

No social problem is too small for Mr Putin right now, or at least that is the image he and his spin doctors have crafted. In a live video link-up with the nation last week he took questions from disgruntled pensioners, cash-starved scientists, and proud but underfunded military men.

In one memorable moment, he fielded a question from an elderly woman in rural Russia who said she had no access to running water. Mr Putin's response was typical of his new stance. He agreed that the woman's plight was a disgrace and threatened to fire the local governor if he didn't solve the problem forthwith.

Why Mr Putin seems particularly anxious to keep the masses happy at this, the twilight of his second term in the Kremlin, is a matter of conjecture. Some cite his fear of Russia falling victim to a Ukraine-style orange revolution, and that is certainly a factor, but the approaching 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential elections are likely to loom larger in his mind. Mr Putin and his advisers want to ensure they effect an orderly handover of power and pick a successor from among their own ranks. Sergey Ivanov, the Defence Minister, is a strong contender.

One damaging incident for Mr Putin was "the babushkas' revolt" which erupted earlier this year. The country's elderly took to the streets in protest after the government savagely cut Soviet-era social benefits. Mr Putin was taken aback by the strength of feeling and rounded on his own ministers, admitting the reform had been botched.

In the summer his previously solid personal approval faltered badly and he had to use all the charm he could muster to repair the damage. Strutting his stuff on the international stage will do his image at home a power of good.

"At least we've now got someone who we can send abroad who we don't need to be embarrassed by," says Marina, a marketing executive. " He's not drunk, he looks normal and most importantly he's not Yeltsin."