MOSCOW – As Russian President Vladimir Putin marks two decades in power , he boasts about his achievements but remains coy about his political future — a reticence that fuels wild speculation about his intentions.
Putin points to the revival of Russia's global clout, industrial modernization, booming agricultural exports and a resurgent military as key results of his tenure that began on Dec. 31, 1999. On that day, Russia's first President Boris Yeltsin abruptly stepped down and named the former KGB officer his successor, paving the way for his election three months later.
Critics accuse Putin of rolling back post-Soviet freedoms to establish tight control over the political scene, marginalize the opposition and stifle critical media. They hold him responsible for tensions with the West after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea, which bolstered his approval ratings but triggered U.S. and European sanctions.
“Putin stopped the normal development of Russia as a normal market economy and a normal political democracy" and turned the country into a “global spoiler,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a researcher with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Kremlin watchers are trying to predict what will happen after Putin's current six-year term ends in 2024. They agree on one thing: Putin, Russia's longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, will likely stay at the helm.
A fitness fan, the 67-year old Putin appears in good shape to stay on. He regularly practices judo, skis and plays ice hockey in a demonstration of his vigor.
He remains widely popular, although the propaganda effect of Crimea's annexation has worn off amid stagnant living standards, a rise in the retirement age and other domestic challenges.
Putin can easily use the rubber-stamp parliament to scrap term limits, but most observers expect him to take a less straightforward approach. A law faculty graduate, the Russian leader prefers more delicate methods that have a democratic veneer.