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The insider's guide to Vladimir Putin

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Russian president Vladimir Putin has vowed to remain "an influence" on his country's future even after stepping down from office in 2008. Here's all you should know about the ex-spy turned statesman.

Why is Putin planning to step down in 2008?

Putin has hinted in the past that he enjoys being president so much that he would happily carry on but Russia's constitution imposes a two-term limit which he has repeatedly vowed to honor. Putin's popularity in Russia is such that supporter groups have called for a referendum to be held to allow him to run for the presidency again.

But Putin says he plans to remain an influence anyway. How so?

In a question and answer session on Russian television on Wednesday, Putin said: "Even having lost the powers and the levers of presidential power and not tailoring the basic law according to my personal interests, I will manage to retain the most important thing that a person involved in politics must cherish -- your trust... And using that, you and I will be able to exert influence on the life of our country and guarantee its development."

What does that mean?

Some have talked of Putin serving as prime minister (a role he previously held in the final months of the Boris Yeltsin era) or as the leader of the United Russia party, the majority political force in the Duma (parliament). More speculative ideas include a union of Russia and neighboring Belarus of which Putin would be president. But his most immediate input on Russia's future course is likely to be in nominating his successor. Putin's popularity means his endorsement would virtually assure victory. Early contenders include First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Why is Putin so popular?

Putin is credited with bringing stability after the rollercoaster ride of the post-Soviet years which saw state industries sold off cheaply, soaring inflation and millions dumped into poverty amid economic mismanagement and chronic corruption. And while Russia has continued to embrace market capitalism, Putin has displayed sensitivity towards the Soviet past, still remembered fondly by many, restoring the stirring Soviet anthem (with revised words) and the iconic Communist star as the Russian army's symbol.

What do Putin's critics make of his presidency?

For those less enamored with the Kremlin's current incumbent, Putin's claim that he will continue to wield influence beyond his presidency is further evidence that Russia is moving back down the road to authoritarianism. Putin's opponents accuse him of ruling like a modern day tsar, though ironically this does not always register negatively in a country where the cult of the strong leader has been a perennial feature of politics since the reign of Ivan the Terrible -- infamous for killing his own son. But there are genuine concerns, both domestically and internationally, about the centralization of power under Putin and curbs on press freedom.

What about Putin's reputation abroad?

Putin is seen as a cool, spiky character and a staunch defender of Russian interests -- though he has built good personal relationships with the likes of U.S. president George W. Bush and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He also seems to enjoy stirring up controversy. At last week's EU-Russia summit in Finland, Putin told diplomats Russia would not be lectured on organized crime by Italy -- commenting "mafia isn't a Russian word." And this week Putin created headlines by describing Israeli president Moshe Katsav, currently facing multiple rape charges, as a "really powerful guy... He didn't look like a guy who could be with 10 women."

It sounds like diplomacy isn't Putin's strong point?

Actually Putin is a rather shrewder operator than he is given credit for. That perhaps dates back to his days as a KGB officer working as a spy in Dresden, East Germany, during the Cold War. Putin may have come in from the cold but he remains proud of his career in one of the world's most notorious state security agencies. This month he re-visited some of his old haunts during a summit meeting in Dresden with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, popping into bakeries and chatting in flawless German with builders as if the Berlin Wall had never been dismantled. But many Russians are just pleased to have a leader throwing their weight around in the world again -- at least close to home. Putin's popularity in Russia was boosted by his hardline stance on the separatist region of Chechnya and he has shown no sign of backing down in Russia's current dispute with Georgia. (Full Story)

Any other career options available for Putin when he steps down?

Putin is a practicing judo black belt, famed for his sweeping hip throw -- perhaps another reason why many world leaders choose not to cross him -- though at 54, the 2008 Beijing Olympics could come too late in life for him. Still there's always the coaching mat -- Putin is the author of his own handbook on his favorite sport, "Judo: History, Theory, Practice."


Putin is credited in Russia with stabilizing the country's economy.

THE BRIEFING ROOM

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