Putin is no Brezhnev, aide tells Russians

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Vladimir Putin's spokesman says his boss seeking to return to the Kremlin for a third term is no Leonid Brezhnev, the much-ridiculed Soviet leader who overstayed his welcome with the people.

Speaking two weeks after Putin stunned the country by announcing he would run for president again, Dmitry Peskov sought to quash growing comparisons between the strongman prime minister and Brezhnev, whose 18-year rule ended with his death in 1982.

"You know, Brezhnev is not a 'minus' for our country's history -- it is a huge plus," Putin's suave, smooth-talking spokesman said an interview on Dozhd (Rain) Internet television late Tuesday.

"Putin in any case is no Brezhnev, even though the latter was a strong politician," Peskov added, speaking to AFP on Wednesday.

Peskov was responding to snowballing fears that Putin, who has been in power since 1999 as president and then prime minister, could usher in economic decline and stagnation.

Putin's protege, current President Dmitry Medvedev, announced at the ruling United Russia party convention on September 24 that he would step aside to let his mentor, a former KGB officer, run in March presidential polls.

Long accustomed to poking fun at their leaders, Russians responded with a barrage of political jokes and visual gags comparing 58-year-old Putin to Brezhnev, who in his later years himself became the butt of jokes for his unintelligible speech, fondness for awarding himself medals and allegiance to staid Soviet protocol.

One cartoon making the rounds on the Russian Internet depicts a digitally aged Putin wearing the green uniform of his Kremlin predecessor, his chest festooned with a row of Hero of the Soviet Union medals, the former top state honour.

Putin's decision to reclaim the presidency could keep him in power for another 12 years and make him Moscow's longest-serving leader since Joseph communist dictator Josef Stalin.

Putin has remained Russia's most popular politician throughout the past decade and is almost certain to win an election that some critics see as little more than a coronation.

Peskov, who has remained at Putin's side throughout much of his Moscow career, admitted that some Russians, mostly the liberal-leaning middle classes in affluent Moscow, were unhappy to see Putin return but insisted that the majority needed Putin.

"It is true: you really do hear people in Moscow asking why he is coming back," Peskov said.

"It is true: many talk about Putin's 'Brezhnevism'. But at the same time, the people doing the talking know nothing about Brezhnev," he said.

As Communist Party secretary, Brezhnev presided over the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982, overseeing the start of a catastrophic economic decline that eventually led to the Soviet empire's collapse.

His rule also strangled hopes for greater freedoms that had emerged after Stalin's death in 1953.

Peskov admitted that Brezhnev may have overstayed his welcome with the Russian people but stressed that his era began with policies that had helped build a stronger nation.

"He laid the foundations of the economy and agriculture," Peskov said.

"He worked 20 hours a day," Peskov told AFP, noting that Putin was also in top physical shape.

Asked if Putin would draw a lesson from Brezhnev's rule and exit the Kremlin at the right time, Peskov said:

"I don't know whether he will leave on time. This question is not appropriate," he told AFP.

© 2011 AFP

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