MOSCOW - Thousands of students and World War II veterans thronged Red Square on Tuesday to fete Vladimir Putin on the second anniversary of his inauguration as Russia's president in a tightly organized, Soviet-style rally full of glowing praise. Putin remains widely popular across Russia halfway into his term, and has gained respect of foreign leaders - despite widespread distrust of the ex-KGB agent when he suddenly appeared in the Kremlin after Boris Yeltsin resigned.
But Putin has waged a brutal and ongoing war in Chechnya, and media and other freedoms have been curtailed on his watch. Critics say he remains uncertain of where he is leading his vast country. The students and veterans - estimated by police to number at least 20,000 - poured out of buses from cities around the country onto Red Square for a rally organized by the pro-presidential youth group Walking Together. Walking Together denies ties to the Kremlin, though political analysts speculate that it is organized by Putin's advisers.
Wearing red or white T-shirts bearing the president's portrait, the demonstrators chanted "Russia, Russia" while the Russian anthem - which has the same melody as the Soviet anthem - resounded from huge speakers. Thousands of police and Interior Ministry troops ringed the crowd while they listened to speeches in praise of Putin. Russian media hailed Putin's accomplishments Tuesday, with state-controlled ORT television broadcasting a flattering package emphasizing the tax reforms and curbs on the powers of regional leaders that he pushed through early in his tenure.
The ITAR-Tass news agency ran a list of statistics of his presidency: He has received 172 foreign guests, made 42 international trips and 41 trips around Russia, and chaired nearly 2,000 meetings and conferences since his inauguration. According to a poll by the respected Romir agency released this week, 71.4 percent of respondents trust Putin. The results were consistent nationwide and support for Putin was steady among all age, income and education groups. The poll surveyed 2,000 people. No margin of error was given.
Putin has been steadily popular since he became acting president Dec. 31, 1999 after Yeltsin's abrupt resignation, inspiring paintings, books - and some warn, the beginnings of a treacherous Soviet-style personality cult. He was elected president in March 2000 and was inaugurated two months later. Putin himself was to watch a concert of World War II veterans in the Kremlin on Tuesday, timed ahead of Thursday's celebrations of Victory Day to mark the Soviet victory over the Nazis.