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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tallying Putin's Midterm Results

President Vladimir Putin's term hit its halfway mark Tuesday, with politicians and pundits weighing in on the ups and downs of the unusually popular president's first two years in office.

No one questions the obvious: Putin's second year has ended with warmer relations with Washington, a greater focus on domestic economic reform and a continuing concentration of political power in the Kremlin's hands. But interpretations and assessments of these policies vary as widely as a Russian version of "Rashemon."

Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center believes Putin's main achievement has been the gradual move toward "formalizing" political decision-making -- transferring it from informal groups of advisers and businessmen to formal institutions, such as the presidential administration and the federal legislature.

"That's positive for Russia's future even if today the form of those actions seems undemocratic," Ryabov said.

Over the past year, the Kremlin has finished implementing its plan for sidelining the once powerful governors -- many of whom had cozy personal relationships with Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin -- and has managed to form two overwhelmingly compliant chambers of parliament, which easily approve government-backed legislation.

Vyacheslav Volodin, head of the State Duma's pro-Kremlin Fatherland-All Russia faction, lauded the moves to centralize power. The president's main achievement has been to stop Russia from disintegrating into "separate principalities and separate republics," Interfax quoted him as saying Tuesday.

Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov agreed. He said, "Putin's chief goal has been to strengthen state institutions, which was his main promise to the electorate," and he has done so.

But critics argue that, in trying to boost his own authority, Putin has trampled on democratic institutions and individual liberties.

The Kremlin has pushed through an overhaul of the judicial system that failed to curtail the powers of prosecutors -- often criticized for a lack of impartiality and independence -- and played a key role in silencing the country's two privately owned national television stations, which had been controlled by businessmen critical of the Kremlin. Putin has also done little to end the bloody conflict in Chechnya, which has raged for 2 1/2 years, claiming thousands of lives -- soldiers' and civilians' alike.

Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko party and one of Putin's most consistent critics, lamented the Kremlin's monopoly on power, adding that the Cabinet now fulfills technical functions and "chiefly represents the interests of monopolies and big business connected to the authorities," Interfax said.

Carnegie's Ryabov acknowledged that fundamentally redefining the role of the existing political and economic elites would be Putin's greatest challenge in the years ahead.

"Either he undertakes real modernization, in which he transforms his relations with the old elites, or the old clans will force their logic on him, in return for a promise to make sure he's re-elected," Ryabov said. "That's just what happened to Boris Yeltsin in 1996."

Shortly after rising to power, Putin promised that the influential oligarchs -- businessmen who often held sway over political decision-making under Yeltsin -- would be kept "equally distant" from the Kremlin. Indeed, a number of legal cases and police raids were launched against major businesses suspected of withholding taxes or other violations.

But while two of the country's most visible tycoons, media magnates Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, left Russia fearing legal prosecution, the fortunes of many who agreed to toe the Kremlin line have grown rosier.

Putin's main failure has been his inability to rein in the oligarchs, Ryabov said. "Their economic power is growing and they will use their influence to facilitate reforms that benefit only them."

"Under Yeltsin, the country was ungovernable," Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika think tank, said Monday. "The oligarchs opened any door in the Kremlin with their left foot." Putin's goal was to rein them in, he added, "but Putin's goal has not been realized."

Nonetheless, Putin's second year in office was marked by important liberalizing economic reforms, most prominently a flat 13 percent income tax, loudly applauded by the West.

But economists agree that the economy rebounded from its 1998 economic crisis mainly due to high oil prices and a ruble devaluation, and a growing number of experts have criticized the government for failing to push through fundamental structural reforms, saying a new crisis looms ahead.

One surprise during Putin's second year was his unequivocally pro-Western foreign policy. Initial tension with Washington was replaced with a pragmatic detente following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, when Putin boosted cooperation with the West to unprecedented levels -- sharing intelligence and not opposing the stationing of U.S. troops in former Soviet states that Moscow has traditionally considered to be its domain.

Yavlinsky praised this as Putin's chief achievement. "The vector of foreign policy can have strategic perspectives and serve as a prologue to Russia's becoming a European state in the widest sense of the word," he told Interfax on Tuesday.

However, others worry that the Kremlin's pro-Western stance could ignite dangerous discontent at home.

"It wasn't expected that the administration would be so successful in foreign policy," said Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. But he cautioned the pro-Western line could prove a liability due to a lack of support from the country's elite, especially the military, in part because Putin's ultimate goals were not clear.

Meanwhile, Putin's public approval ratings remain high. Alexander Oslon, a Kremlin-connected pollster, said Monday that a survey conducted by his Public Opinion Foundation found that 61 percent of 1,500 respondents from around the country said Putin's term has been marked by more achievements than failures, compared to 13 percent who thought the opposite.

State wage and pension increases topped the list of favored policies.

Igor Bunin, head of the Political Technologies Center, said the president's ratings were likely to remain high until the next elections because most people have not given up hope that the president will lead the country out of a "dead-end situation," Interfax reported.

"Putin's main achievement," Oslon said, "is that he changed the country's mental climate."