WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Time magazine named Russian President Vladimir Putin its “Person of the Year” for 2007 on Wednesday, saying he had returned his country from chaos to “the table of world power” though at a cost to democratic principles.
Putin, a former KGB official picked from relative obscurity to be prime minister in 1999 by then-President Boris Yeltsin, will appear on the cover of a special issue of Time as the person the editors believe had the greatest impact on events, for better or worse.
“He’s not a good guy, but he’s done extraordinary things,” said Time managing editor Richard Stengel, who announced Putin’s selection on NBC’s “Today Show.”
“He’s a new tsar of Russia and he’s dangerous in the sense that he doesn’t care about civil liberties; he doesn’t care about free speech; he cares about stability. But stability is what Russia needed and that’s why Russians adore him.”
Time magazine said on its Web site that Putin, the son of a factory worker whose grandfather cooked for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, had led Russia with persistence, a sharp vision and a sense that he embodied the spirit of “Mother Russia.”
The Russian president beat out four rivals for the Time distinction: former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who was Time’s No. 2 choice, followed by British author J.K. Rowling, Chinese President Hu Jintao and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Time’s choice was an acknowledgment of Putin’s role in helping Russia regain its national pride but rejected the magazine’s concerns about freedom in Russia as a product of “stereotypes of the past.”
Putin spent more than two hours in an interview with Time, according to the Kremlin, which described the session as an interesting conversation.
“He was really satisfied,” said Peskov, who stressed that Russia had re-emerged “as a constructive and reliable partner in shaping international relations” under Putin’s leadership.
But its return to international status has also led to complicated relations between Putin and the United States on issues including U.S. efforts to pressure Iran about its nuclear program.
“Obviously he’s a very intriguing figure in modern history,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who otherwise declined to comment on Time’s selection.
After meeting Putin for the first time in 2001, President George W. Bush said: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”
But Putin and the White House have since clashed in several areas including democratic reform in Russia and U.S. plans for a missile shield in eastern Europe. In February, Putin accused the United States of trying to dominate the world.
The selection came days after Putin announced a plan to hold onto power after his term ends next year. Putin said on Monday that if his close ally, Dmitry Medvedev, won the presidency, he would serve as Medvedev’s prime minister.
“Putin has put his country back on the map. And he intends to redraw it himself,” Time said. “He will continue to lead his country as its prime minister and attempt to transform it into a new kind of nation, beholden to neither East nor West.”
Time said the person of the year distinction, which it has awarded since 1927, is not an endorsement or a popularity prize but a recognition of the individuals and forces that shape the world.
“At significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize, (Putin) has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power. For that reason, Vladimir Putin is Time’s 2007 Person of the Year,” the magazine said.
Time had earlier selected four other Kremlin leaders for the distinction: Stalin, who was chosen twice, Nikita Khrushchev, Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, editing by David Storey