Putin surrounded himself with cronies from his previous life – from the St. Petersburg administration, from the KGB, even friends from his judo club, and co-owners of a "dacha co-operative" – a settlement of private country houses on a lake outside the city. He gave them the best positions in government, and allowed them to commandeer the most lucrative sectors of Russia's economy, its banks and mass media. One of the leading opposition figures, Alexei Navalny, has dubbed Putin's party, United Russia, "the party of crooks and thieves" – a coinage so successful it almost certainly contributed to the party's poor performance in last December's parliamentary elections.
Back in the 1990s, Putin's rise to the top was precipitous – and it remains something of a mystery how a little-known, middle-ranking intelligence officer, tainted with allegations of corruption, could have achieved such a meteoric career. In St. Petersburg he had cloaked himself in the kind of democratic credentials that were vital for advancement in the Boris Yeltsin period, becoming head of the pro-government Our Home Is Russia party in the city.
He was also skilled at making allies, who helped him move from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Here he swiftly climbed through the Kremlin ranks, spending less than a year in each position: deputy chief of staff to the president, director of the FSB (successor to the KGB), head of the Security Council, prime minister.