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Vladimir Putin. Photo: Joachim Steinhöfel

On 31 December 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin delivered his traditional annual address on television. Many saw the 1990's as a "lost decade" for Russia, which was characterized by a deep industrial downturn, mass impoverishment, resurgent separatism, rampant criminality, the growing weakness of the state and the rise of powerful business interests. In what came as a surprise to most Russians, Yeltsin announced his resignation, saying that he decided to make way "for a new generation

Suggested readings

An excellent introduction is Lilia Shevtsova's Putin's Russia (excerpts are available on the website of the Carnegie Endowment).

Edward Lucas, a correspondent for The Economist, describes the origins of what he calls "The New Cold War" in Russia under Putin (2008). Lucas argues that Putin's Russia poses once again a direct menace, not only to its own citizens but also to outsiders. He challenges the idea that Russia is "steadily becoming a normal country." He argues that due to Putin's decisions Russia "now stands little chance of avoiding long-term decline."

Lucas' core explanation can be summed up in one sentence: "When oil was at 10 USD a barrel, Russia was pitifully weak. At 75 USD, it swaggers like a superpower." This is embedded in a rich argument, however. In the 1990s Russia was ridiculed as the sick man of Europe, Lucas notes: "by the time of the 1998 financial crisis, the multi-party system and the market economy, along with Yeltsin's personal reputation, were deeply discredited" (p. 44). Like Shevtsova, Lucas points to the initial reformist attitude of Putin in 2001:

"Putin came out strongly for economic reform, saying that he wanted Russia to reach Portuguese standards of prosperity in a decade. His government pushed through a 13 percent flat tax in 2001; as in other countries were this was tried, the results were impressive. His ministers talked of setting up a 'one-stop shop' for registering small businesses, replacing the baffling and expensive trek between different state institutions … " (p. 48)

The contrast to the pre-1999 period explains the popularity of the new regime:

"after the calamitous financial crash of August 1998, when Russia defaulted on a large chunk of its debts and devalued the rouble, the sense of failure surrounding the Yeltsin clique and its tycoon-friendly rule was absolute." (p. 9)

By 2008, as Lucas writes,

"More than ever before Russians can plan their lives: they can save, educate themselves, travel and bring up their children as they like; they can buy anything they can afford; own property at home or abroad; worship (mostly) as they wish; read almost anything they like … never in Russian history have so many Russians lived so well and so freely. That is a proud boast, and one that even those who dislike Russia's current path most honestly acknowledge … Private cars used to be a luxury in the Soviet Union. In 1993 there were fifty-nine per thousand people. That figure has risen fivefold. Around 15 percent of all Russians have been abroad at least once

April 2010

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