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Russia: World’s Biggest Country Going Through Traumatic Changes

By: Kathy Diener

Date Posted: 2000-07-14

In the lead-up to Okinawa’s G8 Summit this month we continue our profiles of the participating countries. Here we look at Russia and Germany.

The Russian Federation became an independent state in December 1991, after the collapse of the USSR. The present Russian Federation occupies the same territory as the former Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which was the largest of the 15 soviet republics during the Communist era. Since independence, Russia has adopted a new constitution and system of government comprised of a powerful executive branch and considerably weaker legislative and judicial branches.

Geographically, Russia is the largest country in the world, with an area of 6.5 million square miles spanning 11 time zones. Most of the country's climate is cold, with long, severe winters and short, cool summers. Russia has one of the widest varieties of ethnic groups in the world, although the majority of its citizens are ethnic Russian. The non-Russian population consists of at least 32 ethnic groups, including Tatars, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Germans, and Bashkirs.

The economy of the Soviet Union was a planned socialist economy in which the central government controlled everything. With the breakup of the USSR, Russia introduced radical economic reforms that required new systems of money, banking, and finance. The task of constructing a modern capitalist economy while managing internal political turmoil proved to be a great challenge, and Russia's economy experienced a severe decline.

In addition to the crippled economy, modern-day Russia has had to contend with a number of social problems that were very minor or nonexistent during the Soviet period. Illegal drug use is on the rise due to increased availability. Consequently, diseases like AIDS are spreading rapidly, and health care is inadequately funded. The rates of divorce, single parenthood, homelessness and unemployment have all risen significantly since 1991.

President Putin, Ex-Spy Who Made War in Chechnya

President Vladimir Putin, 47, grew up living with his mother and father in a communal apartment with three other families. He studied civil law at the prestigious Leningrad State University and was recruited by the KGB upon his graduation. He was assigned to work in East Germany from 1985 to 1989, and most of what he did there remains shrouded in secrecy.

Putin began his political career in the early 1990s in the St. Petersburg government, becoming the city's first deputy mayor in 1994. He then went to Moscow to work for the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin's administration, where he served in several intelligence positions. Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in August 1999. When Yeltsin resigned last December, Putin became both prime minister and acting president of Russia. He was officially elected president in March of this year.

Putin has enjoyed a high public approval rating, by Russian standards. Much of his popularity has been attributed to his hard-line stance on Chechnya, though this position has brought him harsh criticism from outside Russia. Putin has also been commended for launching investigations into political corruption, which has been blamed for weakening Russia's economy and government.


Russian G8 Concerns: Neighborly Relations and Missile Defense

In the one-on-one pre-summit talks that have taken place recently, Putin has focused on improving trade relations, particularly with Russia's neighbors in the EU. In an April meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the two leaders discussed their growing economic interdependency and plans to cooperate more on issues such as drugs, crime, terrorism, and weapons control.

At the German-Russian summit last month, Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder discussed the possibility of establishing a European missile defense system that would include Russian technology. Both leaders were opposed to U.S. plans for a missile defense system aimed at "rogue states," such as North Korea and Iraq, claiming it could set off a new arms race. Putin also raised the issue of debt relief for his country, asking Germany to forgive a number of loans.

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