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Russia has long been shrouded in mystery. From the longstanding Russian Empire to the far-reaching influence of the 20th century Soviet Union to the modern state, still the biggest country in the world, Russia has long been a powerful player in the global order.

Now—with its immense size; rapid economic growth; significant nuclear arsenal; vast oil, gas, and other natural resource supplies; and heavy-handed relationship with neighboring countries and surrounding regions—there is a sense that Russia is returning to its place as a great world power.

Still, despite these advantages, the country faces many challenges that threaten its continued growth and reemergence as a strong global player, especially in light of the strength of its global competitors such as China. Russia will have to tackle widespread poverty, corruption, serious health issues, a rapidly shrinking population, foreign policy conflicts, dismal infrastructure, and even its own reputation if it hopes to stake its place as a leader in the 21st century and beyond.

Russian foreign policy is largely driven by the president, who determines the domestic and international direction of the country. Former President Vladimir Putin developed in his eight years in office a foreign policy plan that has focused largely on reestablishing and maintaining Russian influence in the world while ensuring stability and security. The Russian government has stated its support for the development of a democratic, multipolar world and a strengthening of the system of international law, and as such has increased its level of international engagement but also demanded accountability and equality from its foreign partners.

Russian foreign policy focuses largely on preserving its territorial integrity by standing firm in the midst of multiple territorial disputes, exercising strong regional influence over its post-Soviet neighbors, countering European Union-NATO (EU-NATO) expansion in its neighborhood by hedging with its own power, and continuing pursuit of its own economic and political growth and reach. Russia has made regional partnerships, especially the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), high priorities as it seeks to balance EU-NATO expansion in the area. Neighbors have complained at times of undue Russian influence in their internal affairs, as in the case of Russia’s endorsement of a Ukrainian presidential candidate in recent elections in that country, but other countries have welcomed the partnership and protection of its enormous neighbor. Russia has prioritized its membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, as a tool in geopolitical balancing. In recent public speeches, Putin has declared that Russia is again a global leader and will show support for a strong multipolar order that leaves space for many international voices while still building a strong Russian state that is crucial in decision making and indispensable in global politics.

Russia is involved in a huge number of multilateral organizations, including Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN—dialogue partner), G-8, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Criminal Court (ICC—signatory), International Monetary Fund (IMF), INTERPOL, Non-Aligned Movement (NAM—guest), Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Organization of American States (OAS—observer), UN Security Council (UNSC), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Health Organization (WHO), World Trade Organization (WTO—observer only), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), International Labour Organization (ILO), Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Black Sea Economic Cooperation pact (BSEC), and the Paris Club, among many others. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has a very powerful voice in international decision making, allowing it to assert its views and values in difficult global negotiations, sometimes to the frustration of the United States, EU, and others.

Notably, Russia is involved in a high number of regional multilateral partnerships, such as the BSEC, the CIS, and the CSTO, among others. It has prioritized its relationships with its neighbors, especially the post-Soviet countries, as it seeks to maintain territorial integrity and exercise strong influence on those around it, especially those with whom it shares a border. As the EU has increasingly extended its memberships closer and closer to Russia, it has strengthened its relationships with longtime partners such as Armenia while also cultivating relationships with some controversial players, including—most notably—Iran. Still, despite its concerns over EU-NATO expansion and its weakening control over its neighbors, Russia inarguably has a very powerful global voice that will allow it to continue to protect its goals and values in the midst of changing international dynamics.

It is no secret that the United States and Russia have a long, complicated, and often tense history, and while their relationship has improved dramatically since the end of the Cold War, tensions still remain that leave many uneasy about the future of US-Russian relations. The two countries have cooperated to achieve reduction of nuclear weapons and materials since the end of the Cold War through the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program (Nunn-Lugar), in which the United States has assisted Russia in identifying and dismantling nuclear threats in exchange for Russian efforts to reduce its nuclear arsenal and support nonproliferation.

Despite this ongoing collaboration, US-Russian relations have faced considerable stress. Tensions between the two countries have flared since 2007, with Putin publicly posturing that the United States is trying to initiate a new arms race with its proposed missile defense system in Europe. This missile defense system has been the source of significant strain between the two powers, as Russia has both offered to compromise by sharing a missile location it finds agreeable but has also threatened to turn weapons toward Europe if the United States goes through with its plans. While determined to go ahead with its plans, the United States recently agreed to leave some elements of its defense system turned off until Iran has a missile that can reach Europe, hoping to placate Russia by demonstrating a show of restraint until it can confirm legitimate security threats.

Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence has also caused strain between Russia and other countries, including the United States, as Russia harshly criticized the United States’ decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence. The issue has long been a contentious one for Russia, whose relationship with Serbia and concerns about its own territorial integrity have long led it to oppose an independent Kosovar state. Beyond this disagreement and ongoing security issues and mistrust between the two countries, the United States has criticized Russia’s lack of democracy and seeming return to autocratic rule under Putin, criticism that has not been well received by Russia. Still, Russian foreign minister Sergei Ivanov recently proposed a new Russian-US dialogue aimed at building upon what he characterized as a strong strategic heritage that could lay the “ground for creating a modern, open collective security system.” Some argue that Russia’s main goal in its current relationship with the United States is to be treated as an equal partner in decision making and influence. For its part, the US government has frequently expressed a desire to strengthen ties with Russia while pushing for improvements in democracy, protection of human rights, and freedom of the press, among other issues.

Despite its considerable size and influence in international affairs, Russia continues to face a number of foreign policy challenges that hold it back from cementing its return as a global powerhouse. Its greatest advance over the past few years has been in regaining much of its status by restoring its citizens’ self-confidence, resisting the so-called “color” revolutions in neighboring states, strengthening and maintaining regional integration, and reclaiming influence in regions outside its immediate neighborhood. Still, these achievements primarily deal with Russia’s ability to preserve itself and reemerge on the global scene, which automatically puts it behind other emerging countries that have been more successful at accomplishing these changes more quickly. Russia’s economy has not grown quickly enough nor yet proven strong enough to make it as essential a trading partner as it would like to be with countries such as China and India, and its reputation and representation in the international media often leave it with less than positive marks.

Russia is continually dealing with a number of territorial disputes, including a violent struggle with the region of Chechnya, where separatist groups have led a protracted, violent conflict since the mid-1990s that is currently relatively controlled yet unresolved. Relations between Russia and its southern neighbor Georgia, a former Soviet republic, are tense.Russia has long accused neighboring Georgia of harboring Chechen separatists in Pankisi Gorge. Georgia has accused Russia of supporting separatist movements in Georgia’s breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tensions finally erupted along the Georgian-South Ossetian border in August 2008. Georgian and Ossetian forces exchanged sniper fire throughout the first week of August 2008. In reaction to the rising tension, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili ordered Georgian troops into the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Russia responded with air strikes not only on Georgian forces in South Ossetia but also in Abkhazia where Georgia controls the Kodori Gorge. Russian forces advanced beyond the separatist regions into undisputed Georgian territory.

This act of aggression drew international attention. The Bush administration called for immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces from Georgia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered a six-point cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia. The deal called for immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory. However, Russian troops remained in the so-called “buffer zones” between the two countries, an action Russia justified by exploiting ambiguities in Sarkozy’s peace agreement. Both South Ossetia and Abkhazia have declared independence from Georgia, and signed friendship agreements with Russia. These agreements give Russia the right to build military facilities along the Georgian border in both territories. President Saakashvili has condemned this action as a form of invasion and annexation.

This marks a distinct shift in Russian foreign policy. Russia defied the G-7 and other Western nations’ calls for a Russian retreat. Georgia is a sure ally of the West, and has pushed for NATO membership. Many fear Russia will attempt to reassert its influence over other former Soviet republics. Although the Kremlin promised to allow EU observers into the buffer zones in early October 2008, Russian troops have reportedly blocked European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) observers from entering the territories. These border struggles extend beyond the Russian-Georgian border. Georgia’s pending NATO membership was recently put on hold, reportedly as a result of Russian pressure. Meanwhile, Georgia is moving to block Russia’s WTO entry.

Russia seems to be relying on its ability to bully neighbors and buy friendships with oil profits while maintaining its characteristic secrecy that leaves many potential partners nervous about its true capabilities and intentions. Its turn toward autocratic rule under Putin has put it at odds with global democratic leaders and often leaves it in a camp with perhaps its greatest competition, China. Meanwhile, a number of serious internal concerns and a heavy reliance on unusually high oil prices and natural resources put in question whether it is developing as a sustainable, long-term partner or as a short-term power that will fade or even crumble under the weight of its own challenges. Thus, many of Russia’s greatest foreign policy challenges can be characterized by its problem of reputation; with its poor human rights record, controversial UNSC voting record, questionable global partnerships, potential vulnerabilities, and secretive notoriety, it is often unclear what the future holds for the country.

Former President Vladimir Putin largely defined Russian politics throughout his eight-year tenure, which ended in May 2008. A former KGB official, Putin came to power in the midst of instability and crisis and, with a firm hand, restored order and a sense of calm in the country. Characterized as intense, cunning, and restrained, Putin has a strength of control and personality so deep that he is generally the first—and sometimes the only—topic in foreign discussion of Russian politics.

While Putin is the first Russian leader to step down willingly at the end of his term—and at the peak of his popularity—his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, won a March 2 election with approximately 70% of the vote, and with speculation having proven correct that Putin would assume the position of prime minister, the Putin era seems far from over. Public opinion polls in Russia routinely reveal vast popularity for Putin’s United Party.

When Time magazine named Putin its Person of the Year in 2007, it acknowledged that he is not a democrat in any generally accepted sense of the word. Putin has prioritized stability and order over democratic development, crushing the hopes of many in the United States who hoped that post-Soviet Russia would shed its autocratic past and move into the global democratic order. While supporting a democratic order in name, Putin’s Russia has made clear that it intends to play by its own rules, and Putin’s popularity with his people has come from his ability to produce stability and economic growth, above all else. According to The Economist, Putin has earned popularity primarily through four major accomplishments: political stability, relative security in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, restoration of Russia as an influential world power, and leadership during sustained rapid economic growth and a sharp increase in living standards. Still, The Economist contends that it is unlikely that President Medvedev will be able to sustain this popularity, as stability has come through repression of democratic rights, rampant corruption, and uneven growth that is primarily dependent on high oil prices.

There is much speculation about how and whether a new Medvedev-Putin power-sharing arrangement will work. In theory, Medvedev will now be in charge of setting Russian domestic and foreign priorities, while Putin will presumably be responsible for implementing these policies prioritized by the president. In reality, many are nervous about Putin’s ability to share power and wonder if Medvedev’s debt to Putin as his handpicked successor will make him little more than a puppet in political decision making. US leaders are reportedly “impressed” by Medvedev and look forward to the possibility of increased cooperation and collaboration with a strong, intelligent, and reasonable leader. It seems that Medvedev has entered office with a commanding popular mandate, though it is difficult to accurately interpret his landslide (70%) election victory since Russian officials under Putin have succeeded in narrowing the field to an essentially one-party state, with nearly zero political opposition through oppression of opposition parties and coercive electoral policies.

Despite democratic rhetoric from the Kremlin, the government has returned to an increasingly authoritarian state under Putin. The ruling party threatens opposition leaders’ safety, workers’ jobs, and even children’s grades to ensure that people vote “correctly.” Strict government censorship has silenced most intelligent cultural expression in favor of a plethora of soap operas and game shows, as lamented in a recent Newsweek article aptly titled “Dumbing Russia Down.” In its efforts to monitor nongovernmental organization (NGO) behavior, the Kremlin has the ability to bury any organization it likes in mountains of paperwork and regulations that essentially leave it unable to function. Corruption has been allowed to run rampant, manifesting itself not only in private firms and individuals bribing officials but also in benefits afforded by the Kremlin unofficially to state officials and their friends who double as businessmen. Clearly, the hope of many that Russia would transform overnight from a long history of authoritarianism to a free, democratic society is not panning out, but Russia has made clear in this arena as well as others that it intends to play by its own rules and shape a “democracy” that fits with its own unique cultural, economic, political, and historical factors.

Some see these realities as a complete reversal of the gains made by Putin’s immediate predecessors, while others see them as a necessary caging of democracy that has allowed a focus on stability without completely killing democratic progress. Medvedev has expressed his support for democratic principles, but it is unclear how far he will stray or will even be able to stray from the heavy-handed tactics of his predecessor. Still, the two men’s backgrounds may prove the difference: Medvedev, a lawyer, has vowed to aggressively pursue one important area in which Putin, a former KGB official, showed almost no interest or progress: true implementation of and respect for the rule of law. The most essential premise of the rule of law is that nobody is above the law, and in a country where corruption is so endemic and the judiciary enjoys little independence, this huge task would be a crucial step toward democratic consolidation.

The transformation from the structure of the Soviet Union to the modern makeup of post-Soviet nation-states has led Russia to develop new partnerships even as it struggles to adjust to changes in its influence and relations with neighbors. A good number of post-Soviet states have worked hard to modernize and democratize and have joined or petitioned to join the EU. Russia and the EU have taken steps to strengthen their relationship and increase cooperation, including the implementation of the Partnership and Co-operation Agreements in 1997, which seeks to unite the two forces in working toward common goals and perhaps eventually lead to a free-trade agreement. Still, despite these steps, Russia and the EU have a complicated and sometimes difficult relationship, and Russia has voiced concerns about EU-NATO expansion into its traditional “sphere of influence.” Most recently, President Medvedev expressed strong concern over discussions of Georgia and Ukraine entering NATO, complaining that any country in its position would object to a security force of which it was not a member expanding up to its borders. Yet it seems clear that Russia’s opinion in the matter will not decide the outcome of these negotiations, evidence of its waning influence over its neighbors.

Nevertheless, Russia has succeeded in cementing partnerships with several other countries in the area, forging its own unique sets of alliances on its own terms. Russia’s membership in the SCO links it with neighbors China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It has also forged economic and security ties with its neighbors through membership in organizations like the Black Sea Economic Cooperation pact (BSEC), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It has put itself at odds with much of the international community over its continued support of Serbia and its refusal to recognize Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence. It has also extended its relationships to countries outside its traditional neighborhood, rebuilding ties in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, most notably with Iran. Russia has built a relationship with Iran through energy and, some say, weapons resources—and while it is unclear how deep the relationship truly runs, Russia has harshly criticized US rhetoric suggesting an attack against Iran, and many in the United States find the relationship troubling.

Much of what lies behind Putin’s high in-country approval ratings is the fact that he has presided over sustained rapid economic growth and a sharp rise in living standards for a segment of the population. Some say that increased political stability has been a driving force in this growth, as it has attracted foreign investors’ confidence and thus increased money and development coming into the country. Others argue that Putin essentially inherited positive economic growth, as painful but necessary neoliberal policies undertaken in the 1990s and market collapse in 1998 ultimately set up a period of recovery and growth that Putin was lucky enough to walk into.

Most can agree that Putin has not, at the very least, squandered the vast earnings the country has taken in as a result of soaring oil prices. His government established a savings fund and has used oil revenues to pay off foreign debt, incur favor with segments of the citizenry, and strengthen stability in the country. Still, it has neglected to invest in infrastructure and social programs to any meaningful extent, leading many to worry that this era of economic growth will be short-lived.

Furthermore, despite a growth rate of approximately 7 percent, Russia has not kept up with the growth rate of most of its post-Soviet neighbors—many of whom are even suffering, rather than benefiting, from high oil prices. Many argue that the prevalence of corruption in nearly every facet of society has played a large role in stunting economic growth, and that the Kremlin’s trend of rolling back private property and business rights in favor of state-owned industry has weakened competition and damaged the economy. Despite the economic gains under Putin, one of his major failures has been his inability to take the economy from near-complete dependence on oil and natural resources—roughly 80% of exports—and develop other infrastructure and industry that could help sustain its growth if oil prices decreased. With corrupt, unstable institutions, foreign investment has still increased, but many investors prefer to lend money to Russian companies rather than invest directly, indicating a lack of confidence. Putin has used oil revenues to promote stability and incur favor, but lack of meaningful economic reform has left many fearful of what will become of the country’s economy.

Concerns about sustainability aside, the Russian economy has experienced rapid and significant growth over the past decade. For many, this has been hugely profitable, and Russia now boasts the third-largest collection of billionaires in the world. Overall poverty is down, and increasing numbers of people are able to travel, eat out, shop for luxury goods, and even purchase apartments or cars—all for the first time. However, with growth centralized in such a limited number of industries and a lack of solid social programs to help distribute state benefits, a large portion of the population is not enjoying the growth being celebrated by the newly wealthy.

The eastern half of the country is suffering under this inequality; where Soviet planning put entire cities in freezing, often unlivable areas, military-driven industry that thrived during the Cold War has now shut down, leaving entire towns without jobs or any remote hope of success or even freedom from a reliance on small welfare checks. If Russia is to complete its transformation from an emerging economy to a global powerhouse, it must move beyond the export of raw materials and create jobs for its citizens in production and sustainable industries. As Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently stated, “Without a stable economy in the country’s eastern half, I see Russia becoming a junior partner to China” (Chicago Tribune). The country’s continued growth depends on its investment in small businesses, development, and sustainable jobs, rather than just investing in more meaningless infrastructure (such as “super cities” that some propose building in the east to resurrect it from poverty). The Northern Caucasus region is facing similar issues, as lack of opportunity has made the entire area a nest of unemployment, fueling discontent and Islamic extremism. In the Ingushetia province, for example, youth employment is at 93 percent, while in the Dagestan province, 70 percent of adults under the age of 30 are jobless. Poverty seems to be fueling violence, xenophobia, and other threats to the political, social, and cultural stability of the country—leading to increased demands that the Russian government invest in human capital and build opportunities for more citizens and for the future.

Natural resources truly are the story of the Russian economy. With oil, gas, and other natural resources making up 80 percent of the country’s total exports, the Russian government has helped the economy recover from the 1998 market crash, rebuilt some confidence with its citizenry, and worked on its image abroad—but it has not converted these profits into sustainable domestic production. Still, with oil prices at an all-time high and Russia’s resources flowing freely, the country has taken significant steps in reshaping its geopolitical posture through evolving bilateral and multilateral relationships.

Russian oil and natural gas pipelines are at the center of its relations with the EU. The EU currently imports a large share of its energy supplies from Russia, and is developing an idea for a pipeline of its own—Nabucco—that is intended to connect the EU directly to other sources in Central Asia, allowing it to circumvent Russia and thus decrease dependence on that country. Russia has plans of its own, however, and has recently signed deals with Bulgaria and Serbia allowing it to build a new Russian pipeline called South Stream through those countries. While the EU is struggling to find both the funding and the energy suppliers for the Nabucco pipeline, Russia has the cash, the natural gas, and now increasingly, the partners to make South Stream happen, threatening the viability of the EU’s project. Russia is also planning an additional pipeline to Europe—North Stream—that would connect it directly to Germany. Whether Russia and the EU’s pipelines are mutually exclusive or not remains to be seen, but it is clear that Russia’s success in these projects would only further the EU’s dependence on Russian natural resources.

Russian oil revenues have given it more than just an economic boost; its money and resources have lent it confidence on the international scene that have helped it rhetorically reassert its position as a powerful player. Former President Putin often took a hard line in public speeches, expressing frustrations with US foreign policy in a way that has led some analysts to worry that his posturing could reignite old tensions. Russia is concerned about the possibility of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO and bringing that security force to Russia’s front door. Russia has also clashed with the United States over its proposed Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program, in which it is seeking to put a defensive program in place in countries like Poland. The United States has pointed out that the BMD program is primarily defensive, so it would require a Russian first strike for it to be a threat to that country; still, Russia’s posturing makes it clear that it intends to continue to control its former sphere of influence.

For its part, the United States has been aggravated by Russia’s relationship with Iran. Russia sells a significant number of conventional arms to Iran, which many say are then being passed on to terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Russian interests in Iran are probably about balancing against the United States and definitely about economics, as it has both arms sales and investments in nuclear energy in the country, but they are also about putting another face on Russia’s own concerns. Russia is adamantly opposed to US intervention or military action in the region and has spoken out against US threats to Iran and interference in its nuclear energy program. Its concerns seem less about fears for its own safety and more for a desire to be the power in its region and keep others, like the United States and the EU, from interfering in its neighborhood.

Still, recent statements by other Russian officials make that country’s position seem less hostile. Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov recently proposed a new US-Russian dialogue, stating that “making use of the Russia-American strategic heritage as a ground for creating a modern, open collective security system, also in Europe, represents a reasonable alternative to unilateral destruction of its potential” (International Herald Tribune). Top US officials who have met President Medvedev have also expressed confidence in their ability to work with him and move forward to forge better relationships between the two countries.

The Russian military has struggled to modernize after the end of the Cold War. Despite plans to convert to a professional force, military service is still compulsory, resulting in an oversized force that lacks sufficient funding and qualified troops. Many Russian leaders have remained entrenched in the Soviet military mindset, putting too much emphasis on an oversized nuclear arsenal and thus diverting much-needed funding from taking care of Russian troops. Housing and food shortages are common, and outbreaks of communicable diseases are common among the ranks. These problems are front and center in Chechnya, where the military has failed to completely reign in Chechen separatists.

Russia’s continued emphasis on nuclear and conventional weapon stocks have kept its arsenals full, with many of its supplies inherited from the Soviet era. Russia has signed multilateral nonproliferation treaties and has made significant progress toward reducing its nuclear stockpiles, but it still has a large number of nuclear, conventional, biological, and chemical weapons at its disposal. Putin has recently expressed a desire to further encourage nonproliferation and disarmament, which is a positive sign in those processes. Also of concern in Russia is the large, unknown amount of loose and unsecured nuclear materials. There are no accurate numbers on exactly what and how much is loose, but Russia’s failure to properly secure materials after the fall of the Soviet Union has resulted in disappeared materials and has been a matter of serious international concern.

The United States and Russia, possessing the great majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, have increased efforts to collaborate on disarmament, reduction of nuclear stockpiles, stronger security protections on nuclear weapons, nonproliferation, and securing loose nuclear material. The Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction initiative has been part of this effort. In January 2008, a group of highly influential US experts on the issue published two op-eds in The Wall Street Journal where they put forth a number of concrete suggestions for the United States and Russia to work together to further these goals in regard to nuclear weapons. Many of these suggestions centered on further strengthening existing agreements and moving past Cold War mindsets and policies into a more modern relationship that makes sense in light of current circumstances. They also highlighted ideas to help build the political will necessary to move toward a nuclear-weapon-free world, the overarching goal of these proposals. Russia and the United States have each expressed a desire to further both their cooperation and their individual efforts to reach these goals.

Russia’s desire to maintain control over its traditional sphere of influence has often manifested itself in the military’s involvement in internal and regional conflicts. The most famous of these is Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechnya, a southern Russian republic that has continually sought its independence for nearly two centuries. After long periods of control by Russia and horrific oppression by Stalin, Chechnya again declared its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union; however, though it has gained greater autonomy over time, it has failed to achieve full independence from Russia.

This conflict is often violent, as Chechen separatists and guerrilla groups have used nonconventional methods to fight traditional Russian forces and their attempts to maintain control. Russia has often been condemned for violations of human rights in Chechnya and undemocratic forms of oppression, but global events and actions by Chechen rebels have left the situation stagnant. The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 gave Russia a new rhetoric for its battle against Chechen separatists, and it has since often resorted to justifying its actions as necessary steps in the fight against terrorist threats. Furthermore, the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, in which Chechen rebels took more than 1,100 children and adults hostage, seriously damaged the reputation of both the Russian government and the Chechen separatist movement. The hostage crisis escalated, and between Chechen separatist actions and Russian attempts to intervene, over 330 hostages were killed. In response to this tragedy, the Russian government implemented significant measures to step up security and fight terrorism in the country.

As investigations into the Beslan crisis ensued, many began to question the Russian government’s actions leading up to and during the hostage situation. Evidence came out that the Russian government had warning of the attack several hours in advance but took no actions to prevent it, and there was also evidence the rebels involved in the hostage crisis offered to negotiate a peaceful solution but did not receive a response. Other accusations of Russian mistreatment of Chechnya are common, as are other instances of Chechen rebel violence. The two Chechen wars have devastated both populations, but especially the people of Chechnya, who have lost significant populations and struggled to rebuild their cities that were heavily damaged in the conflicts. Chechen separatists have also been accused of aggravating separatist movements and violence in other provinces and regions in its neighborhood, contributing to widespread discontent in southern Russia that is also fueled by poverty and unemployment.

High levels of inequality, unemployment, poverty, and violence in the Northern Caucasus region have made it for many residents a difficult and undesirable place to live. For those who choose to stay, opportunities are often slim, and Islamic extremism has flared in the region as a result of these circumstances. Many impoverished people from the North Caucasus are fleeing to the more “European” urban areas of the country to seek job opportunities and a better life. However, this new wave of migration has fueled multiethnic tensions in many cities, feeding xenophobia and increasing violent crime. St. Petersburg has seen some of the worst numbers, but other big cities such as Moscow and Tolyatti have also seen an explosion of hate crimes in the past few years. According to statistics collected by the SOVA Center in Moscow, 69 people were killed and over 600 were injured in ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2007 alone. Of special concern is the fact that these crimes are increasingly being committed not by extremist groups, but by ordinary people whose intolerance for those they consider the “other” has skyrocketed in recent days.

Yet despite these tragic statistics, a large number of ethnic and religious groups continue to grow and flourish in Russia. The Muslim population has grown throughout the country, increasing not only in traditional locations like the North Caucasus but also in urban areas, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Other migrant populations have significantly increased in recent years also, and as the Russian-born population continues to decrease at a rapid rate, the number of jobs and opportunities available to be filled by immigrants continues to increase as well. This fact troubles some of the native Russian population, as the need to fill jobs and keep the economy running butts up against the desire of many to maintain an ethnically and culturally traditional Russian population.

Despite these concerns, the population decline in Russia is so grave that it is difficult to see other options without serious changes in lifestyle and government policy. The country faces a number of very serious health issues, including high HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis infection rates (even higher in the armed forces than in the rest of the population) and extremely high rates of alcoholism, smoking, and poor diets. The government has failed to make any significant investments toward improving health care or campaigning for lifestyle improvements, and in a country where quality food products are often out of reach but vodka and cigarettes are cheap, life expectancy is only 65 years, with males at a dismal life expectancy of only 59 years. Furthermore, the fertility rate in Russia is only 1.39, well below the normal replacement rate of 2.1(CIA 2007 estimates). The Russian government has implemented some measures to try to increase fertility rates, but Russian demographic trends continue on a negative decline. One contributing factor may be the fact that despite rising standards of living for many, most families still cannot afford to support more than one child. Thus, so many of Russia’s cultural and economic issues are inextricably linked, since the country will struggle to economically grow and develop in a sustainable manner without a healthy, stable population, but Russian citizens won’t reach that stable point without further increases in health care, standards of living, employment rates, and the overall ability to support larger families.

Analysts argue that the rollback of democratic rights under Putin has caused growth to stagnate and has led to less than optimal economic returns. The same may be said about the effect of the absence of true democracy on cultural vitality and development in the country. Russia has a long, rich cultural history, with huge contributions to literature, dance, theatre, and other arts. The current government has seriously curbed freedom of the press and free expression in an attempt to maintain tight control over the security situation and the population, and in the process has done much damage to the strength of free cultural expression in the country. Intellectuals are often punished or imprisoned for expressing any idea that can be interpreted as criticizing the government in any serious way, and the government has succeeded in silencing many opposition voices altogether, leaving the media with an overflow of soap operas and reality show spinoffs.

Political culture in the country is equally closed off. Putin’s United Russia Party runs the political show, dominating elections and essentially overruling any possible competition. Opposition parties are allowed to exist but are never allowed to become a serious threat to the ruling party. In recent elections, everyone from workers to children were threatened to vote “correctly” or face the consequences, ranging from loss of work or benefits to bad grades in school. United Russia is generally the only party allowed to advertise on TV or on the radio, giving it an unfair advantage and stifling the ability of other parties to gain name recognition or build confident constituencies. With this kind of political culture, it is easy for United Russia to win elections and claim democratic support for its leaders, but many within and outside the country argue that lack of any real competition makes election results meaningless and denies United Russia the argument of democratic support.

Please send us your thoughts on the changing global order and the materials offered here. All comments may be reprinted on this Web site and in related materials.

Sources: Russian and Eurasia Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), The New York Times, BBC, The Christian Science Monitor, Kremlin Web site, The Economist, SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, and others.

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.

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The global order is changing. The 21st Century will be marked by many competing sources of global power. Across politics, economics, culture, military strength and more, a new group of countries have growing influence over the future of the world:

Brazil

Russia
China

South Africa
European Union

South Korea
India

Turkey
Japan

Other Countries

Big issues are also playing a cross-cutting role in this changing global order:

Energy

Nuclear Nonproliferation
Nonstate Actors

Global/Regional Systems

And this changing global order has implications for the United States.

 
 
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