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Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 433,491 346,520 310,000 16
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 2,610 2,140 1,750 97
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 322  (25/10/07)

Return of the Tsar?
Few believe that Putin is really bowing out for good, if bowing out at all. All the indications are that he will remain the real power in Russia for a long while yet.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Russians go in for patronymics to identify each other, Vladimir Vladimorivich for instance. They like a father figure. Putin is exactly that for them. It complements, and perhaps partly explains, or is explained by, his extraordinary popularity. As everyone knows, they love a strong figure. So, one might say do all peoples. But not, for Western nations too much. The West has evolved by surrounding its rulers with safeguards against arbitrary use of power. 

The West objects to Putin's repressive measures. But the Russians love them. They despise journalists and politicians, indeed public figures of most sorts, but not a true master. 

He is contemplating resuming a former job of his, the premiership, after he steps down in March, which could be a launch pad for yet another shot at the presidency in 2012. If he becomes prime minister again, it is clear that that will be the vital post. He will remain in charge, as is so widely wanted in Russia. He has become the touchstone of Russia's new-found self-confidence, indeed of the Russian nation.

He loves foreign affairs and security matters. These could be seconded to him as premier temporarily by special decree. 

Whereat Putin?
But what will he do with his power? 

Alas, he appears bent on translating Russia's oil and gas wealth into a deadly stockpile of weapons. He has the hoariest old idea of how to win respect and recognition as a world power. Have the guns.

The Russian military is once again treating NATO as the glavny provitnik, the primary enemy. It is drawing up plans for a nuclear war. Defence spending has gone up six-fold to 870bn roubles ($34 bn) since 2001 and new missiles are being tested all the time. The new variant of the Topol-M missile has multiple warheads, which splinter so that they cannot be shot out of the sky. The US's latest anti-missile defences will be useless against them. 

It does not occur to Putin, however, that sophisticated nations think in other terms nowadays. There is no doubt that the US has an unassailable lead in assault weaponry. It is also widely detested and despised these days, not least for its dismal president, but also for its crass materialism and abuse of the common environment. The Japanese, for instance, while dependent on the US for their security, still rate Switzerland as the best country on the planet. It has no nuclear weapons (although the best anti-nuclear shelters in the world), it is highly prosperous and ecological, clean and orderly; and it stands on its own, outside the EU, yet is the fittest setting anyone can think of for international organisations, including banks. 

Putin likes to think that he is a cut above his predecessors. He rarely mentions Yeltsin, who created him after all. It would be invidious of him to say disobliging things about his great sponsor. But silence tells all. He clearly regards him as a bungler compared to himself and far too much prepared to kow-tow to the West. The same in spades is what he thinks of Gorbachev. Yet history will probably rank either of them as a greater man than himself, the twin, if bitterly opposed, architects of a mighty upheaval in world affairs. 

Putin is openly scornful of the communists. It is true that he is nostalgic for the days of the USSR. But what he liked about the Soviet Union was its power, not its credo. He is a product of St Petersburg after all, that 'Window on the West.' 
He was in charge of foreign investment under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak in the 1990s, where he became buddies with Silvio Berlusconi, the largest foreign investor in the city and just the sort of rapscallion he likes, a robber baron to his fingertips. He has surrounded himself with like-minded robber boyars.

Putin is a patriot and pragmatist, not an ideologue. He wants for Russia whatever will bring it power. In ancient times he thought that it was communism that could do the job. He realises now that that was a mistake. 

The power in question is not that of dominating other countries, although it might seem to be, but rather that of standing up to the West. The Kremlin is only concerned about its neighbours in so far as they are falling into the hands of above all, the US. The Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 exercised the minds of the Kremlin strategists only in so far as the new developments brought ardently pro-US leaders to power there, Saakashvili, Yushchenko and Bakiyev respectively. In Belarus they have an ardent would-be adjunct to Russia under the leadership of Lukashenka. But they know that the Belarus regime is anathema to the West and, therefore, have no interest in annexing the country themselves. 

Putin's views on Tsarist and Soviet times were made explicit at a recent press conference. Some foreign analysts suggest Putin is a "neo-imperialist". He rejects that totally. In the meeting he took issue with the pan-Slavism of the 19th century when Moscow expected all Slavs to come under the Russian umbrella; as well as with the Leninism of the 20th century. "Lenin said he didn't care about Russia. What was important for him was achieving a world socialist system. The Russian people didn't expect this. They were deceived," Putin said. "Russia today has no intention of repeating the Tsarist experience or what happened in Soviet times ... I hope no missionary ideas get into state policy. We should be true to ourselves, respectful of others, and good partners." 

An anti-Leninist, Putin is also a firm anti-communist who calls the current Russian Communist party "a holdover from the past". Asked about the party's complaints that it gets minimal access to state-controlled television, Putin sneered: "The communists are always complaining. In Soviet times they had a monopoly and it didn't help them to get or keep support." 

Putin's political philosophy reflects the conventional wisdom of the world's globalised elite. "We want to encourage the growth of a middle class. It is the backbone of any society," he said, before launching into a description of Russians becoming property owners, taking out mortgages, and thinking in terms of budgets and planning. 

Putinesque paranoia
The puzzle is why Putin and his colleagues feel the need, given their popularity, for so much more political control than seems necessary, even in terms of their desire not to allow serious democratic competition. They keep parliament weak, and make it hard for new parties to organise or cross the threshold of the 7% of the national vote required to win any seats. They hog the airwaves and manipulate TV. They condone the repression and intimidation - and sometimes the murder - of independent activists. 

Grigory Yavlinsky, of the social democratic party Yabloko, calls it bureaucratic authoritarianism, "in which everything is decided by chance and violence ... everything is conditional". Irina Khakamada, of the Union of Rightwing Forces, describes it as " an instrumental democracy" in which democratic institutions in Russia have no intrinsic value but are only designed to keep a narrow elite in charge. Neither politician expects any early change. Whoever succeeds Putin will follow the same line. 

For outsiders the message is dramatic. Thanks to the independence that he has given Russia, with its new role as an energy superpower, Putin's team exudes a confidence that neither Brezhnev, the last traditional Soviet leader, nor his more democratic successors, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, ever had. 
A century of Western ability to influence Russia's internal development is finally over. That is Putin's main legacy. He has created the foundation for a political and social system that does not require Western fear or favour to survive. He is pursuing a foreign policy that is not dominated by what Washington or indeed Europe expects him to do. Russia is neither competing with the west nor confronting it - nor, at the other extreme, is it desperately trying to join the western club. It prefers its relations with the West to be good rather than bad, but if the West wants a new cold war, Russia will choose either to ignore it or respond in kind. 

The new Cold War?
The present occupant of the White House is oblivious of all this, as he has been of a lot of other things. He is keen to site anti-missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic,
supposedly to keep out North Korean or Iranian missiles, not Russian ones. Tell that to the gendarmes. 

The one thing that matters is that the Bush Administration will be over before serious construction starts. It is to be hoped that whoever succeeds it will have a bit more sense and drop the whole affair.

Putin in Tehran 
As it so happens Putin was in Tehran in mid-October, where the five members of the Caspian Sea Cooperation Organisation were in conference, the littoral states of the inland sea, Russia itself, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan, all with huge energy reserves were there. 

With oil touching $88 per barrel, as the conference opened on October 16th, there is little doubt what was the main topic of discussion. There are still contentious issues to settle about demarcation borders and the like. But they share a desire for amicable resolution of them. The personal relations between the leaders are excellent. Incidentally, llham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and Gurbangulay Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan, each with sole control of their countries oil and gas reserves, are high up in any list of the world's richest men. Putin may not be personally rich but has infinite power - and reach. He will continue to have all the trappings of power whatever he decides he will do next. The fifth leader present, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has temporary elective power, which is necessarily finite. He also has bosses in Iran, the Board of Guardians and beyond them, the Supreme Ayatollah, so his tenure is the most slender. 

It is an interesting fact that these five states have the highest official oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia (269bn barrels), Iraq (now unknown, but historically well over 100bn), Canada (179bn), a little known fact, Kuwait (102bn) and UAE (97bn). Russia's official reserves of 60bn are almost certainly gross-underestimate, BP specialists putting them ahead of the Saudis at 300bn or more. Its reserves of gas are of course by far the world's largest, over 50 trillion cubic metres.

It may be observed that the US has no special relationship with any of these Caspian powers except Azerbaijan, whilst eager to develop ties with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Iran of course is hostile.

But not to Russia. There is still everything to play for in the energy field for the Russians. 

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