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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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)

Books on Russia


Update No: 356  (23/08/10)

The cursed August cometh
It is a journalistic ritual or cliché if you prefer that August is a slack month when nothing ever happens.
Well, well.

In late August 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was created, leading straight to the Second World War. In mid-August 1991, the USSR itself collapsed no less.

What has happened subsequently?
Russia’s August curse has struck again. This same month witnessed the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000, terrorist bombs on aircraft in 2004, another submarine incident in 2005, the 2008 Georgian conflict and an explosion at a hydroelectric plant last year.

Forest wildfires blazed across Western Russia this August, levelling homes and villages and leaving Moscow, the capital, swathed in acrid smog. Moscow health authorities announced that the number of deaths each day in the capital had nearly doubled to 700 as most of central Russia entered the seventh week of a heat wave. The high temperatures, hovering around 100 degrees, have destroyed 30% of the nation's grain crops and triggered massive peat bog and forest fires that alone have killed an untold number of people and devastated dozens of villages.
Andrei Seltsovsky, chief of Moscow's health department, said the city's morgues were filled almost to capacity, with 1,300 of the 1,500 slots taken. He suggested that residents, instead of following Russian Orthodox tradition of holding burials on the third day after death, bury loved ones sooner. "We have no right to insist, as it is a sacred thing," Seltsovsky said at a news conference.

The comments illustrate the mounting public anger at the authorities’ struggle to slow the spread of wildfires that have scorched thousands of hectares of forest, with innumerable human casualties.

A frail state
But apart from the date, another common thread links many of these events: Russia’s repeated inability to protect its citizens from disasters both natural and man-made.

With a certain irony, the fires have peaked just before the 10th anniversary of the Kursk disaster – the formative event of Vladimir Putin’s first year as Russian president. Then, an explosion aboard the pride of Russia’s Northern Fleet sent the Kursk submarine to the bottom of the Barents Sea and led to the death of the 118 seamen trapped on board. Putin was shocked by what the tragedy revealed about the degradation of the once mighty military since the Soviet collapse.

He was bruised, too, by encounters with angry families of the dead submariners, widely covered by television channels that criticised the president’s fumbling response. He did not go immediately to the disaster zone, as Yeltsin certainly would have done.

He is of course by comparison a cold fish. But in a TV interview days later, after being duly briefed to that effect, Putin vowed that “together, we will restore both the army, and the navy, and the country.”

Ten years on
Russia is now in many ways a different country. Soaring energy revenues have transformed it from a $160bn to a trillion dollar-plus economy. Average wages have jumped 10-fold.

Mr Putin, now prime minister, has also established control over TV channels and his own “good tsar” image. This time round he was on the spot: he seemed everywhere at once, picking his way through smoking embers, upbraiding officials, promising to rebuild burnt-out homes before winter.

Yet, below the surface the fires show much has not changed. Russia still suffers from flawed governance, an often slapdash approach to safety and a dilapidated infrastructure.

“The fact the death toll is much higher than in other countries where such fires occur . . . shows the system of management is absolutely dysfunctional,” said Nikolay Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank.

Mr Putin attempted to counter the criticism. He personally responded to the Tver blogger’s post, forwarded to him by a Moscow radio station, arguing the drought was Russia’s worst for 140 years and that such conditions would have stretched European countries or the US.

“All necessary financial resources to overcome the consequences of this natural disaster have already been sent from the federal budget to the affected regions,” Mr Putin said.

Regional leaders, too, say they have done everything possible. “We are not talking about ordinary fires ... every day the situation gets worse with the heat,” said Valery Shantsev, governor of Nizhny Novgorod region 400km east of Moscow, surveying charred villages from a helicopter.

However, environmentalists say the fires were worse than they should have been because of Kremlin-sponsored reforms. A new Forest Code in 2006 dismantled a federal forest safety system and transferred responsibility to regional authorities and forest tenants such as logging companies, which have performed badly.

Mr Petrov said the “super-centralised” political and fiscal system put in place under Mr Putin meant resources to tackle the crisis had reached the regions too slowly, and that communication was far too slow.

If the regions, why not the capital itself?
There is a massive struggle between the centre and the regions in Russia. Putin, with his naturally totalitarian instincts, favours and does his utmost to promote centralisation.

But of course this means to himself, in charge of the state, whether as president or premier. It most certainly does not mean to the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzkhov. Indeed, having seen off or subordinated all rivals on the national stage, whom else does he have to fear?

With all but one of the heavyweight regional heads out of the way, the Kremlin crosshairs are hovering over the figure of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov as the last scalp to get. He is conservatively worth, $32bn, the richest man in Russia, possibly the world. Putin might well say of him, as Macbeth did of Banquo, 'There is none but he whose being I do fear; and under him my genius is rebuked, as it is said Mark Antony's was by Caesar.'

Well, the net is closing
In mid-August the Kremlin oversaw the rapid appointment of Rustem Khamitov to the Bashkortostan Republic regional presidency, only four days after it finally managed to oust the long-serving, now ex-President Murtaza Rakhimov. The Moscow authorities capitalized on the summer lull to replace Rakhimov, an ethnic Bashkir who has weathered Kremlin attempts to oust him, by relying on nationalist support. With the appointment of Khamitov, Moscow secures itself a more reliable, “technocratic” Bashkortostan governor, ahead of the Russian regional parliament elections scheduled for October 2011.

On August 5th 76-year-old Murtaza Rakhimov, one of the last of the old guard of regional heads appointed by Boris Yeltsin, stepped down from the presidency of Bashkortostan after 17 years in office. By the next day he had already been formally succeeded.

President Dmitry Medvedev accepted Rakhimov’s resignation immediately, appointed Rustem Khamitov acting president the next day, and on August 7th nominated Khamitov from a list of four candidates presented to him by the United Russia ruling party.

At an extraordinary session of the regional Parliament in Ufa, Bashkortostan’s capital, Khamitov received 105 out of the 120 seats in the Parliament dominated by United Russia, and officially succeeded Rakhimov who had governed since 1993.

The resignation (or brokered dismissal) marks another in a long line of battles fought by the Kremlin to replace Boris Yeltsin-appointed regional heavyweights with more pliant leaders.

This process has intensified since legislation was passed under now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, allowing the federal centre to directly nominate successors.

But what makes the Bashkortostan turnaround a “unique case” is the speed with which he was replaced, said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Rakhimov arrived in Moscow – evidently to negotiate his exit from power – and a week later he had already been formally succeeded. As part of the deal, Rakhimov walks away on a pension of nine million rubles ($295,000) a year, and has been granted personal and financial immunity, the Vedomosti business daily reported.
“They wanted to replace him a lot earlier, but the process was just not that simple,” said Sergei Mikheev, the vice president of the Сenter for Political Technologies. Petrov believes that the unusually quick power turnaround showed that the Kremlin had executed a “special operation” to finally oust the regional powerhouse. As an ethnic Bashkir, Rakhimov was able to resist the Kremlin’s attempts to replace him since 2003, by currying nationalist Bashkir sentiment. The reason the Kremlin chose the height of summer was to stop him from playing the “nationalist card,” because it is harder to recruit the “nationalist youth” groups in the middle of summer, said Petrov. “The way that this [transfer of power] was organized shows that the Kremlin was afraid of nationalistic protests.”

Replacing Rakhimov with another so-called “technocrat” will therefore give Moscow extra room to breathe. “What the Kremlin needs are people who are going to govern the region, and that is all, rather than people challenging the structure of the federal system,” said Mikheev. The newly appointed president Khamitov was chosen over regional Parliament Deputy Rudik Iskuzhin, the head of the local national bank Rustem Mardanov and Ufa City Mayor Pavel Kachkayev.

“The new leader of Bashkortostan was carefully chosen,” said Petrov. Khamitov is half Bashkir, half Tatar and is married to a Russian, and as such represents the three ethnic groups which dominate the complex ethnic make-up of Bashkortostan. Overall Khamitov is seen as a “Moscow-Bashkirian,” said Petrov. Although Khamitov has a background in Bashkortostan politics, since 2003 he worked in the Supreme Council based in Moscow, before latterly managing Russia’s state-owned hydroelectric power company RusHydro.

Khamitov’s first action as regional head was to dissolve the regional Parliament that had just approved him. He said that a new Parliament would be formed within two weeks, RIA Novosti reported. Mikheev said that Moscow would be relieved to have brought in Khamitov, who, unlike his predecessor, is “not a public politician” and not likely to “play adversary to the centre.”

Regional parliamentary elections are currently slated for October 2011, but the Speaker of Parliament and United Russia Head Boris Gryzlov suggested that the regional elections might be postponed until December, to coincide with the State Duma elections.

Nonetheless, Petrov said it had been crucial for the Kremlin to oust Rakhimov by the end of summer. “The time period when it is possible to replace influential regional leaders without destabilizing the situation on the eve of elections is now coming to an end,” said Petrov.

The regional power shuffle will also give another lease of life to the "Yuri Luzhkov's days are numbered" rumour mill. The Moscow mayor is now the very last of the old guard of regional bosses, and he is up for re-election next year when his fourth term expires. “You hear these rumours every year. Every year it’s ‘this year Luzhkov is definitely out.’ And he never is. Nonetheless, it’s clear that his political career is coming to an end. In the very best case, he’s got a couple of years,” said Mikheev.

Luzhkov’s term is set to run out in summer of next year. Petrov is sceptical that Luzhkov has long. “My bet is that he will be replaced before early fall. I’ll be surprised if he lasts till the end of the year,” said Petrov. Asked in mid-August whether he would seek to run again, the Moscow mayor cut a dejected figure.

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