Country profile: Russia(bbcnews)

Country profile: Russia

map of Russia

Russia is once again flexing its muscles as an international power, after the decade of economic pain and political instability that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A new political order is in place and the economy has recovered and grown since the collapse of 1998, fuelled by income from Russia’s vast natural resources, not least in oil and gas. The state-run gas monopoly Gazprom is the world’s largest producer and exporter, and supplies a growing share of Europe’s needs.

Spanning 10 time zones, Russia is the largest country on earth in terms of surface area, although large tracts in the north and east are inhospitable and sparsely populated.

Overview

The country impresses with its diversity and size. This vast Eurasian land mass covers more than 17m sq km, with a climate ranging from the Arctic north to the generally temperate south.

Victory Day parade, Red Square, Moscow 2007

The annual Victory Day parade marks the end of World War II

In the privatisation years of the 1990s Russia provided entrepreneurs with the potential for rich pickings. A small number of them, often referred to as oligarchs, acquired vast interests in the energy and media sectors.

Some analysts believed that the then president, Boris Yeltsin, allowed their influence to extend too far into the political field but President Putin soon made it clear that there was no question of that with him in charge.

Some oligarchs found themselves facing criminal investigation and one or two household names felt it necessary to leave Russia.

One of them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil company, is now serving eight years in a Siberian penal colony having been convicted on tax and fraud charges.

He had not confined his activities to business but had let his support for liberal politics be known. Yukos’s assets were later acquired by the state owned oil giant, Rosneft.

Russia’s economic power lies in its key natural resources – oil and gas. Gazprom is controversially close to the Russian state and critics say it is little more than an economic and political tool of the Kremlin.

Russia cut gas to Ukraine in 2006 after a row between the two countries, which affected supply to Western Europe. Two years later Gazprom threatened to cut gas supplies to Ukraine by 25% over unpaid debts, renewing critics’ concerns. A settlement was eventually reached between the two sides.

Chechnya and the West

While Russians make up more than 80% of the population and Orthodox Christianity is the main religion, there are many other ethnic and religious groups. Muslims are concentrated among the Volga Tatars and the Bashkirs and in the North Caucasus.

Winter Palace, part of State Hermitage, St Petersburg

St Petersburg’s State Hermitage houses a vast art collection

Chechnya remains prominent in the headlines. Many thousands have died since Russian troops were first sent in to put down a separatist rebellion in 1994 and guerrilla fighters continue to mount attacks. However, the Kremlin faced less criticism from the West over its actions in Chechnya in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the US.

Since then, Moscow has presented its war against Chechen separatism as part of the global war against international terrorism. It insists that its hard-line policies there are working and that peace is returning.

This has frequently been called into question as violence flares with tragic regularity across Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus.

Russia’s support for the US-led campaign against international terrorism also had an impact on relations with Nato. The two sides agreed in 2002 to set up the Nato-Russia Council, giving Russia a say in counter-terrorism policies.

Nevertheless, Russia firmly opposed the US-led military action against Iraq in 2003, insisting that UN weapons inspectors be given as much time as they needed to do their work.

Despite US concerns, Moscow agreed in 2005 to supply fuel for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor. Amid global concern over Iran’s nuclear programme, Russia opposed sanctions and only backed a UN resolution imposing them after the proposals had been watered down.

It has consistently shown that its desire to build new international relationships will not deter it from going its own way on key issues.

A US plan to develop an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe has angered Russia, which has said it may respond by pointing its missiles at the defence shield installations.

Facts

  • Full name: Russian Federation
  • Population: 142.5 million (UN, 2007)
  • Capital: Moscow
  • Area: 17 million sq km (6.6 million sq miles)
  • Major language: Russian
  • Major religions: Christianity, Islam
  • Life expectancy: 59 years (men), 73 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 rouble = 100 kopecks
  • Main exports: Oil and oil products, natural gas, wood and wood products, metals, chemicals, weapons and military equipment
  • GNI per capita: US $4,460 (World Bank, 2006)
  • Internet domain: .ru
  • International dialling code: +7

Leaders

President: Dmitry Medvedev

Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as president in May 2008, taking office as Russia’s third president since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

President Dmitry Medvedev

President Dmitry Medvedev

The chosen successor of former president Vladimir Putin, Mr Medvedev won just over 70% of the vote in presidential elections held in March.

He conducted a fairly low-key campaign, but received generous media coverage and was always the clear favourite to win.

As his victory became clear he said that he hoped to work with Mr Putin as his prime minister to improve the quality of life for Russians.

He also said there would be little change in Russia’s foreign policy.

Dmitriy Medvedev is 42 and has been associated with Vladimir Putin since the early 1990s when they were both involved in politics in St Petersburg.

Mr Medvedev is a lawyer by training and headed up Mr Putin’s presidential election campaign in 2000.

He subsequently worked as chairman of Gazprom and as first deputy prime minister in charge of social programmes.

Prime Minister: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Former president Vladimir Putin was confirmed as Russia’s new prime minister on 8 May 2008, one day after his protege Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as president.

Mr Putin’s unprecedented move from the Kremlin to the premiership completed a carefully staged transition which will ensure he remains at the heart of power.

Russian president

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

As prime minister, he has promised to curb inflation, cut taxes and boost social spending. Mr Medvedev has said his political mentor will play a « key role » in shaping the country’s development over the next decade.

Mr Putin was barred by the constitution from running for a third presidential term in the elections of March 2008.

He was elected to a second term as Russian president by a landslide in March 2004 with around 70% of the vote. His nearest rival, the Communist candidate, mustered 14%.

Vladimir Putin, who was born in St Petersburg in 1952, started his career in the ranks of the KGB. From 1990 he worked in the St Petersburg administration, before moving to Moscow in 1996. By August 1999 he was prime minister.

He was named acting president by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who introduced him as the man who could « unite around himself those who will revive Great Russia ».

He went on to win presidential elections in May 2000, having gained widespread popularity for his pledge to take a tough line against Chechen rebels.

Media

Russian TV broadcasting is dominated by channels that are either run directly by the state or owned by companies with close links to the Kremlin. The government controls Channel One and Russia TV – two of the three main federal channels – while state-controlled energy giant Gazprom owns NTV. Critics say independent reporting has suffered as a result.

Russian press logos

For most Russians, television, especially via the national networks, is the main source of domestic and international news.

The broadcasting market is very competitive; state-owned or influenced TV networks attract the biggest audiences. Hundreds of radio stations crowd the dial; state-run networks compete with music-based commercial FM stations.

An English-language satellite channel, Russia Today, was launched in late 2005. The news-based station is funded by the Kremlin and aims to present « global news from a Russian perspective ».

There are more than 400 daily newspapers, catering for every taste and persuasion. The major nationals are based in Moscow, but many readers in the regions prefer to take local papers. Several influential dailies have been bought by companies with close links to the Kremlin.

The conflict in Chechnya has been blamed for government attacks on press freedom. Journalists have been killed in Chechnya while others have disappeared or have been abducted.

Supporters of independence of Russia's NTV, April 2001, Moscow

The Kremlin gained control of mould-breaking NTV in 2001

In Moscow and elsewhere journalists have been harassed or physically abused. Reporters investigating the affairs of the political and corporate elite are said to be particularly at risk.

Media rights organisation Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern at « the absence of pluralism in news and information, an intensifying crackdown against journalists… and the drastic state of press freedom in Chechnya ».

Around 30 million Russians use the internet (Internet World Stats, 2007).

The press

Television

  • Russia TV Channel – national network, run by state-owned Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK)
  • Channel One – national network, 51% owned by state, 49% by private shareholders
  • NTV – national network, owned by state-run Gazprom
  • Centre TV – owned by Moscow city government
  • Ren TV – Moscow-based commercial station with strong regional network
  • Russia Today – state-funded, international English-language news channel, via satellite

Radio

  • Radio Russia – national network run by state-owned Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK)
  • Ekho Moskvy – editorially-independent station, majority owned by state-run Gazprom
  • Radio Mayak – state-run national network
  • Russkoye Radio – major private network, music-based
  • Voice of Russia – state-run external service, broadcasts in English and other languages

News agencies

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