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31 Dec, 2009 12:12

Russia 10 years after Yeltsin: results

At the end of 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin resigned, leaving Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting President. 10 years on, where is Russia now?

For Russia, the end of 1999 was gloomy – with terror attacks, conflict in Chechnya and continuing aftershocks from the 1998 financial crisis.

The final days of 1999 filled Russians with anticipation of technical glitches, but resulted in a major power switch. As the chimes struck midnight, the Kremlin changed as if with a wave of a magic wand. President Yeltsin announced his resignation.

While at the time some compared Russia’s political transformation to the Cinderella plot, Russia’s outgoing president was anything but Fairy Godfather. Widely criticized for his inability to stem both economic decline and his own alcohol addiction, Boris Yeltsin was more of a king who could not leave the palace without appointing a successor. And his choice stood the test of time.


Vladimir Putin inherited a country where mothers dreaded sending their sons to the army. The conflict in Chechnya had already claimed thousands of lives, turning a once prosperous region into smoking ruins. A decade later, the Chechen capital is one of the most modern cities in Russia, where it is high heels that are now more common than combat boots. The only reminder of the bloodshed is the shortage of available grooms.

”There are so many beautiful girls in Grozny and all they want is to get married,” said a Chechen resident, Lyubov. “The competition is high, especially because the number of eligible men has decreased.”

But even with the end of combat in Chechnya, the death toll continued to rise. The past decade was scarred by terror attacks, most of them linked to Chechen terrorists. From the Moscow theater siege to plane bombings – some 800 people lost their lives because of terrorists.

But no other tragedy gripped hearts more tightly than the siege of school Number One in Beslan.

Time has not dried the tears of many mothers who lost their children in early September 2004. Rather, it has turned their grief into boiling anger.

Five years on after Natasha Salamova’s daughter died in Beslan, she still blames the authorities for the loss.

”How did these beasts get to the school? Where did they get their weapons? Why did nobody stand in their way? And who is responsible for creating this cemetery?” she said.

While three policemen were the only officials charged with negligence in the aftermath of the attack, the country itself underwent large administrative changes. Direct regional elections were abolished, kicking up a process that the Kremlin called “reinforcement of power vertical”.

“After the Belsan tragedy, Vladimir Putin introduced long-overdue administrative changes without too much pain for society. And those changes were necessary because, by that time, some regions had become so independent – I would even say feudal – that they could undermine the integrity of the entire federation,” said Aleksey Mukhin of the Center of Political Information.

While assessment of Russia’s political makeover is still a matter of debate, economic changes were more clear-cut. A decade ago, Russia was struggling to pay its debt and was barely able to meet its social obligations. Now the country is a major international donor and its social spending has increased dozens of times. In the meantime, the price of oil rose more than fivefold.

”Russia’s ability to pay back its 1990s debts was in large degree due to rising oil prices. But the devil is in the details. The reason why Western countries were so generous in lending to Russia was because they hoped to get a share of Russia’s hydrocarbons. So when they got back just money, they weren’t happy. That is why Putin is so often disliked in the West,” Mukhin continued.

Into the future

After the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, came to power, many expected him to be the guarantor of a better life.

Medvedev’s honeymoon in office did not last long. The global financial crisis was already gathering steam when Russia was drawn into its first international conflict in two decades.

The war in South Ossetia tested not only the country’s armed forces, but also its political stamina. For almost a year after the confrontation with Georgia, Russia’s contacts with the West remained frozen – only to get back to “business as usual” in 2009.

“I would like to stress the timing of when the war was launched. It happened when neither President Medvedev nor Prime Minister Putin were in Moscow,” said an independent political analyst, Vladimir Kozin. ”Medvedev was at a business trip in the Russian regions and Putin was in Beijing – with our athletes at the Olympic Games. There have been numerous attempts to keep check on Russian influence in the post-Soviet space, and I'm sure there will always be.”

Despite the many challenges that the passing year posed, on New Year’s Eve, most Russians will have more food on their tables than they had a decade ago. However, their expectations will also be higher – something that the country’s president will have to live up to.

While politicians still argue about gains and losses of the last decade, most agree that, if anything, it has given Russia a chance to pause, count to ten and regain its composure.