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, Paris, November 2007

Russia Country Profile

Russian Federation is one of the fifteen states born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus not the only legitimate successor.

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Russian Federation is one of the fifteen states born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus not the only legitimate successor – albeit Russia inherited from USSR the seat on the security council of the UN. Russia is the largest country in the world. The Russian Federation is home to as many as 160 different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples.As of the 2002 Russian census, 79.8% of the population is ethnically Russian, 3.8% Tatar, 2% Ukrainian, 1.2% Bashkir, 1.1% Chuvash, 0.9% Chechen, 0.8% Armenian, and 10.3% other or unspecified. Accordingly, Russian administrative division is charachterised by 47 oblasts, 21 republics, 6 autonomous okrugs, 8 krays, 2 federal cities and 1 autonomous oblast.

Recent history

Russian history after the break-up of the Soviet Union has been a dramatic one, chacterised by one of the most impressive economic depression in history, culminated with the financial crisis of 1998. In August 1991 a group of hard-core Communist tried to stop the reforms started by Gorbachev but only had the results to decree the end of the Soviet Union and the the creation of the Russian Federation. Political transition has been very complicated, as Yeltsin’s government never gained the favour of the population. Political contrasts became open civil war in October 1993 when troops loyal to the President bombed the Parliament which was governed by the opposition. Yet, since then Russia regularly held formally regular elections.

Social and economic situation has improved under Putin’s presidency, albeit democracy seemingly regressed. Russia is supposedly a semi-presidential system, yet it can be defined an ultra-presidential system under which the president has enormous powers, can dissolve the parliament and can rule by decree. The government responds directly to the President and not to the parliament (Duma).


The Checen situation

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced two open conflicts, both against the small republic of Chechnya. In 1991, an independence movement, initially known as the Chechen National Congress was formed. This movement was ultimately opposed by Boris Yeltsin’s Russian Federation, which argued, first, that Chechnya had not been an independent entity within the Soviet Union—as the Baltic, Central Asian, and other Caucasian States had—but was a part of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic and hence did not have a right under the Soviet constitution to secede; second, that other republics of Russia, such as Tatarstan, would join the Chechens and secede from the Russian Federation if they were granted that right; and third, that Chechnya was at a major chokepoint in the oil infrastructure of the country and hence would hurt the country’s economy and control of oil resources.

Hence, in 1994 Yeltsin ordered the invasion of the small republic and the first Chechen war begun. Despite overwhelming manpower, weaponry and air support, the Russian forces were unable to establish effective control over the mountainous area due to many successful Chechen guerrilla raids. Widespread demoralization of the Russian forces in the area prompted Russian President Boris Yeltsin to declare a ceasefire in 1996 and sign a peace treaty a year later. The war was disastrous for both sides. Conservative casualty estimates give figures of 7,500 Russian military dead, 4,000 Chechen combatants dead, and no fewer than 35,000 civilian deaths—a minimum total of 46,500 dead. Others have cited figures in the range 80,000 to 100,000. However, the first Chechen war did not attract wide opposition from Western governments since Yeltsin was a solid ally of US and his survival was vital to keep a friendly Russia.

In August 1999, Shamil Basayev began an unsuccessful incursion into the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan. In September the following year a series of apartment bombings took place in several Russian cities, including Moscow. Several doubts have been raised about the effective responsibility of the terrorist attacks, as Chechen leaders always denied their responsibility. However, in response, a ground offensive began in October 1999. Much better organised and planned than the first Chechen War, the Russian Federal forces were able to quickly re-establish control over most regions and after the re-capture of Grozny in February 2000, the regime fell apart, although a prolonged guerrilla activity in the southern mountainous regions continues, despite becoming increasingly sporadic. Nonetheless Russia was successful in installing a pro-Moscow Chechen regime, and eliminating the most prominent separatist leaders including former President Aslan Maskhadov and terrorist leader Shamil Basayev.

Yet, still nowadays the guerrilla movement and the terrorist attacks has not ceased. Among the most famous events, we can recall the 2002 Nord-Ost siege – in which 850 were taken in hostage in a theathre in Moscow that was liberated by special forces at the cost of more than 300 victims and the Beslan hostage crisis – in which a group of armed Chechen separatists and supporters took more than 1,200 schoolchildren and adults hostage on September 1, 2004, at School Number One (SNO) in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia-Alania. When the special forces attacked 334 civilians were killed,including 186 children and hundreds more were wounded.

Other issues

Since Putin elections in 1999 Russian relations with the West and with some of its neighbour has worringly worsened. Indeed, present relations with the United States can be described as a return to Cold War framework. United States accuses Russia of not respecting human rights and to have step back from democratic transition. Some of the accuses have certainly a firm basis. Opposition demonstrations have been forcefully suppressed and Russian troops in Checnya have violently repressed the anti-Russian groups. However, USA accuses look often instrumental. Putin is supported by a vast majority and has a better democratic record than Yeltsin, who bombed the Parliament in 1993 and threatened to call off the elections in 1996. Russians felt humilated by the transition that they think was imposed by Western insitutions and Putin is backing nationalist propaganda which is often anti-Western. USA decision to install anti-missile defence in the former countries of Warsaw Pact has worsened the situation.

The new fracture between Russia and the West explains also Russia tense relation with some of its neighbour, particularly Georgia and Ukraine. In both countries a pro-western bloc launched “democratic revolutions” in the last years and their victory signalled the beginning of problematic relations with Russia that supported other candidates. In particular, to Ukraine and Georgia’ statement in favour of joining Nato, Russia has responded by threatening to cut gas provision and rasing the price of gas itself. Political situation in the two countries is still very complex, especially in Ukraine where no parties can claim a clear majority and where institutional crisis is particularly deep.