Troubled Times – political, economic and social problems in Russia

Political Uncertainty, A Collapsing Economy, and A Bloody Revolt Plague Russia

MOSCOW, Russia–Thud! The sound of another Russian prime minister hitting the dust could be heard all over Russia last month.

On August 9, in a surprise move, Russian president Boris Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin after less than three months on the job. Stepashin became the third Prime Minister fired by Yeltsin since March 1998. Yeltsin replaced Stepashin with Vladimir Putin, 46, a man little known outside Russia.

War in Dagestan

Putin had a huge job ahead of him. His most immediate task was to put down a rebellion in Dagestan, an oil-rich Russian republic (similar to a U.S. state) 800 miles south of Moscow.


Fighting had broken out in the republic on August 7, when Muslim rebels crossed from Chechnya into Dagestan and seized several villages. The rebels vowed to separate Dagestan from Russia and make it an independent nation.

In Chechnya, also a Russian republic, rebels had fought Russian troops between 1994 and 1996. The Russians were unable to defeat the Chechen rebels, and today the rebels run the republic, although the Russian government has not recognized Chechnya’s independence.

Yeltsin and Putin vowed not to let what happened in Chechnya happen in Dagestan. As CE went to press, Russian jets and helicopter gunships were battling rebels held up in the mountains of Dagestan.

A Host of Problems

Even if the new prime minister is able to end the rebellion in Dagestan, he still faces severe problems in other areas. Troubled times have indeed come to Russia.

* Collapsing Economy. The Russian economy is in dire straits. As much as 25 percent of all Russian workers are unemployed, and, in the last two years alone, the number of Russians living in poverty has jumped from 33 million to 55 million out of a nation of 147 million people.

* Social Problems. Social problems borne of economic collapse threaten to overwhelm the Russian people. Russia’s homicide rate and suicide rate are now triple those of the United States. Alcoholism and depression, spurred by economic hardship, have hurt the health of millions of Russians, particularly men. Between 1980 and 1995, the life expectancy of Russian men dropped from 62 years to 58 years, one of the lowest in the world. The life expectancy of men in the United States is 72.9 years.

Today, many Russians simply don’t believe their political leaders can solve the country’s problems.

“What can we do?” asked Sergei Kastanov, an unemployed worker. “We’re cursed with bad leaders … and bad fate.”

What happened?

Not long ago, Russians were proud of their country. What happened?

The answer lies in recent Russian history. From 1922 to 1991, Russia was part of the Soviet Union, a communist country in which all economic decisions–from the price of bread to the wages of workers–were decided by the government. The communist economy never gave the people of the Soviet Union a high standard of living, but it did turn the country into a military superpower that challenged the United States around the world during the Cold War (1948-1989).

Since the fall of communism in Russia in 1991, President Yeltsin and his supporters have given the Russian people freedoms they did not have under Communist rule. Russians are now able to openly criticize their government No one lives in fear of the secret police.

But Russia, free to get rich, instead got poorer–much poorer.

Communist Comeback?

Widespread discontent has contributed to a Communist party comeback. The Communists now form the second largest political party in Russia. Many experts believe that Russian voters may once again put the Communists in power, bringing up fears that Russia will return to the “bad old days” of the Cold War.

Others believe that Russians, however angry they are over the country’s mess, would never give up the democratic freedoms they now cherish.

In any case, the answer will come in December’s parliamentary elections and in July’s presidential elections in which a successor to Yeltsin will be chosen.

Consider This … If Americans, like Russians, were undergoing severe hardships, what do you think their attitude would be toward the government? Would Americans call for a dictatorship? Why? Why not?

COPYRIGHT 1999 Weekly Reader Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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