The Russian Federation is the successor state of the Soviet Union after its dissolution on 26 December 1991. Post-Soviet Russia has come a long way in the last 25 years. After the decade of Boris Yeltsin’s liberal, but rather chaotic, rule came Vladimir Putin, who returned to a centralized, authoritarian style of governing.
The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was the heart of the Soviet Union. It made up over 50% of the population, and produced 60% of the GDP (gross domestic product), of the Soviet Union. After dissolution of the empire, it was renamed the, “Russian Federation,” becoming the internationally acknowledged successor of the Soviet Union. With the Budapest Memorandum, Russia also retained possession of its nuclear arsenal. The Russian Federation inherited all the rights and obligations, under international treaties, of the old Soviet Union, as well as its debts.
When Boris Yeltsin first became president, he wanted to open Russia to free-market economy, but actually caused a major economic crisis with reforms that were too harsh. The tough times that resulted, lasted almost all through the 1990’s. Russia defaulted again during the 1998 ruble crisis. At the beginning of the new millennium, the economic situation improved greatly, helped by the fact that international oil and gas prices were rising. Vladimir Putin had the privilege of ruling over a growing economy with people witnessing their living standards improve every year. But it all changed with the recession in 2008, the 2014 War in Ukraine, and Western economic sanctions.
The Russian Federation is a presidential constitutional republic. The Constitution was adopted by national referendum in December 1993. It was preceded by a violent conflict between the parliament and the President over power.
The President of Russia is the head of state with very broad powers. He appoints the Prime Minister, who is the head of government, and all the other key ministers in the state. The Russian parliament (Duma) is called the Federal Assembly, and it consists of two houses: The Federation Council, and the State Duma.
The President’s term has been extended from four to six years. He cannot run for a third term. So, having ruled from 2000 to 2008, Vladimir Putin stepped down and gave way to Dmitry Medvedev, who then appointed him the Prime Minister. In 2012 they exchanged places.
The Yeltsin years were characterized by mostly unwilling cooperation with NATO and the United States. All that changed with Putin. He expressed his opposition to the expansion of NATO to its borders, and launched an offensive against Georgia and Ukraine, who had attempted to move away from Russia’s sphere of influence and leaned towards the West.
This placed Russia in relative political isolation, and skyrocketed Putin’s reputation at home as being a leader who stands up to the West.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia became a constitutional republic. Yeltsin’s reign as the first president was, at first, characterized by high hopes of democracy and prosperity. Nevertheless, along with crime, corruption, and poverty on the rise, it turned out to be a disappointment, and a harsh experience for most Russians.
During the final years of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin became one of its most popular statesmen. He gained nearly 60% of the votes at the Presidential election in 1991. Yeltsin expressed his support for freedom of speech and a free-market economy.
Under the supervision of experts from the United States and the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the first Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, launched a series of radical reforms that came to be known as, “… the shock therapy.” Markets were left to self-regulation, prices were freed, and state subsidies were ended. Orchestrated by Anatoly Chubais, an enormous campaign of privatization was launched.
The shock therapy further escalated the economic crisis, and caused an even more dramatic decline in living conditions. Over the next five years, there was a decline of up to 50% in GDP, and hyperinflation soared to 2000%. It made a small elite of oligarchs super-rich, while the majority of the people struggled. It fed the spread of corruption, and created favorable conditions for the numerous mafia groups around the country.
In 1993, the Russian Constitutional Crisis broke out between Yeltsin and parliament. The parliament, unsatisfied with president Yeltsin’s policies, attempted to impeach him, but was prevented by the army who supported Yeltsin. For two weeks, the deadliest street fighting since 1917 took place in Moscow, and around 200 people died. The new constitution gave the president broader powers.
After Chechnya declared independence, Russia sent troops in, and the First Chechen War (1994-96), had begun. Contrary to popular expectation, the conflict lasted over two years, Russia had to withdraw its troops and terminate the unpopular war effort.
In 1996, Yeltsin’s declining reputation was successfully re-boosted for re-election with the help of the oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Roman Abramovich, and others. Yeltsin ran for a second term, and won.
Because of Yeltsin’s severe health problems, much of the President’s power fell into the hands of his inner circle called, “The Family.” Besides Berezovsky, the Family consisted of his wife, Naina, and his daughter, Tatiana Yumasheva, with her husband Valentin. Cabinets came and went. The most important Prime Ministers were Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yevgeny Primakov, and Sergey Stepashin.
In 1998, the Russian financial crisis hit the economy hard, and the ruble was devalued. Exhausted by health problems, Boris Yeltsin resigned on the last day of 1999. He apologized, in his resignation speech, for not having achieved his goals, and named the relatively young, and unknown, Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, his successor.
After Yeltsin’s decade of almost unlimited freedom, but also confusion, Vladimir Putin’s reign is characterized by restricted freedom, state-controlled media, corruption, and his own cult of personality. Putin has revived the wave of Russian nationalism and Soviet nostalgia. Relations with the West are getting even more complicated.
At the end of the 1980’s, Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer in East Berlin where he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet system. Some time later he worked for the mayor of Leningrad (that had again been renamed Saint Petersburg), Anatoly Sobchak, and also in the Kremlin as the presidential property manager. Putin thereafter forged a career at the FSB, whose director he was from 1998 – 99. The Yeltsin family, who were looking for a successor to Boris Yeltsin, found Putin reliable, and he was chosen as Yeltsin’s successor.
In August 1999, Yeltsin introduced the new Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, to the public. The move took the world by surprise. Yeltsin himself resigned on 31 December 1999.
Less than four weeks later, Putin’s effective measures in dealing with the controversial apartment bombings in Moscow brought him fame. He immediately accused the Chechens, and effectively launched the Second Chechen War (1999–2009), that was victorious, and won the presidential election for him in 2000.
But he also had to deal with the aftermath of the war in the form of Chechen terrorist attacks. In 2002, the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, and then in 2004, the Beslan school siege, were poorly handled by the authorities, and caused hundreds of civilians to die.
The rule of Vladimir Putin saw the return of people from the security services and with military backgrounds (siloviki). Putin asserted Kremlin control over regions, increased military spending, suppressed political opposition, confiscated the wealth of the oligarchs, and exerted control over the media.
Numerous murders of journalists and opposition leaders have occurred, that allegedly can be traced back to the FSB and the mafia; the two, allegedly, having many ties.
After his second term ended in 2008, Putin had to step down. He appointed his loyal minister, Dmitry Medvedev, as President, and survived the Great Recession as Prime Minister, often also criticizing the new President. In 2012, they exchanged places again.
Since the beginning of his third term in 2012, Putin has increasingly exerted economic, political, and military pressure on Russia’s neighbors, especially in the post-Soviet space. Putin’s main goal, is to block the influence of NATO and the United States, and to restore and maintain buffer zones by exerting Russian influence.
Since the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, Putin has again used military intervention as a means to serve this purpose. It is becoming more and more complex with hybrid warfare tactics, combining elements of irregular warfare and cyber warfare.
In February 2014, Putin launched an extensive campaign against Ukraine. He annexed Crimea in March 2014. Thereafter, the lasting conflict in Ukraine has poisoned relations between Russia and the West. From 2015 Russia has also militarily participated in the Syrian Civil War.