Russia: Post-Soviet Russia

Post-Soviet Russia

After more than seven decades of Soviet rule, the regime of President Gorbachev marked the end of repressive political controls and permitted nationalist movements to arise in the constituent republics of the USSR. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin and other nationalists and reformers were elected to the Russian parliament; Yeltsin was subsequently chosen Russian president. Under Yeltsin, Russia declared its sovereignty (but not its independence) and began to challenge the central government's authority. In 1991, Yeltsin was reelected in the first popular election for president in the history of the Russian Republic.

Yeltsin and the leaders of eight other republics reached a power-sharing agreement with Gorbachev, but its imminent signing provoked a coup attempt (Aug., 1991) by Soviet hard-liners. In the aftermath, the USSR disintegrated. With Ukraine and Belarus, Russia established the Commonwealth of Independent States. When Gorbachev resigned (Dec., 1991), Yeltsin had already taken control of most of the central government, and Russia assumed the USSR's UN seat.

Yeltsin moved rapidly to end or reduce state control of the economy, but control of parliament by former Communists led to conflicts and power struggles. On Sept. 21, 1993, Yeltsin suspended the parliament and called for new elections. Parliament retaliated by naming Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi as acting president, and anti-Yeltsin forces barricaded themselves inside the parliament building. On Oct. 3, supporters of the anti-Yeltsin group broke through a security cordon to join the occupation, and also attacked other sites in the capital. The military interceded on Yeltsin's side, and on Oct. 4, after a bloody battle, troops recaptured the parliament building. Many people were jailed, and the parliament was dissolved.

In Dec., 1993, voters approved a new constitution that strengthened presidential power, establishing a mixed presidential-parliamentary system similar to that of France. In legislative elections at the same time, Yeltsin supporters fell short of a majority, as voters also supported ultranationalists, radical reformers, Communists, and others. The Russian government, under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, generally advocated moderate reform. The program made slow but discernible progress in stimulating growth and halting rampant inflation, but the economy continued to suffer from serious malfunctions, including a weak banking system and widespread corruption. Corruption has since worsened and become more pervasive.

In Feb., 1994, parliament granted amnesty to persons implicated in the Aug., 1991, coup attempt and the Oct., 1993, rebellion. In the Dec., 1995, legislative elections the Communist party won the largest share of the vote (22%) and more than a third of the seats in the State Duma. The results were a new rebuff to Yeltsin and his government, and he subsequently replaced the more liberal ministers in the government with pragmatists and conservatives. Although his popularity had significantly diminished since he was first elected president, he ran again in June, 1996. He finished ahead of his chief rival, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, in the first round and was reelected after a runoff in July. Ministerial replacements continued, and in Mar., 1998, Yeltsin dismissed his entire cabinet, hiring a new group of economic reformers and naming Sergei Kiriyenko as prime minister. By August he had dismissed many of his top aides and attempted to reinstate Chernomyrdin as prime minister. The nomination was rejected by parliament, however, and Yevgeny Primakov, a compromise candidate agreeable to reformers and Communists, became the prime minister in September; two Communists became ministers in the government.

Primakov acted as a stabilizing influence, avoiding economic disaster in the wake of Russia's Aug., 1998, financial crisis, but his increasing popularity and his public support for the Communists in his government even as their party was mounting an impeachment of Yeltsin in the Duma led to his firing in May, 1999. Yeltsin appointed Sergei Stepashin as prime minister, and the impeachment failed to win the necessary votes. A sense of political crisis returned in August when Islamic militants from Chechnya invaded Dagestan (see below), and Yeltsin replaced Stepashin with Vladimir Putin. After a series of terrorist bombings in Moscow and elsewhere that were blamed on Chechen militants, Putin launched an invasion of Chechnya. That action bolstered his popularity, as did a slight upturn in the economy due to rising prices for oil, Russia's most important export (industrial output continued to contract). Although with slightly less than a quarter of the vote the Communist party remained the single largest vote-getter in the Dec., 1999, parliamentary elections, center-right parties allied with Putin won nearly a third, and the vote was regarded as a mandate for Putin. On Dec. 31, Yeltsin resigned as president, and Putin became acting president.

One of Putin's first acts was to form an alliance with the Communists in the Duma; together his supporters (the Unity bloc) and the Communists held about 40% of the seats. In the elections of Mar., 2000, Putin bested ten other candidates to win election as Russia's president. Putin introduced several measures designed to increase central government control over the various Russian administrative units, including grouping them in seven large regional districts, ending the right of the units' executives to serve in the Federation Council, and suspending a number of laws that conflicted with federal law. He also won the authority to remove governors and dissolve legislatures that enact laws that conflict with the national constitution. Mikhail M. Kasyanov, a liberal, was appointed prime minister, and a broad plan for liberal economic reforms was enacted. The alliance with the Communists lasted until 2002, when Unity, which had earlier absorbed the populist Fatherland bloc, was strong enough to control the Duma alone.

Putin secured parliamentary ratification of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and the SALT II treaty (see disarmament, nuclear), and actively opposed modifying the ABM treaty so that the United States could build a larger missile defense system than the agreement permitted. Russia has proposed, however, a mobile, pan-European missile defense system that would function similarly, although it would not violate the ABM treaty. Significant reductions in the size of the armed forces also have been undertaken.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia had to confront separatist movements in several ethnically based republics and other areas, including Tatarstan and, most notably, Chechnya, which declared independence upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in Dec., 1991. Russian troops were sent there in Dec., 1994; subsequent fighting resulted in heavy casualties, with the Chechen capital of Grozny reduced to rubble by Russian bombardment. A peace accord between Russia and Chechnya was signed in Moscow in May, 1996. The invasion of Dagestan by Islamic militants from Chechnya in 1999 and a series of terrorist bombings in Russia during Aug.–Sept., 1999, however, led to Russian air raids on Chechnya in Sept., 1999, and a subsequent full-scale ground invasion of the breakaway republic that again devastated its capital and resulted in ongoing guerrilla warfare. Chechen terrorists have also continued to mount attacks outside Chechnya, including the seizure of a crowded Moscow theater in Oct., 2002, and a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in Sept, 2004.

In the mid- and late 1990s, Russia took steps toward closer relations with some of the former Soviet republics. Several agreements designed to bring about economic, military, and political integration with Belarus were signed, but progress toward that goal has been slow. Both nations also signed an agreement with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that called for establishing stronger ties. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan later joined the economic grouping the four established, which has been known as the Eurasian Economic Community since 2001. Years of negotiations with Ukraine over the disposition of the Black Sea fleet ended in an accord in 1997 that divided the ships between them and permitted Russia to base its fleet in Sevastopol for 20 years. A 25-year extension of that lease (in exchange for Russia's giving Ukraine a discounted price for natural gas) was negotiated in 2010.

The agreement with Ukraine was seen in part as an attempt to forestall closer Ukrainian ties with NATO. Russia has objected to any NATO expansion that excludes Russia; in June, 1994, Russia reluctantly agreed to an association with NATO under the arrangement known as the Partnership for Peace. Although several former Eastern European satellites joined NATO in 1999, any expansion that included nations once part of the Soviet Union would be highly sensitive. In the civil war and subsequent clashes in the former Yugoslavia, Russia was sympathetic toward the Serbs, a traditional ally, and there was considerable Russian opposition to such policies as NATO's bombing of Serb positions, especially in 1999.

Under Putin, Russia also revived its ties with many former Soviet client states, and used its economic leverage to reassert its sway over the more independent-minded former Soviet republics, particularly Georgia. The country nonetheless continued to maintain warmer ties with the West than the old Soviet Union did. Putin was a supporter of the U.S. “war on terrorism”, and in 2001 Russia began to explore establishing closer ties with NATO, which culminated in the establishment (2002) of a NATO-Russia Council through which Russia could participate in NATO discussions on many nondefense issues. Russia even returned to Afghanistan, providing aid in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Taliban. Russia did, however, resist the idea of resorting to military intervention in Iraq in order to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, and as the United States pressed in 2003 for a Security Council resolution supporting the use of force, Russia joined France in vowing to veto such a resolution. By the end of 2003, Russia had experienced five years of steady economic growth, and recovered (and even seen benefits) from the collapse of the ruble in 1998.

In 2003 tensions flared with Ukraine over the Kerch Strait, sparked by Russia's building of a sea dike there, but the conflict was peacefully resolved. In Sept., 2003, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine signed an agreement to create a common economic space. Internally, there was a conflict between the government and the extremely rich tycoons known as the oligarchs over the extent of the role business executives would be allowed to play in politics. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chairman of the Russian oil giant Yukos, was arrested in October on charges of fraud and tax evasion, but his political aspirations and the government's desire to regain control over valuable resources were believed to have had as much to due with the government's move against him as any crime. In Dec., 2004, Yukos assests were sold to a little-known, newly established company that was soon acquired by a state-run oil company. Khodorkovsky was convicted in May, 2005; he was convicted of additional charges in Dec., 2010, after a trial that was seen by many as pretext for keeping him in prison. In 2014 a group of Yukos shareholders were awarded some $50 billion in damages by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Russia to pay roughly $2.5 billion to Yukos shareholders. Both decisions criticized the Russian governments' actions against the company; in 2017 Russia's constitutional court ruled that the government had no obligation to adhere to the ECHR decision. A number of national courts also rendered verdicts in favor of Yukos shareholders.

The Dec., 2003, elections resulted in a major victory for the United Russia bloc and its allies. The loose group of Putin supporters ultimately secured two thirds of the seats, but outside observers criticized the election campaign for being strongly biased toward pro-government candidates and parties. Prior to the Mar., 2004 presidential elections Putin dismissed Prime Minister Kasyanov and his government; the prime minister had been critical of Yukos investigation. Mikhail Y. Fradkov, who had served largely in a number of economic and trade positions, was named to replace Kasyanov. Putin was reelected by a landslide in Mar., 2004, but observers again criticized the campaign as biased.

A series of deadly, Chechnya-related terror attacks during the summer culminated in the seizure of a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, which ended with the deaths more of more than 300 people, many of them children. Putin responded by calling for, among other changes, an end to the election of Duma representatives from districts and the appointment (instead of election) of the executives of oblasts and similar divisions of Russia. These moves, which were subsequently enacted, further centralized power in the Russian Federation and diminished its federal aspects. The federal government also sought to reduce the number of oblasts and regions by encouraging the merger of smaller units into larger ones.

Russia's reputation suffered internationally in late 2004 when it threw its support behind presidential candidates in Ukraine and the Georgian region of Abkhazia; in both elections, the candidates Moscow opposed ultimately succeeded despite strong resistance on the part of the existing governments to change. Russia subsequently (Mar., 2005) moved quickly to side with opponents of Kyrgyzstan president Akayev when he was forced from office. Large-scale violence re-erupted in the Caucasus in Oct., 2005, when militants with ties to the Chechen rebels mounted coordinated attacks in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria.

In late 2005 Russia found itself accused of using its state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom, as a punitive instrument of foreign policy when the company insisted that Ukraine pay market rates for natural gas, despite having been given a favorable long-term contract when Russia had unsuccessfully tried to influence the Ukrainian presidential race. When negotiations failed, Gazprom cut off supplies to Ukraine in Jan., 2006, a move that also affected supplies in transit to other European nations, provoking European concerns about the reliability of Russian gas deliveries. (The subsequent reduction in deliveries to Europe during a extreme cold snap in Russia in Jan., 2006, only reinforced concerns about reliability.) Although the dispute was soon resolved by a compromise, the affair hurt Russia's and Gazprom's image, and led to tensions with with the nations of the European Union.

The question of Russia's manipulation of its energy shipments for political purposes became an issue again in late 2006 when Gazprom announced it would double the rate it charged Georgia (to roughly market rates); the move followed several retaliatory actions taken against Georgia by the Russian government (see below). Gazprom also increased its charges for natural gas to several other formerly Soviet-ruled nations. One such nation, Belarus, usually a strong Russian ally, responsed to an increase in the Russian duty on oil exported to it by imposing a transit tax on Russian oil exported through pipelines in Belarus. The move provoked a spat that led Russia to cut off oil for several days before Belarus revoked the tax; the cutoff again raised questions in the EU about Russia's reliability as an energy supplier.

Tensions with Moldova (over the Trans-Dniester region) and with Georgia increased in early 2006, and Russia banned the imports of wine and brandy from both nations, supposedly for health reasons. The arrest by Georgia in Sept., 2006, of several Russians on charges of spying provoked a strong retaliatory response from Russia, including the breaking of all transport and postal links; the links were not restored until 2008. Within Georgia, however, the Russian actions seemed to solidify support for the Georgian government. Asserted health issues have been used by Russia to ban food imports from other nations, such as Poland and Ukraine, with whom Russia has had conflicts, and other forms of economic retaliation were used against Estonia in 2007 after a Soviet war memorial was relocated from downtown Tallinn. New membership requirements for political parties, introduced in 2007, forced the dissolution of a number of opposition parties, but those requirements were greatly eased by legislation passed in 2012.

American plans, revealed in 2007, to include components of its missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic provoked a strong response from Russia. President Putin said in June that such a move would force Russia to target Europe with its weapons; the president also announced that he was suspending Russia's participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (the suspension took effect in Dec., 2007, and all participation was ended in Mar., 2015). In Sept., 2007, Putin replaced Prime Minister Fradkov with Viktor Zubkov, the head of Russia's financial monitoring service and an associate of Putin's since the early 1990s.

United Russia, running in Dec., 2007, with Putin's explicit support, again dominated the parliamentary elections; once again, foreign observers noted the progovernment bias of the campaigning, and there were some complaints of vote fraud. The same month Putin announced his support for Dmitri Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister, to succeed him as president in 2008. In the Mar., 2008, vote Medvedev was easily elected to the post, but the presidential election also was marred by progovernment bias and other irregularities.

Meanwhile, in February, Russia's Gazprom threatened to cut Ukraine's gas supply over unpaid debts; although the cut was averted, the issue reemerged in March, when supplies were reduced for several days. Russia's strong objections to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia contributed to NATO's decision to offer those nations eventual membership but not begin the process that would ultimately lead to their admission. Those objections may also have been behind Russia's increasingly provocative actions in 2008 with respect to the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In July, 2008, the Czech Republic signed an agreement with the United States to base a radar system there; shortly thereafter there was a decrease in Russian oil supplies to the Czech Republic that Russia attributed to technical problems. Poland agreed to allow the basing of interceptors on its territory the following month. Also in July, Russia and China signed an agreement that finalized the demarcation of their shared borders; the pact was the last in a series of border agreements (1991, 1994, and 2004).

In Aug., 2008, after Georgia attempted to reestablish control over South Ossetia by force following a period of escalating tensions and violence, Russian troops drove Georgian troops from the region and invaded and occupied for a time neighboring parts of Georgia. Russia also reinforced its forces in Abkhazia, and it subsequently recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and established defense pacts with them. (In 2014 and 2015, Russia signed treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, intended to integrate their militaries and economies with Russia's.) Putin's active and public role in the events of Aug., 2008, was seen as confirmation of his continuing preeminence in Russia's leadership.

Russia's attack against Georgia sparked concern in the United States and Europe, especially in E Europe, but also in the Commonwealth of Independent States, which President Medvedev subsequently declared by all but name as an area of special Russian privilege and influence. The fighting in Georgia also negatively affected international investment in Russia. Subsequently, the global financial crisis and falling oil, gas, and metals prices adversely affected Russian banks and stock markets, requiring massive government financial interventions, some of which continued into 2010. In Jan., 2009, Russia and Ukraine again reached an impasse over Russian natural gas sales to Ukraine, and it led a three-week shipment stoppage that also affected many European nations for part of that time. Shipments resumed after a new, ten-year agreement between Russian and Ukrainian energy companies was signed, but relations remained prickly. A drop in Ukrainian energy needs led Ukraine seek modification of the agreement in late 2009, and gas shipments and transshipments remained a point of contention is subsequent years.

In Nov., 2009, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia signed agreements to establish in 2010 the customs union envisioned in the 2003 common economic space agreement; Ukraine, whose relations with Russia had soured since 2003, did not join. Although Russia's relations with Belarus were strained in Jan., 2010, over the amount of discounted oil Russia would sell its neighbor—Russia agreed to sell Belarus only enough discounted oil to meet its needs, but Belarus had been refining and exporting additional discounted oil at significant profit—when the customs union was begun in July, 2010, Belarus was a member. The three signatories subsequently agreed in May, 2014, to establish the Eurasian Economic Union in Jan., 2015, to increase economic integration and coordination.

N Caucasus Islamist insurgents mounted terror bombings in the Moscow subway in Mar., 2010, that killed 39 people; other bombings followed in Dagestan. The following month Russia and the United States signed the New START nuclear disarmament treaty; replacing START I, it set lower deployed warhead limits. In June–Aug., 2010, many parts of Russia suffered from an extended heat wave, which continued into September in some sections of S Russia. The heat and its associated drought had a devastating affect on crops, especially grain, and as a price-stabilization measure the government banned most grain exports until mid-2011. Conditions also led to an outbreak of wildfires, particularly in W Russia, which produced unhealthy smogs in Moscow and other cities. Caucasus Islamists claimed credit for the suicide bombing of one of Moscow's airports in Jan., 2011, in which 35 people died.

Putin announced in September that he would run again for president in 2012; at the same time, he called for Medvedev to lead United Russia in the Dec., 2011, parliamentary elections and become prime minister. In the parliamentary vote, United Russia won about 50% of the votes and a majority of the seats, but suffered significant losses compared to 2007 in a result that was seen as a personal setback for Putin. Observers criticized the election as flawed, and the Communists and others charged the government with fraud, leading to the most significant antigovernment protests in years. In the Mar., 2012, presidential election, Putin won with more than 60% of the vote amid charges of voting fraud and vote-counting irregularities. After Putin took office in May, he named Medvedev prime minister. Putin's new term as president was marked by increased government suppression and harassment of opposition groups, increased government control of the media, and recurring confrontations, mainly focused on trade and energy, with many of the E European nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

After Ukrainian president Yanukovych was ousted (Feb., 2014), following weeks of protests beginning in late 2013 that were sparked by his rejection of an European Union association agreement in favor of aid and concessions from Russia, Russian forces moved to occupy Crimea and Sevastopol (the site of Russia's main Black Sea naval base) and then annexed the Crimean peninsula (Mar., 2014). The annexation was rejected in the UN General Assembly (Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution), and led to limited sanctions from Western nations, directed mainly at Putin's associates.

Russia also positioned sizable military forces not far from the Ukrainian border, promoted the destablization of SE Ukraine, and issued veiled threats that it might intervene militarily. Russia allowed arms and Russian paramilitaries across the border into Ukraine in the civil conflict in E Ukraine that followed its seizure of Crimea, and when Ukrainian forces appeared to be reestablishing control in August, Russian troops intervened on the side of the rebels. As a result, more severe sanctions were imposed, and Russia responded with sanctions of its own; Russia continued to support the rebels. These events, combined with falling oil prices, had a negative impact on the Russian economy and the value of the ruble. The significant economic effects of lower oil prices continued to be felt in subsequent years; the economy entered into a recession in 2014 that continued into 2016.

Disputes over payment for Russian natural gas led Gazprom to halt deliveries to Ukraine in June, 2014; EU-brokered negotiations led in October to a deal to restore gas deliveries. Ukraine suspended purchases in July, 2015, but purchased resumed the following October to November, when they stopped again. In December, Ukraine also refused to repay $3 billion owed to Russia; it said Russia had refused to renegotiate the terms to bring them in line offered other international creditors.

In Sept., 2015, Russia began air strikes in Syria against rebels fighting Syria's President Assad; unlike U.S. and other foreign strikes aimed at the Islamic State, the Russian sorties, which continued into 2019, were aimed at bolstering Assad and supporting his forces. Subsequently, more than 60,000 Russian troops participated in the conflict. In Nov., 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that it said had entered its airspace from Syria; Russia subsequently imposed a number of economic sanctions on Turkey. Turkish relations began to improve in mid-2016, and in late 2016 the two nations began cooperating in Syria.

In Dec., 2015, Russia passed a law giving its constitutional court the right to reject international human rights rulings if they were found to contradict the Russian constitution; many European Court of Human Rights cases involving Russian citizens have resulted in rulings against the Russian government since Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1996. The Sept., 2016, parliamentary elections were won in a landslide by United Russia, which was helped by Putin's popularity and a lower voter turnout; the other parties that won significant vote shares also supported the president. The campaign offered no significant challenge from true opposition parties, and the election was again marred by irregularities, but those were fewer than in 2011.

In late 2016, accusations by the CIA and FBI that Russia had used cyberwarfare and disinformation in support of Donald Trump's presidential campaign focused increased attention on Russian interference in Western democracies. Anticorruption protests in Mar., 2017, organized by Alexei Navalny, occurred in dozens of Russian cities and represented the largest antigovernment protests since those following the 2011 elections. That same month the United States accused Russia of deploying intermediate-range cruise missiles with nuclear warheads in violation of a 1987 treaty that banned such weapons, and in 2019 the United States withdrew from the treaty over the issue of Russian compliance; Russia then suspended its participation in the treaty.

In the Mar., 2018, presidential elections, there was no significant opposition to Putin—Navalny, probably the most viable opposition candidate, had been barred from running—and he was easily reelected. Turnout was reported to be roughly two thirds of the voters, with Putin receiving more than three fourths of the vote, but there were widespread reports of a variety of irregularities, many of which seemed to be the result of attempts to inflate the turnout. Subsequently, Medvedev was reappointed (May) prime minister.

Also in March, Britain accused Russia of responsibility for the attempted murder with a nerve agent of a former Russian double agent who was living in England. The highly toxic poison also sickened the man's daughter and a number of other people. The incident led more than 25 nations and NATO to expel Russian diplomatic personnel. In April the United States imposed significant economic sanctions on a number of wealthy Russians and Russian companies in retaliation for malicious activities, and subsequently more were proposed. In late 2018 tensions flared again with Ukraine after Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels that were attempting to pass through the Russian-controlled Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov. Russia and Ukraine agreed in Dec., 2019, to implement a comprehensive cease-fire in E Ukraine.

In Jan., 2020, Putin called for constitutional changes that included giving the State Duma the right to appoint the prime minister and defining the responsibilities of the State Council; the proposals were seen as laying the groundwork for maintaining his influence over the government after his term came to an end in 2024. Medvedev and the cabinet resigned their posts after Putin made his proposals, and Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the Russian tax service and a bureaucrat with no political experience, was named to succeed Medvedev as prime minister. In Mar., 2020, the State Duma adopted amendments to the constitution, pending a national vote, that among other changes would allow Putin to run for two additional consecutive terms; a subsequent national vote, which was criticized as irregular and subject to fraud, approved the changes. The August poisoning in Russia of Putin critic Navalny with a nerve agent of likely Russian origin was widely denounced; Navalny was transferred to a German hospital and recovered there. Although Russia was in 2020 among the nations with the highest numbers of reported COVID-19 cases, reported deaths from the disease were relatively low until late 2020 when government figures were revised.

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