After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union officially disintegrated in 1991, Russia found itself thrust into a new era. A Communist dictatorship and government controlled economy were replaced with multi-party elections and private business. Not surprisingly, these major changes did not come without severe growing pains; and to this day, Russia remains in a state of political flux.
Following World War II and the commencement of the 40+ year Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union built up massive weapons arsenals. But as a part of détente, or the "relaxation of tensions," both nations signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a product of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (1972). The relative calm was short-lived, however, as tensions resumed in 1979 when the USSR invaded Afghanistan.
Over the next decade, the woes of Communism gradually chipped away at Russia’s internal structure. The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary in 1985 brought a dramatically different kind of Soviet leader and paved the way for a new era with the implementation of "glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring)." Although interpretation of these terms varied, it was clear Gorbachev sought a new chapter for Communism and implicitly admitted that the Soviet regime was weak.
In 1977, Ronald Reagan reportedly told a visitor that his solution to the Cold War was the following: "We win and they lose." Once in office, Reagan suspected that the USSR was more vulnerable than it let on, and encouraged a defensive buildup to cover all bases against Soviet Russia. In 1985, President Reagan and Gorbachev began a series of summits that prompted cultural exchange and a degree of trust. President George H. W. Bush continued the relationship with Gorbachev, and, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, the two leaders officially declared a strategic partnership at a July 1991 summit, effectively concluding the Cold War.
Reforming the Party from within brought Gorbachev foes from both sides. Communists saw Gorbachev as a traitor who had abandoned the principles of Marx and Lenin. Others, like Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, urged swifter, bolder economic reform. As Soviet republics like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania declared their independence from the USSR, the nation’s constitutional base crumbled, and in August 1991 a hardliner Communist coup ousted Gorbachev from office. Gorbachev officially resigned at the end of the year, and with his resignation, the Soviet Union formally dissolved on December 26, 1991.
Following the USSR’s dissolution, President Yeltsin introduced swift economic reforms, later dubbed "shock therapy" because of the overnight shift toward liberalization. Urged by the "Washington Consensus" of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and U.S. Treasury Department, reformers hoped for liberalization, stabilization, and privatization. By 1994, 70 percent of the Russian industrial economy had been privatized.
Despite this progress, hyperinflation, vast geographical territory, an unprepared workforce, unreformed Communist constituencies, and an over-dependence on military projects left the new Russia in a dire situation. In response, Yeltsin attempted to increase his support by unveiling a "loans-for-shares" program, in which natural resource enterprises were offered up to big businessmen in exchange for loans to balance the government’s budget. Unfortunately, this program grossly increased the size of a few main financial groups, overseen by a band of "oligarchs," who quickly became a corrupt force in Russia’s 1990s political and economic climate.
In the summer of 1993, high inflation and worker frustration contributed to conflict between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. When Yeltsin moved to dissolve the legislature, Parliament retaliated by impeaching the President. The situation came to a head on October 3rd, when demonstrators stormed the Russian White House and a bloody street fight erupted. President Yeltsin eventually regained the upper hand in the disagreement, and the post-Soviet Constitution was ratified several months later.
When Yeltsin resigned his presidency at the close of the 20th century, Vladimir Putin was installed as interim president. Putin, an avid student of Russian history, admirer of Russian reformer Pyotr Stolypin and American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, "sees himself as a historical figure among the pantheon of those who have sought to save the Russian state," even going so far as to describe the breakdown of the USSR as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." His agenda would include, first and foremost, getting Russia's economy back on track, the success of which earned him extremely high approval ratings of around 70 percent.
Putin's measures to revive the Russian economy included some free market reforms such as instituting a flat tax for personal income of 13 percent (one of the lowest in the world), land and legal reforms, currency liberalization, and reducing taxes on profits.
At the same time, Putin also strengthened state power. As one 2008 analysis finds:
"The Russian state under Putin is certainly bigger than it was before. The number of state employees has doubled to roughly 1.5 million. The Russian military has more capacity to ﬁght the war in Chechnya today, and the coercive branches of the government—the police, the tax authorities, the intelligence services—have bigger budgets than they did a decade ago. In some spheres, such as paying pensions and government salaries on time, road building, or educational spending, the state is performing better now than during the 1990s. Yet given the growth in its size and resources, what is striking is how poorly the Russian state still performs. In terms of public safety, health, corruption, and the security of property rights, Russians are actually worse off today than they were a decade ago."
Under Putin, the Russian government has increased its control over major news outlets, reduced the autonomy of regional governments, harassed and repressed political opposition, diminished property rights, and, "under the banner of a program called 'National Champions,'" renationalized major parts of the energy and other industry sectors.
Putin has helped reinvigorate Russian nationalist sentiments, which has led to a number of controversies in terms of Russian foreign policy: military action against nationalist movements in Chechnya and Georgia; weapons sales to North Korea, Iran, and possibly Venezuela and Syria; opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe, namely in Poland and the Czech Republic; speaking out against UN and U.S. sanctions of Iran; and, negotiation of a new version of the nuclear arms reduction treaty START with President Obama in 2009 that some say favors Russian interests over those of the U.S.
Putin has also been accused of seeking to re-install autocracy in Russia. Even though his second presidential term expired in 2008, when Putin’s successor, Dmitry Medvedev, gained the presidency, he nominated Putin as Prime Minister, solidifying Putin's power-hold and causing many to view Medvedev as a mere puppet. In fact, in December 2011, after Putin announced he would pursue a third presidential term, thousands took to the streets to protest Russia's allegedly rigged election results.
Indeed, the election fraud of 2011 has been viewed as another indicator of the corruption that has pervaded Russia all too often in its recent history. According to some reports, cronyism and ruling class extravagance are increasingly common, as evidenced by the high cost of basic benefits such as good roads. In addition to corruption, Russia increasingly faces the struggles of a declining population and a poorly competitive business environment.
Tracing the historical record through speeches, analysis and data, this topic describes the challenges and victories Russia has faced since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, paying specific attention to how the Russian leaders have dealt with their country’s problems.