Monthly Archives: May 2008

Annals of Russia’s Population Crisis

Far more Russians are dying at a relatively young age than babies are being born to replace them. The result is a precipitous population decline that threatens Russia’s economic well-being and perhaps even the ability to safeguard its huge territory. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky examines some of the reasons and consequences of the Russian demographic crisis.

The population of Russia has been falling an average of 700,000 people each year since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 16 years ago. Russian women can expect to live until 73, but the average life expectancy of men is 59, about a dozen years less than their counterparts in Western Europe.

Larissa Ilgova lost her husband to liver disease. She says many of her friends are dying young. “I have many friends and they’re all dying at a young age – 47, 48, 50, 60,” she says. “A lot.”

Health experts say reasons for so many premature deaths in Russia include heart disease, poor diet, hard work, smoking, and above all, alcoholism.

But Russian demographer Igor Beloborodov says alcoholism is the symptom of a larger problem – a spiritual malaise among the general population.

Igor Beloborodov
Igor Beloborodov

He says this malaise does not afflict Russia’s religious communities, noting their members live longer and have more children than average, though they are not necessarily wealthier.

“This is most evident among the devout Orthodox [Christian], members of Russia’s largest religious faith,” Beloborodov said. “There are also many children born to Muslims, and the same goes for Buddhists. People who have preserved a certain moral code and a positive attitude toward family values demonstrate different demographic and reproductive tendencies.”

Beloborodov says 75 years of atheism and economic mismanagement by communists devastated not only Russia’s spiritual and material foundations, but also the family structure. He says the communist system created what he calls “demographic time bombs” that continue to explode in Russia years after the Soviet collapse in 1991. These include the legalization of abortions, prohibition of private property and inheritance rights, and making a mother’s service to communism more rewarding than caring for her children.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently called for measures to increase Russian life expectancy to 75 by the year 2020. But demographer Beloborodov questions whether the problem can be solved in a mere 12 years. “I think the approach to the problem – lowering the death rate but ignoring the birth rate – is wrong,” he said. “It won’t solve anything. It would only guarantee an older population. In other words, the rate of aging would accelerate, but the burden on the working-age population would increase. Even now, our pension system is in a state of crisis.”

The demographer says more working-age Russians are needed not only to support retirees, but also to develop the economy and maintain a viable army.

Some analysts also fear the Chinese could fill a vacuum created by a particularly acute loss of people in Russia’s Far East.

Vladimir Myasnikov, one of Russia’s foremost China experts, disagrees. He says not many people are needed to hold the area. “East of the Urals, normal human living conditions exist only along a very thin strip running along the Chinese border. There is permafrost North of some local mountain ranges, where temperatures reach as low as 50 below zero centigrade. There are similar regions in Canada, which are virtually empty.”

Russia has as many as 12 million immigrants, most of them illegal, to make up for Russia’s ever-growing labor shortage. Some immigrants have been attacked and even killed by xenophobic Russians who resent the newcomers as intruders. Despite an slight increase in number of births last year, the United Nations predicts the country’s population will continue to plummet from the current 141 million to less than 100 million by mid-century.

Russia’s Deadly Roads

BusinessWeek magazine reports:

The statistics are terrifying: 10 times as many auto-related fatalities as in the U.S. Decrepit highways and drunk and careless drivers are blamed

On May 9, Russia celebrated the anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The next day — the Saturday of a long holiday weekend — the toll of auto accidents reached 601. Three accidents alone claimed 18 lives.

Two days later a bus collided with a truck on the Moscow to St. Petersburg road, killing eight more people.

“The motorway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg is the road of death. It’s scary to drive there with heavy trucks rushing along in the oncoming lane,” said Aleksandr Latyshev, a journalist for the Izvestiya newspaper who often uses the road.

The highway between Russia’s two largest cities is one lane in each direction. About 1,500 people die on it every year, most in head-on collisions. Vehicles also kill scores of pedestrians in towns along the highway.

“The speed limit in towns is 60 kilometers per hour. But no one goes the speed limit because when you’re tired and the road is good, you want to get home as soon as possible,” Latyshev said.

In this vast country, a deadly combination of careless driving, rampant corruption, aging cars, and bad roads adds up to a huge risk for those who get behind the wheel and for those who get in their way.

The statistics paint a grisly picture:

• About 33,300 people died nationwide in 233,800 accidents registered in 2007. That’s almost as many auto-related fatalities as the entire European Union, which has about 3.5 times Russia’s population and six times as many vehicles.

• In 2007, about 900 deaths per 1 million vehicles were reported in Russia, 10 times as many as in Germany and 5.5 times as many as in the United States.

• About 900 people die each year on the Moscow to Rostov-on-Don highway, a major route from central Russia to Black Sea resorts, and on the road linking Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk.

• Although more Russians die of respiratory and circulatory diseases each year, in the Federal Statistics Service’s “accidents, poisonings, and injuries category” for 2006, only suicide claimed more lives than transport accidents.

NIHILISM ON WHEELS

Vladimir Kuzin, deputy chief of Russia’s traffic police, blamed undisciplined drivers for most fatalities. “The primary cause of high mortality on the roads [is] drivers’ lack of respect for the law, a nihilism about the rules of the road. Drivers don’t maintain speed limits, don’t yield to pedestrians on crosswalks, and don’t wear their seat belts.”

Drivers were responsible for 84 percent of fatal accidents last year, according to official statistics. This year, the government hiked fines for driving offenses. The penalty for running a red light, for instance, rose from 100 to 700 rubles (about $30), for not wearing a seatbelt from 50 to 500 rubles (about $20), for going more than 60 kph over the speed limit from 500 to 5,000 rubles (about $200) plus a license suspension for two to four months. The average monthly wage in Russia is about 13,500 rubles ($560).

Those caught driving under the influence face losing their license for two to three years.

Perhaps as a result, road accidents fell by 11 percent in the first three months of 2008 from the same period in 2007. Fatalities dropped by 10 percent and accidents involving drunk drivers plunged by 20 percent.

“Our penalties are still more lenient than in other countries, but the fine surge has had an effect,” said Vladimir Shevchenko, spokesman for the traffic police.

Vladimir Fyodorov, traffic police chief from 1990 to 2003 and currently a member of the upper parliamentary chamber, notes a slight improvement in road safety. “In 1990, every fourth accident was linked to drunken drivers, whereas now it’s only 9 percent. Although one in 10 vehicles being driven by a drunken driver is still a lot.”

But critics say the higher fines have just pushed up bribes. Many drivers pulled over by traffic police offer bribes amounting to 50 percent of a possible fine. The Moscow-based Indem think tank estimates that the total amount of annual bribes increased between fivefold and tenfold from an estimated 500 million rubles before the new penalties took effect.

In an April poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 57 percent of drivers said they had encountered traffic police who solicited bribes by threatening to fine them for fabricated offenses.

For its part, the Interior Ministry says it fights corruption, citing 7,000 instances of bribery uncovered and 5,300 police officers sacked in 2007.

Viktor Pokhmelkin, chairman of the Russian Movement of Vehicle Drivers, predicted the fine surge will have only a short-term effect as drivers become accustomed to them. As for the traffic police, he said, “Traffic police react to offenses rather than prevent them. They have no incentives to do the latter.”

Pokhmelkin blamed old Russian-made vehicles for the high fatality rate.

“The Russian cars lack basic safety devices like air bags and anti-lock braking systems. Fewer people die in foreign-made vehicles,” he said.

Russia has the oldest vehicle fleet in Europe. The average car is 14.3 years old compared with 8 years old in EU countries. Automobiles younger than 10 years account for only 19 percent of those on the road, according to the Avtostat analysis center. The 7.7 million rear-wheel-drive Ladas on Russian roads account for 26.5 percent of the total number of vehicles in the country.

Those rickety cars drive each day along clogged, ramshackle roads.

Poor roads caused nearly 44,000 accidents and 6,700 auto-related deaths last year. Russia, the world’s biggest country, has only slightly more distance of paved roadways than Germany and less than one-eighth that of the United States.

And many of the country’s highways, about one-third, according to the Transportation Ministry, need urgent repair.

Meanwhile, new road construction cannot hope to keep pace with increasing car ownership. The number of vehicles in Russia more than tripled between 1991 and 2007, while the length of roads grew by only about one-third. Aleksandr Mirashin, deputy minister of transportation, told the State Duma in March that the government plans to build 63,000 kilometers of roads before 2015, extending the road infrastructure by 9 percent. As many as 50,000 of the 120,000 Russian towns lack paved roads.

But new or improved highways bring with them a new set of problems.

“We repair roads, fill the potholes, but accidents rise. You won’t drive fast on a bumpy road,” Vladimir Fyodorov, the former traffic police chief, said.

The Russian authorities admit that they will not be able to reduce auto-related fatalities to levels registered in other European countries within the next few years. In 2005, then-President Vladimir Putin tasked the authorities with bringing down road deaths to 23,000 before 2012, three to five times the average European level. Nevertheless, it would be a significant improvement over the early 1990s, when 35,000 to 37,000 people were killed in motor-vehicle accidents every year, even in that era of fewer cars.

I OWN THE ROAD

It is in the big cities, where traffic slows to 10 to 20 kph during rush hours, that congestion and bad habits create the highest risk.

“In major cities, especially in Moscow, traffic is a real pain in the neck,” Viktor Kiryanov, chief of the traffic police, told reporters in March.

Pedestrians, moving off the sidewalk to get around cars parked there, are often hit.

“There are no conditions for pedestrians. They take to the road because they don’t want to wipe vehicles with their trousers and skirts,” Fyodorov said.

But at the same time, as in so much of Russian life, senior officials enjoy excellent road conditions. They may legally equip their cars with emergency lights so that other vehicles must yield to them. In 2006, the government limited the number of officials eligible to use the lights to 1,000. More than half of the permits went to the Federal Security Service, the Federal Guard Service, and the Interior Ministry. The Presidential Administration was given the right to use emergency lights on 60 vehicles and the government, 35.

Lower-ranking officials have special license plates that help them in traffic. Businesspeople who want to drive faster in congested traffic buy these plates illegally for $10,000 to $30,000.

A vehicle equipped with emergency lights or bearing a special license plate may defy the rules, such as using the oncoming lane to get around jams. Such cars are 12 times more likely to cause an accident than ordinary ones, according to police statistics.

Last fall, a vehicle escorting Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev crossed into oncoming traffic and rammed into a Lada, killing its driver.

In February, a vehicle carrying the traffic police chief, using an oncoming lane to get around a Moscow traffic jam, hit a woman, who suffered a fractured leg and concussion. She was later found guilty of causing the accident by crossing the street in the wrong place and failing to yield to a police vehicle with flashing lights.

March 30, 2008 — Contents

FRIDAY MAY 30 CONTENTS

(1) EDITORIAL: The Wages of Slaves

(2) “Hypermortality” in Putin’s Russia

(3) Russia Backs Down

(4) In Russia, Tsarist Fascism

(5) Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda

NOTE: Kim Zigfeld rips out the still-beating “heart” of a Russophile scumbag and stomps on it over at Instablogs.

EDITORIAL: The Wages of Slaves

EDITORIAL

The Wages of Slaves

At the current dollar-ruble exchange rate of 23.5:1, 7,000 rubles amounts to $297.87.

That’s the average monthly wage of a petrochemical worker in Russia’s Sverdlovsk region, just west of the Urals on the border of Siberia. The major metropolis of Yekaterinburg is located there.

For four 40-hour work weeks, that translates into a shocking average hourly wage of only $1.86. So much for the notion of economic recovery in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These are the real wages earned by the vast majority of real Russians across the country, offset by a tiny clan of super rich who exploit the unwashed masses as has always been the case in Russia.

But little enough, you might think, so that managers at such a plant would consider their workforce cheap at twice the price, and be rolling in profits. Yet if that were so, why would workers at the Lobinsky plant have declared a hunger strike in protest of wages that are four months overdue?

It’s an important question, because that’s just what they’re doing. Other Russia reports:

18 employees of the factory have refused to eat since April 28th, in an attempt to convince management to dole out back pay to over 500 factory workers, according to the Agency of Political News. Of the 18 employees who started the hunger strike, six have been hospitalized, and four were forced to stop when the act exacerbated chronic illnesses they have. The plant’s management did not respond to the protest until the hunger strike was underway for 12 days. Workers received a “letter of guarantee” that they would be paid by June 10th. The striking employees, however, said they had never heard of the directors who signed the letter, and said the document held little authority. They then continued their protest. The Lobinsky protest is the third labor dispute in the the Sverdlovsk oblast in recent months, according to Itar-Tass (RUS). Thus, 107 miners working for Sevuralboksitrud (a part of the mammoth RUSAL aluminum company) went on strike from March 26th to April 4th, demanding a raise in wages. And from April 13th to 19th, 66 workers of the same mine announced a hunger strike with similar demands.

Speaking of hunger strikes, dissident opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky has just finished one. According to his Washington Post column last week, Kozlovsky sees the Kremlin has having imposed “the stability of the Gulag” on Russia. His blog carries a photograph of Kozlovsky just after his release, showing the effects of his self-imposed malnutrition.

So, despite the absurd propaganda being churned out by the Kremlin, Russia is rather far from being a resurgent dynamo on its way to paradise. To the contrary, Russians are starving themselves in the vain hope of clemency from the malignant trolls who prowl the Kremlin’s parapets, begging for legal and economic justice and laying their lives on the line to do it. Meanwhile, as has always been the case in Russia, a tiny clan of oligarchs hoards the nation’s wealth for their own obscene and secret purposes.

RIA Novosti recently reported that “the minimum wage in the capital is to come to 10, 900 rubles by the end of 2010. Currently the minimum wage in the city is 6,800 rubles. After September 1, it will be 7,500 rubles. Additionally, pensions in the capital are to exceed the cost of living by the end of 2009, Igor Antonov, the chairman of the budget and finance committee of Moscow State Duma, said.”

Moscow is the world’s most expensive city, and its minimum wage is a shocking $290 per month or $1.80 per hour. If Moscowites are lucky, by 2010 that my rise to $465 per month or $2.90 per hour — of course, with Russian prices rising at double-digit annual rates, that may well be worth much less then than $290 is worth today.

Russians are besieged from every side in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Below we report on a new term, “hypermortality,” being coined to describe Russia’s skyrocketing rate of population loss, something that is obviously connected to the ill-health that results from such an insanely low, slave-like wage scale.

And Russians have nobody to blame but themselves for this apocalypse. They themselves chose to be governed by a proud KGB spy, or did nothing to oppose his rise to power. Now, they will take the consequences.

"Hypermortality" in Putin’s Russia

United Press International reports on more proof of the brilliant success story that is Vladmir Putin’s Russia:

An alarming new word has been born. It is “hypermortality,” which might be defined as an extraordinary tendency toward death. It jumps from the first page of the U.N. Development Program report entitled “Demographic Policy in Russia.”

“The Russian phenomenon of hypermortality comes to be observed primarily in working-age populations,” it says.

“Compared to the majority of countries that have similar levels of economic development, mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women.”

What this means, the report says, is that the size of the working-age population “will fall by up to 1 million people annually already by 2020-25.”

The effect of this will be to raise the dependency load (the number of young and old people dependent on those of working age) to 670 to 750 per thousand by 2020 and to 900 to 1,000 per thousand by 2025.

“This will inevitably influence economic growth rates,” the report notes.

“At the moment, there are no grounds to believe that the crisis will be overcome and the size of the population will be stabilized,” it adds.

The report, while commissioned and published by the U.N. agency, was entirely prepared and written by Russian experts led by Professor Valery Yelizarov, head of Moscow State University’s Center for Population Studies. It was peer reviewed by Germany’s Max Planck Institute.

In precise and formal scientific language, the report suggests that Russia is suffering the kind of hypermortality that is normally only associated with the effects of a major war.

In wars, young men die. That is also happening in Russia. The report says: “Without factoring the impact of AIDS, the number of males age 15-24 could decline by nearly half over the next 20 years.”

But factor in the effect of AIDS and the picture is even more grim.

“Russia has experienced a dramatic spread of HIV in just over a decade. In 1997-2007, there was a 370-fold increase from less than 1,090 to 405,427 officially registered cases,” the report says. It adds that this represents the minimum of those in contact with the HIV reporting system.

Russia’s Federal AIDS Center estimates that up to 1.3 million Russians are living with HIV, and last year women of childbearing age accounted for 44 percent of known new infections.

What led to this dismal state of affairs? The report does not attribute blame, but it is specific about the timing of the demographic disaster that has overtaken Russia, associating it with the “reform period” that began in 1985 with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the tumultuous “reform period” that followed, which included the fall of the Soviet Union.

“In the nearly two decades of the reform period, a segment of the population living on the verge of poverty expanded and multiplied, exhibiting habits and factors contributing to risk: alcoholism, smoking, improper nutrition, avoidance of healthcare, and psychological stress,” it says, seeking to explain the “hypermortality” phenomenon.

This may be disputed. Western demographers like Murray Feshbach were writing of the demographic collapse in the mid-1980s and citing data from as early as the late 1960s. But there is no doubt that the disruptions of the Soviet Union’s death throes exacted a fearsome toll. Even now, when Russia is becoming rich with its oil and gas wealth, the death toll continues to be unnecessarily high.

Many lives could be saved, the report says, by “providing economic and geographic access to healthcare services, most of all in medical and social prevention and primary treatment. In 2005, by primary prevention means only, about 150,000 deaths could have been avoided (about 105,000 men and 45,000 women) in the age of up to 65 years.”

It is important to consider what this means for the future of the Russian economy. Ever since Goldman Sachs devised the concept of the BRIC nations, identifying Brazil, Russia, India and China as the key emerging markets, great hopes (and considerable investments) have been placed on them. But a very large question mark must be placed on the economic prospects of a country whose young male workforce looks set to fall by half.

Moreover, a large proportion of the Russian workforce may be too drunk to function. Almost one male death in three is alcohol-related.

“The increase of alcohol consumption from 10 to 15 liters and an almost simultaneous increase in mortality suggests the central role played by alcohol to mortality, in average up to 426,000 per year in 1980-2001. Alcohol-related deaths total 29.6 percent of total mortality for men and 17.0 percent for women,” the report says.

Last year President Vladimir Putin launched a crash program to try to tackle Russia’s hypermortality by increasing maternity leave to 18 months and cash benefits for mothers that would go as high as $9,000 for a second child. But noting that there is a current shortage of around 1 million day-care facilities in Russia, the report hints that the Putin plan lacks credibility.

“Quantitative indicators that describe set ambitious goals and tasks make one doubt if they are correct, agreed and realistic,” the report concludes.

Russia backs down on Arctic Imperliasm

In yet another craven show of weakness, a pathetic back-down on the wild-eyed attempt to seize the Arctic. The Canadian Press reports that Russia has once again bitten off much more than it can chew:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has downplayed his country’s placing of the national flag under the ice at the North Pole, saying it was not meant to signal Russia’s claim to the Arctic.

A Russian scientific expedition deposited a rustproof titanium version of country’s flag on the seabed at the pole last year. The act heated up the controversy over an area that a U.S. study suggests may contain as much as 25 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.

“It should be seen basically the same way as the American flag was planted on the moon sometime ago,” Lavrov said Tuesday.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erected a U.S. flag when they became the first men to land on the moon.

Lavrov, who was headed to a meeting in Greenland to discuss sovereignty in the Arctic, said the flag at North Pole was not a political event.

“You shouldn’t be in this fascinating game of treating this particular, scientific, human achievement as anything else,” he told reporters.

Interest in the region is intensifying because global warming is shrinking the polar ice, and that could someday open up resource development and new shipping lanes.

“There is no claim for any territory. There couldn’t be because as I said there is a sea convention, there are mechanisms created to implement this conventions, including for the continental shelf,” Lavrov said.

Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Arctic nations have 10 years after ratification to prove their claims under the largely uncharted polar ice pack. All countries with claims to the Arctic have ratified the treaty, except the United States.

Canada has announced plans to build a new army training centre and a deep-water port in Arctic waters. Norway, the United States and Denmark also have claims in the vast region.

Denmark is gathering scientific evidence to show that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 2,000-kilometre underwater mountain range, is attached to Greenland, making it a geological extension of the sparsely populated giant island that is a semi-autonomous Danish territory.

A UN panel is supposed to decide the Arctic control by 2020.

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is representing Canada at the meeting on the Arctic this week in Ilulissat, Greenland. Officials from Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States will also be there.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller will co-host the conference with Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen.

Moeller reiterated that the aim of the meeting was to reaffirm the nations’ commitments to international treaties governing the region.

In Russia, Tsarist Fascism

British TV host Jonathan Dimbelby, writing in the Daily Mail:

As ex-President Putin settles in to his new role as Prime Minister, he has every reason to congratulate himself.

After all, he has not only written the script for his constitutional coup d’etat, but staged the play and given himself the starring role as well.

Of course, he has given a walk-on role to Dmitry Medvedev, his personally anointed successor.

But the transfer of power from Putin to his Little Sir Echo, Medvedev, and the show of military strength with those soldiers and clapped-out missiles in Red Square on Victory Day which followed it last week, made it clear who is really in charge.

No decision of any significance for the Russian people or the rest of us will be made in the foreseeable future without the say – so of Medvedev’s unsmiling master.

Just before he stood down as President, Putin declared: “I have worked like a galley slave throughout these eight years, morning til night, and I have given all I could to this work. I am happy with the results.”

As he surveys the nation today he reminds me of that chilling poem by Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting, in which the dreaded bird sits at the top of a tall tree musing: “Now I hold all Creation in my foot – I kill as I please because it is all mine – I am going to keep things like this.”

In a way he is right to be so self-satisfied. He has told the Russian people that life is much better than it was before he took over – and, after a journey of some 10,000 miles across the largest country in the world for a new book and BBC TV series, I am in no doubt that the majority of his subjects believe him.

I travelled from cities to towns to villages by road, rail and boat and met a great diversity of people – from St Petersburg glitterati to impoverished potato-pickers, from a witch who charms the sprites of the forest to the mountain herdsmen who worship fire and water, from oilmen to woodcutters.

It was an exhilarating and revelatory experience in a land of extremes. But it was also deeply disturbing.

Despite the fact that Putin’s Russia is increasingly autocratic and irredeemably corrupt, the man himself – their born-again Tsar – is overwhelmingly regarded as the answer to the nation’s prayers.

Russia has a bloody and tormented history. Its centuries of suffering – its brutalities, its wars and revolutions, culminating in the collapse of communism and the anarchic buffoonery of the Yeltsin years – have taken a terrible psychological toll.

Cynicism and fatalism which eat away at the human psyche have wormed their way into the very DNA of the Russian soul.

In a nation that has not tasted and – with very few exceptions – does not expect or demand justice or freedom, all that matters is stability and security.

And, to a degree, Putin has delivered these twin blessings. But the price has been exorbitant and the Russians have been criminally short-changed.

Putin boasts that since he came into office investment in the Russian economy has increased sevenfold (reaching $82.3 billion in 2007) and that the country’s GDP has risen by more than 70 per cent.

Over the same period, average real incomes have more than doubled. But they started from a very low base and they could have done far better.

Nor is this growth thanks either to the Kremlin’s leadership or a surge of entrepreneurial energy.

On the contrary, it is almost solely down to Russia’s vast reserves of oil and gas.

When Putin came to power, the world price of crude oil was $16 dollars a barrel; it has now soared to more than $120 dollars – and no one knows where or when this bonanza will end.

But this massive flow of funds into the nation’s coffers has not been used “to share the proceeds of growth” with the people; to reduce the obscene gulf in income between the rich and poor.

It has not helped to resurrect a health service which is on its knees (and is ranked by the World Health Organisation as 130th out of the 190 countries of the UN), or to rebuild an education system which is so under-funded that the poor have to pay to get their children into a half-decent school or college.

It has not brought gas and running water to the villages where the peasants have been devastated by the collapse of the collectives, or even developed the infrastructure that a 21st century economy needs to compete with the rest of the world.

Russia may be a member of the G8 whose GDP (because of oil) should soon overtake the United Kingdom, but, in many ways, it is more like a Third World country.

Stricken with an epidemic of AIDS and alcoholism which both contribute to a male life expectancy of 58 years, the population is projected to shrink from 145 million to 120 million within a few decades.

So where has all the oil wealth gone? According to an Independent Experts Report, written by two former high-level Kremlin insiders who have had the courage to speak out, “a criminal system of government [has] taken shape under Putin” in which the Kremlin has been selling state assets cheaply to Putin’s cronies and buying others assets back from them at an exorbitant price.

Among such dubious transactions the authors cite the purchase by the state-owned Gasprom (run until a few months ago by Dmitry Medvedev) of a 75 per cent share in an oil company called Sifnet (owned by Roman Abramovich, the oligarch who owns Chelsea Football Club).

In 1995 Abramovich, one of Putin’s closest allies, paid a mere $100 million for Sifnet; ten years later, the government shelled out $13.7 billion for it – an astronomical sum and far above the going market rate.

Even more explosively, the authors claim the Kremlin has created a “friends-of-Putin” oil export monopoly, not to mention a secret “slush fund” to reward the faithful.

According to an analyst at Moscow’s Carnegie Centre, which promotes greater collaboration between the U.S. and Russia, the report is “a bomb which, anywhere but in Russia, would cause the country to collapse”.

In Britain such revelations would certainly have provoked mass outrage, urgent official inquiries and a major police investigation – if not the downfall of the government.

But because of Putin’s totalitarian grasp on power (he has not only appointed his own Cabinet, which used to be the prerogative of the President, but will remain in charge of the nation’s economy), there will be no inquiry.

You can forget any talk from the new President about “stamping out” corruption. This social and economic disease is insidious and rampant.

According to Transparency International – a global society which campaigns against corruption – Russia has become a world leader in the corruption stakes. Foreign analysts estimate that no less than $30 billion a year is spent to grease official palms to oil the wheels of trade and commerce.

But when you raise the subject, Russians shrug their shoulders: “What’s the problem?” they retort.

“That’s how the system works. It will never change.”

And that is because everyone is at it. From corporations (including foreign investors who claim to have clean hands but cover their tracks by establishing local “shell” companies to pay the bribes) to the humblest individuals who buy their way out of a driving ban.

In a country where the “separation of powers” has become a bad joke, the law courts are no less corrupt.

Except perhaps for minor misdemeanours at local level, the judiciary is in thrall to the Kremlin and its satraps.

The threat of prosecution for tax fraud is the Kremlin’s weapon of choice against anyone who dares to challenge its hegemony.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, used his oil wealth to promote human rights and democracy, Putin detected a threat to his throne.

The oligarch was duly arrested and convicted of fraud. He now languishes in a Siberian jail where he is in the third year of an eight-year prison sentence.

None of this is a matter of public debate in Russia where the media has been muzzled by the Kremlin, their freedom of expression stifled by the government.

Almost every national radio and television station is now controlled directly or indirectly by the state, and the same applies to every newspaper of any influence.

In the heady days immediately before and after the collapse of the Soviet empire, editors and reporters competed to challenge the mighty and to uncover scandal and corruption.

Now they cower from the wrath of the state and its agents in the police and the security services.

That diminishing number who have the courage to investigate or speak out against the abuses perpetrated by the rich and powerful very soon find themselves out of a job – or, in an alarming number of cases, on the receiving end of a deadly bullet.

Some 20 Russian journalists have been killed in suspicious circumstances since Putin came to office. No one has yet been convicted for any of these crimes.

Putin calls the system over which he presides “sovereign democracy”. I think a better term is “cryptofascism” – though even the Kremlin’s few critics in Russia recoil when I suggest this.

After all, their parents and grandparents helped save the world from Hitler – at a cost of 25 million Soviet lives. Nonetheless, the evidence is compelling.

The structure of the state – the alliance between the Kremlin, the oligarchs, and the security services – is awesomely powerful.

No less worryingly is popular distaste – often contempt – for democracy and indifference to human rights.

In the absence of any experience of accountability or transparency – the basic ingredients of an open society – even the most thoughtful Russians are prone to say: “Russia needs a strong man at the centre. Putin has made Russia great again. Now the world has to listen.”

The new Prime Minister has brilliantly exploited the patriotism and latent xenophobia of the Russia people to unify them in the belief that they face a major threat from NATO and the United States.

This combination of national pride and insecurity has been fuelled by the America with its proposed deployment of missiles only a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border, allegedly to counter a nuclear threat from Iran.

No serious defence analyst believes this makes any strategic sense, while even impeccably pro-Western Russians recoil from this crass assertion of super-power hegemony by President Bush.

Similarly most Russians feel threatened – and humiliated – by the prospect that Ukraine and Georgia, once the most intimate allies of the Soviet Union, may soon be enfolded in the arms of NATO.

Georgia, which is struggling to contain a separatist movement that is openly supported by the Kremlin, has the potential to become a dangerous flashpoint in which the Western allies could only too easily become ensnared.

Does this mean – as some have argued – that we are about to face a new Cold War? I don’t think so for a moment.

With communism consigned to “the dustbin of history”, there is no ideological conflict of any significance. And there is now only one military superpower.

In comparison with America, Russia’s armed forces are a joke. Only catastrophic stupidity on either side could lead to a nuclear confrontation.

But this does not mean that we can all breathe a sigh of relief and forget about the Bear.

An autocratic and resurgent Russia that feels bruised and threatened is an unstable beast.

The Kremlin’s growing rapprochement with Beijing (the adversaries of a generation ago are now not only major trading partners, but conduct joint military exercises) shifts the balance of power in the world.

And as life on earth becomes less and less secure, with evermore people competing for a dwindling supply of vital resources, Russia, as an energy giant, is once again a big player on the world stage.

Make no mistake, we are in for a very bumpy ride