How do we get Russia out of this mess?

We asked a group of experts how this once great superpower can save itself
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The Independent Online

Lord Owen The situation in Russia is improving. The real crisis was two years ago, when there was a big retreat. The financial institutions packed their tents and left. Steel is a good indicator of the economy and it's now selling more in the internal market. People are paying with cash. There is more confidence and activity in business at every level. But it's still patchy.

Lord Owen The situation in Russia is improving. The real crisis was two years ago, when there was a big retreat. The financial institutions packed their tents and left. Steel is a good indicator of the economy and it's now selling more in the internal market. People are paying with cash. There is more confidence and activity in business at every level. But it's still patchy.

I think Putin is good news. He has given indications that he is willing to make decisions and form an effective government, which has been the wish of younger Russians for a long time. One of the problems is that the infrastructure has been ignored. The two recent disasters - the submarine and the tower - show that insufficient funds are going into maintaining complex installations. It will take a long time to sort out.

There is more to a market economy than lifting price restraints. You have to have a legal structure. And there is too much advice of a theoretical nature coming from the West.

Russia has still got to build up its democratic moorings, but a transition has been achieved that will be hard to reverse. The invincibility of Communism has been shattered, but it's very important that the West keeps faith with Russia. Our state model has won, but it still has a long way to go.

Lord Owen is a former Labour foreign secretary and is chairman of Middlesex Holdings, a global trading house with strong links to Russia.

George Walden It's difficult not to like the Russians. I have a sort of willed optimism about the place. The most hopeful fact about the country is that you never see young people demonstrating. The discontented are the middle-aged and older people.

Putin seems to incarnate the ambivalence of the place. His old KGB mentality, his belief that criticism of the government is unpatriotic, is bad news. But on the economic side he doesn't appear to be a reactionary at all, which is good news. Hopefully economic necessities will confirm the other liberties which have already been won.

One is appalled by the depth of corruption in daily life. The mafia continues to penetrate right to the top. The question is whether Putin is serious about using his power to confront these people. Otherwise they will eat away at democracy.

On dark days, one does have an awful fear of the chaos and anarchy which, historically, the Russians seem to have a talent for, and the authoritarian response to that chaos, which they have also displayed a talent for. It is a question of hanging on while democracy takes root. You have to have economic reform, but you can't just graft on Thatcherism and expect all to go well. Russia will devise its own form of economy. For now, it is a country in the balance.

George Walden is a former Conservative education minister, and he worked as a diplomat in Moscow.

Archie Brown Russia needs a rule of law more than anything else. One of the things that prevents foreign investments is a lack of protection and clarity in the law. Judges and law enforcement officers are underpaid and relatively easily influenced and bribed. Putin talks about a dictatorship of law, but it is not clear if that is the same as a rule of law. He wants to increase the power of the centre, which is good, as local despots do what they want. There should be constitutional amend- ments. There is a very real need to clarify and strengthen the powers of the legislature.

Russia is at a crossroads. Things could get better politically, and they will probably get better economically, but the institutions of democracy, specifically Parliament and the political parties, are insuff- iciently strong. Far too much depends upon the president and the presidential apparatus.

Archie Brown is director of the Russian and East European Centre at St Anthony's College Oxford, and professor of politics at Oxford University.

Roland Nash You have to separate the political Putin from the economic Putin. A lot of what he has done from a Western perspective looks destructive, like muzzling the media and stamping on regional democracy, but even after the Kursk tragedy he is still the most popular politician Russia of the last 10 years.

A big part of this popularity is the fact that things have got better in the Russian economy over the past three months. Investment is picking up from a small base, and reserves in the central bank are increasing by $2bn (£1.37bn) a month. There is a real hope that Russia is turning the corner.

There have been three catalysts in this change. The first is the oil price, which has tripled over three years to $30 a barrel. The second is the financial crisis which took place in August 1998. This gave a massive competitive boost to export-oriented sectors and provided room to manoeuvre for domestic companies. The final factor is the relative political stability. Previously, nobody knew whether Yeltsin was going to survive until the next week, which made for a volatile political situation. Putin, for all his faults, is younger, more dynamic, and more in control. In the first five months of his presidency, he has done more to tackle structural reforms than Yeltsin did in the previous five years.

The big question is whether Russia is on the path to sustainable medium-term recovery. There are a lot of large hurdles left to jump.

Roland Nash is chief economist at Renaissance Capital, a Moscow investment bank.

Geraldine Fagan The impact on the general populace of the bombing in the metro underpass, the Kursk tragedy and then the TV tower fire has not been as significant as the bombing of the tower blocks in Moscow last summer. Then, everyone was absolutely terrified. Now, events have created a mood which is predominantly one of sadness. Generally, people think that Putin is alright. I haven't heard any real criticism of him yet, but it still doesn't seem like he has been in power long.

The oligarchs know that they aren't going to be supported any more, and there will be less opportunity for powerful individuals to control political events now. The setting up of a tier of regional governors is a big change under Putin, and a sign that he is going to try and keep them in check, within an intact national unit.

There remains a big difference between cities like Moscow and St Petersburg and the provinces. Moscow in particular appears to be quite optimistic, but in some areas of the countryside, the poverty and alcoholism are still absolutely horrendous.

Geraldine Fagan is the Moscow correspondent for the Keston Institute, Oxford, which monitors the freedom of religion in Russia and the former Communist countries.

Falcon Stuart You can see how open Russian society is becoming by the increasing satire in its songs. There is an openness in lyrics coming from the younger generation. The music scene, which was underground, is now overground, which speaks volumes. We can see a new level of acceptance in the words of these artists, which are a reflection of their society.

When a country is moving from one economic model to another there will be problems. Ongoing maintenance has to be part of the plan now. Change is being forced upon Russia. It never got around to thinking things through, because it was a culture based upon spin. Now it is realising that there has to be substance too. It has to create a system where talent can be utilised. This requires an open society, and recent events have pushed these agendas forward. Russia has been shocked out of depression.

Falcon Stuart is a director of the British Pop Project in the former Soviet Union.

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