Russia's political elite has been stung by a recently declassified CIA report that suggests the world's largest country could fall apart at the seams in a decade and split into as many as eight different states.
The report, Global Trends 2015, has sparked a lively debate in Russia about the country's territorial integrity and triggered passionate denunciations from some of Russia's leading politicians. Its unflinchingly bleak assessment of Russia's prospects has angered many at a time when the Russian government is doing its best to talk up the economy.
The fact that the gloomy prognosis comes from its old Cold War enemy makes it all the harder for Russia to swallow. But many ordinary Russians seem to share the CIA's pessimism.
An opinion poll conducted by radio station Ekho Moskvy earlier this week revealed that 71 per cent of those surveyed (3,380 people) thought that the disintegration of the motherland was a "real threat".
Yesterday's Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper printed a map for its readers showing how Russia might look by 2015 if the CIA is right. It showed Siberia broken up into four different countries, with western Russia similarly partitioned.
It is not for nothing that president Vladimir Putin's party is called United Russia. According to the CIA, some of Russia's eastern regions are so rich in natural resources such as oil and gas that they will opt to break away from Moscow, which they have long accused of poor governance.
Komsomolskaya Pravda was dismissive of the report. "Either the CIA has super perspicacious analysts who can see what mortal Russians, including politicians and political scientists, cannot, or someone has got it wrong," it said.
Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Russian parliament, said: "I completely reject the possibility of Russia breaking up.
"Over the past four years, a lot has been done to strengthen vertical power and legislation in the constituent parts of the Russian Federation was brought into line with the constitution a long time ago."
According to the CIA report, a falling birth rate meant that the country's population was likely to decline to 130 million by 2015 from 146 million today. It also painted a picture of Russia as a terminally ill patient.
"The Soviet economic inheritance will continue to plague Russia," the report said. "Besides a crumbling physical infrastructure, years of environmental neglect are taking a toll on the population, a toll made worse by such societal costs of transition as alcoholism, cardiac diseases, drugs and a worsening health delivery system. Russia's population is not only getting smaller, but it is becoming less and less healthy and less able to serve as an engine of economic recover."
Dmitry Orlov, the director of Russia's political and economic communications agency, claimed the CIA had an ulterior motive. "The conservative wing of the American Republican party is interested in the maximum weakening of Russia's position and maybe even in its fragmentation," Mr Orlov told the Izvestia newspaper
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