Tanking economy, recovering population and increasing world presence: How Russia has changed under Putin

As Russians head to the polls for the presidential election on Sunday March 18, the outcome will not be in doubt for a moment.

Vladimir Putin is even more popular now, after 18 years in power, than the last time he stood in 2012. The last independent survey of voters in December found that 61 per cent would cast their ballot for a fourth term for the president, whose approval rating has not dipped below 80 per cent since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

That put him 53 points ahead of the nearest challenger, clearing the path for another six years of Mr Putin’s rule. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been barred from running and kept off state television, but would be unlikely to win if he was allowed into the race.

Russians’ love for their president can be hard for foreigners to understand, and goes beyond just Crimea’s return to the fold.

The country has transformed dramatically under Mr Putin, thanks both to external factors and the course he has set. He shifted away from pro-Western overtures and economic reforms of his early years toward a consolidation of power, aggressive foreign policy and stress on traditional values, even as living standards rose.

Meanwhile, the price of Russia’s main export, oil, shot up to more than $100 per barrel and then halved again.

How has Russia changed under Mr Putin? Statistics offer a picture that is hardly black-and-white.

A tanking economy

Russian GDP per capita rose steadily under Putin until a combination of international sanctions and falling oil prices caused a steep fall after 2014. This has left Russia with a lower GDP per capita than Poland.

In total, Russian GDP fell by almost half during this period, dropping from over $2 billion in 2014 down to $1.28 billion in 2016, according to figures from the World Bank.

The ruble has also felt the sting in recent years. It has fallen steeply in response to sanctions and the fall in oil prices, and by 2015 one ruble was worth less than two US cents.

The collapse of the ruble also had a knock on effect for Russia’s international debt, meaning that the Russian government and Russian businesses have seen large increases to their debt payments.

Improvements at home

It isn’t all bad news for Putin though. Standards of living at home have increased.

The lives of average Russians have improved under Vladimir Putin, according to a series of international metrics. Economic and social reforms have led to a large increase in both GDP and GDP per capita since 2000, which has allowed average wages to increase. Monthly incomes have jumped considerably, while unemployment has also halved and currently sits at 5.3 per cent.

Social reforms have meant that the average person in Russia will now live 70.9 years – up five years compared to 2000.

Alcohol consumption has also been a target of the Putin administration. Rates of consumption are high in Russia, and drinking is a socially accepted and pervasive pass time.

After alcohol abuse was blamed for high rates of deaths, crimes and suicides, the government introduced a number of measures in an attempt to reduce consumption levels. This seems to have had an impact: since a peak in 2007, alcohol consumption has decreased year-on-year (down from 12.19 litres per capita in 2007 to 10.12 in 2014).

A recovering population

Before Putin came to power Russia’s population was falling at an alarming rate – losing more than half a million each year. This was in part due to a reluctance among Russians to have children as well as the high death rate of young Russian men.

This decline was stopped in 2009 and since then the population has been slowly growing, something which has been partially attributed to economic improvements and social welfare projects aimed at improving living standards. This appears to be the result of increased economic and political stability, although the addition of more than 2.6 million Crimeans also didn’t hurt.

Greater presence on the world stage

President Putin has also hiked military spending in order to back up a more confident stance on the world stage.

As the President seeks to compete with the US and China and reassert Russian influence in parts of the old Soviet bloc, he has bumped military expenditures up to over five per cent of GDP.

This has been at the same time as moves that have attracted international condemnation, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and then Putin’s military backing of the Assad regime in Syria.

Military expenditure increased from a modest $20.9bn in 2000 to well over $70bn in 2016 – but this still pales in comparison to the US and China who spent $606bn and $225bn respectively.

Rife corruption

Russia has also attracted criticism for its lack of transparency. It is the least transparent country in the G20 in 2017, according to Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, ranking 135th out of 180 countries.

Allegations of rampant corruption and nepotism in government, as well as ties to organised crime, have abounded during Putin’s reign. One of the most outspoken critics of this corruption, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down in 2015, and anti-Kremlin protesters have been jailed in dubious court rulings.

Former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said in 2005 that Russia’s economic growth “has come simultaneously with the destruction of free media, threats to civil society and an unmitigated corruption of justice”.

Friends of Mr Putin from his childhood in Leningrad and time in the KGB have grown fabulously wealthy. Companies belonging to his judo buddy Arkady Rotenberg and his brother, for instance, won more than $7 billion in contracts for the Sochi Olympics.

Mr Navalny’s investigations have revealed top officials’ lifestyles often far exceed their official income, and his video about prime minister Dmitry Medvedev’s huge real estate portfolio sparked street protests in dozens of cities last year.

Capital flight out of Russia

Largely owing to Russia’s increasing military activity abroad, a series of international sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard.

This has meant that the flow of international capital leaving the country has become one of Russia’s biggest problems, hitting the economy far harder than many realise.

It’s a trend which Putin has struggled to reverse. Since 2000, Russia has lost over $600 billion due to capital flight, with money pouring out of the country every year apart from two.

2014 was a particularly bad year with over $152 billion leaving the country, in part thanks to the international sanctions that have been imposed on the country since the annexation of Crimea.  

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