MOSCOW – Russia, which elects a new president on March 26, is by far the largest state to emerge from the ashes of the Soviet Union.
Despite its painful and intermittent progress towards building a democracy and modern market economy, Russia remains a global power because of its sheer size, the residual military might symbolized by its huge nuclear arsenal and its vast natural resources. Here are some key facts about it.
Territory: Spanning half the northern hemisphere from the Baltic to the Pacific, Russia's 17.1 million sq km (6.6 million sq miles) make it the world's biggest state, almost twice the size of the United States. The last European empire, it was built by Muscovite Slavs through centuries of conquest.
People: The 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union all but halved the population ruled from Moscow as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and a dozen other states broke away. The population, currently 145.7 million, has been contracting since then by an estimated 800,000 per year as environmental hazards, poor health care and economic instability take their toll. Most Russians live west of the Ural mountains. While 85 percent of the Russian Federation's population is ethnic Russian, it is a patchwork of 89 regions and republics. The bloody conflict from December 1994 to August 1996 in the Caucasus region of Chechnya, in which tens of thousands of people were killed, highlighted separatist dangers. Moscow sent troops into Chechnya again in September 1999 in a second military bid to bring the rebel territory to heel.
CIS: Moscow maintains considerable influence in the former Soviet area, partly through the loose regional alliance of 12 members known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Natural Resources: Russia could be a huge source of global fuel this century with about 49 billion barrels of oil reserves, or almost five percent of the world's total, and about one third of all natural gas reserves. Oil, gas, coal, diamonds, gold, platinum, nickel and timber are found in remote parts of Siberia, north of the Arctic Circle and in the Far East. Energy, minerals, metals and timber account for three-quarters of exports.
Agriculture: Russia's farms are still largely organized as a collective system and barely feed the nation. The 1998 grain harvest was 47.8 million tons, the worst in more than 40 years. The 1999 harvest was 54.7 million tons, still well down from the 88.5 million tons produced in 1997. Russia had to ask for international food aid in 1998 and 1999.
Industry and Commerce: Russia had an overwhelmingly peasant economy at the time of the 1917 Communist revolution, but 76 percent of Russians now live in towns. The world's biggest privatization program ranged from space rockets to supermarkets. The government is encouraging military plants to find new markets. Companies' fortunes often depend on good connections in the government.
Economy: The economy contracted sharply after the collapse of the Soviet Union, grew slightly in 1997 but shrank again in 1998 after a financial crisis in August that year.
GDP fell 4.6 percent in 1998, to 50 percent of 1991 levels, but the competitive boost from a rouble devaluation and soaring world oil prices helped it expand 3.2 percent in 1999, the largest post-Soviet rise. The 2000 forecast is plus 1.5 percent.
Official statistics tend to understate the private sector and a large informal economy. Average wages are around $50 a month, but workers are owed billions of rubles in back wages.
Russia has borrowed billions of dollars from international lenders such as the International Monetary Fund, but the Fund has delayed its latest lending program, saying Russia has not met economic targets.
Inflation soared after the breakup of the Soviet Union to a peak of 2,521 percent in 1992, was tamed by 1997 but leapt again after the 1998 financial crisis to 84.4 percent year-on-year. It dropped to 36.5 percent in 1999 and is forecast to be 18 to 20 percent this year.
Currency: The rouble stabilized to around six to the U.S. dollar by 1997 but collapsed again in 1998. By early 2000, it was at just over 28.4 to the dollar.
Society: Health and social problems are rising, aggravated by unemployment, welfare cuts, violent crime, pollution, poor housing and alcoholism. Male life expectancy is 61, down from 65 in 1986. Russian women live to over 70. The gap between rich and poor is widening. "New Russians" drive top-of-the-line Mercedes cars and holiday on the Cote d'Azur. The wealthiest 10 percent of the nation took 35.5 percent of its official income in 1999, up from 19 percent in 1991. Over 34 percent of the population live below the official poverty level.
Religion: The Russian Orthodox Church, a pillar of the state for 1,000 years before communism, is undergoing a revival. Small areas on the southern fringe and along the Volga are mostly Moslem. The Jewish community, diminished by Tsarist pogroms, the Nazi invasion and Communist persecution, is shrinking as thousands leave for Israel.
Defense: The Defense Ministry says there are 1.2 million men and women in the armed forces, down from 1.7 million in 1997. Russia has the world's second biggest navy and a vast arsenal of land, airborne, naval and submarine nuclear missiles, some 1,800 combat aircraft and about 15,500 tanks, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies data. It has withdrawn forces from eastern Europe and is scaling down home defenses. It strongly opposes NATO membership for ex-Warsaw Pact allies.
Politics: Russia is governed under a 1993 constitution which gives broad powers to the president. President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on December 31, 1999, well before the end of his term in mid-2000, prompting an early election. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became acting president and is the strongest candidate for the poll. Russia also has a two-chamber parliament.