Russians face New Year with optimism even as economy struggles, tensions rise with the West

At the vast skating rink in Moscow's Gorky Park, Russians say they're looking forward to a 2015 that will be as smooth as the ice, despite the country's economic and political difficulties. The ruble has sunk, tensions with the West are up, but the troubles seem to have produced a surge in national pride.

"Russians are a nation of optimists," said Ivan Kasyanov, a skater in his 20s. "The worse things get, the better we develop."

Kasyanov brushed off concerns about the stunning decline of the ruble — which lost about half of its value against Western currencies in 2014 — and the Western sanctions imposed over Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. He doubts they would deal a serious blow to an economy that in recent years has soared on oil and gas income.

"We will put more (effort) on our industrial development," he said, echoing the spin promulgated on state-controlled TV.

A recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll showed that Russians who rely on state TV for their news think significantly more highly of President Vladimir Putin than those who tap other news sources. Still, the poll showed that in both sectors the support for Putin is resoundingly strong — 84 percent and 73 percent respectively.

Gorky Park itself is a place to encourage optimism. After becoming rundown following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the park in recent years has undergone an impressive restoration, helped along by the money and influence of Roman Abramovich, one of Russia's richest and most politically compliant men. The skating rink is its stunning centerpiece, a happy labyrinth of ice-coated lanes festooned with colored lights that stretches over 18,000 square meters (about 4 1/2 acres).

But the view is different in other quarters of the Russian capital, even in the ostentatious corridors of the GUM department store, where only the well-heeled can afford to shop.

"Here, everything changes so often. So I would like stability," shopper Olga Mozalyova said.

Concern is also strong where stock traders anxiously monitor their screens. The ruble's fall, the plunge in world oil prices and the sanctions' denial of access to Western credit have all dealt a blow to the Russian economy.

"Maybe if Russia doesn't give cause for the strengthening of sanctions, we can get a positive result in that case," said Sergei Romanchuk at Metallinvestbank.

The chances of that are not promising.

In his televised New Year's Eve message to the nation, Putin hailed the annexation of Crimea as a historic achievement and the rightful return of the peninsula's people to the bosom of Russia. Although the fighting between pro-Russian separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine has eased since September, there has been little progress on ensuring a stable cease-fire, much less withdrawing heavy weapons or resolving the complicated and inflammatory question of the region's political status.

In the offices of Russia's opposition groups, who endure constant pressure from authorities and struggle to find public support, the view of 2015 is ominous.

"The end is near, the country is at the brink of going down," said Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Putin's first prime minister but is now firm opponent. "That's why I'm saying that people will take to the streets demanding a change of the situation ... 2015 is a very important year, I would say it may be a historic year."

The opposition, usually all but invisible to ordinary Russians, made a brief show of protest two days before New Year's. A couple thousand demonstrators defied police and gathered near the Kremlin to protest the conviction of opposition stalwart Alexei Navalny and his brother on fraud charges. But the demonstration was far smaller than the anti-Putin protests that broke out two winters ago.

New Year's Day begins an extended holiday for most Russians that stretches through Orthodox Christmas until Jan. 12. The winter break is so beloved by most Russians that engaging in any serious actions like protests seems almost sacrilegious. A survey this month by the state pollster VTsIOM showed that Russians plan to spend about 20 percent more on holiday feasts and presents than they did two years ago.

At Gorky Park, the skaters were clearly determined to be festive. Student Anastasia Khripunova described herself as "optimistic, despite everything. Because if one doesn't laugh, he can become crazy."

Putin's New Year message stayed away from mentioning problems. But a few days earlier he hinted at how dire 2015 might be, saying government ministers must stay on the job through the holiday season.

"For the government, for your agencies, we cannot afford this long holiday, at least this year — you know what I mean," Putin said.


Iuliia Subbotovskaia in Moscow contributed to this report.