- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 4, 2007

MOSCOW — Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is growing concern in Western capitals over the state of Russian democracy. But for many in this country’s emerging middle class, the freedom to shop seems more important.

“If democracy means having to live like we did in the ‘90s, people starving in the streets and girls prostituting themselves to feed their families, then no thanks,” said Valeria Batunina, 32, clutching two bags of clothes she had bought at Mega Mall Tyoply Stan, which claims to be Europe’s busiest shopping center.

“Now people can afford to buy a new car, nice clothes, even travel somewhere warm in the winter,” she said.

With the economy booming thanks to high oil and gas prices, incomes have soared and Russians are spending as never before.

On a typical weekend, Moscow’s streets become hopelessly jammed with cars heading to enormous suburban shopping centers such as the 1.7-million-square-foot Mega Mall, where jostling customers stuff their carts with everything from Swedish furniture to Calvin Klein underwear.

The stores — run by companies like IKEA and Benetton — would be familiar to a typical Western shopper, although in Russia, they tend to be twice the size of their counterparts in Europe or North America.

Soaring international energy prices have made life in Russia — the world’s largest exporter of gas and second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia — better than anyone can remember.

After seven years of steady decline through the late 1990s, Russia has recorded eight straight years of economic growth, with expansion for 2006 estimated at 7 percent — more than three times the rate in the European Union.

President Vladimir Putin boasted at a press conference last week that Russia’s gross domestic product topped $1 trillion last year, while adding that his top priority was still to raise living standards.

“Russia has one of the fastest-growing income and consumption rates in the world,” said Mikhail Terentiev, a consumer analyst at Moscow’s Troika Dialog investment bank. “People who could never afford to buy quality goods now can.”

Car sales have risen sixfold since 2001, with Russians spending $32 billion on cars last year. Only 3 million Russians owned mobile phones in 2000, but today, more than 80 million do.

From less than 5 percent in 2001, the number of households owning a personal computer has jumped to about 20 percent. Consumer lending is also booming, and many Russians are getting their first taste of credit cards.

A flat income-tax rate of 13 percent and remnants of the Soviet system, such as subsidized housing and utilities, mean that many Russians have more disposable income than typical Western consumers.

Salaries still lag far behind those in Western countries, with the average income in Moscow only about $800 a month. Millions of Russians, especially pensioners and rural residents, continue to live in abject poverty.

Analysts say there can be no doubt about the emergence of a growing middle class, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Most Russians credit Mr. Putin with fostering the economic boom by ensuring stability after the political chaos of President Boris Yeltsin’s rule in the 1990s. Mr. Putin’s approval ratings often surpass 80 percent, even as his image in the West has deteriorated since he began his second term in 2004.

Western critics accuse Mr. Putin of backtracking on democratic reforms by muzzling the press, rewriting election rules to favor his supporters and imposing heavy restrictions on nongovernmental organizations.

But few Russians see Mr. Putin as anti-democratic, and most support his attempts to consolidate more power in the Kremlin. In a poll released by the Pew Research Center last year, 81 percent of Russians said a strong economy is more important than a good democracy.

“What the Western critics and newspapers don’t understand is that Russians feel they have more personal freedom now than they did under Yeltsin,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin.

“Russians see freedoms as not just political, but also social and economic. Democracy is about more than just the rules of political competition, it’s also about if people’s children can get a good education or if they can travel to another country.”

Shopping in Mega Mall’s enormous grocery store with her granddaughter, Svetlana, 48, laughed off suggestions of a return of Soviet-style dictatorship in Russia.

“Nobody would say that who was there at the time. People are forgetting how bad it really was. You used to need connections just to get tangerines for the holidays,” she said, looking out over rows of fresh fruits and vegetables imported from around the globe. “It can never go back to the way it was.”

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