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Russia - Overview

Capital: Moscow

Population: 142,893,540 (July 2006 est.)

Languages: Russian, many minority languages

Religions: Russian Orthodox 15-20%, Muslim 10-15%, other Christian 2% (2006 est.) note: estimates are of practicing worshipers; Russia has large populations of non-practicing believers and non-believers, a legacy of over seven decades of Soviet rule

Currency: Russian ruble (RUR)

Timezone: 11 time zones from GMT+2 to GMT+12

The largest country in the world, Russia occupies a vast landmass in Northern Europe and Asia and has borders with 16 other countries. It is twice the size of the USA and covers 10 different timezones. Due to its vast size, Russia has many different climatic regions, from sub-arctic conditions in Siberia to a temperate, continental climate in the south.

European Russia and Asian Russia are divided by the Ural Mountains and the Ural River. Much of the landscape is flat, with the exception of the Urals and few other mountain ranges in the east and south. West of the Urals the landscape consists of a broad plain with rolling hills. To the east, the immense, largely inhospitable land of Siberia accounts for much of Asian Russia. Russia has more than 90 cities with over 200,000 inhabitants, and 13 cities with more than 1,000,000 inhabitants, the largest being Moscow and St Petersburg.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new political order has been established in Russia and economic growth is now steady, following a downturn in the early 1990s. Russia has capitalized on its vast natural resources, especially oil and gas, and by 2000 was the world's largest non-OPEC oil exporting country. The service sector, including banking, insurance and property-related services, has also expanded rapidly and now accounts for over half of Russia's economic output.

However, the challenges facing the government have been enormous, and many economic, social and political problems remain. Rapid economic growth has led to a concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small minority, while it is estimated that around 25% of the population live below the poverty line. There is a massive informal economy that reportedly employs around 40% of the Russian population, and organized as well as petty crime is rampant. The taxation and legal systems are not properly functional, leading to much abuse. The ancient infrastructure in many areas of the country remains poor, and the administrative machinery is reportedly slow and inefficient. There is also an ongoing threat to security and political stability from the Chechnyan separatists, who frequently resort to terrorism.

Although Russia is now formally a democracy, the government has been widely criticized for being non-democratic in its policies, including control of the media, and for its methods of warfare against the Chechnyan separatists, carried out in the name of the fight against international terrorism.

Despite its ongoing problems, Russia has made major progress since its formation in 1991, and one of the factors helping to drive this has been the influx of western businesses into the country, including international oil companies and a large number of American commercial companies. As a result, there are now significant numbers of expatriates living and working in Russia, especially in Moscow and St Petersburg.

The views of expatriates on life in Russia vary enormously. In a recent survey, Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk were all put in the bottom half of the ranking of 257 cities worldwide for expatriate living, due to factors such as high pollution, a high crime rate and the harsh climate. Of these, Moscow was rated as most desirable due to its larger expatriate community, wider availability of goods and services, better recreation facilities, and higher number of international schools (ECA International, 2006). However, many individual expatriates are positive about their experiences of living in Russia, and report feeling safer there than in other countries, even with the threat of Chechnyan terrorism and the reported high levels of street crime.

Levels of security are high, and many expatriates live in safe, gated compounds. Expats are more likely to complain about the inefficient bureaucracy and non-existent customer service than to express concern about risks to their personal security.

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