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De Volkskrant/the Netherlands

Russia faces economic problems and new demographic losses in 2023


What does the coming year bring for Russia and how will the situation in Ukraine develop? The Dutch newspaper Volkskrant talked about this with its Moscow correspondent Geert Groot Kurkamp.

Last year the West imposed harsh sanctions against Russia. Did it have any impact on everyday life?

The most surprising thing is that everyday life has hardly changed. In the spring, we did notice some price rises in shops, the disappearance of some imported goods and the departure from the country of well-known foreign brands and retail chains. But there are no empty shelves yet.

If you go onto the streets of Moscow, and this also applies to regional capitals, you will see almost nothing that would indicate that there is a war going on.

In the city centre there are indeed more and more paraphernalia with the letters Z, V or O, the military symbols of Russia, but outside it there is no sign of what is going on.

Of course, many people have left Russia in the past year. There has been a large exodus of men fearing mobilisation; women and entire families are also leaving the country. People no longer see any prospects. Everyone can name several families they know from whom someone has emigrated abroad in the past year.

Undoubtedly, this will have serious consequences.

According to some estimates, about one million people died in Russia during the pandemic, which has a huge demographic impact. At the same time, about a million people have also left the country because of the war.

Among the male population, these are people who really matter to the country. Not only leading IT specialists, but also tractor drivers, for example.

Entire offices have moved and now work abroad. Now some members of parliament want to increase taxes for people working remotely. The Ministry of Finance is against this, because they think it will cost Russia a lot of revenue if these Russians start working for local companies in the countries where they live.

If everyday life has not yet undergone concrete changes, how do people feel about sanctions?

Putin keeps stressing that the sanctions have no effect and that the economy has not collapsed.

Last year there was a 3 percent contraction. But at the same time we have to remember that 3 percent growth was expected.

Sanctions take time before they have an effect. Last year Russia still had decent revenues from gas and oil but now the G-7 and the European Union have imposed an embargo on crude oil and, since February, on oil products. Russia can only sell gas to Europe in south-east Europe, via Turkey.

Nor should we forget coal and timber, equally important export commodities from which Russia would lose revenue. The Kremlin will not be able to transfer these exports to other regions, at least not in the short term.

Russia already had a budget deficit last year, and it will continue to grow.

This will undoubtedly have serious consequences, including for combat operations in Ukraine and arms production. It will not happen overnight, but over the next few years the effect of the sanctions will become increasingly visible.

Compared to the start of the war, the protests among Russians seem to have faded. Is there anything to be said about support for the war?

There were quite large protests at the beginning, but they were dealt with very harshly. To raise your voice now is risky. You cannot even call what is happening a war, because you risk getting a long prison sentence. So the protest has gone underground.

Here and there you see something scrawled on the wall and the other day I saw the words "no to war" written in the snow. But it is very difficult to understand the degree of rejection or support for the war in Russian society.

Polls show that 70-80 percent support the war, but most people don't participate in opinion polls because of fear.

Support for Putin seems to be as consistently high, but it is always passive support. For jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny people took to the streets of their own volition, spontaneous crowds have never risen for Putin.

Nor is there any sign of any national uprising caused by the war. Putin is trying to play on "national pride" by drawing comparisons to the Patriotic Wars - Napoleon's campaign of 1812 and the Great Patriotic War of 1941 - but the people themselves are hardly reacting to this line of propaganda and are not displaying flags outside their windows.

What do we know about Putin's position now?

Putin has reached an impasse, but we do not know how long he is prepared to stomp there. There were some semblance of negotiations with Ukraine in the spring, but the new annexation of Ukrainian territories has closed off all possibilities for a peaceful solution.

A negotiated peace is now virtually out of the question. A military victory for either side is also a difficult story: neither side has sufficient resources to do so at the moment. But a "normal" peaceful coexistence with Russia, with Putin at the helm, when all is said and done, is also unimaginable.

What aspects of life in Russia are most interesting this year?

It is interesting to see how Russian society behaves. Television is still the main channel for receiving information, especially for the elderly. You only hear one point of view there.

According to the Kremlin, some six thousand Russians have died, but based on open sources, the BBC and other experts are already quoting a figure of at least eleven thousand. The real losses are undoubtedly even higher.

Last year, the Russian government blocked more than a hundred and thirty thousand websites, but many Russians now have VPNs or other means of circumventing blockades. As long as there is access to the internet, information about how things really are will leak out.

The enormous uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring is unprecedented in Russia's recent history. People are no longer buying houses, nor are they making plans for the future. Behind the loud cries of propaganda lies an avalanche of doubt, worry and uncertainty.

Source: de Volkskrant

Cover photo: AP

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