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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 09:40 GMT
Viewpoints: Russian elections
Moscow street scene, with election poster for United Russia

Six Russian panellists give their views on how their country has changed under President Vladimir Putin, ahead of parliamentary elections in December.

The pro-Putin United Russia party is expected to emerge as the dominant force in the lower chamber of parliament, the Duma. The opposition says the polls will not be fair, as the electoral system has been engineered to boost parties loyal to the president.

Though Mr Putin steps down as president next year, he has indicated he could remain in politics by applying to become prime minister.

The BBC's Artyom Liss in Moscow has compiled these viewpoints.

Click on the links below to read what they have to say.

Andrei Volozhanin
Andrey Volozhanin, taxi-firm owner

Marina Litvinovich
Marina Litvinovich, Opposition politician

Konstantin Zhilin
Konstantin Zhilin, designer

Anton Goltsman
Anton Goltsman, student

Ella Usachyova
Ella Usachyova, student

Sergei Markov
Sergei Markov, Pro-Kremlin analyst

Andrey Volozhanin is a taxi company owner who lives in Yekaterinburg, the Urals

Over the last four years, my life as a businessman got a lot easier. Compare this with the 1990s - the difference couldn't be greater. There are no more gangs, there is no more racketeering. People pay their taxes and are more honest as business partners.

Andrei Volozhanin
Mr Volozhanin says Russia is now an easy place to make money

And the reason for this is simple: people feel confident. They know they live in a stable country. The government is not going to let them down and the rules of the game are not going to change.

There is still one serious problem though - corruption. It's overwhelming in the Urals. I'm sure if President Putin knew, he would have done something about it.

But all this is politics, and I'm not interested in it. I've got my own political party - my wife and my daughters. My only concern is to make sure they are happy.

I haven't yet decided whether I will vote. I'm not sure my vote will really matter. After all, I'm just one businessman living in a really big country.

There are enough clever people in power without me. I want them to ensure the country continues along its present course, and things continue to get better. It doesn't matter much who is in power - everything depends on the economics. As long as oil prices are high, we should be OK.

What should we do next? Learn from the Arabs. Invest oil profits and develop tourism, technology and the entertainment industry. I really admire what the sheikhs have done to the Emirates. And I dream of moving there one day.

I'm sure it'll all happen if I work hard enough. Russia is an easy place to earn money. A year ago I was just a driver - now I have my own taxi company.

Anton Goltsman, a student at the Moscow Economics School

Politics in Russia is dull. Politics on TV is even duller - its full of relentless praise for the president and minor criticism of his bureaucrats. Sometimes, there's an odd report on how good life in the new Russia has become.

Anton Goltsman
Mr Goltsman says his well-being has nothing to do with Mr Putin

Don't get me wrong: life in Russia really has improved in the past four years. But this has nothing to do with who runs the country.

The only achievement of the present government - indeed, of the single person who matters in it, Vladimir Putin - is that some of the money brought to the county by high oil prices hasn't been stolen. There is some investment and it seems to be paying off.

But the economy would have grown anyway. The reforms of the 1990s ensured this would happen - it's just a coincidence that the growth is taking place now.

Mr Putin's critics say there's little or no democracy in Russia today. They might be right.

But Russia was falling apart when Mr Putin came to power. The country needed a strong leader, and it's to Mr Putin's credit that Russia survives as a geographic entity.

He has also achieved another important victory. Russians are now proud to be living in their country, which few people could say in the 1990s.

But the well-being of ordinary people, like my family, has nothing to do with Mr Putin's policies. Three years ago I entered university, not because the government helped me out but because I worked hard on my exam papers.

If people want to be successful, to earn good money, to do the jobs they like, it shouldn't matter to them who sits in the Kremlin. They should be thanking themselves, not the president.

After all, Russia is still full of poor people and the president seems to be unable to help them.

Marina Litvinovich is an opposition politician from Moscow

I could give you a list of recent changes in Russia's public life - extremism laws are now a lot tougher, party laws have become much stricter, and the word "election" is now little more than an empty shell.

Marina Litvinovich
Russia's laws are unwritten and undemocratic, Ms Litvinovich argues

I could also tell you about attacks against the opposition, journalists and human rights activists. Some of them are now in jail, some have been beaten up and even killed.

I've lost count of all attacks against me. I was beaten up in a street after I started investigating the Beslan tragedy. I was detained in St Petersburg three times, and six times in Nizhny Novgorod. I travelled to those cities to set up dissenters' marches or hold opposition conferences. My office and my car have been searched on numerous occasions.

I remember being on a St Petersburg-Moscow train once when the police came after me. There were three officers guarding our compartment door. Both doors of the carriage were sealed. Even the conductor was screaming: "They've caught a terrorist!"

I was escorted off the train by armed police officers, like a criminal. And what did I do? Nothing but try to set up a peaceful opposition rally - surely the Russian constitution allows that? But the constitution is now worth little more than the paper it's printed on. The laws have changed. They are unwritten and undemocratic.

And my nation has changed, too. It's now a nation of people who are scared. People do all they can to distance themselves from politics, to lock themselves up in their "little worlds" of family and friends.

And they are likely to give this regime a new lease of life on 2 December. The propaganda machine will present the result, whatever it is, as "the unanimous approval of the president's course".

I'm afraid after the election things will only get worse. But I'm also sure the number of our supporters is only going to grow. The Russian people are very patient. But even for them, there is a point of no return.

Ella Usachyova is a student at the Moscow International Relations Institute

Mr Putin came to power in 2000 when we had a very weak state riddled with serious problems, and political leaders were highly unpopular. Russia was on the edge of a break-up. People pinned their hopes on a miracle.

Ella Usachyova
Many Russians believe that Russia is a superpower again

But since then, we have witnessed a miracle. Mr Putin managed to stabilise the situation. His second term in office has been marked by the launch of a number of far-reaching political reforms. As a result, a party of power has emerged. Oligarchs are no longer able to use Russia's resources to their own advantage.

The edifice of "managed democracy" erected in Mr Putin's first four years has undergone major renovations. There have been significant changes in the election law, both federally and locally.

There have also been some changes in Russia's foreign policy. Mr Putin's approach has not marked the beginning of a "new Cold War" between the West and Russia.

But it has meant that after 15 years of shuffling along as the ruined remnant of the collapsed Soviet superpower, Russia is returning to the international arena to pursue its own interests.

However, the gist of Russia's strength is shifting from the military potential to natural resources. Within the last three years, Russia's status as an energy superpower has become a means to protect sovereignty and exert influence abroad.

It's unlikely that the next president will share Mr Putin's appeal and popular support. Mr Putin has laid down certain grounds for his successor that will be followed in terms of domestic and foreign policy.

Konstantin Zhilin, a designer who lives in Moscow

We got lucky when we were starting our business four years ago because the government had just brought in a new, simpler tax code. And up until very recently, things were going really well.

Konstantin Zhilin
Some businessmen predict uncertain times after the Putin era

All our customers - mostly small or medium businesses - seemed to be making good progress. There was this euphoria about the future. I'm now amazed at what some of them have achieved.

But since last August, things seem to have been changing. People are cutting advertising budgets which makes life difficult for us. I think suddenly there's a new feeling of instability. Maybe it's linked to the election - I don't know. One of our customers told me he had a feeling the country's economic boom simply would not last that long.

Look at all these Mercedes and Porsches out on the streets of Moscow. Some people might say they show how rich and powerful Russia has become.

But I also see this as a sign of instability. If you are building a long-term business model, you won't be buying Porsches - you'll be investing in your company. Your children and grandchildren will need a solid source of income, not a photograph of you and your sports car.

Many people are feeling uneasy - what if the government turns around and decides to nationalise everything? So they're enjoying life while they can. Nobody knows what's going to happen to them or to the country.

If there is one thing the government should learn, it's that the business people are not there to rip the country off. We create jobs, we help people earn their money. We are building this country.

Sergei Markov is a pro-Kremlin political analyst and United Russia member who lives in Moscow

During his second term in office, Mr Putin continued along the course he had set for himself and the country when he first came to power.

Sergei Markov
Russia is immune from "people's revolutions", Mr Markov argues

His main goal has been to restore the power of the Russian state, which has now become a major player in the key oil and gas sectors. This has vastly improved the financial situation in Russia.

The North Caucasus has been largely pacified. In Chechnya, the new power system has been established, improving the security situation and providing for more human rights. However, radical Islamism still remains a threat - as shown by the Beslan tragedy.

Economically, Russia is moving towards a free-market system - but reforms have been a lot slower than expected. Where once liberalism ruled unrivalled, there is now more belief in the benefits of state involvement.

Domestically, oligarchs have been brought to heel. Tycoons like Boris Berezovsky or Mikhail Khodorkovsky are no longer as serious a threat to the Kremlin as they used to be.

But there are new threats. The Kremlin is facing the danger of "people's revolutions", similar to upheavals in Georgia and Ukraine. However, in this sphere, too, Mr Putin seems to be in control. Moscow has been approaching the issue by setting up patriotic youth movements which support Mr Putin's policies.

Diplomatically, there are now new tensions between Russia and the West. The main cause is Washington's desire to control some of the post-Soviet countries, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and to some extent, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

Over the next four years, we are likely to see the trends of 2000-2008 continuing. The United Russia party promises voters it will carry out "Putin's Plan" for the country.

This party's role will be crucial in resolving Russia's key dilemma - whether President Putin should leave office, as required by the constitution, or stay on, as most Russians want him to. In this period of transition, the United Russia party will serve as a bridge between Russia as we know it today - and Russia "after Putin".

Whoever rules the state after the election will face some unresolved problems, including how to tackle corruption. Their task, ultimately, will be to ensure the transition to a new Russia, where stability will be provided not by one person at the top, but by a well-run and well-adjusted system of state institutions.

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