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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 February 2008, 16:13 GMT
Volga road trip: Political farce
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes is travelling in a Volga car along the Volga river to take a snapshot of life in Vladimir Putin's Russia, as the presidential election looms. This is his fourth piece, from the city of Ulyanovsk.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky. File photo
Candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky suggests cutting of the EU's gas

While America waits with bated breath to find out who will win their presidential primaries, here in Russia another nail-biting presidential contest is under way.

Actually that is a complete lie. There is nothing at all nail-biting about Russia's presidential race. Farce would be a better word.

Take for example what happened on Tuesday night.

Sitting in my hotel room I sat spellbound watching the first of Russia's presidential TV debates.

Dmitry Medvedev chairs a meeting on 6 February 2008
Mr Medvedev is often shown hosting important government meetings

In the studio, the three candidates squared off - one a Communist, one an ultra-nationalist, one a nobody.

From the get-go there was only one topic the ultra-nationalist was interested in - railing against America and Europe.

His solution to the EU's ban on dirty and dangerous Russian airliners flying in to European airports? Cut off the gas supplies to Europe until Brussels relents.

The Communist droned on about the wonders of life back in the Soviet Union. His chosen election mascot is none other than Joseph Stalin! The nobody sat staring at the floor saying almost nothing.

Ducking pressing issues

It was a sad parody of political debate.

map

There was no real discussion of the economy, of the erosion of democracy and human rights, or the fact that not a single real opposition candidate has been allowed to take part in the race.

Entirely absent from the proceedings was the only man with any chance of becoming Russia's next president - Dmitry Medvedev.

Instead, Mr Medvedev was over on another channel, shown hosting an important government meeting.

This is all the more sad because there are many important questions that Mr Medvedev and his mentor President Vladmir Putin should be asked.

Sitting in Moscow it's easy to believe that all is well with Russia. That under Mr Putin things have gone from strength to strength.

Dying village

But go to virtually any village in Russia and you see a very different picture.

A house in Golovka, near Ulyanovsk
Every second house is deserted in Golovka

On Monday, I drove to a small village, some 50 miles (80km) south of Ulyanovsk.

When Mr Putin came to power eight years ago the population of Golovka was 100. Now it is 50.

Every second house is deserted - some of them have started to collapse. The village street was all but empty, a few old women shuffling through the snow to collect water from the stream.

One man in his 70s was clearing the three-foot (91cm) thick snow from in front of his house. He told me he could not remember the last time he had heard the sound of a baby crying in the village.

Russia's birth rate has collapsed, its population is shrinking by 700,000 a year, and its rural economy lies in ruins.

On the surface, Russian towns and cities are doing much better. On this trip every town and city I have driven through has been jammed with traffic, a sign of just how many ordinary Russians can now afford a car.

But it is equally a sign of how little money is being spent on Russia's road infrastructure. In the centre of Ulyanovsk you bump along rutted and potholed roads that would not look out of place in sub-Saharan Africa.

Drive between Russian cities, and the lack of decent roads is even more striking. Russia has no modern highway network. I have spent the last week driving down the Volga on narrow broken two-lane roads.

Shocking statistics

All this leaves one wondering where the billions from Russia's oil and gas sales are going?

Perhaps to feed Russia's astonishing bureacracy. And I mean astonishing.

Here is a statistic I read the other day that nearly caused me to fall off my seat.

Today, Russia's bureaucracy is twice the size it was at the end of the Soviet Union! That is quite an achievement.

And what do all these bureaucrats do? Produce oceans of paper.

Here is another astonishing statistic produced by the World Bank. In Russia a small business must spend 10% of its annual turn-over on dealing with government bureaucracy - licence applications, form filling, and (no doubt) bribes.

Worse, if you want to set up a small business in Russia, roughly 50% of your initial costs will be spent on "becoming legal". The red tape is endless. No doubt a big reason why so many businessmen resort to bribery.

All of these are issues vital to Russia's economic future. But do not expect to hear them being debated in Russia's presidential election.





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