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Russians Worried, Defiant Amid Financial Crisis

  • Zlatica Hoke

Despite dire predictions about Russia's economy for 2015, many Russians welcomed the New Year with cheers and hopes for a better future. With the sinking value of the ruble, some people say they crave stability more than they do prosperity. But the troubles, including political tensions with the West, seem to have spurred a surge of national pride, something Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to boost with his New Year's message. Hopes for a better future also seem especially high among Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

The fireworks in Moscow's Red Square on New Year's Eve were greeted with much enthusiasm, recalling better times in Russia.

"We wish the most positive, all the best, for Russia. It will win - Russia is always the best, the most powerful. Russia rules! Hooray! Go Russia!" said one Muscovite.

But sinking oil prices combined with Western sanctions against Russia could lead to an economic recession in the country this year. The value of the Russian ruble has declined by about one-half against Western currencies, bewildering ordinary Russians.

"I looked at the exchange rate every day. It was simply interesting for me to watch this exchange rate that was growing and falling and then growing. But it had no effect on me. When you have nothing you can't lose anything either!" said Elena, a local.

Even President Putin warned Russians of the possible difficulties ahead.

"In the coming year, we will together have to solve many problems. And the year will turn out the way we ourselves decide to make it -- the results will be as effective, creative, as each of us endeavor to make them. There are simply no other recipes,” said Putin.

But while he vowed that Russia will soon overcome its problems, Putin's opponents are predicting a dark future.

"The end is near, the country is at the brink of going down. I have these kinds of feelings. That's why I'm saying that people will take to the street demanding a change to the situation, and we will contribute to this. That's why I think that 2015 is a very important year. I would say it may be a historic year," said Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister and opposition leader.

Russian financial officials say that with some effort, an economic disaster can be avoided.

"Any improvement, even a very small local one, in general policy, is able to strengthen the markets. For example, European sanctions need to be voted upon to be extended, and maybe if Russia doesn't give cause for a strengthening of sanctions, we can get a positive result in that case," said Sergei Romanchuk, who works in the foreign exchange and money market department at Metallinvestbank.

The most recent polls show that President Putin still enjoys strong popular support, between 70 and 80 percent. That support is especially high among Russian speakers in Crimea, a Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia last March - and despite shortages of water and electricity they have suffered ever since.

"We came today to the square to celebrate the New Year together with the town, with the people and to see Putin. They have promised they will switch off the light in the apartments, but we really wanted to see the president. So that's why we came: to feel the unity and the mood of the town. And to celebrate the New Year," said a resident of Sevastopol.

The annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for Russian separatists in the rest of eastern Ukraine have earned Western condemnation and contributed to Russia's economic woes. Some Russians are looking at it philosophically.

"We have got used to being more optimistic, despite everything. Because if you don't laugh, you can go crazy," said Anastasia Khripunova, a student.

Others look at the situation with a sense of humor. One singer asked Santa Claus to send Russians a new and unused president packed in a gift box, with a return label in case he is not satisfactory.

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