Whenever I arrive in Moscow, I am impressed by its new shops and buildings. But another key aspect of the Yeltsin era - its rollicking debates - has fallen silent. Part of the explanation for this is increased official control, part is declining public interest, and part is that Russia's problems nowadays simply seem less urgent.
After the government seized influence over the independent television networks, NTV and TV6, Russia's media became vastly duller. The latest fad is for officials to sue newspapers for libel, demanding over $1 million. Russian journalists are often corrupt, and tens of thousands of dollars are paid for a single defaming TV program or newspaper article. Yet, systematic silencing of Russia's media is unnecessary.
The reason for this is simple: the lives of ordinary people are improving, so they support Putin willingly. Their main concern is the falling growth rate - from 9% in 2000 to 3.5-4% this year - yet output statistics keep rising. Indeed, the only big macroeconomic debate concerns exchange rate policy, where Presidential advisor Andrei Illarionov argues that Russia's real exchange rate is too high - indeed, is now as high as in 1998.
But if the exchange rate is about to cause trouble, there is still good news on the money front. At long last, Viktor Gerashchenko is out as Chairman of the Central Bank of Russia, replaced by First Deputy Minister of Finance Sergei Ignatiev.