President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly delivered a tongue-lashing to the Central Bank recently, saying it had failed to restructure the troubled commercial banking system. ""I would not say our banking system is functioning normally,"" he declared. In fact, a long-needed overhaul of the banking system was just one of the big-ticket structural reform issues that Putin and his government largely ignored over the last year, and analysts say the explanation is not hard to find. With the Russian economy growing rapidly for the first time since the 1991 Soviet collapse, buoyed by high world oil prices and the lingering boost of a ruble devaluation, the impetus has all but vanished for carrying out difficult economic reforms. Putin surrounded himself last year with liberal advisers and said he supported a progressive economic agenda, promising to improve the country's unfavorable investment climate, reform taxes, cut red tape, break the impasse on land reform, defend property rights and strengthen the rule of law.
Seven-year-old Maxim Levchenko may be on his way to the World Chess Championship someday, but for the moment, he is staring in frustration at the board during an after-school lesson at the Petrosian Chess Club. ""What's the next move?"" insistently demands his instructor, Lyudmila Zaitseva. Levchenko ponders, but next to him, Sasha Solikov, 9 years old, is more decisive. With a soft tap, he places his piece in the right spot, and Zaitseva moves on. She is playing three students simultaneously, and they focus intently, without as much as a blink at a visitor. Such is the place chess holds in Russia's national psyche that, despite the hardships of recent years, the game has survived and prospered. The long dominance of Soviet and Russian chess champions was reconfirmed Thursday night by the upset of reigning world champion Garry Kasparov by one of his former students, Vladimir Kramnik, in London.