Russia is emerging as a regional power with its energy boom. This economic boost has led to President Putin's government becoming even stronger and low chances for fair elections and freedom of speech in the ex-communist country.
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SIMON MARKS, NewsHour Special Correspondent:
Every night for 28 years, Gennady Loginov has driven the streets of Moscow. One of the longest-serving trolley bus drivers in the Russian capital, from behind the wheel he's been able to measure the historic shift that took place here after the Soviet Union collapsed and a new Russia rose to prominence in its wake.
Driving the streets at night, he can physically see the energy-led boom that is bringing unprecedented prosperity to Moscow, flooding the Russian capital with cars and bright lights that at this time of year illuminate this once-gloomy city for 15 hours a day.
GENNADY LOGINOV, Trolley Bus Driver (through translator):
It's impossible to keep to the schedule now, because there are traffic jams everywhere. And the city used to be a lot darker.
First of all, we never had these kind of illuminations. And even the street lamps were different. There were lights, but compared with today, it was a lot worse.
The lights of Moscow bear witness to Russia's new economic confidence and to a sense that, in the capital at least, the authorities have money to burn.
That prosperity is derived from Russia's natural abundance in gas and oil and the soaring prices of both on global markets. Russia controls around one-third of the world's total natural gas reserves, and most of the gas industry is controlled by the state-owned conglomerate Gazprom.
It's now the world's third-largest company, worth more than $300 billion. Its business reaches far beyond Russia's borders. It now supplies fully one-third of Western Europe's gas imports from its control room in central Moscow and is quite literally a major player, keeping European households warm and industries powered this winter.
Sergei Kuprianov is Gazprom's spokesman.
SERGEI KUPRIANOV, Gazprom Spokesman (through translator):
There is no alternative to Gazprom for European consumers. Maybe they are starting to realize this, and they're getting a little nervous about it. But this has been clear for a long time.
There are no equivalent gas reserves to ours, and gas output in Europe has been rapidly falling. Our position is absolutely constructive. We reach out a hand and offer partnership; we offer to build our relations in a way that causes no one any offense, so that we can really build our joint businesses, over the long term, based on contractually defined relations.
Gazprom is defensive on the issue of its motives and business practices, insisting publicly that it's like any other global corporation, simply seeking the best financial deal it can find for its 470,000 shareholders, the largest one of which happens to be the Russian government.