It could be called the vodka index, and it is perhaps as reliable an indicator of the popularity of Russian leaders as any opinion poll. In 2003, Moscow's Kristall distillery began producing Putinka vodka, and it shot up in popularity almost as quickly as its near-namesake, Vladimir Putin. By the end of 2007, it was the country's second-best-selling brand, with 2.7 percent of the $11 billion vodka market. But within weeks of Putin's endorsement of Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, the Perekrestok supermarket chain cut Putinka prices by 25 percent. At the same time, Rospatent, Russia's trademark registry, was swamped with applications to register brand names containing the word "Medved"—Russian for "bear"—for vodka and other products.
Chances are good Russians will take to them with the same enthusiasm as the Putin paraphernalia. A poll last month by the Moscow-based Levada Center showed Medvedev's approval rating at a staggering 82 percent—up from around 24 percent when he was anointed in early December, and well ahead of Putin's 71.3 percent rating when he was re-elected president in 2004. This surge is partly a reflection of Putin's enormous appeal. Russians who like the president have taken to his choice of successor, and see Medvedev's ascension as a sign of continued stability. Those who don't like Putin and his authoritarian ways still view Medvedev favorably because he lacks Putin's KGB baggage and is seen as a potentially more liberal leader. Moreover, as a first deputy prime minister, Medvedev's brief was to look after social-welfare programs, which has meant plenty of positive media coverage as he visited hospitals and the like.
Medvedev mania is already fueling demand for things like posters and framed portraits of the president in waiting. They aren't yet available in Moscow stationery and book stores, but merchants are now putting in their orders with manufacturers. "We're expecting them to be big sellers," says Lyubov Kuznetsova, a manager at the giant Dom Knigi bookstore on Moscow's New Arbat street. Meanwhile, official portraits of Putin, in a variety of poses and sizes, languish on the shelf. Dom Knigi doesn't plan to discount them—"that would be disrespectful," says Kuznetsova—but no one has bought one for weeks. Still, brand Putin, like the politician, isn't through quite yet. Putin has said he plans to stay on as Russia's prime minister after the March 2 presidential election. But Russia's consumers will soon be toasting the start of a new era with a Medvedev-brand vodka.
—Owen MatthewswithAnna Nemtsova
Diamond Trade: Into Africa
Since colonial times, Africa's diamonds have been mined and shipped abroad, where the real money was made on cutting and polishing. Now, De Beers executive director Stephen Lussier says the diamond giant plans to bring much of its sorting and prepping work back to South Africa, Namibia and particularly Botswana, where the government partners with De Beers to mine about $2.6 billion worth of the world's yearly diamond output. Next month De Beers will open an $83 million sorting building in Gaborone that by 2010 could become the source of 10 percent of all manufacturing jobs in Botswana. Why now? Botswana, analysts say, may have pushed DeBeers to help it industrialize before its diamond reserves are used up. Nobel economist and globalization critic Joseph Stiglitz calls the deal "an important move" with "real value" for both parties. It's a clear turning point for an industry once accused of exploiting Africa's mineral riches.
Asian Values: Till Whim Do Us Part
Even as Valentine's Day approaches, many Chinese couples are falling out of love. That's the unsentimental picture painted by a new report from the government, showing that more than 1.4 million couples divorced last year, 18 percent more than in 2006. This continues what party elders might call the "splittist" tendency dating from 2003, when a new marriage law made it easier to part ways. Couples no longer need permission from their employers or community committees to separate. Now all it takes is 20 minutes and 10 renminbi (about $1 and change).
The boom, experts say, is driven by changing mores that no longer cast divorce as disgrace. The rise of gender equality means affluent women, in particular, no longer put up with infidelities they would have tolerated in the past. China's one-child policy has also created a generation of only children accustomed to getting what they want, not to the compromises required in marriage. While divorce used to be an urban thing, it is going rural, because more peasants are taking long stints at jobs in the city, straining marriages, says Shu Xin, the founder of two marriage-counseling centers with more than 2,700 clients in Beijing and Shanghai. "As societal attitudes toward marriage continue to relax, the divorce rate among peasants will rise" further, he warns.
New Media: The Scrabulous Scrap
In mid-January, when Scrabble co-owners Hasbro and Mattel sent a cease-and-desist order to the makers of Facebook's Scrabulous—the word game that ranks as one of the social-networking site's most popular applications, with 600,000 users daily—online fans panicked. "Save Scrabulous" groups (encompassing close to 47,600 members) protested the shutdown and threatened boycotts. "Hasbro and Mattel are wringing their own necks," one user declared.
Legal experts say that the case against Scrabulous's inventors is hardly open and shut. According to Jonathan Zittrain, Oxford Internet scholar, Scrabulous might be able to keep the game if it changes certain features, like the name and the physical board. But the more important point concerns Hasbro and Mattel, which seem to be following the path of other industries (like music and newspapers) that have tried to defend closed, for-pay business models in the open world of the Internet, and largely failed.
Now the game makers—who also own favorites Monopoly, Clue and Risk—are under intense pressure to play catch-up with emerging Web technologies, says Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is a fantastic new market that's been developed for free. Hasbro should look to capitalize on this while they have the opportunity, before other copycats arrive."
Fast Chat: Zero-Gravity Travel
Billionaire Richard Branson and aerospace designer Burt Rutan have unveiled SpaceShipTwo, the world's first tourist spaceship. They plan to put the craft on trial later this year, with tickets going for $200,000 a head. NEWSWEEK's Jacqui Goddard talks to former NASA engineer and "Rocket Boys" author Homer Hickam about the final frontier for tourism.
Goddard: How big a deal is SpaceShipTwo?
Hickam: It may be the only game in town for private space travelers since it looks like the Russians are going to get out of the space-tourist business in favor of flying NASA astronauts, who will soon lack the ability to go on an American ship. [The space-shuttle program is set to end in 2010.]
How safe is this thing?
It should be very safe. There really isn't much in the way of unproven technology about it, with the exception of the composite materials used for its construction. No one knows how these materials will hold up over many flights, but computer models look good.
What will travelers see and feel?
It should be an exciting ride with a brief, though marvellous view … One good thing about SpaceShipTwo is it will only have a single trajectory, and weightlessness will be brief. That means space sickness won't have time to set in. Upset stomachs in zero gravity are the bane of astronauts.