MOSCOW–The struggling nation of Russia took a major step toward getting out of debt and achieving financial independence Monday, when it became an official Amway distributor.

Russian citizens set up a makeshift Amway table on the streets of St. Petersburg.

"I can't express how wonderful it feels to finally be in control of our destiny," Russian president Vladimir Putin said. "To be able to start up our own company in our spare time with only a small up-front investment is an incredible opportunity."

Russia's involvement with Amway began when longtime Putin friend Elaine Pendergast, a 44-year-old Skokie, IL, homemaker, told him about the program during a recent visit to Moscow.

"Elaine started by asking me and some of the top parliamentary leaders to write down Russia's goals and dreams," Putin said. "Many of them were things we'd all talked about before, like increasing the GNP, paying off our overseas loans, and rebuilding our crumbling industrial base. After we did that, Elaine showed us 'The Plan.' It said that by working only eight to ten hours in our spare time, we could not only be making money from regular sales of products people need in daily life, but within a few years, we could also have a network of distributors making money for us. With Amway, there are 10 different ways to make money."

Even though Putin was enthusiastic about this potentially lucrative business venture, he said he would not have signed on if the products his people were selling were not things they themselves would use.

"Russia has plentiful oil and natural gas reserves and one-sixth of the world's iron ore deposits," Putin said. "We don't need to sell inferior products to make a quick buck. Everything Amway sells is strictly top-of-the-line. And even though many might balk at the higher-than-average prices, many Amway products are highly concentrated, making the cost per use actually less."

Added Putin, "Did you know that Amway deals with 90 percent of the Fortune 500 companies?"

Shortly after ordering 147,700,000 "opportunity kits" from the Amway home office in Ada, MI, Russia began embracing the Amway lifestyle, removing all other brands from its store shelves and stocking only Amway products, such as Active-8, a juice drink, and FA-8, a laundry detergent.

"It just doesn't make sense to have our own business and still buy products from other companies," Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said. "If Russia owned a car company, would we go out and buy a Ford if we needed a car? I don't think so. Plus, with our 30 percent distributor discount, we'd be crazy to buy from anyone else."

To generate enthusiasm among the populace, Russian television stations are airing Amway videotapes featuring motivational speeches made by top-selling, or "Diamond," distributors.

"After seeing those tapes, I'm all fired up to get to Silver Distributor status. It won't be long before we're on the cover of Amagram," said Kasyanov, referring to the monthly newsletter for Amway distributors.

As further motivation, Russia has erected billboards bearing such phrases as "Show The Plan" and "Go Diamond" in town squares across the nation. In addition, the Russian national anthem has been changed to "Tough Times Don't Last, Tough People Do."

To stay on top of the latest Amway developments, a coalition of top Russian leaders will travel to Pendergast's home for monthly meetings.

"At first, it seemed like traveling to Skokie every month would be an enormous hassle," Putin said. "But Elaine pointed out that Russia can't let that kind of 'stinking thinking' keep us from our goals. We have to look to the future and take whatever steps are necessary to make our dreams reality."

Despite Russia's excitement, some of its neighbors are skeptical. For nearby Tajikistan, the lure of easy money for minimal effort is one it has heard before.

"The proud nation of Tajikistan is sad to say it was once an Amway distributor," Tajikistan president Emomali Rahmonov said. "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the other republics seemed to be doing so much better than us. Amway waved a golden carrot in front of us, and we reached out for it. But after two years, we found ourselves in debt to Amway. Our sponsor, Roger, just kept on telling us that we had to try harder. But the harder we tried, the deeper in debt we got. And being an Amway distributor certainly didn't help our relations with our neighbors: It's hard to form alliances when countries are afraid you're going to try to sell them Estée Lauder knockoffs."

"I wish Russia had talked to us before committing to Amway," Rahmonov continued. "At this point, though, they're too brainwashed to reason with. If you try to warn them, they'll just say you're bringing in negative thoughts and that they have to be like a rhino and bust through all of that. I can't believe we were once that way, too. I'm just glad Iran didn't call for a jihad on Tajikistan, what with the way we were constantly bugging them to buy toothpaste from us."