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Russia Report: February 10, 2005

10 February 2005, Volume 5, Number 6
By Victor Yasmann

A growing number of Russia watchers seem to be coming to the conclusion that the political machine created by President Vladimir Putin is entering a profound, systemic crisis provoked by a string of political failures both at home and abroad (see "Russia On The Verge Of A Breakdown," "RFE/RL Political Weekly," 4 February 2005).

Over the last 10 months or so, Moscow has been shaken by a number of setbacks, including the assassination in May of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, a large-scale raid by Chechen militants into the Republic of Ingushetia in June, the simultaneous terrorist bombings in August of two passenger airliners, the horrific hostage taking in Beslan in September that left more than 300 dead, and a wave of social unrest in the North Caucasus Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

These domestic incidents were compounded by failures abroad, such as the convictions in June of two Russian security-services employees in Qatar in connection with the assassination there in February of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Other such foreign setbacks included the collapse of the pro-Moscow administration of Aslan Abashidze in the Georgian province of Adjara, and the defeat of pro-Russian candidates in elections in Georgia's breakaway Republic of Abkhazia and in Ukraine.

All of these events occurred against the backdrop of the long saga of the de facto renationalization of oil giant Yukos. And now this litany of failure appears to be being capped off by massive national unrest against the government's effort to convert the in-kind social benefits that were the heart of the Soviet-era safety net into cash payments.

Many analysts place responsibility for the resulting crisis on the so-called silovik oligarchy, a group of chekisty, or security-apparatus veterans, within the Putin administration that replaced the Yeltsin-era commercial oligarchy as Russia's ruling elite. Perhaps as a reaction to such criticism, one leading member of this group, Colonel General Viktor Cherkesov, published in "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 29 December a long programmatic article that might be considered something of a "Chekist Manifesto." Cherkesov, who is director of the Federal Antinarcotics Service, worked for many years in the Leningrad branch of the KGB, where he earned a reputation as a dissident hunter. He is a close friend of Putin's and formerly served as Putin's envoy to the Northwest Federal District. According to recent media rumors, Cherkesov is in line to replace Nikolai Patrushev as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

In his article, Cherkesov states directly that "the chekisty and contemporary Russia have become historically intertwined." "We should understand that we are one single entity," he wrote. "None of us strove for power or wanted to gain the role of the dominant estate in Russia. But history turned out such that the burden of maintaining the Russian state has been laid on our shoulders."

Cherkesov's article is alarmist and repeats some points already made by Putin and others. In a speech to the country in the aftermath of the Beslan events, Putin said, "Russia is threatened both from the East and the West" (see "The Kremlin After Beslan," "RFE/RL Political Weekly," 10 September 2004). Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov in October gave a long interview to "Komsomolskaya pravda" in which he denounced a "fifth column" of liberal politicians and activists who, he alleged, were undermining Russia (see "Kremlin Articulates Its Ideological Platform," "RFE/RL Political Weekly," 13 October 2004).

In his article, Cherkesov dismisses criticism of the chekist elite as a campaign directed against Russia by its enemies, who are threatening the country's territorial integrity. He writes that Russia faces a real threat of disintegration, and even admitted that the chekisty often failed to appreciate the dangers confronting the country. "Even very recently it seemed as if all danger was behind us," Cherkesov wrote. "It seemed as if we were entering a period of relative stability. I am not shirking responsibility for mistakes that were made. And in admitting this, I remain loyal to the main thing, the purpose of my work and fate as a chekist. No matter what the name of the agency I am heading is and regardless of my rank and status, I have been and remain a chekist."

Cherkesov's article condemns the entrenched nomenklatura of the old Communist Party for the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Clinging to power that they were unable to wield, cut off from responsibility, and having lost a sense of reality, this arrogant and helpless caste dragged the state, society, their own ideology, and their own historical mission to their graves."

However, he says, the contemporary chekisty will not leave the historical scene so easily or "repeat the shameful fate of the degenerate Soviet nomenklatura."

"I believe in our community, in our caste that supports the state, in our ability to appreciate threats, to discard petty concerns, in our ability to remain true to our oath," Cherkesov wrote.

Cherkesov's "manifesto" appeared before the current wave of protests against the government's efforts to convert Soviet-era in-kind benefits to cash payments. These protests have proven a further embarrassment to the Kremlin and the chekisty, who clearly miscalculated the extent of the passivity and apathy of the citizenry. For instance, during an appearance on TV-Tsentr on 16 December, political scientist and Experimental Creative Center Director Sergei Kurginyan expressed skepticism that Russians would protest the reforms. "There are only two real national ideas in Russia today," Kurginyan said, "the 'hedonist consensus' and the 'plundering mainstream.' The 'hedonist consensus' is the desire of each individual to have fun at any price, whether by gulping down cheap alcohol in the company of beggars or taking a posh vacation on the French Riviera. The 'plundering mainstream' is the desire of all social groups to steal what they can, regardless of their standard of living, with only the amount and value of the things being stolen varying."

Embarrassed by the widespread unrest, the Kremlin initially tried to blame the regional authorities for the "poorly implemented reforms." However, Institute of Globalization Director and Duma Deputy Mikhail Delyagin (Motherland) has said that many protesters are directing their animosity at President Putin personally. "Attacks on Putin became widespread not because someone in the West spent an extra million [dollars] on such a campaign, but because Putin's policy has begun to threaten Russia's existence and has become more destructive than the efforts of all our external enemies taken together," "Zavtra," No. 3, quoted Delyagin as saying.

Frightened by the scale of the protests, the Kremlin and local administrations quickly began making concessions to all the social groups participating in the demonstrations. Analyst Aleksei Pushkov, speaking on TV-Tsentr on 29 January, laid out several reasons for this fairly rapid retreat. First, although only about 360,000 people -- of Russia's 38 million pensioners -- participated in the rallies as of the end of January, the demonstrations were scattered throughout the country, raising the specter of a national strike action. Second, pensioners are the most politically active part of the Russian electorate, and they generally support the Communist Party. Although the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party managed to siphon away a lot of Communist supporters in the December 2003 Duma elections, reducing the party's support from 24 percent to 14 percent, continued protests threaten to reverse this new correlation of political forces, Pushkov said.

According to Pushkov, the Kremlin also fears that students and young people might join the protesting pensioners. This concern is particularly vivid in the light of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which students were the main driving force behind a compelling display of civil disobedience. The Kremlin has noted that a new generation of post-Soviet leaders is emerging, including Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. In a joint statement, the two presidents stated that the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions "represent a new wave of the liberation of Europe that will lead to the ultimate victory of freedom and democracy on the European continent."

In addition to these arguments by Pushkov, some analysts also cite the personal loyalty of the chekisty to their leader, President Putin. This issue is especially interesting in the context of the events in Kyiv, where, according to "The New York Times" on 17 January, the peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian revolution was made possible by the decisive role played by Ukrainian siloviki in blocking the fraudulent ascent to power of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and countering efforts by army units loyal to Yanukovych to use force against the demonstrators.

In Russia, the police and the military are also suffering from the benefits reform and their reliability might be in doubt. In the case of a serious disturbance, Putin can rely on the loyal FSB, as well as on a virtual shadow army of security-services and military veterans. Political scientist Kirill Zubkov told on 9 December that, unlike Ukraine, which has had virtually no experience of war and terrorism over the last decade, Russia has seen nearly continuous combat in Chechnya. More than 1 million soldiers have performed military duty in the rebellious republic.

Many of these combat veterans are now united into semi-commercial, semi-criminal organizations and private security services, Zubkov noted. Since November, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov has served as liaison to veterans' organizations in the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Shamanov, a former commander of federal forces in Chechnya, was one of the key "Chechen" generals whose support helped Putin gain the presidency in 2000.

Gennadii Troshev, another general who came to prominence during the Chechen campaigns, is now a presidential adviser for Cossack affairs. Troshev, Shamanov, and other Chechnya generals understand that the disappearance of Putin from the political scene could create personal difficulties for them, and they will rally to defend the regime, Zubkov argued. He also states that these militarized networks are driven by the ideals of the White Guard from the time of the Russian Civil War. "We are seeing how, without much public attention, a kind of volunteer army is forming that has a vested interest in preserving the current regime," Zubkov wrote.

One of the heroes of this network, Zubkov wrote, was White Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. Zubkov noted that there have been stepped-up efforts recently to secure Kolchak's political rehabilitation, that a monument to Kolchak was recently erected in Omsk, and that a new state holiday -- People's Unity Day -- has been declared on 4 November, Kolchak's birthday. Instead of an Orange Revolution, the future of Russia might hold a White or Gray Counterrevolution, Zubkov concluded.

By Daniel Kimmage

In their round-ups of official worldwide reaction to Iraq's 30 January elections, "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" grouped Russian President Vladimir Putin with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the "past critics of the Iraq war turned guarded optimists" column. As "The New York Times" put it on 1 February, "In Russia, a vehement opponent of the war, President Vladimir V. Putin, said the elections had been held in conditions he called 'very complicated, to put it mildly,' adding: 'At the same time, it is a step in the right direction. It is a positive event.'"

Putin's remarks came at a cabinet meeting on 31 January. According to the official transcript on the Kremlin's website (, he said, "The conditions under which elections were held in Iraq were, to put it mildly, very complicated, of course. Nonetheless, this is a step in the right direction. It is a positive event. I ask you in the future to plan the work of all our [government] agencies in such a way that our efforts are directed toward normalizing the situation in Iraq and around it and to defend our interests in this country." Putin felt that this point was important enough to merit repetition, as he delivered a nearly identical message at a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas the same day, even adding that the elections were "a historic event for the Iraqi people."

Though Putin's remarks fit in nicely with comments by Chirac and Schroeder, Russian viewers who caught their president's assessment of the Iraqi elections on state-run television networks ORT and RTR may have been somewhat taken aback, for coverage of Iraq's elections the preceding day on Russia's two most widely viewed networks had not depicted anything remotely resembling a "positive event," let alone a "historic event for the Iraqi people."

On election day, 30 January, ORT informed viewers that elections in Iraq were taking place "under conditions tantamount to a military operation" and that "despite the unprecedented security measures, terrorists in Baghdad and other cities are setting off bombs and shooting up polling stations." Iraq correspondent Georgii Kaptelin enumerated a long list of violent attacks across Iraq, noting that six schools had been blown up in Mosul, where the elections were "on the verge of failure." Turnout, Kaptelin said, "remains low, primarily because people are afraid to go vote." He added, "In the morning, we visited one of the polling stations, and we saw that there were many more journalists than people ready to vote."

RTR painted an even more dismal picture, introducing its update from Iraq with the observation that "explosions are going off all over the country and the victims can already be counted in the dozens." Correspondent Aleksandr Minakov began his report by saying that "the election news resembles communiques from the front." Queried by the anchor about predictions of low turnout, Minakov replied: "That's definitely true. Turnout really is low. It's a little higher in Kurdistan. In Baghdad, it depends. At the biggest polling stations, which are under extremely heavy guard by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police, there are a few more people. But in the outskirts, where U.S. soldiers can't physically provide full-fledged security, there are many fewer people. And in some cities, for example, in Samarra and Al-Ramadi, the situation is absolutely critical. Almost no one has come to polling stations there."

RTR's weekly analytical program "Vesti Nedeli" provided an overview of the Iraqi elections on the evening of 30 January. Discussing initial turnout figures, correspondent Aleksandr Minakov said: "The organization of the elections was very far from international standards because, for the first time in international practice, they took place without the participation of international observers. That's how it was under Saddam Hussein, so I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow the Iraqi Election Commission announces that turnout was 90 percent." "Vesti Nedeli" anchor Sergei Brilev then turned viewers over to correspondent Aleksandr Verstakov for a report that would explain "why they are already calling today's elections a catastrophe."

RTR's weekly analytical program delved into the catastrophe and found a farce. Anchor Andrei Baturin said: "The initial evaluations are that the elections were a failure and the whole election campaign was a farce. But the election organizers are stubbornly talking about a success, even though only a day ago, voters didn't know who they would be voting for. Most voters didn't even know that they were electing a parliament, and not a president." Baturin turned to correspondent Georgii Kaptelin for a live report from Baghdad. Kaptelin explained: "By this evening, it was entirely clear that the post-Saddam elections were a total failure. The final act in this farce was the crash of a British C-130 transport plane outside Baghdad. There's no information about how many people were on board and who shot down the plane, but it put the final touch on the show called 'free elections in Iraq.'"

The remainder of Kaptelin's report focused on terror attacks and futile U.S. efforts to provide security for voters who, nonetheless, "remained entirely defenseless." He interviewed an angry Iraqi: "Tell me, why should I go to these so-called elections? Everybody knows what the Americans are up to. They want to keep Iraq for themselves and put their quislings in power. They should be the ones voting." Kaptelin explained that since the Americans would guard the vote counting, turnout would surely top 50 percent, especially without international observers to monitor the process. Sunnis didn't vote at all, and their exclusion from the political process "has, for all practical purposes, set off a civil war." Kaptelin summed up: "All of the Baghdad residents we spoke with agreed on one thing -- it's necessary to create a government that people trust. But this can't be done in conditions of total lawlessness, fear, and violence. These are the factors that doomed Iraq's first post-Saddam elections."

By now, it should be clear that President Putin did not base his remarks about "a positive event" and "a step in the right direction" on reporting by Russian state-controlled television. Which begs the question: How to explain the gulf between coverage on ORT and RTR and Putin's assessment?

Significant disagreements have broken out over what exactly is happening in Russia under Putin, but one policy initiative that has evoked little dispute either in Russia or abroad is the effort to do away with oligarch-controlled networks like Vladimir Gusinskii's NTV and establish a television environment that conveys a more controlled and coordinated message on key issues. The Iraqi elections provided fodder for a variety of approaches, and the relentless focus on the negative has all the earmarks of an editorial decision. The message is clear: the elections were a bloody farce.

Against this backdrop, Putin's surprisingly upbeat assessment manages to mean one thing abroad and another at home. To the international community, which is unlikely to pay much attention to how Russian television covered Iraq's elections, Putin's statement puts him on a par with other European leaders and conveys an unexpected acknowledgment of a success for U.S. policy in Iraq, a fitting gesture in light of Putin's upcoming summit with U.S. President George W. Bush.

To the Russian audience reeling from the catastrophic reports on state television, Putin's remarks about progress in Iraq and the need to defend Russian interests there are not intended to convey that state television got the story wrong. Rather, they suggest that the president is wisely indulging the Americans in their insistence that the democratic experiment in Iraq was a success, and that he may even salvage something for Russia from what was, as ORT and RTR hammered home to their viewers, in fact a miserable debacle.

By Julie A. Corwin

Last month, the management of a poetry website based in Russia ( instructed authors to observe certain political censorship requirements, REN-TV reported on 26 January. Authors were forbidden to write about the war in Chechnya or the ongoing protests over the reform of social benefits. They were admonished not to criticize President Vladimir Putin, the government, members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, or the pro-Putin youth movement Moving Together. Poet Vladislav Sergeev predicted that no one would publish on the site anymore because of the restrictions. project manager Dmitrii Kravchuk told REN-TV that "since the [subjects are] rather sensitive, it is easier to limit publications of such works than to try and guess what the president may or may not like." Kravchuk added that politicians have been speaking about the lack of control on the web for a long time. "We wanted to take preemptive steps before the issue of state and legal regulation is raised and certain conclusions are drawn," he said. Less than a week later, in response to the "negative reaction from the literary community," the directive to authors on the poetry website was taken down, "Russkii zhurnal" reported on 31 January.

Kravchuk is correct that politicians have been discussing the lack of control on the Internet for a long time. Last summer, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Tarachev (Unified Russia) and Federation Council members Lyudmila Narusova and Dmitrii Mezentsev revealed that they were members of a two separate working groups drafting regulations for the Internet (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 16 July 2004).

More recently, discussion of actual legislation has died down but not calls for controls over Internet content. In an article on on 31 January, analyst Mikhail Sergeev argues that policymakers have substituted the more sophisticated term "content filtering" for the unpleasant word "censorship." In December, Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency Director Mikhail Seslavinskii, speaking at a press conference devoted to the 10th anniversary of, declared that the Internet has become a basic information resource. However, he added, it had become "polluted," "Izvestiya nauki" reported on 27 January. Therefore, Seslavinskii said, the government should support the "creation of special programs for limiting access to sites that undermine moral values."

Speaking at a conference on "Information Security in Russia in a Global Information Society" on 26 January, Seslavinskii's deputy, Andrei Romanchenko, called for the introduction of content filters on certain segments of the Internet. Romanchenko said that a government policy on filtering would provide society and individual citizens a "defense against harmful and illegal content." He added that content filters are a programming capability for maintaining the "personal hygiene" of the Internet.

So far, the ministers with real possibilities of regulating the Internet, Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman and Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, have spoken out against new legislation or establishing any special kind of Internet regime. In December, however, Sokolov called the Internet a "multiheaded hydra" and advised that the Internet was spinning "out of control" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2004). But he added that it is too early to formulate a state policy regarding the Internet and banning certain content from the Internet is not practical. "Anyone who wants to can move from one domain to another, crossing borders, without even leaving their apartment," he explained.

Reiman, by contrast, seems not to even consider regulating the Internet desirable, even if it were possible. In an online interview with and its readers on 2 February, Reiman said that he opposes the introduction of content filters. "The Internet is developing well, and our task [is to see] that this continues," Reiman said. He added that any legal issues stemming from incorrect information spread on the web are already covered by the law on the mass media: "This is not a technical issue but a legal one," he concluded. Of course, Reiman's enthusiasm may have been tailored for's web-savvy audience, but speaking at a meeting of the Federation Council's Information Policy Committee on 2 November, Reiman expressed the same sentiments. He said that there is no need for a law on the Internet.

According to "Novye izvestiya" on 3 November, members of the commission's working group for developing legislation on the Internet agreed for the most part with Reiman. "Trying to create a separate law on the Internet is like trying to create a law regulating the solar system," Federation Council representative from Chelyabinsk Yevgenii Yeliseev said. "This is obvious to any sane person who understands what the Internet is." However, the daily reported, some senators believe that the new version of the law on mass media should contain specific articles on the Internet, while other senators support the development of a special code for users and providers, the norms of which would put in order information flows on the Internet.

Obstacles to filtering Internet content exist not only from a legal point of view, but from the technical side as well. For example, some experts question whether even content filters deployed on a national basis could really do the job. Igor Ashmanov, general director of Ashmanov and Partners, which specializes in developing programs to combat spam, told on 26 January that certain large companies have been using filters for years to prevent employees from accessing certain websites. But implementing such a system for the entire Russian Internet, as has been done in China, would be impossible. All Internet service providers (ISPs) would have to route their traffic to a single server. And if state officials tried to implement such a program, private ISPs would drag the responsible government agency through the courts. Even Romanchenko admitted that content filters do not always work. He noted that banned sites inevitably slip through and for the filtering programs to work, "their databases have to be updated continuously."

Meanwhile, Internet users in Belarus have been advised that it is easy to bypass blocks on certain Russian gay and lesbian websites that were instituted in January by that country's state-controlled telecommunications monopoly, Beltelekam. According to on 2 February, users can simply use a proxy server or an "anonymizer," a third-party website that would retrieve material from the blocked sites. Should Russian legislators ever decide to follow in the footsteps of Belarus, Russian Internet users will not have to go far to seek advice on how to bypass government controls.

4-11 February: 60th anniversary of the Yalta Conference, at which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin discussed plans for postwar Europe

10 February: A day of national protest against high gasoline prices

12 February: A day of national protest against the government's benefits reform declared by the Communist Party

16 February: Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement intended to curb the emissions of gases widely believed to contribute to global warming, comes into effect following its ratification by the Russian Federation

18 February: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to travel to Tbilisi

20 February: New patriotic television channel organized by the Russian Defense Ministry to begin broadcasting

24 February: President Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush to hold a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia

March: Terms of Yamalo-Nenetsk Autonomous Okrug Governor Yurii Neelov, Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug Governor Aleksandr Filipenko, Jewish Autonomous Okrug Governor Nikolai Volkov, and Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin to expire

March: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit Japan to discuss Russian-Japanese summit, scheduled to be held in Tokyo in April, according to many media reports

March: EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner to visit Moscow

6 March: Parliamentary elections in Moldova

20 March: Legislative elections in Voronezh Oblast

April: Terms of Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev, Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov, and Amur Oblast Governor Leonid Korotkov to expire

April: Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring new crew to the International Space Station

17 April: Krasnoyarsk Krai to hold a referendum on the question of merging the krai with the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs

9 May: Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II

2006: Russia to host a G-8 summit

1 January 2006: Date by which all political parties must conform to law on political parties, which requires at least 50,000 members and branches in one-half of all federation subjects, or either reregister as public organizations or be dissolved.