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Russia Report: May 24, 2005

24 May 2005, Volume 5, Number 20
By Robert Parsons

The foreign ministers of Georgia and Russia said in Warsaw on 17 May that talks on the withdrawal of Russia's military bases from Georgia will resume soon. The two ministers are in Warsaw for a summit of the Council of Europe. Georgia's parliament had given Russia until 15 May to announce a date for withdrawal or face sanctions. There are signs though that the two sides may be moving toward a compromise.

For the moment, at least, the fist-waving is over. Georgia has pulled back from its threat to switch off the gas, electricity, and water supplies to the Russian bases. With an agreement apparently within reach, neither side wants to provoke another crisis.

The important thing now, said President Mikheil Saakashvili's spokesman, Gela Charkviani, is to continue talking.

"Of course, there is no final document or thoughts yet, but there has been some progress," Charkviani said. "Probably the correct thing now is to continue calmly. Of course, the Georgian parliament's resolution remains in force but, in parallel with this, the process of negotiations continues. And it is possible this process will bear fruit. Probably we can give this process the means to continue."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to suggest in Warsaw that his government had reached a decision to withdraw from the bases. The key, however, is when.

Georgia wants the troops all out by January 2008 at the latest. Russia has been calling for at least seven years, as well as significant financial compensation. But in Warsaw, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said Russia has presented Georgia with a compromise position of four years. Aleksei Malashenko is a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. He suggested this is an offer Georgia would be wise to accept.

"In my opinion this is a reasonable time frame," Malashenko said. "There's nothing humiliating in this for Tbilisi, particularly as it has to be decided where to move the soldiers to and how to resettle them. According to some information, the creation of new bases on Russian territory will cost between $150 million and $300 million. It's really a big economic problem."

Maybe so, but Moscow should not look to Tbilisi for sympathy. Many independent observers also question why it should cost so much to move 3,000-4,000 troops. The problem, say the Georgians, has nothing to do with the mechanics and costs of moving the troops and everything to do with Russia's inability to reconcile itself to the loss of empire. Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili spoke to RFE/RL in Tbilisi just before her departure for Warsaw.

"They're still struggling with accepting reality, with accepting they're no longer an imperialistic superpower that was controlling with those means the countries around," Zurabishvili said. "It means they have not yet accepted that Georgia is fully independent. My own understanding is that I think they want to do it but they don't completely want to do it, so they're struggling with themselves. That's why it's so difficult and that's why the work of persuasion that others can do together with us is so important."

If Aleksei Malashenko is to be believed, the real hard work has already been done.

"Of course, some form of compromise will be found," Malashenko said. "In fact, I have the impression that one already has been found. One gets the feeling that at the summit of power in Moscow and Tbilisi they are quite relaxed about the situation. What's going on beneath them is a political game."

Political game or not, the issue of the Russian bases has soured Russian-Georgian relations for the better part of a decade. In that time, the geopolitical realities of the region have changed beyond recognition. Today, it is George Bush not Vladimir Putin who pays state visits to Georgia. It is U.S. troops who train the Georgian Army and American money that promises to revitalize the economy. And it is English -- not Russian -- that is being learned by the young. A Russian foreign policy for the region has been conspicuous only by its absence. The key, said Foreign Minister Zurabishvili, is for Russia to come to terms with its changed circumstances.

"In the end, the main thing is for them, and them at the highest level, to be convinced that this is not the beginning of the end, the beginning of another humiliation, but the beginning of a new life of equal -- never equal because they are so big, but of partnership with their neighbors," Zurabishvili said.

As Zurabishvili said, Georgia needs Russia as a friend, not a resentful neighbor. The simple truth of the matter is that it is Russia that is on Georgia's doorstep, not the United States or the European Union.

Georgia has to adjust to that; but in return it wants financial investment, not soldiers and weapons.

By Claire Bigg

Religious rights are regularly violated in Russia, human rights groups charged on 19 May in Moscow. They said believers of confessions other than the Russian Orthodox Church are increasingly discriminated against in Russia. They highlighted the negative attitude towards Muslims in Russia, describing it as particularly disquieting.

Prominent human rights activists gathered in Moscow on 19 May to denounce what they called mounting intolerance toward minority religious confessions in Russia.

Speaking at a news conference, they blamed the government for discriminating against believers of confessions other than Russian Orthodoxy, the dominant religion in Russia.

Anatolii Pchelintsev, who heads the Institute for Religion and Law, says the government earmarks substantial sums to the Russian Orthodox Church while other confessions are denied financial aid.

"Unfortunately, money to build religious edifices is allocated from the federal and local budgets only to the Russian Orthodox Church," Pchelintsev says. "Today we see that the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church drives around in Mercedes and is provided with a federal security service at the expense of taxpayers. Why such love to only one confession? According to the constitution, Russia is a secular state, where all religious groups are equal before the law."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), he says, established in 2004 that Russia regularly violates the rights of religious groups.

Pchelintsev estimates that around 15,000 religious organizations are currently active in Russia, although only about one-third of them are registered.

But the authorities, he laments, frequently create obstacles for many of these groups to rent out or buy premises to practice their faith. Lately, he says, visas have also been denied to an unusually large number of foreign religious representatives:

"Attempts to rent out premises are hindered by law-enforcement bodies in a series of regions. Unfortunately this happens frequently," Pchelintsev says. "Lately, there has been a tendency to forbid joint prayer with foreigners of the same confession. Only in the past few months, many foreign representatives of various confessions have been denied entry in Russia."

On 23 March, a British and a Danish member of the Salvation Army were denied a visa to Russia, Pchelintsev says, adding that the same situation could be observed with Catholics, Protestants, and Baptists.

As a sign of growing religious intolerance, Baptist churches and synagogues have also been vandalized in Russia in recent years.

Participants at the conference highlighted the situation of Muslims, who they say are the first victims of discrimination in Russia.

Since the Beslan hostage tragedy in September, rights groups argue, the idea that Islam is linked to terrorism has gained considerable traction in Russia.

More than 300 people, half of them children, died in a violent school siege in Russia's southern city of Beslan. The hostage taking was later claimed by separatist rebels from predominantly Muslim Chechnya.

Participants at the conference pinned some of the blame for the deteriorating attitude towards Muslims on the Russian press, whom they accused of spreading xenophobic stereotypes.

Oleg Mironov, who acted as the Plenipotentiary for Human Rights in Russia between 1998 and 2004, says the ongoing war in Chechnya, which has been claiming lives daily on both sides for the past decade, has exacerbated anti-Islamic feelings in Russia. And the federal government, he says, is to blame for the mess.

"[There are] strong anti-Caucasian and, as a result, anti-Islamic feelings [in Russia]," Mironov says. "The reason for this is Chechnya, they say. Yes, Chechnya probably played an important role. But what happened in Chechnya is the fault of Russia's federal authorities. They were incapable of preventing the conflict. The mistakes of the country's leadership can aggravate all these processes."

Muslim representatives and rights groups have voiced concern over the increasing number of reports saying ordinary Muslims suffered violent or humiliating treatment at the hands of police.

They blame the authorities for targeting ordinary Muslims as part of Russia's recent campaign to crack down on Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Trials of Muslims accused of links with the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia brands a terrorist organization, are also on the rise. Rights groups say there is usually no solid evidence to substantiate the charges in these trials, which tend to fizzle out for lack of evidence or end with a mild sentence.

By Ahto Lobjakas

The European Parliament on 12 May approved a nonbinding resolution that sharply criticizes Russia for tolerating ongoing abuses of human and minority rights in its autonomous republic of Marii-El. This is the first time the parliament has addressed the growing plight of Russia's indigenous Finno-Ugric peoples, who number some 3 million people. Although the European Parliament has no direct say in shaping EU foreign policy, the declaration could move the issue higher on the bloc's agenda when it deals with Russia.

The European Parliament resolution reflects a growing suspicion within the EU that the widely condemned abuses in Chechnya only represent the tip of the iceberg.

While the offences documented in the resolution are nowhere near as serious as those reported from Chechnya, they raise concerns about the daily plight of Russia's many minorities. They also lead to questions about the Russia's commitment to the shared values it affirmed with the EU at their summit in Moscow on 10 May.

The resolution was supported by all major political factions in the European Parliament. It begins by recounting the international commitments Russia has undertaken to protect its minorities. It then lists abuses ranging from the harassment and killing of journalists and opposition figures to what appears to be a policy against the indigenous Mari language.

Gyula Hegyi, a Hungarian deputy, was one of the authors of the resolution. He told his fellow EU lawmakers on 12 May that the very existence of the Mari nation is at stake.

"We have to condemn these kinds of antidemocratic atrocities every time, but in the case of a small nation, attacks against the basic national institutions like schools and the media threaten the very existence of the nation," Hegyi said. "That's why we condemn the violence against the Mari minority in Russia."

Russia was sharply criticized by all of the roughly dozen European deputies who spoke during the debate. The discussion was dominated by representatives of the three Finno-Ugric countries that are member states of the EU -- Finland, Hungary, and Estonia.

Some speakers appeared more willing than others to give Russian authorities the benefit of the doubt and regard the events as a local aberration. Among them was Esko Seppanen, a Finn and a co-author of the resolution.

"The events in Marii-El, which clearly involve violence and violations of human rights, must be subjected to a local criminal investigation," Seppanen said. "This would lend credibility to the rule of law in Russia."

However, most deputies said that Russia's minorities face a broader problem in the form of state-sponsored attempts to supplant their languages with Russian. Many noted that much of the opposition to the republic's Moscow-born president, Leonid Markelov, comes from the republic's ethnic Mari population. After Markelov returned to office under questionable circumstances last fall, he ordered the sacking of scores of Mari-speaking officials and schoolteachers in regions that voted against him.

A number of deputies suggested that Moscow's toleration of the situation in Marii-El is part of a wider drive to russify Russia's minorities.

Tunne Kelam, an Estonian member of the European Parliament, underscored the dim future the Mari language faces in the republic.

"For example, education in [the] Mari language is provided only in some elementary schools [and not at all at higher levels], so that about 20 percent of the children can enjoy lessons in their mother tongue," Kelam said. "The publication of textbooks in Mari is practically nonexistent. So, the linguistic identity of the Mari is slowly fading away."

Kelam also noted that all of the 19 Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia are minorities even in the regions that nominally afford them autonomy.

A number of deputies quoted Lenin's dictum according to which Czarist Russia had been a "prison of nations," drawing parallels with current conditions.

The European Parliament has no immediate powers to influence EU foreign policy, but its positions are an important factor in shaping the wider political debate in the EU.

Commissioner Stavros Dimas said the European Commission is aware of the "circumstances and situation" of the Mari people. He said the EU expects to use regular EU-Russia human-rights dialogue begun late last year to air its concerns about the way basic rights are safeguarded in Russia.

19-20 May: Baltic Economic Forum in Riga

26 May: Constitutional Court expected to rule in a case filed by the Federal Tax Service, which is seeking to overturn the current three-year statute of limitations on tax-related crimes

26 May: Inauguration of Penza Oblast Governor Vasilii Bochkarev for a third term

30-31 May: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit Japan

1-3 June: World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum to be held in Moscow, hosted by the Guild of Publishers of the Periodical Press

2 June: A meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India, and China to be held

Late June: Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit Moscow

19 June: Referendum in Samara on dismissing Mayor Georgii Limanskii

23 June: Yukos shareholders meeting

24 June: Gazprom shareholders meeting

July: Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana, Kazakhstan

4 July: 750th anniversary of the founding of Kaliningrad

6-8 July: G-8 summit in Scotland

9 July: End of the Duma's spring session

August: CIS summit to be held in Kazan

September: First-ever Sino-Russian military exercises to be held on the Shandong Peninsula

1 September: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its plans for the elimination of the estate tax, the simplification of individual tax declarations, and the simplification of the requirements for real-estate purchases

5 September: Fall plenary session of the State Duma opens

1 October: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its economic-development plans for the Far East, the North Caucasus, and Kaliningrad Oblast

1 November: Public Chamber expected to hold first session

1 November: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its proposals for limiting foreign-capital participation in the defense sector and strategic-resource development

1 November: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its proposals for judicial reform and combating crime, especially terrorism

Second half of November: Chechnya to hold legislative elections, according to pro-Kremlin Chechen President Alu Alkhanov

1 December: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its plans for reducing traffic accidents, alcoholism, and drug addiction, as well as its proposals for improving health care

1 December: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its plan to increase state-sector wages by 50 percent within three years

2006: Russia to host a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg

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.