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Russia Report: July 11, 2005

11 July 2005, Volume 5, Number 26
By Victor Yasmann

Russian officials and lawmakers have taken tentative steps toward the eventual return of some of the precious cultural artifacts "appropriated" by Soviet soldiers or the Soviet state during or after World War II. The development could signal that Russia is moving toward a more respectful view of property guarantees in general -- one that might help it overcome its reputation as a reluctant defender of such rights.

Anatolii Vilkov, deputy director of the federal agency in charge with monitoring compliance with laws relating to the mass media and the cultural heritage (Roskhrankultura), told a Moscow news conference on 13 June that the Russian government could decide to partially satisfy the claims of eight countries from which the Soviet Union removed cultural artifacts during and after World War II.

Vilkov, whose agency is part of the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry, listed the countries involved as Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Ukraine. He added that Roskhrankultura will submit the necessary legislation to the State Duma, as existing legislation requires a separate legal act for each case of restitution.

Like similar pronouncements in favor of some form of restitution over the entire post-Soviet period, Vilkov's statement caused a sensation among specialists in Russia and abroad. The government's policy on restitution so far has been simply to hold on to everything, as the current law defines these objects as compensation for the Soviet Union's wartime losses rather than as spoils of victory. However, on 16 June, Duma Culture Committee Chairman Iosef Kobson (Unified Russia) told journalists that his committee had approved a bill on Russia's first act of restitution, involving a collection of 16th-century manuscripts belonging to Hungary's Sarospatak Reformed College. On 28 June, First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) announced that the Duma had placed the matter of amendments to the law on such cultural objects belonging to the eight countries Vilkov named on its agenda, reported. "We will not only return foreign valuables, but we will recover our own," she said.

She added, however, that the question is far from simple. "The Duma is not a judicial instance and cannot respond to claims," she said. "But it can act on the basis of goodwill." She said the restitution should proceed on the basis of parity and that Russia must seek in return not only artifacts lost during World War II but any lost "during the entire Soviet period."

The status of cultural objects displaced during World War II has remained unclear for decades because the issue was inherited from two totalitarian regimes -- Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In both cases, control over these treasures was lodged in highly secretive political-police bureaucracies. Germany's Sicherheit Dienst (SD) stole artifacts from throughout Europe and the occupied parts of the Soviet Union, secreting many of them into the private collections of Nazi leaders. After the war, the Soviet security organs gathered up as many of these objects as possible and spirited them off to the Soviet Union as military trophies.

During the Cold War, many of these artifacts were hidden in Soviet archives. In this period, the Soviet government transferred many such objects to East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and other members of the socialist bloc; however, it did so by arbitrary acts of the Soviet government rather than as a matter of law. RIA-Novosti noted on 28 June that the Soviet government's policy in this area was dictated not by a desire to restore historical justice but by the Soviet leadership's wish to embarrass West Germany.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, battle lines have been drawn in Russia between a liberal minority that seeks to return property to its rightful owners and a patriotic majority that feels all such artifacts are the rightful property of Russia.

In 1995, the Duma bowed to this patriotic majority and placed a moratorium on the return of all cultural objects displaced by the war. In 1997, the Duma passed a law on cultural artifacts moved to the Soviet Union as a result of World War II. That law proclaimed all captured foreign cultural objects to be military trophies and, as such, the property of the Russian Federation. However, President Boris Yeltsin vetoed the law and asked the Constitutional Court to rule on its constitutionality. In 1999, the court ruled that the law only partially complied with the constitution and instead introduced the notion that the objects are compensation for Soviet wartime losses, rather than spoils of war.

Vilkov told Radio Mayak on 16 June that the 1997 law, which was amended in 2000 and again in 2004, declares all cultural valuables removed from the territories of Nazi Germany and its allies by the Soviet military or individual soldiers to be the property of the Russian federal government. The law defines Nazi Germany's allies as Bulgaria, Hungary, Finland, Italy, and Romania.

However, many other countries consider Russia's unilateral nationalization of such treasures to be a violation of international law and Russia's own domestic legislation. Vilkov noted that an enormous quantity of such items was brought to the Soviet Union by individual soldiers and remain in private hands. Under a strict interpretation of the law, the Russian state should locate these items and confiscate them as federal property, Vilkov said.

Vilkov said that when the Constitutional Court reviewed the law in 1999 and established the notion that such artifacts are compensation for the losses of cultural treasures by the Soviet Union during the war, it made three important exceptions that were incorporated in amendments to the law in 2004.

First, the law does not consider objects that originally belonged to countries that were themselves victims of Nazism and that were seized by the Soviet Army as Nazi property. Second, the law excludes objects that were the private property of individuals who were persecuted by the Nazis on racial or political grounds. Finally, the law excludes cultural objects that belonged to churches and religious organizations that did not serve the political or military interests of the Nazis.

The Russian law states that any individual, country, or organization falling in these categories can demand the return of their property after proving it is theirs and compensating Russia for the cost of storing the valuables, Vilkov said.

The law also provides the mechanism for creating a database of all displaced cultural objects in Russia. Vilkov said Russia has identified 247,000 objects, 265,000 archive files, and about 1.2 million rare books that fall under the law on displaced art. The Culture and Mass Communications Ministry is beginning the publication of this database on the Internet at, but the website was not yet functioning as of 1 July. The purpose of the database is to allow people, organizations, and governments to identify lost property and to make appeals for restitution under the law.

As Vilkov noted, Russia is now reviewing claims from the eight aforementioned countries. He said that the Sarospatak library could be returned to Hungary as church property, reported on 14 June. The ministry is also reviewing a request from Greece to return to it the archive of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki. Rokhrankultura is also considering the return to Luxembourg of the archives of Masonic lodges and some 649 fragments of papyrus documents in Persian to the Austrian National Library. The agency is also considering the return to Ukraine of four fresco fragments currently at St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

Vilkov conceded that the return of objects, even those not considered compensation for wartime losses, to Germany is a particularly touchy issue. He said that the topic of the return to Germany of a Gutenberg Bible has been discussed but can only proceed on the basis of a mutually acceptable exchange. "If they offer us something that is comparable in its historical and cultural value, we will make a trade," Vilkov said.

The political debate over displaced cultural artifacts is personified by the clash between former Culture Minister and current director of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema Mikhail Shvydkoi, who has argued that artifacts should be returned to their owners, and current Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov, who has said he will do whatever he can to keep them in Russia. On 26 June, Sokolov appeared on the TV-Tsentr talk show "Postscriptum" and accused Shvydkoi of corruption, mentioning the return of cultural treasures specifically in this context.

On 18 June, "Postscriptum" host Aleksei Pushkov said he believes the Kremlin wants to use the restitution issue to provide political support for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Germany. Pushkov, who is generally viewed as a conservative, pro-Kremlin commentator, urged Putin not to pursue this policy "because in any event it will be viewed as a sign of weakness and, besides, Schroeder has no chance of winning."

Although the outcome of the political infighting over restitution, the final wording of the amendments to the law on displaced artifacts, and the mechanisms for implementing it remain up in the air, the fact that the Duma has taken preliminary steps toward authorizing the return of at least some artifacts would seem to indicate progress.

By Claire Bigg

Russia has announced it is pulling out of a long-awaited border treaty signed in May with Estonia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Estonian parliament has gone back on its promises by ratifying the treaty after adding a preamble that refers to Soviet occupation. Negotiations, he said, will have to start anew.

Speaking on 27 June during a brief visit to Helsinki, Lavrov declared Russia's plan to annul the border treaty it signed on 18 May with Estonia.

"Estonia has not fulfilled its obligations, so we are withdrawing our signature from these [land and sea border] treaties," he said. "Of course, we cannot talk about ratification at this time because there will be no treaties to ratify. In order to resolve border issues between Russia and Estonia, the two sides will have to restart negotiations."

Moscow accuses the Estonian parliament of adding an "untruthful" preamble to the treaty before ratifying it.

The introduction contains indirect references to the Soviet occupation of Estonia after the World War II, using expressions such as "aggression by the Soviet Union" and "illegal incorporation by the Soviet Union." Moscow has refused to label the five-decade Soviet stay in the Baltics as occupation, saying Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania willingly joined the Soviet Union.

Estonia argues that the preamble did not change the terms of the treaty, which officially fixes land and sea borders between Russia and Estonia.

The Russian parliament has not yet ratified the treaty, which needs to be approved by both countries' parliaments to come into force. Estonia was the second of the three Baltic states, after Lithuania, to sign a border pact with Russia. Difficult negotiations are under way with Latvia.

The border accord, under negotiation for almost a decade, has severely strained ties between the two countries. Russia had previously refused to sign it for many years, while Estonia had demanded that the border with Russia be determined according to a 1920 agreement. This agreement attributed to Estonia some territories that were subsequently handed over to the Soviet Union after World War II.

Andrei Kozyrev served as Russian foreign minister from 1990 to 1995. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, he said Moscow had good reasons to nullify the treaty. "In this case, today's Russia cannot and will not hold any financial and legal responsibility for Stalin's policy in the Soviet Union," he said. "On the one hand, I can understand [the Estonians] from a political point of view, but from a legal point of view, one should not drag this into the text of an international agreement."

The breakdown in the talks highlights Russia's poor relations with the Baltic states, which joined the European Union and NATO last year. Yesterday, Lavrov said he hopes the dispute will not affect Russia's ties with the rest of the European Union.

Elkond Libman is the editor of the Estonian business weekly "Delovye vedomosti." He says it is difficult to predict what will happen to the treaty now. "It's very difficult to say for now, because Estonia's Foreign Minister Urmas Paet has declared that he doesn't see any reason to once more submit to parliament a bill on the ratification of the border treaty with Russia, that Estonia has done everything it could, and that the ball is in Russia's court," Libman said.

Estonia was the second of the three Baltic states, after Lithuania, to sign a border pact with Russia. Difficult negotiations are under way with Latvia. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently described Latvia's border claims as "total nonsense."

The Baltic states are not the only countries working to sign border treaties with their Russian neighbor. Russia so far has signed border agreements with China and Ukraine, and is currently negotiating an agreement with Kazakhstan.

Dmitrii Trenin, an expert at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says Russia's efforts to officially demarcate its borders with its many neighbors are part of a Kremlin campaign to consolidate the country's territorial integrity. "Russia's territorial integrity and its sovereignty on all its territory are President Vladimir Putin's most important values," he said. "To obtain such sovereignty and territorial integrity, Russia needs fixed agreements with its neighbors. This is part of Putin's policy to build the state."

Russia's support of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however, could hinder the signature of a border deal with Tbilisi. A treaty delimiting the border between Russia and Georgia was drafted prior to Mikheil Saakashvili's rise to power in 2003. But the border treaty has not placed high on the agenda of the new Georgian president, who has pledged to bring the two breakaway provinces back under Georgia's control.

By Claire Bigg

The St. Petersburg City Court passed sentence on 30 June on six men accused of taking part in the murder of Galina Starovoitova, a State Duma deputy who was gunned down in the staircase of her apartment in 1998. The judges sentenced two of the defendants to 20 and 23 1/2 years in prison and cleared the other four. The announcements bring to an end the first chapter of a highly political trial that has stretched over 1 1/2 years.

Liberal politician Galina Starovoitova was shot dead on 20 November 1998 as she climbed the stairs to her flat in central St. Petersburg.

More than six years later, the first participants in the murder have been handed prison sentences.

The St. Petersburg City Court sentenced Yurii Kolchin, a former intelligence officer, to 20 years in prison for orchestrating the killing. Vitalii Akishin was handed a 23 1/2-year sentence for pulling the trigger. Both were found guilty on charges of perpetrating a terrorist act and murder for political purposes.

The four other defendants -- Igor Lelyavin, Igor Krasnov, Aleksei Voronin, and Yurii Yonov -- helped carry out separate parts of the assassination scheme and supplied weapons, but they were acquitted by the judges, who ruled they had not been informed of the intention to murder Starovoitova at the time they acted, or that they had helped clear evidence of the murder before it actually took place.

Ruslan Linkov was Starovoitova's aide and was with her when she was killed. He suffered severe gunshot wounds to his head and neck. He says he is happy the court ruled that the killing was politically motivated and handed long prison sentences to Kolchin and Akishin.

But he stressed that the murder case is far from closed. "I am satisfied that the court has made an important decision that condemned the technical organizer of the murder of Galina Vassilievna Starovoitova, Yurii Kolchin, and the direct executor of this murder, Akishin," Linkov said. "But it is important to say that the investigation into the assassination of Galina Starovoitova is not over. The middleman in the organization of the murder and the person who commissioned it are still free."

Of all six defendants, Voronin was the only one to plead guilty to all charges and to apologize to the victims and their relatives. Prosecutors had asked for life imprisonment for Kolchin and Akishin and for prison sentences ranging between 4 1/2 to 15 years for the other defendants.

A number of other suspects have yet to be brought before the court. Some are still at large. Search warrants have been issued for three more suspects, while the brother of one of the defendants cleared Thursday is pending trial, together with another man extradited from Belgium last December for suspected involvement in the murder.

While Linkov views the prison sentences given to Kolchin and Akishin as fair, he fears they will be quickly released on probation. "I hope that in 10 years, these convicts will not be released early on probation. It happens in our country that people sentenced for a serious crime, a terrorist act or a murder, are freed relatively rapidly. I hope they will serve their sentence in decent conditions," Linkov said.

As for the other four defendants, Linkov does not seem disappointed by their acquittal. He says they have already paid the price for taking part in the killing. "Even those who were cleared today were punished anyway in a sense, because they spent almost two years behind bars, and their names were quoted in newspapers," he said. "I think this can seriously affect their future and their biographies."

Those who ordered the slaying, however, have yet to be named, let alone brought to justice. Linkov and Starovoitova's sister have repeatedly declared they will consider the case closed only when those who commissioned the killing are sitting behind bars.

Linkov says he has reason to think those who ordered Starovoitova's murder are too high-ranking to be prosecuted. "The middleman in the organization of the murder -- the person who received the commission and transmitted it to the criminal group that was sentenced today -- is blackmailing the person who commissioned the killing or the high-ranking officials who surround him," he said. "He says if he is arrested, he will give names."

Starovoitova was one of the leaders of the democracy movement in what was then Leningrad during the Perestroika era. She was also a prominent human-rights advocate.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin appointed her his chief adviser for ethnic affairs. She rapidly became one of the most outspoken critics of the war in Chechnya. Starovoitova gained a seat in the State Duma in 1995. In 1996, she was the only woman to be nominated for the Russian presidency.

She is buried in St. Petersburg's Aleksandr Nevskii Monastery.

26 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.

23 October: Referendums to be held in Kamchatka Oblast and the Koryak Autonomous Okrug about the merger of the two federation subjects.

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.

4-7 June 2006: World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum to be held in Moscow, hosted by the Guild of Publishers of the Periodical Press.