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Russia Report: December 12, 2001

12 December 2001, Volume 3, Number 35
Just two days after being selected for his new post, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov declared on 7 December that he considers Russia's four-year presidential term too short. He did not exclude the possibility that an initiative to amend the Russian Constitution to extend the presidential term might be introduced, Russian agencies reported. Soon after, Mironov's idea won support from fellow members of the Federation Council, such as Valerii Goreglyad, leader of the pro-Kremlin Federation group, as well as a number of regional leaders such as Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak and Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev. On 10 December, Prusak told Interfax that a four-year presidential term "for such a country as ours is short," and the next day Shaimiev used almost exactly the same words in an interview with same agency. JAC

However, another one of Mironov's suggestions, that members of the Federation Council be elected, drew a less positive response. Both Prusak and Pskov Oblast Governor Yevgenii Mikhailov told Interfax that they do not favor such a ballot. In an interview with RTR on 5 December, Mironov said that he favors holding elections for seats in the upper legislative chamber and that "this edition of the Federation Council will probably work to the end of its term in its current form." The same day, Mironov was also quoted as telling journalists in Moscow that he believes the present condition of the upper house is transitional, and will "last for several years until amendments are made to the constitution." JAC

Tariq bin Laden, a brother of Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, visited Ufa, Bashkortostan, on several occasions to meet with Talgat Tadjuddin, the supreme mufti of Russia and the European countries of the CIS, RFE/RL's Ufa correspondent reported on 4 December. According to the correspondent, the Muslim Religious Board confirmed the meetings, which were earlier reported by "Moskovskii komsomolets." However, Tadjuddin himself has not commented on reports alluding to his close ties to bin Laden's family. On 5 December, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow met with Tadjuddin and Gabdulla Shakaev, the mufti of Chelyabinsk and Kurgan, in Chelyabinsk. He assured them that U.S. actions in Afghanistan are not directed against Muslims and Afghan citizens. Tadjuddin noted that Russia's Muslims support U.S. policy against international terrorism, adding that terrorism is not a trait of Islam, and is not in the interest of Muslims. JAC

Presidential envoy to the Central federal district Georgii Poltavchenko told reporters on 11 December that he does not exclude the possibility that the law under which a Russian president may dismiss a governor if he violates federal law will be used in practice, Interfax reported. When asked whether governors of "bankrupt" regions could be dismissed, Poltavchenko responded that such a situation "requires deep analysis," and if the dire economic situation arose from the activities of a governor, Poltavchenko suggested that it would be possible to speak of his dismissal. The previous week, Deputy Finance Minister Bella Zlatkis announced that her ministry was examining the possibility of proclaiming seven subjects of the Russian Federation bankrupt, but that she wasn't at liberty to name names (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2001). However, "Kommersant-Daily" on 5 December suggested that there are at least seven economically plagued regions that would qualify -- the Koryak and Evenk autonomous okrugs, and the republics of Sakha, Adygeya, Buryatia, Altai, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Alternatively, the daily also suggested that there are eight regions that have not fulfilled their federal tax obligations and that could possibly be considered -- the republics of Tuva, North Ossetia, Buryatia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia; and the Kurgan, Nizhnii Novgorod, and Omsk oblasts. JAC

The border with Kazakhstan is one of the most problematic for Russian customs officials, "Izvestiya" reported on 7 December. According to data from the State Customs Committee, an enormous number of contraband items pass through it. At other entry points such as the northwest corridor, customs officials talk about the flow of "gray" imports, which occurs when foreign trade importers undervalue the cost of their declared goods. But along Russia's southeastern border, the struggle is against "black" imports. According to the daily, one of the biggest problems for customs officials is that the majority of contraband items are smuggled through by individuals. Each passenger has the right to bring in 50 kilograms of luggage. However, in several cases, the contraband seized had to be weighed in terms of tons not kilograms. For example, earlier in the month, Urals customs officials discovered in one train wagon that entrepreneurs had tried to smuggle through 5 tons of shoes and clothing made in China. According to the Urals customs administration, there are nine automobile customs posts and four railway posts along Russia's more than 1,500-kilometer border with Kazakhstan. JAC

Since its opening at the end of July 2000, the office of presidential envoy to the Volga federal district Sergei Kirienko has received 5,843 written appeals, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 11 December. According to the envoy's press service, the largest number of letters came from Nizhnii Novgorod, the oblast where Kirienko's office is based, with 25.2 percent. Saratov Oblast had sent 15.26 percent, Tatarstan 9.92 percent, and Bashkortostan 7.63 percent. More than one-fourth of the letters were about the works of the courts, prosecutors, and the police; and another 24 percent was about housing. JAC

In an interview with on 10 December, Vladislav Sakharchuk of the Moscow-based Political Situations Center predicted that incumbent Chuvash President Nikolai Fedorov will win in elections scheduled for 16 December. According to Sakharchuk, Fedorov, despite his national reputation as an advocate for democracy and federalism, runs a fairly tight ship back home. All local heads are completely loyal to him, the republic's parliament is also reportedly under Fedorov's control, and "all attempts to form a viable opposition to Fedorov are blocked at the beginning." Also working in Fedorov's favor is the local election law under which the victor in the race needs to win only a simple majority above 25 percent; such a law generally works in the favor of incumbents. In addition, Sakharchuk concluded that the only way either of Fedorov's top two competitors, State Duma deputy (Communist) Valentin Shurchanov and Federal Security Services Lieutenant General Stanislav Boronov, could win, would be if one would withdraw his candidacy in favor of the other. But, according to Sakharchuk, the personal ambition of both candidates is probably too great. JAC

Despite intensive media coverage both locally and in the national press leading up to the 9 December election, Primorskii Krai's ballot for its legislature was declared invalid due to insufficient voter turnout (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 5 December 2001). Only 19 of the krai's 39 districts had more than the necessary 25 percent minimum of registered voters participating, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 11 December. The districts with insufficient voter turnout were concentrated in the cities of Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and Ussuriisk. Candidates supported by former Vladivostok Mayor Viktor Cherepkov were leading in the majority of districts in Vladivostok, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 11 December. And Cherepkov charged following the elections that fraud had been committed and thousands of votes had been deliberately lost. JAC

Four days before the election was held, Vladimir Maksunov, a supporter of Cherepkov, told reporters in Vladivostok that two unknown men attacked him the previous day, striking him over the head with a blunt object and causing him to be hospitalized, Interfax-Eurasia reported. According to NTV, Maksunov also claimed that one of his attackers had a knife, and that he had been receiving telephone threats demanding that he drop out of the race. New elections will be held in no earlier than 60 days and no later than six months, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta." JAC

Sakha's Supreme Court again canceled on 11 December the registration of ALROSA President Vyacheslav Shtyrov as a candidate in 23 December presidential elections in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, Russian agencies reported. And Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov again criticized the court, saying that its examination of candidates' registration "discredits the judicial system" (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 5 December 2001) The court ruled that Shtyrov had used the financial and material resources of his company during the collection of signatures to support his candidacy. JAC

The next day, incumbent President Mikhail Nikolaev announced that he was withdrawing. "Novye izvestiya" had reported on 6 December that according to recent opinion polls, some 80 percent of the republic's population was ready to support Nikolaev in upcoming 23 December presidential elections. He was also supported by practically all of the Sakha elite. JAC

The office of Sakha's prosecutor conducted a raid on the apartment of the proprietor of the Viktoria media holding, Aleksandr Glotov, and on the office of the Viktoria radio station, "Gazeta" reported on 5 December. Two computers, various documents, and several diskettes were seized, and Glotov was put in isolation. The investigators were interested in the fact that the print run for the newspaper, "Viktoriya-press," has increased sharply since the beginning of the election campaign to reach the level of 205,000 copies, according to the daily. Glotov reportedly works for President Nikolaev. In October, federal officials suspended Viktoria's broadcasts because the station lacked proper documents, an action which Glotov charged was an attempt by local authorities to control independent media (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 31 October 2001). However, without mentioning any names, commentator Aleksei Pankin wrote in "The Moscow Times" on 11 December that the overall print run of newspapers supporting Nikolaev is almost half a million copies, while the republic's electorate is only 550,000 people. At the same time, he noted that the print run for publications supporting Nikolaev's opponents varies between 50,000 and 140,000 copies. Pankin concluded: "How can honest journalists compete? All they can do is join the rest in queue for election money." JAC

St. Petersburg Deputy Governor Aleksandr Potekhin reported on 5 December that his boss, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, has given his consent to Potekhin's resignation, reported. According to the website, Potekhin argued "not too convincingly" that his resignation had nothing to do with a criminal proceeding that has been launched against him. Potekhin is suspected of pursuing private business interests while working in the city government from 1999 to 2000. noted that this is the second criminal case launched against a deputy governor of St. Petersburg in the past two months. Last October, Yakovlev's "right-hand man," Valerii Malyshev, was accused of taking large bribes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2001). JAC

In an interview with "Vostochniy ekspress" on 7 December, Rafail Khakimov, an adviser to Tatarstan's President Shaimiev, declared that Russia is repeating the mistakes that led to the Soviet Union's collapse, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 10 December. Khakimov cited the establishment under the Vladimir Putin presidential administration of a vertical power structure, the use of force in managing ethnic groups, and Moscow's promotion of a unitary state. According to Khakimov, an "artificial" federalism contributed to the disintegration of the USSR 10 years ago. He added that a new union treaty could give Tatarstan better conditions than it has at present. JAC

The moderate nationalist group Tatar Public Center has criticized President Putin in Chally for failing to make a statement to Russian Muslims on the occasion of Ramadan, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 10 December, citing Tatar Radio. In a letter to the Russian president, the center's leaders complained that Putin expressed greetings to the Muslim world only through Jordan's King Abdullah II. JAC


By Oleg Rodin

Presidential envoy to the Volga federal district Sergei Kirienko is, without a doubt, a fascinating individual. Of the seven presidential envoys appointed by President Putin last year, he is the only civilian and the only former government official. At the age of 39, he has already served as prime minister. Following his dismissal from that post in late August 1998 -- some four months after he was appointed -- Kirienko flew directly from Moscow to Nizhnii Novgorod, where he told journalists at the airport that he just wanted to go hunting and rest at his dacha in the country. The August 1998 financial default, one of Russia's most acute economic crises, which occurred during his watch, appeared to have had little affect on his self-confidence. It is possible that this quality stems from his past activities with the Scientologists -- Kirienko reportedly studied at one of the Russian branches of the so-called "Hubbard Schools."

Kirienko has many connections with Nizhnii Novgorod, although he was born in Sukhumi, Georgia, and studied in Sochi in Krasnodar Krai. He received his professional training in Nizhnii Novgorod at the Gorkii Institute of Water Transport Engineers, completing his studies there in 1984. From 1986, he worked at the ship-building factory Krasnoe Sormovo. At the end of the 1980s, he became active in entrepreneurial activities, and by the earlier 1990s he had switched to what was then a growing industry, commercial banking. From 1993-96, Kirienko was chairman of administration of the bank "Garantiya." From 1991-93, he studied banking and finance at the Academy for People's Economy under the Russian government.

His rise through Moscow's political ranks was rapid. In August 1994, Kirienko was made a member of the Council for Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship of the Russian President. From 1996-97, he was president of the oil company Norsi-Oil. In May 1997, he was named first deputy minister for fuel and energy. Six months later, President Boris Yeltsin appointed him to head that ministry. And some five months after that, in April 1998, he became prime minister of Russia. But then just as quickly, he fell. In late August, he was dismissed from that post.

But he didn't stay down for long. On 18 December 1998, Kirienko registered the all-Russian public political movement, New Force (Novaya Sila), which he headed. He then became elected leader of the Union of Rightist Forces faction. But he again answered the call of the president -- this time President Putin -- and on 18 May 2000 Kirienko was named presidential envoy to the Volga federal district. From May 2001 he was also named chairman of the governmental commission on chemical weapons disarmament.

In Nizhnii Novgorod, Sergei Kirienko -- as presidential envoy -- is hard to miss. He is present at many region-wide events. And since opening his office in the oblast's capital in July 2000, he has been just as active behind the scenes. Exactly how active is difficult to say with any precision; the levers of power are too deeply hidden. Only occasionally do the connections between different groups become obvious, provoking widespread discussion in the press and among local political analysts. This year's gubernatorial election was one such occasion.

Asked to comment on Kirienko, Nizhnii Novgorod information agency Provintsiya Director Valentina Buzmakova said: "Kirienko's work is dangerous. if he makes a mistake, it can hurt him. But if he doesn't do something, then that is also bad. It's as if he works in a minefield, like a sapper, step right, step left, and then everything is leveled. And thus his political career is over. But for us it is more important that Kirienko is one of our own, a fellow Nizhnii Novgorod resident. We, therefore, have more claims on him, first of all, because his team waged a dirty struggle for power in Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast. Was this for the good of Nizhnii Novgorod? Of course, not."

The scandal appeared to start in March this year, when the television channel TNT-Nizhnii Novgorod showed a videotaped monologue of Kirienko expressing his extremely negative opinion about Nizhnii Novgorod's then-Governor Ivan Sklyarov, whose bid for re-election Kirienko was publicly supporting. Later some essential changes in the legislation of Nizhnii Novgorod were introduced: a new government structure for the oblast was confirmed in which the chairman or prime minister received more power than the governor. Sergei Obozov, one of Kirienko's closest assistants, was named to that post. If Sklyarov had won a second term, the region would have essentially experienced the introduction of direct presidential rule.

Kirienko's support for Sklyarov initially proved decisive -- and divisive. Before the ballot an information war was unleashed -- with long-term negative consequences for the region. The chief editor of the Nizhnii Novgorod information group "Gubernia," Galina Mitkina, commented: "I believe that our young energetic Sergei Kirienko unleashed a war among the various media which has already inflicted huge losses on both the readers and the newspapers themselves and on journalists. Kirienko had all of the resources of Nizhnovenergo under his control, and it was this organization that financed all of the envoy's more noticeable PR efforts. Sklyarov, for his part, tidied up all those newspapers which received budget money."

Mitkina continued: "At the launch of the campaign, Kirienko invited Marat Gelman here to organize it. And literally for the first time in Russia, such an unpleasant thing as journalists sparring in print and on the air occurred. In the media controlled by Kirienko's office, masses of material appeared concerning journalists who worked for the other side."

For Kirienko, there were two basic tasks in the election: to prevent the victory of businessman and former felon Andrei Klimentev, and to promote Sklyarov's victory. The first task he resolved brilliantly: in the first round of the election Klimentev wound up in fifth place among five contenders. And Kirienko was also pleased with Sklyarov's first-place finish. But he appeared to place the highest value on burying Klimentev's political career: "I have conducted the rehabilitation of Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast," Kirienko declared. In the second round, Kirienko depicted the race as an ideological one: on the one side was the Communist Party and on the other side, Unity. But in the second round, Kirienko's influence was noticeably weaker. The electorate was apparently fed up with the information war, which was directed now against Communist State Duma deputy Gennadii Khodyrev, whose election campaign was conducted modestly and without dirty tricks. Voters, despite being warned that in case of Khodyrev's victory the capital of the Volga federal district might be transferred away from Nizhnii Novgorod to some other city, still voted to support Khodyrev, the former obkom secretary for Gorkii Oblast, who 10 years after his departure from Nizhnii Novgorod is again occupying the office of the first person in the oblast.

"Now Kirienko has emerged not at the best moment of his life, having noisily lost the gubernatorial election," declared Provintsiya Director Buzmakova. "From election to election, it is said [here] that the people have stopped believing authorities. They either don't bother to vote or they vote against all choices." The election campaign is over, the PR specialists have left, but the quarreling journalists remain. And about Sergei Kirienko, "Gubernia" Editor in Chief Mitkina believes that "he is a smart fellow, sensible, competent, and modern, but his know-how, techniques, and energy should be used for [more] peaceful purposes."

Oleg Rodin is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Nizhnii Novgorod.