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Russia Report: March 31, 1999

31 March 1999, Volume 1, Number 5
A number of regional leaders, including Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, Volgograd Mayor Yurii Chekov, and Novsibirsk Governor Vitalii Mukha expressed solidarity with the position of the Moscow government condemning NATO air strikes, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 27 March. The previous day, Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel, whose oblast was once called one of Russia's islands of reform by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, suggested that the Federation Council hold an emergency session on 31 March to censure NATO, Interfax-Eurasia reported. He called NATO attacks on Yugoslavia "a colossal mistake of the U.S." North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov said that "Washington, which has lost its self-control, has decided to further humiliate Russia and this is why important talks in Washington were scheduled in such a way as to coincide with air strikes against Yugoslavia," ITAR-TASS reported. The legislative assemblies of Karelia and Primorskii Krai and members of the interregional association, Bolshaya Volga, all adopted statements protesting NATO actions. JAC

Protesters in Blagoveshchensk and Volgograd burned the American flag to protest NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, while public demonstrations were held outside U.S. consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok. Trade union members in Ryazan led a protest in the town's Victory Square, according to Interfax-Eurasia. Meanwhile, burial ceremonies for Wehrmacht soldiers killed in Russia during World War II scheduled to be held 15 May will be postponed to protest NATO bombings, Volgograd oblast officials announced on 26 March, according to ITAR-TASS. JAC

The Russian federal government has created a new state commission to prevent emergency situations during the spring flood seasons, "Vremya MN" reported on 24 March. The first decision of the new commission, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Gennadii Kulik, was to set aside 82 million rubles ($3.4 million) for this task. "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported earlier that most regions are unprepared for what are likely to be the worst floods in 50 years (see "RFE/RL Federation Report," 24 March 1999). According to "Vremya MN," local authorities have not been especially hopeful that the central government will provide much help this spring and have already begun what preparations they can. For example, Kaluga has already prepared housing for persons who will likely be displaced by flood waters. In addition, the federal commission is unlikely to be up and running in time to assist cities along the Oka River, where at least one raion is expecting "big waters" at the end of the week, according to the newspaper. Along the part of the Volga that flows through Saratov Oblast, the water level is 45 percent higher than last year, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 24 March. Snowfall in the oblast was three times greater than normal, increasing the water in the Volga-Kamska basin to its highest level in the last 10-20 years, according to the agency. JAC

Some 30 million hectares or 2 percent of Russia's territory is polluted as a result of space launches, a correspondent-member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, ecologist Aleksei Yablokov, told reporters on 23 March. According to Yablokov, the attitude of certain regional governments, such as those of Altai Krai, Astrakhan Oblast, and the Republic of Bashkortostan toward the problem of this kind of pollution and its effect on local population might best be characterized as indifferent. In these areas, the phenomenon of "yellow children"--or children with "pathological jaundice," anemia, slow physical development, and disrupted activity in their central nervous system--has been discovered. According to Yablokov, in certain raions, the number of children with such symptoms has reached 40 percent of all births. JAC

Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin told a cabinet meeting on 25 March that the move by South Africa's De Beers to become a strategic investor in the exploitation of the Lomonosov diamond deposits is "at variance both with Russia's national interests and with Russian legislation," ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 24 March 1999). Stepashin argued that during the reform of Russia's diamond sector, "state control over the marketing of raw and cut diamonds" must be preserved. German Kuznetsov, head of the State Reserve for Precious Metals and Stones, said that his department is looking into the possibility of allowing the Lomonosov field to be mined under production-sharing agreements. He said that a syndicate may be formed to put the field "on stream," Interfax reported. The Lomonosov field is believed to be the biggest in Europe, and its reserves are estimated at $12 billion. JC

Buryatia's legislative assembly passed the republic's 1999 budget in its second reading on 25 March, Interfax-Eurasia reported. A federal transfer of 1.04 billion rubles ($43 million) makes up 88 percent of the entire budget, which has a 19 percent deficit of 58.4 million rubles. The same day Finance Minister Aleksandr Naletov announced that the government is considering indexing the wages of state workers. Meanwhile, the backlog of wage arrears in the republic from the past year stands at 194 million rubles. JAC

In an interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 20 March, Republic of Chuvashia President Nikolai Federov reported that, despite the country's economic crisis, his republic is making progress on reducing wage arrears and constructing public housing. According to Fedorov, the Chuvash Republic has a population one-third the size of Nizhnii Novgorod but is building three times more public housing than that oblast. Fedorov said that the backlog of unpaid wages to state workers is now less than three months and to pensioners, less than two months. Federov claimed that his government is able to continue with large housing construction projects because the republic is politically stable and has attracted more foreign investment than any other region in Russia. JAC

According to preliminary data, voters in the Republic of Khakassia voted mostly against incumbents in elections held on 28 March for the posts of nine city and raion administrations heads and 50 municipal organs, ITAR-TASS reported. One newspaper correspondent, two directors of state enterprises, and a deputy police chief unseated current heads of rural raion administrations, while Petr Ovchinnikov, deputy head of a municipal communications center, was elected mayor of Sayangorsk. JAC

Yuganskneftegaz and the administration of the Nefteyugansk raion in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug established a "municipal oil company," which will develop the Kudrinskii hydrocarbon deposit, "Vremya MN" reported on 26 March. Yuganskneftegaz will own 51 percent of the company's shares, and the raion government the remainder. JAC

Kursk Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi has ordered the memorial complex "The Kursk Bulge" completed, the local newspaper "Khoroshiye Novosti" reported on 11 March. The colossal construction commemorates the 1943 offensive that was a turning point in the Soviet campaign against the Nazis. Among the tasks still to be completed are the revetment of the Triumphal Arch, the construction of the memorial's second "podium" and the road surrounding the complex, and the landscaping of the entire area. According to the newspaper, those tasks will require the equivalent of five annual budgets of the cash-strapped oblast. The whole project is being paid for by having the companies working on the memorial write off their debts to the oblast budget in exchange for their services. JC

Anchorage, Alaska, will provide humanitarian aid to its sister city, Magadan, via a U.S. military cargo plane in late March and early April, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 March. According to the agency, Anchorage will send boxes filled with rice, flour, macaroni, and other foodstuffs. JAC

During a visit to Minsk by a delegation headed by Nizhnii Governor Ivan Sklyarov, agreements were signed on economic, scientific-technical, and cultural cooperation between Belarus and the oblast, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 25 March. The visit took place during a Minsk trade fair entitled "Days of Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast in Belarus," in which leading industrialists from the Russian region took part. The news agency also reported that the Nizhnii-based Gorkovskii Car Factory (GAZ), one of the leading Russian automakers, was scheduled to open an assembly plant in the Belarusian capital on 24 March. The plant is expected to assemble up to 4,000 vehicles annually. JC

"Izvestiya" reported on 26 March that the number of stores--both private and state-owned--selling goods at discount prices is increasing throughout the oblast. Such stores buy directly from producers, thereby allowing them to sell their wares for less than other retailers. Their main customers are pensioners and other low-income groups. According to the newspaper, the oblast is proposing to triple the number of such stores from 50 to 150. And in order to achieve that goal, the local authorities are offering various concessions to the owners of discount stores. JC

Members of the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Movement to Support the Army and Navy appealed to the Primorksii Krai legislative assembly and the regional election committee to postpone the next round of elections to the Vladivostok legislative assembly, now slated for 16 May, "Izvestiya" reported on 26 March. According to the parties, the electorate will not vote and the money being spent to hold the elections will be wasted. Election Committee Chair S. Knyazev dismissed the parties' reservations, saying that the date for the elections was legally fixed and cannot be altered. Meanwhile, legal proceedings similar to those that annulled the results of the mayoral election in Vladivostok are now occurring all over the krai, according to the daily. As a result of such proceedings, elections to the office of mayor of Arseniev, which had been scheduled for 28 March, have been postponed. JAC

Leonid Polezhaev, addressing a recent session of the Federation Council, proposed that stiffer sentences, including the death penalty, be introduced for drug-manufacturing and -trafficking, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 24 March. Noting that at least one-third of the Russian population aged 15-25 take drugs and that the main cause of death of Russians under 30 is drug abuse, Polezhaev argued that "we have already crossed the line beyond which the nation's gene pool is in direct jeopardy." Omsk, which borders on Kazakhstan (a transit-route for drugs from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia), witnessed the number of its officially registered drug addicts grow by 52 percent last year. JC

One in every eight residents of St. Petersburg could lose the use of their telephone if local company St. Petersburg Telephone Network (PTS) does not begin an expensive upgrade of its equipment, the "Moscow Times" reported on 25 March. A PTS spokeswoman said that renovation of the company's 48 analog switching stations could cost tens of millions of dollars, an expense that could not be met by raising tariffs alone. PTS head Valerii Yashin told reporters earlier in the month that the company lost 500 million rubles in 1998 in part because of price controls and the lack of a clear telecommunications tariff policy. According to Yashin, the company has not been able to raise its monthly 28 ruble fee for private customers even though it costs 36 rubles to maintain each line. JAC

Local Communist demonstrators greeted Unified Energy Systems chief Anatolii Chubais with a hail of stones and metal rods as he emerged from an automobile in Samara, "Kommersant Daily" reported on 24 March. While in Samara, Chubais and oblast Deputy Governor Aleksei Rodionov signed an agreement on the unification of all energy services in Samara and their transfer to Samaraenergo's control. JAC

Imams gathering for a meeting in a small village in Stavropol Krai decided to create their own spiritual authority for local Muslims, "Izvestiya" reported on 23 March. They believe that the muftiate of the republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia (KC) is too focused on that region. In addition, serious disagreements have recently arisen between believers in the krai and their co-religionists in KC on interpretations of religious law. JAC

Thirty-one female workers at Sverdlovskmetrostroi, the construction company for the rapid transit system in Sverdlovsk, declared an indefinite hunger strike on 25 March to protest unpaid wages. The next day their total number increased to 52. The women replaced 66 protesters who had been paid their own back wages after staging a nine-day hunger strike. Their good fortune caused their still unpaid colleagues to threaten them with revenge, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 26 March. Fifteen hundred metro workers remain on general strike, according to Interfax-Eurasia. According to "Izvestiya," total debt to the metro workers is 34 million rubles ($1.4 million), which represents an 11-month backlog. JAC

The oblast plans to develop its own local source of manganese in order to stop having to import it for local firms, Reuters reported on 25 March. The office of Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel issued a statement that nine deposits of manganese ore have been discovered in the north of the region containing 41 million tons of raw material. A plant capable of producing 40,000 tons of manganese concentrate will be built in Polunochnoye in July, according to the agency. JAC

Elections in the Republic of Tuva held on 28 March for the republic's parliament and the legislature of Kyzyl were declared invalid the next day, ITAR-TASS reported. More than 50 percent of eligible voters cast their votes in only two districts for the republic-level legislature and in only four districts for the city's legislative assembly. According to the agency, three previous elections have also failed to yield valid results because of lack of voter interest. JAC

Supplies of test kits for determining whether a person is HIV positive have run out at the Center for Combating and Preventing AIDS in Ulyanovsk Oblast, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 22 March, citing the head of the center. Each year, the center tests an average of 200,000 people for the AIDS virus. According to official figures, since 1988 some 30 people in the oblast have been diagnosed as carrying the virus, and virtually all those cases are considered to have been "imported." The Ulyanovsk center is also short on test kits for determining whether a person has the virus that causes hepatitis B, C, and D. As a result, hundreds of patients are being left without a precise diagnosis. JC

Vladimir Anishchev, deputy governor of Voronezh Oblast and the region's representative in Moscow, is being punished for enjoying freedom of speech. In an article published in the local press, Anischev sharply criticized the Communist-led administration of Governor Ivan Shabanov, "Izvestiya" reported on 23 March. The local Duma responded by voting to abolish Voronezh's regional representation in the capital. Earlier, Anischev was considered a close ally of Shabanov, particularly during the last gubernatorial election. JC

REGIONAL FOREIGN POLICY: Every Village With Its Own Foreign Ministry?
The Russian Foreign Ministry is both pleased and concerned by the ever increasing role that country's far-flung regions and republics are playing in foreign affairs.

It is pleased by the role such activities are playing in attracting foreign investment and in maintaining ties with ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet states. But it is increasingly disturbed by the ways such activities distort Moscow's foreign policy message and also by the ways that such activities promote centrifugal and even separatist tendencies across the Russian Federation.

Both these hopes and fears are described in an article by an ambassador who oversees the foreign ministry's relationships with the regions. Writing in the current issue of the Russian foreign policy journal "International Affairs," Eduard Kuzmin provides details about developments that he terms encouraging and others that he suggests give rise to concern.

According to Kuzmin, the foreign policy activities of Russia's regions have played a positive role in almost every case. He reports that individual regions such as Leningrad and Nizhnii Novgorod have been able to attract significant direct investment from abroad, but he notes that sometimes the various regions compete against each other in ways that often mean Russia as a whole loses out.

And he praises the ties Russia's regions have established with regions in the former Soviet republics. Kuzmin says that units of the Russian Federation have signed 154 agreements of various kinds with regions in Ukraine, 73 agreements with regions in Belarus, 100 with regions in Kazakhstan, and approximately 150 with regions in other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Not only do such crossborder ties help to protect ethnic Russians in these states, Kuzmin argues, but they help to promote the integration of these countries with one another. Consequently, Moscow welcomes these activities as an extension of central policy.

But at the same time, Kuzmin notes that the foreign policy activities of Russia's regions and republics sometimes create problems. In the absence of close coordination between Moscow and the regions, regional leaders sometimes say and do things which undercuts Moscow's efforts.

He notes that "there have been deviations from Russia's fundamental policy principles in relations with Taiwan and in interacting with the UN and its specialized agencies." And he urges that the Russian Duma adopt legislation to prevent that from continuing to happen in the future.

More serious still from Kuzmin's point of view is the way in which participation in foreign policy activities promotes separatist sentiment. At the present time, he says, "many republics often go beyond the scope of the Russian Federation Constitution" and assert their rights to have a "'republic foreign policy'" on questions of war and peace, nuclear free zones, and other matters that constitutionally are the exclusive prerogative of Moscow.

And the ability of some regions to get away with such actions is leading ever more of the country's regions and republics to think about it. According to Kuzmin, "if things go on like this," some senior officials in Moscow fear that "soon every small village will want to open its own Foreign Affairs Ministry," a situation that could make it even more difficult for Russia to recover from its current crisis.

According to Kuzmin, these developments are not likely to lead to a new "sovereignty bandwagon" anytime soon. He suggests that "there is a growing conviction that the country can be turned around without being turned back to Unitarianism" and also that "there is an increasing awareness among the national-regional elites that the path to 'fiefdoms' is counterproductive."

In support of that conclusion, Kuzmin points to the rise of eight multiregion associations. Organized by the leaders of the regions themselves, these supraregional groupings now play a large role in both central policies and foreign affairs.

And Kuzmin suggests that they may even become the basis for a new federalism in Russia, one in which the powers of the central government and those of the constituent units will be in balance and thus allow for the rise of a civil society.

Kuzmin ends his article by quoting with approval the early twentieth century Russian nationalist writer Ivan Ilin. More than half a century ago, Ilin suggested that Russia is "above all a great people that has not frittered away its resources and has not lost its bearings or its identity.... Do not bury it yet!" PG