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Russia Report: April 7, 1999

7 April 1999, Volume 1, Number 6
The Russian Security Council's interdepartmental commission on economic security held a meeting on 6 April to examine the problems of the North and the dependence of the Russian economy on that region, ITAR-TASS reported. Previewing the meeting for members of the Federation Council on 5 April, Deputy Minister for Regional Policy Yurii Lyashko said that some of the factories located in the Far North have been the hardest hit by the nation's economic crisis and need government support. Nikolai Solomonov, head of the legislative assembly of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), echoed Lyashko's sentiment, adding that the industrial slump in the north is increasing the outflow of the population to the south. He warned that "a time will come when it will be necessary to return people to work within the Polar Circle and that will be much more expensive to do." JAC

At a meeting between Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev and Chinese State Council Premier Chzhu Zhuntzy, the two officials called for strengthening direct trade and economic relations beween the regions of the Russian Federation and provinces in China, "Parliamentskaya gazeta" reported on 31 March. According to the newspaper, an agreement was concluded to establish direct bilateral relations between four Russian regions, including the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and the Republic of Mordovia, and four Chinese provinces. Stroev suggested that the best way of boosting bilateral trade might be through the establishment of joint ventures in the processing of raw materials and the electronics industry. JAC

According to "Vremya MN" on 1 April, managers of Bryansk's public enterprises who are deemed to have unjustifiably high wages face the prospect of smaller wage packets in the future. An oblast commission overseeing the level of wages for state enterprise managers has just concluded a survey of public companies in the region. That survey revealed "widespread violations" of a government regulation on the contractual terms of wages for managers of state-owned enterprises. While the Committee for Property Management is empowered to deal with violations at oblast-owned enterprises, it has no such competence over federally-owned companies. Therefore, the local administration has requested that Moscow grant the Bryansk executive the authority to examine contracts concluded with managers at the 30 federal enterprises in the oblast. Wage arrears in the oblast currently total some 320 million rubles ($13 million). JC

Together with the federal government's Center for Studying the Economic Situation, the Kirov Oblast Statistics Committee assessed the economic activities of 21 enterprises during the fourth quarter of last year, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 27 March. The economic condition of 67 percent of those enterprises was deemed "unsatisfactory," while one-third of that total was expected to experience still more problems. With demand for local products low, only 24 percent of all the enterprises surveyed could boast a "portfolio of contracts." Most companies with orders to fulfill were in the forestry sector. JC

On the recommendation of its chairman, the municipal Commission for Law and Order has proposed converting Nizhnii Novgorod's sobering-up centers into full-fledged medical institutions dealing with those in a drunken stupor, according to "Vremya MN" on 30 March. This would entail, among other things, introducing qualified doctors and buying equipment to determine the degree of inebriation among prospective patients. To finance such an undertaking, the commission is proposing cutting the number of such centers in the city from eight to three or four. However, as the daily points out, Governor Ivan Sklyarov appears to have beaten the commission to it. At the end of February, he signed a resolution "On the Confirmation of Measures for Increasing the Oblast's Budget Revenues." One of those measures is the abolition of the oblast's sobering-up centers during the second quarter of this year. JC

Governor Mikhail Prusak has established a special fund aimed at offering assistance to low income earners in the oblast, "Nezavisimaya gazeta-Regiony" reported on 30 March. A local chemical factory has already transferred 1 million rubles ($40,000) to the fund, while a meat producer has donated a large quantity of sausages. Meanwhile, the governor's opponents have been quick to claim that the true purpose of the fund is not to distribute alms but to collect votes in the December elections. JC

Sergei Bykov, director of the Volsk mechanical plant in the Saratov Oblast, told ITAR-TASS on 3 April that his firm may face serious problems as a result of U.S. sanctions imposed on it for supplying weapons to Syria, a country which the U.S. believes supports terrorism. According to Bykov, his firm does not deal directly with foreign buyers. Instead, it manufactures components for defense enterprises in Tula. One of these, the Tula Machine-Building Design Bureau, was also sanctioned. If the U.S. sanctions reduce the ability of the Tula firm to make its payments, then the Volsk plant will also be negatively affected, according to Bykov. JAC

While some parts of Russia are expecting the worse floods in 50 years, environmentalists are warning that the warming temperatures could bring thousands of cubic meters of toxic sludge creeping towards St. Petersburg�s main source of drinking water, Lake Ladoga, the "Moscow Times" reported on 1 April. The source of the problem is waste from the Syas Paper Mill, whose open waste pond caused a dam to burst on 20 December 1998, AP reported on 26 March. A Greenpeace spokesman called the spill one of the worst industrial accidents this decade and warned that the industrial waste pits belonging to a waste reprocessing center located 5 kilometers from the city could also overflow. However, Aleksei Frolov, chairman of the State Environmental Committee for St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast said that the Syas spill does not pose a threat and does not even merit being called an accident, the "Moscow Times" reported. Frolov said his committee will clean up the site but only after the current layer of snow melts, a plan which environmentalists call dangerous. JAC

Legislators in Samara Oblast passed a bill enabling farmers to mortage their land, which Governor Konstantin Titov is expected to sign into law within 15 days, the "Moscow Times" reported on 6 April. Local farmers hailed the move, saying that they would finally be able to obtain loans for their impoverished plots. Irek Nuriyev, head of the Samara Farmers Association, told the newspaper that the about 80 percent of the region's 3,500 farms were crippled by a devastating drought in 1998 and 46.5 million rubles ($1.9 million) worth of land was scorched by fires. He noted, however, the legislation will have to be implemented slowly since it will take some time to explain to farmers how to use the law. In addition, local banks lack the expertise to evaluate farmland. JAC

Masked gunmen raided the office of a local newspaper in Yekaterinburg and seized all copies of its 1 April issue which reportedly contained a revealing interview with Yuri Altshul, a candidate in upcoming elections for Sverdlovsk's legislative assembly, ITAR-TASS reported. Altshul, 33, leader of the branch of the Fund for the Social Defense of the Handicapped, was slain in an apparent contract killing on 30 March. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 March, he was one of the most active opponents of the Uralmash crime group. German Korobeinikov, editor of "MK-Ural," told ITAR-TASS that Altshul had disclosed the name of a man who had tried to have him killed earlier. Korobeinikov said that the press secretary for Uralmash suggested that his newspaper either pull the page on which the interview appeared or name the price to cancel the whole issue. JAC

Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii is now reportedly going to run for governor of the Belgorod Oblast in western Russia, Russian Radio reported on 31 March. Earlier Zhironovskii said that he would run for governor of the Leningrad Oblast and more recently that the would vie for the top spot in Sverdlovsk Oblast. However, Duma deputy and member of the Liberal Democratic faction Alesei Mitrofanov said that the Party had decided against participating in either the gubernatorial elections in Leningrad or the Sverdlovsk oblasts, because, he claimed, that there is no guarantee that elections would definitely take place in these regions. Belgorod elections are scheduled for 30 May. Zhirinovskii's alleged shift to Belgorod may be ill-timed: "Nezavisimaya gazeta-Regiony" reported on 30 March that local Cossacks in Sverdlovsk have expressed an interest in Zhirinovskii, part of whose election program calls for efforts to revive Cossack culture. JAC

Road police in Stavropol Oblast will provide local drivers with an escort along north Caucausus roads for a small fee, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 March. The service is being offered because of rising crime in the region (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report, March 1999). According to the agency, the fee is not expensive in comparison with the cost of transporting cargo; moreover, police will provide door-to-door service. JAC

The Stavropol prosecutor's office has expelled eight foreigners, most of them Syrians, since late 1998 for actively spreading wahhabist propaganda, Caucasus Press reported on 7 April. A further 570 foreign nationals have been expelled from the krai for violating immigration laws. LF

At a congress of the All-Tatar Public Center on 3 April, delegates to the 50,000-strong organization called on the leadership of the Republic of Tatarstan to abrogate the power-sharing treaty concluded between Kazan and the federal center, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 6 April. They also demanded that Tatarstan's security ministries should be placed under Kazan's control. The congress also called for volunteers to fight in Kosova on the side of the province's ethnic Albanians, according to AFP on 5 April. LF

The Tomsk Oblast administration and the Union of Consumer Organizations have signed an agreement on "interrelations in 1999," Interfax-Eurasia reported on 31 March. Under that agreement, the union under takes to supply the local population with goods worth 120 million rubles ($4.8 million). It also intends to resume the purchase of goods--meat, fish, vegetables, and furs--from the owners of private homesteads, for which purpose 4 million rubles have been earmarked. The oblast administration, for its part, has pledged to try to secure lower energy rates for enterprises belonging to consumers' cooperative societies and to offer favorable credits for the purchase of agricultural produce. JC

Additional data on elections held on 4 April in the Republic of Udmurtia revealed that Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's Otechestvo party fared extremely well, capturing 42 of 100 available seats in the republic's legislative assembly, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 6 April. The Communist Party performed even worse than originally reported, winning only 8 seats compared with the 20 held in the last assembly. In addition, not one of the 14 candidates from the "Honor and Motherland" party, the 11 from the Liberal Democratic Party or the five from Yabloko were elected. Luzhkov called the results "very gratifying" and noted that candidates from his movement earned more seats than any other party. JAC

Several hundred teachers who last fall staged a hunger strike to protest wage arrears have formed the Movement of Teachers and Parents for the Children's Future, "Simbirskii Kurer" reported on 25 March. The new political movement, which the newspaper says is the first of its kind in Russia, is to direct its energies toward political activities, including participating in elections, rather than protest actions such as hunger strikes. It has already sent a letter to the governor outlining problems that require an urgent resolution. It is also hoping that teachers from other regions will join its ranks. According to "Simbirskii Kurer," teachers in neighboring Penza Oblast have already expressed an interest in doing so. JC

Volgograd Mayor Yurii Chekhov has dismissed as a "provocation" rumors that Russian National Unity is planning to hold a congress in the city that would be attended by more than 1,000 members, including RNE leader Aleksandr Barkashov, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 30 March. Chekhov stressed to the newspaper that he will allow no RNE congresses in Volgograd whatsoever, pointing out that several days earlier he had issued a ban on any such meetings. The Volgograd branch of the RNU has some 100 members. JC

A Krasnoyarsk district court sentenced on 1 April Norilsk Mayor Vasilii Tkachev to eight years imprisonment for accepting a bribe of two Zhiguli sedans, ITAR-TASS reported...Vitalii Suprin, former head of the administration for bread products, which had the rank of minister in the Saratov Oblast, was charged with accepting $3,000 from one of the oblast's agricultural enterprises, "Izvestiya" reported...The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation has revoked the sentence handed down to former Vologda Governor Nikolai Podgornov last December, "Izvestiya" reported on 27 March. Having been found guilty of taking bribes, Podgornov was sentenced to one year in prison and then amnestied. His case will now be re-examined.

BOOK REVIEW: Searching for Old Believers and Beliefs
by Julie A. Corwin

In the tiny village of Prokovka along the Azov Sea, a group of Old Believers led by a young priest, Father Gyorgi, built a large and ornate church with no money and no experience with construction--let alone masonry. Money had a way of just turning up; sometimes suppliers would say, 'if it's for a church, then you can have it for free.' And know-how, like funds, seemed to appear most often after long bouts of prayer. Church members did not know how to construct the cupolas so that the inside rim remained a true circle. Finally, they devised a method that a visiting architect later told them that had first been invented by early Byzantine masons.

With a rimless burgundy velvet cap, long black clerical robes, unshorn beard and hair, Father Gyorgii looks as if he were from another century, but he is in important ways very much a man of his time. Ordained around the time that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he took advantage of that period's loosening of controls on religious expression. Father Gyorgii is just one of dozens of residents of Russia's rural regions in Philip Marsden's "The Spirit Wrestlers" (London: Flamingo, 1999) who seem to belong to different centuries at the same time. In the book's first chapter, Marsden buys a one-way train ticket to Rostov-on-the-Don with the goal of finding modern adherants to old ways, be they religious, such as the Doukhobors (spirit-wrestlers) and the Molokans (milk-drinkers) or military, such as the Cossacks.

The picture that emerges of these isolated pockets in Russia's north Caucausus is of an otherworldly place where the past is almost a living part of the present. In one scene in the book, Ivan Vasilievich, who had been collecting cement in his truck moments before, returns to read aloud the carefully preserved letter of a long-dead relative describing the funeral in 1863 of Kuzma, a performer of miracles in the Molokan sect. The Molokans, who were dispatched from the Tambov Oblast more than 150 years ago by Tsar Nicholas I, to the then even more obscure reaches of the Russian empire, such as Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, found their way back to Russia in time to be persecuted by Stalin. The "milk" of the "milk-drinkers" refers to the "milk" of the holy word of the Bible -- for them, nothing else, not priests, icons, the cross, the virgin, or the church is worthy of veneration. At their peak in the nineteenth century, the sect attracted more than one million followers. According to Marsden, one branch of Molokans in the 1820s that had pooled their belongings and resources, first coined the term Communists.

The Doukhobors emerged sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, and, like the Molokans, have no use for priests and icons, believing that the inner light of goodness resides in all persons and priests and such only get in the way. At one point, Tolstoy, who greatly admired them for their dogged resistance to military conscription, wrote to Swedish newspapers to recommend that they, and not he, be awarded the Nobel Prize. In this decade, the handful of them remaining celebrate services in an old movie theater in the city of Rostov and in a few isolated villages in the Rostov and Tambov Oblasts. In one of these small towns, Maria Mikhailovna is the lone Doukhobor to have survived from the purges. She returned after seven years in a labor camp to a crumbling town where now only every third house is standing and the rest is occupied by leafy tangles of honeysuckle and lilac.

Marsden is the author of three other books, which if they are anything like "The Spirit Wrestlers," have been grouped under the rubric travel as much by default as anything else. True, the book is structured as a narrative of a journey through a region by an outsider. But this is no ordinary travelers' guide with tips about where to stay and what to eat. Marsden does most of his traveling by bus with little more than the first name of an Old Believer here or a Doukhobor there. Sometimes he just has the name of a village, no map, certainly no driver and no interpreter and presumably not much luggage. This is also not the typical journalist's adventure among peoples more primitive than himself/herself. If Marsden is worried about where he is staying that night or frustrated by a series of leads that don't work out, the reader doesn't find out. Marsden himself assumes a low-profile--as if he mainly wants to act a medium to relay the voices of the peoples he encounters. If this was his aim, he certainly succeeds. The voices of such disparate characters as Father Gyorgi, Ivan Vasillievich, and Maria Mikhailovna all emerge distinctly. Settings he renders with a few well-chosen details in descriptions that manage to be both lyrical and precise. More admirable still is how he artfully distills hundreds of years of complex history of these groups and weaves them into the narrative's main flow.

For those readers more interested in where rural Russia is going than where it has been, Father Gyorgi's tale is perhaps not only the most memorable in the book but also the most significant. Politically savvy, he seems to "have the greatness of those blessed with perfect historical timing." Equally important, he can adapt the message of the Old Believers depending on his audience. He tells the "youngish," unsophisticated Sasha that "it's not the rules that are important but the obeying of them" and the development of personal discipline. "If you can keep up with the small rules, then when the bigger questions come it will be easier to make the right choice," he advises. Later, he is equally at home at a local television station, whose head he has befriended. He alone seems to have attracted new believers to one of the old faiths.