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Russia Report: September 15, 1999

15 September 1999, Volume 1, Number 29
The interregional trade union Labor's Defense has declared war on governors of the so-called Red Belt, "Vremya MN" reported on 10 September. The radical left-wingers, who have close ties to the Russian Communist Workers' Party, argue that these leaders ceased to be "red" on gaining election as regional heads. Noting that governors such as Vasilii Starodubtsev of Tula Oblast have banned trade unions from organizing strikes, the radicals maintain that it is easier to exist under regional leaders who are democrats, since the latter permit protest actions. Interfax the previous day reported that trade union representatives of various enterprises in Tula and Kemerovo Oblasts held a press conference in Moscow at which they slammed the governors of those two regions for "infringing on the interests of workers' collectives." A union representative from the Chernigovets enterprise threatened that the workers will seize control of the firm if privatization plans are implemented. JC

Business tycoon Boris Berezovskii has turned down a request by the local Organization of Businessmen for Economic Development to run from the oblast in the 19 December State Duma elections, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 8 September 1999. Berezovskii commented that the criterion for his choice of region from which to run will not be "ethnic." Rather, he said, "I will run from a district where I am known. Like Moscow or the Caucasus." JC

"Izvestiya" reported on 9 September that a major scandal is threatening to break out over the misuse of food aid donated to the region by the U.S. Red Cross. A local Red Cross official is reported to have accidentally stumbled across packets of rice supplied by the humanitarian organization while she was shopping in a store in the town of Mariinsk. The Federal Security Service and the Department for Combating Economic Crime are currently investigating the case. In May, the U.S. Red Cross dispatched 2,600 tons of food aid to Kemerovo and Irkutsk Oblasts as well as the Republics of Buryatia and Khakassiya--regions that the organization characterized as a "zone of extreme poverty." The aid was intended for social institutions such as orphanages, hospitals, and senior citizens' homes. A second shipment recently arrived, bringing the total value of the humanitarian assistance to some $2 million. JC

Governor Aleksandr Lebed last week ordered OMON troops to enter the grounds of the bankrupt Achinsk Alumina Plant (AGK) after workers staged a protest over his decree dismissing external manager Nail Nasyrov, Russian media reported. The federal Supreme Arbitration Court had suspended Nasyrov from that post at the request of the governor, while Lebed himself nominated Sergei Kodyrev, his adviser on the non-ferrous metals industry, to replace Nasyrov. However, workers at AGK, which is Russia's biggest alumina producer, opposed that decision and used heavy vehicles to block the approaches to the company's administration offices. Similarly, Nasyrov, representing the interests of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant (KrAZ), which is one of AGK's largest creditors, declined to give up his post, arguing that the arbitration court, not Lebed, is entitled to nominate AGK's external manager.

Lebed told journalists on 9 September that the reason for the conflict between the krai administration and AGK's management is the sale of alumina to KrAZ for prices below market ones, allowing KrAZ to increase labor productivity while depriving the krai of tax revenues totaling some $50 million. "Vremya MN" the same day offered another explanation: the Moscow newspaper described the events at AGK as part of the "latest stage in the struggle" between Lebed and KrAZ head Anatolii Bykov, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 25 August 1999).

Meanwhile, Nasyrov and AGK's creditors have signed an agreement whereby the company's debts, totaling some 1.5-2 billion rubles ($59-78 million), would be paid over two years (50 percent each year), Interfax reported on 11 September. Documents detailing that agreement are currently being prepared for the Chelyabinsk Arbitration Court, which on 21 September is due to consider extending Nazyrov's term as AGK external manager. JC

Vladimir Zhirinovskii, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, has confirmed that KrAZ head Bykov will occupy second place on the party's federal list, according to Interfax on 10 September. It is reported that Bykov will return soon from abroad, where he has reportedly been receiving medical treatment (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 1 September 1999). JC

"The St. Petersburg Times" reported on 7 September that one day before early voting got under way, two candidates in the upcoming gubernatorial ballot withdrew from the contest. The newspaper quoted Yurii Belyaev, deputy chairman of the Union of Invalid Veterans of the War in Afghanistan, as saying he refuses to run when other candidates are using "dirty technology" against him. He did not elaborate. The other candidate to drop out, Liberal Democratic Party of Russian member Aleksei Bondarenko, explained that he was unable to participate "because he is subordinate to the party's discipline and decision." As a result, the tally of candidates competing in the 19 September ballot has dropped to 19. JC

The Leningrad Oblast prosecutor has brought libel charges against a St. Petersburg newspaper, which it refused to identify, for materials that allegedly defame Fedor Shkrudnev, former presidential representative to the oblast and a candidate in the 19 September gubernatorial ballot in Leningrad, ITAR-TASS reported on 7 September. JC

With a circulation of some 200, a newspaper for the oblast's Romany community has been launched, "Segodnya" reported on 7 September. "Roma i mir" is published by the local Romany cultural-educational organization and is intended for distribution among the oblast's libraries and other public meeting places. JC

Under a project proposed by the oblast administration, low-grade gasoline has gone on sale for half the price of regular gasoline, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 8 September, citing "Saratovskii Arbat." Currently, one liter of Ai-72 gasoline is available at some 40 gas stations owned by Sidanko for 2.5 rubles, compared with almost 5 rubles for a liter of Ai-76. However, sales are restricted to owners of cars with Saratov number plates, and no more than 10 liters can be bought at any one time. In addition, owners of newer models are recommended not to fill up with the cheaper gasoline, in order to prevent engine damage. As a result, lines at gas stations where Ai-72 is on sale are being formed by battered Soviet-era cars whose owners may similarly be showing signs of wear and tear. According to "Kommersant-Daily," the local oil refinery has not produced Ai-72 gasoline since the early 1980s. JC

The same day as the Moscow city legislature voted to move up mayoral elections to 19 December, the date of elections to the State Duma, two deputies of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly submitted a draft law on moving the gubernatorial elections in the northern city from May 2000 to 19 December, "Segodnya" reported on 9 September. Both deputies are from a faction backing Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, whose popularity ratings have been consistently falling recently and who therefore would stand a better chance of winning re-election if the ballot were held sooner rather than later. JC

Former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin told Interfax-Northwest on 12 September that he will not run for the post of governor of St. Petersburg "under any circumstances." According to some media, the local branch of Yabloko had been hoping that in the event the gubernatorial election is moved up to coincide with the Duma elections, Stepashin might be persuaded to run in that ballot against the incumbent, Vladimir Yakovlev of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc. In 1996, Yabloko formed an electoral coalition with Yakovlev but left the city government two years later, accusing the governor of not keeping his promises. JC

Twenty-six of the 50 deputies of the city Legislative Assembly gave a non-binding vote of no confidence in Aleksandr Potekhin, vice governor of St. Petersburg and chairman of Petersburg Television's board of directors, "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on 10 September. The deputies deemed that Potekhin had been "negligent" with regard to the controversial "Politics--St. Petersburg Style" program, which had triggered the recent temporary shutdown of the station (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 8 September 1999). A second vote of confidence in Potekhin is scheduled for 22 September. JC

"Segodnya" on 8 September reported that a lawsuit brought against Petersburg Television, which was recently taken off the air for violating media regulations (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 8 September 1999), will reach court in November. The plaintiff is Igor Artemev, the leader of the local branch of Yabloko and a former St. Petersburg vice governor, who is suing the station for scathing criticism of himself on the notorious "Sobytie" program. Artemev is demanding an official denial, air time on Petersburg Television, and compensation worth 500,000 rubles (some $20,000). JC

Eduard Rossel has been re-elected as governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast, ITAR-TASS reported on 13 September. According to preliminary results, Rossel garnered some 63 percent of votes in the 12 September run-off, while Aleksandr Burkov, an oblast Legislative Assembly deputy and leader of the leftist regional movement May, won 28 percent support. Turnout was estimated at 38 percent. JC

A district court has rejected the registration application of the oblast branch of the Russian National Unity group and its paramilitary arm, known as Kolovrat, "Izvestiya" reported on 4 September. Two years ago, the oblast Ministry of Justice registered the group but later revoked that decision following objections raised by the Sverdlovsk Prosecutor-General's Office. According to the newspaper, several criminal investigations have been opened against the Sverdlovsk nationalists, some of whom have served prison sentences for "hooliganism." JC

In its first-ever annual report on religious freedom worldwide, which was released last week, the U.S. State Department argues that Russia's 1997 law on religion is "restrictive and potentially discriminatory" and has led to curbs on religious groups in some regions. "The vagueness of the law and regulations, the contradictions between federal and local law, and varying interpretations furnish regional officials with a pretext to restrict the activities of religious minorities," the report says, attributing this practice to the increased decentralization of power and the "relatively greater vulnerability of local governments to lobbying by majority religions, as well as to government inaction and discriminatory attitudes that are widely held in society."

With regard to the federal authorities, the report says that the 1997 law raised questions about the government's commitment to international agreements honoring freedom of religion. It notes that officials in the presidential administration and the government, repeatedly pledging to respect religious freedom, have taken a "flexible approach to implementation of some of the law's most negative aspects and have shown some willingness to intervene with local authorities in defense of religious rights." At the same time, the report notes that the federal government "has not challenged effectively the unconstitutionality" of laws and decrees aimed at restricting the activities of religious groups that have been passed by 30 regional governments since 1994. As the report points out, the presidential administration has sent warnings to those 30 regions regarding the unconstitutionality of local legislation.

In particular, the report focuses attention on Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, who has come under criticism both at home and abroad for his blatantly anti-Semitic remarks and for encouraging radically nationalist groups, including the Cossacks, to engage in violence against ethnic minority groups in the region. The report notes that while the Human Rights Chamber of the President's Political Consultative Council last year demanded that federal law enforcement agencies intervene in Krasnodar and launch criminal proceedings against local authorities for inciting racial hatred, "the extent or effectiveness of federal investigations of racial or ethnic provocations in Krasnodar is thus far unknown."

The report cites the following examples of restrictions on religious freedom in the regions (excluded here are Moscow and the North Caucasus):

Chelyabinsk Oblast, June 1999: The Directorate of Justice again rejected the registration application of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, arguing that the Church's activities are incompatible with federal law. It also has refused registration to the Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal Churches.

March 1999: local militia troops broke up services of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and interrogated seven missionaries. The Church has sought registration at the local level on several occasions but, despite being registered at the federal level, has been unsuccessful.

Kemerovo Oblast, July 1998: According to unconfirmed religious press reports, the mayor of Novokuznetsk barred Gideons from distributing New Testaments in schools, although their charter, approved by the government, says they may do so.

Khabarovsk Oblast, November 1998: The local Department of Justice blocked the Pentecostal, Methodist, and independent Protestant Churches from re-registering, according to unconfirmed religious press reports.

Khakass Republic, winter 1998: The Khakass Lutheran Church and Christian Center were ordered by local officials to suspend production and distribution of religious videos and publications and religious education.

Novosibirsk Oblast, June 1998: A Mennonite congregation was refused registration, according to unconfirmed religious press reports.

Perm Oblast, October 1998: Reports state that the Osa authorities pressured a Pentecostal Church to register although under the 1997 law it was not required to do so if it identified itself as a "religious group."

Primorskii Krai, March 1999: An expert council of the krai administration declared that Church of Christ was "destructive," citing the group's proselytizing of minors without parental consent and other actions allegedly leading to the breakup of families. The council's findings were sent to the prosecutor's office; no action had been taken on this case as of 30 June 1999.

Rostov Oblast, summer 1998: Local officials in Rostov-na-Donu canceled a rental agreement permitting the Shield of Faith Pentecostal Church to sponsor a Jesus Festival concert in a sports complex. In September 1998, city authorities required a movie theater to cancel its rental agreement with the Shield of Faith congregation.

Smolensk Oblast, August 1998: Kasplya authorities closed a Sunday school and prohibited worship services by the Evangelical Christian-Baptists, according to unconfirmed religious press reports.

St. Petersburg, November 1998: The local branch of the United Church was denied registration after a federal court in St. Petersburg started proceedings against the Church.

Voronezh Oblast, June 1998: City authorities denied the Evangelical Christian-Baptists permission to hold an outdoor preaching event featuring a Canadian evangelist of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.

Yaroslavl Oblast, January 1998: The New Generation Church was refused registration, with local officials citing the new law as the reason for their refusal. It also was ordered by local officials to suspend production and distribution of religious videos and publications and religious education. (JC)