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Russia Report: September 29, 1999

29 September 1999, Volume 1, Number 31
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 28 September that the new regional movement Unity (Edinstvo) has found another political movement with which it can form an alliance for the State Duma elections. According to the daily, the Russian Voters Association (Rossiiskoe obedinenie izbiratelei or ROI) announced on 25 September that having failed to reach agreement with Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's Fatherland movement, it would create a bloc with Unity. The newspaper reported that ROI has 56 regional branches and will create another 12 in the near future. Sergei Markov of the Institute for Political Research told the newspaper on 25 September that Unity's main chance to overcome the 5 percent threshold in the elections would be through an alliance with an established party that has an organization, ideology, and electoral headquarters. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" receives funding from Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group. Early reports on Unity's formation claimed that Berezovskii was one of the forces behind the movement's creation--a claim that Berezovskii denied on 28 September. Unity's new head, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, told reporters on 27 September that he has the support of 31 governors and that his bloc will hold a founding congress on 2 October and a bloc-forming congress the next day, at which a tentative list of federal and regional candidates for State Duma elections will be compiled. Also attending Shoigu's press conference were the president of Kalmykia as well as the governors of Primorskii Krai, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, and Tver, Kursk, Saratov, and Kaliningrad Oblasts, Interfax reported. JAC

Saratov Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov told ITAR-TASS on 27 September that while he supports the new movement, he is not planning on leaving Our Home Is Russia (NDR). NDR faction leader Vladimir Ryzhkov said on 27 September that NDR continues to advance to the elections independently, noting that informal consultations did occur "with some governors and political activists" on abstract rather than concrete issues. According to "Vremya MN" the same day, Ayatskov favors a union of the NDR with Unity and his name among the top three spots on the joint party list, while Ryzhkov and a number of other governors in the NDR oppose such a link-up. JAC

Last week, while the administration of Altai Krai was considering introducing certain temporary regulations restricting the freedom of movement of people from the Caucasus and other "guests" in their regions, Krasnoyarsk Mayor Petr Pimashov signed a decree requiring the re-registration of all people who are living in the city temporarily, according to "Novye izvestiya" on 22 September and "Vremya MN" the next day. Krasnoyarsk city authorities told "Vremya MN" that the krai prosecutor-general will likely cancel the decree within a few days, but the local police chief said the measures--even if only implemented over a short period--should be sufficient to clear the city of Caucasians. The same day, the head of the Chechen diaspora in Volgograd told the daily that the heads of various raions in the city have distributed secret orders to local authorities to find new tenants for apartments and offices now occupied by Chechens and other persons of Caucasian origin. JAC

Meanwhile in Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast, a local police inspector sought to enlist the support of members of the Russian National Unity group at a meeting in the city of Dzerzhinsk, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 24 September. Specifically, the inspector, who along with other law enforcement officials was present to ensure the maintenance of order at the meeting, is reported to have addressed the RNE adherents on what must be done in the case of Caucasians who have not undergone required re-registration and who engage in illegal trading in the city. The local police department sought to explain the incident by pointing to the fact that the elderly inspector had been overcome with tiredness, having not slept for several days. According to "Novye izvestiya," he is now facing dismissal. And In St. Petersburg, an association of local traders has appealed to the city Prosecutor-General's Office over the legality of a decree banning the sale of goods at entrances to and within metro stations, "Segodnya" reported on 23 September. Governor Vladimir Yakovlev had issued that decree one week earlier in response to the bombings of Moscow apartment houses, citing the law "on the protection of the population during a state of emergency." As the association points out, however, no state of emergency has been declared in St. Petersburg. The newspaper reports that some 5,000 people have lost their source of income as a result of the ban. Some traders have staged spontaneous protests at the entrances to metro stations. JC

In an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 25 September, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov blasted the Moscow city government for its policies vis-a-vis non-Muscovites, saying that Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov "is hunting down Caucasians, has turned Moscow into a screening camp, and is eliciting a chauvinistic wave in this multinational state." Titov, who is also head of the Voice of Russia bloc, which is aligned with Right Cause and New Force, said that Luzhkov's policy "threatens the stability of Russia no less than terrorism." Two days later, Saratov Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov, who is a member of Our Home Is Russia, told ITAR-TASS that his region will "not allow civil rights to be infringed upon or people divided on an ethnic basis." The governor added that he is planning to meet with members of the local Chechen diaspora to discuss their involvement in settling the North Caucasus conflict. JAC

Following meetings last week in London between an oblast delegation and representatives of leading Western banks, Governor Ivan Sklyarov announced that holders of the Nizhnii Novgorod Eurobond agreed to form a committee to consider the possible rescheduling of that obligation, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 September. The oblast was due to make a regular interest payment on its $100 million bond at the beginning of October but earlier this month requested a meeting of bond holders (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 8 September 1999). According to "Segodnya" on 28 September, Nizhnii Novgorod has asked bond-holders to agree to postponing the interest payment for two months to allow a rescheduling program to be drawn up. JC

Deputy Economics Minister Ivan Starikov became the 15th candidate to register for gubernatorial elections scheduled to occur simultaneously with State Duma elections, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 22 September. Among the other names on the slate will be incumbent Governor Vitalii Mukha, Novosibirsk Mayor Viktor Tolkonskii, head of the Communist Party's Novosibirsk branch Viktor Kuznetsov, oblast coordinator for the Liberal Democratic Party Yevgenii Loginov, and president of the social organization Holy Russia Lyudmila Vybornova. According to "Vremya MN" on 21 September, former Railways Minister Vladimir Starostenko will also participate, and both Starostenko and Starikov should attract significant support. Starostenko worked for several years as the head of the West Siberian railway system (ZSZhD), which provides at least one quarter of the oblast's budget. ITAR-TASS reported on 27 September that Starostenko will now return to that post after leaving the Railways Ministry. Starikov, on the other hand, participated in 1995 gubernatorial elections and attracted almost 2 million votes. JAC

A delegation from the Council of Europe arrived in Vladivostok on 22 September to investigate the lack of a locally elected government there, "The Moscow Times" reported the next day. The Russian Congress of Municipalities invited the council officials to travel to the region to determine whether President Boris Yeltsin's dismissal of elected Mayor Viktor Cherepkov violates council rules (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 1998). Russia pledged to uphold those rules when it joined the organization. "Izvestiya" reported on 25 September that the delegation concluded that the crisis in Vladivostok occurred because of gaps in local and federal law, particularly with regard to the division of responsibilities of federal, regional, and municipal powers. The previous day, the head of the delegation told reporters that his commission has no power to overturn Yeltsin's decree and the final determination on its illegality will lie with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where a complaint has already been filed. JAC

The Sakha Republic's deputy prosecutor, Sergei Nemkov, told "Vremya MN" on 21 September that the city of Yakutsk is teetering on the edge of a social explosion over the rising cost of housing. He said that the rent for his own apartment jumped from 800 rubles to 1,600 rubles as of 1 July. Nemkov's boss, Sakha's Prosecutor General Nikolai Polyatinskii, has demanded that Yakutsk Mayor Ilya Mikhalchuk rescind his decree of 1 July doubling rents because he argues that only certain republic-level agencies have the legal right to set rents--not the mayor. However, head of the mayor's legal department, Igor Treskov, suggests that the mayor was forced to act because when city dwellers do not cover the full cost of housing and social services, the remainder must come from the federal or oblast budget. And, he said, the city treasury does not have this money. The debt that accumulated during the first half of the year now totals around 0.5 billion rubles ($20 million). According to Treskov, city authorities worked out a scheme for housing payments based on each family's monthly income and rents actually fell for several families. JAC

Following consultations with Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, the party's faction in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly twice prevented the establishment of a quorum last week in order to oppose the draft resolution on bringing forward gubernatorial elections to coincide with the State Duma ballot on 19 December (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 15 September 1999). "The St. Petersburg Times" of 24 September reported that supporters of simultaneous elections must gather at least 34 votes just to include the resolution on the agenda and must do so by 9 October (70 days before the election is scheduled to take place). Currently, only 26 legislators are prepared to endorse the move. The newspaper cited "Delovoi Peterburg" as reporting that the Yakovlev administration is offering lawmakers financial incentives--the equivalent of $30,000 each--to vote in favor of the resolution. JC

Tatarstan's Ministry of Education on 23 September suspended the license of the Yoldiz Islamic Institute in Chally, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported the following day. Tatarstan's State Security Committee issued an earlier statement rejecting Russian media allegations of Tatar involvement in the wave of terrorist bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 21 September. Those reports were based on the detention of Denis Saytakov in connection with the Moscow apartment bombing. Saytakov studied for one year at the Yoldiz Institute and was expelled from it for non-attendance at classes. Russian media have claimed that other students from the institute left to join militant groups in Chechnya. Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev and the republic's Muslim Spiritual Board have also denied any link between the Chally religious institute and recent terrorist acts in Russia. LF

The oblast Department of Justice has warned the local branch of the Russian National Unity group not to display the swastika, "Izvestiya" reported on 28 September. Using the swastika as a symbol, it argued, contravenes the federal law "On the Immortalization of the Victory of the Soviet People in the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945" and defiles the memory of those who died during that period. The local RNE branch is reportedly very active in Volgograd: so far, it has opened eight representations throughout the oblast. But according to "Izvestiya," it registered there under false pretences: in its registration documents, it refers to itself as a branch of a nationwide movement, despite the fact that the federal Ministry of Justice has refused to register the group. The newspaper also notes that the Volgograd RNE branch consistently ignores--with impunity--the requirement that, as a registered socio-political organization, it submit reports on its activities to the Department of Justice. JC

A local court has handed down a three-year suspended sentence to Vadim Sukhoverkhov for abuse of office, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 September. Sukhoverkhov told investigators that last year he had borrowed $100,000 from another vice governor, Yurii Shchepkin, on behalf of a friend, who bought promissory notes with that sum and was able to repay the debt following several transactions. Sukhoverkhov said that he had made no money on the loan, but the oblast Prosecutor-General's Office alleged he had engaged in money-lending for profit. The office also claimed that the $100,000 came not from Shchepkin but was raised by the two vice governors through promissory notes from Voronezh enterprises. Shchepkin was acquitted of all charges. Sukhoverkhov, who had been detained since last fall, said he intends to appeal his suspended sentence, arguing that the charges are politically motivated. The oblast Prosecutor-General's Office, for its part, also intends to appeal the ruling, which it believes is too mild. JC

by Julie A. Corwin

The Atlas of Tibetan Medicine is back in Buryatia, the southern Russian republic bordering Mongolia, but a dispute over the atlas is likely to resurface and spill over into regional politics.

Local Buddhists, who consider the atlas sacred, last year objected to the republic's decision to send it to North American art museums without what they believed sufficient safeguards and a guarantee of its eventual return to Ulan Ude, Buryatia's capital. At the time, their objections led to a clash between police and Buddhist monks, which many predicted would cost Buryatia President Leonid Potapov reelection.

The atlas in question is not an atlas in a conventional sense, but a series of 76 paintings, measuring 32 by 26 inches, copied by Tibetan artists in the 1920s from a 17th century medical treatise that was subsequently lost. It somehow survived former Soviet leader Josef Stalin's assault on the Buddhist Church in the 1930s. And the U.S.-based Pro Cultura foundation, which sponsored the atlas's tour of North America, is working with Ulan Ude's Museum of the History of Buryatia to ensure its future preservation.

Museum workers say that the paintings should and will remain at the museum. But the head of Russia's Buddhist Church, Pandito Xambo Lama, also known as Damba Ausheev, apparently has other ideas. When asked about the museum's likely opposition to having the atlas removed, he told RFE/RL in Ulan Ude this month that "museum directors and government heads change. New people will take over and our republic will have democratic leaders who understand the values of democracy.... State officials have no moral or spiritual right to control this property."

At the present time, the atlas is formally the property of the Russian federal government, but Ausheev says that "it would be very desirable for the atlas to become our property again and return to our possession." He also reported that the head of the Aginskii datsan (temple), which originally commissioned the work, is gathering documents and will file a petition to have the atlas returned to the temple.

But Lidia Nimaeva, head of the Department for the North, Siberia and Far East at the federal Ministry for Nationalities Policy, says just the opposite. She told RFE/RL in Moscow that the head of the datsan understands that it "would be too much of a burden" to care for the atlas and provide "adequately for its storage and safekeeping." The head of the datsan and the Museum of the History of Buryatia, she added, are in complete agreement on this issue.

She also suggested that Ausheev's past and present stance regarding the atlas is based more on political grounds than religious ones and that it was no coincidence that the monks challenged Buryatia President Leonid Potapov's decision to send some of the paintings abroad just weeks before presidential elections took place in the republic.

Ausheev counters that taking the atlas out of the country "would have been a problem for us at any time, although perhaps we were lucky that the conflict occurred when it did." Noting that neither the Aginskii datsan nor the Buddhist Church received one ruble from the proceeds of the exhibition, he argues that the primary motivation for President Potapov's agreeing to the atlas's exhibition was monetary, since the federal Ministry of Culture, the republic's government, and the museum all received hard currency in return. Nimaeva, however, says the amount of money involved was small since the atlas was shown only at university museums, each of which paid only $5,000.

A renewed conflict over the atlas would likely affect not only local politics in Buryatia but could also deepen the rift that currently exists within Russia's Buddhist Church. Ausheev's chief rival, Lama Nimazhap Ilyukhinov, head of the Spiritual Agency of Buddhists of Russia, came out in support of Potapov following the clash with police last year. Ilyukhinov, who leads the Buddhist communities in St. Petersburg and Moscow, criticizes what he calls Ausheev's nationalist tendencies and suggests that Ausheev and his followers should be more open to exchanges with Buddhists in other regions and countries and less confrontational with political authorities, such as Potapov.

Ausheev, on the other hand, remains adamant not only that the atlas be returned to its original owner but that Buryat Buddhism be allowed to develop independently of the influence of other traditions. "We do not like it very much when missionaries come over from other Buddhist countries," he told RFE/RL. At the same time, he stressed that it is wrong to accuse him of being undemocratic for opposing their incursions into his territory.

"I understand the word democracy to mean the right of a person to live in a traditional milieu, in the embrace of the religion practice by his parents, the religion that helped them to survive," he says. "If you want Russia to become a democratic state, then you must give its traditional religions a chance to develop on their own."