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Russia Report: March 10, 2006

10 March 2006, Volume 6, Number 6
An attempt by Russia's State Duma to define Russian national identity has run into trouble with the country's Muslims and national minorities. The driving force behind a new bill on national identity was President Vladimir Putin himself, who has argued that Russians and Russia need to have a better sense of who they are. But when the bill was sent out for discussion last month by Russia's republican and regional parliamentary assemblies, it ran into a storm of protest. Deputies in Tatarstan, which has a large Muslim population, say it's an attempt to strengthen and formalize the dominant role of Russians in the state and therefore runs counter to the constitution.

The idea of defining a concept of Russian national identity is almost as old as Russia itself -- and just as elusive. Yet Russian leaders cannot, it seems, resist the temptation to try. In post-Soviet times, Boris Yeltsin made his contribution through the new constitution of the Russian Federation and the start of a debate on the Russian national idea.

Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the opposition Yabloko party, has appealed for a break from the imperial past. The Russian national idea, he says, should be based on respect. But such modest ambitions are not in keeping with President Putin's vision of a muscular new Russia pumped up by petrol and gas.

The problem is easily enough defined: how to create a sense of shared identity in a country divided by race, language, religion and, increasingly, class and wealth? How to give a sense of purpose to a new state that is still only just emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union?

Putin's answer is taking the shape of a bill on the fundamentals of state national policy, which sees its main aim as strengthening the formation of a united multicultural society. Few, it seems, have any problem with that.

Where some do have a problem, though, is with the "consolidating role" assigned by the bill to the Russian people ("Russkii narod") in "providing the unity of the country and strengthening the vertical of power." Perhaps they sense an echo of the guiding role assigned the Russian people in the Soviet Union?

The proposed legislation has stirred up a hornets' nest of protest in the predominantly-Muslim republic of Tatarstan, which has grown used to a considerable measure of autonomy in the years since the Soviet collapse. On March 3, its State Council Committee on Culture, Science, Education, and National Affairs flatly rejected the bill. Foat Galimullin, a deputy in the republican parliament, discussed this issue with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.

"We have already survived that unrealistic experiment to create a Soviet nation during the era of the USSR," Galimullin said. "And now, once more, we have plans to create the Russian nation. I consider this law provocative in principle and I think that it should be for sure rejected."

Indus Tahirov, another deputy in Tatarstan's parliament, said the bill was at odds with the federal constitution, which emphasizes the multiethnic nature of the Russian people (Rossiskii narod).

"The bill cannot be accepted in its present form, first of all because it is not in accordance with the norms of international law, secondly because it contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and thirdly because it does not strengthen mutual understanding among the peoples of the country because of the articles, which especially stand out concerning the Russian language and the Russian people."

Tahirov and other deputies have taken particular issue with the provisions of the bill on the Russian language. Tufan Minnullin points out that a demand contained in the bill that every citizen should know the Russian language is at odds with the federal constitution. What does "know" mean, he asks, and what is the punishment to be for not knowing?

"This is a very insidious law. It gives the impression of defending the Russian people, but in essence it is directed against the Russian people. It appears to compliment the Russian people but actually it sets the Russian people up against all the other peoples. Then there is that terrible article where it states that citizens of the Russian Federation are obliged to know the Russian language. What does it mean: "obliged"? If they have to imprison me, what will they do?"

It is not just Russia's religious and ethnic minorities who are alarmed. Russia's Public Chamber -- set up last year as a sort of collective ombudsman to monitor the work of parliament, as well as federal and regional bodies -- was dismissive, with one member suggesting the bill looked liked scraps torn at random from someone's dissertation.

The chamber has set up its own committee to examine the bill, which will report back in three months. Valery Tishkov is the head of its Commission on Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience and a leading expert on ethnicity and nationalism. He told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he sees no place for a "consolidating role" for the Russian people in the modern Russian state.

"We should be talking not just about the multicultural, complex composition of the Russian people, but also about its unity. It is impossible to create one people out of 100 peoples. We should not be talking about how to make one nation out of 100, but about the recognition -- recognition not formation -- of our genuinely existing unity, while at the same time preserving all our traditions."

The fact that this legislation is already running into trouble suggests how much Russia may be changing. At the heart of the debate over the new legislation lies the Kremlin's fear over Russia's demographic future. Russia is a multiethnic country, whose large Muslim population is growing as fast as the ethnic Russian population is shrinking. The country's national and religious minorities are becoming increasingly aware of their growing weight and importance in society. The Russian national idea may never be quite the same again. (Robert Parsons)

While European policymakers cautiously watched the recent Ukrainian-Russian gas conflict, debating among themselves if Russia was a reliable supplier of energy, policymakers in the Kremlin were busy preparing for an even greater role in the world energy market. Their attention, however, was concentrated not on gas or oil, but on preparing the country's nuclear power industry for its future role.

Russian federal authorities are considering creating a state-controlled company, one that would embrace all enterprises operating in the nuclear sector.

In an article on March 7, "The Moscow Times" reported that Viktor Opekunov, chairman of the State Duma subcommittee for nuclear energy, said the industry restructuring "would involve 'privatizing' all of Russia's nuclear enterprises -- in other words, incorporating them into joint-stock companies -- with the state becoming their only shareholder."

"The Moscow Times" identified the main components of Russia's nuclear industry as Rosatomenergo, which runs all power stations; Tvel, which owns a controlling interest in Russia's key nuclear fuel-manufacturing enterprises; Atomstroieksport, which builds nuclear power stations abroad; and Tekhnabeksport, the export arm trading in nuclear machinery and fuel.

All four groups are currently supervised by Rosatom, Russia's federal atomic energy agency, led by former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko. And all would continue to operate under the new umbrella organization proposed by Russian federal authorities.

The nuclear power industry in Russia continues to play an ever-increasing role in Russia's energy balance and is destined to play an even more significant one in the future. Russia's energy strategy for 2020, adopted in 2003, forecasts that by 2020 nuclear power is expected to increase its share to 25 percent of Russian electricity generation, up from 16 percent in 2004, as the share from hydrocarbon-fired generators drops.

Russian policy is to gradually phase out the use of coal, oil and gas to fire electricity generators. According to a December 2005 study by the Uranium Information Center in Australia, "Rosatom's long-term strategy up to 2050 involves moving to inherently safe nuclear plants using fast reactors with a closed fuel cycle and MOX fuel."

MOX, mixed oxide fuel, is a process of using plutonium left in spent reactor fuel and from nuclear warheads to generate energy. It is essentially a recycling process and is used in some 30 nuclear reactors in Europe.

MOX is not the only answer to reactor fuel. The Executive Intelligence Review reported on 10 February that "on January 25, Nikolai Sevastyanov, head of the Energia Russian Space Company, outlined an ambitious plan to obtain fuel for the next type of nuclear power: thermonuclear fusion. He said Russia should mine helium-3 (which is rare on Earth) on the moon."

Presently, Russia has 31 operating reactors, which generate about 147 billion kilowatt-hours per year. Six new reactors are under construction and 16 more are planned. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Russia's nuclear power facilities are aging. "Fifty percent of the country's 31 nuclear reactors use the RBMK design employed in Ukraine's ill-fated Chernobyl plant. The working life of a reactor is considered to be 30 years: nine of Russia's plants are between 26 and 30 years old, and six are between 21 and 25 years old" the EIA reports.

Thermal power (oil, natural gas, and coal-fired) currently accounts for roughly 63 percent of Russia's electricity generation, followed by hydropower (21 percent) and nuclear (16 percent).

Russia's future role as an international nuclear power leader, a concept which the current leadership is promoting, is ambitious and far-ranging.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would like to reestablish the former Soviet nuclear energy bloc in Eurasia. Speaking at the St. Petersburg summit of the Eurasian Economic Community (EES), in early February, Putin said Russia was "firmly determined" to widen its cooperation with the EES, and that a priority would be collaboration in the "peaceful uses of nuclear energy."

Rosatom announced plans to rejuvenate the Russian nuclear industry, mainly through cooperation with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and other countries which once were part of the Soviet nuclear power space.

On January 20, Putin met with Kiriyenko, who stressed that nuclear power will need to receive an increase in government funding. "We need to build two nuclear reactors per year, beginning in 2011 or 2012," Kiriyenko was quoted by Interfax that day. In order to raise the needed funds for such a project, Rosatom will become a joint stock company, but will remain under government control. Kiriyenko also stated that he intends to build 60 atomic reactors abroad.

How feasible Kiriyenko's plans are is difficult to judge in light of the fact that there have been substantial delays in the construction of the six reactors presently being built. Only two or three are expected to meet startup target dates due to funding problems.

The other problem facing the nuclear program is the rapid depletion of uranium in Russia. At present, Russia produces some 2,900 tons of uranium, but deposits are rapidly dwindling.

Uzbekistan, which has an extensive reserve of uranium ore, was brought into the emerging nuclear partnership during the EEC summit and Putin announced that the Uzbeks would provide Russia with "additional long-term possibilities for the building of a stable nuclear fuel energy base," "The Moscow Times" reported on 8 February.

Russia has also expressed interest in becoming a hub for supplying nuclear fuel and services for existing reactors in former Soviet bloc countries in Central Europe. During his recent trip to Hungary and the Czech Republic, Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia will take part in bids to upgrade existing nuclear reactors such as the Czech plant in Dukovany and the Hungarian Paksi Atomeromu plant which supplies 40 percent of Hungary's power needs.

The Arms Control Association reported in November 2000 that Russia and India signed a secret memorandum of understanding on October 4, 2000 to pursue future "cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy." The memorandum was one of several agreements, including a declaration of strategic partnership, signed during Putin's October 2000 visit to New Delhi.

In an apparent move to counteract this agreement, the U.S. signed an agreement in Delhi in March of this year to supply India with fuel and nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

The very day when U.S. President George W. Bush signed the pact with India, Putin told a press conference in Prague that Russia would fight any restrictions placed on its atomic energy operations in Europe.

"Unfortunately, we are facing certain restrictions, attempts to limit our operations in nuclear energy and in power engineering on the European market," Interfax quoted Putin as saying on March 1. "We are not dramatizing this, but we will strive for equality."

Unlike its gas, Russia does not possess a near monopoly on nuclear fuel in the region and will face stiff competition on the European market from France. How this might affect Russia-France relations is uncertain. In the case of the former Soviet republics and Central Europe, the Russians certainly do enjoy a nuclear advantage and could use it as they presently use gas, as a lever to achieve their political goals. (Roman Kupchinsky)

On March 8, 2005, Russian media reported the death, in circumstances that remain unclear, of Aslan Maskhadov, the former Soviet army colonel who headed the Chechen resistance forces during the 1994-96 war and was subsequently elected Chechen president in January 1997. Maskhadov's death has not only made a peaceful negotiated settlement of the ongoing conflict within Chechnya even more remote; it has accelerated the expansion of the Chechens' conflict against Moscow into other regions of the North Caucasus.

On January 14, just weeks before he was killed, Maskhadov unilaterally proclaimed a one-month cease-fire, ordering the resistance forces subordinate to him to suspend all offensive military operations.

That order, according to Maskhadov spokesman Umar Khanbiev, was intended as a "gesture of goodwill," and to demonstrate that the Chechen resistance was subordinate to Maskhadov as supreme commander. At the same time, Maskhadov again invited Moscow to begin negotiations on ending the conflict, focusing on the two key issues of security guarantees for the Chechen people and a Chechen commitment to respect Russia's interests in the North Caucasus.

In his last interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, just weeks before his death, Maskhadov said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was totally unaware of the real state of affairs in Chechnya.

"I'm deeply convinced that Putin is far from reality about what is really going on in Chechnya today," Maskhadov said. "It is common practice for the army to report what their chief wants to hear from them. Such practices probably exist in Russia's security services too."

Maskhadov went on to suggest that that all could change if he and the Russian president could meet face-to-face. Such a meeting, he posited, could serve as a true foundation for change.

"We have been suggesting that a 30-minute, fair, face-to-face dialogue should be enough to stop this war, to explain to the president of the Russian Federation what the Chechen people really want -- I'm sure he doesn't even know that -- and also to hear from Putin personally what he wants, what Russia wants in Chechnya," said Maskhadov.

He added: "If we are able to open the eyes of our opponents, the Russian leaders, peace can be established."

But Russian officials publicly dismissed that offer of peace talks as pointless. Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak said it was "irrelevant," as Maskhadov "lost control over the situation in Chechnya long ago," according to Interfax on February 3, 2005.

State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov told journalists in Moscow on February 10, 2005 that negotiations with Maskhadov are "yesterday's option," adding that Maskhadov had been given the chance after the signing in August 1996 of the Khasavyurt peace accord to restore order, but lost control of the situation. "It is senseless to try to reach another agreement with a man who has already failed," Kosachyov said.

Unconfirmed reports suggest, however, that the Russian authorities may have seized upon Maskhadov's peace overture as a means to get rid of him. Maskhadov's successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev claimed in an address to the Chechen people in autumn 2005 that Maskhadov was "lured" into talks and deliberately killed.

In its first issue for 2006, "Novoe vremya" quoted a lawyer for one of the four close associates of Maskhadov who were apprehended at the time of his death and who went on trial last fall as likewise saying that the Russian leadership agreed to Maskhadov's proposal and even gave guarantees of his safety to Tim Guldimann, the Swiss diplomat who in 1995-1996 headed the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) Mission in Grozny.

Maskhadov then declared the unilateral cease-fire and moved from Avtury to Tolstoi-Yurt -- the village north of Grozny where he was killed -- in readiness for those talks. "Novoe vremya" cited Maskhadov's unnamed arrested associate as reportedly testifying that Russian security services succeeded in hunting down Maskhadov and killing him by means of intercepted mobile-phone calls and text messages to Guldimann.

But those reports have never been confirmed, and Guldimann has declined to comment to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on his involvement. Whatever the chain of circumstances that culminated in Maskhadov's death, it removed the last potential negotiating partner on the Chechen side with both a claim to legitimacy (Russia recognized his election in 1997 as fair and legitimate, as did OSCE monitors) and authority with the resistance.

Sadulayev, whom senior resistance figures acknowledged as president within days of Maskhadov's death, had been named deputy president and Maskhadov's designated successor at an extended session of the State Defense Committee in July-August 2002, but that decision was not made public at the time.

Over the past year, Sadulayev, operating in tandem with veteran field commander Shamil Basayev, has taken steps to extend the field of hostilities from Chechnya across the North Caucasus. True, Chechen militants had struck outside Chechnya even earlier, in the Moscow theater hostage-taking in October 2002, the raids on multiple Interior Ministry targets in Ingushetia in June 2004, and the Beslan school hostage-taking in September 2004. But Maskhadov had disclaimed any responsibility for, and voiced his condemnation of, those acts of terrorism, and at least through 2003 he repeatedly impressed on his troops the need to abide strictly by the Geneva Conventions and to refrain from attacking any Russian targets outside Chechnya.

But in his last interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Maskhadov signaled his retreat from that self-imposed limitation, saying that he had given orders to establish additional military sectors in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Daghestan.

Sadulayev took that process even further. On May 2, he issued a series of decrees formally dividing the western "front" into no fewer than seven sectors (Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Stavropol Krai, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya and Krasnodar) and naming commanders of those sectors. He likewise named new commanders of the eastern front as a whole and of four of its sectors (Gudermes, Argun, Kurchaloi and Grozny), according to on May 16, 2005.

While the Chechen resistance has continued to wage hit-and-run attacks on Russian troops, it has carried out only one major operation since Maskhadov's death, in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, in October 2005. Basayev subsequently claimed to have played a key role in the "operational planning" of that attack, but it was apparently launched prematurely after local police and security personnel tracked down one of the militant detachments that was to take part. The militants, many of them reportedly young and with only rudimentary military training, sustained proportionally heavier losses than those in the Ingushetia raids the previous year.

The apparent waning in military activity on the part of the resistance within Chechnya is likely to bolster the arguments of those senior officials in Moscow who believe that it is expedient to continue to rely on a dwindling number of Interior Ministry troops, many of them ethnic Chechens, to marginalize and then quash the resistance. (There are now only some 36,000-38,000 federal troops in Chechnya, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov said on February 28. That compares with approximately 80,000 one year ago.)

By the same token, Sadulayev's recent affirmations of his commitment to building an Islamic state in Chechnya and to waging a national-liberation struggle to "decolonize" the North Caucasus effectively preclude any attempt by Moscow to seek compromise and common ground. Sadulayev declared in November 2005 that the Chechen side will not propose further peace talks, but continue fighting "until the Caucasus is freed from the boot of the Russian occupiers." There thus seems little chance of ending a conflict that, as Maskhadov repeatedly pointed out, "cannot be resolved by force." (Liz Fuller)