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Russia Report: May 25, 2006

25 May 2006, Volume 6, Number 11
On May 21, the tiny Balkan republic of Montenegro voted to dissolve its union with Serbia and become an independent state. This peaceful act of self-determination has potential significance for separatism-minded regions elsewhere. In the former Soviet Union, breakaway territories in Georgia and Moldova see Montenegro's quest for independence as a model for their own aspirations.

PRAGUE, May 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Suddenly, everybody wants to be just like Montenegro.

From Transdniester to South Ossetia to Abkhazia, separatist regions in the former Soviet Union are rushing to praise the Montenegrin independence vote -- and to hold it up as a model that they would like to follow.

Sergei Bagapsh, the president of Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region, praised what he called Montenegro's "civilized" method of gaining self-determination.

Likewise, Yevgeny Shevchuk -- the speaker of separatist Transdniester's parliament -- told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service that people there have the right to hold a similar vote -- if not for independence, then at least for autonomy:

"If we are going to proceed according to the principles of human rights and create conditions for a better life on the dignified level of Europeans in the 21st century, then we need to go down this path," Shevchuk said. "We have a historic opportunity."

But there are big differences between Montenegro and these post-Soviet separatist regions.

Montenegro's leadership enjoys wide legitimacy and the republic is considered a good international citizen.

Moreover, Montenegro's independence referendum was held with clear rules under the watchful eye of the European Union and with Serbia's acquiescence. There were no serious fears of violence.

By contrast, the threat of unrest is never far off in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, whose relations with the Georgian government in Tbilisi are often openly hostile. Transdniester, likewise, has poor ties with Chisinau. And all three regions are widely viewed as lawless safe havens for smugglers and organized-crime groups.

All three are also strongly supported by Russia, which has been accused of exploiting the conflicts to maintain leverage in its relations with pro-Western Georgia and Moldova.

Georgia is working hard to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into its fold and resents what it sees as Russian meddling on its territory.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Irakli Menagarishvili, a former Georgian foreign minister and currently the head of the country's Center for Strategic Studies, warned the international community against applying the Montenegrin model to trouble spots in the former USSR.

"Drawing parallels here is not only unacceptable, but also dangerous," Menagarishvili said. "Cases like these have their specific historical, political, and other dimensions. Hence each of them has to be considered and solved separately. Any attempt at generalization or universalization is, to repeat once again, not only unacceptable, but also dangerous."

One breakaway region in the former Soviet Union where an independence referendum proved problematic was the ethnic-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

Many in Nagorno-Karabakh feel that residents of the region were punished for voting for independence in 1991 -- paying with their lives in the war that ensued.

So, with all these differences, can Montenegro's smooth transition nevertheless serve as a model for resolving any of the stubborn frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union?

Karel De Gucht, the OSCE's chairman in office, thinks it can -- but only if all sides agree in advance to respect the result.

"You can only have that kind of referendum if all parties agree about the referendum and agree about the outcome of the referendum," de Gucht said. "That is why the proposal of the international community by Ambassador [Miroslav] Lajcak -- that you should have at least 55 percent of the people voting in favor [in Montenegro] -- was an important element, because it was also accepted by all parties concerned. A referendum where first of all the organization of, and, second, the result, the outcome, are not guaranteed beforehand can also be very divisive. So it can be a solution, provided that everybody agrees to accept the result."

Likewise, Alexander Rahr, an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union at the German Council of Foreign Relations, said holding a referendum is the fairest and most democratic way to resolve such issues.

But for independence votes to work, they must be held under free, fair, and open conditions -- circumstances that are conspicuously absent in Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Moreover, Rahr pointed out that Russia might try to manipulate the results of referendums in the pro-Moscow regions.

"In Montenegro, a referendum could be held in a real democratic way under the supervision of Western democratic institutions," Rahr said. "That may not be the case in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transdniester, where there is a fear these results could be forged and controlled by Russia."

For its part, Russia will likely be careful about pushing the Montenegro model too far.

Citing Montenegro as a Western-endorsed precedent may suit the Kremlin's needs in Georgia and Moldova's separatist regions.

But Moscow would be unlikely to endorse such a scenario on its own territory -- most notably, in Chechnya. (Brian Whitmore)

Russia appears to support the May 21 Montenegrin independence referendum as a potential model for resolving some separatist conflicts in its own neighborhood -- namely, the regions that enjoy Moscow's support in their pursuit of independence from Moldova and Georgia. But its own separatist conflicts are a different matter -- particularly in Chechnya, where no Montenegro-style referendum is likely. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Claire Bigg asked Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundation think tank in Moscow, whether Russia has a double standard on the issue of separatist conflicts.

RFE/RL: The Russian Foreign Ministry said on May 23 it respected Montenegro's vote to seek independence from Serbia. Abkhazia and Transdniester, two breakaway regions backed by Russia, have also hailed the historic poll as an inspiring model. Will Russia be tempted to apply the Montenegrin experience to Moscow-friendly frozen conflict regions?

Yevgeny Volk: Tbilisi will certainly not allow referendums to be held in Abkhazia or in South Ossetia, and the international community will, of course, be on the Georgian government's side. If Russia tries to push for referendums, it will end up being isolated and neither the OSCE nor the UN will support its efforts. It is a very unlikely option because it represents a direct path to armed conflict.

RFE/RL: Despite welcoming Montenegro's independence vote and urging the nation to engage in a "constructive, good-willed, and wide-ranging dialogue" with Serbia, Russia is very unlikely to sanction a similar referendum in Chechnya. Does this amount to a double standard?

Volk: Russia supports referendums where it is advantageous, where it advances its own interests -- but in no circumstances inside the country, where such referendums could yield the most unexpected results, even despite massive control and manipulation of public opinion.

RFE/RL: Is a similar referendum possible at all in Chechnya, and would it enjoy Western support like Montenegro's independence vote?

Volk: Today, the issue of a referendum in Chechnya is purely hypothetical, so in this context it is too early to talk about the West's stance. Chechnya is now under total Russian control. In my opinion, even if such a referendum took place in Chechnya, its results would be known in advance since free and fair elections cannot be expected there. (Claire Bigg)

When Ramzan Kadyrov was named in early March to the post of Chechen prime minister, he publicly vowed to relinquish that post if he failed to bring about a radical improvement in living conditions within three months. With that deadline now imminent, the Chechen Ministry for Nationality Policy, Press, and Information has reportedly commissioned a public-opinion poll. All conceivable responses to the seven questions posed confirm that life in Chechnya has improved since Kadyrov assumed full control of the government.

Kadyrov has indeed set about transforming the war-scarred face of the republic and, just as crucially, winning the hearts and minds of a generation that can barely remember a time when Chechnya was not at war. The "International Herald Tribune" on May 4 carried on its front page pictures of reconstruction in Grozny, commenting that the extent of the rebuilding would have been "unthinkable" just a year ago. Highways are being resurfaced, the electricity grid repaired, and new cafes and shops have opened. And the rebuilding is not confined to the capital: it extends to the towns of Argun and Gudermes.

Those visible signs of urban renewal have reportedly had a major psychological impact and earned Kadyrov the grudging respect of at least some of Grozny's residents. In a May 3 interview, Tatyana Lokshina, a Russian human rights activist who recently visited Grozny, told "Caucasus Times" that this constitutes a major shift in public attitudes and perception, given that one year ago "no one had a good word to say about" Kadyrov.

The Chechen government's public opinion poll seeks to quantify that public approval: the questions include "To whom does Chechnya owe the restoration now under way: to the federal center, the republic head, or the prime minister?" according to "Kommersant." Chechen Republic head Alu Alkhanov has publicly slammed that initiative, adding that Kadyrov has denied any knowledge of who initiated it, RIA Novosti reported on May 18.

Moreover, Kadyrov's leadership style is perceived as almost as important as what he has accomplished, insofar as he is coming to embody the sort of tough leader whom Chechens respect: a man who gives orders, and whose orders are promptly carried out. At the same time, as Lokshina notes, Kadyrov is still feared so intensively that virtually no one is prepared to utter a word of criticism of him or the several thousand armed men under his command.

Kadyrov's orders are not confined to rebuilding. He is also establishing a kind of moral discipline that is in keeping with traditional Chechen values, imposing restrictions on the sale of alcohol, cracking down on drug addiction, banning gambling, and encouraging women to dress modestly, including covering their heads.

At the same time, as noted above, Kadyrov has launched a charm offensive, tirelessly visiting schools, building sites, and hospitals -- and ensuring that the local media give extensive coverage to such activities. And he reinforces that impression of personal concern for individuals by handing out material benefits -- including wads of dollar bills. Where Kadyrov's seemingly bottomless funds derive from is a matter for speculation: part from Moscow, part from the proceeds of stolen oil, and part from a system that requires all state-sector employees to surrender a given percentage of their salaries, and owners of businesses a cut of their profits, according to Lokshina.

There are, however, grounds for suspecting Kadyrov's ultimate objective is not simply to improve the lives of the republic's population. According to Lokshina, Kadyrov is working intensively on improving his personal image, which has been badly tarnished not only by persistent rumors of his personal involvement in torture but also by his inability to express himself articulately in Russian. Lokshina said that Kadyrov has engaged a team of experienced image-makers whose efforts are already bearing fruit, to the point that "today's Kadyrov is no longer a dilettante in the realm of political populism but a full-fledged professional."

Many observers infer from Kadyrov's activities and statements in recent months that he has every intention of succeeding Alkhanov as republic head, and that he is convinced that Moscow supports that scenario. Even before Alkhanov's election in September 2004 to succeed Kadyrov's father Akhmad-hadji, who was killed by a terrorist bomb two years ago, commentators suggested that Alkhanov was intended solely as an interim figure and that he would step down as soon as Ramzan Kadyrov reached the age of 30 -- the minimum age for election as republic head. Kadyrov will turn 30 on October 5.

The Chechen parliament, whose members are overwhelmingly loyal to Kadyrov, recently passed two laws that pave the way for amending the republic's constitution to expedite the replacement of Alkhanov, "Vremya novostei" reported on May 12. That legislation outlines the procedure for the creation of a Constitutional Court and Constitutional Assembly that will amend the republic's existing constitution to remove the stipulation that the republic head is universally elected.

The rivalry and tensions between Alkhanov and Kadyrov erupted into violence last month when bodyguards for the two men reportedly exchanged shots after Alkhanov sought to exclude Kadyrov from a meeting in Grozny with visiting Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin. Russian President Vladimir Putin summoned the two men to Moscow on May 5 and warned Kadyrov not to seek to undermine Alkhanov, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 6 without naming its sources.

Meanwhile, Alkhanov has reportedly also set about recruiting allies who could be counted on to support him in an anticipated showdown with Kadyrov. Those figures are said to include the commanders of the East and West battalions of the Russian Interior Ministry's 42nd division, Sulim Yamadaev and Said-Magomed Kakiev, and former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantamirov, who as Chechen deputy prime minister had several spectacular public disagreements with Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. Yamadaev hates Kadyrov, whom he suspects of being responsible for the death of his brother, according to an analysis posted on on May 1. A "Wall Street Journal" commentary last year cited reports that Gantamirov was then based at the Russian North Caucasus military headquarters in Mozdok, and that he was being kept "in reserve" as a possible successor to Kadyrov.

Assuming those reports of a tentative anti-Ramzan alliance are true, it is inconceivable that Alkhanov would have set about forging it without Putin's approval. And if Putin has approved such an alliance, that suggests that at the least he has finally come to realize that Kadyrov poses a potential threat, even if he has not yet decided whether or how to set about removing that threat. (Liz Fuller)

Amnesty International today released its annual report on the global state of human rights. The report's findings were mixed regarding CIS states -- a catalogue of continuing abuses with some progress. Russia was lambasted for a rise in racially motivated killings. Belarus and Azerbaijan both received criticism for cracking down on opposition activists and politicians. And Ukraine and Georgia -- countries that have improved their democratic credentials since their colored revolutions -- were chastised for their records on police torture.

PRAGUE, May 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As Lamzar Samba, a student from Senegal, was leaving a popular St. Petersburg nightclub in April, he was killed by a gunshot to the neck.

Russian police on May 22 detained five suspects over the killing. A sixth suspect was killed last week by police while allegedly resisting arrest.

The attack on the student was one of a spate of racially motivated attacks in Russia in recent weeks. Rights watchers say such attacks are on the rise.

Amnesty International's annual report notes that in 2005 in Russia there were at least 28 killings and 365 assaults motivated by racial hatred. Foreigners and Russian citizens from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus have been the main targets.

Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary-general, says there have been many other disturbing signs in Russia over the past year.

"We have seen the Russian government introducing restrictions against NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], clamping down on human rights defenders and journalists," Khan said. "We have seen the Russian government totally ignore and refuse to take action against its own security forces in Chechnya, who have committed human rights abuses."

Amnesty's Irene Khan (AI/Dannenmiller)Russia's apparent backsliding on human rights has caused many observers to question the country's tenure as chair of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers and presidency of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized nations.

Judit Arenas, a senior spokeswoman for Amnesty, says Russia has taken some positive steps. She cites President Vladimir Putin's recognition of racism as a problem during his recent address to the nation.

But she adds that Russia should do more and should set a leading example on the international stage.

"Russia actually blocked major resolutions at the UN Security Council on Darfur," Arenas said. "It's got a major problem on its doorstep in Chechnya, which has not been resolved. There are other issues in the Caucasus and it has to lead by example and actually clearly demonstrate that if it wants to be a global player [then] it must actually abide by the rules of the game."

The Amnesty report criticizes Belarus and Azerbaijan for their violent crackdowns on opposition activists and journalists. In Armenia, despite commitments made to the Council of Europe, conscientious objectors to military service still remain in jail.

But what of Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that have improved their democratic records since their recent "colored revolutions"?

The Amnesty report criticizes both countries for reports of torture and ill treatment by law-enforcement officers.

Amnesty highlights reports that Georgian police have placed plastic bags over detainees' heads and beaten prisoners with gun butts.

Georgian police responding to a prison riot in Tbilisi in March (InterPressNews)However, the report points out that in both Ukraine and Georgia, senior officials have begun to address the issue.

In Ukraine, the new government after the 2004 Orange Revolution changed legislation to allow state officials to be charged with torture.

And in Georgia, several high-ranking politicians have pledged to fight police abuse. There has also been more extensive monitoring of detention facilities.

Arenas says Georgia has been willing to listen to recommendations and implement legal amendments.

"The problem has actually been that that message has actually not translated down to the level of law-enforcement officials, who are the ones who continue to torture and ill-treat people," Arenas added.

The report notes that police in Georgia continue to cover up crimes and detainees are often afraid to file a complaint for fear of reprisals. (Luke Allnutt)

GUAM -- a regional grouping of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova -- always seemed like just another talking shop. This was especially true in a region with what some might consider an excess of regional groupings, like the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and others. After Uzbekistan left the body in 2002, many commentators questioned whether GUAM even had a future. But the recent advent to power in Georgia and Ukraine of openly pro-Western leaders breathed new life into the grouping. And with countries threatening to leave the CIS, GUAM has set its sights much higher.

PRAGUE, May 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Surrounded by a bevy of wine glasses and photographers this week in Kyiv, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili enjoyed a glass of one of his country's biggest exports.

The wine festival in the Ukrainian capital was a clear show of solidarity, after Russia recently banned Georgian wine in a move many think is political.

That spirit of bonhomie also seemed evident in the more serious business of politics. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected the first-time secretary-general of GUAM, spoke enthusiastically of the region's prospects.

"I am firmly convinced that our region has great potential and that it will become one of the most promising regions in modern Europe. This concerns not only energy or transport projects but also security projects, I'm sure," Yushchenko said.

The presidents of the four GUAM countries adopted a new charter, rules of procedure, and financial regulations. And crucially, the leaders also expressed their desire for increased cooperation with NATO and the European Union.

They also gave the organization a new name. GUAM will now be known as the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development-GUAM.

This apparent reawakening is likely to irritate Russia. From the outset, Moscow has reacted to GUAM with mistrust and hostility, perceiving it as a secret weapon with which the United States, a GUAM funder, planned to emasculate the CIS.

Whatever the cause, the CIS -- which rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- seems to be in trouble.

In recent weeks, President Saakashvili has repeatedly hinted at possibility of his country withdrawing from the CIS.

In Ukraine and Moldova, senior politicians have alluded to the possibility of leaving the CIS. Of the four GUAM countries, only Azerbaijan has ruled out leaving the body.

The presidents of the GUAM countries in Kyiv, May 23 Aleksandre Rondeli, the president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, thinks that GUAM's transformation is part of the disintegration of the CIS.

"GUAM in the beginning was created mostly as a certain kind of resistance toward Russian security policy. But now it's developing into a serious, full-fledged international organization, but with an economic basis," Rondeli says.

Indeed, at the Kyiv meeting, economic cooperation was high on the agenda.

Since its inception, the presidents of the GUAM member states have consistently stressed the anticipated benefits of economic cooperation. That means, in the first instance, the construction of export pipelines for Caspian oil and gas that bypass Russian territory. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-export pipeline is to be formally inaugurated next month and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline will go into operation this fall.

The presidents of the GUAM countries at the summit on May 23 Much of the renewed cooperation will now be concentrated on reducing dependence on Russian oil and gas. Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova are all reliant on Russia for gas supplies. But Azerbaijan could replace Russia as Georgia's supplier when gas from its Shah-Deniz field starts flowing through Georgia in the next few months.

At the May 23 summit, the presidents took another bold step, announcing that they had signed a protocol on creating a free-trade zone and a customs union.

Georgian President Saakashvili, speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, stressed that the renewed interest in the alliance was for self-protection: "It is very important that, at a time of real economic sanctions against Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, at a time of new obstacles and embargoes, we have agreed to introduce a free-trade regime among our countries, because it offers concrete benefits to all [GUAM member] countries, all citizens, all producers."

But is this likely to amount to much?

Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the London-based Center for European Reform, says that since the breakup of the Soviet Union there have been numerous attempts to create political and economic cooperation. She says that most of these initiatives have been only mildly successful as trade between countries has not increased.

"My impression is that the policymakers in the former Soviet Union have a very statist and traditional view of international relations. The state is supreme over markets and there is a clear distinction between high politics and low politics," Barysch says.

"And high politics is big presidents getting together and signing deals, and that very often includes economic deals, but this isn't really something that's driven from the ground up, that's driven by the business sector. The motivation behind that seems to be political."

Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, has no doubt that the motivation for GUAM is political. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Kosachyov said he couldn't see what the countries had in common:

"I find it extremely hard to imagine that something actually unites these countries, in particular slogans on democratic elections and adherence to the idea of progress. And that explains Russia's reaction -- we find it strange to see an alliance formed not on a positive but on a negative note; not for something, but against something."

Besides, there could be tensions within the grouping itself. Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have unequivocally pro-Western and pro-NATO orientations, whereas oil-rich Azerbaijan has taken a more ambivalent position.

Speaking after the summit, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was keen to stress how the organization wasn't about confrontation. "It is not aimed against anybody," he said. "We didn't gather here to make friends in order to oppose someone else." (RFE/RL's Liz Fuller, Luke Allnutt, Claire Bigg, and the Russian, Ukrainian, and Georgian services contributed to this story.)

BRUSSELS, May 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today met with the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The meeting -- which took place behind closed doors -- provided EU lawmakers with a rare opportunity to quiz the Russian minister on a range of questions important to EU-Russian relations and current international issues. At least one participant at the meeting suggested there are a number of issues on which the two sides do not agree.

The fact that the meeting was held behind closed doors -- something that is unusual for the European Parliament -- indicates the two sides were keen to avoid publicizing their differences.

After the morning's question-and-answer session, Lavrov gave a brief overview of what he had talked about: "I also shared our views and answered questions regarding developments in Russia, regarding our assessment of the situation in countries located close to both Russia and the European Union, our position on the Middle East problem, on the Iranian nuclear issue, and answered many questions about human rights, about our relations with the Baltic states."

Lavrov said the meeting also considered the longer-term future of the EU-Russia relationship after their current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement runs out in 2007.

Elmar Brok, the chairman of the European Parliament�s foreign affairs committee, said energy security was also discussed.

An EU source told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Lavrov had assured his audience that energy cooperation with the EU remains a top priority for Russia, and that both sides are mutually interdependent.

He did not, however, address outstanding questions between the EU and Russia on how much market access to grant each other.

The EU source said Lavrov also defended Russian policies on Moldova and Belarus and rejected criticisms of his country�s rights record.

On Belarus, Lavrov said the country remains an "ally and a friend" for Russia, and that dialogue is the only acceptable way of dealing with Minsk.

His comment came as the European Union is considering whether to impose an assets freeze on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other top officials in response to the country's flawed presidential election in March.

Lavrov also said that despite Russian attempts to improve relations, Moldova has neglected to meet its obligations with regard to Transdniester. He said Chisinau has broken off dialogue and demands a solution under which it remains a unitary state.

Lavrov said the EU is displaying "double standards" by siding with Moldova, and cited the case of Cyprus, where the EU supports a far looser future arrangement between the two sides.

According to the EU source, Lavrov rejected criticism of the recent tightening of Russia�s legislation on nongovernmental organizations. He said Russian requirements for NGO registration are no stricter than those in a number of EU member states. Lavrov also noted Russian authorities require far less background information to register an NGO than their counterparts in the United States.

Lavrov also said that while Moscow subscribes to the notion of universal human rights, it believes their application depends on local circumstances and therefore differs from country to country.

The Russian foreign minister brushed off charges that Moscow remains unwilling to conclude border treaties with two new EU member states, Estonia and Latvia. He said the two countries had reneged on an initial agreement not to attach unilateral political declarations to the treaties -- making it impossible for Russia to proceed.

Lavrov also attacked a number of resolutions adopted by the European Parliament on the situation of the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia. He said the declarations -- which Russia sees as biased -- are based on impartial and outdated information and fail to tackle such fundamental issues like the social and political rights of the minorities.

Lavrov also sharply condemned what he said were Latvian restrictions on the celebrations organized by Red Army veterans to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany on May 9.

Lavrov also spoke out against isolating countries such as Belarus and Iran. He warned that, if isolated, Iran could turn into "a new North Korea." Lavrov did add, however, that Russia does not support the emergence of new nuclear-capable countries.

PRAGUE, May 19, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's postcommunist demographic woes have been well documented. But the implications of the issue have become such a hot topic of late that President Vladimir Putin made it his highest priority during his May 10 state-of-the-nation address.

Russia's population is declining by about 700,000 people per year, and has dropped from 150 million since the 1992 census to just over 142 million today.

If left unchecked, demographers estimate that Russia's population could fall to fewer than 100 million people by 2050.

Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov -- who heads Russia's Party of Life, a party whose platform is largely based on resolving the demographic crisis -- this week provided even more staggering numbers, estimating that Russia might have only 52 million people by 2080 if urgent measures are not taken.

Fears over potential consequences are wide-ranging -- that the country won't be able to generate enough young men to fill the ranks of its military, that the economy will not be able to sustain itself, and that immigration could drastically alter the country's ethnic and religious makeup.

In response to the public's growing concerns over population losses, Putin prioritized the steps the state must take to rectify the problem.

"First a lower death rate; second, and efficient migration policy; and third, a higher birthrate," Putin told the nation during his address.

Russia has a birthrate of about 9.95 per 1,000 people, compared to about 14 per 1,000 in the United States, and 8.3 per 1,000 in Germany. But the crux of the matter lies in the country's death rate. While the United States has a death rate of 8.2 per 1,000 people, and Germany 10.6, Russia posts an alarming 14.65 deaths per 1,000 population.

The only former Soviet states with comparable figures are fellow Slavic states Ukraine (8.81 births/14.3 deaths per 1,000) and Belarus (11.1 births/14 deaths). The populations of states in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus, meanwhile, are booming. Kazakhstan, for example, is recording 16 births per 1,000 people and a death rate of 9.42 per 1,000, while Turkmenistan boasts a birthrate of 27.6 per 1,000 and a death rate of 8.6 per 1,000.

While many countries manage to make up for demographic problems by attracting immigrants to buttress their populations, Russia is posting a deficit in this regard as well. Only about 70,000 immigrants enter Russia per year, while about 100,000 leave the country.

Following the presidential address, Communist Party of Russia leader Gennady Zyuganov commented on the urgency of the situation.

"From the point of view of content, [Putin's address] was more realistic, more specific," Zyuganov said. "The main theme is that the country is losing its population. It has lost 10 million people in 15 years, of whom 9 million are Russians. The preservation of the people is such a crying problem that it cannot be avoided."

Partly due to the very low life expectancy in the country (67.08 years overall; 60.45 for men, 74.1 years for women), the death rate particularly hits Russia's workforce. Specialists have calculated that the country's working-age population will decline by as much as 15 percent between 2005-15.

This, in turn can have a huge impact on the country's economic situation, which is a major factor in people's decisions to have offspring.

As Putin described it, low incomes, lack of housing, and doubts about the ability to adequately provide education, medical care, and even food can deter potential mothers from having children.

"When planning to have a child, a woman is faced with the choice whether to have a child but lose her job, or not to have a child," Putin said during his address. "This is a very difficult choice. The encouragement of childbirth should include a whole range of measures of administrative, financial, and social support for young families."

As an incentive to increase the birthrate, Putin, ordered parliament to double child-support payments to 1,500 rubles ($55) per month and added that women who choose to have a second baby will receive a one-time payment of 250,000 rubles ($9,200).

Another solution outlined by Putin was to continue attracting "our fellow countrymen from abroad," saying it is necessary to encourage "qualified migrants, people who are educated, and who obey the law."

He followed this up by noting that "people coming to settle in Russia should treat Russian culture and our national traditions with respect."

This was an apparent nod to the growing voice of nationalists in Russia concerned with the declining population of ethnic Russians. Such concerns have contributed to racism and anti-immigrant passions in Russia, and have fueled the rising popularity of the "Russia for Russians" rally cry.

Putin conceded that the measures outlined in his speech were merely the first steps toward alleviating the demographic crisis, and that further remedies are on the way.

It is obvious that increasing the birthrate and promoting immigration is not going to be enough. Huge obstacles will remain, including:

-- The country's deteriorating health-care system;

-- The country's alcohol dependency. In 2005 some 35,000 Russian citizens died of alcohol-related causes;

-- The unchecked spread of HIV/AIDS. By 2006 the number of registered HIV-positive Russian citizens stood at 350,000, while estimates of the actual numbers of those infected with the virus run up to 1.5 million. Most sufferers are young people, the very segment the country depends on to sustain its future population;

-- The country's tremendous abortion rate. An estimated 1.6 million women had abortions in 2004 year, 20 percent of whom were under the age of 18. This compares to 1.5 million women who gave birth, according to Vladimir Kulakov, vice president of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences, the "Moscow News" reported on August 23, 2005;

-- A high infant-mortality rate. Russia currently records 15 deaths per 1,000 live births. This compares to 6.43 per 1,000 in the United States, 7.22 per 1,000 in Poland, and just 4.12 deaths per 1,000 live births in Germany. (Roman Kupchinsky)

MOSCOW, May 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Last year, Svetlana Izambayeva became the first person to hold an unusual Russian title: Miss Positive. Izambayeva is HIV-positive, and the contest she won was widely seen as a rare instance of Russia attempting to highlight, rather than cover up, the country's growing problem with HIV/AIDS.

When Izambayeva, a 25-year-old hairdresser, was diagnosed with HIV in 2002 after a seaside love affair, her first reaction was disbelief.

"I thought this could not affect me," she said. "I told myself: 'No, this is not true. This is impossible.' After coming to my senses, I asked myself for a long time: 'Why? What for? How could this happen? This can't be true.'"

Izambayeva's reaction was a sign of how low awareness of HIV/AIDS issues still is in Russia.

At the start of the HIV epidemic in Russia, drug use was responsible for more than 90 percent of infections. But the virus is quickly moving into the mainstream population through sexual contact.

A lack of public debate in Russia on HIV/AIDS, however, has sustained the belief that HIV is confined to marginal groups such as drug addicts and prostitutes.

Izambayeva, with her newfound fame and her seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm, is determined to change that attitude. Simply showing that a person with HIV can be attractive, she says, goes a long way in fighting social stigma.

"I think that I've destroyed many stereotypes," she said. "Before, people in villages, even in the small village where I grew up, just like me didn't understand that HIV can affect them and their family. By showing people that I smile, that I am happy, that I lead a fully fledged life, I've destroyed the stereotype that an HIV-positive person looks like a tramp lying in dirt, skinny, with swollen bruises under his eyes."

Izambayeva was born in 1981 -- the year the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States. Since then, the disease has spread around the world at frightening speed. Some 40 million people worldwide are estimated to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and more than 20 million people have already died due to AIDS.

Russia has one of the world's fastest-growing HIV epidemics. While 330,000 have been officially diagnosed with the virus, many health experts say well over 1 million people could be living with HIV in Russia.

But few are willing to talk about their infection. Russian society is quick to stigmatize HIV sufferers.

When Izambayeva finally mustered the courage to speak openly about her HIV status, many in her small hometown, some 600 kilometers east of Moscow, chose to reject her. They refused to shake hands with her or drink from the same glass. She lost many hairdressing clients.

"Some continued [to come]. But some didn't even approach me," she said. "They stopped talking to me. They started poking their finger at me and saying: 'She'll scratch your head all over. Don't go to her.'"

She says her mother at first even tried to isolate her from her younger brothers for fear she might infect them.

But Izambayeva has no regrets. On the contrary, campaigning to educate Russians about HIV and AIDS has given new meaning to her life.

"Thanks to the fact that I started talking about it openly, I felt there were thousands of HIV-positive people behind me, for whom I bore responsibility and for whom I can continue to speak," she said. "HIV has made my life better. I've become more confident. I live life more fully. One could say that I've grown."

Like thousands of people around the world, Izambayeva will light candles on May 21 as part of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial. The memorial is a grassroots event started in 1983 as a way to honor AIDS victims -- those who have died and those who are living with the disease. It also aims to educate the public, raise awareness, and decrease the stigma related to HIV/AIDS.

And for those Russians who have yet to meet Izambayeva, a dozen cities across the country will mark the day by showing a slide film telling the story of this unique beauty queen.

Plans to hold Russia's first-ever gay-rights march have sparked a rare public debate on homosexuality in Russia. While Moscow authorities and religious leaders have condemned the initiative, gays and lesbians are determined to parade down Moscow's main street on May 27 in defiance of an official ban. But many gays are split over whether Russian society is ready for such a colorful defense of homosexuality at a time when nationalism and intolerance appear to be on the rise.

MOSCOW, May 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Aleksandr is still hesitant about joining the May 27 unsanctioned march, for fear it will end in violence.

His boyfriend, Vyacheslav, however, has no doubt -- he will stay clear of the parade.

"I think that it must take place, but I won't go because the climate will be aggressive," Vyacheslav said. "I'll wait until the danger is over. Even bystanders watching will be hit in the heat of the moment. Everything will be smashed either by the police or by skinheads. They will smash everyone, girls and boys alike."

Efforts to stage an unprecedented gay parade have thrust Moscow's discreet homosexual community into the limelight.

Gay activist Nikolai Alekseyev, the driving force behind the march, says the time has come for homosexuals to step out of the shadows and lobby for their rights. The parade is planned to fall on the 13th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia.

Not all homosexuals, however, welcome this sudden attention. Many say a gay parade will only serve to heighten homophobia.

Ultranationalists and Russian Orthodox activists attacked two Moscow gay nightclubs last month, throwing bottles, rocks, and eggs at party-goers and chanting homophobic insults.

Stanislav Androsov, the manager of one of the nightclubs that came under attack, blamed the parade's organizers.

"This started with public remarks that Moscow needs a gay parade," Androsov said. "There are some activists who want to hold a gay parade, but many are against it because, as we see, Moscow is not ready for a gay parade. All these attacks against gays started from this moment."

News that homosexual activists planned to follow in the footsteps of their Western counterparts by parading through the city center has drawn a chorus of angry comments, particularly from officials and religious leaders.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov banned the march, saying it would "provoke outrage in society." His spokesman added that any attempt to flout the ban would be "resolutely quashed."

The Moscow Patriarchate condemned the parade as a "glorification of sin." Russia's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, warned against "homosexual propaganda." And a top Muslim cleric, Talgat Tadzhuddin, even called on believers to "bash" gays if they take to the street on May 27.

Eating sushi in a fashionable Moscow restaurant, Vyacheslav and Aleksandr say they have learned to ignore such remarks. Vyacheslav says they reflect widespread ignorance of homosexual issues.

"Why are people against [the parade]? I believe it's out of ignorance," Vyacheslav said. "Everyone has the same, standard argument: 'How can I let my child go to such a parade? He will become like that.' But people don't understand that homosexuality cannot be inculcated. It is not an infection."

Before Russia repealed its ban on homosexuality in 1993, gays were subject to up to five years in prison and lesbians could end up in grim psychiatric institutions. But the lack of public debate means homosexuality is still widely perceived as a perversion or a mental illness.

Twenty-seven-year-old Vyacheslav is lucky -- his family has accepted his relationship with Aleksandr and the beauty salon where he works as a hairdresser does not object to his being gay. Nonetheless, he says he will never be seen holding hands with his boyfriend in public.

The situation is more difficult for Aleksandr, a 32-year-old manager in a company selling alcohol. He prefers to hide his sexual orientation from his colleagues, and his parents still refuse to come to terms with his homosexuality.

He describes society's attitude toward gays as "dismal," particularly in the provinces.

Before moving to Moscow two years ago, Aleksandr and Vyacheslav lived in Sochi, on the Black Sea. Aleksandr says a neighbor in the communal flat where they used to live asked a male relative to beat up Vyacheslav when she found out they were gay.

"She allegedly saw Slavik [Vyacheslav] and me kissing," Aleksandr said. "She got her daughter's friend involved: he caught Slavik and picked a fight. Then a campaign started, 'down with gays' and stuff like that. Of course, this was said in a much more offensive way. In the end we had to move out."

Aleksandr and Vyacheslav say they would like to marry and raise a child.

But in a country where parliament Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky has called for the death penalty for homosexuals, they know it will be many years before they are granted the rights homosexuals are beginning to enjoy in the West. (Claire Bigg)