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Russia Report: May 5, 2006

5 May 2006, Volume 6, Number 9
PRAGUE, May 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all in agreement on one issue regarding Iran -- none wants to see the country obtain nuclear weapons. The "Big Five" also agree that Iran must heed the UN's demand that it halt uranium enrichment.

But when two members of the council, Great Britain and France introduced a draft resolution on Iran on May 3, they did so with the support of the United States -- and over the objections of China and Russia. Throughout the nuclear crisis, Moscow and Beijing have been at odds with their Western counterparts on how to go about resolving the crisis.

There are two key points of contention within the Security Council on the wording of the draft resolution introduced by Britain and France.

One is that the draft resolution's adherence to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which would allow for the use of sanctions, including force, to constrain Iran to meet the UN's demands.

Russia and China believe that invoking Chapter 7 will serve to increase tensions with Iran and open the door for a possible military solution to the crisis.

The second sticking point relates to the draft resolution's call for Iran to halt construction of a nuclear reactor it is building. The document also demands that countries "exercise vigilance" in preventing the transfer of goods and services that could aid Iran's efforts to enrich uranium and develop its missile program.

Both Russia and China have arms deals with Iran, and Russian contractors are nearing completion of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant and are preparing to bid on the construction of two more.

Whereas the United States has made clear that it believes Iran is using its nuclear program to secretly develop nuclear weapons, Russia and China say there is no proof of this and do not oppose Iran's use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Without proof that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, Russia and China are likely to veto any measures placing too much stress on this issue, according to Alexander Neil, the head of the Asia program at Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London.

"Both countries would obviously exercise their right to veto, I think, in the case of increased UN pressure on Iran," Neil says. "As long as Iran is saying that it's nuclear intentions are peaceful, in terms of satisfying domestic energy requirements, then I don't think there is any bone of contention."

Pure economic concerns are also a factor. Vladimir Yevseyev, a senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of World Economy and International Affairs Center for International Security, says Russian involvement in the Bushehr nuclear plant can be estimated at some $800 million. However, Yevseyev does not consider bilateral trade to be a major incentive for Russia to side with Iran in the dispute.

"Economic advantages that Russia can get from cooperation with Iran are rather small," he says. "Currently, annual mutual trade is only $2.2 billion. It makes up less than 1 percent of all Russian trade."

China's economic ties with Iran are closer. Joseph Chung, the chairman of the China Research Institute of the City University of Hong Kong, says that in addition to its interest in exporting armaments to Iran, China seeks to benefit from Iranian energy supplies. "One has to recognize that energy is an important factor," he notes. "China probably has invested up to 70 billion [U.S. dollars] in the oil fields and natural gas fields in Iran."

Geopolitics also play a role in the Security Council split. Neil of the Royal United Services Institute says Russia is seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East.

"I wouldn't say Russia would want to become the preeminent player in the Middle East, but it certainly wants to retain sway in areas where Western interests have become obsolete due to the political volatility in the area now," he says. "And I think Russia would certainly see itself as having increasing leverage within certain voices within the Islamic world."

Chung, meanwhile, says China's position toward Iran is more based on the country's policy of opposing what it considers U.S. unilateralism. "China is concerned with the broader issues of multipolarity in international relations and the denial of hegemony on the part of the United States," he notes. "In this connection it wants to serve as a supporter of the Third World interests in general and also of Arab interests in the Middle East is particular."

Analysts stress, however, that when all is said and done China and Russia are ready to support Iran only to a certain extent. Yevseyev of Russia's Academy of Sciences says that the current Russian support "does not mean that Russia will be on the Iranian side no matter what they do."

Furthermore, Yevseyev believes that "Russia would support Iran if Iran listens" to Russia's advice. "If Iran [continues to] do what it is doing now, paying no attention to the Russian position, Russia will move closer to the Western position," he concludes.

Yevseyev predicts that Moscow will not allow its relations with the West to deteriorate for the sake of Iran, but it will also oppose any military solution of the crisis. (Valentinas Mite)

A report by the human rights watchdog Amnesty International says Russia needs to take comprehensive steps to stem an upsurge in violent racism.

MOSCOW, May 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The respected human rights organization Amnesty International today called on the Russian government to take decisive action to stem a wave of racially motivated attacks in the country. The report, entitled "Violent Racism Out Of Control," accuses Russian authorities of turning a blind eye to hate crimes.

Victoria Webb, an Amnesty researcher on the Russian Federation, says Russia needs a comprehensive, federal strategy to fight racism.

"While we recognize that some representatives of the authorities, including President [Vladimir] Putin, have acknowledged the problem, we believe that the authorities are failing to take adequate steps to tackle the issue," she said. "We are calling on the Russians to establish a plan of action to really tackle the whole issue, not only of racist attacks, but racism and discrimination in all its aspects in Russian society."

The number of racist attacks in Russia has surged over the past few years. Amnesty says that 28 people were murdered and 366 assaulted on racial grounds in 2005.

Not only foreigners, but also members of ethnic groups holding Russian citizenship, have come under attack in recent years -- particularly Roma, members of the Jewish community, and people from the North Caucasus.

Over the past few months alone, Russia has seen a series of violent hate crimes.

In January, a 20-year-old skinhead, Aleksandr Koptsev, burst into a Moscow synagogue and stabbed eight people with a hunting knife.

In February, a man from Mali was stabbed to death in St. Petersburg.

On March 24, a Ghanaian man was beaten up in a St. Petersburg suburb. One day later, a 9-year-old girl of mixed race was beaten and stabbed in the face and neck, also in St. Petersburg.

The report notes that the real number of attacks is likely to be much higher since many victims feel too much distrust toward the police to report the attacks.

Amnesty International also criticizes Russian prosecutors for filing many racially motivated attacks as "hooliganism," a charge which carries lighter sentences.

In March, a Russian court found eight teenagers guilty of hooliganism in connection with the murder of a 9-year-old Tajik girl in St. Petersburg in February 2004. The verdict outraged rights activists, who described it as "a moral catastrophe." Khursheda Sultonov had been stabbed stabbed nine times in the chest, stomach and arms.

The report says says Russia's poor record on combating racism tarnishes its image abroad and raises questions about its international status.

Russia holds a number of high-profile positions this year. It is chairing the G-8 group of industrialized nations, and also the committee of ministers at the Council of Europe, seen by many as Europe's human rights watchdog.

"All eyes are on Russia and it would really be inexcusable not to take the opportunity to really step up the fight against racism and to implement these obligations in full," says Webb.

Amnesty International's report advises Russian authorities to work more closely with antiracism organizations and experts.

It also urges the government to do more to ensure the safety of people campaigning against racism in Russia, who themselves often come under physical threat.

It cites the case of Nikolai Girenko, a prominent expert on racism who was gunned down through the door of his St. Petersburg apartment in June 2004. His testimony had helped put several neo-Nazis in jail. Girenko's murderers have yet to be identified and brought to justice.

Dmitry Krayukhin, the head of United Europe, a rights group based in the western Russian city of Orel, also told Amnesty International that he had received a number of death threats.

Amnesty researcher Webb added that she found it disconcerting that Russia, which incurred a huge loss of life to defeat Nazi Germany during World War II, tolerated the proliferation of Nazi symbols and ideology. (Claire Bigg)

Watching the Kremlin tighten its grip on Russia's Channel One and RTR television stations -- and the media arm of the state-controlled Gazprom energy giant devouring once-independent NTV -- many bemoaned the end of independent television in Russia. For a while, though, it seemed other media might be left a degree of freedom. But now print journalism appears to be under threat as well. Gazprom-Media is now rumored to have its eyes on at least two other major publications.

PRAGUE, May 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As rallies go, it was a rather dreary, desultory affair -- and not just because of the dull April weather.

The cream of Moscow's journalists gathered in Pushkin Square April 16 to mark the fifth anniversary of the takeover of NTV by the state-controlled Gazprom-Media.

But no more than 1,000 people felt it important enough to join them.

Since President Vladimir Putin came to power, the state has used its tight control of the electronic media to stifle debate and control the supply of information. But there has been little popular resistance.

The fear now is that the Kremlin is moving to extinguish the few remaining candles of independent light.

First in line could be the print media. Regional newspapers have long been brought into line, but a few central newspapers have retained an independent voice.

Like the small-circulation "Izvestia," which in early 2005 changed its style, introducing a weekend magazine and starting a lively two-page opinion and editorial page.

In June 2005, Gazprom-Media bought a controlling stake in the paper.

Masha Gessen, an independent journalist who once worked for "Itogi," a current-affairs magazine also swallowed by Gazprom-Media, says the paper has changed beyond recognition -- and not for the better.

"There's been a marked change in both editorial and staffing policy," Gessen says. "It's really a different newspaper. It seems to have lost its whole identity and not gained a new one. It has become an official newspaper that is a reliable mouthpiece for the Kremlin, like 'Komsomolskaya pravda,' which has been edited by the same person who is now editing 'Izvestia.'"

But why buy "Izvestia," a paper with a circulation of around 250,000 and no great commercial value? Whatever happened to Gazprom's promise in 2001, when it took over NTV, to divest itself of all but core assets as soon as it possibly could?

Gessen believes the answer lies in politics. She says she sees Gazprom-Media as a tool of the Kremlin: "What is going on here is there's a [presidential] election coming up in 2008 and the Kremlin clearly feels it needs to take control over the remaining print media, now that they have complete control over the electronic media. Things keep going in the same direction and it's intensified because of the election coming up."

Which would at least partly explain as well the growing speculation over the future ownership of the "Kommersant" newspaper -- which has a low circulation but influential readership -- and the biggest fish in the Russian print pool, "Komsomolskaya pravda." Its daily readership of around 8 million makes it far and away the biggest newspaper in the country.

Gazprom-Media has been linked to both, although it has denied that it has made a bid for either. Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow -- a title which speaks volumes for his view of the state of the media in Russia.

He shares the view that the Kremlin is limbering up for the 2008 elections. But he thinks Gazprom is hesitant about entering the media market again -- and for political reasons.

"I think the authorities are conducting a political game in which on the one hand they want a controlled press but on the other have certain obligations to the European Union and the G-8. And so a small part of the free press will be allowed to remain in order to create the image of a more or less free state. It's another matter of course that this small part of the press has no influence on public opinion," Panfilov says.

Maybe so, but that hasn't stopped another state player making a bid for "Kommersant." Last week Russian Railways director Vladimir Yakunin said his company was in the running to take over the newspaper.

But what's abnormal about that? As Gessen notes, there are any number of countries where large industrial holdings have media branches, including newspapers: "Sweden is such a country, where every other daily newspaper is somehow or other associated with one or another of the industrial families."

But there is one big difference which reflects the evolution of the contemporary Russian state: "In Russia things are shaping up the same way, except that the problem is that these are not just large industrial holdings, they're controlled by the state."

As things stand, there's not a lot left of Russia's central independent media: a couple of daily papers and a few weekly magazines. If other state companies really do join Gazprom in buying into the media, their days may soon be numbered too. (Robert Parsons)