Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: October 6, 2006

October 6, 2006, Volume 6, Number 18
The release of four Russian military officers arrested in Georgia over spying charges was expected to placate Russia. But Moscow's fury at Tbilisi shows no signs of ebbing.

On October 3, one day after Georgia handed the officers over to the OSCE, Russia cut air, road, rail, and postal links with the South Caucasus country and stopped issuing entry visas to all Georgian citizens.

Russian authorities then raided Georgian businesses in Moscow and detained a dozen illegal immigrants from Georgia. And this might just be the start. Moscow is mulling more sanctions, including cutting energy supplies and banning money transfers from Russia to Georgia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on October 4 thanked Duma deputies for adopting a tough resolution blessing any further Kremlin action against Georgia. He warned Tbilisi not to provoke his country.

"I'm grateful for your support of the efforts of the executive branch to protect the rights, dignity and lives of our citizens abroad," Putin said. "Such consolidation among all political groups in the country is clearly supported by a majority of Russian citizens and will help defend the rights of our citizens in the near and far abroad. Of course, I'm talking about Georgia in this case. And I wouldn't advise anyone to talk to Russia in a language of provocation and blackmail."

Relations between the two neighboring countries have steadily deteriorated since President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution, vowing to steer his country away from Russia.

Last week's arrests appear to have been the last straw for the Kremlin, which is clearly irked by Saakashvili's pro-Western course and sharp verbal attacks on Moscow.

But why is Russia reacting so harshly to this particular incident? Timofei Bordachyov, the deputy editor of the "Russia In Global Affairs" journal, says the officers' arrests wounded Russia's newfound pride.

"I think that it most mostly linked to the fact that over the past year Russian authorities have been confident that Russia is gaining clout on the international arena," Bordachyov says. "Besides, Georgian authorities have indeed taken unprecedented harsh steps."

Some observers, however, see other motives behind the Kremlin's anger, which has been accompanied by a sweeping anti-Georgian campaign on Russia's state-owned television channels.

Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Institute for Globalization Studies, says the Kremlin is beating its chest ahead of the State Duma elections in 2007 and the presidential elections in 2008.

"This is unprecedented in world diplomacy. An ultimatum is issued, this ultimatum is respected, and then the country that issued the ultimatum, without making further demands, nonetheless implements the threats connected to the initial demands," Kagarlitsky says. "This is due to Russia's upcoming elections. We are entering a preelection season, and there's always a war taking place with Russia in preelection seasons."

In Tbilisi, the mood is equally defiant. In a televised address on October 4, President Saakashvili said he expected "provocations" from Russia in Abkhazia, the separatist province in Georgia backed by Moscow. "They want to take away Abkhazia," he said.

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili the same day thumbed his nose at Russia by sending off two bunches of wine grapes to the Kremlin -- a hint to the ban Russia imposed on Georgian wine and mineral water earlier this year.

Many in Russia say NATO's recent decision to deepen cooperation with Georgia -- widely seen as a first step toward Georgia's NATO membership -- has emboldened Saakashvili and his government to move against Moscow.

Saakashvili reiterated on October 4 that joining NATO would be Georgia's "main accomplishment."

But NATO and the United States, usually quick to defend Georgia, have so far largely stayed out of the conflict, limiting themselves to calls for restraint.

Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Moscow office of the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation, says the United States is not ready to jeopardize its relations with Russia over Georgia.

"The Americans have accumulated a lot of foreign-affairs problems in which they depend, to a certain extent, on Russia's position," Volk says. "The chief problem is Iran's nuclear program, where Russia's support is needed. For Americans, this issue is more important than Georgia. Of course, the U.S. is not indifferent to Georgia, but Americans right now clearly don't want to confront Russia on Georgia."

Russia is indeed unlikely to welcome any Western criticism. Russia's Foreign Ministry said on October 4 it saw no need for mediation by the OSCE, which negotiated the return of the four Russian officers to their country.

The ministry said only what it called "corrections" by the Georgian leadership would improve relations.

Russia reiterated on October 3 that the suspension of transport and postal links with neighboring Georgia will continue until further notice.

The measures, which come in retaliation for Georgia's detention last week of four Russian officers accused of spying, come despite Tbilisi's decision on October 2 to release the men to Russian custody.

Speaking today at a news conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the economic sanctions were justified.

"The measures that have been taken to restrict transport and postal links [with Georgia] are intended to stop the illegal money flows moving from Russia to Georgia in large quantities," Lavrov said.

Lavrov also said he was concerned by what he called Georgia's "universal militarization" and that the sanctions wouldn't be lifted for the time being.

And speaking to journalists in Moscow, Russian State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov on October 3 said Russia wasn't targeting the Georgian people, but rather the "regime" of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Flights connecting Russia and Georgia were halted the same day. Russia's chief carrier, Aeroflot, announced it was canceling all flights through the end of October. Transit by train, car, and boat has also been blocked.

Even more worrisome for Georgians is Moscow's threat to block money transfers from Georgians living and working in Russia to relatives back home. Later this week, Russian lawmakers will discuss a bill that could prevent Georgians from wiring money home.

Up to 1.5 million ethnic Georgians, both Russian and Georgian citizens, live and work in Russia. Only around 10,000 of them are legally registered.

Russian and Georgian officials disagree on how much money Georgian expatriates send home. Moscow says the figure could be up to $2 billion -- illicit earnings that bring no tax revenues to Russian coffers.

But Tbilisi says that is an exaggeration. Georgia's national bank recently said that in the first eight months of this year Georgians transferred $219 million back home.

Many Georgians working in Russia also face the threat of deportation. On October 2, the Federal Migration Service in Moscow detained 13 Georgian illegal immigrants.

This isn't the first time this year that Georgia has suffered because of Russian economic sanctions.

In spring 2006, Russia banned imports of wine, mineral water, and agricultural produce. Russia said there were health concerns with the products. Georgia said the reasons were political.

Russia's relations with Georgia have deteriorated since Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili came into power in 2003.

The Georgian government has accused Russia of backing separatists in its two breakaway regions, the frozen conflicts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

For its part, Russia is angry at Georgia's attempts to leave its orbit and join NATO.

The EU has tried to calm the situation. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said today she hopes Russia will lift the sanctions shortly.

For now, Georgia can seemingly do little but sit the current crisis out. Speaking on October 2, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze said Georgia would fight the sanctions.

"Georgia will for sure resist this blockade, but this is not the way that civilized countries should talk to each other," Burdjanadze said.

(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report)

Ever since May 2004, when Ramzan Kadyrov was named deputy prime minister of the pro-Moscow Chechen government following the death of his father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, in a terrorist bombing, many observers have assumed that Ramzan would be named Chechen leader upon reaching the minimum age of 30, as he did on October 5.

Alu Alkhanov, a former interior minister who was elected to succeed the elder Kadyrov in October 2004 as the republic's leader, is widely regarded as a weak, ineffective, and transitional figure. But it could also be argued that in contrast to Kadyrov, Alkhanov is a stabilizing, not a potentially destabilizing factor, and would in the long term prove more loyal to Moscow.

Ramzan Kadyrov began his political career as commander of a force of former resistance fighters co-opted to serve as his father's bodyguards. That force, known as the Kadyrovtsy, has become a byword for widespread human rights abuses, including the abduction, torture, and killing or ransom of Chechen civilians suspected of colluding, or even sympathizing with, the resistance.

Those abuses, in which Kadyrov is rumored to have participated personally, have angered and alienated the Chechen population. That alienation has been compounded by resentment at the requirement that all state-sector employees contribute a sizeable percentage of their monthly salary to a charitable fund name after Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

It is that fund, insiders claim, that Ramzan Kadyrov draws on to finance the much-publicized reconstruction of strategic buildings in Grozny and his home town of Gudermes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, seems convinced that Kadyrov is the only man capable of neutralizing the remaining Chechen resistance fighters and bringing some semblance of order and calm to the war-shattered republic. (Visiting Grozny in May 2004 immediately after the death of the elder Kadyrov, Putin was clearly shocked by the extent of the destruction.)

In December 2004, Putin bestowed upon Ramzan Kadyrov the prestigious Hero of Russia award and, in early March 2006, Kadyrov was promoted to the post of prime minister. Since then, he has sought assiduously, reportedly with the help of a sophisticated team of spin doctors, to transform his image and win the hearts and minds of the population.

To that end, he has launched a charm offensive, tirelessly visiting schools, building sites, and hospitals, and establishing a kind of moral discipline in keeping with traditional Chechen values. Some observers, however, have construed his espousal of those values as reflecting a long-term plan to promote the cause of Chechen independence from Russia.

Meanwhile, Moscow continues to turn a blind eye to the lawless activities of the various security forces loyal to Kadyrov. In late April, those forces engaged in a shoot-out with Alkhanov's bodyguards in which at least one man died.

Then, last month, a group of Chechen special police traveled to Ingushetia to apprehend a suspect and opened fire on Ingushetian traffic police who sought to prevent them from taking that suspect back to Chechnya.

At least eight men died in that incident, but days later, at a meeting attended by Kadyrov, Alkhanov, Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak, the Ingushetian authorities were ordered not to obstruct any future such cross-border operations by Kadyrov's men.

Kadyrov's power base is not, however, confined to the Kadyrovtsy. The parliament elected in November 2005 is also loyal to him, and its chairman, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, frequently floats proposals on Kadyrov's behalf -- such as amending the constitution of the Russian Federation to permit President Putin to run for a third term in 2008.

The parliament has also called for changes to the Chechen Constitution that would strengthen even further Kadyrov's position vis-a-vis Alkhanov. And in a clearly stage-managed demonstration of apparent support for Kadyrov, Chechens took to the streets across the republic last week to protest Kadyrov's orders to remove the ubiquitous posters depicting him.

Alkhanov for his part is fighting back, most recently by creating in August, without first informing Kadyrov, a new Council for Economic and Social Security that will focus on human rights abuses among other things.

And several Russian experts on the North Caucasus are increasingly inclined to believe that there is a faction within the Russian leadership that considers Kadyrov a liability and is therefore shoring up Alkhanov's position. That faction used the July appeal by Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev to Chechen fighters to lay down their arms and surrender as a means of embarrassing and discrediting Kadyrov.

Russian media announced on August 18 that Chechen Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov himself had showed up at Kadyrov's home base in Gudermes, near Grozny, to surrender to him in person. Within the hour, however, those reports were retracted and the man who surrendered identified as Umarov's brother Akhmed, who was captured two years ago.

While it is difficult to estimate with any degree of accuracy the relative strength of the anti-Kadyrov faction, its very existence makes any immediate move to sideline Alkhanov and promote Kadyrov as his successor unlikely, although not totally unthinkable. (Liz Fuller)

The recent reburial of the remains of Maria Fyodorovna, the Danish princess who married the future Aleksandr III of Russia in 1866, is the latest episode in a long-standing effort to cultivate the idea of restoring the monarchy in Russia.

The idea gained currency under President Boris Yeltsin in 1997, when his close circle, alarmed by the Russian president's ailing health, started to think about a possible successor. Some of them turned their attention to the living descendents of the Romanov dynasty. That same year, renovation work began at the Kremlin to restore the coronation hall and the tsar's throne. In 1998, Yeltsin attended a state ceremony to bury the remains of the last Russian emperor, Nicolas II, and his family, who were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Interest, however, in the monarchy idea waned as Yeltsin's circle realized that no living Romanov, for various reasons, had a legitimate claim to the Russian throne and the project was abandoned.

But under Russian President Vladimir Putin interest in Russia's imperial and monarchical past grew legs once again. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicolas II and his family. Since that time, Russia has seen a boom in the number of monarchist organizations. Recent years have seen the release of hundreds of books and films about the monarchy.

At various times, politicians from across the political spectrum have endorsed constitutional monarchy for Russia, including the former Union of Rightist Forces co-Chairman Boris Nemtsov, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko.

Many intellectuals and cultural icons have also jumped on the monarchy bandwagon. Two of Russia's most popular filmmakers, Nikita Mikhalkov and Stanislav Govorukhin, have paraded their monarchist colors. Stanislav Belkovsky, the founder of the National Strategy Institute, said in February 2005: "I believe that the restoration of the monarchy, either formally or informally, is the only choice for Russia, since it is the only way to restore the sanctity of the supreme power."

The amount of television coverage certainly suggests the Kremlin's involvement in -- or, at the least, tacit approval -- of monarchist revivalism. And the state's hand has been revealed in other places. In 2005, a book called "Project Russia," by unnamed authors, appeared on the website of a state-security veterans organization in St. Petersburg. The book argues that Russia was a monarchy for 1,000 years and, even after 1917, it became a republic only nominally.

The book harshly criticizes Western-style electoral systems and advocates the gradual revival of Russia's monarchy between 2008 and 2016. It suggests a new monarch could be chosen from among the country's prominent citizens. The author saw Putin's 2004 abolition of gubernatorial elections as a first step in this direction. The book suggests using the media -- movies, documentaries, talk shows, lectures, and newspapers -- to sell the monarchy to the Russian people.

According to Russian media reports, "Project Russia" originated as a series of lectures delivered to the cadets at the Federal Security Service (FSB) and military intelligence (GRU) academies. It was later published in a special edition for members of the presidential administration, the government, the army's General Staff, the Duma, top clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Russian business leaders.

Over the last 10 years, the number of Russians supporting monarchist ideas has risen threefold. A September poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) indicated that 19 percent of Russians agreed with restoring the monarchy, but only if an acceptable candidate can be found. Support is higher in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But only 6 percent of those who favor the monarchy wanted the future guardian of the realm to be a Romanov. The majority thought a monarch should be a prominent public figure chosen in a referendum. In this way, the poll reveals less the prevalence of monarchist ideas than a traditional Russian desire for strong leadership.

The idea of monarchy is intrinsically tied up with the notion of succession, which makes it of special interest to Russia's current political elite, for whom that issue is a perpetual problem. Many Putin supporters would relish the idea of an anointed successor rather than have to bother with a presidential election.

There is also an international dimension. Many monarchists believe that reviving the monarchy would bolster Russia's historical ties with Europe. And reviving the monarchy goes hand in hand with the rejection of the 1917 February and October revolutions in Russia. Because those revolutions paved the way for the independence of the Baltic states, Georgia, and Ukraine, among others, revanchists could use the opportunity to revive territorial claims on parts of the former Russian Empire.

But others worry that the monarchist fervor might not stop at mere territorial issues. One Russian humorist quipped recently that the "new Russians," surely the aristocrats of their age, "want to restore the monarchy only in order to restore serfdom." (Victor Yasmann)