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Russia Report: January 20, 2005

20 January 2005, Volume 5, Number 3
By Valentinas Mite

Thousands of pensioners across Russia are staging protests, marking the first major outcry against President Vladimir Putin's policies. And experts warn it may just be the beginning.

A rally in St. Petersburg, Putin's home city, appeared to be the largest protest so far. More than 10,000 people gathered there on 15 January, paralyzing transport in the center of the city. Some of its participants called on Putin to step down, others chanted "revolution."

On 17 January, the demonstrations spread to Siberia. Reports said that about 1,000 people blocked the government center of Khabarovsk and double that number demonstrated in the streets of Angarsk. Angry crowds also took to the streets in Ussuriisk and on the island of Sakhalin.

So far, Putin has made only guarded public comments, but analysts predict top officials might be fired for mishandling the reform. And they warn that the rallies could develop into a major challenge for the president.

"I think that the Kremlin finds itself in a rather serious situation as we see only the beginning, only the first wave of social protest," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It may go up, especially taking into account that now people are only reacting to the cancellation of transport benefits. In the end of the month and in the beginning of February they will see that the price for the utilities also went up."

Pensioners make up a substantial part of Russian population, with some 32 million people being affected by the recent reforms. Petrov said that in many regional cities pensioners make up some 25 or 35 percent of the population. He pointed out that these elderly people are so angry that they are ready to take radical actions, such as blocking public transport.

Petrov sees the protests as the result of more than just stripping benefits for pensioners. He said Putin has started to push several unpopular moves at once and wants to implement them in a year or two. Also, the reforms are being implemented at a time when an administrative shake-up is not complete and both central and local authorities are partly paralyzed.

Petrov said these problems are costing Putin. Figures released last week by the Moscow-based Levada Analytical Center show that only 39 percent of Russians consider Putin a trusted politician, down from 58 percent a year ago.

"It is a fact which causes big concern," Petrov said. "It is troublesome not only for Putin and his regime but also for the whole country, because only [public support for Putin] is a kind of guarantee for relative political stability. If suddenly this support goes down, stability will also disappear."

Kirill Koktysh of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations said he agrees that the recent protests suggest that Russian authorities and society are drifting apart.

"The problem can be named as a quick alienation of authorities and society," Koktysh said. "[Many] development opportunities are lost as well as possibilities to administer the country effectively with the agreement of society."

Koktysh said planned reforms in education and medical services are likely to cause even more serious and broader resistance.

"A big chunk of the population -- big from the statistical point of view, because it makes up some 35-40 percent of people younger than 35 -- are very concerned and look very negatively on the upcoming introduction of paid medical services [mainly paid drugs] and education reform," Koktysh said. "I think that in the future, the middle class will join protesting pensioners."

Under proposed education reforms, students will not receive automatic deferment from military service.

Meanwhile, the pensioners' protests are bringing concessions. Many regional authorities have bowed to the demands of protestors by restoring -- for now -- some of their state benefits, such as free public transportation and subsidized medicine.

By Jeremy Bransten

For months, Russian pensioners, veterans, and advocates for the disabled have been complaining loudly about a government move to replace key social benefits with cash payments. Given that pensioners alone make up a third of the population in some Russian cities, the protests that have overwhelmed many urban centers in recent days should not have come as a surprise.

But local authorities and politicians at the federal level -- including President Vladimir Putin -- appear to have been caught off-guard. Russia is now in the throes of the largest social protests since Putin came to office five years ago and everyone seems to be trying to foist the blame on someone else.

On 17 January, thousands of pensioners in the cities of Vologda, Khabarovsk, Ussurisk, and Kazan took to the streets again to demand a return to free bus passes, medical care, and subsidized rents. As protesting retirees in Kazan noted, the paltry cash compensation the government is offering barely covers the cost of food.

"Our pensions should be four-five times bigger because of the level of inflation," one unidentified man said. "We go to the store and who can buy anything? The store has turned into a museum. A museum! You buy bread, milk, and you have no money left for anything else. Don't go to the public baths, don't take public transportation!"

A female protestor added, "My pension is 1,700 rubles [$60]! How can you live on that?"

The protests have sent politicians into damage-control mode. Moscow authorities have promised to restore free public transportation and subsidized medicine for pensioners. On 17 January, officials in Vologda also pledged do the same.

Putin said on 17 January that benefit recipients should be allowed to choose whether to accept cash compensation or free transportation passes. He criticized federal and regional authorities for bungling the reform.

But will this assuage the protestors or has Putin made a fatal misstep that will cost him permanent support?

Political analyst Nikolai Petrov, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the Kremlin has a real crisis on its hands. Blaming the regions -- which are proving unable to shoulder the financial burden of the new system -- will not fix matters. Neither will public-relations gimmicks.

With calls by the Communists and the nationalist Motherland Party for the government's resignation, speculation is growing that Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov might be offered up as a sacrificial scapegoat.

But Petrov doubts this will stop the protests.

"It seems to me we are dealing with a serious and deepening political crisis," Petrov said. "And if the government -- as it now appears -- cannot adequately react to citizens' demands, it could lead to a crisis of confidence in the president." Petrov said that while Putin has proven adept at liquidating his political opposition as well as the institutions that limit the power of the presidency, he forgot about Russia's people.

"The Kremlin prepared well in terms of its relations with the elites, by weakening political parties and weakening the governors," Petrov said. "But now the Kremlin has to deal with masses of citizens and this is much more complicated. And I think they did not take this factor into account while planning this action."

Galina Belkova of the Movement for Citizens' Initiatives in St. Petersburg said that if Putin and his team had been listening to their constituents, they would have realized that a system of benefits that almost half the population relies on couldn't be dismantled in one go.

"They touched so many issues all at once," Belkova said. "If this were just one set of reforms -- but here we are talking about medical care, public transport, housing. All of these issues should have been tackled separately, gradually and carefully."

But as others have noted, Putin is hardly the first Russian ruler to have used his concentrated political power to attempt to launch sweeping, top-down reforms aimed at modernizing the country. These efforts rarely go as planned and often peter out after running into inertia or popular revolt.

Petrov believes Putin has fallen into a trap many had predicted awaited him. By usurping all power and eliminating normal channels of opposition in the political system, the Kremlin has lost an important "safety valve" and cut itself off from public opinion.

"One would like to believe that the main lesson the Kremlin learns from this is that it is much more effective and advantageous for it to support the existence of a functioning political opposition, of legitimate channels of opposition in parliament and the participation of such an opposition in the decision-making process, rather than having to deal with such mass social protests, which can lead to an explosion," Petrov said.

But whether Putin will draw the same conclusions remains unclear.

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

By Julie A. Corwin and Gulnara Khasanova

Human rights activists Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Lev Ponomarev of the For Human Rights movement told reporters in the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia on 13 January that they have collected evidence of mass beatings in the city of Blagoveshchensk during security raids on 10-14 December, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported.

Alekseeva even charged that "there has not been such a mass violation of human rights anywhere in Russia outside of Chechnya." According to Ponomarev, the police in charge wore masks, making it difficult to prosecute the guilty. But he argued that someone must take responsibility for the actions, suggesting that "this should be the leadership of the Bashkortostan Interior Ministry."

The police raids in Blagoveshchensk that took place on 10-14 December were described as a "crime preventive" measure at the time. They followed an incident on 8 December in which a group of youths allegedly beat up five policemen, three of whom wound up requiring hospitalization.

During the ensuing raids, as many as 1,000 people were detained, many were beaten, and there were also reports of torture, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 13 January. Of the more than 400 people who showed up at local hospitals, the majority had severe bruises, while many had sustained concussions or fractures. Human rights activists in Bashkortostan suggested that dozens of women had been raped, the bureau reported.

After information concerning the raids began circulating in the media near the end of December, the Russian Federal and Bashkortostan Interior ministries began to engage in damage control. After a meeting with human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev announced on 29 December that a probe was being carried out not only into the incident in Blagoveshchensk but also into the work of the republican Interior Ministry as a whole, ITAR-TASS reported.

However, this effort has been dogged by accusations of a cover-up. Ekho Moskvy reported on 3 January -- quoting the For Human Rights movement -- that Blagoveshchensk residents who complained of police brutality are facing Interior Ministry attempts to talk them out of testifying. The group also reported that records of patients and their injuries at the Blagoveshchensk accident and emergencies department have been altered. Bashkir Interior Ministry spokesman Ruslan Sherefetdinov told Regnum on 6 January that none of what human rights activists have alleged over events in Blagoveshchensk is true, adding that such groups have "inflated" events. According to Sherefetdinov, only 280 people were administratively detained, and most of those detained were cited for disturbing the peace or public drunkenness.

On 8 January, members of a commission from the Interior Ministry in Moscow arrived in Bashkortostan to investigate the raids. However, local human rights activists insist that efforts were made to discourage and discredit the victims of the raids from coming forward, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported on 11 January. In an article for on 12 January, analyst Dmitrii Bagiro argued that "cynical measures" are being taken in Bashkortostan to improve the public image of the police. He noted specifically that the Bashkortostan Interior Ministry's Public Council for the Observation of Human Rights was allegedly created on 1 December -- more than a week before the notorious raids. When the council held its first session in Ufa on 11 January, the police claimed that just 381 -- not 1,000 -- people were detained, and that police were attacked first.

By Liz Fuller

Since the death of his father, Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, in a terrorist bombing on 9 May, 28-year-old Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov has emerged as the most powerful and the most feared man in Chechnya despite his lack of formal education and the alleged involvement of his security force in the systematic abduction, torture, and execution of Chechen civilians.

While Russian human rights activists decry Kadyrov's reported involvement in human rights violations, he can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of the Russian leadership, which has augmented his powers and bestowed on him one of the country's most prestigious awards.

Since being named in October as an aide to presidential envoy to Southern Russia Dmitrii Kozak, Ramzan Kadyrov has extended his control to encompass not only police and security but also economic issues. The latter are, at least in theory, the preserve of Kadyrov's nominal superior, Prime Minister Sergei Abramov. Then in late November, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov appointed Kadyrov to head the republican commission tasked with allocating compensation payments to Chechens whose homes were destroyed or damaged during the fighting of the past decade. Kadyrov was quoted by ITAR-TASS on 30 November as declaring "a ruthless and uncompromising struggle" against unfounded and fraudulent claims for compensation and vowing to punish all officials who condoned such fraud.

Kadyrov also embarked on a series of visits to rural regions to monitor the restoration of war-shattered infrastructure, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 17 December. He promised residents in Vedeno Raion that gas supplies to the region will be restored in 2005, and in Achkhoi-Martan Raion he announced that television transmission to the district will be restored and equipment provided to repair local roads.

Some observers have expressed concern, however, that granting Kadyrov responsibility for allocating compensation payments will enable him to use those funds for his own personal ends. As observed in a 1 December headline, alluding to Kadyrov's alleged involvement in extrajudicial abductions, torture, and executions, "Chechnya's chief executioner will now become chief thief as well." According to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Kadyrov is notorious for demanding kickbacks from all members of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, including Alkhanov, as his extensive financial interests (including a chain of gas stations in Chechnya and Daghestan) do not generate enough income to cover his expenditures on state-of-the-art weaponry for his so-called presidential security service and bribes to senior Russian officials.

Those clandestine payments could explain why the top Russian leadership seems totally unperturbed by the disquieting rumors linking Kadyrov to egregious human rights violations. It is, after all, probable that Vladimir Putin's advisers provide the Russian president with only carefully filtered information on the situation in Chechnya that would not in any way call into question the wisdom of his previous policy decisions. Such information tactics could help to explain the announcement on 29 December by the Russian presidential press service that Putin had bestowed on Kadyrov the prestigious Hero of Russia award in acknowledgement of his "courage and heroism in the line of duty." Or, alternatively, is Putin aware that he might be backing the wrong horse in Kadyrov but reluctant to admit his mistake? But in that case, why compound the damage by bestowing such a prestigious award on a man who could prove to be a dangerous liability?

Incidentally, in what appears to be an attempt to provide Kadyrov with more impressive academic credentials, the citation accompanying the Hero of Russia award identified him as having graduated in 2004 from the Makhachkala Institute of Business and Law -- despite the total lack of any previous mention that he was studying there. Russian human rights activists, who regard Kadyrov as a ruthless psychopath, were shocked and bewildered by Putin's move.

Meanwhile, the role of liaison between Kadyrov and Moscow appears to have devolved to Taus Dzhabrailov, chairman of the interim Chechen parliament, a man described by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service as an apparatchik of the old school, motivated by the desire to please, and be of use to, his masters in Moscow. In an interview published on 24 November in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Dzhabrailov advocated first the merger into one federation subject of Chechnya and Ingushetia, and then their incorporation, together with Daghestan, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and North Ossetia into a single North Caucasus region. But in the same issue, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" also quoted an unidentified member of Kozak's staff as rejecting the concept of a single North Caucasus republic as inappropriate at the present time.

January: Term of Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor Vladimir Butov to expire

21 January: Estonian President Arnold Ruutel to visit Moscow

23 January: Gubernatorial election in Nenets Autonomous Okrug

24-26 January: Syrian President Bashar Assad to visit Moscow

27 January: President Putin to visit Poland for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp

28 January: Presentation in Stockholm of 2004 Olaf Palme Human Rights Prize to activists Lyudmila Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalev and journalist Anna Politkovskaya

1 February: Former President Boris Yeltsin's 74th birthday

1 February: Date by which dedicated, all-volunteer peacekeeping brigade to be set up. Unit will be available for international duty by 2006

4-11 February: 60th anniversary of the Yalta Conference, at which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin discussed plans for postwar Europe

16 February: Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement intended to curb the emissions of gases widely believed to contribute to global warming, comes into effect following its ratification by the Russian Federation

24 February: President Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush to hold a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia

March: Terms of Yamalo-Nenetsk Autonomous Okrug Governor Yurii Neelov, Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug Governor Aleksandr Filipenko, Jewish Autonomous Okrug Governor Nikolai Volkov, and Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin to expire

March: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit Japan to discuss Russian-Japanese summit, scheduled to be held in Tokyo later this year

April: Terms of Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev, Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov, and Amur Oblast Governor Leonid Korotkov to expire

April: Russian Soyuz spacecraft to bring new crew to the International Space Station

9 May: Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II

2006: Russia to host a G-8 summit

1 January 2006: Date by which all political parties must conform to law on political parties, which requires at least 50,000 members and branches in one-half of all federation subjects, or either reregister as public organizations or be dissolved.