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Russia Report: April 8, 2005

8 April 2005, Volume 5, Number 14
By Jeremy Bransten Russia's presidential chief of staff is the ultimate "eminence grise," as the French would say -- the man behind the scenes who sits at the center of power but is rarely seen or heard by ordinary people.

That is why Dmitrii Medvedev's extensive interview, published on 5 April in the magazine "Ekspert," is drawing such attention. It is the first time since his appointment in 2003 that Medvedev has aired his views so publicly.

Medvedev covers a lot of subjects in his lengthy interview. But the most interesting part by far is his call on Russia's regional elites to unite behind the Kremlin to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. Medvedev says this is the No. 1 challenge facing the country. Failure to meet it, he says, could bring catastrophe.

"If we do not manage to consolidate the elites, Russia could disappear as one state," he said. By comparison, he said, the disintegration of the Soviet Union would look like a "kindergarten party."

Russia has lately enjoyed relative stability and an economic upswing, so such a scenario seems unlikely. Commentators have been wondering what prompted Medvedev's warning at this particular time.

Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy head of the opposition Yabloko party, sees events outside Russia weighing heavily on the Kremlin -- especially the recent Orange Revolution in Ukraine:

"Right now, the Kremlin is disoriented," Mitrokhin told RFE/RL. "The series of failures it has suffered in recent times, both in foreign and domestic policy, have created a sense of nervousness. So, this [interview] may be linked to events in Ukraine. The Kremlin sees that it is not capable of controlling the situation and greatly fears a Ukrainian scenario [in Russia]. Of course, these are baseless fears. But every fear acquires a life of its own. And I think the Kremlin has these fears and it is trying to demonstrate that it is ready to meet the challenges confronting Russia."

The recent demonstrations by pensioners and other groups angry at government social-benefits reform showed the Kremlin that popular discontent can be rapidly mobilized in Russia. And events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan have demonstrated just how far public anger can go.

Nikolai Petrov, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, told RFE/RL this prompts the Kremlin to project unity and demand the same from its regional governors. But he is not convinced by Medvedev's smooth words.

"One can think that it was done to put people at ease, to show that there are no conflicts in the Kremlin about current policies and the country's future course. But the general impression one gets is of a smooth but empty package," Petrov said.

While Medvedev calls for greater unity and preventing instability, many commentators note that it is in fact the Kremlin that has done the most recently to destabilize the country.

The social reforms were just the start. The business community is also upset by what it sees as the government's determined persecution of Yukos.

Putin himself had to meet with business leaders last month to reassure them that most privatizations will not be threatened, and that the government is committed to creating a predictable climate for entrepreneurs. But speculation still continues that the government may consider renationalizing strategic sectors of the economy.

The government has put through some political reforms, such as the elimination of popularly elected governors and the creation of a new institution -- the Public Chamber -- to assume part of the duties of the current parliament.

But Petrov said these changes have received a mixed response and threaten to undo the checks and balances of Russia's young democratic system.

"What is surprising is that the Kremlin as a whole, and Medvedev in part, have done everything to dismantle this system's mechanisms," Petrov said. "Now, according to Medvedev, we are waiting for the Public Chamber to function finally and ensure a dialogue between society and the government. But the fact is that it was parliament that used to play this role and should fulfill this role. Now it has stopped playing this role. But on this point Medvedev stays silent."

Yabloko's Mitrokhin said he believes the Kremlin's obsession with centralization -- at the expense of democracy -- is what in fact poses the greatest threat to Russia's stability and territorial integrity.

"When the Kremlin destroys the institution of federalism, for example, it destroys the only institution that is capable of preserving the territorial integrity of the country," he said. "One gets the alarming feeling that all problems will be resolved by the Kremlin. One can appoint all the smartest people to all the important posts. One can wisely take away the people's right to choose their own government. This speaks to the fact that the Kremlin is pursuing totally inappropriate policies. It is losing feedback from the country."

Mitrokhin said he fears Medvedev's words may be a signal the Kremlin may try to further pressure an already-weak opposition.

"When we are told we all have to unite to prevent the collapse of the country, I see a threat addressed to the opposition. It is another label that is being pinned to the opposition and this label will be that the opposition is contributing to the country's collapse," Mitrokhin said.

Many experts consider the continuing war in Chechnya to be the greatest potential threat to Russia's territorial integrity, especially if violence spreads in the northern Caucasus. But Medvedev made no mention of the war. Instead, he said Russia must address the depopulation of Eastern Siberia and the Far East or risk losing those territories to possible foreign development.

By Jeremy Bransten Global experts and doctors working in Russia have long complained that when it came to the HIV/AIDS crisis, the Kremlin was living in denial. But on 30 March, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov finally broke the government's silence, telling an international conference in Moscow that the AIDS epidemic in Russia has gone beyond a medical problem and is now a threat to the country's national security.

Official statistics tell the story. In 1998, the number of HIV cases registered in Russia stood at 11,000. According to the Russian Health Ministry, the number of cases has now mushroomed to more than 300,000. That's a 30-fold increase in seven years.

Of course, those are the official numbers. According to unofficial estimates, which many experts believe are closer to the truth, the actual number of HIV sufferers in Russia is closer to 1.5 million -- 1 percent of the population.

Yelena Tamazova, head of the Moscow office of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, told RFE/RL the situation is so serious that it has finally forced the government to acknowledge the problem. But she believes an even larger epidemic can still be avoided.

"According to official statistics, the number of people living with the HIV virus in Russia, in March 2005, was 314,000," she said. "But all Russian and international experts believe this number should be multiplied by five, at a minimum. This is not a secret, and that is why the government is now paying attention to this problem, because it can no longer be ignored. We still have a window of opportunity that will allow us to avoid an epidemic if we take the right preventive measures. Because the problem so far in Russia is relatively young."

But that window could be closing fast. Since the growth of the HIV epidemic is exponential, doctors fear that if major steps are not taken now to educate people about how to protect themselves from the disease, Russia could soon be in the position of some African countries, where 20 to 30 percent of the population has HIV.

In countries whose governments have made a priority of slowing HIV -- by ensuring intravenous drug addicts do not share dirty needles, and young people are educated about risky sexual practices and have access to condoms -- the epidemic has been tamed.

HIV affects a disproportionately high number of young people in Russia -- 80 percent of sufferers are under the age of 30. The implications for the country's economy if the trend is not stopped could be enormous. But Tamazova said that Zhukov's words represent a breakthrough, and she is encouraged.

"Yesterday was the first time that such words were uttered by someone as senior as the deputy prime minister," she said. "This indicates that there is the political will and that the Russian government has begun to pay serious attention to HIV/AIDS. This is very welcome."

The 30 March conference in Moscow brought together medical specialists, government representatives, and business leaders. They discussed how they can work in partnership to tackle the problem.

"We discussed the more active participation of business in programs to combat HIV," Tamazova said. "There is a whole range of possible programs, including the distribution of medicine at workplaces, participation in philanthropic projects. There can be many ways to cooperate. But the main goal is to create a partnership between the state and business on this issue and a partnership between business and civil society."

As evidence of the Russian government's new determination to tackle the issue, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov said at the conference that the ministry has struck a deal with international pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.

Zurabov said the agreement will enable Russian patients to be treated at one-seventh the cost of current medications, allowing doctors to help many more sufferers.

RFE/RL correspondent Irina Lagunina spoke on 3 April with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev about the legacy of Pope John Paul II.

RFE/RL: There was one Soviet leader who met with Pope John Paul II, who sought out and received an audience -- Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union. The audience took place in 1989. Mikhail Sergeevich, you were the first Soviet leader to meet with Pope John Paul II. Why did you decide at that time to request an audience?

Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union: Well, I think the situation was like this. Much had happened that had not taken place in the preceding decades. I think that this is connected with the fact that by 1989 we had already made a lot of progress ourselves and, incidentally, the perestroika-era leadership had already given its support to plans for the commemoration of the 1,000th anniversary of the baptism of Russia [in 1988], which was attended by a large Vatican delegation headed by Cardinal Casaroli. In general, things were happening within the country that had an effect on external matters, including our relations with the Vatican. At that time, Cardinal Casaroli brought a long letter from the pope, which can be considered the beginnings of my audience. Moreover, you already know that it was an initiative of our leadership at that time to work out the law on freedom of religion. I invited the leaders of all the faiths to sit down with the Politburo, and we had in the Soviet Union, essentially, all the world's religions. All this is just to outline the context that we were living in at that time.

So it happened that during an ordinary visit to Italy, this audience was included in the program. It went off, I would say, very interestingly, in a beautiful atmosphere, with respect and considerable interest. Initially, in order to show to what an extent the Holy Father was a Slav and how he respected the new Soviet Union, he proposed that we spend the first 10 minutes alone together and he spoke in Russian. "I have expanded my knowledge for the occasion," he said. And there was a simple conversation like that. And later we had very substantive discussion.

RFE/RL: Mikhail Sergeevich, you said that the pope sent you a long letter. What did it say?

Gorbachev: Essentially -- I can only speak in general terms, since one would need to go through the archive. There was a meeting with Cardinal Casaroli and he conveyed to me the warmest greetings of the pope and conveyed to me the pope's sympathies for our reforms, for the democratic transformations that were going on in our country. By the way, when I met with the pope, he repeated all this himself and said: "I criticized communism but, I want you to know, that I also criticized all the vices of capitalism. It is necessary to reach a freedom, a democracy, a society that respects human beings as the supreme value. It is necessary to give people the ability to choose, including the ability to choose their religion." And in this regard, we had taken some steps, which he supported. And he supported them in his letter. Later in the conversation the subject of Europe came up, that it was very important that under the influence of perestroika there were changes in the positions of the Soviet leadership and that these changes were very positive for Central and Eastern Europe, which was very important. And then I heard a phrase that was later quite often heard. He said that "in the future, Europe will be able to breathe with both lungs," meaning that when such changes were happening in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, then there is the possibility of rapprochement, of overcoming schisms, which is very important for our continent.

Generally speaking, you know, this was the sense of the situation: the approval of our perestroika reforms and an explanation of his views on communism and on capitalism. By the way, fairly recently he suddenly said that he is concerned that, having been given the chance to rebuild their countries, their governments, many countries of Central Europe have again run up against materialism, but a different sort -- market-oriented. And the spiritual essence was being put on the back burner and continues to languish there.

RFE/RL: Mikhail Sergeevich, let's go a little bit deeper into history. When Pope John Paul II supported Solidarnost and in fact began to undermine the position in Poland of [Polish Communist Party leader General Wojciech] Jaruzelski, how did the Soviet leadership react to the Catholic Church and to the pope himself?

Gorbachev: Now we will say that the pope was simply an extraordinary man. And one of the most extraordinary qualities of the pope was that he was a devoted servant of the Church of Christ. And, finally, as the head of state of the Vatican, he did a lot, using his opportunities along these lines, he did a lot to prepare for the end of the Cold War, for the coming together of peoples. He did a lot to remove people from the danger of a nuclear conflict. He was a man who used his high position -- I'll speak bluntly -- in the best possible way. He was someone who did not put political calculation at the center, but who made his judgments about the world, about situations, about nature, about the environment, based on the right to life, to a worthy life for people and on the responsibility of those people for what is gong on in the world. I think that there has never been such an outstanding defender of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden in various cases and in various situations, either historically speaking or in terms of ongoing conflicts. He was a humanist. Really. A Humanist with a capital H, maybe the first humanist in world history.

I had the opportunity to communicate with him after 1989; in fact our contacts continued practically right up to the very end. Quite recently there was a short exchange of messages about several topics. Last summer I wrote a letter to him and to [U.S. President] George [W.] Bush saying that what is happening in Iraq after the declared end of the war there could turn into a general religious conflict. After all, one side is an Islamic people and the other side is a coalition of mainly Christian countries. And this is very bad, very dangerous, and it might not only destabilize the situation in the region -- it might create a reaction around the world and this needs to be taken into consideration. The pope, by the way, responded to this and I was told that the next time President Bush met with him, he very firmly and decisively demanded the immediate withdrawal of forces from Iraq and that the Iraqis be allowed to assume responsibility for their own affairs.

Of course, he wanted, speaking honestly, to move forward during his lifetime along the path of mutual understanding and better cooperation and dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, but this was not to be. I think that he worried about this for nothing. Such a thing cannot happen quickly. The problems have been 700 years in the making -- can it be possible in the space of weeks, months, or even years to resolve them all? No. Moreover, the Orthodox Church finds itself in a difficult situation, emerging from an era of persecution, pressure, destruction, which is what the Soviet era was. It was being reborn and experienced a lot of difficulties, problems. But by their standards, nothing terrible happened. For 700 years, they quarreled and they are still quarreling. In 100 years, everything will be worked out.

10 April: President Vladimir Putin to visit Poland

13 April: Duma to review implementation of law on monetization of in-kind social benefits and to hear report by Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin

15 April: Duma expected to vote on second reading of amendments to the law on forming the State Duma that would introduce the proportional-representation system and eliminate the single-mandate districts

16 April: Opposition in Bashkortostan planning a major demonstration calling for the resignation of republican President Murtaza Rakhimov

17 April: Krasnoyarsk Krai and Taimyr Autonomous Okrug to hold referendums on the question of merging

18 April: Moscow Arbitration Court to begin hearing case against Yukos regarding suspected tax arrears for 2003

27-28 April: President Putin to visit Israel and the Palestinian Autonomy

28 April: Opposition in Ingushetia planning two demonstrations to demand the resignation of President Murat Zyazikov, according to on 2 April

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

10 May: Russia-EU summit to be held in Moscow

30-31 May: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to visit Japan

23 June: Yukos shareholders meeting

4 July: 750th anniversary of the founding of Kaliningrad

6-8 July: G-8 summit in Scotland

August: CIS summit to be held in Kazan

September: First-ever Sino-Russian military exercises to be held on the Shandong Peninsula

1 November: New Public Chamber expected to hold first session

2006: Russia to host a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg

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