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Russia Report: April 22, 2005

22 April 2005, Volume 5, Number 16
By Jeremy Bransten

For years, the administration of President Vladimir Putin has talked about the need to strengthen what it calls the "vertical of power" throughout the country.

Moscow says a lack of centralization is to blame for corruption, inefficiency, and slow economic reforms in many regions. Under Putin, the Kremlin has had legislation approved reducing the power of local governors and legislatures. It has also drafted a bill seemingly aimed at cutting the number of political parties in the federal parliament and local legislatures.

The 17 April popular referendums in Siberia, in which voters approved the merger of the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs into the much more populated Krasnoyarsk Krai, is all part of a pattern.

"The idea [is] that stability in a large country can only be had through direct control, which means that you want to have as few political players as possible, because many players are thought to be confusing, they cannot be controlled and therefore they're bad," Stephan de Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the Clingendael Center for Strategic Studies in The Hague, told RFE/RL. "So what you end up having is an idea whereby if there are too many political parties, [you] change the election law, get rid of single-mandate districts, increase the electoral threshold. This is what the Duma just did last week. So you end up with fewer political parties and the idea is that they will be more controllable. The same logic applies to the regions."

Most observers in Russia have welcomed the idea of the regional merger. They said Taimyr and Evenkia's tiny populations -- Taimyr has 37,000 people, while Evenkia counts just under 18,000 -- do not justify retaining separate administrative structures and all the bureaucracy this represents.

Folding the two sparsely populated but resource-rich regions into the Krasnoyarsk territory, with a population of nearly 3 million, makes economic sense, according to Vyacheslav Nikonov, of Moscow's Politika Foundation.

"The Krasnoyarsk region is an industrial center," Nikonov said. "Taimyr and Evenkia are natural-resource regions whose division from the Krasnoyarsk region -- through all sorts of administrative barriers -- is simply disadvantageous," Nikonov said.

Recently, Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia), echoed Kremlin policy when she said similar mergers should take place until the number of regions in Russia is reduced to about half the current 89.

Nikonov said he shares this view, adding that it would reduce bureaucracy and make Russia easier to govern from Moscow.

"The idea is absolutely correct from an administrative and an economic point of view," Nikonov said. "The total number of regions is too large. Managing such a large number of regions from one center is very difficult. In addition, we have an absolutely unprecedented example of nesting-doll federal regions, where regions that should have equal legal status actually find themselves within another region, which creates a lot of administrative confusion. These nesting-doll regions have to be dealt with and merged."

Others are more skeptical. RFE/RL's Russian Service conducted an unscientific poll on the streets of Moscow, where reaction was mixed. One woman said Russia's leaders have always been fond of big projects. But if past experience is any judge, the results of this megalomania never live up to expectations.

"Before, we had small collective farms and there was order. And then they merged them and created large collective farms and things turned into a mess," the woman said. "Small countries are neater. But in our enormous country we're not going to have order. And the more we create bigger entities, the messier it's going to be."

De Spiegeleire said he agrees. He noted that many countries -- especially in Europe -- have highly successful economies precisely because they are small and adaptable. Many highly developed large countries tend to replicate these conditions by having a high degree of decentralization, so that most decisions are made on a local level. This has two advantages. It breeds healthy competition among regions, and it ensures that those who make the decisions are most familiar with conditions on the ground.

"Some of the most successful large countries are very decentralized and have a federal system," de Spiegeleire said. "I'm thinking here of the United States, of course; Canada; Germany; and even Brazil. You need that to have a really workable system, which is not the kind of control that the people who are in power in Russia now or that were in power in the Soviet Union thought was necessary. It's a system of checks and balances that ends up yielding much more stability, certainly in the medium term, than any type of direct control that you can have."

De Spiegeleire called the Kremlin's drive to consolidate power "profoundly ill-guided." But he said he believes that, paradoxically, the merging of regions will have precisely the opposite effect that Moscow is seeking.

Several governors who are allied with powerful business interests are preparing to follow the Krasnoyarsk example by absorbing smaller surrounding regions. If this happens, said de Spiegeleire, the Kremlin will have inadvertently created a new class of regional politicians with the political and economic power to counter Moscow's influence.

"What will end up now is that you have weaker regions being swallowed up by larger regions that have connections to very powerful financial-industrial interest groups," de Spiegeleire said. "And that will start recreating some of these checks and balances that the system is trying to get rid of. Obviously, a small entity like Evenkia, or like Taimyr, or like some of the other autonomous districts that will probably be swallowed up by some of their neighbors -- all of these players were very weak players in the political system. So in a sense this is only strengthening regionalism."

A centralization reform that ends up fostering decentralization? In Russia, anything is possible. As Putin himself told voters while campaigning for a second presidential term: "Russia is a nation of paradoxes."

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

By Liz Fuller

The success of the 17 April referendum on subsuming the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs into Krasnoyarsk Krai is likely to encourage those Russian officials who favor holding a similar referendum on abolishing the current status of the Republic of Adygeya by subsuming it into Krasnodar Krai, within which it constitutes an enclave.

Adygeya's Russian majority, which accounts for some 70 percent of the republic's total population of 450,000-500,000, and which has for years protested alleged discrimination at the hands of the Adyg minority, may support the proposed merger with Krasnodar Krai. But the Adygs, including Adygeya's top leaders, vehemently oppose it.

So, too, do 52 percent of the population of Krasnodar, according to an opinion poll cited by a member of the Republic of Adygeya government who was quoted by AdygeyaNatPress on 5 April. Evenk Autonomous Oblast leader Boris Zolotarev opposed the planned merger with Krasnoyarsk when it was first mooted in 2002, as did his counterpart in Taimyr, Oleg Budargin, but both men subsequently shelved their objections after lengthy consultations with the Kremlin.

Meeting in early March with members of the International Cherkess Association, which represents the estimated 3 million-strong diaspora, Adygeya President Khazret Sovmen criticized the proposed merger with Krasnodar as "regressive" and a threat to interethnic relations in what he termed an "explosive" region.

At a further meeting later that month with representatives of the Cherkess Diaspora, Sovmen again argued that his republic and Krasnodar Krai should continue to exist as separate regions, but he added that he favors closer economic and cultural ties between them, according to the paper "Shapsugiya," as quoted by on 25 March. (The authorities in Krasnodar Krai have since withdrawn funding for that paper, which was published twice monthly in a print run of some 3,000 for Krasnodar's 12,000-strong Shapsug minority, according to AdygeyaNatPress on 31 March.) Sovmen rejected the arguments adduced by the leaders of Krasnodar Krai that the merger is economically expedient given that Adygeya is less developed than Krasnodar; he said that Adygeya has one of the highest economic-growth rates in the entire Southern Federal District.

Within days, however, Krasnodar Krai Deputy Governor Murat Akhedzhak announced that the merger of the two regions is "not far off," and that it would expedite investment in Adygeya, an argument rejected by activist Ali Avgan, who pointed out to AdygeyaNatPress on 5 April that the Shapsug population of Krasnodar needs investment even more urgently than does the Adyg minority in Adygeya. A representative of Adygeya's government similarly took issue with Akhedzhak's argument that Krasnodar is economically stronger than Adygeya. He told AdygeyaNatPress on condition of anonymity that "numerous" rural residents of Krasnodar regularly travel to Adygeya in search of seasonal or casual work.

On 15 April, the national movement Adyghe Khase met in Maikop and formed a Committee to Protect the Republic of Adygeya Constitution. Participants further decided to organize mass protests across the republic against the planned merger, including demonstrations and even acts of civil disobedience. Also on 15 April, "Izvestiya-yug" published an interview with Chief Federal Inspector for Krasnodar and Adygeya Anatolii Odeychuk that inflamed passions even further. In that interview, Odeychuk reportedly claimed that that it is he, rather than Sovmen, who controls Adygeya, and he made a number of what were termed tactless and insulting comments about Sovmen personally.

Three days later, on 18 April, Adyghe Khase and the second major national movement, the Cherkess Congress, addressed an open letter to Odeychuk's superior Dmitrii Kozak, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, protesting the tone and substance of the interview. Meeting the same day, Republic of Adygeya government ministers likewise composed an open letter to Kozak similarly protesting what they termed Odeychuk's recourse to "crude falsification of the facts, lies, and slander," and demanding his dismissal on the grounds that they consider it impossible to continue working with him. (Odeychuk was invited to that meeting and said he would attend, but failed to show up, according to AdygeyaNatPress on 19 April.) The ministers admitted "there are problems in Adygeya," but argued that Odeychuk's interview was counterproductive, served as an alarm that highlighted "the dangers we face...and who wants to rock the boat in which we all sit," and "discredits the federal organs of government."

Why Odeychuk should have risked fuelling tensions at this juncture is unclear, given as "The Moscow Times" commented on 19 April a propos the outcome of the Krasnoyarsk/Evenk/Taimyr referendum, "some of the regions slated for eventual merger, especially in the North Caucasus...will demand far more political finesse than Evenkia and Taimyr."

President Vladimir Putin seemed in his comments on the 17 April referendum to be advocating a differentiated approach to mergers, arguing that enlargement "is not an end in itself," but should be resorted to "only if territories...cannot resolve the problems of their residents independently."

By Robert Coalson

Among the many amendments to Russia's law on elections that were passed in their crucial second reading by the State Duma on 15 April is one that would ban the formation of electoral blocs to contest federal, regional, or local elections.

This reform could play a central role in the Kremlin's drive to shore up the so-called vertical of power that was begun in earnest in the wake of September's school hostage taking in Beslan.

At the beginning of this year, Russia adopted a system under which the direct election of regional executive-branch heads was eliminated. Under the new system, these leaders are nominated by the president and confirmed by regional legislatures, giving those bodies a new prominence in a high-stakes political arena.

The presidential administration clearly does not want to see a wave of confrontations emerging between local legislatures and the president. Under the new system, if a legislature refuses to endorse the president's nominee, the president has the authority to disband that body and call new elections. Kremlin planners realize that legislators will clearly be less willing to go to such extremes if they know that the major political parties, especially the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, have the upper hand in elections.

Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies wrote on on 19 April that the reforms are "revolutionary" for regional elections and will lead to "the federalization of all political parties."

The initiative to eliminate electoral blocs comes as such movements have managed to present considerable competition to Unified Russia in a number of regional elections in recent months. Moreover, there have been efforts by governors to stack local legislatures with their supporters through the creation of electoral blocs as a way of strengthening their positions vis-a-vis the Kremlin.

In Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, a coalition of Yabloko and the Russian Party of Life called For Our Native Taimyr placed a strong second to Unified Russia with 21 percent of the vote. In Tula Oblast, a bloc comprising the Motherland Party and the For Holy Rus party picked up 12 percent after receiving support from Duma Deputy Andrei Samoshin, who recently resigned from the Unified Russia party although he remains a member of its Duma faction. In Sakhalin Oblast, a bloc comprising the People's Will party, the Eurasia party, and the Agrarian Party won 19 percent with the financial backing of a local entrepreneur.

In addition, in regional elections in Amur Oblast, the Republic of Khakasia, Bryansk Oblast, and Ryazan Oblast, governors with strained relations with Unified Russia were able to put together blocs that won between 8 and 17 percent of the vote. And blocs of small parties in Irkutsk Oblast, Amur Oblast, and Arkhangelsk Oblast were able to overcome the 5 percent hurdle and gain party-list seats.

If, as is all but certain, the ban on electoral blocs becomes law, it will serve as a big boost to Unified Russia's growing stranglehold on regional legislatures. This, in turn, will further increase the dependence of regional governors on the Kremlin, which is of particular importance as the Kremlin's policy of consolidating federation subjects goes forward.

Clearly, the administration does not want to risk creating a situation in which the Kremlin is at odds with the governors of large, economically viable regions. Increasingly, governors who were critical of Unified Russia, such as Chelyabinsk Oblast Governor Petr Sumin and Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin, are signing up with the party of power in exchange for renomination by President Vladimir Putin.

By Victor Yasmann

The recent successes of the revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the much earlier success of the Yugoslav opposition in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic, have generated considerable interest in the driving forces behind these movements. Key roles in all these uprisings were played by informal but radical and disciplined youth movements espousing direct-action tactics. These groups include Otpor in Serbia, Kmara in Georgia, Pora in Ukraine, and KelKel in Kyrgyzstan.

In the last couple of months, there has been an upsurge of activity by youth groups across Russia's political spectrum, with many groups speaking about their desire to adopt the tactics of their successful counterparts abroad. This spurt of activity has been stimulated by Russia's domestic unrest, caused primarily by the government's reform to convert most in-kind social benefits to cash payments. Widespread demonstrations and protests have gripped the country since January and the government has been forced to retreat and subtly allot about $8 billion for additional payments to benefits recipients, "Argumenty i fakty," No. 14, reported."Those who control the youth movement will win the next elections."

Although the benefits protests were initiated by pensioners, many political groups -- including the youth movements -- learned lessons from them, primarily that the government can be moved by the power of mass civil disobedience. Ilya Ponomarev, leader of Youth Left Front, an umbrella organization of antiglobalists, anarchists, Trotskyites, and communists, gave a concise account of the sea change that has occurred in recent weeks. "The expectations of revolutionary transformation have grown drastically," he said, according to on 3 March. "These expectations can be achieved, for understandable reasons, only by young people. Therefore, those who control the youth movement will win the next elections."

Ponomarev added that the evolutionary path of development has reached its end because "the democratic system of the 1990s has been destroyed." "There are no traces of the democratic state -- no separation of powers, no system of checks and balances, no federalism, no local self-government. All branches of government have lost their independence and political expression through parliamentary procedures is impossible," he explained.

Perhaps the best Russian analogue to Pora or Otpor in terms of tactics is the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), which was created in 1994 by radical writer Eduard Limonov, Eurasianism ideologue Aleksandr Dugin (who soon left the party), and rock musicians Yegor Letov and Sergei Kurikhin. The party's ideology was a strange hybrid of ultraleftism, anarchism, and nationalism, mixed with openly fascistic ideas. Officially, the NBP is not a party, since the government has refused to register it, dismissing it as a group of hooligans and criminals.

But the most important thing about the NBP is not its ideology but its tactics of direct action, which include such things as taking over government offices and throwing eggs or tomatoes at members of the ruling elite or high-profile foreign guests. Since 2001, the NBP has retreated from its radical antiglobalist position in order to focus on its irreconcilable opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

Limonov was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2001 and spent 2 1/2 years in prison on terrorism-related charges stemming from an alleged plot to send weapons to ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan. In all, more than 100 NBP members have served time in prison over the last decade and 47 are in custody now.

"Russkii zhurnal" wrote about NBP on 15 January that "in today's Russia there is no other organization with such a long record of direct action [against the government], such creative leadership, and, most importantly, so many activists who sincerely consider themselves revolutionaries and who are ready for sacrifice."

In addition to the NBP and the Left Youth Front, there is also the Vanguard of Communist Youth (AKM), a small Marxist group whose acronym is the same as that of a popular Kalashnikov automatic-weapon modification. AKM leader Sergei Udaltsov told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 2 February that the main revolutionary force in Russia is the government itself. "None of us [revolutionaries] managed to do in 10 years what the government has done in six months," Udaltsov said. "[Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail] Zurabov is a revolutionary genius."

To counter these radical groups, the Kremlin not only has the national pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together, but also a new offshoot organization called Nashi (Ours). According to National Strategy Institute Vice President Viktor Militarev, the Kremlin would like to turn Nashi into the main counterrevolutionary shield against a possible "orange" threat, reported on 4 March.

Russia's liberal parties generally have weak and ineffective youth movements, but Yabloko has two organizations for young people that are reportedly dynamic enough to worry the authorities. These are the party's youth subdivision and the more informal and more radical Oborona (Defense), both of which are headed by Ilya Yashin.

In an 8 April interview with, Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin acknowledged that Yabloko's youth movements are sympathetic to Pora and Kmara, but are not analogous. "They are specifically Russian organizations and are not subject to any influence from abroad," Mitrokhin said. He added that the groups are capable of radical actions, but "will confront the current regime within the framework of the law." Mitrokhin said that he expects "an explosion of youth activity" in 2007-08 if the government continues its policies of dismantling free higher education and cutting back military-draft deferments for students.

On 13 April, the Federal Security Service (FSB) blocked the release of a Russian edition of "From Dictatorship To Democracy," by American political scientist Gene Sharp, that was prepared by Oborona, reported. That book, a short guide to nonviolent political action, reportedly played a role in guiding the revolutions in Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Many analysts correctly argue that the majority of Russian youths are too apolitical, passive, or opportunistic to go out into the streets for the sake of democracy. However, the number of radicals who are willing to do so appears to be on the rise. According to "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 15 March, the Russian branch of Pora has 200 members, but they expect to be able to bring 5,000 people into the streets within six months. The Yabloko youth organization, which is aligned with Pora, has about 1,600 members, while the AKM has about 500. The largest anti-Kremlin youth organization, the NBP, has 12,000 members. In all, the daily concluded, the youth-oriented radical political opposition today numbers about 20,000.

By contrast, the newly created pro-Kremlin Nashi already has 3,000 members and boasts that it can bring 50,000 supporters into the streets, the daily reported. Walking Together claims 100,000 members.

In any political confrontation, the key is how many people such organizations can bring out into the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In this context, it is worth recalling that former KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, who was one of the leaders of the August 1991 putsch attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, estimated that the number of people who came out in support of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the two cities was about 170,000.

By Julie A. Corwin

On 15 April the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi (Ours) held its inaugural congress and elected Vasilii Grigorevich Yakemenko and four others as leaders of the movement. The same day, retired world chess champion Garri Kasparov blamed Nashi for an incident earlier that day in which a young man attacked him with a chessboard. Many political analysts -- and Kasparov, apparently -- see the group's agenda as trying to tap into Russia's growing nationalism and xenophobia.

In an interview with on 1 March, National Strategy Institute Vice President Viktor Militarev argued that with Nashi, Yakemenko has developed a more effective doctrine than he did with the pro-Putin youth group Walking Together. Instead of "Putin is our president and he is always right," Militarev noted, Yakemenko gives lectures to youth activists in which he describes "the American authorities as our geopolitical opponent and says Russia needs to defend itself."

Although only 34, Yakemenko has launched many projects. He was born in 1971 in the Moscow Oblast city of Lyubertsy. He studied at the State Administration Institute, where he became a transport engineer, "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 10 September 2002. After graduation at the age of 21, he established a company called Vento that assembled fans. The year after that he founded the wholesale outlet Akbars. His next project was Walking Together, which was officially registered on 14 July 2000.

Yakemenko confided in an interview with "Itogi" on 21 June 2004: "As soon as Putin was nominated for the post of prime minister [in 1999], my brother and I decided to create an organization. We created it for a nobody who was headed toward the presidency and who it seemed to us professed the same system of views as our own." At that point, Putin had only been known at national level as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) for a little over a year.

In numerous interviews, Yakemenko has denied that he worked for the presidential administration when he formed Walking Together. Yakemenko told "Vechernyaya Moskva" on 18 September 2001 that "it is completely untrue" that the movement was created at the behest of the Kremlin. "I was invited to the Kremlin because I already had this movement," Yakemenko said. "Not the other way around. I wanted to create this organization five years ago. But I didn't create this five years ago because any movement, especially a youth movement, needs certain things: there should be a leader, there should be an idol. And without Putin the creation of such a movement was unrealistic. There was no unifying figure."

Yakemenko spent less than three months working for the presidential administration as head of a department for external relations. He answered then to Sergei Abramov, the head of the main administration for domestic policy in the presidential administration, and according to the "The New York Times" on 16 February, Yakemenko continues to meet with Abramov and with Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration. Yakemenko told "Vechernyaya Moskva" that he found "the presidential administration a very wonderful, but also a very sluggish organization," and at his level in the organizational chart it was very hard to make decisions. "Moskovskii komsomolets" suggested that after hooking up with "political technologists" such as Gleb Pavlovskii during his tenure at the Kremlin, Yakemenko realized that he could make bigger money on the outside.

The actual sources of financing of Walking Together and its offspring, Nashi, are unknown. At one of Walking Together's first big events, some 10,000 young people gathered on 7 May 2001 on Red Square to celebrate the first anniversary of Putin's inauguration. One student and a member of Walking Together told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau: "We are a very rich organization. Our heads have enormous funds. Do you think it is cheap to gather 10,000 people from the cities of Russia for a half-hour in the center of Moscow?" One student from Orel Oblast told AP on 7 May 2001 that the presidential administration had financed the event, though Yakemenko denied that his movement is funded by the presidential administration. He said the movement is financed by a "group of Russian companies," the names of which he declined to disclose.

However, in November 2001, he told NTV that Energomash, Russkii Aktseptnyi Dom, and other companies were the movement's backers. In December 2004, "Novaya gazeta" asked the State Duma to investigate the group's financing and charged that it had received more than 1.4 million rubles ($50,000) in 2003 from Western companies. Yakemenko dismissed the accusations as "laughable."

At a press conference following this month's Nashi's congress, Yakemenko stated "categorically" that he is "certain that the fatherland's large companies will support us," "Novaya gazeta," No. 28, reported.

When Yakemenko first got into the youth-movement business, he placed a decided emphasis on Putin. Walking Together's members attended rallies wearing T-shirts bearing Putin's gently smiling visage. In the interview with "Verchernyaya gazeta" in 2001, Yakemenko seemed almost unnerved when asked "what would happen [to the movement] if Putin suddenly resigned?" But Yakemenko regained his composure enough to answer: "I would hope that someone from Walking Together would replace him. Putin, whether or not he resigns, will remain in our hearts. The president will go, but the people will remain."

Next year, Yakemenko will turn 35, an age that marketers, at least, consider the cut-off for being considered youthful. If the past is prologue, Yakemenko may by then already be onto his next project. And by the time the 2008 presidential elections roll around, he will likely be considered a seasoned political operator ready to take on his next assignment.

(For more on the rise of political youth groups in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, see RFE/RL's special website "The Power of Youth" at

25 April: President Vladimir Putin to give his annual address to the Federal Assembly

27 April: Verdict expected to be announced in the case of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii and Menatep Chairman Platon Lebedev

28-29 April: President Putin to visit Israel and the Palestinian Autonomy

6-8 May: Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov to visit Minsk for talks with Belarusian legislators

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

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

26 May: Constitutional Court expected to rule in a case filed by the Federal Tax Service, which is seeking to overturn the current three-year statute of limitations on tax-related crimes

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

19 June: Referendum in Samara on dismissing Mayor Georgii Limanskii

23 June: Yukos shareholders meeting

24 June: Gazprom shareholders meeting. Date by which merger of Gazprom and Rosneft to be completed, according to RBK

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.