Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: May 13, 2005

13 May 2005, Volume 5, Number 19

WORLD WAR II -- 60 YEARS AFTER. As the world commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, RFE/RL has published an extensive series that looks at that conflict's enduring legacies in the RFE/RL broadcast areas. See
RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service interviewed former U.S. national security adviser under the Carter administration Zbigniew Brzezinski on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Moscow to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. The Polish-born Brzezinski talked about Russia's "imperial nostalgia," President Vladimir Putin as the "final gasp of the Soviet era," and what he describes as U.S. efforts to "promote geopolitical pluralism" in the former Soviet Union.

RFE/RL: What is, in your view, the status of the United States-Russia relationship?

Brzezinski: It's a mixed relationship. There are some elements of cooperation, but also there are some significant disagreements. Russia is still motivated by a nostalgia for the past, which is unrealistic and counterproductive. Russia, moreover, is maximizing its difficulties by rather stupidly re-identifying itself with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [of non-aggression] and the Stalin-Hitler arrangements for the division of Europe.

RFE/RL: In a speech delivered in Washington in October of 2003, you stated: "I would say that what you should be ought to be seeking unambiguously is the promotion of democracy and decency in Russia, and not tactical help of a very specific and not always all that useful type -- a purchase at the cost of compromising even our own concept of what democracy is." Please clarify and elaborate on this with the benefit of events that have ensued in the intervening year and a half.

Brzezinski: I think what's happened was that in the course of the subsequent two years, unfortunately, our public statements regarding Russia have tended to fuzz over some unpleasant realities. And that is now surfacing in a way that's complicating the relationship. I think there was too much euphoria; too much of an inclination to declare that Russia was a democracy; [and] too much pretension -- such as, for example, when the current secretary of state asserted that the American-Russian relationship had never, ever been better. All of that, I think, has created ambiguity when clarity is needed.

RFE/RL: On the other hand, American strategic planners talked recently in Congressional testimony about the specter of instability in Russia, with the festering conflict in Chechnya, and about the worsening of the political, business, and investment climate there. How do you see Russia evolving before the end of Mr. Putin's term of office in 2008 and after?

Brzezinski: I think we're seeing with Mr. Putin the final gasp of the Soviet era. The Soviet system is dead, and the Soviet Union has disintegrated. But the Soviet elite still dominates Moscow politically, and through Moscow it dominates Russia.

But that elite is increasingly fading from the scene. It is also increasingly self-isolated. So I expect that over the next several years, we'll see far-reaching changes in Russia -- especially when the younger, more genuinely post-Soviet elite begins to push to the top.

RFE/RL: You're discounting the possibility, for example, of a cold war over the former Soviet sphere of influence?

Brzezinski: There can be no cold war because Russia is in no position to wage either a hot or a cold war. It's a brutal effort to wage war in Chechnya which verges on genocide; it's at the same time a testimony to the incompetence of the Russian military.

Russia's in no position to wage a cold war with America, either. Because Russia is essentially right now in a very serious social and demographic crisis. So a real cold war is not possible. Some issues are likely to continue being conflictual. In a broader sense, the American-Russian relationship is probably going to be described in less euphoric terms than has recently been the case, but the basic reality of a mixed relationship -- partially antagonistic, partially cooperative -- I think is going to endure.

RFE/RL: Unlike in the rest of the world, where as you noted the United States is increasingly isolated and politically unpopular, the former Soviet sphere of influence embraces the United States. Seventy-two percent of Georgians approve of President Bush's visit there [on 9 May].... Under the circumstances that you outline, and given that this policy is bound to exacerbate tensions with Moscow, what do you think is the U.S. plan in that region, and what do you think it should be?

Brzezinski: The United States is supporting and de facto promoting geopolitical pluralism in the space of the [former] Soviet Union. That is to say, it is supporting the independence of the post-Soviet states without seeking to turn them into American satellites -- but with the objective of making them viable as independent states.

Part of the dilemma that Russia faces is that its nostalgia for an imperial status creates sustained and extensive hostility with all of its neighbors. It is impossible to mention a single neighbor of Russia with whom Russia has genuinely good relations. It is impossible to mention a single neighbor of Russia that likes Russia. And that is a problem which only the Russians can correct; it cannot be corrected for them by the Americans.

RFE/RL: Can we still speak of a Russian sphere of influence that the West respects?

Brzezinski: That depends on whoever wishes or not wishes to be part of it. If a country doesn't wish to be part of it, it has a right not to be part of it. Obviously, Russia has influence with its neighbors because it is a major entity; and proximity makes influence possible, especially if Russia is stronger and more powerful than its neighbors. But it is not powerful enough to dictate totally to them; and Russia's influence probably would be greater if Putin had had the intelligence to use the Moscow events to promote genuine reconciliation, instead of following what strikes most people as a kind of not very intelligent, nostalgic policy of rehabilitating partially Stalinism and certainly rehabilitating imperial nostalgia.

RFE/RL: And the small states, the forgotten states of the region, so to speak, such as Moldova. How should they play their cards under the current strategic conditions?

Brzezinski: I think the recent meeting of the GUUAM -- that is to say, Georgian Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan -- was very clear on that. Moldova is entitled to respect for its territorial and political integrity. And Russia doesn't have a right to maintain a Mafia-controlled enclave within Moldova.

RFE/RL: President [Traian] Basescu of Romania speaks of a Washington-London-Bucharest axis and has played a part of solid ally of the United States in the war on terror. He has supported the so-called Black Sea initiative, in which Romania is a bridge between the euro-Atlantic space and the so-called Wild East -- a beacon of democracy shining toward the Caucasus and beyond. What do you think about this initiative, and should the United States be interested in that region?

Brzezinski: It's a useful initiative, but one mustn't exaggerate it. And I'm not sure that talk of some sort of an "axis" is a particularly felicitous way of talking about it.

RFE/RL: Do you think that a country with a very shaky judicial system, a country that cannot eradicate corruption, can genuinely be a solid ally of the United States?

Brzezinski: For the longer run, probably not.

By Andrew Tully

At a 5 May Washington news conference, retired U.S. Senator Sam Nunn presented a report by a Harvard University study group in an effort to persuade Russia and the United States to work harder to keep nuclear material out of the wrong hands. Nunn said he didn't want to dwell on predictions of impending doom. But he stressed that both countries will become vulnerable to nuclear terrorism if they don't focus on securing their arsenals.

"First, the good new is that we are making progress. The bad news is that we are doing too little and moving much too slowly. Less nuclear material was secured in 2004 than in 2003. But on the good news side, a substantial increase is predicted by the [U.S.] Department of Energy in the year 2005," Nunn said.

Nunn is probably best-known outside the United States for his collaboration with Republican U.S. Senator Richard Lugar in setting up a program that has helped Russia and several other former Soviet states secure and destroy surplus nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Also participating in the news conference, through a telephone connection, was Thomas Kean, the co-chairman of the presidential commission that investigated the attacks of 11 September 2001. Kean said his panel is continuing to look at ways to prevent terrorism by foreign militants, especially attacks involving nuclear material. He told the briefing that securing nuclear substances is feasible, as long as Washington and Moscow have the will to do so.

"We know where these materials are. We know how to protect them. If we make a maximum effort, we can really reduce the threat of what for all the world would be a nuclear nightmare. We can't wait any longer. The time to act is now," Kean said.

Also participating were Anthony Wier and Matthew Bunn, who wrote a report for Harvard University's Managing the Atom Project. The document outlines the progress made so far in securing nuclear material and offers recommendations for further efforts.

Like Nunn, Weir said the news isn't all grim, but he noted there are different ways to look at areas of progress, particularly in Russia. "Even though, say, three-quarters of the sites in Russia that contain nuclear material have been put under security upgrades that the U.S. has paid for, only 26 percent of the material has actually been put under those upgrades," he said.

Weir said it is not enough for the Russian government to accept financial aid from the United States under the Nunn-Lugar initiative. Russia itself must follow up, or the money will be meaningless. "We can install the equipment, but even after that equipment is installed in Russia, Russian guards still have to maintain it, they still have to keep that security equipment on, and they still have to do their job afterwards," he said. "And so these measures, even if we got all the way to the end of this, we couldn't fairly say that the job was done. Russia still has to step up and maintain that security. And we have to work with the Russians to make sure that that equipment is maintained."

For his part, Bunn said Bush and Putin hold the keys to accelerating the safeguarding of nuclear material. First, he said, Putin does not need legislative approval to keep Russia's arsenal secure. And he said Bush should take advantage of his close relationship with Putin to urge the Russian leader to do so.

Bunn also said security will be impossible unless the United States elevates the relationships it has with Russia and other nuclear-enabled countries so they don't feel like America's client states -- and become more vulnerable to nuclear theft.

Bunn said Pakistan's arrest of suspected Al-Qaeda operative Abu Farraj al-Libbi, announced on 4 May, highlights that vulnerability. He said two assassination attempts against Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, are believed to have been orchestrated by al-Libbi, with the collaboration of some Pakistani Army officers.

The plotters are believed to have targeted Musharraf because the Pakistani president is seen as a tool of the United States. Bunn said the same line of thought makes Pakistan's nuclear arsenal very attractive to terrorists. "We now have, of course, documented evidence that senior nuclear insiders in Pakistan are willing to sell practically anything to practically anybody," Bunn said.

Former Senator Nunn said the issue can be addressed only if Bush and Putin make it a major priority.

By Jeremy Bransten

With so many world leaders gathered in Moscow and commentators debating the geopolitical consequences of World War II, it's easy to forget that this holiday honors the veterans who fought in humanity's bloodiest conflict. Thirty million men and women -- many barely out of their teenage years -- were mobilized into the Soviet military from 1941 to 1945. Millions perished in battle. Today, the survivors are in their 80s and 90s. The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe is a last chance for many of them to share old memories, impart advice, and be feted for their service.

In a country that is so fond of gigantic war monuments -- where larger-than-life posters celebrating victory this week adorn so many buildings -- meeting actual veterans is a humbling experience.

They are frail now, gray and bent over with age as they shuffle toward the entrance to Gorkii Park. Rows of medals clink on their lapels with every step. But their dignity, their strength of spirit, and the stories they have to tell speak louder than any heroic statue.

The veterans who gathered on 9 May at Gorkii Park and scores of other locations around the Russian capital came from cities and villages near and far. Many fought on different fronts but share the comradeship that is forged in times of war. And, like all veterans, they had one wish for the future -- never again.

Here are some of their stories.

Lydia Konopleva is 83 years old. When the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941, she had just graduated as a trained nurse. She was soon sent to the front lines near Moscow.

"I served as a surgical nurse, in the medical battalion, on the Kalinin front. I was made a young lieutenant in the medical corps, on the orders of Commander [Andrei] Yeremenko. It was near Rzhev. There was a terrible battle there. All of Rzhev was bombed, shot up. It was horrible. Two million people perished at Rzhev. More than at Stalingrad," Konopleva said.

As Konopleva remembers, the fighting was so intense at times that the field hospital worked around-the-clock.

"At times we had to work without sleeping, even without eating, because I was servicing two operation tables at the same time. The doctors conducted the operations and I would hand them the instruments," Konopleva said.

For Anton Budagov, war struck just as he was looking forward to hanging up his service rifle, having served his military duty.

"I am 86 years old. In 1939, I was called up for my military service and in November 1941, I was due to be demobilized. But war came and on the second day, I was already in battle. We stood on the border with Romania. German and Romanian forces crossed the Prut River and took the town of Leova. And we were ordered to retake the communications lines of the town. That was 23 June," Budagov said

Budagov was wounded the first day of battle. But he soon returned to the front and found himself on the edge of Berlin at war's end in 1945. It was the happiest day of his life.

"We met up on the Elbe. The Americans came on their Harleys. It was beautiful. Six Americans rode up, as if to say: The job is done. They drove up and we shook hands, we hugged each other. We talked and drank a glass of vodka to celebrate victory," Budagov said.

For Budagov, the unity among generations and among nations created by the war is the most precious legacy that he would like to rekindle.

"I came with my children and grandchildren to mark this great holiday. It is a great holiday. And I have to say that this victory was forged through everyone's efforts -- the efforts of the whole coalition: the Americans, the British, the French. We all united. We all felt we were friends. That feeling can't be described," Budagov said.

Vsevolod Kaplun did not have time to do his military service before the war. He was 18 years old at the start of the conflict. He fought in -- and survived -- some of the deadliest battles of the World War II.

"We fought near Moscow, then all of the [siege of] Leningrad -- from start to finish. Then the Battle of Kursk, on the central front near Orel. And then, it was near Smolensk, the taking of Belarus in Operation Bagration," Kaplun said.

For Boris Kolchin, who marked the Allied victory in Europe 60 years ago in Prague, the horror of war is what he wants to impart to younger generations. Never mind the glory, he says. It is the blood, hunger, death, and destruction that must be seared in human minds.

"I would have one request: Do not forget. And remember things as they really were -- without prettifying, without embellishments," Kolchin said.

Whether embellished or not, in Russia -- as in most of the former Soviet Union -- there is little chance of the war being forgotten. Thirty-year-old Natalya, who came to Gorkii Park to hand out red carnations to the veterans, describes what the anniversary means to her and her generation.

"It is a sacred day for us. It's probably the brightest holiday, even better than New Year's, because it's not just a victory of our nation but of justice over evil. And people are always glad to see good triumph," Natalya said.

Like most younger Russians, Natalya has heard firsthand about the war. Her grandfather served in the artillery units that helped liberate Leningrad from its 900-day Nazi blockade. She says her grandfather told her some wartime stories before he died. She wishes he had recounted more. But he couldn't. It was too hard for him to talk about the horror, Natalya says -- even after all those years.

By Claire Bigg

A new report by the Federal State Statistics Service shows that the gap between Russia's rich and poor grew in the first quarter of 2005. The report says the richest 10 percent of Russia's population makes 14.9 times more than the poorest 10 percent.

This figure has been steadily rising in past years -- Russia's very rich were 10 times richer than the most impoverished in 2001, 13 times richer in 2002, and 14 times richer in 2003.

The average monthly wage, however, has increased by 50 percent in the past three years across Russia, reaching 6,832 rubles ($246) per month in 2004.

But Natalya Sedova, a living-standards expert at the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research, said this does not necessarily mean that Russians are becoming more affluent. Some 40 percent of Russians, she said, rely entirely or in part on secondary sources of income.

"Today, salaries are not the only source of income for Russians," Sedova said. "For many, an important source of income, sometimes the only one, is social aids -- especially for the poor -- governmental aid in the form of pensions, allowances, or benefits. Material and financial help from relatives is another source of income for many Russians. These incomes, unlike salaries, are not growing."

Meanwhile, high global oil prices have helped Russia move up on a list of the world's millionaires. According to the list compiled every year by "Forbes" magazine, Russia overtook Japan on the list in 2004, and now trails only the United States and Germany in terms of their number of millionaires.

The 2004 "Forbes" survey also showed that Moscow is home to more billionaires than any other city in the world. Thirty-three billionaires live in the Russian capital, while only 31 live in New York.

But while those who acquired state assets through shady privatizations deals in the 1990s continue to increase their wealth, the majority of Russians have seen little improvement to their living standards.

The Center for Public Opinion estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of Russians currently live below the poverty line.

The replacement in January of Soviet-era social benefits with cash payments is likely to further impoverish the poor -- particularly retirees -- who claim cash payments are too little to make up for the lost benefits.

Sedova agreed that the monetization of the benefits will probably plunge the poorest of Russians into still deeper poverty, although she said it is too early to issue reliable statistics confirming this trend.

"The fact that the government is withdrawing from the social sphere and getting rid of its social responsibilities will probably increase the number of those who live in a state of deep poverty," Sedova said. "These people don't have the resources to overcome this poverty, they live solely on state benefits."

Experts are also voicing concern over an announced national housing reform that has already been approved by parliament. They say the poor will be the hardest hit by the reform, which plans to make all Russians cover the total cost of housing-related services.

These services are currently partly covered by the state budget and include maintenance, garbage collection, and utility services.

Following the monetization of benefits, thousands of pensioners staged protests across the country, blocking roads and taking control of buses. After weeks of protest, the government granted retirees a pension raise and introduced a system that in effect restored some of their in-kind benefits.

Sedova said the growing income divide, in addition to growing discontent over social reforms, is threatening to spark serious social unrest.

"I think that this tendency [income gap] can still grow due to the current social reforms and because the number of poor people will definitely increase, especially in the coming year," Sedova said. "And this is certainly a factor that can increase social tension and protest among Russians."

According to the World Trade Organization, countries where the rich earn over 14 times more than the poor are prone to severe social disorders. This puts Russia in the league of socially explosive countries.

Vladimir Pribylovskii is the director of the Panorama think tank in Moscow. He said implementing the housing reform will imperil the country's fragile stability.

"In particular, the planned housing reform, if it is not halted, will strip several million people of their flats," Pribylovskii said. "Of course, this bears a threat to stability, at least in the long term. Stability could already suffer in the next two or three years."

A majority of respondents in polls carried out by Center for Public Opinion said they are ready to take to the streets if further social reforms affect their living standards.

16-17 May: Seventeenth meeting of the Caspian Sea working group to be held in Tehran

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

2 June: A meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India, and China to be held

Late June: Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit Moscow

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

July: Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana, Kazakhstan

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.