Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: August 23, 2005

23 August 2005, Volume 5, Number 29
By Claire Bigg

Russia and China kicked off their first-ever joint military exercises on 18 August in the city of Vladivostok in Russia's Far East. Some 10,000 troops from air, land, and sea forces are due to take part in the eight-day drill, which will be centered along China's northeastern coast. Both countries have actively sought to reassure the United States that the war games are not aimed at any third country. Experts say the goal of the drill, in fact, may be more commercial than military.

Russian and Chinese military commanders marked the launch of the exercises on 18 August by laying wreaths at a World War II memorial in Vladivostok. The drill, dubbed "Peace Mission 2005," will simulate a scenario in which troops are deployed to restore order in a third country torn by massive ethnic unrest.

The maneuvers will take place mainly in the Yellow Sea and culminate on China's Shandong Peninsula. They will involve as many as 10,000 soldiers -- mostly Chinese -- as well as 140 naval ships and submarines, Russian Tu-22M long-range bombers, and Tu-95 strategic bombers.

Colonel General Liang Guanglie, the chief of the Chinese Army's General Staff, told a news conference in Vladivostok on 18 August that the drill is intended to strengthen the capability of the two armed forces in jointly fighting terrorism and extremism.

His Russian counterpart, Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, said the drill will help both countries protect stability in the region. "The main aim of these exercises is to ensure the training, to ensure the readiness of the structures in charge of the subdivisions taking part from the armed forces of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China, precisely in order to counter the challenges we face today in the Asia-Pacific region, and in the world as a whole," Baluevskii said.

The joint exercises, Baluevskii added, underline the growing ties between Russia and China. "Today, the development of relations with the People's Republic of China occupies a key position in the foreign political relations of our state, our armies and our peoples," Baluevskii said. Baluevskii also stressed the maneuvers were not meant to intimidate any third country.

Both Moscow and Beijing have been eager to dispel U.S. fears that the exercises are aimed at creating a Russian-Chinese military union. The United States views with distrust the strengthening ties between the two countries. Moscow and Beijing have developed what they call a strategic partnership to oppose what they perceive as U.S. domination in global affairs.

Russia and China are also seeking to check the presence of the United States in Central Asia and to consolidate their own influence in the volatile region.

Also on hand for the drill are member-state observers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a security group that comprises Russia, China and four of the five Central Asian states. Their presence has further fueled speculation that the exercises are intended as a message to Washington to stay away from the region.

The military drill has also sparked worries in the United States that China might be preparing for a possible surprise strike against Taiwan before other countries can intervene. Beijing has vowed to attack Taiwan if the island formally declares its independence.

Ivan Safranchuk, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Defense Information, said the military exercises are certainly part of China and Russia's efforts to show the West they are solid partners. "From a political point of view, I would not say this [drill] is taking an anti-American or anti-Western position," Safranchuk said. "But it demonstrates that Russia and China can be close partners."

Military experts also downplayed the practical military objectives of the drill itself. Many said it is more of a commercial opportunity for Russia to showcase its military hardware to China, the world's top purchaser of Russian armaments and equipment.

"For the Chinese side, these exercises are needed to gain experience in the use of the military technology it is buying from Russia," Safranchuk said. "For Russia, accordingly, these exercises are an opportunity to show China the capabilities of the equipment it is buying, but also that of the equipment Russia would like to sell to China in the future."

Beijing might be particularly interested in acquiring sensitive military equipment and technologies that Moscow has so far refused to sell. Experts said the inclusion of Russian strategic and long-range bombers in the drill is no coincidence.

Over the past decade, massive Russian arms sales to China have favored the development of bilateral cooperation. According to estimates by the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Russia has been delivering an annual average of $2 billion worth of arms to China since 2000, including fighter aircraft, submarines, and destroyers.

(RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua contributed to this report.)

By Claire Bigg

Russia's Supreme Court on 16 August lifted a ban imposed by a lower court on the National Bolshevik Party (NBP). The radical youth movement, whose provocative antigovernment protests have long riled the Kremlin, was outlawed in June for violating registration procedures. The party's controversial leader, Eduard Limonov, hailed the 16 August decision, saying it gave him new hope for the future of Russia. Is the decision a sign of better times to come for the country's many radical groups?

Eduard Limonov, the ultranationalist writer at the helm of the NBP, did not conceal his elation on 16 August after the Supreme Court overturned a ban on his movement.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, he hailed the judges' decision as fair and impartial. "I think the Supreme Court has shown honesty, dignity, and impartiality in carrying out its direct responsibilities," Limonov said. "It has confirmed our right to exist -- the right of a dissident political organization to exist. These [Supreme Court judges] are dignified, elderly, intelligent people and they did not want to stain their names with an unlawful decision."

A Moscow court banned the NBP in June, ruling it had no right to call itself a party since it was not registered. Prosecutors had also accused the group of being involved in extremist activities.

A spokeswoman for the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, Natalya Vishnyakova, said on 16 August it will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court's presidium. "The Prosecutor-General's Office respects court decisions, but we disagree with today's ruling by the Supreme Court and will appeal it," she said. "The Moscow regional prosecutor's office uncovered specific violations of federal legislation by the National Bolshevik Party public organization, and it was because of those violations that this public organization was disbanded."

National Bolsheviks have largely gained fame by staging provocative protests. They are notorious, for instance, for peacefully seizing government offices and throwing eggs, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and juice at some of their foes.

This radical youth movement started as a neo-fascist organization. Today, however, National Bolsheviks prefer describing themselves as an opposition group that supports democracy. The movement, whose emblem combines the Nazis' red-and-white flag with the Soviet hammer and sickle, also regularly denounces the Kremlin's policy in Chechnya.

As recently as 16 August, NBP activists distributed leaflets calling Russian President Vladimir Putin the "butcher of Beslan" to denounce what they perceive as the government's botched handling of the Beslan hostage taking by armed militants in September 2004.

Such protests have, of course, riled the Kremlin. And in what many see as a Kremlin-led political crackdown, law-enforcement agencies have targeted the NBP on several occasions, arresting activists and closing down their office.

Thirty-nine NBP activists are currently facing trial. Limonov himself has served time in prison for illegally possessing firearms, a charge he denies.

For Limonov, the lifting of the ban on his party is therefore a major victory. He said the decision gives him "great hopes" for Russia's future. He hopes the decision will persuade courts to adopt a milder stance toward the NBP, and other political movements as well.

"I think all future court rulings on our cases will be subconsciously influenced by [the 16 August] Supreme Court decision during all future trials linked to our activities. This is why I see this decision as crucial not only for the fate of our political party, but also for the fate of all political organizations in Russia," Limonov told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

But Limonov said the ruling is unlikely to put an end to what he branded the "repression" of his movement.

Center for Strategic Studies Director Andrei Piontkovskii agrees. NBP activists claim to be frequently beaten up, and Piontkovskii said the lifting of the ban is unlikely to put an end to the reported attacks. "There was much talk about the beating of two [Polish] diplomats and one journalist," he said. "But dozens of very similar attacks have occurred according to exactly the same scenario: some well-organized and physically trained young men attacked NBP activists and beat them up. No Supreme Court decision can stop this kind of pressure."

On the contrary, Piontkovskii predicts the decision will only fan the anger of NBP foes and provoke further beatings.

Sergei Markov, a political analyst close to the Kremlin who heads the Institute for Political Studies in Moscow, told RFE/RL that the Supreme Court's decision was not influenced by the Kremlin and does not indicate a softening of its stance towards radical opposition groups.

The government, Markov said, is still intent on disbanding Russia's mushrooming radical opposition groups. "I think the authorities will not leave it at that decision. It will continue to try to outlaw the National Bolshevik Party, and will eventually succeed in doing so," he said. "This is due to the fact that the NBP is seen as a serious danger, the germ of a future fascist party."

The NBP is registered not as a party but as a regional organization, meaning it cannot present candidates for parliamentary elections. It counts some 17,000 members.

By Liz Fuller

The fears of many foreign scholars that the 10th Finno-Ugric Congress that took place last week in the capital of the Republic of Marii El would be hijacked by the republican government following the death in a car accident on 6 July of congress President Yurii Anduganov have proved well-founded.

According the Tallin-based Information Center of Finno-Ugric Peoples and a U.S. scholar who attended the congress, the republican authorities went to extraordinary lengths to prevent any contact between foreign delegates and members of the Marii national movement Marii Ushem. At the same time, Marii El President Leonid Markelov assured congress participants in Yoshkar-Ola of his commitment to democratization and equal rights for the Marii minority, and he dismissed unfavorable commentary as "unfounded attacks by the Finnish and Estonian press."

The official website of the government of the Republic of Marii El ( does not currently provide statistics on the ethnic composition of the population, or on the number of publications available in Marii, or on the percentage of the republic's schools where teaching is conducted in the Marii language. But Tunne Kelam, an Estonian deputy to the European Parliament, told RFE/RL earlier this summer that education in Marii is provided in some elementary schools but not at a higher level, and that consequently only some 20 percent of Marii children in Marii El are taught in their native language.

That lack of educational opportunities was just one of the shortcomings enumerated in a nonbinding resolution passed by the European Parliament on 12 May, which criticized the Russian government for tolerating abuses of human and minority rights in Marii El, including the killing of opposition journalists and politicians (see "RFE/RL Political Weekly," 24 May 2005). Hungarian Europarliamentarian Gyula Hegyi told fellow lawmakers in the course of the debate on that resolution that discrimination against the Marii is so intense that their survival as a separate ethnic group is in jeopardy.

Europarliamentarians noted that the ongoing crackdown on the Mariis intensified after Markelov was reelected as the republic's president last fall. They said he sacked scores of Marii-speaking local officials and schoolteachers in districts of the republic who had voted against him. Those reprisals prompted scholars and prominent political figures in Estonia, Finland, and Hungary to launch an international "Appeal on Behalf of the Marii People" in February of this year (

According to his official biography, Markelov, 42, trained as a lawyer and worked in the Marii ASSR Military Prosecutor's Office in the late 1980s. He was elected to the Russian State Duma in 1995, and first elected as president of Marii El in January 2001. But the mutual mistrust and hostility between the Mariis and Markelov predates his reelection. Professor Yurii Anduganov, president of the International Finno-Ugric Congress, was constrained to leave Marii El three years ago for the neighboring Khanty-Mantsi Autonomous Okrug. Anduganov was killed on 6 July in a car accident under circumstances that remain unclear.

Despite Anduganov's death, the 10th International Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies opened as scheduled in Yoshkar-Ola on 15 August. But the number of foreign participants was far fewer than at the Ninth Congress in Tartu in 2000, according to a U.S. scholar who attended both gatherings.

Local authorities appear to have made every effort to prevent members of the Marii organization Mairi Ushem from making contact with the participants. Marii Ushem's application to the municipal authorities to stage a welcome meeting for foreign participants to the congress on 14 August was rejected. Members of Marii Ushem who ignored that ban and congregated outside the town's drama theater, carrying placards appealing to President Putin and comparing Markelov's reprisals to the Stalinist purges of 1937, have been threatened with arrest and trial.

Participants at that demonstration adopted a resolution entitled "Against Violations Of Human Rights, Basic Freedoms, And Democracy In The Republic Of Marii El," in which they accused Markelov and his administration of ruining the region's economy by means of policies that have raised mortality rates; imposing a "global information blockade"; and of engaging in a "witch-hunt" against the Marii people. At the same time, they denied that they are in opposition to the Republic of Marii El leadership and rejected charges of "nationalism," a phenomenon that they said is alien to the Marii people.

Foreign delegates to the Yoshkar-Ola congress were subjected to clumsy and blatant surveillance by plainclothes security men who followed them everywhere. Estonian scholar Andres Heinapuu reportedly complained to Estonian radio on 16 August that the atmosphere at the congress was "like a prison," a remark that prompted Marii El Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Tarasov to assure on 17 August that the unprecedented security measures were part of the broader Russia-wide "Whirlwind" antiterrorism operation.

In his address to the opening session of the congress on 15 August, which was packed with members of the Marii government bureaucracy, Markelov stressed his commitment to democratization, and in a subsequent interview with the BBC's Russian Service he affirmed that there are no notable interethnic tensions in the republic, and that everything is being done to promote the development of Marii culture. In that context, he cited the imminent launch of a Marii-language radio program. He also denied in that interview that the Mariis are "nationalistic."

Some scholars might find some aspects of Markelov's policies reminiscent of those espoused by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and, on a purely visual level, the two regions have much in common. One British diplomat recently compared Belarus to a Soviet-era theme park -- if one overlooks the absence of the ubiquitous 1980s slogans proclaiming Glory to Lenin! and Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!. A small town of Soviet-era buildings and parks, with clean air, Yoshkar-Ola too appears stuck in a time warp, devoid of the glitzy post-Soviet development projects that have mushroomed in larger Russian cities and even in neighboring Kazan. A Tatar academic who grew up in Yoshkar-Ola and recently returned there said nothing has changed since she left the city 30 years ago.

By Liz Fuller

Senior Russian officials and human rights activists alike have predicted in recent weeks that Kabardino-Balkaria, with a total population of some 800,000, could become the next North Caucasus federation subject to descend into chaos, following Chechnya and Daghestan. Periodic reports in the Russian media of the "neutralization" of individual, or groups of, Islamic militants would seem to substantiate the comparison with Chechnya and Daghestan. But armed Islamic militants are not the only threat to stability in the Kabardino-Balkarskaya Republic (KBR) -- and might not even pose the most serious danger.

Other contributing factors include tensions between Kabardians, who constitute half the population, and Balkars, who account for just 10 percent; widespread official corruption that has concentrated wealth and power in the hands of President Valerii Kokov and his family and close associates; socioeconomic problems, including high unemployment (20 percent average, reaching 70 percent in some mountain villages) and the lack of basic amenities in many mountain districts; spillover from the war in Chechnya in the form of Chechen displaced persons; and popular resentment at recent redistricting legislation.

This is not to say that radical Islam has not gained in strength in Kabardino-Balkaria in recent years. (Both the Kabardians and the Balkars are Sunni Muslims.) The problem, however, lies in assessing the relative strength of, and degree of overlap and interaction between, the Islamic factor and two other key determinants: interethnic rivalry and political alienation fueled by official corruption and economic stagnation.

The first two waves of destabilization to hit Kabardino-Balkaria in the 1990s resulted from demands by the Balkars for the restoration of the separate Balkar Autonomous Okrug (district) that existed briefly between 1918 and 1922 prior to the formation in January 1922 of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Oblast, which was upgraded in 1936 to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). That ASSR was renamed simply the Kabardian ASSR in the wake of the 1944 deportation to Central Asia on orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of the entire Balkar people, who like the Karachais, to whom they are related, were accused of collaborating with advancing Nazi German forces. Both the Karachais and the Balkars were exonerated in 1956 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev of the charge of collaborating with Nazi Germany and allowed to return to the North Caucasus the following year. In January 1957, the Kabardian ASSR reverted to its previous title of Kabardino-Balkar ASSR.

In April 1991, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic's Supreme Soviet adopted a law on the rehabilitation of oppressed peoples, which many representatives of those ethnic groups construed as heralding the righting of decades-old wrongs. Accordingly, the Balkars formed an unofficial National Congress that launched two successive campaigns, first in November 1991 and the second five years later, to demand a Balkar autonomous region within the Russian Federation. Both campaigns were unsuccessful, and the suppression of the second was accompanied by mass arrests and reprisals.

After several years of comparative calm, the Kremlin's redistricting plans for the North Caucasus republics, which entailed the transfer to Kabardian control of two predominantly Balkar villages, triggered mass protests by Balkars in late May in Nalchik, the republican capital. But rather than negotiate with the angry villagers, the republic's authorities chose to discuss the issue with Alan, a "public organization" claiming to represent the Balkar people and headed by the former leader of the Balkar National Congress, retired General Supyan Beppaev, according to "Gazeta Yuga" on 28 July as cited by During that discussion, Alan Executive Committee Chairman Mukhtar Gazaev accused unspecified "forces" of seeking to destabilize the situation on the republic. He presumably had in mind the Balkar villagers who launched the protest two months earlier and who at that time voted no confidence in Alan, which they perceived as colluding with the KBR leadership, according to on 30 May.

Russian media have devoted less coverage to this summer's Balkar protests, and to the tensions between the KBR's two titular ethnic groups, than to the second potentially destabilizing trend: militant Islam. KBR police claimed to have destroyed most members of one armed Islamic "djamaat," Yarmuk, in late January, and to have killed or apprehended members of a second such group in a shootout three months later. Since then, a major "antiterrorist" operation has resulted in the arrest of several dozen suspected militants, Interfax-Yug reported on 30 July.

But an in-depth analysis of the situation in the North Caucasus posted by on 10 August makes the point that not all Islamic djamaats in the region are the armed fighting units they are portrayed as by local officials. Rather, that analysis suggests, they are "rapidly developing parallel power structures" that do not seek to perpetrate terrorist atrocities but "to create a separate social space where Russian social and legal norms no longer obtain": a description reminiscent of Chechnya under its then President Djokhar Dudaev in the period 1992-94 and under Dudaev's successor Aslan Maskhadov in 1997-99.

The appeal of what is variously dubbed "radical" or "conservative" Islam is fueled by widespread dissatisfaction with socioeconomic conditions in Kabardino-Balkaria, according to a brief comment posted on on 4 February. The author, whose name suggests he is Kabardian, suggests that people are turning increasingly to "conservative" Islam as a form of protest as the political opposition is perceived as marginalized and ineffective. Moreover, the appeal of "conservative" Islam is reportedly particularly strong among the younger generation: Nalchik police chief Beslan Mukozhev was quoted in late June as saying that there are currently 22 Islamic youth groups in the KBR that are not subordinate to the government-backed Muslim Spiritual Directorate (DUM).

But Igor Tsagoev, a journalist from the North Caucasus, believes that it is not only the younger generation that are attracted to the djamaats. Writing in "The Moscow Times" on 14 April, Tsagoev claimed that "taking advantage of economic crisis, corruption and the failings of official religious figures, the radicals [in the KBR] are winning over increasing numbers of followers, and not only among the uneducated young. They have already legalized part of their operation in the form of various commercial and apparently even some government organizations. At present, the Wahhabis have already gained enough influence to have a significant impact on the political situation in the republic."

At a roundtable discussion convened on 12 July by the KBR government, an official from the DUM identified the lack of qualified Muslim clergymen and the neglect to which they are subjected by the republican government as one of the main reasons for the drift away from officially sponsored Islam. That official noted that imams are entitled to a monthly stipend of 400 rubles ($14) from the presidential fund, but that stipend has not been paid since the beginning of the year.

What is unclear is whether radical Islam is being embraced equally by Kabardians and Balkars, or primarily by just one of those ethnic groups. (In the neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic, whose ethnic composition is the reverse of that in the KBR, it is the Turkic Karachais, who make up approximately 34 percent of the population, who identify with radical Islam, rather than the minority Cherkess, who account for just 11 percent.)

Are alienated Balkars, having given up on the dream of a separate republic, turning increasingly to Islam? Is a predominantly Kabardian police force adducing Islamic extremism as a pretext to target Balkars? Even if police are not doing so now, might they act in that way in the future if the "Islamic threat" is perceived (or portrayed in Russian media) as becoming more acute? Alternatively, are the tensions between Kabardians and Balkars totally unrelated to the surge in popularity of "conservative" Islam?

Tsagoev implied in his "Moscow Times" article that religious radicals are "encouraging nationalist sentiments and interethnic tensions between Russians and non-Russians," a formulation that suggests that some Balkars and Kabardians alike identify themselves as Muslims first and foremost, rather than as representatives of a specific ethnic group.

Whatever the underlying trends may be, some residents of the KBR fear that relentless media coverage of the perceived threats to stability in that republic might prove counterproductive, according to on 29 July. The website posted a letter from a resident of Nalchik who took issue with statements by prominent Russian human rights activists who visited Nalchik in late July. The writer rejected Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseeva's observation that "the Balkars have accumulated numerous grudges against the authorities resulting from the failure to resolve the problems they encountered after their return from deportation." He claimed that, on the contrary, the Balkars have received far greater privileges than some other deported and rehabilitated peoples, such as the Ingush and the Crimean Tatars. He similarly condemned Memorial head Lev Ponamarev's prediction that "Kabardino-Balkaria is heading for an explosion and spreading violence."

Warning that "you don't extinguish a fire by pouring oil on it," the author of the letter appealed to Russian human rights activists not to allow themselves to be used by "those who have far-reaching plans that run counter to the interests of the other peoples of the republic and of the state as a whole."

26 August: CIS summit to be held in Kazan

September: New U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns will take up residence in Moscow

1 September: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its plans for the elimination of the estate tax, the simplification of individual tax declarations, and the simplification of the requirements for real-estate purchases

3 September: First anniversary of Beslan school tragedy

5 September: Fall plenary session of the State Duma opens

21 September: Federation Council reopens

1 October: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its economic-development plans for the Far East, the North Caucasus, and Kaliningrad Oblast

4 October: President Putin to visit London for Russia-EU summit

23 October: Referendums to be held in Kamchatka Oblast and the Koryak Autonomous Okrug about the merger of the two federation subjects

9 October: State Duma by-election in single-mandate district in Rostov Oblast

23-26 October: Third anniversary of the Moscow theater hostage crisis

25 October: Second anniversary of former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii's arrest at an airport in Novosibirsk

1 November: Public Chamber expected to hold first session

1 November: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its proposals for limiting foreign-capital participation in the defense sector and strategic-resource development

1 November: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its proposals for judicial reform and combating crime, especially terrorism

27 November: Chechnya to hold legislative elections, according to President Putin on 21 August

1 December: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its plans for reducing traffic accidents, alcoholism, and drug addiction, as well as its proposals for improving health care

1 December: Date by which President Putin has ordered the government to submit its plan to increase state-sector wages by 50 percent within three years

28 December: Federation Council will hold its last session in 2005

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.