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Russia Report: October 31, 2005

31 October 2005, Volume 5, Number 32
By Robert McMahon

The U.S.-led war to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan four years ago intensified Washington's engagement with Central Asia. But Russia, an erstwhile ally in the war on terror, has stepped up efforts to restore its influence in the region. Citing recent events in Uzbekistan, analysts see a great advantage for Russia -- Moscow supports the status quo of authoritarian leaders in the region, while Washington is seen as promoting their overthrow.

The United States and Russia increasingly appear to be at cross purposes in Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is a prime example. It turned sharply away from Washington toward Moscow after Russia expressed support for the Uzbek government crackdown in Andijon in May.

Following U.S. calls for an investigation of the incident, Tashkent called on the United States to vacate the Kharshi-Khanabad military base in six months. Uzbekistan then joined Russia and four other regional states in seeking a U.S. timetable to close down all bases in the region.

Russia and Uzbekistan last month held their first joint military exercises. Russian energy firms Gazprom and LUKoil have signed on to hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term investments in Uzbekistan.

To Russian foreign-policy strategist Aleksandr Dugin, this marks a rightful return of Russian influence to the region after the U.S. establishment of bases in 2001.

Dugin is a leading exponent of the "Eurasianist" approach to Russian foreign policy and has close ties with the Russian security establishment. He told RFE/RL that the "people power" revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, seen as instigated by Washington, alarmed Russian foreign-policy circles. Those events, he said, effectively ended Russian-U.S. cooperation in Central Asia.

"After the events of the 'colored' revolutions in Georgia and in Ukraine, above all after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, there are [no longer] any doubts in the political class as a whole concerning [the] contradiction -- basic contradiction -- of interests between the United States and Russia," Dugin told RFE/RL.

The U.S. administration has downplayed talk of competition with Russia in the region. But top U.S. officials have made a series of visits to Central Asia in the months since the Uzbek decision to evict the United States, promoting democracy and pointing to ongoing efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the most recent, visiting Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan on 10-13 October.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried told RFE/RL the objectives Rice will be highlighting should be shared by Russia as well. "Stability comes ultimately from the legitimacy which is derived from democracy," he said. "If the Russians want stability -- and it certainly would seem to be in their interest -- they ought to support reform but again I'm not going to speak to Russian priorities. They can do that for themselves."

Fried also rejected the call made by Russia and others in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to wind down the U.S. military presence. The group's communique in July suggested there was declining need for combat operations against the Taliban.

"There are good reasons to have these bases in the region which are supporting the efforts in Afghanistan, which surely serve the interests of the countries themselves and, if you think about it, serve Russian interests because the Russians also face a [terrorism] problem," Fried told RFE/RL.

But from Russia's standpoint, stability may mean maintaining the current authoritarian leadership in the region, ensuring business and other ties that will not upset the status quo.

That's the view of Kimberly Marten, a political science professor at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York. She told RFE/RL that in the current great power competition for influence in the region, Russia and China have an edge.

"If you want to look at it in 'Great Game' terms, the United States doesn't have the ability to compete against Russia and China in that kind of a Great Game because its domestic political culture and circumstances require it to pay attention to human rights and economic transparency in a way that Russia and China don't have to do," Marten said.

A number of analysts see Uzbekistan as shrewdly balancing the needs of big powers to strengthen the regime's control.

Kyrgyzstan, home to both U.S. and Russian bases, has also proven adept at balancing off big-country interests.

The new administration of President Kurmanbek Bakiev has assured the United States it can continue to use the air base at Manas but suggested Washington pay more for it. At the same time, Russia reaffirmed its long-term interest in maintaining a base at Kant, accompanied by millions of dollars in military aid to Kyrgyzstan.

Russia has also asserted a clear business presence in Kyrgyzstan. David Mikosz is a top official in Kyrgyzstan for the International Foundation for Election Systems, a nongovernmental organization that manages projects in civil-society development in Kyrgyzstan.

"People recognize that Russia has a lot more common interests, I think, in the economy. The United States is more interested, it seems, in cultural activities, the number of exchange programs, the American University [in Bishkek], those sort of things," Mikosz told RFE/RL.

Kazakhstan is another state in the region balancing a multidirectional foreign policy. President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is up for reelection in December, recently affirmed Kazakhstan's intention to campaign for the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009. He defined as priorities cooperation with Russia, China, the United States, and the European Union.

By Claire Bigg

Two far eastern regions overwhelmingly agreed on 23 October to merge into a single province. This is not the first time Russian regions have voted in favor of a merger -- the latest referendum is a continuation of the Kremlin's drive to improve governance in provinces and consolidate its control over the country's sprawling territory.

Almost 90 percent of those who cast ballots in the referendums in Kamchatka Oblast and the Koryak Autonomous Okrug, on Russia's Pacific coast, supported merging their regions.

The decision is the latest illustration of how strongly Russians back the Kremlin's push to bring down the number of Russian regions from 89 to less than 50.

The administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been encouraging sparsely populated regions to merge with their more populous -- and usually better-heeled -- neighbors.

It says this will make regions easier to govern and thereby help reduce bureaucracy and boost economic performance.

Sergei Markov, a political analyst connected to the Kremlin, hails the decision to unite the two regions. He told RFE/RL that the Koryak Autonomous Okrug -- one of Russia's least populated regions -- is not viable and does not require its own, separate administrative structures.

"I am fully convinced that the merging of regions fosters better governance," Markov said. "An education department was created there and an education department there, a health department was created there and another one there. The doubling-up of a range of structures will end. Koryak is not a viable region, it does not have an economic basis on which to develop independently."

Kamchatka Oblast and the Koryak Autonomous will not be the first regions to unite -- or, in this case, reunite, since they were part of one province until 1993.

Perm Oblast in the Urals merged with the neighboring Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug in 2003.

A referendum in Siberia in April 2005 supported the merger of the Evenki and Taimyr autonomous okrugs into the more populated Krasnoyarsk Krai.

Irkutsk Oblast and the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug have also expressed their wish to merge, and there are plans to merge Chita Oblast with the Aga Buryat Autonomous Okrug in eastern Siberia.

The idea of merging regions fits into the government's efforts to establish what it calls a "vertical of power," under which the country's administration is centralized in the Kremlin.

Yevgenii Volk, the director of the Heritage Foundation, says the Kremlin, by reducing the number of federal regions -- and thereby the number of local governors -- hopes to further tighten its grip over Russia's huge provinces.

"From a political point of view, reducing the number of regions means such big structures are easier to govern," Volk told RFE/RL. "Increasing the size [of regions], in my opinion, will not change much. But the Kremlin is interested in reducing the number of regions in the Russian Federation and [hopes] to further strengthen its control over these newly formed regions."

Like Volk, some observers have serious doubts the plan will live up to expectations and predict life conditions in the newly merged regions will see little, if any, improvement.

Vladimir Pribylovskii, the director of the Panorama think tank in Moscow, says uniting regions will have no effect whatsoever � neither improving governance nor even helping the Kremlin extend its influence over regions.

"The reform to unite regions is a whim of the federal center," Pribylovskii said. "This is a political fashion now. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the political fashion was to break up regions; today the political fashion is to unite them. One can separate, one can merge, this doesn't change anything. Whether Koryak and Kamchatka are two regions or one doesn't make people's life any better or worse."

Once the merger of Koryak and Kamchatka comes into force, the new province will need a new governor.

Putin's envoy in the Far East declared on 23 October that he regards Viktor Vekselberg, one of the country's richest men, as the best governor of the new province. This choice is obviously inspired by the governorship of Roman Abramovich, Russia's richest man and owner of England's Chelsea soccer club, in neighboring Chukotka Oblast.

By Liz Fuller

Andreas Gross, a Swiss parliamentarian who has served since June 2003 as rapporteur on Chechnya for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), expressed concern in a 19 October interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the fighting in Chechnya has already spilled over beyond the borders of that republic to affect several neighboring regions of the North Caucasus.

At the same time, Gross expressed cautious optimism that Russian authorities have permitted a faction "that does not share their viewpoint" and which aspires to "build a bridge" between the warring sides in Chechnya to participate in the 27 November elections to a new Chechen parliament.

Asked to assess the current situation in the North Caucasus in the wake of the 13 October attacks by Chechen-led militants in Kabardino-Balkaria, Gross said "the whole region is in danger." He continued: "What we faced in the last 10 years in Chechnya, we could face in the next 10 years" in all the other neighboring republics. Gross said that he intends to raise during his next meeting with Dmitrii Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, the issue of what can be done to avert an increase in violence and ensure that the people of the North Caucasus can live in peace without the constant fear of violent attack by "Basaev's people," meaning the young men from Chechnya and other republics who flock to fight under radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev.

Gross was dismissive of official Russian claims that the situation in Chechnya is reverting to "normal." "I think the situation is not normal and is far away from normalization," he said, pointing out that "we don't have a free, democratic society" in Chechnya, but one that is "broken," and that the population is "fed up with all kinds of violence."

He said the danger of repeat violence will persist as long as there is no effort to reach a compromise between the interests of the various factions in the conflict. In that context, Gross noted that an opposition party that does not share the views of the Russian authorities and which aspires to "build a bridge" between the warring sides (by which he probably meant the Chechen chapter of the Union of Rightist Forces) has been permitted to register candidates in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 27 November. Gross admitted that "they are very weak and it's a very fragile attempt," but "it is still an attempt," and for that reason "I have not lost all hope," even though the situation is "extremely difficult." At the same time, he said he is particularly concerned that "the Russian authorities...are relying too heavily on forces who are closer to [being] criminals than democrats." Gross made it clear later in the interview that he meant the so-called presidential guard headed by Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.

Gross said that he expressed these concerns during a meeting three weeks earlier in Moscow with Kozak, and that even though "many in Russia are aware of the problem.... I have to say I sometimes have the impression that the Russian authorities are not aware that they have to do more, they have to be more engaged in a civil way...and that they themselves have to do things which today they delegate" to groups that have forfeited the support and trust of the population -- a clear allusion to the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership.

Asked what he thinks motivates the young men and women who are flocking to join underground militant groups, and whether unemployment and economic stagnation are primary factors, Gross admitted that this is "a very difficult question." He suggested that many young people do indeed opt for violence because they "do not see any future in a normal life, because the political and economic situation is so bad, they feel they have nothing left to lose."

He also suggested that continued efforts to resolve the conflict militarily contribute to its geographical spread, because the fighters are pushed back into the mountains and from there infiltrate other regions of the Caucasus in an attempt to demonstrate that they are still a force to be reckoned with. "That shows that we need to look for political solutions that could integrate those elements of the resistance that do not choose...terrorist methods," Gross reasoned. He acknowledged that this makes the search for a solution "more complex, but that is not a reason to capitulate and not to do what we should have done earlier -- become more engaged in getting a real political solution" and trying to persuade the moderate elements in the resistance to disassociate themselves from what Gross termed "criminal tendencies in their own camp."

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service acknowledged that Gross has worked extremely hard to promote dialogue, noting especially the roundtable discussion convened under PACE auspices earlier this year, but went on to pose the question whether of the roundtable format should be modified to reflect "new realities," meaning the fact that "it's no longer a Chechen conflict but a North Caucasus conflict."

Gross's response to that suggestion was equivocal: "yes and no." He conceded that it is now "a transnational problem, a trans-republic problem, a North Caucasus problem," but went on to point out that "all these republics are part of the Russian Federation and in this respect the mandate is still valid, because you have to speak to the point that we have to respect the integrity of the Russian Federation and we have to respect [the fact] that the politicians don't want" to enter into negotiations with "terrorists, it's not possible to reach agreement with people who are so brutal and who lost...their credibility."

For those reasons, Gross continued, he does not consider it necessary to change the PACE mandate, although "we have to be aware that the focus is now broader, that it's not only Chechnya, the Chechen conflict now touches four, five, six republics." But the interlocutor on the other side remains the same: it is the responsibility of the Russian Federation, the Russian authorities, to find a way "to overcome this daily violence."

Gross said that in preparation for the second roundtable, PACE will send a delegation to Chechnya to gain a firsthand impression of, but not to monitor in the formal sense, the 27 November elections. Then, at a meeting in Paris in December, "we will think about how we can build up the momentum [and induce] people who are not used to speaking to each other, to meeting with each other, to come together to build this bridge I mentioned." He again referred to the participation of Russian opposition parties in the Chechen election as "a hopeful sign" and an indication that the roundtable format "still has a future."

Asked whether perhaps PACE should espouse "a more drastic approach" -- possibly even embarking on direct talks as the British government did in Northern Ireland -- Gross pointed out that the conflict in Ulster had been going on for 30 to 40 years, and that the British authorities did not embark on talks with the IRA as long as the IRA was still engaged in violence: "it was a long, long process during which the so-called terrorists also developed a political wing, and that political wing persuaded those who were armed" to lay down their weapons. In that respect, Gross said, the war in Chechnya is "at a totally different stage than in Northern Ireland when a political settlement was reached" there. He said he hopes "we don't have to wait as long as the British and the people of Northern Ireland had to," and said he is "ready to consider what we can learn" from the efforts to resolve that conflict.

Gross said he does not think it is as easy as his interviewer does to reach a solution to the conflict, and he continued: "Mr. Basaev discredited himself in a way that is unbelievable when you recall what he did in Beslan and how he talked about it," how he was indifferent to the fate of 300 children. Gross said it is "very difficult" to understand why Basaev was recently again named deputy prime minister in the government originally headed by Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov.

"Such contradictions do not facilitate the task of [those of] us who want to bring people to the negotiating table," Gross added. He went on to say that "I am also very sad that Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov" was named to a comparable post in the pro-Moscow Chechen government, saying that both appointments are more likely to fuel further violence than to facilitate "political exchange." But, Gross concluded, despite such misgivings "we always have to keep the Russians on board, because you can't find a solution" to the conflict without them.

By Claire Bigg

The trial of eight teenagers accused of murdering a young Tajik girl last year opened on 24 October in St. Petersburg, Russia's second city and the scene of frequent racially motivated crimes. The trial takes place amid fears that extremist groups are becoming more aggressive, and comes just weeks after a Peruvian student was beaten to death in a southern Russian city.

In February 2004, a group of teenagers armed with chains, metal rods, and knives attacked 9-year-old Khursheda Sultonova near her home in St. Petersburg. They stabbed her to death and savagely battered her father and her 11-year-old cousin.

The hearings, which are expected to last until December, are closed to the public since half the defendants are minors.

The trial coincides with a wave of attacks on foreigners. The latest came earlier this month, when a group of young men beat to death an 18-year-old Peruvian student in the city of Voronezh.

Human rights groups are sounding the alarm, saying deep-rooted xenophobic feelings are translating into increasingly violent attacks on foreigners. In August, the Moscow Bureau For Human Rights released a report saying half of Russians questioned expressed support for nationalist slogans such as "Russia for Russians."

The attacks have frightened many foreign students into leaving Russia. Ali Nassor, a Tanzanian man who works as a freelance journalist in St. Petersburg, said he no longer feels safe on the streets.

He told RFE/RL that Africans in St. Petersburg are systematically assaulted. "I don't think there is a single African who hasn't been attacked, and I'm no exception," he said. "I am not afraid, I go where I need to go, when I want to. But this does not mean that I am safe. [An attack] can happen any time, during the day, at night, in a shop, or in the metro."

Xenophobic crimes are indeed sadly common in Russia. Since the beginning of the year, more than a dozen foreigners have been killed.

Last year in Moscow and St. Petersburg alone, just to mention a few cases, a Georgian man was stabbed to death, a Vietnamese student was killed, and an Uzbek migrant worker was beaten and stabbed to death.

In most cases, witnesses described the assailants as "skinheads." More often than not, however, such attacks are filed not under racial crimes, which carry stiff penalties, but under "hooliganism."

Only one of the eight teenagers accused of beating Sultonova has been charged with murder. The others face charges of hooliganism.

Local authorities have also described the killing in Voronezh as a mere act of hooliganism since a Russian student was also injured in the attack.

The authorities' reluctance to fight ultranationalist groups has long angered human rights groups. Yurii Vdovin, an expert on hate crimes at the Citizens' Watch human rights group in St. Petersburg, accuses the authorities of knowingly encouraging racially motivated attacks.

"These small mobs feel impunity and confidence that the authorities will let them off the hook," Vdovin told RFE/RL. "The authorities keep them because they very successfully channel people's dissatisfaction at their social and economic situation towards the idea that non-Russians are to blame. This is a well-known method, it has been used in many countries in various periods. But it can spin out of control."

Yevgenii Ikhlov, an activist at the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights, agrees that the Russian government has an interest in turning a blind eye to hate crimes. Nationalism and hatred of foreigners, he said, is the only ideology the current government is able to offer to Russians.

"Xenophobia has become something of a governmental ideology," Ikhlov said. "The government uses this because it is the only thing, apart from the war on international terrorism, that unites the government and society. The government is no longer a protector, a provider, a guarantor of law and order, or anything."

According to official figures, there are 10,000 skinheads in Russia. But human rights groups and experts contend the real figure is more than five times higher. The Moscow Bureau For Human Rights says skinheads were responsible for most of the racially motivated attacks and killings this year.

On 24 October, RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Sharogradskii spoke with political satirist and writer Viktor Shenderovich, best known as the creator of the television program "Kukly." Shenderovich is now running in a by-election for a seat in the State Duma. The same day, Shenderovich announced that he has asked the police to protect himself and his family from harassment by the presidential administration.

Shenderovich said that Aleksandr Levin, editor of the NTV program "Real Politics," told him that some members of the Kremlin administration were unhappy with Shenderovich's decision to run for the Duma seat from the University district in Moscow and that they threatened to take measures if he didn't withdraw or agree to "follow the rules." According to Shenderovich, "Levin explained that in the presidential administration, in his opinion and in the opinion of some unnamed confidantes, there are people who are capable of taking criminal measures toward myself and members of my family -- for example, there was mention of a possible road accident involving my wife."

RFE/RL asked Levin to comment on Shenderovich's announcement.

Aleksandr Levin: Yes, indeed, I had a conversation with Shenderovich. Until recently, I thought Viktor and I were friends. We met quite a few times, played pool, etc. Recently, we met in a club where we usually hang out. We indeed had a conversation -- a private one -- but that in no way translates into what he's saying now. I asked Shenderovich what purpose he had for going into politics. He said he saw it as a continuation of his work as a publicist; that he is going there as a provocateur -- that is, to test how ratty the government really is, so to speak. It's quite a compelling argument. Then we had a conversation concerning "the authorities and the opposition."

I demonstrated, using as an example the recently passed-away [Soviet-era Politburo member and ideologue of perestroika] Aleksandr Nikolaevich Yakovlev, that the real opposition in Russia is usually the opposition from inside the powers that be and that the opposition outside of them rarely has a chance to achieve real power. I explained to him my point of view that politics is a sort of closed, elitist club, in which there exist certain internal agreements, and so on. I explained to him that it is a club with its own strict rules. This conversation as a whole was concerned with power and the dynamic of power in Russia as I saw it. It was in no way related to Shenderovich, and his election to the Duma. I am extremely upset that, first of all, all this is being disseminated without anyone's permission; and second of all, that for the sake of that stupid car with flashing lights and a seat in Okhotnyi Rad, a man is able to betray everything -- a long-time friendship, respect for private conversation, and so on.

When they read this text to me, I called Shenderovich and told him that I'm crossing him off of my list of decent people and that I refuse shake his hand again. This is, basically, it. I mentioned [Soviet-era Communist Party of Belarussia First Secretary Petr] Masherov [who died in a mysterious car accident that many believe was punishment by the KGB for his liberal policies] to him, and various other "difficulties," nicely speaking, that politicians have experienced in the past. This was only to substantiate my thesis about politics as a harsh reality. He asked me several times whether I was someone's messenger and whether or not there was some hidden message in my words. And several times I told him, "Look at me. Would anyone ever try and convey anything through me?"

RFE/RL: And this is what Viktor Shenderovich said in an interview with Radio Liberty.

Viktor Shenderovich: According to Aleksandr Levin, I betrayed a 10-year-old friendship with him in order to increase my chances of getting a car with flashing lights. I don't understand how he was friends with a dweeb like me this whole time. Having said that, I want to move on to what's actually important.

The conversation occurred in the presence of my wife. She, too, has been long acquainted with Aleksandr Levin -- we even worked together. There was no theoretical talk. There were, of course, some deviations from the key topic, but the conversation was directly related to my candidature. It wasn't an abstract conversation about the fate of Russian democracy. It was a conversation about the fact that I, without permission, was breaking the rules, and that he felt that people he knew were unhappy about my candidature and that, in their opinion, I was breaking the rules and trespassing into their territory.

Indeed, I asked him straightforwardly whether or not he was someone's messenger. He said no � and this is reflected in my statement to the police. There was no mention of Masherov. The road accident he mentioned was quite specific, with my wife in it. Not a word about Masherov. My family's safety was mentioned in a direct cause-and-effect relationship with my actions, with my ability to go to "them" and begin to discuss conditions under which I was entering this political field.

Honestly speaking, when my family's life and health are in question, I have little concern for Mr. Levin's moral critique of my person. I am much more concerned with the fact that he, as a conscientious and well-meaning person, as a law-abiding citizen, should tell (and I hope the police ask him) who exactly it was in the presidential administration that was so annoyed by my candidature; who it was that -- even if they didn't personally tell him -- he sensed such annoyance from, and such danger to my family. He mentioned this danger quite frequently and specifically. Who did these people have in mind, when they mentioned that they knew some potentially criminal elements in the president's administration, which would resort to these measures like road accidents or other unfortunate events? I am much more interested in his testimony than his moral critique.

In my statement, which can easily be found online, the role of Mr. Levin in this affair is articulated quite neutrally and with a presumed innocence. It mentions twice that he was not a messenger -- in his own words -- and that his actions were motivated by concern for my family. From his present comments I must make further conclusions about his role in this affair. And I must note that, based on his reaction and present comments, he indeed was a messenger of the criminals who made me this dirty offer. To what extent he realizes that he was used is a question he can answer himself, but I won't ask him, since I've been unfortunate enough to be crossed off of his list of friends. I repeat, however, that I am interested not in his moral critique, but in his testimony, which I hope to hear soon.

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

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

4 December: Moscow City Duma elections to be held

4 December: State Duma by-election to be held in single-mandate district in Moscow

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.