Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: September 2, 2004

2 September 2004, Volume 4, Number 34
By Robert Coalson

As Russia continues to reel from an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks that apparently included the 24 August downing of two civilian airliners and the ongoing takeover of a school in North Ossetia, it increasingly seems that the country is on the edge of a transformation similar to that experienced by the United States following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks there.

Among the many dramatic statements made over the last week in the heat of the unfolding events, perhaps the strongest came from Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on 1 September. "War has been declared, a war in which the enemy is invisible and there is no front line," Ivanov said in a statement that was repeatedly broadcast on the national television channels. He said that the 31 August suicide bombing outside a Moscow subway station "was not the first and not the last terrorist" act that Russia will see in this now-open war.

State Duma Speaker and former Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov echoed Ivanov's statements in remarks the same day. "It is time for all those who tried to romanticize acts of madness, who try to present acts of terrorism as a lonely struggle for independence and justice, to come to the only proper conclusion: this is war," Gryzlov said, according to "Vremya novostei" on 2 September. He added that the war is being waged by well-financed and well-organized groups with international ties. "We are obliged to undertake measures commensurate with this situation," Gryzlov added. He said that the front line is this war "passes through the entire country" and the new situation "demands particular vigilance from everyone."

Gryzlov also said that new legislative initiatives in keeping with the new, wartime situation are being drafted and will be presented to the Duma in short order. He added that many of these initiatives are being drafted by law-enforcement and security agencies themselves, including the Justice Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Interior Ministry.

Duma Security Committee Chairman and former Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilev (Unified Russia) said on 1 September that the new measures will include a proposal to allow airport security personnel the discretion to deny passengers access to aircraft. He warned that "difficult times" have begun and said that Russians must "prepare themselves for complications." "We must learn how to defend our families, our homes," Vasilev said.

Although the Russian authorities were somewhat slow to acknowledge that a wave of terrorist attacks had indeed begun, they were quick to seize on the unconfirmed claims of responsibility by a little-known foreign terrorist group called the Islambuli Brigades, which claims to be associated with Al-Qaeda. Sharing a platform in Sochi with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Vladimir Putin on 31 August focused on this development. The attacks "confirm a connection between destructive elements in Chechnya and international terrorism, as one of the organization linked with Al-Qaeda has taken responsibility for these terrorist acts," Putin said.

After the 1 September hostage taking in North Ossetia, Russia took the unusual step of asking for an extraordinary session of the UN Security Council. The Russian media noted that Moscow did not make a similar request during the 1999 incursions by Chechen militants into Daghestan or the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage drama. At that time, Moscow might well have felt inhibited about drawing international attention to the Chechen conflict. Now, however, the international climate against terrorism is so heated that the Kremlin ran no risk that the UN's resolution would be anything less than a categorical condemnation of the terrorist attacks in Russia.

Although Moscow did not seek a specific affirmation of its right to respond to terrorist attacks with force, such as the United States did following the 11 September 2001 attacks, it did ask for and receive an unqualified condemnation of the North Ossetia hostage taking. The council asked all UN member countries to render any possible assistance to Russia in its effort to bring the organizers and perpetrators of the school takeover to justice. The statement specifically said that terrorist acts cannot be justified by any conceivable motive. From the Kremlin's point of view, this resolution can easily be presented as an acknowledgment that the Chechen conflict fits under the rubric of the fight against international terrorism.

Clearly, the UN resolution differs sharply in tone and intent from the kind of international role envisioned in Chechnya by political scientist Liliya Shevtsova. Speaking to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 September, Shevtsova said "only international involvement can bring an end to this senseless standoff." She called for "the kind of international cooperation and mediation that managed to stop the escalation of violence in Northern Ireland." But she acknowledged that the Russian government would never accept such a role, which would be "an admission of weakness, even impotence of the political regime and its leader, which the Kremlin of course would never allow."

For the past several years, the month of August has been associated in the Russian public's consciousness with tragedy. And, the events of last week -- the almost simultaneous airplane crashes and the explosion outside of Moscow subway station -- are unlikely to sever the connection.

The most famous August in recent history is the Black August of 1998, when the stock market crashed and the ruble was devalued. However, in the Augusts to follow, the losses were human lives rather than dollars and kopeks. In 2000, the "Kursk" submarine sank, and the Ostankino television tower burst into flames. In August 2002, there were a series of tragedies in the air, including the crash of an Mi-26, over Khankala, which resulted in the largest number of victims in the history of military-transportation aviation. A year later, a suicide truck bomb exploded outside a hospital in Mozdok, leaving 50 people dead. Twenty days later, a helicopter accident killed Sakhalin Oblast Governor Igor Farkhutdinov and half of his administration.

Russians are not alone in the world in finding August the cruelest month. In both Brazil and Argentina, superstitions have grown up around August, "The New York Times" reported on 5 August. A number of events in Brazilian political history are said to validate the curse of August, such as the suicide in August 1954 of Brazilian President Getulio Vargas, which was followed by the August 1961 resignation of Brazilian President Janio Quadros, and the death of former President and opposition leader Juscelino Kubitschek in August 1976.

Why August and not some other month? After all, in recent years, tragedy has also marked the fall months. In September 1999, for example, apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk killed hundreds of people, and the Dubrovka theater hostage crisis took place not in August but October 2002. And more recently, following on the heels of the Moscow metro explosion, terrorists took over a school in North Ossetia on 1 September.

Astrologist Albert Timashev has his own explanation. Speaking to "The Hindu" on 1 September 2002, he said the problem with August is that "Russia is connected to the water carrier, Aquarius." August is the month of the sun, the sign of Leo, and the two signs Aquarius and Leo are in opposition. So, he concluded, "For Russia, August is always a difficult month." Writing on on 25 August, Roman Korenev and Yevgenii Trofimov had an alternate explanation. They argue that although catastrophes and terrorist acts occur in Russia not only in August, the relative "political quiet" of the last summer month creates a kind of information vacuum in which any kind of explosion sounds that much more loudly. (Julie A. Corwin)


31 August: "Admiral Nakhimov" steamship collides with a Soviet bulk carrier and sinks, killing 432 people


18-22 August: Coup is attempted against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev


27 August: Tu-134 airliner crashes while trying to land at Ivanovo airport, killing 83 people


17 August: Russian government announces a devaluation of the ruble following stock market crash


13-15 August: Russian forces launch air and ground attacks in Daghestan that some analysts believe led to second Chechen war

31 August: Bomb explodes in Manezh shopping center in Moscow


8 August: Bomb explodes outside Pushkinskaya metro station in Moscow, killing eight people and injuring more than 90 others

12 August: "Kursk" submarine sinks, killing 118 people

27 August: Ostankino television tower catches fire, killing three people


19 August: Military Mi-26 airplane crashes outside of Grozny, killing 118 people

9 August: Torrential rains near Novorossiisk kill 58 people


1 August: Suicide truck bombing of Russian military hospital in Mozdok, resulting in 50 deaths

20 August: Sakhalin Oblast Governor Igor Farkhutdinov along with 19 other people dies in a helicopter crash on Kamchatka Island


25 August: After leaving from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, two planes explode midair within three minutes of each other, killing a total of 89 people

31 August: A suicide bomber detonates herself outside of the Ryzhskaya metro station in Moscow, killing 10 people

Sources:, 25 August 2004; "RFE/RL Newsline"

By Victor Yasmann

The National Strategy Council (SNS) report entitled "A National Agenda And A National Strategy" that was released at the beginning of August contains a particularly interesting section on foreign policy.

The SNS report notes that during President Vladimir Putin's first term, Russian foreign policy adopted a more active and assertive style. Russia began to project more influence in the other former Soviet states. It began using political levers to enlarge its economic influence and, alternatively, economic levers to boost its political influence. During this period, Russia took over emergency management of the national electrical grids of Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Armenia and initiated the creation of a Single Economic Space uniting Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Because of Putin's leadership, the report states, Russia today faces no acute foreign-policy problems. "History has imposed on Russia a serious responsibility for the fate of the former Soviet space," the report reads. "The disappearance of the Soviet Union from world maps cannot eliminate or interrupt centuries of close cultural, social, economic, and, therefore, political and military ties among the states and peoples that were formerly incorporated into the Russian and Soviet empires." The report urges Putin to become "the inspiration of a Russian dream, of the renewal of a feeling of historical mission."

The report argues that the international community tends to view any complications within the CIS as a result of Russian policies. "There is a presumption of Russia's imperial ambitions, regardless of its real actions and intentions," the report states.

Russia's Near Abroad

The report urges Putin to recognize Russia's responsibility for the CIS. "This responsibility before the international community for the development of the former Soviet space should, at the least, be accompanied by the recognition that Russia has certain preferential geopolitical rights," the report asserts. It calls for introducing the principle of "mutual transparency" in the CIS policies of Russia, the United States, China, and the European Union and warns that "any unilateral actions in the CIS" will be perceived in Russia as a clear challenge to its national interests. The SNS report urges Moscow to warn the other CIS countries against giving in to "the illusion of playing against Russia's interests with impunity by manipulating controversies among the leading global players."

The report also calls for more quiet and reasonable diplomacy in relations with the United States. It calls for "a broad and stable, pragmatic partnership with the United States based on an end to the Cold War era and a striving for a safe world and mutually respectful cooperation."

"Of course, contradictions and disputes can emerge in U.S.-Russian relations, but they can and should be resolved on a reciprocal basis," the report reads. "A permanent agenda with the most influential power in the contemporary world should be set up."

The report notes that increased cooperation with China, which is described as a rapidly expanding global giant, "is unconditionally vital for Russia." In addition to economics and politics, Russia must continue to cooperate with China on regional security issues in the Far East and in Central Asia within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The report also acknowledges that defense contracts with China are an important revenue source for Russia's military-industrial complex and that Russia's energy and machine-building sectors are counting on expanded trade with China.

Dealing With China

The report states, however, that in the future China could present a serious geopolitical threat to Russia if China's postcommunist transition evolves into "a nationalistic-hegemonic consolidation." If this happens, China will not only threaten Russia, but will present a source of general global instability. In that case, the report argues, Russia's most likely ally would be the United States, as the further strengthening of China based on the resources of Siberia would not correspond with U.S. interests. The report also cites large-scale illegal immigration from China to Russia as a potential threat to Russia.

The SNS report stresses the importance of Russia's relations with India and the European Union and calls for a more balanced Russian foreign policy that would refocus away from the United States and the European Union toward the Asian-Pacific region. This could help Russia open new markets for its defense and energy sectors and allow it to incorporate the resources of Siberia and the Far East into the development of the Asian-Pacific rim.

The priority of Russia's foreign policy, however, should remain "the gradual economic integration of the former Soviet space and the eventual creation of a broad ruble zone," the report says. Another foreign-policy priority is the expansion of Russia's influence on world affairs, to which the report says there is no alternative. "Russia has a simple and dramatic choice: either to become great or to vanish from the map," the report states.

The report concludes by listing steps toward this "new Russian greatness." It advises Putin to stop being "an efficient manager" and to become "a national leader." It urges him to abandon his reserved personal style and to become "the inspiration of a Russian dream, of the renewal of a feeling of historical mission."

The SNS report can be seen as a manifesto of the so-called siloviki and the "administrative-bureaucratic group" in the Putin administration, the forces that the report states defeated the "liberals" at the end of Putin's first term. "We do not need liberal social institutions, but pragmatic and useful ones," the report states.

Nevertheless, it contains sober analyses of some key national problems and outlines pragmatic ways of confronting them. At the same time, though, it gives priority to some quite utopian and even illusory national-development goals, the same kinds of goals that in the past have led Russia to the historical dead end of overstretching its national potential.

SHIFTED: Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has appointed Eleonora Mitrofanova director of the Center for International Science and Cultural Cooperation at the Foreign Ministry, RIA-Novosti and ITAR-TASS reported on 24 August. Mitrofanova previously served as a first deputy foreign minister. Fradkov also appointed Andrei Chernyshev as Russian trade representative to India.

3-5 September: Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov will attend the third annual conference of the political parties of Asian countries

3-7 September: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit the Middle East

5 September: Mayoral elections in Orenburg

5 September: Law restricting advertisements for beer comes into force

6 September: Jury selection in the murder trial of former Yukos security official Aleksei Pichugin will begin

8 September: Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei will visit Russia

14 September: British Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, will visit Petrozavodsk

15 September: Russia will play supervisory role at OPEC meeting in Vienna

15-18 September: The third International Conference of Mayors of World Cities will be held in Moscow

15 September: Supreme Court will render a final decision on when to hold gubernatorial elections in Samara Oblast

20 September: The State Duma's fall session will begin

26 September: State Duma will consider draft 2005 budget in its first reading

29 September: Auction for the government's stake in LUKoil will be held

October: President Putin will visit China

October: International forum of the Organization of the Islamic Conference will be held in Moscow

1 October: Date by which the government will decide whether to sell a controlling stake in Aeroflot, according to Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref

7 October: President Putin's birthday

10 October: Mayoral elections scheduled for Magadan

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

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

31 October: Presidential election in Ukraine

November: Gubernatorial election in Pskov and Kurgan oblasts

20 November: Sixth anniversary of the killing of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova

22 November: President Putin to visit Brazil

December: A draft law on toll roads will be submitted to the government, according to the Federal Highways Agency's Construction Department on 6 April

December: Gubernatorial elections in Vladimir, Bryansk, Kamchatka, Ulyanovsk, and Volgograd oblasts; Khabarovsk Krai; and Ust-Ordynskii Autonomous Okrug

December: Presidential elections in Marii-El and Khakasia republics

5 December: By-elections for State Duma seats will be held in two single-mandate districts in Ulyanovsk and Moscow

5 December: Gubernatorial election will be held in Astrakhan Oblast

29 December: State Duma's fall session will come to a close

1 February 2005: Former President Boris Yeltsin's 74th birthday

March 2005: Gubernatorial election in Saratov Oblast.