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Russia Report: September 24, 2004

24 September 2004, Volume 4, Number 37
By Robert Coalson

The comments of World Bank President James Wolfensohn in "The Wall Street Journal" on 21 September stood out among the chorus of voices in Russia and abroad that have criticized President Vladimir Putin for allegedly using the pretext of the latest wave of terrorist attacks to strengthen an authoritarian regime.

"I personally would be reluctant to conclude that [Putin's] motives are bad," Wolfensohn said. "I think Russia is a pretty difficult place to run, and so I wouldn't come to that conclusion too quickly."

"I think that Putin has a very difficult issue to face," he added. "The act of barbarism [in Beslan] has upset the entire country, and the first reaction is for security and trying to centralize it."

Other analysts have not been so sanguine, noting that Putin's proposals to abolish single-mandate-district representation in the Duma and to end the direct election of regional governors were developed by the administration months before the 3 September conclusion of the tragic hostage crisis in Beslan, North Ossetia, and have little direct relationship to the problem of terrorism. RFE/RL's Russian Service on 15 September reported that an unnamed administration official admitted that the proposals had been developed long ago and that Beslan merely created an appropriate political atmosphere for bringing them forward.

"Who would have thought they would use the blood of innocent children to bring out of the drawers of their Kremlin desks some old projects and on that blood continue to build up Putin's authoritarian regime?" independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov was cited by RFE/RL as saying.

A number of well-connected political analysts and observers have predicted that Putin's innovations will not end with the proposals already put forward. Many have speculated that the Kremlin will use the momentum created by Beslan to advance another project that has been dear to the Kremlin's collective heart: the reduction in the number of subjects of the Russian Federation.

"A federal structure is a headache for any central authority," former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 September. "It is much simpler -- I can say this as someone who was once the head of government -- to govern a unitary state."

Yelena Babich, head of the St. Petersburg regional branch of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), told on 20 September that Putin's first two proposals coincide perfectly with the LDPR's longstanding political platform. "The LDPR always advocated party-list voting [for the Duma] and the appointment of governors," Babich said. "The next step for the president must be the enlargement of the regions. I hope that in the end we arrive at a unitary state, since federalism is killing Russia." In December 2002, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii said that Russia should have about 30 provinces with populations of not less than 10 million people and that they should not have their own constitutions.

Other politicians have echoed this sentiment, particularly those governors who hope to see their stay in power extended as a result of Putin's initiative. Significantly, only three of Russia's 89 regional leaders have come out against the president's proposal to end the direct election of governors. Kamchatka Oblast Governor Mikhail Mashkovtsev said on 15 September that "Russia can only be a great power as a unitary state," Regnum reported.

Political scientist and Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) professor Andronik Migranyan told RFE/RL on 15 September that historically Russia has never been a federation and that "central Russia has always been centralized and unitary." He attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to a weakening of central power, acerbated by ethnic conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniester, and other regions. "If we cannot cope with radical Islam, with terrorism and this playing the ethnic card in the Caucasus, there is a threat that it might move to Tatarstan, to Bashkortostan, and so on, stopping everywhere," Migranyan argued.

He urged the "radical leveling" of the federation subjects, particularly the elimination of the "significantly greater possibilities" enjoyed by the presidents of the republics in the federation. "There is an imbalance," Migranyan said. "A subject with a million people has fewer possibilities than a national-state formation with a population of just 200,000-300,000." Next, Migranyan said, the government should consider the "liquidation of the national-territorial and national-state formations, the reformation of the entire state." "Eighty-nine [federation] subjects is very ineffective," he said, adding that the country should be divided into regions on the principle of "economic efficiency."

National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovskii, who is believed to have close connections within the presidential administration but who has been critical of Putin's reform proposals since Beslan, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 September that the elimination of the ethnic-based state structures will be the next stage of Putin's reform. "An attempt will be made to equalize the rights of the ethnic republics and all the other regions, with the aim of fully standardizing the ethnic landscape from a legal, cultural, and semantic point of view," Belkovskii said. "Small ethnic territorial formations will be absorbed by larger components."

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" columnist and respected journalist Vitalii Tretyakov wrote in his column on 17 September that although "many think that a unitary state formed under the current conditions is much preferable for Russia, including for the so-called national regions," he wonders whether "many people think that within those regions themselves." However, he said that maintaining the "appearance of federalism" while having regional leaders appointed by the center will be "extremely difficult." He also said that Putin's proposal that the heads of the republics in the federation continue to be directly elected will also create a "dangerous asymmetry" if it means that those leaders will have "greater legitimacy" than the Moscow-appointed heads of the other federation subjects.

Ryzhkov also doubts that many people within the so-called ethnic republics would welcome the elimination of those structures, noting that they were formed as a way of giving some autonomy -- or at least the appearance of autonomy -- to certain ethnic groups in keeping with Russia's self-declared status as a multiethnic state. "Fortunately, the president has not yet touched the ethnic republics (in particular Tatarstan and Bashkortostan)," Ryzhkov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 September. "Because any attempt to eliminate them will spread terrorism far beyond the North Caucasus."

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service on 15 September, Ryzhkov emphasized the potential danger in destabilizing the country in this way. "Thank God that [Putin] did no more than undermine state institutions like regional government, the legislature, and so on," Ryzhkov said. "If he had gone further, if now he used this storm to arrange the rewriting of administrative borders, the liquidation of the republics, then the terrorists would undoubtedly find thousands of supporters in Tatarstan, including ideological supporters, since the radical intelligentsia would certainly be in opposition. And then this could really spread along the Volga and into other regions."

By Julie A. Corwin

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service on 16 September, independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposal on 13 September to overhaul regional-level elections could work at cross purposes with his desire to strengthen the state in response to the recent wave of terrorism.

Ryzhkov told RFE/RL's Mikhail Sokolov that the president's announcement offered little in the way of specific measures to combat terrorism, but was very specific with regard to reforms of Russia's election system. However, these measures appear to have little to do with fighting terrorism.

Ryzhkov noted that the idea of appointing governors had been floating around the Kremlin for many years before the hostage crisis in Beslan, but the president has been able to use the recent tragedy to complete political tasks that he has been working on for many years. "How does the liquidation of the single-mandate district in Kamchatka Oblast help us to deal with [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov? It's absolutely incomprehensible."

Ryzhkov asserted that the president is introducing even more weakness and instability into the state structure: "The ranks of the federal government were already demoralized and destabilized because the orders reorganizing it that were issued in March haven't yet been formalized. Now Putin has destabilized the regional elites with a proposal on appointing the governments, essentially making them all 'lame ducks.' They are destabilized and demoralized not for a short while, [but] for the next few years, as this new initiative is transformed into legislation, approved, and then implemented. Likewise, the corps of mayors is also destabilized because Putin implied that they, too, might soon be appointed rather than elected. Half of the State Duma is demoralized because their status is now uncertain despite the fact that they were elected," he continued.

"Putin has managed to deprive himself of almost all of his potential allies. Moreover, he is attacking his own people, since almost all the governors already supported him. The single-mandate deputies already supported him. He has disorganized almost all government institutions for the medium short-term, while at the same time he is calling for mobilization and order," Ryzhkov added.

In "Moskovskie novosti," no. 35, other Russian politicians recently joined Ryzhkov in criticizing Putin's proposed initiatives. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin said that he hopes that "the measures that the country's leadership undertakes after Beslan will remain within the framework of democratic freedoms that have become Russia's most valuable achievement over the past decade. We will not give up on the letter of the law and, most importantly, the spirit of the constitution our country voted for in the national referendum in 1993." In the same issue, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev commented: "Our common goal is to do everything possible to make sure that these initiatives, which, in essence, mean a step back from democracy, don't come into force as law." "I hope that politicians, voters, and the president himself keep the democratic freedoms that were so hard to obtain."

By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Russians polled immediately after the horrifying terrorist attack in Beslan, where at least 335 people were killed, half of them children, were evenly divided as to whether they would cede more powers to security forces and accept limitations on their own civil rights and liberties for the sake of preventing terrorism. In a survey of 500 people conducted by the Levada Analytical Center in Moscow on 7-8 September, 46 percent said they would definitely give up their rights, and 45 percent said they would not, with 9 percent undecided.

It is less likely that President Vladimir Putin's proposed reforms of the electoral system, which came in the wake of the latest series of terrorist attacks and are purportedly designed to enable the government to fight terrorism better, have the support of the majority of the public. They have provoked strong protest from human rights groups and opposition parties now out of parliament, as well as various commentators in the independent media, all of whom have already been under attack by the Kremlin in the last year as Putin has consolidated power. While such outspoken groups are a minority of voices, they do reflect the concerns of thousands of nongovernmental groups active on human rights, environmental, and social issues that have increasingly been expressing concern about government interference and restrictions on their work. They do not see the link between curbing democracy and stopping terrorism.

"Terrorism should not be fought by strengthening authoritarianism, but by cleaning up and reforming law-enforcement agencies, raising the professionalism of the special services, and above all, resolving the problems provoking tension in the country," the human rights NGO Krasnoyarsk Memorial Society said in a public statement released on 14 September.

Ludmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which is among the oldest human rights groups dating from the Soviet era, has been a long-standing critic of Putin's policies, although she has kept open the door to dialogue with the government, such as at a national Civic Forum organized by the Kremlin in November 2001. Now she says that in the name of fighting terrorism, the government is dismantling the democracy established after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"The appointment of governors is a completely unconstitutional assault on electoral law. Our constitution provides for direct elections, and not indirect, through legislators," Alekseeva wrote in an essay on the human rights portal published on 15 September. The amendment to the constitution can only be made because the pro-presidential parties are in a majority in parliament, according to Alekseeva, who believes that Putin's reforms now signify the final subordination of regional authority to the federal center. "This kills the very point of a federation," she said. "The regions should elect people themselves who are popular in their areas."

Alekseeva believes that subordinating regional leaders to the Kremlin's rule will make Russia less safe, not increase security. She points to the popular figure of Ruslan Aushev, former president of Ingushetia, who played a crucial role in the Beslan hostage crisis, initially securing the release of 26 hostages before he was removed from negotiations by federal authorities. Earlier, Aushev had been forced to step down and was replaced by a Kremlin-appointed leader. "While Ruslan Aushev was in Ingushetia, even if he was defiant, even if he was inconvenient to Moscow, while he was there, there weren't the kind of bandit raids that there are now with [current President Murat] Zyazikov, appointed from above," Alekseeva commented.

Yabloko, a liberal democratic party led by Grigorii Yavlinskii that lost its seats in parliament in the last election, roundly criticized Putin's recent measures. In a statement released to the media on 13 September, Yabloko said that instead of cleaning up the security services, the government was eliminating the last vestiges of public oversight of such agencies. Abolishing local elections "could lead to the growth of interethnic tension in the national republics," said the statement. Not only would the reforms strike a blow against the foundations of Russian federalism established since the breakup of the Soviet Union, they would signify "a return to the extremely ineffective unitary system of government, which had no feedback from society," Yabloko stated. "The president's initiative is offensive to the citizens of Russia because it takes away their right to choose their government."

Most of those criticizing Putin's moves were already warning about his restrictions on democracy long before the August-September wave of terrorism. Their warnings had increased in the last year, as the Kremlin turned its attention from the parliament and the media, already brought to heel, to the thousands of NGOs that have become active in recent years, some with significant foreign funding. "Russia today is not democratic. It does not intend, in the presence of its leadership, to become democratic," Yelena Bonner, a veteran human rights campaigner, told an audience at the National Endowment of Democracy on 10 June.

In his state of the nation address in March, President Putin lashed out at some NGOs, saying they were merely out to profit from questionable foreign grants, and that human rights activity was not relevant and not defending the people's "real interests." Putin claimed some groups were agents of influence from foreign foundations, or were serving "dubious groups and commercial interests." The extraordinary attack was followed by months of articles placed in pro-government newspapers and various propagandistic interventions at public meetings and abroad attacking the human rights movement as "unconstructive."

Soon after Putin's March speech, the Tatarstan Human Rights Center in Kazan was raided by masked men who smashed computers and other equipment. The attack came hours after the group accused local police of pressuring them for their criticism. The group was funded by Open Russia, a foundation funded by jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

The pro-government parliament picked up on the Kremlin's new harsh attitude toward activist groups by considering draft legislation to further control NGO activity, already under considerable regulation in Russian. The draft law envisions a commission to control funding for NGOs, and all foreign or domestic donors will have to clear registration and reporting hurdles, in addition to regular tax returns. Contributions not approved by this commission could be taxed at the rate of 24 percent.

NGOs working in Russia's major areas of unrest were already feeling the pinch of new restrictive policies long before the current wave of terror. The Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters, for example, that NGOs in Chechnya "are predominantly engaged in collecting information, not in providing real humanitarian aid," "The Washington Post" reported 31 May. Kremlin consultant Gleb Pavlovskii accused groups that receive international funding of a "conflict of interest" because they embraced foreign notions of human rights, the daily reported.

Despite the most concerted attack on human rights NGOs since the Soviet era, the sheer numbers and achievements of such groups has meant their movement still has momentum. This week, a civil rights lawyer, Karina Moskalenko, was able to win an appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn an order by the Krasnodar Krai Justice Ministry to disband the Krasnodar Krai Human Rights Center. The group had been accused of various legal violations and they were able to convince the judge that the allegations were untrue.

Yet, groups more directly related to the Chechen conflict face far greater scrutiny and even legal action. The Chechen Committee of National Salvation is to face hearings at the end of September that could result in closure under new legislation tagged "On Countering Extremist Activities," the New York-based lawyers organization Human Rights First reported 22 September. The Chechen group is not known to have used or advocated violence and has been deregistered in the past due to its human rights work in the region. Human Rights First fears that in the name of cracking down on terrorism, the government will also intimidate human rights monitors. Such monitors have already proved invaluable in exposing official corruption and misrule, the kind of factors that President Putin himself said played a role in the recent failure to prevent and respond to terrorism.

By Robert Coalson

Can Putin's commission provide any answers as to what happened in Beslan?

Shortly after the 3 September conclusion of the tragic school hostage taking in Beslan, North Ossetia, President Vladimir Putin said that there would be no public investigation into the incident. Speaking to Western journalists and academics on 6 September, Putin said that he would conduct an internal probe into the matter. He added that if the Duma looked into it, the investigation would become "a political show" and "would not be very effective," "The Guardian" reported the next day.

A few days later, however, a "political show" of a different sort got under way, Kremlin critics say. Putin held a televised meeting on 10 September with Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, in which the latter informed him that the Federal Assembly intended to create an interparliamentary commission to probe the affair. Such televised meetings have become a prominent feature of Putin's post-Beslan management style: on 14 September, for instance, he held a stage-managed meeting with Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in which the prime minister "informed" him that Gazprom should be allowed to purchase state oil company Rosneft.

As the cameras rolled, Putin told Mironov on 10 September that "we are all interested in getting a complete and objective picture of the tragic events," Russian media reported. Putin further said he would order all executive-branch agencies to cooperate with the legislature's investigation. Although Putin's apparent volte-face might have been prompted by the negative reaction in Russia and the West to his statement rejecting an independent inquiry, no one expected that the meeting with Mironov signaled a real change of heart or strategy.

On 20 September, the Federation Council held a closed-door session during which the composition of the investigating commission was determined. A few days earlier, council Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Torshin told RIA-Novosti that the commission's schedule had largely been determined, even though its membership had not been named. Torshin emphasized that the legislation governing such commissions is incomplete and that the commission would have no authority to compel senior officials to testify. He added, though, that it might even ask Putin himself to answer questions.

During its 20 September meeting, the Federation Council decided that the commission would comprise 11 council members and 10 Duma deputies and would be headed by Torshin. The 11 council members are: Torshin, Defense and Security Committee member Aleksei Aleksandrov, Constitutional Law Committee Deputy Chairman Leonid Bindar, Industry Committee Deputy Chairman Erik Bugulov, Economy Committee First Deputy Chairman Vladimir Gusev, Legal and Judicial Affairs Committee member Rudik Iskuzhin, Audit Chamber Cooperation Commission Deputy Chairman Yurii Kovalev, Federation Council Affairs Commission Chairman Vladimir Kulakov, CIS Affairs Committee member Oleg Panteleev, Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Vyacheslav Popov, and Constitutional Law Committee Chairman Valerii Fedorov.

The 10 Duma members are expected to be named on 25 September. Seven will represent Unified Russia, with one each from the Communist Party, Motherland, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. "Vremya novostei" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 21 September that there will most likely be no independent deputies on the commission, even though independent Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov was the first to call for an independent probe.

Mironov told "Vremya novostei" that commission members were selected in part on the basis of their contacts with the secret services. "People selected for the commission are ones who have a high level of access," Mironov said. The paper predicted that the Duma representatives would be dominated by Unified Russia loyalists and former security-service figures -- "people who won't ask 'unnecessary' questions."

At a press conference announcing the commission, Mironov stressed that it will not conduct a public investigation. "Commission members will not have the right to publicize information about the progress of the investigation or to comment on it except at official press conferences sanctioned by the commission chairman," Mironov said, according to and other Russian media. Mironov said the commission will prepare a final report, but refused to say whether that report will be made public. "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 21 September that Mironov has also ordered that commission members not be allowed to discuss the commission's work without his permission even after the probe is completed.

The semi-formed commission began work immediately and arrived on 21 September in North Ossetia to begin five days of collecting testimony from local witnesses and officials. However, few analysts expressed confidence that the commission would ever produce definitive answers to lingering questions about the Beslan events, including the identities of the hostage takers, the exact numbers of hostages and victims, what the government's plans were for either negotiating with the terrorists or storming the building, and how former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev was able to negotiate with the hostage takers and to secure the release of 26 of the hostages.

"It will be impossible to have any confidence in this commission and its conclusions," Ryzhkov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 21 September, "because Unified Russia is compromised by the same authorities who allowed such failures in the North Caucasus and, in particular, in Beslan."

IN: Former presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal District Leonid Drachevskii, who was dismissed by President Vladimir Putin on 9 September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 September 2004), is expected to be named deputy CEO of Unified Energy Systems (EES), "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 17 September, citing EES manager Andrei Trapeznikov. EES CEO Anatolii Chubais reportedly made the offer during a 90-minute meeting with Drachevskii on 16 September and Drachevskii reportedly agreed. Current EES Deputy CEO Yakov Urinson will remain in his post and Chubais will have two deputies, Trapeznikov said. An official announcement is expected on 1 October when the EES board of directors holds its next meeting.

IN:Yevgenii Satanovskii has been reelected as head of the Russian Jewish Congress, reported on 15 September.

23 September: The heads of government of Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states will meet in Bishkek

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

26 September: Khabarovsk mayoral election will be held

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

October: President Vladimir Putin will visit China

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

1 October: Deadline for population to select a management company to handle their pension-fund contributions, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 3 September

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

4-8 October: Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly will convene

7 October: President Putin's 52nd 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

14 November: Mayoral election will take place in Blagoveshchensk

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.