11 November 2004, Volume 4, Number 44
WHEN A RUMOR IS AS GOOD AS A BOMBBy Robert Coalson
On 4-5 November, a wave of panic, fueled apparently by false rumors, swept over the region around the Balakovo Nuclear Power Plant in Saratov Oblast, Russian media reported. The panic reached the cities of Saratov, Samara, Mari-El, Ulyanovsk, Tolyatti, and Penza, as well as many towns and villages in the region, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 10 November. At least 10 cases of iodine poisoning were registered, as panicked locals tried to protect themselves from the effects of radiation.
As late as 10 November, official media in the effected cities were working to dispel the panic and reassure the public. "Mariiskaya pravda" in Mari-El reported on 10 November that unknown people were still calling around the city warning that a radioactive cloud was approaching and the people should be taking iodine.
Balakovo is a massive plant, generating 28 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. Its four reactors provide one-quarter of the energy needs of the Volga Federal District and supply electricity to the Urals and the North Caucasus as well. It generates one-fifth of all of Russia's nuclear power and the construction of two additional reactors at the plant is scheduled for the next five or 10 years, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 6 November.
Therefore, the appearance on 4 November of a website supposedly created by "independent journalists" that reported that "four workers have died and 18 others have received burns of various degrees" in an accident on the night of 3-4 November and that "the situation is critical" was enough to start something of a chain reaction of rumor. However, media reports from throughout the region indicate that anonymous telephone callers posing as Emergency Situations Ministry workers were calling schools and enterprises and "warning" them of the danger.
"People were terrified and thought it was the end of the world," Anna Vinogradova, head of a Saratov NGO, told "Kommersant-Daily" on 6 November. "The entire city went mad." The panic only abated late on 5 November when presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko was shown on local television touring all four Balakovo reactors.
The chain reaction did not end there, however. On 10 November, the Voronezh-based news agency Moe reported that someone in that city was spreading nearly identical rumors of an accident at the Novovornezhskaya Nuclear Power Plant. The Voronezh Oblast administration was compelled to issue a statement condemning the copycat rumormongers and assuring the public that all was normal at the plant.
Prosecutors quickly opened a criminal investigation into the matter and pledged to find the source of the rumors. But the scare set off another chain reaction, as officials and analysts sought to place the blame for the incident. Konstantin Bandorin, deputy chairman of the Saratov Oblast Public Chamber, told a roundtable in Perm on 10 November that the panic is a clear example of "informational terrorism," RosBalt reported. "I hope that the media that spread incorrect information will be held criminally liable," Bandorin said.
The government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and other state media led the clamor of accusations against the media. On 9 November, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" quoted Saratov Oblast Search and Rescue Service head Oleg Mostar as charging bluntly, "This hysteria was fueled by the media." "Some radio stations, without having any official information, broadcast reports of a radioactive cloud moving over the city," he said. The daily also reported that some media outlets were offering speculation on how long it would take the radioactive cloud to reach Samara.
Federal Atomic Energy Agency spokesman Nikolai Shingarev told ITAR-TASS on 9 November that the media "should have more responsibly handled the spread of information that can cause panic among the population and should have made sure 100 percent that it was professionally correct and corresponding to reality."
Shingarev further noted that the media "continued to report false information" even after official statements explained that there was no emergency, indicating the low level of public confidence in such government assurances. The K&M news agency titled its 9 November analysis of the events "a chain reaction of no confidence in the authorities," noting that officials were slow to issue statements, that the statements were formulaic and not reassuring, and that the public -- recalling Chornobyl and other cases -- is inclined to disregard such statements in any case. As recently as September, the government and state-controlled federal media admitted that official statements intentionally downplayed the number of hostages taken at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in order to avoid setting off panic and ethnic conflict in the region.
Some local officials also blamed environmentalists for sowing panic. The press center of the Balakovo plant on 10 November issued a statement saying that "some representatives of the 'greens' made their contribution to fuelling the panic by irresponsibly advising the public to take iodine." The statement continued by charging that after prosecutors opened their investigation, environmentalists began "taking steps to escape responsibility."
Commentator Aleksandr Yemelyanenkov, in a 9 November commentary in "Rossiiskaya gazeta," pinned the blame primarily on local officials, who suffer from the "old illness" of clamming up when the going gets tough. He argued that the initial announcements on 4 November demonstrated "formulaic wording and an obvious desire to allay fears" and that they were followed up by silence even as the rumors gained intensity. "How are [journalists] supposed to obtain official comments if the press services refuse to say anything or merely parrot the same phrases and if officials themselves lack detailed information about what has happened and avoid contacts with the media?" he wrote.
Moreover, Yemelyanenkov emphasized the general lack of public confidence in the truthfulness of government statements. "People have long since lost confidence in local bosses, who are accustomed to keeping malfunctions secret," he wrote.
On 10 November, the NGO Ekozashchita sent an open letter to the Federal Atomic Energy Agency arguing that only impartial, independent monitoring of nuclear power plants can prevent similar disinformation episodes, arguing that the authorities -- and especially nuclear-sector officials -- "do not have the trust of the people," grani.ru reported. However, the overall trend in Russia and around the world since the launching of the war on international terrorism has been toward increased secrecy and decreased public access to information about potential targets such as nuclear power plants.
So how can this type of "information terrorism" be thwarted in Russia? Well, the Saratov branch of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) reported on 10 November that there was little panic in the town of Balakovo itself both because local media "quickly provided objective information" and because "most local residents have their own Geiger counters."
GOOD FOR RUSSIA, OR GOOD FOR PUTIN?By Robert Coalson
Most Russian analysts agreed that the 2 November reelection of U.S. President George W. Bush was in the Russian leadership's best interests. Political leaders, business figures, and most of the commentators in the state-controlled media followed President Vladimir Putin's lead in declaring Bush's win a victory for stability and predictability in bilateral and international relations. A Renaissance Capital assessment in the run-up to the U.S. election reported that "a Bush victory promises major benefits for Russian metallurgists, power-industry players, alternative- and mobile-communications operators, airlines, and shipping lines," "Izvestiya" reported on 25 October.
Analysts also wagered that a second Bush administration would lead to continued instability in the Middle East, meaning more of the unprecedented global oil prices that have buoyed the Russian economy in recent years. Just three days before the U.S. election, in which record U.S. budget deficits were only a minor issue, the Russian government projected a higher-than-expected 2004 budget surplus of 505 billion rubles ($16.86 billion), "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 30 October. The Russian stabilization fund is expected to reach 500 billion rubles by the end of the year. Many observers, including presidential economy adviser Andrei Illarionov, have argued that such good times have allowed the government to pursue questionable economic policies and to avoid eliminating inefficiencies.
In large part, however, the perception that a Bush win would be better for Russia stemmed from the accepted wisdom that Democrats tend to be concerned with issues like human rights and democracy, while Republicans concentrate on realpolitik issues. RosBalt on 2 November disapprovingly quoted a Democratic Party platform plank that reads: "We reiterate that respect for human rights, the rule of law, and Russia's fledgling democratic institutions and independent media outlets are essential to Russia's continued integration into international institutions and the global economy." The news agency interpreted this as meaning that a Democratic administration would link Russia's domestic development to such issues as Russian membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The analysis also argued that the Democratic position advocating revitalized ties with the European Union would move the United States closer to the general European view condemning Russian policies in Chechnya.
Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, vice president of the Academy of Geopolitical Issues, told "Kommersant-Daily" of 4 November: "The Republicans will continue to exert influence on Russia, but will not be interested in human rights in Chechnya or the absence of democratic reforms. The Democrats would have leaned harder on Russia. And in this sense, Bush is more advantageous for us."
Aleksei Bogaturov, a researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 October that the status of the United States as the world's unrivaled superpower inevitably creates the temptation for both U.S. parties to try to remake the world as they see fit. "The Republicans tend to uphold their projects based on the logic of 'the good hegemonist' and the 'democratic empire,' while the Democrats prefer to recall 'global civil society,'" Bogaturov wrote. "But both have the same thing in mind -- the consolidation of unconditional U.S. dominance."
An interview by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell with "USA Today" on 20 October was widely quoted in Russia and seemed to lend credence to the idea that a Bush win would be good for the Putin administration. Despite some concerns regarding domestic developments in Russia, Powell said: "President Putin took the situation [in Russia after the 1990s] under control, restored the sense of order in the country, and moved along the democratic path. And the Russian people enthusiastically support his efforts. I do not think Russia has slipped into the abyss of the Soviet Union." He concluded that Russia "continues to move in the right direction."
Russian liberals, however, disputed the notion that what is good for Putin is good for Russia. Writing in "The Moscow Times" on 9 November, commentator Yevgeniya Albats wrote that Bush's win signals the end of a U.S. willingness to check "domestic nationalism" and "authoritarianism" in other countries. "The United States has turned a blind eye to the unleashing of precisely these forces in Russia. No wonder the Kremlin hawks are celebrating the Republican victory in the United States as their own," Albats wrote.
Political scientist Bogaturov expressed similar sentiments in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 November in an article subtitled: "Republicans' Conservative Bias Stimulates Antidemocratic Trends In Russia." Bogaturov argued that the United States' new "anti-liberal fever" "will now increasingly spill beyond its borders and stimulate similar trends everywhere -- Russia included."
"Figuratively speaking, Russian liberals suffered just as heavy a defeat as American liberals on 2 November, and there is no particular reason to rejoice at this," Bogaturov wrote. He spoke of Russia's "psychological dependence" on the United States, saying the Bush win "will inevitably induce new antiliberal trends in our country." He argued that during his first term, Putin followed a policy of "moderate statism" that was moderate "partly because it was opposed by the liberals."
"Today the balance between the two groups [statists and liberals] has been destroyed and the liberals have lost their former influence," he concluded. "Accordingly, a danger has emerged of an excessive tilt toward statism, and statism has begun to sprout radical views rather swiftly. Each new blow to liberals is a fillip to this process. The news from America is the latest such blow."
PSKOV'S LAST TRYBy Julie A. Corwin
Even as the State Duma is considering a bill that would cancel gubernatorial elections in general, the northwest region of Pskov Oblast is preparing to hold what could be its last such race.
Pskov is one of the poorest regions in Russia. Industrial production fell by a factor of four in the first half of the 1990s, and the population has dropped from 1.6 million at the end of the 1990s to 740,000 today, according to "Politicheskii zhurnal," No. 41. The death rate is triple the birth rate. Despite the oblast's apparent decline over the eight years of the rule of incumbent Governor Yevgenii Mikhailov, he is nonetheless in strong position to win the current contest, although most likely not in the first round.
On 14 November, Mikhailov will match up against seven competitors: local businessman Mikhail Bryachak, former State Duma Deputy Mikhail Kuznetsov (People's Deputy), former Federation Council representative for Kalmykia Igor Provkin, State Duma Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov (LDPR), paratroop General Nikolai Staskov, retired General Aleksander Solyanov, and housing administrator Andrei Tarasov. Tarasov is considered a "technical" candidate for Mikhailov, according to RFE/RL's Pskov correspondent on 21 October.
The Pskov election has exhibited many features that have plagued other gubernatorial races: legal battles among candidates, competing claims of Kremlin support, and the misuse of so-called administrative resources. Like many gubernatorial elections of recent years, the fiercest battles are being waged not in the court of public opinion but in the court of legal appeals.
On 6 November, the presidium of the Supreme Court ruled that popular Pskov Mayor Mikhail Khoronen cannot run in the election. The oblast election commission rejected Khoronen's registration application on 5 October because he allegedly used his post as mayor to support his campaign. Specifically, he held a campaign-related press conference in the mayoral administration building. This decision was overturned by an oblast court, but then reinstated by the Supreme Court. The ruling of the presidium of the Supreme Court put an end to Khoronen's bid.
Khoronen, who was supported by the Communist Party, was Mikhailov's toughest competition and some polls picked him to win the most votes in the first round. For example, a poll conducted by the Levada Analytical Center in the oblast during the last week of October found 35.1 percent support for Khoronen versus 25.9 percent for Mikhailov, according to Regnum on 6 November.
During the run-up to the campaign, Khorenen maintained that he didn't want to run for governor, particularly if Unified Russia decided to support Mikhailov, according to "Politicheskii zhurnal," No. 41. However, after Unified Russia decided to back Mikhailov, Khoronen unexpectedly and inexplicably changed his mind and decided to run. His decision split Pskov's political elite, triggering a backlash against him. In what Khoronen has labeled a "planned provocation" in support of Mikhailov, his deputy mayor and the chief financial administrator for his campaign, Pavel Drozdov, was detained on 1 November on suspicion of receiving a $7,000 bribe and coupons for gasoline worth 34,865 rubles ($1,200).
Another action taken against Khoronen was the introduction of emergency regulations in the city by the oblast to combat the spread of hepatitis C. According to RFE/RL's Pskov correspondent on 28 October, local doctors believe that such hepatitis outbreaks are seasonal, but the oblast administration accused Khoronen of not doing everything he could to prevent the spread of the disease and of not properly informing the population. All mass media controlled by the oblast administration broadcast information about the hepatitis outbreak, and residents were advised to not use tap water without boiling it first. Oblast-controlled media also carried a story designed to discredit another one of Mikhailov's other opponents: It broadcast a statement from a young woman who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by Provkin in his car.
Mikhailov has enjoyed the support not only of oblast media but also of presidential envoy for the Northwest Federal District Ilya Klebanov. On 8 November, Klebanov arrived in Pskov for a two-day visit, his second in a month. The two previous envoys visited Pskov only three times since 2000, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 10 November. Local television carried coverage of Klebanov commenting positively on the situation in the oblast. On 10 November, regions.ru reported that Khoronen had taken the unprecedented step of refusing to meet with Klebanov during the visit. The news agency quoted Klebanov denouncing the claim that Drozdov's arrest was a provocation and criticizing Khoronen's call for citizens to vote "against all" candidates in the election.
Provkin tried to get a local court to declare Klebanov's activities illegal, but an oblast court rejected his suit on 8 November.
With Khoronen out of the way, there's little question that Mikhailov will qualify for a second round. The only uncertainty is who will compete against him. "Kommersant-Daily" argued that several other candidates, including Kuznetsov and Provkin, have a good chance, but much will depend on whether Khoronen decides to support one of them. Khoronen announced on 9 November that he does not plan to make an alliance with any candidate before 15 November. In an article for politcom.ru on 5 November -- written before Khoronen's disqualification -- analyst Georgii Kovalev predicted that "against all" could be the most popular choice in this election.
RFE/RL's RUSSIAN SERVICE
AN UNLIKELY REBELOpponents of President Vladimir Putin's drive to strengthen the so-called vertical of power in Russia gained an unlikely ally on 4 November when Duma Deputy Anatolii Yermolin, then of the Unified Russia faction, sent a complaint to Constitutional Court Chairman Valerii Zorkin accusing Kremlin officials, including presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, of berating and intimidating deputies in order to force them to vote the Kremlin line. On 9 November, the leaders of the pro-Kremlin party voted to oust the disobedient Yermolin from the faction.
On 7 November, Yermolin, the former commander of the elite Vympel antiterrorism unit, gave an interview to RFE/RL's Russian Service, which can be seen in its entirety in Russian at http://www.svoboda.org/ll/polit/1104/ll.110704-1.asp. In the interview, Yermolin says that Kremlin tells deputies that they owe their positions not to the voters but to the administration and so they must be obedient. He says that such an understanding violates his notion of what a "centrist-liberal" party -- which Unified Russia claims to be -- should advocate.
"I do not like the direction of establishing such a Soviet system of managing the country," Yermolin said. "Not from the point of view of ideology, but from the point of view of liberal values and so on. If we are talking about the development of our country, then we must use all the systematic advantages of democracy, such as competition, transparency, openness, and everything that started with perestroika." He concludes that these are the only possible tools for fighting against "totalitarian tendencies."
POLITICAL CALENDARNovember: Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to visit Egypt
14 November: Mayoral elections in Blagoveshchensk and Kaluga
14 November: Gubernatorial election in Pskov Oblast and in Ust-Ordinskii Autonomous Okrug
15 November: Members of the independent Volcker Commission to arrive in Moscow as part of the investigation into alleged abuses of the UN's oil-for-food program during the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
16 November: Duma to consider bill on eliminating the direct election of regional governors in its second reading
20 November: Sixth anniversary of the killing of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova
21 November: Second round of the presidential election in Ukraine
22 November: President Putin to visit Brazil
27 November: Regular Congress of the Unified Russia party
28 November: Gubernatorial election in Kurgan Oblast
December: A draft law on toll roads will be submitted to the government, according to the Federal Highways Agency's Construction Department
5 December: By-elections for State Duma seats will be held in two single-mandate districts in Ulyanovsk and Moscow
5 December: Gubernatorial elections will be held in Astrakhan, Bryansk, Volgograd, Kamchatka, and Ulyanovsk oblasts
5 December: Mayoral elections in Astrakhan and Murmansk
12 December: Government deadline for determining the route of a pipeline to transport Siberian oil to the Asia-Pacific region, according to presidential adviser Arkadii Dvorkovich.
19 December: Presidential election in the Republic of Marii-El
19 December: Mayoral elections in Nakhodka, Severodvinsk, and Komsomolsk-na-Amure
26 December: Presidential election in the Republic of Khakasia
29 December: State Duma's fall session will come to a close
January 2005: President Putin to visit Poland for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
1 February 2005: Former President Boris Yeltsin's 74th birthday
March 2005: Gubernatorial election in Saratov Oblast
May 2005: Commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II
2006: Russia to host a G-8 summit.