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Russia Report: December 21, 2004

21 December 2004, Volume 4, Number 49
By Julie A. Corwin

"Will Ukraine's 'orange revolution' spread to Russia?" might seem like an improbable question in the absence of any rivals to President Vladimir Putin. After all, Putin easily won reelection in March. Yet, a torrent of ink has been spilled in the Russia media in recent weeks posing exactly that question. The answers reflect not just how the authors view events in Kyiv but also the desirability of participatory democracy in Russia.

Among the gamut of responses perhaps the most "militant" was that of Viktor Militarev, vice president of the National Strategy Institute. In an article for "Rossiiskie vesti," No. 42, he declared that the "main aim of the 'orange' revolutionaries is clearly being overlooked -- [their target] is Russia. In Kyiv we can observe several processes occurring simultaneously. The forces at play are not simply dissatisfied with Vladimir Putin. [They] are prepared to engage actively in the overthrow of the Russian president. Firstly, I have in mind [former oligarch] Boris Berezovskii and [major Yukos shareholder] Leonid Nevzlin."

In an earlier interview with on 25 November, Marat Gelman, a political strategist who is believed to have worked on the presidential campaign of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, also floated the idea that opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko received financial support from Berezovskii. Moreover, according to Gelman, it was Berezovskii's role that prompted Putin to play such an active role in the Ukrainian race. This, according to Gelman, was Yushchenko's big mistake.

Writing for RosBalt on 24 November, Vladislav Kraev said he believes the threat of a "velvet revolution" is a real one but it exists in the longer rather than the medium term. According to Kraev, the experience of the last 10 years in the post-Soviet space shows that any kind of election is "risky" even when there is a "charismatic" leader such as former Russian President Boris Yeltsin or an experienced politician such as former Georgian President Eduard Shevarnadze or the late Azerbaijani leader Heidar Aliyev. "And when the acting head of the government is leaving then the risk doubles," he wrote, adding, "Russia in 2008 will confront the necessity of a search for an alternative scenario." "Russian liberals," he wrote, "sincerely enraptured by the revolutions of their neighbors and the development of an active 'civil society,' for some reason do not want to hear people on the streets say 'Ukraine isn't Russia.' This is really so! Therefore, any poorly concealed hopes of politicians and political analysts for a repetition of the velvet revolution in Moscow appears completely naive. My advice for the doubters: remember October 1993!"

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service on 9 December, Vyacheslav Nikonov of the Politika Foundation echoed both Militarev's and Kraev's sentiments. He argued that what happened in Ukraine was the result of a long-planned "special operation" that was "successful only because the Ukrainian government simply capitulated before this special operation." The Russian government, he noted, will never do this. "It is completely obvious to me that if the president of Ukraine had not been [Leonid] Kuchma but Yeltsin, then no kind of 'Orange Revolution' would have had a chance. Yeltsin had a lot more will than Kuchma, as he demonstrated in 1993 effectively and actively."

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service on 9 December, former leader of the Union of Rightist Forces Boris Nemtsov suggested that the stories about excessive Western influence in Ukraine may be a device that the Russian authorities are using to avoid telling the truth about what really happened in Ukraine. He said Russia's authorities "treat their own people cynically and invent such arguments of the type that the West influenced [events], or the campaign consultants worked poorly -- anything but the truth that the people were tired of Kuchma's regime, that people were living in despair and lawlessness and their last drop of patience went when the election was falsified."

Speaking on the same broadcast, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii said that regardless of your interpretation of events in Ukraine, direct parallels cannot be made since Russia has completely different circumstances to Ukraine. "Ukraine didn't have 10 years of war in Chechnya," he said. "There were no executions in front of the Supreme Soviet in 1993 by tanks. There was no privatization as it was done here in Russia. Ukraine doesn't have a resource-based economy. In addition, for 15 years everyone in Ukraine has been saying firmly and understandably that they want to be a European country, independent of what their leaders were really doing. And this means that in Ukraine, the preconditions for the creation of a civil society turned out to be stronger as a result, and we are now observing this. In Russia, the situation is different."

So the answer would seem to be "not yet" from both ends of the political spectrum -- the conditions are not yet ripe to import the Orange Revolution from Kyiv to Moscow. From a liberal perspective, civil society is not yet developed enough, and from a nationalist perspective, the Russian authorities will not bend in the face of a Western-orchestrated uprising.

In the meantime, however, both sides can use events in Kyiv to further their own agendas. In a 1 December article in "RBK Daily," Mikhail Chernov wrote that "the harsh polemic surrounding the 'Orange Revolution' sheds light on the existing situation in Russia: In our country there are sufficiently influential forces, whose activities are directed against the existing government." Chernov went on to quote Aleksandr Sobyanin, director of the Strategic Planning Service of the Association of Crossborder Cooperation, who called for a "quick change of the elite at all levels of government" because there are "representatives of Boris Yeltsin's business group, regional elites, the majority of the mass media, and the PR community, [who] will not accept and cannot accept a widening of Russia up to the borders of the former Soviet Union."

By Daisy Sindelar

2004 will long be associated with two major events in Russia -- the Beslan hostage tragedy and the launch of sweeping reforms aimed at consolidating power in the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin introduced the reforms just days after the bloody end of the siege in Beslan, vowing that a stronger state would protect Russians from the scourge of terrorism. But are Beslan and Putin's reforms really related?

"I feel terrible. I had a sister here who died. My other sister is in hospital. What can I feel? Do you hear the people crying? That's how I feel," said the brother of one Beslan victim.

"Psychological fear should not turn our life into one of constant fear for the lives of our children, and of course for our own lives. I hope our leaders, our government, will try to ensure their safety," said the mother of another.

True, 2004 was a violent year in Russia. In Moscow, 14 people were killed when terrorists targeted the metro not once, but twice. More than 90 people -- mainly police and other law enforcement officials -- were killed during a militant raid in Ingushetia. Chechnya's pro-Moscow leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated when an explosive device was detonated during a tightly guarded public rally in Grozny. And some 90 people were killed when Russian airliners exploded in midair within minutes of each other, in what appeared to be a coordinated attack. Traces of the explosive hexogen were later found in the wreckage of both planes.

But nothing compared to the horror of Beslan. Armed militants stormed a school in the North Ossetian town on 1 September, taking hostage hundreds of children, parents, and teachers gathered for ceremonies to mark the first day of the school year.

On the third day of the siege, Russian forces stormed the building. A chaotic firefight ensued. In the end, some 320 people were dead -- more than half of them children.

With the Russian population reeling from the tragedy, Putin wasted no time in launching a radical political restructuring aimed at tightening the "power vertical," or centralized control. Such a step, Putin said, was the best way to ensure Russia's future security. "Combating terror is our common and chief goal, and achieving it depends on how effectively all the resources of the state and society are mobilized," Putin said.

The move immediately drew accusations the Kremlin was using the tragedy to boost Putin's power. Yevgenia Albats, a professor of political science at Moscow's Higher School of Economics and a critic of the current government, says the reforms had nothing to do with Beslan -- and everything to do with the Kremlin's desire "to reinstate full control over society."

"I believe that each and every political reform that has been announced during the past months had nothing, and has nothing, to do with Beslan," Albats told RFE/RL. "Beslan served as a pretext. The Kremlin just capitalized on the fear and anger which developed inside Russian society after the hostage crisis in Beslan and decided to use the time after the crisis to announce its reforms."

Two of the most ambitious proposals concern the regional governments and the lower house of parliament, or Duma.

The Kremlin wants to abolish the election of Duma deputies in single-mandate districts and move exclusively to a proportional party system. Critics say the bill -- submitted to the Duma this month -- will effectively remove all remaining opposition voices from a parliament that is already overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin.

But the bill that has sparked the most concern has already been signed into law. It eliminates the direct election of Russia's 89 regional leaders and institutes a system of presidential appointments. Regional legislatures have the right to reject a candidate, but at their own peril: After two rejections, the president may dissolve the body and confirm his governor's appointment.

Liberal groups and constitutional experts say the measure is a giant step back from the democracy-building gains of the 1990s.

Albats said the new law will eliminate any need for dialogue between a governor and his public -- and strike a blow to regional business as well. "At least once in four years, those governors, those elected officials, were [in the past] forced to recall that there were people living in their regions, and that they had to do something for them. Those elected leaders in the regions, they [also] had an interest in businesses and developing businesses -- one, because those businesses paid taxes in their regions, and second, because those businesses provided them with the funds for the election campaigns every four years," she said.

Centralizing tendencies could also be seen elsewhere. The Kremlin this year continued its offensive on the private oil giant Yukos.

The Kremlin has just auctioned off Yukos' largest production subsidiary, apparently to a front company for the Russian government. Soon the state could be controlling 20 percent of the country's oil exports.

Some observers say the Yukos dismemberment heralds the start of a re-nationalization drive that will gradually put all of Russia's resources back into the Kremlin's portfolio. But others defend the move as the best response to a decade of lawless capitalism that saw the rise of so-called "oligarchs" such as Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the former Yukos head who has spent over a year in jail on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

"The Russian government, and also Russian society, is caught in the trap of oligarchic capitalism, which is neither wanted nor needed," Vitalii Tretyakov, a conservative columnist with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" told RFE/RL. "Oligarchic capitalism puts civil freedoms, the democratic process, and independent courts under its control -- it just gathers everything into its hands. How do you get out of that? The only way that the current Russian government and society know of getting out of the grasp of oligarchic capitalism is through strengthening the central government."

Still, said Tretyakov, the year ahead will be a troubled time for Russia -- a period of what he calls "ideological uncertainty" about the proper roles of government and civil society.

Albats is more direct, saying 2005 might see unrest as the consequences of Putin's political reforms become more apparent. She said she believes the regime -- despite its claims of strength -- is actually quite unstable. If not for record-high oil prices, Albats adds, "Russia would be a failed state."

By Paul Goble

The State Duma is currently considering legislation that would define the entire population of the Russian Federation as a nonethnic "civic nation" -- a step that not only recalls Soviet efforts to create a single "Soviet people" but also is certain to be opposed by both Russian nationalists and non-Russian groups.

On 6 December, Yevgenii Trofimov, a Unified Russia Duma deputy and the chairman of the Duma's Nationalities Committee, met with representatives of the country's numerous ethnic diasporas to discuss draft legislation that would define the government's nationalities policy, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 7 December.

The draft, Trofimov told them, defines "the rossiiskii [a nonethnic term in contrast to the ethnic "russkii"] people as a civic nation"; describes the Russian state as a "multinational federation" of a precisely defined number of nations (either 160 as set by the 2002 census or of the approximately 80 with more than 10,000 members); and defines various forms of permissible national self-determination, including the right to form national-cultural autonomies.

This legislation, Trofimov continued, is being discussed instead of the draft bills on the Russian people that some Russian nationalists have been pushing for the last year and "on the plenipotentiary representatives for the rights of peoples" for which many non-Russians have called.

Further, the new bill, Trofimov added, anticipates full rehabilitation for the representatives of all peoples repressed in the past to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. However, he said it does not give those repressed or their descendants territory for the restoration of their former autonomous territories.

The draft legislation also calls for the establishment of a social council for the affairs of nationalities, a body that would include leaders of diasporas, activists, writers, and scholars. But the bill does not guarantee any particular rights to these national communities.

As Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) told the diaspora representatives at the same meeting, "We live in one country, and we cannot give some kind of additional rights to the national minorities beyond the rights the constitution of Russia gives to all."

Every part of this proposed law, and especially comments like those of Trofimov and Sliska, seems certain to spark controversy. Many in the Russian Federation are certain to see it as little more than the revival of Brezhnev-era efforts to christen the population of the USSR as "a new historical community" -- indeed, that is the title of the "Novye izvestiya" article.

At that time, many ethnic Russians viewed the Soviet leader's move as an effort to reduce their influence in the country, and many non-Russians saw it as a threat to the existence of the ethnically defined union and autonomous republics. Under Brezhnev, there was even an attempt to come up with non-ethnic designations for the populations of the republics, as for example in Kazakhstan, where some wanted to call its residents "kazakhstantsy," a term ethnic Russians there found offensive and ethnic Kazakhs saw as a direct attack on their nation.

Just as was the case 30 years ago, the new proposal simply guarantees new and potentially more divisive disputes between those for whom a civic national identity means that ethnicity should not be part of the organization of the state, and those for whom the reaffirmation of the country's status as a multinational federation is far more important.

One of those disputes surfaced recently at the Duma meeting with diaspora representatives, when Ivan Keller, the president of the Russian-German national-cultural-autonomy organization, asked for the restoration of the ethnic-German republic that was liquidated by Josef Stalin at the start of World War II.

Keller noted that restoring that German Republic is a provision of another piece of draft legislation before the Duma and that, if that bill were adopted and the German territory restored, then it would be able to attract investment from Germany to produce automobiles for the Russian market and to raise agricultural output.

Trofimov replied that such a bill could never be adopted in its current form because that would mean "the establishment of a republic within a republic," something he said is totally unacceptable.

But one participant in the meeting was prepared to support Keller's ideas: a leading member of the Chechen diaspora, who was identified only as Mr. Apaev. He remarked that he would be happy to see the Germans establish an autonomous state formation on the territory of Chechnya. They would, he added, not only be better off, but so would the Chechens.

Trofimov's response was not reported, but Sliska went on to say that if events went in that direction, then "we will all engage in self-determination and we will undermine the unity of Russia."

(Paul Goble, former publisher of "RFE/RL Newsline" and a longtime Soviet nationalities expert with the U.S. government, is currently a research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia.)

President Vladimir Putin's centralization of power within the Kremlin has not proved effective in combating either corruption or terrorism in Russia, say three experts on transnational crime in that country. The three experts told a recent RFE/RL briefing that the concentration of power has weakened efforts to root out corruption by silencing Russia's civil society and making it easier for terrorists to operate within Russia. (Audio of the briefing can be heard on RFE/RL's "Regional Analysis" website.)

Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, said Putin's tightening grip over the government is insufficient to eliminate the corruption that "permeates" Russian society; it is "resistant to reform by decree," said Walker. At the same time, this concentration of power in the Kremlin is stifling civil society and reducing the "space for public discussion," which is needed for "policy innovation" and to "balance decision making" in Russia, Walker said. The limitations on society's ability to respond to modern problems such as corruption and terrorism, according to Walker, exist because Putin has created "a single integrated organism with a clear structure of subordination." Walker fears this suppression of civil society and the government's "dysfunctional organizational structure" will ultimately force Russia to "hit a wall in its public policy before it can start to seek other solutions."

Louise Shelley, director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at American University, said the increase in corruption and violence in Russia resulted from its ongoing civil conflict, as well as its inability to stop corrupt behavior. She said that Russia cannot crack down on institutional corruption, because the majority of government institutions are corrupt from top to bottom and, in some cases, have in fact merged with organized crime. Border control, customs, the military, the police, and even peacekeepers "enhance the power of corrupt officials," said Shelley. The channels used by organized crime to traffic people, arms, drugs, and money, she said, can also be used by terrorist organizations -- and regional terrorist groups are, in turn, linked internationally. Shelley advised that combating these groups demands tracing their links and uncovering the sources of their funding. "Russia," she said, "needs to stop thinking about itself in isolation, but rather as a part of an international community in which it develops a strategy based on a broader look at the links between crime and terrorism."

Robert Orttung, associate research professor at TraCCC, reported on a study of corruption within Russia's police force that found corruption "exists throughout the structure, top to bottom." According to Orttung, police corruption is not limited to "just a few bad apples" because of "low salaries, poor leadership, as well as a lack of personnel." Orttung noted that many police officers grew up with people who have since become involved in organized crime, creating informal links which foster corruption. He proposed a number of measures to fight police corruption, including cutting the size of the police force while providing better training and internal oversight; enforcing zero tolerance for corruption; and increasing links to non-Russian police forces. (Martins Zvaners)

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

22-23 December: Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht to visit Moscow

23 December: President Putin to give his major, annual press conference in the Kremlin

26 December: Repeat presidential runoff in Ukraine

26 December: Presidential election in the Republic of Khakasia

26 December: Second round of the gubernatorial elections in Volgograd and Ulyanovsk oblasts

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

1 February 2005: Date by which dedicated, all-volunteer peacekeeping brigade to be set up. Unit will be available for international duty by 2006

24 February: President Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush to hold a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia

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

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.