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Russia Report: February 5, 2003

5 February 2003, Volume 3, Number 6
Despite more than two years of steady high approval ratings for President Vladimir Putin, two recent articles in the central media have suggested there might be a soft side to his public support. Political analyst Avtandil Tsuladze wrote for on 29 January that if Putin's popularity rating continues to grow, then the "accumulating tension between the growing expectations and rising support for the president will reach a critical mass, and [his] rating will unavoidably fall." In other words, Putin will finally have to deliver something tangible in order to justify the hopes placed on him. Tsuladze argues that Putin's rising ratings are not evidence that the situation in the country is improving but that it is worsening. "Putin appears to be the last hope of society for the preservation of stability," Tsuladze writes. Tsuladze is a former political correspondent for "Segodnya" and the author of a book on the creation of Putin's image.

Putin might turn out to be a victim of his own public relations, "Konservator," argued on 31 January. The weekly writes that the Kremlin's political campaign consultants might be overdoing it with the use of the Putin "brand" in their public-relations efforts. According to the daily, "average, meek, law-abiding Russians" are starting to get "bored" with Putin. There are many reasons for this, the weekly argues, but first and foremost is the dominance of the Putin "image" or "brand." The daily estimated that Putin's name comes up at least 20 times during each evening news broadcast on ORT, 15 times on RTR, 10 times on TV-Tsentr, and six times on TVS. Meanwhile, the newspapers are covering all imaginable aspects of "Putinology," such as a competition for Putin look-alikes, a new film project about Putin and his wife, Putin's culinary predilections, etc. Likewise, bookstores are full of books about Putin: "The Puzzle of Putin," "The Path to Renewal: Yurii Andropov and Vladimir Putin," "A Psychological Portrait of Vladimir Putin," "Vladimir Putin: Russia's Last Chance?" and so on and so on.

A second reason for a possible "cooling" toward Putin is the lack of any alternative to him, the newspaper writes. The "reliable bloc of Kremlin political spin doctors" effectively "wields its pens" against anyone disagreeable. It has become dangerous for media outlets to be considered independent, let alone the voice of the opposition. The daily points to the fate of the "most loyal" former NTV General Director Boris Jordan, who was recently dismissed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21, 22, 23, and 24 January 2003). "In the corridors of Ostankino, the concept of 'television without stars' is being widely discussed...and who needs stars now, when all light is absorbed by one star by the name of Putin," the weekly writes.

Both Tsuladze and the "Konservator" authors display a sophisticated awareness of both the power and limitations of modern political marketing. At the same time, though, they seem unaware that when one campaign begins to falter, another can be prepared. As the makers of a brown, sweet-tasting fizzy drink called Coca-Cola have found, there are any number of ways of creating anew year after year, decade after decade, the belief that "Coke" does indeed "add life." If the link between Putin and stability that has worked so well to date begins to prove ineffective, then an alternative positive image of the president can likely be created in the minds of the Russian voters. (Julie A. Corwin)

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin believes that the "number of control organs in the state structure is excessive," "Argumenty i fakty," No. 5, reported on 29 January. According to Kudrin, "in Evenk Autonomous Okrug, which has a total population of about 20,000 including pensioners and young children, there are more than 1,000 control-organ employees." Kudrin heads a commission charged with reducing administrative barriers that plans to examine the question of reducing the number of control organs within the Agriculture Ministry. In the future, Kudrin said, these control personnel will be occupied primarily with epidemiological issues, and the number of veterinary and health inspectors will be sharply reduced. JAC

At a Khabarovsk conference on improving local self-government on 28 January, Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Vitalii Shipov said that "many of [Russia's] existing laws are mere declarations and are not being implemented," RIA-Novosti reported. "More than half of [Russia's] 11,500 municipalities do not have budgets of their own, thus making a mockery of local government," Shipov said. Shipov traveled to the conference with deputy presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak, who headed a commission to draft local self-government reforms. According to the agency, some of the mayors and raion administration heads attending the conference made critical remarks about the so-called Kozak reforms, which were submitted to the Duma in December. Kozak responded to these criticisms by noting that the regions have until 14 February to present their proposals and amendments to the bill amending the law on general principles for organizing legislative and executive organs of the federation subjects. The State Duma will consider that bill in its first reading on 21 February, according to JAC

On 26 January, Khabarovsk Krai Governor Viktor Ishaev told reporters in Khabarovsk that President Putin has ordered presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin to oversee the activities of the Union of Governors, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 27 January. Ishaev met with Putin during a recent trip to Moscow, and the topic of reviving the union came up during their conversation. Putin reportedly expressed his support for the idea. According to the daily, the union was started in 1992 and subsequently actively participated in the 1993 State Duma campaign in support of Our Home Is Russia (NDR). It stopped functioning in 1996 in connection with the new rules for forming the Federation Council. Ishaev first raised the idea of reviving the union last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2002). JAC

Last year the consolidated budget of the 89 subjects of the federation showed a deficit, as almost two-thirds of the regions could not make ends meet, "Vedomosti" reported on 4 February. According to data from the Finance Ministry on 3 February, the deficit totaled 44.12 billion rubles ($1.4 billion), or 0.4 percent of GDP. Aleksandr Andryakov, an analyst with the Economic Experts Group, told the daily that because of tax reforms, regional tax revenues fell by 0.2 percent of GDP, while the wages of state-sector workers have risen by 70 percent since the end of 2001. According to Andryakov, the number of "unprofitable" regions rose from 42 in 2001 to 63 last year. JAC

Dmitrii Belousov, a leading expert at the Center for Macroeconomic Analysis, told the daily that the ministry's data should not be considered final and that with additional calculations the deficit could shrink. According to Belousov, a kind of "end-of-the-year" effect occurs because regional leaders in December finally disburse money for pet construction projects. The daily notes that according to Finance Ministry data, some 30 billion rubles ($909 million) were expended under the construction category in December compared with 100 billion rubles for the year as a whole. JAC

The federal government has disbursed 308 million rubles ($9.7 million) to Kamchatka to ease social tensions in that city, ITAR-TASS reported on 28 January, citing the oblast administration's press service. According to the agency, the money comes from the sale of fishing quotas off the Kamchatka Peninsula. The money will enable local authorities to restart a number of social programs that were suspended earlier in January when the area was dangerously short of fuel. The oblast capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii was plagued by a weeks-long strike of municipal workers earlier this winter. Also on 28 January, the Supreme Court ruled that a Kamchatka Oblast law on removing city legislators and mayors conflicts with the federal constitution, thereby forestalling an attempt by a local group to impeach Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii Mayor Yurii Golenishchev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2002). JAC

A krai-level court in Krasnoyarsk ruled on 27 January in favor of the Central Election Commission (TsIK) in its effort to disband the krai election commission, which had earlier tried to void the results of the krai's 22 September gubernatorial election, ITAR-TASS reported. Judge Sergei Atashov said the decision to disband the commission was "proportionate to the gross violations of the law it committed." Responding to the verdict, krai election commission Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Bugrei remained defiant and promised to appeal the decision within 10 days. JAC

According to preliminary results publicized on 2 February from the Magadan Oblast gubernatorial race held the same day, Magadan Mayor Nikolai Karpenko and acting Magadan Oblast head Nikolai Dudov will compete in a runoff election, ITAR-TASS reported. Karpenko, who was the favorite in the election, received 38 percent of the vote, compared with just over 26 percent for Dudov. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 31 January, few people doubted that two rounds would be required, although Karpenko's team was confident that he would win an absolute majority of residents in the city of Magadan, where some 60 percent of the oblast's population is concentrated. The election was held to replace Governor Valentin Tsvetkov, who was gunned down in Moscow in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 2002). More than 5 percent voted against all candidates, according to Interfax. The agency also reported that the runoff will be held on 16 February. JAC

A local election official has said that residents of Mordovia who declined to sign petitions in support of the current re-election bid of incumbent administration head Nikolai Merkushkin have been subjected to overt pressure, RFE/RL's Saransk correspondent reported on 16 January. The election is scheduled for 16 February. Republican election commission member Boris Troshkin said that signature collectors threatened that the names of those who declined to sign the petitions would be given to the administration, which would deny them housing. However, such violations of election law were not used to deny Merkushkin registration as a candidate. Members of the local Communist Party branch are concerned that some pretext might be found to cancel the registration of their candidate, Anatolii Chebukov, as was done during the republic's last election five years ago. Chebukov is general director of the Saransk Instrument-Making Factory. JAC

"Novoe vremya," No. 4, argued that the construction of a "post-Yakovlev" political order in St. Petersburg has already started. According to the weekly, "knowledgeable" people in the city are predicting that Governor Vladimir Yakovlev will resign his post early in the summer, since his chances of being able to run for a third term are considered slim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003). The weekly predicted that there will also be an attempt to consolidate a new centrist majority led by the city legislature's new speaker, Vadim Tyulpanov. JAC

In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 28 January, newly elected Taimyr Autonomous Okrug Governor Oleg Budargin said he "doesn't see any necessity" for merging Taimyr with neighboring Krasnoyarsk Krai. Budargin said he raised the issue during meetings with voters during the election campaign and concluded that "we are a national okrug, and therein lies our spirit." Budargin also commented, "Europe has joined [together] rich and poor, and there are problems." Before he was killed in a helicopter accident in April 2002, former Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed initiated a process of merging the administration of the krai with those of its autonomous okrugs, Taimyr and Evenk (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 30 January 2003). JAC

Tatar Land and Property Relations Minister Valerii Vasilev has said that 7 percent of the republic's land used for industrial purposes was privatized in 2002, the first year of land privatization in the republic, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 31 January, citing an article in the Kazan-based "Vremya i dengi" the previous day. The budget took in 1.5 billion rubles ($47 million) for that land. Vasilev said the demand for the privatization of land sharply increased on the eve of 2003, as prices increased roughly fourfold on 1 January to an average of 200 rubles ($6.30) per square meter in Kazan; 100 rubles in Chally; and 80 rubles in Elmet, Tuben Kama, and other towns. He added that market prices are now much higher, reaching 6,000 rubles ($189) per square meter in Kazan. Currently, the average market price for land in Russia is 450 rubles per square meter. The minister added that more than 1 million Tatarstan residents are landowners. JAC

In an interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 30 January, Voronezh Oblast Governor Vladimir Kulakov accused his political rivals of circulating damaging leaflets to Moscow-based newspaper editors, high-level Moscow-based officials, and throughout his region. The leaflets assert that Voronezh is on the verge of a "socioeconomic explosion that could rock all of Russia." According to the daily, the leaflets appear to have been professionally printed. Kulakov, who is a former head of the oblast directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB), declined to speculate on who precisely is behind the action, but he attributed it to a "reaction to my declaration that I intend to seek a second term." Kulakov will come up for re-election in 2004. JAC

In January, Voronezh Mayor Aleksandr Kovalev signed a decree establishing the federal 90 percent standard for the payment for communal services for some 2,000 of the city's most affluent residents, reported on 27 January. The vast majority of locals will continue paying the old rate of 64 percent. Among those facing a rent hike under the decree is Voronezh Oblast Governor Kulakov, Kovalev's political rival, as well as all other oblast administration officials. JAC

IN: Yevgenii Semenyako, president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Lawyers, was elected president of the new Federal Chamber of Lawyers, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 1 February. Semenyako was born in 1947 and finished law school at Leningrad State University in 1971, according to "Vremya-MN."

IN: Sergei Mironov was unanimously re-elected as chairman of the Federation Council on 29 January, Russian news agencies reported. The council also confirmed a new member, Aleksei Shishkov, who represents the legislature of Krasnodar Krai. Shishkov also heads the krai's FSB directorate, according to "Krasnodarskie izvestiya."

ARRESTED: Police in Moscow on 31 January arrested Sergei Mavrodi, former head of the MMM pyramid scheme that allegedly bilked millions of Russians out of more than $100 million in the early 1990s, Russian news agencies reported. Mavrodi was arrested under a 1998 warrant in a rented apartment in the center of Moscow, and police spokesmen indicated that he most likely had been living in the capital for at least several years.

3-7 February: Security Council Chairman Vladimir Rushailo will visit the Urals Federal District

6 February: Supreme Court will hear an appeal filed by PromInvest head Vyacheslav Aminov, who was convicted of attempting to bribe FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev

7 February: Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin will meet in Moscow with President Putin

8 February: Federation Council Chairman Mironov will visit Kislovodsk in Stavropol Krai for a meeting with the heads of the Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani parliaments, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 3 February

9 February: President Putin to visit Berlin to participated in the Year of Russian Culture in Berlin

10-12 February: President Putin will visit France

12 February: State Duma will consider nominations of new members for the Central Election Commission

12 February: Tatarstan's Supreme Court will consider whether articles in republican constitution violate federal law

14 February: Magadan Oblast will hold the second round of gubernatorial elections

16 February: Elections will be held in the Republic of Mordovia to elect the head of the republic (no longer called a president under republican law)

Second half of February: Ryang Man-Gil, chairman of Pyongyang's Municipal People's Committee, will visit Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 January

21 February: State Duma will consider first of several bills on the reform of local self-government

27-28 February: The Union of the People of Chechnya movement will meet in Moscow, State Duma Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov (Fatherland-All Russia) announced on 18 December

28 February: Slavneft will hold shareholders' meeting to elect new board of directors, according to "Vremya MN" on 30 January

Early March: President Putin will visit Bulgaria, according to Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on 29 January

6 March: Date by which the final version of the constitution of the Russia-Belarus Union will be prepared, according to State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev on 3 February

8 March: International Women's Day observed

23 March: A referendum will be held in Chechnya on the republic's draft constitution and draft laws on the election of the president and parliament

24 March: Terms of members of the current Central Election Commission will expire

29 March: Unified Russia party will hold a congress

May: St. Petersburg will celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding

31 May: Russia-EU summit will take place in St. Petersburg

17-21 June: Seventh International Economic Forum will be held in St. Petersburg

27 June: Gazprom will hold annual shareholders meeting.