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Russia Report: July 16, 2003

16 July 2003, Volume 3, Number 28
By Virginie Coulloudon

On 3 July, State Duma Deputy and investigative journalist Yurii Shchekochikhin died in the Kremlin's Central Clinic after a week of treatment for an uncommon ailment -- an "unknown allergen," as his doctors put it. This vague diagnosis was enough to spark rumors that Shchekochikhin had in fact been poisoned -- retaliation for his ongoing investigations into corruption. The belief that Shchekochikhin had been murdered was rooted in the type of investigations he had been conducting lately. His sudden passing, in his 54th year, contributed to the growing perception that the Russian state under President Vladimir Putin had become even more corrupt and violent than it used to be.

Shchekochikhin was a genuinely representative figure of democratic Russia. He was born in June 1950 in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, where his father served in the army, and he spent his entire career in Moscow. His career and writings were the best examples of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost and former President Boris Yeltsin's electoral democracy.

Shchekochikhin became famous in the summer of 1988, when he published in "Literaturnaya Gazeta" an interview with the then deputy head of the Interior Ministry's Organized Crime Department, Aleksandr Gurov.

Shchekochikhin and Gurov were among the first in the Soviet Union to denounce publicly the system of organized corruption that linked Soviet industry and the system of domestic trade to the police and the state. In his articles, Shchekochikhin ultimately revealed the real -- unofficial -- Soviet Union and Russia: the informal rules of clan logic and the secret prices for all official functions, the extent of endemic corruption at both the local and federal levels, and the key issue of burgeoning juvenile crime.

After a remarkable career in investigative journalism, Shchekochikhin took advantage of a second window of opportunity opened by the state and entered politics. This turning point dates back to 1989, when he was elected as a USSR People's Deputy from Ukraine and became a member of the Interregional Group. He was elected deputy in the Russian State Duma in 1995, where he joined the Yabloko parliamentary group. Since then, Shchekochikhin was a Duma deputy and one of the most visible members of Grigorii Yavlinskii's party.

After his re-election in December 1999, he was appointed deputy chairman of the Duma's Security Committee. He primarily worked on issues related to organized crime and corruption, and he advised the United Nations on all issues related to international organized-crime groups linked to the Russian mafia.

Shchekochikhin had already received a death threat last February. The threat came immediately after he published a detailed article on the so-called Tri Kita affair. Tri Kita is the name of a major furniture store in Moscow, some of whose managers are suspected of weapons smuggling, laundering large sums of money in Europe, and corrupting officials in the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office. Only four days after the article appeared, Yabloko issued a press release making this threat public and denouncing the atmosphere of intimidation that accompanies the work of investigative journalists. "If the life of a journalist and his family is the price to pay for telling the truth, then there is no freedom of speech in the country," Yabloko's press release declared.

Shchekochikhin had been doggedly investigating the Tri Kita affair over the past three years. He wrote detailed articles in "Novaya Gazeta" and used his position at the State Duma to question high-ranking officials and request official documents and materials related to the case. As of today, only one thing is certain: Shchekochikhin was embarrassing too many people.

The Tri Kita case began in 2000 with what then appeared to be merely a case of tax evasion linked to imports of European-made furniture. Custom fees represent more than one-third of the state income in Russia. This explains why particular attention is devoted to smuggling, and the State Customs Committee (GTK) has one of Russia's most powerful police forces. On 18 February 2002, in "Novaya Gazeta," Shchekochikhin cited special police investigator Pavel Zaitsev, then in charge of the Tri Kita case, as saying that the case involved $20 million worth of tax evasion. Soon after the Tri Kita story broke, rumors spread that top officials from the Interior Ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the GTK, and Rosvooruzhenie (the state arms exporter) were involved in the case. The smuggling case rapidly became a conflict that pitted the Interior Ministry and the GTK against the Prosecutor-General's Office.

In early 2002, the Duma's Security Committee in general, and Shchekochikhin in particular, sent an official request to the Prosecutor-General's Office to meet and discuss the case in detail. A number of unusual decisions attracted their attention. First, the Prosecutor-General's Office unexpectedly accused Interior Ministry special investigator Zaitsev of abuse of power. Zaitsev allegedly violated the civil rights of Tri Kita employees by searching the company's premises without prior notice, often at night. The Prosecutor-General's Office claims that it received numerous complaints regarding Zaitsev's methods. When Shchekochikhin asked why the Prosecutor-General's Office decided to focus on this particular investigator while it was getting so many similar claims and requests every month, he received no answer. Second, since Zaitsev was under investigation, the Prosecutor-General's Office took over the entire case. Out of some 120 volumes of documents that Zaitsev had put together, only 20 have been kept by the Prosecutor-General's Office, Shchekochikhin claimed on 18 February 2002. What happened to the other 100 volumes is unknown.

Later, more elements were added to the case. Zaitsev, who was cleared of all charges of abuse of power by the Moscow City Court, was eventually convicted by Russia's Supreme Court. In May 2003, Sergei Pereverzev, president of the Furniture Business Association, was killed a few days before he could testify in court against the owners of Tri Kita and in favor of two GTK officials who were also being accused of abuse of power. Pereverzev was murdered in his hospital room following a serious car accident that he had managed to survive. A month earlier -- on 2 April, in an interview with "Moskovskii Komsomolets," Pereverzev said that he had been threatened. Finally, the judge in charge of the GTK officials' case was also threatened. He received a letter containing a death threat that Shchekochikhin showed on the independent TVS television channel on 4 June 2003.

The last time Shchekochikhin described the case in detail was on 2 June in "Novaya Gazeta." He wrote: "Writing all this, I feel like a second-grade student who keeps repeating the same lesson. How long can one write about the same thing?" It was exactly one month before he died.

He once again mentioned that, while police officials are accused of abuse of power, witnesses murdered, and judges threatened, smugglers are free. Arms smuggling continues, as does the war in Chechnya. Today, TVS is closed, officially for economic reasons, and Shchekochikhin is dead, after suffering from what has been officially labeled an "unknown allergen." It is possible, however, that he really died from the endemic disease of corruption in Russia -- a disease that he was among the first to diagnose.

Virginie Coulloudon is associate director of the Communications Division and director of Regional Analysis at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Prague.

By Robert Coalson

The last temptation is the greatest treason;
To do the right thing for the wrong reason.
--T.S. Eliot, "Murder In The Cathedral"

To judge by the last three weeks, the battle against corruption in Russia is, finally, well and truly under way. On 23 June, seven senior law enforcement officers were arrested on allegations of gross extortion and abuse of office, ranging all the way up to murder. On the surface, the case paid immediate dividends in the form of an apparent breakthrough and several arrests in connection with the 23 April slaying of Duma Deputy and Liberal Russia co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov. Almost lost in the hubbub was the 1 July arrest of three border guards from Moscow's Sheremetevo airport, who are accused of helping an undetermined number of wanted criminal suspects to flee the country.

However, even as Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was making the first of many pronouncements about the cases, pundits were plumbing the political dimensions of the developments. In Russia, of course, as in any election-driven political system, everything becomes charged during the run-up to a major campaign. And the official start of campaigning for the 7 December Duma election is just weeks off. Gryzlov is the head of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

The opposition Communists and Yabloko unofficially launched their Duma campaigns with a vote of no confidence in the government in mid-June. Although the motion failed, the debate gave the opposition the opportunity -- one that could not be wholly ignored even by the state-controlled national television networks -- to air their grievances. And high among them was the government's inattention to corruption. Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii charged that the government is full of "temporary people" who are filling their bank accounts and preparing to leave the country. "Can you imagine what they are putting into their coffers in the meantime?" Yavlinskii asked rhetorically.

Of course, the latest anticorruption efforts are not a direct response to the no-confidence vote, but the way the arrests were stage-managed might have been. Analysts wondered why Gryzlov was making all the public pronouncements -- some of them made from Unified Russia's pressroom -- while the Federal Security Service and the Prosecutor-General's Office were doing all the work.

The politicized context of the anticorruption drive has certainly not been lost on average Russians either. Forty-eight percent of respondents in a survey released on 7 July by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) said they believe the effort is "just another propaganda campaign," while only half that amount see it as "the beginning of a real clean-up in the Interior Ministry."

However, the politicized context of the latest drive is far more firmly entrenched than merely the looming Duma campaign, which explains why the public's cynical reaction is kicking in so rapidly. Another element, for instance, is Gryzlov's dual role as interior minister and Unified Russia head. A group of Duma deputies on 1 July once again raised this issue, which has come up periodically since Gryzlov took the post just as it did when Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu held it before him. Russian law forbids senior government officials from being members of political parties or engaging in political-party activities. Gryzlov, who might be expected as the country's senior law enforcement officer to eschew even the appearance of illegality, responded as he has in the past by saying that he is not a Unified Russia member and that he does all his party work in his spare time. The increasingly cynical public can certainly be forgiven for thinking that its police chief is playing games with the law.

Even more broadly speaking, Russia's political context has been tainted by the practice of promoting officials who are widely believed to be corrupt. On 16 June, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, whose administration has been lambasted for corruption for years by former presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Viktor Cherkesov and who saw six of his deputy governors targeted for criminal investigations, was named deputy prime minister. He followed in the dubious footsteps of former Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko, who was made head of the State Fisheries Committee; scandalous former Kremlin property chief Pavel Borodin, who was made secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union; and others. Such moves might have been made in order to ease these people out of posts in which they had become firmly entrenched, but an important consequence of these tactics is a sharp loss of public confidence in the government's motives.

The contemporary political context has also been shaped by openly antidemocratic Kremlin efforts to manipulate local elections. Observers of the just-beginning gubernatorial campaign in St. Petersburg are warning that events could unfold as they did in July 2000 in Ingushetia, or in October 2000 in Kursk Oblast, or in June 2001 in Primorskii Krai. In all those cases, leading candidates were eliminated from the ballot at the 11th hour in bids to pave the way for Kremlin-friendly contestants.

Finally, the Russian political environment is still reeling from the government's campaign in 2000 against the then-independent NTV. President Vladimir Putin, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, and others uniformly ascribed that takeover as purely a business dispute. Few people believed this line then, and it has become considerably more threadbare in the light of the subsequent "business disputes" that shut down TV-6 and TVS, leaving the government with a total monopoly of national television -- by far the most influential source of national news and information -- on the eve of the elections.

Obviously, the list of such context-determining events is nearly endless. What has been created, however, by the accumulation of such events is an atmosphere in which the government is severely constrained by the justifiable public perception that it is usually or always insincere and manipulative. Even if the political will was found to address seriously any of Russia's most daunting problems -- such as administrative reform, energy-sector reform, banking-sector reform, establishing an independent judiciary, and so on -- the government's ability to do so is limited by the easily manipulated expectations of a public that is actively seeking a political subtext.

Putin took office in 2000 with a nebulous platform that could be boiled down to the two slogans "dictatorship of law" and "managed democracy." What his first term has shown is that these two concepts are mutually exclusive. He now faces a situation in which it is increasingly difficult for him to do the right thing -- such as curbing official corruption -- because any such effort is distorted by the lens of the Kremlin's political manipulations. The administration is now paying the price for the shortcuts it has taken to establish political stability and a reliable vertical power structure.

Robert Coalson is a Prague-based editor for "RFE/RL Newsline."

In a long article about the spread of "new" religions in Russia, "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal," No. 77, reported that the dispersion of new beliefs appeared to peak at the middle of the last decade. During the second half of the 1990s, the journal argues, "the time of active change in the life of the country and interest in spiritual experimentation came to an end." In the opinion of experts, the number of adherents to new religions in Russia currently hovers around 220,000-250,000. The following table shows the number of "new religious movements" registered with the Justice Ministry as of 1 January 2003. Some of the new movements are homegrown such as the Orthodox Church of the Mother of God Derzhavnaya and the Church of the New Testament, or Vissarionites. According to "The Guardian" on 24 May 2002, the Vissarionites are led by Vissarion, who was previously known as Sergei Torop, a former traffic cop in Krasnoyarsk. He decided in 1989 that he was the son of God, and he now lives in the republic of Khakasia. Other new religious movements in Russia were "imported" from the United States, such as the International Church of Christ and the Church of Scientology. JAC

New-Age Religions Tallied

New Religious Movements_______________________# of organizations

Society for Krishna Consciousness_______________________97
(Hare Krishna)

Orthodox Church of Mother
of God Derzhavnaya (Marian Movement)___________________29

International Church of Christ (founded by Kip MacKean)______24

Pagan beliefs__________________________________________19

Church of the New Testament (Vissarionites)_________________16

Church of Scientology (Ron Hubbard)_______________________1

Spiritual Unity (followers of Tolstoy)________________________1

Living Ethics (followers of Roerich)_________________________1

Source: "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal," No. 77, 10 July 2003

IN: President Putin announced on 11 July that he has asked presidential aide Igor Shuvalov to head a new commission that will work to meet the "strategic goals" outlined in the president's State of the Nation address in May.

IN: "Novaya gazeta," No. 49, reported that a number of recent high-level appointments to the government all share a common feature: they are all somehow connected to Yurii Maslyukov, a Communist first deputy prime minister during the government of Yevgenii Primakov in 1998-99. Mikhail Sinelin, who now heads Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's secretariat, is the former director of Maslyukov's secretariat. Konstantin Merzlikin, who also once worked for Maslyukov, now heads the government apparatus. State Fisheries Committee Chairman Aleksandr Moiseev was once Maslyukov's assistant for personal matters. The deputy head of Kasyanov's secretariat and the deputy head of Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko's secretariat are both former assistants to Maslyukov.

IN: Legislators in Chechnya's State Council voted on 15 July to elect Adan Muzykaev as their representative to the Federation Council, ITAR-TASS reported. Muzykaev is an adviser to State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev and a former inspector with the Audit Chamber.

DECEASED: Chita Oblast Deputy Governor Aleksandr Shapnevskii was shot and killed on the evening of 10 July outside his dacha, ITAR-TASS reported. Shapnevskii was on vacation at the time with his family. Investigators are investigating the possibility that his killing was carried out by a hit man.

DECEASED: The body of Sverdlovsk Oblast Finance Minister Vladimir Chervyakov, 45, was found on the shore of Lake Chusovskoe on the evening of 7 July, reported on 10 July. Chervyakov had been participating in a fishing festival, RosBalt reported on 8 July. Anton Bakov, a legislator in the Sverdlovsk Oblast legislature and foe of the oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, told reporters in Yekaterinburg on 10 July that he does not believe that Chervyakov's death was an accident.

16-19 July: Tanzanian Foreign Minister Jakaya Kikwete will make an official visit to Russia

17 July: Cabinet will discuss plans for developing the country's fishing sector

17 July: Lipetsk will celebrate the 300th year of its founding

18 July: Moscow Municipal Court will hold hearing on the bribery trial of former Economics Ministry officials Anatolii Lifanchikov and Vladimir Korneev, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 14 July

19 July: Liberal Russia party, headed by Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin, will hold an extraordinary party congress

20 July: Working group on regulating the legal status of the Caspian Sea will hold a session in Moscow

20 July: Pskov will begin public festivities to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of its founding

23 July: The Moscow Municipal Court will hear an appeal by the lawyers for Menatep head Platon Lebedev to release him from jail pending the results of the investigation against him

24 July: The Vyborg Municipal Court will consider the legality of the election of Damir Shadaev as a senator to the Federation Council representing Leningrad Oblast

26 July: New constitution of Daghestan will come into effect

Late July: President Putin will visit Azerbaijan, according to MPA on 9 July

1 August: Deadline for Russian peacekeeping troops to be withdrawn from Kosova

12 August: Third anniversary of the sinking of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine

13 August: Air-traffic controllers will hold a national protest

15 August: Date by which Duma should approve new map of single-mandate districts. If it fails to do so, the Central Election Commission will have the right to confirm the map

17 August: Karachaevo-Cherkessia will hold presidential elections

Late August: Campaign for 7 December State Duma elections officially begins

September: President Putin will visit the presidential retreat Camp David in the United States for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush

September: Second Russian-U.S. Commercial Energy Summit will take place in Moscow

September: State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev's Party for Russia's Revival will hold a congress in Moscow

1 September: Date by which government commission is expected to have drafted 2004 budget

7 September: Sverdlovsk, Novgorod, and Omsk oblasts will hold gubernatorial elections

7 September: Murmansk will hold mayoral elections

10 September: Special party congress for Communist Party of Russia

14 September: Volgograd will hold mayoral elections

21 September: St. Petersburg and Leningrad and Tomsk oblasts will hold gubernatorial elections

23 September: The first European-Pacific Ocean Conference will take place in Vladivostok devoted to improving dialogue among intellectuals in European countries and the Pacific region, reported on 6 March

24 September: Federation Council will hold its opening session after summer recess

29 September-3 October: The Third World Conference on Climate Change will take place in Moscow

30 September-2 October: The Second All-Russian Sociological Congress will take place at Moscow State University

1 October: Thirty-three percent salary hike for budget-sector workers will go into effect, pending the passage of legislation being revised by a conciliation commission

October: President Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will meet in Yekaterinburg, Novyi region reported on 14 April

5 October: Presidential election to be held in Chechnya

6 October: British court to consider Russia's request to extradite tycoon Boris Berezovskii

12 October: President Putin will visit Italy

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

25-26 October: Russian Forum on the development of civil society will be held in Nizhnii Novgorod

29 October: 85th anniversary of the founding of the Komsomol

7 December: Bashkortostan will hold presidential elections

7 December: State Duma elections will be held