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Russia Report: October 29, 2003

29 October 2003, Volume 3, Number 43

THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION VOTES. Get comprehensive analysis and all the breaking news about the Russian elections at RFE/RL's dedicated webpage "Russia Votes 2003-04":
By John Dunlop

One year after the Moscow hostage-taking incident of 23-26 October 2002, key questions remain concerning what took place. The murky events that occurred in and around the Dubrovka Theater seem to resemble the equally tenebrous events of August-September 1999 -- two armed incursions into Daghestan and the terrorist bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities -- that precipitated Vladimir Putin's rise to power and furnished the rationale for the current war in Chechnya.

On 6 November 2002, shortly after the hostage taking, Duma Deputy and former Russian human rights ombudsman Sergei Kovalev chaired a meeting of the Public Committee to Investigate the Circumstances Behind the Explosions of the Apartment Buildings in Moscow and the Ryazan Exercises -- all of which happened in September 1999. After that meeting, committee members made a formal decision to include the Moscow hostage-taking episode of October 2002 -- and especially the actions of the Russian special services during that period -- as an additional subject of inquiry coming under the committee's purview (, 6 November 2002).

In the period preceding the hostage taking, heavy political pressure was being brought to bear in Russia and the West upon Putin's leadership to enter into high-level negotiations with the moderate wing of the Chechen resistance. This wing was headed by Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president in 1997 in a ballot recognized by Moscow and the international community as free and fair.

Public-opinion polls taken in Russia showed that the conflict, which had already dragged on for three years, was beginning to erode Putin's high approval ratings. A VTsIOM poll, whose findings were reported on 8 October 2002, asked respondents "how the situation in Chechnya has changed since Putin was elected president." Thirty percent of respondents said they believed it had "improved," but 43 percent said it had "not changed," and 21 percent said it had "worsened" (, 8 October 2002). A September 2002 VTsIOM poll found 56 percent of respondents favored negotiations, while 34 percent supported continuing military action ("Novoe vremya," 5 November 2002). These results, announced roughly one year before the 7 December Russian parliamentary elections, were cause for concern to the Putin administration.

A number of promising peacemaking efforts were also under way in the months preceding the Dubrovka incident, some of them backed by the Council of Europe and the OSCE. There were being circulated, to name just several, a "[former Russian Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan] Khasbulatov plan," a "[former U.S. national-security adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski plan," and a "Liechtenstein plan" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 September 2002). On 10 September 2002, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov published his own peace plan on the pages of the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta." Maskhadov warmly praised Primakov's plan.

On 17 October -- just six days before the terrorist incident -- it was reported that Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's deputy to the Duma who was in regular contact with Putin, would meet with Maskhadov's Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev in Switzerland "to discuss seriously the conditions that would lead to negotiations" (, 17 October 2002). According to one leading journalist, Sanobar Shermatova, Maskhadov was at this time also engaged in secret talks with a high-level representative of Putin ("Moskovskie novosti," 18 February 2003).

Once the Russian special forces succeeded in retaking the theater on 26 October, support for the war rose among the Russian public. For the first time since the beginning of 2001, slightly more respondents in a VTsIOM poll supported the war (46 percent) than advocated peace negotiations (45 percent) ("Novoe vremya," 5 November 2002). Support for the war also went up in the West. For example, on 30 October the "Los Angeles Times" reported that "a senior U.S. official" in Moscow was dismissing Maskhadov as "damaged goods" with links to terrorism. In fact, no credible evidence exists linking Maskhadov to the Dubrovka incident.

As early as 24 October, the day following the terrorist seizure of the theater, Putin declared that he saw the hostage-taking incident as a link in the chain of international terrorism, and of the same genus as terrorist acts that had recently been carried out in Indonesia and the Philippines. Information was circulated that one of the terrorist leaders at Dubrovka had been an Arab named "Yasir," a "subject of Saudi Arabia" and leader of Al-Qaeda (, 30 October 2002). It soon emerged, however, that "Yasir" was simply another name for "Abubakar" (real name: Ruslan Elmurzaev), an ethnic Chechen and the de facto leader of the hostage takers.

The young man who called himself Movsar Baraev -- he also went by the names Movsar Salamov and Movsar Suleimenov -- served as the titular leader of the terrorists. His sole claim to fame was that he was the nephew of the late and infamous Chechen "wahhabi" kidnapper Arbi Baraev, a figure widely reported to have maintained shadowy ties to both the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Russian Military Intelligence (GRU) ("Moskovskie novosti," 8 August 2000).

In January 2003, French journalist Anne Nivat reported that two months before the hostage-taking incident "the GRU...had announced [Movsar] Baraev's arrest" (, 6 January 2003). If this information is true, then Baraev was already in Russian custody at the time of the terrorist incident. Nivat also reported that two of the female terrorists who participated in the hostage taking were likewise in custody at the time of the incident, while the late Duma Deputy Yurii Shchekochikhin wrote that another of the female terrorists was in prison in Russia at the time of the incident ("Novaya gazeta," 20 January 2003).

Elmurzaev ("Abubakar") was said by a former FSB lieutenant colonel-turned-lawyer, Mikhail Trepashkin, who was cooperating closely with the Kovalev committee, to have been a resident of Moscow, not Chechnya, and to have been involved in various criminal businesses operating out of the Hotel Salyut in Moscow. Trepashkin, who was arrested by the FSB on 22 October 2003, recalled that he had alerted the FSB in late July -- early August 2002 to the activities of Elmurzaev and others, but had been informed that the FSB "was aware of the information" (, 21 and 31 July 2003). Trepashkin is to go on trial shortly at the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court on charges that include "revealing a state secret."

There have been, it should be noted, press reports that Elmurzaev was not, as reported, killed in the storming of the theater ("Moskovskii komsomolets," 23 May 2003). Film director Sergei Govorukhin (son of well-known Duma Deputy and filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin), who served as one of the volunteer negotiators at Dubrovka, where he met Elmurzaev, has said he is convinced that Elmurzaev, whom he identified as an FSB agent, is still alive. Russian prosecutors proved unable to show him Elmurzaev's corpse and, during a visit to Chechnya in October 2003, Russian intelligence officers there confirmed to him that Elmurzaev is alive and living in Chechnya (, 23 October 2003).

Lastly, there is the intriguing figure of Arman Menkeev, a retired (in late 1999) major in the GRU and a specialist in making explosives. Menkeev was arrested by the Interior Ministry in November 2002 at a Moscow Oblast base allegedly used by the Chechen terrorists, but he was released shortly thereafter ("Komsomolskaya pravda," 22 April 2003). He might have subsequently been rearrested -- the Moscow city prosecutor (himself recently purged) reported in June 2003 that Menkeev was under arrest ("Rossiiskaya gazeta," 20 June 2003) -- but Menkeev, it seems, was not charged with a crime and is apparently not in custody (, 22 October).

Born in 1963 to a Kazakh father and a Chechen mother, Menkeev spent 18 years in the GRU special forces and fought on the Russian side in the first Chechen war. on 30 June 2003 raised the question of whether Menkeev was a traitor to Russia who was heeding the "voice of the blood" (of his Chechen mother). FSB officers who interrogated Menkeev at Lefortovo prison in Moscow reportedly chose, the news agency noted, to classify him as "loyal to the [Russian] government."

"The most powerful of the homemade bombs that were placed in the seized theater center at Dubrovka by the Baraevites were not in a condition in which they could be detonated," "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 7 July 2003. "They lacked such an important element as batteries. And it was precisely this circumstance that provided the conditions for the completely successful storming of the theater center."

As is well known, the Russian special forces that assaulted the theater building employed a powerful gas in order to retake it. "We are never going to know what chemical it was," Lev Fedorov, an environmental activist who serves as head of the Russian Chemical Safety Union, has remarked, "because in this country the state is more important than the people" ("The Washington Post," 28 October 2002). A likely explanation for the death of so many hostages from the effects of the gas is that the dosage was strengthened because the original infusion -- which might have occurred as early as 1:00 a.m. -- was not having the desired effect. The chief anesthesiologist of Moscow has speculated that "the deaths of those people was possibly caused by an overdose of the substance [in the gas]" ("Kommersant-Daily," 28 October 2002). To date, the authorities have admitted to the deaths of 136 of the hostages, but the actual figure was almost certainly much higher. A number of the hostages were reported to be seriously ill after the hostage-taking incident ended (AP, 6 December 2002). After conducting an investigation, the newspaper "Versiya" recently reported that "about 300" of the hostages are now dead; that is, approximately one-third of those who were in the building when it was stormed ("Versiya," 21 October 2003).

In January 2003, President Putin, in a secret decree, made the chemist who gassed the building a Hero of Russia. A recent ROMIR poll showed that 37 percent of Russian respondents now consider the use of gas to be the "chief reason for the death of the hostages," while 26 percent hold the terrorists responsible, and 20 percent cite the inadequate medical attention the hostages received (, 22 October).

In the end, both the Russian leadership and the Chechen extremists obtained their principal goals in the Dubrovka events: namely, talk of negotiations ended and Maskhadov's reputation was besmirched. And, as was the case in 1999, all citizens of Russia were the victims.

John Dunlop is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who edited the "Chechnya Weekly" (Jamestown Foundation) from 2000-02. He is also the author of "Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict" (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

The 25 October arrest of Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii has unleashed a torrent of analysis of the reasons behind his detention and speculation about its possible connection with the 7 December State Duma elections.

An unidentified analyst close to the Kremlin commented last week that considering Khodorkovskii's alleged financial support for Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), and the Communist Party and his suggestion that Russia make a gradual transition to a parliamentary system, the authorities had every right to act, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported on 25 October. "The oligarch should say 'thank you' that he is still alive and free," the analyst said. "In any other country with a similar political regime, we would have seen his funeral long ago."

Also speaking before Khodorkovskii's arrest, Igor Yurgens, executive director of the business lobbying group the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, told "The Washington Post" on 23 October that his group was warned by political consultants early this year that "we have no other way but to put you on the target range, because you are the oligarchs and this is the election season." According to Yurgens, the Kremlin "had to find a new threat to mobilize the masses to vote for Putin and his party in the Duma, and they found one in the oligarchs." Last June, commentator Yuliya Latynina reported that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party was in desperate need of a "pre-election idea," and that the St. Petersburg faction believed the party's battle cry should be "combating the oligarchs."

While the assault on Yukos might be linked with the upcoming national elections, some analysts and media outlets have concluded that the action itself could have a longer-term effect for the Russian political system. On 27 October, "Kommersant-Daily," of which self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii owns a controlling stake, compared Khodorkovskii's arrest with actions once taken by Aleksandr Korzhakov, former security chief for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, to scare his political opponents in 1996, namely Yeltsin's then-presidential-campaign manager Anatolii Chubais.

The upshot of that event was that Yeltsin dismissed Korzhakov and his comrades-in-arms, FSB Director Mikhail Barsukov and First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets. Yeltsin made a choice in favor of Russia's "democratic future," according to the daily, while "today the choice before Putin is the same -- strengthen democratic institutions or the KGBization of Russia's system of power."

However, other experts, including Yabloko Duma Deputy Sergei Mitrokhin, suggested that the cause of democracy might be strengthened by the arrest, because the public will no longer be able to maintain its indifference to assaults on democratic freedoms. Mitrokhin thinks, for example, that his party could end up attracting more votes because the security services have overplayed their hand.

"We think that the electorate will be more inclined to favor the democratic parties because it fears the arbitrariness of the 'siloviki,'" Mitrokhin told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 October.

At the same time, those who advocate attacking the oligarchs as a election gambit appear to be betting that average voters do not identify with Khodorkovskii, who is reportedly the richest person in the country. (Julie A. Corwin)

This month, the Yabloko party celebrated its 10th anniversary, and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader and Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais used the occasion to raise once again an issue discussed repeatedly by his party fellows: "There is more and more that unites us," Chubais said, adding that it "would be absolutely correct and sensible" for the two parties to merge, Russian media reported on 21 October.

Attempts to form an alliance between Yabloko and SPS in the run-up to the 7 December State Duma elections floundered, and Leonid Gozman, chairman of the SPS's Creative Council, in an interview with RFE/RL, last month questioned whether the two parties would even be able to agree on joint candidates in the single-mandate districts. According to Gozman, efforts to form an alliance were hampered by, among other things, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii's "personality." Gozman explained that "Yavlinskii -- with his neuroses, his health problems, his family problems -- he does not have a healthy personality, which is bad for a politician." Still, Gozman continued, "we wish [Yabloko] success," and "we still think it is in the strategic interests of our country that there be one strong liberal party."

However, the formation of a single strong liberal party might require that one or the other party disappear. Boris Makarenko of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies told RFE/RL that "the overlap [between supporters of both parties] is much smaller than many people believe." According to Makarenko, Yabloko and SPS cooperated closely in past elections, such as in 1999 and 2001, in single-mandate districts and in regional legislative races. However, this year the tension between the two parties is much higher. SPS, in Makarenko's words, "deliberately wants to put forward its candidates against some characters in Yabloko that they believe are particularly nasty," such as Sergei Mitrokhin and Aleksei Arbatov.

Mitrokhin charged earlier that SPS was behind the creation of the Yabloko Without Yavlinskii movement, an allegation for which Yabloko Without Yavlinskii head Igor Morozov claimed he would file a lawsuit. According to Makarenko, regardless of the veracity of Mitrokhin's charges about Yabloko Without Yavlinskii, it is true "that it is the long-time ambition of SPS leaders to have Yabloko removed from the political scene so that they can have their electorate." "Without Yabloko, that electorate would have nowhere else to go but to the SPS," Makarenko said. "So they definitely want to see Yabloko defeated."

Institute for Regional Problems head Mikhail Dianov echoed Makarenko's conclusion that SPS and Yabloko probably have irreconcilable differences. According to Dianov, low voter turnout in a national election tends to benefit Yabloko, because Yabloko supporters are extremely loyal and can be relied upon to come to the polls. The situation is just the opposite for SPS, whose voters are less likely to vote. Therefore, when voter turnout is higher, SPS's results tend to be better.

31 October: Moscow Municipal Court will begin consideration of criminal cases connected with the 1999 explosions of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk

31 October: The State Duma will consider amendments to the law on mandatory automobile insurance in their second reading

31 October: Czech President Vaclav Klaus will begin an official visit to Russia

1 November: Deadline by which the State Construction Committee will complete its audit of how monies earmarked by the federal budget for preparation for the upcoming heating season have been spent

2 November: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will visit Moscow

5 November: President Putin will visit Italy for the EU-Russia summit in Rome

7 November: Campaign for the State Duma elections officially begins

17 November: State Duma deputies will return to Moscow after working in their districts

19 November: Deadline for investigators working on the case against Yukos security official Aleksei Pichugin

20 November: Fifth anniversary of the killing of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova

21 November: State Duma to consider 2004 budget in its third reading

25 November: Russian public organizations will hold pickets and stage theatrical demonstrations in front of the election headquarters of candidates for the State Duma who voted in favor of allowing spent nuclear fuel to be imported into Russia

28 November: State Duma to consider 2004 budget in its fourth reading

7 December: Bashkortostan will hold a presidential election

7 December: Gubernatorial elections in Moscow, Tver, Yaroslavl, Kirov, Orenburg, Tambov, Sakhalin, and Novosibirsk oblasts

7 December: Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug will hold referendums on merging the two regions

7 December: Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and Tyumen will hold mayoral elections

7 December: Kabardino-Balkaria will hold republican parliamentary elections

7 December: State Duma elections will be held

10 December: Federation Council to set date for presidential election

11 December: Last plenary session of the current Duma

15-19 December: Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan to visit Russia

30 December: Date by which cases against Menatep head Platon Lebedev and Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii are to be submitted to the courts, according to separate Moscow court decisions