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Russia Report: November 27, 2002

27 November 2002, Volume 2, Number 40
President Vladimir Putin vetoed amendments to the law on the mass media and the law on terrorism that would have sharply curtailed the coverage of antiterrorist operations, Russian media reported on 25 November. Putin announced his decision to veto the amendments during a meeting with media chiefs at the Kremlin, telling them he had vetoed the measures just prior to the meeting and sent letters to State Duma Chairman Gennadii Seleznev and Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov informing them of his decision. The amendments would have, among other things, banned the reporting of statements seen as impeding antiterrorism operations, justifying resistance to antiterrorism operations, or justifying "extremist activities," and would have banned the publication or broadcast of information on counterterrorism techniques and tactics.

On 20 November, the heads of all of Russia's major state-controlled and private media outlets and representatives of leading journalists' organizations signed an appeal urging Putin to veto the amendments. The signatories to the appeal, including ORT General Director Konstantin Ernst, VGTRK General Director Oleg Dobrodeev, NTV Deputy General Manager Raf Akopov, Interfax Director Mikhail Komissar, and Ekho Moskvy Editor in Chief Aleksei Venediktov, were joined by international organizations like the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in opposing the amendments (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 22 November 2002).

Eleven media figures attended the 25 November meeting in the Kremlin, including Ernst, Dobrodeev, Venediktov, "Moskovskii komsomolets" Editor in Chief Pavel Gusev, "Komsomolskaya pravda" Editor in Chief Vladimir Sungorkin, and Glasnost Defense Foundation head Aleksei Simonov, reported. Conspicuously absent, "The Moscow Times" noted, were representatives of NTV, TVS, TV-Center, "Kommersant," "Izvestiya," and other media that were among the signatories of the 20 November appeal.

During the Kremlin meeting, Putin both criticized the actions of some media in covering the hostage drama and thanked the Russian mass media for taking a "civic position" and for "professionalism and self-control." The president took issue with one assertion in the 20 November appeal: that, while some journalists' actions in covering the hostage crisis were wrong, they were "mistakes" rather "deliberate actions." "I cannot agree with that," Putin said, noting that one television channel had broadcast the movement of commandos just several minutes before they stormed the Moscow theater where Chechen militants were holding hundreds of hostages. This action, which, Putin said, could have caused "a huge tragedy," was not a mistake but rather a case of "deliberately ignoring" an agreement that had been reached with the Media Ministry and the antiterrorist operational headquarters. The offending channel's main interest, Putin insisted, had been "to raise the ratings of the channel, raise its capitalization, and, ultimately, to make money." Repeating his oft-stated contention that the media will only be truly independent when they "become economically independent," Putin amended it, saying this should not come "at any price," particularly the blood of fellow citizens.

At the same time, Putin said he agreed with the assertion by the authors of the appeal that the amendments would have meant "the elimination of the media from objective coverage of events." He added, however, that it "would be useful" for legislators to make the rules for journalists in extreme situations "more precise and concrete" and that the media and "power structures" need to work together efficiently in such situations. Putin stressed the importance of fighting "the ideology of terrorism," but he also said that no democratic government could exist without "openness." He also urged the journalistic community to develop "corporate rules of behavior," reported on 25 November.

Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of Russia's Union of Journalists, welcomed Putin's decision to veto the amendments, saying that censorship had been averted and that the Russian government had once again chosen the course of democracy, Interfax reported. "And for that I congratulate the whole country and congratulate the president," Yakovenko said.

"Izvestiya" wrote that Putin's decision created an opportunity for the media and the government to build a new relationship, one that is "mutually critical, sometimes tense, but based on trust in the other's sphere of responsibility.... In any case, free speech in Russia continues to operate. The attempt to push the country out of the global field of contemporary civilization into a quasi-military space of total censorship (and this was one of the goals of the organizers of the Dubrovka terrorist act) has collapsed. Meaning that, at least in this sense, global terrorism in its Chechen version has suffered a defeat."

Not all the reaction was positive. The website, which is part of Boris Berezovskii's media empire, said Putin's veto of the amendments was "predictable." "It is completely obvious that in a society like Russia's, a massive campaign appealing to the president to repeal amendments to a law already approved by parliament can only be initiated from the top," the website wrote in a 25 November commentary. "The strangest thing about the situation that has developed in journalism [is that] the authorities have learned how to control society so well that they can organize both a campaign to pass amendments limiting freedom of the press and a campaign to carry out decisions that will remove those very limitations."

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, wrote in "The Moscow Times" on 26 November that the whole episode involving the amendments was "probably another show of strength by the authorities, and an attempt to reinforce the view among the public that the mass media need to be kept under constant state control; and to remind people that it is up to Putin to decide whether we need a free press in Russia or not." Russia is moving closer to Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, "where independent media live in a constant state of fear and dependence on the whims of the president," Panfilov wrote. (Jonas Bernstein)

President Putin has signed a decree on reforming the civil service and has sent the draft law on the system of state service to the State Duma for consideration, first deputy chief of the presidential staff Dmitrii Medvedev announced on 21 November. According to Medvedev, Russia currently has more than a million bureaucrats, one-third of whom are in federal service, with the rest are in regional and local governments. Under the reform, the federal bureaucracy will be divided into civil, military, law-enforcement, and regional-level federal services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2002). The reformed civil service will have a table of civil-service ranks modeled on the hierarchy codified in the Table of Ranks that Peter the Great introduced in 1722 that will bring military and civilian ranks and grades into line, "Vremya novostei" reported on 22 November.

This latest attempt to reform Russia's seemingly invincible state bureaucracy is meeting with some skepticism. Writing in "Novaya gazeta" on 25 November, Yevgeniya Albats predicted that genuine reform of the state bureaucracy would be resisted not only by the bureaucrats themselves but also by "both monopolies and oligarchs, for whom it is more important and cheaper to maintain the status quo," along with the presidential administration and even the president himself. "Under the conditions of a semi-closed, corporatist state, in which decisions are made by a narrow group of people that is not accountable to society, the natural basis of support for the government is the bureaucracy, both with shoulder boards and without," Albats wrote. Her article was headlined: "Liberal Reforms in a Bureaucratic State? That Doesn't Happen..." (Jonas Bernstein)

The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) presented the results of its investigation into the handling of the 23-26 October hostage crisis during an extraordinary meeting of the party's leadership held on the evening of 19 November. The party's political council passed a resolution stating that the main reason for the deaths of 129 of the hostages seized on 23 October by armed Chechen rebels was "negligence on the part of officials responsible for organizing first aid for the victims and their transportation to inpatient-care units and for the general coordination of activities aimed at saving people after the raid," "The Moscow Times" reported on 20 November. The resolution cited 12 fatal flaws in the operation, including the delay in providing medical care to the freed hostages and secrecy about the type of gas used in the commando raid that freed them. The SPS commission was made up of nine members of the party and 11 experts, seven of whom asked to remain anonymous. It was headed by Eduard Vorobev, the former army general who resigned his commission in December 1994 after refusing orders to continue the war in Chechnya. The commission did not single out specific officials for blame.

The SPS leaders disagreed over whether the commission's findings should be sent to the Prosecutor-General's Office. Boris Nemtsov told on 20 November that it would be pointless to do so given that Putin would have to be committed to an investigation. The SPS leader said it was his feeling that Putin does not want such an investigation. Nemtsov's sometime friend and rival, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, told the Associated Press on 15 November that Putin told him there should be "official answers to the key questions" involving the hostage crisis. The president said he would appoint "an official representative to give these answers," Yavlinskii reported.

If a report in "Moskovskii komsomolets" is true, Nemtsov's doubts about the likelihood of an official probe may be warranted. The paper's controversial investigative reporter Aleksandr Khinshtein wrote on 22 November that shortly after the hostage crisis, the Moscow City Military Prosecutor's Office, at the behest of the Main Military Prosecutor's Office, asked all the country's special services what gases they had in their inventories and whether any of these gases were used during the operation. This inquiry, according to Khinshtein, triggered alarm bells because Putin himself had secretly approved the use of the gas. As a result, the Main Military Prosecutor's Office denied having anything to do with the inquiry. Meanwhile, the Moscow city military prosecutor, Major General Sergei Alekseev, is now under investigation, and his first deputy, Yevgenii Ivanov, is facing imminent dismissal.

Earlier this month, the State Duma rejected proposals by SPS and Yabloko to establish a special parliamentary commission to investigate the hostage crisis (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 6 and 20 November 2002). (Jonas Bernstein)

Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was elected on 20 November chairman of the High Council of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. Gryzlov will join 17 other members on the High Council, including party founders Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev, and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. But the council also passed a temporary statue creating a ruling "bureau" within the High Council and putting Gryzlov in charge of it, "Kommersant" reported on 21 November.

Unified Russia was formed last December by the centrist Unity and Fatherland-All Russia blocs. The emergence of Gryzlov, who once headed Unity, as first among equals in Unified Russia's leadership, appears to have come at the expense of Luzhkov and Aleksandr Bespalov, a former colleague of Putin's in the St. Petersburg mayoral administration, who now heads both Unified Russia's General Council and its central executive committee.

Shoigu and Shaimiev had already each served six months as the High Council's informal head and, according to "Kommersant," the Moscow mayor was hoping to use his impending turn in that capacity "to introduce as many of his representatives as possible into Unified Russia's election lists" prior to the December 2003 parliamentary election. To this end, Luzhkov had established "close relations" with Bespalov, who is Unified Russia's hands-on manager in charge of the party's day-to-day affairs, the paper reported. "Kommersant" predicted, however, that Bespalov would be ousted from his positions in Unified Russia at the party congress scheduled for early next year and that Gryzlov would formally be made the party's head. The paper also reported that the posts of head of the General Council and head of the central executive committee would be separated, with the latter going to Sergei Popov, the Federation Council member who formerly headed Unity's executive committee.

Gryzlov's accession as Unified Russia's helmsman has been the source of some controversy, because top government officials are legally prohibited from engaging in party politics. Even before he was elected to the party's High Council, Gryzlov fudged the issue, making the somewhat obscure case that the role of party chairman "is not directly connected with party activity" and, thus, that he would be able to occupy that post while remaining interior minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2002).

Not surprisingly, some top members of rival parties have complained about this. "We do not yet have a law that would allow Category A state employees to belong to parties and work in ministries, much less the power [ministries], and it's a big question whether such a law will be passed," said State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev, who heads the center-left Party of Russia's Rebirth and Rossiya movement. Seleznev also said that Unified Russia had taken on a "great responsibility" in picking Gryzlov as its head, RosBalt reported on 21 November. "Many voters are dissatisfied with the work of the [Interior Ministry], and from this day on those complaints will automatically be extended to the party of which Gryzlov has become leader," Seleznev said.

SPS chief Nemtsov told reporters he feared that Gryzlov's new position would mean the Interior Ministry (MVD) would be drawn into the country's political life. "I would not want the MVD, having become an organ of the party of power, to get drawn into political life and turn into an instrument of political pressure, which is completely impermissible," Nemtsov said, reported on 21 November. The Interior Ministry, he said, is facing "huge tasks connected with gigantic crime in the country, the wave of corruption, the intensification of terrorism, the most graphic example of which is the recent terrorist act in Moscow."

Apparently responding to the criticism, Gryzlov conceded that he was prevented by law from belonging to a political party while serving as interior minister but said he was not planning to join Unified Russia. Again demonstrating mysterious logic, Gryzlov said he would nonetheless "find time" for party work, reported on 21 November. The debate over Gryzlov's two identities, however, could soon become superannuated. Contradicting Seleznev, "Kommersant" reported that a group of State Duma deputies is preparing to introduce amendments to the law on government that would lift the ban on federal ministers' holding executive posts in political parties. (Jonas Bernstein)

Tactical flexibility, ideological promiscuity -- whatever you call it, Boris Berezovskii has displayed it once again. Writing in the 20 November edition of "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the self-exiled oligarch called for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and Russia's liberals to join together in an opposition coalition. Only by forming a union prior to the December 2003 parliamentary elections, Berezovskii argued in the piece, would those opposing "the restoration of a totalitarian regime in Russia" be able to win either more than 150 seats in the State Duma -- and thus the ability to block attempts by the pro-Kremlin majority to amend the constitution -- or at least a simple majority in the lower house. While conceding that such a union seems "paradoxical," Berezovskii noted that the KPRF earlier this year voted for preserving "the democratic institution of referenda" while "the so-called right" -- SPS and Yabloko -- voted to restrict nationwide referenda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September 2002).

"And this is not the only example of the Communists' oppositionness and the seemingly paradoxical behavior of the left and right, when they change places: The Communists uphold the democratic achievements of the Yeltsin era, and the rightists support Putin in destroying liberal mechanisms," Berezovskii wrote.

Back in early 1999, Berezovskii, who was then executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States and locked in a battle with then-Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, called for the KPRF to be banned, arguing that it was promoting "not a communist, but a fascist, ideology" and thus had "no right to exist in a country like Russia." In 1998, Berezovskii reportedly cooperated with the KPRF in a failed attempt to prevent Sergei Kirienko's confirmation as prime minister. Berezovskii was expelled last month from Liberal Russia, the party he co-founded and funded, after giving a friendly interview to the "national-patriotic" weekly "Zavtra" and telling he planned to fund the KPRF (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 9 October 2002).

Despite his expulsion, the byline on his latest article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" -- a newspaper that Berezovskii controls -- identified the tycoon as a Liberal Russia co-chairman. On 13 November, "Moskovskii komsomolets" claimed Berezovskii was planning to buy his way back into Liberal Russia. On 16 November, Berezovskii denied another "Moskovskii komsomolets" report accusing him of trying to buy spots on the KPRF's party list (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 20 November and "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2002). (Jonas Bernstein)

Gennadii Zyuganov, head of the KPRF and the People's Patriotic Union of Russia, released an official statement on 20 November outlining the conditions under which the two allied groups would form alliances with others for the December 2003 election. "A union is possible only with those whose demands do not run counter to the Communist Party's tasks," Zyuganov's statement read, adding that the KPRF would accept no political preconditions from any potential ally. Zyuganov dismissed the possibility of working with "disgraced oligarchs" who "rush to put on a patriotic mask," ITAR-TASS reported.

Zyuganov also sharply criticized President Putin during a press conference on 18 November. The KPRF leader attacked the plan to reform local self-government put forward by the presidential commission on delineating responsibilities among federal, regional, and local authorities, headed by deputy Kremlin chief of staff Dmitrii Kozak. Zyuganov also criticized Putin for failing to preserve visa-free travel for residents of Kaliningrad and said Russia should have taken a stronger position against the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq. The Communist leader also condemned the Kremlin's "complete helplessness" in the face of NATO expansion and defended Belarus, "Kommersant" reported on 19 November. "Today, The Hague [war crimes] tribunal is trying Milosevic, tomorrow it will be Lukashenko, and the day after tomorrow, possibly, Putin," Zyuganov said. Following his press conference, Zyuganov went to the Kremlin for a meeting with Putin. (Jonas Bernstein)

The KPRF's longtime ally, the Agrarian Party of Russia (APR), plans to run independently in next year's State Duma elections. APR leader Mikhail Lapshin said the party was ready to enter the electoral contest alone and set up its own Duma faction, as it did after the December 1993 parliamentary election. The APR, Lapshin said, "should be neither left nor right; it should be as distinctive as the Russian peasant himself, with for the land, love for the motherland...for his children, for the graves of ancestors, with love for the future of Russia." The Agrarian leader said there should be an "independent peasant-political representation" in the State Duma, reported on 22 November. (Jonas Bernstein)

The lower house of parliament approved the 2003 draft federal budget in its third reading -- unlike other laws, the budget has four readings -- on 22 November. The budget, which was passed by a vote of 302-103, puts an extra 3 billion rubles ($94 million) left over from other areas toward counterterrorism operations. The government was forced to accept an amendment to the budget that caps price increases for the country's natural monopolies. The Gazprom natural-gas monopoly will be allowed to raise prices by no more than 20 percent next year. Price increases next year for Unified Energy Systems, the country's power grid, and for the country's railways, have been capped at 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively, "The Moscow Times" reported on 25 November.

Like the plans to reform the state bureaucracy, the 2003 draft budget has its share of skeptics. One of them, Yuliya Latynina, noted in "Novaya gazeta" on 25 November that the budget earmarks 345 billion rubles for the armed forces ($10.84 billion) and 224 billion rubles for law-enforcement, while allocating only 39 billion rubles for health care and 150 billion for social policy. Latynina cited other line items from the budget, like the 79 billion rubles allocated for road building -- twice as much as for health care. "God grant that even a third of this money is turned into asphalt and macadam, and not luxurious mansions," she wrote. Noting that 10 billion rubles is earmarked for deliveries to Russia's Far North, Latynina quoted another journalist, Mikhail Leontiev, saying that "the money doesn't go to the north; it goes where it's warm." (Jonas Bernstein)

The Duma's commission on normalizing the sociopolitical situation and human rights in Chechnya urged on 21 November that a state of emergency be declared in the breakaway republic. According to the commission's members, a state of emergency would "promote the legal protection of the civilian population and also eliminate ambiguity in the rights and obligations of Russia servicemen located in the conflict zone," Interfax reported. In addition, the commission members urged the government to draw up in short order "a comprehensive state conception for political settlement and national agreement" in Chechnya and to set up a special agency that would be given power over all of the republic's state institutions, including the law-enforcement organs and the military. The deputies also recommended that the public be given objective information about what is going on in Chechnya in order to overcome the depiction of Chechens "as enemies."

The commission recommended that the Duma on 18 December debate possible measures by the federal government to achieve a political settlement in Chechnya, protect human rights in the republic, and rebuild its economy and social sphere. The commission suggested that Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov, Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, and Interior Minister Gryzlov be invited to discuss these issues. (Jonas Bernstein)

The State Duma on 20 November passed in its first reading a draft anticorruption law that, for the first time in post-Soviet Russia, legally defines terms like "corrupt act," "corrupt relations," and "bribery." If passed into law, the bill, which was drafted by centrists in the State Duma's Security Committee, would cover not only state officials but leaders of political parties and public organizations, financial executives, military personnel, and candidates for executive-branch and legislative posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2002). The bill also establishes a special procedure for presenting tax declarations covering all forms of income, property, and obligations. In addition, it stipulates that information provided by top federal bureaucrats -- so-called Category A officials -- be made public every year.

Some civil libertarians say the bill is draconian. For example, Lev Levinson of the Institute for Human Rights said it was "impermissible that this law applies to elected officials, for example, to [parliamentary] deputies. A deputy is a representative of the people, and he must have complete freedom of discretion, for example, he can have relatives as aides and experts," reported 20 November. According to Levinson, the bill would even be applied to jurors. The website said, however, that the Kremlin does not support the bill and, thus, that in its present form it is unlikely to pass both houses of parliament and be signed by the president. (Jonas Bernstein)

Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov has argued against reviving the post of vice president. Speaking in his native St. Petersburg on 21 November, Mironov, a longtime Putin ally, said that unlike U.S. presidents, Russian presidents must confront crisis situations like the Moscow hostage drama alone, without the help of a vice president, ABN reported. Despite this, Mironov argued that there was no need to revive the post of vice president that was abolished following the October 1993 rebellion against then-President Boris Yeltsin, which was led by his vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoi. "In the contemporary history of Russia, we have gone through this," Mironov said. "The president's 'shadow' begins to climb out of the shadows and to behave differently. Therefore, the decision to exclude that position was correct. We have an organ of higher power that never ceases its activity, not for a day, not for a minute: the Federation Council. We share responsibility with the president. And to return to an experiment with the vice presidency makes no sense for the time being." (Jonas Bernstein)