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Russia Report: October 30, 2001

30 October 2001, Volume 1, Number 27
PRESIDENT PUTIN AND HIS CRITICS. While Russian President Vladimir Putin's embrace of the U.S.-led fight against terrorism is little more than a month old, rumblings of dissent among the Russian policy-making elite are already being reported in the Moscow-based press. The lightning rod for criticism, however, has not been Putin's acceptance of the stationing of U.S. troops in Uzbekistan but the announcement on 17 October that Russia is giving up its electronic espionage center in Lourdes, Cuba and its naval base in Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 2001). The basic thrust of the criticism has been that Putin is giving up too much in exchange for the possibility -- rather than the certainty -- of similar concessions from the U.S.

According to "Novoe vremya" (no. 43), many military, diplomatic, and high-level officials in parliament have expressed open dissatisfaction with the decision on bases. For example, State Duma Defense Committee Chairman (People's Deputy) Andrei Nikolaev threatened to emphasize the issue of the base closures during legislators' next working meeting with the chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, Anatolii Kvashnin. According to Nikolaev, closing the bases should be postponed at least another five to 10 years so that the "quality intelligence" gathered in Lourdes can be replaced by some other means. In an interview with "Vremya novostei" on 19 October, General Yurii Drozdov, a veteran KGB officer who had once supervised the elite Vimpel special forces, also criticized the decision to give up the bases, saying that "new satellites will not replace the information which we received [at Lourdes]...It seems to me that the president was informed imprecisely and incorrectly when he made this decision..." And, in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 October, Viktor Ilyukhin, head of the Movement to Support the Army and a State Duma deputy in the Communist faction, alleged that "not all the military, including the highest levels, agreed with [the decision] to liquidate our military bases in Vietnam and Cuba." Ilyukhin charged that Putin has embarked on a similar path of his predecessors, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. According to Ilyukhin, those leaders "gave everything up [to the U.S.] without receiving any kind of guarantees in return."

Of course, Ilyukhin, as a hard-line leftist, is not the kind of politician whose support Putin would ever rely on. Nikolaev, on the other hand, as a member of People's Deputy, is already supposed to be playing on the Kremlin's team. But the best proof that Putin may be a touch out of step with the mainstream Moscow political thinking is the hearty endorsement he has received from Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii. Yavlinskii has said that not only he approves of "all the steps that the president has taken since 11 September," but also that he has the impression that "Putin himself sometimes turns out to be far more progressive than his entire team." Even Aleksandr Budberg, a commentator with liberal political leanings who writes for "Moskovskii komsomolets," now concludes that Putin "has managed to introduce more cardinal changes than one could even imagine -- more than those in the preceding administration even thought possible." Earlier, Budberg criticized Putin for his slavish devotion to opinion polls (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 26 February 2001), Budberg defends Putin against the impression that the withdrawal from Lourdes and Cam Ranh Bay is linked to the shift to a pro-U.S. point of view by arguing that the decision had been made five or six months ago. And, it is true that "Novye izvestiya" reported last August -- well before the 11 September terrorist attacks -- that despite the absence of a formal announcement the bases appeared to be set for closure (see "RFE/RL Security Watch," 30 August 2001).

In an interview with "Vremya novostei" on 19 October, Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, likens Putin's current situation to the one facing Gorbachev in the late 1980s. According to Ryabov -- now as was the case then -- there is a breach between the president and the political elite. According to Ryabov, "The split is somewhat reminiscent of the late Gorbachev era when the president was moving toward a new way of thinking, while the former elite clung to the old Soviet views." In an article in "Vek" (no. 42), Ryabov suggests that Putin can reach a compromise with those who do not like his new foreign policy but he will likely have to make "serious concessions on domestic policy" in exchange for "freedom of movement in foreign policy decision-making."

Writing in the "Russian Journal" on 25 October, Dmitrii Pinsker, formerly of "Segodnya," reaches a similar conclusion, suggesting that a shift in terms of domestic policy has already taken place with the recent announcement by the Prosecutor-General's Office of new measures against Boris Berezovskii and Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 22 October 2001). Pinsker notes that while Putin "is doing all he can on the foreign-policy front to prove he is committed to Western values...on the home front the Kremlin doesn't want to give up playing by rules more suited to authoritarian regimes." Meanwhile, as Putin prepares to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush in the U.S. next month, the impression that he is under pressure at home may help him to win concessions from the U.S. on missile defense and an exemption from criticism of any of his "authoritarian" actions at home. Whether there is actual pressure on Putin -- as opposed to just grumbling among the Moscow-based political elite -- will remain to be seen. In the meantime, Putin appears to be mobilizing against such a prospect by cleansing the cabinet of officials who are less than loyal. (Julie A. Corwin)

OFF TRACK -- Nikolai Yemelyanovich Aksenenko It is perhaps only fitting that the dark cloud of a criminal investigation should form over Railways Minister Nikolai Aksenenko's head just as President Putin has assumed a higher profile internationally. Over the last 18 months or so, as Putin's political star has risen, Aksenenko's has fallen. Having once been considered for the post of prime minister and as an unofficial successor to former President Boris Yeltsin, he is now scrambling simply to hold onto the position he has held on and off since 1997 -- railways minister. On 19 October, the Prosecutor-General's Office announced that a criminal case has been launched against Aksenenko for exceeding the responsibilities of his position and causing more than 70 million rubles ($2.4 million) worth of financial damage to the Russian government, according to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau. Although it had been reported that he would resign, Aksenenko instead went on an extended vacation.

Aksenenko found himself on the outs from the beginning of the Putin presidency. Soon after Putin became acting president in January 2000, Aksenenko was demoted from his position as first deputy prime minister and railways minister, retaining only the last position. He was also stripped of his membership on the Security Council and Commission on Operative Questions. At the time, some Russian newspapers reported that while he was prime minister, Putin had been angered over Aksenenko's botched handling of a management dispute at Transneft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 September 1999), but Putin's dissatisfaction with Aksenenko likely ran far deeper than a single incident.

Unlike other members of the so-called "Family," or coterie of hangers-on around President Yeltsin, such as Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin -- who have survived and even flourished under Putin -- Aksenenko has lacked their kind of intellectual nimbleness. Trained as a Soviet bureaucrat, Aksenenko, 52, has continued to think like one. During his brief stint as first deputy prime minister from May 1999 to January 2000, Aksenenko advocated policies reminiscent of the times of Gosplan and central economic planning. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 2 June 1999, Aksenenko wanted to restructure the Russian economy so "that each sector would have been controlled by one large monopoly with close links to the government." At times, Aksenenko appeared not just out of step but simply incompetent. He publicly declared at one point that Russian GDP would climb 20 percent in 2000 -- provoking ridicule from professional economists. After his return to being only the head of the Railways Ministry, Aksenenko continued to favor his pet projects, such as a Soviet-era plan to build a railway link between Sakhalin Island and the Russian mainland, while neglecting a project to build a high-speed rail link between Moscow and St. Petersburg that is favored by the Kremlin.

But perhaps even more devastating to his future career prospects than his old-fashioned approach to economics has been his propensity to make enemies. During his short time as first deputy prime minister, Aksenenko reportedly made many, including his immediate superior at the time, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin. According to "Kommersant-Vlast" on 8 June 1999, hostility between the two men became evident during one government session when Aksenenko's microphone turned out to be disconnected, Stepashin declared into his microphone that "Now it exactly clear, that it is I, who heads the government." Of course, Stepashin went on to head of the Audit Chamber, and, perhaps not accidentally, it was the Audit Chamber that concluded an audit of the ministry in July which resulted in this month's criminal proceedings, according to "Obshchaya gazeta" of 25 October. During Prime Minister Kasyanov's government, Aksenenko has clashed with Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, among others, on a number of occasions. Recently, an official from Gref's ministry announced that there is little chance that the link to Sakhalin will ever be built (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May 2001). Aksenenko has also locked horns with one of Gref's mentors, Unified Energy Systems head Anatolii Chubais. According to "Itogi" on 30 May 1999, Chubais intervened at a crucial time in 1999 to prevent Aksenenko from being named as prime minister instead of Stepashin. If true, Chubais was likely just evening an old score. According to a number of sources, Aksenenko -- together with fellow Family member and then Sibneft head Roman Abramovich -- had actively fought against Chubais's interests during Yeltsin's presidency.

Now, in the twilight of Aksenenko's career, his link to another oligarch, Boris Berezovskii, is being highlighted. On the same day, the Office of the Prosecutor-General announced the criminal case against Aksenenko, it also announced that it was issuing an international arrest warrant for Berezovskii, prompting many observers to view the effort to oust Aksenenko as part of a longer-term attempt to cleanse the government of Berezovskii's influence, although over the course of his career Aksenenko's name has been linked more often with Abramovich than Berezovskii. In an interview with "Kommersant-Daily" on 16 June 1999, Aksenenko said that Abramovich was a "figure little know to him" although he had read many false reports in the press about their close connection. However, according to "Stringer" on November 2000, Aksenenko and newlyweds Valentin Yumashev and Yeltsin daughter Tatyana Dyachenko (who were then married to other people) were frequent guests at Abramovich's dacha. Aksenenko must at least be an acquaintance of Berezovskii, since they completed an official trip together to Karachai-Cherkessia shortly before Aksenenko's demotion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 1999).

Whatever the reason for Putin's dissatisfaction with Aksenenko, a key question that remains is "why now?" Aksenenko has been operating under allegations of corruption since at least late 1997 -- when State Duma deputies directed an inquiry about the ministry's activities under the government of then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. And, later, during Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov's campaign against official corruption, questions about Aksenenko's activities were again raised. According to a variety of media reports, relatives of railway ministry officials -- including Aksenenko -- reportedly hold key posts in companies that have or had dealings with the ministry. For example, "Novaya gazeta" reported in 7 June 1999, Sergei Aksenenko, a nephew of Nikolai, heads the financial industrial group Eurosib, whose main business is to expedite railway service. Aksenenko's son reportedly heads another business linked with the ministry.

RFE/RL political analyst Mikhail Sokolov links Aksenenko's criminal case with the pending restructuring of the Railways Ministry into an independent shareholding society. And, according to Sokolov, control over that new entity is no less important than over Gazprom and Unified Energy Systems. After placing a Putin loyalist, Aleksei Miller, at the helm of Gazprom, and deciding the fate of the single-tariff agency, the presidential administration turned to the next obvious place, the railways. (Julie A. Corwin)

ANOTHER PENSION REFORM BILL GIVEN INITIAL APPROVAL... Deputies on 25 October passed another element of the presidential pension reform package (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 16 July 2001). The bill on managing state pensions passed with a vote of 235 in favor with 162 against and two abstentions, according to ITAR-TASS. Under the bill, the Pension Fund will become a non-profit organization run by the state. In addition, the fund will develop a single federal data bank containing information on all pensioners nationwide. JAC

...AS MORE PRISONERS LIKELY TO GO FREE. Deputies on 24 October approved a resolution in its first reading that would give a number of categories of female prisoners and prisoners under the age of 16 amnesty. The bill was passed with 358 votes in favor, one against, and zero abstentions. According to "Moskovskii komsomolets," some 10,000 minors and 14,000 women would be eligible for early release under the bill. The bill was proposed by Union of Rightist Forces deputy Aleksandr Barrankikov but also has the support of the Justice Ministry. Deputies also passed amendments and changes to the law on public organizations. The bill would be enacted around the same time as the presidential law on political parties, according to "Parlamentskaya gazeta." Deputies rejected a bill on federal state service which would have regulated the particularities of the work of federal workers. The government opposed the measure saying the bill was inadequate to answers questions raised by the 1995 law on basic state service, according to ITAR-TASS. Only 196 deputies of the 226 that were needed voted in favor of the bill. JAC


Name of the Law______Date Approved________# of Reading

On the administration of state_____25 October_________1st

On the budgeting of federal_____25 October____________1st
funds for medical insurance in

On amnesty for minors______24 October_____________1st
and women

On public organizations______24 October____________2nd

COMINGS AND GOINGS IN: State Duma deputies suggested on 24 October that President Putin appoint five deputies to a special commission on the question of imports of spent nuclear fuel to Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. The deputies proposed are Vladimir Grachev (Unity), Mikhail Zalikhanov (Fatherland-All Russia), Robert Nigmatulin (Russian Regions), Petr Romanov (Communist), and Serge Shashurin (People's Deputy). Yabloko deputy Sergei Miktrokhin was rejected because he voted against legislation that would have allowed such exports.

IN: Chilgychi Ondar, who was recently elected to the State Duma from a single mandate district in the Tuva Republic, has opted to join the Fatherland-All Russia faction, Interfax reported on 26 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2001).

POLITICAL CALENDAR 29-30 October: World Economic Forum will meet in Moscow

29 October: Espionage trial of political scientist Igor Sutyagin to resume in Kaluga Oblast

30 October: Presidium of State Council together with the Security Council will hold a joint session on development of the military-industrial complex, Interfax reported on 9 October

31 October: State Duma to consider bills amending the laws on judges, the judicial system, and the Constitutional Court in their second reading

31 October: Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov has been invited to address the Duma on the rule of law in Russia, "Parlamentskaya gazeta" reported on 25 October

31 October-2 November: Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri will visit Russia

End of October: French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to visit Moscow

November: Russian-EU working group for the creation of a single European space to meet, according to Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko on 3 October

November: The Union of Rightist Forces will present to the Duma a bill on the sale of agricultural land

Early November: The Russian-U.S. Group on Afghanistan, led by First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, is to meet in Moscow

2 November: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder meets with President Putin in Moscow.

4-7 November: Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will visit Russia

14 November: Nationwide act of protest to be organized by independent Russian trade unions, according to "Vremya novostei" on 27 September

14 November: Supreme Court to hold hearing on Golden ADA scandal case, according to Interfax

16-17 November: Civic Forum, a gathering of more than 250 NGOs, to be held in Moscow

21 November: Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov to address Duma on efforts to combat corruption within government ministries

21 November: Justice Minister Yurii Chaika to address Duma on the prison system

22 November: State Duma will consider the Labor Code in its second reading, according to the website

28 November: Federation of Independent Trade Unions to hold congress in Moscow

30 November: CIS summit to be held in Moscow

30 November: Duma will consider 2002 budget in its third reading

End of November: Fatherland to hold an all-Russian congress of agrarians, according to TV-Tsentr on 3 August

December: Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to visit Brazil

Early December: President Putin to visit Greece, according to Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov

1 December: Teachers' wages set to rise twofold, according to Education Minister Vladimir Filippov on 25 October

1-3 December: Constituent congress of the united party of Unity, Fatherland, and All-Russia

7 December: Railways Minister Aksenenko is scheduled to return to work after a long vacation

1-12 December: International chess championship to be held in Moscow, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 15 August

16 December: Presidential elections in Altai, Chavash, and Komi republics

20-21 December: An international conference on the topic of "Islam against Terrorism" will be held in Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported on 9 October

23 December: Presidential elections in Sakha Republic

28 December: Duma's fall session will come to a close, according to ITAR-TASS on 13 July

January: Presidential elections in North Ossetia

13 January: Presidential elections in Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeya

16-17 January: President Putin to visit Poland

9-16 October 2002: All-Russian census will be held