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Russia Report: February 6, 2002

6 February 2002, Volume 4, Number 4
"Vedomosti" reported on 4 February that the presidential envoys to the seven federal districts are trying to redirect investment flows that were once overseen by regional governors to their offices. The envoys in the Far Eastern, Southern, and Central federal districts have either launched or plan to launch their own investment agencies, and Vneshekonombank plans to partner with each of them. According to the daily, while the envoys have had some success in making regional authorities harmonize their legislation with federal law, regional leaders have retained the main economic instruments such as the ability to bestow tax exemptions, pass local budgets, and issue licenses. With their new agencies, the envoys hope to compensate for their lack of economic levers by offering businesses "political cover." Oleg Mikhailenko, the head of Dalinkom, explained that before the office of the envoys was created, "the problems of minimizing political risks for foreign or domestic investors were being solved with the kind word of a governor. But now Dalinkom has the opportunity to minimize its political risk through the apparatus of the presidential envoy." JAC

At a planned monthly meeting between presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin and the presidential envoys from the seven federal districts on 29 January, the topic of regionally based pardons commissions as well as continuing work defining the division of power between regional and federal-level officials was discussed, according to "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 25 January that Saratov Oblast is the first region in Russia to have organized a pardons commission, which met on 22 January. On 28 January, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov issued a decree naming 16 representatives to the local pardons commission. Regions were given the responsibility for organizing pardon commissions following President Vladimir Putin's disbanding of the state-level Pardons Commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 December 2001). And on 2 February, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev issued a decree establishing a pardons commission in his republic, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 4 February. Shaimiev told Interfax on 4 February that he believes that the transfer of the pardon function to the regions will make the process more effective. Shaimiev added that he does not agree with the accusations of some human rights activists that the transfer will lead to the corruption of the process as particular cases are not considered objectively. JAC

However, presidential adviser and former head of the Pardons Commission Anatolii Pristavkin told reporters in Moscow on 4 February that he has some concerns about how regional-level officials will perform their new responsibility. He said that he believes an expert council should be formed that would be composed of some members of the former Pardons Commission to assist regions in establishing their own pardons commissions. Pristavkin said that he is not excluding the possibility that transferring the pardons process to the regional level will slow down the consideration of cases. He added he is going to propose raising the status of regional commissions to that of the federal districts. JAC

The Audit Chamber has charged that a number of regions committed gross violations in their use of "gold credits" last year, reported on 31 January. The Audit Chamber singled out the governments of Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, the republics of Sakha and Buryatia, as well as the companies Vasilevskii mine in Krasnoyarsk, Berezovskii mine in Sverdlovsk, and Norilsk Nickel as the main debtors. According to the website, the total debt in gold credits as of 1 January 2002 was $982 million. JAC

Ravil Gainutdin, the chair of the Muslim Religious Board for European Russia, has alleged that financial difficulties at RTR and Kultura were behind the recent failure to air a number of Islam-related programs, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 30 January, citing Gainutdin revealed that he has persuaded executives at Kultura to resume one program, while his board has allocated $4,000 to maintain the "Voice of Islam" program on Radio Rossii. JAC

At the second congress of Tatarstan's Muslims held on 2 February, Mufti Gusman Iskhakov was re-elected to chair the republic's Muslim Religious Board, RFE/RL's Kazan bureaus reported on 4 February, citing The last congress was held four years ago, and since then the number of Muslim communities in the republic grew from 200 up to 1,000, while new mosques were opened in cities and villages, according to ITAR-TASS the previous day. At the congress, the more than 600 delegates discussed the spread of extremism and Wahhabism in Islam and concluded that promoting peaceful Islam is the best way to prevent the radicalization of the Muslim community. Congress delegates also appealed to the State Duma to introduce tax breaks for Muslim property funds. JAC

Air service has been established between Vladivostok and Shanghai, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 January. A Chinese airline company based in Shanghai will make twice-weekly flights. Meanwhile, unidentified diplomats at the South Korean Consulate in Primorskii Krai told the agency that South Korea is now home to around 6,000 illegal female immigrants from Russian who make their living through prostitution. According to the agency, the diplomats also confessed that while they issue visas to older Russians they are more reluctant to do so for "attractive young women." JAC

British Airways has reached an agreement with Urals Aviation to open an airline route between London and Yekaterinburg starting before the end of this year, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 30 January. According to a British Airways official, the route was in the works for some time but was slowed by the economic crisis in Russia and terrorist acts in the United States. JAC

A bus route will connect border districts in Finland and Russia as early as the summer of 2002, ITAR-TASS reported on 4 February. The bus will travel between Rovaniemi and Murmansk. JAC

The office of the presidential envoy to the Volga federal district revealed on 29 January that almost one-third of the letters and appeals sent to the envoy from ordinary citizens are about problems with housing, hot water, and heat. One resident in Ulyanovsk complained that the average temperature in his apartment was between 8 and 12 degrees Celsius. Also on 29 January, the local prosecutor in Ulyanovsk Oblast launched a criminal case against the head of one raion because heat was cut off to an entire village for one day when the temperature outside was minus 30 degrees Celsius. According to Interfax on 4 February, Ulyanovskenergo received payments in January 2002 for only 70 percent of the amount owed to it. Radio Mayak reported on 29 January that 10,000 residents in Primorskii Krai were without heat in their homes, as outside temperatures dipped to minus 20 degrees Celsius. On 5 February, three cities in the krai, Arsenev, Partizansk, and Dalnegorsk, were without electricity. Some 185,000 people were affected, RIA-Novosti reported. Municipal authorities owe around 200 million rubles ($6.5 million). JAC

The administration of the city of Astrakhan has started to openly exert pressure on its journalists, RFE/RL's Astrakhan correspondent reported on 1 February. Astrakhan Mayor Igor Bezprukavnikov has accused Natalaya Filatova and Olga Dyakova, journalists with the Lotos television company, of being "unprofessional" and "corrupt." On 29 January, Mayor Bezprukavnikov arrived at the station and addressed the entire workers' collective there. In a long speech, he emphasized his achievements and enumerated at great length the number of awards and other honors bestowed upon him during his tenure as mayor. He also explained that there are a few deputies in the city's legislature who are in what he calls the "destructive opposition" and "only interfere with work." Dyakova and Filatova are following the political orders of this opposition with "their one-sided reporting," according to the mayor. In response, Dyakova said that she tried to present the administration's point of view, but the deputy mayor refused to meet with her and called the TV station's management to ask that another journalist be sent. According to the correspondent, this is not the first time that the city administration has refused to meet with independent journalists and tried to stop their reports from appearing. JAC

A criminal case has been launched against Sergei Bachinin, the editor in chief of "Vyatskii nablyudatel," for insulting Kirov Oblast Governor Vladimir Sergeenkov, "Izvestiya" reported on 31 January. The governor was irked by an issue featuring a photo caption below a picture of himself along with a number of pigs. Sergeenkov had just visited a local pig farm. The caption read "Third on the left --- Vladimir Nilovich." According to "Izvestiya," "Vyatskii nablyudatel" is an independent paper that has frequently criticized local authorities. The head of the oblast's legal department told the daily that " this is not the first such incident with this newspaper. But we opt for civilized methods and defend our interests in court. How much can we tolerate? There are ethical norms." JAC

Taimyr Autonomous Okrug representative to the Federation Council Leonid Roketskii told journalists in Moscow on 1 February that authorities in neighboring Krasnoyarsk Krai are trying to appropriate okrug territory. Taimyr legislators do not agree with a point in the krai's charter that makes the industrial city of Norilsk subordinate to the krai, according to Roketskii. Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed dismissed the Taimyr authorities' recent demarche by saying the question of control over Norilsk was resolved by federal authorities in 1993. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 2 February, Taimyr legislators believe the stipulation regarding Norilsk violates the Russian Constitution and plan to appeal to the prosecutor-general and Constitutional Court if the charter is not canceled. The governor of Taimyr Autonomous Okrug is former Norilsk Nickel head Aleksandr Khloponin. JAC

In Leningrad Oblast, the number of registered persons with HIV has risen 2.3 times by the beginning of this year compared with 2000, ITAR-TASS reported on 4 February, citing Aleksei Podlovskii, the director of the oblast center for the prevention and struggle against AIDS. According to Podlovskii, there are some 2,929 HIV cases in Leningrad Oblast, of which 85 percent are people between the ages of 14 and 30 who use narcotics. In addition, the number of pregnant women with HIV has also increased sharply. Meanwhile, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 1 February, citing "Vechernyaya Kazan," that World Health Organization experts believe that the official figure of 4,000 HIV carriers in the republic of Tatarstan would be more likely to represent the real number of HIV cases if it were multiplied by 10. JAC

The head of the Stavropol Krai police department, Lieutenant General Aleksandr Saprunov, and Ataman of the Terek Cossack brigade Vasili Bondarev have agreed to form a joint unit to protect public order in their region. Bondarev is also head of the krai's Security Council. According to the agency, the Cossack police units will patrol streets, monitor immigration flows, and prevent acts of terrorism, banditry, and illegal weapons shipments. JAC

In an interview with "The Moscow Times" on 1 February, Galina Filimonova, the deputy head of the local administration in Butka, revealed that the town will not be sending former President Boris Yeltsin a congratulatory telegram on his 71st birthday, 1 February. Yeltsin was born in Butka in Sverdlovsk Oblast, and on the 325th anniversary of its founding last year Butka residents invited Yeltsin to return. Filimonova admitted that the townsfolk never expected Yeltsin to actually show up, "but he did not even send any thank-you note or some kind of congratulatory message," she said. Responding in kind, Butka did not send Yeltsin any birthday wishes this year. However, Filimonova held out the hope that perhaps the town's invitation and other telegrams did not reach him, adding, "maybe you, through your newspaper, will tell him that we wish him many more years of life and wish him to remember us," she said. JAC

A group of student computer programmers in Tomsk Oblast who hacked into the Chechen website Kavkaz-Tsentr have been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, reported on 31 January. The directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Tomsk Oblast issued a statement that the students' efforts to create difficulties for the website did not violate Russian law and was merely a way for the students to express their views as Russian citizens. According to an FSB spokesman, the Internet site Kavkaz-Tsentr propagates ideas of separatism, international terrorism, and regional and racist hatred. JAC


By Oleg Rodin

Residents of Nizhnii Novgorod are well acquainted with the war in Chechnya. The region has buried more than 200 of its sons and neighbors who went to the conflict as soldiers. And in 1997, local peace activists collected more than 1 million signatures calling for an end to the war. And possibly because of the oblast's call for peace, Defense Ministry officials decided to send some 117 Chechen conscripts to the oblast for their military service in the fall of 2001. The young men started their military service in a unit of the railroad troops at the Mulino garrison in Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast.

The recruits, ranging in age from 18 to 25 years, have few memories of a life of peace and quiet. In recent years, they have lived in destroyed homes in Grozny, Shali, and Urus-Martan, where the regular army has conducted so-called "cleansing" operations. At that time, these young men could have been arrested and forced to explain at great length how they might have or might not have been participating in military actions against federal troops. Now, the youths are voluntarily serving in the Russian army and for the first time in many years are experiencing the peaceful conditions found in the center of Russia. Here, they are treated with understanding and sympathy.

For example, special conditions were created for them in their military unit, such as taking into account their religion and setting aside special time for them to say their prayers. To select the leadership of the Chechen company, the Defense Ministry had to look all over Russia to locate some officers who knew the Chechen language and who would have good mutual understanding with Chechen recruits. And although Muslim men are traditionally not allowed to do what is considered to be "women's work," such as tidying up, officers managed to convince their charges that any work performed in a military context is worthy work for men.

These young people were already acquainted with different weapons -- they could identify a type of weapon from only hearing the sound of the bullet discharged. But in the military unit, they learned about drills, military regulations, as well as several peaceful occupations, such as how to perform the work of construction workers, railway fitters, lathe and crane operator, and divers. Representatives of the Chechen Republic checked to ensure that their young people in Nizhnii Novgorod were serving in favorable conditions. However, recruits also faced certain kinds of unwelcome attention from their home region, such as pressure on their relatives remaining in Chechnya. For that reason, they ask journalists not to photograph them for newspapers or television.

In their free time, the Chechen recruits gather together for traditional national dances. They also take trips to the neighboring village to go to stores there. Occasionally, conflicts are heard about -- particularly with Chechen soldiers, who are unused to alcoholic drinks. For example, there was an instance of an attack by a Russian military officer on a drunken Chechen recruit, who the officer believed was making unwanted sexual advance toward his wife. But such conflicts are heard of only rarely.

After three months of service, the first 40 Chechen conscripts took their military oaths. This was a tension-filled moment, because Chechens serving in other military units, for example, in Tula Oblast, refused to swear their allegiance to Russia and the Russian army. In Tula, 130 soldiers were called up to serve in the army in November and December 2001, mainly from a single raion in Chechnya. They refused to submit to their commanders and take a military oath. It was eventually decided to break the group up, sending them to different garrisons all over Russia.

In Nizhnii Novgorod, there was concern that there would be a similar such incident. The commanders feared that if just one Chechen said no to taking the oath, then all of the rest of the group would refuse to do so. However, the new soldiers from Chechnya took the military oath at the Mulinskii garrison, and it is perhaps now possible to consider this risky experiment a success. Now the soldiers from Chechnya will be sent to different military units in eight Russian regions. Several of these young men say that they will not return to the Chechen Republic, even if the war is concluded, because they want to live in Russia. The commanders of the Russian army intend to suggest that 500 more Chechen youths serve as army volunteers.

Speaking about ethnic and religious problems at the World Economic Forum in New York last week, presidential envoy to the Volga federal district Sergei Kirienko argued that Russia has taken a more constructive approach to bridging the divide between Muslims and Christians. According to Kirienko, the difference between Russian and European approaches may be best illustrated by the fact that "in Russia we discuss Muslims, we say 'we,' but in Europe and the U.S., Muslims are referred to as 'they' or as 'others.'" Kirienko noted that Muslims and Orthodox believers have lived together for 300 years in the Volga region, along with more than 100 other ethnic groups, and during that time, no military conflicts erupted from a purely ethnic basis. Kirienko also suggested that if in the 21st century a "conflict of civilizations" between Islam and Christianity is really unavoidable, then Russia is apparently on the edge of this conflict. It will therefore have to act in the role of buffer when these civilizations collide. Nonetheless, Kirienko expressed certainty that Russia has a chance to show how such a conflict might be avoided by illustrating how a community can be built on mutual respect. And in this instance, Nizhnii Novgorod's example might lead the way.

Oleg Rodin is an RFE/RL correspondent in Nizhnii Novgorod.