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Russia Report: August 8, 2001

8 August 2001, Volume 3, Number 24
The next issue of "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report" will appear on 5 September 2001.

This fall, the State Duma is expected to again consider a bill introduced by deputy Boris Nadezhdin (Union of Rightist Forces) and deputy Igor Igoshin (Agro-Industrial) that would require that regions with more than 500,000 people elect no less than 15 percent of the members of their legislative assemblies through party lists, the website reported on 3 August. The bill is expected to pass, according to the website. However, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 4 August that Nadezhdin expects that the bill may face resistance in the Federation Council, whose members "still demonstrate a negative attitude toward attempts to regulate regional legislatures from above." (During its first reading the bill gathered 301 votes in favor, which would be enough votes to overcome a veto.) However, the daily also reported that the Central Election Commission is preparing its own amendments to the law on basic guarantees of citizens' electoral rights, which would raise the share of seats selected through party lists in regional legislatures even higher. In fact, the commission is not excluding the possibility that the bar may be raised to 50 percent by party lists and 50 percent directly as is done in the State Duma. In terms of politics at the regional level, these new bills may have as big if not bigger impact than the recently adopted law on political parties. That law puts an effective ban on the existence of the so-called regional parties, but, according to the daily, only one or two such parties even exist in Russia. JAC

The government of Bashkortostan plans to file an appeal with the Constitutional Court regarding a bill amending the law on the police, which President Vladimir Putin recently signed into law, "Novye Izvestiya" reported on 7 August. Under the bill, regional police chiefs will be appointed "taking into account" the opinion of regional leaders. The daily suggested that the vague phrasing "taking into account the opinion of regional leaders" annoyed many regional leaders, but only Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov "has the courage to object." According to the daily, which quotes an unidentified source in the Bashkortostan presidential administration, the new amendments conflict with Article 72 of the constitution on the division of powers between the federal government and ethnic republics. Last month, Rakhimov filed another appeal with the Constitutional Court asking for it to clarify the meaning of a 19 April 2001 decision in which it stated that federal and regional government organs are obliged to abolish legal acts "which are similar or analogous to ones already acknowledged to be violating federal laws" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 July 2001). JAC

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" director Aleksandr Gorbenko told ITAR-TASS on 3 August that the government newspaper is planning to open new branches in 11 cities, including the capitals of the seven federal districts as well the cities of Krasnodar, Perm, and Novosibirsk. A new branch was opened in Kaliningrad on 3 August. According to Gorbenko, a survey revealed that the Russian central media has practically been absent from Kaliningrad, and the new branch will attempt to rectify that situation. The 10 other new branches are part of a regional restructuring of "Rossiiskaya gazeta," according to Gorbenko. JAC

Presidential envoy to the Volga federal district Sergei Kirienko signed an order on 7 August naming seven new members of his apparatus, including new chief federal inspectors for Kirov (Valentin Puchag), Saratov (Pavel Grishin), Penza (Andrei Kulintsev), and Perm (Boris Shakulya) oblasts, and Marii El Republic (Aleksei Chepaikin), Interfax-Eurasia reported. According to Kirienko, the new appointees competed for their positions, which were awarded based on professional qualifications rather than personal sympathies. In the year 2000, around 5,000 people competed for 15 spots in the envoy's apparatus. Kirienko stressed that the high number of applicants was due to the prestige and opportunities for growth in the sphere of administration, not because of the high pay. Kirienko said that he himself earns 5,000 rubles ($171) a month, while a federal inspector is paid 3,000 rubles, according to the agency. Earlier in the year, "Segodnya" reported citing the 2001 budget that Kirienko was paid the equivalent of $3,280 a month (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 22 January 2001). JAC

On the seventh anniversary of the signing of Bashkortostan's power-sharing agreement with Moscow on 3 August, "Izvestiya" published an interview with Bashkortostan President Rakhimov. Rakhimov explained that by signing the treaty, Ufa "did not share power but promoted Russia's constitutional development as a federative state." He said that Bashkortostan's agreement was a political compromise and provided the republic not with additional privileges but with more responsibilities. He added that "any attempts to relegate this document, which works effectively, to the archives would be a great political mistake, perhaps even an irreparable one." JAC

Marat Kulsharipov, a Bashkir national movement leader and the head of the history faculty of the Bashkir State University, told RFE/RL's Ufa correspondent on 6 August that the creation of the people's front in Tatarstan, which unites numerous political organizations in order to defend the republic's sovereignty, is "a very positive event." He said that Bashkortostan, however, lags behind Tatarstan in this respect, and he called on the republic's public organizations to unite as well for the protection of Bashkortostan's sovereignty. He said that the republic's leaders do not take enough measures to defend Bashkortostan's sovereignty at a time of growing pressure upon it. LF

"Izvestiya" on 3 August alleged that Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor and former Sibneft head Roman Abramovich colluded with former Governor Aleksandr Nazarov to gain power in that Far Northern region. While still an incumbent, Nazarov withdrew his candidacy shortly before the gubernatorial election was to take place, and Abramovich won handily (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 3 January 2001). According to the publication, Nazarov withdrew his candidacy because he had been contacted by law-enforcement officials regarding the disappearance of $35 million from the Economic Fund of Chukotka. This money was reportedly taken by two fund officials, who joined Abramovich's team just after the election. And then, Abramovich declared the region bankrupt and appointed Nazarov as his representative to the Federation Council. Last October, Federal Tax Police officials confirmed that they had summoned Nazarov for questioning about misuse of budget funds soon after Abramovich announced he would run against him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 October 2000). JAC

Irkutsk State Television and Radio has denied allegations that it is softening its news coverage in response to pressure from the oblast administration not to darken the mood of the electorate during the lead-up to the 19 August gubernatorial elections, the website reported on 6 August. The allegations arose in connection with how little the station covered the "sensational" finding of court medical experts that alcohol was found in the blood of the commander of the plane that crashed over Irkutsk on 3 July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 11 July 2001). The allegations are only the most recent in a series of accusations lodged against incumbent Irkutsk Governor Boris Govorin for pressure against the media (see also "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 4 and 25 July 2001) JAC

ITAR-TASS reported on 4 August that recently foreign visitors to Irkutsk are more frequently being targeted by thieves. Money and personal documents were stolen from the hotel room of a visiting Japanese businessman on 4 August, while last month goods were stolen from the hotel room of a visiting Polish military attache. On 3 August, Humberto Silvo, the son of the founder of the Peruvian Social-Democratic Party, who had been residing in Irkutsk for 10 years, was beaten unconscious by three drunken former Russian paratroopers, Interfax reported. JAC

Yaroslavl Governor Anatolii Lisitsyn has already announced that he will not seek an additional, third term even though only a year and half have elapsed of his second term, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 3 August. The daily suggested that Lisitsyn has let it be known that he won't run again in part because he would like to be appointed to a federal post, although Lisitsyn himself has denied that there is any basis to the rumors that he is shopping around for a new Moscow-based position. Lisitsyn told local reporters recently, "In a conversation with Prime Minister [Mikhail Kasyanov], I said that I would like to work two more years in this post and only in the last year would I decide the question of [my future] work activities." Nonetheless, the daily speculates that Lisitsyn is an experienced politician, who has managed to sniff out the prevailing winds in Moscow often enough to have changed political alliances more than a few times. And this time, it is unlikely that he let his future intentions slip out innocently into the public domain. If gubernatorial elections have to be held earlier than scheduled, the daily reported that among the chief competitors for the spot will likely be Yaroslav Mayor Viktor Volonchunas and some local oligarchs such as the local director of Rybynsk Motors Yurii Lastochkin or Nikolai Tonkov, leader of the local Unity branch and head of Yaroslav Tire factory. JAC

The Russian Supreme Court upheld an earlier decision declaring that nine years ago the former governor of Altai Krai, Vladimir Raifikesht, was granted an apartment in Barnaul illegally, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 24 July. ... ALTAI REPUBLIC. Gorno-Altai's prosecutor has launched criminal proceedings against the head of the Tax Ministry's administration for the Altai republic on suspicion of embezzling some 36,000 rubles ($1200) in tax money, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 24 July. ... KEMEROVO. Criminal proceedings have been launched against the head of a local customs post on suspicion of trading in contraband items worth 150,000 German marks ($67,000), according to Interfax-Eurasia on 3 August. ... KRASNOYARSK. The prosecutor for Krasnoyarsk Krai has launched criminal proceedings against the head of the krai administration for natural resources, Aleksandr Boichenko, and Kansk Mayor Sergei Gurov on suspicion of engaging in illegal commercial activities while in government service, RIA-Novosti reported on 7 August. ... PRIMORE. Criminal proceedings have been launched against the head of the Khansanskii customs administration, Vladimir Babkin, on suspicion of accepting a bribe and abusing his office, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 25 July. ... TATARSTAN. The deputy mayor of Naberezhnyi Chelny, Yevgenii Anikin, was arrested on 27 July on suspicion of taking a bribe worth 10,000 rubles ($342) from a local night club, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. According to local media reports, Anikin is a local leader of the Unity branch and had a reputation as an activist against corruption and prostitution. JAC


By Jorunn Brandvoll

Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, can probably claim to be the only city in Russia that has a statue of Ostap Bender, the hero from the classic Soviet novel, "Twelve chairs," and even a street is named after him. Ostap Bender's passion is to play chess, and it is also the passion of the president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who is also the president of the International Chess Federation. However, what people sometimes forget is that Ostap Bender first and foremost is fond of cheating people, and many would claim that this is another trait Kirsan and Ostap have in common. No one has forgotten how Ilyumzhinov promised everyone $100 if he won the first presidential elections in 1993, or how he had promised to turn the republic into a second Kuwait where everyone would be able to afford mobile phones in 10 years. Eight years after he was elected, the republic is among the poorest subjects of the Russian Federation, and a mobile phone is hard to use at all because of the lack of a proper network. And no one has seen the $100 that was promised.

The people of Kalmykia were reminded of the broken promises this summer when a documentary on ORT on 29 May put the spotlight on the Kalmyk president -- one part of a series of portraits of erratic republican presidents that has been presented on ORT recently. Never before had a central TV station drawn such a critical picture of the Kalmyk president. On the day the program was aired, the most important regime newspaper, "Izvestiya Kalmykii," printed a denouncement of the program, and many feared that the authorities would shut off ORT temporarily to prevent people from watching, as they have done on previous occasions. Nevertheless, the program was aired, and while most ordinary citizens of Kalmykia were likely not shocked by the facts documented by Elena Masiuk in this program, the documentary prompted State Duma deputies in Moscow to raise questions about Ilyumzhinov's personality cult.

Three weeks later, the federal Audit Commission concluded its search for irregularities in the use of budget funds in Kalmykia between 1998 and 2000. They found that 315.6 million rubles ($10.6 million) from republican and federal budgets and from nonbudget funds had been spent illegally on other purposes, including 57.7 million on the football club Uralan. Other millions were spent on the preparations for the World Chess Olympiad in Elista in 1998. The sum spent on the football club is 2.5 times more than what the republic spent on education during that period. At the same time, the republic is a net recipient of federal transfers. And, it allows companies that are registered in the so-called offshore zone in Kalmykia tax reductions that are all together 2.8 times larger than the income of the republican budget. Nobody quite knows where the money these 5,400 companies pay to be registered in Kalmykia ends up, according to the website on 22 June.

However, it is unlikely that the ORT documentary and the Audit Commission investigation signal that Ilyumzhinov is facing the end of his presidency. Around the same time as the program was aired and the Audit Commission's results were publicized, the Russian State Duma passed a law stipulating that Kalmykia was one of 10 regions whose leaders would be allowed to run for a third or even fourth term in office. New elections are coming up next year.

Meanwhile, the republican elite seems as united as before, and one can still sense the fear among the common people in Elista of speaking out against the regime. From time to time some people go out on Elista's main square to protest against harsh living conditions, but such demonstrations are normally swiftly suppressed by the police. On 4 July, three women were badly beaten up by police for going on a hunger strike in the main square. Too many have lost their livelihoods for criticizing the regime, and loss of one's job is a serious threat in a region where unemployment is high. A high school director was dismissed after she let her pupils go to school on the president's birthday, which is a republican holiday.

The only people openly criticizing the regime is a small group of opposition politicians, about 50 of them in the whole republic, who mainly represent Yabloko, the Communists, and the Union of Rightist Forces. The 1998 murder of Larisa Yudina, editor of the opposition newspaper "Sovetskaya Kalmykia segodnya," seems to have brought about a slight improvement in the conditions for the opposition, since it generated a lot of negative publicity about the methods used by the Ilyumzhinov regime to curb the opposition. Since 1997, the opposition has challenged in court a large number of republican laws that violate federal laws. And with additional pressure from federal officials, more than 70 such laws have been abolished so far.

However, life in opposition is still not easy. So far the opposition does not have formal representation in the republican parliament. The last elections in Kalmykia were conducted last February, for the city council of Elista. The opposition candidate for the mayor of Elista, Vladimir Kolesnik, was prevented from registering for the election, but eight other opposition candidates participated in the elections for the city council. Only two were elected, Ivan Ryzhkov from Yabloko and Natalya Manzhikova from the Union of Rightist Forces, but shortly thereafter the authorities found an excuse to annul the results of the election in Ryzhkov's district. Since then, the opposition has tried to prove through a series of court proceedings against the city authorities that the apparatus of the incumbent mayor of Elista, Radii Burulov, resorted to serious election fraud to prevent opposition candidates from winning in four of the districts. The proceedings have not yet been concluded. While earlier this year the republican prosecutor and Supreme Court showed a certain amount of independence by declaring some republican decrees unconstitutional, this time they have again proved to be on the side of republic and local authorities.

Press freedoms have also not improved much in Kalmykia. The newspaper, "Sovetskaya Kalmykia segodnya," is still printed outside the republic, in Stavropol, and is sold without government permission on the street in the republic. Also distributed in this way is the Communist newspaper, "Leninskii put," but the economic situation for the former has been a bit easier this year since it won an award for press freedom from a Dutch journalists' association.

As next year's presidential elections draw closer, repression is likely to increase again. The attempt to set the flat of Yabloko member and "Sovetskaya Kalmykia segodnya" journalist Svetlana Ilinskaya on fire on 25 July may be one harbinger of acts to come. In the upcoming elections, the opposition is putting its resources behind Kolesnik, who like all other alternative candidates was prevented from participating in the last presidential elections in 1995, but who has proved to have quite strong popular support both in the subsequent republican parliament elections in 1998 and the State Duma elections in 1999. However, so far, the most serious competitor for the incumbent president seems to be Aleksandra Burataeva, the former TV news presenter who beat Kolesnik in the Duma elections in 1998. She will have the advantage of representing Unity. However, a new person in the presidency of the republic may not bring residents a respite from corruption and repression: Many in the republic think that even if Ilyumzhinov is not granted the opportunity to run for a third term, he will nevertheless succeed in finding a loyal replacement to "guard his yurt" in his absence.

(Jorunn Brandvoll is a graduate student at the University of Oslo and a graduate scholar at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.)