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Russia Report: March 15, 2000

15 March 2000, Volume 2, Number 10
Acting President Vladimir Putin told interviewers in the recently released book "In the First Person: Conversations with Vladimir Putin" that he is against "full independence" for Russia's regional heads, although he believes that it is necessary "to preserve self-rule and to elect governors." Putin added that "all subjects of the Russian Federation should be placed in the same economic conditions vis-a-vis the federal center." He explained that he has in mind the "large number of power-sharing agreements." He further said that "several subjects have certain privileges that others do not. For example, Tatarstan." He added, "Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev understands my position" and "generally agrees with me." RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported earlier that citizens and local media in Tatarstan have been expecting some kind of limitations on their privileges granted under a power-sharing agreement with the center (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 5 January 2000). JAC

On 10 March, the Region-Inform news agency reported that Anton Fedorov, the head of the Kremlin's directorate for coordinating the activities of presidential representatives, said Putin supports Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel's proposal to reintroduce the post of governors-general and already has in mind four candidates for the job (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 1 March 2000). However, on 14 February Fedorov told "Izvestiya" that he had said no such thing, and he suggested that the story was fabricated and circulated by some governors who want to become governor-general themselves. According to "Izvestiya," Region-Inform on 13 March quoted one of Rossel's deputies, Aleksandr Levin, as saying Putin met with Rossel recently to discuss the strengthening of state power in Russia. Levin also reportedly explained that Rossel's proposal gives the old institution a "new modern meaning" and that the governor-general would be appointed by the president from among the corps of governors already elected by the people. The president would delegate some additional powers to the governor-general, making him "senior among governors of some large economic region." Governor Rossel is chairman of the Urals interregional economic association. Some governors have suggested that the Russian Federation might be reorganized along the lines of the interregional associations to significantly reduce the number of federation subjects. JAC

Khabarovsk Krai Governor Viktor Ishaev and Jewish Autonomous Oblast Governor Nikolai Volkov signed four agreements on 10 March calling for socio-economic, scientific-technical, trade, and cultural cooperation. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 11 March, neither leader is excluding the possibility that the agreements are the first steps toward the merger of the two regions. From 1928 to 1991 the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was part of the Khabarovsk Krai, but became a full federation subject during former President Boris Yeltsin's tenure. At their press conference, the governors also raised the possibility of unifying the entire Far East into a single region. Presidential candidate and Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev recently suggested that the number of regions in Russia be reduced from 89 to 30-35 (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 23 February 2000). JAC

A proposed bill to amend the law on the Office of the Prosecutor-General requiring that regional prosecutors be appointed only in coordination with regional authorities failed to pass the State Duma on 10 March. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 231 deputies voted against the measure and only 32 in favor. The daily noted deputies had already heard many negative reports about the bill before its sponsor, Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev, addressed the legislators that day. According to the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 14 March, deputies decided that it is important to preserve the independence of local prosecutors in order to defend the interests of the center. The newspaper also pointed out that the constitution of Ingushetia violates the Russian federal constitution and the federal law on federation prosecutors. JAC

With material support from the Soros Fund, the oblast's Human Rights Center is offering minors instruction in the legal rights of those who are sentenced for committing a crime, RFE/RL Russian Service's "Korrespondentskii chas" reported on 26 February. Some 90 youths are currently attending the classes offered by the center; among them are not only so-called problem children but also those who have had no encounters with law enforcement agencies. The head of the center, Galina Dundina, told RFE/RL that the classes are important as a means of deterring youths from becoming involved in crime and enabling them to insist on their legal rights should they find themselves in detention. According to the local Internal Affairs Department, crime among the oblast's youth rose 7 percent last year, and every 10th violation was committed by a minor. JC

The local television company, Tivikom, reported that a candidate for election to the republic's parliament, Andrei Butyugov, has threatened to kill one of its journalists, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 7 March. The threat was captured on video cassette and has been forwarded to local law enforcement officials. According to the daily, Butyugov himself once worked as a journalist at the Buryatia State Television and Radio Company. JAC

Regional tax police head Maksim Beshentsev said on 10 March that his unit is investigating criminal cases against the companies Transrail and MIKOM for evading local taxes. MIKOM, a Moscow-based metallurgical company, has been engaged in a battle for control over the local Novokuznetsk Metallurgical Combine with Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 15 December 1999). Beshentsev said that MIKOM is suspected of funneling money through a non-existent coal mine. JAC

RFE/RL Russian Service's "Korrespondentskii chas" reported in its 26 February edition that an attempt appears to be under way to "nationalize" street-trading in the republic's capital, Syktyvkar. Following the introduction of a tax on imputed earnings, which forced many stall-holders to cease trading, the municipal authorities ordered that all street-traders conduct business at the so-called mini-markets dotted around the city. Now the authorities are requiring that all street-trading take place at the Central Market. Deputy Mayor of Syktyvkar Aleksandr Volkov explained that the mini-markets have proven insufficiently "profitable," while the Central Market is a major source of income for the city's coffers. The Syktyvkar newspaper "Kurer plyus," meanwhile, reports that the order to round up all street traders on the Central Market came not from a city official but from first deputy head of the republican administration, Anatolii Karakchiev. JC

Unified Energy Systems has reduced electricity supplies to Penza because of the oblast's failure to pay for deliveries, "Izvestiya" reported on 1 March. According to the newspaper, the region is the only one in the federation so far to be subject to such sanctions. Gas supplies to the oblast have long been reduced, for the same reason. Some 993 million rubles ($35 million) reportedly transferred to Penza from the center to pay for energy supplies have gone "missing." JC

Mikhail Khoronen, first deputy head of the Pskov municipal administration, has been elected mayor of that city in a second round of voting on 12 March. Interfax reported the next day that Khoronen garnered 71 percent of the vote, while his challenger, director-general of the company Pskovkabel Valerii Yevdokimenkov, received 20 percent backing. Turnout was put at 41 percent. Incumbent Mayor Aleksandr Prokofiev was knocked out in the first round of voting last month (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 1 March 2000). JC

A group of pensioners in the Sakha Republic has appealed to the republic's president, parliament, and government in an open letter in which they maintain that the federal law on pension encroaches on their rights because the law does not take into account the geographical and climatic particularities of the Far North and does not provide due compensation for their more difficult living conditions "Yakutia" reported on 13 March. The pensioners complain that despite this flaw in the legislation, federal Pension Fund officials want to take away additional payments and goods provided to them by regional pension authorities. The pensioners call on the republic's authorities to defend their interests and preserve a single pension service for Sakha. JAC

A district court has ruled that Yurii Shutov can run in the repeat State Duma election in District No. 210, "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on 7 March. Shutov, who is in detention on suspicion of having organized several contract killings, was barred in February by the prison authorities and local prosecutor's office from opening an election campaign account (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 16 February 2000). One of Shutov's lawyers was quoted as saying that he has officially requested that the election commission allow his client to have "an equal chance to campaign," including meeting with voters and taking part in televised debates with his rivals. The election in District No. 210 is due to take place on 26 March, after a majority of the electorate voted against all the candidates on the ballot last December. JC

Federal Deputy Interior Minister Petr Latyshev told journalists in St. Petersburg last week that the "highest leadership" of the city's administration "figures" in the criminal investigation into how last May's All Russia congress in that city was funded. At the end of 1999, the Interior Ministry announced it had evidence that the VMTs company, which had been registered with false documents, received funds from city coffers to pay for the hotel where delegates to the conference were lodged (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 8 December 1999). Latyshev noted that 12 state and more than 200 commercial structures had transferred money to the account of VMTs. At the time of the May 1999 congress, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev was a leader of the All Russia movement. JC

Militia in Nizhnii Tagil seized 100,000 copies of "Gornozavodskoi Ural," the publication of the political movement of the same name, RFE/RL's correspondent in Yekaterinburg reported on 4 March. Leader of the movement Valerii Trushnikov, who has a realistic chance of winning a seat in the upcoming elections to the oblast's Duma as well as being selected speaker of that body, told "Korrespondentskii chas" that the seizure was likely connected to a decision of the oblast's election commission the same day that the newspaper was engaging in illegal campaign activities. However, he maintained, the seizure itself was illegal since it occurred without the sanction of the local prosecutor. Tatyana Merzlyakova, a deputy in the current oblast Duma and a former editor of a raion newspaper, said that she believes that if the newspaper had not been published by the political opposition in the oblast, no one would have condemned its activities. She added that the seizure of the paper has not aroused the indignation of media in Yekaterinburg because journalists still do not realize how dangerous the situation is becoming for those publications who are in a similar situation vis-a-vis local authorities to that of "Gornozavodskoi Ural." Merzlyakova concluded, "if the mayor can stop the publication of a newspaper, if the election commission can quietly decide which newspaper is good and which is bad, and decide whether or not to allow people to see it, then we can already say farewell to freedom of the press." JAC

A local court has turned down a request to have Nikolai Sevryugin delivered to a prison hospital for treatment and has ruled instead that Sevryugin's trial be postponed until his health improves, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 5 March. Sevryugin, who is currently in the oblast hospital, was released from detention last year and deemed unfit to stand trial until he undergoes an operation to have a pacemaker fitted--something that the ex-governor refuses to do. During the two years he spent in detention, Sevryugin suffered two heart attacks and is now classified as an invalid. He has been accused of accepting a $150,000 bribe and embezzling 170 million old rubles for the construction of a private summer house (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 22 September 1999). JC

Organizers of the recently registered New Generation movement are planning to hold so-called "primaries" in Yaroslavl Oblast on 19 March in preparation for taking part in the 2004 elections to the State Duma, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 11 March. Yaroslavl was chosen for this project because, as a New Generation representative noted, voting in the oblast in last December's Duma vote reflected voting on a national scale. According to New Generation, some 10,000 people are slated to take place in the mock elections. JC

The trail of a former member of Chelyabinsk Oblast's legislature, Aleksandr Morozov, began on 28 February. Morozov is accused of leading a crime ring involved in several killings. ... SAKHALIN. The head of the justice department of Sakhalin Oblast, Nina Gultyaeva, was arrested on 1 March on suspicion of making illegal expenditures, Interfax-Eurasia reported. "Segodnya" reported the next day that Gultyaeva is suspected of misappropriating hundred of thousands of dollars of federal budget monies. ... VOLGOGRAD. The director of the local branch of the Federal Debt Center in Volgograd Oblast, Aleksandr Fatyanov, was arrested in mid-February for misappropriating 2 million rubles ($70,000) in promissory notes, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 12 February. JAC

By Jan Cleave

Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko's recent announcement that acting President Vladimir Putin backs her bid for the St. Petersburg governership ended months-long speculation about whom the Kremlin favors for that post. Matvienko is considered to have a good chance of dethroning incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev in the 14 May ballot. And it is thought that if she does win that poll, Putin may well have plans for his hometown in whose implementation newly elected Governor Matvienko would play a major role.

The Kremlin's choice of Matvienko as favored candidate in St. Petersburg was likely determined by at least three factors. First, Matvienko is one of the "Moscow St. Petersburgers"; as such, she not only has experience in the northern city but can count on the support of the powerful St. Petersburg group in the capital that Putin himself has sponsored, highlighting the continued importance of "zemlyachestvo" (friendly "association" of people from the same place) in Russian political culture. Though not a native of St. Petersburg, Matvienko completed her medical studies there in the early 1970s and held various party posts in the city until she was called to Moscow in 1989. Having worked in the capital and abroad for the past 10 years or so, she remained at a safe geographical distance as St. Petersburg became increasingly mired in scandals of the post-communist era.

Second, Matvienko, who is one of only a few key figures to have survived the last three changes of government, is thought to be able to unite political forces across the spectrum. Both the pro-Kremlin Unity party and leaders of Fatherland-All Russia have announced they will support her, while Unity's alleged ally in the State Duma, the Communist Party, is likely to follow suit. The Union of Rightist Forces appears still to be hemming and hawing over its preference, while the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko, which is strongly opposed to Yakovlev, will run its own candidate, but presumably on the understanding it would support Matvienko in a run-off against the incumbent.

Third, if elected to the Federation Council, Matvienko would become one of only two female governors (the other being Valentina Bronevich of the tiny Koryak Autonomous Okrug). Putin has increasingly said of late that he would like to see more women holding top offices in both the executive and legislative branches. Backing Matvienko as governor of Russia's second city lends credence to such assertions, particularly in the run-up to the presidential election.

But if Matvienko can be seen as indirectly serving Putin's purpose before the 26 March vote, observers believe she will be called on directly to do his bidding once, as seems virtually inevitable, he is elected head of state. Matvienko herself even hinted at this shortly after announcing her candidacy. During Yakovlev's four-year reign in St. Petersburg, the city has come to be known as the crime capital of the Russian Federation, and its current administration is largely held responsible for that dubious designation. Fighting crime and corruption, Matvienko noted, would be one of her top priorities as governor, adding that the plethora of problems facing the city can no longer be solved without the assistance of the federal authorities. "Carte blanche" for Putin, who made his early career in the KGB in St. Petersburg and entered politics as an adviser to late former Mayor Anatolii Sobchak, to deal with those problems as he sees fit? Perhaps.

Another hint of Putin's possible plans for his native city came from former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who was recently passed over as the Kremlin's favorite for the St. Petersburg governership and subsequently announced he would not run in the ballot. Speaking to reporters immediately after talks with Putin earlier this month, Stepashin noted that a "program" already exists for moving several federal structures to St. Petersburg, including the State Duma, the Federation Council, and several ministries, and that the city's "next governor" will likely present that program. Increased investments and improved infrastructure, he noted, would be just two of the benefits of such a move and would help make St. Petersburg the country's second capital city.

According to some observers, Putin may also have plans to bring about the oft-debated reunification of the city of St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast. Arguments in favor of returning to the Soviet-era arrangement have become increasingly audible in recent years. Leningrad Oblast complains of the massive financial losses it has incurred, while St. Petersburg bemoans the fact that it is splitting at the seams and has no room to expand. Moreover, residents of the two regions are bitter that cuts are made in social spending while large sums continue to be spent on a double bureaucracy. Many politicians, including Matvienko, have spoken in favor of holding a referendum on the issue as the only fair way to decide the issue.

But even if a majority of voters in both St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast came out in favor of reunification, a considerable amount of good will would be required on the part of the regions' administrations and legislatures to implement a decision resulting in the dissolution of those structures in their present guise and their reincarnation in an amalgamated and streamlined form. In the absence of that good will, pressure from Moscow would help ensure that the process of reunification is as smooth as possible. As "Argumenty i fakty" suggested in its 8 March issue, there may never be a more favorable time to achieve that goal than now, that is, when Putin's "Petersburg team," including Matvienko as possible future governor, is firmly in control.