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Russia Report: May 5, 1999

5 May 1999, Volume 1, Number 10
Top officials in the Union of Journalists expressed their concern on 28 April that regional newspapers and magazines are in danger of losing their independence, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the union's president, Vsevolod Bogdanov, local authorities are reorganizing editorial boards of newspapers and magazines under the pretext of bringing them into line with Russia's Civil Code. Following reorganization, editorial boards are guided by the Law on State Employees and not the Law on the Mass Media, which circumscribes the publication's editorial freedom and independence. Local journalists are turned into "clerks" who merely disseminate the information that their board chooses, the agency reported. The union is recommending that localities adopt a new statute on the composition of the editorial boards, which was drafted by the union's lawyers. JAC

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 29 April that Yevgenii Lymarev, a businessman who emigrated to Switzerland and is wanted for questioning in Russia about several shady deals that originated in Belgorod, may be the founder of a Geneva-based fund intent on financing electoral campaigns for the upcoming State Duma ballot. Lymarev, in his capacity as the director of a sugar plant in Belgorod Oblast, was given the right to manage a Swiss bank account into which more than $500,000 was deposited from 1992-1994. Those funds appear to have derived from various dubious undertakings, the newspaper reports, including the sale of sugar stolen from Lymarev's company. In 1996, the Belgorod Main Interior Affairs Department launched a criminal investigation into the sugar thefts, but by that time, Lymarev was already residing in Switzerland. Now, the newspaper says, the former Belgorod businessman appears to be one of the main figures behind the so-called National Fund for Stable Development. The fund recently invited some 50 prominent Russian political figures--including Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev and Central Bank President Viktor Gerashchenko--to attend a conference in Geneva early this month aimed at "elaborating concrete methods of humanitarian and economic cooperation between Russian and foreign political movements." JC

The newly re-elected governor of Kemerovo Oblast, Aman Tuleev, announced on 26 April that as of 1 June all enterprises in the region will begin making additional monthly "donations" to budget sector employees, "Vremya MN" reported on 28 April. The monies are supposed to be provided on a voluntary basis; however, according to the daily, those companies that "forsake their new duty will face sanctions"; for example, their director be will replaced or, if they are private, the authorities will initiate a procedure to try to impose an external management structure on them. According to the daily, Tuleev's government hopes to collect 170 million rubles ($7 million) every month in this way until enough money is allocated by the federal budget to result in a pay hike for budget sector employees. JAC

SBS Agro bank chairman Yurii Trushin and Kemerovo Governor Tuleev have signed a cooperation agreement giving the region access to the bank's "modern technology" in the financial services sphere, "The Moscow Times" reported on 28 April. In addition, the bank will finance a project to assemble four-wheel drive Daewoo tractors and import other agricultural equipment as well as establish credit programs for small businesses and disburse mortgage loans. One banking sector analyst told the daily that it is unlikely that SBS-Agro has enough resources to finance the tractor assembly project; however, the newspaper noted that the bank has at its disposal a 7.5 billion ruble ($310 million) stabilization credit from the Central Bank. JAC

The administration of the Khanty-Mansii Autonomous Okrug, in conjunction with the federal Ministry of Natural Resources, is conducting a tender for the rights to explore and develop the hydrocarbon resources in 18 exploration blocks in the okrug, Interfax reported on 27 April. An information packet describing the blocks is available for $10,000 and an official presentation will be held in the region on 1 June. The tender is open to both foreign and domestic companies, and according to the agency, "major Russian oil companies" have already expressed an interest. JAC

Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued an unexpected order to Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov and heads of various power ministries to intensify control over the office of the Prosecutor-General, the MVD, and other security or law enforcement agencies in Krasnoyarsk Krai, "Trud" reported on 30 April. According to the daily, Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed neither asked nor knew anything about the "assistance" President Yeltsin was about to offer. Earlier, Lebed had enlisted Primakov in his fight against local business baron Anatolii Bykov, who is now facing criminal charges for money laundering (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 14 April 1999). The newspaper speculates that Yeltsin's order was prompted by information from Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov, who heads a commission investigating economic crimes in the region. Kolesnikov has reportedly had to enlist new personnel as the number of criminal cases needing attention far outstripped expectations. JAC

Krasnoyarsk police officials are enforcing passport and visa regulations more strictly after a conflict between two groups from Azerbaijan erupted into violence, RFE/RL's correspondent in Krasnoyarsk reported on "Korrespondentskii chas" on 17 April. Police detained 400 persons from the Caucasus, 40 of whom were taken into custody for passport violations, while seven were arrested on suspicion of committing a series of crimes. Several parking lots and businesses including the restaurant "Night-time Baku" have been closed. The leadership of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Krasnoyarsk tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the two warring groups on several occasions. Later they appealed to the local police not to persecute their people indiscriminately. Aleksandr Gorovoi, head of the city's Interior Ministry, responded that "Honest people have nothing to fear. We are happy to have guests, however we will not allow order in our city to be disrupted." JAC

The decision of a group of banks to demand that a $50 million credit be repaid ahead of schedule has put Leningrad Oblast on the verge of declaring itself bankrupt, "Vremya MN" reported on 27 April. The oblast has until 5 May to pay the full amount. The deputy chairman of the oblast's Finance Committee, Dmitrii Shiraev, told the newspaper that by that date, the oblast can pay only the full interest due--around $2.5 million. He added that the banks themselves understand that the oblast doesn't have the money, but they want to get as much money back as quickly as they possibly can. The region's aim is just the opposite, and he predicted that negotiations will continue to be quite difficult. JAC

On the 13th anniversary of the Chornobyl disaster, Russia's Supreme Court ruled that construction of a nuclear power plant can proceed in Kostroma Oblast, "Vremya MN" reported on 27 April 1999. That ruling follows an appeal by environmentalists who were protesting an oblast court's decision several months ago in favor of local residents supporting the new plant. The latter had argued that a 1996 referendum in Kostroma Oblast, in which almost 90 percent of the electorate voted against the plant, was illegal on the grounds that issues concerning nuclear power must be decided at the federal level. According to the newspaper, however, those residents were motivated primarily by the fact that the construction of the power plant also envisaged a new sewage system that would have served their villages. The decision to build the plant was first taken in 1980, but following the Chornobyl accident the authorities came under pressure from the public not to proceed with the project. JC

A recent meeting in Norway of parliamentary deputies from Scandinavia, Russia's State Duma, and oblast legislatures in Russia's Northwest showed Murmansk officials clearly putting oblast economic considerations above national foreign-policy issues, according to the RFE/RL Russian Service's "Korrespondentskii chas" on 17 April. After State Duma Deputy Speaker Artur Chilingarov told the meeting that continued NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia would mean the end of cooperation in the Barents region, Murmansk Premier Anatolii Malinin hurriedly called a press conference to stress that his oblast is not prepared to renounce that cooperation, which, he stressed, had been developed on the initiative of local governors and not at Moscow's bidding. In this effort, Malinin found the support of Murmansk Governor Yurii Yevdokimov, who earlier had spoken out in favor of sending Northern Fleet warships to the Balkans. RFE/RL's correspondent in Murmansk points out that the oblast is heavily dependent on both humanitarian aid from and economic ties with Norway, a NATO member. Of the many projects in which Norway is involved (including the construction in the oblast of a fish--processing factory that will give employment to a whole village), the most important is the proposed creation of a Murmansk-Kirkenes free trade zone, which is expected to boost the oblast's business ties with its Scandinavian neighbor. JC

"Vremya MN" reported on 29 April that the way is being paved for Omsk Mayor Valerii Roshchupkin to run for the posts of both city head and governor of the oblast. Previously, elections to both offices had taken place on the same day; since candidates are prohibited by law from conducting two election campaigns simultaneously, the city authorities have now decided that the two elections will take place separately--presumably with the mayoral vote, which Roshchupkin looks certain to win, preceding the gubernatorial ballot. The city council is reported to be introducing changes to the city regulations that provide for the elected post of "vice mayor," whose most important task would be to deputize for the mayor. Thus if Roshchupkin were to win the gubernatorial elections, he would have a replacement--and an elected one at that--lined up. "Vremya MN" notes that State Duma deputy speaker Sergei Baburin (elected as a deputy from Omsk Oblast), speaking to his constituency a couple of months ago, had recommended that Roshchupkin call early mayoral elections and, having won them, compete against Leonid Polezhaev for the governorship. JC

After a six hour closed-door debate, Vladivostok's election commission decided on 27 April to stop preparations for elections for the city's legislative assembly, which were scheduled for 16 May, "Vremya MN" reported on 28 April. According to "Izvestiya" the same day, the commission has not received money for holding the election. Those funds should have been transferred to it more than a month ago. The previous day, "Vremya MN" reported that acting Mayor Yurii Kopylov is refusing to transfer the 2.5 million rubles ($103,000) needed to hold the elections because, according to him, the chairman of the election commission "cannot be trusted with the people's money." However, many city residents, according to the daily, believe that Kopylov's stance might be connected with the fact that he will likely be removed from his office as a result of such elections. The city's last legislative assembly, some of whose members were later removed from office, selected former Mayor Viktor Cherepkov both as the body's speaker and as the city's new mayor. A local court overturned the decision. JAC

Deputies in Primorskii Krai's Legislative Assembly have passed a bill on gubernatorial elections in the krai on its second reading, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 29 April. According to the law, each candidate for governor must make a cash deposit equal to 10,000 times the lowest state wage, which would now be about 8.35 million rubles ($346,000), according to "Izvestiya." If the candidate is not elected and attracts less than 5 percent of the votes cast, then the money goes to replenish the krai's budget. Legislators also established a maximum of $1.5 million that can be spent on an election campaign. The next reading of the law will occur at the legislature's next session, according to Interfax. Elections for governor are scheduled for December 1999. Incumbent Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko and a State Duma deputy from the krai Svetlana Orlov have already declared their intention to run. JAC

A computer virus called "Chernobyl" paralyzed dozens of computers in the offices of Primorskii Krai's administration and the regional branch of the Central Bank on 26 April "Vremya MN" reported the next day. Much information has been lost, but total damages from the virus have not yet been estimated. JAC

The oblast electoral commission has refused to register a group seeking to carry out a nationwide referendum on introducing a new federal constitution that would reinstate councils (soviets) as the country's main power structure and on abolishing the posts of federation president, governor, and mayor, "Izvestiya" reported on 28 April. The group has been formed by supporters of Trudovaya Rossiya (Working Russia) and the Union of Officers. The oblast commission said it rejected the group's application to register because the referendum questions contravened the existing Russian Constitution and the federal law on referenda. JC

On 28 April, more than 3,000 medical workers in almost all of the krai's hospitals and clinics staged a three-hour strike to protest unpaid wages worth 486 million rubles ($20 million), Interfax-Eurasia reported ... SVERDLOVSK. Forty-eight workers at Sverdlovskmetrostroi, the construction company for the rapid transit system in Ekaterinburg, have stepped up their hunger strike to protest unpaid wages by refusing not only food but also water, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 28 April. At the same time, 157 of their striking co-workers continued with the more "usual" form of hunger strike. Two days later, the federal Ministry of Finance announced that it was transferring 19 million rubles ($786,000) (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 31 March and 21 April 1999).

by Julie A. Corwin

More than 1,000 thousand watches were bought at the Chistai watch plant Vostok for delegates of Otechestvo's second congress in Yaroslavl, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 29 April. The watches are but a small example of how Luzhkov is using largesse--often courtesy of the Moscow city government--to build support for his party in the regions. In fact, during the party's second congress in Yaroslavl in late April, some attendees were hoping to get much more expensive items than just a wristwatch.

For example, Deputy Mayor Vladimir Golov told "The Moscow Times" that Yaroslavl is hoping to get money from the city of Moscow to complete a $80 million venue for the World Ice Hockey Championships. According to Golov, Yaroslavl already owes the city of Moscow $8.4 million for an earlier loan to build the rink that it cannot repay. Luzhkov's pledge of a 120 million ruble credit at the beginning of 1998 to the oblast's administration for the construction of the rink was a primary reason for the departure of a number of local politicians from Our Home Is Russia to Otechestvo, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta-Regiony." Luzhkov also provided key support for Rybinsk Motors' effort to win a defense contract to manufacture a new jet engine. Perhaps not coincidentally, the informal leader of Otechestvo in the oblast is the director-general of Rybinsk Motors, Yurii Lastochkin.

In Udmurtia, a similar pattern can be detected. Shortly before Otechestvo candidates won 42 of 100 seats in the Legislative Assembly in Udmurtia, Luzhkov traveled to Izhevsk and signed a batch of new cooperation agreements with the incumbent chairman of the republic's legislature, Aleksandr Volkov, himself an Otechestvo candidate. Under the agreements, Moscow agreed to buy electricity meters, medical equipment, and an experimental shipment of batteries for Moskvich car manufacturers from local factories, "The Moscow Times" reported.

Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center told the daily that while economic agreements appeared to be a major factor in Otechestvo's victory in Udmurtia, Luzhkov may not be able to count on using them as effectively in the future, since "he is now much weaker financially." Certainly, the Moscow city government's creditors would agree. Some of Moscow's creditors have already declared their unwillingness to begin negotiations to reschedule a $200 million credit. Instead, they are preparing to demand that the city make payment in full on $100 million it still owes rather than just the $4.5 million in interest due (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 1999). In addition to the $100 million debt, the city must also make payments of 39.5 billion lira ($22 million) and $23.7 million on two Eurobond coupons on 17 May and 31 May, respectively.

As the city he governs faces financial pressure, Luzhkov faces a challenge of another sort in Sverdlovsk Oblast, where the movement's unity is rapidly crumbling in a battle over leadership. Upon returning to Ekaterinburg from the Yaroslavl congress, the head of a local supermarket chain, Igor Kovpak, announced that he would himself run as a candidate in upcoming gubernatorial elections and deprive Ekaterinburg Mayor Arkadii Chernetskii, the newly elected head of the local Otechestvo branch, of the votes of local pensioners, who receive a discount on goods at his stores, "Vremya MN" reported on 30 April. Kovpak is angry that he was not elected to Otechestvo's central council in Yaroslavl as, he claims, Chernetskii promised him, according to the newspaper.

Another equally ambitious local figure is Valerii Trushnikov, director of the Gornozavodskii Ural enterprise, who also vied for leadership of the branch. According to the daily, he dropped his claim on the condition that he would be selected chairman of the oblast legislative assembly.

The earlier dispute between Trushnikov and Chernetskii has not reignited, but Luzhkov may not find it easy to use money and lucrative contracts to both cool tempers and dampen ambitions in Sverdlovsk that he himself earlier helped to provoke. And if even a small fraction of Russia's remaining 87 regions display a similar lack of unity as Sverdlovsk or make financial demands such as Yaroslavl, Moscow's mayor may find that he has more problems than Moscow's Treasury--even at its peak--could ever handle.