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Russia Report: September 8, 1999

8 September 1999, Volume 1, Number 28
Meeting with leaders of coal-producing regions in the Kremlin on 30 August, President Boris Yeltsin promised to increase funding for the coal sector to 15 billion rubles ($581 million) next year, Interfax reported. Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev told journalists after the meeting that Yeltsin had asked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to make the necessary corrections to the 2000 budget draft, which, according to Tuleev, had provided for only 6 billion rubles for the coal sector. In particular, Putin noted that Yeltsin had approved the coal sector's proposal that mining unions monitor the use of funds allocated by the government. Also taking part in the meeting were Komi leader Yurii Spiridonov and Rostov Governor Vladimir Chub. JC

For the third consecutive year, school teachers in Chita Oblast disrupted the beginning of the new school year to demand the payment of back wages totaling 113 million rubles ($4.4 million), Interfax reported on 1 September. Similarly widespread actions took place in the Republic of Altai, where teachers are owed some 85 million rubles for the past eight months, as well as in Smolensk and Kursk Oblasts. Some schools in Kostroma, Kurgan, and Tver Oblasts also remained closed. ITAR-TASS reported on 2 September that a total of 16,500 teachers were taking part in the strike action and that pupils at some 390 schools were affected. The news agency noted that the situation was less tense than in 1998, when some 2,500 schools remained closed for the beginning of the new school year, but pointed out that the government owes teachers a total of 3.5 billion rubles. JC

According to Interfax on 6 September, a total of 14 people have come down with cholera this summer in Vladivostok (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 1 September 1999). The news agency cited Primorskii Krai's chief sanitary official as saying that the main source of the cholera outbreak in the region has now been localized. He said that cholera bacteria have been traced to a waste dump in the city. Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS reported the same day that 12 people on Sakhalin have been diagnosed with the disease over the past few weeks. Medical experts believe the local source of the infection is water from the Khomutovka River used for domestic needs. But it appears that, as in the case of the Vladivostok outbreak, cholera may have been imported to the region. In early August, two Sakhalin residents returned to the island from China suffering from cholera, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 1 September. According to medical experts cited by the newspaper, the cholera bacterium found in residents of Sakhalin and Primore who were in China earlier this summer is similar to that discovered later in residents who have never been to that country. Meanwhile in Volgograd, 16 people have died from meningitis since the beginning of last month, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 4 September. JC

Chief editors of local newspapers and heads of the oblast's television stations have issued a statement saying they will not tolerate candidates in the upcoming State Duma elections exerting pressure on their outlets, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 September. Noting that some journalists have already become aware of such pressure, the media chiefs said they will "do their utmost to ensure that the elections take place in an atmosphere of openness and that voters have as much trustworthy information about the candidates as possible." JC

The oblast Election Commission has registered a 116-strong group, led by State Duma deputy Nikolai Gonchar, that is in favor of holding a referendum on the proposed Russia-Belarus union, Interfax reported on 2 September. The group wants citizens throughout the federation to answer the question, "Do you consider it necessary that the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus unite into a democratic federal and law-abiding state?" The Moscow City Election Commission had refused to register the group, saying that the question's wording is inconsistent with the Russian Constitution. JC

The krai Election Commission on 30 August halted its investigation into the funding of Governor Aleksandr Lebed's 1998 election campaign, four days after the local television journalist Marina Dobrovolskaya had handed over photocopies of documents that allegedly showed financial violations (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 1 September 1999). According to the commission, it decided not to proceed with the investigation because the documents were neither originals nor certified copies. Dobrovolskaya refused to hand over the originals, which she had received from a former member of Lebed's election team who had dealt with campaign funding. On 2 September, she appealed to both the Russian Central Election Commission and a krai court to declare the krai Election Commission's decision "unfounded and illegal," according to Interfax-Eurasia. As "Vremya MN" commented on 31 August, this latest scandal vis-a-vis Lebed was hardly unexpected, given the recent warrant issued in the krai for the arrest of Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant head Anatolii Bykov. Bykov is now a recognized foe of the governor, but at the time of the 1998 Krasnoyarsk gubernatorial elections, he and Lebed had joined forces to unseat then Governor Valerii Zubov. Bykov is widely thought to have played a major role in financing Lebed's election campaign as well as ensuring that "his [Bykov's] people" managed the financial affairs of that campaign. JC

The mobster Vladimir Tatarenkov, known as "Tatarin" in the underworld, has told Greek law enforcement officials that he represented Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant head Bykov's interests in Greece, "Segodnya" reported on 1 September. Tatarenkov is reportedly connected with the Krasnoyarsk crime family and is wanted by the Russian authorities for 13 murders and other crimes. According to the newspaper, Bykov's name was linked to that of Tatarenkov immediately after the latter's arrest in Greece. Meanwhile, Bykov remains abroad, where he is allegedly undergoing medical treatment. JC

Nizhnii Novgorod is to seek a postponement of the upcoming interest payment on its Eurobond, "Vremya MN" reported on 2 September. A meeting has been requested with bond-holders on 22 September, and it is expected that the interest payment, which is scheduled for October, will be postponed for one or two months. Oleg Larichev of the Troika Dialog investment bank in Moscow told the RFE/RL Russian Service's "Delo i Dengi" program last week that if Nizhnii Novgorod delays paying interest on its Eurobond, it will be the first case of a Russian region postponing such a payment. Nizhnii Novgorod's Eurobond issue is worth $100 million and is due in October 2002. JC

"The Moscow Times" reported on 4 September that all restrictions on the price of gasoline have been lifted, resulting in the virtual doubling of the cost of filling up at the city's gas stations. The move came after Nizhnii Mayor Yurii Lebedev had asked Governor Ivan Sklyarov to order the price liberalization, saying that federal legislation prohibits price controls on fuel. The city has experienced fuel shortages recently because oil product traders have been reluctant to sell their products owing to the fixed prices. According to "Vremya MN" on 3 September, one day before the restrictions were lifted, gasoline prices in Nizhnii were among the lowest in the country. The same daily reported that at the end of last week, none of the city's gas stations had gasoline supplies and the public transport system had been reduced to the network of trams. JC

Mikhail Prusak scored a resounding victory in the 5 September gubernatorial ballot in Novgorod Oblast. According to the final results, cited by ITAR-TASS the following day, the reform-minded incumbent governor polled 91.56 percent of the vote. Together, the other three candidates mustered only 4 percent. Turnout was 50.16 percent. On 1 September, the Presidium of the Supreme Court had overruled the court's decision to declare the 5 September ballot illegal (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 25 August 1999), "Izvestiya" reported. However, Prusak will not be re-sworn in until December, when his current term in office ends, according to the daily. JC

Also on 5 September, incumbent Governor Leonid Polezhaev easily beat out his main challenger for that post, Aleksandr Kravets, the regional Communist head and the chief ideologist of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF). ITAR-TASS the next day cited preliminary results as showing some 57.2 percent of the electorate backing Polezhaev and 26.4 percent Kravets. The third candidate, raion administration head Aleksandr Zakharov, who was backed by the Omsk branch of the KPRF, received only 3.3 percent. Turnout was estimated at some 50 percent. The same day, incumbent Omsk Mayor Valerii Roshchupkin was re-elected, garnering some 61 percent of the vote, according to preliminary data. Local manager Oleg Shishov received 13 percent support and Aleksandr Tsimbalist, an Omsk Legislative Assembly deputy who had the backing of the oblast administration, 9 percent. JC

The Pskov authorities have asked the population to hand over illegal firearms and ammunition in exchange for the usual guarantees of immunity from prosecution as well as monetary rewards, "Vremya MN" reported on 2 September. A Pskov official told the newspaper that the decision to undertake the project was prompted by the fact that the oblast is Russia's "Western advanced post" and is "saturated" in weapons that date back to World War II or have accumulated there "because of the border." More than 2,000 firearms and pieces of ammunition had been handed in during the first 10 days of the undertaking. A similar experiment took place in Tatarstan in 1998, while last April in Kaliningrad, the Military Prosecutor's Office of the Baltic Fleet staged a large-scale arms-collection operation--albeit without offering any financial incentives. JC

Federal Media Minister Mikhail Lesin ordered Petersburg Television off the air on 2 September, after the station had re-broadcast a controversial report first shown by Russian Public Television, for which ORT had received a warning from Lesin's ministry. The report ridiculed several liberal Russian politicians and alleged that drug abuse and other transgressions took place at a St. Petersburg concert and youth rally organized by Right Cause, to which Lesin reportedly has close ties. It was produced by well-known journalist and nationalist State Duma deputy Aleksandr Nevzorov, who hosts the controversial show "Politics--Petersburg Style" on Petersburg Television and who is currently media adviser to St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev of the Fatherland-All Russia alliance. Lesin complained that, among other things, Nevzorov's report engaged in electioneering and was aimed at "discrediting" a political bloc ahead of the State Duma elections. Following a meeting on 3 September between Lesin and Petersburg Television executives, the station signed a protocol expressing regret over the report and acknowledging violations of media regulations, Interfax reported. It resumed broadcasting later the same day, some 42 hours after being taken off the air. Last month, Petersburg Television received a warning from the State Mass Media Committee for inciting racial hatred (see "RFE/RL Federation Report," 11 August and 1 September 1999). JC

Viktor Vlasov, head of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast police force, has announced that anyone wanting to organize a demonstration in the northern capital will have to pay out of his own pocket for the police presence ensuring that order is maintained, "Izvestiya" and "Vremya MN" reported on 28 August. A police official told "Vremya MN' that the move is aimed not at making money out of demo organizers but at "disciplining them." He explained that those organizers often exaggerate the number of people expected to take part in the demonstration; as a result, the police presence is unnecessarily large. JC

"Izvestiya" reported on 2 September, quoting secretary of the Saratov Communist Party Committee Valerii Rashkin, that Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov and the local Communists are planning to nominate joint candidates for single-mandate districts in the December elections to the State Duma. Ayatskov is reported to have said at a recent meeting with local Communist leaders that he has "never betrayed Communist Party ideas" and believes it is necessary to "instill" communism into the republic. While criticizing the "Ayatskov regime," Rashkin said the Communists are prepared to support any "neutral candidates" nominated by the governor. JC

Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev will occupy the number three position on the Russian Federation Communist Party's federal list for the December elections to the State Duma, Interfax reported on 4 September, quoting Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev, who had been expected to receive that position. KPRF leader Gennadii Zyuganov and Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev occupy the first and second places, respectively. Unlike various other regional heads who are included on federal election lists, Starodubtsev may be serious about taking up a Duma seat, particularly in the event that the Communists fare well in the December ballot. Charged with tax evasion estimated to have caused losses to the state totaling 130 million rubles (some $5 million at the current exchange rate), Starodubtsev would likely survive a vote on stripping him of his parliamentary immunity if the lower house were indeed dominated by leftist forces. JC