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Russia Report: September 22, 1999

22 September 1999, Volume 1, Number 30
Russian media reported on 21 September that an appeal signed by a group of 39 regional leaders is in fact a declaration of the formation of a new electoral bloc. According to "Kommersant-Daily," which is controlled by media magnate Boris Berezovskii, Berezovskii is backing the effort and a constituent congress of the bloc will be held in the near future. According to "Tribuna" the next day, the new bloc is intended as a counterbalance to the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) bloc and should be perceived as being pro-Kremlin. "Tribuna" is financed by Gazprom. Among those regional leaders who signed the appeal were the governors of Kursk, Kaliningrad, Novgorod, Belgorod, Rostov, Saratov, Stavropol, Kamchatka, and Sverdlovsk Oblasts, Primorskii Krai, and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug as well as the presidents of the republics of Daghestan, Komi, Altai, Buryatia, and Sakha, according to ITAR-TASS and the dailies. Chukotka head Aleksandr Nazarov told the agency on 22 September that more than 50 members of the Federation Council have already joined the new bloc. According to Interfax, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu many lead the group; however, Shoigu would confirm only that he has discussed cooperation with the movement's leaders. A number of the signatories to the appeal are themselves already members of other movements. for example, Primore Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko is a member of OVR and is included on its federal list, while Saratov Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov is a prominent member of Our Home Is Russia. JAC

A truck parked next to an apartment building in the city of Volgodonsk in Rostov Oblast exploded on 16 September, killing 17 people according to the oblast's web site, http// Soon after the blast, federal Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo declared that terrorism was the suspected cause. The power of the blast in Volgodonsk measured 100-150 kilograms of TNT, according to Interfax. The Russian federal government will allocate 50 million rubles ($2 million) for emergency assistance to families of victims killed and those injured by the Volgodonsk explosion, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 September. JAC

Prior to the blast, law enforcement officials in major Russian cities outside of Moscow increased their inspections of trains and trucks entering their territory. In St. Petersburg, trade was prohibited outside of the city's metro stations, "Izvestiya" reported on 15 September. Currently, in Stavropol Krai, all settlements and towns are patrolled round the clock, according to Russian Radio on 20 September. In addition, Interior Ministry troops and local police have received additional artillery and armored vehicles to defend against the almost 2,000 commandos reportedly gathered on the territory of Chechnya along the border. In Sverdlovsk Oblast, local police, in an operation code-named "Foreigner," rounded up 300 people who lacked proper registration, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 21 September. JAC

Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev panned the 2000 draft federal budget on 15 September, calling the document the budget "of an anemically sick country," Interfax reported. Stroev suggested that both legislative chambers participate in the drafting a new budget (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 25 August 1999). Stroev and other senators objected to the uneven split in revenues between the center and regions, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. According to the daily, the split under the current draft is 53 percent for the center and 47 percent for regions, although some governors are claiming it is 60-40. Deputy Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told the legislators that the federal center simply cannot afford a 50-50 revenue split because it has to service the country's foreign debt. However, senators responded skeptically to that claim, according to the daily, insisting that the budget is unacceptable in its current form. JAC

First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko blasted federal ministries and Russian oil companies on 14 September for their failure to ensure the timely delivery of food, commodities, and refined petroleum products to Russia's northern regions, Interfax reported. Aksenenko threatened that if government decisions are not implemented, administrative measures will be taken against the leaders of the relevant federal ministries, such as the Tax and Fuel Ministries. He was more vague about what would happen to oil companies that do not honor their commitments to supply the northern regions, saying only that they would be "taken to task." On 21 September, ITAR-TASS quoted an Arkhangelsk administration official as saying that the oblast has received only 28 percent of the food, 25 percent of the oil products, and 52 percent of the coal it requires for the winter. JAC/JC

Under a Norwegian-Russian program to decommission Russia's aging nuclear submarines in northern bases, a dump for fluid nuclear waste was re-opened in Severodvinsk on 10 September following upgrading by Norway's Kvaerner Maritime company. Project director Aleksandr Dementev said the dump can now store up to 2,000 cubic meters of fluid nuclear waste, which will allow six submarines to be scrapped each year. Dementev also noted that U.S. and Norwegian companies are assembling equipment for recycling fluid waste into solid matter, adding that the U.S. Department of Defense is financing that venture. JC

Yelena Baturina, the wife of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, announced on 18 September that she will seek a seat in the State Duma from a single mandate district in the Republic of Kalmykia. Baturina said that she would run as an independent candidate and plans to "engage in creative activity, notably implement construction projects" in Kalmykia, according to Interfax. Baturina's brother, who runs the INTEK construction company, is currently prime minister of Kalmykia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 November 1998). Baturina also said that she plans to take an active part in the construction of a Buddhist temple in Moscow. The dominant religion in Kalmykia is Tibetan Buddhism. According to "Izvestiya" on 21 September, Baturina could run into some competition from former Deputy Prime Minister Gennadii Kulik, who also intends to run in the same district. Kulik's name is 11th on the federal party list for the Fatherland-All Russia alliance. Luzhkov heads the Fatherland movement. JAC

Valerii Serdyukov won the 19 September gubernatorial ballot, garnering some 30 percent of votes, ITAR-TASS reported, citing the Leningrad Oblast Election Commission. Under oblast election regulations, a candidate must gain 25 percent plus one vote to be elected in the first round. Vadim Gustov, the former head of Leningrad Oblast who had resigned that post last year to become deputy prime minister in Yevgenii Primakov's short-lived cabinet, had been expected to win the ballot but received only 23 percent backing. Gustov, who was supported by the Communist Party, announced his intention to contest the election results in court, citing violations during the election campaign as well as illegal electioneering and attempts to buy votes on election day, "Segodnya" reported on 21 September. A total of 16 candidates contested the ballot. Turnout was estimated at 42 percent. JC

Police in Novosibirsk Oblast arrested the editor of a local weekly for the murder of Lyubov Loboda, the editor of a competing local, "Vesti," ITAR-TASS reported on 14 September. Police said that Loboda's competitor hired a 21-year-old man to kill Loboda for 200 rubles, "Vremya MN" reported on 15 September. The motive, according to the daily, was envy. Both editors had once worked on the same publication; however, Loboda had succeeded with her newspaper, having attracted more than 11,000 readers, while the competing journal had only 2,000. According to the daily, Loboda's rival has three earlier criminal convictions. JAC

The St. Petersburg Union of Journalists has asked the federal Prosecutor-General's Office to launch a criminal case against Russian Press Minister Mikhail Lesin for ordering Petersburg Television off the air earlier this month over the re-broadcasting of a controversial report (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 8 September 1999). According to "The St. Petersburg Times" on 14 September, the union called Lesin's decision a "blatant violation" of the rights of St. Petersburg residents to receive information and of the city's journalists to disseminate it. JC

In its annual review, the international rating agency Moody's says that the Caa1 rating awarded to St. Petersburg and its Eurobond reflects the negative impact of the ruble's devaluation and the worsening of the general financial situation in the country, "Vremya MN" reported on 15 September, citing Interfax-AFI. Moody's notes that the "speculative rating" of St. Petersburg's Eurobond bears witness to the high level of expenditures, compared with revenues, in servicing the debt (66 percent last year, compared with 38 percent in 1997), largely on account of the ruble's devaluation. And it points out that the low rating is also attributable to city's large debt--$338 million in Eurobonds and loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development--and its economic recession. JC

The second congress of Volga Cossacks, which was attended by 314 delegates from 17 federation subjects, expressed its concern at the lengthy delay in legalizing the Cossacks as a military organization and in adopting a law on the status of the Cossacks, who are currently classified as a public organization, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 September. That law--the most recent in a series of drafts--was submitted to the Duma in 1997. The delegates also called for those Cossack units currently engaged in guarding Russia's borders alongside the Border Guard Troops to be issued with arms. LF

Tatarstan parliamentary speaker Farit Mukhametshin told reporters on 20 September that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Igor Sergeev have given Tatarstan's government assurances that soldiers from Tatarstan will be re-deployed from Daghestan to other areas, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. Tatarstan's parliament on 15 September issued a decree suspending conscription to the Russian armed forces. Mukhametshin added that the earlier parliamentary decision will possibly be overruled at a 23 September session. Meanwhile in Moscow, Valerii Astanin, deputy chief of the armed forces' mobilization and organization board, said that military recruitment in Tatarstan will be resumed. According to ITAR-TASS, Astanin said the Defense Ministry will "happily satisfy" Tatar parliamentary deputies' request not to send Tatarstan's soldiers to fight in armed conflicts if they have been in the army less than six months. JAC

On 15 September, the parliament approved holding parliamentary elections on 19 December, at the same time as the elections to the Russian State Duma, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. President Mintimer Shaimiev argued that this will not impinge on Tatarstan's sovereignty and is more convenient for voters. The parliament also passed in the third and final reading legislation on reverting to the use of the Latin alphabet, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported. The law was approved in the first reading in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 1999). LF

Governor Viktor Kress has succeeded in holding on to his post, gaining some 73 percent of the vote in the 19 September ballot to easily beat the five other candidates, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported the next day, citing preliminary data. Kress, who has been Tomsk Oblast head since 1991, is chairman of the interregional association Siberian Accord and a member of Our Home Is Russia. His nearest rival, Aleksandr Derev, a deputy of the regional legislature, received some 14 percent backing. Turnout was put at 49 percent. Following his re-election, Kress announced a reshuffle of the oblast administration, Interfax-Eurasia reported on 20 September. JC

The federal Supreme Court has ordered that Nikolai Sevryugin be released from detention. Last week, the documents detailing that order were handed to the former Tula governor, who is currently in the hospital ahead of an operation to fit a pacemaker, and the guards outside his hospital room were immediately withdrawn, "Vremya-MN" reported on 16 September. Sevryugin is accused of having received bribes and misappropriated state property. At a second hearing of his case in June, Sevryugin's lawyer demanded a medical examination, as a result of which the accused was deemed to be an invalid. No date has been set for the continuation of his trial. JC

by Julie A. Corwin

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the reputation of Russian passenger air travel hit its nadir, but perhaps it was when the story first broke in the spring of 1994 about the downing of an Aeroflot passenger flight over Siberia. The 15-year old son of the plane's pilot was reported to have accidentally disengaged the plane's autopilot controls during a "lesson." Or, perhaps it was in March 1997 when the fuselage of a passenger jet was so rusted that it fell apart in the air over Stavropol. Also that year, the Tupolev-154, a mainstay of the Russian airline industry, was involved in five major accidents, and the International Airline Passengers Associations advised travelers to avoid flying to or within Russia.

More recently, Aeroflot has launched a slick new advertising campaign in major international cities and even banned smoking on short flights. But some recent news report suggest that a few kinks in airline safety remain. Last week, Russian Air Force Commander Colonel General Anatolii Kornukov declared that if more funding for the country's aging air traffic control system is not found, within 10 years flying in Russia could become four times more dangerous than in the West. Kornukov's comments followed advice from the U.S. State Department to avoid flying in Russia and other CIS countries around 1 January 2000 because of possible computer glitches caused by the so-called millennium bug.

My own recent experience flying on four of the baby flots that sprang up since the break-up of the USSR--Donavia, Vnukovo, Domodedovo, and Pulkovo--suggests that safety culture on Russian airlines at least seems more laissez faire than on Western carriers. On four out of five flights, I observed during take-off some passenger's seatbelts remaining unfastened, trays unlocked, and seats tilted back. Only on Pulkovo did I witness a flight attendant ask a passenger to adjust her seat before take-off or give instructions on where the emergency exits were located.

On Donavia, flight attendants continued selling food and drinks in the aisle during take-off. They kept one hand gripped on the back of a passenger seat and the other on the rattling metal cart. And they had to yell because of the noise of the engines inside the cabin after take-off. In theory, smoking was prohibited on all of the flights I was on, but in practice--at least on the nine-and-a-half hour flight from Moscow to Vladivostok--smoking occurred but was confined to the bathrooms.

The safety issue aside, the good news about the baby flots was that the level of comfort was comparable to that on most Western airlines, the food better than anything I have ever eaten on KLM or Malev Airlines, and the cost remarkably cheap. For example, a one-way ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok cost only 4,900 rubles ($193), while a one-way ticket from Ulan Ude to Moscow, a six-hour flight, cost only 3,460 rubles. While 4,900 rubles is several times the average monthly wage in Primorskii Krai, for example, the fare nonetheless compares favorably with similar long-distance hauls across Europe or North America.

The attendants, on the whole, were polite--sometimes even friendly--but always terse. It was probably just a coincidence, but it was on Vnukovo, the airline with the most serious labor problems, that I witnessed a stewardess sacked out during the flight from Ulan Ude to Moscow, stretched across several seats on which small black flight bags had earlier been placed. Curiously, my travel agent had told me some weeks earlier that I had gotten the last seat available on that flight. In mid-August, Russian media reported that a strike at Vnukovo was imminent because workers had not been paid for four months. At the beginning of the year, one of the workers' strike leaders was murdered.

Perhaps the real drawback to flying within Russia is not the airplanes but the airports, where seats are a relatively rare phenomenon and where having to pay to use the bathroom is no guarantee that it will be remotely clean. Adding to the discomfort is the screeching noise of packing tape being wound around each piece of luggage. Not everybody tapes up their bags. Some people wrap them in paper, like a package that is going to be mailed, with a flimsy string or thin rope handle attached; others have it encased in plastic wrap by a man at the airport who charges 60 rubles for the service.

But worst of all is the endless number of lines. First, there is one to check your luggage, one to get your ticket back, and then, if you're unlucky, one to pay a special airport tax. Then, once "boarding" begins, you must line up to enter one of the preliminary boarding areas, line up to go through security, line up to be herded to some area outdoors, and then line up for a bus to take you to the airplane, where you will line up to get on.

By that point, you're happy to finally sit down in any kind of seat regardless of whether the tray in front of you remains perpetually open at quarter-mast. And once you land safely--without the fuselage falling off somewhere over Stavropol, let's say--you happily conclude that overall the flight was a pleasant, repeatable experience.