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Russia Report: July 18, 2007

Moscow Content To Block Kosovo Resolution

By Victor Yasmann
July 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Once again the Western powers have attempted to find the right formula for compromise on Kosovo, and once again Russia has rejected it.

Russia on July 12 turned down a third draft resolution on Kosovo based on a plan submitted by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari that provides a framework for independent statehood under the supervision of the European Union.

The latest version, taking into account Russian objections to the previous proposals, extends to four months the amount of time allocated for talks between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians on the future status of the province. The proposal, circulated at the UN by French and British delegates, also reportedly contained a condition under which the Ahtisaari plan would no longer automatically go into effect if the two sides failed to reach an agreement.

'Nothing New'

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing journalists on July 12, said the last document differed little from the previous versions aside from its wording.
"We can only support a draft resolution that is acceptable to both sides, Pristina and Belgrade. So far we see no such agreement." -- Lavrov

"Behind the rather intricate diplomatic language of the draft resolution, there is a conclusion that after 120 days, whether or not the sides reach an agreement, the Ahtisaari plan will come into effect," he said. "And as you know we can only support a draft resolution that is acceptable to both sides, Pristina and Belgrade. So far we see no such agreement."

Essentially, Lavrov made clear that there is little room for compromise on Russia's part, unless Serbia agrees to independence for Kosovo, a development most pundits consider unrealistic.

In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica quickly rejected the new draft proposal, and back in Moscow, Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the "situation In Kosovo does not require an immediate solution."

Nevertheless, Lavrov assured journalists, "the problem of a decision on the independence of Kosovo has not been taken off the agenda."

Exchanging Polemics

Regardless, the latest Russian rejection has already led UN envoy Ahtisaari and Lavrov to engage in a new round of polemics.

Speaking in Helsinki, Ahtisaari said Moscow's reluctance to work out a compromise could further harm Russia image abroad. "Rather than strengthening its international position, Russia only weakens it," he said.

Lavrov, however, dismissed Ahtisaari's remark. "If he really said this, I consider his statement to be inappropriate. Maybe such a statement could reduce another country's international status, but not Russia's," Lavrov said on July 13.

He added: "If, in the course of considerations, one of the parties cannot accept these proposals [by Ahtisaari], negotiations should continue and they should be assisted by an impartial international mediator."

Hard-Line Stance

Lavrov's comments are in keeping with the position Russia has long held on the issue, one that has led it to hint that it might veto the plan if it reaches the UN Security Council.

As recently as July 9, Lavrov said that any solution not agreeable to both Serbia and Kosovo "cannot make it through the Security Council." Prior to that, responding to recent comments by U.S. officials, Lavrov said in a June 26 interview with RTR that "statements that that independence for Kosovo is inevitable do not convince us."

Lavrov sees little need to compromise (AFP file photo)

Although most pundits agree that Moscow's veto threats are no bluff, they differ in their interpretations of the Kremlin's hard-line stance.

When considering Moscow's motivation for its position, most cite Moscow's desire to extract concessions on other issues, to prevent a separatist trend within the Russian Federation, and to defend the inviolability of countries' territorial integrity.

Other analysts believe that Russia seeks to use the possibility of an independent Kosovo as leverage against neighboring states that seek closer ties with the West.

President Vladimir Putin, for instance, has repeatedly said that an independent Kosovo could serve as a precedent for the frozen conflicts in Georgia, whose pro-Moscow regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia seek independence, and in Moldova, whose pro-Moscow Transdniester region also wants statehood.

Political Headache

In reality, however, Moscow is currently less fearful of seeing independence movements sparked within its ethnic republics, such as Chechnya, and does not really want to alter the status of breakaway republics in CIS states either.

If, for example, the independence of Kosovo were declared (a development that many consider inevitable) Russia would logically have to keep promises it has already made to the leaders of the breakaway republics and recognize their independent status. But in doing so, for example, regarding Abkhazia, Russia would also be forced to define its position on the hotly contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the source of a bitter armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan from 1988-94.

But whatever decision Moscow makes on Karabakh, whether it be recognition or ignorance of its independent status, it can be assured of angering either Armenia or Azerbaijan.

Russia understandably would like to avoid such a political headache, and will seek to preserve the status quo rather than risk taking a stance on the principle of self-determination as opposed to territorial integrity.

Fixing Past Mistakes

There is also another factor in Moscow's persistence on the Kosovo issue. It relates to Russia's role in the Balkans in 1990s, when the country, under President Boris Yeltsin, cooperated with NATO and the United States in trying to resolve the Yugoslav crisis.

At that time, then-Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin flew to Belgrade to convince late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to deal with the West. But in hindsight, Moscow now looks upon its decision as an embarrassing example of weakness and concession and would like to make amends.

As Sergei Karaganov, the head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy and a political adviser to Putin's administration, noted in a commentary on on 16 June, "Many in Moscow now want American and European colleagues to pay the full price for their games in Kosovo, although they do not want to admit it publicly."

In seeking to make up for its retreat from the Balkans in the past decade, Moscow has located the "weak link" in the West's position on Kosovo. Russia realizes that any unilateral declaration of independence for Kosovo that does not follow UN procedure will not be recognized by all members of the European Union, and could cause a rift within the bloc.

Russia designed its strategy on Kosovo based on this calculation.

Tired Of Cooperation

A good way of describing this strategy can be found in a recent comment by Aleksei Pushkov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst for NTV, who said on his show "Postkriptum" on 7 July that Russia should not "help the U.S. and EU escape from the difficult situation in Kosovo." He also listed reasons for testing the West's mettle on Kosovo.

First, he said, Russia has previously tried to cooperate with the United States and NATO -- particularly in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 -- and has come away disappointed.

He said that if Russia does not get the concessions it seeks on Kosovo, it "will not see reciprocal steps toward us neither on the issue of U.S. missile-defense elements in Europe, nor on other issues on which we differ."

Second, the situation over Kosovo belongs to a category of "who will overplay whom." The Western media writes about it in terms of the EU being hostage to the Russia position and that Russia should be not allowed to define EU foreign policy, Pushkov said, but this is the language of competition, not cooperation. Therefore, if Russia were to alter its position on Kosovo toward compromise "it would be perceived [by the West] not as act of partnership, but as the defeat of a competitor who surrendered to pressure."

Pushkov's third point was that Russia's confrontation with the West on Kosovo is a matter of principle.

The main criteria, according to Pushkov, is whether Russia will return to the international arena as an independent player.

"Putin wants to turn the Kosovo [issue] into a demonstration that Russia has regained its clout. If we retreat, we will once again we be considered to be feeble," Pushkov wrote. "If we stand, our claims to a role of significance will be justified."

In the end, even a brief analysis of Moscow public-opinion leaders' statements on Kosovo shows that the Kremlin -- due to its interpretations of the country's ambitions and national interests -- is not interested in a quick resolution of the Kosovo problem.

Analyst Says Russia's CFE Pullout Harms 'Trust And Transparency'

The removal of Russian tropps from Transdniester is one major sticking point (file photo)

July 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's July 14 announcement that it is suspending its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty has been criticized in the United States and Europe. But Russia did leave some room for negotiation on the agreement, considered to be the foundation of peace and stability in Europe.

RFE/RL correspondent Michael Scollon asks Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for the Russian newspaper "Novaya gazeta," what he believes Russia hopes to achieve by threatening to scrap the CFE.

RFE/RL: What are Russia's main problems with the CFE treaty?

Pavel Felgenhauer: Basically about the Istanbul commitments [commitments Russia made in Istanbul in 1999 under the CFE II treaty to remove its troops from Georgia and Moldova] -- the Russian presence in the former CIS, and that is the main problem.

The main sticking point now is Moldova, where Russia is adamantly refusing to withdraw its troops from the Transdniester region. And President [Vladimir] Putin and other Russian officials have said that they do not recognize the right of the West to impose on Russia such limitations and basically do not want to withdraw their troops, and Moscow said they have a right to keep them there.

This is another thing that will decrease trust and increase tension, creating a confrontation that some call the 'New Cold War.'

There are other, more minor, problems. Russia wants a ratification of the adapted treaty [CFE II] and wants further changes, mostly to fully abandon right off the 'flank' limitations [eds: The CFE Flank Agreement retained limits on equipment such as tanks and armored personnel carriers, but applies them to a smaller area] that were in the original treaty and now Russia believes that there should not be any flank limitations. That's again a sticking point, especially with Turkey and Norway.

RFE/RL: Why has Russia said it will wait for 150 days officially to leave the treaty, and during this period what is the status of its commitments?

Felgenhauer: So right now, this 150 day period, this is a legality. So Russia right now is still complying to CFE. Actually, last month the Russian Defense Ministry refused two requests -- or postponed them, actually, as it was -- for inspections from Bulgaria and Romania. I was told several days ago by an American diplomat here in Moscow that Russia has changed its mind, and now the inspections are going ahead, including also an inspection that was demanded by the United States. So Russia is right now complying for 150 days more, beginning from July 14. That's a legal requirement. Of course there can be consultations during this period, but right now both sides have dug in their heels and it doesn't seem that anything might budge.

RFE/RL: Russia says it is not "closing the door" on negotiations on the CFE treaty -- what concessions will Russia be seeking in the next 150 days?

Felgenhauer: The main Russian concession -- what Russia is demanding is -- is a swift ratification of the adapted treaty (CFE II), adapted in 1999 in Istanbul, which the West is refusing, demanding that Russia should first fully withdraw troops from Moldova and Georgia. Russia is of course right now withdrawing its bases from Georgia, but it's not clear if it would fully withdraw because there is a base in Abkhazia, in Gudauta, which apparently has not been fully withdrawn. Then there is the problem of Russian peacekeeping troops, whose presence Georgia doesn't like.

RFE/RL: What makes the CFE treaty so significant, and how closely were the two sides abiding by its terms in the first place?

Felgenhauer: More or less the treaty was adhered to. It helped to create an unprecedented in history disarmament in Europe, when right now we don't have any -- the American forces before CFE were 600,000 men and women in arms in Europe; now there's only 60,000 left -- that's a 10 times reduction. And there were many other reductions, so this created a network of peace and trust in Europe, which right now are being undermined by Russia withdrawing from the treaty.

RFE/RL: What changes can we expect if Russia withdraws from the CFE?

Felgenhauer: No one right now is expecting a buildup of any forces anywhere, like it was during the Cold War when two great armies faced each other in mid Europe. Such a thing is impossible. But lost of trust, and since there are many other different issues that create ill feeling between Russia and the West -- it's missile defense, the Kosovo problem, the slaying of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London -- I mean, lots of other things. And this is another thing that will decrease trust and increase tension, creating a confrontation that some call the 'New Cold War.'

RFE/RL: How does the CFE affect Russia's ability to address security on its own territory, and how will dropping the treaty affect its relations with the West?

Felgenhauer: The CFE did not play any significant role in actual military operations in the North Caucasus or military deployments because everyone more or less is way below quotas.

Pavel Felgenhauer (RFE/RL file photo)

What's being lost with Russia withdrawing from the CFE is trust and transparency, which will create much ill feeling between Russia and the West -- especially between Russia and Europe, because the United States has its own capabilities to monitor Russian military movements from satellites and so on. But the United States does not fully or eagerly share this information with its European allies.

The CFE did not play any significant role in actual military operations in the North Caucasus or military deployments because everyone more or less is way below quotas.

RFE/RL: Could Moscow's decision in any way be tied to the Sochi Olympics? For example, if Russia sought to boost security by bringing in more troops, would the treaty have hampered such an effort?

Felgenhauer: No it's not connected to the Sochi Olympics -- only maybe Russia was waiting for the formal announcement of its withdraw after the vote to get the Olympics. Just tactical things.

RFE/RL: Is there anything about the timing of Russia's announcement that is significant? For example, do you think it was intended to counter the July 16 talks in Washington between the U.S. and Polish presidents, seeing as they are expected to discuss the contentious plans to set up parts of a missile-defense system in Central Europe?

Felgenhauer: I don't think that that [was the case]. President Putin announced his intention to do what was done in April. Since then, how to do it legally was being very hotly discussed in Moscow.

RFE/RL: Are any other countries likely to follow Russia's lead by suspending their participation in the CFE treaty?

Felgenhauer: Well, Belarus might. Hardly anyone else right now, and I'm not totally sure that Belarus will, because actually dropping this treaty doesn't give Belarus anything.

Analyst Sees Potential In Europe's New Relationship With Russia

Is Vladimir Putin's Russia tired of being dictated to?

July 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Many commentators say the chill between Britain and Russia reflects a deeper rift that has been growing between Moscow and Europe.

Katinka Barysch, the head of the Russia research program at the London-based Centre for European Reform, has written extensively about politics and economics in Eastern Europe and advised Britain's House of Lords and European Commission on foreign policy. Barysch tells RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten that she believes Europe has woken up from its illusions about Russia. And that may not be a bad thing -- if it leads to a more pragmatic relationship.

Does all this talk in Europe about a growing rift with Russia and a gap in values mean we're in for a new Cold War?

Katinka Barysch: This is not the return of anything like the Cold War. The Cold War was a global, systemic, long-term conflict between two power blocs that was backed up by conflicting ideologies. It was global, there were proxy wars all over the world. Nobody is talking about anything like that at the moment.

Russia's doesn't claim it has an alternative ideology to what we have in the West, it just says: "We are a free country as well and we want to do things our way. What we want is not global dominance. What we want is respect." [This is] after what they see as a decade of humiliation.

So what we will see is a different kind of relationship, where Russia is not part of the West and it's not necessarily always a friend of the West, but it will cooperate with us in some areas and it will disagree in others.

RFE/RL: Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Parliament that he considers Russia a "key international partner" in areas like trade and the fight against terrorism. But at the same time, London has made it clear it doesn't share Moscow's values or trust its institutions. Can London -- or Europe -- have it both ways? Can it ask Russia to be a partner while at the same time telling Russia it is not a member of the club?

Barysch: That is the only way to go forward because we do need Russia and not only for its energy, but we also need it as an international player. Russia has a seat in the UN Security Council, it has a veto. We need Russia's help to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, to find a final status for Kosovo, and for all sorts of other issues.

So we need to have a functioning relationship with Russia but this can be an arms-length relationship. It doesn't mean that we have to continue pretending that Russians and Europeans all live in a common European house and share the same values. Because that is obviously not the case.

RFE/RL: So you're saying Russia will never be a part of Europe and Europe has now awoken to that reality?

Barysch: What made the relationship between Europe and Russian dysfunctional over recent years is that we couldn't acknowledge the reality that Russia was different. We kept on pretending that Russia was basically on a linear path toward capitalist economics and pluralist democracy. Now we have acknowledged that this is not the case so we will find a new way of dealing with each other. That might even be healthy.

RFE/RL: When did the relationship between Europe and Russia begin to change? What was the catalyst that made the West reevaluate Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Barysch: There wasn't a particular point. There was a rethinking that started in about 2002 already, as we saw that we were making very little progress with Russia on the very ambitious plans that we had to build a strategic partnership, to build what we call common spaces where we integrate very deeply in economics and on security issues and so forth.

And around 2002 we saw that there wasn't much progress on the ground and that working with Russia was actually exceedingly difficult. Why? [We asked ourselves] is our strategy working? Now that rethinking on the European side was painful for us, because we see Russia very much as part of the European continent and the European project. For us to let go of the idea that Russia wanted to be like us and wanted to work with us was quite painful. But it is happening now.

RFE/RL: If Europe has rethought its approach to Russia, what's the incentive for Moscow to cooperate?

Barysch: I think one of the main reasons why you see Russia being somewhat angry and antagonistic at the moment is because it wants to be taken seriously as a big international player. Now the way it goes about this at the moment is that it works as a blocking force in international processes, such as Kosovo -- not necessarily on Iran, where it has been more cooperative -- but on other issues it has mainly just used its veto.

Now, if Russia wants to be seen as a big international player in the medium to long run it also has to show responsibility. It has to work with us to do things that are necessary to preserve international peace and stability. Russia has absolutely no interest in an arms race in the Middle East or in political instability in the Balkans, or for that matter in the Caucasus or elsewhere in the neighborhood. It has no interest in blocking global progress in climate change and all sorts of other issues. So I do believe that once Russia is more self-confident in its international role, that it will be a responsible international player.

You know, we work on many international issues with China. Now nobody believes that China has to be our best friend or has to be like us or has to believe in our values but we do work with China on many issues. It is just that we saw Russia completely differently, until recently.

RFE/RL: So, in your view, Europe should give up on the humans-rights, democracy agenda in Russia and adopt a "realpolitik" stance?

Barysch: What hasn't worked over the last decade or so is that we think we can tell Russia what to do, because they just resent that. So at the moment, the only way forward that I see is that they find their own way of doing things. We're ready to help if we can but we cannot make our international relationship conditional on Russia following our advice at home.

RFE/RL: Won't this approach leave Russian human-rights advocates and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the lurch? After all, they are counting on Western support to push their reformist agenda.

Barysch: That might well be the case but it's not that we haven't tried. We have tried to lecture Russia on human rights. And I think we should continue, obviously, to make the case for civil liberties, human rights, and democracy in Russia.

But we should be very specific in our criticism because our past experience has shown that if the West is united and if it is united on criticism, then we can have an impact. So that with the NGO law that was modified at the last minute to make it a little less stringent. But we shouldn't give Russia broad public lectures on the way it is going. If we criticize very specific cases, then we can probably make a difference.

Gazprom Looks To A LNG Future

By Roman Kupchinsky

By 2010, LNG could account for one-third of gas trade

July 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is positioning itself to become a major player in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) business.

As the oil and gas markets become tighter in the future, the Kremlin is banking on the possibility that LNG could be both a lucrative business and a useful tool in political leverage.

According to an April report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, LNG will account for one-third of all gas trade in 2010 and 62 percent by 2020.

Sales for LNG infrastructure items such as regasification terminals and seaborne carriers are booming as the uncertainty surrounding the world's oil industry continues to spread and crude prices edge upwards towards $80 a barrel.

A Russian LNG carrier fleet is slowly being assembled by the Sovcomflot shipping company, whose CEO is Igor Shuvalov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest advisers. Presently the company, in partnership with Japan's NYK Line, has four LNG carriers on order, two with South Korea's Daewoo group and two with Japan's Mitsubishi. In January 2007, Sovcomflot took delivery of two LNG carriers built by South Korea's Hyundai.

A total of five LNG carriers are slated to handle LNG deliveries from the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project in the Russian Far East. This is a relatively small number, considering that 45 vessels are currently under construction in various countries to carry LNG from Qatar to the United States.

A recent report from the international energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency, predicted that "oil looks extremely tight in five years time" and there are "prospects of even tighter natural gas markets at the turn of the decade."

No Pipelines Required

LNG, unlike vaporous natural gas, is not reliant on pipelines to reach consumers. Like oil, it can be carried by ships in its liquid state to any corner of the globe where facilities exist to unload it, store it, and restore it to its previous gaseous state.

In the past, Russia has been accused of playing "energy politics" and using natural gas as a weapon in its dealings with its neighbors.

Specialists say Russia is lagging far behind other gas-producing countries when it comes to LNG production and shipping.

The Kremlin's LNG ambitions might also harbor political goals. By having the capability to ship large quantities of LNG to the United States, Canada, and Asian countries, Russia could enhance its leverage over these countries.

In 2006, Russia's state-controlled gas company Gazprom announced that it had ambitions to become a leading LNG supplier to the enormous U.S. market. Gazprom announced it was eager to claim more than 10 percent of this market by 2010 and then increase its share up to 20 percent. The company also signaled its interest in downstream assets, such as transport and regasification terminals, in the United States.

It's unclear, however, where Gazprom intends to send the LNG -- to the United States or elsewhere.

Shtokman Field

Gazprom is promoting the development of the giant Shtokman gas field (with reserves of 3.7 trillion cubic meters of gas) in the Barents Sea. Under an early plan, LNG from Shtokman was to be shipped to the United States, while gas from the field would go via the projected Nord Stream pipeline underneath the Baltic Sea to Germany. Foreign companies were asked to participate in a tender to build the project.

However, in October 2006, Gazprom sent shockwaves through European and U.S. energy markets by announcing that the company will develop the $20 billion Shtokman field without the participation of foreign partners.

Adding to the disenchantment was a statement by Gazprom that most of the LNG from Shtokman will not be shipped to the United States as originally planned, but sold on European markets.

Some analysts attributed the cancellation of future sales to the United States as Russian payback for critical comments about Russia by U.S. officials. Gazprom, however, has never explained the reason for this decision.

The decision was hailed as good news for Europe by Burckhard Bergmann, the boss of Germany's largest gas firm, E.ON Ruhrgas. Bergmann is also a member of the Gazprom board.

But a recent volte-face suggests that Gazprom needs foreign companies to help develop the field.

At the beginning of July, Gazprom's deputy CEO Aleksandr Medvedev announced that foreign companies would be allowed to participate in developing Shtokman.

Medvedev said Gazprom would "allow foreign partners to share in the economic benefits of the project, share the management, and take on a share of the industrial, commercial, and financial risks."

Gazprom announced on July 12 that it had chosen France's Total to be a partner in Shtokman, mainly because of the company's vast experience in LNG.

Gazprom has said it hopes to have the field operational by 2013, producing 71-94 billion cubic meters per year. Medvedev said Gazprom hoped to begin shipments of LNG from the field by 2014, a date considered by some to be optimistic.

The main factor behind the reversal on foreign companies developing the field was probably the need for technical expertise to develop Shtokman -- expertise which Gazprom does not possess.

Technical Lag

Specialists say Russia is lagging far behind other gas-producing countries when it comes to LNG production and shipping.

With that in mind, is Russia truly positioned to become a major LNG exporter to Asian and North American markets in the near future?

The Standard & Poor's ratings agency noted in a June 2006 study of the Russian LNG industry that a potential challenge could be Russia's own enormous demand for gas. Standard & Poor's noted that by invoking "force majeure" clauses, Russia could divert gas intended for LNG export to local markets during peak usage periods.

"Political risk, opaque legal and business systems, and Russia's short history of contract law and enforcement will distinguish its LNG projects from recent LNG project financing in Qatar, Oman, and Trinidad and Tobago," the Standard & Poor's report stated.

And a commentary on the future of the LNG market in "Platt's Power in Asia" noted: "One thing seems certain: competition for LNG is set to increase, as North America and Western Europe emerge as increasingly voracious markets."

For Putin and his successor, the possibility that Russia's former enemies might be competing against each other for its prized resource could well be comforting - and, more than likely, food for thought.

Feline Landmark Fears Eviction

By Chloe Arnold
MOSCOW, July 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The proprietor of one of Moscow's best-loved attractions says he faces losing his premises in the city center to greedy property developers. Yury Kuklachyov, who runs the Moscow Cat Theater, says he has received threats to move out of his building on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, home to some of the city's most exclusive boutiques.

Kuklachyov and his cats have been entertaining Moscow's children -- and their parents -- for 20 years now. His idiosyncratic show features domestic cats of all shapes and sizes climbing poles, spinning through the air, and turning acrobatic tricks.

But in recent months, Kuklachyov says, a number of unpleasant events have led him to think his days at his current address are numbered. It started earlier this year, he says, when officials from the city police's Economic Crimes Unit arrived at the theater unannounced, to check the day's takings.

"It's very sad, because the Cat Theater is one of the more quirky landmarks of Moscow's cultural scene," a founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society said.

"They came to look at all our accountant's documents," explained Irina Vasilchikova, the theater's press secretary. "But since there were no violations in what they found, they were obliged to let the show go on. As for who tipped them off -- because they don't just turn up like that under normal circumstances -- we're still trying to get to the bottom of it."

The Economic Crimes Unit failed to return repeated calls to its office this week, while the city government's office said its spokesman was on vacation.

Downtown Boom

Kuklachyov, who has lodged a complaint with the local courts, says he suspects property developers may have been behind the recent visit. His theater occupies prime real estate on one of Moscow's most sought-after streets. It's also a stone's throw from the Moskva-City development -- a multibillion-dollar financial district that's nearing completion.

Russia's vast oil wealth has fueled a construction boom in recent years, particularly in the capital. Many old enterprises, including the Red October Chocolate Factory and the Muzei Kino cinema, have been forced out of their city-center premises to make way for luxury apartments and office blocks.

As well as having his books checked, Kuklachyov has received complaints from residents in the neighboring building about the smell coming from the theater. In a tiny room covered with photographs of some of the 300 cats -- and the occasional dog -- he has trained over the years, Kuklachyov says he had never had objections before.

"You know, someone was specifically in charge of and oversaw all these events," Kuklachyov told RFE/RL. "The thing is that before this, employees of banks and boutiques in the neighborhood came to me and were very insistent in trying to offer me a lot of money to sell them my building. They said 'Yury Dmitriyevich! We'll build you a new theater very close by!" And then suddenly, when this building was turned into a state theater -- when it fell under, let's say, government protection -- they started to approach city officials [as another way of getting their hands on the property]."

Devoted Fans

During an intermission at a recent performance, members of the audience said they would be sad if Kuklachyov and his cats were forced to leave.

The stars of the Moscow Cat Theater (courtesy photo)

"It happens all too often that these sorts of attractions -- theaters and libraries and shows for children -- are being kicked out of the center and into the suburbs," a woman named Olga, who was attending the show with her 4-year-old daughter, Katya, said. "It all probably depends on the politics of our government, the politics of the Moscow city government. Of course it's not right that they are doing this. Children are our future, and we need to think about them."

But Clementine Cecil, one of the founders of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, says it comes as no surprise that the Cat Theater is facing eviction.

"It's very sad, because the Cat Theater is one of the more quirky landmarks of Moscow's cultural scene," Cecil said. "But it's not surprising that Kutuzovsky [Prospekt], which has always been very much associated with status -- it's not surprising that something like the Cat Theater is being moved on, because the priority of Kutuzovsky at the moment is definitely retail."

At the end of another show, Kuklachyov, who always plays the same cherry-lipped, long-nosed clown, waves to the children and takes a bow. The set is designed by his wife, and the costumes are sewn by his daughter. This year his son, Dmitry, also a clown, started a cat show of his own. Yury Kuklachyov says friends from all over the world have been calling him, after hearing about his problems.

"They call me from Canada, from America and say: 'Yura! What are you doing? Drop everything and come and live here with us! You'll be rich, not earning kopeks, like you do over there!' But I say to them: 'Friends, I can't live without Russia. My heart begins to fade away [when I leave]," he said.

For now, he thinks he has managed to keep hold of his premises. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is said to be a great fan.

But, Kuklachyov says sadly, as he starts to scrape the greasepaint off his cheeks, it's probably only a matter of time before another official turns up at his door and turns him out for good.