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Russia Report: April 17, 2008

Russia Prepares For Lengthy Battle Over Ukraine

By RFE/RL analyst Victor Yasmann

Former Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko insists "the richest people in both Russia and Ukraine long ago made the decision in favor of NATO"

Russia's pro-Kremlin mass media lauded the recent NATO decision in Bucharest to delay issuing Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to Ukraine and Georgia, hailing it as a victory for departing President Vladimir Putin.

However, many serious pundits in Russia have been less smug. They appear to regard the objections formulated by Germany and France as temporary obstacles and think that NATO remains bent on including Kyiv and Tbilisi around its table. Ukraine is of particular concern, because, as the emerging neo-nationalist ideology in Russia argues, without that country, Moscow cannot restore its status as "the center of power in Eurasia."

"NATO membership for Ukraine means death for Russia," nationalist publisher Aleksandr Prokhanov has said.

At the same time, Russia's ruling elite is acutely aware of its significant geoeconomic interests in Ukraine, particularly since Ukraine and Belarus are the main conduits for Russian hydrocarbon exports to Western Europe.

Finally, Putin has a personal stake in the outcome. During Ukraine's 2004-05 Orange Revolution, Putin personally intervened on the side of then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who led the "anti-Orange" camp. The failure of that heavy-handed intervention was presented around the world, including in Russia and Ukraine, as a major foreign-policy fiasco for Moscow. Media reports at the time indicated that the failed effort in Ukraine was coordinated by Putin's then chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev.

Russian analysts realize that support in the United States for Ukraine's eventual NATO membership is not limited to the George W. Bush administration. It has bipartisan backing in both houses of the U.S. Congress, both of which this year passed resolutions of support. Russian media have noted that all the remaining U.S. presidential candidates -- Senators John McCain (Republican, Arizona), Hillary Clinton (Democrat, New York), and Barak Obama (Democrat, Illinois) -- support NATO membership for both Ukraine and Georgia. Obama was an initiator of the corresponding resolution in the Senate.

In addition, the concluding document of the NATO summit in Bucharest, which was endorsed by all NATO members of both "old" and "new" Europe, clearly states that Ukraine and Georgia should become members of the alliance.

Russian pundits have also noted with concern that, although a majority of Ukrainians still opposes NATO membership, that majority is slipping. The pro-Kremlin news agency RosBalt earlier this month published research that indicates the percentage of Ukrainians actively opposing membership has fallen from 70 percent to 35 percent in the last two years. Other research indicates that 60 percent of Ukrainians oppose joining NATO while 40 percent favor membership.

Moreover, the Ukrainian government is working to continue turning this tide. President Viktor Yushchenko told Germany's ZDF television recently that he thinks the percentages can be reversed within two years. Yushchenko's belief is well-founded, as the country's political elite -- with the exception of left-leaning parties -- is solidly pro-NATO and Ukrainian media -- which, unlike Russia's, are genuinely independent -- broadly support membership.

Observers in Moscow have also expressed concern that the traditionally pro-Russian elements in Ukraine have been antagonized by the recent gas wars and various other clumsy efforts initiated by Moscow. In October, for instance, the pro-Kremlin Eurasian Youth Movement (ESM) entered Ukraine and vandalized some state symbols at the summit of the country's highest peak.

The protest outraged the Ukrainian authorities and public opinion, especially after press reports suggested that the instigator of the action was International Eurasian Movement leader Aleksandr Dugin. The ESM is part of Dugin's umbrella organization. In the wake of the scandal, Putin fired Modest Kolerov, the head of the presidential-administration department in charge of ties with CIS countries who had enlisted Dugin as an adviser.

Pro-Kremlin propagandists also emphasize the idea of a "military threat" from the alliance, even though some of Russia's top defense officials are skeptical of such a threat. First Deputy Prime Minister and former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for instance, said in April 2007 that Russia faces no military danger on its Western borders, saying that the real potential danger lies in the Far East and the Pacific region.

"It is true," Ivanov said, "that we have NATO [in the west], but we have acceptable relations with it and a system of treaties and mechanisms has been established." This assessment, made during a speech in Vladivostok, went little noticed by the central mass media. As a result, a significant segment of Russian public opinion is convinced the Western alliance presents a military threat to Russia.

Meanwhile, the war of words is continuing. CIS Institute Director Konstantin Zatulin debated Anatoliy Hrytsenko, chairman of the Verkhovna Rada National Security and Defense Committee, recently on NTV. Hrytsenko laid out a passionate defense of the pro-NATO position.

"The richest people in both Russia and Ukraine long ago made the decision in favor of NATO," Hrytsenko said. "Their children study in universities in NATO [countries]. They buy property and yachts in NATO. They send their wives to give birth in NATO countries. They buy soccer clubs in NATO countries. Do you think the citizens of Russia are stupid? If not, then you are. How long will you continue to inflict Soviet-propaganda stereotypes on them?"

Unable to respond logically, Zatulin simply accused Hrytsenko and Ukraine of "treason." In general, Russian media hit the theme of Ukraine's "treason" heavily in the days surrounding the Bucharest summit.

In refusing MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia, NATO explained that the step is unwarranted because of "unfavorable public opinion [in the two countries] and unresolved ethnic conflicts." Since Moscow feels it can do little to turn the current tide of public opinion in Ukraine, policy analysts are looking at the second issue. The Kremlin has successfully manipulated "unresolved ethnic conflicts" in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Kosovo to advance its geopolitical interests.

In a March 31 article in "Izvestia," Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is a leader of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, urged Moscow not to extend its treaty of friendship, cooperation, and partnership with Ukraine. That document expires on April 1, 2009. The 1999 treaty establishes the border status of the Crimean Peninsula and the right of Russian Black Sea Fleet to use its base at Sevastopol. Luzhkov argued that withdrawing from the treaty would allow Russia to reopen its territorial claims on Crimea, which has an ethnic-Russian majority and was part of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) during the Soviet period.

The day after Luzhkov's article appeared, some Duma deputies made similar arguments in hearings on the question of Ukraine's possible NATO membership.

On April 7, "Kommersant" reported that Putin had questioned Ukraine's right to exist during a closed-door Russia-NATO Council meeting in Bucharest. Citing an unidentified NATO source, the daily said Putin told his counterparts that in order to prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance, Russia was prepared to claim the eastern and southern parts of the country. "Ukraine will cease its existence as a state," Putin purportedly said.

Ukraine's reaction to the report was surprisingly muted. Verkhovna Rada speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk told journalists in Moscow that he does not consider such threats "realistic," adding that the idea of splitting Ukraine is "illusory." In fact, Yatsenyuk has good reason to be sanguine. The Ukrainian public and the political elites are united in opposing any division. Even the pro-Moscow Party of Regions and the pro-Russia oligarchs of eastern Ukraine have little taste for division. Perhaps more importantly, a split Ukraine would not satisfy Russia's economic interests, since even the rump western portion would be able to disrupt flows of Russian energy exports to Western Europe.

This does not mean that Russia will stop playing this card. Vladimir Batyuk, an expert with the Institute of the U.S.A. and Canada, has said the Kremlin's goal is to split the alliance as deeply as possible on the issue of further eastward expansion, not the absorption of Ukrainian territory. In fact, he added, the Kremlin does not want to see too great a weakening of the alliance, to say nothing of its disintegration: "If NATO disintegrates or is defeated in Afghanistan, then Russia will face a Taliban threat again, just as it did eight years ago."

To Steady EU And Ukrainian Courses, Rock The Boat

By Roman Kupchinsky
Pro-Western Ukrainians have long expressed the fear that their country's place on the map could doom it to a fate as a buffer between Russia and Europe.

Such a role, they argue, would forever prevent Ukraine from assuming its rightful place in the West. Recent events suggest that their concerns are warranted.

Kyiv's bid at the recent NATO summit for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key step toward eventual membership, was always more symbolic than realistic.

After all, notwithstanding the desperation exhibited by Ukrainian officials ahead of the meeting in Bucharest, most Ukrainians remain staunchly opposed to NATO membership.

The European economic giants within NATO -- Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom -- have also been vocal in their opposition to Ukraine getting a MAP.

Ahead of the April 2-4 summit, those countries stressed the need for Ukraine to strengthen democratic institutions, improve the rule of law, ensure stability, and combat corruption -- the same mantras that "old Europe" has invoked to counter talk of Ukraine someday joining the European Union.

The underlying rationale for NATO's rejection of a MAP for Ukraine at this stage, however, is the European powers' reliance on Russian energy and the fear that Moscow would punish them if they agreed to allow Ukraine in.

NATO softened the blow by promising eventual membership and saying the MAP issue will be addressed again later this year.

Will anything change when NATO foreign ministers reopen the debate in December? Not unless Russia runs out of gas in eight months -- which, of course, is not going to happen.

The fact remains that the European powers collectively have invested tens of billions of euros into energy projects with Russia, and they do not want to risk losing those investments by upsetting the Kremlin.

With 80 percent of its Russian gas imports transiting Ukraine, the European Union's greatest nightmare is waking up one morning to find its gas artery severed due to internal conflict in Ukraine instigated by its powerful eastern neighbor.

Playing off those fears, Russian leaders are keen to see Ukraine play a role akin to that of Finland during the Cold War -- independent, yet toeing the Kremlin line on foreign policy and security.

Such a "Finlandization" of Ukraine would appear to have the benefit of satisfying "old Europe" while also allaying its fears of alienating Russia.

The realization of such a concept is something that Berlin, Paris, London, and Rome are likely to support in order to keep the gas taps open. It would also make two things clear: a) Ukraine's fate as a geopolitical buffer between the EU and Russia would be sealed; and b) Kyiv would, as a result, have no place within NATO's ranks.

But while not rocking the boat might serve Europe's short-term interests, it would be wise to take a hard look at the long-term advantages it stands to gain from ensuring a measure of control over the gas supplies that will largely shape its future.

Integrating Ukraine into Western structures like NATO and the European Union could go a long way toward achieving such control, while sparing Ukraine a fate as a Russian lackey.

Roman Kupchinsky is a former director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and a partner in the U.S.-based consultancy AZEast Group

The New And Improved Single-Party State

By Brian Whitmore

Is Unified Russia the new Communist Party of the Soviet Union?

In accepting an invitation to become the leader of Russia's ruling party, outgoing President Vladimir Putin has not only secured a comfortable job for himself after leaving the Kremlin. He's also set the stage for a potential overhaul of the country's political system.

Putin announced his decision to lead Unified Russia during a speech on the second and final day of the party's congress on April 15 in Moscow.

"Working efficiently together, the government and the parliamentary majority make it possible to successfully develop the economy, improve health care and education, raise incomes, and strengthen our country's defense," a forceful-sounding Putin said, to thunderous applause. "I accept, with gratitude, the proposal put forward by party members and its leadership."

Putin has already said he will serve as prime minister when he turns over the presidency to his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev next month.

But analysts say it is the Kremlin leader's decision to become the head of Unified Russia that could prove even more significant. The move gives Putin a power base that should enable him to remain Russia's de facto ruler -- possibly indefinitely, if he so chooses. This is because Unified Russia is more than just a ruling party. It is the single reservoir of the country's political, business, and bureaucratic elite.

Holding The Reins

In an interview with RFE/RL, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Institute for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that leading Unified Russia gives Putin control over most of the country's political establishment.

"He'll have the State Duma as a resource, since Unified Russia has a majority there," Kryshtanovskaya says. "He will have control over the Federation Council, where they also have a majority. He will have control over regional parliaments, because there they have a majority as well. These regional parliaments confirm the governors. His administrative resources will increase significantly."

Analysts say the emerging arrangement is beginning to resemble the Soviet system, in which actual power resided with the Communist Party, and high state posts -- like the president, prime minister, or leader of parliament -- were largely ceremonial. The general secretary of the Communist Party was the country's true ruler.

Kryshtanovskaya says the system has been "substantially modernized" to accommodate a market economy, and contains window dressing like carefully managed multicandidate and multiparty elections that give the appearance of plurality but ultimately keep power within the central party.

In essence, she says, Russia's evolving political system is taking nearly all its cues from the USSR. "This process can be called Sovietization in the most general sense," Kryshtanovskaya says. "Many mechanisms of the state machine are beginning to resemble Soviet ones. This includes the process of leadership recruitment, which will go through Unified Russia."

Advantage, Putin

Putin's move also means that he will remain personally dominant in Russian politics even after Medvedev moves into the Kremlin.

Analysts have been divided over whether as prime minister Putin would be able to maintain control over Russia's political system and sprawling bureaucracy, given the enormous constitutional power Medvedev will enjoy as president. (Medvedev this week declined an invitation to join Unified Russia, saying such a move would be "premature.")

Lilia Shevtsova, co-chairwoman of the Russian domestic politics and political institutions project at the Moscow Carnegie Center, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that Putin is now gaining political "weight and muscle" as he prepares for his post-Kremlin career.

"Imagine President Medvedev without a party, or as a rank and file member of the party, or even a member of its leadership," Shevtsova says. "But the leader of that party is Putin. Therefore in this tango for two, the disproportions will increase [in Putin's favor]. This will weaken the position not only of the president, but the presidency itself."

Shevtsova describes Unified Russia as being "like a glove on Putin's hand" throughout his presidency. It was formed in 2001 -- largely as a vehicle to support Putin's policies -- when the pro-Kremlin party Unity merged with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's Fatherland-All Russia.

Party Purge?

There had been some speculation about whether Unified Russia's dominance would continue after his presidential term ended.

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst who heads the Moscow-based Institute for National Strategy, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that before Putin's ascent to the party leadership, top members of Unified Russia had been increasingly fearful of losing their privileges under the incoming regime.

"Unified Russia is not a party in the classical political understanding of that term. Unified Russia is a club of bureaucrats and businessmen who have one aim: access to the Kremlin trough," Belkovsky says. "Boris Gryzlov, the formal leader of Unified Russia, [deputy Kremlin chief of staff] Vladislav Surkov, and their comrades are very frightened that President Dmitry Medvedev will exclude them from the trough."

The new developments, of course, mean that that will most likely not happen. Shevtsova says having Putin at the helm gives the party "a second wind."

But in his acceptance speech, Putin indicated that his leadership comes with strings attached. The party, it seems, can expect changes in the near future -- possibly in the form of a Soviet-style purge.

"The party, as I have already said many times, should be reformed," Putin said. "Essentially, this is exactly what we're witnessing now. It must be more open to discussion, taking into account the views of the voters. It must be rid of bureaucracy, cleared of random people pursuing solely their personal goals and benefits."

Russia: Ex-Kremlin Journalist Talks From U.K. Asylum

By Chloe Arnold

Yelena Tregubova in an undated publicity photo for her book "Tales Of A Kremlin Digger"

Five years ago, she was the talk of the Russian publishing world: a sassy young reporter unafraid of spilling the beans about what really goes on behind the walls of the Kremlin.

Today, Yelena Tregubova lives in a secret location in the United Kingdom, where she fled after her writing made her many new enemies.

It's been just a week since her asylum application was accepted, and the former "Kommersant" reporter has been told not to reveal her address -- even to her family in Russia.

"I feel huge relief, as you can imagine, because for a year I was living with this massive uncertainty" as U.K. authorities processed her asylum request, Tregubova says. "That's to say I hoped against hope, but couldn't be 100 percent sure, that it would be approved. The British government could just have decided to wash their hands of this matter, they could just have said, 'Why would we want to get involved with this journalist and her problems? Let's just keep on good terms with the Kremlin and forget about her asylum application.'"

Tregubova's asylum victory comes at a critical time in British-Russian relations. Some say the relationship is at its most strained since the Cold War. Russia has refused to extradite the man wanted in Britain for the murder of Aleksandr Litvinenko -- a former security service agent-turned-British citizen, who was poisoned in London in 2006.

Russia, in turn, accuses Britain of harboring wanted men, including business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, and Chechen separatists, including Akhmed Zakayev.

Both Russia and Britain have expelled diplomats. More recently, the British Council has been forced to close its doors in Russia. Last month, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) raided the Moscow offices of the British oil major BP.

'Kremlin Digger'

For Tregubova, however, Britain has become a refuge, and her home for the foreseeable future.

"I think that while the current regime is in power -- the one created by [President Vladimir] Putin, as the [former] head of the secret services -- I won't be able to return to Russia," she says. "The door is closed for me, because I would be in mortal danger [if I went back]."

Tregubova's troubles began after the publication in 2003 of her hugely successful "Tales Of A Kremlin Digger," a book that dished the dirt on life in the Kremlin. There is the story of an intimate lunch with Putin, then head of the FSB, at a sushi bar in downtown Moscow. "I couldn't tell whether he was trying to recruit me, or chat me up," she writes.

Tregubova recounts the bungling attempts of factory bosses to impress the president on regional tours, and presidential blunders that his PR men try to cover up.

But as sales of the book skyrocketed, Tregubova lost her job, was thrown out of the Kremlin reporters pool, and started to receive death threats. An explosion went off outside her door that she says was certainly intended to kill her. Then, a year ago, she got another threat.

"I was abroad at the time, and I got information [that] I would be in mortal danger if I returned to my homeland," she says. "Of course, I knew that there was a difference between bravery and suicide. I'm not a kamikaze."

She confesses that "frankly, I didn't think that when my book was published these nasty goings-on would go so far. Who would have thought that people would go to such lengths for revenge?"

Journalist Deaths

An alarming number of journalists in Russia have learned the hard way just how strong the opposition to their work can be. Since Putin came to power in 2000, more than a dozen journalists have been killed in contract killings -- the most recent occurring just last month, and the most sensational being the slaying of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Forty-seven journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 1992, according to the international Committee To Protect Journalists, while reports of beatings and intimidation are common.

Often enough, the government plays a prominent role in the pressures faced by the media.

Natalya Morar, a correspondent for the weekly "Novoye vremya" who has Moldovan citizenship, was barred last month from entering Russia for a second time. She was prevented from entering Russia in December on national-security grounds after writing articles about alleged corruption within the Kremlin.

And as of April 7, accredited journalists have been barred from open access to the Russian White House, the main government office complex in Moscow. All official press communications will be distributed by fax and e-mail and published on the government's official website, ending the need for journalists to physically enter the building except for official events.

Tregubova says she despairs of the current state of the media in Russia.

"It's probably not very ethical for me, sitting so far away, in a civilized European country, where human rights are guaranteed, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are taken for granted -- it wouldn't be ethical for me to criticize those colleagues of mine still in my homeland," Tregubova says. "But frankly, I think that what's going on there is less like journalism than some sort of harem."

The New 'Samizdat'

She says even the boldest of her Kremlin-reporter friends have been reduced to writing flattering anecdotes about the president. No one dares to criticize or write anything different today, she says, because they fear the consequences.

As for television, she says, it has become a "nightmare similar to what was shown in Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev's era." Russia's three main television channels are either state-controlled or owned by Kremlin-friendly enterprises, which means you never see news that's critical of the government, Tregubova says.

What is interesting, she says, is that samizdat -- the illicit reports published during the Soviet era that were critical of the regime -- have started to reappear, but in a different format.

"In fact, the strange thing today is that the Internet is playing the role of publisher of samizdat," Tregubova says. "I think that the future journalism textbooks will reflect this. Have a look, for example, at the website -- content-wise it is human rights-oriented per se. In fact, this is just what existed before -- underground 'chronicle of the current events' or chronicle of what was going on during the pre-reform times in the Soviet Union."

Recently alarms have been raised that the government -- after becoming wary of modern methods of disseminating information -- has stepped up efforts to monitor and control electronic communications and the Internet. In addressing a recent Internet forum, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev reportedly told the audience that the government must consider "the delicate question of the relationship between freedom of speech and responsibility."

"I'm afraid that the Russian media must go through the very same difficult path it went through [at the collapse of the Soviet Union]," Tregubova says. "Just as when Yeltsin's reforms began, we built journalism with our own hands, we started a new style, we tried to study western journalism -- so the next generation will have to do the same thing in 10, 15 years' time, when the current regime has gone."

Today, Tregubova is writing another book about her experiences. It keeps her busy, she says, and stops her thinking about the things she misses about Russia: "so many things, it's too painful to talk about them."

But what she doesn't miss is the way that the country is run today.

"I just think it's very sad that the history of reform in Russia, the attempt at liberalization -- it's all over. This great historical opportunity has been lost," Tregubova says. "Russia has gone back to being a colony for former KGB agents, who've changed in name only -- a fuel-rich colony for a small group of oil and gas merchants who give nothing of their riches to anyone living outside the capital."

In Daghestan, Curtain May Close On Play Recalling Dubrovka Tragedy

By Chloe Arnold

Actors rehearse a scene from "In Your Hands" about the deadly Dubrovka theater siege in Moscow in 2002

MOSCOW -- Fairy lights twinkle on the stage at what might be the start of a fun-filled musical extravaganza.

Then a woman in black appears, veiled, and with explosives strapped to her waist. A gun is slung across her shoulders. Suddenly, the audience realizes that things have gone wrong.

This is the opening scene of Natalia Pelevine’s "In Your Hands," a play that portrays the tragic events that took place at the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in October 2002. Then, just as in Pelevine’s play, hundreds of theatergoers flocked to watch "Nord-Ost," a popular musical that had recently opened in the capital.

But as the curtains opened at that fateful performance in 2002, militants from the breakaway republic of Chechnya took to the stage, wielding guns and threatening to blow up themselves and the theater unless the Russian government put an end to a bloody war in the mountainous North Caucasus region. Many of the hostage-takers were women -- the "black widows," so called because they wore only black after losing their husbands in the war.

But the Russian government refused to negotiate, and four days later, special forces stormed the theater after first pumping a mysterious gas into the auditorium. All 41 of the hostage-takers and 160 of the hostages died in the assault, most apparently due to the effects of the gas.

Pelevine, who was born in Russia but has lived in the United Kingdom since her teenage years, was deeply upset by the event.

"Just the whole idea -- and me being a theater person -- the whole idea of a theater being taken over in such a way, it just shocked me profoundly," she says. "This time, I decided to channel it through my writing, and do something about it. So that's what provoked [the play]. The idea is to try to make audience members feel as if they've been taken over by the terrorists, to create that atmosphere as much as possible, and that mood."

Chilling Performance

"In Your Hands" closely follows the events of the Dubrovka siege, with actors scattered throughout the real audience playing the roles of some of the theatergoers back in 2002. It's a chilling performance, one Pelevine says is supposed to provoke spectators into thinking how they would behave in a real hostage situation.

The play was first staged in a small theater in London two years ago. Now Pelevine has brought it to an 800-seat theater in Makhachkala, the capital of the North Caucasus republic of Daghestan -- a venue more similar to the Dubrovka, which makes it feel even more realistic, she says.

Russian special forces pumped a mysterious gas into the theater, killing all 41 of the hostage-takers and 160 of the hostages.

The opening night last week was a full house, with even Daghestan's president, Mukhu Aliyev, showing up on short notice to watch.

"We had no previous warning that he would be showing up," Pelevine says. "He walked out at the end of the play, without applauding, literally before the curtains even fell, which we obviously read as not a good sign. Shortly afterward, the director approached me and said: 'Well, we’re done. The play is finished. They told us to shut it down.' We were told to make it just go away -- now and for good."

Aliyev, who is seen as a deep Kremlin loyalist, assured reporters in Daghestan earlier this week that although he had not enjoyed the play, he had not called for a ban. On his official website, Aliyev says he cannot understand the point of the play, which appears to glorify terrorism, but adds that he is against censorship of any kind. He says the order to close the play may have come from the republic's Culture Ministry.

No Ban, 'In Principle'

But a spokesman for the ministry, Murat Atayev, told RFE/RL that wasn't the case. "Well, in principle, officially, there has been no ban on the play," he says. "It's just that the [culture] minister has taken ill, and the leading actress has also fallen ill, and so it seems that the show cannot go on. That's how it has turned out."

Atayev told RFE/RL that the director of the play, Skandarbek Tulparov, also appeared to have fallen ill. But Tulparov, apparently in reasonable health, said the show will go on, with a fresh performance scheduled for April 12. (Editor's note: The play was not performed on April 12. Tulparov said afterward that the performance "was not banned, but it was not permitted, either.")

"Now it seems that the president says he never ordered the play to be canceled, so we will continue with the show," Tulparov says. "Our next show is on the 12th. They seem to be saying now that they never banned it. It looks like he is saying he has a negative opinion about the play, but he also says that he is entitled to his own opinion."

A scene from the "Nord-Ost" musical a few days before the hostage crisis at the Dubrovka theater

But Pelevine, who left for Moscow after the debut performance, says she is convinced the ban came from Aliyev himself, and accused the Daghestani leader of making spurious claims about the play.

"He went as far as to connect this to England, and to [London-based Russian business tycoon Boris] Berezovsky, probably the most well-known oligarch in exile," Pelevine says. "And he went as far as to accuse me of trying to destabilize the republic of Daghestan. I take this very seriously, and I have every intention of taking this to court."

Touched A Nerve

Berezovsky, once a close ally of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was a strong supporter of the first Russian campaign in Chechnya, from 1994-96. But when Vladimir Putin came to power, he fell afoul of the new regime and fled to the United Kingdom, where he was granted asylum. Today, he is a vocal critic of the Russian government.

Pelevine's play undoubtedly touched a nerve in a region that borders Chechnya and that has its own troubled history of hostage-taking dramas, most notably the 1995 siege in Budyonnovsk staged by Chechen separatists led by Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev. Violence has steadily risen in the republic in recent years, and Aliyev has been tasked by the Kremlin with attempting to fight the rise of Islamic insurgency.

For Pelevine, the choice of Makhachkala as a venue was appropriate. While the play's fate remains uncertain, she says the audience at the premiere appeared to be very moved by the drama.

"Women cried. I saw all that. I'm sure there were those who didn't like it. Theater is all about that," she says. "It's all about some kind of dialogue and feelings and feedback. But unfortunately this was a slightly different situation altogether. The rest of the public who booked their tickets for the following performances were never given a chance to make up their own mind. And that's very sad."

RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report