Below are a few news items from the last week about developments in the post-Soviet space that have been overshadowed by the Georgian events but that merit attention.
RUSSIAN POLITICIAN NOW IN OFFICE BEHIND MURDER OF POLITKOVSKAYA, LAWYER SAYS. A lawyer for one of the men accused of killing investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya said that the person who ordered her killing is a senior Russian official still in office, a statement some took to mean Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and others Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (www.islamnews.ru/news-15920.html). Meanwhile, after first ordering that this case be held behind closed doors in deference to the wishes of the jurors, the judge had to open the proceedings after several jurors told the media that they had not asked for closed hearings as the judge had said (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=172813).
RUSSIAN FIRMS OWE WORKERS BILLIONS, PLAN MORE LAYOFFS. The financial crisis is hitting not only the rich and the government but also ordinary Russians who are being forced to cut back on their purchases of even basic items like food, in many cases because they are not being paid the wages they have earned. The government announced that unpaid back wages had grown 33.4 percent in the month of October alone to 4.024 billion rubles (160 million U.S. dollars) (www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=500192). Many workers have already lost their jobs, and one-third of all Russian companies now say they plan to reduce staffing in the coming weeks (forum.msk.ru/material/news/608697.html).
UNEMPLOYED MIGRANTS MAY SPARK PARIS-STYLE REVOLT. Unemployment is high and rising among the country’s immigrant labor force, with officials projecting that as many as four million guestworkers will be without jobs soon (www.nr2.ru/moskow/208256.html). That has prompted fears among many Russians that Moscow may soon face ethnic and religious-based violence of the kind that wracked Paris and other French cities two years ago (www.ng.ru/moscow/2008-11-21/8_gastarbaiter.html). In a development that may calm or exacerbate the situation, radical Muslim leader Geidar Dzhemal has announced plans to create a special labor union for migrants (www.sobkorr.ru/news/492C2496CC853.html).
PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH OF RUSSIANS DETERIORATING, SERBSKY INSTITUTE SAYS. Serbsky Institute psychiatrists say that the mental health of Russians is deteriorating as a result of the economic crisis, not only because of the stress that it is placing on them but also because there simply are not enough psychological service outlets at affordable prices (www.gzt.ru/health/2008/11/27/155028.html). In other comments, one of the psychiatrists said, 17.7 percent of the country’s draftees are now being exempted from service because of mental problems of one kind or another, and 45.9 percent of serving soldiers who are discharged early are let go for the same reason (www.pravda.ru/health/293675-voenkomat-0).
DRUG ABUSE, HIV INFECTIONS AMONG RUSSIANS UP DRAMATICALLY. Russia has become the leading consumer of heroin from Afghanistan, Moscow public health officials say (www.kommersant.ru/news-rss.aspx?NewsID=135502). At least partially as a result, more than 30,000 Russians now die each year from the use of heroin and other illegal drugs (forum.msk.ru/material/news/614753.html#). In a related development, three-quarters of Russian drug addicts now are infected with the HIV virus, the highest share of addicts in any country in the world (www.izbrannoe.ru/50661.html).
FALLING PRICES MAY ALLOW RUSSIA TO BUILD MORE ROADS. In one of the few pieces of good news to come from the economic crisis, transportation minister Igor Levitin says that the current 15 to 25 percent decline in the cost of construction materials will allow Russia to build more roads next year (auto.lenta.ru/news/2008/11/28/bridge/). He did not say whether there were any plans to change the formula Moscow uses in paying for highway construction, one that often means the government supports repairing old roads rather than building new ones.
KREMLIN SEEKS TO INTIMIDATE MEDIA OUTLETS. The Russian government is increasing its pressure on media outlets of all kinds that report anything the Kremlin doesn’t like. Prosecutors warned “Vedomosti” that it risked being charged with extremism if it published another article like the one that suggested Russia might face a wave of Novocherkassk violence in 2009 (www.vedomosti.ru/newsline/index.shtml?2008/11/21/687829). The article the authorities didn’t like was prepared by the widely-respected economist Yevgeny Gontmakher. It is available online at www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2008/11/06/167542
RUSSIAN VIEWS OF OTHER COUNTRIES CHANGING QUICKLY, POLLS SHOW. Over the last two months, Russian attitudes toward the United States, the European Union, and Georgia have changed dramatically while those toward Ukraine have remained more or less constant, according to Levada Center polls. Russians have become more favorably inclined to the US and the European Union and less negative about Georgia, which for many still remains “enemy no. 1” (www.izbrannoe.ru/50582.html).
BISHOP DIOMID NOW LONGER A THREAT TO ORTHODOX UNITY. Diomid, the dissident bishop who many feared would produce a new schism in the church, is losing support and most recently has failed to appear in public to take part in church activities. As a result, he may be expelled from the church, his successor Archbishop Mark of Chukotka and Anadyr says (www.izbrannoe.ru/50655.html). Meanwhile, church officials removed an icon which featured a picture of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin from a church near St. Petersburg. The priest who put it up has asked to be relieved, with some journalists saying that he has become “a martyr” for Stalin (newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/320042/cat/42/).
CHECHEN LEADER ORDERS REBUILDING OF SUFI SHRINE. President Ramzan Kadyrov visited the shrine of Sheikh Bammat-Girey-haji Mitayev, a follower of Kunta-haji Kishiyev, the founder of the Qadiria tarikat in Chechnya in the 19th century. Finding it in bad condition, Kadyrov ordered that the shrine be rebuilt and people in the area provided with special state assistance (www.islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusnews/5952/).
LIFE EXPECTANCY AMONG NORTHERN PEOPLES FALLS TO 45 YEARS. Conditions for the numerically small peoples of the north of Russia are so bad that life expectancy among many of them is now only 45 years (mariuver. ordpress.com/2008/11/25/korennye-narody-severa/#more-3486). One of the major reasons for that is the collapse of medical services there. According to “Gazeta,” first aid now reaches people in Evenkia only 25 hours after someone calls for it, in Chukotka after 28 hours, and Yamalo-Nenetsk district after 18 hours (www.gzt.ru/society/2008/11/23/222901.html).
MORE RUSSIAN SCHOLARS PAYING ATTENTION TO ETHNIC ISSUES BUT SOME ARE ‘RACIST,’ TISHKOV SAYS. The number of Russian scholars studying ethnic issues has increased dramatically over the last 15 years, according to Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology. He notes that in 1993, only 80 attended an all-Russian congress on this subject, while in 2007, some 800 did. But unfortunately, the increase in number has not always been accompanied by an increase in quality. Some of the new recruits are followers of Lev Gumilyev’s theories and in fact are “racists,” Tishkov says, or they remain trapped in Soviet-era definitions they have learned from those who trained them (www.argumenti.ru/publications/8481).
ECOLOGISTS ACCUSE RUSSIAN OFFICIALS OF ‘BIG LIE’ ABOUT SOCHI. Feliks Ivanenko, the chief ecologist of the Sochi section of the Russian Geographic Society, accused Viktor Kolodyazhniy of engaging in “a big lie” when the latter told the media that ecologists had no objections to Moscow’s construction plans for the Sochi Olympics. If he had ever bothered to meet with ecologists, Ivanenko said, Kolodyazhniy would know that they do not feel that way at all (www.sobkorr.ru/news/492D5CAD88B36.html).
MOSCOW COULD SOLVE KARABAKH PROBLEM BY GIVING BAKU PART OF DAGHESTAN, ARMENIAN SAYS. According to a Baku radio station, Stepan Grigoryan, the head of the Yerevan Center for the Study of Globalization, says that Moscow can easily solve the Karabakh problem by acknowledging its independence and then giving Azerbaijan some 4000 square kilometers of land from Daghestan in compensation, an idea unlikely to find much support in any of the capitals involved (kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2008/11/25/62405.shtml).
DIPLOMATIC ACADEMY PROFESSOR PREDICTS BREAKUP OF UNITED STATES. Igor Panarin, the dean of the international relations faculty of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, says that the United States will break apart next year as a result of its enormous foreign debt. Panarin has been predicting the disintegration of the US for a decade, but now, according to “Izvestiya,” his projections look less “fantastic” than they did earlier (www.izvestia.ru/politic/article3122838/)
ANECDOTE OF THE WEEK: From Ankedot.ru – “Government officials in Egypt and Turkey [two leading tourist destinations for Russian travelers] are requiring that Russian tourists coming there have passport photographs showing them when they are drunk.”