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.
RUSSIANS INCREASINGLY ANGRY ABOUT MOSCOW’S RESPONSE TO THE CRISIS. As the Russian stock market and ruble decline, more people lose their jobs, and many there are being forced to cut back on even basic foods, Russians are increasingly critical of the way in which their government has responded to the economic crisis, even though they continue to view President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally far more positively (www.sobkorr.ru/news/4926A3569BD05.html). But some Moscow analysts are suggesting that many of the near elite who have seen their holdings decline as a result of the crisis are less supportive of the two leaders than they had been (forum.msk.ru/material/news/604368.html#).
PROSECUTORS WARN MEDIA AGAINST SPREADING PANIC. Russian prosecutors have issued warnings to various media outlets for carrying stories that the officials say are spreading panic in the population, and these threats of legal action appear to be causing some in the media to be more cautious (www.kommrsant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1075071). But many hard-hitting stories are appearing, including one showing that Russian firms take as profit a larger percentage of their total income than they pay to their workers and that they will fire workers rather than see that change (stoletie.ru/fakty_i_kommentarii/zhdet_li_nas_massovaya_bezrabotica_2008-11-14.htm). And polls show that about 50 percent of Russians do not believe that their national media are objectively covering the crisis, sparking widespread rumors that may be making the situation even worse (www.civitas.ru/news.php?code=5977).
RUSSIAN OFFICIALS, WORLD BANK SAY RUSSIA FACES DIFFICULT FUTURE. A working group of the Russian State Council and the annual report of the World Bank both say that Russia faces difficult economic times for at least the next two years, with rising unemployment and inflation that will cut deeply into the lives of the population and declining tax collections and earnings that will restrict the ability of the government to respond (www.nr2.ru/moskow/207321.html and www.polit.ru/event/2008/11/19/bad.html).
HIGH-END RUSSIAN VODKA PRODUCERS CUT PRODUCTION. Moscow’s Kristall vodka distillery and the Parlament Group cut production of vodka in October by more than 15 percent, but this may not be entirely good news (evrazia.org/news/6116. Many Russians appear to be turning to alcohol surrogates, a trend likely to send death rates among adult males up still further.
PUTIN WAS BEHIND CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES, PARLIAMENTARIAN SAYS. Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the Federation Council said that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was behind the now approved changes in the Constitution that extend the terms of the president and deputies. “Approximately a year and a half ago,” he said, then-“President Vladimir Putin first said that it is necessary” to take this step (www.nr2.ru/policy/207197.html). Mironov’s comments, which appeared in “Vedomosti,” will add support to the widespread view that Putin proposed these changes to allow him to return to the presidency for what would be a third and perhaps even a fourth term.
SOCIAL CHAMBER TO SET UP CENTER FOR THE DEFENSE OF JOURNALISTS. Members of the Social Chamber said that they intend to open a center for the defense of journalists next year, apparently first and foremost in order to counter Western reports about the increasingly dire straits of freedom of speech and the media in the Russian Federation rather than to take up the active defense of those who work for newspapers, radio and television (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1074667).
MEDVEDEV DESCRIES ETHNIC HATRED ON 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF NAZI ATTROCITIES … In a message to a Kaliningrad meeting marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi violence known as “crystal night” because of the shattered glass in Jewish homes and stores, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that “we are obligated not simply to remember the past but to recognize the threats which inter-ethnic hatred, racial intolerance, and attacks on human dignity represent for the contemporary world” (xeno.sova-center.ru/45A2A1E/C094C79).
… WHILE ETHNIC CLASHES SPREAD TO MOSCOW UNIVERSITIES. Inter-ethnic clashes, a frequent occurrence on the streets of the Russian capital, has now spread to its schools and universities, according to interior ministry officials, with clashes having taken place in almost all the higher schools of the city (www.rosbalt.ru/2008/11/19/542735.html).
KREMLIN READIES BILL TO REGULATE LOBBYING. The State Legal Administration of the Russian President reportedly is preparing a law to regulate lobbying activity. Those involved in its drafting say that it will draw on both international experience and “the culture and customs of multi-national Russia. It is being draw up now as part of the government’s anti-corruption drive (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1069159&NodesID=2).
INGUSH MARK 16TH ANNIVERSARY OF 1992 CONFLICT WITH MOSCOW MEETING. Some 60 Ingush and their supporters assembled on November 16th around the Griboyedov Monument in the Russian capital to mark the anniversary of the conflict in the Prigorodny rayon in North Ossetia. Those taking part carried pictures of Ingush who tied on which had been written the legend “A Victim of Genocide” (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49201D986EBE8.html).
KADYROV WANTS CHECHNYA TO HAVE ITS OWN CUSTOMS SERVICE. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov wants his republic to have its own customs service to make it easier for construction materials to come in for its rebuilding, and he would like to see the Grozny airport be declared an international one to make it easier for Chechens to go on the haj. He says that all Russian institutions involved in such decisions approve except for the FSB and the defense ministry; the latter two object because “the social-political situation in the republic is unstable” (www.gzt.ru/society/2008/11/14/155031.html).
SAUDI KING READY TO BUILD MOSQUE IN MOSCOW. Ali Hasan Jafar, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Moscow, told Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) that his king was ready to help build a mosque and an Islamic cultural center in the Russian capital (www.rian.ru/moscow/20081120/155548846.html). If this project goes forward, the two million Muslims of Moscow would gain their fifth mosque.
RUSSIAN COURT RULES FOR REINDEER HERDERS AGAINST GAZPROM. The Komi
Republic court has ruled that Gazprom acted illegally in taking land that had belonged to a reindeer herding group and ordered the company to return the land and pay damages. Gazprom had ignored an earlier court ruling to do just that, and consequently, it is unclear whether it will obey. The reindeer herders’ case was assisted by the Moscow-based Memorial human rights organization (www.regrus.info/news/420.html).
WERE BESLAN TERRORISTS AGENTS OF THE RUSSIAN SPECIAL FORCES? Activists who are seeking to get to the bottom of the Beslan hostage crisis say that some of those Moscow has described as terrorists were in fact agents of the Russian intelligence services (newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/318182/cat/42/). In other news on the intelligence front, a Soviet intelligence officer says he met with Lee Harvey Oswald two months before the latter short President John F. Kennedy (www.kp.ru/daily/24201.3/406052/), and a British film about the Polonium killing of Litvinenko in London has been scheduled for showing in Moscow (kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2008/11/19/62270.shtml). But less information on this kind of thing is likely to be available in the future: “Novaya gazeta” has ended its ties with Agentura.ru by firing two of the latter organization’s leaders. The paper says it did so because of financial problems, but those fired say it looks like the media outlet caved to official pressure “from there” (www.agentura.ru/press/about/novayastop/).
THREE RUSSIAN PROBLEMS. According to official statistics, one house or apartment building blows up every 43 hours because of problems with gas (www.ng.ru/society/2008-11-18/8_gaz.html), and Moscow has few public toilets and almost none in good condition (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=172471). Meanwhile, to recover their costs, those who tore down an Orthodox church in Ivanovo oblast are selling its bricks, an action that has infuriated parishioners, “Moskovsky komsomolets” reported (religare.ru/2_59433.html).
RUSSIAN MAN STEALS A CAR IN BID TO AVOID MILITARY SERVICE. A 19-year-old man in Krasnoyarsk kray stole a car in order to get a criminal record and thus avoid military service, a Russian news agency reports (rian.ru/incidents/20081118/155389286.html). That unusual technique calls attention to just how bad conditions now are in the Russian military and the lengths to which some will go to avoid service there.
ANECDOTE OF THE WEEK: According to an anecdote circulating in Moscow and reported by the Anekdot.ru portal, “sociological research has shown that 90 percent of Russian deputies have a criminal past. The remaining 10 percent have a criminal present.”