FOR BETTER OR WORSE

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FOR BETTER OR WORSE

Profil, October 15, 2001, p. 2 EV

A recent opinion poll asked which possible negative consequences of the US military operation people feared most. The most frequent response (32.9%) was fear that the conflict would escalate and involve other nations, including Russia. Another 15.2% of respondents feared an intensive campaign of terrorism around the world; 10.1% feared acts of terrorism on Russian territory.

The Public Opinion Foundation has done a poll asking: Has anything changed in Russia over the past year, for better or worse? The most frequent response (40%) was that things have changed for the better. Only 22% of respondents said things have changed for the worse.

When asked who was responsible for these positive or negative changes, 49% of respondents said the present state of affairs in Russia is primarily the result of President Putin’s personal efforts. Another 34% of respondents were inclined to believe that the changes are the result of objective development processes.

INFLATION FORECASTS

Ekonomika i Zhizn, No. 42, October, 2001, EV

The Cabinet promised the inflation rate would be 12% this year. In reality, it will be 18%. Now the Cabinet is predicting 12% again for 2002. Can we believe this?

The Cabinet claims to have the situation under control: the inflation rate is being reduced. Consumer prices didn’t grow at all in August. They grew by only 0.6% in September. Doesn’t sound too bad.

But things aren’t exactly that simple. Inflation over the first three quarters of this year amounted to 13.9%. Our calculations indicate that consumer prices will rise by no less than 1% in October (compared to September). That adds up to 15% already. Given that inflation usually picks up in November and December, we will see at least 18% by the end of the year (and the Cabinet did promise 12%).

There are other alarming aspects which cannot be ignored: the steady rise in the cost of services – 30.6% since the start of this year. The overall slow-down in inflation over summer was basically due to lower food prices (a seasonal factor); so it’s unclear how the Cabinet can claim credit for that. Moreover, we can confidently predict that other costs will rise, like housing and utilities, transport, communications… Therefore, the 12% inflation rate promised for next year again seems dubious.

This raises the following question: if pensioners and state-sector employees get their pensions and wages increased in line with inflation, what are those increases really worth? Business owners aren’t providing reasons for optimism either. A recent poll asked whether they expected the prices of their products to change over the next two or three months: 26% planned to raise prices, 72% said prices would remain constant, 1% planned to cut prices, and 1% did not reply.

Another recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation yielded even more interesting results. It asked people to name the aspects of everyday life which upset and annoy them most. Around 55% (!) of respondents named low living standards (including the problem of rising prices). None of the other response options (personal problems, work, study, etc.) rated over 10%. Further comments would be superfluous.

OUR PEOPLE IN AFGHANISTAN

Argumenty i Fakty, October 17, 2001, EV

Russia’s special services have recently started actively encouraging Afghans who wish to return to their homeland. (True, there aren’t too many of them. The Afghan diaspora in Russia has fewer than 50,000 people – nothing like 150,000, a figure often quoted in the Russian media.) Those Afghans who wish to regain power in Afghanistan are being trained in the latest partisan warfare methods and modern weapons-handling techniques.

According to our sources within the Afghan diaspora, elite commando units made up of native Afghans are being sent to the rear of the Taliban. Their objective is to help the Northern Alliance take Kabul, while preventing the Americans and British from setting up their own puppet government there under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

However, events in Central Asia might well follow a different scenario. For example, the Pakistani military – in which extremist sympathies are widespread – could, with the help of the ICI intelligence service, topple the pro-American regime of President Musharraf and move into Afghanistan to support the Taliban. Pakistani intelligence trained and armed the Taliban in the first place. In this event, the former Soviet border could be breached; strong detachments could then move north – into the Ferghana Valley, for example, where they would find support from local Islamic fundamentalists.

According to our sources, Russia might deploy some top-secret “tectonic weapons” which were planted in the mountains of Afghanistan before the Soviet troops pulled out. These weapons can create a series of subterranean tremors with vast destructive power; this would make the former Soviet-Afghan border impassable from the south for a long time.

RUSSIA UNDER THREAT FROM THE SOUTH AND WEST

Zavtra, October 18, 2001, EV

Even before any negotiations had begun, President Putin announced that Russia is prepared to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia. The military considers that this amounts to a disregard for Russia’s interests. According to well-informed sources in Rostov-on-Don, Abkhazia is in no position to counter the aggression of Georgian troops on its own; and Georgia’s forces are reinforced by “volunteers” from Turkey and other NATO countries. If Abkhazia’s military is defeated, the entire Black Sea coastline of Russia, including the Greater Sochi area, will be under threat.

What’s more, Kremlin sources say that during Polish President Kwasniewski’s visit to Moscow Russia essentially gave its consent to NATO membership for Poland – a concession which Warsaw and Brussels couldn’t even manage to extract from Yeltsin. Presumably, the next major phase in “integration with Europe” will be to introduce “international management of Eastern Prussia” – the intended new name of Russia’s Kaliningrad region. Due to this, among Russian society and the military there is a growing sense of mistrust and an awareness of the need to forcibly resist the Kremlin.

CONFLICT BETWEEN PUTIN AND HIS DEFENSE MINISTER?

Argumenty i Fakty, October 17, 2001, EV

Political circles are buzzing with rumors of conflict between President Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. It’s all because of Russia’s stance on assisting the United States in the battle against terrorism. First Sergei Ivanov said that Moscow does not approve of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan making their airfields and air-space available to the US Air Force. Then President Putin essentially refuted the defense minister’s statement.

But sources close to the Kremlin deny there is any conflict at all. It’s a difference in mentality rather than position. Putin, a former intelligence agent, spent the early 1990s on the team of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who was liberal and pro-Western. But Ivanov spent those years under Yevgeny Primakov in the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), behind high walls in Yasnevo. While Putin double-checks all the details before making a decision, Ivanov triple-checks them. What’s more, by accepting the top job at the Defense Ministry, Ivanov has once again found himself at the center of a very conservative system, surrounded by bureaucrats and generals.

So rumors may fly, but the defense minister and the president are still working together as closely as ever, and remain close friends.

A NEWSPAPER FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS

Ekspert, October 15, 2001, pp. 8-11

Last week saw the launch of a new daily paper with the laconic title of “Gazeta” (Newspaper). Its chief editor, Raf Shakirov, compares his brainchild to “The Daily Telegraph” and “The New York Times”.

Shakirov was chief editor at “Kommersant” until August 1999; he quit when Boris Berezovsky took over Kommersant Publishing. Shakirov then spent a brief period as vice-president for news programming at TV-Center, after which he worked with Oleg Dobrodeev to re-launch the “Vesti” program at the RTR network. Shakirov soon left RTR, and over the past year his name has been linked with a wide variety of publications.

Shakirov says his new paper has Western backers. Although the identity of “a certain influential Western corporation” is being kept quiet, it’s no secret at all that behind those mythical foreigners is an entirely real Russian entrepreneur: Vladimir Lisin, chairman of the board at the Novolipetsk Metals Plant.

The official story is that Lisin has not contributed any money to the launch of “Gazeta” – he just helped out with advice and contracts. However, the ambitious magnate’s plans have undoubtedly included the acquisition of his own media outlet; many analysts believe Lisin’s name will soon become much more prominent in Russian politics.

REFERENDUM RIGHTS UNDER THREAT

Inostranets, October 16, 2001, p. 5

Greenpeace Russia has learned that the Duma is considering bills which would make it almost impossible for a referendum to be initiated “from below”.

The bills in question are on amendments and supplements to the federal constitutional law on referendums in the Russian Federation. They both propose substantial changes in procedures for preparing and holding national referendums.

Firstly, the proposed amendments would mean that all questions on a referendum must be approved by both houses of parliament. So if members of parliament don’t like the questions, for whatever the reason, they could prevent a referendum from being held. This violates Article 3 of the Constitution, which defines a referendum as “the highest direct expression of the people’s will”.

Secondly, referendum initiative groups would all have to register with the Central Election Commission in Moscow, rather than in their regional capitals. This would create substantial problems for citizens in exercising their rights if they live in distant regions like Magadan. This directly violates Article 19 of the Constitution, which upholds equal rights and liberties regardless of place of residence.

Thirdly, according to existing laws, initiative groups may collect signatures for their referendum petitions anywhere other than forbidden areas. But the new bills propose that the Central Election Commission would specify the areas where signatures may be collected. Of course, it would then be easy to make it quite impossible for initiative groups to collect the required 2 million signatures within three months.

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