|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Zhukov Says HIV/AIDS Is National Security Threat
Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov became the highest-ranking Russian official to admit that the rapid spread of the HIV virus is a threat to the nation. "The spread of AIDS has gone beyond the framework of a purely medical problem, becoming a threat to the country's national security," Zhukov said March 30 at a Moscow conference held under the auspices of UNAIDS.
Another conference participant, UN World Food Program director James Morris, wrote in the Moscow Times of April 1 that "the next generation of Russians is facing a threat even more horrific and catastrophic than that posed by Hitler's invading armies in 1941.... AIDS is spreading more quickly here than anywhere else in the world." Morris noted that an estimated 1.7% of males and 0.8% of females in the 15-24 age bracket, in Eastern Europe and the CIS, are HIV-positive.
Earlier this year, the American International Health Alliance (AIHA) held a conference in St. Petersburg on setting up HIV/AIDS training programs for medical professionals in Russia. According to AIHA's Connections publication, the programs will concentrate on five geographical HIV "hot spots," two of them are on seacoasts (St. Petersburg and Sakhalin Island), but the other threeOrenburg on the Ural River, and the lower Volga cities of Samara and Saratovdeep in Russia's interior. Vladimir Gerasimov, a doctor from Orenburg, explained that HIV initially spread in these cities among intravenous drug users, due to the area's proximity to Kazakstan, and the fact that the Russia-Kazakstan border has been a narcotics transshipment route for many years. "Now the epidemic has broken out of the traditional risk groups and threatens all the inhabitants of the region," Gerasimov said. About 1% of the population in Orenburg is HIV-positive, and around 5% of these are children born to HIV-infected mothers.
Russian Labor Force Shrinks
Once again there were over three-quarters of a million more deaths than births in the Russian population in 2004, for a so-called "natural decrease" of 790,000 people. Russian demographer Anatoli Vishnevsky, interviewed in the April issue of Politichesky Klass, commented that Russia's population is headed toward falling by another one-third, to under 100 million people, by the year 2050. He warned that, among other dangers, this would make it highly problematic for Russia to hold on to its current territory, especially in Asia.
On March 30, Minister for Regional Development Vladimir Yakovlev spelled out how the demographic collapse has already hit the Russian economy. Itar-TASS quoted Yakovlev's summary of the current situation: Some 60% of the males in Russia are under-age, elderly, or handicapped. Of the remaining, able-bodied men (Yakovlev said there are only 20 million of them, though 40% of the 67 million-male population would be around 27 million), about 1 million are incarcerated, 4 million are employed in the military or other "force" ministries, 4 million are alcoholics, and 1 million are drug addicts. That leaves somewhere in the range of only 10-17 million unimpaired Russia males available to work, at the present time. The total population is around 143 million.
Demonstrations Hit Bashkortostan
Some promoters of "Orange Revolution" insurgencies in north-central Eurasia would like to see them spread next, not merely throughout formerly Soviet Central Asia, but into Russia itself. Such people paid close attention to an outbreak of protests, in late March, against Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov. Bashkortostan (formerly the Soviet autonomous republic of Bashkiria) and Tatarstan are major ethnic so-called "autonomies" in Russia, being situated in central Russia near the Volga and the Ural Mountains. They are the former seats of the Tatar khans, and they are important oil-producing regions. According to reports, some 20,000 people demonstrated against Rakhimov in Ufa, the capital, on March 26.
As with the March regime-change in Kyrgyzstan, questions have been raised about the current demonstrations being a Moscow-approved preemptive effort to dampen popular unrest by replacing a local leader. Bashkortostan's authorities recently came under heavy criticism from Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, for police brutality against demonstrators last December. Moreover, opposition leader Ramil Bignov is a well-established businessman with close ties to Ural Rakhimov, the President's son. Bignov has been putting a lid on the demonstrations at some points: RFE/RL Newsline quoted another opposition figure, who said that on March 26 the crowd "could have seized the [Bashkir] White House. There were calls for such a seizure, but Bignov stopped this."
Yet the greatest show of enthusiasm for an uprising in Bashkortostan has come from newspapers owned by exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, an avowed foe of President Putin. Berezovsky's Nezavisimaya Gazeta compared the March 26 demonstration with the overthrow of Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan and commented that, just as Kyrgyzstan was the "weakest link in Central Asia, ... Bashkortostan, judging by everything, is the weakest link in Russia." The March 29 Nezavisimaya article was headlined, "The Six Most Volatile Regions in Russia," with the kicker: "Smoldering fires in Muslim regions are extinguished with federal subsidies; events in the CIS may serve as a catalyst for regional revolts in Russia."
Rice Plays to Belarus Opposition
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met seven Belarus dissidents April 21 outside of a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania. "You are in our thoughts," she told them, "While it may seem difficult and long, and at times far away, there will be a road to democracy in Belarus." While visiting Russia earlier in the week of April 18, to make preparations for an early-May meeting between Presidents Putin and Bush, Rice had termed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka head of "the last true dictatorship in the center of Europe."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, responded sharply to Rice's comments. "We would not, of course, advocate what some people call regime change anywhere. You cannot impose democracy from the outside," Lavrov said. On April 22, Lukashenka arrived in Moscow for a summit with President Putin and a session of the Supreme State Council of the Russia-Belarus Union.
Kyrgyzstan To Join Kazakstan-Proposed CACO
Acting President and Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan has agreed in principle to join the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO) proposed by Kazak President Nursultan Nazarbayev. "We fully support this idea. The idea has been around for quite a while now, and I think that such a union would only promote economic rapprochement, first and foremost, and of course political union," Bakiyev said. The others in the proposed union are Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Three of these four countries, all except Uzbekistan, are members of the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). With Askar Akayev removed from Kyrgyzstan's Presidency and Russian troops leaving Tajikistan, CACO could become a step out of the Russian orbit by the central Asian countries. Washington has become extremely active in this area. Following its successful "democratic revolution" in Georgia, the United States is making inroads in this resource-rich and geostrategically situated region. U.S. Chief Commander in Afghanistan Lt. Gen. David Barno was in Tajikistan on April 19, and met with President Rakhmonov. It was reported recently that the U.S. might help build a bridge over the Amu Darya River between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Putin Confirms Syria Missile Deal
In an April 19 interview with Israeli TV, Russian President Vladimir Putin bluntly confirmed Russia's sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, which the Israelis don't like. Putin said the missiles pose no threat to Israel, but "will of course make it difficult to fly over the residence of the Syrian President. It will make flying low difficult." The allusion was to illegal Israeli overflights of Syrian air space, including even buzzing the Presidential palace. Last year Israeli aircraft bombed an alleged Palestinian training camp in Syria. In a broadcast statement the same day, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had complained that the sale of the missiles posed a threat to Israel. Putin's blunt remarks came just a few days before he was to make an official visit to Israel, the first by a Russian or Soviet head of state since the founding of modern Israel.
Currency Turmoil in Ukraine
On April 21, the Ukrainian National Bank announced a 3% upvaluation of the country's currency, the hryvna, against the U.S. dollar. National Bank head Volodymyr Stelmakh defended the move before a parliamentary session as a necessary measure to fight inflation. The problem for the Ukrainian people is that they generally keep their savings in dollars. Thus they lost 3% of their savings in one day. Economics Minister Serhiy Teryokhin held a special press conference April 22, calling on people not to "succumb to panic." He criticized the upvaluation as "too fast," but defended it in principle, warning that otherwise inflation would spiral out of control. One of the factors in price inflation and upward pressure on the hryvna currency is a recent influx of hot capital into Ukraine, which has created a Ukrainian government bond bubble.