|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Russian Demographic Collapse Linked With Disintegration Threat
A mid-April opinion poll conducted by the Public Opinion Fund found that over 60% of Russians who were asked, believed there was a big chance that Russia will split apart. The poll was widely publicized within Russia, and echoed statements made this spring by leading regional governors and even high-ranking Kremlin officials. The question of Russia's ability to survive as a nation-state is clearly on the mind of leading people, including President Vladimir Putin, who led his annual message to Parliament with reference to the breakup of the USSR as a catastrophe, and the comment that the same process now threatens Russia. He was talking about Chechnya, but evidently thinking beyond the North Caucasus.
The weekly Argumenty i Fakty wrote on April 19 about the recent merger of two ethnic regions, the Taymyr and Evenki autonomous districts, into Krasnoyarsk Territory. In the case of this merger in central Siberia, the predominance in the region of people associated with the Norilsk Nickel mining and processing giant was the decisive political factor, but there are numerous other merger proposals on the drawing board. "How far will the merger processes go?" asked AiF. "What will happen if several self-sufficient regions emerge on the territory of the country? Their whole existence would come down to individualization and, ultimately, secession. Incidentally, this is what the notorious anti-Soviet author Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in his book The Grand Chessboard. He names seven self-sufficient regions, including the Far Eastern and Siberian Republics."
Mikhail Prusak, Governor of Novgorod, and a member of the United Russia party, warned, in an April 22 interview, carried by Interfax and Nezavisimaya Gazeta, that the merger process was "very delicate." Russia inherited from the Soviet Union "the division of the country along ethnic-territorial lines," he said, "but surely this does not mean that we should not consider the interests of the ethnic republics today! Otherwise, there are hotheads who want to annex Tatarstan to somebody else or, conversely, somebody else to Tatarstan. The ethnic republics, in my view, should not be touched at all."
Especially dramatic is the specter of a depopulated Siberia slipping out of Russia's control. Dmitri Medvedev, who, as chief of the Presidential Administration is one of Putin's closest aides, took this up in stark terms in an interview with Ekspert magazine in April. Medvedev said, "If we do not develop our eastern regions, Russia will not survive as a single whole. This is a simple truth. There is also the very obvious and difficult demographic situation. We absolutely must do something to boost the population in these regions. Otherwise, the Far East will be a cold, empty, and neglected place, or someone else will develop it instead."
Irina Kobrinskaya of the Academy of Sciences Institute for the World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) gave an interview to Polit.ru, published April 25 under the headline, "We could quietly lose Siberia." She said that this was not a threat for "the next three to five years," but it should not be ignored: "If we do not change [our] immigration policy, if we do not make every effort to link this region economically [to the rest of the country], and if we do not develop real transportationnot just two roads or three pipelines, but an entire strategy for linking East Asia and Europe, with Russia in the centerwe could quietly lose this." Kobrinskaya stressed that she did not mean a seizure of Siberia by China or Japan, but "Siberia and the Far East ... are simply falling away by themselves. It is happening by evolution, because there is a tremendous deficit of population, investment, and other resources, leading to a situation where some forces are appearing in the region, who understand that they might be able to reach agreement with the Japanese, who could provide a higher level of financing and investment, and develop the economy better, and so they would just fall away from the center."
In an April 28 interview with RFE/RL, Russian Academy demographer Nikita Mkrtchian pointed out that Russians are steadily leaving Siberia and the Far East for Moscow, which is becoming more and more congested, as outlying regions empty out. He said, "Without a migration inflow, almost all of the population in the Asian part of Russia will drop at a very fast rate, and Siberia will start already at the Volga. Almost all the regions east of the Volga will be giving up population, chiefly to Moscow and the surrounding area."
Luzhkov Warns of 'Split in Society'
In an interview for the April 19 issue of Argumenty i Fakty, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov continued his campaign of criticism against the current Russian government's economic policies. "There is no economic stability in our country," Luzhkov said, "It has been replaced with financial stability." With the Ministries of Economic Development and of Finance (Gref and Kudrin) in charge, "everything comes down to saving and bookkeeping.... An 'economic policy' of this kind may result in a split of society. Look, there is polarization of different groups of the population by income level, norms of behavior, and values."
Luzhkov accused the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, from London, of "trying to organize a powerful opposition in Russia, to split society and take people into the streets." Then the population's attitude towards the President might change. "I'm not a fortune-teller," said Luzhkov, "but I consider it my duty to issue a warning about a threatening danger."
Addressing a May Day rally in Moscow, Luzhkov continued his polemic, saying that he was "deeply concerned about decisions being made at the state level, and by initiatives to reorganize the system of health care, education, culture, science, and sport, being proposed by some ministers.... The Cabinet's plans, coupled with the State Duma's obedience, are dangerous for society," Interfax quoted Luzhkov. He said that if the government did not start investing in high technologies, science, and education, Russia "will turn into a mere source of raw materials for the West, and then they'll simply wipe us out."
Yushchenko Bids To Replace Russia in CIS Hot-Spots Role
On April 22 in Chisinau, Moldova, there was a summit of the group of countries called GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldovaexcept Uzbekistan stayed away). Ever since Georgian and Ukrainian Presidents Mikhail Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko pledged to work closely together, each of them having come to power in Project Democracy-backed regime-change operations, it had been expected that they might use GUUAM to challenge Russia in various ways. Yushchenko did take the opportunity of the summit to unveil a seven-point initiative to resolve the so-called "frozen" conflict in the Transdniestr area of Moldova. Moldova is nestled between Ukraine and Romania; the heavily Russian-ethnic breakaway Transdniestr is policed by the Russian military. The Ukrainian President wants the EU, the OSCE, the USA, and Russia to oversee elections there, while Russian peacekeeping forces would be replaced by international ones.
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin welcomed Yushchenko's initiative, while Romania's President Traian Basescu, attending the GUUAM meeting as a guest, objected that it lent too much legitimacy to the Transdniestrians.
Yushchenko also called for making GUUAM "a large-scale regional organization" dealing with democracy, economic development, and regional security, ... a guarantee of democratic reforms and stability in the Black Sea-Caspian region." This formulation, coming just after the April 21 NATO-Ukraine Commission meeting (covered by Moscow Kommersant under the headline, "Ukraine Departs for Europe, Never To Return"), led some Russian commentators to say that Yushchenko aspires to drive the Russian Black Sea Fleet out of the Black Sea. Boris Berezovsky's Nezavisimaya Gazeta covered the GUUAM meeting under the inflammatory headline, "The New (Anti-Russian) Warsaw Pact."
Georgia Presses for Russian Base Removal
Immediately after the GUUAM summit, Georgia's Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili arrived April 24 in Moscow for talks with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on anti-terror coordination and, particularly, on the issue of closing down Russian military bases in Georgia. Russia's position has been that such closings could happen only on a timetable acceptable to Russia, and not soon. (One consideration is the financial and social policy difficulty of re-absorbing 7,000 troops and their families, back into Russia.) Many Russian leaders in the State Duma and in military circles are still saying this cannot happen before the end of this decade, but Lavrov made the surprise announcement, after his talks with Zurabishvili, that, "withdrawal will take place gradually, and may be launched by the end of this year."
Izvestia headlined, in an article co-authored by senior military correspondent Dmitri Litovkin, "A miracle has happenedMoscow surrenders quietly and without a fight." Litovkin pointed to persistent pressure on Moscow from Washington as a factor. Nezavisimaya Gazeta came out with the wild-eyed headline, "Lavrov Gives In. Military Bases Forced Out of Georgia. Black Sea Fleet Is Next." That April 29 article suggested that "Tbilisi's success in resolving the 'bases' issue may have a considerable effect on Kiev's stance on the Black Sea Fleet." Ukrainian Defense Minister Borys Tarasyuk recently stated that Ukraine's hosting of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea is not a permanent arrangement. A Ukrainian commission under a deputy foreign minister has recently complained of the Russian Navy's violating environmental regulations in the Black Sea and causing problems in the rental housing market in Sevastopol.
Nezavisimaya asked whether or not the "long-standing friends and like-minded revolutionaries Mikhail Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko have begun putting some kind of joint plan into effect." It quoted Georgian military analyst Irakli Aladashvili, who said that "this plan is designed to force Russia out of the Black Sea region, and has been suggested to Presidents Saakashvili and Yushchenko by NATO headquarters."
Uzbekistan Cracks Down on Hizbut Tahrir
A large number of people have been picked up and jailed for their association with the Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir (Party of Liberation) group in Uzbekistan. The group, recipient of funds from Saudi Arabia and London, is spreading the Wahabi form of Islam in an allegedly "atheist" society, but it is non-violent and has dug its roots deep in Central Asia, particularly in the Fergana Valley. One of Hizbut's trademarks is that it wants to re-establish the Caliphate. This is not the first time that such crackdown happened. Since the United States has an air base in Uzbekistan, and a high-profile "democracy" drive underway, the makings of a dangerous situation, over some period of time, are present.