|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Security Council Expects Population Plunge In Russia
On Jan. 13, the Russian Security Council acknowledged, during a webcast press conference, that the country is about to suffer catastrophic shrinkage of its population. In reply to a question, the Security Council posted a statement that, "Forecasts show that Russia's population will fall by about one-third, to 100 million people, by the middle of the 21st Century. Russia's internal demographic situation is extremely unfavorable. It might worsen even further in the near future." The main factor, according to the Security Council, is an abnormally high death rate.
Feshbach Documents Russian HIV/AIDS Threat
Russia's future is threatened by an explosion of HIV/AIDS, according to a just-released report written by Murray Feshbach of the Woodrow Wilson Center. The report, underwritten by USAID, compared Russian and international statistics, and found that Russia's HIV/AIDS epidemic differs from the disease in North America and Western Europe in terms of the age groups affected. "In the West, ... some 70% of the population afflicted ... are over 30 years of age." But, "in Russia ... over 80% are under 30 years of age." One example cited, is that of potential army conscripts, who are now testing positive for HIV at a rate that has increased 25-27 times in the last five years.
Demographer Feshbach, who has investigated public-health problems in the Soviet Union and Russia for several decades, writes in the report, "If the leadership continues to pay only lip service to the issue [of AIDS], ... then the consequences in the very near term of two to three years, and certainly a decade from now, will be devastating to the society, to family formation, to the military, to productivity of labor, to continued growth."
Protests Flare Over Russian Entitlements Reform
From St. Petersburg, to cities in the Ural and Siberia, the days following the end of Russia's new holiday season were marked by angry demonstrations, as pensioners, police and others were hit with the full force of the replacement of their "benefits"free transit, medical care, utilities discountsby very modest cash payments. Hundreds, in some cases thousands, of pensioners blocked major highways and center-city streets, in the Moscow region, Kaliningrad, Samara, Izhevsk, Penza, Kazan, and Almetevsk in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chita, Barnaul, Vladimir, and other locations. There were reports of retirees refusing to pay tram and train fares, and isolated incidents of their physically attacking fare-collectors. Disgruntlement has also been reported on the part of police forces, whose right to ride free on public transit was ended, though funds for their fares were not budgeted and their own salaries don't stretch far enough to cover the fares.
The Russian government position is that the problem belongs to the regions, which are supposed to make the cash disbursements. Russian TV reported a number of concessions, ranging from the Yekaterinburg mayoralty's pledge to continue free transit for all those previously eligible, to various stop-gap versions, such as 50% subsidies, or continuing the entitlements until April. At the same time, showing the seriousness with which the unrest is being viewed in Moscow, Health Minister Zurabov, First Deputy Prime Minister Zhukov and several other cabinet ministers were dispatched to a Jan. 13 executive meeting of the majority United Russia party in the State Duma. Press was barred from the session, which was to deal with better informing the population and cooling out the protests.
Another indication that the protests, and the hurt underlying them, are serious, was the statement issued Jan. 13 by Patriarch Aleksi II of the Russian Orthodox Church. He said, "Changes must not under any circumstances deprive people of the possibility to use transport and communication tools, keep their housing, and have access to medical aid and medicinal drugs. If this is not the case, a tragedy is inevitable for millions of our citizens who have worked for the good of the country all their lives and now need protection and care." Patriarch Aleksi called on the authorities "to give people what they are entitled to under the law and the higher moral law as soon as possible," and he urged people affected by the cuts "to keep a peaceful spirit and provide help [to find] an equitable resolution to the conflict."
Russia Seeks Chinese, Indian Involvement in Oil Industry
Russian Energy and Industry Minister Victor Khristenko's Dec. 20 web-posted remark about the likelihood of China's national oil company, CNPC, purchasing a 20% stake in Yuganskneftegaz (the Yukos Oil production unit, recently sold to the state-owned company Rosneft) was not confirmed by any Chinese sources. The weekend of Jan. 8-9, however, Khristenko made a low-profile visit to China, according to Russian and Western sources cited in a Jan. 12 New York Times article. Some observers noted that a larger stake in Yuganskneftegaz might be of more interest to China. In addition, India's Business Standard reported Jan. 7 that Subir Raha, chairman of the large Indian oil company ONGC, has confirmed that his company is prepared to invest $2 billion for a 15% stake in Yuganskneftegaz. "We are in touch with the Russian entities concerned, about the Yukos assets and other opportunities in Russia," Raha said.
On Jan. 6, Italian Minister of Industry Antonio Marzano said during a trip in the Persian Gulf, that Italian energy companies are interested in the Yukos assets, remaining after the sale of Yuganskneftegaz. These include other west Siberian and Volga basin oilfields. Pravda.ru named ENI as the likely Italian buyer.
Putin Stresses Strategic Partnership with Germany
Speaking at a Jan. 14 ceremony to close a series of events called Russian-German Cultural Meetings 2003-04, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked during 2005. "Our peoples found themselves at the epicenter of the most terrible tragedy in the entire history of humanity," Putin said, "but our countries proved that they are capable of overcoming the heavy heritage of the past. We have learned not to speculate on past troubles, not to infect each other with vain pride and chauvinism, but to demonstrate a sincere wish to meet each other half-way." He added that this experience helps Russia and Germany in building "entirely new relations of strategic partnership, which helps our countries and the entirety of greater Europe move toward a safe and successful future."
Russian Defense Minister Visits Washington
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was in Washington Jan. 12-13, for talks with President George W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The official agenda included preparations for the Putin-Bush summit in Bratislava this coming spring, and an agreement on joint efforts to curb the trade in hand-held anti-aircraft missiles.
At a press conference, Ivanov was grilled about alleged Russian talks on selling Iskander ballistic missiles (also known as the SS-26) to Syria, reports of which have been vigorously protested by Israel. Ivanov denied that any such talks had occurred (details in Southwest Asia Digest).
Ukraine Election Commission Declares Victor
On Jan. 11, Ukraine's Central Election Commission finally declared Victor Yushchenko the victor in the Presidential election, with 52% of the vote, and an eight-point lead over his challenger, Victor Yanukovych. The same day, however, the Supreme Court disallowed publication of the official results until it rules on a new complaint by Yanukovych, concerning the alleged suppression of votes by people who wished to vote by absentee ballot. The maneuver delayed Yushchenko's inauguration, preventing it from taking place the week of Jan. 10.
Ukraine Pulls Out of Iraq
Outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma on Jan. 10 ordered steps towards withdrawing Ukraine's contingent from Iraq, following the death of eight Ukrainian soldiers and wounding of six others, in an unexplained explosion the previous day. The blast at first was reported as an accident, but then Ukrainian officials said it was resulted from a planned attack. Interfax reported Jan. 11 that the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have started joint consultations on effecting the withdrawal during the first half of 2005.
Victor Yushchenko, who is expected to be inaugurated as Ukraine's new President within the month, took the occasion to reiterate his own commitment to pulling Ukrainian forces out of Iraq.