|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Putin Annual Message Attacks Bureaucracy and 'Mass Poverty'
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual message to the Federal Assembly on April 25. Interwoven with his report on "the development of Russia as a free and democratic state as our main political and ideological task," Putin raised a number of political, economic and demographic issues that define Russia as being in crisis.
Putin conveyed a sense that Russia is facing problems of existential proportions, when he said at the outset, "Let me remind you again of how modern Russian history began. First of all, it should be acknowledged, and I have spoken about this before, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the century. And for the Russian people, it was a real drama. Tens of millions of our citizens and compatriots found themselves outside the Russian Federation. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration spread to Russia itself. Citizens' savings were devalued. The old ideals were destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or simply reformed in haste. The integrity of the country was disturbed by a terrorist intervention and the subsequent capitulation at Khasavyurt [1996 interim settlement in Chechnya]. With unrestricted control over information flows, groups of oligarchs served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty started to be accepted as the norm. All of this unfolded against a backdrop of severe economic recession, financial instability and paralysis in the social sector." (The passage on the collapse of the USSR was widely misreported as saying "the greatest catastrophe," whereas the Russian superlative means "one of the greatest" or "an extremely great.")
Striking his trademark theme of "strengthening Russian sovereignty," Putin discussed three areas: development of the state per se, strengthening law and the political system, and the conditions for individual life in "civil society." He attacked the bureaucracy in a way he hadn't done before, as "a closed and sometimes simply arrogant caste of people who see state service as a kind of business." He said that he intends to "disappoint" officials who have come to see "racketeering by state agencies" as just the way things are.
Concerning recent and pending mergers of Russian provinces, which have become a hot issue in the country, Putin said that such changes must not turn into a political fad, but should must promote the economy. Otherwise, what he said on economic policy stayed mostly in the realm of generalities about "the liberalization of business," "radical expansion of opportunities for free enterprise," and measures to legalize people's de facto ownership of various small real estate holdings. He called to "boost the inflow of capital accumulated by people into our economy," indicating that by this he meant encouraging the "oligarchs" to repatriate funds held offshore. He reiterated his intent to reduce the statute of limitations on privatization deals, from 10 years to three, and warned tax officials that they have "no right to terrorize business." He said that Russia wants a big influx of private investment, including foreign investment.
Most of Putin's discussion of foreign policy dealt with relations with CIS countries and Moscow's desire to uphold the rights of ethnic Russians living there.
The Russian President returned to the theme of his first such message, five years ago: Russia's "acute demographic problems." He mentioned life expectancies for men and women that are 16 and 10 years lower, respectively, than those in Western Europe; the deaths of 100 people per day in auto accidents and 40,000 each year from alcohol poisoning. He complained of a lack of "desire to tackle the problem at the federal level." Putin demanded that public-sector wages be raised by 50 percent in the next three years, but did not take up people's continuing unhappy response to this year's replacement of entitlements to services with tiny cash payments.
Putin concluded with a discussion of the moral standards of Russian culture, and the "enormous, incalculable cost" paid by Russians for their country and the world during the Great Patriotic War, World War II in Russia.
Putin Visits Egypt, Proposes Peace Conference
Arriving April 25 on the first visit to Egypt by a Soviet or Russian head of state in 40 years, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he might invite "all parties concerned," including the so-called "quartet" of international mediators (the UN, the EU, Russia and the United States), to attend a conference this autumn in Moscow for the purpose of "advancing the peace process in the Middle East." In the days following Putin's statement, Egyptian officials said the idea would be studied carefully, while the United States termed it premature and a senior Israeli official said he was wary about Putin's proposal, but "not against it in principle."
The last Soviet leader to visit Egypt was Nikita Khrushchov, who inaugurated the first stage of the Aswan Dam in 1964, a project the Soviets helped finance and build. In 1972, President Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers from the country. In recent years, relations have improved, as Egyptian President Mubarak has travelled to Moscow three times since 1997. Putin's visit was played up in the Russian press as a sign that Russia is resuming an important role in the entire region. Putin will be visiting Israel, Jordan, and other countries as well. Joining Putin for his discussions with Mubarak and visit to the headquarters of the Arab League were Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, an Arabist and a frequent visitor to the region in his current capacity as head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Putin and Mubarak issued a joint statement on bilateral cooperation, particularly in the areas of trade, economic, scientific, and military-technical work, including high technology projects and the energy sector.
Putin Visits Israel and Palestinian National Authority
Russian President Vladimir Putin completed a historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian National Authority on April 29. No Russian or Soviet head of state had visited Israel since 1948. Despite its historic significance, the visit broke no new ground with Israel, and whatever ground Putin wanted to break with the Palestinians, Israel committed itself to sabotage.
Putin arrived on Wednesday night as the guest of Israeli President Katzav. At the joint press conference with Katzav, Putin handled the Israeli press with some healthy sarcasm. When asked by Radio Israel whether Russia would sell weapons to Israel, he replied, "If you facilitate getting a contract of $2 billion for a supply of Russian fighter planes to Israel, I will personally see to it that you get Russia's award of valor." Asked about possible Russian nuclear cooperation with Israel, Putin replied, "We are willing to have atomic cooperation for the sake of peace, but it does not seem to me that Israel needs help with its nuclear program." Katzav brought up acts of anti-Semitism in Russia, to which Putin rejoined, "I heard that the tombs of your state leaders have been desecrated," a thinly veiled reference to invective recently written on the tomb of Yitzhak Rabin by right-wing Israelis.
Putin had a slightly over one-hour lunch meeting with Israeli Prime minister Ariel Sharon, where they discussed cooperation against terrorism, but expressed differences on Russia's sale of nuclear reactors to Iran and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
On April 29 Putin travelled to the Palestinian National Authority as the guest of Palestinian President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas). Putin paid his respects at the tomb of Yasser Arafat and then met with Abu Mazen for several hours. He reiterated his offer to give the Palestinians the armored vehicles, as well as two helicopters. He also said Russia would help rebuild the infrastructure in Gaza.
In interviews before his trip, Putin stressed that his interest in Israel is also linked with the large number of emigrés from Russia who live there now. Over 25 percent of the Israeli population is Russian-speaking, Putin said. During his visit, the Russian President met with surviving veterans of World War II, who are now elderly citizens of Israel. (See also Southwest Asia Digest.)
Pope Benedict Receives Russian Prelate
"The Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches must develop cooperation," Pope Benedict XVI said on April 25 as he met with Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who headed the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate delegation to Benedict's inauguration. Itar-TASS reported that the pope "expressed confidence that the two Churches should together defend common Christian values in Europe's life at present."
The Russian wire service further reported, "The importance of settling the problems in relations between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church was emphasized during the meeting. The pope also noted the importance of the theological and liturgical tradition of the Orthodox East and expressed his respect for the mission and pastor service of the Russian Orthodox Church."
Yerevan March Honors Victims of 1915 Genocide
Tens of thousands of Armenians in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, joined many thousands of people throughout Europe, who commemorated the 90th anniversary of the genocide against Armenians in 1915. The memorials paid homage to the victims of killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the "Young Turks" governmenta leading project of the Anglo-Venetian oligarchy at the turn of the last century. The Yerevan event brought President Robert Kocharian and other top officials to the towering Genocide Memorial, where a silent procession headed by Kocharian laid flowers at an eternal flame. Armenia's chief clergymen sang a Gregorian Apostolic requiem service.
In the days before the anniversary, Armenia pulled out all the stops in an effort to make Turkey acknowledge the massacres as genocide. Ninety years ago "a crime was committed that had no equals in the history of Armenia or all of humanity; it did not even have a name," Kocharian said. He called on Turkey and the international community to condemn the killings as genocide, adding that the former Soviet republic was ready to build "natural" relations with its larger neighbor, if it faced up to its history. Kocharian made a conciliatory gesture towards Ankara, saying his government would not ask for financial compensation for the killings, if Turkey recognized them as genocidal.