MOSCOW, December 21 (RIA Novosti)
Russia tests gas weapons in former Soviet countries
Prices of Russian gas will grow several-fold for most post-Soviet countries on January 1, 2006. The heaviest blow will be delivered to those who have stopped listening to Moscow.
The main target of the gas attack is Ukraine, which transits the bulk of Russian gas exports to Western Europe (some 112 billion cubic meters a year). Ukraine's new "orange" government has refused to coordinate its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) with Russia and even threatened to make trade demands if it joined the organization ahead of Moscow. But what infuriated the Kremlin most was Kiev's decision to halt the creation of a Russo-Ukrainian-German gas consortium, stipulated in a 2002 agreement.
Georgia is being punished for its dislike of Russian military bases and excessive sympathy for NATO. But the straw that broke the Kremlin's back was the Georgian parliament's demand that the country withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Moldova offended Moscow by refusing to sign the Russian plan of settling the Transdnestr conflict and by adopting a policy of integration into the European Union. Last summer, the Chisinau parliament demanded that Russia pull its troops out of Transdnestr by yearend.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have long bothered Moscow with violations of the rights of native Russian speakers.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which buy their gas from Uzbekistan, are not on the black list.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller drew up the basic principles of Russia's relations with post-Soviet clients: "Gas transportation cooperation would help us find a balance of interests, such as we have with Belarus." Unlike other transit countries, the gas pipeline in Belarus is fully owned by Gazprom and is built on land that has a long-term lease. In addition, Moscow and Minsk are negotiating the transfer of Belarussian gas transportation networks to Gazprom.
Russia's gas domination allows it to demand land and property, and when it gets what it wants, it might stop raising prices and telling the other countries, as President Putin has done, that Russia simply needs the money to feed its 25 million citizens who live below the poverty line.
Communists and United Russia club together - expert
The Kremlin's battle with the Communists as its primary political activity is now a thing of the past. Quite the opposite is happening: the Russian Communist party (KPRF) is turning into an associate.
In regional parliamentary elections held over the past few months United Russia has been a steady front-runner, followed by the KPRF. According to December findings of the Public Opinion Fund, only the party of power (26%) and the Communist party (10%) will make it to the next Duma, with no one else able to cross the 7% barrier. Mercator group head Dmitry Oreshkin forecasts that during the election campaign the Communist showing will "rise to 15-20%."
Oreshkin describes the current state of affairs, with the KPRF occupying the opposition position, as "the degradation of the political spectrum." He believes that steady efforts have been made over the past few years to cut the number of political players and "produce a two, three, or one and a half political parties model." Any attempts by the Communists to line up with other forces have been stymied; with the result that Gennady Zyuganov is now left alone with his stable 15%.
The Communist leader has set yet another role. "The very presence of Zyuganov in the political spectrum will rule out a consolidated Social Democratic bloc on the left that is so dangerous to the authorities," says Oreshkin. In his view, "a serious-minded man with the talents of a public politician could, based on social democratic expectations and hopes, forge together a consolidated majority and garner all 60%, instead of 10-15% of the vote." But while Zyuganov is sticking to his guns, such a scenario will never be seen.
Although United Russia was undoubtedly conceived as a centrist party, it has proved to be infected with a "leftist disorder." Its principal party line is becoming increasingly apparent: left-wing populism with dashes of isolationism, great-power ambitions, and as-yet non-radical nationalism. It emerges that the party of power only differs from the Communist opposition in that the former rules, and the latter plays up to it.
Russian Constitutional Court may be moved to St. Petersburg
The campaign to move the Constitutional Court from Moscow to St. Petersburg was stepped up shortly before the court was to announce a decision on the complaint about the unconstitutional principle of appointing governors. The reason behind this is the position of some judges regarding this crucial issue for the Kremlin.
St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko and the United Russia party, which supports the plan, could not launch the campaign without the Kremlin's approval. The judges of the Constitutional Court, who had repeatedly said they were against the transfer, could see this as a personal blow provoked by their intention to pass a verdict overruling the president's decree. If the Kremlin sanctions the transfer because it knew about the judges' intention, this will look like its last warning.
Boris Nadezhdin, secretary of the federal political council of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), said the Constitutional Court might refuse to grant the appeal regarding the unconstitutional procedure of appointing governors for procedural rather than legal reasons.
But this will not satisfy the Kremlin, which wants a clear confirmation of the constitutionality of the new procedure that would preclude all future disputes. This will not happen if the judges discard the case for procedural reasons. In this situation the Kremlin could send its "black mark" to the judges to urge them to think twice.
The judges unwillingly commented on the possibility of their transfer to St. Petersburg and did not link it to their decision. But even cautious comments by the third power can be interpreted as disappointment with the actions of the executive and legislative branches.
Vladimir Strekozov, deputy chairman of the Court, said the judges were most offended by the phrase that said they would be "transferred to St. Petersburg in order to cut short all rumors about corruption."
Rosoboronexport to sell air defense systems worth $400 million to India
Selling air defense systems has become more profitable for Russia than manufacturing aircraft. Rosoboronexport, the authorized state export-import company, has signed a contract with India for the sale of 24 Tunguska M-1 air defense systems worth about $400 million. This increased the total sum of contracts signed by the Almaz-Antei air defense concern to over $2 billion.
A source close to Rosoboronexport said an agreement on the export of the cheap but effective Tunguska systems could also be signed soon with two Arab countries, most probably Syria and Algeria.
Dmitry Vasilyev, an expert of the Center for Strategy and Technology Analysis, said the new contract would make Almaz-Antei the leading Russian defense producer in total value of signed contracts to be implemented in 2006-2008 (over $2 billion).
Irkut's portfolio is worth some $3 billion but its contracts are to be implemented by 2012, while MiG's portfolio is below $1.5 billion.
"Air defense systems will become the hottest product of the Russian defense industry next year, repeating the achievement of submarine export contracts with China in 2004," said the Rosoboronexport source.
"It is clear now why the Kremlin did so much to create the air defense concern and delegated (presidential aide) Viktor Ivanov to run it," said Ruslan Pukhov, editor of the Moscow Defense Brief magazine.
In September 2005, Vyacheslav Abanin, former director of the Ulyanovsk Mechanical Works (which produces Tunguska systems and is part of the air defense concern), was sentenced for wage arrears.
The Almaz-Antei JSC was set up in April 2002 and is fully owned by the state. It is the primary company responsible for contracts on the delivery of S-300 air defense missile systems to China (worth some $980 million) and Tunguska M-1 systems to Morocco ($100 million).
The Tunguska system is designed to provide air defense to moving troops and can be fired at moving air targets.
Press freedom does not matter for majority of Russians
Almost a half of the Russian population (49%) is convinced that the situation concerning freedom of the press in Russia is normal. A quarter of them are not particularly concerned about it, perhaps, because they do not understand what they need it for. However, it is hard to assume that Russians, up to half of who backed United Russia in regional elections, may be seriously concerned over the state of freedom of the press.
A mere 27% of citizens believe that the authorities are carrying out an offensive on the independent media and infringing upon their activities. The answers received by the Levada Center (a public opinion research agency) in a recent poll are a weighty argument in the authorities' debate with the opposition, foreign politicians and human rights champions claiming that the Russian media is experiencing undo pressure from the state.
Curiously, the results from the recent poll do not differ much from those obtained by sociologists five years ago, when there was a greater pluralism of opinion. Ordinary citizens believe that the situation concerning freedom of the press has improved by 3%, not decreased. However, if the 3% is ignored as an error, then it proves that over the five years of Russian President Putin's term in office nothing has changed in the field of media. However, we just have to leaf through old newspapers or watch TV programs from that time to find out that this is not true. Perhaps, this is a biased, purely professional, corporate opinion, though.
It is obvious that a considerable part of Russia's citizens do not see freedom of the press as one of the basic values of a democratic society. The media is partly to blame for this: over the past 15 years both individual newsmen and the staffs of some newspapers and magazines have too often changed their views to a diametrically opposite opinion.
People not well versed in politics and the media do not feel such nuances, and freedom of the press is not particularly important for them. A specific freedom of the press that is used for political and corporate showdowns, as well as for the brainwashing of the electorate is necessary and understandable to those who are prepared to pay for it, or otherwise control it.
Russians praise Soviet-time elite
Soviet officials were educated, hardworking and cared for the country, while modern rulers are incompetent, corrupt and disregard the people's interests, a recent VTsIOM poll says.
In fact, sociologists of the national public opinion research center conclude that the respondents know almost nothing about the modern elite and are dissatisfied not with individual officials but with the overall situation in the country.
Leonty Byzov, chief VTsIOM analyst, commented on yesterday's poll: "The public believes that the Soviet elite, who had their drawbacks, worked for the state while the current elite are working to fill their pockets."
As many as 42% of the respondents said the modern elite were worse than the Soviet rulers, and only 17% disagree with this opinion. The rest either think that the elite has not changed or have no answer.
"Corruption is growing and Putin's bureaucracy has not become a stabilizing factor. Officials continue to address private tasks, disregarding the interests of Russia," Byzov said explaining the people's dissatisfaction.
Respondents complained that the standards of four of the five elite groups - politicians, economic managers, law-enforcement and security staff, and scientists and workers of culture - have deteriorated, and only the heads of the leading media are working better for the benefit of society than their Soviet counterparts did.
The average age of Russian cabinet members is 52 years (65 in the Soviet Politburo), said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the author of the book "The Anatomy of Russian Elite." "For the first time ever, all of Russia's top leaders have a higher education," she said.
But the problem is not the talents or drawbacks of individual officials. "The people are not dissatisfied with (Economic Development Minister German) Gref or (Healthcare Minister Mikhail) Zurabov but with the erosion of the social state," the political scientist said.