Opposition confronts United Russia
Communists and democrats, nationalist patriots and liberals have always seemed to be irreconcilable adversaries. But they are now teaming up against United Russia in order to prevent the party of power from completely monopolizing the country's political space. It therefore seems that United Russia has become a powerful consolidating factor.
On November 23, the Opposition union was established in Voronezh after United Russia's youth wing held its constituent congress there over the weekend. Previously, the Anti-United Russia coalition, comprising 15 political organizations, passed an appeal "For Fair and Honest Elections in the Ivanovo Region in 2005." The document was signed by leftists, liberals and nationalists and sent to President Vladimir Putin. The same is happening in other regions, except in Moscow where the ambitions of political leaders rule out any cooperation between parties.
The opposition forces wanted to merge after the December 2003 State Duma elections, when United Russia received an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament. Disgraced oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who foresaw the pro-Kremlin party's landslide victory, did his best to consolidate the opposition on the eve of the elections. According to the press, Khodorkovsky financed opposition parties regardless of their political platforms.
"Such mergers have taken place since the 1998-1999 regional elections. But they were usually spearheaded against local authorities," Maxim Dianov, director of the Institute for Regional Problems, said.
Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, also recalled a recent right-left merger in Pskov. The civil rights defense committee, formed by the Communist Party (KPRF), Yabloko and labor unions, was established there to protest against the monetization of benefits. Makarkin said such alliances were motivated by extremely powerful stimuli capable of uniting the leftist opposition with some liberal organizations. "This may happen if the opposition and the authorities confront each other head on," he said.
Parliament introduces new rules for public organizations
The State Duma has passed a bill in its first reading toughening the requirements for the state registration of non-profit organizations and regulating their activities. It will likely undergo second and third readings before the end of the year; the deadline for second-reading amendments is December 4.
Russia's human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin has expressed his disappointment over parliament's haste in pushing the bill through without debate. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairperson of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said nearly 2,000 heads of public organizations have signed a letter of protest against the bill, which "is designed to destroy civil society."
Human rights activists intend to appeal the law in the Constitutional Court. "We will set up a coalition of human rights organizations and lawyers, who will be able to render legal assistance to the public organizations that would be refused re-registration for any reason," the Group's executive director, Nina Tagankina, said.
Former Constitutional Court judge Tamara Morshchakova agrees: "No one in Russia is willing to sponsor socially vital projects, especially those involving human rights, while human rights activists themselves cannot raise money for their work." She hopes the State Duma will soft-pedal the bill's adoption and "the international community will make its opinion heard."
Alexander Osovtsov, a board member of the Moscow public organization Open Russia, is drawing special attention to the fact that Rosregistratsia, rather than the court, will have the authority to deny registration: "Can you imagine the potential for abuse of power?"
Shell pays for Sakhalin II up front
Gazprom has announced a second shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the United States. The fuel will be sold in early December to Shell Western LNG, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. In response, Shell hopes to gain Gazprom's good will on the Sakhalin II project.
The first shipment took place in early October, when Gazprom dispatched a shipment of LNG bought from British BG Group plc. Gazprom has staked out a niche on the American LNG market without having its own liquefied fuel plants, Mikhail Armyakov, a chief analyst at RI-M brokerage, said. For now, the concern is only planning to build an LNG plant in the Murmansk region as part of the Shtokman project.
LNG cooperation is giving Shell some hope that it will resolve its Sakhalin II problems. On September 15, the company presented new estimates to the Russian authorities on the second phase of their production-sharing agreement, increased from $12 billion to $20 billion. Russian officials suggested the project operator, Sakhalin Energy, apply for approval from Russia's Glavgosexpertiza (Central State Expert Body) on the revised estimates. Outside experts may be invited on a competitive basis for an independent audit of the increased costs.
Sakhalin Energy was unable to name the sum invested in Sakhalin II, but construction work was nearly 60% complete, company spokesman Ivan Chernyakhovsky said. The combined contracts with Russian enterprises manufacturing oil and gas equipment are approaching $5.5 billion. Seventy-five percent of the gas to be produced by the Sakhalin LNG plant is already chartered by Japan, Korea and North America, he added.
Perhaps the Gazprom-Shell agreement on advance shipments of Russian gas to the U.S. is part of the American company's contract on the Sakhalin project and will help resolve the controversial financial issue, Armyakov said.
Defense Ministry to create device to jam civilian communications
A new type of device may be built by the Russian armed forces soon. Informed sources in the defense department said documents on the creation of Electronic Warfare Forces had been drafted and approved by senior military-political officials.
The Russian military seems to be following the example of China, which is establishing electronic warfare units, and the United States, which built them long ago. In the U.S., such units can bring the foreign mass media to a standstill by disrupting the work of their computers, tape recorders and transmitters. Unlike military equipment, these civilian systems are not protected from particle beam weapons.
The effect of electronic warfare systems is comparable to that of weapons of mass destruction. The ministry source claims that Russian systems can deliver powerful electromagnetic strikes to burn any electronic equipment, from cell phones and programmable irons to onboard systems of fifth-generation aircraft and the energy systems of a small country.
The new force has come across an old problem: there are innovative designs but they are not able to be mass-produced. A source in the Russian defense department said the government is considering the establishment of a powerful company that would design and produce electronic warfare systems. It is rumored that the appointment of Sergei Ivanov to the post of deputy prime minister, while he also maintains the position of defense minister, is an attempt to speed up the attainment of this goal.
The priority task is to create electronic systems that can precisely and quickly determine the coordinates of terrorist bases in difficult terrain for subsequent destruction with precision-guided missiles.
Electronic warfare systems were first used during the Russian-Japanese war on April 15, 1904, when radio transmitters directing Japanese fire were jammed in Port Arthur.
Three get-rich-quick schemes
Most Russians think that it's possible to get rich in no time at all. A job in the civil service, a marriage of convenience, or an inheritance are the best ways to accomplish this, the latest Romir Monitoring survey involving 1,696 respondents said.
A marriage of convenience is the best way to quick riches, 18% of respondents said. Another 18% believe that a successful civil service career is also a good idea. And 17% hope to inherit from their rich relatives. The first method is more popular among women (25% of those polled), while men (21% of those polled) prefer to become government officials.
Relatively few Russians believe that hard work and affluence go hand in hand. Working for a large company is a key to success, 17% of respondents said, whereas 14% believe having a business of one's own is preferable. Another 8% answered that they did not know; when pressed to give an answer, many respondents said that embezzlement sounded like a good idea. "There would have been many more prospective embezzlers in the early 1990s," Romir Monitoring spokesperson Yevgenia Rubtsova said.
"Russians view the civil service as a cornucopia, which reflects their opinion of corruption levels," Alexandra Muzafarova, head of the department of socio-political studies at Bashkirova and Partners, said.
"A few people accept bribes, but most of them are afraid to do this," a ministry department head who wished to remain anonymous said. This official is quite happy with his salary of _2,000 and such perks as a BMW company car, a free mobile phone and a large office. "It is impossible for officials to get rich," he claims.
Former Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, now president of the Institute of Energy Policy, disagrees: "It was quite interesting to see my colleagues wearing expensive suits and driving luxury cars because an official cannot possibly earn enough to finance this lifestyle."
Russians overrate marriage as a sure way to get rich, experts say. "I have a good marriage, but I had money of my own when I got married," said Yelena Dracheva, the wife of Otkrytye Okna's (Open Windows) general director. Svetlana, adviser to the Kaliningrad region's governor, agrees with her. "Cinderellas are quite rare nowadays because it takes more than just good looks to achieve success. A good career and a university degree are essential," she said. Obolentseva married a student, who later became a financier.