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Special Issue No. 38. March 2007. Focus on Tatarstan

The Research and Analytical Supplement (RAS) to Johnson’s Russia List is produced and edited by Stephen D. Shenfield. He is the author of all parts of the content that are not attributed to any other author.

1. Moscow ­ Kazan: a new crisis? 
2. The alphabet issue: linguistic aspects 
3. Yet again on the siloviki 
4. Islam and politics in the northwest Caucasus 
5. Oligarchic capitalism 
6. The Russian metal industry 
7. Russia -- Azerbaijan 
8. Russia -- Belarus 
9. Russia -- Poland: opinion data 
10. Honored Chekists 
11. Soviet linguists and Chinese script reform



Sources. Julia Kusznir, The New Russian-Tatar Treaty and its Implications for Russian Federalism, Russian Analytical Digest No. 16/07 (1) (; S.V. Sokolovskii, “Alfavity i elity: pis_’mennost_’ v sovremennoi Rossii kak politicheskii simvol” (Alphabets and Elites: Script in Contemporary Russia as a Political Symbol), Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, 2005, no. 6, pp. 3 - 18.

Julia Kusznir (Research Center for East European Studies, University of Bremen) examines relations between Moscow and Kazan since the signing on February 15, 1994 of the treaty on the delimitation of powers between the federal center and the Republic of Tatarstan. (2) The ten-year term of this treaty, which gave Tatarstan a special status within the RF, expired three years ago.

Together with other bilateral agreements of the mid-1990s, the treaty legalized the control of Tatarstan’s political elite over economic policy (taxes, budget, etc.) and over land, natural resources (oil being the most important), and industry in the republic. This elite, built around President Mintimer Shaimiev and his family, is mainly Tatar (80 percent), from the Soviet nomenklatura (90 percent), and of rural origin. It was able to acquire control of industry by prohibiting the sale of Tatarstan assets at federal auctions and privatizing them in a separate process. Political figures are at the same time top managers in the major companies. Thus the prime minister is also chairman of the board of Tatneft (Tatarstan Oil). (3)

Kusznir estimates that by early 2000 the elite was in control of about 65 percent of the republic’s wealth. However, a growing threat to its powers came from Putin’s reforms of center-federal relations: the campaign to bring regional laws into accord with federal laws, the reorganization of the Federation Council, the new federal tax and budget codes, and the system of “super-regions” (federal districts or okrugs) with their presidential representatives. (4) The Tatarstan offices of federal agencies, which in the 1990s had fallen under at least the partial de facto control of the Tatarstan authorities, were re-subordinated to the federal center.

While the agreements negotiated in the 1990s by the center with Tatarstan and other regions are no longer in force, a substantial measure of regional autonomy has so far been preserved. While the Constitutional Court of the RF has ruled that the more radical “confederalist” formulations of the Tatarstan Constitution (the claims to “state sovereignty,” being “a subject of international law,” etc.) are at variance with the RF Constitution (6/27/2000), in some instances it has ruled that attempts by the procuracy, supported by lower courts, to invalidate regional law also violate the RF Constitution. (5)

Moreover, Putin and Shaimiev met several times and hammered out a compromise that restored some elements of the special relationship enshrined in the 1994 treaty. There was to be a new bilateral treaty. Although the “unconstitutional” provisions of the old treaty would not be incorporated, this would give Tatarstan a special status that will not be granted to any other region (with the possible exception of Chechnya). In return, Shaimiev and his colleagues would support Putin in national politics and Tatarstan would give up some laws and revise its constitution. The republic’s parliament adopted the revised constitution, with 357 amendments, in April 2002 and approved a draft for the new treaty in October 2005.

A draft treaty was finally placed before the Duma in November 2006 and approved on February 22, 2007. It would allow the Tatarstan authorities to retain many economic powers, including that of taxing the oil industry. Concessions were also made in the area of ethnic issues. Thus candidates for the RT presidency, though proposed by the Russian president, would be required to speak Tatar.

The carefully crafted compromise was in jeopardy three days later, for on February 25 the Federation Council rejected the draft treaty. This demonstrates that Putin is not a dictator with complete control over Russian politics and that many influential political figures are more centralist and nationalist than he is.

According to Kusznir, Putin must now choose between two courses of action. He can return the treaty to the Duma and, if it passes there a second time with a two-thirds majority, defy the Federal Council and sign the treaty. Or he can use the opposition of the Federal Council as a pretext for denying Tatarstan the promised special status, conveniently shifting the blame.

A confrontation has also emerged over the issue of switching the alphabet used to write the Tatar language from Cyrillic to Latin. (6) I consider the linguistic aspect of this issue in the following piece, but political motives are salient on both sides. The Latinizers want to distance Tatar from Russian and strengthen ties with Turkey and the West, while those who oppose the change seek to block these developments as a threat to national unity and integrity.

A regional law on restoring Latin script was adopted in 1999 and came into force on September 1, 2001. Teacher training for use of the Latin alphabet began in 2000. On September 18, 2001, a group of Duma deputies, most of them from other ethnic republics, introduced a draft federal law stipulating that all state languages in the RF must be based on Cyrillic script. The Duma adopted the law in December 2002, but in a form that permitted the use of non-Cyrillic alphabets provided that they were authorized by federal (not just regional) law.

The courts were then called upon to resolve the conflict between the two laws. In December 2003 the Constitutional Court of Tatarstan ruled that republics had the right to choose their alphabets because this power derived from their constitutional power to establish their own state languages (Tatar and Russian in the case of Tatarstan). In November 2004, however, the Constitutional Court of the RF ruled that the federal law imposing Cyrillic was not unconstitutional. In December 2004, the Tatarstan Supreme Court was obliged to satisfy the demand of the procuracy to invalidate Tatarstan’s latinization law. (7)

Officially the “law-abiding” Shaimiev accepted defeat on this issue, but in January 2005 a new broadly based public movement called the Latin Front was set up to resist Russification and fight for the switch to Latin script. Tatars were urged to study the Latin alphabet independently and use it in practice when possible (e.g., in private correspondence).

I suspect that relations between Moscow and Kazan may return to the pattern of the early 1990s, before the adoption of the first treaty. At that time Shaimiev secretly encouraged Tatar ethnic activism in order to warn the Kremlin of the risks of indulging Russian nationalist hysteria and refusing to come to an acceptable compromise with the Tatarstan leadership. Will he now repeat the charade for Putin’s benefit?


(1) The RAD is a very useful biweekly internet publication produced jointly by the University of Bremen’s Research Center for East European Studies and the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Zurich).

(2) See RAS 1 item 6 and (for deeper historical background) RAS 25 item 11.

(3) This helps explain why Tatneft subsidizes weaker parts of the economy, especially agriculture. Other major companies are Kamaz (vehicles), Tatenergo (electricity), and Nizhnekamskneftekhim (petrochemicals).

(4) On the federal districts, see RAS 8 item 2, 10 items 4 and 5, 18 item 4, 33 item 3, and 34 item 9. For an in-depth study, see the two volumes edited by Peter Reddaway and Robert Orttung under the title “The Dynamics of Russian Politics.”

(5) See RAS 34 item 7. On the general role of the Constitutional Court as a counterweight to authoritarian tendencies, see RAS 36 item 2.

(6) Tatar was originally written in a Runic script. With the arrival of Islam this gave way to Arabic script. A Latin script was introduced in 1929. Stalin imposed the switch to Cyrillic in 1939.

(7) For a more detailed account see Sokolovskii.

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Source. Various articles in Etnograficheskoe obozrenie, 2005, no. 6.

Advocates of switching Tatar writing from Cyrillic to Latin script argue that Cyrillic is singularly unsuited to the range of sounds used in Tatar, though the exact number of sounds said to be distorted by the use of Cyrillic varies. Opponents of the switch admit that standard Cyrillic is poorly suited to the needs of Tatar but claim that the same is true of standard Latin. Whichever alphabet is used as a basis, it has to be adapted. As such adaptation is possible in either case, the optimal course is to retain the Cyrillic basis with a few improvements. In this way the linguistic defects of the current version of Tatar Cyrillic could be corrected without the huge expense and cultural discontinuity entailed by a return to Latin.

For any language the greatest phonetic accuracy might be achieved by inventing an alphabet specifically tailored to that language. Quite a few such language-specific alphabets exist in the world (e.g., Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Korean), but the majority of languages adapt and use an alphabet borrowed from some other living or dead language (Latin, Cyrillic, Arabic, etc.). (1) No one seems to be advocating a Tatar-specific alphabet, and that suggests to me that no one is really giving primacy to linguistic considerations. If the choice is limited to borrowed alphabets, it might make sense to choose the one that requires the fewest adaptations. Perhaps for Tatar (and Turkic languages generally) Latin is superior to Cyrillic in this respect. Not knowing Tatar, I cannot judge.

The most important question from the linguistic point of view is clearly not whether to use Latin or Cyrillic as a basis. It is which version of Latin (or which version of Cyrillic) to adopt. There are several competing schemes for Tatar Latin. The more letters in a scheme (counting letters with different diacritical marks as different letters), the more accurately the sounds of the language can be represented. So (other things being equal) the most complex scheme will be linguistically optimal. But in practice the preference is for simpler schemes like Yanalif-2, which is closest to being officially adopted though still regarded as experimental. The main reason seems to be that the complex schemes, with their numerous diacritical marks, pose greater coding problems in computer use. (2) If a simple Latin script is chosen that does not represent Tatar sounds properly, this rather undermines the main linguistic rationale for rejecting Cyrillic!

In the opinion of Professor Javdet Suleimanov (Kazan State University), the need to switch to Latin script arises out of the specific sociolinguistic situation in Tatarstan. As Tatar and Russian are used in such close proximity and bilingualism is so common, “interference” often occurs between the two spoken languages. In particular, Russian sounds influence the way many people (including ethnic Tatars) speak Tatar. He believes that the psychological distance created by the use of two different alphabets will get rid of this undesirable phenomenon. Under other circumstances there would be no need for the switch. If, for instance, Tatar existed in close proximity not with Russian but with English, then it would be better for Tatar to be written in a non-Latin alphabet, perhaps Cyrillic.

There is some logic to this argument, but it leads to a curious conclusion. After all, interference can result not only from social or geographical but also from linguistic proximity. Thus it is well known that the problem affects people who speak both Italian and Spanish. It follows that the more similar two languages are to one another the more important it is that they have different alphabets!

It also follows that a language that is spoken in two or more distinct linguistic environments may need to have a different alphabet for each environment. Thus Tatars living in Turkey, surrounded by people who write in Latin letters, should on no account write their own language in Latin script. Indeed, there are some in Tatarstan who view Turkification as well as Russification as threats to the purity of the Tatar language.

Sergei Arutyunov (Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences) thinks that under the pressure of computer technology all languages, including Russian, will eventually have to switch to Latin script ­ and, what is more, without diacritical marks. What script will the Tatars use then?


(1) For a good survey of the world’s alphabets, see Akira Nakanishi, Writing Systems of the World (Boston and Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1990).

(2) In principle, letter combinations could be used instead of diacritical marks (as in the English “th” “ch” “sh” etc.). This may make computerization easier, but the result is too unwieldy for the human eye to grasp easily.

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Source. Ian Bremmer and Samuel Charap, The Siloviki in Putin’s Russia: Who They Are and What They Want. The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2006 - 7, pp. 83 - 92

In RAS 36 and 37 I summarized two articles critical of the stress often placed on the role of “the siloviki” in Russian politics. Sharon and David Rivera (RAS 36) find that the numerical weight of siloviki in the power elite has been exaggerated, while Bettina Renz (RAS 37) argues that they do not form a coherent group. Ian Bremmer (president of the Eurasia Group) and Samuel Charap (St. Antony’s College, Oxford), by contrast, consider an emphasis on the importance of the siloviki as a Kremlin faction fully justified. Why have these authors reached such divergent conclusions?

The crux of the matter is how you define “siloviki.” Although the Riveras and Renz do not use exactly the same definition, they all treat “siloviki” as a formal category consisting of those whose career experience has been wholly or mainly within the “force structures.” This does, of course, correspond to the etymology of the word, but it is not the sense in which Russian political commentators generally talk about “the siloviki.” For them, as for Bremmer and Charap, “the siloviki” is a label used to identify a specific Kremlin faction. It is an arbitrary and misleading label, (1) inasmuch as its correspondence with “siloviki” in the literal sense is extremely approximate. In fact, only some members of the faction have force-structure backgrounds, while some influential individuals who do have such backgrounds, such as ex-FSB chief Sergei Stepashin, (2) keep their distance from the faction.

Bremmer and Charap acknowledge that the situation inside the power elite is sufficiently complex, fluid, and unclear to allow for a variety of possible schemas of its factional structure, with the number of factions ranging from 2 up to 10. (3) Their schema consists of 3 factions plus individuals not affiliated with any faction, who include the 3 top figures: prime minister Mikhail Fradkov, head of the PA Sergei Sobyanin, and Putin himself.

* The free-market oriented “liberals” are the weakest of the factions. The most important members of this faction are German Gref, minister of economic development and trade, (4) and finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

* The “technocrats” have their power and resource base in Gazprom. The two key figures of this faction, first deputy prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and Alexei Miller, both belong to Gazprom top management. (However, the siloviki also have their people in Gazprom.)

* The siloviki are the strongest faction, both in terms of their control over many government agencies (not only “force structures” but also, for instance, energy and customs) and in terms of their resource base. This base is Rosneft: one member, Igor Sechin, is its chairman as well as deputy head of the PA, while another, Sergei Bogdanchikov, is director of Gazpromneft (owner of the oil assets formerly belonging to Gazprom).

We see how the hydrocarbons sector dominates Kremlin politics, with the two strongest factions representing oil and gas interests, respectively.

Other top members of the “siloviki” faction are FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev and Putin adviser Viktor Ivanov, who is responsible for personnel appointments in government agencies and state companies. Sechin, Patrushev, and Viktor Ivanov constitute the faction’s “inner circle.” Defense minister and deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov is a relatively independent figure loosely connected with the faction.

Members of the “second circle” include Bogdanchikov and Viktor Cherkesov, former presidential representative in the Northwestern Federal Okrug and currently head of the State Committee for Oversight of the Trade in Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances. A more fluid “third circle” includes justice minister Vladimir Ustinov, who used to be a member of Yeltsin’s “Family.”

The general outlook of the “siloviki” faction can be characterized as statist and nationalist. Its members also tend to be xenophobic and anti-Semitic. In the authors’ view, the faction may not acquire complete dominance but will certainly retain a major influence over Russian policy.


(1) Sam Charap tells me that he would prefer to dispense with it altogether.

(2) Currently head of the Audit Chamber.

(3) For one alternative schema, see Arkady Arzamastsev and Svetlana Branitskaya in the January 2004 issue of “Delovye liudi” at They see the main opponent of the siloviki as the Yeltsin-era “Family.” In the Bremmer-Charap version, the “Family” no longer exists as a coherent faction.

(4) Despite its impressive name, the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade has a fairly limited influence over economic policy.

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Source. Walter Comins - Richmond, Legal Pluralism in the Northwest Caucasus: The Role of Sharia Courts, Religion, State & Society, Vol. 32, No. 1, March 2004, pp. 59 - 73

Commentary on the role of Islam and Islamism in the politics of the North Caucasus generally focuses on the central and eastern parts of the region (Chechnya, Dagestan). (1) The northwest Caucasus appears quiet on this front, although there has been recurrent ethnopolitical conflict. Examining the Islamic renaissance in the rural areas of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the author demonstrates that here too religion may become a destabilizing factor.

The official legal system no longer operates in these neglected areas. Its functions are performed by traditional institutions, some of which maintained a tenuous underground existence even during the Soviet period. Two very different traditional codes coexist, uneasily: the formal code of Islamic law (Sharia) and the informal code known as “adat” (Arabic for “customs”), which long predates Islam. (2) While Sharia specifies punishments for specific offences, the purpose of adat is not punishment but conciliation. Elders negotiate settlements between the families affected by a crime, thereby preventing or halting blood feuds. (3) The key to conciliation is material compensation that the culprit agrees to pay the victim (or the victim’s family if the victim is dead). The problem of rape is “resolved” by forcing the perpetrator and the victim to marry.

An important question for the future is who will gain control of the “Sharia courts” (which, despite the name, are influenced by adat as well as Sharia). Currently three factions contend for ideological control of the courts:

* The adherents of the form of Islam traditional to the region, influenced by Sufism and pre-Islamic beliefs. Most people over 40 belong to this group.

* The adherents of standard Sunni Islam, led by young men who have studied Islam at foreign madrasas or universities, the most prestigious being Al - Azhar in Cairo.

* The adherents of “fundamentalist” (salafi) Islam, commonly known as Wahhabis or extremists. Neither of these labels is warranted: Wahhabism is only one of several varieties of salafi Islam represented in the region, and only some salafi groups advocate violent confrontation with the state or struggle for an Islamic state.

The Wahhabis include “a strictly criminal element” attracted by a doctrine sometimes interpreted as justifying theft and murder if the victim observes the local and Sufi tradition of venerating ancestors and so is allegedly a “polytheist.” In 1997 a Wahhabi imam issued a fatwa declaring that “the polytheist stands outside the law, and it is therefore permissible to kill him and take his possessions in the name of Allah.”

More people are attracted to fundamentalism as a form of social protest against corruption and gross inequality, out of solidarity with the Chechen insurgents, or in reaction against persecution and abusive treatment by the authorities. The police are unable to distinguish between different kinds of Moslem believers and tend to arrest and beat up anyone who makes a public show of piety ­ by wearing a beard, for instance, or even by abstaining from alcoholic drink. This only plays into the hands of the extremists.

Fundamentalism also has an appeal to people who can no longer afford the expensive rites that by custom accompany births, weddings, and funerals ­ rites that the fundamentalists oppose as non-Islamic.

The author does not exclude the possibility that, as in Dagestan, some places in the northwest Caucasus may fall under fundamentalist control and enter into armed confrontation with the state. But this need not happen if “a comprehensive program” is implemented “to ensure that a legitimate Islamic imamate that respects the traditions of the local peoples and is founded upon orthodox Islamic teachings develops organically in the region.” Such a structure would be able to integrate the great majority of Moslems, isolating and marginalizing the most irreconcilable Wahhabis.


(1) On Islam and Islamism in the North Caucasus, see also RAS 3 item 3, 7 item 3 (on Chechnya), and 19 item 8 (on Dagestan).

(2) Although there was some earlier penetration by Sufi brotherhoods from Dagestan, Islam began to spread widely in the northwest Caucasus only in the 16th century, under the expanding influence of Ottoman Turkey. Islam reached the inland areas discussed in the source even later.

(3) The blood feud or vendetta is itself a mechanism for deterring crime. Adat steps in when it doesn’t work.

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Source. Andrei Malenko, Oligarchic Capitalism and Financial Development, Problems of Economic Transition, vol. 49 no. 7, November 2006, pp. 70 - 107

Andrei Malenko (Graduate School of Business, Stanford University) explores the contrast between two ideal types of capitalism: “oligarchic” and “diffuse” (with real economies spread along the continuum between the two). The distribution of wealth may be highly concentrated in either type, but in diffuse capitalism holdings are diversified so that single individuals or families do not control large companies. In oligarchic capitalism they do.

Russia is one of the countries that come close to the “oligarchic” end of the continuum, with ten individuals controlling companies worth over 60 percent of total market capitalization. (1) Oligarchic capitalism is also present in a number of countries in East Asia (e.g., Malaysia) and to a lesser extent in some West European countries (e.g., Italy). I would add that in the past -- in the era of the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and other “robber barons” -- it existed in the United States too.

In diffuse capitalism the distribution of legal ownership of assets roughly coincides with that of their effective control. This is not the case in oligarchic capitalism. Here control is even more concentrated than ownership because the oligarchs who dominate big companies use various mechanisms to control assets worth much more than those they own.

One such mechanism is pyramidal structures. To take a simple example, suppose that oligarch A owns a majority stake (say, 51 percent) in company X, but company X in turn owns similar majority stakes in companies of equal value Y and Z. Then A controls all three companies although he owns only 34 percent of the value of their combined assets. Of course, a larger and more complex structure can produce an even more striking divergence between ownership and control.

Other mechanisms in common use are cross-holdings, where a company owns shares in companies that are its own shareholders, and the issue of shares with superior voting rights.

The term “oligarchic capitalism” may cause confusion because it is also used in another quite distinct sense, to refer to the domination of markets by a small number of companies. “Oligarchy” in this sense may coexist with diffuse ownership and control at the level of individuals and families (and vice versa). It is not the sense in which the term is used here.

Despite the wide prevalence of oligarchic capitalism, mainstream economic theory is based on the assumption that ownership and control are diffuse. Malenko establishes conceptual and mathematical foundations for a theory specific to oligarchic capitalism.

The author shows why oligarchic capitalism tends to be less developed than diffuse capitalism in terms of financial institutions (and institutions in general). As minority shareholders are effectively disenfranchised, their interests can be ignored. Much of the money that by the rules of diffuse capitalism should be paid out to them as dividends is diverted to other purposes. This situation naturally discourages potential outside investors. As a result, financial markets remain underdeveloped and companies have to rely on debt financing instead of equity financing. Capital mobility remains low.

Oligarchs enjoy greater political influence than equally wealthy individuals would in diffuse capitalism. (That is what makes them “oligarchs.”) That is both because they control larger resources and because they have closer connections with specific companies that are important to the country’s economy. For an ambitious politician an oligarch is a more reliable long-term “partner” (I would say “sponsor”) than a company CEO who might be replaced at any time. (2)


(1) Sergei Guriev and Andrei Rachinsky, The Role of Oligarchs in Russian Capitalism, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2005, vol. 19, pp. 131 - 50.

(2) The roles of oligarch and politician are sometimes combined. Chernomyrdin and Abramovich are obvious examples. Another is Leonid Reiman, who is both minister of communications and information technologies and majority shareholder in the mobile phone company Megafon.

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Source. A. Petrosyan, Razvitie mirovogo metallurgicheskogo kompleksa i fondovyi rynok [The Development of the World Metallurgical Complex and the Capital Market], Voprosy ekonomiki, 2006, no. 12, pp. 98 - 114.

The Russian metal industry is the country’s third largest in terms of output (19 percent of total industrial output). Despite trade barriers, it is the second largest exporter after the oil and gas sector (18 percent of exports). Over the period 1999 -- 2006 the output of ferrous metallurgy increased by 60 percent, that of nonferrous metallurgy by 58 percent.

Metal companies made especially high profits in 2003 -- 2004, when prices reached record highs. This enabled them to use internal funds to expand investment and acquire new assets in Russia and abroad. Most notably, Yevraz Holding, founded by former physicist Alexander Abramov, has bought up steel firms in Italy (Palini & Bertoli) and the Czech Republic (Vitkovice Steel). Companies have pursued vertical integration by taking over suppliers of iron ore and coking coal as well as steel mills, thereby gaining control over raw material costs and smoothing out fluctuations in their income streams. (1)

Petrosyan is highly optimistic about the future of Russian metal companies. Comparing their financial performance on various indicators with that of major Western metal companies (but what about the Chinese?), he concludes that they “no longer lag behind Western firms and in some respects outperform them” (e.g., they have lower production costs). Indeed, they are “the most profitable metal companies in the world.”

The author responds to criticisms regarding the quality of corporate management in the sector by attributing problems to the conditions of a transitional phase that have already been overcome. Until a few years ago companies were preoccupied by “processes of the redistribution of property within a narrow circle” and unready to open up to outside investors. That situation has now changed and several Russian metal companies, starting with Norilsk Nickel, have floated shares on the London Stock Exchange (LSE).

How do we square this prognosis with the analysis of “oligarchic capitalism” (item 3 above)? Have the problems of oligarchic control really been overcome in the metal industry?

In the 1990s there was less oligarchic control in mining and metals than in some other sectors of the Russian economy. (2) But in the early 2000s several oligarchs did muscle their way in (Potanin, Abramov, the Cherny brothers). (3) The way they have treated outside investors casts doubt on their companies’ prospects of firmly establishing themselves on the international capital market. Yevraz Holdings, which made its debut on the LSE in June 2006, is currently under investigation for securities fraud: American and Israeli investors say that they possessed over 70 percent of the shares in the Kachkanarsky Ore-Mining and Enrichment Plant, which Abramov claims to own, until they were forcibly stripped of their assets in 2000 -- 2001. (4)


(1) Both steel and raw materials are subject to price cycles, but the cycles are not synchronic so fluctuations partly cancel out.

(2) See RAS 4 item 4.

(3) Thus in 2000 Potanin bought a 34 percent share in the Novolipetsk Metal Combine. Initially failing to oust the existing management, he responded by stalling development plans (John Helmer in The Russia Journal, June 1, 2001; see JRL 5281 #9, June 3, 2001).

(4) See Sean B. Carney, Testing the Road to Oligarchy, Czech Business Weekly, Issue No. 9, February 27, 2007. The town of Kachkanar is in Sverdlovsk Province.

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Source. Kenan Guluzade (Baku), Azerbaijan and Russia at Loggerheads, IWPR Caucasus Reporting Service No. 373, January 11, 2007.

At the end of 2006 Gazprom announced that it was reducing the supply of gas to Azerbaijan by two-thirds and raising the price from $110 to $235 per 1,000 cubic meters. The price charged to Armenia remained unchanged, so it was hard to explain the decision in terms of a general policy of placing relations with the CIS on a market basis.

Baku’s response was to halt both the import of gas from Russia (mazut, the heavy low-quality fuel oil, would be used instead) and the export of oil to Russia. For good measure, from July Russian TV programs will no longer be retransmitted to viewers in Azerbaijan.

Sources of Baku’s dissatisfaction with its relations with Moscow are “geopolitical” as well as economic -- namely, Moscow is still offering “nothing serious” on Karabakh.

In the commentator’s opinion, two concerns may deter Baku from shifting its foreign policy orientation too far away from Moscow and toward the West. First, how will such a shift affect the position of Azerbaijani migrants in Russia, who may number up to 2 million and are a major source of income for many families? Second, how will it affect the ability of the regime to falsify election results? President Bush, Jr. should perhaps quietly assure President Aliev, Jr. that he has nothing in principle against falsifying election results, providing that doing so does not strengthen Russian influence.

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Source. Oleg Aleksandrov (Moscow), The Crisis in Russian ­ Belarusian Relations, Russian Analytical Digest No. 15/07 (

Relations between Moscow and Minsk continue to deteriorate. As in the case of relations between Moscow and Baku, a dispute arose over gas prices in late 2006. In this case, however, the two sides did reach agreement ­ on New Year’s Eve. Energy prices are to be raised to market levels over a period of four years. For the time being Belarus will pay $100 per 1,000 cubic meters for Russian gas (up from $47). Minsk agreed also to sell Gazprom a 50 percent share in Beltransgaz, the state company that owns the stretch of gas pipeline across Belarus’ territory.

In the new year there was a new dispute, this time over customs duties that Belarus, hoping partly to recoup its losses, imposed on the transportation of Russian oil across its territory. This dispute has also been resolved. So the word “crisis” in the title of Aleksandrov’s article seems to me a trifle exaggerated.

True, the state union to which Russia and Belarus are committed has been put on hold for another two or three years. But the commitment is only on paper and, as the Russian saying goes, whatever you write on it paper will never object. Four years ago I wrote a piece on this topic entitled “The Union That Never Happens” and it is still not happening. (1) It will go on not happening for a long time yet.

Also frozen is further progress in the one area where cooperation between the two countries is a reality, that is, the military. The plan for a joint anti-missile defense, discussed as recently as November 2006, has again been put on hold.

The author argues that Belarus cannot make a radical break with Russia because it “has nowhere else to go.” I suppose that so long as Lukashenka remains at the helm that is the case (and it means there can be no true crisis in relations). But Lukashenka is looking for other places to go, one of them being Beijing. On his visit there in December 2005 he offered to represent Chinese interests in Europe. China has named Belarus a “strategic partner” (like Russia!), opened a credit line for Minsk of $1bn a year, and signed cooperation agreements with Belarusian defense enterprises.


(1) RAS 16 item 11 (February 2003). See also RAS 27 item 4.

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Source. As item 7 above.

The historical background to Russian -- Polish relations, with repeated invasions in both directions, is not too promising. The most recent tensions again have to do mostly with trade. In 2005 Russia blocked the import of Polish meat and other goods. In 2006 Poland used its new status as a full member of the European Union to retaliate by vetoing talks on a new partnership agreement between Russia and the EU. (I wonder whether Russian policy makers even realized that Poland now had the power to do this.) Poland is prepared to retract its veto only in Russia lifts the trade sanctions.

According to polls conducted in 2006 in the two countries, (1) Russians and Poles have rather different perceptions of the situation. Russians are about equally divided among those who think the Polish attitude toward Russia is friendly (30 percent), those who think it is unfriendly (38 percent), and those who don’t know (32 percent). Poles have a clearer view of the real state of relations: 63 percent of respondents in the Polish poll describe relations as “bad,” 24 percent as “neither good nor bad,” and only 2 percent as “good.” 65 percent regard Polish government policy regarding the trade dispute as right; only 10 percent consider it wrong.

The reason for the difference in perceptions appears to be simply that most Russians are unaware of the dispute. Informed that Poland had vetoed talks between Russia and the EU and asked whether they knew about this, 56 percent of respondents in the Russian poll replied that it was the first they had heard of the matter.


(1) The Russian poll was conducted in December 2006 by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). The Polish poll was published by CBOS in December 2006; the data cited pertain to January 2006.

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Source. Vadim J. Birstein, The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science (Boulder, CO and Oxford: Westview, 2001)

This book attracted attention through its revelations about the secret laboratories of the Cheka (1) under Stalin, where under the guise of medical treatment physicians tested poisons on selected prisoners (“birdies”) and observed their death agonies before carrying out autopsies on the corpses. However, it is not only on this subject that Birstein makes a valuable contribution. In particular, he adds significantly to our knowledge of Lysenko and his pseudo-biology.

Here I would like to focus on an issue that greatly concerns the author, as it does myself ­ namely, the subsequent fate of the perpetrators of state atrocities. (2) Are they ever held legally or morally responsible? Or are their deeds excused and shrouded in silence while they bask in the honor and respect of their peers?

The Nuremberg trials, while vulnerable to criticism as hypocritical “victors’ justice,” did at least establish the enormously significant principle that a person acting under orders is still personally responsible for those acts and that obeying orders does not qualify as a defense. The duty to disobey orders that are illegal under national or international law is recognized to widely varying degrees in different countries. Many countries have never recognized such a duty, and Russia is among them.

True, some Chekists did come to a sorry end. Stalin’s purges did not spare the Cheka itself. In 1951 senior Chekists of Jewish origin were arrested in connection with the “anti-cosmopolitan” (i.e., anti-Semitic) campaign. One of them was Grigory Mairanovsky, head of one of the two poison labs then in operation; another was Naum Eitingon, who had organized the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico. (3) After Stalin’s death Beria and several of his closest associates were arrested and executed. But none of these men was punished for his real crimes. They were arrested for quite other reasons and on fantastic charges, usually treason and espionage.

Other Chekists went on to pursue successful careers in science. Thus:

* In 1956 Sergei Muromtsev, head of the second poison lab, was appointed acting director of the Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology of the Academy of Medical Sciences. However, the party organization of the institute objected to the appointment and the medical academy never confirmed it (Muromtsev died in 1960).

* Yosif Grigulevich, who had worked as an assassin for the Cheka, joined the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Academy of Sciences (despite having no qualifications in these fields) and was elected a corresponding member of the academy in 1979.

* Pavel Grishayev, who had tortured victims of the anti-Semitic purge in the early 1950s (as well as his former boss, Abakumov), was a professor of law and honored public figure throughout the post-Stalin period.

* In 1960 the geologist Nikolai Shilo, who had been in charge of gold-mining labor camps in northeast Siberia, was appointed director of the North ­ Far East Scientific Center of the Academy of Sciences in Magadan. He became an academician in 1970. In 1993 the Courier of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Vestnik RAN) congratulated him on his 80th birthday; its account of his career, written “in the style of the Brezhnev period,” glossed over his time in the Cheka (pp. 178-9).

* Sergei Zhuk, who for most of the 1930s and 1940s had been in charge of canal-construction labor camps, became an academician in 1953.

* The oceanographer Pyotr Shirshov was head of the Main Northern Marine Directorate (1939 ­ 42) and then minister of marine transportation (1942 ­ 48). In these capacities he organized the sea transportation of prisoners to northeast Siberia under conditions reminiscent of the transatlantic slave trade. One of these prisoners was his wife, who was arrested in 1946 and died in Kolyma. In his final years he was director of the Institute of Oceanography, which after his death in 1953 was named in his honor. So were a bay in Franz Josef Land and an underwater ridge in the Bering Sea.

Shirshov continues to be honored even today. On December 25, 2005, his institute commemorated the centenary of his birth. Flowers were laid on his grave in Novodevichye Cemetery and a memorial plaque was unveiled at the House of Polar Researchers (he took part in several polar expeditions in the 1930s). (4)

Birstein is able to give only one example of a former Chekist whose scientific career was brought to an end by public exposure of his past. As a Soviet adviser, Vladimir Boyarsky trained and supervised the Czechoslovak Security Service during the extensive Slansky purge of 1950 ­ 51. In 1959 he was appointed editor in chief of the Academy of Sciences publishing house “Nauka.” Later he joined the Institute of Problems of Complex Exploitation of Natural Resources. His past role was exposed in the press in 1990 ­ 91 and led to his dismissal and deprivation of his scientific degree.

In general, there is a quite sharp contrast between Germany’s achievement in dishonoring its evildoers and Russia’s failure. (5) Efforts were made to come to terms with the past under Khrushchev and again under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but those efforts were not sustained. Now we have a Chekist not just in the Academy of Sciences but in the Kremlin, at the very top (the first if we do not count the short tenure of the dying Andropov) ­ and people have got used to it.

The process of restoring the honor of the Cheka is not complete. That will require the return of “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky, whose monument was toppled by the crowds in August 1991, to Lyubanka Square. And he will return. When Luzhkov suggested bringing him back, Putin called the suggestion “ill-timed” but not unacceptable in principle. (6)

Going back to the specific atrocity uncovered by Birstein, the testing of poisons on human victims, it is important to consider what kinds of societies give rise to such horrors. At different places the author gives two rather different answers to this question. One answer, underlined by the systematic parallels drawn between the Stalinist and the Nazi experiments, is: “totalitarian societies.”

But Birstein himself points out that similar experiments have been conducted in supposedly democratic countries: Britain, Canada, the United States. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, for instance, the CIA tested radioactive substances on convicts, servicemen, and cancer patients, while over 3,100 British servicemen were exposed to nerve gases at the Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment (Porton Down). He concludes that atrocities can occur within closed, secretive, and authoritarian institutions like the armed forces and security agencies even in societies that are, by comparison with totalitarian states, relatively democratic. To the extent that democratic freedoms do exist, of course, they make it easier to prevent, expose, and halt abusive experiments.

Another instructive case, not mentioned by Birstein, is a medical study conducted over 40 years (1932 ­ 72) by the US Public Health Service in Alabama. (7) Over 400 black men were observed as they died of untreated syphilis. True, the experimental subjects in this study were volunteers, attracted by incentives that included free lunches, free treatment of any disease except syphilis, and free burial after autopsy. That the study was finally halted must have had a lot to do with the civil rights movement. For societies that encourage abuse are, above all, sharply stratified societies in which certain groups ­ Beria called them “low people” ­ are regarded as inferior and can be legitimately used in any fashion.


(1) The Soviet secret police had many names over the years (GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MGB, KGB, etc.). At times it was divided, then reunited. But it remained the same organization. In colloquial usage it kept its first name, the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission), and its personnel continued to be called Chekists. I too adopt this usage.

(2) I describe a personal encounter with this issue in “A Chekist in the Family” (RAS 31 item 6).

(3) Eitingon was rehabilitated posthumously in 1990.


(5) But to be fair it should be noted that the Japanese scientists of Unit 731 who tested poison gases on POWs (they were called “maruta” ­ logs) also went on to successful postwar careers. I might also mention the common Japanese practice (during the war, not now) of slicing through people to test the sharpness of one’s sword. In the old days, samurai would cut off the heads of passing peasants for the same purpose.

(6) Russia Weekly #108 (7/4/2000), #6. In 2005 a bust of Dzerzhinsky was returned to the courtyard of the Moscow police HQ.

(7) Medical News-Tribune, 10/2/1972.

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Source. John DeFrancis, Pinyin: The Prospects for Chinese Writing Reform. At:v

In the late 1920s Soviet linguists assisted in the invention of new Latin scripts not only for the Tatars (see item 1 above) but also for many other Soviet nationalities. One of these scripts was devised for the 100,000 or so Chinese then living in the USSR: “Latinxua” or “Sin Wenz” (“New Writing”; Xinxie in pinyin). The literature created in Latinxua in the USSR included textbooks, newspapers, poems by Pushkin, and stories by Tolstoy.

The initiative for creating Latinxua came from Qu Qiubai (1899 ­ 1935), a correspondent for a leading Chinese newspaper who was later to become a prominent figure in the Chinese Communist Party. (1) He collaborated on the project with Soviet linguists who specialized in Chinese.

Latinxua also came into use among the largely illiterate Dungans, descendants of northwest Chinese Muslims, who after a failed rebellion in the 1870s fled to tsarist Central Asia and settled in areas that became part of Soviet Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

When knowledge of the new writing seeped into China, it was enthusiastically taken up by the left-wing movement throughout the country, more or less clandestinely in Kuomintang-controlled areas but quite openly in Yanan (the communist “border region”). With support from Mao and other political leaders as well as famous writers, the Border Region Government gave Latinxua equal legal status with the traditional character script in petitions, reports, and correspondence. It decreed that the most important laws and public announcements should also be published in Latinxua. A wider literature developed in the script, including stories by Lu Xun and biographies of notable Westerners.

The movement came to a halt during the war with Japan. In the occupied areas it was suppressed by the invaders, and even elsewhere conditions were unfavorable. When the CCP came to power, it decided to defer the introduction of Latinxua. Gradually the whole idea was shelved. The desire not to alienate intellectuals attached to the old characters was one factor. Another was a growing nationalism that led Mao to seek a new alphabet that would be “national in form.” A few such schemes were submitted and four were shown to Mao, but he didn’t like any of them. He chose a new Latin-based system that was promulgated as pinyin in 1958 but has been confined to auxiliary roles.


(1) He is also known for making the official Chinese translation of The Internationale. In 1935 he was arrested and executed by the Kuomintang.

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Special Issue No. 38. March 2007. Focus on Tatarstan

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