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Russia Report: June 20, 2008

Commentary: Elections Talk Sheds Light On Russia's Political Culture

By RFE/RL analyst Robert Coalson

Is Mintimer Shaimiyev (left) standing up to Vladimir Putin over elections?

Tatarstan's president, Mintimer Shaimiyev, set Russia's chattering classes off on June 15 by telling a congress of journalists the country should return to the direct election of regional heads. Those elections, it will be recalled, were eliminated by then-President Vladimir Putin in 2004, supposedly as part of his overall plan to combat terrorism.

Under Putin's reform, governors are now appointed by the president and confirmed by regional legislatures. But if lawmakers refuse to go along with the Kremlin's choice, the president simply disbands the body and calls new elections.

The fevered reaction to Shaimiyev's tepid proposal -- he didn't set a time frame or specify that the elections should be genuinely competitive -- probably has more to do with the current slow news cycle than with the importance of the statement itself.

Tellingly, there was almost no reaction until June 17, when Regional Development Minister and Putin insider Dmitry Kozak signaled the Kremlin's view. There will be no such elections "in the foreseeable future," he said.

After that, governors raced to show their loyalty. Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleyev was typical, noting that elections are not needed "under the current conditions of national support for the course of the country's leadership." Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Khloponin seconded that opinion, saying that "work is needed" -- not elections.

Among mainstream political players, only Shaimiyev's neighbor, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, seconded the proposal, saying, "If we have a democracy, we should have elections."

Managed Elections Vs. No Elections

The nature of the discussion of Shaimiyev's statement, by and large, was also indicative of Russia's current political climate. Once the Kremlin rejected the elections idea again, analysts limited their comments to the state of relations between Shaimiyev and the Kremlin, rather than weighing the pros and cons of elections themselves.

Oksana Goncharenko, of the Center for Political Forecasting, noted that "the center is interested in gaining new levers of power in the republics -- and this applies first of all to the resource-rich republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Yakutia [the Sakha Republic]."

The official line on elections is that Russia is in a phase of building economic and political stability, a process that depends on the current intense political centralization. Despite recent talk about the need to combat corruption, the value of electoral accountability has not been acknowledged. Perhaps this is because elections in Russia are so heavily managed and manipulated that they cannot produce accountability. As a result, elections increase public cynicism rather than protecting against it.

Duma Deputy Roman Antonov, of the ruling Unified Russia party, revealed his scorn for elections in comments to the Regnum news agency. Voters "make their choice based on their hearts and often cannot objectively evaluate the professional qualities of the candidates," Antonov said.

Talk about returning to gubernatorial elections crops up in Russia now and again, and it benefits the central authorities, who, after all, maintain that Russia is building a democracy -- just in its own way and at its own pace.

But the fact is that the present system largely satisfies the political elites at all levels. Most governors have been successfully reappointed since the abolition of elections. In fact, Putin's reform has saved many of them from the awkward contortions involved in getting past the term-limits problem. It has, in fact, meant the de facto abolition of term limits and given loyalists lifetime sinecures.

Shaimiyev is 71 and has been president of Tatarstan since 1991. His current term of office expires in March 2010. His call for elections may have less to do with democratic leanings than with a desire -- which will grow stronger as the current group of regional elites ages -- to name his own successor. In Russia, presidents like to do that themselves.

Caucasus: U.S. Explains Policy On Frozen Conflicts And Closed Borders

By Heather Maher

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried told members of Congress on June 18 that the wave of democracy that swept from Central to Eastern Europe in 1989 has yielded astonishing and successful results in terms of democracy, human rights, and free-market systems. The question now, he said, is whether that wave will extend to the easternmost borders of what he called "wider Europe."

By that, Fried was referring to the Caucasus: specifically, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia -- three very different states that share similar problems. All are struggling to quell internal separatist conflicts, to establish independent judicial institutions and modern financial systems, and, in general, to build new identities as sovereign, successful nation-states.

Fried offered his comments to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, which heard that U.S. foreign policy toward all three countries is to support them as they journey along the same path toward full democracy and market-based economies that their neighbors to the West have already traveled. Fried said no outside power -- he mentioned Russia specifically -- should be able to extend its sphere of influence over the three.

"We do not believe that any outside power should be able to threaten or block the sovereign choice of these nations to join the institutions of Europe and the trans-Atlantic family, if they so choose, and if we so choose," Fried said.

Azerbaijan: Bellicose Rhetoric

Thanks to its abundance of oil and natural gas, Azerbaijan has enjoyed three straight years as the world's fastest-growing economy. But Fried said the United States remains concerned about "a relative lag in democratic reforms," including respect for fundamental freedoms such as a free press and the right to assemble.

He said finding a peaceful resolution of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of Azerbaijan's biggest challenges.

The United States, he said, supports Azerbaijan's territorial integrity but believes the region's final status must be determined through negotiations that take into account "international legal and political principles." He acknowledged the progress that Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made when they met in St. Petersburg on June 6, but said more must be done and cooler heads must prevail.

"Renewed fighting is not a viable option," Fried said. "We have concerns about occasional bellicose rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and we have urged the government, and will continue to urge the government, to focus on a peaceful resolution of this dispute, noting the benefits a resolution would bring for all of the Caucuses."

A few committee members expressed concern at what they said was Azerbaijan's "intent to go to war" with Armenia. Congressman Joe Knollenberg (Republican, Michigan) quoted President Aliyev as saying "at any moment we must be able to liberate our territories by military means." He asked Fried what the United States has done to stop "this war machine."

Fried agreed that the bellicose rhetoric that sometimes comes out of Baku is "unhelpful" and said U.S. diplomats had cautioned Aliyev's government against using "war-like" language. The United States has also raised the issue of Azerbaijan's energy exports.

"We've also explained to them, frankly, that Azerbaijan's wealth comes from the export of gas and oil, and that a war puts that at risk very quickly," Fried said. "It is also the judgment of the United States that Azerbaijan does not have a military superiority over Armenia and that a war would be costly to both sides and unwinnable by either one."

Russian 'Campaign Of Pressure' Against Georgia

As for Georgia, Fried said the Black Sea country faces security challenges. Along with Ukraine, the country failed to win a Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest this spring.

Fried said Georgia's desire to join NATO has "provoked a campaign of pressure from Russia," and listed actions Moscow has taken to punish the Georgian government, including the suspension of air and land links, and intensifying its relationship with separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, where Russian peacekeeping forces have been deployed since the early 1990s.

"These steps counter Russia's own professed policy of supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, damage Russia's role as a facilitator of the UN's mediating process in Abkhazia, and risk destabilizing the broader Caucasus region," Fried said. "The United States supports Georgia's territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders and we hold that Abkhazia's status should be determined through a negotiated compromise. We've called on Moscow to reverse its unconstructive actions taken recently, and work with us and with others in a diplomatic process to resolve these conflicts."

On Armenia, Fried said geographic isolation, widespread corruption, and recent setbacks to democratic development have prompted the United States to make supporting Armenia's integration into the region "a particular priority." Solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be a major step forward on that integration, he said.

So would normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey, which has imposed a blockade on Armenia since 1993, Fried said.

Many members of the committee questioned Fried about what the United States is doing to help end the 15-year-old Turkish blockade of Armenia. The World Bank estimates that Turkey and Azerbaijan's blockades of Armenia reduce Armenia's GDP by up to 38 percent annually.

Four U.S. House members recently introduced the "End the Turkish Blockade of Armenia" bill, which calls upon Turkey to end its blockade of Armenia.

Fried said the United States supports a normalization of relations as well as the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.

"Reconciliation will require political will on both sides and does require dealing with the sensitive and painful issues, including the issue of the mass killings and forced exile of up to 1.5 million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire," Fried said. "Turkey needs to come to terms with this history, and for its part, Armenia should acknowledge the existing border with Turkey and respond constructively to efforts that Turkey may make."

Armenian Genocide Debate Resurfaces

In his description of the mass killings of more than a million Armenians by Turkish troops in 1915, Fried avoided the word "genocide," in line with the Bush administration's policy. No U.S. president has ever used that politically charged word to describe the event, and the Armenian government and Armenian diaspora have lobbied hard throughout the years to change that.

In October 2007, the House Foreign Relations Committee narrowly passed a resolution to officially describe the massacre as "genocide," but the legislation was withdrawn when U.S.-Turkish relations quickly soured as a result.

At this hearing, Representative Diane Watson (Democrat, California) -- who represents an area of California that is second only to Moscow in number of ethnic Armenians -- pressed Fried on whether the State Department has specifically instructed its officials not to use the term "Armenian genocide" even though it acknowledges that what happened was a mass, targeted killing of an ethnic group.

Fried said the massacre is a "matter of historical record" and the United States does not deny what happened, but confirmed that U.S. officials do not use the term because to do so would "not contribute to a reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey."

Watson pressed Fried several more times to go on the record and answer "yes" or "no" to the question of whether the Bush administration considers what happened to be genocide. Fried continued to insist that it does not deny the massacre. Finally, Watson declared the exchange "fruitless" and turned off her microphone.

As the hearing proceeded, tensions between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia were flaring anew, drawing a warning from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not to provoke his country's troops in the breakaway zone.

On June 17, Georgian officials said they had detained four Russian peacekeepers transporting guided missiles near the western Georgian city of Zugdidi, outside the disputed territory.

Russian officials denied the charge and a Georgian Interior Ministry official said the soldiers would be released because Georgia had no authority over them.

But by late on June 18, Georgia had returned only the truck in which the soldiers were traveling.

In a statement, the Kremlin said that Medvedev spoke by telephone with his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, telling him the "provocations were unacceptable." The statement said that "Saakashvili promised to sort the situation out" and the two leaders agreed on the need to stay in touch "with the aim of resolving existing problems and developing bilateral relations."

Commentary: Russia's Outlawing Of Khomeini's 'Testament' An Extreme Step

By Aslan Doukaev

Still a risk, the Russians say

There seems to be an almost axiomatic correlation in unfree societies between the fight against ideas and oppression of the citizenry. Throughout history, the effort to root out dissent has all too often resulted in the destruction of free thought and the people who cherished those thoughts.

In a recent episode in the long battle of repressive powers against the free human spirit that questions the existing order, Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989 against Salman Rushdie. Khomeini deemed the British author's "Satanic Verses" blasphemous and offensive and, brushing aside Rushdie's apology, called on every Muslim "to send him to Hell."

The call for Rushdie's assassination was issued against the backdrop of Iran's unrelenting harassment of its religious minorities, including fellow Muslims of the Sunni tradition. To this day, the 1 million-strong Sunni community of Tehran is denied the right to build a single mosque in the city.

This month, in an ironic twist that came on the 19th anniversary of the ayatollah's death on June 3, the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini's "Testament" was found subversive and banned in Russia. According to Russia's Islamic Committee, two young court experts concluded that the work, "addressed almost 30 years ago by a dying leader to the Iranian people" and translated into many languages and studied by Iranians and Iran specialists around the world, amounts to "an incitement to violence and reprisals, dangerous now for Russian citizens." On the basis of that ruling, "Testament" was added to the federal list of publications considered extremist and illegal under Russian law.

Leaving aside the quirks of fate, the ban is likely to infuriate many in Iran. The figure of Ayatollah Khomeini still commands respect across a wide spectrum of Iranian society. But more crucially, perhaps, the banning of "Testament" -- alongside some 150 other publications -- speaks volumes about the Russian state today. For years, the Kremlin has been accused of backsliding on democracy, resorting to indiscriminate violence in its domestic conflicts, rolling back the fundamental human rights of the Russian people. The list of banned materials is more tangible and irrefutable evidence of Russia's increasing encroachment on fundamental principles of democracy.

The growing list, moreover, reveals the innate fears and insecurity of the present leadership in Russia. Truly free and democratic states don't resort easily to restrictions on expression, however distasteful the material might seem to certain individuals, young or old, expert or layman.

Such lessons are not new. In 1821, reflecting on the burning of the Koran during the Spanish Inquisition, German poet Heinrich Heine wrote insightfully, "Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people."

In Germany a little over a century later, a massive bonfire raged in Berlin for the ceremonial burning of thousands of books that didn't jibe with Nazi views, including works by Heine but also those by Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Erich Maria Remarque, and even H.G. Wells, one of the fathers of modern science fiction.

The employment of banishment tactics in the Internet age is not only unwise, it is nearly impossible. Advances in digital technologies have empowered people enormously. There are hundreds of electronic libraries on the web in many languages, and anyone with a computer and access to the Internet can download almost any content -- text, video, photos, multimedia -- in a matter of a few minutes.

As one seasoned American academic put it: "Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost."

The authorities in Iran and Russia would be well advised to listen.

Aslan Doukaev is the director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Russia: Fresh Details, But No Leads, In Racially Charged Video-Execution Case

By Magomed Magomedov and Uma Isakova

The grisly video shows the victims kneeling in front of a Nazi flag

Russia's Prosecutor-General's Office has confirmed the authenticity of an Internet video showing neo-Nazis killing two non-Slavic men execution-style. The official statement came after relatives identified one of the victims.

Artur Udamanov had been searching for his missing brother Shamil for more than five months when he chanced upon a video on the Internet showing a group of masked men killing two captives.

Artur immediately recognized his brother, who was first shown kneeling on the ground in a forest alongside another man. The video identified the two, both of whom appeared gagged and bound, as being from Daghestan and Tajikistan. A flag with a Nazi swastika is seen hanging in the background.

"His brother recognized him on the Internet," says Umahan Udamanov, the father of Artur and Shamil. "He was wearing a jacket and T-shirt that his brother had given him as a present."

In the video, one of the captors walks up to Shamil and beheads him with a knife, a horrific scene that lasts a full 90 seconds.

The second man drops forward into a makeshift grave after being shot in the head. The video ends with two masked men raising their arms in a Nazi salute.

Genuine Threat

When the footage first appeared on ultranationalist websites in August, Russia's Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB) dismissed it as bogus and declined to open a criminal investigation.

It was only on June 5, months after Artur recognized his brother in the video, that authorities confirmed the footage as authentic. They publicly announced that one of the victims had been identified as Shamil Udamanov, a man from Daghestan who came to Moscow last year in search of work.

A spokesman for the investigative division of the Prosecutor-General's Office, Vladimir Markin, said part of the footage was shot near Kaluga, a city in western Russia.

Markin said investigators had yet to determine where a second part, which features the actual killings, was filmed. The identity of the second victim is also still unknown.

Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the case. But the recent developments offer little comfort to Shamil's relatives, who suffer terrible grief from not being able to give him a proper burial.

"I turned to the regional Interior Ministry. They sent a request to Moscow, but I'm not sure what they're doing," says Umahan Udamanov. "I'm asking: Please find his body or something that I can bury."

Dragging Their Feet

The Udamanov family, which lives in the village of Sultanyangyurt in Russia's southern republic of Daghestan, accuses authorities of doing too little to uncover the truth about Shamil's death.

Raziyat, a neighbor of the Udamanovs, says the family has taken great pains to find Shamil, who left for the Russian capital immediately after finishing his military service.

"I knew him well; I saw him grow up. He was an ordinary boy. The children grew up without a mother; she got sick and died," Raziyat says. "There were nine children in the family. The father is a calm, balanced family man without any bad habits. They were very worried, they looked for him. His brother traveled to Moscow to search for him."

Authorities agreed to open a criminal investigation into Shamil's disappearance only after his father wrote a letter to then-President Vladimir Putin asking him for assistance in finding his son.

Artur Udamanov said investigators summoned him to Moscow in April to tell him that they had located the site of the killing, but that no trace of murder had been found there. Artur says he is surprised investigators didn't ask him for a blood sample to carry out DNA analysis.

Russia: Hate-Crime Deaths Mounting, As Nationalists Close Ranks

By Claire Bigg

Young nationalists march in Moscow

Kamola, a 36-year-old ethnic-Uzbek woman living in Moscow, was stepping out of a metro carriage on her way to work last month when a blow sent her tumbling to the station's marble floor.

The punch came without warning, dealt by a young man wearing brass knuckles. A second assailant then picked up the woman's limp body while his friend struck her repeatedly in the face and stomach.

"Two men came up from behind and hit me," she recalls. "First they hit my right eye and then broke my nose and cheekbone. I fainted immediately. I hadn't done anything wrong, they attacked me because I was veiled."

Kamola doesn't remember being rushed to a nearby hospital. She regained consciousness four days later with injuries so severe that she now faces major brain surgery and facial reconstruction work.

But the mother of two considers herself lucky to be alive. Like most foreigners and ethnic minorities in Russia, she is painfully aware that dozens of people die every year in racially motivated assaults.

According to Sova, a Moscow-based organization that monitors such crimes, extremists have already killed 57 people and wounded another 117 this year in Russia. Only six months into the year, hate-crime figures already look set to exceed those of 2007, when a total of 80 people were murdered.

The real number of victims, however, is probably much higher.

"The figure of 57 is much lower than some estimates; gathering solid information has become very difficult," says Galina Kozhevnikova, Sova's deputy director. "We already wrote last year about our serious difficulties in obtaining information, and this year I can't even describe how difficult it has become. Such cases are not reported in the media, and law-enforcement agencies don't give us anything at all."

Climate Of Impunity

The intensity of the assaults is also on the rise, evolving from simple beatings to torture and mutilation.

The cruelty hit a horrifying peak in August 2007, when a video was posted on ultranationalist websites showing a group of masked men killing two dark-skinned captives execution-style.

Russia's Interior Ministry and secret services at first dismissed the grisly footage -- in which one of the bound men is beheaded, and the other shot in the head -- as a fake.

Some hate-crime experts had also cast doubt on the video's authenticity until a man in Daghestan recognized the beheading victim as his brother. The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office on June 5 publicly confirmed the video was genuine.

Racism was an unspoken fact of life during the Soviet era, even as the USSR publicly celebrated the utopian harmony of its myriad ethnicities and cultures.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, once-dormant prejudices have been allowed to devolve into active racism -- particularly in Russia, where resurgent national pride and heavy labor migration from neighboring states have proven an explosive combination.

The Kremlin has done little to curb the problem. Critics say the government has even poured fuel on the fire with nationalist measures such as the mass deportation of ethnic Georgians in retaliation for the 2006 arrest of Russian officers in Tbilisi, or the ban on all foreign traders in retail markets -- a move then-President Vladimir Putin said was intended to protect the interests of "native Russians."

Russia's judicial system has been equally reluctant to combat hate crimes. Although the number of prosecutions for racially motivated attacks has increased in recent years, many assailants continue to get away with little more than a slap on the wrist.

At the same time, Russian skinheads and neo-Nazis are seeking to organize their ranks. On June 8, at least four large nationalist groups signed a pact to unite forces in order to better address the problems of "migration and corruption." An estimated 70,000 Russians are believed to be members of nationalist organizations.

It is undeniable that hate crimes are on the rise. The question is why. Some experts say neo-Nazis and other assailants are reacting to a rare police crackdown earlier this year. Others believe that increasing numbers of young Russians, frustrated by poor educational and professional opportunities, are taking their anger out on migrant workers.

Shift Of Target

Desire Deffo came from Cameroon to St. Petersburg almost two decades ago to study hydrology. Africans, who once flowed into the country to pursue higher education studies, were a primary target of hate crimes in St. Petersburg. But Deffo says assaults against Africans have dropped sharply over the past year -- and that Central Asian migrants now appear to be the bearing the brunt of the city's racist attacks.

"The growing number of arriving Tajiks and Uzbeks work on building sites, in markets, and young Russians are not pleased about that," he says. "The majority [of Africans] are students, and the attitude toward us has improved. If before dark skin was the main factor, today the migrants' occupation also plays a role."

Groups like Sova say Central Asians, the vast majority of whom come to Russia in search of work, have replaced dark-skinned foreigners and people from the North Caucasus as the main victims of racist attacks. Of the 57 people killed this year, 31 are from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Veteran rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina says deep-running ties between government authorities and the construction industry, which depends on cheap Central Asian labor, may help explain the official laxness in combating racist violence.

"Now the main victims are people from Central Asia. Authorities allow this to happen because Central Asians are currently the chief resource for slave labor," she says. "Their vulnerability is profitable to those who exploit them, it's profitable to have workers who are frightened and broken-spirited. Authorities profit from this because they are closely connected to these structures."

Rampant discrimination, combined with the threat of attacks, have contributed to an atmosphere of fear that puts immigrants under severe emotional and psychological stress.

Gavkhar Dzhuraeva, who heads a Moscow-based support group for migrants, says this anxiety is pushing many to suicide. Other migrants, bent on revenge, have begun to resort to vigilante justice.

Dzhuraeva, who herself is an ethnic Tajik, has lived in Moscow for the past 15 years. She speaks flawless Russian and holds a Russian passport. But she feels just as victimized as newcomers.

"To feel comfortable," she sighs, "I'd have to stop looking at myself in the mirror."

Russia: Medvedev Blames U.S. For Economic Crisis, Offers Moscow's Help

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in his first major speech on economics since taking office, has blamed the United States for the global economic downturn and offered Moscow's help.

Medvedev gave the keynote speech at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russia's main annual event for international investors, and explained his views about the reasons behind the current financial crisis.

"The failure to properly assess risk by the largest financial corporations, combined with the aggressive financial policies of the world's largest economy, have led not only to losses for those corporations," he said, "but unfortunately have impoverished the majority of people on the planet."

Medvedev, Putin Launch 'Two-Headed' Foreign Policy -- But Who's Winning?

Medvedev also said the gap between the United States' leading role in the global economic system and its real abilities was another "key" reason for the crisis. He said that while Russia was helping to boost global energy security by developing its energy sector, its partners concentrated on investment in biofuels, inflating food prices around the world.

Surprising Tone

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Danila Galperovich, who attended the forum, says Medvedev's tone probably surprised many observers.

"I think the surprise was that the rhetoric of Mr. Medvedev was the same, in his harsh approach to the West as was [heard] in the speeches of Mr. [Vladimir] Putin," Galperovich says. "Everyone who followed [Medvedev's] recent speeches probably expected him to be softer, to be more cooperative with the West."

Medvedev, who took over as head of state last month after Putin's eight-year presidency, said Moscow is ready to be part of the solution.

"Russia today is a global player, and understanding our responsibility for the fate of the world, we want to take part in forming new rules of the game," Medvedev said, "not because of our alleged imperial ambitions, but because we have the ability and corresponding resources."

Russia's economy expanded steadily under the presidency of Putin, who now holds the post of prime minister, on the back of soaring energy-export revenues. The country is the world's biggest gas producer and its second-biggest oil exporter.

Medvedev said Russia wants a key role in reshaping ineffective international institutions

Recalling Russia's past as a grain exporter, Medvedev pointed to the country's potential as a food supplier to overcome the food problem. He said Russia could also convene an international conference on the financial crisis involving the heads of the biggest financial companies and leading financial analysts "as early as this year."

System 'Cannot Meet Challenges'

Russia's new president said Russia wants a key role in reshaping international institutions, saying they are not ready to remedy the world's economic problems.

"The crisis unfolding before our eyes -- the financial crisis, the rise in prices of natural resources and produce and also a series of global [natural] catastrophes -- clearly demonstrate that the current system of global institutions cannot meet the challenges before it," he said.

Medvedev said the world also lacks liquid investable assets because of disappointment with the U.S. dollar. He said Russia would adopt an action plan in the near future to become a global financial center and make the ruble one of the key leading regional reserve currencies.

"Turning Moscow into a powerful financial center and the ruble into one of the leading regional reserve currencies are key elements will ensure the competitiveness of our financial system," he said. "A plan of action to put these policies into effect will be adopted in the very near future."

Medvedev also said recent moves to liberalize Russia's domestic gas market and reduce taxes on the oil sector would help stabilize global energy markets.

Russia: Irreverent English-Language Tabloid Closes Down

By Brian Whitmore
After 11 years of providing Moscow readers with investigative journalism, irreverent commentary, and sophomoric gags, the English-language newspaper the "The eXile" is closing down after investors fled in the face of a government inspection of the paper's content.

The alternative tabloid -- known for its Gonzo-style journalism on drugs, sex, politics, and the seamier side of Moscow nightlife -- announced the closure in a blog posted on its website on June 11.

The paper's demise, and the investors' flight, was sparked by a visit on June 6 by inspectors from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

"In the current atmosphere...just the thought of having this government looking at you, reading you, and deciding if you are violating laws is pretty scary, and it's not something you can win," Mark Ames, the newspaper's editor in chief and founder, tells RFE/RL. "It was enough to frighten away people who were helping us stay afloat the last couple years."

The inspectors told Ames that someone complained that the paper "mocks and humiliates Russian traditions and history." Ames says the inspectors, who he described as "reasonably civilized officials," were particularly interested in the paper's relationship with bombastic opposition leader Eduard Limonov, who writes a column for the paper.

"The first thing they asked about was Eduard Limonov. They wanted to see a copy of a recent article by him," Ames says. "They asked what kind of stuff he publishes with us, do we know about him, why he was in there, and so on. They were more than anything interested in our style."

Foreign-Language Media In The Crosshairs?

Ames -- whose documentary films have appeared on "EuroNews" and on the Kremlin-controlled English-language television station "Russia Today" -- says the inspectors took three issues of the paper for analysis to determine whether it violated legislation prohibiting the promotion of extremism, pornography, or narcotics. The inspectors were due to complete their analysis by June 11, but by that time the paper's backers had already backed out, dooming it to discontinue publication.

Limonov tells RFE/RL that he believes "The eXile's" demise is a continuation of a drive to rein in and control all media operating in the country.

"The authorities have completely destroyed the Russian-language free press. Now they are starting to look around in order to shut up the foreign-language free press," Limonov says. "They started with the weakest foreign-language paper because 'The eXile' is not owned by foreign capital. Their owners are Russians."

Limonov adds that such is the atmosphere of fear in today's Russia that the authorities did not even need to formally close "The eXile" down themselves. All it took was a little inspection to scare away financial backers.

"The newspaper is dead, not because the Russian authorities said it would be closed but because investors got scared and they just scattered out of sight," Limonov says. "That is the problem in a police state like ours. It's a great problem."

Officials from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage could not be reached for comment.

Silly Gags, Serious Reporting

Launched in 1997, "The eXile" quickly made its mark on the Russian capital with a unique mix of hard-hitting political analysis, quirky columns, and offbeat humor that many believed stretched the boundaries of decency.

Eduard Limonov fears the Kremlin will now target foreign-language media in Russia (RFE/RL)

Writers, for example, would recount their sexual exploits and decadent club-hopping in graphic detail. In 1999, in the waning years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, the paper published a cover picturing the ailing and wobbly Kremlin leader with the headline: "Die Already!"

"The eXile" was also renowned for its childish -- and often hilarious -- gags.

Its reporters once called former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and, posing as representatives of the New York Jets football team, offered him the job of defensive coordinator. Another time they ordered a call girl. When she arrived at the paper's office, instead of performing her usual services, she was asked by the staff to write an article for publication.

In the 1990s, Matt Taibbi, now a correspondent for "Rolling Stone," wrote a widely circulated article about how he applied for a firearms permit in Moscow -- while wearing a gorilla suit. Ames, for his part, wrote a detailed account of using the toilet in retired General Aleksandr Lebed's home, where he and Taibbi were interviewing the politician.

Every year, the international press would dread "The eXile's" annual "Worst Foreign Correspondent In Moscow" contest, in which the paper would pillory what it saw as their laziness, inaccuracy, and sloppy reporting.

But the paper also earned praise for more traditional journalism. In a 1998 story, Ames predicted the massive financial crisis that would befall Russia in August of that year. Taibbi wrote well-received firsthand reports on the plight of Russian coal miners and the state of the country's high schools.

Ames throws modesty to the wind in reflecting on his tenure at the paper. "We've done God's work and I plan to carry it on in some other way," he says. "We all do. All the writers who write for us do."

The paper has launched a fundraiser on its website in an effort to keep its online edition afloat.