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#2 - JRL 7140
The Guardian (UK)
April 10, 2003
Security fears help Putin extend his reach: In the Udmurt Republic residents see terrorism as their greatest concern

According to a local sociologist, Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurt Republic, is "a perfect reflection of average Russia". Although this city where Izhmash, Russia's oldest armaments factory, is located lies about 1,300km east of Moscow, what is uppermost in the minds of its 600,000 inhabitants are the television pictures of a Chechen commando taking hundreds of people hostage at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow six months ago.

The "danger of terrorism" is regularly cited as the main concern of the Udmurts. "The Chechen conflict continues, and we know that it enables some people to make money thanks to military budgets and the misappropriation of oil," says Dr Yevgeni Odiankov, head of Izhevsk's ultra-modern cardiology clinic. "The Russian president Vladimir Putin remains popular because people are living on tenterhooks."

Odiankov, a former pro-democracy activist, believes that "a strong hand" is what is needed in Russia. "People want Putin to clamp down on the regional barons. Russia needs to be turned into a single entity. Today it looks more like a patchwork quilt."

In the tiny Udmurt Republic of 2 million inhabitants, of whom the Udmurts, a Finno-Hungarian people, make up only 30%, a fierce battle is raging behind the scenes. With elections to the Duma due in nine months, the Kremlin is keen to consolidate its control. Putin sees his United Russia party, which held its second congress on March 29, as a federal entity that will help "to establish a 'vertical power' structure".

A local politician says: "The aim, for some members of Putin's entourage, is to get a two-thirds majority in the Duma so that the president's second term can be extended to six or seven years." To achieve such a result the state apparatus, which generates votes, needs to be controlled even in the remotest regions.

In the centre of Izhevsk the imposing facade of the palace occupied by Alexander Volkov, who was elected president of the Udmurt Republic by universal suffrage in 2000, seems almost to stand as a warning signal to those who might be tempted to move too hastily in their bid to clip the wings of the regional barons.

The Udmurt Republic, like Russia, gets most of its revenues from oil (8m tonnes a year), which is controlled by "oligarchic" groups that can twist Volkov's arm. But Russia's central authority has succeeded in clawing back some power: the local television station, the Udmurt interior ministry and the State Property Committee, which used to be under Volkov's control, are now answerable to Moscow. The FSB (secret service) has placed its people in various positions.

"The next stages of this 'vertical power' structure will involve the taking over of the judicial system and the regional electoral commissions, which are vital for vote-counting," says a politician.

Is the Udmurt Republic, a member of the Russian Federation, a bogus democracy? Some would go further than that and argue, off the record, that Putin's setting up of the United Russia party will result in a "new single-party system".

"Here, all factory managers and many top civil servants have joined United Russia," says an Udmurt businessman. "It's reminiscent of the Soviet era. Under [Leonid] Brezhnev, you became a party member not because you believed in it, but because you were seeking material advantages, promotion at work, or a decent education for your kids."

Izhevsk is far from being economically stagnant, even though people are feeling the pinch of inflation and the local armaments industry is having difficulty in redeploying.

"The nouveaux riches , high rollers who had acquired their wealth illegally, have now given way to a larger community of people in their 30s and 40s, oil- or service-industry professionals who save up their money and care about their health and their future," says the owner of a store selling expensive clothes.

That generation, less interested in international problems than in their own creature comforts, are convinced that it is important for Russia to continue to give the impression of being politically stable, and that the crises of the 90s should remain a distant memory.

In Odiankov's view it is the "regional barons" who represent the greatest danger to the Udmurt Republic. The authorities, irritated by his political opposition to Volkov, have, he says, started proceedings aimed at closing down his clinic on spurious bureaucratic grounds. Doctors have demonstrated against the proposed move. Because of Putin's determination to "reform local powers", they see him as a righter of wrongs.

According to an Udmurt sociologist, Anatoly Immoratov, Putin's popularity rating in the Udmurt Republic is 71%. The United Russia party is credited with 38% of voting intentions - and that figure is reportedly rising all the time. The Communist party has slumped to 17%.

Also on the increase is the protest vote, a vote "against everyone", which has now reached 15% in the ratings. "When you ask people why they support United Russia, they talk about the general feeling of stability they now enjoy, even if they haven't seen any improvement in their standard of living," Immoratov says.

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