Monday, November 16, 2009

Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle Dies At 95

BELGRADE -- The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, 95-year-old Patriarch Pavle, has died after a lengthy battle with age-related illness, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports.

His death ends nearly two decades of leadership that spanned one of the most painful chapters in Serbian history.

His rise to the patriarchate in 1990 -- soon after Slobodan Milosevic had become president of an increasingly divided Yugoslavia -- placed Pavle in the eye of a gathering storm. Pavle's tenure as patriarch sparked fierce disputes over the actions of the Church as nationalist and ethnic conflagrations spread through the Balkans.

"Destiny gave Patriarch Pavle the role of leading the church in an evil time," Mirko Djordjevic, a religious-affairs analyst in Serbia, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "That was an evil time for people and for the state, as it was a time of dissolution and a loss of basic values -- within the church and within society as well."

The patriarch had not attended to the daily running of church affairs since a frail Pavle made an unsuccessful plea in October 2008 to stand down as the leader of Eastern Orthodox Serbs.

Bishop Amfilohije, acting head of the church's Holy Synod, said in a statement that Pavle died at a special apartment at Belgrade's Military Hospital, where he had been treated for age-related ailments for the past two years.

Public Mourns

The Serbian government declared a three-day period of mourning for November 16-18.

President Boris Tadic called the patriarch's passing "a huge loss for Serbia." Tadic added that he'd lost a confidant whom he frequently consulted on complex issues.

Thousands of politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens were gathering at churches and other locations in Belgrade and around the country soon after reports of his death emerged.

Pavle's body was transported from the Military Hospital to the seat of the patriarchate, also in the capital, as the pealing of bells marked the passing of a figure whose influence was frequently exerted behind the scenes.

Pavle's body will lie in repose at Saborna Crkva church until a funeral service that is expected to take place early this week.

Difficult Times

Bells also rang out in Gracanica, in Kosovo, where Pavle spent more than three decades before he moved to the Serbian capital.

Pavle ascended to the patriarchate in 1990, soon after Slobodan Milosevic had become president of an increasingly divided Yugoslavia.

His actions in the face of surging nationalism and violence in the region, including warm relations with Serbian paramilitaries and figures like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, earned him many critics.

Defenders point out the complexity of the times, and highlight his meetings with the political opposition.

The Serbian government in 2005 named Pavle the honorary president of its Fund for Kosovo and Metohija, an archaic reference to what was then a UN-administered province whose ethnic Albanian leadership was seeking independence from Belgrade.

What's Next?

An extraordinary session of church leaders should be convened in the coming weeks to name Pavle's successor.

"That process will last a month and a half -- altogether probably 40 days -- and that will be an occasion to pacify all the clashes that are shaking the church, synod, and assembly, and that are popularly called the 'fight for inheritance' but which we all know are a fight for power," Djordjevic told RFE/RL.

The Serbian Orthodox Church is an independent member of the Orthodox communion and wields influence over worshipers in Serbia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, as well as representational churches around the world.

Estimates of adherents range widely, from around 7 million to as high 11 million.

Kazakhs To Make Hajj While Turkmen Will Stay Home

ASTANA -- Some 2,000 Kazakhs are planning to go on the hajj -- the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia -- despite the swine flu epidemic, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

Ongar-Haji Omirbek, a spokesman for the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL that the first group of Kazakhs left for Saudi Arabia on October 20, while a mass departure is expected on November 11.

Omirbek said a swine-flu vaccination is compulsory for all Kazakh hajj participants. But a tourist agency worker who organizes hajj pilgrimages told RFE/RL that Kazakhs going to Mecca will only get a vaccine against ordinary flu.

A Kazakh Health Ministry spokesman told RFE/RL that a swine-flu vaccine has not yet arrived. He said the World Health Organization told the ministry that the vaccine is still being tested.

There have been 17 confirmed swine-flu cases in Kazakhstan so far. Meanwhile, in Turkmenistan, authorities have banned people from making the hajj this year, even though swine flu has not been detected in the country.

RIA-Novosti reported earlier that some 200 Turkmen will have to make do visiting Islamic holy sites that are in Turkmenistan instead of going to Mecca.

In Uzbekistan, some 5,000 people are expected to go to Saudi Arabia this year for the hajj. An Uzbek Muslims Committee spokesperson told RFE/RL that virologists will accompany them and they will be vaccinated in advance of the trip.

In Tajikistan, some 5,000 Tajiks are expected to make the hajj, though Tajik officials said they have not yet purchased any swine-flu medicine.

Marataly Ajy Jumanov, Kyrgyzstan's mufti, told RFE/RL that hajj visitors will be given a compulsory swine-flu vaccination and that a special center for pilgrims has been established in the country. He said some 4,500 Kyrgyz are expected to make the hajj.

With First Son's New Role, Kyrgyz Government Remains A Family Affair

By Bruce Pannier:

When Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev put the finishing touches on his restructured government last week, he entrusted the country's future economic course to a person he has known for decades -- his youngest son.

Thirty-two-year-old Maksim Bakiev now heads the Central Agency for Development, Investment, and Innovation -- a newly formed agency that will essentially run the sluggish Kyrgyz economy.

During a press conference in Bishkek on November 2, the young Bakiev explained that a new approach was needed because the government, heavily burdened with running the country and making decisions on current issues, had little time to focus on the country's future economic course.

"As world experience and moreover the experience in our country has shown, the development sector, the development process, needs to be separated from the normal functions” of the government, he said.

The new agency's task is an important one for small, impoverished Kyrgyzstan, which has struggled for nearly two decades to spark its lagging economy.

Supporters of Maksim Bakiev have lauded him as the right man to turn things around, citing his law-school education, his roles as part owner of the British Blackpool Football Club and as head of Kyrgyzstan's Wrestling Federation, and positions in international companies.

But critics have cast doubt on Maksim Bakiev's qualifications, while noting the trend of nepotism that has placed numerous members of President Bakiev's family in state posts.

Little is known about the Latvian holding company Maval Avtivi, where Maksim is reported to have been in charge of strategic development. Nor is much known about his role as a member of a consultative council under the board of the British holding company BCB Solutions Ltd., a company that sells collators for printing books.

And while Maksim Bakiev's success as a businessman in Kyrgyzstan is beyond dispute, the fact that his fortune in the country's business world started to rise after his father was named acting president in 2005 has raised eyebrows.

Heading For High Office

On both sides of the fence, suggestions have been made the appointment is mostly aimed at grooming Maksim Bakiev for presidential elections in 2014.

Mars Sariev, a well-known Kyrgyz political analyst, called Maksim Bakiev's appointment a "positive step" because "it means that President Bakiev and his son are taking full responsibility for the course of reforms and the country's future."

"It makes Maksim Bakiev personally responsible for the economic affairs of Kyrgyzstan," Sariev said.

If developing business and attracting foreign investment are the main goals of the new agency, however, Maksim Bakiev faces a tremendous task.

Kyrgyzstan does have some gold, attracting foreign companies such as Canada's Cameco Corp., which is involved in a joint venture at the major Kumtor mine, to inject needed capital into the country. And Kyrgyzstan's vast hydropower potential has caught the eye of Russian and Chinese companies.

But even the most generous assessments of Kyrgyzstan's resource wealth note that the country's economy is -- and will remain for the foreseeable future -- based on agriculture. Well aware of this, Maksim Bakiev has listed the provision of aid and an improved loan procedure for farmers and residents of small villages as among his priorities.

Feliks Kulov, a former prime minister under President Bakiev and leader of the Ar-Namys (Dignity) political party, said Maksim Bakiev's new position "will give him an opportunity to openly demonstrate his abilities."

Kulov notes that President Bakiev intends to step down from office in 2014 and hinted, without elaborating, that "he intends to hand over power to trustworthy hands." Kulov adds that if Maksim were to fail in his new post, it would "cause irreparable damage" to the Bakiev family.

Former Security Council secretary Miroslav Niyazov echoed Kulov's comments about transition of leadership while noting that, for Central Asia, this is nothing new.

"More openly and visibly the question is raised about the probability of a transfer of power...from the current president to his son," Niyazov said.

Consolidating Power

Kyrgyzstan's opposition sees Maksim's appointment as simply a further step in President Bakiev's move to concentrate more power into his own hands.

When Bakiev became acting president in mid-2005, he vowed to implement constitutional reforms that would balance power between the three branches of government. Under Bakiev's predecessor, Askar Akaev, most of power was given to the executive branch of government.

Opposition groups now say that process is being repeated under President Bakiev's recent changes to the government's structure. The country's power ministries -- foreign, interior, defense, and the National Security Service -- are now subordinate to the president, not the parliament. New Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov said the changes "would require introducing amendments to the constitution, to 67 legal acts."

Tolekan Ismailova, the leader of the nongovernmental organization Citizens Against Corruption, called the restructuring "a decision by a small circle of people."

Azimbek Beknazarov, one of the leaders of the opposition United People's Movement, said the changes "concern only strengthening [President Bakiev's] power."

President Bakiev had previously included political opponents in the government, but his restructuring has brought more of his supporters, such as Daniyar Usenov, into the inner circle of power.

Now, according to Roza Otunbaeva -- a former Kyrgyz foreign minister who is now a leader in the opposition Social Democrat Party -- members of President Bakiev's family can be found everywhere in the government.

"Right now, in the [Kyrgyz] White House there are five Bakievs working in the upper echelons of power -- and that is not even mentioning the many relatives [of President Bakiev] who have occupied every floor of the White House," she said.

Maksim Bakiev's appointment means he joins his older brother, who serves in the National Security Service, and uncles in serving the state. President Bakiev's brother Janysh is head of the presidential guard; his brother Marat is Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Germany; and another brother, Adyl, is an adviser to Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to China. His brother Jusupbek Bakiev died in February 2006, but the month before his death he briefly held, then voluntarily left, the post of deputy executive director of the Agency for Development and Investment -- a role similar to the one Maksim Bakiev now holds.

Interview: International PEN Marks Day Of The Imprisoned Writer

Sara Wyatt: The rights and prison committee of International PEN will be 50 years old next year, and I would say that during most of this time PEN has been concerned about writers in Iran, be it those detained under the Shah or post revolution.
I would say that during most of its 50 years, International PEN has been concerned about writers in Iran.

And today there are at least eight writers and journalists in prison and many more are on trial or on bail, others have been conditionally released on health and humanitarian grounds. Sometimes they've been in this state of limbo for many, many years with the threat of being re-imprisoned if they once again speak out or commit the original so-called crimes.

Could you tell us more about the Iranian writer you are focusing on this November?

Wyatt: One of the five cases that we're looking at this year is that of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian writer who was among the 100 who were arrested in June this year for their involvement in the demonstrations, protesting the outcome of the presidential election. He's relatively lucky because he was actually freed last month on an enormous bail of 300,000 pounds and has been allowed to leave the country pending trial to be present at the birth of his child.
The situation in Russia is, quite frankly, appalling. In the last 12 months...there have been seven writers and journalists murdered in Russia.

But others have not been so lucky; and there have been a series of unfair trials in recent weeks, some of which have resulted in huge sentences, among them is the Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, who got 12 years in prison. We're deeply concerned about that.

RFE/RL: And could you tell us about the Russian author you are highlighting this year and something about the climate for writers and journalists in Russia today?

Wyatt: The situation in Russia is, quite frankly, appalling. In the last 12 months since we last commemorated writers under attack in 2008, there have been seven writers and journalists murdered in Russia, which is an appalling statistic -- the highest number of the total 35 cases that we've been monitoring.

Natalya Estemirova was one of the most appalling incidents. She was a human rights defender, she was also a writer and journalist covering human rights abuses in Chechnya. She was abducted in July this year. and her body was found soon after badly treated -- she'd been executed. She'd been a critic of the Chechen President [Ramzan] Kadyrov. He had actually on a number of occasions been threatening to her and so fingers are being pointed at his complicity in it.

Polish Dissident Says Life 'Probably Not A Paradise, But It's Not Hell Anymore'

Adam Michnik, the editor in chief of Poland's "Gazeta Wyborcza" and a leading member of the Polish democratic opposition from 1968 to 1989, was in Prague this week to attend a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain. He spoke to Irina Lagunina of RFE/RL's Russian Service about Russia, the West, and the post-Soviet letdown felt in the former Eastern bloc countries.

On Russia and the fate of the former Soviet bloc countries, 20 years after communism:

"In all of our [postcommunist] countries there is a tendency toward our own kind of Putinism. What is Putinism? Putinism, according to [chief Kremlin ideologue Vladislav] Surkov, is a sovereign democracy. A sovereign democracy means that I am the sovereign; I can imprison all my opponents, in spite of Strasbourg, The Hague, or Brussels.

"When I was in Moscow, I went to court to watch the Khodorkovsky trial. It was a trial typical of the early days of Stalinism. Of course, not like in 1937; it was more like the Industrial Party trial. On the other hand, when I bought [the Russian newspaper] 'Vedomosti,' what did I see? An article written by Khodorkovsky, where he commented on a speech by [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev. This is not a normal authoritarian regime; it is something else. It is a mutant, I would say. Russia today is a mutant, a cross between an authoritarian regime and a democracy.

"With regard to our countries, this is not exactly a full-grown version of Putinism. It is a kind of Liliputinism. Look at Poland. We have had twins in power. That was a Polish version of Liliputinism. Look at Slovakia -- they have [Vladimir] Meciar, [Robert] Fico, [Jan] Slota. If you look at the Czech Republic, look at the president -- despite the slogans, the Czechs like him just as much as the Russians like Putin."

On the disappointment felt in post-Soviet countries that democracy has failed to cure all ills:

"Where does this disappointment come from? I would say we had a complex. We were good nations, very good people, but we lived under the Bolshevik, Soviet regime. And [we thought] if we got rid of that regime, we would become richer, make the same amount of money as people in the United States, enjoy the same social protection as people in Scandinavia, but continue working the same way we did under the old regime in Poland. This is a very difficult task. In this sense, we're out of luck. We have to start working differently. We will not be America or Scandinavia.

"But in the end, I think that 25 or 24 years after perestroika, the balance is absolutely positive, despite the fact that each of our countries has its own scandals, corruption, crime, and authoritarian tendencies. Compared to the Brezhnev years of stagnation, it is just a different world.

"After any revolution, the revolutionaries become disappointed after their victory. Because although they were the ones who had done the fighting, it was other people -- who were perhaps dishonest, who were thieves -- who came to power. That's life. Freedom and democracy are for everyone, not only for decent, heroic revolutionaries. Society has respect for decent, heroic revolutionaries for only the first five minutes after the revolution. Then it forgets them. And then it doesn't like them anymore.

"I don't think anyone should hold a grudge against democracy or society. There shouldn't have been any illusion that it would be a paradise. This is probably not a paradise, but it's not hell anymore.

"Many people -- perhaps fewer among dissidents or revolutionaries -- thought that if the pressure of a totalitarian police state was lifted, everything would be all right. It was not a utopia, but it was an illusion that democracy solves everything. Democracy does not just solve everything. Democracy offers freedom and basic civil rights. But democracy cannot decide who of us will be happy."

On Russian foreign policy:

"I think that the Caucasus and Moldova are great mistakes in the Kremlin's policy. I think this may be the result of an imaginary inferiority [complex] -- that now [the Kremlin] will show everyone who wears the pants in the family, and teach the damned Georgians and those traitors in Estonia a lesson. But realistically, looking at this complete nonsense, this policy will not bring anything good for Russia."

On dependence on the West:

"All of our countries have this trend that they blame foreigners for anything that goes wrong. At the time of the Soviet Union, of course, it was the Soviets, and now it's Brussels, with its dreadful conditions and standards. I have heard this from very serious people, for example, in Budapest. Maybe it is happening in Ukraine, too. Someone [in Ukraine] asked me: Why doesn't Europe support us? [My answer was]: What kind of support can there be when you're putting on the kind of theater performances like the war between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko? What can Paris, Berlin, or Warsaw do about it?"

Revolutions Of '89: The Moscow Spring

By Brian Whitmore

Some stayed home and sat glued to their television sets for hours. Some went about their daily business with transistor radios pressed tightly against their ears. They gasped in shock, awe, glee, and indignation at what they heard. They hung on every single word.

It was the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union's first democratically elected legislature was in session.

The daily sessions were filled with passionate speeches and heated disagreements. The Soviet public had never seen anything like it -- and couldn't get enough.

"People were carrying radios everywhere they went, on trams, on buses. Everybody was listening to the deputies' speeches. If somebody didn't have a radio, they would stand next to somebody who did. Everybody gave others the opportunity to listen," says Yury Vdovin, deputy director of the St. Petersburg-based human rights organization Citizens Watch.

And what they heard was -- for the time -- revolutionary.

Gone were the empty, scripted platitudes and numbing cadence that previously dominated official Soviet life. Instead, newly elected representatives were boldly chastising once-untouchable Politburo members, criticizing their failures and shortcomings as the television cameras rolled.

The revolutionary year of 1989 is most closely associated with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. But inside the Soviet Union itself, particularly in its Russian republic, the year was also the high-water mark of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's era of perestroika and glasnost.

Before the remarkable autumn of 1989 that saw Poland and Hungary install non-Communist governments, Germans tear down the Berlin Wall, and Czechoslovakia wage its peaceful Velvet Revolution, there was the Moscow Spring.

It was a time of newly competitive elections, unprecedented public demonstrations, vigorous debate, and unbounded optimism. Throughout most of the year, much of the Soviet Union was actually freer, more democratic, and more open than its Warsaw Pact satellites.

Paul Quinn-Judge, the Moscow bureau chief for the U.S. newspaper "The Boston Globe" at the time, describes 1989 as "a hell of a year" that had the feel of a national catharsis.

"1989 was when the Soviet past and the chaotic future sort of banged into each other," Quinn-Judge says. "It was a very weird time. There were very passionate, lively debates. All the inhibitions and prohibitions were breaking up."

Intellectuals, Dissidents, And Communists

The public awakening was set off by Gorbachev's decision to allow competitive elections for a newly established legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies.

Gorbachev had been battling hard-liners in the Communist Party who were resisting glasnost and perestroika. He hoped that the new legislature would give him an avenue to work around the retrograde elements in the party and implement his reforms.

But Gorbachev got more than he bargained for. Although most of the seats in the new legislature were reserved for party members, pro-democracy candidates won the vast majority of the contested seats.

And these new democratic legislators -- a collection of outsiders, intellectuals, ex-dissidents, and reform communists -- were in no mood to simply follow Gorbachev's lead. Unsatisfied with what they called the "half-measures" of perestroika, they urged the Soviet leader to establish true democracy.

The new democrats weren't interested in Gorbachev's project of reforming communism. They were interested in ending it.

"At the congress a schism emerged, that was never overcome, between the democratic movement and the reformist wing of the [Communist Party] nomenklatura, which was led by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev," Moscow-based political scientist Tatyana Vorozheikina said at a conference of the Gorbachev Foundation in May.

The democratic lawmakers organized themselves into a faction called the Inter-Regional Group, with human rights champion Andrei Sakharov as its undisputed leader. Other key figures in the group included Boris Yeltsin, who would become Russia's first post-Soviet president, as well as the historian Yury Afanasiyev and Leningrad-based ethnographer Galina Starovoitova.

Sakharov's emergence on the political scene had been made possible by Gorbachev, who in 1986 freed the dissident physicist from seven years' internal exile in Gorky, where he had been sent as punishment for his opposition to the Soviet regime.

But if Gorbachev was expecting gratitude, he was mistaken. After winning a seat in the new legislature, Sakharov sparred continuously with Gorbachev. He pushed relentlessly for the Soviet system to be transformed into a multiparty democracy and for Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed the Communist Party a monopoly on power, to be revoked.

At one memorable session, Sakharov said "the Communist Party has the right to exist, just like any other party, just like any church. But it should be just one type of organization among many."

Such words were heresy to the party elite, especially the hard-liners who often booed and hissed when Sakharov spoke. But they were music to the ears of masses of citizens fed up with Communist rule, especially in the reformist strongholds of Moscow and Leningrad.

Taboos Lifted

The popular weekly newspaper "Argumenti i fakti" published a poll in 1989 showing that Sakharov was, by far, the most popular politician in the country.

The poll, which reportedly infuriated Gorbachev, was illustrative of the new liberties the media was taking as official censorship eased.

"1989 was such an eventful and colorful year because the Communist Party lost its control over the mass media and journalists began to exploit this new freedom with great pleasure," Vdovin said.

Newspapers like "Moskovsky novosti" and magazines like "Ogonyok" and "Novoye vremya" published articles criticizing the elite and examining previously taboo historical topics. Popular television shows like "Vzglyad" analyzed political developments with unprecedented independence.

The civic awakening was not limited to the chattering classes of Moscow and Leningrad. That year, coal miners in Siberia went on strike demanding higher wages and better working conditions -- and actually won concessions from the Soviet government.

When Soviet forces killed 19 pro-independence demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia in April, demonstrations in support of the Georgians were staged in Russian cities and the Congress of Peoples' Deputies appointed a commission to investigate.

But just as the demise of official censorship and unofficial taboos allowed society's liberal elements to come forward, it also unleashed its most retrograde elements. It was in 1989 that nationalist groups like the openly anti-Semitic Pamyat began to gain traction.

By the end of the year, Russian society had become increasingly polarized between the resurgent hard-line and nationalist elements and the liberal intelligentsia -- with Gorbachev and his reformers stuck in the middle.

The Beginning Of The End

The democrats suffered a severe emotional and political blow on December 14, when Sakharov unexpectedly died of a heart attack in his Moscow apartment while preparing a speech for the next day's session of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies.

Quinn-Judge notes that the emerging social divides were clearly visible in the legislature the day after Sakharov's death.

"The day after he died, people were laying piles of flowers on his seat," Quinn-Judge says.

"But at the same time you could see the hard-liners, the nationalists. I remember very distinctly, a couple of them were not quite celebrating his death, but they thought the thing was a little over the top and were smirking about it. So the mood was changing."

After Sakharov's death, Yeltsin took up the mantle of leader of the democratic forces.

Yeltsin won election as president of the Soviet Union's Russian Republic in June 1991. He then led the democrats to what appeared to be a victory months later when he faced down a hard-line coup in August 1991 and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, bringing Gorbachev's political career to an end.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service last month, Gorbachev acknowledged that laying the path for change had not always been gratifying, but that he had no regrets about the forces he unleashed.

"There were so many trials, so much work, day and night, night and day, and people were ungrateful. But then I asked myself, 'Why should people thank you?' The question should be put the other way around: 'You've had such great luck, to be able to change this massive country. What greater happiness can you ask for?'" Gorbachev said.

But Gorbachev's changes were short-lived. Yeltsin's rule quickly fell prey to cronyism, corruption, and intrigue. His handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, reversed most of the democratic gains that began in 1989. Current parliamentary debates are a largely unified and compliant affair. Twenty years later, the promise of the Moscow Spring is merely a memory.

With Sakharov's death, did Russia lose its Vaclav Havel, the moral leader who could have guided them through the perilous transition to democracy?

"It would be a little too neat to say his death marked the beginning of the end, but certainly there was a change of mood going on at that point," Quinn-Judge said.

As the countries of Eastern Europe -- now functioning democracies with NATO and EU membership -- celebrate 20 years since their autumn of change, the hope and excitement of the Moscow Spring is largely a memory.

Vdovin, for one, worries that the promise of the USSR's season of reform may never be fulfilled.

"It was a wave of freedom that we had never seen before, and never imagined that we would see in our lifetimes. But now we have gone backwards, we have departed from this," Vdovin said.

Time Could Be Up For Russian Time Zones

By Gregory Feifer

It's the biggest country in the world, a sprawling landmass stretching 11 time zones from Europe to the Far East.

Russia's vastness has been cited for centuries as a reason for its ungovernability, and there's been no shortage of schemes to instill order.

Now experts in Russia are studying a proposal to reduce the number of time zones after a speech by President Dmitry Medvedev this week.

It's part of a series of measures Medvedev said could transform the vast country's backward economy into a model of technological advancement.

Critics, however, have dismissed the plan, saying it betrays a lack of ideas about how to tackle Russia's real problems.

In an annual state-of-the-nation speech in the Kremlin's ornately gilded grand palace, Medvedev called for a major modernization program that would transform Russia's "primitive" economy, something Medvedev said is crucial for the country's very survival.

Medvedev's proposals included a call to reduce Russia's time zones, which he began by praising as an "illustration of Russia's greatness."

"But did we ever seriously think about whether so much division really helps the effective governance of our country?" Medvedev said.

Medvedev mentioned no specifics, calling on experts to study his proposal.

That's something scholar Yury Avdeyev says should have been done a long time ago.
If you were to conflate the time zones totally, then obviously you would have some people who would be spending much of their day in darkness

An ecology scholar at Russia's University of the Far East, located in the Pacific Sea port of Vladivostok, seven time zones from Moscow, Avdeyev says: "Every time I talk to Muscovites, they have no idea what a seven-hour time difference is. They call at 10 or 12 at night and ask, 'What, you're not still working?' Because Muscovites essentially see Moscow as the entire country."

Experts say there's no reason Russia can’t simply reduce the number of its time zones so that people in Moscow wouldn't show up for work at 9 o'clock, after people in Vladivostok have already left for home at 4 o'clock.

Jonathan Betts of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, says doing so might stimulate everyday business.

"It can complicate matters considerably if certain parts of your nation are running at different times. It narrows down the window of opportunity for communications at given times of the day," Betts says.

Betts says the main practical problem for changing time zones would be informing Russians and people around the world.

China's Single Time Zone

There are precedents for Russia, but changing time zones in the past has often been seen as less about practical matters than politics.

After China's communist revolution, Mao Zedong reduced the country's five time zones to one -- Beijing's -- to boost central power. Many residents of western China now arrive at work just as the sun is rising.

Betts says Russia's huge size limits its options.

"Obviously if they were going to push for one time scale for the whole nation, that would make it very difficult at the extremes, depending on where the mean was adopted," Betts says.

"Because if you were to conflate the time zones totally, then obviously you would have some people who would be spending much of their day in darkness, and that would be deeply unpopular for obvious reasons."

Experts are already debating reducing Russia's time zones to three or four. But Avdeyev, the scholar who supports the measure, nevertheless believes it's not something Medvedev should be pursuing. He says the president has far more serious problems to tackle.

"[The proposal] shows there's a crisis of ideas. The scheme [to reduce the number of] time zones is just a passing thing. Far more serious is the question of creating a policy for development in the Far East, and how we fit into the Pacific region," Avdeyev says.

Yury Korgunyuk of Moscow's Indem think tank agrees. He says Medvedev made his proposal only because it would be easy.

"After laying out a whole series of unfulfillable proposals for massive projects [in his address], he offered something that could actually be carried out," Korgunyuk says.

Still, he says, it's unlikely Medvedev's proposal will move beyond its use as a rhetorical tool.