Lukashenka inauguration, BY scoffs at EU sanctions, Merkel gets with Milinkevich, Canada free, Poland free, Ukraine nuclear scandal, D-Cup hope ends
From the Top
Lukashenka takes the oath of office for a third time
In a short, emotional speech after taking the oath, the 51-year-old leader vowed to maintain the policies, which have drawn such stinging criticism from the European Union and United States.
Several thousand officials and lawmakers gave a standing ovation to a somber-looking Lukashenko, who took his oath during a ceremony at the huge, concrete Palace of the Republic. In a brief speech, he blamed Western nations for protests against his re-election.
Lukashenko belied suggestions that he had been badly rattled by unprecedented opposition protests against his landslide election victory and looked in full command during a grandiose ceremony marking the start of his third term in office.
After 12 years in power, Lukashenko faces more pressure from Western countries, the prospect of new protests and rises in the price of gas from Russia, Belarus's ally and trading partner.
He accused Belarus's European Union neighbors Poland, Lithuania and Latvia of trying to sow upheaval in his country of 10 million.
Voters, he said, wanted no part of "colored" revolutions that propelled pro-Western leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine.
"Unfortunately this crusade against our country is spearheaded by our neighbors, new EU recruits," Lukashenko told 3,000 dignitaries during the ceremony, broadcast live from the imposing Palace of the Republic.
"Dear politicians, please look after affairs in your own houses. Belarus has a strong immune system. Your awkward attempts to induce a revolutionary virus had the opposite effect and became an antidote to this 'colored malaise'."
"They want to humiliate our nation and turn it into another testing ground for a color revolution," he said in a reference to protests that helped oust unpopular governments in other ex-Soviet nations, such as Ukraine's "Orange Revolution."
Lukashenko lashed out at his foes, accusing them of being manipulated by the West.
"Belarusians can't be strangled, they can't be manipulated," said the hard-line president.
“Today the will of the people who elected their president independently and freely is confirmed in law,” Lukashenko told 3,000 dignitaries and parliamentarians during the ceremony broadcast live on television.
“No one inside or outside the country has the right to ignore the will of the people. Dear politicians, please look after affairs in your own houses.
"The unity of the people and power, their unwillingness to succumb to foreign dictate have been shown during the presidential poll in the Republic of Belarus. This is what makes the strength and stability of the Belarusian state. The overwhelming support to the political course has demonstrated the consolidation of the Belarusian society."
“The Republic of Belarus has approached a new stage of its historical path and that by joint efforts Belarusians have laid a solid basis inspiring confidence that the goals will be met.”
Belarus will not deviate from its 10-year-long development course which has proved effective, Alexander Lukashenko said at the inauguration ceremony today.
“We have achieved a lot but without revolutions and upheavals. We have not let tear the country into pieces and pilfer it, nor have we let any critical stratification and discord in the society to set in”, the head of state said.
"Belarus is continuing to follow its own course. The country will modify it if a necessity arises.
"The core of the course is the socio-economic program approved by the Third All-Belarus People’s Congress. The program is designed to allow not only for a sustainable economic growth but also for a better quality of life.
“Ambitious goals have been mapped out. But we are able to meet them in case each of us, whatever he is – a company chief executive, serviceman, businessman, teacher, doctor, industrialist or an agrarian – is not indifferent to the future of the country.
“We should be in the lead in terms of up-to-date research, technologies and ideas. The state will provide all-round encouragement to people’s initiatives
“I will not try to please powers that be either on this or the other side of the ocean. My every effort will be aimed to serve the Belarusian people and make their life better”
“You have entrusted your lives, the future of your relatives, beloved ones and your children to me. I kneel before you for this and this is something I appreciate most of all. This obliges me to stay devoted to you, to be a decent, just and sincere leader”
"The pivotal task for the upcoming period is to fully realize the potential of the Belarusian-Russian integration and tackle the issues of building up the Union State"
“We are against any kind of aggression. We would like to have only friends and allies in the international arena. We are ready help all who seek to strengthen their positions using peaceful means and hope other countries will follow the same pattern”
With his right hand on the constitution, Lukashenka undertook to uphold the rights of Belarussians during his third term. There would be no turning back from the policies that had sustained fierce Western criticism but offered his people stability.
"As newly-elected president I want to assure you that we will not back away from the country's development strategy which has been elaborated over the past 10 years," he said.
After taking the oath, Lukashenko donned a military uniform and walked into October Square -- focal point of opposition protests after the election -- to watch a military march past.
Belarus ridicules European condemnation of vote, visa ban
"This is pure politics. These are irresponsible actions against Belarussians," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
“Every critical position must have some minimal threshold of constructivism, and unfortunately the European Parliament’s position has long been lacking it,” foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said late Thursday.
Popov said Minsk considered the European Parliament’s call for the poll to be declared invalid as “ridiculous.”
“The Europarliament had nothing to do with monitoring the elections, it was the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) that monitored it fully. But even their report, for all its critical nature, did not mention any issues of recognition or illegitimacy,” Popov said.
Belarussian politicians meanwhile expressed indifference to the travel ban which EU foreign ministers are likely to impose on 31 politicians including President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday.
“So what? They won’t give us visas. We have no money to go there anyway and there is nothing to see there except tiled roofs,” lawmaker Sergei Kastyan told AFP.
“If they think they can hold new elections in Belarus, let them -- I wonder how they will manage,” former presidential candidate Sergei Gaidukevich said.
"The choice of the Belarussian people does not need to be accepted or rejected from the outside," the spokesman added.
Popov expressed hope that "common sense will guide" European politicians.
Merkel ready to test links with Moscow
Ms Merkel posed for photographs in her chancellery with Alexander Milinkevich, the Belarus opposition leader, before the latter held talks with the chancellor’s top foreign policy adviser.
The gesture was made in spite of criticism this week in Berlin by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, of the European Union’s threat of sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus president, and underlines concern regarding last’s month’s flawed elections in the former Soviet state.
Mr Lavrov said it was a “mistake to isolate the political leadership in Belarus”. In response, Ronald Pofalla, a close ally of the chancellor and general secretary of her Christian Democratic party, said after a meeting with Mr Milinkevich: “We offer full support to the opposition movement.”
Mr Milinkevich said the willingness of Ms Merkel to meet him represented “strong moral support [from Germany] for our movement”.
This red-carpet treatment was given as EU foreign ministers prepare to approve on Monday a visa ban on Mr Lukashenko and prominent members of the Belarus government. The ministers will condemn not only the election but also subsequent arrests and beatings of demonstrators.
Ms Merkel’s spokesman stressed this week the need for close ties with Moscow following uproar in Germany over the move by Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor, to join Gazprom, the Russian monopoly gas supplier. “Ms Merkel is willing to go a bit further than Mr Schröder was [on challenging Mr Putin] but she will not overdo it,” said Alexander Rahr of Berlin’s DGAP foreign policy think-tank.
Mr Pofalla said the decision last week by Gazprom to increase pressure on Belarus to pay higher prices for Russian energy was sign of a post-election cooling of Moscow’s stance towards Mr Lukashenko.
“The election was the cause of this [Gazprom move],” he said. At the time Gazprom made no link to the election issue.
Russian analysts have seen Gazprom’s demand for Belarus to pay market prices for gas as a bargaining chip to gain control of Beltransgaz, the Belarusan domestic pipeline operator, which also operates an important export pipeline transporting Russian gas to western Europe.
Mr Lukashenko is believed to have promised Gazprom control of the network in return for keeping gas prices for Belarus at the lowest paid by any former Soviet republic – $46.68 (€38.5, £32.5) per thousand cubic metres – but to have dragged his feet on handing over control.
Independent Belarusan economists estimate that cheap gas and oil supplies from Russia amount to a subsidy of $3bn-$4bn a year.
Canadian journalist leaves Belarus jail
Frederick Lavoie, 22, was picked up by police while covering a protest where nearly 1,000 activists were arrested.
Frederick Lavoie, a freelance journalist, was covering the unrest in Belarus for a Quebec newspaper.
Canada had been asking Belarus to set Lavoie free on humanitarian grounds.
Lavoie was travelling by train on Saturday to Kiev, Ukraine, escorted by the Canadian consul general from Poland. He will return to Montreal on Monday.
The group Reporters Without Borders Canada says Lavoie was one of 13 reporters rounded up and jailed on the night of March 23-24.
Alexander Lukashenko, meanwhile, was sworn in Saturday for his third term as president in the former Soviet republic. He read the oath of office, then presided over a military parade.
In a related story, former Polish ambassador to Belarus Mariusz Maszkiewicz – participant of opposition protests at the time of presidential elections in Belarus – has returned to Poland. Maszkiewicz was arrested for 15 days, in the meantime – taken to hospital.
Following intervention by the Polish foreign ministry the authorities in Minsk agreed to include Maszkiewicz’s stay in hospital in the 15-day sentence. Upon arrival in Poland, the former ambassador thanked for all actions aimed at his release and for the Polish society’s support of the democratic movement in Belarus.
Belarus Ambassador: 'Russia is Our Choice'
In a news conference, Khvostov, Belarus' ambassador to the U.S. and Mexico, said that Western Europe's Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitored the elections and didn't recognize them.
He said the EU and the U.S. were prejudiced that the elections would be fradulent long before they took place. The U.S. and EU supported opposition candidates Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kozulin, he said, "They didn't hide their political preferences."
"We will never have elections on someone's instructions," the diplomat said.
Khvostov said observers from Commonwealth of Independent States, made up of most former Soviet republics, had a completely opposite opinion, finding the election results transparent and credible.
Lukashenko won the election with almost 83 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Alexander Milinkevich, got 6 percent. Voter turnout was 93 percent.
He also recalled elections in Georgia where President Mikhail Saakashvili got 97 percent of the votes, and Kyrgyzstan where President Kurmanbek Bakiev got 89 percent. He said neither the U.S. nor the EU doubted credibility of those results.
The U.S. State Department put out a press statement on its Web site called "Fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus" the day the election results were available. It said the United States "cannot accept as legitimate the election results," and that the U.S. "is preparing to take serious, appropriate measures against those officials responsible for election fraud and other human rights abuses."
Khvostov said that when White House press secretary Scott McClellan was denouncing protesters' arrests in Belarus police were arresting anti-war protesters in the United States.
"Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions; it guarantees equality of opportunities," Khvostov said.
Khvostov said the U.S. policy to isolate Belarus "is not right."
Asked to explain the U.S. foreign policy – taking actions to punish Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko for alleged human rights abuses while being friendly with some Central Asian leaders whose rule is much harsher – Khvostov said it is a policy of "double standards."
"One of the reasons is Lukashenko's pro-Russian policy," Khvostov said.
It is not a secret that the West and Russia are battling over post-Soviet countries, and the diplomat said the people of Belarus have chosen Russia as it is "our strategic partner, neighbor, ally and the defender of our sovereignty."
"For Russia, Belarus is trade partner number two after Germany," Khvostov said, adding that the trade volume between two countries is $16 billion.
Did Ukraine sell Iran nuclear warheads?
Novaia Gazeta suggested the warheads could have been sold to a third country, possibly Iran.
The 200-kiloton warheads were due to be returned to Russia in 1992 after Ukraine declared itself a nuclear-free zone following a payment by Moscow to Kiev of approximately $500 million. The missing warheads were inventoried on papers Ukraine submitted to Moscow that were officially accepted by Russia.
Besides reimbursement, Ukraine was to receive uranium for its reactors from Russia's AES as part of the deal.
Sergey Sinchenko, a member of a parliamentary commission investigating illegal arms trafficking, revealed the discrepancies. According to Sinchenko, the nuclear warheads could remain combat-ready up to at least 2010.
Ukraine's ForUm news agency reported on April 3 that Russian General Staff Chief and Deputy Defense Minister General Yuri Baluyevsky said, "Russia's General Staff has no information about whether Ukraine has given 250 nuclear warheads to Iran or not. I do not comment on unsubstantiated reports."
Ukraine’s economy shows authorities’ failure – Party of Regions
“The situation in the economy is close to critical. Budget revenues are not a result of economic growth, but of higher taxes and greater import, and the foreign trade balance deficit keeps growing,” Azarov told a news conference.
“In January-March there was no funding of subventions to local budgets for building and upgrading roads and utilities infrastructures, developing transport networks, and settling overdue debts for thermal power and other services accrued in the previous years,” Azarov said.
About the performance of the Ukrainian economy in the first quarter of this year the former finance minister said “the utter failure of the authorities’ policies is clear to the naked eye, and it is clear already now that this year’s budget will fail to be executed.”
The shortfall may total 3-4 billion dollars towards the end of the year, he said.
GAZPROM SQUEEZING BELARUS
Gazprom Vice-Chairman Alexander Ryazanov threatened to raise the price of gas to Belarus. Addressing an international energy conference on April 4-5 in Moscow, Gazprom Vice-Chairman Alexander Ryazanov threatened to raise the price of gas to Belarus to "at least triple the present level" after December 31, 2006, so as to bring the price for Belarus "in line with European prices that keep rising" (Interfax, April 5). Simultaneously with that energy event, ironically, Moscow hosted a festive conference greeted by President Vladimir Putin on the tenth anniversary of the formation of the Russia-Belarus Union (which exists on paper only).
Gazprom's warning aims to force Belarus to speed up the handover of the national gas transport and distribution company, Beltransgas, to Gazprom. If that happens, the Russian side would concede a sweetheart price for gas to Belarus, at least temporarily. Any major price increase could drive Belarusian industries to the verge of bankruptcy, potentially setting the stage for takeovers by Russian capital. Gazprom gave Belarus until April 30 to respond with regard to Beltransgas.
The Russian and Belarusian governments had agreed in principle in July 2003 to turn Beltransgas into a parity joint venture. More recently, Moscow seemed to aim for a full takeover. Gazprom estimates the total value of Beltransgas at $700 million, based on Belarusian prices. Official Minsk, however, has recently estimated that Beltransgas is worth at least $5 billion, based on international market prices. The sides have agreed to ask a "neutral" consulting company to appraise Beltransgas, but have not yet found a mutually acceptable appraiser.
Belarus pays $46.68 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas in 2006, under a one-year contract signed on December 27, 2005. This price is the same as in 2004, and the last case of Russian one-sided preferential treatment of any gas-importing country in the CIS. Gazprom is to deliver 21 billion cubic meters of gas to Belarus this year, amply covering the country's requirements. However, Gazprom pays ridiculously low fees for the transit of its gas to European Union territory via Belarus: only $0.75 per one thousand cubic meters per one hundred kilometers through Beltransgas pipelines, and a mere $0.46 per one thousand cubic meters per one hundred kilometers through the Belarus stretch of the Yamal-Europe pipeline (Interfax, March 31).
On January 27 and March 7, the two governments signed a framework agreement on Belarus' fuel and energy balance and Russian deliveries from 2006 through 2020, whereby Russia would increase gas deliveries to 26 billion cubic meters annually. This nonbinding agreement of intent, as well as the price for 2007 and thereafter, is linked to the sale of Beltransgas to Gazprom and advancement toward institutionalization of the Union State (Belapan, January 30; Interfax, March 7).
To press its point, Gazprom had reduced gas supplies by 30% during the period of freezing temperatures in January-February of this year. The cuts forced Belarus' state electricity company to generate electricity using oil fuel, which is much more expensive than gas (Belapan, January 23). Starting in January, a joint working group is discussing options for Belarus to transfer industrial assets to Russian control -- apart from Beltransgas -- in return for continuation of low-priced gas deliveries.
Gazprom shows interest in acquiring the Hrodna Azot fertilizers factory, the electrical power-generating plant in Belaazyorsk (Brest region), and the Khimvolokno artificial fiber plant. These gas-intensive plants -- if re-equipped through Gazprom-financed investments -- have the potential to become profitable exporters to EU markets. "Joint use" and expansion of storage capacity for Russian gas in Belarus for export to the EU is also on the working group's agenda.
In 2005, Gazprom exported approximately 41 billion cubic meters of gas through Belarus, including some 22 billion through the first trunk line of the Yamal-Europe pipeline, and the remainder through Beltransgas. The Yamal-Europe trunk line is supposed to become fully operational in 2006 at its design capacity of 33 billion cubic meters annually, but work on compressor stations lags behind schedule. Belarus last year recognized Gazprom's ownership of that pipeline on Belarus' territory and granted Gazprom a long-term lease on the land along the pipeline. However, these steps have only resulted in a short-term reprieve from the Russian side, which seems intent (as in Armenia -- see EDM, April 7) to take over some the country's main economic assets, using Gazprom's position as a monopoly supplier.
A new gas war looms, with Belarus the loser
A new gas war is in the offing, posing more risks than any of the previous conflicts between Moscow and Minsk since the early 1990s.
Lukashenko's first option - to allow the transfer to Gazprom of the controlling stake in Beltransgaz, a state-owned Belarusian company in charge of the transit and distribution of Russian gas - would deprive him of his major bargaining chip with Gazprom. Lukashenko defends the low prices that Belarus pays Russia for gas as compensation for allowing Russian gas to transit to Europe. If Beltransgaz passes to Gazprom, Russia would no longer need to subsidize Lukashenko, who would be a mere consumer.
Under the second option, Belarus would buy Russian gas at market prices - three to five times the current price - and Lukashenko's economic miracle could unravel within less than a year, as the competitiveness of most Belarussian firms is tied to cheap Russian energy. Lukashenko would also lose the ability to earn unsupervised cash on reselling Russian gas, which would hamper his ability to pay off the farmers, pensioners and soldiers who support him.
Gazprom wins either way, acquiring control of Beltransgaz and reducing its transit risk, or getting much more cash for the gas it sells to Belarus.
Kremlin strategists waited just long enough to have Lukashenko win the elections in Belarus and President Viktor Yushchenko lose parliamentary elections in Ukraine. Ukraine's pro-Western orientation turns out not to matter, as Gazprom is threatening to charge market prices even to pro-Russian Belarus - but the Ukranians found out about it only after Yushchenko had been humiliated in the elections, with the gas crisis being among major causes for his defeat.
Now, facing unprecedented protests in Minsk, Lukashenko feels too insecure to argue with Moscow. The Kremlin rightly believes that a perplexed Lukashenko will sign anything.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has also adroitly belittled Lukashenko - whose popularity in Russia is rising, according to opinion polls - by showing that subsidized energy supplies, which cost Russians from $3 billion to $7 billion a year, are behind Lukashenko's economic miracle. If Putin wants to prolong his rule by becoming the head of a newly revived Union State, a bankrupt or fully controlled Belarus without Lukashenko would be easier to digest.
By instituting a gas-price hike for Belarus, Russia also distances itself from its earlier support for Lukashenko's dictatorial regime, which had undermined its credentials in the Group of 8. And as evidence that it is not using energy as a weapon, Russia could even cite its application to join the World Trade Organization as the reason for the hike.
The European Union might be the biggest loser in this war, however. Should Russia turn off the gas, Lukashenko will probably do what the Ukranians did - use the gas intended for the European consumers. But the main problem for the EU is not a possible temporary loss of gas supplies, it is the absence of any clarity on which side to support in the conflict.
The EU has been toying with the idea of imposing economic sanctions on Lukashenko, and has often scorned Russia for funding his regime with energy subsidies. But if Gazprom shuts off all gas supplies to Europe that pass through Belarus, the EU might want to ask Moscow to go easy on Minsk.
Putin's Russia, with a controlling stake in most East European and Central Asian energy distribution networks and with a stable demand from China, may yet present the biggest threat to the world's energy security - or at least to Europe's.
The G-8 meeting that Putin will host in St. Petersburg will be devoted to discussing energy security. To understand what this entails, imagine Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy hosting a G-8 meeting on the relations among business, media and the state.
Hamas leader: Jews control U.S. Christianity
Top Hamas man says he directed study proving 'Zionists' infiltrated churches
"Even the churches where the Americans pray are led by Jews who were converted to Christianity, but they were converted to keep controlling
the Americans," Mohammad Abu Tir, the number two Hamas terrorist in the newly formed Palestinian Authority government said during an exclusive interview from his home yesterday with top radio host Rusty Humphries and WND Jerusalem bureau chief Aaron Klein.
"I made a study and I know very well that all this radicalism in some parts of the Christianity, (including) the Anglicans who are being led by Bush, is because of the control of Zionists," said Abu Tir.
The Hamas man, famous for his orange-dyed beard, went on to accuse "Zionists" of controlling Western media organizations and "leading terrorism inside the mass communications media."
Abu Tir was elected to the number two spot in the PA in January's legislative ballots in which Hamas won by a large margin. He spent nearly 25 years in Israeli prisons for directing terror activities, including the attempted poisoning in the early 1990s of Israel's water supplies.
Australia reach semi-finals at Davis Cup
Wayne Arthurs and Paul Hanley thwarted Max Mirnyi and Vladimir Voltchkov 3-6 6-4 5-7 6-3 7-5 to give Australia, the 2003 champions, an unassailable 3-0 lead over Belarus in Kooyong.
The Australian pair coped better with the blustery conditions and sealed victory on their third match point when Voltchkov sent a service return long.
"I was really nervous, really tight today, and I couldn't release myself," 35-year-old Arthurs said.
"I sort of dug deep and actually thought about the 2003 final when I played so well and sort of went into that same zone in probably the middle of the fourth set and the whole way through the fifth set."
Chris Guccione and Lleyton Hewitt had given Australia a 2-0 lead with victories over Mirnyi and Voltchkov in the opening singles matches on Friday.
Belarus, who scored a shock win over Spain to reach the quarter-final, handled the blustery conditions better in the early exchanges and took the first set after breaking Hanley's serve in the eighth game.
The Australians rallied to take the next but Belarus appeared to be gaining control of the see-sawing match when a gritty display from Mirnyi and Voltchkov gave them the edge in a third set that lasted more than an hour.
Instead, the Australians drew on their home crowd support to force the game to a fifth set and prevailed when Hanley calmly served out the final game.
The Australians will face either old foes Argentina or Croatia in the semi-finals.
The Argentines are favorites to progress after taking a 2-1 lead against the holders in Zagreb when David Nalbandian and Jose Acasuso beat Ivan Ljubicic and stand-in Marin Cilic 6-4 6-2 3-6 6-4.
Cilic, the 17-year-old standing in for the injured Mario Ancic, made a series of unforced errors in the opening two sets and failed to hold his serve in the final game of the fourth.
"It certainly would have been a lot tougher if Ancic was there but what matters is that we are 2-1 ahead and I now face a really tough match against Ljubicic (in Sunday's singles)," Nalbandian said.
Australia, who have won the Davis Cup 28 times, will now meet either defending champions Croatia or Argentina in the semi-final in September.