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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad comes to town, Benefits canceled, Russia mine blast, Spy stuff, Pirate cell phones, Opinion, Blogs and Sport

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  • #206

    Belarus and Iran have identified the priority steps towards cooperation

    From: The office of the president
    Official welcoming ceremony for the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
    Belarus and Iran have removed all the obstacles that prevented the stepping up of the mutual trade and have identified the priority steps towards cooperation in the most important areas for both countries. This is the main result of the official visit by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Belarus.

    On May 21 in Minsk, Alexander Lukashenko and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad conducted negotiations in the closed-door and enlarged formats; the negotiating parties signed a raft of joint documents.

    On May 22, Alexander Lukashenko and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued their dialogue. The National Library was the setting for a luncheon hosted by the President of Belarus on the occasion of the termination of the visit of the President of Iran. In view of the Belarus delegation, despite the informal nature of that meeting, the talks were of no lesser importance and intensity than those held before.

    “We are satisfied with the results of the talks and the agreements reached. We have achieved the goals we set forth,” the Belarusian leader said at the concluding press conference. – Today, there are no issues which we have failed to settle.”

    Alexander Lukashenko thanked the Iranian President for his understanding of the problems faced by Belarus, first of all in the energy sector.

    “To be greatly dependent on one state for energy deliveries is a problem for us. We speak earnestly on the subject. Belarus has requested help from Iran in resolving this problem,” emphasized the Belarusian leader. He explained that during the high-level visit to Teheran in 2006 the President of Iran and the Supreme Leader of that country had offered Belarus to extract oil in the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and use it at its own discretion. What is more, Iran pronounced in favour of the establishment of joint manufacturing facilities both in Belarus and Iran.

    “It accommodates our needs very well. Iran also has certain problems and many sensitive issues. There are no closed topics in cooperation between our countries,” Alexander Lukashenko added.

    What is of particular importance according to the Head of State is that Belarus and Iran have removed all the obstacles in their mutual trade. The countries did face problems regarding, first of all, the reciprocal payments in trade. “We were relying on the guarantees by the first-class European banks, we were working, that is to say, through intermediaries. To optimize financial settlements between both countries, a decision has been taken to open a representative office of the Iranian bank in Belarus. A bank with one hundred percent Iranian capital will also be set up in our country. Thus, both countries have chosen the option of direct financial payments. “It will resolve the problems of diversifying the Belarusian exports,” the President of Belarus stressed.

    Strengthening of Belarusian-Iranian relations promotes international security, Iran President says

    From: Belta
    Alexander Lukashenko and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
    The strengthening of Belarusian-Iranian relations promotes regional and international security, President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said to the Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, today. Mr Ahmadinejad is currently on an official visit to Belarus.

    “You are one of my best friends,” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said to the President of Belarus.

    Belarus and Iran established diplomatic relations in March 1993. The trade relations are focused on exports. In 2006 the trade between the two countries achieved $35.5 million.

    The Belarus’ main exports to Iran include heavy trucks, metal products, synthetic fibers, potash fertilisers, integrated circuits, bearings, etc. The bulk of the Belarusian imports consists of food, plastic goods and medicine. For Belarus, Iran is a promising and solvent partner - it possesses substantial reserves of oil and gas (10% and 18% of the total world’s reserves respectively) and a big market (involving nearly 70 million people).

    Belarus opened an assembly plant for the production of its MAZ trucks in Iran. In August 2006 an assembly facility for the production of Iranian passenger cars Samand was launched in Belarus.

    In late 2006 Production Association Belarusneft prepared and sent to Iran a general Jufeir oil field development plan.

  • Iran can become a most influential centre of the international community

    “At present there is no alternative to shaping a multi-polar system of international ties. I am sure Iran with its richest history and culture, a most powerful economic potential can become one of the most influential centres of the world community”, said the Belarusian leader.

  • Belarus is grateful to Iran for its support in the oil and gas sphere

    “We are grateful to the Iranian side for the constructive approach to the issue of the development of cooperation in the oil and gas sphere and in manufacturing. I am especially grateful to the President of Iran for supporting Belarus in such a critical issue as the extraction of hydrocarbon resources,” the Belarusian leader said.

    Alexander Lukashenko cited the words voiced by Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the narrow-formant talks that took place earlier in the day, who said that in the near future Belarusians would be able to extract oil in Iran, process it there or take the crude oil and sell it in any region of the world. “The President of Iran said the same about the extraction and processing of natural gas. I would like to express my gratitude for this unique support for our country and economy,” Alexander Lukashenko said.

  • Belarusian specialists are ready to extract oil in Iran

    “You’ve met us half-way and have given us the oil field we intended to get. Our specialists have researched it and are ready to extract oil in the Iranian territory today”, said the Belarusian head of state addressing the President of Iran.

  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Belarus and Iran should develop cooperation in power engineering, transport and trade

    In his words, the relations between the two countries are based on principles of friendship and justice, they foster stability both regionally and globally. “We are now at the beginning of the road but our steps are meaningful and promising,” he said.

    At the same time he stressed that efforts should be taken to boost cooperation in such spheres as power engineering, transport and trade. He also noted the importance of implementation of new investment projects.

    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad informed that yesterday the Parliament of Iran had ratified an agreement on principles of cooperation with the Republic of Belarus.

    “Our policy is aimed at establishing strategic, stable and brotherly relations. We see no barriers impeding the development of cooperation”, noted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He also emphasised the development of strategic relations with Belarus is an alienable rule of the Iranian foreign policy

  • Belarus hopes for growth of Iranian investments in its economy, Alexander Lukashenko says

    The Belarusian leader pointed to the need to diversify export/import supplies between the two countries.

    According to Alexander Lukashenko, during the talks the presidents discussed ways of addressing the problems that hamper the expansion of the relationship.

    “Due to our joint efforts Belarusian-Iranian relationship has reached the level of strategic partnership,” the Belarusian leader added.

    The presidents praised the expansion of the Belarusian-Iranian exchange of technical and engineering services and underlined the importance of the joint projects on building a CHP plant and a hydroelectric power station, industrial companies to produce petrochemical, medical and other goods and equipment in Belarus.

    The Presidents deem it necessary to provide assistance to Iranian and Belarusian businessmen and to create a basis for joint participation in projects implemented in third countries.

    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Alexander Lukashenko also deem it necessary to promote cooperation in education and culture.

    The Presidents also voiced their support for the promotion of the interparliamentary cooperation

    In the near future Belarus and Iran will settle issues relating to interaction in the banking field and will establish direct cooperation between banks. The matter also concerned mutual trade mechanisms and the tariff policy.

  • Iran ready to help Belarus with diversifying energy supplies

    Iran is ready to help Belarus with diversifying energy supplies, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko told media today, summing up results of his meeting with Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

    “The biggest dependence of a country on energy supplies is a problem for us. We honestly say it. We asked the Iranian side to help solve the problem”, underscored the Belarusian leader.

    He explained, during a top-visit of a Belarusian delegation to Tehran in 2006 the President of Iran and the spiritual leader of the country suggested that Belarus should extract oil and gas in Iran, transport it home and use it at its own discretion. Besides, Iran suggested setting up joint ventures in the two countries to explore cooperation avenues the two states are interested in.

    “It suits us a lot. Iran has certain problems and multiple sensitive issues. We have no closed areas of cooperation”, added Alexander Lukashenko.

    Jewish leader calls Ahmadinejad’s visit to Belarus ‘shameful’

    From: EJPress
    The Jewish community in Belarus has sharply criticized this week's surprise visit in the country by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

    “How is it possible to invite a person, the leader of a state, who thinks that in order to resolve the Middle East problem it is necessary to destroy a whole state and people?,” Yakov Basin, deputy head of the Union of Jewish Associations of Belarus, asked.

    He was referring to Ahmadinejad’s repeated verbal attacks in which the Iranian president described the Holocaust “a myth” and called for Israel to be wiped off the map.

    Basin said he was “strongly opposed” to the Iranian two-day visit which was at the invitation of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

    “It’s shameful to talk with a man who today plays the role of a modern Hitler,” he added.

    Lukashenko has already visited Iran twice, in 2001 and 2006, but has not visited any EU country recently. The EU has introduced a travel ban on Lukashenko and other top Belarussian officials for quashing independent political parties, arresting opposition leaders and muzzling the media.

    On Tuesday, Lukashenko heaped praise on his Iranian counterpart, rejecting claims that their two-day meeting was one of "outcast" states.

    At a breakfast meeting, the Belarussian leader defended the two countries’new-found friendship in the face of criticism by democracy activists and others that it is a ploy to overcome international isolation.

    'Europe's last dictatorship'

    The ex-Soviet state has been dubbed "Europe’s last dictatorship" by the United States.

    "If anyone thinks that this is a meeting of outcast states, just meeting for the sake of meeting, you are deeply mistaken," Lukashenko said. "We’re satisfied by the results of our talks and have achieved all the goals we set ourselves."

    Lukashenko praised Tehran for granting Belarus rights to an Iranian oil field that he said would reduce his country’s’ dependence on Russia.

    In Israel, Lukashenko’s complimentary words that the Iranian leader’s viewpoint “in many respects is consonant with the Belarussian vision of the world order” produced negative reactions despite the fact that Israel and Belarus have developed better relations over the last years.

    On Monday Ahmadinejad laid flowers at a memorial to victims of World War II but avoided referring to the Holocaust.

    Local Jewish groups estimate that as many as 800,000 Jews were killed on the present-day territory of Belarus during WWII.

    After the war, while many Jews emigrated to Israel, the local community slowly started to rebuild itself. In 1992, the first rabbi arrived in the country.

    Today, around 50,000 Jews live in the country, mainly in the capital Minsk but also in Borisov, Brest and Moghilev.

    Belarus lawmakers cancel benefits

    From: Houston Chron and Charter '97
    Lawmakers on Wednesday backed legislation stripping hundreds of thousands of disabled and retired people and students of social benefits and other state payments.

    In an unusual move, the 110-seat lower house of parliament passed the bill in its first and second readings, 101-1, sending it on to the upper chamber, where it is also likely to pass and be sent it to President Alexander Lukashenko for his signature.

    Analysts said the measure — which officials hope will save about a third of the country's budget — was prompted by Russia's sharp rise in oil and natural gas prices this year. Belarus' economy remains largely state-controlled and heavily reliant of cheap Russian energy supplies.

    Some 67 percent of Belarus' 10 million people, including pensioners, students, disabled persons, Nazi victims and others, receive benefits and other subsidies for transport, medication and housing utilities.

    Lawmakers had initially promised to substitute the benefits with cash payments but no such bill has yet been introduced.

    Several dozen students, meanwhile, tried to stage a protest outside parliament, but security forces quickly broke up the protest and detained several participants.

    "I will starve because I won't be able to go home to my parents," said Ales Karavaichik, an 18-year-old Minsk university student who regularly travels 190 miles to the town of Gomel to see his parents and load up on food. The law eliminates the 50 percent discount he received on train tickets.

    The legislation mirrors that passed in Russia two years ago that stripped benefits for socially vulnerable groups and replaced them with cash payments that many consider meager. The reforms sparked mass protests across Russia.

    According to Charter '97, benefits make up only 2.3% of general income of a family in Belarus. As said by Patupchyk, benefits do not seriously affect social and economic situation of lower-income people, decrease of poverty level, and improvement of a democratic situation.

    As said by the minister, at the moment they are allocate formally.

    The bill changes the terms of providing privileges to certain categories of citizens in paying for utilities services, Uladzimir Patupchyk, the Minister of Labour and Social Security of Belarus, said. In particular, the following groups of citizens will be entitled to preferential tariffs on utilities services: the non-working military retirees; commanding officers and rank-and-file officers of the bodies of internal affairs, whose disablement is caused by wounds, concussion of the brain, injuries or illnesses suffered in the course of fulfilling their duties; citizens who suffered from the radiation sickness caused by the Chernobyl catastrophe. Entitled to the afore-mentioned privilege are also the invalids of the 1st and 2nd groups, except for those invalids whose disablement is caused by unlawful actions, alcoholic, narcotic or toxic intoxication, or mutilation. Those entitled to the privilege are supposed to have no able-bodied family members who, according to the law, are to support them.

    The bill specifies the groups of citizens who are entitled to the privilege of obtaining free medicine and having a 50% discount on utilities services. This privilege covers the following categories of citizens: the parents of the servicemen, partisans and undercover activists who were killed or died during the Great Patriotic War, of the servicemen who were killed when fulfilling their military or service duties outside Belarus, of the servicemen, commanding officers and rank-and-file officers of the bodies of internal affairs who were killed (died) when fulfilling their military (service) duties.

    According to him, the adoption of the bill will allow to economise over Br168 billion and create conditions for the efficient redistribution of this money so that it can be used to provide effective support for those who need it. Moreover, this money will be funnelled into state programmes aimed at increasing the birth rate and addressing the Chernobyl challenges.

    International Monetary Fund mission begins its work to assess Belarus' economic development

    From: Navany
    A mission of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led by the deputy chief of the Northeastern Division of the IMF European Department, Balazs Horvath, began its work in Minsk on May 23 to assess Belarus' economic development.

    Pyotr Prakapovich, chairman of the National Bank of Belarus (NBB), met with the mission members on May 23, the IMF Resident Representative Office told BelaPAN. The IMF experts are also expected to meet with officials with the government, the finance, economy, statistics ministries, as well as several other governmental agencies.

    During the visit, the mission will assess the implementation of the government's monetary policy in 2006 and its 2007 monetary policy guidelines, the macroeconomic situation in the country, the situation in the stock and exchange markets, and the situation in the budgetary and taxation sphere.

    In addition, the IMF experts are to study the state of the banking sector and the government's measures to reform the economy.

    Such consultations are held with each member country of the IMF. Their results are reflected in a report on the economic situation of a state, its policies, and prospects of development in the following year.

    In February 2004, Belarus withdrew its request for IMF stand-by loans. But the IMF continues to provide consultations on economic issues and technical assistance on monetary, tax and banking policies.

    Since late 2004, the IMF has not had a resident representative in Belarus.

    Union of Belarusian Writers denounces closure of Belarusian Literature Fund

    From: Navany
    The Rada (Council) of the Union of Belarusian Writers has condemned the Supreme Court's decision to close down the Belarusian Literature Fund.

    "The literary image of our country is being destroyed by the signature of one person, the judge, who flagrantly violated procedure and property regulations when handing down the ruling that the organization should be closed," the Rada said in a statement on Wednesday. "This is doing an irreparable damage to our judiciary. No statements about the objectivity and justice of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus can be taken as true after what happened."

    "Belarusian literature is one of the most important parts of our country's social life, which has preserved and created the Belarusian language. Thanks above all to many generations of writers who suffered and died in Stalin's Gulag for the Belarusian national idea and our statehood, and bravely and selflessly defended them during the years of the Great Patriotic War, there is a sovereign country called Belarus on the map," it went on to say.

    The Rada expressed hope that "common sense" would prevail and the ruling would be reversed. "In any situation whatever difficult it may be, one should be guided only by laws and people's interests and serve the truth. Naturally, this requires honesty and courage, but a democratic and civilized state can decently can exist only if citizens behave in such a way," it said.

    The Rada recalled that the Belarusian Literature Fund had been founded in the 1930s, with great Belarusian authors, such as Yanka Kupala, Yakub Kolas, Maksim Tank, Vasil Bykaw and Uladzimir Karatkevich, contributing to its development.

    The Supreme Court of Belarus ordered the closure of the Belarusian Literature Fund on April 4. The justice ministry sued the non-governmental organization over its alleged failure to remedy defaults over which the ministry issued three written warnings in 2006. The judge ruled that the decision was final, saying that the organization had repeatedly violated regulations and its charter since its registration in 1992.

    Belarusian MPs ratify treaty between Belarus and Kyrgyzstan on friendship and cooperation

    From: NLIPRB
    The Chamber of Representatives of the Belarusian parliament has ratified today a treaty between Belarus and Kyrgyzstan on friendship and cooperation.

    When presenting the draft First Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Vasiliy Pugachev noted that the document was signed in the Belarusian capital on November 27, 2006.

    The relations between Belarus and Kyrgyzstan have been recently developing dynamically in the political and trade-economic spheres. The two countries have been efficiently and fruitfully cooperating within the framework of the UN, CIS, EurAsEC, CSTO and the intergovernmental Belarusian-Kyrgyz commission for trade-economic cooperation. In 2006, the trade turnover between the two countries doubled as against 2005 and totaled $21,5 million; the Belarusian export grew 2,3 times to $20 million.

    Vasiliy Pugachev informed that the Kyrgyz parliament had already ratified the treaty and the president had approved the document.

    Belarus: Railway tickets now available online in Belarus

    From: Railway Market
    Belarusian Railways now offers railway tickets online, BelTA news agency learnt from the Belarusian Railways administration.
    According to the source, instead of standing in queues, wasting time, passengers can now order their tickets on the Internet and have them delivered. The delivery fee nears Br20,000 regardless of the number of tickets bought.

    BelTA has been told, Belarusians will soon be able to buy railway tickets using bank cards. Belarusian Railways is negotiating this possibility with Belarusian banks. The feature will become available starting with ticket offices in Minsk, Brest, Gomel, Bobruisk, Mogilev and Vitebsk.

    The source said, in summer Belarusian Railways will open 33 additional ticket offices, in particular, in Minsk, Baranovichi, Osipovichi, Slutsk, Mogilev and other towns and cities. “We work hard to improve the service quality and to make your travels more comfortable”, added Belarusian Railways.

  • Around the region...

    35 die in Russia mine gas blast

    From: CNN
    At least 35 miners were dead and three missing after a methane gas explosion Thursday at a coal mine in southwestern Siberia, the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations said, Russia's Interfax news agency reported. Officials said 179 miners were rescued -- seven of them were injured.

    The accident occurred at the Yubileinaya mine in the Kemerovo region at about 7:40 a.m. Moscow time (11:40 p.m. ET Wednesday). At the time of the explosion, 217 miners were inside the mine.

    The mine is near the city of Novokuznetsk, about 1,850 miles (3,000 kilometers) east of Moscow. It is located in a major Russian industrial region, with some of the world's largest deposits of coal.

    It is the latest disaster to hit this remote Siberian mining community. In March, more than 100 miners were killed in an accident at the Ulyanovskaya mine.

    Britain-Russia rift on dead spy

    From: M&C
    Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer speaks to the media in Moscow
    As if European-Russian relations haven`t been through enough trouble already, another diplomatic conflict is developing over one of the most mysterious spy murder cases in recent history.

    After a thorough and lengthy investigation by Scotland Yard`s anti-terror team, British federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that they have evidence that former KGB bodyguard Andrei Lugovoy is the man behind the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a Kremlin critic who was poisoned last November in his home in exile, London.

    'I have today concluded that the evidence sent to us by the police is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoy with the murder of Mr. Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning,' Sir Ken Macdonald of the Crown Prosecution Service said Tuesday. British prosecutors demanded the extradition of Lugovoy so he can be brought before a British court to be tried for this 'extraordinarily grave crime.'

    On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being responsible for his murder. The Kremlin has denied any involvement, calling the allegations ridiculous.

    It is unlikely that London expected to get its hands on Lugovoy in the first place, however -- the Russian Constitution forbids extraditing its own citizens. Of course Russian prosecutors could prosecute Lugovoy based on evidence provided to them by the United Kingdom; such a move, however, is highly unlikely, observers say.

    Despite the little London can do to get Lugovoy before court, prosecutors made it clear that they were not willing to turn a blind eye to the case.

    British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett called on Russia to cooperate and extradite Lugovoy.

    This was made clear 'strongly to the Russian ambassador' after he was called into the Foreign Office, she said.

    In Moscow, officials see the case as less explosive.

    'I do not see any major links between the case opened following Litvinenko`s death and the development of Russian-U.K. relations in general,' Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ivanov told a news conference in Moscow Wednesday, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

    The case that keeps London and Moscow on its toes reads like a spy novel:

    Litvinenko, himself a former Russian secret agent, died Nov. 23 after he succumbed to a large dose of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 that unidentified individuals had managed to put in his body. Traces of the radioactive isotope were found in several places all over Europe, and in passenger planes traveling to Russia and mainland Europe, causing hundreds of people to come forward for radioactive testing.

    Litvinenko before his poisoning was investigating the killing of fellow dissident Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist assassinated in October. Contacts of Litvinenko said he had also accumulated material that was poised to embarrass the Kremlin in the Yukos affair, the forced split-up of one of Russia`s most profitable energy companies.

    Before his death, Litvinenko repeatedly published criticism of Putin and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the KGB; he wrote a book called 'Blowing up Russia: Terror from Within,' alleging that the Russian spy service orchestrated the 1999 apartment block bombings in Russia that killed more than 300 people and were later used to justify military offensives in Chechnya.

    In 1998, Litvinenko, then an FSB specialist who fought terrorism and organized crime, announced at a news conference that his superiors had ordered him to kill Boris Berezovsky, who at the time was one of Boris Yeltsin`s top security officials. The head of the FSB, Litvinenko`s boss, was Vladimir Putin.

    While Litvinenko, according to observers, never was a real threat to Putin, the former KGB/FSB circles are close-knit and 'traitors' like Litvinenko are often punished, at least bullied, observers say.

    The latest extradition request by Britain is yet another blow to Russia`s relations with Europe after rows with Poland, Estonia and Lithuania and -- to put it mildly -- a less-than-perfect EU-Russia summit already had cast a dark shadow on ties with the West.

    In the case of U.K.-Russian relations, however, things could hardly get worse, said Katinka Barysch, a Russia expert at the Center for European Reform, a political think tank in London.

    'Diplomacy between the two countries has long gone down the drain,' Barysch Wednesday told United Press International in a telephone interview.

    While Prime Minister Tony Blair courted Putin at the start of the Russian`s term, things quickly turned sour after London granted asylum to Berezovsky, a close friend of Litvinenko and a fierce Putin critic.

    Moreover, British energy companies such as Shell and BP have been repeatedly frustrated over losing stakes in oil and gas exploration deals.

    The frustration over some of Russia`s moves escalated into a face-off between German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the EU presidency, and Putin last week at the EU-Russia summit.

    Barysch said European leaders shouldn`t become frustrated at this point and -- most importantly -- not play along with Russia`s game.

    'I like what (U.S. Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice did recently when she went to Moscow and said, `Hey, please stop shouting at us, but let`s see where we can be engaged with each other,`' she said. 'For Europe it`s important not to be rude to the Russians, even if they are rude to you. It`s important not to go down on the Russian level.'

    90 pct of cell phones in Ukraine are contraband

    From: Rynok
    Only the every tenth cell phone sold in Ukraine was imported legally, the Ukrainian state radio frequency center head Pavlo Slobodyanuk says.
    As to him, in order to convince in this it’s enough just to compare the statistics of cell phones sales and the customs information.

    Pavlo Slobodyanuk noted that customers are those who suffer from smuggling the most, because the service centers refuse to accept cell phones that did not pass the certification in Ukraine.

    Also he stressed that state organs come out with an initiative to downsize the trade outlets that have a license to sell cell phones in Ukraine.

    As of April 1, they were about 7,000 in Ukraine, over 2,000 in Kyiv.

  • Opinion...

    Opinion: United Nations of Democracies and Dictatorships?

    From: Deutsche Welle
    The increasing role of non-democracies in key UN bodies lead observers to wonder how the UN can live up to its ideals. The US and the EU should turn to the old-fashioned tools of diplomacy, argues Thorsten Benner.

    Last Friday, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) elected Zimbabwe as its next chair. Much to their chagrin, EU countries, the US and Canada were outvoted in their opposition against installing Mugabe's repressive regime as chair of this major (even though for the most part dysfunctional) UN body.

    The UK representative emphasized that for Zimbabwe to chair the "Commission, while [Mugabe's] own people suffer the appalling consequences of [Zimbabwe's] government policies, is wholly inconsistent with the Commission's aims. It damages the credibility of the Commission itself and its ability to deal with issues affecting the livelihoods of millions from the poorest countries."

    This Thursday, Belarus, Egypt and Angola seek membership of the UN Human Rights Council. All three hardly live up to the criteria set out for membership in the new UN human rights body: "Contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and [its] voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto."

    Maintain the status quo?

    What strategy should democracies choose with regard to the role of dictatorships in UN bodies? "Simply accept it as a fact of life" is the first option recommended by many, especially the members of the Group of 77 (G77) developing country bloc at the UN.

    Sudan's UN Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, for example, argues that it is the "right of regional groups to choose whoever they want." He can refer to the UN charter to support his point. The charter states prominently that the UN "is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members."

    Democracy at the UN means "one country, one vote." It is not for others to question how sovereign members exercise their right to vote. Case closed. A second option is based on the exact opposite view. It argues that the role of dictatorships undermines the credibility and effectiveness of the UN so that it is necessary to create alternatives.

    Introduce a "democracies only" club?

    US Senator and presidential candidate John McCain advocates "bringing democratic peoples and nations from around the world into one common organization, a worldwide League of Democracies. (…) The new League of Democracies would form the core of an international order of peace based on freedom. It could act where the UN fails to act, to relieve human suffering in places like Darfur."

    Both options -- accepting the status quo and creating a new "democracies only" club outside the UN -- are short-sighted.

    Simply acquiescing to the prominent role of dictatorships in UN bodies threatens to further undermine the standing of the United Nations in key countries that account for the vast majority of contributions to the UN budget, especially the US. It also undermines the credibility of the UN as a whole to stand up for the ideals enshrined in its charter.

    Forming a "League of Democracies" outside the UN throws the baby out with the bathwater. A world organization of only democracies could not supplant the United Nations. This would amount to the same as restricting diplomacy to friendly and like-minded countries, while missing out on the very essence of the business of diplomacy.

    Old-fashioned tools

    We need an alternative strategy within the UN to further human rights and democracy.

    First of all, democracies need to use the old-fashioned tools of diplomacy to reverse the trend of the increasing prominence of dictatorships in UN bodies. The EU and the US in particular should use the powers of moral suasion as well as hard economic and political incentives to ease individual developing countries out of the block of irresponsible voters. There is no inevitability for countries such as South Africa or Argentina to side with serial human rights abusers.

    While engaging in diplomacy, the US, the EU and other democracies should be respectful in demeanour and firm on principles. They should make it clear that they are not willing to tolerate serial abuses of the goals of the UN on human rights.

    The German foreign minister did exactly that earlier this year in his address to the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the EU. He argued that "it is not acceptable that very serious human rights violations are not addressed -- or are not addressed with the necessary directness -- because regional or ideological solidarity takes precedence over the willingness to see critical situations without bias."

    Aiming for a "community of democracies"

    Establishing a "Democracy Caucus" within the UN would be another important element of a winning strategy. A Democracy Caucus would offer a complement to regional and other blocs within the UN for cooperation on resolutions and initiatives. This Democracy Caucus could also contribute to moving away from the confrontation between the "West vs. the rest" that currently poisons the atmosphere at the UN.

    Major members of the G-77 developing country bloc, such as India, would also be members of the Democracy Caucus. This caucus could further a better understanding of what democracy is all about.

    When confronted with the opposition to his candidacy, the newly elected Zimbabwean chair of the CSD said that critics had the "right to their opinions." He added that "at the end of the day the majority rules as democracy does." Once a vast majority of UN members understands that this misses the very essence of liberal democracy we will have come a long way in living up to the ideals of the UN.

    As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out, "When the United Nations can truly call itself a community of democracies, the Charter's noble ideals of protecting human rights and promoting 'social progress in larger freedoms' will have been brought much closer."

    It's Time to win

    From: TOL
    A few days ago several youth initiatives published their “It’s Time to Win” Manifesto. I support it entirely and I’ve signed it myself already.

    Writing about the ineffectiveness of the old opposition has already become banal. But unfortunately, it seems that none of the political parties (United Civic Party, communists, social democrats or even the Belarusian Popular Front, the only party which, in my opinion, still has some potential) are capable of returning Belarus to the democratic path. Their work today is made up of endless, useless meetings and sickening intrigues. Once important ideas like a Congress of Democratic Forces have become games around which to squabble and compete for western money. Instead of working with the people, opposition leaders hold meetings between themselves, fight over leadership positions, and plot against Milinkievic, the only leader with any name recognition. They don’t feel sorry for their own wasted time and efforts, or those of normal, real activists. And Milinkievic himself, who still inspires me, lacks the decisiveness to put the others in their place and do something more than meet with foreign leaders.

    Time, unfortunately, is working against Belarus. The clock is ticking and we are closer to the moment when we will be left hopelessly behind our Central European neighbors. Month after month, year after year, our country sinks deeper into the swamp. If we wait any longer, it may be too late to ever get out.

    For a long time now, Belarus has been the black hole in Europe in terms of political freedom. Consequently, it trails other countries in intellectual (imagine how much time and effort it will take to get rid of the pro-authoritarian outlook imposed on people’s minds by our state propaganda) and cultural development (do you know any other country whose own government would destroy unique historical buildings and other elements of national heritage?). As a result, the country lacks professionals in the public and private sector. Seeing no future here, thousands of the best and the brightest young people are leaving the country. And in a year or so, ordinary Belarusians will feel real economic decline as Lukashenka’s “economic miracle” collapses without Russian gas and oil subsidies. At the moment I’m reading Death of the Empire by Yegor Gaidar. He writes about the last years of the USSR’s existence, describing the inevitable economic crisis as it gathered momentum ever since the 1970s. It’s a description of a huge, ineffective Colossus collapsing under its own weight, even though it seemed that nothing could ever harm it. A perfect analogy for today’s Belarus.

    Albania? Moldova? Macedonia? All these countries are ahead of Belarus in terms of market economies and democratic reforms. We must get used to this sad fact. As long as Lukashenka governs Belarus, the gap will only grow. No one can be serious about having a real dialog with the regime. At least, not until we start to act, to demonstrate our readiness for dialog by putting real pressure on the government. Then, Lukashenka and his officials will crawl to us and beg for dialog. We must crawl out of this shameful hole.

    The opposition party leaders will make fools of us for as long as we allow it. All of them should have resigned back in 2001. They had a last chance to rehabilitate themselves in 2006. But now they have seized control of the whole opposition and become entrenched, not much better than Lukashenka himself. With the current opposition leadership, all we can hope for is a palace coup and the transformation of the dictatorship into a Putin/Kuchma type of authoritarianism with a “human face.” And the crowds gathering under white-red-white flags will confuse it with real democracy. We must shake up this swamp up as much as we can. A new center for democratic activities should be created and party members should finally force their current leaders – Messrs. Viacorka and Labiedzka, and Comrade Kalakin – to resign. How useful are leaders who for more than a decade couldn’t beat this regime? It is time to break with the old ways of doing things and start from scratch.

    In an interview given on the eve of the 2007 Chernobyl Day demonstration, Viktar Ivaskievic – a deputy chairman of the BPF – said that those unhappy with the current opposition were free to do better themselves, if they knew how. Ok Mr. Ivaskievic, you asked for it. Many people realized this a long time ago and have begun working on their own, such as different small and often nameless youth groups. Finally we are witnessing attempts to create an alternative anti-Lukashenka camp without looking back to the old leadership. During the twelve years that Lukashenka has been in power, a new generation of politicians should have come to the fore. Let’s see it, or better yet, let’s show them that this is really the case.

    If each of us does something small to change the situation, then together we will make a big difference. It is time to prove that not all of those with healthy political views are losers in Belarus. Let’s do something, and let’s do it together.

  • From the blogs...

    So Poland is facing a “Labour shortage”...

    From: Edward Lucas
    True, in that Polish employers can’t find the staff they need at the wage they can afford to pay. There is also a “shortage” of large houses in central London that I can buy on a journalist’s salary. There is a “shortage” of luxury sports cars, Rembrandts, Caribbean islands…you name it.

    The truth is that life is full of things that are not available at the price we would like to pay—or that we have got used to paying.

    The market has a partial answer to this. It is a fair bet that if Polish hospitals paid American salaries, it would be no problem to attract plenty of nurses, doctors, technicians and cleaners.

    But of course the state (or rather the Polish taxpayer) cannot afford to solve the problem just with money.

    Neither can Polish private-sector employers. Particularly in lower-skilled sectors, they are increasingly finding that the wages needed to attract enough workers are not matched by those workers’ productivity.

    So what to do? Imagine a maths teacher in Poland earning ˆ500 a month, considering moving to Britain. The chance of earning ?2,000 a month is one reason to move. Others include: quality of public services; quality of management and workplace relations; prospects for training; leisure opportunities; optimism about the future.

    At the moment, all of these count against Poland, creating a “premium” for living and working in, say, Britain and a “discount” for staying at home.

    As a Briton, I am not proud of my country’s health, education, transport, policing and other public services. They are run-down, badly managed, overcrowded and complacent. Still, I recognise that compared to most post-communist countries, they are pretty good. If you get ill in Britain, the National Health Service offers world-class medical care for free. That is not the case in Poland.

    Then comes the quality of life at work. Polish employers—especially in the public sector—have largely missed the management revolution of the past 40 years. Information is guarded jealously; status counts for a lot; initiative is discouraged, or even punished. “A boss is someone in a big office who shouts at people”. I personally don’t find British management particularly good (compared, say to the way Scandinavian companies are run). There are authoritarian, secretive, temperamental bosses. But I reckon they are rarer than in Poland.

    Then there is relationships with colleagues. Britain, along with some other north European countries scores highly in polls about “public trust”. Relations in the British workplace tend to be amiable—more so, perhaps, than in a large Polish bureaucracy.

    Next comes education. Polish employers tend to be rather poor investors in their staff. In Britain, particularly in the public sector, on-the-job training is part of the system. It doesn’t work very well (indeed a lot of it is a complete waste of money) but it does offer room for an ambitious newcomer to learn some more skills. Rather more importantly, Living in Britain is like taking thousands of hours of free-of-charge language lessons. Poles who work in shops or restaurants quickly polish their accent, stretch their vocabularly and improve their understanding of the world’s most important business language. You don’ tget that at home.

    Living abroad is more fun, too. London is probably the most interesting city in the world. Polish cities are great, but they don’t compare. Polish small towns can be pretty dull (which gets back to the poor state of public services). Even a small provincial British town will have more in the way of nightlife, sports facilities. Particularly for young people, that matters

    Finally, there is the question of optimism. People will put up with a lot if they think that life is going to improve. If they feel pessimistic about their country, or their own chances there, they tend to be more willing to consider radical changes, such as moving abroad. Despite Poland’s strong economic growth rate, robust democracy and strong international alliances, the country’s incompetent and quarrelsome politicians have failed to communicate to the voters a feeling that Poland is on the right track.

    Put all these factors together, and it is easy to see why Polish public services are finding it hard to keep staff. They offer ill-paid badly managed jobs with few prospects, where connections matter more than talent. Quality of life inside and outside the workplace leaves a lot to be desired. Prospects elsewhere are bright. As the brightest and best people leave, conditions become steadily less attractive for those left behind.

    That is the bad news. The good news is that all these problems are soluble. Polish public services could improve sharply if they were better managed. 20 years since the collapse of communism, it is astonishing that so many are run without the interests of the “customers”—ie the patients, pupils, and other citizens—in mind. Estonia has revolutionised its public services by a mixture of decentralisation, liberalisation (meaning competition) and most of all e-government. It is remarkable that a country as poor and backward as Georgia has been willing to take the Estonian example on board, and launch its own radical public-sector reforms, and Poland has shown so little interest in the subject.

    Good public services are not just attractive to their users. They also find it easier to attract and keep good staff. Teachers like working in a well-run school. A good school makes every parent in the locality think twice about wanting to work abroad.

    Poland stands before an important choice. Either it makes a serious effort to make itself attractive for its own people: not just paying them decent salaries, but offering high-quality public services, if not immediately, but at least as a realistic prospect in the coming years. The aim is to tempt tens of thousands of migrants who have left provisionally to come back, enriching the country with their newly acquired skills, languages, outlook and experience. This is already happening to some extent in the private sector: people who have made some money abroad are coming home to pursue business opportunities that they have spotted. But it is not yet happening in a big way in the public sector.

    If Poland fails to do this, it faces a much bleaker prospect: a vicious circle of declining public services where the best people leave, the management worsens, and quality of life for everyone declines. The example of southern Italy shows what problems bad government can create: entrenched corruption, depopulation and hopelessness.

    Only Poland can solve this problem. European Union structural funds make the solution easier, but they do not substitute for the political will and imagination needed. Democratic pressure over the past 20 years has not really persuaded politicians that this matters. But now millions of people are voting in a different way: with their feet. That should signal the urgency of the task.

    Kasparov Fires another Wicked Broadside: At last, he's out of his Shell! Hooray!!

    From: La Russophobe
    The EU Observer reports that dissident leader Garry Kasparov has lauched another furious verbal barrage at the Kremlin, continuing his much more aggressive rhetorial stance begun after his detention prior to the Samara "Other Russia" action. Way to go, Garik! Keep it up! We're right there with you all the way!

    Russian chess master turned dissident Gary Kasparov warned Europe that its giant eastern neighbour is heading for a "political crisis" by the end of the year, while urging the EU and G7 states not to give Putin propaganda ammunition.

    "The gap between rich and poor is growing...political instability is growing, as the Russian elite doesn't know who will take power in 2008. These developments are pointing to a serious political crisis at the end of this year," Mr Kasparov said. His remarks, made at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (23 May), depict Putin's Russia as an ideology-free "corporation" with policies designed only to enrich the nomenklatura, no matter what the cost to ordinary Russians or international relations.

    The Russian president in state-owned media portrays himself as having 70 percent popularity, rebuilding post-Soviet Russia as a petro-based superpower and playing a positive, counter-balancing role to "unipolar" US imperialism in areas like the Middle East.

    Meanwhile, Mr Kasparov says Russian oligarch capital is fleeing west amid fears of a redistribution of wealth after Russia's March 2008 presidential elections; popular disenchantment is growing and Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran are fueling Middle East conflicts.

    "If the US administration exercised the same [media] control, Bush would have 70 percent also," he explained. "The regime needs high oil prices, instability in the Middle East is keeping oil prices high."

    "In 1989 there were a few hundred people on the streets. In 1990, a few thousand. In 1991 [when the Soviet Union collapsed] there were hundreds of thousands," Mr Kasparov recalled. "On the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg [in April] we had a few thousand."

    The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected the Kasparov line, denying that it sells sensitive arms technology to rogue states. It has also highlighted the fact Mr Kasparov's opposition rallies attract far-right and far-left groups, and questioned the chess genius' political nous.

    "He's a better chess player than he is a politician," the Russian envoy to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, once told EUobserver.

    But the Kasparov picture is also matched by other reports: BBC journalists talk of mansions being built outside Moscow while basic social welfare services lapse. The International Energy Agency says under-investment in infrastructure could see massive gas shortages hit around 2010.

    The book "Putin's Russia" by murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya also paints a sad picture of the Russian army: drunk colonels shooting civilians in Chechnya with impunity; nuclear submarine captains unable to feed their families due to unpaid wages.

    "Russia is run on the basis of 'output legitimacy' - Putin is not interested in democracy, but he has promised energy rents will bring social benefits," UK-based European Council on Foreign Relations analyst Nicu Popescu said. "If after 2010 there is no output legitimacy and no democratic legitimacy there could be a crisis."

    "It's difficult to predict when this will happen, but economic and political trends are pointing in this direction. It might not be this year, it might be three or four years from now," he added.

    The G8 circus

    Mr Kasparov - in Strasbourg at the personal invitation of European Parliament president Hans-Gert Poettering - noted the EU has hardened its criticism of Russia in recent months, with harsh words from EU leaders at the Samara summit last week.

    "Those were not words spoken from abroad, those were words criticising Putin spoken in Russia, and that made them very valuable," he said. "The EU must stand for democracy and human rights and not apply double standards."

    But with the G8 summit on 6 June in Germany fast-approaching, he also recalled the positive publicity given to Putin at last year's G8 summit in St Petersburg - an event remembered for a flashy reception at a Czarist-era palace and empty promises on energy security.

    "Kremlin propaganda tries to portray Putin as part of the global democratic environment," Mr Kasparov said. "Ordinary Russians were puzzled to see him side-by-side with world leaders and at the same time hearing from us, that Putin violates basic democratic principles."

    How Many Words is This One Worth?

    From: Publius Pundit
    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called President Alexander Lukashenko a close friend Monday, and Lukashenko returned the compliment by saying Belarus was "ready for cooperation in all directions." Ahmadinejad met with Lukashenko at the start of a two-day trip to Belarus that was to include the signing of a car deal, a tour of the national library and a visit with members of the Iranian Diaspora. Ahmadinejad, who was greeted by an honor guard at Lukashenko's administrative headquarters, said stronger ties between Iran and Belarus would be good for global security. "We have a huge potential [for cooperation] in the long term," Ahmadinejad said in televised comments, speaking through an interpreter. "The strengthening of relations between Belarus and Iran fosters support for regional and global security." Ahmadinejad said he considered Lukashenko one of his best friends, the Belarussian leader's press service said.

    Polonophobia: it's not a phobia

    From: beatroot
    Since psychologist George Weinberg first described, in 1969, what is basically a politically and culturally produced prejudice as homophobia, the term has slowly grown in acceptance. The EU has even passed a resolution describing a whole country - Poland - as homophobic (i.e. ‘Polish homophobia’).

    Due to the success of this term, anyone who finds a point of view objectionable simply labels it ‘a phobia’ - an irrational psychological response.

    It all started of course with xenophobia; then came homophobia; then Polonophobia (Poles are not immune to this nonsense either); more recently we have Islamophobia; as a reaction to that we now have Christophobia (yawwwwn) and Judophobia (I mean – we used to have a perfectly good word for that: anti-Semitism).

    How to de-politicize a prejudice in one easy step – label it a mental disorder.

    Sociologist Frank Furedi demonstrates here how the rise of the ‘phobia’ term coincides with the growth of ‘therapy culture’ in the West and lists five good reasons why politically progressive people should not be using this word.

    Me, I'm getting phobo-phobic.

    Burton's Babylonic Blunder

    From: Vilhelm Konnander
    We will cleanse Russia of all non-Russians! This was the message relayed in print on British Burton menswear store's new T-shirt, The Guardian reports. Had it not been for an attentive language student, Britons in the thousands might have gone around proclaiming Russian racist propaganda. Instead, Burton realised the blunder and quickly withdrew the shirts.

    Language difficulties have caused a lot of misunderstandings throughout human history. The ancient Greek called people of foreign tongue barbarians, as they thought other languages sounded as a constant bar-bar. In biblical mythology, God prevents man from building the tower of Babel by introducing a variety of tongues among the hubristic constructors. Hence, the term Babylonic, to signify language confusion.

    That language difficulties occasionally cause misunderstandings even today is far from uncommon. Usually, however, mistakes are rather harmless. This time, though, a major clothes retailer unknowingly distributed a grossly racist product. The grey Burton T-shirt in question centred the Russian double eagle with Orthodox cross surrounded by the text "Î÷èñòèì Ðóñü îò âñåõ íåðóññêèõ!" (We will cleanse Russia from all non-Russians!). Wearing a T-shirt like this would be illegal in Russia and could possibly lead to police arrest. Let's but hope no poor ignorant British tourist in Moscow or St. Petersburg has ended up in such a predicament.

    Though, as a Swede, one should perhaps not be so cocky about inappropriate brand or product names. Swedish furniture manufacturer IKEA is infamous for its stupid naming policy. Would anyone buy a desk called "Jerker", a workbench called "Fartfull", or a chair called "Beslut"? Actually, people do and IKEA somehow gets away with it as part of their clean an innocent Scandinavian image. However, this is not something Burton did with its racist T-shirt, and rightly so. Hopefully, Burton will now have the sense to hire a language expert for future deliveries.

  • Sport...

    More impressive throwing in Belarus

    From: EU Athletics
    The University Games of Belarus which were held in the Staiki Sport Centre from 17 to 19 May provided a good chance to the nation's top athletes to compete in the open events. The best results came in the throwing events, the country's most competitive disciplines.

    Darya Pchelnik of Grodno scored her third consecutive victory in the women's Hammer Throw which she took with a 70.04m effort. The new University Games champion defeated last year's national leader Oksana Menkova into second (69.20m) with Alena Matoshka taking third at 68.78m.

    In the men's Hammer Throw World silver medallist Vadim Devyatovskiy, above, came out on top with a best attempt of 78.21m.

    "The circle was slippery after the rain," said Devyatovskiy. "Therefore it was difficult to stay on my legs. In one of the attempts the hammer flew to about 81.5 metres but landed just outside the sector. However, I am glad that such throw took place and my physical form is rising."

    Andrey Vorontsov was second with 76.32m while Yury Shayunou, still a junior came third with 73.09m.

    Irina Yatchenko, twice Olympic bronze medallist bettered her best of the season by one and a half metre. In her fourth attempt, she threw the disk beyond the 61m line. (61.14m).

    As Yatchenko was entered as an open competitor the Games title went to young Hanna Mazgunova, former Brel, the 2007 European Cup Winter Throwing bronze medallist. Her best effort was measured at 59.60m.

    European Indoor silver medallist, Pavel Lyzhyn took the Shot Put title. He sent the put beyond 19m four times with a best effort measured at 19.46m. His colleague from Mogilyov Jury Belov scored the same result, but had a worse second best effort and had to be content with silver.

    Lyzhyn also took gold in the discus with 61.72m.

    In the women's Shot Put Yuliya Leantsiuk won with 18.16m. The women's 400m Hurdles went to Yulyana Yushchanka (51.71) while 22-year-old Mikalai Shubianok established a personal best 8028 points to win the men's Decathlon. In the Heptathlon Natalia Tanana was crowned the new champion with 5436 points.

  • Endnote...

    Belarus, Russia Exhibits Arms

    From: Breaking News
    Belarus special forces soldiers demonstrate the ability to break concrete slates with their foreheads, at the opening of the the 4th international exhibition of arms and military hardware, the Milex 2007, in Minsk, Tuesday, May 22, 2007.

    Over 100 enterprises and firms from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and other countries displayed their products at the Milex 2007 exhibition, which was opened Tuesday in Minsk, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.