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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Belarus receives $1.5B from Russia, Schengen zone enlarges, China, Missiles, Activists, Gas, Culture and Sport

  • From the Top...
  • #268

  • Note: Due to an extraordinary lack of interesting stories concerning the beautiful and interesting Republic of Belarus, the Wednesday, December 26, 2007 edition of The BEING HAD Times has been waved. With great apologies to its many readers, there is literally nothing to report other than that there is nothing new to report. The BHTimes will return with a new edition this Sunday and in the meantime, Being Had wishes all of its readers the very best for this holiday season.

    Russia gives $1.5bn state credit to Belarus

    From: BelTA
    The presidents of Belarus and Russia, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin, signing a joint statement on 14 December, following their talks in Minsk
    Russia has given a $1.5 billion state credit to Belarus. Finance Minister of Belarus Nikolai Korbut and Vice Premier, Finance Minister of Russia Aleksei Kudrin signed the corresponding intergovernmental agreement in Moscow on December 20.

    Aleksei Kudrin told media, the credit is provided for 15 years at Libor plus 0.75% per annum, with the payments postponed by five years. According to the official, at present Libor stands at around 5%. “The credit’s interest rate is market-based, however, it takes into account relations between Belarus and Russia within the framework of the Union State,” he said. Aleksei Kudrin also remarked, Russia supported Belarus by issuing the credit and the credit was issued under terms advantageous for Belarus.

    He qualified the credit as stabilising. “The money will help ensure Belarus’ trade turnover with Russia and other countries,” said the Russian Federation Finance Minister.

    Both Aleksei Kudrin and Nikolai Korbut confirmed, Belarus would receive the money as early as December 31, 2007.

    In turn, the Finance Minister of Belarus noted, the need for the credit had been brought about by growing energy prices. He underscored, the money would be used taking into account the nature the need for the credit had arisen from. He also said, the Belarusian side would pay out the credit and the interest on time.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Schengen zone enlarges on Dec. 21

    From: BelTA
    New member states of the Schengen zone include Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Malta.

    Today the states parties to the Schengen Agreement include Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

    The date for lifting internal border control for land and sea-borders is December 21, 2007 and for air borders - – March 30, 2008.

    As BelTA has been told in the European Commission in Brussels, a Schengen visa issued by a diplomatic mission of one of these countries is valid in all member-states.

    New member states will start issuing Schengen visas on 21 December 2007. The conditions will be the same as for the Schengen visas issued by the present Schengen member states.

    The EC officials further said that third-country nationals subject, from Belarus as well, has to apply for visas at the consulate of the Schengen state of his/her main destination (main reason for the visit or the longest visit in case of visiting more than one state). If the state of main destination cannot be determined (intention to make visits of equal length in different member states), the application has to be submitted to the consulate of the state of first entry.

    Third country nationals can travel with one Schengen visa within the whole Schengen area including new member states. The abolition of internal border checks does not affect the exercise of security checks on persons carried out at ports and airports, the EC noted.

    A Schengen visa for Belarusians will cost EUR 60. According to EC officials, in individual cases, the price may be reduced or waived in accordance with national law when this measure serves to promote cultural interests, in the field of foreign policy, development policy or other area of vital public interest.

    Fees are waived for children under six years, school pupils, post graduate students and accompanying teachers who undertake trips for the purpose of study or educational training and for researchers carrying out scientific research.

    No fees can be charged for third country nationals who are family members of an EU citizen or of a national of the European Economic Area Agreement.

    The European Commission underscored that national short-stay visa remains valid even after 21 December 2007; however, it will be valid only for stay in the territory of the member state which issued that visa. However, during a transitional period, until June 21, 2008 such a national short-stay visa issued by one of the member states joining the Schengen area allows for transit through the territory of the other member states joining the Schengen area, except for transits through the territory of Estonia and Lithuania.

    Answering a question concerning the upcoming introduction of biometric visas the EC officials said that the so called Visa Information System (VIS) which will store the biometric data of the applicants is not yet in function. After the adoption of the legal basis around the beginning of the next year, and after the implementation of the system by the Member States, the roll out of the VIS will take place on a regional basis that still has to be decided that time. (The embassy of France to Belarus is taking biometric data as pilot project. Biometric visas in Minsk are issued by the embassy of Great Britain, but this country is not part of the Schengen area and does not apply the Schengen visa rules).

    Belarus hands over note on provisional bilateral agreement on mutual trips of citizens to Poland

    On December 20, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Poland Pavel Latushko handed over a note to the Polish side on the provisional bilateral agreement on mutual trips of citizens.

    The document alters the visa regime requirements as Poland joins the Schengen agreements, BelTA has been told in the Embassy of Poland in Minsk. In line with the new document, citizens of Belarus and Poland, independently of the place of permanent residence, need visas to enter, exit, visit or go transit through the territory of the other state.

    The authorized bodies of one side give citizens of the other country visas valid for 180 days within one year since the first entry (90 days within six months). The agreement also envisages an opportunity to give long-term visas (up to one year), many-time visas for the trips to visit close relatives, participants of exchanges between government bodies, for drivers and members of the crew of the vehicles transporting international cargo, railway personnel.

    In line with the agreement, visas will be issued within five office days, in emergency cases – within three days and immediately to the citizens whose relatives or family members get ill or die.

    As from December 22, 2007, consular services of Belarus to Poland will charge consular duties: EUR 10 for a transit visa, EUR 25 for one-time visa, EUR35 for two-time visa, EUR 60 for many-time visa (for the term of stay of 90 days). Fees are waived for children under six years, school pupils, post graduate students and accompanying teachers who undertake trips for the purpose of study or educational training and for researchers carrying out scientific research and also for participants of cultural, sci-tech and sports events.

    Belarus has taken a decision that the requirement to have a transit visa for Polish citizens going tot eh CIS states, PRC and Mongolia through Belarus will enter into force on January 1, 2008.

    During a meeting in the Foreign Ministry of Poland, the Belarusian side proposed again to start negotiations on signing an agreement on trips of people, living in frontier regions which would impose simplified rules of crossing the Belarusian-Polish border for residents of the frontier regions of the two countries.

    Belarus needs to integrate into transnational corporations, Mikhail Myasnikovich says

    From: BelTA
    To improve living standards and encourage highly-qualified professionals to stay in the country, Belarus needs to integrate more actively into transnational corporations, Chairman of the Presidium of the Belarusian National Academy of Sciences Mikhail Myasnikovich told BelTA.

    “When participating in such corporations we turn into partners from competitors. We get access to more sale markets, experience, an opportunity to improve professionalism due to probation courses and specialists exchange,” he said. It concerns all the branches of the industry, science and education. 2008 can become a critical period for rapid economic growth. So, there is a need to implement structural reforms and diversify the economy and promote integration.

    “If we talk about the leveling of working conditions and wages with those in the neighboring countries, we should create all the prerequisites for efficient work of specialists in the country,” Mikhail Myasnikovich noted. It concerns not only scientists but blue-collar workers.
    Diversification in Belarus means reduction of the share of energy-and material intensive products. The energy security concept identifies a big set of measures aimed at slimming the GDP energy intensity. However this is not the only decisive factor in forming the prime cost and price of a product. The matter concerns the reduction of material capacity of the products in general. Thus the traditional economy should be reformed seriously to reduce material capacity as the volume of material resources shrinks with every year. “We need to involve more actively intellectual resources and increase the share of high-technology products in the GDP,” Mikhail Myasnikovich said.

    As an example of such projects he cited the special legal regime of the High-Tech Park (HTP). Even with the privileges given to HTP residents, the state derives high profits from their activity all the same. This year the exports of the Park will amount to $50 million. “This is a net surplus comparable to some branches and export-oriented companies,” Mikhail Myasnikovich said.

    Speaking about the targets of the 2008 socio-economic development forecast, Mikhail Myasnikovich said that they are very ambitious but the forecast is quite well-balanced. It will be difficult to implement it by using traditional methods. The economic entities need to work hard on implementing structural reforms on the micro-level and on the level of economic branches and the national economy in general. “The potential of traditional approaches has been used. The innovation path is the platform which will help achieve goods results both in 2008 and next years,” Mikhail Myasnikovich said.

    In 2008 agricultural producers support fund to provide financing to tune of Br2 263.8bn

    From: BelTA
    In 2008 the fund for the support of producers of agricultural goods, foodstuffs and agrarian science of Belarus will provide financing to the tune of Br2 263.8 billion. By his decree No 658 the President of Belarus approved the areas and volumes of the utilisation of the financial means of the fund in 2008.

    As BelTA learnt from the presidential press service, it is 20.8% more than stipulated in the governmental village revival programme fir 2005-2010. The document, which will come into force on January 1, 2008, is aimed at enhancing efficiency of the utilisation of the financial assets of the fund and ensuring reasonable control over its expenditures.

    Some 93% of the financial means will be injected in the regional actions. The rest 7% will be utilised by the Ministry of Agriculture and Foodstuffs for financing republican actions.

    It is noteworthy that virtually all actions aimed at developing the production sphere in the rural area, stipulated in the governmental programme, will be financed by the fund.

    The decree is a good basis for stepping up the agricultural production and enhancing efficiency of the performance of agricultural companies, the press service informs.

    Belarus to continue negotiating beet sugar supplies with Russia in 2008

    Belarus will continue negotiating beet sugar supplies with Russia in 2008, BelTA learnt from Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Ivan Bambiza. According to him, the matter concerns the agreement on the supply of 100 thousand tonnes of beet sugar to Russia reached by Belarus and Russia in March this year.

    “Belarus’ position is that all agreement obligations should be fulfilled,” the Vice-Premier underlined. According to him, the talks on further increasing supplies of sugar in 2008 are held by top managers of Belgospischeprom Concern. The sides have not reached an agreement on supplying sugar over 100 thousand tonnes yet,” he noted. The Russian side says that its domestic market has been saturated with beet sugar and it intends to protect the interests of the national manufacturers.

    “We take into account all these arguments,” Ivan Bambiza underlined. ‘It is a purely economic and pragmatic approach to the production of beet sugar on the part of both the Belarusian and Russian sides”, he underlined.

    Belarus needs to increase agricultural production by 9-10%, Nadezhda Kotkovets says

    In 2008 Belarus needs to increase agricultural production by 9-10% as against 2007, 1st Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Foodstuffs Nadezhda Kotkovets told a session of the Board of the Ministry of Agriculture and Foodstuffs.

    In 2008, agricultural companies need to produce 5.2 million tonnes of milk (500 thousand tonnes up as against 2007), 1.2 million tonnes of meat (100 thousand tonnes up). The existing capacities do not allow them to achieve these results, so there is a need to continue the work on technical re-equipment of agricultural production, Nadezhda Kotkovets noted.

    According to her, there is a need to increase milk productiveness to reach milk yield up to 4250 kg on each cow. Agricultural companies need to grow cereals production up to 35 centners per hectare, potato production – up to 188 centners per hectare, flax – up to 9 centners per hectare.

    The adopted measures on production intensification will allow the agricultural sector to implement targets in 2008, Nadezhda Kotkovets noted.

  • From the international press...

    Chinese ambassador: China-Belarus ties grow at faster pace

    From: China View
    China-Belarus relations have been growing steadily in recent years and their development is now gathering momentum, marked by increased pragmatic cooperation between the two countries, the Chinese ambassador said here on Friday.

    "Since China and Belarus established diplomatic ties 15 years ago, mutual trust has been strengthened and bilateral cooperation has yielded fruitful fruits in many areas." said Wu Hongbin, China's ambassador to Belarus.

    During Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to Belarus in November, China agreed to provide loans totaling 500 million U.S. dollars for the construction of cement plants in Belarus, making the loan project the largest of its kind in the Commonwealth of Independent States region, Wu told Xinhua in an interview.

    "In 2006, two-way trade between China and Belarus reached 660 million U.S. dollars, and the figure is expected to exceed 1 billion in 2007, " Wu said.

    Apart form the economic field, China and Belarus have also expanded cooperation and exchanges in cultural and other areas.

    A growing number of Chinese students are going to Belarus for further studies, and plans are under way for more exchanges between the two countries' youths, Wu said.

    Belarussian people have shown great interest in China and the Chinese culture, he said.

    Cultural events such as youth concerts and silk exhibitions sponsored by the Chinese embassy drew large audiences in Belarus, Wu said, adding that the embassy is planning a Chinese Tea Festival at the beginning of 2008.

    Russia considering further US$2 billion credit for Belarus

    From: IHT
    Russia will consider extending a new loan to Belarus worth US$2 billion (€1.4 billion), Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Thursday.

    Kudrin made the announcement after signing a deal to lend the ex-Soviet republic US$1.5 billion (€1 billion) to help it handle rising Russian energy prices.

    The possibility of an additional loan will add to concerns among opponents of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that he is driving the country into increasing dependence on energy-rich Russia, giving Moscow leverage over politics in the neighboring nation.

    Kudrin and his Belarusian counterpart Nikolai Korbut signed an agreement on the US$1.5 billion loan, which Russian President Vladimir Putin announced after meetings with Lukashenko during his first state visit to Belarus in several years.

    "There is an instruction from the presidents to study the possibility of providing a new credit," Kudrin said.

    He suggested a decision was likely in about a year.

    Russian news reports that Putin's visit would produce a deal allowing Putin to become leader of a merged state comprising Russia and Belarus were not borne out. But his announcement of the loan prompted concern in Belarus that Russia's influence could increase.

    Belarus depends heavily on Russian energy to fuel its largely Soviet-style, centrally managed economy.

    Following a dispute over energy prices at the beginning of the year, Russia forced Belarus to accept a doubling of gas prices this year, to US$100 (€70) per thousand cubic meters, and Russian gas monopoly OAO Gazprom said Saturday that Belarus would pay US$119 (€83) in 2008.

    Under the deal, prices are to rise to market levels_ minus the transit cost and export duties — by 2011, the year the next presidential election is scheduled in Belarus.

    The authoritarian Lukashenko, in power since 1994, pushed through a referendum in 2004 scrapping presidential term limits.

    According to Russia's state-run RIA-Novosti news agency, Belarus will receive the US$1.5 billion loan in 2007-2008 and will not have to begin paying off the principal before 2012.

    Russia considers sale of hi-tech anti-aircraft missiles to Belarus

    From: Earth Times
    Russia plans to sell some of its most sophisticated antiaircraft missiles to Belarus, Russia's ambassador said Friday. "We are prepared to sell Belarus the weapon according to the internal (reduced) pricing of the Russian market," said Aleksander Surikov, Russian Ambassador to Belarus. "Our military cooperation is developing successfully."

    Surikov said the Kremlin was planning to deliver to Minsk "several" S-400 missile systems, as part of joint air space defence planning between the two countries.

    The S-400 was first deployed in Russia in July 2007. The anti- aircraft missile is one of Moscow's most advanced, capable of shooting down aircraft at ranges up to 600 kilometres, and even intercepting incoming missiles.

    Surikov's announcement came less than a week after Russia declared it would not longer abide by a conventional forces limitation treaty signed with NATO in 1990.

    Current US plans to deploy anti-missile missiles in the Czech Republic and possibly Poland make fielding of the S-400 in Belarus "a matter of security for both countries," Surikov said.

    The positioning of the S-400 in Belarus would, in case of an armed conflict between NATO and Russia, represent a severe threat to NATO aircraft, particularly in the Baltic region.

    The Kremlin has been outspoken in its criticism of the US missile plan, calling it destabilising to the region, despite claims by the White House the project is aimed at Iranian missiles not Russian.

    Belarus took delivery of S-300 missiles from Russia last year. That system, comparable to the aging US Patriot missile system wityh a range of 140 kilometres, was introduced in Russia in the mid-1980s.

    Belarus: Activist Receives 18-Month Sentence

    From: RFE/RL
    A court in Belarus has sentenced a critic of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka who had already served a year and a half in jail to an additional 18 months of confinement.

    The move leaves little doubt as to whether a crackdown on student activists is continuing despite Western pressure to release political prisoners.

    The court, in the Belarusian court city of Mahilyov, handed down the additional time for opposition activist Artur Finkevich for allegedly violating the terms of an earlier prison sentence. Finkevich had been sentenced to two years of light confinement for "malicious hooliganism" in May 2006 for spray-painting an opposition slogan -- "We want another one!" -- on a building, in reference to authoritarian President Lukashenka.

    Finkevich's allies in the Belarusian opposition called the sentence, which was handed down on December 20, an attempt to intimidate pro-democracy activists.

    "This is criminal brutality on the part of the authorities," Mykola Statkevich, a former political prisoner, told to RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "They are trying to break Artur and to scare his friends. I'm sure that they will succeed in neither of these things, and someday the people who did it will have to answer in court themselves."

    The sentence comes shortly after another opposition activist was severely beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration in Minsk protesting a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin. It also appears to flaunt demands from the United States and European Union that Minsk release political prisoners as a condition for better relations.

    Jan Maksymiuk, acting director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, says that with Minsk's relations with Russia improving, the Belarusian authorities feel less obligated to adhere to Western demands on human rights.

    The current director of the Malady Front (Youth Front) youth group, of which Finkevich is a member, was hospitalized last week after sustaining a beating at a peaceful public rally.

    Rights activists say the sentence fits into a pattern of intimidation against pro-democracy youth activists. "This is an attempt to break him, to break his dignity," Ina Kulej, chairwoman of the Committee for the Protection of Victims of Political Repression and the wife of Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milenkevich, said. "And of course it is also a signal to the youth that [the authorities] have the means to control you."

    According to the conditions of his house arrest, Finkevich was required to live in a barracks-like detention facility, work in a day job designated by the authorities, and report to officials the facility at regular intervals.

    Prosecutors accused him of being late to work, reporting late to officials at the facility, and of being intoxicated. Finkevich said at the trial that he was on medication.

    Some of Finkevich's friends and political allies from Malady Front opposition group said they showed up at the trial expecting him to be acquitted and released. "Both girls and boys were crying [after the sentence]," activist Alena Makarevich said. "To be honest, I went there in hopes of congratulating Artur [after his expected release]. The defense lawyer said the maximum would be one year and then the prosecutor asked for two years. We are all shocked. We will file a bunch of complaints. We will not let this stand. I think there will be a campaign in Finkevich's defense and the authorities will be sorry that they have done it."

    Vice premier meets with Gazprom CEO to discuss gas supplies to Belarus

    From: Naveny
    Uladzimir Syamashka, Belarus’ first deputy prime minister, met with Aleksei Miller, CEO of Russia’s Gazprom gas giant, in Moscow on December 21 to discuss gas supplies to Belarus, Belapan reports.

    Messrs. Syamashka and Miller confirmed that Belarus and Gazprom were determined to honor their obligations under a 2007-2011 contract on gas supplies to Belarus signed late last year, Gazprom’s press office said.

    The Gazprom CEO reportedly confirmed that the company would charge Belarus $119 for 1000 cubic meters of gas in the first quarter of 2008.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed earlier this month that the price of Russian gas supplied to Belarus would change strictly according to the long-term contract.

    “There will be a rise in the price but only in the way provided for by previous contracts, despite the fact that Russia itself will buy Turkmen gas at higher prices,” the Russian president told reporters in Minsk on December 14.

    Under the five-year contract signed a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve 2006, Belarus was to pay $100 for 1000 cubic meters in 2007 compared with $46.68 in the previous two and a half years. The price is to gradually increase to the European market level by 2011. It is to be 67 percent of the level in 2008, 80 percent in 2009, 90 percent in 2010, and 100 percent in 2011.

    Opposition politician blames Belarusian government for tougher visa rules

    From: Naveny
    A deputy leader of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF) said that the Belarusian government is to blame for tougher visa rules that several European countries started applying to Belarusians after their accession to the Schengen zone on December 21.

    Nine countries, including Belarus’ neighbors Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, joined the passport-free travel zone, introducing costlier and stricter visa formalities for Belarusian applicants.

    “Unfortunately, Belarusian citizens are harmed by the authorities that are doing nothing to bring our country closer to the European Union,” Vintsuk Vyachorka, who had led the BPF until the party’s conference earlier this month, said in an interview with BelaPAN.

    Mr. Vyachorka said that “natural integration processes” were underway in Europe. “It’s a great shame that Belarus has found itself outside these processes. Moreover, we have been hit even harder than Ukraine, which conducted more active talks with the EU,” the politician noted.

    Mr. Vyachorka said that Minsk’s steps to improve relations with the EU would make it easier for Belarusians to obtain a Schengen visa and would even lead to visa-free travel between Belarus and the EU in a more distant future.

    He promised that opposition forces would work to talk the EU into securing “a freer movement for Belarusians in Europe.”

    “I believe that the EU should use a two-tier policy in relations with Belarus. On the one hand, it means a firm attitude toward the government’s democratic commitments and, on the other hand, this is an openness to the Belarusian people,” Mr. Vyachorka concluded.

    The EU has repeatedly said that Schengen visa fees can be reduced for Belarusians if Minsk takes steps toward democracy and human rights respect, and is formally involved in the European Neighborhood Policy.

    In particular, the Belarusian government has been urged to meet 12 conditions, which include, among others, free and fair elections, access to the media for the opposition, freedom of association, the supremacy of law, the release of political prisoners, and the abolition of the death penalty.

  • Cultural scene...

    Concert celebrates China & Belarus ties

    From: CCTV
    A concert brings young artists from China and Belarus together in friendship for New Year blessings. Thursday, ethnic songs and music from both countries filled the hall at the Cultural Club in Minsk, capital city of Belarus.

    The evening gala brought 130 young artists from China and Belarus to the stage, revealing their hearts and musical flair.

    Among the most impressive performances was the Chinese solo on the Pipa during" Dancing Music of Yi Ethnic Group". There was mixed ethnic chorus, as well as a piano solo and coloratura performance from Belarus.

    The concert was co-sponsored by Chinese Embassy and the Culture Ministry of Belarus, marking the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

    Wu Hongbing, Chinese ambassador to Belarus, said, "We are aiming to broaden the cultural cooperation between China and Belarus. And we will focus more on intensifying the exchange between young people of the two countries. Warm friendship between the younger generation will lay a solid foundation for development of bilateral relations between China and Belarus."

    The night wrapped up with an ensemble of performance of the Russian song " A Night at Moscow Suburb." It's an all-time favorite among Chinese people.

    Fourth Hall of Brest Fortress Defense Museum reopens after reconstruction

    From: BelTA
    On December 21, 2007, the Fourth Hall, which is dedicated to the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, reopened at Brest Fortress Defense Museum after the reconstruction, BelTA learned from the administration of the memorial.

    The exposition tells about the most tragic pages of the history of the famous citadel - valorous defense in June-July 1941, battles at Terespol and Volyn fortifications, Brest region and in the town of Brest. The exposition features personal items, orders and medals, documents of the civilians and military.

    The exposition has become bigger after the reconstruction, the staff of the museum said. Research assistants together with students of Brest Polytechnic College have renewed the finished lay-out of Brest Fortress defense. Of great interest will be the reconstructed uniform of the Red Army and Wehrmacht soldiers of the early war period, photos made by the participants of the assault, which were donated to the museum from the German private collections.

    Brest Fortress Defense Museum was founded on November 8, 1956. Then the exposition, which was created by the Garrison Officers’ Club, featured personal items, military documents and other things, which were found in the fortress ruins. For example, these were a Komsomol card of Lieutenant Alexey Naganov, one page of Order #1 listing the units and officers in charge of the fortress defense, and the famous inscription "Я умираю, но не сдаюсь. Прощай Родина!" (“I’m dying but not surrendering. Goodbye, Fatherland!”) on the wall of a casemate, a clock with frozen hands, the colours of the 393rd antiaircraft squadron.

    Initially, the exposition was comprised of just a few exponents, 13 pictures and four staff. Today it includes more than 4,000 exponents in ten topical halls. More than 20 million people from over 130 countries have visited the Museum since 1956.

  • Around the region...

    Man of the Year?

    By Gary Kasparov for the Wall Street Journal
    Former Chess champion and current opposition voice Gary Kasparov comments on Time magazine's selection of Vladamir Putin as Man of the Year.
    Ever since President Vladimir Putin took office eight long years ago, the political and media leadership of the West have had a full-time job trying to look on the bright side of Russia's rapid turn from democracy.

    The free press has been demolished, elections are canceled and rigged, and then we hear how popular Mr. Putin is. Opposition marches are crushed, and we're told -- over and over -- how much better off we are today than in the days of the Soviet Union. This week Time magazine named Mr. Putin its 2007 "Person of the Year."

    Vladimir Putin
    Unfortunately, there is no silver lining to Russia's descent into dictatorship. If anything there is a look of iron to it.

    Condoleezza Rice, hardly a Putin critic, said recently that Russia "is not an environment in which you can talk about free and fair elections." A good start, but this comment was not made where one would imagine -- perhaps at a press conference insisting that Putin's Russia be removed from the G-7 for making a mockery of democratic practices. No, her remark came as a side note to her very early endorsement of Mr. Putin's handpicked heir to the throne, Dmitry Medvedev.

    The most revealing moment in Ms. Rice's comments came when the topic of Mr. Medvedev as the next president was first broached. The official transcript reads: "SECRETARY RICE: Well, I guess, they're still going to have an election in March. "

    Perhaps my sense of humor was dulled during the five days I spent in a Moscow jail last month for protesting against these sham elections. Or maybe it was reading about the constant persecution of my fellow activists across the country that did it. Madam Secretary went on to speak approvingly of Mr. Medvedev, making the undemocratic nature of his selection sound like a minor annoyance. The last remaining element of democracy in Russia, the transition of power, will be destroyed. Will Mr. Putin and his successor still be welcomed with open arms in the club of leading democracies?

    In the early days of our opposition activities last year, when members of Other Russia were harassed and arrested, the "bright siders" in the West said it could be worse. Later, when our marchers were badly beaten in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Mr. Putin's fans in the West said at least the police weren't killing us in the streets.

    Last week, 22-year-old opposition activist Yury Chervochkin died in hospital after several weeks in a coma. He had been beaten nearly to death an hour after making an anxious cellphone call to our offices saying he was being followed by members of the organized-crime task force known as UBOP, which has become the vanguard of the Kremlin's war on political opposition. A witness saw him clubbed repeatedly by men with baseball bats.

    Yury's sin was not chanting Nazi slogans or praising the deeds of Josef Stalin, activities that regularly go unremarked in Russia these days. No, he had been caught throwing leaflets that read "The elections are a farce!" That was enough to make him a marked man. Now, for agitating for real democracy in Russia, he is dead.

    The stakes have been raised to the highest level, and what bright side will be found now? Where is the line that cannot be crossed without a serious response from the West? So far Mr. Putin hasn't found it -- and he has good reason to suspect such a line simply does not exist. It is for the leaders in Washington, D.C., Paris and Berlin to decide what it means to denounce the Russian elections as fraudulent, only to then embrace the winners as democratic partners.

    Lesser tragedies than that of Yury Chervochkin are occurring on a regular basis in Russia today. Last week journalist Natalya Morar was denied entry into the country on secret orders of the FSB security force, after writing investigative articles on financial deals with Kremlin connections. Lyudmila Kharlamova, a political organizer for Other Russia, was arrested after heroin was planted among her possessions in Orenburg. Activist Andrei Grekhov suffered a similar fate in Rostov, though the police chose to plant bullets instead of drugs in his pockets.

    This is a good opportunity to remember Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was murdered on Oct. 7, 2006, Putin's birthday. The police investigation into this infamous assassination has stalled and talk of it has died down. The Kremlin is counting on the same thing happening with "minor" cases like that of Yury Chervochkin.

    In a recent speech, Mr. Putin said "the enemies of the state must be wiped out!" It has been made quite clear that by "enemies" he means anyone who opposes his total authority. It is no surprise that his words are taken at face value across the country, and acted on by security forces eager to prove their loyalty and enthusiasm.

    The presidents and prime ministers of the West seem just as eager to bow down to the Kremlin and the great god of business as usual. Nicolas Sarkozy raced to congratulate Mr. Putin on his party's election victory, despite the overwhelming evidence of massive fraud at the polls. A few days later France's Renault picked up a 25% share in Russian automaker AvtoVaz, a purchase made from Sergei Chemezov and his arms-dealing company Rosoboronexport. Why should Mr. Putin and his oligarchs worry about democracy as long as the money keeps rolling in?

    Time magazine, of course, took obvious pains to explain that its award to Mr. Putin is "not an endorsement" and that it goes to the person who made the most news "for better or for worse." Nonetheless the article praises Mr. Putin for restoring his country to prominence in the international arena, dispelling "anarchy" and recovering national pride. The magazine does express concern about his "troubling" record on human rights.

    The same things could have been said about Adolf Hitler in 1938, when he took his turn as Time's Man of the Year. "Fascism," Time wrote then, "has discovered that freedom -- of press, speech, assembly -- is a potential danger to its own security." Again these words apply equally well to this year's winner.

    Most of the criticism leveled against Mr. Putin regards "alleged" abuses or comes directly from known critics. This abdicates the journalist's role to report the facts as facts.

    Consider the timing of this announcement, right after the counterfeit parliamentary elections that added to Mr. Putin's record of eradicating democracy across Russia. The Time article will be trumpeted by Kremlin propaganda as an endorsement of Mr. Putin's policies. The man on the street will be told that even America, constantly blasted by the Kremlin as an enemy, has been forced to recognize the president's greatness.

    Internationally, the focus will be on the myth that Mr. Putin has built a "strong Russia." In fact he and his cronies have hollowed out the state from within. Most of the power now resides in the super-corporations like Gazprom and Rosneft, and among the small group of loyalists who run them.

    The Putin regime has taken Russia from a frail democracy to an efficient mafia state. It was an impressive balancing act -- behaving like a tyrant while at the same time staying in the good graces of the West.

    After each crackdown, with no significant international reaction forthcoming, Mr. Putin knew it was safe to take another step. As ever, appeasement in the name of realpolitik only encourages would-be dictators. And such moral weakness inevitably leads to very real costs in human life.

    Russia secures Caspian gas pipeline deal

    From: Financial Times
    Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan finalised a landmark agreement yesterday to build a pipeline to transport gas to Russia, tightening Moscow's control over Central Asian gas exports.

    The deal comes at a time of intense competition for the region's rich energy resources. Dubbed Pricaspiysky, the new pipeline will skirt the east coast of the Caspian Sea carrying 20bn cubic metres a year of Turkmen and Kazakh gas north to Russia's Saratov region.

    The accord, signed in the presence of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's leader, is a setback for Europe, which is courting Caspian producers for gas supplies to reduce its dependence on Russian imports.

    Julia Nanay, of PFC Energy, said, "The agreement on this pipeline marks a strengthening of energy relations between Central Asia and Russia and fulfils one of Putin's key policy goals of tying large supplies of gas from Central Asia into the Russian system."

    Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian gas company, needs Central Asian gas to compensate for a fall in production from its Siberian fields, a decline that threatens to undermine its $37bn (€25.5bn, ?18.4bn) a year European gas export business.

    Mr Putin said the Pricaspiysky pipeline would be "a serious investment by our countries in strengthening energy security, not just in Eurasia but more widely, bearing in mind our main consumers in west Europe".

    Separately, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan plan to modernise and expand a Soviet-era pipeline, currently the only large gas export route out of landlocked Central Asia.

    Viktor Khristenko, the Russian energy minister, said the Pricaspiysky pipeline would be built by late 2010. Each republic would take responsibility for financing construction of the pipeline on their territory, he said.

    Mr Putin and Mr Nazarbayev earlier spoke by telephone with Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the Turkmen president, who came into office a year ago after the death of Sapurmurat Niyazov.

    Mr Berdymukhammedov has begun construction of a gas export pipeline to China that will end Russia's stranglehold on Turkmenistan's gas export routes by the end of 2009.

    He has also held frequent talks with western governments about a project to build a gas pipeline across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan to link up with the planned Nabucco system supplying Caspian gas to Europe. Nabucco is central to the EU's strategy to diversify gas imports away from Russia.

    Finalisation of the Pricaspiysky project, first announced in May, has been postponed several times despite intense lobbying by Russian diplomats.

    Meanwhile, Turkmenistan has persuaded Gazprom to accept a 30 per cent increase in gas prices, despite an earlier contract fixing the price at $100 per thousand cubic metres until 2009. The price will rise again to $150 per thousand cubic metres in the second half of next year.

    Analysts said it would be difficult for prospective investors in the trans-Caspian pipeline to compete with the higher price Gazprom has agreed to pay Turkmenistan.

    Quietly, the Polish-German border dissolves

    From: IHT
    As of midnight Thursday the once contentious border between Poland and Germany will be thrown open. For the most part, it has been more whimper than bang for the fall of one of the most historically fraught and violently fought over frontiers on earth.

    Traveling along the 450-odd kilometers, or about 280 miles, of the border - from the German town of Zittau in the south, where the German and Polish dividing line ends at the border of the Czech Republic, to the Polish port city of Szczecin in the north - what is most striking is the relative indifference along the way to the change.

    For centuries Poland was Europe's marching ground - when it was not dismembered and wiped off the map entirely by some combination of Germany, Austria and Russia. The Kingdom of Poland battled the Teutonic Knights as far back as the Middle Ages and memories of Hitler's Blitzkrieg storming into the country in September 1939 are still alive in the minds of the elderly and the imaginations of the young.

    Once Hitler's army was defeated, millions of Germans were forced out of major cities now in Polish territory, like Breslau, now known as Wroclaw. Cities along the rivers Neisse and Oder that form most of the border became divided towns like Frankfurt-Slubice or G?rlitz-Zgorzelec.

    That the peaceful dismantling of border posts is largely a ceremonial nonevent testifies to the quiet success of the often-criticized project of European integration. But historical grudges linger under the surface as distance and distrust are still discernible. Communities on the two sides of the rivers that form almost the entire border remain culturally and linguistically apart.

    "After the war, the cities turned away from each other," said Ryszard Bodziacki, the mayor of Slubice, which was once part of Frankfurt an der Oder, the Eastern German city not to be confused with the better-known Frankfurt am Main in the West. Bodziacki is working with his counterparts across the Oder to reintegrate the two cities, through joint work by police forces and fire brigades or by sending groups of Polish children across the river to Germany for school.

    That cooperation will be easier in practice starting Friday. The border controls are ending because Poland is officially joining the borderless zone within the European Union known as the Schengen area. It is named after the town in Luxembourg where the first agreements to open their boundaries were signed by a group of West European countries including Germany and France in 1985.

    Now Poland and eight other countries, most from the former Soviet sphere of Central and Eastern Europe, have adopted the common visa, asylum and external border procedures required for membership. The police will still perform patrols and spot checks inside their borders. But once the new members have joined, it will be possible to drive clear from Lisbon to Tallinn without taking out a passport or identity card.

    The movement east of the common border to include Ukraine and Belarus has caused jitters in Germany. The German police have attracted some attention by staging protests to warn against what they say will spell increased crime in Germany once controls at border posts cease.

    Crime gravitates toward open borders, their union representatives say, and the earnings gap between wealthier Germany and its poorer neighbors like Poland and the Czech Republic create a temptation for criminals. Josef Scheuring, chairman of the federal police union that organized the protests, said the change had happened on a political timetable.

    Politicians made decisions before the technical side, including the delayed upgrade to the Schengen information-sharing network and the harmonization of radio frequencies between the German and Polish police, could be worked out. "Greater Europe will only be accepted by the people if it is safe," said Scheuring.

    Poles could be forgiven for bristling at the grumblings in Germany. With seeming unanimity they say they view their country's entry into the borderless zone as a mark of great pride and proof that they have achieved an equal footing with their partners to the west.

    "This border is well protected," said Andrzej Adamczyk, deputy director of the Polish border guard's border-management office. He pointed out that European Union officials had approved their work, which included major investments in night-vision technology, mounted cameras and new border vehicles.

    To the extent that the fall of the border has been followed in the German media, it has been largely scare stories of people in the border regions installing metal shutters, putting up barbed wire and even buying guns. But talking to locals along the way, the fortifiers seem to be a vocal minority rather than part of a popular groundswell.

    "It's reasonable to let people live and travel freely," said Christian Pfeiffer, 30, a psychologist, who was out with friends at a Christmas market in the German border town of G?rlitz. One of them, an avid kayaker, added that the benefit to him would be coming to shore on either side of the Neisse, which forms the boundary between the countries there, without breaking the law.

    The border is by now just a minor nuisance, crossed easily by Germans and Poles for cheaper gasoline or cigarettes, or to go to work. Citizens of countries in the European Union already pass through the soon-to-be-closed checkpoints with little more than a flash of the identity card in most cases, and no passport is necessary. Lines can back up at times, especially for trucks on major transit routes such as the highway a few kilometers south of the twin cities of Frankfurt an der Oder and Slubice.

    "I think it's a good thing. There won't be any queues," said Monika Kraska, 22, a hairdresser in Slubice. Germans clients visit the tiny hair salon where she works for inexpensive haircuts - just 12 zlotys, or about $4.75, for a simple men's haircut. Kraska said she crossed over to shop in the fancier clothing stores on the German side in Frankfurt an der Oder several times a week, but never hung out or went to clubs there.

    Notably absent from the discussion is the long-expressed fear that Poles will come and take German jobs. When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Germany left significant legal hurdles in place to prevent their neighbors from coming to work.

    Instead ambitious, highly mobile Polish workers moved in droves to more welcoming parts of Western Europe, Britain and Ireland in particular, where they have been credited with fueling economic growth, passing Germany by - and especially its poorer, depopulating East - on the way.

    Polish Rapist Who Escaped Iceland Caught

    From: Iceland Review
    A Polish citizen, who is suspected of having raped a woman in Selfoss, south Iceland, and breached a travel ban issued upon him by leaving the country on December 5, was caught on the border between Poland and Germany by the Polish police on Monday.

    The Icelandic state requested the suspect be extradited to Iceland, but Polish authorities have denied their request, based upon Polish law stating that their own citizens cannot be extradited to other countries, Morgunbladid reports.

    The suspect was able to leave Iceland because the police in Selfoss failed to notify the police in Sudurnes, where Keflav?k International Airport is located, that the man was not permitted to travel out of the country.

    Police in Selfoss believe another Polish citizen, also suspected of having participated in the rape, has left Iceland as well. They were both reported wanted in the Schengen area.

    Widzew Lodz and Zaglebie Lubin football clubs named in corruption scandal

    From: The News
    Two Polish football clubs Widzew L?dz and Zaglebie Lubin have heard charges of fixing match results for bribes in a high profile corruption case.

    The allegations are in respect of the seasons four years ago when the teams played in the Polish second league.

    According to the evidence in possession of the Prosecutor’s Office in Wroclaw, Zaglebie Lubin is guilty of setting up 9 games in the 2003/04 season, when the club made its way to the first league.

    Widzew L?dz is guilty of the same in the 2004/05 season, having illegally arranged results of 12 matches. In that season, the L?dz team nearly achieved promotion to the first league, but lost against Odra Wodzislaw in the play-offs.

    “We have invited representatives of Widzew and Zaglebe for the next hearing on 3 January 2008 to provide explanations. A verdict should not be expected before January 10”, says Robert Zawlocki, Polish Football Association (PZPN) deputy, quoted on the web site.

  • Sport...

    Dashinski wins men's aerials at freestyle World Cup

    From: China View
    Dmitri Dashinski of Belarus beat Olympic champion Han Xiaopeng of China to win the title of the men's aerials at the freestyle FIS World Cup in Changchun, China on Saturday.

    Dashinski collected 247.23 points from two jumps for the top place, 6.13 points ahead of Han, the silver medallist.

    Steve Omischl, the defending overall World Cup champion and the winner in Friday's opening event, slipped to the third place with 237.60.

    In the airials competition, Belarusian Anton Kushnir put up a score of 237,33 to place second in the season-opening World Cup freestyle aerials competition Friday at Lianhua Mountain, China. He was just 10,22 points behind the winner Steve Omischl of Canada. Han Xiaopeng of China (236.11) finished third. Dmitry Daschinsky, the other Belarusian entry, came in 5th.

    Alla Tsuper from Belarus placed 8th in the women’s event. The gold went to Jacqui Cooper of Australia. The 2007 world silver winner Assol Slivets from Belarus did not compete in the event due to an injury.

    Belarus’ NOC supports IOC in its efforts to strengthen Olympic movement, President says

    Alexander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus and President of the National Olympic Committee of Belarus /NOC/ congratulated President of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge and Presidents of the Associations of the National and European Olympic Committees Vazquez Rana and Patrick Hickey on Christmas and New Year, BelTA learnt from the presidential press service.

    The incoming year will be marked with the Olympic Games in Beijing. The popularisation of sport and physical culture for the sake of health of the nation is one of guidelines of the policy pursued by the Belarusian state, Alexander Lukashenko noted.

    The National Olympic Committee of Belarus strongly supports efforts of the International Olympic Committee aimed at strengthening the Olympic movement and propagandizing its ideals, the message reads.

  • Endnote...

    Belarus Is Sold To Russia For $3.5 Billion

    From: American Chronical
    --$1.5 billion? $2.0 billion? $3.5 billion? Going once. Going twice. Sold to a gentleman in the front raw – “Time” magazine Person of the Year 2007 – Future Czar of Russia & Belarus, Mr. Putin.

    On December 20th, 2007 in Moscow, Belarus and Russia has signed an agreement on granting Belarus a state credit of 1.5 billion dollars. The document has been signed by Belarusian Finance Minister Nikolai Korbut and Russian vice Prime Minister, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. Also Russia is considering a possibility to lend 2 billion dollars more in the year 2008.

    In spite of the Deputy Economy Minister of Belarus Oleg Melnikov’s statements (he is in charge of privatization issues) at a press-conference in Minsk that “Russia’s decision to grant Belarus a $1.5 billion stabilization loan is not subject to Russians’ claims to Belarusian public property and any large-scale, massive sales of property to Russian investors are not expected.”,-- there is a strong (100%?) probability that the most profitable Belarusian enterprises will be sold to Russian owners in the near future. As always everything will be done under the table and totally uninformed Belarusian public would not even notice that the owners have been changed and the whole country of more than 10 million people is sold to new Russian oligarchs. Why is that?

    Simple. The president of Russia was never elected by the people of Russia, he was appointed by Boris Eltsin (former president). The president of Belarus was elected democratically by the people of Belarus 13 years ago, but he re-elected himself twice in 1999 and 2006 by killing the other opposition candidates (former Interior Minister general Yury Zakharenko and the other candidate for Belarusian presidency Viktor Gonchar, 1999) or putting a new presidential candidate to jail (Aleksandr Kozulin, 2006) and falsifying the results. According to western democratic standards basically both of the presidents are illegitimate and they do not care about their people. Both of them care only about two things: power & money for their clans.

    Nobody knows about what both presidents were talking for seven hours behind closed doors till 5:30 am on December 14, 2007 in Minsk during the official visit of the president of Russia to Belarus (Dec. 13-14, 2007). Probably, they were both discussing how to keep power forever? Probably, they were both exchanging ideas how to keep opposition in jail during the presidential elections in Russia 2008? Probably, they were both talking over how to sell Air Defense Systems

    C-400 all over the world? Or, probably, they were tossing around the idea to make Belarus a nuclear state again?

    Anyway, probably, sleeping Belarusians one day will wake up in Russia. Because the country is sold in secret for $3.5 billion already and nobody even knows about it.

    Good night, Belarus. Happy dreams to you.

  • Endnote II...

    President wishes Merry Christmas to the Christians of Belarus celebrating this holiday on 25 December

    From: The office of the president

    Dear compatriots,

    I cordially wish you a Merry Christmas.

    This great holiday unites and brings together families, generations and peoples seeking spiritual transformation and renewal, wishing to share cordiality with each other.

    For millions of people Christmas is an everlasting symbol of purity, sincerity, humanity and mercy. On these wonderful Christmas days our hearts get imbued with faith, hope and compassion which inspire us to do good, help everyone who needs it.

    May Christmas give you strength to make your biggest dreams and plans come true. May the upcoming year give you the joy of new achievements, may it bring tranquility, mutual understanding, wellbeing and love to every home.

    I wish you excellent health, success in your activities, happiness and peace.

    Alexander Lukashenko