Constitution Day, European relations, Opposition, Russian Gas, Somalia, Small business, Polish scandal, Sports and Opinion
Belarus president’s congratulation on Constitution Day
March 15 has a special place not only in the red-letter calendar, but also in the historic chronicle of Belarus. This day saw the Constitutional Law of our country passed — the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.
The new Constitution of the young state has become a reliable basis for accomplishing consistent political, social and economic reforms. Dominating principles of the state sovereignty, the most important directions of the independent home and foreign policies have been legislatively secured.
The Constitution has laid a solid legal foundation for building a genuinely democratic state in Belarus. The principles of grass-roots democracy, the supremacy of law, division of powers, and social justice declared by the Constitution have become the present day reality.
The Constitutional Law of the Republic of Belarus is an important factor for consolidating our society, preserving the civil accord, peace and stability.
I am confident, relying on the Constitution, we will be able to withstand any trials with dignity and obtain a high European living standard of the Belarusian nation.
I extend my heartiest congratulations to you, my fellow Belarusians, on the Constitution Day. May this holiday always give us strength and confidence in reaching the stated goals of building up the statehood of dear Belarus.
I wish you good health, prosperity, happiness and optimism!
President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko
Belarus president awarded Star of Archangel Michael Order
|Alexander Lukashenko and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksiy II at the consecration of the of the All Saints Memorial Temple in Minsk last September.|
During the ceremony Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Russia Vasiliy Dolgolev noted, the huge work performed by the People’s Awards Committee to restore sacred values of the Orthodoxy in the countries of Eastern Orthodoxy traditions, to build up the spiritual unity, peace and concord between the nations of the same faith deserves the most sincere respect. The organisation’s efforts aimed at reviving Christian values, building up the peace and accord invoked a wide approval of the general public in Belarus. “I am convinced, it is the spirituality that helps the Belarusian and the Russian to find ways to reach each other, to build the Union State, to preserve the unity of the faith and eternal friendship of the brotherly Slavonic nations”, said the diplomat.
In accordance with the regulations the Star of Archangel Michael Order is bestowed upon heads of state, government, and parliaments, supreme celebrants of Orthodox churches and other denominations, prominent public and political figures, heads of large corporations, organisations and movements. The award is meant to highlight activities aimed at spiritual revival and enhancement of a nation’s culture; the reinforcement of economic and political ties between nations; the institution of high spiritual and panhuman morale; the preservation of cultural and spiritual legacy; the improvement of peace, friendship and cooperation between nations; the restoration, restitution and construction of objects of spiritual, cultural and social importance.
Earlier the award had been bestowed upon Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Alexis II, Russia president Vladimir Putin, Patriarchal Exarch of all Belarus Filaret, His Holiness Patriarch Pavle of Serbia, His Holiness Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia Laurus as well as outstanding public and political figures.
Uta Zapf: EU interested in promoting cooperation with Belarus
“The European Union aims to develop good neighbourly relations with Belarus. The European Union does not want Belarus to be isolated and will try to communicate in order to improve the living standards of the Belarusian nation”, said Uta Zapf.
She said, the European Union plans to establish a bilateral strategy of relations between the European Union and Belarus. Uta Zapf underscored, “Europe is not interested in interfering in Belarus-Russia relations. We would like to build our own relations with Russia and our own relations with Belarus”.
According to the official, cooperation with the European Union is important for the development of the Belarusian economy and for the creation of new jobs in Belarus. Uta Zapf noted, the step-by-step rapprochement of Belarus and the European Union could bring new investments in the country with the help of the World Bank and could improve the effectiveness of education and healthcare, increase assistance for the alleviation of Chernobyl catastrophe consequences. The transboundary cooperation with Belarus is especially important for such European Union countries like Poland, she said.
“Some countries like Ukraine have signed bilateral agreements with the European Union to simplify the Schengen regulations, which can decrease visa expenses for their citizens. We can discuss it”, said Uta Zapf.
She said, to start a dialogue, Belarus needs to comply with the same requirements the European Union formulated in 2006. “Those are free and fair elections, access to mass media, freedom of establishing trade unions and other associations, which could benefit the society, a transparent judicial system and the supremacy of law”, she said.
She noted, the development of cooperation with the European Union can be especially effective in H1 2007 when Germany presides over the European Union. However, Germany’s requirements for Belarus to start the dialogue are the same as the European Union’s.
The seminar is taking place at the National Library of the Republic of Belarus. The event is organised by the delegation of the Belarusian parliament in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in association with the OSCE PA Working Group on Belarus. The event has gathered parliamentarians of Belarus, European Union countries, representatives of the foreign ministry, local executive authorities, Belarusian universities as well as members of the general public invited by the OSCE PA Working Group on Belarus.
Belarus interested in united Europe
As the Belarusian economy is export-oriented, close economic contacts with the European Union are getting more and more important for Belarus. “In the centre of Europe we see opportunities for an intensive cooperation with Russia on one side and with the European Union on the other side. We would like the border with the European Union to unite us, not disunite us”, said Sergei Zabolotets.
The Belarusian politician believes, advancement can be reached only through mutual communication, search for a compromise. In his opinion, it is necessary not to just seek areas of common interest, but to implement specific cooperation projects. He added, the Minsk seminar is the next step in promoting the cooperation between Belarusian and European MPs.
The foreign policy of Belarus is a multiple-vector one. The Belarusian state is a peaceful one and is interested in cooperation with all countries, including its European neighbours. “In the long-term outlook Belarus interests are inseparable from the formation of a united Europe”, stressed the vice speaker.
Sergei Zabolotets noted, “it is unfortunate that today the European Union has stereotypes about Belarus, which are incoherent with the reality”. These stereotypes need to be destroyed. Belarus is a dynamically developing European state. The largest overland transport routes pass through Belarus. Europe gets around 20% of gas and 50% of oil Russia exports via Belarus. According to the parliamentarian, Belarus’ role in creating a single infrastructure for transporting energy to Europe can’t be ignored or diminished.
“Maybe, today we will not reach an agreement about all things, but Belarusian parliamentarians intend to continue seeking dialogue with European colleagues”, concluded Sergei Zabolotets.
What Belarus and the European Union need to do to improve their relations is to drop the old way of treating each other by means of stereotypes. Countries of Western Europe should not view Belarus as a state which does not accept fundamental European values because this is completely wrong, a member of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of Belarus, Konstantin Sumar, has said today at a workshop that studied opportunities for Belarus within the framework of the European neighbourliness policy.
“Our European neighbours should review their treatment of Belarus as some sort of ‘white spot’ on the map of Europe, which opposes itself to the rest of Europe. Time has come to recognize that Belarus is an integral part of Europe,” Konstantin Sumar said.
Among the key cooperation avenues that Belarus and the EU have, the Belarusian parliamentarian highlighted economy, culture, and development of information space. There is a need to hold on-line youth forums, to create permanent Internet portals. “Today it is possible to speak about the opportunities for the development of border tourism, for simplifying the customs clearance procedures and to speak about the so-called travel ban imposed on some Belarusian officials, which, I think, is absurd,” Konstantin Sumar said.
The development of relations between Belarus and the European Union should proceed from gradual rapprochement between them; both should respect each other’s interests and ideals, the Belarusian MP added.
The relations between Belarus and the European Union can progress only if mutual interests are respected, said Anatoliy Krasutskiy, member of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus at a seminar Studying Belarus Opportunities in European Neighbourhood Policy in Minsk on March 15.
According to Anatoliy Krasutskiy, the oil and gas conflict between Russia and Belarus pointed out the advisability and necessity for a major improvement of relations between Belarus and the European Union. To make it possible, the policy of sanctions and ultimatums, which are the key barrier in developing the cooperation, needs to be forgotten.
According to the MP, it is necessary to “abandon the ideological component in defining common values in order to avoid double standards”. Anatoliy Krasutskiy said, political requirements Belarus has to meet to resume dialogue with the European Union are opportunistic. “It is incorrect to mix up aid for leukaemia treatment and the capital punishment ban”, said the MP.
He noted, Belarus and the European Union can effectively implement transboundary cooperation, cooperate in cultural and educational affairs, expand parliamentary ties. According to Anatoliy Krasutskiy, the ratification of an agreement on partnership and cooperation with Belarus could be one of the first practical steps. Yet he suggested European parliamentarians should abandon the practice of adopting cooperation projects in the absence of the Belarusian side.
Anatoliy Krasutskiy also noted, raising the Schengen one-entry visa price for Belarus citizens from $35 to 60$ did not fit the good neighbourly principles declared by representatives of the European Union.
Belarus Activist Detained and Then Released
From: Moscow Times
Vintsuk Vechorko, long prominent in campaigns against President Alexander Lukashenko, was picked up by police as he returned home Tuesday evening.
He was released nearly 24 hours later, but told to appear in court two days before the rally on charges of unruly behavior, specifically for swearing outside his apartment building.
A lawyer for Vechorko's Belarussian Popular Front said it had taken him hours to find out where his client was detained.
"They later escorted him out of a detention center and said he could go home," said Vladimir Labkovich. "According to the documents, he is to appear in court on March 23 on charges of swearing outside his home."
Another activist, Vyacheslav Sivchik, was also released.
The opposition, backed by the United States and the European Union, accuses Lukashenko of hounding opponents, closing down the independent press and rigging his re-election last year.
A March congress to draft strategy was postponed because of differences among opposition leaders on how to confront Lukashenko ahead of next year's parliamentary election.
But a March 25 rally honoring the shortlived Belarussian People's Republic, crushed by Bolshevik forces in 1918, is to proceed.
Belarus Asks for More Russian Gas
Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday that the deal on Gazprom’s purchase of 12.5 percent in the Beltransgas gas transit system is ready, but there are some “funny” disagreements left.
The Belarusian official found it funny that Gazprom demands that the contract be registered in Russia under the Russian legal system. The gas giant apparently wants to cut risks of volatile Belarusian legislation, aware of the frequency with which President Alexander Lukashenko invalidates bills with his personal decree. Mr. Semashko, however, still asks Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller to come to Belarus and sign the deal in Minsk.
The parties also clash over domestic gas prices in Belarus. Russia wants Beltransgas to keep an $18/1,000 cu. meters extra charge on gas supplies. Deputy Prime Minister Semashko says Belarus is ready to do it, “but only after 2011 when Gazprom has acquired 50 percent in Beltransgaz”. Thus, Belarus may soon cut gas prices for industrial consumers from $160 to $140 per 1,000 cu. meters. Gazprom insists that if the extra charge is scrapped, Beltransgaz will stop turning profit. This issue still leaves the deal unsigned.
Belarus, in its turn, wants the gas transport system to work at its full capacity and pushes for the full loading. The pipeline now works at 50 percent of its capacity, Vladimir Semashko said, noting that operation at full capacity will bring more profit that the extra charge revenue.
A source of in Gazprom told Kommersant on Tuesday that the deal does not bind the Russian company to fill Belarus’ gas transport system to the full.
Somalia: No Belarus plane attacked at Mogadishu, AU official says
The interfax news agency citing a Belarussian official reported that An Ilyushin Il-76 jet of the transport company Transaviaexport was attacked as it was landing at an airport in Somalia but no one was hurt. The assailant opened fire from a small boat
The aircraft successfully landed and the nine crewmembers and six others on board were unhurt. The fuselage of the plane was damaged.
In an interview with Somalinet tonight, Paddy Ankunda said the news was totally untrue and no plane was hit.
“That is false news and it is completely fabricated and I can confirm to you that there was no aircraft at the airport that was attacked today and there was no accident at all according to our reports,” said Ankunda.
The plane was carrying humanitarian cargo for the peacekeeping mission of the African Union forces in Somalia.
In a related story, RIA Novosti reports that A Belarusian commission of aviation and insurance experts will arrive in Somalia Tuesday to look into the attack on a Belarusian transport plane in the capital Mogadishu Monday.
The Il-76 airliner, which was carrying humanitarian cargo as part of a UN mission, was hit by a grenade or missile fired from a small boat while landing.
The crew and nine people on board were not injured, and the plane, which was at an altitude of 150 meters (450 feet) when it was hit, managed to land despite a heavily damaged fuselage.
"The decoding of the flight data recorders will be done in Belarus," the country's aviation department said. "The crew was instructed to dismantle the recorders after the incident and send them to Minsk."
Transaviaexport, the air company that owns the Il-76, delivers humanitarian aid to many countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. None of its aircraft has ever been involved in a similar incident, but the company said it would not withdraw from humanitarian efforts.
Mogadishu has been plagued by violence since former President Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991. The civil war-torn East African state, which has no recognized central government, has also struggled to cope with famine and disease relying on UN aid.
Russia may begin Europe pipe project bypassing Belarus in Apr.
From: RIA Novosti
Energy pricing rows with transit countries, Belarus and Ukraine, in 2006 and 2007 have led to the suspension in Russian energy supplies to Europe and undermined Russia's reputation as a reliable oil and gas exporter.
Semyon Vainshtok, head of Transneft [RTS: TRNF], told Rossiiskaya Gazeta Tuesday that a decision on the construction timeframe might be made within a few weeks, and added that his company was technically prepared to begin the construction in April.
The pipeline, which will have an annual capacity of 50 million metric tons (366.5 million bbl), will run from the Russian town of Unecha, near the Belarusian border, to the Primorsk terminal bordering on Finland as a second leg of the Baltic Pipeline System, which will pump Siberian oil from Russia to Germany across the Baltic seabed and on to the rest of Europe and the United States.
The Unecha-Primorsk pipeline leg is designed to increase the Baltic pipeline's annual capacity, which was raised to 74 million tons (542.42 million bbl) last year, and to "provide stable oil supplies to our partners in western Europe," Vainshtok said, adding that the new pipeline would help diversify Russian energy exports.
"We expect to reorient half of the 100 million metric tons (733 million bbl), exported through Belarus, to Primorsk," he said.
Tax burden on Belarusian economy reported at 42.8 percent in 2006
The burden, measured by the ratio of tax to gross domestic product (GDP), reportedly dropped by 0.9 percent compared with 2005.
In 2006, taxes accounted for 30 percent of GDP, payments into the Social Security Fund for 11.7 percent and customs duties for 1.1 percent.
The Belarusian government's revenues from indirect taxes reportedly rose by 5.5 percent to 17.8 percent of GDP, which was 1.1 percent less than in 2005. A major part of the indirect tax revenues accounted for value-added, excise and sales taxes.
The government's revenues from direct taxes jumped by 10 percent to 9.2 percent of GDP, a decrease of 0.3 percent on the 2005 level. The direct tax includes income and property taxes, the so-called single tax levied on business owners holding the status of sole entrepreneur and gambling tax. According to the ministry, revenues from all direct taxes, except for the single tax on sole entrepreneurs, increased in 2006 compared with the previous year.
Revenues from other taxes, including environmental and land taxes and payments into the innovation funds, soared by 22.2 percent to 4.1 percent of GDP, which was 0.4 percent more than in 2005, the ministry said.
Small business owners to petition Lukashenka to meet with their leaders
Such a meeting may prevent a social explosion that is inevitable if the presidential edict that in fact bans the sole entrepreneurs from using hired labor comes into force, the author of the proposal, Lidziya Sitava, said at the rally. She noted that after business owners, indignant at new VAT collection rules, staged a protest on Minsk's Kastrychnitskaya Square in 2004, a following meeting with the head of state helped ease tension among entrepreneurs.
Ms. Sitava added that if the head of state refused to meet, "entrepreneurs will have to go to the political arena."
"A meeting of sole entrepreneurs with Lukashenka, if it takes place, will certainly be helpful, although there have been a series of such meetings and they have resulted in nothing," Syarhey Balykin, one of the official organizers of the rally, commented to BelaPAN. "After all, entrepreneurs are ready for dialogue and a compromise, but this does not mean that they are ready for being brought to ruin."
Some 250 people attended the rally, which took place in Peoples' Friendship Park near Bangalore Square and had been authorized by the Minsk city government.
The purpose was to demand that Mr. Lukashenka revoke his December 29, 2006 Edict No. 760, which bans sole entrepreneurs from employing people other than three family members starting January 1, 2008.
"This rally is an undoubted achievement because business owners in Belarus are traditionally reluctant to protest and it is rather difficult to organize them," Mr. Balykin said. "The very fact that entrepreneurs are protesting shows that they realize the impending threat."
"The rally should become a signal for the authorities," he noted. "Entrepreneurs are discontent with the authorities' economic policy and their fear is fading away."
According to Mr. Balykin, authorities had tried to hamper the organization of the rally. The organizers had not received permission from the Minsk City Executive Committee until the afternoon of March 7, and the following four days off impeded the advertising of the event. "Those who tried to inform market vendors of the forthcoming rally were intimidated by police and market administrators refused to announce the event through loudspeakers," Mr. Balykin said. "I have reports that at some markets, vendors were ordered to attend a taxation seminar on March 12. When we arrived at the rally venue, the electricity proved to be off and it was very difficult to obtain permission to plug our sound-amplifying equipment."
Attending the rally were opposition leaders, including former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Vintsuk Vyachorka, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, and Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, who said that they would like to see entrepreneurs at the opposition's demonstration scheduled for March 25, the anniversary of the 1918 Belarusian National Republic.
Anatol Lyawkovich, acting chairman of Alyaksandr Kazulin's Belarusian Social Democratic Party "Hramada," suggested that entrepreneurs should add political demands to economic ones.
New Polish vetting law operative
|Fifty years after Senator Joseph McCarthy began the Communist Witch Hunt Show, the Polish State has decided to stage a revival|
The legislation was designed by President Lech Kaczynski and the ruling conservative the Law and Justice Party (PiS) government of his twin brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw.
Its aim was to settle accounts with former communists. As a result, people from various professions including municipal government officials, university professors, legal professionals, journalists and corporate as well as bank chiefs born prior to August 1, 1972 are required to submit statements revealing any co- operation with communist-era secret police and intelligence services.
Those who fail to do so or have courts ruled against them risk being banned from their professions for up to a decade.
According to the critics of the project, the process of verifying hundreds of thousands of declarations is estimated to last until 2023. Declarations are to be submitted to the National Remembrance Institute which was created in 1998.
Footage of women undressing in Polish Tesco changing room posted on the internet
From: Personael Today
The company said it was "appalled" by the film, which includes a running commentary, and is thought to have been shot by security guards at the store in Gorzow, western Poland.
The footage reportedly shows a girl under the age of 16 trying on a bra, and another young woman trying on a swimsuit. It is thought the footage was filmed during a summer sale period when the store had erected temporary changing rooms without a roof.
A spokeswoman for Tesco in the UK told Personnel Today: "We are appalled by this incident and we are currently assisting the police with their investigation. Tesco complies with Polish law and does not permit the use of CCTV footage in any of its changing facilities."
Robert Polis, a customer at Tesco's Gorzow store, told a local newspaper he was angered by the film. "If I found out that someone had taken those sorts of pictures of my wife, I would give them a kick in the face," he said.
The retail giant, which has 107 stores in Poland employing more than 20,000 staff, was accused earlier this year of treating workers in its Polish stores "like criminals". Shop-floor workers said they were subjected to "rough and humiliating" body searches and "aggressive and degrading" behaviour from store managers.
Putin Visits Vatican As Catholic-Orthodox Ties Warm
But he wasn't welcome everywhere.
Russia refused to invite the Polish-born pontiff, accusing the Catholic Church of seeking to undermine Russian Orthodoxy through aggressive proselytizing.
Since John Paul's death and Benedict's election in the spring of 2005, however, there have been signs of a thaw.
A high-ranking Catholic envoy has held talks in Moscow with Patriarch Aleksy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Benedict himself has called the millenium-old division of the two churches a "scandal."
It's unlikely, however, that Putin will use his first meeting with Benedict to extend an invitation to the pontiff to visit Russia.
"I think the Vatican doesn't expect much from this meeting in terms of ecumenical dialogue," said Paolo Rodari, Vatican correspondent for Italy's "Il Riformista" newspaper. "I'm not sure the talks between Putin and the pope will contribute to a future meeting between the two churches. The pope will continue to develop his relations with the Russian Orthodox Church directly through Aleksy II and the Moscow Patriarchate. I don't think that Putin will offer the pontiff an invitation to come to Moscow, as [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev did."
The two churches share mutual concerns about growing secularism and the rise of radical Islam.
But Rodari says Putin, despite his own professed religious beliefs, is approaching today's Vatican meeting as a head of state -- not as a representative of Russian Orthodoxy.
"He and the pope will discuss issues related to Russia, Islam, the situations in Kosovo, Chechnya, the Middle East," Rodari said. "I think the discussion will be more about international politics than about religion."
The two men are expected to speak German -- the pope's native tongue and the language spoken by Putin during his years as a KGB officer in former East Germany.
Andrzej Krawczyk and a Great Polish Irony
In prison, he was forced to sign a document saying he would collaborate with the secret police, but later retracted it and insists he never helped the Soviet-era authorities in any way.
Now, 25 years later, Krawczyk is one of thousands of senior Polish officials preparing to try to clear their name under a new law in force this month that aims to reveal collaborators with communist-era secret police.
The new law will require up to 700,000 Poles in any position of authority born before June 1, 1972 -- including academics, journalists and company executives -- to state in writing they did not collaborate with the communist regime, toppled in 1989.
Employers will need to verify staff have been vetted by a special institution, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), that holds millions of documents from the state security apparatus that ran Poland for four decades after World War Two.
Making a false personal statement will be a crime punishable with a ban from public life of up to 10 years -- a term that would mean many of those accused could never work again in their chosen profession.
During the vetting, which could take months or even years, those concerned will have to step down from their jobs.
"There really is a paradox here," said Krawczyk, who was undersecretary of state at the chancellery of Poland's conservative president, Lech Kaczynski, until last month when he was forced to resign because of allegations he had spied.
"I am being punished by anti-communist law for my pro-democracy, pro-Solidarity efforts 25 years ago."
No one doubts that the law, which will replace another one that focused on senior officials and politicians, will trace some of those who collaborated and spied for the former communist government.
Many Poles see it as an essential cleansing process that was not carried out immediately after communism because of the pressing need for national reconciliation and reconstruction.
Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the president's twin brother, came to power promising to sweep away the old communist espionage network, which his party says is still trying to exert power. Many people blame it for widespread corruption.
"The network still exists in Poland and is stronger than I had previously thought," the prime minister told the daily Rzeczpospolita in an interview on March 8.
A previous law, under which Krawczyk's case was first brought, expires on March 15 and affected as many as 27,000 public officials, including politicians and judges.
That forced the archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, to resign in disgrace on the day of his official installation ceremony after he had admitted to spying on fellow clerics.
Many Poles approve of the principle of vetting and there was widespread support for declarations by senior officials that they had not been part of the communist-era secret services.
But the new law will involve so many people -- up to 700,000 individuals, according to IPN spokesman Andrzej Arseniuk -- and so also much paperwork, that officials say it could take more than 15 years to process all the cases.
That could mean many Poles now in positions of authority would have to step down from their jobs and wait years before they have cleared their names, a vindication that might not come before they reach retirement.
Eugeniusz Smolar, a political analyst and head of Warsaw's Center for International Studies, says the vetting is particularly hard on older Poles and will have the effect of bringing younger ones into new roles throughout the country.
"The motive may be political but the effect is a generational change, sweeping older officials from their jobs and replacing them with much younger people," he said.
There is also distaste that the law will punish those who collaborated with the secret service -- many unlucky ordinary men and women who were blackmailed -- rather than the spymasters who ran them.
Many Poles worry that the net is now being cast too wide, particularly when it draws in lower-ranking officials and those outside the political sphere such as academics and journalists, many of whom say they will refuse to take part in the process.
Tomasz Nalecz, a professor of history at Warsaw University, fears the new law will force universities and other institutions to act politically when dealing with their staff.
"This law will cause great unhappiness because of the large numbers of people who are subject to it," he said.
How Russia is ruled
From: Open Politics
When I watch present-day Russian political life it seems to me that policymakers in the Kremlin must have learned the forgotten Polish idea and are now trying to implement it in their own country, albeit in the political arena and on a much larger scale.
For most of the period of Vladimir Putin's presidency, his key ally has been the Yedinaya Rossiya (United [or Unified] Russia) party, which has played a dominant role in the duma (state parliament). With a majority of votes, it has been able to pass any law proposed by the Kremlin. Governors in most of the eighty-six Russian regions are also loyal members of United Russia; so are numerous city-council members and mayors. The results of the regional elections of 11 March 2007 seem to confirm that, more and more, Putin's Russia is following the model of a country ruled by a single party.
A competition from above
Yet for pragmatic reasons, the Kremlin now wants to diversify. It is no longer satisfied with a single-party model. It wants an (at least) two-party system - provided that the second party is as loyal and reliable as the first. This excludes the possibility of the Kremlin supporting any of the existing parties, or giving them a greater role in Russian political affairs. The Communist Party of Gennady Zyuganov, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have quietly consented to their own marginalisation - thus ensuring that they still have a chance to remain a part of Russian political folklore, if not of its active political life.
The Yabloko party of Grigory Yavlinsky (formally the Russian Democratic Party Yabloko) represents a far greater challenge to Kremlin policy and ideology than these fringe movements, but it will face more and more difficulties trying to play some role in the official political arena. An even tougher predicament confronts radical anti-Kremlin figures such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and National-Bolshevik Party leader and writer Eduard Limonov.
The Kremlin's new invention, announced in October 2006, is the Spravedlivaya Rossiya - Rodina/Pensionery/Zhizn (Fair Russia - Motherland/Pensioners/Life) party. It was organised hastily by Kremlin strategists, just before the country entered its long election season culminating in March 2008 when Russians will elect Vladimir Putin's successor.
The regional elections on 11 March were the first test of the Kremlin's new political set-up. The most important part of the elections - which encompassed almost sixty regions and more than 30 million voters - took place in fourteen of these regions. Among them were St Petersburg, Samara and Stavropol, which elected their regional legislative assemblies. For weeks during the election campaign, United Russia and Fair Russia leaders travelled around the country promising citizens to increase pensions, fix the crisis in the healthcare sector, develop housing and cope with the demographic crisis. Fair Russia especially, in order to appeal to supporters of the opposition parties and groups, appropriated the latter's language and slogans to criticise the government for allegedly ignoring the legitimate needs and problems of Russian citizens.
At the same time, two leading figures - Boris Gryzlov (speaker of the Russian parliament's lower house and leader of United Russia) and Sergei Mironov (speaker of the senate and the leader of Fair Russia) tried to win voters' hearts by outbidding their "rival" with confessions of love and loyalty to the Kremlin in general and Vladimir Putin in particular (Sergei Mironov showed his talent in this respect when he was a candidate in the 2004 presidential election; even when campaigning in his own name he repeatedly said that he saw no better candidate for president than Vladimir Putin).
Yet the Kremlin was taking no chances. It had implemented new election rules which ensured that the victory of its favourite parties would not depend only on their campaigning. It made changes in the electoral law to prevent voters from any longer being able to vote "against all" the candidates, to end the minimum voter turnout required to validate the election, and (in a number of regions) to raise the qualifying threshold for parties to win seats from 5% to 7%.
Yabloko and the liberal Union of Right Forces managed to register for only four and eight of the regional elections respectively. The major scandal took place in Russia's second city, St Petersburg, where Yabloko - enjoying wide support of up to 20% of the city's electorate - was removed from the ballot under the pretext that the lists containing voters' names necessary to register for the election included too many forged signatures. Reports from different regions said dirty methods and tricks - mostly used against opponents of the ruling United Russia party - were extensively employed during the election campaign.
A distant rumbling
The Kremlin's manipulations were not unsuccessful. In a turnout of 39.1%, United Russia cemented its grip on power by winning 60.5% of the seats up for election. It won the regional elections in all regions except one, the southern Russian province of Stavropol (Mikhail Gorbachev's home territory) where Fair Russia enjoyed the strongest support. The Communist Party achieved a respectable 12.5%, with Fair Russia close behind on 11.7%. United Russia proclaimed its achievement as evidence that voters associated it with the political stability and economic growth they have enjoyed under Putin.
At first glance nothing has changed. Putin's Kremlin retained its popularity; loyal parties and politicians were rewarded with voters' confidence. The outcome suggests that the parliamentary election in December 2007 will be little different, auguring an easy win for Putin's anointed successor in the presidential election of March 2008.
But, in a Russia characterised by secretive backstage political intrigues and a silent public opinion which can change its mind overnight, things are not so simple. An unexpectedly crowded pre-election "march of dissenters" in St Petersburg - when thousands of demonstrators clashed with police - signalled the first signs of frustration felt by the Russian public. The number of people upset that important decisions concerning their lives are being taken without observing democratising principles is increasing. They want more transparency, argues St Petersburg sociologist Maria Matskevich.
Now, the three more radical opposition leaders - Garry Kasparov, Eduard Limonov and Mikhail Kasyanov - say they will attempt to organise another demonstration (a "march of those who disagree"), this time in the capital, Moscow. They promise to do their best to bring as many people onto the streets as possible. If they succeed, it may signal that the triumphal mood of the Kremlin after these regional elections is a façade behind which more serious political calculations are underway.
Dmitri Travin is the editor of the St Petersburg weekly Delo. His criticism of the present Russian administration is always based on careful political, sociological and economic analysis. In a recent article he articulated concern over the country's political future by asking three important questions:
what will happen if the electoral campaigning stimulates people's expectations to a level higher than the real possibilities of the economy? What will happen if Putin's successor lacks the current president's charisma and fails to secure equally high popularity ratings? What will be the consequences when the perpetual infighting among different groups inside the government, and their dirty character, become apparent to (so far) politically neutral or quiescent citizens? It is the Kremlin's real achievement, Travin comments with characteristic irony, to provoke people to march in the streets in St Petersburg even at a time when the country is flooded with petrodollars. What will happen when the bubble bursts?
The three questions posed by Dmitri Travin will not go away. The right answers will be a key to Russia's political future in the last year of Vladimir Putin's presidency, and beyond.
New Arrests in Minsk
Freedom Day is the anniversary of the founding of the Belarusian People's Republic in 1918. Several thousand people gathered on October Square in Minsk last year on that day to protest the falsification of presidential election results. This year, the emphasis of the holiday shifted. After Russian-Belarusian relations cooled dramatically last December, Alexander Milinkevich, once the leader of the united Belarusian opposition, wrote an open letter to the president suggesting he join in a united fight against Russian imperialism. As a sign of the unity of the Belarusian people, it was suggested that Lukashenko participate in the March 25 observation, which would be renamed the Day of Belarusian Unity.
The suggestion came as Lukashenko was engaged in a PR campaign oriented toward Western Europe. He gave several interviews to the Western press but did not respond to Milinkevich's proposal until March 13, when special forces troops were stationed in the courtyard of the headquarters of the Belarusian People's Front, one of the organizers of March 25 event. Yesterday, Vyachorka and Sivchik were charged with minor offenses and released. Vyachorka had spent the night in jail.
Tuesday night, KGB agents searched the apartment of Boris Goretsky, press secretary of the youth organization Malady Front. Yesterday, Goretsky was informed that he is being charged with violations of article 193.1 of the Belarusian Criminal Code (“Activity on the Behalf of an Unregistered Organization”). Malady Front leader Zmiter Dashkevich is already serving a three and a half-year prison term on a conviction in the same case.
Igor Shinkarik, deputy chairman of the United Civil Party, stated yesterday that Freedom Day would be observed “under any circumstances.” Infighting among the opposition in recent months has diminished its popularity, so Freedom Day is expected to attract fewer participants than last year.
Money Must Not Divide Russia and Belarus
From: Mike's Vacation
Of course I like and respect Chavez.
Whether or not you agree with management of the Belarusian gas subsidy, you must acknowledge the fact that Putin has prudently managed the difficult problem of Russian asset management quite nicely.
Putin is a great president, and I am sorry that he is not great enough to be able to assure and orchestrate continued Belarusian comfort via future gas subsidies.
If you are going to judge the credibility of a president, any president, you must first consider the condition of his people, consider the assets at his disposal for their welfare, and consider the foreign and domestic pressure he is facing.
I think you forget to enter the variable of Russian political stability into your equations when you chide president Putin. Is it possible that Putin could have done more for Belaurs, yes it is. It is very possible he could have worked to ensure energy subsidies. Of course ! But what is he doing with the extra money Belaurs must pay?
He invests in the Military, he invests in Russia becoming more and more a global power every day as the power of Gazprom grows. He invests a giant amount of money into Russian industry via the continued subsidy the Russian people enjoy.
Putin's most important administrative task as President of Russia must be to ABSOLUTELY ENSURE that the oligarchs do not fulfill their socioeconomic destinies and become the deified robber barons in Russia for the next 200 years. He must do this in such a fashion that he retains some reasonable margin of error and some measure of insurance of success.
What I mean is that while Russia could possibly help Belarus with continued subsidies, the extra money they earn from not doing this is not shot into the veins of foreign financial interests. It is not likely wasted on projects that don't build the overall fitness of his country.
Putin must simultaneously reign in the oligarchs, strengthen the states power, increase military strength, and provide for as much social welfare at home as he can AND RETAIN a socioeconomic margin of error so that no matter what happens, his path with the engineering and reconstruction of a modern post soviet Russia can continue.
Putin is not the enemy of Belarus.
The bottom line is this, I have told you several times, and I will tell you again. The Soviet Union made aterrible mistake by disintegrating and not instead evolving.
Belarus managed to persevere through good character and work to her Soviet assets.
Russia and the other CIS countries just simply didn't enjoy the same degree of success in this area.
Now Russia must count on Belarus to be a loyal friend and Soviet and post Soviet family member in spite of the fact that the assets preserved by Belarus is going to be needed to help restore the whole of the CIS sphere even in areas where the population weren't as Soviet, or as diligent, or as industrious as were the Belarusians.
I say Belarusian assets must be utilized because her relative stability is a beacon for hope and homeostasis in the region. Belarus must continue to be a beacon to the region, and provide stability for others even if it will be at her own expense.
There is a metaphor between the Patriotic war and what is happening now in post soviet space. Errors were made by Stalin and his administration immediately preceding and during operation Barbarosa that were clearly injurious to the overall strength of the Soviet Union.
All parties of the Soviet Union were called upon to help pay for these mistakes by a few soviet leaders.
The Belarusians have not made the errors in character, and esprit de corps and in general economic engineering that the rest of the soviet union made a after the soviet breakup, but the Belarusians must continue to be good friends of Russia even if the Russians are not at this time reciprocating in the same fashion.
The relationship between Belarus and Russia should be judged on its average value over the past 80 years, and not upon the level of immediate injury and inconvenience that will be suffered in the next 3-10 years.
One should also imagine the continued positive cooperative benefits that will be had by all over the next 80 years in spite of the current differences in economic policy that will be injuring and hampering that Belarusians.
Separate but Unequal: The Duality of Free Speech in Russia
There is a very straightforward conclusion to be drawn from this contrast: If you are a critic of the state and possess enough power (whether measured as money, influence, actual political power, readership, or sensitive information) to make the state feel threatened, you are not safe in Russia. Even more disturbingly, you are not safe abroad either. If, however, you are an ordinary citizen, you are more or less safe from the state.
Thus, what matters is not whether you are a critic of the Kremlin and its policies. What really matters is whether your criticism is backed by the power to influence the political process in Russia. Influence of the political process originating outside the Kremlin is viewed as threatening, resulting in well-known recent tragic events. An additional distinction must be made between actual power to influence politics and the perceived power to do so. It is a distinction that analysts must make, but one that the Kremlin is inclined to ignore.
This situation whereby the state is threatened not by what people say but by how much power they have to spread their message suggests that there are two separate strata of free speech in contemporary Russia. Among ordinary people, they are free to criticize the state as much as they like. After all, this is not 1930s Moscow where the only safe conversation took place under the covers in the dead of night. Of course, there are limits to the state's toleration of grassroots criticism, as evidenced by the recent oppositional rally in St. Petersburg. But I would argue that such mass protest events aggregate and multiply the influence of individuals, creating a collectivity that does in fact have the power (or at least the perception of power) to threaten the state. Thus, such mass-mobilization events tend to be viewed with the same hostility as critics of the state that take the form of influential individuals. For good reason, too. As Mark Beissinger's convincing account of the mass mobilizations which brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union, Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State demonstrates, such mobilizations have the potential to spread and expand in waves and cascades. But, as Beissinger's analysis shows, a variety of structural and institutional factors must be present in a society in order for these waves of protest to spread. These factors appear to be largely absent in Russia today, as there is little popular support for a new round of democratization.
In contrast, the upper stratum, consisting of those with both perceived and actual power to influence the political process, is characterized by a greatly restricted sphere of free speech, for their actions not only make the state feel threatened but also have the potential to constitute a real threat to the state. Many former and potential critics have understood this situation and voluntarily refrained from outspoken criticism or activism, preferring their physical freedom to free speech. Others have refused to make this tradeoff and have taken one of several routes: into exile, into prison, or into the grave. I won't speculate whether all the individuals in the latter group understood the consequences of their toxic combination of power and opposition, but these events have no doubt "assisted" in educating others about the consequences of taking this path, to put it mildly. As such, they have been a powerful signaling device, one whose message is being heard loud and clear.
Those who are familiar with Robert Dahl's 1971 classic on democratic regimes, Polyarchy, will note that this is the complete inverse of the traditional liberal democratic model as it developed in Western Europe. It was the elites who were first granted liberal rights, usually having wrenched them from unwilling monarchs. Only over the course of centuries were those rights and the rights of political participation gradually extended to the masses. Thus, while for centuries in Europe the elites had liberal rights while the people did not, Russia today is characterized by the opposite: the people have the right to free speech while the elites do not.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of this situation, other than the fact that it seems like another case of Russia being upside-down. However, there are some important conclusions to be drawn nonetheless.
First, the separate spheres of free speech in Russia distinguish it from more severe authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. Once again, this is not the Stalinist era. Under totalitarianism, where the ultimate goal of an ideological regime is the fundamental
transformation of humanity, it matters – desperately so – not only what the masses say but also what they think. Nonbelievers cannot be tolerated in a totalitarian system, resulting in their necessary liquidation according to the regime's internal logic.
This contrasts with softer forms of authoritarianism, where the bar for disbelief and opposition is set higher. It must be recognized that even among authoritarian regimes there is a graded scale of severity, and that the bar for opposition is not the same for all authoritarian states. Thus, Russia is not Belarus, which recently passed a measure to eliminate the last realm of anonymous Internet usage by requiring Internet cafes to maintain records of their clients and the websites they visit.
As such, Russia is on the much softer end of this scale, owing to the fact that a great deal of freedom is still possible for most of its citizens. This does not condone the state's recent progress toward authoritarianism, it simply is stated as a fact that in the big picture of nondemocratic regimes, Russia is in a better place than, say, Uzbekistan. Nor is this to say that things will stay where they are, as current events suggest that Russia's slide downward is likely to continue.
More interesting, and frankly more important conclusions, however, are those that can be drawn regarding the possibility for future democratization in Russia. It seems apparent that the elites have been hemmed in, either through their voluntary submission or involuntary silencing. Thus, the only viable realm through which true democratic opposition can emerge is the masses, for unlike a single journalist or businessman, it is not possible to shoot thousands of citizens en masse today. Of course, they will be led by their own elites, but these elites will be nothing without the power of the people behind them.
Unfortunately, those who desire a more democratic Russia should not get their hopes up, as there seems to be little support among the masses for a new era of chaos and instability, factors which characterized Russia's "democratic" transition for most of the 1990s. Most ordinary Russians, it seems, desire a bit of peace, stability, and order, even if it comes at the cost of political liberties. Until this perception changes, there is little reason to believe that popular mobilization will exist on a scale that can truly effect change.
Nevertheless, as analysts and scholars of Russia, this implies that in addition to studying the motivations of the state and its guardians, we must study and understand the motivations of th ordinary citizens. Why were they in the streets in August 1991 but not today? Understanding both sides of the equation – the elites and the masses – will no doubt lead to a more accurate assessment of the possibility for future change, and hopefully someday a Russia where all can be free to express their beliefs.
Belarusian soccer internationals at center of drinking binge scandal
European Radio for Belarus reported with reference to a blogger earlier this week that Aleh Strakhanovich and Vyachaslaw Hleb had displayed unruly behavior while traveling to Lithuania where the pair play their club soccer.
In particular, the visibly drunk players started bickering with Lithuanian border guards.
Mr. Hleb, brother of Arsenal midfielder Alyaksandr Hleb, was allowed to stay on board, while Mr. Strakhanovich was gotten off the train.
When reached by the independent radio station, a Lithuanian border control officer confirmed the report, saying that Mr. Strakhanovich had been "pushing a train attendant" and making verbal threats.
Tests showed that Mr. Strakhanovich had drunk roughly 400 grams of vodka shortly before his detention.
Yury Puntus, head coach of the Belarusian national team, declined to comment on the incident, saying that he would discuss the matter with the players.
Messrs. Hleb and Strakhanovich were signed by FC Kaunas from MTZ-RIPO Minsk this winter. Both clubs are owned by Lithuanian businessman Vladimir Romanov.
Both players have been called up for Belarus' Euro 2008 qualifier against Luxembourg.
Smashnova to retire in the summer
From: BBC Sport
The 30-year-old won 12 women's tour titles during her 16-year career.
"After Wimbledon I won't play any more professional tennis," she said. "I have completed one life chapter and now it's time for a new chapter."
The Minsk-born player reached a career-high ranking of 15 in 2003 and has earned over US$2m in prize money.
She won the junior French Open title aged 14 in 1991, a year after emigrating to Israel with her family from Belarus.
Baseliner Smashnova was at her best on clay courts and reached the fourth round of the French Open in 1995 and 1998, winning her first tour title in 1999 at Tashkent.
Her final singles title came at Budapest in 2006 when she beat Dominguez Lino 6-1 6-3 in the final - the first time she had successfully defended a title.
Foreign ministry of Belarus: USA has no moral or political right to issue reports on human rights
According to him, no international decision has been ever made to authorize the USA to prepare the documents of the kind. The more so as “the USA itself is far from being a role model in the sphere of human rights”, Andrei Popov said.
He noted there is no sense to comment on the report of the country which has no moral or political right to prepare documents of such a kind.
The spokesman for the Belarusian foreign ministry also said that China prepares annual reports on the violations of human rights in the USA. “Let the USA voice the opinion on this document”, Andrei Popov suggested.
“Why does Belarus, a sovereign state, have to respond to documents prepared by another country?” the foreign ministry official said.
Poland is the only country in the former Eastern Bloc besides Belarus that has not instituted a law offering restitution or compensation for looted property. Considering that Poland had the largest Jewish population in the world before World War II -- 3 million, or 10 percent of the country's total population -- it's easy to understand why this is a central issue for Diaspora Jewry.
Although Congress has yet to examine the Treasury's use of Section 311, the provision is likely to add to the controversy over other sweeping powers the executive branch of government acquired under the Patriot Act. According to a recent audit, the FBI used the act illegally to obtain personal information about U.S. citizens, and the administration has agreed to abandon a provision that it used to replace eight U.S. attorneys for what Democrats charge were partisan political reasons.
A former Iraqi defence minister whose 10 months in office coincided with the disappearance of more than $800m (£400m) from the ministry’s coffers is living openly in Amman and London despite a warrant for his arrest. Hazem Shaalan, a small businessman in London until Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, rose in a year to one of the most important jobs in the interim government that ran Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He left Baghdad before the next government discovered that a fortune had been looted from his ministry’s account in what one senior investigator has called “one of the largest thefts in history”.
If President Bush didn't exist, Hugo Chavez would have to invent him. Some people think that his goading of Bush-- or example, calling him a "devil" at the UN--shows he's crazy, but that is plain wrong. We'll never understand people if we attribute their actions to insanity. Chavez is crazy like a fox--he knows the formula for success: portray oneself as the valiant resister of U.S. power. George W. Bush seems willing to accommodate Chavez by continuing the American tradition of treating Latin America like a backyard.
The nation's current direction is completely wrong. "Returning to the dark ages of dictatorship is no substitute for resuming the most modern and grandest experiment known to man – promoting human liberty by strictly limiting the arbitrary power of government," he said. Central planning is "intellectually bankrupt" and has undermined the moral principles of the United States," he said. "Our planners and rulers are not geniuses, but rather demagogues and would-be dictators – always performing their tasks with a cover of humanitarian rhetoric."