Presidential decrees, Russia to be taxed for pipe land, no trade deal, War on drugs, Nisepi poll, EU bans on, Opposition, Rowers busted in Ukraine
President signs 3 decres, one amendment
From: BelTA and The Office of the President
On March 19, the President of the Republic of Belarus signed into action Decree No 128 “On some issues relating to provision and use of the living quarters included in the state housing fund.”
The document establishes a new procedure for provision and use of the service living quarters included in the state housing fund, and considerably narrows the circle of persons who are eligible for this kind of housing.
Service living quarters shall be provided only on an individual basis upon decision by the President of the Republic of Belarus, the Government and regional executive committees, according to a short list of valid reasons.
An exhaustive list of the persons eligible for service housing without reference to a reason has been determined. These persons are: judges and prosecutor staff, military servicemen, the ranks and the commanding staff of the agencies of internal affairs, of financial investigation bodies, bodies and units dealing with emergency situations, and specialists provided with housing built with the budgetary funds aimed at overcoming the aftereffects of the Chernobyl disaster.
Veterans of combat operations on the territory of other states, family members of the military servicemen perished during the Great Patriotic War, and family members of the perished veterans of combat operations on the territory of other states shall be entitled to social housing.
Presidential Decree No 129
On March 19, the President of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, signed into action Decree No 129 “On stimulating export deliveries.”
The Decree stipulates measures for stimulating domestic manufacturers and carriers which effectuate deliveries of foreign trade products of the Republic of Belarus to a port or a destination country under CFR terms (Cost and Freight) and CFR terms. It has been done with a view to selling the Belarusian products in the world markets without any intermediaries, to boosting the sea and road shipments with the participation of the residents of the Republic of Belarus.
Presidential Decree No 130
On March 19, the President of the Republic of Belarus signed into action Decree No 130 “On some issues regarding land policy.”
The Decree allows the republican unitary enterprises “Belorusneft” and “Belgeologiya” to carry out prospecting work in exploring oil deposits upon the decisions from district executive committees and to allot plots of land during the process of the construction of operating wells from the land actually used.
Besides, the land plots from the land of forest resources shall be given for the construction and servicing of line structures only for permanent use or under a lease.
An Amendment Introduced into the Treaty between Belarus and Poland on Cooperation in Combating Crime
On March 19, the President of the Republic of Belarus signed the Decree on the adoption of the intergovernmental agreement with Poland on the introduction of an amendment into the Treaty of December 8, 2003, between the Government of the Republic of Belarus and the Government of the Republic of Poland on cooperation in combating crime concluded on August 8, 2006, through exchange of notes.
The financial monitoring department of the State Control Committee of Belarus has been included on the list of the organizations that cooperate with Poland within the framework of the Belarusian-Polish intergovernmental agreement on cooperation in confronting crime of December 8, 2003. This is set out in the agreement between the governments of Belarus and Poland on the introduction of amendments to the afore-mentioned agreement. On March 19, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, signed a decree to approve the agreement, BelTA learnt in the presidential press-service.
Belarus, like Poland, has fulfilled all the domestic procedures necessary for the enforcing of the agreement. This step will allow to create regulatory framework for cooperation between financial monitoring agencies of Belarus and Poland.
The agreement also designates the interior ministry, State Security Committee (KGB), State Border Troops Committee, State Customs Committee, Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee and the Procuracy as competent authorities of Belarus.
Belarus introduces rent for using power lines, gas, oil pipes
From: RIA Novosti
The move echoes a gas price row when Moscow doubled the gas price for Belarus and imposed an oil export duty. Minsk retaliated by introducing a transit fee on Russian crude going to Europe. The dispute culminated in Russia suspending oil exports to Europe.
The press service of President Alexander Lukashenko said that government-controlled forestlands would be first transferred to operators of power lines and pipelines by August 1.
Belarus, formerly Russia's closest post-Soviet ally, expects to earn $50 million from newly introduced rents on the land under Russian-operated oil and gas pipelines.
Russian natural gas giant, Gazprom [RTS: GAZP], transports gas to Europe via the Belarusian section of the Gazprom-controlled Yamal-Europe pipeline, with a capacity of 24.8 billion cubic meters a year, and also through gas pipelines owned by Beltransgaz, the Belarusian pipeline monopoly, with a capacity of 51 billion cubic meters.
Russian crude is pumped to Germany, Poland and Ukraine through the Druzhba pipeline, with a capacity of 81 million metric tons a year, including the Belarusian section Unecha-Mozyr. Russia's Transneft [RTS: TRNF] pipeline monopoly operates the Druzhba pipeline.
Russia's energy spats with Belarus and Ukraine have undermined its reputation as a reliable energy supplier and drawn accusations of using energy as a political lever.
Sergei Sidorskiy: Belarus confirms readiness for Customs Union
Sergei Sidorskiy noted, 18 issues are being prepared for the next meeting of EurAsEC heads of government. The meeting is scheduled to take place in Astana in April. The recent session of the EurAsEC Integration Commission showed, several tasks had not been accomplished. Out of 24 agreements 18 have been prepared.
The prime minister reminded, “We agreed to inform the heads of state about the formation of the package of documents regulating the creation of the single customs union”. The work was to have been done by January 1, 2007. But, unfortunately, the process has not been completed. There is disagreement concerning several documents.
“We should think and decide what answer we should give to the presidents of EurAsEC states, what way out of the situation we will find”, stated the prime minister.
During the meeting of Sergei Sidorskiy with Grigoriy Rapota it was also noted, the Russian side had withdrawn five documents from the discussions. “We would like to know what the Belarusian side should do in this case. If it means our colleagues have abandoned the construction of the Eurasian space, let’s discuss it”, said the Belarusian premier.
Continuing his thought, Sergei Sidorskiy said EurAsEC heads of governments have things to talk about during the next summit, including the failure to accomplish tasks.
The Belarusian premier also made statements concerning Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organisation. “We have supported and will support the Russian Federation in its efforts to enter the WTO. We make synchronous steps in the negotiations”.
Sergei Sidorskiy added, Kazakhstan is said to “try on” different views, considering removing all barriers to minimise WTO entry costs. “Then it won’t settle problems of the single customs union”, he underlined.
Sergei Sidorskiy believes, a certain progress in preparing the Customs Union documents has to be made by April. “We haven’t yet accomplished the main tasks. Today we should know what decision we need to do the job in the time we have”, said the prime minister of Belarus.
Belarus government sets up working party to create gas transportation joint venture
The document authorises the working party to conduct negotiations with the Russian side about the creation of the gas transportation joint venture, including negotiations on the agreement meant to regulate the purchase of Beltransgaz shares and to amend the company’s founding charter. The agreement is to be signed by the State Property Committee of Belarus and Russian OAO Gazprom.
After Belarus and Russia have approved the plan of actions required to found the Belarusian-Russian gas transportation venture, the working party will also have to ensure the timely execution of the plan of actions.
Representatives of the Belarusian energy ministry told BelTA, negotiations with OAO Gazprom management were held in Moscow on March 19 to discuss the creation of the gas transportation joint venture. The Belarusian delegation included energy minister Alexander Ozerets, representatives of the justice ministry, the State Property Committee, and Beltransgaz company.
Let us remind you, on December 31, 2006, Belarus and Russia signed a protocol for setting up a joint gas transportation venture on the basis of Beltransgaz. According to the document, Gazprom will buy 50% of Beltransgaz shares for $2.5 billion. The Belarusian-Russian gas transportation joint venture is to be set up by June 1, 2007. Gazprom is expected to buy the 50% of Beltransgaz shares in equal parts within four years.
Beltransgaz performs natural gas distribution to domestic customers and gas transportation across Belarus. The state owns 100% of Beltransgaz shares. The company operates around 7,000 km of gas pipelines, which diameter varies between 100 mm and 1400 mm, and services the Belarusian section of the Gazprom-owned transcontinental pipeline Yamal-Europe.
In 2006 Belarus imported 20.8 billion cubic metres of gas and transported over 44 billion cubic metres of gas in transit.
In a related story, In Q2 2007, the Belarusian refiners will be supplied with 4,5 million tons of oil, or 0.1 million tons up from January-March this year. This is envisaged in the Q2 schedule of the Russian oil delivery through pipelines approved by the ministry of industry and energy of Russia, Mikhail Osipenko, the deputy chairman of the Belneftekhim concern told BelTA.
According to Mikhail Osipenko, the Belarusian refineries operate at full capacity. The oil is delivered to the refiners without any delays and in necessary volume, Mikhail Osipenko said.
Oil supplies in March will make up 1,9 million tons, what meets the volume in the same period 2006. As in previous years about 60% of oil is processed by toll organizations, the Belneftekhim official noted.
A reminder, beginning February 2007 Belarus gets oil under the price formula which is based on the world oil price quotations. Mikhail Osipenko further said that today the price for oil delivery to Belarusian refiners is determined using the formula which features the average world oil price quotations fixed during a month of delivery and the difference in transport expenses of oil delivery to Western Europe and Belarus.
Purchasing oil under the price formula reduces the risk that a supplier might refuse from selling oil to the country what allows to utilize the refiners to the full, Mikhail Osipenko said. According to him, the price formula also allows to increase the efficiency of oil product exports as the prices for oil and for oil products fluctuate simultaneously as a rule. There are also more opportunities to sell oil products under FOB and CIS terms.
Russia, Belarus fail to sign new trade deal
From: RIA Novosti
"Belarus has added a series of proposals to the document initialed by both countries, which drastically amend earlier agreements," Vitaly Savelyev said. "Those proposals require a thorough expert analysis and additional consultations. Therefore, the treaty cannot be signed today."
At talks between the economics ministers earlier Tuesday, Belarus suggested simpler customs arrangements for exports of its trucks and tractors to Russia, Savelyev said, adding the issue needed to be coordinated with Russian customs authorities.
He said Belarus could thereby cause a delay in its sugar supplies to Russia, as the agreement was to be signed in a package with the basic trade deal.
In 2006, Russia accounted for 47.4% of Belarus's overall exports, including basic commodities - heavy trucks, agricultural and household equipment, textiles, sugar, meat, dairy products and vegetables. Energy resources have traditionally dominated the ex-Soviet state's imports from Russia. Bilateral trade grew 26%, year-on-year, to $19.6 billion.
Russia has reportedly demanded that Minsk stop subsidizing its agricultural sector, which has given price advantages to Belarusian producers on the Russian market.
But the deputy minister said the treaty could be signed when the Council of Ministers of the Russia-Belarus Union State gathered in Minsk Friday: "If we manage to coordinate [the changes] shortly, the treaty will be signed."
The two neighbors are building a union in a bid to integrate their economies and political systems, but the process has been complicated by a host of issues, including energy disputes and a tug-of-war between the leaderships.
Belarus was to have adopted the Russian ruble as the union's single currency in January, but the move has been postponed.
Earlier this year, the neighbors were embroiled in an energy dispute after Russia doubled the natural gas price to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters and Minsk in response introduced a transit levy of $45 per metric ton for Russian crude pumped to Europe via Belarus.
Russia briefly halted supplies to Europe, accusing Belarus of tapping its oil transits.
Moscow, Minsk Failed to Cross Barrier
|Trade Minister German Gref|
The grand signing of document was slated for 4:00 p.m., Tuesday. Russia’s Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref was to ink it on behalf of Russia and Belarus’ Vice Premier, Economy Minister Andrey Kobyakov stood for Belarus. But the ceremony dragged on for an hour and bore no fruit in the end.
The agreement wasn’t signed, Deputy Economic Development Minister Vitaly Saveliev said, blaming the break of negotiations on Belarus. The signing was postponed, as “Belarus introduced a number of amendments to the document already initialed by both states,” the official explained. To be more precise, Belarus suggested shelving implementation of some provisions of agreement and easing the customs clearance for cars delivered to Russia from Belarus.
Russia and Belarus finally came to terms about the agreement in January 2007, once one of their regular oil and gas clashes came to an end. The document to lift all sanctions on Russia’s goods deliveries to Belarus had been elaborated for two years. Today’s number of such restrictions is 146, and, according to January estimate of Economic Development Ministry, the annual damage to Russia’s companies reaches $500 million.
President of Belarus to meet with head of Russian federal drug control service
Victor Cherkesov also heads the coordination council for combating illegal drug trafficking of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He has arrived in Minsk to take part in the session of the council.
The agenda of the session includes taking stock of conduction of the comprehensive prevention operation Kanal-2006 and outlining measures to make it a permanent project. Attendees of the session will discuss draft concept on setting up a unified database on trafficking drugs, psychotropic substances and precursors. In addition, an offer to include interior ministry of Uzbekistan into the council will be debated. The action plan for the six months 2007 will be adopted.
The OSCE coordination council for combating illegal drug trafficking was set up in June 2005. Heads of national agencies coordinating actions of the law enforcement bodies in the sphere are members of the council.
In relatd news, on the 21st, Minsk hosted a session of the coordination council of the heads of competitive bodies of the CSTO member states (the Collective Security Treaty Organisation) confronting illegal drugs traffic (CCBCID), the information and public relations department of the Belarusian interior ministry told BelTA.
A protocol highlighting the results of the session was signed. The session considered organisational issues and approved the plan of work for H1, 2007. It was decided to appoint an expert group involving representatives of competitive bodies of Russia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan in Q3 this year with a view to mapping out areas of interaction with Afghanistan in the sphere of confronting illegal drugs traffic and fighting terrorism.
The participants of the session coordinated their efforts and agreed to work on creating “security belts” around Afghanistan to confront illegal drugs traffic and cutting the drugs traffic channels leading northward. These measures will complement steps taken in Afghanistan in this sphere.
Also the session agreed to work on harmonising and unifying the national legislations of the countries of Central Asia and the states which suffer from the transit of Afghan drugs. The participants of the session confirmed their intention to continue the practice of joint operations in this sphere.
Next session of the coordination council of the heads of competitive bodies confronting illegal drugs traffic will be held in Kazakhstan.
Combating illegal drug trafficking is one of strategic goals of a state, deputy prime minister of Belarus Alexander Kosinets declared today at the opening of a session of the coordination council of heads of competent bodies of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for combating illegal drug trafficking.
In his words, this is an urgent problem for not only the international community but also for Belarus. To solve the problem means to ensure demographic security, to preserve lives and health of the nation.
Alexander Kosinets noted that drug trafficking has been constantly growing. Today there are 127 drug addicts per 100,000 people in Belarus. About 12,000 drug addicts are officially registered in rehabilitation centers. Last year drug-related deaths totaled 141 people. The number of drug addicts increases by about 700 people a year.
Alexander Kosinets highlighted that the session will help exchange experience, determine strategic and tactical plans. “It is very important for the socioeconomic development of all the countries to solve this problem,” the deputy prime minister said.
NISEPI POLL REVEALS LUKASHENKA GOVERNMENT REMAINS POPULAR
More than 15 years after the collapse of the USSR, 38.3% of respondents agree that the Belavezha Pact that brought about its dissolution was a struggle for power among the leadership, whereas 32.4% consider it a tragic episode with profound consequences for country and people. As for the events responsible for the fall of the Communist state, a plurality (44.9%) equate it with a general collapse under Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of perestroika, 26.3% with the personal ambitions of republican leaders, 23.7% with the August 1991 putsch in Moscow, and 21.9% with the conflict between Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
The polls also reveal a new disaffection for Russia as a result of the gas and oil crisis in the winter of 2006-07. Nearly 70% of respondents believe that the Russia-Belarus "gas and oil war" was the most significant event of 2006, ahead of the 2006 presidential elections (63.2%), and the protests that followed these elections in Minsk's October Square (18.1%). Over 50% concur that Lukashenka has emerged as a strong leader from this crisis, whereas about one quarter think that he appeared weak. Just over half of respondents feel that it is better today to live in Belarus, compared with a mere 11.8% who would opt to live in Russia.
The possibilities of joining Russia in a union or of Belarus joining the European Union are no longer attractive to Belarusians (27.5% and 25.3% support, respectively). If a referendum were to be held on the former issue, 35.1% would vote in favor and 39.3% against. On the other hand, 54.2% of those polled speak Russian as their everyday language, 24% mixed language (trasyanka), 14.3% use both Russian and Belarusian, and only 5.2% describe themselves as exclusively speakers of Belarusian.
In most categories, the Lukashenka regime appears to have weathered the storms over a third presidential term. On the other hand, the poll offers some very significant insights. Of those surveyed 55.4% profess confidence in the president of Belarus.
If there were to be a vote "tomorrow," the results might be similar to those of last year. Lukashenka's support would hold steady at 50.9%, Milinkevich's vote would fall slightly to 11.4%, and Kazulin's would remain firm at 4.2%. Survey questions about the media provide some reasons for such an outcome. Over 90.5% of respondents watch Belarusian TV compared to 35.9% who watch cable TV. In terms of gleaning information about events in Belarus and abroad generally, over one-quarter rely on television (especially ONT), while the most widely read newspaper is the official daily Sovetskaya Belorussiya.
Conversely, the main opposition newspaper, Narodnaya Volya, is cited as the basis for information by just 0.7% of respondents. Only 6.5% listen to European radio transmissions for Belarus from Warsaw, and a mere 2.8% to the Baltic radio station in Vilnius. Internet usage is spasmodic: 64.2% claim never to use it. On the other hand, 63.9% express interest in watching a new independent TV channel supported by the EU that will be accessible to Belarusians from Poland in both Belarusian and Russian languages.
The Lukashenka government remains relatively popular, largely because it is perceived to have been unfairly targeted by Russia during the recent energy dispute.
EU Extended Sanctions on Belarus Bureaucrats for Another Year
European Union first imposed sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko and 34 top-rank bureaucrats of Belarus in late March of 2006, following the crackdown on the opposition during presidential elections in Belarus and re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. The sanctions froze accounts of blacklisted officials and banned them from entering the EU member states. Similar restrictions for Belarus are currently in force in the United States.
Even though Belarus made a few attempts to improve relations with Europe in the recent months, particularly after gas clashes with Russia, EU is adamant. Belarus will have no turn for the better till it carries on large-scale democratic reforms, EU made clear by extending the sanctions.
Belarusian parliamentarians urge EU to create legal field for smooth operation of joint ventures
It is beneficial for every country to have trade-economic and cultural contacts with the neighbours. Belarus pursues multi-vector policy in its relations with the EU as a whole and with its every member state in particular, he said.
“However, it is not always that the EU gives its member states the opportunity to act independently in forming regulatory frameworks; instead the EU desires to take decisions single-handedly. Many countries do not like this because this does not meet their economic interests. Big EU member states like Germany, Italy as well as smaller ones like Denmark and Finland – both have to accommodate our proposals and conclude bilateral agreements,” Vadim Popov added. It is necessary to have agreements in the the realm of economy first of all. For example, on avoidance of double taxation and mutual protection of investments.
The trade between Belarus and the EU is stably growing, he added. “Our exports to the EU member states last year accounted for 46%. This figure looks quite impressive. Among the biggest trading partners there are Germany, England, France and Italy. Belarus enjoys trade surplus in trading with the EU member states – we export more than we import,” added Vadim Popov. 54% of joint ventures in Belarus, or over 2,000 enterprises, have been created with the EU member states. For them to function smoothly, there is a need to have an appropriate regulatory framework. “To reach mutual understanding as quickly as possible, it is necessary to hold a dialogue using the channels of foreign ministries and parliaments. European business circles see that it is not in all countries that they have enough leverage to influence governments. We expect the EU to make steps to meet us halfway,” Vadim Popov said.
Minsk government bans opposition from demonstrating on Kastrychnitskaya Square on March 25
By this Dzen Voli (Freedom Day) demonstration, the opposition plans to mark the 89th anniversary of the short-lived 1918 Belarusian National Republic.
As former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, told BelaPAN, on March 19, he and other official organizers were invited to the Minsk City Executive Committee, where they were handed a notification of the ban. "Instead of demonstrating on Kastrychnitskaya Square, they proposed that we march on sidewalks from the square in front of the Academy Sciences to Peoples' Friendship park on Bangalore Square and hold a rally there," Mr. Milinkevich said. "I pointed out that this decision of the Minsk City Executive Committee ran counter to the constitution and violated our rights."
Mr. Milinkevich noted that the city government's proposal would be considered at a meeting of the organizing committee. "We'll discuss several scenarios, as people will anyway be gathering on Kastrychnitskaya Square and everything will depend on the behavior of the police and authorities," he said.
"I believe that the Belarusian authorities have failed a test in their ability to democratize Belarus, which Europe is insisting on," Mr. Milinkevich noted. "This decision of the Minsk City Executive Committee won't do good to Belarus. My personal opinion is that the decision is illegal and we cannot obey illegal decisions."
Music festival on March 25 will start nation-wide event “For Independent Belarus!”
|Alexander Hleb, Belarus' best footballer|
The aim is to promote patriotic values, popularize youth movement, encourage young people to create music, do sports and follow a healthy life style. The event has been kicked into play by the culture ministry and the Belarusian republican youth union.
The event, which will include shows, concerts, sports competitions, will culminate on the Independence Day at the Dimano stadium in Minsk erupting into a gala-concert featuring masters of arts and a football match featuring the Belarusian national football team.
In other cultural news, An exhibition “Vilnius: Photographs of the Old Town” will be held on March 21 in the National Library of Belarus. It will showcase works of famous Lithuanian photographer Kestutis Stoskus.
As BelTA learnt in the Lithuanian embassy to Belarus which organizes the exhibition, Kestutis Ipolitas Stoskus was born in 1951 in the village of Dudlaukis of the Jurbarkas region, Lithuania. In 1973, he graduated from Vilnius University. He has been cooperating with major Lithuanian publishers since 1985. His photos are featured in various albums, exhibition catalogues, art magazines, calendars. Kestutis Stoskus is member of the Union of Lithuanian Photographers.
Kestutis Stoskus is an architectural photographer. When making photos, he is rather interested in capturing the look of the town than its residents who appear at his photos quite seldom.
Iran Called Russia Unreliable Partner
|The nuclear power plant in Bushehr, about 1,215 km (755 miles) south of Tehran, Iran.|
The unfinished nuclear reactor site in Bushehr hasn’t been regarded an issue of dispute, it is out of the scope of the UN resolution and the future military use of reactor is completely excluded. Evidently, Russia terminated construction of nuclear plant under the pressure and for political reasons, Iran’s TV explained.
Russia is calling home its technicians and engineers from Bushehr, anonymous sources with diplomatic community of Europe and officials of the United States announced today. The formal explanation is the growing differences of Tehran and Moscow that may result in tougher sanctions of UN imposed on Iran.
Russia’s contractor for Bushehr, Atomstroiexport, denied the alleged mass withdrawal of its nuclear technicians. Only two employees of the company flew away from Iran, representative of Atomstroiexport said, specifying that they work in the Moscow office and take part in negotiations on completing Bushehr project.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry urged not to turn construction of Bushehr nuclear plant into a political issue. “The current problems related to the progress in constructing the nuclear plant in Bushehr are purely of financial and technical nature and are to be solved by respective organizations of Russia and Iran by means of negotiations in quiet and working environment and without politicizing this issue,” Russia’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Denisov told Iran’s Ambassador Ansari.
Earlier, Russia said there would be no deliveries of nuclear fuel to Bushehr until Iran agreed to halt uranium enrichment in conformity with the resolution of UN Security Council. At the same time, Russia denies using Bushehr as a lever.
The Bushehr conflict of Russia and Iran started in mid.-February. Then, Russian Atomic Energy Agency, Rosatom, announced the dates of nuclear fuel deliveries to Bushehr could be put off because of delayed financing.
Relations with Russia of priority importance to Ukraine
From: Itar Tass
Presenting to the staff of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry its newly-appointed head, Arseny Yatsenyuk, the president stressed that Ukraine would be building “trusting mutually advantageous and equal relations with Russia.” “This course is based on the dialogue between the central authorities of Ukraine and Russia,” Yushchenko said. “I personally highly assess the arrangements reached in the past 10-15 years,” he said. The Ukrainian leader spoke highly of the work of the Yushchenko-Putin commission.
Yushchenko said Ukraine has a clear plan for the development and improvement of relations with the United States. “I regard this plan as the document ensuring the continuation of positive relations with the United States we have now,” the president stressed, adding that Ukrainian-American cooperation must comprise the entire range of topical bilateral relations.
Russia Observes Day of Mourning After Deadly Disasters
Flags are flying at half-mast today across Russia, as the nation struggles to come to terms with the large loss of life, which investigators say could have been avoided, if proper safety regulations had been addressed.
In Kemerovo, in Central Siberia, the search is still on for three coal miners missing following Monday's methane gas explosion that killed more than 100 people. It is Russia's worst mining disaster since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu says the massive search and rescue effort could take up to three more days to complete.
Families who lost loved ones in the mines are preparing for the first funerals, Thursday. They have been promised roughly $25,000 each by the Russian government.
Kemerovo's Regional Governor Aman Tuleyev says the lump sum payments will be dispersed in the next nine days.
Russians are also pausing to remember 63 elderly patients of a nursing home who died in a fire in Russia's Southern Krasnodar region. The mostly bed-ridden patients were asleep when the fire broke out in the early hours, Tuesday.
Days before that, a plane crash in Samara took six lives.
EU Seeks Court Injunction Against Poland Over Highway
The European Commission requested an injunction to halt work on the Via Baltica road as part of a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice. The legal challenges by the commission follow demands last month and in December for the Polish government to reconsider two planned bypasses through primeval woodland and other natural habitats.
``This course of action is necessary if these precious natural sites of European significance are to be protected from irreparable damage,'' EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said in a statement today in Brussels.
The commission, the 27-nation EU's regulatory arm, says Poland is flouting European laws on the protection of habitats. Last month, Dimas said the project risks creating a ``major catastrophe'' and called Poland's assessment of other routes ``weak and unconvincing.''
The Polish government said changes would make the highway longer and more costly and the environment would suffer in any case. One possible change would add 15 kilometers (9.2 miles) to the route and 460 million zloty ($158 million) to the costs, said Transport Minister Jerzy Polaczek.
``There is no proposal that is neutral for the environment, and other routes examined turned out to be only longer and more expensive,'' he said at a press conference in Warsaw.
Via Baltica is an expressway to connect Helsinki with Warsaw by crossing Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The local authorities, backed by the Polish government, signed an agreement for the project to run through northeastern Poland's Rospuda Valley, which is protected by national and international environmental laws.
The valley has rare orchids, protected birds such as cranes and other animals including otters, beavers and lynx. Environmentalists oppose the road project, which the Polish government says is necessary to relieve traffic congestion.
The commission's legal action targets the planned 17.1- kilometer Augustow bypass through the Rospuda valley as well as the 5.2-kilometer Wasilkow bypass in another protected area in the region called Puszcza Knyszynska.
Polish Environment Minister Jan Szyszko said the government had expected the lawsuit and welcomed it.
``We are not surprised and we will look forward to the European Court of Justice's decision,'' he said at the press conference with Polaczek. The court process ``will be an opportunity for Poland to present facts.''
Poland stopped construction work in the Rospuda valley until the end of August, the Environment Ministry said yesterday. This is related to the bird breeding period, protected by international and Polish regulations, said Szyszko, who declined to say whether the delay will be extended should the court fail to rule before September.
The EU court has in the past granted injunctions within a period as short as seven days. Its rulings in lawsuits take an average of 20 months.
Estonia, Lithuania dismiss overheating anxiety spread by Latvia
From: Baltic Times
The Bank of Estonia stressed that any devaluation of the kroon would create more problems than it would solve and under no circumstances was an option.
“Speculations concerning the exchange rate of the kroon arise from a lack of competence,” the bank said in a March 13 statement, adding that such allegations have been made continually since the kroon was introduced in 1992.
The bank stated Estonia should continue pursuing economic development through transparency, a fixed exchange rate and a fiscal surplus.
“I wouldn’t over-dramatize the situation,” Economic Affairs Minister Edgar Savisaar was quoted as saying. “Estonia’s financial situation is better than Latvia’s.”
In Lithuania, Finance Minister Zigmantas Balcytis said that talk of an overheating economy was without basis. “The balanced fiscal policy, which is being implemented coherently, ensures that Lithuania will manage to avoid any negative processes in the future,” he said in a statement on March 14.
Still, the government approved an inflation-fighting plan on March 15 in order to meet Maastricht criteria and introduce the euro by 2010. The plan – dubbed the National Euro Adoption Plan – calls for tighter fiscal discipline, restricting increases in administered prices, and limiting wage and salary raises not backed by commensurate increases in productivity.
Economists were tepid about the plan. Guoda Steponaviciene of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute, a Vilnius-based think-tank, told the Verslo Zinios daily that the government needed first and foremost to put the budget in surplus.
“Our economy is on the rise, there are no crises and inflation is not very high. Not to have a budget surplus in a year like this is sheer carelessness,” Stepona-viciene said.
Since the start of the year the Baltic economies – the fastest growing in the European Union – have been the focus of intense scrutiny in international media and financial institutions, most of whom agree that there are a number of “red flags” pointing to overheating, which would precipitate a so-called “hard landing” with economic growth slowing to nearly zero.
In the seminal work on the subject dated Feb. 23, Danske Bank showed that the three Baltic states are in an economic “danger zone.” Of 11 vulnerability indicators used by the bank’s analysts to gauge a possible overheating, Estonia and Latvia scored seven “red lights,” while Lithuania had five.
Danske Bank and other banks have compared Latvia’s economy to that of Portugal in the late 1990’s and Iceland’s in 2006.
Latvia’s economy grew 11.9 percent last year, while Estonia’s 11.4 percent – the best results in the EU27. Inflation is also high in both countries, reaching 7.3 percent year-on-year in Latvia by the end of February, and 5.1 percent in Estonia last year.
Lithuania’s GDP increased 7.4 percent in 2006. Inflation was 3.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the Bank of Latvia decided to raise the refinancing rate by 0.5 percentage point to 5.5 percent as part of its ongoing battle to shore up cheap money. Bank Chairman Ilmars Rimsevics said the move was dictated by the need to support the government’s efforts to reign in inflation, which he said were not a “magic wand” but could succeed if “consistently implemented.”
“The economic imbalances have continued to worsen as suggested by the key macroeconomic indicators – persistently high inflation, a large current account deficit and rapidly growing external debt,” the bank said in a statement.
“Growth of the gross domestic product reached an all-time-high last year… mainly on account of sectors relying on the domestic demand and unable to support sustainable long-term development on their own,” the bank said.
Rimsevics said Latvia’s current account deficit reached 21 percent in 2006, the highest in the EU, and an astonishing increase on the 2005 result of 12.4 percent.
Danske Bank welcomed the rate hike, but said that economic risks are still “considerable” and the bank might have to do more of the same if the lat, which last week was forced to the top of its trading band, continues to weaken.
“It is quite obvious that urgent policy action is needed to address the major imbalances in the Latvian economy,” wrote Danske Bank in a March 15 research note.
US should have consulted Russia on defense in Europe - opinion
From: Ria Novosti
The United States plans to deploy a radar installation in the Czech Republic and a missile base in Poland by 2011-2012, saying the shield is needed to counter possible attacks from Iran. But Russia objects to the plans, treating them as a security threat.
"My personal opinion is that consultations should have been conducted with Russia, and, first of all, within NATO itself. This did not happen. The German side also felt it had not been well informed on the issue," Alexander Rahr, the director of the Russia/CIS program and a member of Germany's Council of Foreign Relations, said.
The political scientist said the missile defense deployment could "split Europe."
Speaking about the role Commonwealth of Independent States members play in this issue, in particular, Ukraine, Rahr said the country could become a bridge between Russia and the West, whose cooperation on missile defense deployment in eastern Europe could provide positive results.
He said President Vladimir Putin's Munich speech could make Russia and Europe return to the issue of joint protection from countries capable of developing nuclear weapons.
In his address to a Munich security conference February 10, the Russian president said that the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in central Europe could trigger a new arms race, and accused the U.S. of ignoring international law and imposing its own rules on other countries.
The head of the Russian Foreign and Defense Policy, Sergei Karaganov, said Washington's plans to deploy missile defense in eastern Europe is a provocation aimed at splitting Russia and Europe.
You Scratch My Back, and I’ll Scratch Yours
But some people in Belarus get taken care of better than others. Corruption is a key part of Lukashenka’s economic model. This sad fact is ironic, considering that Lukashenka first made his mark in politics by chairing the Parliament’s Committee on Corruption. One of the first hints of his populism was his promise to get those who were benefiting from the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the attractive characteristics of Lukashenka’s system, for domestic and foreign apologists, was the supposed absence of corrupt officials and oligarchs, in contrast to Russia and Ukraine.
With growing power has come more opportunities for corruption. Lukashenka personally appoints state officials in Belarus, from the director of a collective farm to the prime minister. His selection events are broadcasted live on every TV channel. On his Belarusian reality show, officials who have performed poorly are often fired on the spot–some are sent directly from their office to a prison cell. But today this public spectacle isn’t enough; our head of state is always looking for better ways to decree the ideal official.
Now, a new state official must be recommended by two experienced, serving officials. The two sponsors are responsible for their own work, as well as the newcomer’s. High-level officials believe that this idea, borrowed from the Soviet past when a new party member was recommended by two older comrades, will reduce corruption. But common sense and history tells us that it will only help bureaucrats to cover for each other. In fact, some think that it might even lead to the formation of family or regional clans in the administration, though it is hard to imagine that Lukashenka would permit the formation of any family clans, except for his own (his elder son was recently appointed to the Security Council). The principle of mutual dependence has never been proven to reduce the level of corruption.
In a dictatorship, it is almost impossible to evaluate how effective a regime’s anti-corruption policies are. In Belarus, where virtually anything of significant value is owned by the state, corruption has many uses—to enrich, control and repress. Perhaps because of this, independent experts believe that corruption in is getting worse. In 2006, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked Belarus 151 of 163 countries. Since 2002, when Belarus first appeared on the TI rankings, it has fallen 115 places. Five years ago, Belarus ranked 36th, ahead of Poland and not far behind Taiwan. Today it trails Nigeria and shares space with Cote d’Ivoire. The majority of Belarusians may have never heard about TI’s ratings, but they do see the regime’s everyday corruption in myriad forms. Is it any wonder that they keep bringing chocolate, cognac and other, more negotiable “souvenirs,” when they call on state officials?
Ukraine arrests Belarus rowers for illegal entry
The border guard service said a coast guard vessel was dispatched to intercept and detain 10 rowers who had crossed into Ukrainian waters on the border with Transdniestria, a region of ex-Soviet Moldova controlled by separatists.
Team members told officials they were unaware they had crossed the border in the southern Ukrainian region. They now face charges in court.
News reports said the Belarussians had been invited to train for the world championship in Transdniestria as reservoirs in their ex-Soviet state, further north, were still covered in ice.
China Finished Building Socialism
One of the main achievements of the fifth session of the Tenth Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) was the adoption of a property law that finally guarantees Chinese citizens the right to own private property. Three years ago, the NPC introduced amendments to the Chinese constitution that recognized private property, but the government's position on the matter was not spelled out in detail. In total, the legislation has taken 13 years to prepare, and it was passed by the NPC last week after six previous attempts had failed. Many experts consider the 247-article document to be key to China's eventual economic transition from socialism to capitalism. This view was confirmed by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who declared that the NPC's decision will help China "create an open and honest market system."
In practice, however, the law will defend the interests only of city residents and does not guarantee peasants ownership of their land. To placate rural residents and avert a possible eruption of growing tensions between the country's 400 million urbanites and 800 million peasants, many of whom live in grinding poverty, Beijing has decided to increase spending on the countryside to $51 billion in 2007, and residents of rural areas will presumably receive the lion's share of the $38 billion that the government has earmarked for education and social spending. A clear example of the kind of social upheaval that Beijing wishes to avoid took place last week in the town of Zhushan in the country's southern Hunan Province, where 20,000 people, mostly farmers, took to the streets to protest a doubling of bus fare over the Chinese New Year holiday, a popular time for travel. The authorities deployed riot police and the military to break up the demonstrations and to stop the crowd from storming the regional administration building, and in the clashes that followed dozens of people were wounded and at least one student was killed.
In addition to rural farmers, the authorities are also keen to show their generosity to the country's business sector. The NPC passed a law introducing a flat 25% income tax, which will mainly hit foreign companies: until now, Chinese firms paid 33%, while foreign companies paid between 15 and 24%. Beijing has also decided to create a state-owned company that will invest the country's currency reserves, which are estimated at around $1 trillion. According to Wen Jiabao, "the majority of the reserves are in US dollars and American securities, but Washington has nothing to fear." At a press conference after the conclusion of the NPC session, Mr. Wen also announced that China will soon move to restrict the flow of foreign investment in the Chinese economy. "We need to increase consumption within the country, in order to be less dependent on foreign capital," he said.
The Chinese premier had even more shocking things to say about politics. In a meeting with journalists, Wen Jiabao complained at length about the problem of corruption in China and unexpectedly offered his own recipe for dealing with the issue: "We need to decrease the excessive concentration of power and strengthen the control exercised by citizens over the actions of the government. We need large-scale political reform," he said, adding, "Democracy, the rule of law, the human rights are universal values. That means democratic elections as well."
Here one of the western journalists present attempted to catch out the premier by asking whether Mr. Wen's understanding of democracy coincides with the point of view of Zhao Ziyang, the moderate Chinese Communist Party general secretary who was unceremoniously removed from his post for opposing martial law and the use of force in the response to the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989. Though Zhao remained under house arrest until his death in January 2005, his views on the necessity of encouraging the Chinese government to make steps towards adopting a western-style democracy were collected in a book that was published posthumously in Hong Kong. Wen Jiabao initially appeared taken aback by the question, but he recovered quickly and replied, "these are somewhat different things, and I have never read any books by Zhao Ziyang." The premier's reply is somewhat dubious, since he spent many years as Zhao Ziyang's head assistant and is still believed to be secretly sympathetic towards many of his fallen mentor's opinions. Whatever the case may be, the Chinese state-owned television station CCTV showed the entire conversation live and uncensored in a move that was both extraordinary and possibly indicative of things to come: the "Chinese model" may soon no longer boil down to "market economics for a single-party dictatorship." Perhaps a gradual liberalization of the regime along the lines of South Korea and Taiwan is in the works.