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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

President receives ambassadors, Putin coming to Minsk, Human trafficking, economics, Opposition news, Ukraine, Polish scandal, Blogs and The Story…

  • From the Top...
  • #264

    President receives credentials from ambassadors of nine countries

    From: The office of the president
    On 11 December, President of the Republic of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko received credentials from ambassadors of nine countries: Albania, Italy, Qatar, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Columbia, Myanmar, Norway, Poland and Tanzania.

    Addressing the diplomats, the President said that they were beginning their work in the tranquil and peace-loving country, open for friends and partners. Belarus’ domestic policy is aimed at addressing large-scale social issues, stepping up the wellbeing of the population and ensuring dynamic economic development. Belarus’ foreign policy is also geared toward achieving these goals, the Head of State said.

    Business circles of Belarus and Italy should intensify their contacts, expand interaction in the credit and investment sphere, the President said while receiving credentials from Norberto Cappello, the new Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Italy to Belarus.

    The President has pointed out positive results of the bilateral cooperation with Italy, which the two countries have achieved over 15 years of diplomatic relations. According to Alexander Lukashenko, mutually respectful dialogue between the two countries is based on a solid foundation of people’s diplomacy. The President expressed his gratitude to the Italian people for their help in recuperating Belarusian children who suffered the after-effects of the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

    While receiving credentials from Henryk Litwin, the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Poland to Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko said that Belarus has always advocated good neighbourly and equal relations with Poland in all areas: political, economic and humanitarian.

    According to the Head of State, there are quite a few spheres of activity where the common interests of the two countries are obvious. These are commerce, investment, energy and tourism.

    Belarus hopes to have a positive dialogue with Poland, Alexander Lukashenko said. “Today’s problems in relations between the two countries are quite solvable through a positive dialogue. This is a dialogue based on the principles of mutual respect and equal rights, non-intervention in internal affairs,” Alexander Lukashenko said. The way our cooperation will be developing will depend crucially on Poland, the President added. Our bilateral relations should correspond to the high level of trust demonstrated by our peoples.

    Alexander Lukashenko has expressed the hope that the work of the new head of the Polish diplomatic mission in Belarus will help identify the ways of rapprochement for constructive interaction.

    The President of Belarus expressed an interest in a more intensive relationship between Belarus and Norway in political, economic, investment, sci-tech and humanitarian areas.

    According to the President, the promising areas for cooperation are energy industry, information technologies and manufacturing. Belarus will welcome Norwegian businessmen and hopes to see the development of mutual contacts in all spheres.

    Alexander Lukashenko has wished the diplomats success in their difficult and responsible work and expressed the hope that the efforts of each of them will bring real benefits to the peoples and will contribute toward building a fair, stable and secure world.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Pavel Borodin: Union State Constitution is prepared for two nations, not politicians

    From: BelTA
    The Union State Constitution is prepared for the two nations, not a concrete politician and it will be approved by the peoples of Belarus and Russia, State Secretary of the Belarus-Russia Union State Pavel Borodin told a press conference in Moscow on December 12.

    According to him, today there are several drafts of the Constitution, which envisage various types of state administration. “One draft offers a national Union State presidential election. In this case the presidents of Russia and Belarus will become vice-presidents. Another draft provides for managing the Union State by the Supreme State Council,” said Pavel Borodin. According to him, the Constitution also provides for delegating about 8-9 national authorities to the Union State bodies.

    All the drafts of the Constitution stipulate for setting up a full parliament. And executive bodies may work collectively, Pavel Borodin noted.

    Belarus-Russia trade to hit $23bn in 2007, Vasily Khrol says

    According to the projections, the trade between Belarus and Russia will exceed $23 billion in 2007, Vasily Khrol, a Deputy State Secretary of the Union State, told a press conference in Moscow on December 12.

    Since the founding of the Union State the trade between Belarus and Russia has quadrupled from $5,2 billion in 1995 to $19,9 billion in 2006. In January-September this year, the Belarusian–Russian trade reached $18,1 billion, up 22.8% over the same period last year.

    Belarus maintains trade and economic operations with 80 regions of the Russian Federation. Moscow and Moscow region, St. Petersburg, Tatarstan, Tiumen, Smolensk, Nizhny Novgorod, Sverdlovsk, Vologda and Yarslavl regions account for 74.7% of the Belarus-Russia trade.

    According to Vasily Khrol, the integration between Belarus and Russia have been growign stronger. “Despite some difficulties the two countries have been making progress in the formation of the Union State which will become the basis for further socio-economic development of the two countries,” Vasily Khrol said.

    No political issues on agenda of forthcoming Minsk session of Union State Supreme State Council

    There are no political issues on the agenda of the forthcoming session of the Supreme State Council of the Belarus-Russia Union State, which will take place in Minsk on December 14, State Secretary of the Belarus-Russia Union State Pavel Borodin told a press conference in Moscow on December 12.

    According to him, the agenda was discussed on December 13 at his meeting with President of Russia Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader supported the idea to devote the session to pragmatic aspects including the Union State budget and production programmes. Political issues such as a draft Constitutional Act may be considered at a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, Pavel Borodin noted. “Relevant instructions will be given to the corresponding working groups after the high-level talks,” the State Secretary said.

    Many issues relating to cooperation within the Union State framework were discussed during the meeting with Vladimir Putin, Pavel Borodin noted. In particular, the matter concerns the creation of a transcontinental transport corridor, cooperation in the high-tech, information resources and other spheres. After the meeting Vladimir Putin set several concrete tasks before the Russian Government.

    President of UN General Assembly supports proposal of Belarus to hold debates on human trafficking

    From: BelTA
    President of the UN General Assembly H.E. Srgjan Kerim supported the proposal put forward by Belarus at the high-level session of the Assembly on children to hold thematic debates on the problem of human trafficking, BelTA learnt from Belarus’ Permanent Representative Office in the United Nations Organisation. H.E. Srgjan Kerim met with Natalia Petkevich, the head of the Belarusian delegation and a deputy head of the Belarusian leader’s staff, to personally support the idea.

    It was Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Sergey Martynov, who first appealed to the President of the UN General Assembly in September 2007 to hold such thematic debates.

    During the meeting Natalia Petkevich informed H.E. Srgjan Kerim about practical steps taken by the Republic of Belarus to initiate the discussion of the issues relating to human trafficking including the fight against trade in children within the framework of the UN General Assembly. In particular, in the near future the Belarusian delegation will hand over a joint resolution on holding the debates to the President of the UN General Assembly prepared by the heads of several missions of the UN member states.

    In turn, H.E. Srgjan Kerim informed Natalia Petkevich about his consultations with the UN countries concerned on the issue and noted he completely shared the opinion of the Belarusian side about the necessity to hold such debates during the 62nd session of the General Assembly. The discussion may be scheduled for June 2008.

    Belarus urges UN to build world not simply fit for children but also worthy of their future

    In the beginning of a solemn high-level session of the UN General Assembly Natalia Petkevich, the head of the Belarusian delegation and a deputy head of the Belarusian leader’s staff, appealed to the UN member states to build the world not simply fit for children but also worthy of their future, BelTA learnt from Belarus’ Permanent Representative Office in the United Nations Organisation.

    The special high-level session of the UN General Assembly, which will last two days, will evaluate progress in implementing the action plan set out in “A World Fit for Children”, the outcome document of the UN Special Session on Children which took place in New York in 2002. The current special session is called “A World Fir for Children + 5”, what is deeply symbolic for Belarus, which announced the year of 2007 the Year of the Child.

    Natalia Petkevich drew attention of the General Assembly to the steps taken by Belarus to improve the well-being of children, to protect their rights, motherhood and childhood. Belarus was the first country on the post-Soviet area to pass the law on children’s rights, she said. Over the past ten years the child mortality rate has fallen by half in Belarus and is the lowest on the CIS territory. The successive implementation of the presidential programme “Children of Belarus”, wide-scale support to the mother, child and family, first of all large family, led to positive dynamics in the demographic situation in the country. Belarus does a lot to form a barrier-free area for the vital activity of children with peculiar psychophysical development. Scrupulous attention is devoted to children-orphans and to the problem of social orphanage.

    Having noted special alarm caused by crimes against children especially the ones connected with human trafficking and kid pornography, Natalia Petkevich called on the General Assembly to discuss in the near future the problem of the fight against human trafficking within the framework of its thematic debates.

    Attending the special session of the UN General Assembly is the unprecedented number of supreme and high-level delegations. A political declaration is expected to be adopted during the session.

    World Bank to issue $15-million credit to Belarus

    From: BelTA
    The World Bank is going to issue a $15-million credit to Belarus to modernize the infrastructure in the social sphere, Andrei Minenkov, the head of the department of the sci-tech policy and foreign economic relations of the Energy Efficiency Department of the State Standardization Committee reported at a seminar in Minsk.

    The Bank issued the first $22.6-million loan for the implementation of the project “Modernization of the Infrastructure in the Social Sphere of the Republic of Belarus” in 2001. The funds were used to reduce the consumption of fuel-energy resources at the social objects.

    According to Andrei Minenkov, the World Bank has been offered to finance two more energy projects with the total sum of $100 million. “We hope the projects would be approved and the World Bank would issue a preferential credit to Belarus,” he said.

    Belarus closely cooperates with the UN Development Programme and the Global Ecological Fund in order to implement the programmes on efficient use of energy resources and energy saving.

    Belarusian Bank for Small Business may start operating in mid-2008

    The Belarusian Bank for Small Business /BBSB/ may start working with clients in mid-2008. On December 12, 2007 BBSB shareholders signed an agreement on investing €7 million in the bank’s authorized fund and confirmed their intention to invest €5 million more in two years.

    At present experts have been working on the documents necessary to set up the bank. In late May – early June 2008 they are expected to be considered by the National Bank of Belarus.

    According to Michael Davey, Director for Caucasus, Moldova and Belarus of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Commerzbank AG (Germany), the International Finance Corporation, KfW (Germany), Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO), ShoreBank International, ShoreCap International (USA) and Swedfund (Sweden) will become shareholders of the new financial institution.

    The new bank will grant commercial loans ranging from $100 to $200 thousand and first of all microcredits up to $10 thousand to individual entrepreneurs, micro, small and medium-scale companies. First it plans to work in Minsk and Minsk oblast, where about 50% of private small and medium-scale companies are concentrated. In five years the bank intends to open seven branches and four cash and settlement centers in all oblasts of Belarus. By 2008 the BBSB’s loan portfolio is expected to stand at €7-8 million.

    The BBSB will be a closed joint stock company with a global banking license. It will be managed by ShoreBank International, which is the bank’s technical partner and one of its eight shareholders.

    According to Michael Davey, the creation of such a bank in Belarus is an important project both for the country and the EBRD. According to him, this will promote development of small and medium-scale businesses in Belarus including in small towns and will help attract more foreign investments. Thus the EBRD will provide assistance to Belarus in implementing programmes on developing small and medium-scale towns.

  • From the international press...

    Putin heads to Belarus for talks on possible union

    From: IHT
    President Vladimir Putin will travel to Belarus Thursday to revive efforts to create a single state from the two former Soviet nations, a trip that could expand Putin's options after he steps down as president next year.

    "I wouldn't be surprised if Putin tries to speed up a union with Belarus ... to become the president of the unified state," Gennady Zyuganov, Russia's Communist Party chief, said this week.

    On Monday, Putin said he supported his longtime protege, first deputy prime minister Dmitry Medevedev, to become Russia's next president. Medvedev instantly became the overwhelming favorite to win the post.

    Medevedev, in turn, on Tuesday asked Putin to be his prime minister — but Putin has not yet accepted.

    Putin says he intends to retain influence after his second term as Russia's president ends in May, although in what capacity is unclear. The creation of a single state could give him an alternative to accepting the Russian prime minister's post.

    If the two countries can reach an agreement, it would mark the first merger of a former Soviet state with Russia since the U.S.S.R. split apart in 1991 — a step that would make many Russians proud.

    But the move could further damage Russia's relations with the West, especially if Moscow is seen as using pipelines that supply Belarus with natural gas to force the smaller country into an agreement.

    Some analysts doubt a deal can be reached, because Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko — a Soviet-style leader dubbed Europe's last dictator by the West — is unlikely to cede power.

    Lukashenko's office said last week that the talks between Putin, Lukashenko and other ranking officials would focus on a draft constitution of a union.

    Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio quoted unidentified members of the Lukashenko administration as saying that Moscow and Minsk had struck a deal: Putin, the sources said, would become president of a Russia-Belarus union while Lukashenko would become the speaker of its parliament.

    Officials in Moscow and Minsk have denied the report, but politicians and commentators in both countries agreed that Putin's trip signaled a renewed interest in the long-discussed merger.

    When Medvedev proposed that Putin become prime minister, many analysts saw it as the Kremlin's preferred plan to maintain Putin's influence after he leaves the president's office.

    But some Russian commentators said Putin would never accept what would amount to a demotion.

    The merger of Russia and Belarus would allow Putin to leave the Russian presidency, as he has pledged to do, yet still remain a chief of state.

    Pavel Borodin, secretary of the existing Russian-Belarusian executive body, said Wednesday that drafts of the constitution being considered would give the president of new unified country the power to rule over current national governments.

    He said the new constitution would be subject to approval by each nation's Parliament and would be put to voters in national referendums.

    Putin could find it difficult to persuade the flamboyant Belarusian leader to relinquish his country's independence. And Lukashenko seems to lack the leverage needed to win an agreement that favors Belarus, which has a population of just 9.7 million compared to Russia's 141.4 million.

    "Putin and Lukashenko have sought to outmaneuver and cheat one another over the past few years," said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.

    Russia and Belarus signed a union agreement in 1996 that envisaged close political, economic and military ties, but efforts to achieve a full merger have floundered.

    In the 1990s, Lukashenko pushed for the creation of a single state, apparently hoping to take reins from Russia's ailing President Boris Yeltsin. Putin's election in 2000 demolished Lukashenko's hopes to rule both countries.

    Two years later the Belarusian leader angrily rejected a Kremlin proposal for incorporating his nation into the Russian Federation — a plan that would have left him without job.

    Bilateral relations soured. Lukashenko described Russia as a "huge monster," saying Moscow's actions were worse than those of Nazi Germany, which reduced much of Soviet Belarus to ruins in World War II.

    If Lukashenko refuses to cede control of his country, the Kremlin could try to force his hand by using its most powerful weapon: energy.

    At the year's start, Russia more than doubled the price of natural gas and imposed a customs duty making oil more expensive. To pay its bills, Belarus was forced to sell half of its national gas pipeline company to Gazprom, Russia's state gas monopoly.

    In August, Gazprom threatened to halt future natural gas shipments if Belarus failed to pay what it already owed.

    The two sides negotiated a settlement, but the threat of a further increase in energy prices still looms over Belarus' heavily subsidized, Soviet-style economy.

    Analysis: Venezuela bolsters Belarus ties

    From: UPI
    Venezuela has added Belarus to its growing list of partner countries to explore the oil- and gas-rich South American nation.

    The new deal inked earlier this month in Caracas pairs Venezuela's state-run PDVSA and Belarus' Belorusneft.

    The new deal to explore oil fields in western Venezuela builds on an already existing agreement between the two nations whereby PDVSA enjoys a 60 percent stake in all joint projects.

    Venezuela and Belarus already enjoy a working oil agreement that officials in Minsk said Monday would provide the former Soviet country with 900,000 tons of oil per year, thereby lessening Belarus' dependence on Russia for its energy needs.

    Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, in a recent trip to Minsk for agreeing to strengthen ties between the two nations.

    The relations appear to play directly to Chavez's professed effort to forge new energy alliances to lessen his country's dependence on business from the United States, his country's largest customer despite simmering tensions. A European outsider such as Belarus has the making for a prime partner with a Chavez-led Venezuela, according to some analysts.

    "I think the Belarus fits the profile of the kinds of countries that Chavez has shown interest in," Peter DeShazo, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and now Americas program director at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told United Press International.

    The Venezuela-Belarus energy alliance is the latest in a series of newly forged agreements by Chavez, some of which raised concerns and condemnation in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

    Earlier this year, Venezuela and Iran inked a $4 billion deal to develop a block of Orinoco, with production slated to begin in two years. The Ayacucho 7 block is believed to hold more than 30 billion barrels of oil alone, making it one of the largest in the country.

    A recent statement by PDVSA said Iran will build four oil rigs offshore Venezuela by the end of the year.

    Venezuela's increased dealings with Russia and Iran, as well as China, play directly into Chavez's plans to shrink the portfolio of Western firms in the country.

    Chavez has long asserted the Bush administration was keen on seeing him removed from power because it sees his populist ideals as a threat to the national and regional stability. Chavez administration officials have repeatedly asserted that if provoked by the United States, PDVSA would have no problem halting oil shipments to the United States.

    Venezuela in May assumed majority control of its oil and gas operations, forcing foreign firms to accept the new conditions or face fines and expulsion from the country. Though most companies complied, both ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corp. pulled out of the country after a protracted struggle with PDVSA.

    Their departure has left a production vacuum that PDVSA has yet to fill. Venezuela's oil output is believed to have slipped by more than 250,000 bpd from a year ago, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Production has reportedly decreased from 2.6 million bpd to 2.37 million bpd.

    Hoping to counter the shortfall, PDVSA recently announced it was investing $3.5 billion in new oil rigs, a much-needed injection of cash into improvements for a sector that some experts say has been abused by Chavez for his social programs.

    Kazakhstan interested in piping oil through Belarus

    From: NLIPRB
    Kazakhstan is interested in pumping oil through Belarus and in implementing joint power engineering projects, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Kazakhstan to Belarus Bolat Iskakov told media on December 12.

    He noted, Kazakhstan pumps around 5 million tonnes of oil per annum through Belarus’ oil transportation system. “We believe it is a lot. Oil extraction grows in Kazakhstan every year. The capacity will be increased. Naturally Kazakhstan is interested in pumping its oil through Belarus as well,” said the diplomat. He also named participation of Belarusian companies in Kazakhstan’s oil and natural gas industry as promising.

    According to Bolat Iskakov, Kazakhstan is working on alternative ways of supplying oil and natural gas. Trunk pipelines used to transport energy resources should not be limited to Russia only. The Ambassador mentioned Kazakhstan’s interest in the projects Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Odessa-Brody- Plock. The diversity of ways used to transport energy resources will continue expanding, said the diplomat.

    In their time the presidents of Belarus and Kazakhstan signed an agreement relating to developing cooperation in oil extraction and transportation.

    Poland launches TV station that broadcasts to Belarus in attempt to bolster democracy

    From: Kiev Post
    A new television station funded by the Polish government began broadcasting a mix of news, cultural programming and entertainment Monday to Belarus - part of Warsaw's ongoing attempt to bolster democracy in its autocratic neighbor.

    The station Belsat hits the airwaves at 5 p.m. (1600GMT), calling itself "the first independent television station" to broadcast into the authoritarian state ruled by longtime President Alexander Lukashenko.

    "When we look at the map of contemporary Europe we see that the Iron Curtain disappeared except for a tiny fragment on Poland's eastern border with Belarus," said Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy, director of the Warsaw-based station. "So our television station is a measure to overcome this last, rusted piece of the Iron Curtain."

    Poland, an ex-communist country now in the European Union and NATO, has voiced concern for years over the state of democracy in Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million strongly supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

    Lukashenko, president since 1994, has often been branded by Western countries as "Europe's last dictator."

    Poland has strained ties with Belarus, and has long criticized Lukashenko for stifling media freedoms and dissent.

    The station initially will broadcast three hours a day, but plans to increase that to 16 hours by February, station officials said.

    Warsaw is already supporting a radio station, Radio Racja, which broadcasts news programming into Belarus.

    A unit of Polish state-run television, Belsat will broadcast entirely in the Belarusian language, with programming prepared chiefly by Belarusian journalists working in both countries.

    The Polish government is Belsat's main contributor, with the Foreign Ministry pledging $8.6 million out of an estimated 2008 budget of $11 million.

    Belsat estimates that more than 7 percent of Belarusian households own satellite dishes, which translates into about 700,000 potential viewers.

    Nearly 30 000 people across Belarus said to have protested against government restrictions on private enterprise

    From: Naveny
    Nearly 30,000 people across Belarus protested against government restrictions on private enterprise on December 10, Lew Marholin and Alyaksandr Talstyka, members of a small business association called For Free Development of Enterprise, told reporters in Minsk on Tuesday.

    The restrictions were introduced by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Edict No. 760, which will ban business owners holding sole entrepreneur status from hiring workers other than three family members after January 1, 2008.

    Four out of the six organizers of Monday’s rally on Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk, namely Viktar Harbachow, Viktar Kaley, Alyaksandr Tsatsura and Alyaksandr Makayew, were arrested, according to Messrs. Marholin and Talstyka.

    Entrepreneurs plan to go on a 30-day strike on January 1, Mr. Marholin said. A decision to this effect was made as a result of consultations between the small business association and the National Coordinating Council of Entrepreneurs.

    “On the one hand, we called for staging a strike, but on the other hand, we don’t want to harm entrepreneurs,” Alyaksandr Makayew, a leader of For Free Development of Enterprise, told BelaPAN earlier. “Regulations entitle sole entrepreneurs to have a 30-day vacation without paying taxes and the stall rent. That’s why we’ll suggest that entrepreneurs file statements announcing that they go on vacation.”

    According to Mr. Talstyka, sole entrepreneurs have been invited to meet with lawmakers and government officials on December 19.

    “However, although Anatol Pawlovich, chairman of a committee in the House of Representatives that deals with, among other things, the development of enterprise, said that there would be no crackdown on the organizers of the protest, our people were arrested. And I don’t rule out a scenario where on December 19, the day when talks are to take place, there will be no one to hold them. All our people will be in jail,” Mr. Marholin said.

  • Cultural scene...

    Belarusian films win 49 diplomas and prizes at international and national contests in 2007

    Alexey Zhigalkovich was hailed in Minsk by roaring crowds and stormy applause
    In 2007, Belarusian films won 49 diplomas and prizes at international and national film contests, Vladimir Kurlovich, an official of the cinematography department of the Belarusian Culture Ministry, told reporters.

    At the 10th Open Film Festival Brigantina in Berdyansk, the Belarusian films received three main prizes. The film “Enemies” by young director Maria Mozhar took the Grand Prix of the festival. The film “Rhyming with Love” by Alexander Efremov took the prize in the nomination “Best Director”. Ana Kovalchuk, a Belarusian actress, won the prize in the nomination “Best Actress”. This film also took the 1st prize at the 16th Open Film Festival of the CIS countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia Kinoshock 2007.

    At the 9th International Festival Eco-Ethno- Folk-Film in Romania, the documentary “Charmed Marshes” by Igor Byshnev took the second prize.

    The 14th Minsk International Film Festival Listapad 2007 was held successfully as well. Attending the forum were more than 70 professionals. Filmmakers from 42 countries worldwide presented their works. More than 150 films were shown during the festival. Belarusian filmmakers were awarded 9 various prizes.

    During the 10th anniversary international festival of cartoons Animaevka and the 6th national festival of Belarusian movies, the best works of Belarusfilm Company and the National State TV and Radio Company for 2005-2007 were presented.

    Belarusian TV and Radio Company: Belarus can hold Junior Eurovision Song Contest at a good level

    Belarus can hold the Junior Eurovision Song Contest at a good level, Yuri Azarenok, deputy chairman of the Belarusian TV and Radio Company, said in a live television broadcast “Belarus-12 Points!”.

    The Belarusian TV and Radio Company submitted a relevant application to the organizational committee of the 2009 Junior Eurovision Song Contest.

    In turn, chief of the national television song project EuroFest Alexander Tikhanovich noted that Belarus has got necessary potential for performing an action of such scale.

    Representatives of 17 countries took part in the 2007 Junior Eurovision Song Contest. This is the second time when Eurovision winner Alexey Zhigalkovich has come from Belarus. The first winner was Kseniya Sitnik in 2005.

  • Around the region...

    Russia demands British Council closes offices

    From: Telegraph
    Britain and Russia are on course for a dramatic showdown after the Kremlin ordered the British embassy to suspend all of its cultural operations outside Moscow.

    Unveiling the latest retaliation in a diplomatic dispute over the murder of ex-KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko last year, Russia instructed the British Council, the Foreign Office's cultural arm, to close its outlets in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg by the beginning of January.

    Russia-UK relations have worsened in recent months
    Britain immediately vowed to defy the order, which it said constituted "a serious breach of international law", setting the stage for a potential police showdown at the two offices in the New Year.

    The extraordinary face-off dashed hopes for a quick resolution to the worst crisis in Anglo-Russian relations since the Cold War with diplomats expressing bafflement and outrage that a charitable entity was being targeted for political reasons.

    The British Council, which promotes British culture and offers academic opportunities to foreign students around the world, has long been the focus of official suspicion in Russia.

    Even before Mr Litvinenko's murder, the organization faced accusations of tax irregularities and lacking legal status, despite being fully legitimized by a 1994 treaty.

    While denying the charges, Britain began quiet negotiations for a new protocol and made significant concessions in the hope of keeping the row separate from the Litvinenko affair.

    But for the first time yesterday, Russia's foreign ministry explicitly linked the British Council's travails to the dispute, saying that it had shelved the new charter in retaliation for the expulsion of four diplomats from London in July.

    "Britain's unfriendly actions towards Russia in July this year, which were accompanied by a whole number of discriminatory measures, derailed our efforts regarding the preparation of this document," spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said.

    Britain expelled four Russian diplomats after the Kremlin refused to hand over Andrei Lugovoi, the MP suspected of murdering Mr Litvinenko.

    Having responded in kind, Russia's decision to escalate a row that had seemed close to resolution by targeting a non-political body drew unusually vocal criticism from the Foreign Office.

    "It is a cultural, not a political, institution and we strongly reject any attempt to link it to Russia's failure to co-operate with our efforts to bring the murder of Alexander Litvinenko to justice," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

    The Kremlin's move also attracted opposition from Russian human rights activists.

    "It looks as if we are sitting behind the Iron Curtain once more," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a prominent former Soviet dissident. "The British Council is not political but educational and extremely useful. We should have been grateful and we have responded with black ingratitude."

    Despite its apparently benign intentions, the British Council combines two attributes the Kremlin dislikes: it is British and is close to Russian civil society, which has been heavily repressed as Vladimir Putin's government has grown more autocratic.

    In the past year several British interests, including the BBC and British companies, have come under increasing official pressure.

    But the often outlandish campaign against the British Council, which has faced accusations of recruiting Russian youngsters for MI6 and deliberately causing a "brain drain" to weaken the country, has particularly damaged the Kremlin's reputation, diplomats warned.

    "There are only two other countries where the British Council has suffered this kind of harassment: Iran and Burma," one said. Despite the possibility that Russia's riot police -- who enhanced their thuggish reputation after breaking up peaceful opposition rallies this year -- being called in to enforce the suspension order, British Council officials vowed to keep working next year.

    "The British Council's activities are fully compliant with Russian law," said Natalia Minchenko, the council's communications chief. "We have not violated any legislation so there is therefore no legal reason to stop working."

    Vladimir Putin will retain power as Russia’s PM

    From: Telegraph
    Vladimir Putin will remain Russia’s most influential man next year — but as prime minister rather than president, his handpicked successor revealed today.

    The bizarre if unsurprising edict, announced by president-designate Dmitry Medvedev, lays to rest years of speculation as to how Mr Putin would overcome a constitutional provision requiring him to retire in the spring of 2008 after completing two successive four-year terms.

    “I consider it to be of the utmost importance for our country to keep Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in the highest post of executive power, the post of head of government of the Russian Federation,” said Mr Medvedev, who was anointed as Mr Putin’s heir yesterday in a television broadcast to the nation.

    The mechanism for Mr Putin’s power grab is complete.

    Mr Medvedev, a Putin protégé and former First Deputy Prime Minister, with no independent political pedigree and no ideology save for loyalty to his mentor of 17 years, is likely be a ceremonial figure who defers to his prime minister.

    advertisementHow the West will respond is unclear. There was almost no international reaction to the development today.

    It is unlikely that Mr Putin will suffer the same opprobrium heaped on Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of neighbouring Belarus, who was labelled a dictator and subjected to sanctions after changing the constitution to serve a third presidential term.

    Although Mr Putin has not broken the constitution, many critics believe he has flouted the spirit of the law and taken a step closer towards outright dictatorship.

    “Putin has pretended to relinquish power in order to keep it,” said Alexander, a university lecturer who would not give his surname for fear of losing his job.

    “It is a parody. He has made a mockery of democracy.”

    With foreign investors hailing the combination of the powerless Mr Medvedev, a relative economic liberal, and Mr Putin as a “dream team”, the West’s protests are likely to be muted.

    Even German chancellor Angela Merkel, often a critic of the president’s autocratic tendencies, phoned Mr Putin to welcome Mr Medvedev’s anointment.

    Many ordinary Russians, who credit Mr Putin for restoring stability to the country, are likely to be happy with the arrangement too.

    “The overwhelming majority of Russians would prefer Putin to stay for a third presidential term. But since this is impossible they will settle for less,” said Edward Lozansky, a former Soviet dissident and prominent academic.

    Theoretically Mr Putin’s future depends on a presidential election next March.

    But with the resources of the state, the president’s genuine popularity and heavily slanted coverage on state television, the chances of voters rejecting Mr Medvedev are slim.

    Last week, Mr Putin’s ruling United Russia party swept to a landslide victory in a heavily choreographed parliamentary election.

    Analysts said it was designed to justify Mr Putin staying on as prime minister.

    In his new position — which legally has much less authority than the presidency — Mr Putin will have to trust his protégé to do as he is told.

    It is unclear whether Mr Medvedev is an interim president, destined to stand down early and allow Mr Putin to return to his old job — a move that is allowed by the constitution.

    Alternatively, and less riskily according to some analysts, Mr Putin could use his vast parliamentary majority to imbue his new post with greater powers at the expense of the presidency.

    Man brutally killed by Polish thugs for refusing to share cigarettes

    From: News
    Polish police have arrested two young inhabitants of Bialystok, north-east Poland, for brutally killing a 27-year old man waiting for his bus.

    The man was stabbed over 20 times. Most probably because he refused to share his cigarettes.

    The man was found on Sunday night in the city centre. He had flesh wounds on his back. Despite extensive resuscitation performed by the paramedics, the man died.

    The police have established that while on the bus, the man and his 19-year old friend got into a fight with two rowdy-behaving men, after he refused to share his cigarettes with them. Things only got owrse when the four of them got off the bus. The 19-year managed to escape, but his older friend was kicked and hit and then stabbed with a switchblade.

    The police first detained only one of the suspects, a 19-year old, on Sunday night. With the help of a police dog, they located his flat, where blood-stained clothes, the mobile phone of the murdered man and a switchblade, probably the one used in the fight, were found. The youngster was drunk.

    The other culprit, a 27-year old inhabitant of Bialystok, was detained the following day. Both men will be hearing charges soon.

    Drug smugglers held

    In a related story, Polish police have cracked a gang smuggling the "date rape" drug ketamine from India to Poland.

    Three suspects, including two Polish women both aged 25 and a 30-year-old Spanish man, were taken into custody in Kielce, central Poland. Police discovered more than 8kg of ketamine in the Kielce home of one of the female suspects.

    Ukraine president presses for Tymoshenko as PM

    From: Reuters
    Ukraine's parliament remained deadlocked on Wednesday as the pro-Western president made a second attempt to restore Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister.

    Tymoshenko stood alongside President Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 "Orange Revolution," but was sacked in 2005 seven months after being named prime minister.

    She won 225 votes in the 450-seat assembly on Tuesday, one short of the majority required to become prime minister, and accused rivals of tampering with the electronic voting system.

    The outcome exposed the fragile nature of a 227-member coalition of two parties to emerge from a September election - Tymoshenko's bloc and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party.

    Yushchenko submitted her name to the chamber a second time. But Tymoshenko's rivals blocked a morning sitting, saying they first wanted to elect senior parliamentary officials.

    Outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the president's rival in the 2004 upheaval, said the vote showed an "orange" coalition had no long-term future. He repeated his call for a "broad coalition" with some of the president's supporters.

    "Voters must at last get an answer on whether the coalition of 227 can take responsibility for the country. Let's make it clear, yes or no," he said in a statement on his Web site.

    Parliament's Conciliation Council, which sets the agenda, was scheduled to sit and Tymoshenko's "orange" allies hoped a session would get under way later in the afternoon.


    Tymoshenko said all 227 coalition members had backed her on Tuesday, but tampering prevented two from registering their votes. But the SBU security service, summoned to investigate, said checks revealed no interference in the system.

    Oleksander Turchinov, one of Tymoshenko's most trusted lieutenants, told reporters any new vote should be taken by a show of hands.

    "The speaker would call on each member to raise his hand and say publicly whether he is for or against," Turchinov said.

    Tymoshenko roused crowds in central Kiev in 2004 by denouncing a rigged election, eventually overturned by a court ruling after Yanukovich was initially declared the winner.

    Named prime minister days after Yushchenko's inauguration, she spooked investors in office by calling for a major review of privatizations and by trying to influence markets. The two reconciled for the September election that had been intended to end three years of political turmoil.

    Analysts were divided on whether Tymoshenko's setback was rooted in a betrayal by some coalition members said to be wary of her return to power, or a genuine technical problem.

    Some said the events bore out skeptics' predictions that members of Our Ukraine considered Tymoshenko an unpredictable populist and would opt for a "broad coalition."

    Ukraine's president marks Chanukah

    From: JTA
    Ukraine's president lit Chanukah candles at a Kiev synagogue.

    During Tuesday's ceremony at the Central Synagogue, Viktor Yuschenko announced a state inventory and return of religious property.

    Yuschenko expressed his respect for Ukrainian Jews and, in reaffirming that his country will safeguard the cultural and spiritual needs of all ethnic minorities, he cited in particular that Ukraine will be “tolerant and sensitive” to the Jewish community's needs.

    “My position toward the Jewish nation and people always was open and remains the same,” the kipah-clad Yuschenko said. “Today we are representatives of two fraternal nations, and we are responsible for today’s dialogue and respect to the past. We should pass this way neatly."

    Yuschenko announced that during the first quarter of next year, a state inventory of all religious property will be carried out in Ukraine, and then the state will return to those properties to the appropriate religious communities.

    Bomb Blamed in Stavropol Bus Blast

    From: Moscow Times
    A bus blast that killed two women and injured 14 others in southern Russia over the weekend was the result of an explosive device, investigators said Monday.

    The bomb went off at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday while the bus was making a planned stop in Nevinnomyssk, a town in the Stavropol region, and the number of casualties would likely have been much higher if the bus had been on the road and full of passengers, Kommersant reported Monday.

    Many of the passengers were outside taking a break when the explosion tore through the bus, which was heading from Stavropol to Pyatigorsk.

    Besides the two dead women, identified as Susanna Gazoryan and Yelena Tarasova, 14 others were injured in the blast, Interfax reported, citing a source in the regional Emergency Situations Ministry. Five victims remained hospitalized as of Monday afternoon.

    Photographs showed the gutted, charred shell of a bus with its windows shattered and the back of its roof lifted upward by the force of the explosion.

    The bomb had the equivalent of 500 grams to 1 kilogram of TNT, an unidentified law enforcement source said, Interfax reported.

    A criminal investigation has been opened on charges of murder and the illegal use of explosives, dismissing initial reports that the accidental explosion of a gas canister might have triggered the blast.

    "A group of investigators from the main criminology department of the Investigative Committee has been sent to the crime scene," the committee, a semiautonomous body under the auspices of the Prosecutor General's Office, said in a statement.

    A woman who answered the phone at the committee's branch in Yessentuki, where the bombing investigation is based, referred all questions to the committee's press service in Moscow. A spokesman for the committee in Moscow said he would not comment beyond what was in the statement.

    Nevinnomyssk police have released a composite sketch of the suspected bomber, described as a thin, dark-haired, dark-eyed man aged 20 to 25, Interfax reported.

    Stavropol Governor Alexander Chernogorov called for citizens to be on the lookout for terrorist activity. "The situation demands an intensification of the activities of civic groups: Cossacks, volunteers and local self-defense leagues," he said in a statement on his official web site.

    The Nevinnomyssk bombing comes less than a month after a similar explosion killed six people in a neighboring region. The Nov. 22 blast hit a bus on the border between North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Authorities classified it as a terrorist attack and said it could have been the work of a suicide bomber.

    Authorities are looking into the possibility that the two bombings might be linked, Interfax quoted a senior investigator as saying.

    Both the Stavropol region and North Ossetia border Chechnya, the restive North Caucasus republic that was the site of two separatist wars in the 1990s.

    In October, a powerful blast ripped apart a passenger bus in the car-manufacturing city of Tolyatti, killing eight and injuring at least 54. Authorities classified the explosion as a terrorist attack.

  • From the blogs...

    The Little Bear Stumbles out of Hibernation

    From: Publius
    News broke on Monday that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin had named his childlike sycophant and Black Sabbath fan Dmitri Medevedev (whose last name means "bear"), chief of the state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom (a position for which he has zero credentials) as the candidate-of-choice to replace Putin next year as Russia's third "president." Medvedev was educated in the same way as Putin, in the USSR when St. Petersburg was Leningrad, studying "law" in a country that didn't even know the meaning of the word. No sooner had Putin made his endorsement than Medvedev announced he wanted Putin to become the nation's next prime minister.

    I do not ordinarily approve of referring to the goings on in Russia, as Alexander Golts does in today's Moscow Times when analyzing Russia's pathetic efforts to contest a new cold war, with the term "farce" because that implies some level of jocularity, and millions of lives are at stake. Yet, it's hard to find any other word in this case to describe what has occurred in Russia over the past fortnight.

    The idea that anyone in Russia is strong enough to serve independently as "president" while Vladimir Putin sits "below" him as prime minister, giving orders to Putin when necessary and dismissing him if the nation's interest called for it, is so ludicrous that the mere suggestion of it offends the intelligence of a turnip. The idea that Medvedev, Putin's #1 ass-licker with absolutely no power base of his own, could serve such a role is so wildly insane that only a neo-Soviet Russian could suggest it with a straight face. On top of that laughable outrage, Putin obviously thinks he can market Medvedev to the West as a so-called "liberal" (or perhaps just "moderate") even after purging the Russian parliament of every single "liberal" member, undercutting Western criticism, simply because Medvedev the bootlicker has no reputation of his own. In other words, he takes the West for subhuman idiots who can be duped with absurd ease, exactly what the leaders of the USSR always thought.

    The Moscow Times reported: "Valery Musin, Medvedev's former academic adviser at Leningrad State University, had this to say to Moscow Times reporter Nabi Abdullaev in a profile of Medvedev published last month: 'Medvedev's personality was shaped under Putin's strong influence, and he worships Putin like a father figure, or at least like an older brother.'" Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Putin spin doctor who now heads a think tank called Institute of National Strategy, told the MT that "Medvedev is very soft and psychologically dependent on Putin. This is extremely important for Putin. He needs to feel comfortable with his subordinates. Putin is the real master of Gazprom, and Medvedev is just his envoy." Viktor Ilyukhin, a senior Communist official, told the MT: "Medvedev is insecure, weak. Putin can have full control of him."

    So much for democracy in Russia.

    In the space of two weeks, Vladimir Putin has destroyed both Russia's parliament and its presidency. It never had a real court system, and now Putin can truly cackle with glee and accurately declare: "L'etat, c'est moi!" Now, only the prime ministry matters, and Putin can call the shots without even needing to take any blame for what goes wrong -- the figurehead "president" is a perfect scapegoat in that event. He can initiate a bold new round of crackdowns on civil rights and liberties while holding up Medvedev as a cover to the West. Should things go "too far" he can always "step in" and "take the reigns back" to "calm things down." Or, he can simply order Medvedev to start a "draft Putin" movement to bring him back to power formally and forever. As opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov told the MT: "The strategy is as follows: Medvedev is a compromise choice because he will allow Putin to keep a free hand. If Putin wants to gradually leave power, Medvedev guarantees him comfort and security and will continue to listen him," Ryzhkov said on Ekho Moskvy radio. "If Putin wants to return in two, three years, Medvedev will be the person who will without a doubt give up the path for him."

    Russians would rankle with contempt towards any foreigner who would dare treat them this way, yet they blithely accept such patronizing outrage from their own government. They stood and fought Hitler, but they allowed Stalin to inflict far more devastating injuries upon them without lifting a finger to stop him.

    They are, as Lilia Shevtova recently wrote, committing suicide. It's a truly horrible thing to behold.

    Putin Visiting Miensk

    From: TOL
    These Thursday and Friday are marked by Mr. Putin’s to-be visit to Miensk. For the first time in several years the Russian president comes to Belarus not for a mere couple of hours on his route to somewhere, but for two full days. Mr. Putin comes to Mr. Lukasenka and not vice verse. That means that it is the Russian side that will ask for something.

    Russia is decisively speeding up on its way to a distinct dictatorship where democratic attributes will be a fake on an obvious totalitarian background. For the first time in the newest history parliamentary elections had been openly dismissed by the West like undemocratic ones. Mr. Putin must leave but wants or is being forced by his Court to remain in some other role, no doubt an important one. Such re-configuration will no doubt sharpen the fight inside the top Russian elite what is only being revealed to the public by the scandal interview of Oleg Schwarzman and arrest of the deputy minister of finance Sergey Strachek.

    What does Mr. Putin wants from Lukasenka a couple of days before the new Duma starts its session?

    What we can say for sure is that it is definitely not gonna be a routine meeting to produce one more round of bright statements that the Union State is almost alive. I guess that one of the following is the thing Mr. Putin wants to persuade Lukasenka to do:

    1. Putin wants to persuade his only Western ally to start doing business like business without any talk of “Slavic brotherhood”. The period to come will be a dangerous one for Mr. Putin and his junta, therefore the KGB colonel wants to have a warranty against one more round of gas war. More then ever Mr. Putin needs now to have new gas price increase for Belarus introduced smoothly.

    This seems to be the most probable variant, however we should not abandon another one, which is:

    2. giving up Belarusian independence. Neither Belarusian, nor Russian side is either morally or legally ready for such a step, however Anschluss of Belarus might give Putin a long-desired reputation of the person who returned Russia the territories it had lost in 1991. By no means we should be misguided by Belarusian side discarding the information that the Unity Act is to be signed at this time.

    3. One more declaration having no legal force will be born which might give Putin a necessary PR effect to re-qualify from a president into the Leader of the Nation.

    Just keep in mind, that anything can happen.

    Back to Belavezha?

    From: Vilhelm Konnander
    A union between Russia and Belarus with Putin as president? Those are the rumours presently at sway in Moscow, as Dmitri Medvedev has just been nominated Putin's successor as Russian president. According to Ekho Moskvy, Putin is to sign an agreement on a full political union between the two countries during his visit to Minsk this week.
    One would normally be inclined to agree with the Kremlin spokesman who characterised these rumours as coming "from the realm of speculative fantasies," but one never knows what might come out of Moscow these days. Still, the idea seems far-fetched and appears to arise from those who simply cannot imagine a Russia without Putin. Fears are wide-spread among the security structures that the choice of Medvedev as new Russian leader might topple the delicate balance Putin has ensured. Still, in recent years, the security structures have gained many of the system changes they have so eagerly wanted.

    Putin's presidency has been an era of stabilization for Russia. However, from 2005 the influence from security structures have been felt by the so called new democratisation or the development of sovereign democracy - effectively ridding Russia of political rights and freedoms. Now, having attained stability and control of the country, Russia's next project is modernization, as expressed by the so called Putin plan. Then, the choice of Medvedev comes naturally.

    Letting go of influence to enable socioeconomic development is no minor matter for the security structures, especially if it means giving power to so called liberals. As has however been demonstrated, there is little liberal politically in Russian elite liberalism. Or, as James Carville once put it: "It's the economy, stupid!" Russian elite liberalism today is all about economic growth and development and has little to do with liberal rights and freedoms.

    Still, despite an impressive economic growth in recent years, there is a long way to go yet and many obstacles to overcome. The main problem on the way ahead might actually be to deal with the consequences of dismantling Russian democracy. Paradoxically, the greater political control the Kremlin has gained, the more severe are the potential consequences for the economy. As surveys from the World Bank has shown, the 2005 policy of new democratization coincides with a general downturn for the systems supporting a good business climate. Would this trend continue, it might become a mounting obstacle for the economic growth and diversification envisioned by the Putin plan as the coming era of modernization. Then, both security structures and Kremlin liberals are in for trouble.

    To even consider a union with Belarus under these circumstances appears mere wishful thinking by soviet nostalgics, but might well be a test-balloon to see what room there is for a new political project by the security structures. Reunification of the Slavic lands - Belarus, and perhaps eventually Ukraine and even Kazakhstan - would be exactly the kind of task that would topple the construction of a new and successful Russia the entire Putin presidency has been about. If Putin were to sign an agreement on political union with Belarus, it would be as if reverting the 1991 Belavezha accords, signifying the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That would be a thoughtless revanchist act of the magnitude of Compiègne, but perhaps those are the sentiments in Russia presently.

    A union between Russia and Belarus fundamentally contradicts the Putin plan's policy of modernization, and the only reason why it might still be seriously considered, would be as a concession from the liberals to the security structures for letting Medvedev succeed Putin as president of Russia. The question one must then ask, is if the ongoing Kremlin power struggle has been allowed to go so far, as to enable even the craziest ideas. If the union and similar ideas would materialise, people will in a few years time look back with nostalgia to the relative peace and quiet of the Putin era.

    Pole sues Wikipedia for calling him ‘a troll’!

    From: Beatroot
    Arnold Buzdygan (photo) – sometime wannabe presidential candidate, and a regular on usernet sites in Poland – went to court in Wroclaw, southwestern Poland, last week, to sue Wikpedia Polska for deformation of character.

    Is the victim/litigation culture entrenching itself in Poland, as it has done in the United Kingdom? Let’s hope not.

    Buzdygan claims that his fiancée’s mother refused to let the marriage go ahead because of an entry on the Polish version of Wikipedia, which, in the ‘controversies’ section, calls him ‘a troll’ for his vulgar interjections on blogs and forums. reports:

      Buzdygan claims that calling him a “troll” is offensive. “This is a very grave offense among Internet users. Something like a paedophile elsewhere”, says Buzdygan, quoted by the news portal…

      “Mr. Buzdygan’s claims are ridiculous. Wikipedia is not our product, it is being created by Internet users. Basically, anyone can contribute. The administrator’s role is solely to prevent vandalism”, said a Wikipedia editor…

      However, Andrzej Malicki, at the Circuit Bar Council in Wroclaw, disagrees: “Internet media should adhere to the same rules as newspapers, for instance. If offensive material is published, the editor should bear in mind the possible consequences.”
    Troll? ‘Offensive material’?

    Wikipedia’s own entry on the word says:

      Someone who intentionally posts controversial or contrary messages in an on-line community such as an on-line discussion forum or group with the singular intention of baiting users into an argumentative response.[1] It often has a broader meaning referring to any shady trouble making Internet activity.
    So, it is possible to waste precious Polish court time – and it is precious: cases can take years to get as far as court – by claiming that saying someone is a ‘troublemaker’ on the internet is 'offensive'. LOL, as troll-types say.

    It is bad enough when big business use the courts to shut people’s opinions up which they don’t like, but when internet users go to the same lengths, then it is about time we called cranks like Buzdygan something worse than a ‘troll’. How about 'dickhead timewaster'?

    His fiancée’s mother is a very wise woman, indeed.

    British Council in Trouble Again in Russia

    Out of all the various British businesses and institutions that the Russian government could harass and expel from the country, isn't it odd that they have chosen a harmless group of English teachers? We first reported on the attempts to expel this non-profit organization from its offices in Yekaterinaburg last June, and today there is news that the authorities have banned the group from operating outside of Moscow, as the government has claimed that three offices have failed to properly register.

    You have to admire the ongoing efforts to produce the reasoning of counterfeit legalism on the matter. According to the Foreign Ministry statement, "In the absence of a legal basis regulating the activities of the British Council in the Russian Federation, the British side has been informed about the suspension of the activities of all regional branches of the Council in Russia from January 1, 2008. ... At issue is the suspension of their activities, including current projects, until an agreement between the Russian and British sides can be reached."

    Of course not everyone is buying into this explanation, and many are pointing to the poor state of relations between the two countries over the Litvinenko affair. "We are going back to the Iron Curtain ... This is a return to a policy of isolation,'' said Lyudmilla Alexeyeva from the Moscow Helsinki Group.

    For one, I really don't see the point of pretending that there is actually a substantive legal basis behind Russia's banning of the British Council - why not just tell the truth, and say the teachers can go back to work when relations with the UK improve? And two, isn't it the Russian students who receive these subsidized English lessons the ones who are really being punished?

  • Endnote...

    The Belarusian/Russian Union State…

    From: The Story
    There has been a lot of talk going around about the intended meeting between Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin this week. The intrigue has been that there is a possibility that the proposed Union State merger between Belarus and Russia is finally at hand. As usual there has been a lot of tongue wagging, accusations and denials about what the merger might actually mean and whether or not there are any political ramifications for either Putin or the last dictator. But from my position here in Pinsk all I can do is feel how the tides push and pull us because really, from the inside none of this is news; Belarus has been dealing with its connection to Russia since the beginning.

    This Union State idea actually dates back to the early nineties and most probably from the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. At that time the decision was to allow all of the 15 countries which had been a part of the USSR to acquire the status of independent, sovereign nations. But from the earliest of times the debate about Belarus and its connection to Russia has been the most nebulous. From early on it was obvious that Belarus lacked the sorts of resources to "pull itself up by the bootstraps". Its factories were antiquated, its landscape offered very few opportunities for pleasure or tourism and frankly, its insistence on retaining social and communal values made it very difficult to assimilate in a similar way as Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia. This is not to say that those countries really did throw their old values away, but Belarus has had its strong handed leadership and an openly anti-EU platform and this has led to tensions rather than absorption into the EU, a stance that Belarusians know as anti-exploitationism.

    And of course Belarus has been made to suffer for these choices. Economic sanctions have made it harder to accesses markets for locally manufactured products and political antagonism from outside from unconnected political parties have disallowed for constructive dialogues or a respectable social position amongst the nations. The results have been that in addition to having had to suffer massive economic difficulties, even the recovery process itself has been twice as hard as it needed to be.

    Despite massive economic problems however, whether or not Belarus has really wanted to be a part of Russia has always been a question. Culturally, Belarus and Russia are very similar. The country is officially bilingual but Russian is the main language of communication in all of the urban centers and is the language in which all students receive their lessons. Though having spent time under the rule of Lithuania, and for a very short and unhappy period with Poland, for the vast majority of its history White Russia has been either under the direction of the tsars or the politburo. Certainly any immigrant from Minsk (or Pinsk) from the turn of the 20th century understood that they had come from Russia. Even its name makes it clear who the people of the country are.

    On the other hand, while it is true that Belarusians understand their connection to Russia, at least culturally, at the same time the truth has been that they never really liked them very much. During the time of the Soviet Union Belarus basically functioned as a manufacturing arm for Russia. For their efforts of actually doing Russia's work for them they received praise as been the best sort of people, the best communists. It has never really been clear to me whether Belarus took this to heart or whether they simply endured the comment, but in any case the country functioned because of its connection to Russian resources; in other words they knew they were being exploited but the thought it was for the common good.

    In recent years Belarusian opinion about its relationship with Russia has changed back and forth several times depending upon the financial situation. 10 years ago, when the Russians wanted no part of Belarus, people here celebrated Belarusian culture and language as being special. The believed in a bright and independent future and looked forward to the challenge of creating it. Five years ago though, at the depth of a horrible depression all hopes seemed to come from the east and during this time all things Belarusian were seen as a waste of time. But then during the time of the elections and the "economic miracle", the idea of a potentially strong and independent Belarus fueled an 83% election result.

    But what has always been true is that Belarus has always yearned to somehow find a way to feed itself without needing to bow to either western or eastern masters. Independence and self reliance is what parents teach their children. Even the president's television messages during the elections went that all here have their own work and therefore there is no need of outside agitators. Certainly a great part of this sentiment has to do with a socialist philosophy that says that the work of one's hands along with discipline, diligence and perseverance is all that is required to live and succeed. The last elections were clearly a statement that the country would rather remain in poverty, or at least were not afraid to do so, if only there remained a possibility to live under one's own guidance and leadership- and to do so in a manner they themselves could respect.

    However, immediately after the elections western media was quick to point out that the money which had been financing that "economic miracle", the moderate stability which had been fueling all of that independent Belarus thought, had largely not come from worker diligence but rather from the ability to receive Russian gas and oil at a low cost and to resell it to European neighbors at a profit. Last New Year's Gazprom price hike therefore hit the country like a punch in the face. Had not Belarus and Russia been brothers all along? Or more importantly, how could Russia justify charging European prices to a country whose mean income was only a tenth or less of its European counterpart?

    Since Gazprom's price hike last New Years, Russia has also made it very clear that regardless of hopes and expectations, there is no inherent connection to Belarus at all and has been constantly flexing its muscles to prove the point. The start of the year saw sugar backed up at weigh stations because Russia was simply refusing to allow it into the country. Allotments and price issues for oil threatened manufacturing shortages. A new pipeline around Belarus has been proposed. And worse, trying to deal with the Russian dept has had a spiraling effect on the Belarusian economy and fears of yet another crisis or even a general collapse swept through the country. This was not felt so much in the beginning when, along with government assurances that the change would not be as big as feared, there seemed to be only an additional few dollars to pay for the gas. Soon though, it became clear that everything was becoming more and more expensive. Prices for everything are going up, seemingly with the same sorts of velocities as during the times of the crashes. A bag of sour crème was just 1600 rubles a few months ago is now 2600. Rice or porridge is up 25%. The cost of cooking oil literally doubled over night. And of course the house payments all went up across the board and student and senior privileges disappeared. Even the cost of riding public transportation doubled.

    "How can this be justified when the payroll standard has not risen accordingly?" people ask.

    But what could be done? The government, though refusing to take any blame went code red for the year trying to keep things together and functioning. Cost cutting became the rule of thumb and finding new avenues of revenue became the norm. Even the president himself was not immune to responsibility and spent 2007 traveling around aggressively looking for potential investors and business partners.

    Eventually though all of this has seemed as if Russia has been teaching Belarus a lesson about who is really the boss. And what is more, in a move obviously as much connected to Russia's desire to continue to service European gas needs as it was local fiscal necessity, Belarus has even been made to play ball with the Europeans. Or in other words, despite voting for and wanting to believe in the idea of an independent and self sufficient Belarus, according to the state the very manor in which this independence now needs to be carried out has ultimately led the country to a road going in the exact opposite direction from which it voted for.

    Lately I have been asking people how they feel about the union (Is 'hostile takeover' a more appropriate term?) with Russia. At best people are grudgingly receptive to a Russian future but in general the mood is not positive. Yes, there are those who believe that the association could lead to higher incomes and a more agreeable lifestyle and many would follow Russia out of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. But it clearly seems that most people doubt if any Gazmoney would ever get into the hands of the average worker. Belarusian workers who have been in Moscow and Petersburg all agree that though a bit more money is possible, corruption and other pitfalls follow any even moderate success and workers coming back from the outlying territories show us that average Russian workers live just the same as here and in some cases with even less. Even for those who still follow the Euro-backed opposition, though seemingly getting what they wanted from Russia's insistence on Belarus opening its doors, it is well known that foreign companies will never pay foreign wages and that eventually any profit from such deals will eventually leave the country.

    In the end, the philosophy here, even for adults, has always been that it is better to have 100 friends than 100 dollars. But what is there to do when the lives of all of your supposed friends have already been bought and sold? What is there to look forward to if you can't work for each other or for money? The harshest criticism is that all of these last political movements have just been the final nails in the coffin for any sort of communal soul. For pro-democracy lemmings and American Nashis this could be seen as a victory but for those on the inside it has all simply amounted to the removal of the motivation to work in general.

    So such is the attitude going into this year's holiday season. Here in Pinsk we will all meet after midnight on New Years in the newly rebuilt Lenin Square to dance and drink and party the night away. I suppose that there will also be the same undercurrent of uncertainty that went along with last year's party; Belarus knows that it's going to get worse. The difference though is that last year Belarus still held out hope that the state might be able to some how pull off a last minute deal and get the Russians to allow just a little more time, a little more opportunity to get things together before taking it all for themselves. But of course that didn't happen. This year, everyone already knows that the cost of living will go up yet again, that there is little hope of wages rising accordingly and worse, that the landlord no longer even has a face, a name or a family. These days there is not really very much hope only the load to carry and what roads are available to walk on.