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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Belarus approves Economic plan, Visa stamps, Energy issues, Harvest, Spies, US, Russia and Putin is Time's Man of the Year…

  • From the Top...
  • #267

    President approves major parameters of socio-economic development forecast of Belarus for 2008

    From: BelTA
    Alexander Lukashenko at the session of the Supreme State Council of the Belarus-Russia Union State
    By his Decree No 656 of 18 December, the Head of State approved the major parameters of the prognosis of socio-economic development of the Republic of Belarus for 2008.

    The GDP growth target is 8-9 per cent, in line with the Programme of Social and Economic Development of the Republic of Belarus 2006-2010.

    However, to fulfil the President’s instruction to mobilise Belarus’ economy, the Government should team up with the National Bank to develop a set of additional measures aimed at enhancing the effectiveness of the national economy and promoting its dynamic development in order to ensure a 10-11 per cent GDP growth in 2008.

    With a view to ensuring sustainable economic growth and rise in living standards of the population, the following major parameters of the prognosis of socio-economic development of the Republic of Belarus for 2008 have been set:

    However, in order to fulfil the head of state’s instructions concerning the mobilisation of the national economy the government and the National Bank have been commissioned with working out a set of additional measures aimed at raising the effectiveness of the national economy and securing its dynamic development for the sake of reaching the GDP growth as high as 10-11% in 2008.

    With a view to securing sustainable economic growth and improving living standards of Belarusians the following most parameters of the national social and economic development guidelines for 2008 have been specified.

    The growth of the industrial output in comparable prices as against 2007 is expected to stand at 8-9%, agricultural output — 7-8%. The production of consumer goods is expected to swell by 9-10%, with foods output up by 8-9%, non-foods output — 10-11% up. In 2008 fixed-capital investments are supposed to increase by 15-17%.

    In balance of payment terms the overseas trade in goods and services will grow by 14.5-15.5%, with export up by 16-17%, import — 12.5-13.5%, with the foreign trade deficit as large as $1,400-1,420 million.

    Real money incomes of Belarusians are supposed to gain 9-10%. The retail trade turnover should increase by 10-11%, the volume of chargeable services to individuals — 9-10%, labour productivity — 6.9-7.7%.

    The profitability of the industry’s sold products, works and services is expected to stand at 12-13%. The energy consumption of the gross domestic product is to be reduced by 7-8%.

    In 2008 there are plans to commission 4.7-5.2 million square metres of housing. The number of people engaged in the economy will make 4,460-4,535 thousand.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Belarusian President signs decree to facilitate visa procedures for Belarusians

    From: BelTA
    In line with President’s Decree #643 signed on December 17, the stamps that are put in Belarusian passports to allow their owners to leave the country will be annulled starting January 1, 2008, BelTA learnt from the presidential press service.

    In such a way, the passport of the citizen of the Republic of Belarus will be valid for temporal travels abroad without permission stamps.

    The document provides for setting up a common database listing citizens, whose right to leave the country is temporarily restricted. In line with the decree, the relative statement determines the order of the database listing citizens, the list of the bodies which will form the database and also the mechanism of forwarding this information to the State Border Committee.

    Additionally, simplified border crossing procedures will be enabled for Belarusians, who live in borderline areas, at several border checkpoints in the Lithuanian and Latvian sections of the Belarusian border, the press service of the President of Belarus told BelTA.

    The head of state has amended Decree No 313 “Border checkpoints at the State Border of the Republic of Belarus and types of control they exercise” of May 10, 2006.

    Belarus expects European Commission’s response to proposals for liberal visa procedures

    The Foreign Ministry of Belarus expects the European Commission to respond to Belarus’ proposals concerning the liberalisation of visa procedures with the European Union, Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Valery Voronetsky told BelTA when asked about the possibility of cheaper Schengen visas for Belarusians.

    “Belarus has presented its proposals and now expects the European Commission to be ready to start negotiations for liberalising visa procedures on behalf of the European Union. We hope to receive a positive response to our proposals,” said the Deputy Foreign Minister.

    He also noted, Belarus “very vigorously collaborates with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in order to facilitate mutual travels for individuals as much as possible”. In particular, the possibility of privileged or free access of Belarusian citizens to these countries is considered.

    December 21 will see the Schengen zone expand up to Belarus’ borders as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Malta will become part of the border-free environment. Schengen visas cost €60 for citizens of Belarus.

    In 2008 Belarus intends to pass law on renewable energy sources

    From: BelTA
    In 2008 Belarus intends to pass a law on non-conventional and renewable energy sources, BelTA learnt from Anatoly Pavlovich, the chairman of the permanent commission on industry, fuel and energy complex, transport, communications and entrepreneurship of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus.

    According to him, the Government and other state bodies are working on the document. In H1 2008 the draft will be submitted for approval of the House of Representatives of Belarus, said Anatoly Pavlovich.

    “The theme of renewable energy sources is rather important nowadays. This is an important issue, Europe is working today on,” Anatoly Pavlovich noted. He explained that interest in small-scale power engineering continues growing also because of the implementation of mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol. “Wind and solar energy, hydropower engineering, biotechnologies and other renewable energy sources do not pollute atmosphere and do not produce so much CO2 as large-scale power engineering does. We should turn meticulous attention to this area of activity. No doubt, Belarus should pass a law on renewable energy sources,” Anatoly Pavlovich stressed.

    According to him, nuclear power engineering will be in the limelight of the deputy corps in 2008 as well. A relevant draft law will be considered at the end of 2008, the parliamentarian underlined.

    In 2008, Belarus plans to harvest 7,8mn tonnes of grain

    From: BelTA
    In 2008 Belarus plans to harvest 7 million 800 thousand tonnes of grain, Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Ivan Bambiza said at a joint session of the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic of the Belarusian parliament. According to the Vice-Premier, ambitious goals have been set for the agriculture industry. The production of sugar beets is projected at 3 million tonnes, potatoes at 8 million 750 thousand tonnes, vegetables at 2 million 100 thousand tonnes, flax fibers at 60 thousand tonnes, rapeseed oil at 431 thousand tonnes.

    Ivan Bambiza said that in 2008 the national economy will be developing more dynamically. GDP is projected to grow by 11%, incomes of people – by 16-19%. Around 5.2 million square metres of housing will be constructed. “This is why we need to mobilize all resources both on the national and regional level,” the Vice-Premier said.

    By 2009 Belarus to satisfy completely domestic demand for preserves

    By 2009, Belarus is set to satisfy the domestic demand for preserves including juices in full, Vice-Premier Ivan Bambiza told a session of the House of Representatives and the Council of the Republic of the Belarusian Parliament on December 19.

    According to him, today Belarus imports up to 60% of juices. “By the middle of the next year we will ramp up our own capacities to produce juices to satisfy the demand of this country and to make export deliveries,” the Vice-Premier said. He also noted that in 2007-2008, Belarus’ preserving facilities will be overhauled.

    Ivan Bambiza noted that Belarus is modernizing the companies of processing industry. Thus, this year more than Br400 billion was assigned to reconstruct and modernize the brewing, distilling, preserving, potato-processing, meat-dairy and sugar refining capacities. By 2010, 14 new companies are expected to be set up in Belarus and 32 companies will be modernized. Belarus is implementing the investment programme 2006-2010. In the near future, sugar refining facilities will continue renovation projects.

    According to the Vice-Premier, the near-term goals are to intensify the processing production and expand product lines.

    More than Br1 trillion to be assigned in Belarus for purchasing agricultural machinery in 2008

    In 2008, Br1 trillion 50 billion will be assigned in Belarus for purchasing agricultural machinery, Vice-Premier Ivan Bambiza told a session of the House of Representatives and the Council of Republic of the Belarusian Parliament on December 19.

    According to him, Br426 billion will be financed from the national fund for the support of agricultural producers. Oblasts’ budgets will assign Br8.9 billion for purchasing agricultural machinery. Bank loans will make up Br561 billion, own funds of companies – Br53 billion.

    Ivan Bambiza noted that in 2008, agricultural companies will purchase 950 combine harvesters, 100 fodder choppers, 400 loading machines, 1 thousand of tractors, 500 trucks.
    Moreover, in 2008, Br1.572 trillion will be assigned for purchasing mineral fertilizers.

    Belarus to import agricultural machines only unavailable locally in 2008

    In 2008 Br1.05 trillion will be appropriated for buying homemade agricultural machines, Deputy Prime Minister of Belarus Ivan Bambiza told media on December 19.

    He said, it is the minimum sum and includes state support. Ivan Bambiza explained, the money will be spent on buying machines made by Gomselmash, MTZ, MAZ and other producers of agricultural machines. “Agricultural companies may use their own money to buy machines as well,” stressed Ivan Bambiza.

    According to the Deputy Prime Minister, next year Belarus will also import agricultural machines, which are not manufactured in the country, such as tractors with the engine capacity larger than 300 horse powers. “We will buy the agricultural machines we cannot start manufacturing domestically, but mainly they are technological equipment,” noted Ivan Bambiza. He also explained, there are no plans for special appropriation of funds for importing agricultural machines. Such decisions are up to agricultural companies to make, they can be given support of the state budget.

    More then ten spies seized by Belarusian KGB in 2007

    From: BelTA and Interfax
    This year officers of the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) seized more than ten agents of foreign special services and uncovered an espionage ring of one of the neighbouring countries as a result of a special operation, Yuri Zhadobin, Chairman of the State Security Committee of Belarus, told media on December 19.

    In his words, in line with the legislation state security agencies are in charge of intelligence, counterintelligence, fight against terrorism and extremism manifestations, provision of economic security, fight against corruption and organised crime, protection of state interests.

    "Our opponents try to enter our territory in order to collect political, economic, military, scientific, and technical information. The KGB uncovered a military spy ring from the neighboring state [Poland] and foiled the activity of over ten foreign spies," Zhadobin said.

    A spy ring of one of the foreign states was foiled "in a classic counter-intelligence operation," he said.

    "We created a tight counter-intelligence regime for our, to put it mildly, opponents on the territory of our country," Zhadobin said.

    The KGB head forecast that foreign spies will become more active in the period of the 2008 parliamentary elections campaign.

    "I am aware of this because I have evidence for this: who, how much money, and through whom will inject the money and what they will try to do. There are no doubts, the relevant services keep track of the situation and make reports," the KGB representative said.

    This year, "security agencies foiled the activity of 270 officials who committed corruption related crimes. Nine criminal rings, whose numbered 80 people, that were involved in smuggling, extortions, robberies, thefts, and other serious crimes were eliminated this year," the KGB head said, adding that as a result of activity to guarantee economic security "the state did not sustain the damage of 164 billion Belarusian rubles this year," Zhadobin said.

    Despite its peace loving policy Belarus has become an arena of active confrontation of the counterintelligence service and intelligence services of the world powers, an object of intelligence operations and other actions taken by foreign special services, noted Yuri Zhadobin. He said, foreign special services are expected to become more active on the eve of the forthcoming parliamentary elections in 2008. The processes are tracked, state security bodies have information about who and how much will donate to the opposition. Yet the KGB chief stressed, it is not a threat to Belarus.

  • From the international press...

    Belarus Says US Sanctions Illegal

    From: AP
    Belarus' ambassador said Monday the United States was violating an agreement it signed in 1994 by maintaining economic sanctions against his country.

    Mikhail Khvostov pointed to a "memorandum of security assurances" signed by the two countries after Belarus pledged to be a non-nuclear state under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    A U.S. official denied that the document had ruled out sanctions.

    "We consider our actions to be wholly consistent with our political commitments and our obligations," said David Kramer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

    He said Khvostov's allegation was a diversion from criticism of recent violent attacks by the government in Belarus against political opponents.

    U.S. authorities leveled sanctions this year against Belarus' state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company, Belneftekhim, freezing its assets and barring American companies from doing business with it. In concert with the European Union, the United States already had sanctioned Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and other senior officials last year.

    The United States is considering new sanctions against Belarus because of its refusal to free political prisoners and allow democratic freedoms. The Bush administration has listed the former Soviet republic as an "outpost of tyranny" along with other U.S. adversaries such as Cuba and Myanmar.

    Khvostov said in a news conference that the United States has violated international law in regard to its promises in the 1994 memorandum.

    "It shows that at any time the Bush administration can roll back the U.S. security assurances given to a legally binding instrument," the ambassador said.

    The U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Karen Stewart, said last week that new economic measures, which would be on top of the travel restrictions and other sanctions already in place, could target other state-owned Belarusian companies.

    Lukashenko has been Belarus' authoritarian ruler for more than a decade.

    The Belarusian leader has quashed dissent and opposition groups and built a Soviet-style, centrally controlled economy that has been heavily reliant on cheap Russian energy for its survival. Belarus has been called Europe's last dictatorship.

    The travel sanctions followed the arrests and harassment of political opponents and others during the 2006 election, which gave Lukashenko a third term but was sharply criticized as a sham by Belarusian opposition groups and many Western governments.

    Agreement gives green light to Belarus ethanol plant

    From: biofuel review
    A framework agreement signed by both the government of Belarus and Greenfield Project Management has effectively cleared the way for the plans for a 550 million litres per year ethanol plant to come to fruition. The agreement between Greenfield and Belarus, signed by Ivan Bambiza, Belarus Deputy Prime Minister and Greenfield chair Ann McClain, includes the key area of supplies of feedstock.

    Various types of grain together with sugar beet are included, and the government has undertaken to prepare a “comprehensive programme of cooperation” to develop supplies of these, including an initial target of growing an extra 500,000 tons of grain annually up to a total of 1.5 million tons extra grain for ethanol production.

    In addition, at least one million tons of sugar beet is being made available. Greenfield has undertaken to investigate optimal ways in which this resource can be used to develop the ethanol project.

    The Framework Agreement also directs the parties to “ensure the use of arable lands in the regions affected by the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station” in the supply chain for the plant.

    Commenting on this, Greenfield chair Ann McClain said: “Both Greenfield and the government have from the outset seen the ethanol sector as an economically sustainable way of remediating and redeveloping the contaminated Chernobyl lands. This agreement will give real impetus to this long-term humanitarian and social project on a firm basis of financial viability.”

    Ms McClain said that the agreement resolves a knotty problem for investors in the project, the assurance of stable supplies of feedstock in volatile market conditions. “In several instances recently, ethanol projects have been put on hold and even established plants have been shut down,” she said, “but the agreement we have signed today provides a hedge against that possibility for our plant at Mozyr. We will have assured supplies of varied feedstocks, and we will have assured and sustainable pricing.

    “In addition, growing feedstocks on the Chernobyl lands is a win-win proposition for all parties: farmers will get a good price for grains which cannot be used in the food chain, ethanol production costs will be insulated from the spikes in world market prices for grain, and the cultivation and production process will remove radioactive isotopes from the soil faster than nuclear decay,” she emphasised.

    Ms McClain concluded her comments after the signing ceremony by saying: “You know, I want to emphasise that this is a seriously important project and that we are very, very serious about it. We've spent nearly five years on it. And we've spent nearly €8 million of our funds getting it to this point. We will see it through. We will be there to turn the first sod. We will be there to lay the foundation stone.”

    Greenfield’s CEO, Michael Rietveld, stressed his gratitude to the Prime Minister for driving the project ahead. “Without the commitment shown by Mr Sidorsky and the Council of Ministers, this project would not have reached this point. We now have assured feedstock supplies, fully-registered joint venture corporations, and solid legal and institutional support. We look forward to 2008 and building the refinery just as soon as we conclude the Environmental Impact Assessment and the FEED stage preliminaries.”

    UN approves resolution denouncing Belarus human rights violations

    From: Itar Tass
    The UN General Assembly approved on Tuesday a resolution slamming Belarus for human rights violations. The U.S.-proposed document was supported by 72 states; 33 voted against and 78 abstained.

    The resolution alleged that systemic human rights violations, and oppression and persecution of media outlets, the Opposition and rights activists continue in Belarus.

    Representatives of the delegations which voted against the document, called it "politically motivated." They noted that the approval of such a resolution was an attempt to interfere in the affairs of sovereign states. The Russian delegation was among those who did not support the document.

    However, unlike resolutions by the UN Security Council, the resolutions of the UN General Assembly are not legally binding and do not necessarily have to be complied with.

    Earlier, deputy speaker of the Belarussian parliament Sergei Zabolotets stated that Belarus was no worse that the United States in terms of providing for human rights and freedoms.

    "The most surprising fact is that there're no new arguments regarding Belarus, the trivial pattern is used, with the aim of defaming the country which has opted for an independent way of development," Zabolotets told reporters when the third committee of the UN General Assembly recommended the resolution for approval.

    "There are problems in Belarus. But we see them and work on them. Putting pressure on the country instead of constructive and serious dialogue has no prospects," he said.

    Belarus to continue talks on Russian gas price in 2008

    From: Ria Novosti
    Belarus will continue negotiations on the price of Russian natural gas in 2008, a Belarusian deputy prime minister said on Wednesday.

    Ivan Bambiza told the Belarusian parliament that a price has so far only been agreed for the first quarter of 2008.

    Under an agreement reached between Russian energy giant Gazprom and the ex-Soviet state, which is in the process of forming a Union State with Russia, Russian energy giant Gazprom will sell natural gas to Belarus in January-March at $119 per 1,000 cubic meters.

    On January 1, Russia raised the price of its gas supplies to Belarus to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters from $46.7 in 2006, which sparked a dispute between the two countries, and provoked further accusations in Europe that Russia was using its oil and gas as a political weapon.

    Meanwhile, Belarusian Energy Minister Alexander Ozerets said he didn't know what the future price would be. "We are living in market conditions, and it is the market that will determine the price of gas for Belarus."

    Belarus: Execution of Alyaksandr Syarheychyk

    From: Scoop
    Amnesty International and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee condemn the reported recent execution of Alyaksandr Syarheychyk by the Belarusian authorities. Alyaksandr Syarheychyk was found guilty of murder, rape, theft of firearms and other crimes on 22 May 2007 and sentenced to death.

    Amnesty International and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee are urging the Belarusian authorities to immediately clarify, in writing, the details of Alyaksandr Syarheychyk's case, emphasising that if he has been executed, his relatives should have received full access to information including the dates and places of execution and burial, and have been allowed to collect the prisoner's remains and any personal effects.

    In accordance with UN resolution 2005/59, adopted on 20 April 2005, the UN Commission on Human Rights calls upon all states that still maintain the death penalty "to make available to the public information with regard to the imposition of the death penalty and to any scheduled execution."

    It has been stressed to the Belarusian authorities that the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has stated that "transparency is essential wherever the death penalty is applied. Secrecy as to those executed violates human rights standards. Full and accurate reporting of all executions should be published and a consolidated version prepared on at least an annual basis."

    Amnesty International and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee oppose the death penalty in all cases, without exception. The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights, violating the right to life as proclaimed in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.

    The recent resolution calling for a moratorium on executions at the Third Committee of the United Nations on 15 November calls upon states that still maintain the death penalty "to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty." It urges these states, including Belarus, "to respect international standards that provide safeguards guaranteeing the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty", "to provide the Secretary-General with information relating to the use of capital punishment" and "progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed."


    Belarus is the only country in Europe and the former Soviet Union that still executes prisoners. Belarus maintains the death penalty for "premeditated, aggravated murder" and 12 other peacetime offences. There are no figures available to date for the number of executions carried out in 2007. Execution is by a gunshot to the back of the head, and relatives are not officially told of the date of the execution or where the body is buried. On 16 November, commenting on the UN Resolution on a Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty that was passed on 15 November, the Minister of Internal Affairs told journalists that it was too early to introduce a moratorium in Belarus.

  • Cultural scene...

    Belarus Free Theatre feature in Soho season

    From: The Stage
    Soho Theatre has announced details of its programme line-up for January to April 2008, which includes the UK premiere run of the Belarus Free Theatre’s Being Harold Pinter and Generation Jeans.

    The two shows from the Belarussian company, banned in its own country for presenting uncensored performances, will run from February 11-23.

    The season will also include a revival of Tanika Gupta’s White Boy, which will kick off on January 16, and a debut play - A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians - by young Polish writer Dorota Maslowska.

    Playwright Wajdi Mouawad will make his UK debut with Wedding Day at the Cro-Magnons from April 1-19, and Tiger Lillies: The 7 Deadly Sins will play in the same month.

    Meanwhile, Suspect Culture and Greae Theatre Company’s production Static - a fusion of music, sign-language and audio description - will complete the venue’s first quarter.

    Belarus Foreign Ministry presents exhibition of paintings by young Belarusian artist Vasily Peshkun

    From: BelTA
    Lyalka children’s theatre stages a new fairytale production “Adventures in a New Year’s Forest”
    An exhibition of paintings by young Belarusian artist Vasily Peshkun “My City” opened in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus on December 19.

    The exposition features about 20 sketches of the Vasily Peshkun’s favourite corners of Minsk. “Each work is a certain day of the city’s and my life,” said the artist.

    As Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Valery Voronetsky said at an opening ceremony, “in his paintings Vasily Peshkun managed to describe those moments, which we sometimes do not notice. These sketches of the young and talented artist create strong impressions and surprise.” Valery Voronetsky expressed gratitude to Vasily Peshkun for the possibility to present his works within the walls of the Foreign Ministry of Belarus.

    Vasily Peshkun graduated from the Belarusian Academy of Arts. He takes part in the republican and international exhibitions on a permanent basis. Not long ago his works were displayed in the Netherlands and now are exhibited in Hungary including in the Belarusian embassy in Budapest.

    Minsk to host Interstate Council for Cooperation in Periodicals and Book Publishing

    The 10th session of the Interstate Council for Cooperation in Periodicals, Book Publishing and Bookselling will be held in the CIS Executive Committee in Minsk on December 20-21.

    Members of the Council are set to consider more than 10 issues, BelTA learnt from the press service of the CIS Headquarters. They will discuss the results of the 4th International Contest “Art of Book” and also the issues on holding this contest in 2008. Participants of the session will also discuss the course of implementation of the Agreement on Cooperation in Book Publishing, Bookselling and Printing.

    During the session, its participants will pay a special attention to the projects of the Book Rights Declaration and the agreement on creating favourable conditions for periodicals exchange. Moreover, the members of the Council are set to prepare and agree the draft action plan for celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, develop the measures to implement the recommendations of the round table on covering the CIS subject in mass media of the CIS member states.

    The Interstate Council for Cooperation in Periodicals, Book Publishing and Bookselling was founded in line with the Agreement of June 4, 1999. The Council is led by Information Minister of Belarus Vladimir Rusakevich.

  • Around the region...

    Insight: Investing in Russia brings risks and rewards

    Although some observers have questioned the manner in which the poll was conducted, the victory of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in the recent parliamentary election and the likelihood of his protege, Dmitri Medvedev, becoming president in March 2008, have improved the risk-reward balance for investors.

    Russian equities have underperformed most global emerging market peers by a wide margin this year due in large part to the uncertainty surrounding the current election cycle. This is not surprising, considering that it marks only the second transition of power since the Soviet Union collapsed more than 15 years ago.

    Investors have been concerned that the sound economic policies that brought Russia from the edge of a precipice in the 1998 crisis to a position of enviable economic stability, high growth and rapidly rising prosperity, may change. Investors who banked on the Putin presidency back then were handsomely rewarded. Between January 2000, when he took office, and March this year, the MSCI Russia index was up by 1,200 per cent.

    With parliamentary elections now out of the way, and Mr Putin’s announced endorsement of Dmitri Medvedev as his successor, the key questions facing investors include who is Mr Medvedev and will the key economic policies of Mr Putin’s eight-year administration change substantially.

    Mr Medvedev, whose surname is derived from the Russian word for bear, graduated top of his class from one of Russia’s best law schools, has known and worked with Putin since the early 1990s, and is on the liberal side of the multi-factioned group advising the current president. From an economic policy perspective, it is highly likely we will get more of the same: rigorously tight fiscal policy and a focus on investment-led growth.

    Corporate governance, always a crucial concern in Russia, is now much less likely to deteriorate than it may have done if one of the other two front-runners for the top job, had moved into poll position. Mr Medvedev comes from the private sector (chairman of Gazprom) and understands the importance of the rule of law in attracting investment. He has made clear that he supports Mr Putin’s view that the state should control strategic assets but that the private sector’s role in the economy is crucial.

    The Russian market’s pause for breath this year has to a large extent been due to this political uncertainty. This has opened up an opportunity. A year ago, Russian companies traded at the high end of the global emerging market value spectrum but as other markets have stormed ahead this year – China and Brazil are both up more than 80 per cent in dollar terms compared to Russia’s less than 25 per cent – and as corporate Russia has been delivering above-average earnings growth rates, Russia has again become one of the world’s cheapest markets.

    According to consensus data, Russia is trading on 2008 price/earnings ratio of only 10.5, versus the global emerging average of 13. Although the equity market remains dominated by oil, other sectors offer better opportunities.

    With disposable incomes surging, up more than 300 per cent in dollar terms since 1999 and forecast to double again within four years, one wants to get close to the increasingly wealthy, under-leveraged consumer. Russia’s fashion-conscious youth are helping close the country’s gap with the rest of the world in penetration rates for mobile phones, PCs and broadband and there are many listed companies offering access to all of these trends. Earnings growth in many consumer stocks should exceed 30 per cent per annum for the next several years.

    Russia is also embarking on an infrastructure spending spree. Listed opportunities abound in this area as well, including in steel, transport and logistics.

    Investors must assess whether it is time to price in lower political and corporate governance risk, or wait to see the outcome of the March presidential election and if, as expected, Mr Medvedev does win, what kind of animal the market will make of him: a bear or a bull.

    The risk-reward trade-off for Russian equities has suddenly become more attractive and we expect that Mr Medvedev will turn out to be the latter. This window of opportunity is unlikely to remain open for long.

    Person of the Year: Russian President Putin

    From: bangkok post
    Time magazine named Russian President Vladimir Putin its person of the year, citing his "steely and determined" imposition of order in a nation seeking renewed superpower status.

    Putin stands for "stability in a country that has hardly seen it for a hundred years" and is carving out a post-presidential political role for himself, although he "is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it," Time said Wednesday in its 2007 citation.

    Putin, 55, beat out former US vice president and environmental activist Al Gore, Harry Potter author J K Rowling, Chinese President Hu Jintao and David Petraeus, the top US general in Iraq, in the magazine's list of most influential people over the past year.

    The Time headline, A Tsar Is Born, was a play on the 1954 Judy Garland movie, A Star Is Born.

    US President George W Bush's spokeswoman called Putin "a very intriguing figure."

    In Moscow, the title story was officially greeted as recognition for the man "during whose presidency Russia has become a completely different country."

    "We hope that this recognition will serve to better understanding of modern Russia," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a telephone interview.

    Vladimir Pribylovsky of the US-funded Panorama think tank in Moscow dismissed Time's decision as "a publishing stunt."

    "If he had started war then he would be of course man of the year, but I don't know what their criteria is," Priblyzovky said.

    Time stressed that Person of the Year is not meant as an honour and said Putin's success came at "significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize," including press freedom.

    But he "has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power," the magazine said.

    Russia, a "nation that had fallen off our mental map, led by one steely and determined man, emerged as a critical linchpin of the 21st century," Time said.

    Bush has sought good relations with Putin, despite friction over issues such as the Iraq war and US plans to set up a missile defence in Poland and Czech Republic, both former Soviet satellites.

    "Obviously he's a very intriguing figure in modern history," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said of Putin.

    Putin joins the ranks of Russian leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev in Time's past annual spotlights.

    The Russian leader sat for two and half hours with Time reporters in his Novo-Ogarevo residence outside Moscow one week after he led Russia's dominant party's ticket to a landslide victory in controversial parliamentary elections.

    Putin, who is constitutionally barred from a third term in office, avoided becoming a lame-duck president and promised to retain influence by becoming prime minister for his chosen successor.

    Experts predict Putin's choice, Dmitry Medvedev, will sweep the March 2 presidential vote in the first round.

    Campaigning straight for the past month with heavy anti- Western rhetoric, Putin during the Time interview again accused the United States of meddling in internal affairs.

    Putin's spokesman noted the concern for Russia's world image.

    "We want the West and other countries to treat Russia as it is. ... It is not a reflection of aggressiveness. Sometimes we just have to insist on our point of view," said Peskov.

    "We are not ready to allow any attempts to dictate to us or interfere in our domestic affairs," he added.

    Soccer corruption trial begins in Poland

    From: IHT
    Seventeen Polish soccer players and officials went on trial Friday in an alleged massive match-fixing scandal after the arrest of 100 suspects.

    The defendants are linked to the Arka Gdynia second division club and face charges of offering and accepting bribes and membership of an organized criminal group.

    The alleged ringleader, identified only as Ryszard F. under Polish privacy laws, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted by a provincial court in the southwestern city of Wroclaw . He was detained last year on charges of fixing first and second-league matches from 2000-06 and accepting an equivalent of $130,000 (€100,000.) He has confessed to accepting a bribe once and witnessing one other such case.

    The other suspects face up to five years imprisonment.

    Many of them are also suspects in investigations of match-rigging by other soccer clubs.

    Prosecutors, who have been investigating the allegations since 2005, said over 400 domestic matches were fixed.

    Last week, the Wroclaw court handed verdicts of suspended prison terms ranging from three to seven years in a deal with 17 other soccer officials, who pleaded guilty without trial. They were also ordered to pay back the accepted bribes.

    Poland and Ukraine will jointly host the 2012 European Championship.

    Report on Polish Central Anti-Corruption Bureau ready

    From: News PL
    Julia Pitera, the government’s plenipotentiary for fighting corruption, said that she will hand over her report assessing the actions of the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) to the PM this week.

    She did not want to reveal any details of its contents, however.

    PM Donald Tusk announced at the end of November that his meeting with CBA head Mariusz Kaminski will happen only after he receives Pitera’s report.

    Pitera is a former head of the Polish branch of anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International.

    The PM stressed that the report is to show which regulations of the CBA law are conducive to fighting corruption, which did not perform well under the previous government and which persons in the bureau turned out not be useful.

    Tusk called his own trust in the CBA “limited”.

    Mariusz Kamienski, appointed by the previous Law and Justice government - which critics say had been politicized to expose opponents of that government - claims that Pitera is staging an unprecedented attack on the CBA and submitted a private bill of indictment against her last week.

    The CBA was the idea of the previous ruling Law and Justice party; it was to fight corruption in public and private spheres and has been operating since June 2006.

    Critics say that the Bureau concentrated on ‘show’ arrests to make a political point, instead of fighting corruption.

  • From the blogs...

    Putin Announced as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year"

    From: The Accidental Russophile
    Perhaps not-so-surprising announcement regarding Time Magazine naming Vladimir Putin as their "Man of the Year" for 2007. Reuters has the story of one of the more negative sounding pronouncements of "Man of the Year" in recent memory.

      Russian President Vladimir Putin was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" for 2007 on Wednesday for bringing his country "roaring back to the table of world power."

      "He's not a good guy, but he's done extraordinary things," said Time managing editor Richard Stengel, who announced Putin's selection on NBC's "Today Show."

      "He's a new tsar of Russia and he's dangerous in the sense that he doesn't care about civil liberties; he doesn't care about free speech; he cares about stability. But stability is what Russia needed and that's why Russians adore him."
    Not a good guy? What, like he beats up old ladies and kicks dogs? I find the statement that he "doesn't care about civil liberties" a bit odd also - I think Putin's perspective is likely quite different, more of a first-things first approach. As much as our press would like to hand-wring about it, I think most Russians aren't feeling their civil liberties being squashed any more than Americans do.

    Personally, these aren't the items or policies for which I would first criticize Putin. Then again, I also think that he gets too much credit for an economic recovery that actually started at the end of Boris Yeltsin's time.

    There is always something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Putin deserves the most credit for simply having clear ideas on asserting Russia's influence on the international stage, now that the nation has resurgent economic prowess.

    Vladimir Putin is Time Magazine's "Man of the Year"

    From: Publius Pundit
    Time Magazine, 1938
    Man of the Year: Adolf Hitler
    The magazine reports: "What Adolf Hitler & Co. did to Germany in less than six years was applauded wildly and ecstatically by most Germans. He lifted the nation from post-War defeatism. Under the swastika Germany was unified. His was no ordinary dictatorship, but rather one of great energy and magnificent planning. The 'socialist' part of National Socialism might be scoffed at by hard-&-fast Marxists, but the Nazi movement nevertheless had a mass basis. The 1,500 miles of magnificent highways built, schemes for cheap cars and simple workers' benefits, grandiose plans for rebuilding German cities made Germans burst with pride. Germans might eat many substitute foods or wear ersatz clothes but they did eat."

    Time Magazine, 2007
    Man of the Year: Vladmir Putin
    The magazine reports: "When this intense and brooding KGB agent took over as President of Russia in 2000, he found a country on the verge of becoming a failed state. With dauntless persistence, a sharp vision of what Russia should become and a sense that he embodied the spirit of Mother Russia, Putin has put his country back on the map. And he intends to redraw it himself. Though he will step down as Russia's President in March, he will continue to lead his country as its Prime Minister and attempt to transform it into a new kind of nation, beholden to neither East nor West."

    Vladimir Putin is Time's Person of the Year

    From: Robert Amsterdam
    Beating out the stiff competition Al Gore, Hu Jintao, Barry Bonds and others, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been chosen as Time Magazine's Person of the Year. I'll have more commentary on this later when I finish some meetings, but in general I think that it is a good thing for Americans to start focusing attention on Russia (however I am surprised that no mention was made of Mikhail Khodorkovsky or other similar figures). Some excerpts from the magazine are after the cut.

    TIME: Why We Chose Putin

    In a year when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize and green became the new red, white and blue; when the combat in Iraq showed signs of cooling but Baghdad's politicians showed no signs of statesmanship; when China, the rising superpower, juggled its pride in hosting next summer's Olympic Games with its embarrassment at shipping toxic toys around the world; and when J.K. Rowling set millions of minds and hearts on fire with the final volume of her 17-year saga—one nation that had fallen off our mental map, led by one steely and determined man, emerged as a critical linchpin of the 21st century.
    Russia lives in history—and history lives in Russia. Throughout much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union cast an ominous shadow over the world. It was the U.S.'s dark twin. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia receded from the American consciousness as we became mired in our own polarized politics. And it lost its place in the great game of geopolitics, its significance dwarfed not just by the U.S. but also by the rising giants of China and India. That view was always naive. Russia is central to our world—and the new world that is being born. It is the largest country on earth; it shares a 2,600-mile (4,200 km) border with China; it has a significant and restive Islamic population; it has the world's largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and a lethal nuclear arsenal; it is the world's second largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia; and it is an indispensable player in whatever happens in the Middle East. For all these reasons, if Russia fails, all bets are off for the 21st century. And if Russia succeeds as a nation-state in the family of nations, it will owe much of that success to one man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

    No one would label Putin a child of destiny. The only surviving son of a Leningrad factory worker, he was born after what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War, in which they lost more than 26 million people. The only evidence that fate played a part in Putin's story comes from his grandfather's job: he cooked for Joseph Stalin, the dictator who inflicted ungodly terrors on his nation.

    When this intense and brooding KGB agent took over as President of Russia in 2000, he found a country on the verge of becoming a failed state. With dauntless persistence, a sharp vision of what Russia should become and a sense that he embodied the spirit of Mother Russia, Putin has put his country back on the map. And he intends to redraw it himself. Though he will step down as Russia's President in March, he will continue to lead his country as its Prime Minister and attempt to transform it into a new kind of nation, beholden to neither East nor West.

    TIME's Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse. It is ultimately about leadership—bold, earth-changing leadership. Putin is not a boy scout. He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability—stability before freedom, stability before choice, stability in a country that has hardly seen it for a hundred years. Whether he becomes more like the man for whom his grandfather prepared blinis—who himself was twice TIME's Person of the Year—or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires; whether he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression—this we will know only over the next decade. At significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize, he has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power. For that reason, Vladimir Putin is TIME's 2007 Person of the Year.

    TIME: A Tsar Is Born

    Russia's revival is changing the course of the modern world. After decades of slumbering underachievement, the Bear is back. Its billionaires now play on the global stage, buying up property, sports franchises, places at élite schools. Moscow exerts international influence not just with arms but also with a new arsenal of weapons: oil, gas, timber. On global issues, it offers alternatives to America's waning influence, helping broker deals in North Korea, the Middle East, Iran. Russia just made its first shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran—a sign that Russia is taking the lead on that vexsome issue, particularly after the latest U.S. intelligence report suggested that the Bush Administration has been wrong about Iran's nuclear-weapons development. And Putin is far from done. The premiership is a perch that will allow him to become the longest-serving statesman among the great powers, long after such leaders as Bush and Tony Blair have faded from the scene.
    But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin's hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule. Yet this grand bargain—of freedom for security—appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes' promises of the magical fruits of Western-style democracy. Putin's popularity ratings are routinely around 70%. "He is emerging as an elected emperor, whom many people compare to Peter the Great," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and a well-connected expert on contemporary Russia.

    Putin's global ambitions seem straightforward. He certainly wants a seat at the table on the big international issues. But more important, he wants free rein inside Russia, without foreign interference, to run the political system as he sees fit, to use whatever force he needs to quiet seething outlying republics, to exert influence over Russia's former Soviet neighbors. What he's given up is Yeltsin's calculation that Russia's future requires broad acceptance on the West's terms. That means that on big global issues, says Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former point man on Russia policy for the Clinton Administration, "sometimes Russia will be helpful to Western interests, and sometimes it will be the spoiler."
    Now that Putin has solidified his grip on power, he no longer seems overly concerned with courting Western approval. Despite a chorus of disapproving clucks from the West, Putin has shackled the press, muted the opposition, jailed tycoons who don't pledge fealty. In Russia this has been a terrible time to be a democrat, a journalist, an independent businessman. Just ask Garry Kasparov. The chess grandmaster—the highest-rated player of all time—is a far cry from stereotypically dysfunctional champions like Bobby Fischer. Kasparov has a keen political mind and a lively sense of humor. For years he has fought an increasingly lonely struggle as a democratic activist facing an uncompromising state. On Nov. 24, while holding a political rally in Moscow, he was arrested on a technicality and spent five days at Moscow's Petrovka 38 jail.

    A week or so after Kasparov's release, we are sitting in Moscow's Cosmos Hotel, where he is taking part in a human-rights meeting. Assembled is a ragtag group of Russian activists, and here Kasparov is a star. (Even here his two bodyguards sandwich him whenever he walks about.) Unlike many of Putin's other critics, who seem fearful of chastising their leader openly, Kasparov isn't cowed. "Putin wants to rule like Stalin but live like Abramovich," he says, referring to Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Russian oil trader who owns London's Chelsea soccer team. "Putin's system is more like Mafia than democracy."

    Putin's administration has blocked democrats like Kasparov from participating effectively in politics by making it all but impossible for them to meet the entry requirements. The President, in our discussion, routinely suggests that Kasparov is a stooge of the West because he spoke to the foreign press in English after his arrest. "If you aspire to be a leader of your own country, you must speak your own language, for God's sake," he says. Kasparov recently gave up his long-shot race for President.

    Simon Mol charged with infecting 12 Polish women with HIV

    From: Beatroot
    Almost a year after he was first detained by police in Warsaw, the Cameroonian ‘refugee’, poet and human rights activist is finally charged by the prosecution service, and faces a long jail sentence.

    Mol’s case, as it was revealed in a blaze of outrage in the Polish media in January this year, is a tabloid journo’s dream.

    An African who had won refugee status and had become a well-known media figure, campaigning on human rights and race issues in Poland, was accused by numerous women in Warsaw of infecting them with HIV, while all along knowing that he was carrying the virus.

    But the case is not just about whether he knew, or not, that he was HIV positive (although that is what the court, when he finally comes before a judge, will be deciding). When asked by the women to use protection before sex, he had refused, claiming that they were only asking him to wear a condom because he was ‘an African’.

    When the Rzeczpospolita daily went to Cameroon and Nigeria to examine whether Mol’s claims of political persecution in those countries was true, they found that his family, friends and work colleagues knew nothing about it. It seems that Mol was an economic migrant, not a political refugee. Mol's side of the story is here.

    So, in one case we have a deadly combination of sex, race and politics. If you had to write a prototype tabloid shock, horror story, then this was it.

    Of course, if the prosecution can prove that Mol knew he had HIV and had deliberately infected women as some kind of political ‘revenge’ – and this has been suggested in the press coverage here – then this is a very, very nasty crime, indeed, and nobody would be too upset if they slung him in jail and threw away the key.

    Simon Mol and the ‘Warsaw Salon’

    Many of the women who slept with Mol seem to come from artistic, liberal circles, known here as the ‘Salon’. Mol was a poet and writer (though not a particularly good one) who was a member of many cultural societies and political organizations in Poland. He was allied to the small Green Party, but also a member of an ex-pats’ writer’s club based in Warsaw.

    After I was asked to join the same writer’s club, this summer, I was talking to one of the organizers about the Mol case. The guy told a familiar tale, of feeling ‘betrayed’ by Simon. Everyone was taken in by him, and not just the 12 women infected with HIV, and the many others who were lucky enough to get away with the encounter.

    I also took part in a UK documentary about the culture of Polish soccer fans, which was filmed in Warsaw and Krakow late last year. One of the other contributors was Simon Mol, who was involved in the ‘Kick Racism out of Football’ campaign. I got a slightly worried email in March, this year, from the British producers of the film, asking whether Mol’s presence in the documentary would damage its credibility. It was too early to say yes or no, as nothing has been proved in a court of law, one way or another (and we should remember that it still hasn’t). I don’t know whether they have kept Mol in the film, but if I was the documentary maker, I probably would have left him on the cutting room floor.

    I met Mol a few times, and he was a convincing character. He seemed genuine. And what he talked about – the inadequate refugee services in Poland, the racism he and other Africans encountered, remains, despite the fact the Mol himself allegedly appears to have been charlatan, essentially true.

    Mol has left many angry, disappointed, and sick people in his wake. What is also worrying is the damaged image of genuine African refugees in Poland. They have joined the long list of victims of the actions of Simon Mol, the man whose poetry seduced a nation.

    My Food

    From: an american in belarus
    In my last post, I showed you what I typically buy when I go shopping. I also make several small trips each week for fresh bread, milk, and bottled water . . . and sometimes for beer. It’s hard to resist when a liter of good beer costs about 50 cents. Processed foods are rare as are preservatives, which means the bread and dairy products only last 2–3 days. BTW, the best dairy is located in the city of Brest, so the label says “Brest Milk” hee-hee! When I tell my friends that we can store milk for 1 week they are shocked. They also find it strange that we can buy so many ready-made products. People cook the majority of their meals from scratch and it took me a few weeks to adjust as it definitely takes more planning and time. For example, I make pasta with meat sauce at least once a week and I have to create my own sauce starting with plain tomato paste. After a few attempts I managed to create my own recipe. Onions, garlic, potatoes, and cabbages are available year-round and many other fruits and vegetables are too, but they are harder to find and more expensive. For the most part, people eat what is in season or what they have stored in their root cellars or canned for the winter. Pickling is also very popular.

    For breakfast I eat oatmeal; cream of wheat; cereal with milk; or fruit, granola, and yogurt and wash it all down with a cup or two of coffee. I was pleasantly surprised to find a small kiosk that sells whole-bean coffee. Of course I brought my coffee grinder with me, as only a true coffee addict would do! I use a coffee press and boil my water in a tea kettle that sounds like a choo-choo train when it whistles. I love it as it adds an extra dimension to my morning ritual. For lunch I eat leftovers from the night before, or have something simple like bread, ham, cheese, and juice. Sometimes I have lunch at the canteen at school where you can have an entire meal for about $2.00. I don’t go out to eat very often, maybe 2 or 3 times per month. I live so close to school that it’s more convenient for me to eat lunch at home. For dinner, I choose from the following ingredients: rice, pasta, potatoes, beans, cheese, bread, ground beef, pork, sausage, ham, eggs, frozen and canned vegetables, olives, and spices. For a midnight snack, I often have pan-fried toast, jam, and a glass of cold milk. It’s amazing what you can create with a little creativity!

    When I don’t feel like cooking I just boil some pilmainee and garnish them with fresh sour cream or ketchup. They are a basic staple in these parts and are filled with different types of meat and spices. Think of a ravioli minus the cheese. Potato pancakes, often referred to as the national specialty, are also easy to make. Just shred a few potatoes, add some onion, garlic, and an egg and fry them in a skillet. They are excellent served warm with salt and sour cream. I was also very happy to find popcorn . . . no, not the microwave packages, just good ole fashioned kernels. Look under My Photos and then “My Food” for more examples of my culinary creations.

  • Sport...

    Valuev to face Liakhovich in WBA eliminator

    From: ESeattle PI
    Russian Nikolai Valuev will take on Sergei Liakhovich of Belarus in a WBA heavyweight title eliminator match on February 16 in Nuremberg, Germany.

    The winner of the fight will take on WBA champion Ruslan Chagaev.

    Valuev (47-1, 34 KOs) captured the WBA heavyweight title with a 12-round majority decision over John Ruiz on December 17, 2005 and successfully defended the belt three times before losing to Chagaev in a majority decision in April of this year. Valuev then beat Jean Francois Bergeron in a 12-round unanimous decision in September.

    Liakhovich (23-2, 14 KOs) captured the WBO heavyweight title with a victory over Lamon Brewster on April 1, 2006, but lost it that November when he suffered a 12th-round technical knockout at the hands of Shannon Briggs.

    Germany to face Belarus in friendly

    Germany will face Belarus and Serbia as part of their build-up to Euro 2008, the German Football Association (DFB) confirmed on Wednesday.

    Joachim Low's side will fly to Kaiserslautern from their training camp in Majorca for the clash with Belarus on May 27 before returning to the Balearic Island immediately after the game.

    They will then travel to Gelsenkirchen to face Serbia on Saturday, May 31 - their final fixture before their opening Euro 2008 group fixture against Poland on June 8 in Klagenfurt.

    "We have selected these opponents for a reason," revealed Low.

    "According to our information, Belarus and Serbia closely match the mentality and playing style of our group opponents Poland and Croatia."

    Belarus ranks 60th in FIFA world ranking 2007

    On December 17, FIFA released the world rankings 2007. The national team of Belarus is in the 60th position among 2007 football nations. The top five remain unchanged with Argentine as a leader. It is which is followed by Brazil, Italy, Spain and Germany.

    Belarus’ rivals in the World Cup 2010 qualifying round take the following positions: Croatia – 19th, England 12th, Ukraine 30th, Kazakhstan 112th, Andorra – 175th.

    Elena Bunos of Belarus wins European Billiards Cup

    On the way to the finals of the European Billiards Cup in Ukraine’s Dnepropetrovsk, world champion Elena Bunos of Belarus defeated Ukraine’s Alisa Loboda 4:0 and Svetlana Stavitskaya with the same score in the quarterfinals, BelTA was told in the Ministry of Sport and Tourism. Elena Bunos beat Russia’s Elena Belichenko in the semifinals 4:2 and Olga Milovanova in the finals 5:3.

    Another Belarusian Violetta Klimova advanced to the semifinals which she lost to Olga Milovanova 3:4.

    In the men’s circuit the top Belarusian was Evgeny Kurta. In the quarterfinals he lost to Ukraine’s Anatoly Krylov 4:6.

  • Endnote...

    A Russia-Belarus Union on the Horizon?

    From: world politics review
    On Dec. 13-14, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, attended a conference on the potential union of Belarus and Russia in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. While such conventions have been held periodically since Russia and Belarus formed a loose political union in early 1996, this year's gathering has attracted special attention.

    On Dec. 6, Russia's independent Ekho Moskvy radio station announced that the two presidents would meet in Minsk to sign a constitutional act formalizing the union between their countries. The Union would reportedly involve a common legislature, currency, and military. It is expected that referendums will be held in both Russia and Belarus to determine public opinion about the union, although no specific timetable for the votes have been set. Quoting sources in the Lukashenko administration, the station reported that Putin planned to become president of the new formation and Lukashenko its parliamentary speaker. However, presidential spokesmen in Moscow and Minsk have denied these rumors, saying that the constitutional act has not been finalized yet and that the two parties still need to review its draft.

    Before Putin announced this week that he would accept an appointment to the position of prime minister if his designated successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is elected as Russia's next president, political analysts in Russia doubted Putin would be satisfied with this role. They speculated that he might be more amenable to a presidential post in the Russia-Belarus union -- a title that would satisfy his political ambitions and allow for a lawful extension of his term.

    Negotiations about the Russia-Belarus union have stalled repeatedly in the past, allegedly due to Putin's and Lukashenko's disagreements over the division of powers. Addressing legislators at the Federal Assembly of Russia last April, Putin said that the pace and the magnitude of the merger initiative were up to Belarus. "Russia is ready to integrate with Belarus to the extent that our Belarusian friends are ready for that," he said.

    Both Putin and Lukashenko may now be more tempted to move forward with union than before. Firstly, the union may help alleviate Belarus' political isolation. Human rights watchdogs in the West have lambasted Lukashenko for rigged elections and persecution of political dissenters, calling his 13-year rule the last remaining dictatorship in Eastern Europe. In spite of occasional squabbles over gas prices, Russia has remained Belarus's principal ally in the region, especially as other newly independent nations have sought to boost their economic and military cooperation with the United States.

    Secondly, the shaky economy of Belarus increasingly depends on Russian gas supplies at discounted prices. A political merger with Russia may assure the continuation of this preferential treatment for Belarus.

    Thirdly, Russia is anxious to counter the expansion of NATO, which it perceives to be a threat to its security. Speaking to the press in October, Russian Defense Minister Anatoli Serdyukov noted that the imminent deployment of the alliance's missile defense shield in Eastern Europe "proves the need for a close coordination of military and political activities" between Russia and Belarus. According to unconfirmed reports, such coordination is already underway, and Belarus may soon host Russian nuclear weapons. Russia may feel that the whimsical Lukashenko will be more likely to cooperate consistently on the military front if he is bound by a political agreement with Russia.

    Lastly, Russian entrepreneurs may also lobby for the union, as they are eager to participate in the ongoing privatization of the Belarusian economy.

    In Belarus, Lukashenko's opponents fear that sealing a union deal with Russia will effectively end the independence of Belarus. The Belarusian National Front staged an unsanctioned demonstration in Minsk on Dec. 12 to protest against Putin's upcoming visit. The police reportedly beat the protestors, injuring at least one of them.

    Greeting Putin the day after the protest, Lukashenko told the press "there was no hidden sub-context" to the meeting and that Putin simply paid an official visit to a "friendly union state." Both presidents appeared to want to avoid publicity in light of the media hype surrounding the visit and brewing anti-Russian sentiment in Minsk. On Dec. 13, they held a four-hour meeting behind closed doors before joining the two countries' delegations at the congress of the Russia-Belarus State Council the following day. According to Kremlin sources, the presidents focused on energy issues and the union's 2008 budget. Next year, the budget will reportedly reach 4.61 billion Russian rubles ($186 million) -- up from just 500 million rubles in 1999. The bulk of these funds have so far been spent on bilateral projects. In 2007 alone, Russia and Belarus launched a dozen joint initiatives, mostly related to the production of diesel automobiles and high-capacity agricultural equipment. However, their implementation has lagged due to inefficient coordination and lack of funds.

    According to Putin's spokesmen, Putin and Lukashenko did not discuss the constitutional act. However, reported that the Russia-Belarus State Council planned to make unspecified staffing changes in the bilateral committee that was formed to draft the act.

    The highlight of the visit was Putin's promise to grant a so-called stabilizing credit to Belarus. Officially, the 15-year, $1.5 billion loan that reportedly will allow a five-year repayment deferral will help the Belarusian government offset recent energy price hikes. Earlier this year, Gazprom, Russia's state-owned energy firm, doubled the price of the natural gas it supplies to Belarus from $50 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom says this is still the lowest price it charges in the Newly Independent States. However, the move angered Lukashenko, who accused the company of taking advantage of Belarus' dependence on Russian gas. Some Russian analysts claim that the stabilizing credit is Putin's secret weapon, meant to make Lukashenko more agreeable to the Russian leader's proposals. After his meeting with Putin, Lukashenko told the press he would do his best to ensure the uninterrupted transport of Russian gas through Belarus and further to Europe.

    Though no ground-breaking deals have marked Putin's visit this time, negotiations about the union are likely to continue. Putin may resign the presidency next year, but it is obvious that he will seek opportunities to retain his influence in Russian politics, most likely as prime minister. Strengthening Russia's presence in Belarus is likely to remain high on his agenda. With presidential elections in Belarus looming in 2011, Lukashenko, too, will look for ways to remain in power. As such, he may be more willing to explore more closely Russian overtures toward union.