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Today's Headlines for:
Sunday, February 01, 2009

Belarus, Russia sign anti-crisis plan; Denmark, Cuba, Moldova, Ukraine, Estonia, Antarctica, France, Loans, Rubles, Human rights and Polish scandal

  • From the Top...
  • #382

    Belarus, Russia sign plan of anti-crisis action

    From: BelTA and the Office of the President
    Belarus and Russia signed a plan of joint action to minimize the impact of the global financial crisis, improve the parameters of the payment balance, to improve the environment for business and bilateral trade

    “The document contains an effective system of measures to preserve our markets,” Sergei Sidorsky said.

    According to him, the joint plan of action confirms that the sides ensure equal access to the markets of Belarus and Russia. The sides agreed that the banking system will fully service mutually deliveries of goods. A decision was taken to expand leasing purchases.

    According to the Prime Minister, the document is expected “to calm down the fears of our industrialists” amid the global financial crisis.

    The Belarusian Premier informed the negotiators that he had already held a series of working meetings, including the talks with First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Viktor Zubkov and Russian Vice-Premier and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin in order to discuss the forthcoming session of the Council of Ministers of the Belarus-Russia Union State.

    According to Sergei Sidorsky, the Belarusian side is ready to present a plan of actions to shift the customs border between Belarus and Russia to the external borders of the Union State beginning 2010. Russian Premier Vladimir Putin noted that it is essential that this possess is simultaneous with the formation of the Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan.

    The Head of Belarusian government pointed out the recent systematic work of the joint sessions of Belarusian and Russian ministries and governmental bodies which allows to address current issues in a timely manner.

    Moscow to host session of Union State Supreme State Council February 3

    In a related story, the agenda of a session of the Supreme State Council of the Belarus-Russia Union State was discussed at the meeting between President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and Union State Secretary Pavel Borodin on January 29. The session will be held in Moscow on February 3, BelTA learnt from the presidential press service.

    The sides also touched upon the session of the Union State Council of Ministers scheduled of January 30.

    Chairman of the Supreme State Council of the Union State Alexander Lukashenko said that he had submitted the agenda of the forthcoming session to the Russian side which presented its version of the document. “We should discuss the differences, as the agenda was developed by me and the President of the Russian Federation. Dmitry Medvedev agreed with all the points but asked for some more time to study the agenda. The Russian version of the agenda was sent to me. Are there any significant differences between this agenda and the one that was proposed by Dmitry Medvedev and I? Is everything ready for holding the session?” the Belarusian President said.

    Pavel Borodin informed that in line with the directive of Alexander Lukashenko, he submitted all the proposals regarding the session to the Russian side, including the Administration of the Russian President and the Office of the Russian government. The work was coordinated with foreign ministries of the two countries.

    “The objective that you set is almost fulfilled. All the issues that you brought up are topical and deal with economic issues, ways to maintain jobs, first and foremost,” Pavel Borodin said.

    The participants of the meeting considered economic issues, including production projects, prospects of the creation of new transport corridors, employment, monetary and pricing policies.

    They also studied the work of the joint sessions which, according to the Belarusian and Russian sides, is not always satisfactory. The targets of the joint sessions should be better defined and their participants should aspire to greater practical results.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Belarus, Denmark discuss trade and economic cooperation

    From: BelTA
    The expansion of the trade, economic and investment cooperation was the focus of the consultations between the foreign ministries of Belarus and the Kingdom of Denmark in Minsk on January 29, BelTA learnt from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

    The Belarusian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister of Belarus Valery Voronetsky, the Danish one by Deputy Foreign Minister of Denmark Michael Silmer-Jons. Taking part in the consultations was Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to Sweden and Denmark on concurrent Andrei Grinkevich. The sides discussed a wide range of issues of the bilateral cooperation, possibilities to extend trade and economic contacts, improvement of the legal and treaty base, topical issues of the Belarus-EU cooperation, the interaction in the Council of the Baltic Sea States.

    In January-November 2008, the trade between Belarus and Denmark amounted to $116.3 million, up 3% against the same period a year earlier. The Belarusian export dropped 39.3% to $19.8 million, while the import from Denmark rose 20.3% to reach $96.5 million. The foreign trade deficit of Belarus hit $76.8 million.

    The major Belarusian exports to Denmark are rapeseed oil, medical appliances, plastic ware, wood and wood containers.

    Belarus has registered 21 enterprises with Danish investment – 9 joint ventures and 12 foreign companies. They produce medical equipment, clothing, are involved in wholesale trade and provide services. In January-September 2008, $6.6 million of Danish investment including $4.5 million of direct investment was put in the Belarusian economy.

    Estonia to open embassy in Belarus

    From: BelTA
    The government of Estonia has decided to open an embassy of the Republic of Estonia in Minsk, says the website of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    According to Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, the government decision reflects both the more open policy of the European Union towards Belarus as well as Estonia’s interest in building up the bilateral relations.

    Urmas Paet remarked, the establishment of the embassy creates prerequisites for developing bilateral relations and starting various cooperation projects.

    The embassy will also provide opportunities for invigorating the interstate economic relations, said the Minister. Investment conditions in Belarus have become more liberal. Over the last few years investments of Estonian businessmen in Belarus have increased several times over. When the economic situation stabilises, the export of Estonian products to Belarus looks very promising.

    The embassy will start operating at premises of the existing Estonian Consulate General. A charge d’affaires will be sent to Minsk to replace the Consul General and supervise the embassy operation.

    Belarusian, French scientists to create unique equipment to study air pollution in Antarctica

    From: BelTA
    The B.I. Stepanov Physics Institute and the National Scientific Research Centre of France plan to create unique equipment to measure air pollution in Antarctica, academician Valentin Orlovich, President of the Research Council of the Belarusian National Fund for Fundamental Research, told media in Minsk on January 29.

    It will be a lidar station able to measure the pollution of each atmospheric stratum, he said. No other country has such equipment. The project is supposed to be accomplished within the next one-two years.

    Valentin Orlovich said, Belarusian and French scientists have been cooperating in lidar technologies for years. For instance, at present a polarizing spectrum scanning solar radiometer is used near the Belarusian polar expedition camp Mount Vechernyaya. The device was made in France and uses Belarusian software to measure overall atmospheric pollution in Antarctica.

    In the future the B.I. Stepanov Physics Institute and the National Scientific Research Centre of France plan to expand areas of cooperation. During a recent visit of a delegation of French scientists to Minsk a decision was made to implement new projects for the development of fuel cells with proton-exchange membranes for better power conversion effectiveness, to study uses of ferrofluids in instrument making, to develop a method for forming nanostructured titanium dioxide porous films and using them to create devices for water photoelectrolysis. Apart from that, scientific basis will be created for manufacturing corrosion-proof and thermal resistant materials, microlasers and laser radiation transformers and other innovations.

  • Economics...

    Russia to advance granting Belarus second tranche of loan

    From: BelTA
    Russia will speed up granting Belarus the second $1 billion tranche of loan, Prime Minister of Russia Vladimir Putin told reporters following the session of the Union State Council of Ministers in Moscow on January 30, BelTA has learnt.

    Vladimir Putin said that the session focused on the issues of currency and financial regulation. According to him, the Russian ruble accounts for 55-60% of the Belarus-Russia merchandise transactions: 95% of the Belarusian exports to Russia and 40% of the Russian exports to Belarus.

    “We also considered the possibility the make the Russian ruble the common regional currency,” Vladimir Putin added.

    New business promotion centres registered in Belarus in January

    Two new business promotion centers were registered in Belarus in January 2009, BelTA learnt from the press service of the Belarusian Economy Ministry.

    The commission on business promotion of the Economy Ministry decided to register ASterraservice (Novogrudok, Grodno oblast) and Gomel Business Innovation Centre as business promotion centers.

    Apart from that, the commission recognized the Brest oblast association for entrepreneurship support as a small business incubator.

    Business promotion centers render information and consulting services to small businesses, the unemployed, students and other categories of people. They help prepare business plans, obtain a loan, get training and provide information and analytical support in company management. As of December 2008, 43 business promotion centers and 7 small business incubators were registered in Belarus.

    Belarus’ trade with CIS states 41.6% up in January-November 2008

    In January-November 2008 Belarus’ trade with the CIS states amounted to $38,244.7 million, 41.6% up on the same period of 2007, the press service of the Belarusian Economy Ministry told BelTA.

    Belarus’ export rose to $13,680.4 million (35.1% up), import — $24,564.3 million (45.4% up). The foreign trade deficit sunk to $10,883.9 million or $4,121.8 million more in comparison with the same period of 2007.

    Russia accounted for 84.4% of Belarus’ trade with the CIS states, 73.1% of the export and 90.7% of the import.

  • From the International Press...

    Russia, Belarus to expand rouble use, rush $1bln loan

    From: Guardian
    Russia and Belarus agreed on Friday to expand the use of the rouble and speed up the payout of the second $1 billion tranche of a Russian loan to Belarus, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, agencies reported.
    The two countries agreed the $2 billion stabilisation loan last year, and Friday's announcement on the second tranche came after Putin and his Belarussian counterpart Sergei Sidorsky signed a joint strategy for averting the impact of the economic crisis.

    "The plan sets out measures that will support our economies and will not let them fall below 2008 levels," Putin said, adding that the second tranche of the 15-year loan, originally planned for Feb. 28, will be issued sooner, Itar-tass reported.

    Putin also said that the two discussed "achieving the stated goal of using the rouble as a regional currency," Interfax reported.

    Negotiations between the former communist allies have previously linked loans to expanded use of the rouble.

    In December, Minsk asked Moscow to lend it 100 billion roubles ($2.82 billion) they agree to account bilateral trade in the Russian currency, but Russia said last week that it was not interested in providing the loan.

    Russia is seeking to turn its rouble into a regional reserve currency as one way of combating volatility brought on by its dependence on world oil prices and, as a result, the dollar.

    At Friday's signing ceremony in Moscow, Putin said that creating a united economic zone is the top priority in relations between the two countries.

    "I am convinced that to minimise the negative effects of the global crisis on our economies...we must fully use the advantages of integration," Putin said, RIA news agency reported.

    Discussions over a monetary union between Russia and Belarus began in Sept. 1993, shortly after the break-up of the rouble zone. But talks stalled as Russian reforms advanced and Belarus' economy stayed along Soviet-era command lines.

    Belarus, Russia's largest trading partner accounting for almost 5 percent of Russian exports, devalued its rouble by 20 percent on Jan. 1, partly to meet IMF conditions set on a $2.5 billion loan and also to catch up with a slide in value of the Russian rouble.

    Earlier, the Belarussian central bank switched to the dollar peg from a previous Russian rouble link. It has talked of fixing the domestic currency to a basket of the dollar, euro and the Russian rouble some time this year.

    IFC Helps Belarus Develop Reform Plan to Strengthen Business Environment

    From: IFC
    IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, helped the government of Belarus develop a broad package of proposed business reforms that could strengthen the economy by removing barriers to entrepreneurship.

    The 52-measure reform plan, adopted by the government on January 13, includes 10 recommendations proposed by IFC Advisory Services’ Business Enabling Environment program. The plan is expected to be fully implemented by the end of this year. In Belarus, the IFC program is operated with financial support from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

    The measures recommended by IFC include streamlining administrative procedures for starting a business and reducing the number of documents required to obtain permits. Belarus, which has been hit hard by the global financial crisis, has rapidly improved its business climate in recent years. Last year, it ranked fourth among the Top 10 most active regulatory reformers worldwide, according to the World Bank Group’s Doing Business 2009 report.

    Andrei Tur, Belarus’ Deputy Minister of Economy said the reform plan reflects the recommendations of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund. “We considered the proposals and addressed all bottlenecks identified by the financial institutions during the Doing Business 2009 survey,” he said. Last year, Belarus sharply improved its global ranking on the overall ease of doing business, moving up to 85 from 115. “This year, we will try to improve the Belarus rating even more,” Tur said.

    Belarus’ new reform plan also includes measures to improve tax and customs legislation, property and land issues, price and antimonopoly regulations, and administrative and technical procedures.

    Belarus became a member of IFC in November 1992. At the invitation of the government, IFC has been involved in advisory work in the country since 1993. To date, IFC has implemented a range of advisory projects and has committed over $150 million in the local financial, agribusiness, and retail sectors.

    Ukrainian premier may visit Belarus in late February

    From: Navany
    Yuliya Tymoshenko
    Yuliya Tymoshenko may visit Belarus in late February, the press office of the Ukrainian prime minister told BelaPAN.

    When reached by BelaPAN, the secretariat of the Belarusian Council of Ministers confirmed that the visit was being prepared but did not name the exact date.

    While meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Chernihiv on January 20, Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that the Belarusian and Ukrainian premiers would meet within the following 10 days.

    Mr. Lukashenka’s press office said that the meeting was needed to formalize all agreements reached by the heads of state.

    The talks between Messrs. Lukashenka and Yushchenko yielded a memorandum on cooperation between the Belarusian and Ukrainian governments in the energy sphere and a Belarusian-Ukrainian consular convention. The Belarusian and Ukrainian cabinets and central banks also signed a memorandum on steps to increase economic cooperation amid the global downturn.

    An agreement on eased procedures for crossing the Belarusian-Ukrainian border along the road between the Ukrainian city of Slavutych and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which runs through Belarus` areas, was also signed as a result of the meeting.

    Chief Named For New Belarusian Human Rights Office

    From: RFE/RL
    Uladzimer Makey
    The chief of the Presidential Office of Belarus, Uladzimer Makey, has been named to run the country's Consultative Council for Human Rights, which was established earlier this week, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reports.

    The presidential press service told journalists that the council, under Makey's leadership, will work to deepen Belarus's involvement in international processes and bodies dealing with human rights.

    The council's staff includes representatives of various political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

    The chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's office in Minsk, Hans-Jochen Schmidt, told journalists that the OSCE supports the Belarusian authorities' decision to create the human rights council.

  • From the Opposition...

    HRHF concerned about conscription of civil and political activists in Belarus

    From: Viasna
    The Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) sent a letter to the Defense Minister of Belarus today, expressing its concerns about the conscription of civil and political activits in Belarus.

    In the statement to the minister, the HRHF says it is especially concerned about fate of the youth activists Ivan Shyla and Franak Vyachorka. Both of them were conscripted regardless of the fact that they had been declared unfit for military service by the physical examination of doctors.

    The HRHF states that the discriminatory treatment of youth activists is a breach of Article 26 of the 'International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights', adopted by the UN General Assembly on 16 December 1966. This treaty, which has been ratified by Belarus states that “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

    Minister of Defense Colonel-General Leonid Maltsev is strongly urged to ensure that the Belarusian armed forces respect the conclusions of doctors regarding the health status of youth activists and abide by the legal requirements pertaining to the conscription of persons to the military service.

    Head of European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus condemns military recruitment of young opposition activists

    In a related story, Jacek Protasiewicz, chairman of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Belarus, has expressed strong condemnation of what he calls the forcible army conscription of young democratic activists in Belarus.

    Three prominent members of youth opposition groups, Franak Vyachorka, Ivan Shyla and Zmitser Fedaruk, were apprehended by police and sent to military units for 18-month compulsory service within two days this week. Messrs. Vyachorka and Shyla had previously been pronounced unfit for military service on medical grounds, and Mr. Fedaruk insisted that he was eligible for deferment as a full-time student of a theological school.

    “Having in mind the ongoing process of the evaluation of the human rights situation in Belarus during the targeted sanctions' six-month suspension period and taking into account the declarations of the Belarusian authorities that they are interested in continuing constructive dialogue with the European Union, I observe these practices with a deep concern,” Mr. Protasiewicz says in a statement issued on Friday.

    “In this context I call on the Belarusian government to put an immediate end to all forms of harassment of the activists from youth organizations and to follow the procedures of the army conscription with the full respect for the rule of law,” Mr. Protasiewicz says. “Furthermore, I urge the Council and the European Commission to demand the clarification of this issue from the Belarusian authorities in order to ensure that the process of the negotiations between the EU and Belarus is not undermined.”

    Volha Kazulina: “Lukashenka shouldn’t be invited to summit in Prague”

    From: Charter '97
    Volha Kazulina
    The daughter of the former political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin vigorously opposes invitation of the Belarusian dictator to the EU summit.

    Volha Kazulina has stated that in an interview to “Euronews” channel.

    - Please tell us are real changes taking place in the country? Do you see improvement of social and political situation? We heard that representatives of the opposition have been invited into the public boards by the Presidential Administration. What does it mean?

    - It doesn’t mean anything so far. It has been done for the sake of appearance, like everything recently. The aim is to show that the regime has started to take into consideration the opinion of the opposition and implement the EU’s requirements.

    - But “Narodnaya Volya” is allowed to be sold in “Sayuzdruk” kiosks…

    - Yes, but “Sayuzdruk” kiosks take only 5-10 copies of the newspaper after a special order from higher authorities. As you can understand, they are bought very soon. And when people want to buy a newspaper, they are answered one thing: “All newspapers are sold out”. Just like before, the Belarusians do not have a chance to receive independent press.

    - To your mind, what should be done by the authorities for the European Union to lift sanctions against Belarus?

    - The regime must make substantive steps. The situation in the country hasn’t changed in actual fact. Even political prisoners have remained: Alyaksandr Barazenka and other young people involved in the Process of Fourteen, are still under a criminal punishment. Young leaders are forcibly sent to the army.

    - What is your opinion about invitation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka to the summit in May?

    - The European Union has given Alyaksandr Lukashenka a trial period as overtures, having suspended sanctions against Belarus. Over this time Lukashenka has done NOTHING in reality. Everything has been done just for the sake of appearances.

    We call upon the European Union to judge Lukashenka’s actions according their actual results:

    1) There is no tangible freedom of press as before.

    2) The Criminal Code under which citizens of Belarus are prosecuted on political grounds, hasn’t been changed.

    3) The electoral code hasn’t been changed.

    It means that that the dialogue between the West and Belarus is out of the question. That is why I believe that Lukashenka shouldn’t be invited to the summit.

    - They say opposition in Belarus is not united, it is atomized…

    - It is true, but partially true. Yes, we have quite a few differing points of view. But we are one in the most significant thing: we are against Lukashenka’s dictatorship, we are for freedom and human rights, we are for democracy. And it is the most important thing.

  • Around the region...

    Moldova’s CIS presidency to concentrate on better life for citizens

    From: BelTA
    The key focus of Moldova’s CIS presidency this year will be raising the well-being and living standards of Commonwealth citizens, said Efim Chilari, Ambassador at Large of the Moldovan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration, as he presented the programme of Moldova’s presidency in the CIS at a session of representatives of CIS states and agencies on January 30.

    The Republic of Moldova has chaired the Heads of State Council, the Heads of Government Council, the Council of Foreign Ministers, the Economic Council, and the Council of Plenipotentiaries since January 1, 2009.

    According to the Ambassador, taking into account that Moldova values cooperation with both the European Union and the CIS, Chisinau plans to pay priority attention to topics vital for the CIS and Europe as a whole: alleviation of consequences of the global financial crisis, energy security and resolution of regional tensions and conflicts.

    Moldova also intends to focus attention on such priorities as the completion of the free trade zone establishment, tighter cooperation in transport policy, enhancement of food security, enhancement of cooperation in youth affairs as 2009 has been declared the Year of Youth.

    There are plans to step up efforts in the area of scientific and innovative cooperation, to promote a system of information and marketing centres, to encourage the development of electronic trade. Preparations for the celebration of the 65th anniversary of the Great Victory will continue.

    Ukraine on the Brink

    From: Newsweek
    The gas supply crisis between Russia and the EU has been resolved; the larger crisis in Ukraine has just begun. In what has become a regular ritual, gas deliveries to Europe via Ukraine were halted for two weeks in January as the Russian and Ukraine argued over debt, shipment fees, and the price of gas sold to Ukraine. With EU intervention, Russia and Ukraine agreed to resume shipments to Europe. Europe is now breathing a sigh of relief, but Ukraine is wincing at the new price it will have to pay for domestic gas and implications for its economy.

    Ukraine has traditionally received gas from Russia at a highly subsidized price, an institutional relic from the Soviet Union. That was a boon for Ukraine's domestic economy, which has grown strongly since 2000. But in the agreement reached last week, Ukraine lost its favorable energy position with Russia; though the country will receive a 20% discount on the European price of gas for 2009, all subsidies will end on January 1, 2010. Gas prices have already more than doubled in Ukraine, from $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters to $380.

    The timing could not be worse for Ukraine's economy. Ukraine's major export industries, chemicals and steel, are large consumers of energy and the rise in price has significantly increased costs. But this rise in costs comes at a time when the price of steel has plummeted by over fifty percent since last summer. Higher costs and lower revenues is a recipe for economic disaster. In September 2008, analysts projected that 2009 GDP growth would be five percent; now analysts expect the economy to contract by at least five percent.

    The new gas price may very well bankrupt the country. Already the country is living on life support, having received an emergency $16.4 billion loan from the IMF in November. With declining exports, and rising gas prices, the current account balance of the country has quickly turned unstable leading to a large depreciation of the national currency against the dollar. Yields on Ukrainian dollar-denominated debt are now the second highest in the world, after Ecuador which defaulted in December.

    The EU, and the Czech Presidency in particular, are congratulating themselves for intervening and resolving the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis successfully. But the agreement did little to ensure long-term stability in European gas supplies, and the resulting higher energy prices positions Ukraine for a precipitous economic collapse. European nations will soon find themselves looking toward Kiev with concern once again.

    Russia and Cuba Take Steps to Revive a Bond

    From: NYTimes
    President Raul Castro of Cuba at a wreath-laying ceremony on Friday at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow.
    The presidents of Russia and Cuba signed a strategic partnership and several other documents on Friday aimed at rekindling an alliance that collapsed after the cold war. They pledged to expand cooperation in agriculture, manufacturing, science and tourism, but studiously avoided a public discussion of military ties.

    It had been nearly a quarter century since a Cuban leader had set foot on Russian soil. President Raul Castro’s visit to Moscow this week had little of the pomp and propaganda of the cold war days, when he and his brother Fidel were greeted with parades in Red Square and Soviet leaders affectionately referred to Cuba as the “island of freedom.”

    But almost two decades after a crumbling Soviet Union hastily withdrew financial and ideological backing from Cuba, Russia is seeking to expand economic ties with the island and possibly forge stronger military relations in an echo, as yet still faint, of an alliance that lasted some 30 years.

    It is part of a larger Russian push into Latin America to secure new markets, and also to swipe at the United States for what Moscow considers Washington’s meddling in Russia’s historic sphere of influence, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet republics.

    “Your visit opens a new page in the history of Russian-Cuban relations,” President Dmitri A. Medvedev said at a meeting with Mr. Castro at the Kremlin on Friday.

    Russian officials promised the delivery of 25,000 tons of grain and a $20 million loan for the development of Cuba’s construction, energy and agriculture sectors.

    “Without a doubt,” Mr. Castro said at the meeting, “this is a historical moment, an important milestone in the relations between Russia and Cuba. We have taken a huge step to strengthen our relationship.”

    High-ranking Russian officials have visited Cuba several times in the past year, and Mr. Medvedev made a quick trip there in November as part of a Latin American tour. Trade between the countries increased 26 percent in 2008, totaling about $239 million, the Kremlin said.

    “In the last few years, relations with the United States have become strained, with the United States supporting Ukraine and Georgia in their anti-Russian policies,” said Igor S. Fesunenko, a Russian journalist and longtime commentator on Latin American affairs. “And we’re thinking, ‘Oh, how unfortunate that we abandoned Cuba sitting there under America’s nose.’ ”

    Like Venezuela, which last fall hosted two Russian strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, Cuba has also had Russian military visitors recently. In December, a contingent of Russia’s North Sea Fleet docked in Havana after conducting exercises with Venezuela’s navy.

    Neither Mr. Medvedev nor Mr. Castro spoke publicly about possible military cooperation, perhaps out of a desire to avoid antagonizing the new administration of President Obama, analysts said.

    Since Mr. Obama’s election in November, Russia and Cuba appear to have called a unilateral truce with Washington, and the volume of anti-American sentiment, which reached a deafening pitch in Russia in recent years, has been markedly toned down.

    “Regardless of whether the policies of Washington will soften or remain significantly hard-line, relations between Cuba and Russia will develop,” said Vladimir M. Davydov, director of the Latin American Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    Nevertheless, the effects of the global economic crisis have forced Russia to scale back its plans in Latin America, Mr. Davydov and other analysts said.

    Cuba has also reacted cautiously to Russia’s overtures because of lingering animosities that emerged when Moscow all but abandoned the country in the 1990s, leaving it impoverished and isolated.

    Yet, while Mr. Castro’s visit clearly does not carry the ideological weight evident at the height of Russia’s cold war relationship with Cuba, vestiges of those bygone days remain.

    In honor of Mr. Castro’s visit, federal television channels showed documentaries about Cuba and the Castro brothers. In Moscow, the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War, what Russians call World War II, opened an exhibition covering the history of the Cuban revolution. And Mr. Medvedev congratulated the Cuban people on the revolution’s 50th anniversary.

    At an informal gathering at Mr. Medvedev’s country home on Thursday, Mr. Castro waxed nostalgic, recounting the time he and Soviet comrades sat around a campfire in the forest eating salo, the cured pig fat that is a staple chaser of Russian vodka.

    “I’ve desired this for 25 years,” he said through a Russian translator. “I don’t know if I’ll get to eat any salo with black bread, but I’m here.”

    A few hours later, Mr. Medvedev invited Mr. Castro to join him by a campfire in the forest around the presidential residence, and the two dined on the Russian delicacy.
  • Note: Reporting by our old friend MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    UEFA to assess ‘racism threat’ during Euro

    From: Polskie Radio
    UEFA will use a Warsaw anti-racism summit to assess the threat of racial prejudice being expressed during the Euro 2012 championships to be co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.

    In an open letter sent to the 250 delegates attending the Football Against Racism conference on March 3 and 4, UEFA General Secretary David Taylor writes: "We now want to create an opportunity to review progress and renew our call for action. In particular, we want to record positive developments and in view of EURO 2012™ look at the challenges facing us in the east and what more the European football family can do."

    The Warsaw conference will be held by the Polish football association, PZPN and the pan-European Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network. The objectives of the summit, says the UEFA web site, include, “raising awareness of the problems of racism and discrimination in football among the members of the football family; proposing positive and practical solutions for addressing racism in the game and in society; and sharing examples of good practice in different settings and among different actors – clubs, NGOs and supporters' groups.’

    This will be the third such conference on anti-racism organised by UEFA, after summits were held in London and Barcelona and the European soccer governing body has contributed 312,500 euros to the project.

    The perception in Europe that there may be problems with racism at the championships in 2012 is not a new one. In a BBC documentary, broadcast last year, a journalist reported that the “deep seated racism still within Polish football” could be a greater threat to the games than the nation’s infamous lack of travel and tourist infrastructure.

    Massive lay-offs planned in Poland

    From: The News
    Janusz Palikot
    Job centres across the country say that the number of mass lay-offs is mounting in Poland as the finance crisis bites deeper.

    The state-owned banking giant PKO BP is intending to dismiss as many as 1722 employees. Group redundancies are also planned by the National Bank of Poland, amounting to 343 people.

    According to data collatied by the job centre in Szczecin, north-western Poland, at the end of last year as many as 35 companies declared that they would make 1,500 workers redundant in the region in 2009.

    In the Masovia region, central Poland which includes the capital Warsaw, a total of 10,500 employees will be dismissed from some 53 companies, including media group Agora S.A. and VOS LOGISTICS, as well as Thompson in Piaseczno and Porfetti Van Melle Polska in Rembertow, on the outskirts of Warsaw.

    In recent weeks large smelting works have declared that they intend to reduce employment levels. Steel giant ArcelorMittal is to get rid off some 980 workers in total and a the smelting plant in Zawiercie, southern Poland will lose 300 workers.

  • Sport...

    Official: Cagliari Sign Sivakov

    The Isolani have announced the transfer of 21-year-old Belarus midfielder Sivakov on their official website.

    An official communication from the Italian club’s website stated: “Cagliari Calcio has acquired the full contract from Bate Borisov of Belrussian player Mikhail Sivakov, midfielder born in 1988. He will be given the number 16 jersey.”

    According to the club Sivakov has penned a four year deal that will keep him at Cagliari until 2013.

    The Isolani have done well this season, and they will be hoping that their new arrival will add to their success.

    Cagliari are pushing for a UEFA Cup finish and have won three of their four matches since the end of the winter break, with their only dropped points coming in a 1-1 draw at the San Siro against Inter.

    Tonight they face Juventus in Turin, and that will certainly be a test of their strength.

  • Cultural scene...

    Belarus to hold 50 festivals in 2009

    From: BelTA
    The Art-Krok exhibition presents the best works of contemporary artists from different countries
    In 2009, Belarus will hold 50 festivals, Culture Minister Vladimir Matveichuk told a session of the board of the Culture Ministry of Belarus on January 28, BelTA has learnt.

    As against 2006, the number of festivals in Belarus was reduced by 95. In 2008, the Culture Ministry developed the schedule of the festival movement which adjusted the number of the events funded at the expense of the state budget. In line with the schedule, in the future the Belarusian Culture Ministry will hold 57 festival projects including 26 annual festivals, 24 festivals which will be held once in two years and seven festivals which will be held once in three years.

    Some 21 festivals will be funded at the expense of the state budget. These are five biggest festivals which create the cultural image of modern Belarus and 16 international and national festivals which are important for development of some kinds of art. Regions will hold 36 festivals at the expense of local budgets and extra-budgetary resources.

    In 2008, the Brest, Gomel oblasts and the city of Minsk demonstrated their creative achievements in the Belarusian capital. In February, the Grodno oblast will demonstrate its creative achievements in the Palace of Republic.

    A great number of cultural events will be held within the framework of the celebrations timed to the 65th anniversary of Belarus’ liberation from the Fascist invaders. The celebrations will include exhibition and fair “Town of Craftsmen” with the participation of craftsmen from all over the country.

    Louvre Director to visit Belarus

    Director of the Musee du Louvre Henri Loyrette is planning to visit Belarus this summer, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belarus to the Republic of France Alexander Pavlovsky told BelTA.

    According to the Head of the Belarusian foreign mission, Belarus and France have been constantly developing cultural links. In particular, the National Museum of Art of Belarus and the Louvre, one of the world-famous and most attended museums, are getting ready to sign an agreement on cooperation.

    The Louvre, the former palace, is located in the centre of Paris. It has been a medieval fortress, the palace of French kings and a museum for the last two centuries. The fortress that later turned to a palace was built in the late 12th century. The Louvre had been rebuilt several times changing its appearance. The palace acquired its modern-day look in 1871. The collection of the museum known worldwide consists of the collection of Francis I, was later enriched by the collections of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, Napoleon I. The Louvre has embodied the concept of a truly "universal" institution. The museum artworks cover a long geographic and time distance: from Western Europe to Iran through Greece, Egypt and the Middle East; up to 1848 from antiquities. The Louvre world-renown exhibits are Venus Genitrix and Winged Victory sculptures, well-known works of Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Titian, Rafael and Botticelli.

    Twenty countries to partake in Books of Belarus 2009 Fair

    Twenty countries, in addition to Belarus, have announced their intent to participate in the Books of Belarus 2009 International Book Exhibition-Fair. The event is due on February 11-15, in the BelExpo national exhibition center, BelTA learnt from Elena Shitik, adviser of the publishing and book trade department of the Belarusian Information Ministry.

    The applications for participations have been filed by Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Poland, Slovakia, Germany, France, Sweden, China, Israel, India, Cuba, Venezuela, the USA and, for the first time, Hungary, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Iran. Twenty countries participated in the 15th Minsk Book Exhibition-Fair in February 2008.

    This year the status of the Honored Guest of the Belarusian book forum is given to the Republic of Kazakhstan. The official opening of the Kazakhstan Exposition will take place immediately after the Exhibition-Fair opening ceremony which is to begin at 12 a.m. The main exhibitor is preparing a number of events for fair visitors, including a meeting with Rollan Sejsenbaev, member of the Kazakhstan Writers Guild, international and Kazakh prizewinner. Kazakhstan will present the books published under the Cultural Heritage programme – series ‘The Anthology of Kazakh Music’ and ‘The History of Kazakh Literature and also the editions included in such series as ‘Peoples’ Friendship’, ‘Amanat’, ‘The Seventh Word”. Kazakhstan will also present the public association of Kazakhstan book illustrators. The guests are going to give the Kazakh books to the Information Ministry of Belarus, the Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the Republic of Belarus, the Kazakhstan Cultural Centre in Belarus. Throughout the fair, the Kazakhstan stand will host working meetings of the Kazakhstan delegation members with editors, printers, booksellers of foreign countries.

  • Endnote...

    How National bank fools us

    From: Charter '97
    The chairman of the National Bank Pyotr Prakapovich has tried to shift responsibility for a one-time 20% devaluation of the ruble onto the IMF.

    However, “Salidarnasts” newspaper has found the quote which disproves this statement of the chairman of the National bank of Belarus.

    “Holding one-time devaluation was a requirement of the IMF,” Prakapovich stated at a press-conference on January 28. “We have been trying to persuade them for three months that a gradual devaluation would be better in our conditions, though there was no dispute about the size of devaluation. We haven’t been able to persuade then the usefulness of smooth devaluation grounding on the previous experience… We couldn’t risk agreement with the IMF: too much had been thrown into the scale… We had no choice”.

    So, according to the version offered by the chairman of the National Bank, the tactics of devaluation was imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The undertone what’s behind it is clear: unload responsibility for a new year surprise to the Belarusian people onto cursed bourgeois.

    However Pyotr Prakapovich has forgotten something.

    “The International Monetary Fund has recommended the National Bank to decrease the Belarusian ruble’s exchange rate, but they didn’t have recommendations as for tactics, tactics hadn’t been dictated by anybody to us. We have chosen the scenario of one-time decrease of exchange rate independently… The decision to devaluate the national currency was legally adopted by the board of directors of the National Bank of Belarus with the agreement of Belarusian president”.

    It was a quotation from an interview of the head of the informational department of the National bank Anatol Drazdou in an interview to Interfax agency on January 5. Consequently, somebody from the representatives of the National bank misinformed the public. And it seems that is it wasn’t Drazdou.

    Another evidence of sincerity of the National Bank’s representatives: a passage from an interview of the first deputy chairman of the National Bank management Pavel Kallaur to the weekly “Belarusy i rynok” in December:

    - So one-time devaluation, for instance by 20% is out of the question?

    - We do not consider that. Devaluation by 20% is much. It is rather painful procedure, and to hold it one should think it over thousand times. The state of our society’s balance of payment is not so awful to resort to such measures as one-time 20% devaluation.

    So, Mr. Prakapovich, you say that there was no dispute about the size of devaluation with the IMF? Have you been discussing for three months should it be done gradually or as a one-time procedure, haven’t you? So why in December your assistant claimed that the variant of 20% devaluation hadn’t been even considered?

    For a long time the National Bank urged our citizens to keep savings in a bank in Belarusian rubles, claiming that nothing could threaten stability of our currency. Such statements were heard especially often in the end of 2008 when it was clear devaluation was inevitable. Officials misled the people knowingly. And it should be admitted, that it has been done rather successfully: many people believes that the ruble cannot be devaluated.