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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

US congressmen come to Belarus, Relations with Europe, IMF loans, Russian gambling, Communists, Ukraine, Azerenko, Polish scandal and more...

  • From the Top...
  • #423

    Full US presence in Belarus in exchange for removing sanctions

    From: BelTA
    Meeting with a Delegation of the United States Congress
    Belarus is ready to resume talks about restoring the mutual full diplomatic presence provided the sanctions against Belarus and their legal basis, namely the Belarus Democracy Act, are legislatively removed. The statement was made by President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko as he met with a delegation of the US Congress on 30 June, BelTA has learnt.

    “It is time to abandon old schemes and stereotypes and have a new look at our relations,” remarked the head of state.

    In his words, Belarus has always adhered and continues adhering to the promotion of tighter, versatile and more productive relations with the USA. However, the relations should be based on principles of sovereign equality of the parties, non-interference in internal affairs of the other state, mutual respect and trust.

    “Yes, we’ve had rather a complicated period in contacts with Europe, too. However, our European partners have been recently showing their readiness to establish normal relations with Belarus more vigorously. I can say that certain progress has been secured in this area,” remarked the President.

    Alexander Lukashenko said he was confident that sooner or later the USA will understand the hopelessness of talking to Belarus using sanctions and force.

    US congressmen to continue dialogue with Belarus

    US congressmen will remain committed to the dialogue with Belarus. The two states have common interests, including the ones in the energy field. This statement was made by the US delegation during their meeting with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, BelTA learnt from the presidential press service.

    “You are talking about engaging in a constructive dialogue. We believe that this is one of the first meetings within the framework of this dialogue,” the representatives of the US Congress said.

    According to Benjamin Cardin, head of the US Congress delegation to Belarus, senator from Maryland, Chairman of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the discussion was “extremely important and sincere.” “I have been to the Chernobyl zone and seen the tragedy and the damage caused by this catastrophe. The international community should provide aid to Belarus. I hope that we will have an opportunity to discuss economy, energy security, and environmental issues. I hope for the active US involvement. Your suggestion that we should try to understand each other better is deemed very important. I think we will be able to find ways to realize your suggestions,” he added.

    The congressman agreed that the Americans are not completely aware of the situation in Belarus. “Nevertheless, we believe that Belarus should move towards democracy and reforms. I think our discussion was very helpful. You are very convincing and open. Thank you for the meeting, we are looking forward to continuing the dialogue,” Benjamin Cardin said.

    The US delegation praised Belarus’ efforts in human trafficking prevention. “We appreciate what you are doing and we would like it to be the same way in our country.”

    Belarus President pardons Emanuel Zeltser

    President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has signed a decree on pardoning Emanuel Zeltser, the press service of the head of state told BelTA after Alexander Lukashenko’s meeting with a delegation of the US Congress.

    During the meeting members of the US delegation addressed the President of Belarus with a request to use powers of the head of state to free US citizen Emanuel Zeltser, who had been serving his sentence in Belarus for committing a criminal offence.

    Alexander Lukashenko emphasised that the US citizen had violated Belarusian laws. “He was arrested in our country and sentenced in accordance with Belarusian laws. Even US Charge d’Affaires a.i. in Belarus Jonathan Moore does not deny it. I have never thought that this man could become an issue in relations between our countries. Yes, according to Belarusian laws, according to the Constitution I can grant a pardon to Emanuel Zeltser. You have asked this of me, right? If it is very important for America and our relations and contributes to normalising our relations, I will sign the pardon today,” said the head of state.

    Belarus urges USA to lift sanctions this year

    Belarus suggests that the USA should lift sanctions by the end of the year. “If you are strong people, you should abolish the Belarus Democracy Act and lift the sanctions that mean nothing for America. We are not hurrying you up, please, settle the issue by the end of the year,” said President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko as he met with US congressmen on 30 June, the press service of the President told BelTA.

    The Belarus Democracy Act was signed by George Bush and extended by Barack Obama and lays down sanctions against Belarus. According to the USA, the document is allegedly supposed to promote democracy in Belarus.

    According to the President, the document is contradictory. “Let me make a vivid example. Belarus has been affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe. It wasn’t us who built the nuclear power plant and operated it. We are not the ones to blame for it. Belarus took 80% of the radioactive fallout. A quarter of the territory and 30% of the population have been affected by the radioactive impact. Managing the catastrophe alone, we have spent over five present annual state budgets on it. We have lots of other problems, too, that we’ve inherited from activities of other countries in Belarus. In this situation such a great country as the USA might have given a helping hand to the Belarusian nation. Instead using the Democracy Act you have introduced sanctions against us. For us the moral aspect is more important than the financial one. America has offended the Belarusians. It is difficult to explain to our people. Therefore, don’t tell me that the Belarus Democracy Act benefits us,” said Alexander Lukashenko.

    Belarus welcomes US investors, says President

    Belarus welcomes US investors in Belarus, said President Alexander Lukashenko during today’s meeting with a delegation of the Unites States Congress, BelTA has learnt.

    “We have many areas to offer for potential investors: industry, power engineering, agriculture, tourism, construction, finance,” the head of state said.

    The business conditions have been improving in Belarus, the President said. “The improvements are driven by our wish to become a nation with one of the best business climates in the world,” said Alexander Lukashenko. “We expect an adequate evaluation of the measures we have taken and believe that they will contribute to a brand new outlook on Belarus by the global business community, including the U.S. business.”

    The President also said the two countries had an enormous potential for cooperation in such areas as science, healthcare, humanitarian cooperation.

    A new page with USA

    The visit of the US Congress delegation will open a new page in US-Belarusian relations, said President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko as he met with US congressmen in Minsk on 30 June.

    “I would like to tell you openly that we are extremely interested in a productive exchange of opinions with the United States regarding the issues that have been stuck for more than ten years and not due to our fault,” said the President. “I hope that during your short visit you will be able to form an objective and unprejudiced opinion about our country and deliver it to your colleagues in Washington”.

    The head of state underscored: “We are ready to establish tight contacts on a long-term pragmatic basis with any US administration regardless of the short-term political environment”. According to Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus values the USA’s constructive stance that contributed to the IMF deciding to approve the allocation of a reserve loan to Belarus.

    Belarus and the USA have a significant potential for mutual efforts from projects in trade, economic and investment spheres to cooperation on the global scale including the joint fight against human trafficking.

    “Naturally not all things are going well because we are a young state. But let’s be sincere: even you can’t do everything perfectly,” said Alexander Lukashenko. “We don’t have the many years of experience that ‘old democracy’ countries have gone through”. “However, we are ready to take consistent steps, verifying every decision, guided by real needs of the nation,” he added. The President remarked that the measures the Belarusian government is taking to improve public and political processes further enhance the sovereignty and independent position of Belarus in the international arena.

    “In essence I am an optimist, therefore I believe that relations between our countries will come back to normal. We’ve explicitly suggested to our Western partners that we should adjust all aspects of cooperation,” said the head of state.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Belarus strengthens interparliamentary links with other states, Boris Batura says

    From: BelTA
    Belarus strengthens its interparliamentary relations with other states, Boris Batura, the Chairman of the Council of the Republic of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus, said on closing the second session of the Council of the Republic of the fourth convocation.

    “During the second session the Council of the Republic successively strengthened relationships with other parliaments. Bahraini and Omani delegations visited Belarus for the first time. The parliamentary cooperation treaty was signed during a visit of a Vietnamese parliamentary delegation. It stipulates for the establishment of interparliamentary cooperation groups in both countries, and also the countries’ interaction at the regional level,” Boris Batura said.

    Much attention was given to investment, trade and economic relations during the official visit of a parliamentary delegation to Iran. “It became obvious that Belarusian enterprises, unfortunately, are not active enough in promoting their production into foreign markets. They need to improve their marketing and management by using innovative methods,” said the Chairman of the Council of the Republic.

    The bilateral relations with French and German parliaments have taken a new form. “During their visits to Belarus our West-European colleagues emphasized the necessity of full-bodied involvement of Belarus into the European dialogue,” said the Speaker of the Upper House of Belarusian Parliament.

    Boris Batura also noted that the Council of the Republic actively cooperated with the international bodies and interparliamentary organisations. The CIS IPA, the EurAsEC IPA and the CSTO PA discussed legal guarantees of joint actions to overcome the consequences of the global financial crisis, and also the issues of culture and youth policy. “I was elected Chairman of the EurAsEC IPA for a two-year term. We will be working on intensification of bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the CIS region and promotion of CIS mutual interests on the international arena,” assured the Chairman of the Council of the Republic.

    Vladimir Andreichenko: Belarus-Europe parliamentary cooperation on rise

    From: BelTA
    During the second session of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus the dialogue between Belarus and European parliamentary structures, the PACE first and foremost, advanced, Chairman of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus Vladimir Andreichenko said at a private spring session of the House of Representatives on 30 June.

    Vladimir Andreichenko underlined that the Belarusian MPs “have tried hard to get the PACE special guest status restored for the Belarusian parliament”.

    According to him, the cooperation with other countries is expanding and gaining momentum. Over the last three months alone, the House of Representatives held meetings with MPs, politicians and diplomats from over 20 countries. Belarus was visited by parliamentary delegation from Bahrain, Vietnam, Oman, Ukraine, and France. Interparliamentary cooperation agreements were signed with Vietnam and Bahrain.

    Vladimir Andreichenko added that the international agenda will remain packed throughout the intersession period. The deputies of the House of Representatives will constitute international monitoring teams during the presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan. Parliamentary delegations from Estonia and Syria are expected to visit Belarus. The Belarusian MPs will start preparing to visit the countries of Asia and Latin America.

    A special attention should be attached to the arrangement of outbound sessions of three permanent commissions of the EurAsEC Interparliamentary Assembly and a session of the permanent commission of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

    Belarus Communist Party, Cuba Communist Party to promote cooperation between two countries

    From: BelTA
    The Communist Party of Belarus and the Communist Party of Cuba will promote the cooperation between the two countries in political, trade and economic areas, BelTA learnt from Igor Karpenko, deputy chairman of the permanent commission for international affairs and ties with CIS of the House of Representatives, second secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus, head of the working group for cooperation with the Cuban Parliament.

    During a meeting of Igor Karpenko and Julio Garmendia Pena, head of the European and CIS sector of the international department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, the sides confirmed the intentions of the two countries to strengthen the contacts at the interstate level.

    During the meeting, the sides noted that the brotherly relations help Belarus and Cuba oppose the policy of dictate in the international arena, coordinate the joint approaches to settle the global problems. Cuba supports Belarus in the Non-Align Movement, UN, other international organizations.

    The deputy highly praised the level of the parliamentary cooperation between the countries. Working groups for cooperation have been set up in the Belarus National Assembly and in the Cuban Parliament.

    Having reached the high level of the political cooperation, the sides should intensify the development of the economic cooperation, Igor Karpenko noted. At present, the sides are discussing the joint project on producing medicines to treat oncological diseases, Igor Karpenko added.

  • Economics...

    IMF Executive Board okays $1bn increase in financial support to Belarus to $3.52bn

    From: BelTA
    The Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed the first review of Belarus’ performance under a programme supported by a Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) and increased the financial support to $3.52 billion, BelTA learnt from the IMF Office in Belarus.

    These decisions enable the disbursement of about $679.2 million, bringing total disbursements under the programme so far to about $1.48 billion.

    The Board also granted a waiver of nonobservance of end-March performance criterion on net international reserves, and approved a modification of the end-June performance criteria.

    The revised arrangement will support the government's economic programme and help Belarus to contain the effects of a greater than expected impact from the global financial crisis. To reduce the resulting financing gap, the authorities will maintain a balanced budget in 2009, despite lower revenues; keep monetary policy adequately tight; allow more exchange rate flexibility within a fluctuation band which is now ±10% around the parity rate; and deepen structural reforms.

    Following the Executive Board's discussion on Belarus, Mr. Takatoshi Kato, Deputy Managing Director and Acting Chair, stated: “Belarus’ economy has been hit hard by a fall in external demand and volatile cross-currency movements since the programme was approved in January. The strengthened adjustment strategy under the revised programme responds to these developments. It strikes a balance between additional policy adjustment, using all policy instruments available, and enhanced IMF financial support to close the financing gap during the programme period.

    It also includes stepped up efforts toward liberalizing the economy and preparing for privatization to bolster growth prospects over the medium term.

    Depreciation of the national currency and the exchange rate band widening, according to Takatoshi Kato, should help improve the current account, allow greater exchange rate flexibility, and alleviate pressure on international reserves. Belarus has also tightened monetary policy through increases in policy interest rates and recommendations to commercial banks to increase interest rates on household deposits in the national currency. These measures will increase the attractiveness of holding national currency deposits, instill confidence in the currency and help to build central bank credibility.

    According to the IMF, the authorities’ decision to continue to pursue a balanced budget for the general government in 2009 despite lower projected revenue is commendable, as is the prudent plan to postpone public sector wage increases. The planned increase in targeted social assistance to the most vulnerable households will help those most severely affected by the crisis.

    The revised programme envisages stronger efforts to liberalize the economy and prepare for privatization, which are essential to improve prospects for long-run growth and external stability. Concrete steps include the enactment of a privatization law that conforms to best practices, and the establishment of a privatization agency capable of advancing an ambitious privatization agenda. Other structural measures under the programme, including legislative changes to increase the central bank’s independence and plans to reduce further price and wage controls and remove mandatory production and employment targets for private companies, will improve governance and the business climate.

  • From the Foriegn Press...

    US lawyer imprisoned in Belarus freed after pardon

    From: AP
    Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), center, Commission Ranking Minority Member Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), left, U.S. Senator Lloyd Doggett, (D-Texas), right, attend news conference in U.S. Embassy in Minsk, Belarus, Tuesday, June 30, 2009. A U.S. senator says the president of Belarus is promising to free an ailing American lawyer who was imprisoned in the former Soviet country last year on espionage charges.
    An ailing American lawyer who was imprisoned in Belarus last year on charges of using fake documents and attempted industrial espionage walked free Tuesday night after a presidential pardon.

    Emanuel Zeltser, a 55-year-old diabetic, was sentenced to three years in prison in August 2008 after being convicted in a closed trial on charges his supporters called politically motivated.

    In November, Zeltser was placed in a prison hospital after arriving at a penal colony in eastern Belarus, where he was denied medicine, according to lawyers.

    On leaving the prison clinic in the eastern town of Mogilyov, Zeltser said, "I am glad about my freedom."

    "I have problems with my health, I plan to get better. I am not making any plans," he said by telephone outside the prison. He refused to comment further.

    Zeltser, slightly limping, was met by U.S. officials and entered a car with them to head for the U.S. Embassy in Minsk.

    President Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree pardoning Zeltser earlier Tuesday.

    Belarus and its authoritarian leader are on a drive to court better political and economic ties with the West, and Washington had said Zeltser's release would help the process.

    U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said of Zeltser's release "the United States welcomes this positive step."

    He added, in a statement, that consular officials were working with his family "to arrange his swift and safe return to the United States."

    Earlier, on news that Zeltser would be released, Kelly had said that his imprisonment was "a major obstacle in our bilateral relations. We still have other concerns, of course, with some of the actions of the Belarusian government. So we're very happy that this one obstacle has been removed, and we'll review our policy as necessary."

    The Russian-born Zeltser is a high-profile lawyer who headed the non-governmental American Russian Law Institute in New York. He once sued the Bank of New York for $2 billion on behalf of investors who had lost their deposits.

    Zeltser is a renowned expert on organized crime and money laundering, particularly in former Soviet republics.

    His clients have included Pavel Borodin, a former Kremlin aide who was accused of money laundering by a Swiss court, and Badri Patarkatsishvili, the late Georgian billionaire who was a bitter opponent of Georgia's current administration.

    Belarusian authorities said that fake documents Zeltser was carrying were tied to Patarkatsishvili's business interests.

    Zeltser's brother, Mark, has said that the Zeltser had flown to Minsk to check on the status of several of Patarkatsishvili's assets. Some observers in Belarus suggested that Zeltser's arrest may have been arranged by those trying to illegally obtain Patarkatsishvili's considerable assets.

    The lawyer's arrest came at the height of a diplomatic spat between Washington and Minsk that resulted in the expulsion of the U.S. envoy.

    Zeltser, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in the 1970s, has maintained his innocence. He went on hunger strike earlier this year to protest the failure of authorities to review his case under new amnesty laws.

    Belarus was once labeled Europe's last dictatorship by U.S. officials. But in recent months, Lukashenko — criticized in the West for silencing dissenting media and taking political prisoners — has adopted liberal reforms that have resulted in the lifting of EU sanctions such as a travel ban for Belarusian officials.

    U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat whose delegation met Lukashenko earlier Tuesday, said it wasn't enough.

    "We welcome the release of Emanuel Zeltser on humanitarian grounds. However, we made it clear to President Lukashenko today that the only way to improve the relationship between our countries is for him to increase political freedom and respect for human rights," Cardin said in a statement.

    Cardin called on Minsk to make further reform as outlined in the Belarus Democracy Act adopted by U.S. Congress in 2004. The act allocates U.S. funds to Belarusian opposition parties, NGOs and independent media outlets and forbids humanitarian donations to the Belarusian government if no liberal reforms are made.

    Lukashenko in comments carried by Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency urged Washington to cancel the act by year-end.

    "Don't tell me that the Belarus Democracy Act is beneficial for us," he said, claiming the U.S. was morally obliged to send financial aid to help the cleanup efforts in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. One-third of Belarus remains contaminated.

    IMF Boosts Belarus Aid To $3.52B From $2.51B

    From: WSJ
    The International Monetary Fund said Monday it will boost aid to Belarus to $3.52 billion, more than $1 billion more than it had initially committed to the struggling Eastern European nation.

    Additionally, the IMF board said it was waiving certain economic performance requirements and modifying other requirements connected to the loan package.

    "Belarus's economy has been hit hard by a fall in external demand and volatile cross-currency movements since the program was approved in January," Takatoshi Kato, the fund's deputy managing director and acting chair, said in a statement.

    The Fund in January promised the country a $2.51 billion 15-month loan.

    The additional loan dollars approved Monday are aimed at helping Belarus contain the effects of the global financial crisis while maintaining a balanced 2009 budget and a tight monetary policy.

    "The revised program envisages stronger efforts to liberalize the economy and prepare for privatization, which are essential to improve prospects for long-run growth and external stability," Kato said.

    Belarus Halts Exports of Powdered Milk

    From: Moscow Times
    Got Milk?
    Belarus will not sell any more powdered milk in Russia because it is no longer profitable to do so, Belarussian Agriculture Minister Semyon Shapiro said Monday.

    Belarus will only resume selling it upon Russia's request, Shapiro told reporters in Voronezh, Interfax reported.

    "I'm convinced that the milk problem came up because we don't know each other very well," he said. "The results that we have attained in agriculture are not due to any kind of government support [of the industry], but because of our country's policies and the hardworking nature of the people."

    Earlier this month, the Federal Consumer Protection Service banned almost all Belarussian dairy products, citing their noncompliance with packaging regulations passed in December.

    The service allowed shipments to resume two weeks ago, following a round of talks between Russian and Belarussian officials. The bans came after Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko traded barbs over the health of the Belarussian economy and loan-worthiness of the government.

    Last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hinted that a 40 percent hike in Belarussian quotas on milk exports may have been the original cause of the dispute. He said the two sides had reached an agreement that Belarus would not supply powdered milk in the second and third quarters and that Belarus was responding "badly and emotionally" to the deal.

    Belarussian dairy exports to Russia have been estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion per year.

    Lytvyn sees great prospects for cooperation with Belarus

    From: Kiev Post
    Verkhovna Rada Chairman Volodymyr Lytvyn said on Tuesday he was satisfied with the results of talks he held in Minsk.

    The Ukrainian speaker said this after a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

    Lytvyn said that he and Lukashenko discussed a wide range of issues in interstate relations, in particular "the place of our states in today's complicated, hard and cruel world."

    "We have the opportunities… to achieve a result, which will be advantageous both to Ukraine and Belarus," he said.

    According to Lytvyn, they also discussed the guidelines for cooperation between Ukraine and Belarus in order to overcome the financial and economic crisis, in particular, issues related to economic cooperation, the use of transit possibilities in the energy sector, and relations in humanitarian field.

    "This helps us understand each other better," the speaker said.

    Lytvyn said that Ukraine and Belarus should deepen and develop their interparliamentary ties.

  • From the Opposition...

    One more death sentence in Belarus

    From: Charter '97
    The Brest Regional Court sentenced a 30-year-old man to death for multiple murdering.

    His 2-year-old accomplice got a life sentence with serving the punishment in a high-security penal colony, BelaPAN writes.

    The convicted lived in Taratya village (the 30-year-old man had no citizenship, the 228-year-old Ukrainian citizen had no residence permit).

    As head of the prosecution department of the Brest region Natallya Vasyarsuhk, who represented official prosecution, told, on June 29, the court found the 30-year-old man guilty of committing crimes under items 12, 15, 16 of part 2 of article 139 (aggravated killing) and part 2 and 3 of article 207 (robbery), his accomplice was found guilty of committing crimes under items 12, 15, 16 of part 2 of article 139 and part 3 of article 207 of the Criminal Code.

    It was found out during the court session that from November 2007 to January 2008 the criminals committed four murders of lonely elderly women in the Drahichyn district. The 30-year-old convicted committed two similar murders alone.

    Besides, the court found him guilty of a robbery in the Hrodna region.

    We remind that on June 23, the Council of Europe adopted a resolution saying the Belarusian “parliament” will receive the special guest status in the PACE only the death penalty is abolished.

    The Belarusian “MPs” said in response death sentences hadn’t been executed in Belarus for a year.

    Human rights defenders call on prosecutor general to release Vaukavysk entrepreneurs

    From: Viasna
    Human rights defenders have appealed to the prosecutor general with the request to free three opponents of the government, Mikalai Autukhovich, Yury Liavonau and Uladzimir Asipenka, from custody.

    In the appeal, Aleh Volchak and Alexander Kamarouski ask the prosecutor to examine the legality of the detention with the participation of international independent experts.

    Messrs. Autukhovich, Liavonau and Asipenka were detained the morning of February 8 and brought to a detention center in Minsk. The police said that they were suspected of perpetrating a series of arsons and explosions targeting the property of local officials and of illegal possession of explosives and firearms.

    They were formally charged with deliberate destruction of or damage to property caused in a way dangerous to the public or the intentional infliction of large-scale damage on 18 February.

    Mr. Autukhovich has been on hunger strike since 16 April, protesting his detention and demanding that the case should be either referred to court or all those under investigation in the case should be released on their own recognizance.

    Messrs. Volchak and Kamarouski urge the prosecutor general to replace the detention order regarding the three men with a non-custodial alternative.

    “Mikalai Autukhovich has been hunger-striking in prison for 75 days in protest against his illegal detention,’ the appeal reads. ‘His strike has already crossed the threshold to direct threat to his life.

    The life of Autukhovich is in danger today… His demands, like ours, are quite simple – the conduct of an open trial or the replacement of the pre-trial restriction on Autukhovich, Liavonau and Asipenka, if the investigators need more time. If they are placed under house arrest during which they may be banned from having contacts with other people or leaving their place and will be required to make calls, answer calls and be under electronic control, they will not be able to influence the investigation or witnesses, if exactly these matters are causing concern. But this may save Autukhovich’s life.’

    Opposition politicians and human rights activists have condemned the prosecution of the dissidents as illegal and politically motivated.

    Bear in mind that Autukhovich and Liavonau, former business partners, earlier served 18 months in prison for alleged tax evasion and illegal business activities. They were both granted an early release in January 2008.

    Mr. Autukhovich insisted that he had been sent to prison because he had protested authorities’ arbitrary rule. Amnesty International declared him and Mr. Liavonau prisoners of conscience.

    Mr. Autukhovich, who is a leader of a nascent association of veterans of Soviet wars abroad, was among civil society activists who petitioned the government in January to restore state benefits to the Afghanistan War’s veterans.

  • Around the Region...

    Putin tells Russian casinos to cash in their chips

    From: AP
    Nearly two decades after the Soviet collapse set Russia's roulette wheels spinning again, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is calling in the chips on the gambling industry — a symbol of the glitz and excess of Russia's oil-fueled boom.

    It's all part of a Kremlin crusade to clean up a country that has long had a fascination with games of chance — and to rein in an industry seen as a breeding ground for corruption and organized crime.

    The government ordered the closure of all casinos and gambling halls Wednesday — confining gambling to four special zones in far-flung regions of Russia, most thousands of miles and half-a-dozen time zones away from Moscow.

    There is a downside, though. It deprives the federal budget of billions of dollars a year in taxes, while leaving more than 400,000 people without work amid the country's economic crisis.

    "They've killed the industry overnight," said an embittered Michael Boettcher, the British founder of Storm International, a casino group that includes the gaudy Shangri-La in central Moscow.

    "It's like closing all the five-star restaurants in London because you're eating too much, and saying that if you do want to have them, you'll have to relocate to North Wales," he said. "Who's going to go? Nobody."

    More than once Russia has seen officials announce sweeping reforms, only to later back down. So when the gambling law was introduced in 2006, many wondered whether the Kremlin would actually follow through on its threat to pack the $3.6 billion a year gambling industry off to Siberia and other obscure locations.

    Many casinos and hole-in-the wall slot machine parlors stayed open until the last possible moment, while the owners of a few gambling dens took the opportunity to expand their business abroad.

    "For Rent" signs are up on Moscow's premier tourist boulevard, the Novy Arbat, where the biggest casinos were open for business just days ago. On glitzy Tverskaya Street — Moscow's Fifth Avenue — the Shangri-La was one of the few casinos still doing a brisk trade as customers placed their final bets.

    Gambling has exploded in recent years in Russia. Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, casinos mushroomed across the country, especially in the capital, drenched in oil wealth. Slot machines quickly spread beyond gaming halls to shops and malls across the country.

    As gambling grew, so did the problems. The Russian casino culture quickly became synonymous with ostentatious displays of wealth and organized criminal activity. Compulsive gambling wreaked destruction on players and their families.

    The evils of playing the odds are penned into Russia's collective consciousness. Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote "The Gambler" in a desperate race against time to pay off mounting debts run up at the roulette wheel, vividly depicting a gambler's rollercoaster ride from exultation to despair.

    When Russian lawmakers signed the casino closure law in 2006, the move was in step with the image Putin wanted to project: that of a clean-living, tee-totaling and workaholic president. But equally, say analysts, the government saw an opportunity to weed out the criminal element in the casino business.

    Gambling was also seeping into every corner of Russia's public life, moving Putin to assert that the vice "was as addictive as alcohol in this country," according to the Itar Tass news agency. Slot machines were everywhere: grocery stores, railway stations, bus stations and clinics.

    "You could buy slot machines for $100 each. It was ludicrous, and something had to be done," said Boettcher.

    Russia's diplomatic relations, meanwhile, soured with neighboring Georgia over a damaging spy scandal. With a large percentage of the gaming industry controlled or overseen by Georgians — much of it rumored to be mafia-linked — the government appeared to be sending a message that it was cracking down on organized crime.

    Many casino owners say they'd sooner take their business to nearby Belarus and Kyrgyzstan than relocate to the zones.

    Bettors, meanwhile, are expected to turn in their thousands to online gaming or poker, which is classified as a sport.

    Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, a prominent critic of the gambling industry, said Tuesday he would now turn his attention to Internet gambling and poker halls.

    "We've approached the government for a decision on poker clubs and Internet gambling for cash, which is pretty much the same as the gambling business," Luzhkov told Itar Tass. "Poker clubs — how can you say that's a sport?"

    Starting Wednesday, casinos and slot machines will be allowed to operate only in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, the Primorsky region on the Pacific coast, the mountainous Altai region in Siberia and near the southern cities of Krasnodar and Rostov, host to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

    It could take five years before some of the outposts are ready to open their doors. In two, not even the location has been settled on.

    In the meantime, gambling will go underground, critics fear, creating a breeding ground for corruption and organized crime.

    "It could very well turn out to be Russia's Prohibition," said Chris Weafer, a strategist at Uralsib Bank in Moscow, referring to the U.S. drinking ban in the 1920s that rapidly proved unenforceable and ushered in organized crime. "People are not going to give up their gambling fix that easily."

    Plan mooted for nuke-free world as US, Russia talk

    From: China Daily
    The first practical proposals to reduce the number of nuclear weapons are expected to be central to a second summit between the leaders of the world's two most powerful nations.

    US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev will hold meetings in Moscow from Sunday until Tuesday following what the Obama administration described as a desire to "push the re-set button" on relations with Russia.

    The two called for the eventual total elimination of nuclear weapons during their first meeting in London in April. Together, the two countries possess 95 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal.

    Observers say the two leaders will now pursue a deal on cutting nuclear warheads below levels agreed in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty in 2002. The treaty committed both sides to reduce arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012.

    "The consensus that the US and Russia have reached on this issue is good for the world," Wu Jianmin, president of China Foreign Affairs University, told China Daily. "It signifies that the bilateral relations are improving."

    "The two countries have made good progress in their negotiations on cutting nuclear warheads," said Richard Burt, former US Chief Negotiator for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, at the commission meeting Global Zero think tank on June 28 and 29.

    Washington-based Global Zero is an international initiative dedicated to achieving a binding, verifiable agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. It has outlined a four-phased process for the preparation, negotiation and ratification of a global-zero accord over 14 years, from 2010 to 2023, and the dismantlement of all nuclear warheads over the following seven years.

    Burt, who chairs the Global Zero commission, said it is a "practical, comprehensive end-to-end strategy" for the phased, verified reduction of all nuclear weapons to zero.

    Wu Jianmin said he endorsed the plan for a nuclear-free world, adding China put forward such a proposal as early as 1964.

    But eliminating all nuclear weapons cannot happen quickly, added Burt. It will take years of technical, diplomatic and political preparations before negotiations on a global zero accord can even begin - and many more years to negotiate and implement it.

    "We believe that Presidents Medvedev and Obama could set the world's course to zero nuclear weapons if they initiated serious talks on a comprehensive strategy to achieve it," Igor Yurgens, a senior advisor to President Medvedev, said in Moscow via telephone on Monday.

    Former US Ambassador to Russia James Collins noted that President Obama was a "truly post Cold War president".

    He said this was important because Obama didn't start his political career with a vocabulary or a way of thinking about the world that divided it into East and West. Collins said Obama's Russian counterpart was from a similar generation. "Let's hope he has a similar frame of mind," he said.

    Russia-Ukraine gas row likely this winter -official

    From: Reuters
    Europe may face further disruptions to its gas supply next winter if Ukraine cannot pay its gas debts to Russia, the head of Gazprom International said on Tuesday.

    Boris Ivanov, head of the international arm of Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom (GAZP.MM) said although it was unlikely there would be problems this summer, Ukraine's severe financial crisis could lead to supply disruptions next winter when demand is greatest.

    "As soon as they pay things will come back to normal but there will be problems, in my opinion (this winter)," he told reporters in Qatar when asked if there was likely to be a repeat of the gas row between Moscow and Kiev that left parts of Europe without heating in January.

    Ukraine transports the bulk of Russian gas supplies to Europe, or about a fifth of consumption in the European Union, and is seeking $4-5 billion in funds to build stockpiles of gas before winter, when demand rises sharply.

    International lenders and the EU reported good progress in talks with Ukraine and Russia in Brussels on Monday over possible loans to help Kiev pay for Russian gas and avert a new crisis. [ID:nLT156195]

    Ivanov said Europe and Russia should help Ukraine out to minimise the risk of another cut to its gas supplies.

    "I hope we can minimise it, looking to the European Community to share the burden of doing that because after all they are the final consumer," he said on the sidelines of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum meeting in Doha.

    "Since Ukraine is an important transit country it is not only our responsibility as a supplier but their responsibility as a consumer."

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Hitler’s tree to meet the axe?

    From: Polskie Radio
    Local government in the town of Jaslo, south-eastern Poland want to fell and burn a 67 year-old oak tree that was planted in tribute to Adolf Hitler.

    A sapling oak was brought to occupied Poland by the Nazis from Hitler’s home town in Austria in 1942, to celebrate the German dictator’s birthday.

    The town mayor intends to plant a new tree on the same spot and dedicate it to the victims of the Katyn massacre, when Polish officers were murdered by Stalin’s NKVD police in Soviet Russia in April 1940.

    Some inhabitants of Jas?o are determined to protect the oak tree, however. They are led by Kazimierz Polak, one of the witnesses of the planting ceremony. It was Polak who brought this historical episode to light during a recent meeting of the local Town Lovers’ Society. According to him, the tree was planted on 20 April, 1942, Hitler’s 53rd birthday

    Polish Raskolnikov detained

    From: The
    A 27-year-old man suspected of killing his German teacher with an axe has been arrested by police.

    The murder happened in the southern town of Radomsko. The young man visited his 52-year-old German teacher and after a fierce argument killed her with an axe and wounded her 78-year-old mother.

    A neighbour, who heard yelling, knocked at the woman’s door to check if everything was all right. When the door opened, the neigbour saw a man with an axe in his hand. The man ran away before the neighbour managed to call the police.

    The alleged murderer was caught after a driver reported that he was on board a coach going from Lodz in central Poland to Denmark. The driver had heard about the murder on the news and realized one of the passengers matched the description of the killer. The driver called the police and in the western city of Poznan the man was arrested.

    The suspect, who suffers from schizophrenia, is being interrogated in Radomsko.

    Poles spend more on gambling than alcohol

    From: Polskie Radio
    Poles prefer gambling to having a drink, spending 17 billion zloty (4 billion euro) annually in slot machines, casinos, bookmakers and lotteries.

    This is more than Poles spent on medicines and strong alcohol.

    The gambling market grew by 40 percent last year, and one-armed bandits were the most popular for having a flutter among Polish gamblers. In 2008, Poles put 8.5 billion zloty into slot machines, a rise of 70 percent from the previous year.

    However, in the spring, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBA) confiscated several hundred slot machines, as many did not comply with basic requirements, such as the possibility to win only small amounts of money.

    According to Poland’s Gambling Act, a stake in these machines can amount to no more than 0.07 euros with a possible highest win of 15 euros. However, many owners of the machines do not abide by the regulations and allow customers to play for much higher stakes, and consequently win significantly more money.

  • Sport...

    Victoria Azarenka grunts and shrieks her way to win at Wimbledon

    From: Miami Herald
    Victoria Azarenka of Belarus plays a return to Nadia Petrova of Russia during their fourth round singles match at Wimbledon, Monday, June 29, 2009
    That loud noise you might have heard while watching Monday's Wimbledon match between Melanie Oudin and Agnieszka Radwanska was Victoria Azarenka, who was noisily winning her match on a neighboring court.

    Azarenka, who plays Serena Williams in the quarterfinals Tuesday, is among the young players known for grunting and shrieking. Portuguese teen Michelle Larcher Del Brito has a reputation as the loudest player, but Azarenka isn't far behind.

    Nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova recently voiced her displeasure with the trend, and Chris Evert chimed in Monday.

    ''Grunting is one thing, but the shrill sound that you hear with players nowadays, and especially they get louder when they hit a winner, that's the thing that I observe as a player,'' Evert told reporters in Sydney, Australia.

    ``It comes before they hit the shot. That's the first thing you hear and you are kind of like thrown off guard as a player, and then, before you know, the ball gets past you. It is distracting when you are hearing this, and I think the grunts are getting louder and more shrill now with the current players. I don't understand. Steffi Graf hit the ball a ton, and she didn't grunt. There were a lot of players, hard-hitting players, and you never heard a peep out of them.''

  • Endnote...

    Lukashenka continue blackmailing the US

    From: Charter '97
    Representatives of the US Congress visit Belarus as a part of their visit to the Baltic and Balkan states. A meeting between the congressmen and the Belarusian dictator didn’t bring a breakthrough in relations.

    The delegation consists of Helsinki Commission Chairman Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Commission Ranking Minority Member Congressman Chris Smith, and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin.

    Alyaksandr Lukashenka accepted the delegation in the first half of the day. At the meeting with the congressmen the Belarusian dictator expressed confidence in normalizing the relations with the United States and said he was ready to return to an issue of full restoration of mutual diplomatic presence if the sanctions on Belarus were lifted.

    “We are ready to return to a conversation on full restoration of mutual diplomatic presence if the sanctions on our country and their legal basis The Belarus Democracy Act are lifted on a legislative level,” Lukashenka said.

    “I hope the United States will sooner or later realize that a conversation based on sanctions and force has no prospects,” the Belarusian dictator said.

    According to him, the sanctions imposed by the US government damaged interests of not so much Belarusian manufacturers as their American partners. “We managed to re-orient our flows of commodities to other sales market in time, but many American businessmen, who had been flourishing due to imports and using Belarusian products in producing, were affected by the repressive bans,” the ruler said.

    Speaking about the public and political processes in the country, Lukashenka noted: “We are a young state, so there things that go wrong. But let’s be sincere, you always have some things that g wrong.” “We don’t have the experience that the states of “old democracies” have. The measures we take to improve public and political processes serve as further strengthening the sovereignty and an independent position of Belarus in the international arena,” Lukashenka noted.

    The US Congress delegation is also to meet with representatives of the Belarusian civil society today. A press conference following the results of the meeting is planned in the building of the American diplomatic mission.

    It should be reminded that a diplomatic conflict between Belarus and the United States started after the US had imposed economic sanctions on the Belarusian regime because it refused to release political prisoners and stop repression against the opposition.

    On March 7, after the official site of the US Treasury published explanations to the sanctions imposed against Belneftekhim concern, Belarusian Ambassador to the US Mikhail Khvastou was recalled from Washington. On March 12, IS Ambassador Karen Stewart left Belarus on demand of the Belarusian authorities. The US embassy was recommended to cut its staff. 17 American diplomats left Belarus on March 27. On March 31, Belarus decided on further reducing its embassy staff in Washington and offered the US to do the same.

    The representatives of the US Congress pay a visit to Belarus as a part of their visit to the Baltic and Balkan states. The objective of the trip is strengthening security, promoting human rights, and international cooperation. The delegation will take part in a session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Vilnius.

    A note. The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the US Helsinki Commission) is an independent agency of the Federal Government charged with monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords and advancing comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental and military cooperation in 56 countries. The Commission consists of nine members from the U.S. Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.