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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Single economic area by 2012, No ruble devaluation, IMF, Oil, Potash, Human rights, Russia, Hockey, Ded Moroze and Polish scandals...

  • From the Top...
  • #473

    Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia to form single economic area by 1 January 2012

    From: BelTA
    The presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia approved the action plan on forming the single economic area and signed a joint statement on the Customs Union which will become effective on 1 January 2010. The document was signed by Alexander Lukashenko, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Dmitry Medvedev in Almaty on 19 December, BelTA learnt from the press service of the Belarusian President.

    The governments of the three countries jointly with the Customs Union Commission should provide the fulfillment of the action plan and inform the EurAsEC Interstate Council and the Customs Union supreme body.

    According to Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia should not lose the momentum in setting up the single economic area.

    “A big decision regarding the single economic area was taken in Minsk. It is very important to maintain the momentum,” Alexander Lukasehnko said.

    The presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia confirmed their aspiration to develop the single economic area no later than 1 January 2012.

    If the action plan on forming the single economic area is implemented, all the basic elements of this union will come into effect in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. The three countries will have the agreed economic policy and the uniform rules related to business competition and industrial subsidies. The participating countries will ensure the free movement of services, capital and workforce.

    Within the framework of the single economic area, the three countries will develop the regulations on mutual access to natural resources and set the economic assistance rules.

    The Presidents agreed to respect the balance of interests and facilitate the solution of the most difficult problems. As it was mentioned, the Customs Union will help increase the mutual trade of the three countries. The Presidents also agreed on the necessity of taking prompt measures to create a full-fledged single economic area.

    Later that day Almaty hosted the informal CIS summit. Taking part in it were Presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

    The Heads of the CIS states consider these informal meetings to be very useful, because they allow discussing a wide range of problems.

    Such meetings should be held in future, said President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev at the opening of the informal summit.

    He also said that the Presidents came to Kazakhstan to share their opinions on the problems that were of mutual interest and discuss the joint efforts in the future. He recalled that one of such meetings in Sochi triggered the formation of the EurAsEC.

    Apart from that, the presidents stressed that the problem of regional security is of high importance.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    NBRB vows no one-time devaluation in 2009 and 2010

    From: BelTA
    There will not be any one-time devaluations in Belarus in 2009 or 2010, BelTA learnt from the information department of the National Bank of the Republic of Belarus (NBRB).

    The National Bank plans to preserve the current exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble to the basket of currencies at the end of 2009 and early 2010.

    This will be possible due to the fact that at present there are all the necessary prerequisites to maintain the stability of the exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble.

    However, some fluctuations of the bilateral exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble to the US dollar, euro or the Russian ruble are possible in case the exchange rates of these foreign currencies will change on the international market.

    The National Bank explained that in 2009 the Belarusian ruble was pegged to the basket of foreign currencies (euro, US dollar, and the Russian ruble). The exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble varied within plus/minus 10% of the value of the basket of foreign currencies registered on 2 January 2009.

    In 2010 the Belarusian ruble will remain pegged to the basket of foreign currencies (euro, US dollar and the Russian ruble) within plus/minus 10% of the value. This mechanism is stipulated in the 2010 monetary policy guidelines of the Republic of Belarus approved by Decree No. 591 of the President of the Republic of Belarus on 7 December 2009.

    Taking into account the current and projected external and internal economic factors, the National Bank expects that the fluctuations will be less than plus/minus10%.

    The policy of stable exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble coupled with the interest rate policy will allow ensuring necessary conditions to stimulate the growth of household savings in national currency, reduce the level of dollarization of the economy, increase the income of the Belarusians and support the price and macroeconomic stability in general.

    Sidorsky: all Belarus’ regions should fulfill socio-economic targets for 2006-2010

    From: BelTA
    All the oblasts of Belarus, as well as ministries and government bodies should fulfill the social and economic targets set for 2006-2010, Prime Minister of Belarus Sergei Sidorsky said at a session of the Presidium of the Council of Ministers on 22 December, BelTA has learnt.

    “The approach is the same: the oblasts, ministries and government bodies should accomplish the social and economic targets set for 2006-2010. I do not accept any requests to revise the targets,” Sergei Sidorsky said.

    He reminded that Decree No. 595 approved the most important targets of the social and economic development of the country in 2010. The government and local authorities were commissioned with a task to increase GDP by 11-13% next year. “To achieve this, the government and oblast executive committees, enterprises, all economic entities should take appropriate measures. Our major challenge is to balance the work of the key economic branches and work out the approaches we will employ beginning January 1, 2010. As the tasks are quite challenging, the intensive work should be started in January,” the Belarusian Premier said.

    The Prime Minister noted that the government has instructed the ministries and agencies to develop action plans to fulfill the targets. The Economy Ministry is expected to submit the draft resolution on achieving the targets to the government. A document ensuring the balance of the monetary policy will be prepared as well. The government plans to hold a session next week to approve necessary documents.

    A reminder, in accordance with Decree No. 595, in 2010 the GDP growth is expected at 11-13% over 2009. The industrial production is projected to increase by 10-12%, agriculture by 10-11%, capital investment by 23-25%.

    About 52% of the surplus of the industrial production is expected to be exported in 2010. Taking this into consideration, the foreign trade in goods and services will increase by 24-25%, (including export – by 27-28%, and import - 20-21%).

    In 2010 the actual wages will increase 13-14% (the rise of the consumer price index will be 9-10%). The nominal average salary will reach $500 in equivalent by the end of 2010. Overall, the targets for 2010 are set with regards to the strict fulfillment of the decisions of the 3rd Belarusian People’s Assembly and reaching the basic indexes of the programme of social and economic development of Belarus for 2006-2010. The decree comes into force on 1 January 2010.

    IMF $688m tranche arrives in Belarus

    From: BelTA
    Belarus has obtained the fourth tranche of the IMF loan to the total amount of more than $688 million, BelTA learnt from the information department of the National Bank of Belarus.

    The decision on allocating the loan was made by the IMF Executive Board on 18 December 2009, after it completed the third review of Belarus’ performance under an economic program supported under a Stand-By Arrangement (SBA).

    Belarus fully honored all the obligations it undertook under the Stand-By Arrangement, IMF Deputy Managing Director Mr. Takatoshi Kato said in his report.

    The National Bank and the Government of Belarus will continue the implementation of all necessary measures to secure successful fulfillment of the Stand-By Arrangement. Belarus and the IMF will join their efforts to minimize the consequences of the global financial crisis and increase the efficiency of the Belarusian economy.

    The 15-month SBA was approved on 12 January 2009, and on 29 June 2009 the size of financial package provided under the SBA was increased to an amount equivalent to SDR 2.27 billion (about $3.63 billion).

    In January 2009 Belarus received the first tranche of the IMF loan - around $800 million. The second tranche (around $680 million) came in July. On 26 October Belarus received another IMF credit tranche to the tune of $699.5 million. Thus, the total volume of the loan provided by the IMF now stands at $2.87 billion.

  • Cultural Scene...

    Minsk to host Boris Zaborov exhibition

    From: BelTA
    A solo exhibition of a world-famous artist Boris Zaborov is scheduled to take place in Minsk in 2010, BelTA learnt from the Embassy of Belarus in France.

    Preparation for the exhibition has already started, Boris Zaborov told BelTA. The exhibition will be a momentous event for the artist. Boris Zaborov’s oeuvre is connected with Belarus, his Motherland, Russia, the country where he studied, and France. Boris Zaborov has been living and working in France for almost 30 years. It was in Paris, where he became famous all over the world.

    The exhibition will be very important for Belarusian-French cultural cooperation, which is actively developing at the moment.

    The exhibitions of Boris Zaborov have taken place in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Moscow, but artist’s works have never been showcased in Belarus so far.

    Boris Zaborov was born in Minsk. After graduating from the Minsk art school, he entered the Leningrad Art academy and in 1962 he graduated the Surikov Moscow University. Since 1981 Boris Zaborov has been living and working in Paris.

    Europe’s best newcomer fantasy fiction writer to present novel in Gomel

    A presentation of a fantasy fiction novel Gonitva by Nika Rakitina will take place in the Gertsen Central City Library of Gomel on 22 December. For the novel Nika Rakitina was awarded the title “Best Newcomer Fantasy Fiction Writer” at the science fiction conference Eurocon 2008, BelTA learned from representatives of the library.

    It was the first time in Eurocon’s 36-year history when a representative of Belarus had won the prize.

    Gonitva is the first novel by Lyudmila Bogdanova of Gomel, who uses the alias of Nika Rakitina. The novel is historical fantasy based on Belarusian and Lithuanian folklore, ancient myths and Middle Ages mysticism. In a parallel reality Lithuania was once conquered by Germans but remains rebellious. The novel is a mixture of historical facts and Belarusian folklore, a love drama and a detective story, outstanding language and a captivating plot.

    Lyudmila Bogdanova, 46, is a pedagogue. She has been working as a supervisor of the interest group Unusual Literature Society at the Gomel Oblast Children and Youth Arts Palace. Her stories have been published by Ukrainian and Russian magazines. The novel Gonitva was printed by the Riga-based publishing house S-Kom in 2008.In a related story,

  • Economics...

    Belarus’ oil refining output up 13.8% in January-November

    From: BelTA
    In January-November 2009 the Belarusian oil refining industry turned out Br21.698 trillion worth of commodities, 13.8% up on the same period of last year, the National Statistics Committee told BelTA.

    In January-November the industry increased the production of domestic furnace fuel by 5.6% to 5.6 million tonnes, heating oil – by 19.1% to 563,100 tonnes, biodiesel fuel — 380% up to 463,800 tonnes. The industry manufactured 3 million tonnes of automobile gasoline (99.3% as against the same period of last year), 5.9 million tonnes of diesel fuel (98.6%), and. The production of lubricating oils shrank by 21.8% to 118,300 tonnes.

    In January-November Belarus produced 1.576 million tonnes of oil, or 98.9% as against the same period of last year.

    As of 1 December 2009 the industry’s stocks of automobile gasoline amounted to 1.1% of the average monthly output, diesel fuel — 0.1%, heating oil – 3.6%, lubricating oils — 34.6%, biodiesel fuel – 3.8%.

    In January-October 2009 the profitability of the industry stood at 5.5%.

    In January-October the export of Belarusian petroleum products amounted to 12.7 million tonnes, 101.2% as against the same period of last year. The export to non-CIS states amounted to 11 million tonnes (98.4% as against the same period of last year), export to CIS states — 1.7 million tonnes (124.1%).

    Foreign currency earnings of Belarusian companies 34.9% down in January-November

    In January-November 2009 foreign currency earnings of Belarusian companies shrank by 34.9% in comparison with the same period of last year to a total of $22.95 billion, BelTA learned from the Information Office of the National Bank of the Republic of Belarus.

    Proceeds from commodity export went down by 37.3% to $19.7 billion to make up 85.8% of the total foreign currency proceeds. Earnings from the export of services accounted for 13% of the total or $3 billion (10.4% down), foreign currency proceeds from domestic trade — 0.9% or around $192 million (58.4% down). Other revenues amounted to $79.6 million (160% up).

    According to provisional data of the National Bank, exports to the CIS accounted for around 35.7% of the total foreign currency proceeds from export, with Russia’s share as large as 29.6%.

    Belarus trades with 176 countries in January-October

    In January-October 2009 Belarus traded with 176 countries, exporting commodities to 136 countries and importing products from 167 countries, the National Statistics Committee told BelTA.

    The area of Belarus’ trade has expanded since earlier this year. For comparison, in January Belarus traded with 127 countries, exporting commodities to 86 countries and importing products from 118 countries.

    In January-October Belarus’ main trade partners were Russia (47.2% of the total trade), the Netherlands (7.8%), Germany (6.3%), Ukraine (5.9%), Latvia (3.5%), Poland (3.3%), China (2.5%), the UK (2%) as well as Italy, Brazil and India.

    In January-October 2009 Belarus’ export of commodities to Russia shrank by 42.6% to $5.386 billion over the same period last year, with the country accounting for 31.8% of Belarus’ export volume. The export to the Netherlands went down by 38.9% to $2.896 billion. Consequences of the global crisis have affected Belarus’ trade with many other countries. Thus, in January-October Belarus’ export to Ukraine amounted to $1.327 billion (51.3% as against the same period of last year), Poland — $666.4 million (40.4%), Latvia — $1.274 billion (66.3%). Meanwhile, in the period under review, the export to India increased by 79.6% to $458.5 million, the export to Germany increased by 5.7% to $752.7 million.

    In January-October 2009 Belarus’ merchandise trade amounted to $39.635 billion, or 62.8% as against the same period last year. Belarus’ export shrank to $16.952 billion (58.3% as against January-October 2008), with the import down to $22.683 billion (66.7%). Belarus posted a deficit in trade at the amount of $5.732 billion.

  • From the Foriegn Press...

    Uralkali Trader Signs China Potash Deal at $350 a Ton

    From: Bloomburg
    Belarusian Potash Co., the world’s biggest exporter of the soil nutrient, signed a contract to sell the fertilizer to Chinese importers at $350 a metric ton, less than analysts forecast.

    The company, also known as BPC, will supply as much as 1.2 million tons of potash to China next year, which includes 200,000 tons of “optional quantities,” Berezniki, Ural Mountains-based Uralkali said in a statement today. The price includes freight costs.

    “The agreement will help to boost the market through restoring consumer confidence,” BPC sales chief Oleg Petrov said in an e-mailed comment. The deal “removes the huge price uncertainty that had been delaying consumption decisions and reducing supply throughout last year.”

    The global financial crisis slashed demand for potash after prices rose to more than $1,000 a ton in some parts of the world last year. China made up 22 percent of world consumption in 2008, according to Fertecon, a Tunbridge Wells, England-based fertilizer adviser. Producers agreed to cut Indian contract prices in July by 26 percent to $460 a ton including shipping.

    The price excluding freight, known as the free-on-board price, for potash to China may be equivalent to $300 a ton, Renaissance Capital analyst Marina Alexeenkova wrote in a research note. Elena Sakhnova, an analyst at VTB Capital, calculated the free-on-board price at $285 to $300 a ton.

    The market expected a free-on-board price of $300 to $350 a ton, according to Troika Dialog and VTB.

    China Wins

    “China completely won this standoff,” Sakhnova wrote in a note. “As we expect 2010 global potash demand to restore, the risks to freight rates are on the upside, putting suppliers that signed on cost-including-freight terms in a more vulnerable situation versus the customers.”

    China may use 8 million to 9 million tons of potash next year, with 4 million to 5 million tons produced domestically, BPC’s Petrov said last week. The trader is a joint venture between Uralkali and Belarus’s state-owned Belaruskali.

    The Chinese contract should set a “global price floor and unlock demand on spot markets,” VTB’s Sakhnova said.

    China may next push Canpotex Ltd., a group representing North American producers, to follow the price set with Belarusian Potash, said Xu Hongzhi, an analyst at Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant Co.

    Russia may supply oil to Belarus without a deal

    From: Reuters
    Russia is unlikely to stop crude deliveries to Belarus in 2010, even if a deal on supplies is not reached quickly, Alexander Surikov, the Russian ambassador to Belarus said on Wednesday.

    The current deal expires on Dec. 31, 2009. Pricing rows between Russia and Belarus led to a temporary stoppage of oil supplies to Europe in early 2007 through Druzhba pipeline and a new standoff appeared possible when both sides failed to agree on volumes of duty-free Russian oil.

    Belarus typically buys about 21.5 million tonnes of oil from Russia every year. A further 60 million tonnes of Russian oil is exported through Belarus annually.

    "The accord could be signed even in February... A protocol should be signed and the supplies will continue," Surikov told reporters.

    Last week, powerful Russian deputy prime minister Igor Sechin said Russia had been suffering from selling cheap oil to Belarus and proposed that in 2010 Minsk will secure around 6 million tonnes of duty-free oil for domestic needs.

    The rest, he said, will attract "100 percent of custom fees".

    Meanwhile, Belarus was expecting to get up to 9 million tonnes of duty-free Russian oil.

    Surikov didn't specify the volumes of such oil, but added that "the rest will be supplied under stock exchange prices including custom fees."

    Belarus builds up gold and hard currency reserves after IMF credit arrives

    From: Itar Tass
    The IMF credit tranche worth approximately 68.1 million dollars has arrived in Belarus on Wednesday, a source from the Central Bank of Belarus told Tass. The bank spokesman, Mikhail Zhuravovich, said the credit was incorporated into Belarus' gold and hard currency reserves and would be used to uphold the exchange rate of the Belarusian rouble.

    The IMF Executive Council made a decision to remit a fourth tranche of the stabilization credit to Belarus on December 18 upon completion of a supervisory review of the realization of an anti-crisis and stabilization program in Belarus drafted by the Belarusian government and approved by the International Monetary Fund.

    In January, the IMF Board made a decision to give a credit support worth 2.46 billion dollars to Belarus for a term of 15 months to follow. In June, upon completion of a first supervisory review of the fulfilment of the stabilization program IMF increased financial support to Belarus to 3.52 billion dollars. For the time being Minsk has actually received approximately 2.8 billion dollars out of the overall credit.

    Sources from the Belarusian bank said Belarus will continue the fulfillment of the stabilization program for purposes of completing the realization of the program in full volume and will continue cooperation with the International Monetary Fund for the implementation of joint measures aimed to minimize after-effects of the economic crisis and improve the effectiveness of the Belarusian economy.

    Belarus increase mixed fodder production by 9.3%

    From: Agrimarket
    In January-November of 2009, mixed fodder production volumes in Belarus totaled 2.51 mln tonnes, an increase of 9.3% compared to the same period of the previous year, declared the National Statistics Committee of Belarus (Belstat).

    During eleven months of the current year, organizations of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of Belarus increased mixed fodder production by 10.1% compared to the same period of 2008, to 2.3 mln tonnes. Juridical entities without the departmental affiliation produced 169 thsd tonnes of mixed fodder, down 1.1% compared to the same period of 2008.

    According to Belstat information, in January-November of 2009, Belarus produced 15.19 thsd tonnes of feed mixes, down 31.3% compared to January-November of 2008, 79.51 thsd tonnes of protein-vitamin additions (down 0.7%), 41.55 thsd tonnes of premixes (up 12.7%), 30.41 thsd tonnes of feed microbiologic protein (up 2.7%). The enterprises of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food produced the main volumes of the products.

    As of December 1, the carry-over stocks of mixed fodder at the storages totaled 53.3 thsd tonnes or 23.3% of monthly production level, 78 tonnes of feed mixes (5.6%), 1.23 thsd tonnes of protein-vitamin additions (17.1%), 1.47 thsd tonnes of premixes (39%), 1.03 thsd tonnes of feed protein (37.5%).

  • From the Opposition...

    Vera Rich, famous British translator of Belarusian literature, died

    From: Charter '97
    Vera Rich translated Kuala, Kolas, Bahdanovich, Tsyotka, Arsenneva, Harun, Heniyush, Byadulya, Krapiva, Ipatava, Hilevich and others.

    Vera Rich was born in London on April 24, 1936. Her first translation from Belarusian into English was published in Minchin newspaper “Batskaushchyna” in 1957, Radio Svaboda reports.

    Her first collection of poetry, Outlines, was published in 1960, the second collection of poetry, Portents and Images, came out in 1963.

    In 1969, Nature weekly offered Vera Rich a job as a correspondent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. However, she visited Belarus only in 1991. After that, Vera Rich paid visits to Belarus once or twice a year.

    In 1971, Like Water,Like Fire: An Anthology of Byelorussian Poetry from 1828 to the Present Day, the first-ever Belarusian poetry anthology in a western language was published under the auspices of UNESCO. The book was banned for selling in the Soviet Union on the grounds of being politically incorrect.

    In 1977, the first translation of Taras na Parnasie translated by Vera Rich and Arnold McMillin was published. A new compilation of Belarusian poetry, Poems on Liberty: Reflections for Belarus translated by Vera Rich came out in 2004. Vera Rich was also working over translation of New Land by Yakub Kolas.

    In 1970–1990, Vera Rich deeply cooperated with democratic and human rights movements in the Soviet Union.

    She was awarded with Ivan Frank Prize in recognition of 40 years service to Ukrainian literature.

    Court denies restoration of rights to Vitsebsk human rights activists

    From: Viasna
    Alena Papkova, Deputy Chair of Vitsebsk Kastrychnitski Court, turned down a complaint by a number of local human rights activists striving for the restoration of their civil rights.

    On 25 November 2009 a group of Vitsebsk human rights activists submitted an application for holding a picket on the International Human Rights Day, 10 December. However, the application was turned down by the city authorities due to the activists’ failure to meet the necessary requirements, namely to conclude agreements with the police, medical and housing departments.

    As a result, the activists, considering that their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly were violated, lodged a complaint with the court.

    During the court hearing, the activists expressed their claims to the city authorities. Besides, they demanded that the court passed a special judgment on the unconstitutional nature of decision #881 of 10.07.2009 by Vitsebsk city executive committee.

    The claimants also demanded to pay BYR 50 mln. worth of moral damage.

    However, Judge Papkova turned down the complaint and failed to pass any special judgment.

    The human rights activists say they are going to appeal the decision at Vitsebsk Regional Court.

    Court takes side of fired trade union leader

    The Belarusian Congress of Pro-Democratic Trade Unions (BCPDTD) succeeds in protecting one of its members and leader of Lukoml GRES Power Plant independent trade union leader Aliaksei Habryel, fired by the employer for his civil activity on 30 September. As a result of the court hearing at Chashniki Court, Judge Tatsiana Zaruba ruled to eliminate any discrimination towards the activist and ordered the employer to resume Mr. Habryel’s employment contract.

    According to the BCPDTD’s chair Aliaksandr Yarashuk, who testified at the trial, the repeated violation of the rights of independent trade unions, as well as the discrimination of their members, have greatly undermined Belarus’ dialogue with the International Labour Organization and are a serious obstacle for the restoration of UN’s trade references to the country.

  • Russia...

    Wave of Clergy Killings in Russia:
    Twenty-six Orthodox priests murdered since 1990, including 39-year-old Alexander Filippov on Tuesday

    From: VOA
    Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (center) conducts the funeral service for slain priest Daniil Sysoyev in a Moscow church, 23 November 2009
    The second murder of a Russian priest in as many months has prompted a call by the Orthodox Church for Russians to think about their country's spiritual and moral condition. The killings follow more violence this year directed against Muslim clerics in Russia's troubled Caucasus region.

    Tuesday's shooting death of 39-year-old priest Alexander Filippov is alleged to be the act of two intoxicated men in the village of Satino-Russkoye near Moscow. His widow is quoted as saying Filippov had reproached the suspects for relieving themselves at the entrance of their apartment building.

    The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, called Filippov a bright and clean-living individual who leaves behind three daughters.

    Kirill says the priest was killed because he was not indifferent to disgusting human behavior and took a principled stand against it in accordance with his calling.

    The Interfax News Agency says a total of 26 Orthodox priests have been murdered in Russia since 1990. Many others have been assaulted. They include Vitaly Zubkov, who was kicked and beaten last month, just days after the murder of his friend, Father Daniil Sysoyev in Moscow. Sysoyev had received death threats for his outspoken criticism of Islam and attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity.

    News reports quote Orthodox Church Spokesman Vladimir Legoida as saying that recent events show Russians must think of the spiritual and moral situation they live in.

    The head of the Religion and Law Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Roman Lunkin, told VOA many Russians call themselves Orthodox Christians but have no idea about the obligations required by organized religion. He says Russian spiritual leaders themselves often set the wrong example by mixing church-state relations.

    Lunkin says church leaders send a signal that to call oneself an Orthodox, it is enough to maintain close ties with the state or government officials and to participate in official ceremonies. He says this reveals an absence of true faith, adding that priests often begin with the construction of a church building, instead of first organizing a community of believers.

    Lunkin says communism stripped many Russians of religious faith, and with it any respect for priests and churches.

    Lunkin recalls an incident several years ago when a priest began building a church in the Ivanovo region north of Moscow and arrived one morning to find that local residents had dismantled the structure for its bricks because there was no organized community in that village and no one knew what Orthodoxy was. He adds that local hooligans who killed the priest considered themselves to be Orthodox.

    Russia's Islamic community has also been rocked this year by several high-profile killings of Muslim clerics in the Caucasus. They include Akhmed Tagayev, deputy mufti of Dagestan, and Ismail Bostanov, rector of the Islamic Institute in the southern Karachai-Cherkessia region.

    Some observers link those murders to Islamic militants who are fighting pro-Kremlin authorities. The deputy head of Russia's Mufti Council, Damir Khazrat Gizatullin rejects any connection. He told VOA he attributes the violence to incivility throughout Russia stemming from 70 years of communist rule.

    Gizatullin says people in Russia do not know how to listen to one another, to give others the right away on the road, or to understand the foundations of spirituality and religion. This, he concludes, leads to current situation, which follows 70 years of alienation from the spiritual roots and traditions of Russia. He says people now fail to realize that members of the clergy and all others are protected by the Almighty and by the law.

    He says Communists also made the mistake of focusing on the construction of buildings at the expense of community.

    Gizatullin says Soviet authorities wanted to construct more living space for people, but toilets and other communal structures were forgotten. He says there was no time, no energy, and no resources for such things, and now Russia is reaping those elements of Soviet life.

    Murders of prominent Russians are not limited to the clergy. Investigative journalists and political activists have also been victims. Most of the killers remain at large.

    US: Arms talks with Russia to drag into 2010

    From: AP
    The United States and Russia have failed to clinch a new nuclear arms control treaty this year, denying the White House a quick boost in its efforts to demonstrate improved relations with Moscow.

    The two sides hope to reach a deal in early 2010, the U.S. said Wednesday.

    The American delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller has left for the United States and will return to Geneva for more negotiations in January, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Geneva said.

    "Our goal remains to conclude a solid treaty for the presidents' signature as soon as possible," it said.

    Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev had been hoping to sign a new deal before the end of the year, but conceded last week at climate talks in Copenhagen that their goal was unlikely to be met.

    The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expired Dec. 5, and both countries have agreed to continue to honor its main provisions until a successor treaty is in place. The START treaty successor is seen as one of the most achievable areas of cooperation. Washington is also seeking help from Moscow on trickier issues such as the standoff over Iran's uranium enrichment program.

    START required each country to cut its nuclear warheads by at least one-fourth, to about 6,000, and to implement procedures for verifying that each side was sticking to the agreement.

    At a summit in Moscow last July, Obama and Medvedev agreed to cut the number of nuclear warheads on each side to between 1,500 and 1,675 within seven years.

    Russian officials have said previously that Moscow wants to simplify START's sprawling web of control measures, which were seen as crucial for both nations to keep an eye on one another's nuclear stockpiles even as the Cold War was ending.

    Russia's Communists mark Stalin's birthday

    From: AP
    The Russian Communist Party called for a moratorium on criticizing Josef Stalin on Monday to allow the country to celebrate the Soviet dictator's 130th birthday in peace.

    Nationwide, Stalin's popularity in Russia has been climbing amid Kremlin-backed efforts to defend his image.

    "We would very much like for any discussion of the mistakes of the Stalin epoch to be silenced today, so that people could reflect on Stalin's personality as a creator, a thinker and a patriot," Ivan Melnikov, the Communist deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, said in comments posted on the party's Web site.

    The Communist Party is still the second most powerful political force in the country after United Russia, the ruling party chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At times, the Communists have defeated Putin's party in regional elections.

    But in their efforts to rehabilitate Stalin's image in the eyes of the public, the Communists are taking at least some of their cues from Putin and the Kremlin, which have been pushing for Stalin's accomplishments to be recognized at home and abroad.

    Putin has lauded Stalin's victory over the Nazis during World War II and his drive to industrialize the Soviet Union as deserving of respect, despite the purges and repression that killed millions of Soviet citizens in the 1930s.

    "In my view, you cannot make one gross assessment. ... Any historical events need to be analyzed in their entirety," Putin said during his annual call-in show with the Russian public on Dec. 3.

    A majority of Russians — 54 percent — have a high opinion of Stalin's leadership qualities, according to a survey released Friday by state-run polling agency VTsIOM, while only 23 percent rate his personal character traits as below average. The survey questioned 1,600 people nationwide Dec. 5-6 and gave a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

    In the late 1980s, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, lifted the taboo against criticizing Stalin as part of perestroika, his sweeping campaign of political and economic reforms that precipitated the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, the Russian public has been exposed to dozens of documentary films, books, memoirs and biographies detailing the atrocities committed by Stalin's regime.

    A hardcore of his followers, mainly elderly people educated before perestroika, nevertheless uphold the view that Stalin was a great and valiant leader whose repressive grip on the nation was needed to ensure security and industrial growth.

    Stalin was born Josif Dzugashvili in 1878 in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

    On Monday in his home town of Gori, now in independent Georgia, about 300 mainly elderly people gathered outside the Stalin museum to wave flags and his portrait as they celebrated his life

    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says there can be no justification for the Soviet-era oppression that left millions dead at the hands of their own state. In a blog posting Friday, he said Russians must not forget the crimes of the Soviet era, and suggested young people were learning too much about the country's victories and not enough about the bloodbath that reached its peak under Josef Stalin.

    The remarks, following critics' claims that the Kremlin was whi8tewashing history, represent perhaps the Kremlin's strongest condemnation of Soviet repression since Medvedev's predecessor, Vladimir Putin, became president a decade ago.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Perplexity After Auschwitz Sign Theft

    From: New York Times
    Police officers unwrapped a part of the retrieved inscription from the Auschwitz Birkenau entrance, during a press conference in Krakow, Poland, on Tuesday.
    It was hard to know what was more shocking: the haplessness of the thieves who stole the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign looming over Auschwitz, or the laxness of the security protecting this emblem of the Holocaust’s perversity and horror.

    The thieves first tried to steal the sign, which means “Work Makes You Free,” last Thursday evening. But they lacked the right tools. Undetected, they drove to a hardware shop in the nearby town of Oswiecim and bought better tools. When they returned to the camp past midnight, there were no guards in sight, no evidence that surveillance cameras were functioning.

    They set to work. Just as any visitor to the concentration camp could, they easily climbed atop the modest wrought-iron gate. They unbolted one side of the sign and then ripped off the 66-pound metal frame when the other side proved more difficult.

    They then discovered the sign would not fit into their car, according to Artur Wrona, the prosecutor and lead investigator in the case. So they had to saw it in three pieces, but dropped the “i’ in Frei and left it behind.

    “They were so unprofessional,” said Jaroslaw Mensfelt, spokesman for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, a vast, eerie complex that covers nearly 500 acres and commemorates the slaughter of 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, but also thousands of Roma, homosexuals, conscientious objectors, and Soviet and German political prisoners. “They clearly did not do their homework,” he said.

    The tale of the theft has prompted shock across Europe and criticism from Israel and Jewish groups. Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, said he was “shaken and outraged,” and Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, issued a statement saying, “The theft of such a symbolic object is an attack on the memory of the Holocaust.”

    Mr. Wrona, the prosecutor, was scathing in his criticism of security at what has become one of the most visited former Nazi concentration camps, attracting over a million visitors a year, calling it “glaring negligence.”

    Theories of why someone would steal the infamous sign have raced through the local press, including a report that someone in Sweden had orchestrated the theft. While police officials in Poland and Sweden have not confirmed such accounts, local officials have said the evidence suggests that someone outside the country had a role in the theft.

    To help understand the crime, officials brought three suspects to the scene on Monday to re-enact the events.

    The dropped letter “i” offered investigators clues that the sign had been cut, and the Polish police embarked on an intense search.

    They found the sign Monday, stashed away in a wooded area beneath a layer of snow in northern Poland, several hundred miles from the camp. But details have been sketchy as to where exactly it was found, or how. They arrested five men, though they have not said how they were led to them.

    Lidia Puchacz, a forensics expert called in to examine the banner, told journalists on Tuesday that cutting and sawing tools used in the theft had been found at the home of one suspect.

    All the suspects were brought to Oswiecim. Polish television showed them handcuffed and dressed in jeans and jackets, their faces covered by their jacket hoods, entering the police station.

    Three of the suspects have already admitted to playing a role in the crime, according to Mr. Wrona. Two of them are refusing, so far, to cooperate.

    In the meantime, a duplicate sign, prepared five years ago when the original was being refurbished, has been put up.

    Despite the speculation that the sign could have been taken by neo-Nazis or others seeking to glorify the past, Mr. Wrona said the crime did not appear to be linked to any ideology. He said the lack of security allowed the perpetrators to approach the gate “unnoticed” and “undisturbed.”

    Mr. Mensfelt, 47, who has been working at the Auschwitz Museum for the past 13 years, agreed that the security was not what it should be. It was not clear why the surveillance camera at the gate did not capture the theft, or why no security guards were on patrol.

    But he did say that simply paying to keep the huge site open was an issue.

    “The total museum budget in 2008 was about 6.8 million euros, partly through visitors and contributions,” he said, adding that the Polish government provided about 2.5 million euros a year. “Aid from abroad covers less than 5 percent of the budget,” he said.

    “At the end of the day, we have to pay a staff of 250, of which 50 are security guards,” he said. “The personnel costs are over three million euros a year. You can see we are strapped for cash.”

    Just two days before the theft, the German government provided a grant of up to 60 million euros for the protection of the site. The funds will be sent in the coming weeks to an oversight foundation.

    Mr. Mensfelt said some small items had been stolen over the years, ever since the museum was created by an act of the Polish Parliament on July 2, 1947, but there had never been such a security breach as this.

    Made in 1940 by Polish political prisoners, the sign remains one of the first things visitors see on approaching Auschwitz. Although much has been sanitized or destroyed, visitors today nevertheless get a real sense of the organization of the extermination camp, which was built on the site of a former army barracks.

    Besides the ruined gas chambers and crematoriums, there are several hundred camp buildings, nine miles of camp fence, camp roads, and the railroad spur at Birkenau.

    In addition to document archives, which Mr. Mensfelt said accounted for most of the security, there is an enormous collection of possessions.

    “We have over 2,000 kilograms of human hair, we have so many personal possessions, 3,800 suitcases, 2,100 of which bear the names of their owners. We have diaries, spectacles, shoes, Jewish clothing.”

    “It is a vast archive,” he said. “Who would have thought that the banner would be stolen?”

    Polish anti-corruption agents ineffective against corruption

    From: The News
    RZECZPOSPOLITA reveals an Interior Ministry report claiming that over 95 per cent of corruption related crimes are discovered by the police.

    In terms of effectiveness, this leaves far behind the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA), an institution which by definition has been established to deal exclusively with this type of practices.

    Last year the police has launched close to 6 thousand investigations in cases involving corruption, while the CBA had only 280 to its credit. Nevertheless, it must be noted that while police statistics include even the smallest instances of bribery such as attempting to pay a cop for dropping speeding charges, the CBA focuses on big caliber cases quite often concerning exorbitant sums and publicly prominent figures.

    60 euro to fix football match?

    From: The News
    Police have detained footballers from FC Unia Tarnow, who allegedly fixed matches for as little as 250 zloty (60 euro).

    Ten people are accused of corruption and Artur W., former football player nicknamed “hairdresser from Tarnow” is in custody, accused of giving and taking bribes worth 30,000 zloty (7,100 euro).

    Police have evidence that seven FC Unia Tarnow matches were fixed between 2007 and 2009. Referees and footballers from the rival teams received bribes which amounted from 10,000 zloty (2,400 euro) to only 250 zloty (60 euro).

    Over 300 people, including footballers, coaches, referees and football club managers have been arrested so far in relation to an ongoing investigation into corruption in the Polish Football Association (PZPN).

    Top aid to PM Tusk commits suicide?

    From: The News
    Head of the Prime Minister’s Chancellery in Poland Grzegorz Michniewicz has committed suicide.

    The official appears to have hung himself according to media reports. His body was found in his apartment earlier today.

    The Government Information Centre has so far declined to comment. District Prosecutor's Office spokesman in Warsaw, Matthew Martyniuk, however, said the participation of a third party in the death cannot be ruled out.

    Grzegorz Michniewicz, born in 1961, was general director of the PM’s Chancellery from January 2008, acting as commissioner for the protection of classified information and data administration. His responsibilities included securing classified and personal data.

    Michniewicz was also a member of PKN Orlen supervisory board, Poland‘s oil giant.

  • Sport...

    Belarus names four NHLers to Olympic roster

    From: NHL
    The Belarusian Ice Hockey Association on Wednesday was the first of 12 nations to reveal its provisional roster for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

    To no surprise, the roster includes the only four Belarusians currently playing in the NHL -- defenseman Ruslan Salei of Colorado, and forwards Mikhail Grabovski of Toronto and brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, both of Montreal. The latter three will be appearing in their first Olympics.

    The 23-man roster is also comprised of 15 players that represented Belarus at the 2009 IIHF World Championships and finished in eighth place, its best showing since placing sixth in 2006.

    Only five players play regularly in the Belarusian Open League, the top professional circuit. The remaining 14 play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and seven come from Dynamo Minsk, the only Belarusian entry in the KHL.

    The roster was picked by head coach Mikhail Zakharov, who was hired by the federation last month to succeed Glen Hanlon. Last weekend he coached Belarus for the first time in two exhibition games, losing to Slovakia 4-2 and defeating Switzerland 2-1, in overtime.

    Zakharov's assistants are former Soviet great Andrei Khomutov and Dave Lewis, formerly head coach of the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins.

    Veteran Andrei Mezin figures to be the starting goaltender. The 35-year-old represented Belarus in its only two previous Olympic appearances, 1998 (seventh place) and 2002 (fourth place). A four-time Belarus Player of the Year (1998, 1999, 2005, 2006), Mezin is best known for making 44 saves to defeat Sweden 4-3 in the 2002 Olympic quarterfinals, one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. In another career highlight, Mezin made 40 saves for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the first NHL-IIHF Victoria Cup game in 2008, a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers that was nearly an upset.

    Most recently, Mezin helped Belarus reach the quarterfinals of the 2009 World Championships and earned the Best Goalkeeper Award with a 4-1 record, 1.72 goals-against average and a .948 save percentage.

    Also participating in his third Olympics will be Salei, 35, who captained the squad in 2002. A back problem has limited the veteran to one game thus far in 2009-10, and he is currently on injured reserve. His availability is tentative at best, but if he can play he'll be one of Belarus' most important players.

    The roster includes four players -- Mezin, Salei, and forwards Oleg Antonenko and Konstantin Koltsov -- who played for Belarus in its last Olympic appearance in 2002 in Salt Lake City.

    Though all the teams participating in the Olympic tournament will be announcing their squads in the coming week, the final rosters will be registered on Feb. 15 at the IIHF directorate meeting, one day prior to the beginning of the tournament. After that date, no replacements are possible.

    Zakharov issued a warning to these 23 players on the BIHA website. "It does not mean that those hockey players that are on this list definitely go to Vancouver. So it is not worth it to relax. For others, who did not get to this part, let this turn of events be an additional incentive to improve their game. The final composition, we will announce in February."

    A surprising omission was Red Wings prospect Sergei Kolosov, a 6-4, 217-pound defenseman in his second season with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League. But, Zharkov did say that Lewis, a former Red Wings coach, would scout Kolosov and make a recommendation on the player to the coaching staff before final rosters are submitted on Feb. 15.

    2010 Belarusian Olympic team

    Goaltenders (3): Vitali Koval (Dynamo Minsk), Maxim Malyutin (HK Vitebsk), Andrei Mezin (Dynamo Minsk)

    Defensemen (8): Andrei Antonov (Shakhter Soligorsk), Andrei Bashko (Shakhter Soligorsk), Vladimir Denisov (Dynamo Minsk), Viktor Kostiuchenok (Amur Khabarovsk), Ruslan Salei (Colorado Avalanche, NHL), Nikolai Stasenko (Amur Khabarovsk), Vadim Sushko (Shakhter Soligorsk), Alexander Syrei (Shakhter Soligorsk)

    Forwards (12): Oleg Antonenko (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg), Sergei Demagin (Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk), Mikhail Grabovski (Toronto Maple Leafs), Alexei Kaliuzhny (Dynamo Moscow), Konstantin Koltsov (Salavat Yulayev Ufa), Andrei Kostitsyn (Montreal Canadiens), Sergei Kostitsyn (Montreal Canadiens), Alexander Kulakov (Dynamo Minsk), Andrei Mikhalev (Dynamo Minsk), Andrei Stas (Dynamo Minsk), Alexei Ugarov (MVD Balashikha), Sergei Zadelenov (Dynamo Minsk)

  • Endnote...

    Belarus’ Father Frost orders border guards to ensure free cross-border travel for New Year

    From: Navany
    Belarus’ Father Frost has ordered border guards to ensure free travel across the border for New Year on the night between December 31, 2009 and January 1, 2010.

    Father Frost also ordered the State Border Committee to open a special crossing point at the Belarusian-Polish border to welcome the guest.

    The instructions were given at a Sunday ceremony held at the Belavezhskaya Pushcha National Park where Belarusian Father Frost resides.

    Yury Pikalyuk, head of the State Border Committee’s ideology department, presented Father Frost with a border guard’s green beret and a certificate of initiation into the border guard ranks.

    A pillar was installed at Father Frost’s residence so that children could leave their wish lists.

    “Just like border guards, Father Frost defends the good and whisks the evil away with his staff,” Mr. Pikalyuk said.

    Around 100 kids attended the Sunday ceremony. Among them were children cared for at the residential school for orphaned and abandoned children in Stankava near Minsk.

    “The year of the tiger is approaching,” Father Frost said. “And the tiger is a willful beast. Border guards should be on the lookout on New Year's night. I like the tiger because it reminds me of our Belarusian winter that is striped by the snow and thaw periods. And the new year will be beautiful and will bring a lot of luck. I guarantee this.”