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Today's Headlines for:
Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Christmas, Russian oil talks, Pensions, Civil engineering, WTO; Opposition, Sport, Anya's Brthday Film and Polish scandals...

  • From the Top...
  • #476

    Alexander Lukashenko: Christmas brings joy and hope

    From: BelTA
    President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has congratulated Belarusian Orthodox Christians on the Nativity of Christ, the press service of the Belarusian head of state told BelTA.

    The congratulation reads that “For thousands of years the power of this great celebration, which fills human lives with meaning, has been an inexhaustible source of benevolence and mercy. Christmas brings millions of believers the feeling of joy and hope for the victory of true spirituality and humanism, purifies one’s thoughts and feelings, and calls for noble deeds, compassion and tolerance.

    “We love and look forward to Christmas as the most wonderful holiday that reminds us of the unbreakable bond between generations, magnificence of mother’s love and the need to take care of our loved ones. On these winter days filled with lights of beautifully decorated Christmas trees and jingling of bells, an atmosphere of consent and mutual understanding settles in families, keeping hearts warm through the year. The wonderful tradition of helping those in need gets a new meaning and prompts us to do good”.

    The President wished good health, success and well-being to everyone.

    Orthodox believers celebrate Christmas Eve 6 January

    Christmas Eve gets Christians ready for Great Feast and is held in strict fasting. The fast typically lasts until the first star appears on 6 January. The dinner that follows is very much a celebration. Kutya, a type of porridge, is the primary dish. It is very symbolic with its ingredients being various grains for hope and honey and poppy seed for happiness and peace.

    All of the food is served in an unusually festive and anticipatory manner and style. The Russians call this meal: "The Holy Supper." The family gathers around the table to honor the coming Christ Child. A white table-cloth, symbolic of Christ's swaddling clothes, covers the table. Hay is brought forth as a reminder of the poverty of the Cave where Jesus was born.

    The believers also attend divine services at the cathedrals and churches across the country to get spiritually ready for one of the greatest Christian holidays – the Nativity of Christ.

    Services in honor of Christmas will be held on the eve and on Christmas day in all Orthodox churches of Belarus

    Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk Filaret, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus will conduct an all-night service which will start at 18h00 in the Holy Spirit Cathedral.

    An evening service in the Minsk cathedral will be broadcast by First National TV Cannel from 21h55 to 23h55.

    In the morning all the Belarusian Orthodox churches will hold divine services. The Holy Spirit Cathedral of Minsk will host the Masses at 7am and at 10am. The last Mass will be said by Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk Filaret, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus. On 7 January, the Holy Spirit Cathedral will host the Morning Divine Service. State officials and foreign diplomats have been invited to take part in the Service.

    The Orthodox World celebrates the Nativity of Christ (Christmas) for eleven days. The people call this period Svyatki or Kolyady. Although, Kolyady is a pagan ceremony, it is widely used by the Eastern Slavs during the Christmas celebrations. Performing the ceremony, the young people in fancy outfits move from house to house. They sing songs and receive gifts. The principal character of the Kolyady ceremony is the goat which is an ancient symbol of fertility.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Russia sabotages oil supplies talks

    From: BelTA
    The Russian side sabotaged the negotiations on oil supplies terms on 6 January, a representative of the Belarusian delegation told BelTA.

    “Today the Belarusian delegation spent the entire day in talks with the Russian Energy Ministry. As of 14:00 experts managed to bring views of the sides as close as possible,” stressed the source.

    After that, however, the Russian negotiators took a timeout to report to the Russian Federation leadership. “After coming back the Russian side virtually dismissed all the terms that had been agreed on and reverted to the state of things observed at the beginning of the year. One should bear in mind that on the eve the sides agreed that if the experts come to terms, this afternoon Belarus First Vice Premier Vladimir Semashko will leave for Moscow to ink the relevant documents”.

    According to the source, the Russian side has solidified a non-negotiable position.

    Regardless of the fact the Belarusian side is ready to continue the talks keeping in mind the effective legal base of Belarusian-Russian relations. The delegation of Belarusian experts remains in Moscow.

    Belarus to draw up 42 bills in 2010

    From: BelTA
    In line with the plan adopted by the President of Belarus, some 42 bills will be prepared in 2010, BelTA learnt from the presidential press service.

    Twelve out of 42 bills are new. They include bills on healthcare service for persons suffering from socially dangerous diseases and HIV; assisted reproductive technologies; regulations of the Republic of Belarus; denomination of geographical objects; copyright and related rights; the state procurement of goods (works, services), equity securities and professional participants of the securities market; non-profit agencies; human trafficking prevention; housing savings; agricultural industry and climate protection.

    Six bills will be redrafted, including the bill on the psychiatric support, the Red Cross Society of Belarus, lawyers and the practice of law, bankruptcy, draft investment and housing codes of the Republic of Belarus.

    Eight bills are to be submitted to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly by the President of Belarus. They are bills on lawyers and the practice of law, report on the execution of the national budget in 2009, national budget in 2011, etc.

    Monthly average pensions in Belarus to go up 18-20% in 2010

    From: BelTA
    The monthly average old age pensions will be increased by 18-20% to Br492,000-Br507,600 in 2010, Deputy Minister of Labor and Social Security Valentina Koroleva told a press conference on 5 January.

    In 2010 the ministry will monitor the fulfillment of the pension security targets and, if necessary, come up with proposals on indexation of pensions. The scale of indexation will depend on the economic opportunities, Valentina Koroleva added.

    According to her, minimum labour and social pensions were indexed four times in 2009 (in February, May, August and November) following the increases in the per capita average subsistence wage. In line with the decree, on 1 January 2010 labor pensions were indexed by 9.4%. Old age pensions upped by 9.7%.

    Monthly average old age pensions increased by 8.8% in 2009 as against 2008 to total Br415,900. The minimum old age pension increased by 11% to Br235,600. The ratio between the monthly average old age pension and the subsistence wage made up 9.5% in 2009.

    “The process of awarding a pension is quite difficult. It starts with the preparation of all necessary documents at the level of employers and ends up with pension payment through post offices, banks and pension delivery organizations,” Valentina Koroleva said.

    Belarus now uses European civil engineering standards

    From: BelTA
    The Belarusian civil engineering industry has switched to using European standards, Belarus Deputy Architecture and Construction Minister Anatoly Nichkasov told BelTA.

    As of 1 January all the 58 Belarusian technical codes, which are identical to those Europe uses, have been enforced. The codes regulate the calculation and design of building structures. Starting this year Belarus uses 668 European standards that the European codes refer to. These standards are harmonized with Directive 89/106/EEC. The European standards regulate several areas, including the production of construction materials and structures as well as designing. Anatoly Nichkasov remarked that all European Union countries use these regulations in their civil engineering practices.

    “The adoption of the standards is a giant leap ahead. Within a year the country has accomplished a breakthrough project that will allow building up export to Central and Eastern Europe and removing technical barriers regarding the implementation of investment projects in Belarus. Now foreign investors will be able to operate in the country using common European technical standards”, said the Deputy Architecture and Construction Minister.

    Following the introduction of the European standards in Belarus a program of measures meant to assimilate European Union civil engineering standards at Belarusian companies has been put together. The program will be implemented this year. The transition to the European standards will require certain expenses, in particular, the purchase of the relevant software, re-training and professional development for various specialists.

    Meanwhile, Belarusian standards will stay in place. For some time the European standards will be used alongside the existing national regulations.

    Some time before that 249 standards, which have been harmonized with European and international standards and which lay down technical requirements and methods to test wall materials and products, cement, building glass and so on, were introduced. The measure enabled Belarusian construction product exporters to use CE labels on their products and export them to the European Union.

  • Economics...

    Belarus’ oil export duty set at $267 per tonne as from 1 January

    From: BelTA
    The Belarusian government has decreased the export duty on crude oil from $271 to $267 per tonne. The relevant decision is laid down by government resolution No. 1741, BelTA learnt from the Council of Ministers Office.

    The oil export duty was revised downward following a similar decrease in the export oil duty in the Russian Federation effective from 1 January.

    The export duty on light and middle distillates, gas oil, benzole, toluene, xylol will be $192.2 per tonne as against the previous $194.9. The export duty on black products (oils, processed oil products, mineral wax, petroleum coke, oil bitumen and oil refining residues) is set at $103.5 per tonne (down from $105 per tonne).

    Autonomous quotas applied in Belarus-EU trade in textile in 2010

    Starting from 1 January 2010, Belarus and the European Union have been using autonomous quotas for textile, BelTA learnt from the Belarus concern Bellegprom.

    According to Bellegprom, in view of the autonomous quotas there is no need to get an export license for the domestic textile. EU’s buyers will continue using the import licenses to sell the Belarusian textile.

    At present, the European Union quotes 21 types of Belarus’ textile goods. The reduced customs duties on the EU textile which were valid last year were cancelled on 1 January.

  • From the Foriegn Press...

    Russia, Belarus oil supply talks halted-agency; Russia says Belarus oil talks go on

    From: Reuters
    Negotiations between Russia and
    Belarus over the supply of Russian oil for 2010 have broken down
    after talks in Moscow, Belarus state news agency BelTA reported,
    quoting an unnamed source in the Belarussian delegation on

    Russia briefly cut oil supplies to Belarussian refineries this
    month in a dispute over pricing that has again raised the spectre
    of winter supply disruptions for European Union customers.

    "As a result of the work of experts, the two sides were close
    together," a source in the Belarussian delegation was quoted as
    saying, before the Russian officials took a break to report back
    to senior officials.

    "Upon returning, the Russia's negotiators effectively
    renounced all agreements and returned to the position of the
    beginning of the year," the source was quoted as saying.

    The Belarussian delegation flew to Moscow on Tuesday and held
    talks in the Russian Energy Ministry early on Wednesday, but will
    remain in Moscow, the Belarussian government spokesman told

    Russia hopes an agreement on oil supplies to Belarus will be reached soon and that negotiations will continue on Thursday, Russia's Energy Ministry spokeswoman told Reuters on Wednesday.

    "Talks are going on in a constructive way, tomorrow they will continue, we hope that an agreement can be reached in the nearest time," Russian Energy Ministry spokeswoman Irina Yesipova said.

    Her comments follow reports from the Belarussian state news agency BelTA that quoted unnamed sources in Minsk's delegation as saying the talks had broken down.

    Russia wants to enter the WTO in customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan

    From: Telegraph
    The presidents of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, at a recent meeting near Almaty, agreed to create a single economic space by January 1, 2012.

    All documents on the creation of the customs union comprising these states, from January 1, 2010, were signed in Minsk on November 27.

    It is estimated that, after the establishment of the customs union, combined GDP will increase by 15pc; specifically for Russia this will mean an additional $400bn.

    However, experts doubt that the introduction of a unified customs tariff will affect the lives of ordinary citizens.

    "Currently, we are hearing differing estimates, but one thing is clear: the creation of the customs union is beneficial to Russia not so much as an economic, but as a political project. . ." said Aleksey Vlasov, general director of the Information and Analytical Centre at Moscow State University.

    "Politically, this is a powerful move. Russia has become the centre of the integration process in the post-Soviet space and managed to fully utilise the customs union as a PR-project."

    Cold weather and Belarus dispute raise concerns

    From: Europolitics
    Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear power plant
    The first week of January has seen abnormally cold weather and a continuing oil dispute between Russia and Belarus, giving a reminder of the continuing need for increased security of energy supply. The UK's experience of a 30% increase in gas demand has raised concerns that a gas shortage could hit the country. Worries remain despite a gas balancing alert issued by the UK's National Grid later being withdrawn. Continued low temperatures in January would compound problems in the UK, formerly a net exporter of gas, due to a lack of storage capacity.

    In the Baltic states, concerns were also raised as to the security of electricity supply, especially as Lithuania's Ignalina nuclear power plant was finally shut down on 31 December 2009 (1). This follows a threat, on 4 January, by Belarus' state-owned electricity company Belenergo to cut transit of electricity to Russia's Kaliningrad enclave (and Baltic countries). This is linked to suspension of heavily subsidised oil supplies to Belarus' two oil refineries. In a statement, the Lithuanian subsidiary of Russian electricity company Inte RAO noted this would make unstable the electricity system in the whole Baltic region. Talks between Belarus and Moscow were continuing, on 6 January in Moscow.

    Separately, Ukraine's Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan, on 6 January, stated that state-owned Naftogaz would pay over US$890 million to Russia's Gazprom by 11 January. Russia had raised previously concerns about Ukraine's ability to pay for gas consumed in December 2009. Non-payment could lead to a repeat of Russia's cutting of gas supplies, via Ukraine, to Europe as in January 2009.

    Bomb Threat Stops Kaliningrad-Moscow Train In Belarus

    From: RFE/RL
    A Kaliningrad-Moscow passenger train was stopped at the Orsha train station in Belarus due to a bomb scare.

    Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reports the train's chief engineer ordered passengers to collect their luggage and evacuate the train when it arrived at Orsha, where the temperature is minus 10 degrees Celsius.

    The more than 500 passengers were taken to the train station while security personnel searched the train.

    More than 200 policemen accompanied by explosives experts and sniffer dogs were involved. Some two hours after the train ws stopped passengers were told they could return to the train and continue their journey.

  • From the Opposition...

    Conflict with Russia as a way of obtaining credits

    From: Charter '97
    Alyaksandr Lukashenka has signed a number of laws on ratification of agreements in the framework of the Customs Union, despite of the “oil war” with Russia.

    Among the documents signed by the Belarusian ruler, laws on ratification of the agreement on terms and mechanisms of customs quotas, protocols on grating tariff preferences, on terms and order of customs dues rates different from the Single customs tariff rates in exceptional cases and others.

    We remind that earlier Minsk stated that it finds participation of Belarus in the Customs union pointless in case Russian customs dues for oil are preserved for the country.

    “This entire conflict is an act put on by Lukashenka,” Andrei Sannikov, the leader of the civil campaign “European Belarus” said in an interview to website. “Back in the last year he found a rather effective scheme of defrauding loans from the West and continues to use it. Last year has finished, loans have disappeared, and now he needs new ones. And he needs to imitate a conflict with Russia for that end, which would allow European lobbyists of Lukashenka to say that he needs support”.

    The politician reminded that last year Lukashenka and his entourage said many harsh words about Russia.

    “However, let us see what we have in the result: formation of the single anti-missile system with Russia has been finished, agreement on the collective operational reaction forces has been signed, the largest military drills at the territory of Belarus aimed against the European Union has been held, the forgotten Customs Union, the basis of the Eurasian integration and restoration of the Soviet Union, has been revived. We observe denial to any most favourable conditions of Europe and stepping up the policy of repressions against the civil society and opposition in Belarus.

    These are facts, and not allegation we have heard both from the Belarusian side and the European side. However some European officials prefer to ignore these facts, thus helping Lukashenka to sell the performance of the conflict with Russia and receive dividends in the West. This does not mean that there are no contradictions between the regimes of Russia and Belarus, they really exist; but in this case repetition of oil and gas conflicts with Belarus and Ukraine aren’t in interest of Russia at all. They also need credits and investments from the West, and it is not in their interest to demonstrate unreliability and unpredictability,” Sannikov is convinced.

    At the same time, “European Belarus” leader notes, Russia has also received its benefits from this conflict in the form of growth of world prices for oil.

    “Having received it, the Russian leadership immediately ordered to extinguish this conflict. For some time Lukashenka is to continue to demonstrate his bellicosity, however as soon as a possibility to receive new loans in the West opens, he is to calm down. However I think that Lukashenka will consistently fulfil all the demands of Russia, both on privatization and on relations with the West,” Andrei Sannikov said.

    ’Young Front’ is denied in renting premises for constituent assembly

    From: Viasna
    The Belarusian youth organization Young Front that is registered in Czech intends to hold another constituent assembly at the end of January and again apply to the Ministry of Justice of Belarus for registration. Bear in mind that since 2000 the ministry five times refused to register the organization.

    According to Nasta Loika, head of the juridical department of Young Front, the organization filed ten applications to various institutions with the aim to rent premises for its assembly. In particular, such applications were filed to the Culture House of Veterans, Culture House of Trade Unions, House of Literary Workers and Minsk International Educational Center (IBB).

    IBB was the first to react. According to Nasta Loika, in a telephone conversation a representative of the center stated that the premises couldn’t be lent to Young Front neither for the specified day (30 January) nor for any other day.

    ’When I asked him to send a written answer with motivation of the decision, I was told that the German side had nothing against the constituent assembly, but Minsk city executive committee that is co-owner of the building, didn’t give its permission,’ said Nasta Loika.

    As a result, Young Front filed to IBB the demand to give a written answer to the application. Otherwise the young activists can file a lawsuit against the center.

    MIA justifies arbitrary arrests of oppositionists

    A leader of Young Front Anastasia Palazhanka and its activist Andrei Liaukovich received answers to their complaints to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

    The Young Front members said in an interview to RFE/RL it was a traditional reply that police officers had not violated the law by their actions.

    Anastasia Palazhanka filed a complaint after she had been detained near the entrance of her house, taken to the police department and kept there for more than five hours on 7 November. Her family didn’t information about the girl’s location.

    Andrei Liaukovich was detained at the entrance to the house in Hrodna oblast, where the youth activist was gathering signatures within the frames of a campaign for support of the Belarusian language. Liaukovich had to spend some hours at the police department. All printed materials were seized.
    The Young Front activists note this is not the first reply of the Ministry of Internal Affairs saying the Ministry doesn’t see any signs of abuse of power in policemen’s actions.

  • Russia...

    New Détente: Putin, Tycoons Rescue Each Other in Crisis

    From: WSJ
    Rusal CEO Oleg Deripaska, left, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visiting an automobile factory.
    Swamped with debt, Oleg Deripaska seemed the most likely of Russia's tycoons to fall victim to the financial crisis a year ago. Today he is on his way to preserving most of his sprawling empire, thanks to bailouts from the Kremlin and breaks from foreign lenders.

    A month ago, Mr. Deripaska closed a deal to delay repayment of $7.4 billion in foreign loans. This week, he kicks off marketing for an initial public offering of UC Rusal, the aluminum giant that is the core of his holdings.

    One key party has already committed to buying shares: a state bank whose chairman is Vladimir Putin.

    Mr. Deripaska's experience underscores the strangely symbiotic relationship between Russia's oligarchs and a leader, Prime Minister Putin, who once threatened to eliminate them "as a class." It also helps explain how the oil-fired Putin regime has survived a financial and economic crisis that once appeared to threaten its foundation.

    When the crisis struck in 2008, Russia's business elite were gripped by fears the Kremlin would take advantage of the debt-burdened tycoons' straits to grab prime assets. The crisis was likely to result in "massive redistribution of assets," one tycoon said at the time. Instead, whereas Western nations' bailouts have sometimes wiped out shareholders, the Russian authorities have so far taken care to protect the interests of the billionaires who control much of industry.

    The waves of bankruptcies and nationalizations many here expected were judged too destabilizing to risk, according to government advisers. Keeping loyal oligarchs afloat has checked the political impact of the financial crisis by limiting layoffs. The tycoons, in turn, have obliged by sometimes playing the role of whipping boy on state television. Mr. Putin "needs there to be a multiplicity of oligarchs for him to keep power," said one person close to Rusal.

    For all of his efforts to build up state companies and his tough talk about tycoons, Mr. Putin thus has relied on them to run many industrial complexes Russia inherited from the Soviet Union. Before the crisis, the most dynamic players, like Mr. Deripaska, became ambassadors for Russia's economic expansion, gobbling up assets overseas. Since then, the tycoons have provided the capitalist engine driving Mr. Putin's Kremlin-dominated system.

    Exactly what Mr. Deripaska's relationship to the Kremlin is remains unclear. Both sides say it is purely business. But he is well-connected, with direct access to Mr. Putin and other top officials, according to people close to him.

    Mr. Deripaska is often a member of the business delegation when Mr. Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travel abroad. The 42-year-old billionaire has been a big investor in Kremlin-backed projects such as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He wins points for his efforts to save Soviet-era behemoths like the OAO GAZ auto factory and an aircraft maker.

    Like the other remaining oligarchs, he studiously avoids independent political activity. For years, Russian officials from Mr. Putin on down have lobbied the U.S. to lift a ban on granting Mr. Deripaska a visa. Except for special permits arranged through the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year, the efforts have failed, amid what U.S. officials say are concerns about whether Mr. Deripaska has ties to organized crime. Canada also denied him visas twice under a law that covers "alleged criminality," Rusal disclosed in IPO documents last week. Mr. Deripaska denies any criminal ties and has never been charged with a crime.

    In testimony in a suit pending in London, he has said former associates forced him to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in "protection" for his aluminum business in the 1990s. Other witnesses have testified that Mr. Deripaska continued to have friendly relationships with people he said had forced him to pay. The suit was brought by one of Mr. Deripaska's ex-associates, Mikhail Cherney, whose version of events is that Mr. Deripaska was his partner and owes him a 13% stake in Rusal; Mr. Deripaska disputes that.

    The aluminum industry was one of the most lucrative in the chaos following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1990s, Mr. Deripaska controlled a large chunk of the industry. Around the time Mr. Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, Mr. Deripaska began to diversify into autos, aviation, construction and finance. In 2001, he married Polina Yumasheva, whose father was a top Kremlin official under Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Deripaska has said he doesn't derive political or business benefit from his marriage.

    Mr. Deripaska bought out his partners in Rusal, which had ample cash flow thanks to rising metals prices and low taxes. Borrowing from foreign banks, he built up debts across his empire of nearly $30 billion.

    But the financial crisis slashed the worth of assets against which he and other tycoons had borrowed. They faced huge demands from lenders for more collateral -- margin calls they couldn't meet.

    Creditors seized a 20% stake Mr. Deripaska had acquired in Canadian auto-parts maker Magna International Inc. Rusal also faced the risk of losing a 25% interest it had bought near the top of the market in OAO Norilsk Nickel. Foreign banks that once rushed to lend to him now took a tough line. Some, as recipients of bailouts at home, dared not be seen as going easy on foreign clients, bankers say.

    In the U.K., meanwhile, Mr. Deripaska found himself at the center of a controversy over whether Tory politicians had asked him for contributions when they visited him on his yacht off Corfu. All denied it.

    Weighed down by their debts, oligarchs begged the Kremlin for help. Officials were sympathetic, fearing the loss of strategic assets to foreign banks. Days before banks' payment deadlines,Vneshekonombank (VEB), the Russian state bank where Mr. Putin is chairman, lent Rusal $4.5 billion to repay the foreigners. VEB also made loans to other oligarchs.

    Business leaders worried the moves would turn into nationalization by stealth. The loans were for only a year. The fear was that if they couldn't be repaid when they came due, the state bank would claim the collateral. Mr. Deripaska hastily made peace with another tycoon with whom he had skirmished over control of Norilsk. The purpose was to keep the government from using the conflict as a pretext to gain control of the nickel company, people close to the men say.

    As metals prices continued to fall, Mr. Deripaska's empire seemed the most vulnerable to seizure by creditors. One confidant recalls advising him to just "turn it all over to the state and do yoga for three years." Instead, Mr. Deripaska worked tirelessly to save his business. He took back the CEO role at Rusal, which he'd given up years earlier, and rushed to cut costs. He dismissed offers to sell assets at steep discounts.

    In January, he and several other struggling oligarchs pitched the idea of merging their holdings into a metals giant that would be partly state-owned. The Kremlin wasn't interested. It figured minority stakes in the businesses would be of little benefit, say officials, while a full-scale takeover would threaten the fragile political balance among the various business families with ties to the Kremlin.

    "Nobody's taking anything from anyone," said Igor Sechin, a powerful deputy prime minister and proponent of greater state control, in an interview later. Mr. Deripaska, Mr. Sechin added with a smile, "is very able, smart and educated, well-known in the world. Let him work."

    The government instead put several of Mr. Deripaska's companies, including GAZ, on the list of businesses in line for state aid. Though Russian officials said it wasn't a bailout of oligarchs, analysts said that was what the aid amounted to. Mr. Deripaska has rejected the idea that he was bailed out.

    For the government, preserving jobs was a key issue. Unemployment was surging, triggering fears of social unrest. By spring, state television was regularly covering the plight of laid-off or unpaid workers in one-company towns, highlighting the failure of the plants' owners to take care of employees.

    At Pikalyovo, a small town near St. Petersburg, workers blocked a highway to protest layoffs and the cutoff of factory-provided hot water. Mr. Deripaska was just one of three tycoons who owned Pikalyovo's factories, but he got the bulk of the blame from state television.

    Mr. Putin made a "surprise" visit in early June. TV coverage showed Mr. Deripaska looking like a penitent schoolboy as the prime minister ordered him to sign a contract restarting the plant, and then demanded the oligarch return his pen.

    Insisting the plants be reopened, Mr. Putin told him and the other tycoons, "If you can't agree among yourselves, then we'll do it without you." Press commentators started talking of the looming end of Mr. Deripaska's career.

    What TV didn't show was that even as Mr. Deripaska played the scapegoat in Mr. Putin's populist set piece, the tycoon was being well-rewarded. That same week, the Kremlin agreed in principle to extend its $4.5 billion loan for a year. And soon, authorities approved $600 million in subsidies to help GAZ restructure.

    In addition, behind the scenes, Mr. Putin lobbied for a deal that would benefit the oligarch's GAZ factory, a Russian-backed takeover of General Motors' Opel AG unit. Mr. Deripaska later said the situation in Pikalyovo had been just a misunderstanding.

    In his talks with foreign creditors, Mr. Deripaska's confidence showed. He refused to give ground in loan-restructuring talks. At the end of July, the banks agreed in principle to a deal that would give Rusal four extra years to repay its giant loans.

    "The more loudly we were being buried, the easier it was to make deals with creditors," Mr. Deripaska told a Russian newspaper in September.

    VEB, the state bank where Mr. Putin is chairman, pitched in. In October, it officially extended its $4.5 billion loan until October 2010. Though that was enough to take the pressure off Rusal -- which continues to hold its stake in Norilsk, pledged on the loan -- Mr. Deripaska had asked for more. In a letter to Mr. Putin, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Deripaska had sought a four-year term and reduced interest rate.

    A spokesman for Mr. Putin said "there are reasonable limits" to the flexibility the government has shown to big business.

    In the middle of last year, with global markets recovering, Rusal revived an IPO plan it had shelved in 2007.

    Mr. Deripaska obtained special entry permits through the FBI that let him visit the U.S. in August and October. He discussed the IPO plan on Wall Street and went to Detroit to lobby for an Opel deal. (GM ultimately kept Opel.)

    While some U.S. investment banks were leery about the Rusal IPO, it had no trouble finding underwriters. Mr. Deripaska went to China with Mr. Putin in October, lining up deals to sell Rusal's metal and pitching its shares.

    Back in Moscow, on a day in mid-November, he sat for hours on a couch outside Mr. Putin's office in the prime minister's suburban residence, sending text messages as he waited for a meeting with Mr. Putin.

    The patience paid off, as Mr. Putin approved a plan to invest about $700 million in Rusal's IPO through VEB, the state bank. Though the deal would give the government only a 3% stake, people close to it say it will be a huge boost to the public offering.

    To make it possible, the government had to approve special rules allowing the investment, made with earnings from money the Kremlin earmarked for pensions. Russia's finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, hailed the deal as a good one for the government and a step to ensure that control at Rusal stayed with Mr. Deripaska. After the sale of 10.6% of Rusal's shares near the end of January, Mr. Deripaska's stake will fall to about 48% from 53% but he will remain in control.

    A last-minute hangup delayed things. Regulators in Hong Kong, where the IPO is taking place, demanded assurances Rusal wouldn't be bankrupted by the $4.5 billion loan from VEB, the state bank, when it comes due in October 2010. Another Russian state-controlled bank came to the rescue. OAO Sberbank offered to refinance the loan for four more years, and is considering buying shares in the IPO as well.

    While US disarms, Russia and China build up their military

    From: American Thinker
    In this week's issue of Defense News , Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, warns, "Stagnation threatens U.S. arms superiority." After noting recent tests by Russia and China of new nuclear-armed missiles, Berman writes,

    Indeed, practically every declared nuclear weapon state is engaged in a serious modernization of its strategic arsenal. The United States, by contrast, has allowed its strategic infrastructure to atrophy since the end of the Cold War.

    The results of this neglect are striking, as scholars Bradley Thayer and Thomas Skypek have detailed in a pair of studies. America's ICBM force is aging rapidly, and the retirement of long-range missiles such as the Minuteman and Peacekeeper in the years ahead will cause a major constriction in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal, with no replacements in sight. Meanwhile, the U.S. bomber fleet has shrunk by nearly two-thirds since 2001.

    President Barack Obama is committed to creating a "world without nuclear weapons." He may try to get there by leading by example. He chaired a rare head-of-state meeting of the UN Security Council last September which unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the elimination of nuclear arms. His Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in part on the basis of his no-nukes campaign. Yet, Russia and China are moving forward despite having voted for the UN resolution, and have also provided diplomatic and material support for the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

    Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin opened the New Year by insisting his country would develop new "offensive" weapons systems before it considered cutting nuclear warheads. He said the new weapons were necessary to prevent America's leaders from thinking they can "do whatever they want."

    The emerging American strategic predicament is about more than the number of delivery systems and warheads. As Berman points out,

    An aging work force and poor incentives for science and technology education also raise the possibility that the current decline could become irreversible unless major investments are made, and soon.

    Berman does not go further into details, but the U.S. aerospace industry lost a million jobs during the ill-considered "post-Cold War" defense downsizing of the 1990s. Hundreds of firms left the industry with many simply going out of existence. A decade of small, counterinsurgency wars has stretched the American military without prompting any rebuilding of high-end force levels in airpower, naval fleet size, or strategic nuclear forces.

    The same issue of Defense News features a front page story on how theater commanders are competing for the small number of warships capable of shooting down ballistic missiles in the wake of Obama's decision to cut land-based missile defense programs.

    The result of two decades of minimal procurement of advanced systems has been a decline in the nation's defense industrial base, which will make rearmament more difficult, slower and more expensive the longer it is delayed. Meanwhile, new regional powers and peer competitors are rising around the world, empowered by the global spread of technology and industrial capabilities. Berman warns,

    This has dire implications for American security and the durability of U.S. alliances in the years ahead. Already, many countries are beginning to think of the day after U.S. nuclear dominance.

    And those thoughts do not lead towards a better world.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Big Brother legislation on its way

    From: NPE
    New laws governing the retention of data from mobile phone and internet usage that critics claim will help usher in a Big-Brother era will come into force in Poland come the New Year.

    Bringing the country into line with an EU directive designed to combat terrorism, from January 1 information on calls made my mobile phones and just what people have been doing on the internet will be retained for 18 months.

    While this may alarm human rights groups and prompt fears of the data either being abused and misused, or simply mislaid, the newspaper Puls Biznesu has claimed that the government has even taken matters a step further by requiring service providers to keep the location from where mobile phone calls are made.

    This should provide the authorities with a map of the comings and goings of phone users, along with just who and when they made calls.

    The huge amount of information that the law requires to be stored has raised the hackles of the industry.

    “To record the number of data is a huge undertaking. To make changes to the data base increases the technical requirements, time, money,” Dariusz Kosni, from the Polish network provider Telefonia Cyfrowa, told Puls Biznesu. “I do not know whether he will be able to cope, and even if so it will be very expensive.”

    The industry claims that to get the systems up and running to cope with the new law will require tens of millions of zloty.

    It has also disputed government claims that the new law complies with the constitution and provisions of the existing telecommunications law.

    Official snooping through electronic communication might also get a further boost from recent changes to the gambling law.

    In an effort to crack down on and regulate the growing trend of e-gambling the new law, claimed the newspaper Gazeta Prawna, will allow the police to have free access to an internet user’s data without the need of a court warrant.

    The paper goes further by saying that the police, customs and excise and secret services, under the pretext of taking preventative action, will soon have the freedom to delve into somebody’s internet past even if they haven’t come under formal investigation.

    Poles lose fortune on gambling

    From: The News
    In 2009, Poles spent twice as much money on gambling than on vodka and ten times more than on investment funds.

    The money spent on gambling in 2009 reached a record sum of 20 billion zloty (5 billion euro). Last year the gambling market in Poland grew by 16 percent. However, it is still less than in 2006-2008, when Poles were spending 40 percent more on gambling a year. Recession slowed down the pace of gambling industry’s development.

    In 2009, the national lottery gained 5 percent less than a year before but casinos, amusement arcades and bookmakers earned the same amount of money. One-armed bandits, on the other hand, brought huge profits. Poles spent 11.3 million zloty (2.8 million euro) on fruit machines, which is one third more than a year before. The number of machines increased by 10,000 and exceeded 56,000.

    However, the times of gambling prosperity are gone. From 1 January 2010 over 26,000 one-armed bandits have been removed from gambling spots. A dramatic increase of gambling tax, which followed an anti-gambling bill made the machines less profitable.

    Mysterious death of hitman turned state witness

    From: WBJ
    Artur Zirajewski, aka "Iwan" – the star prosecution witness in case of the 1998 murder of Police General Marek Papala – died in a Gdansk police station on Sunday in “mysterious circumstances.”

    It was Mr Zirajewski, a professional hitman, who informed the police about the meeting during which Edward Mazur, a Polish businessman living in the United States, allegedly offered to pay $40,000 for the death of Mr Papala.

    Thanks to Iwan's testimony, the police could press charges against Mr Mazur and several gangsters from the Pruszków mafia who were also said to be involved.

    According to Piotr Krusi?ski, a specialist in penal law at the Warsaw University, it is now very unlikely that those responsible for Mr Papala's death will be brought to justice. "While Iwan's testimony will be used in court, the defense attorneys of the accused will do their best to prove them incredulous," Mr Krusilski said.

    Iwan's death will be investigated by a special committee appointed by the Justice Minister.

  • Sport...

    Christmas tournament has helped Belarus win the bid to host IIHF 2014 World Championships

    From: BelTA
    The team of the President of the Republic of Belarus has scored a second win at the 6th Christmas International Amateur Ice Hockey Tournament for the prize of the President of Belarus. The Belarusian players beat the team of Ukraine with the score 10:5
    While opening the 6th Christmas international amateur ice hockey tournament for the prizes of the President of Belarus at the Minsk Palace of Sports on 4 January, Belarusian Head of State Alexander Lukashenko noted that this traditional competition had helped Belarus win the bid to host the IIHF World Championships in 2014, BelTA has learnt.

    “This event is relatively young. It has been held for only six years. But it has already become a very good tradition and won popularity both in our country and overseas. Every year on Christmas Eve the Belarusian capital welcomes fans of this game from different countries. I believe this tournament has helped Belarus win the bid to host the IIHF World Championships in 2014,” Alexander Lukashenko said.

    According to the President, the teams partaking in the competition consist of outstanding players who took part in various high-level competitions.

    Addressing the guests of the tournament, the head of state said that they would be able to get familiar with this wonderful country and see how hospitable and friendly the Belarusian people are. “We are proud of the fact that Belarus is considered a sports country. Sport in Belarus is one of the state policy priorities. The state will do its utmost to develop sports in the country,” he stressed. “Not long ago an ice arena was built in Baranovichi. The construction of the Minsk-Arena sports and entertainment center has been recently completed,” the President said.

    According to the head of state, the major advantage of the tournament is that it gives an opportunity to the athletes who completed their careers to show their best in such amateur matches. “Such tournaments in which great sportsmen take part give them a chance to stay close to their favorite sports for many years,” the President noted.

    Alexander Lukashenko wished the spectators and participants of the tournament Happy New Year and Merry Christmas. He wished the supporters to enjoy joyful emotions and holiday spirit, and the teams to show a successful, honest and effective performance.

    Ukraine beat Slovakia (7-6) in the opener of the tournament. Russia outscored Finland (11-6) in the second match on 4 January. Belarus is represented by the President’s hockey team. On 4 January Belarus outclassed Switzerland (10-3).

    The teams are drawn into two groups. Belarus, Ukraine, Switzerland, and Slovakia play in Group A. The matches will take place at the Sports Palace. Russia, Germany, Canada, and Finland play in Group B. The matches will be played at the hockey ground on Pritytskogo Street. The winners of the groups will qualify for the final that is scheduled on 7 January. The second teams from each group will play in the third place match.

    Verkhovtsov: Celtic wasted my time with trial

    From: ESPN
    Dmitry Verkhovtsov is angry with the Hoops.
    Dmitry Verkhovtsov has accused Celtic of wasting his time following his three-day trial with the club.

    Belarus defender Verkhovtsov, 23, spent time last week with the Hoops before returning to Naftan Novopolotsk.

    He said: ''I honestly still do not quite understand what happened. I went to Scotland but didn't do any medicals nor participate in training sessions. Throughout the three days, all I had to do was wait until they bought me a ticket to return home. I was given no explanations by any of their managers. Naturally, I would like to test myself playing for such a famous team.''

    Celtic refuted the player's claims, saying he was treated with ''the utmost respect''. Despite the experience, Verkhovtsov's agent hopes a move could be resurrected at the end of the season.

    Valeri Isayev said in the Scottish Sun: ''Initially, we talked not about a full-scale contract but a half-year loan. Celtic let us know their conditions, but when we arrived in Glasgow those were changed.

    ''As a result, we failed to reach agreement. I don't want to go into more details about it now. As for Verkhovtsov's transfer value, it was not even discussed. We are going to return to the issue in summer.''

    Meanwhile, Celtic are trying to finalise a deal for Derry teenager Darren McCauley, according to the Irish club's manager. The Hoops have reportedly beaten off interest from Blackburn in the 18-year-old midfielder.

    Derry boss Stephen Kenny said in the Daily Express: ''Celtic are talking to Derry at the moment to try to thrash out a deal. There is a lot of interest in Darren but it looks like he will be going to Celtic.''

  • Endnote...

    Anya's Birthday Movie

    From: The Story

    Part 1

    Part 2

    Part 3

    Part 4

    Part 5