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Today's Headlines for:
Sunday, January 03, 2010

Economic growth, $168 for Russian gas, Oil trade, Hairdressing Championship, EU games; News, Sport, Culture and Polish scandal

  • From the Top...
  • #475

    Belarus determined to reCharter '97store pre-crisis economic growth rate soon

    From: BelTA
    Belarus does not abandon its ambitions in the economy and social sphere and is determined to overcome the negative impact of the global financial and economic crisis as soon as possible in order to restore the pre-crisis economic growth level and improve the well-being of people, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko said in an interview with representatives of central and regional mass media of Belarus on 30 December, BelTA has learnt.

    The head of state underlined that the year 2009 “was not easy for the whole world and our country, it was packed with landmark events and political decisions.” Alexander Lukashenko believes that the new year has a special meaning for us, as it completes another five-year term of the development of the independent Belarusian state.

    “The tasks we set for 2010 are no doubt ambitious, but feasible. Everything depends on us,” the Belarusian head of state said.

    Alexander Lukashenko pointed out that history constantly poses new challenges, new threats for us, and the departing year is a testimony to that. The world is changing fast and we have to catch up with it, give adequate responses and find optimal solutions in the changing circumstances, improve our foreign and domestic policy. This is why there are enough newsbreaks to hold a press conference, the Belarusian leader said.

    “Without doubt you follow new trends in the relations between Belarus and the West, the East, Russia and other partners in the post-Soviet space. Of course, you follow the processes of economic liberalization and deburocratization of the society, changes in the social policy. They may seem insufficient to some people.

    Journalists are the most attentive people and the toughest critics. Therefore we will have a sincere talk today and discuss all kinds of issues, the President said.

    The head of state believes it is right that representatives of both state and non-state mass media are present at the press conference and in the oblast TV studios. “I insisted that everything should be done so that they would not say afterwards that the President gathered the ‘right’ people, they asked the ‘right’ questions and state-run TV and newspapers showed and printed the ‘right’ answers. This is a live broadcast, therefore you can show your knowledge of the latest events, show yourself together with the President and ask the questions about the things you and our citizens, our society are concerned about,” Alexander Lukashenko said.

    “The diversity of opinions and viewpoints stimulate the quest for the optimal ways of public progress. It is good that more than 200 regional journalists are taking part in the press conference. It is very important for me to hear what the regions are concerned about. National media have had more chances to talk to the President. It is so due to objective reasons but I think a bit unfair towards the regional media. Let’s rectify the situation today. I think next year the Presidential Administration will take care that the meetings between the regional mass media and the President would become a regular event,” the President said.

    Alexander Lukashenko said he welcomed questions related to any topic. However, he added he would like the journalists to give priority to the questions expressing the concerns of the ordinary people. “The mass media should not be a mirror reflecting the interests of certain politicians or tiny social groups only; their mission is rather to defend the interests of the public, advance people’s hopes and aspirations.”

    Belarus President signs Special Part of Tax Code

    The Belarus President has signed the Special Part of the Tax Code into law, the press service of the head of state told BelTA.

    The Special Part stipulates the application of each and every national and local tax as well as special taxation regimes. Each tax has a list of tax payers, taxable activities and assets, taxable base, tax sizes, a list of tax preferences as well as the calculation of taxes, deadlines for tax payment and declarations.

    In order to improve Belarus’ tax system, in 2010 fees paid to the national fund for supporting agricultural producers, food producers and agrarian science, the tax on buying automobiles, the local tax on retail trade, the local tax on parking will be abolished.

    In order to compensate for the shortfall in budget incomes, the VAT rate has been increased from 18% to 20% for services and commodities to be shipped as from 1 January 2010.

    Starting 1 January 2010 all Belarusian tax payers will be able to choose to pay the income tax either monthly or quarterly. Starting next year all recorded manufacturing and sales expenses will be reflected in financial accounting. The Special Part also includes an exhaustive list of expenses, which are not related to manufacturing expenses of the tax payer and therefore will not be taken into account for taxation.

    The tax on profits from dividends of foreign organizations has been reduced from 24% to 12%.

    In addition, the amount of money that can be spent on salaries, advertising and marketing services is no longer capped as far as the calculation and payment of the profit tax is concerned.

    The income tax has been tuned. The standard tax rebate has been increased from Br250,000 to Br270,000. It will be available not only from the primary employer. The size of the salary that enables the tax rebate has been raised up to Br1.635 million. The tax rebate from life insurance payments has been increased from 24 to 48 basic amounts. The income tax on dividends has been reduced from 15% to 12%.

    The Special Part of the Tax Code will bring Belarus’ taxation closer to the similar systems used by Belarus’ main partners. It will also improve Belarus’ attractiveness as a country with a favorable business climate. The document will contribute to liberalizing business operation terms, to improving the tax legislation, streamlining Belarus’ taxation system. By now the government has abolished 17 low-efficiency taxes and taxes that negatively affected the collection of taxes and has combined duties with similar tax bases.

  • Other Belarusian News...

    Belarus and Russia have not agreed on the oil trade terms for 2010 yet

    From: BelTA
    The relevant negotiations were held in Moscow on 30-31 December 2009, but an agreement was not reached. More than that, an unprecedented pressure was exerted on the Belarusian delegation which composition and authority was confirmed by the relevant resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus which the Belarusian side views as absolutely unacceptable and unjustified.

    In fact the Belarusian side was offered to break the basic agreement on the establishment of the single customs territory and the Customs Union signed by the heads of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan. The violation of these agreements and removal of Belarus' entire energy sector from the agreements on the Customs Union formation would to a great extent undermine all the arrangements on the further integration of our states. The Government of the Republic of Belarus confirms its readiness to proceed with the talks with the Government of the Russian Federation on the terms of oil supplies from the Russian Federation to the Republic of Belarus in full compliance with the agreements reached by the heads of state at the session of the Supreme State Council of the Union State of Belarus and Russia in Moscow on 10 December 2009.

    At the same time the Belarusian side is ready to take all the necessary steps to reconcile and sign as soon as possible the additions to the agreement now in force between the Government of the Republic of Belarus and the Government of the Russian Federation regulating the trade and economic cooperation in the export of oil and oil products from 12 January 2007. All the relevant documents prepared by the experts of the two countries in good time were submitted to the Russian side. The Belarusian side proceeds from the fact that before the relevant documents are signed, duty-free oil supplies from the Russian Federation for Belarus' domestic consumption in January-February 2010 should be in accordance with the agreements reached earlier by the Presidents of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation. There are the necessary legal grounds for that, the oil supplies volumes are stipulated in the contracts signed by the economic entities of the two countries; the advance payment was made by the Belarusian side.

    The Belarusian side is ready to resume oil talks anytime to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

    Ice palace open in Baranovichi on New Year’s eve

    From: BelTA
    An ice palace has been opened in the town of Baranovichi on the eve of the New Year. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko took part in the opening ceremony, BelTA has learned.

    The President stressed that over the last fifteen years the government has put together a tradition of making special gifts, which are important for people living in specific areas and the country as a whole. At the end of 2008 natural gas service was installed in the Berezino region of the Minsk oblast, a cycling ground was built in Minsk, an ice palace with a wrestling hall was opened in the town of Bereza of the Brest oblast.

    “Every strong family has traditions. It is remarkable that we, the nation of the young, sovereign and independent Belarus, have formed them. They represent one of the inalienable attributes of a united nation. We remain true to our traditions regardless of any crises. I know about the storm of criticism that has fallen on me: another palace has been built while the crisis is upon us. I will not even start arguing with such twaddlers. The new facility has created over one hundred new jobs. It will give a boost to the development of the region and such a large town. Anyway, it is the direct path to beauty and health,” said the President.

    “Once we set out to build a strong and prosperous Belarus. The country should be like that all the way from the capital city to the remotest communities. This is why the closest attention is paid to the comprehensive development of small and medium towns, to enabling equal living standards in towns and villages,” said the head of state.

    It is the sixth ice palace built in the Brest oblast. Another three will be built here within the next five years. Alexander Lukashenko remarked that the facility will be the place for entertainment and healthy recreation for people of various ages. “I would like your kids to be able to do everything mine can. I would not like to be reproached several years later that we have not created conditions to allow your kids to enjoy the great living standards. I want you to visit drugstores and hospitals less. This is the place to avoid that,” said the head of state. “If you want to be healthy, go to football fields, basketball courts, swimming pools, ice palaces. It is a contribution to the health of the nation”.

    Alexander Lukashenko said he hopes the new facility will become a genuine temple of healthy lifestyle, a forge for the future champions that will make Belarus proud.

    The head of state examined this multifunctional entertainment and sports complex. Apart from an ice arena it houses halls for acrobatics and free calisthenics, billiard, fitness and a computer hall. The new facility will provide additional space to host national and international competitions, various cultural and sports actions. Apart from that, it will house a sports school for children where hockey players, figure-skaters, gymnasts and acrobats will be able to start their careers. Alexander Lukashenko was informed about the social and economic development of Baranovichi, promotion of sports in the town and the oblast and the construction of sports facilities.

    After the opening ceremony a hockey match between teams of the Belarus president and the Brest oblast began in the ice arena. Alexander Lukashenko took part in it, too.

  • Cultural Scene...

    Belarus Hairdressing Championship

    From: BelTA
    The championship gathered around 350 hairdressing specialists from all parts of Belarus

    The Style and Beauty championship comprises three types of contests including Creative Hairdo, Evening Hairdo, Classic Lasting Hairdo, Day Hairdo, Long-Hair Stylish Hairdo, Bride Hairdo

  • Economics...

    Belarus to pay $168 for Russian gas in Q1 2010

    From: BelTA
    In Q1 2010 Belarus will pay about $168 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas, Gazprom’s press service told BelTA after negotiations between Belarus First Vice Premier Vladimir Semashko and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller in Moscow on 30 December.

    This year the average price for Russian gas supplied to Belarus was 11% lower and amounted to roughly $150 per 1,000 cubic meters.

    During the talks Vladimir Semashko and Aleksei Miller discussed supplies of Russian gas to Belarus in 2009 and gas transit to Europe. The sides also discussed prospects of future cooperation.

    Belarus’ foreign commodity trade drops 34.1% in January-November

    In January-November 2009 the foreign trade in goods in Belarus made up $44.487 billion or 65.9% as against the same period last year, BelTA learnt from the National Statistics Committee.

    The export of goods dropped to $19.06 billion (61.6% as against January-November 2008), the import $25.427 billion (69.6%). The export indices improved compared with Q1 2009 when they made up 51.2% as against January-March 2008.

    In January-November 2009 Belarus had a $6.367 billion deficit in foreign trade. It was $5.631 billion in the same period last year.

    The trade with the CIS member states in January-November reached $24.72 billion (64.9% as against the same period last year). Export totaled $8.402 billion (61.7%), import - $16.318 billion (66.7%). The trade between Belarus and Russia in January-November was down to $21.026 billion (65.4%). Export to Russia amounted to $6.039 billion (60.5%), import from Russia - $14.987 billion (67.5%).

    In January-November 2009, the trade between Belarus and Ukraine dropped to $2.692 billion (57.4% as against January-November 2008). The export reached $1.543 billion (57%), import - $1.15 billion (58%).

    Belarus’ trade with non-CIS countries made up $19.767 billion (67.3% as against January-November 2008) including export - $10.658 billion (61.6%), import - $9.109 billion (75.5%). The trade between Belarus and Germany made up $2.812 billion, or 85.6% as against the same period last year. At the same time, the Belarusian export to Germany increased by 12.4% to $0.863 billion, import reduced by 22.6% to $1.949 billion.

    Russian banks grant Belarus RUB6bn of syndicated loan

    Sberbank of Russia, Vnesheconombank, Gazprombank and Alfa-Bank have granted the Finance Ministry of Belarus a one-year syndicated loan to the tune of RUB6 billion, the joint press release of Sberbank, Vnezheconombank, Gazprombank, and Alfa-Bank says.

    The loan agent is Sberbank of Russia.

    “Belarus is an important trade and political partner of Russia. The syndicated loan that was extended to the Republic of Belarus by the major Russian banks will be allocated for the development of integration and cooperation between the two countries and facilitate the sustainable growth of Belarus’ economy,” says the press release.

    Apart from that, the same Russian banks will organize the floatation of Belarus’ government bonds to the amount of RUB15 billion. It will be the first case of foreign capital issue on the Russian stock market.

  • From the Foriegn Press...

    Russia halts oil flows to Belarus refineries

    From: Reuters
    Russia has halted oil supplies to Belarussian refineries after failing to agree terms for 2010, traders said on Sunday, threatening a repeat of a dispute which disrupted supplies to elsewhere in Europe three years ago.

    Deliveries to Belarus refineries were halted after talks broke down on New Year's Eve, two traders from major Russian oil firms told Reuters.

    Transit flows to other parts of Europe have not so far been affected, but Germany and Poland are closely watching the stand-off after supplies to some of their major refineries were cut during a similar row between Moscow and Minsk in January 2007.

    Talks on a new pricing structure for 2010 supplies restarted on Saturday and were continuing on Sunday, said Igor Dyomin, a spokesman for Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft .

    European politicians have repeatedly accused the Kremlin of using its energy might as a tool of intimidation against its neighbours, be it gas or oil deals with Belarus or Ukraine.

    Russia, the world's largest oil and gas producer, says it is simply switching gradually to market terms after subsidising neighbours with cheap energy for years.

    A fifth of Europe's gas comes from Russia via Ukraine and Belarus. Large volumes of Russian oil also go through pipelines that traverse the two ex-Soviet states.

    The two traders said two Belarussian refineries -- Naftan and Mozyr -- had enough stockpiled crude to continue operations for around a week.

    "In Belarus they say when holidays are over on Monday, Lukashenko will come back and decide what to do," said one trader, referring to Belarussian leader Alexader Lukashenko. Russia is on holiday until Jan. 11, while Belarus resumes working on Jan. 4.


    Minsk has insisted that Russia supply duty-free oil not only for volumes consumed domestically in Belarus, but for all Russian crude supplied to the country.

    Most of that crude is refined by Naftan and Mozyr for re-export to the West and only a small portion of refined products stays inside Belarus.

    Traders said Mozyr and Naftan have stockpiles of around 450,000 tonnes.

    They also said Belarus had threatened to raise transit fee on Russian oil supplies to Poland and Germany 10-fold to $45 per tonne in retaliation against Russian demands.

    That would make transit supplies of crude expensive and potentially disrupt flows to Poland and Germany.

    Russia and Belarus had plans to created a union with one currency and common customs rules, but the project never materialised as relations between the two states chilled.

    Moscow has often blamed Lukashenko, who has been running the country for over a decade along Soviet-style command lines, for failing to keep its promises, including selling top assets to Russian firms.

    Lukashenko in turn has accused Russia of deviating from initial agreements to create the union, including its efforts to raise oil duties.

    Belarus gets some 400,000 barrels per day from Russia via the Druzhba pipeline, one of the world's biggest pipelines by length and capacity.

    Druzhba's spur crossing Belarus supplies major refiners in Germany covering some 15 percent of the country's oil needs, while Poland relies on Druzhba for more than three-quarters of its consumption.

    Belarus assails Russia over oil talks

    In a related story, Belarus accused Russia of exerting "unacceptable" pressure in talks on oil prices, and said Sunday that Moscow's demands undermined attempts at closer economic integration between the two ex-Soviet neighbors.

    A Russian energy official, meanwhile, said the price arguments with Belarus wouldn't affect Russian oil exports to the West through the Belarusian pipeline.

    Russia is the main ally and sponsor of Belarus, but relations between the two ex-Soviet neighbors have been increasingly strained by financial arguments.

    The Belarusian Cabinet said in a statement Sunday that the two neighbors had failed so far to agree on terms of Russian oil exports to Belarus. It said Moscow's demand that Belarus pays a higher tax on the bulk of Russian oil shipment contradicted an agreement on customs union signed late last year.

    It said Russian officials had put an "unprecedented pressure" on the Belarusian delegation during Sunday's talks, and described it as "totally unacceptable."

    Russia had said earlier that it was ready to provide tax-free oil for Belarus' internal consumption in line with the customs union deal, but would fully tax all the oil Belarus processes for exports to the West.

    Belarus buys about 20 million metric tons of Russian crude a year, but consumes only about one fourth of that. The rest is refined and exported to the West, accounting for more than a third of Belarus' export revenues.

    Belarusian experts have estimated that the Russian tax would cost Belarus about $5 billion this year, or more than 10 percent of its gross domestic product.

    Belarus' Soviet-style economy heavily depended on Russian oil and gas supplied at a lower price compared with other ex-Soviet nations.

    In Moscow, Mikhail Barkov, vice president of the state-controlled Transneft company that runs Russian oil pipelines, said that price arguments with Belarus wouldn't affect Russian oil exports to the West, RIA Novosti news agency reported.

    In January 2007, Russia briefly cut oil exports to the European Union nations through a Belarusian pipeline as Moscow and Minsk argued over price.

    That shutdown, along with natural gas cutoffs to Europe in January 2006 and January 2009 caused by contract disputes with Ukraine, raised doubts in Europe about Russia's dependability as a top energy supplier to the continent.

    Belarus president hits out at EU 'cat and mouse game'

    From: AFP
    Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko hit out at the European Union on Wednesday, attacking the bloc's criticism at the progress of the country's democratic reforms.

    The EU last month suspended sanction against Belarus on the condition it improves democracy, human rights and rule of law.

    "I said to the Europeans, if you plan on continuing this policy, this game of cat and mouse with us, say so," Lukashenko said.

    "If you don't want to work with us and respect our conditions, say so as well," he added.

    The Belarussian president, however, told reporters that it would be in the country's economic interest to forge closer ties with Brussels.

    "If we are clearing the way towards Europe, it is not so that I can go to Austria on my skiing holidays. I can ski just as well in Kazakhstan," Lukashenko told reporters.

    "We are clearing the way in that direction it is because 30 percent of our exports are sold to Russia and 44 percent to Europe. That tells you everything," he added.

    The EU launched the Eastern Partnership at a summit in Prague in May to "accelerate political association and further economic integration" between its 27 member states and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

    Lukashenko -- once dubbed Europe's last dictator -- has ruled the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people since 1994 but has now made attempts at greater openness. He has hired a Western PR firm to improve his country's image and began cautious economic reforms.

    Russia to raise gas price for Belarus by 11% in early 2010

    From: RIA Novosti
    Belarus will pay around $168 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian natural gas in the first quarter of 2010, 11% more than the average price of $150 for 2009, the Gazprom CEO said on Wednesday.

    "Under the contract, the gas price formula for Belarus in the first quarter of 2010 will be around $168 per 1,000 cu m," Alexei Miller said. "This year, gas was supplied to Belarus at an average of around $150, 11% lower."

    Miller explained that Belarus is eligible for an exclusive discount due to the lack of a gas export duty, and that the price will help the country's economy adjust to an earlier agreed transition to higher gas prices.

    The two ex-Soviet neighbors, which form a "union state," had a bitter dispute in 2006, when energy giant Gazprom threatened to cut supplies to Belarus, which rejected an increase in gas prices. The countries finally agreed to a gradual increase in prices to European market levels by 2011.

    Miller met with Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko in Moscow on Wednesday.

  • From the Opposition...

    Every Belarusian owes $2000

    From: Charter '97
    The general foreign debt of Belarus is to rise beyond 21 billion by the end of the year 2009.

    The pace of growth of the general external debt of Belarus is impressing. According to the information of the national Bank of Belarus, over the three quarters of 2009, it has grown by 27.3%, and reached $19.3 billion. As informed by “Nasha Niva”, by the beginning of October the indebtedness reached 37.1% of the GDP of the country. Moreover, every quarter the rate of growth is speeding up. With such a speed, by January 1 this figure would exceed $21 billion. Meanwhile the pay-back deadline for the principal sum is drawing near.

    In 9 months of 2009 $4.57 billion was sent for of foreign loans servicing. When the H-hour comes, 2012, when the money to the IMF and Russia are to be returned, the Belarusian budget would have to pull up its socks.

    $21 billion – is it much or not much? Comparing with the external debt of the US, it is not a large amount at all. The US owes $13.5 trillion, and is not very concerned about that, as if they are not going to pay it back.

    If we turn away from others and look at ourselves, it turns out that by the end of the year the indebtedness of Belarus is to top 40% of the GDP of the country. Every citizen of Belarus, from a baby to hundred-year-old persons, owes $1997 of external debt. According to AFN website, in the last 12 years this figure has grown more than tenfold.

    For such an economy as the Belarusian one, which is not a part of the European Union with its insurance mechanisms, 50% or 60% of the GDP could be considered a dangerous threshold. Belarus can reach it in 2 or 3 years.

    Meanwhile attraction of loans continues. One of these days the IMF transferred the Belarusian authorities $688 millions more. And China is ready to lend $3.5 billion for realization of investment projects with its participation.

    Expelled student appeals decision

    From: Viasna
    The Young Front’s press-secretary Tatsiana Shaputska, expelled from Belarusian State University, following her participation in the Eastern Partnership’s Civil Society Forum, lodged a complaint with the Minister of Information.

    In case the appeal is not attended to within a month’s time, the ex-student is going to appeal the expulsion at court.

    Three Polish priests to be deported from Belarus

    Three Polish Catholic priests will have to leave Belarus by the end of the year, Polskie Radio reports, quoting the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper. The official reason for the deportation is their use of the Polish language during masses.

    Prosecution for charitable actions in Brest suspended

    Brest Leninski Court suspended civil prosecution of two local activists Sviatlana Novikava and Aliaksandr Kazliankou, charged with violating rally procedures while arranging a charitable action of doling food to low-income persons in the city center.

    The activists say they are going to continue arranging similar charitable acts in Brest.

  • Russia...

    Russia agrees oil deal with Ukraine, eases EU fears

    From: Reuters
    Russia said on Monday it had agreed terms for a new oil deal with Ukraine a few hours after spooking Europe with a warning the continent could face oil supply cuts because of a dispute between Moscow and Kiev.

    "Within the framework of intensive negotiations, the terms of a transit deal have been agreed," a spokeswoman for Russia's energy ministry said, adding that the deal would be signed in the coming days and no interruption in supplies was expected.

    The statement came hours after Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said he saw an increased risk of a halt in Russian oil supplies to Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic via Druzhba, a major oil pipeline crossing Ukraine, from Jan. 1.

    Europe, which receives much of its oil and gas from Russia, has closely tracked disputes between Russia and its neighbours after EU gas supplies were cut in the dead of winter in 2006 and 2009 due to rows between Russia and Ukraine.

    A fifth of the EU's gas comes from Russia, the world's largest oil and gas producer, via pipelines across Ukraine. Ukraine itself is reliant on gas from Russia and has disagreed with Moscow in the past over price.

    A Russian oil pipeline monopoly executive said on Monday the tension had arisen because Ukrainian politicians were setting "unacceptable" terms for transit of Russian oil via Ukraine's Black Sea port Yuzhny. [ID:nLDE5BR0KC]

    Ukraine moved to calm any fears of another stand-off over energy between the two former Soviet republics on New Year's Day like the one at the start of this year, when gas supplies were ut and millions of Europeans were left in the cold.

    "Within Ukraine there are no threats, no risks," said Bohdan Sokolovsky, the energy envoy of Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko, adding that Moscow's warning to the EU about a possible oil supply halt was aimed at discrediting Kiev.

    The earlier cuts occurred amid strained political relations between Moscow and its neighbours. Ukraine will hold a presidential election in January and analysts have said that if a relatively pro-Russian leader is elected, Moscow is likely to take a more accommodating stance in future energy negotiations.


    U.S. crude oil CLc1 rose to above $79 a barrel on Monday, the highest in more than a month, largely because of colder weather across the major energy market the United States. The tensions involving Russia provided additional support. [O/R]

    Sokolovsky said Ukraine wanted Russia to pay higher transit fees, switch to euros from dollars and guarantee minimal supply volumes, adding that demands had been sent to Moscow in November.

    Russia's energy ministry did not say how new demands were solved by the two sides late on Friday.

    The demand comes as the International Monetary Fund has rejected Kiev's request for a $2 billion loan to help the recession-strapped country meet obligations by year's end.

    A European Union source said oil stocks in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were adequate to withstand possible cuts.

    Russia sent its warning to the European Union suggesting a possible repeat of the January 2007 oil dispute with Belarus.

    Belarus cut Russian oil flows to Europe via the same Druzhba oil pipeline in January 2007, also due to a pricing row, which further undermined the image of Russia as a reliable supplier.

    "From the EU point of view, the early warning systems have worked," said a EU source, referring to a recent deal under which Russia has to warn the continent about supply problems.

    The Druzhba pipeline supplies Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic via Ukraine with more than 300,000 barrels per day of crude while another spur goes via Belarus to Germany and Poland shipping some 800,000 bpd.

    Germany and Poland so far have no guarantees of supplies in the new year as Moscow and Minsk are struggling to agree on volumes of duty-free Russian oil for Belarus.

    Russia's top energy official Igor Sechin said on Monday he hoped the deal with Belarus would be signed on Dec. 30-31.

    "If no deal is reached then we will have to apply full fees from Jan. 1," he told reporters.

    Trying to break Russia's vodka dependence

    From: BBC
    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is hoping for some New Year's resolution among his countrymen, as he takes on one of Russia's most deeply-entrenched and prickliest problems - alcoholism.

    From 1 January, restrictions on the price of vodka in Russia come into force.

    The cheapest bottle of vodka on sale will be 89 roubles (around £1.80; $3) for a half-litre bottle. While that still might sound cheap, the new law is all part of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's plan to tackle alcoholism in Russia.

    Russians drink seriously. As a country they get through on average about 18 litres (32 pints) of pure alcohol a year.

    Last year, when Mr Medvedev kick-started his campaign, he called Russia's alcohol problem a "national disgrace" and said he was determined to cut that figure by a quarter by 2012.

    But combating the consumption of what most Russians consider to be their national drink is a brave political move considering the lack of success his predecessors have had.

    The last time anyone tried it was 24 years ago, when Russia was part of the Soviet Union.

    Perfume not sold

    Then, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev drastically cut vodka production and did not allow it to be sold before 2pm.
    Significantly, perfume was also not to be sold before midday as people were starting to drink that.

    Officially, lives were saved and alcoholism dropped, but Soviet state revenues took a massive hit and so did Mr Gorbachev's popularity. President Medvedev cannot allow either of those things to happen to him.

    What Mr Medvedev does know, though, is that if he can reduce alcoholism in Russia, he is likely to improve health and life-expectancy, and therefore raise Russia's GDP.

    At the moment, bootleg vodka is available at around 40 roubles a half litre. So even though $3 for bottle of vodka may seem cheap to most people, it is double the price of the bootleg version.

    Importantly for the government, the minimum-price law brings in a way of telling what is illegal and what is not, and attempts to claw back some tax revenue.

    Small step

    But will establishing a minimum price be effective?

    Doctors dealing with the problem are not sure.

    "This law is not the solution, it is just a small step, albeit a positive one, in the fight against alcoholism," said Elena Igorevna, a doctor with Moscow's Scientific Centre for Substance Abuse.

    "I believe that every problem must be addressed comprehensively. I think that alcohol consumption is an issue of national importance."

    The problem for Mr Medvedev is that, historically, whenever Russia has tried to combat excessive drinking, illicit sales of alcohol have risen.

    Experts estimate that bootleg vodka - often made after-hours in legal distilleries - makes up almost 50% of all vodka drunk by Russians.

    Such liquor is unregulated and contributes heavily to the country's 35,000 deaths a year from alcohol poisoning.

    The medical journal The Lancet earlier this year estimated that half of all deaths in Russia between 15 and 54 were alcohol-related.


    It is probably even higher than the figure for road deaths, says political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, as work deaths and other accidental deaths in Russia are often drink-related.

    However, he said, raising the price of vodka to 89 roubles appeared more to be political game-playing than trying to get to grips with the problem.

    More effective, according to Mr Oreshkin, would be changing the culture and attitudes towards drink - but doing that would take generations and the problem, as ever, is that Russia always wants an instant solution.

    Russia may send spacecraft to knock away asteroid

    From: AP
    Russia is considering sending a spacecraft to a large asteroid to knock it off its path and prevent a possible collision with Earth, the head of the country's space agency said Wednesday.

    Anatoly Perminov said the space agency will hold a meeting soon to assess a mission to Apophis, telling Golos Rossii radio that it would invite NASA, the European Space Agency, the Chinese space agency and others to join the project once it is finalized.

    When the 270-meter (885-foot) asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers estimated the chances of it smashing into Earth in its first flyby in 2029 were as high as 1-in-37, but have since lowered their estimate.

    Further studies ruled out the possibility of an impact in 2029, when the asteroid is expected to come no closer than 18,300 miles (29,450 kilometers) above Earth's surface, but they indicated a small possibility of a hit on subsequent encounters.

    In October, NASA lowered the odds that Apophis could hit Earth in 2036 from a 1-in-45,000 as earlier thought to a 1-in-250,000 chance after researchers recalculated the asteroid's path. It said another close encounter in 2068 will involve a 1-in-330,000 chance of impact.

    Without mentioning NASA findings, Perminov said that he heard from a scientist that Apophis is getting closer and may hit the planet. "I don't remember exactly, but it seems to me it could hit the Earth by 2032," Perminov said.

    "People's lives are at stake. We should pay several hundred million dollars and build a system that would allow to prevent a collision, rather than sit and wait for it to happen and kill hundreds of thousands of people," Perminov said.

    Scientists have long theorized about asteroid deflection strategies. Some have proposed sending a probe to circle around a dangerous asteroid to gradually change its trajectory. Others suggested sending a spacecraft to collide with the asteroid and alter its momentum, or using nuclear weapons to hit it.

    Perminov wouldn't disclose any details of the project, saying they still need to be worked out. But he said the mission wouldn't require any nuclear explosions.

    Hollywood action films "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," have featured space missions scrambling to avoid catastrophic collisions. In both movies space crews use nuclear bombs in an attempt to prevent collisions.

    "Calculations show that it's possible to create a special purpose spacecraft within the time we have, which would help avoid the collision without destroying it (the asteroid) and without detonating any nuclear charges," Perminov said. "The threat of collision can be averted."

    Boris Shustov, the director of the Institute of Astronomy under the Russian Academy of Sciences, hailed Perminov's statement as a signal that officials had come to recognize the danger posed by asteroids.

    "Apophis is just a symbolic example, there are many other dangerous objects we know little about," he said, according to RIA Novosti news agency.

  • From the Polish Scandal Files...

    Eleven dead on roads over New Year period

    From: The News
    Eleven people died and 189 were injured in road accidents during the period spanning New Year's Eve and January 1.

    A total of 138 road accidents occurred within that period. Despite the grim statistics, the roads in the country were safer than in the previous year, says Agnieszka Hameliusz from the Warsaw Police Headquarters:

    "Statistics are much better than over the previous new year period. We had less accidents, less fatalities. Police officers have, however, seized more drivers under the influence of alcohol," she told Polskie Radio.

    The police charged 600 drunk drivers, 400 of them on 1 January.

    Police reported only one accident resulting from mishandling of fireworks. Meanwhile, no serious crimes were noted at the open-air events across the country.

    Poles return home drunk through snow, ice

    Police brace themselves for a steep increase in road accidents as Poles return home from the seasonal holiday just as temperatures plunge to minus 18 tonight.

    Traffic police have already caught 773 people for drunk driving. Eighteen have died in the last two days on the roads, 253 were injured in 183 accidents. Compared to last year these figures are comparatively good but they are expected to rise, sharply, as Poles struggle home through snow and ice, warns Przemyslaw Rzelniewski the General Directorate for National Roads and Motorways.

    The worst conditions are currently in southern and central Poland. southern provinces and in the middle of the Polish. Snow ploughs and salting machines are trying to keep roads clear but are hampered in many places by strong winds.

    The maximum temperature are expected to plunge to between minus 11 to minus 8 degrees Celsius in most places with only coastal districts reaching a comparatively warm minus 2 degree C.

    Ex-MP sent down for doing drugs

    From: NPE
    Former Civic Platform (PO) MP Cezary Atamanczuk has been sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of possession of drugs, driving under the influence and attempting to bribe policemen.
    In addition to the custodial sentence, the former politician was given a PLN 10,000 fine by the Sczecin. court and will lose his driving licence for three years.

    Atamanczuk was arrested in autumn last year for the possession of cannabis and driving his car whilst under the influence of the drug. He then tried to bribe the police officers that had detained him.

    Initially, the prosecutor had intended to be lenient on Atamanczuk and hand him a four year suspended sentence and a two year driving ban. However, this was later increased by Judge Marek Dalidowicz, who felt that such a punishment was insufficient.

    “There is no doubt that the accused committed these particular acts,” said Dalidowicz.

    “There are no worse crimes for a public person to commit than the type that have been carried out here. Cezary Atamanczuk abused peoples’ trust.”

    Atamanczuk was fired from PO and dismissed from his post as councillor.

    Senator in coke-fuelled sex shocker

    From: NPE
    A tale of sex, drugs, a woman’s dress and blackmail may have conspired to ruin the political career of a senior member of Donald Tusk’s governing Civic Platform party.
    Senator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, the politician in question, found himself embroiled in the unseemly scandal after the tabloid Super Express posted a video on its website that appeared to show another side to the otherwise respected and respectable man.

    The footage, taken by two prostitutes, shows Mr Piesiewicz, wearing an unbecoming white dress decorated with flowers, slumped on sofa as one of the prostitutes smears his face with makeup.

    To make matters worse the video also shows the 64-year-old senator with his nose pressed to a table and, apparently, trying to snort a white powder.

    The revelations in the video startled Poles given the good reputation of a man who, in his other incarnation as a lawyer, represented dissidents during the communist years, and who also won fame as a screenwriter through his collaboration with acclaimed film director Krzysztof Kieslowski.

    In his defence Mr Piesiewicz, who has been separated from his wife for 10 years, admitted to arranging to meet a prostitute but claimed that he has been the victim of blackmail plot.

    The two prostitutes, he says, intoxicated him with something and then took the compromising footage as part of a plan to extort money from him.

    When shown the video and threatened with a public scandal Mr Piesiewicz twice paid the prostitutes but when they came back asking for money a third time he went to the police and called the prosecutor’s office.

    The prostitutes were arrested and charged with blackmail but the senator, who has waived his parliamentary immunity, has also come under investigation for illegal drug use.

    With the embarrassing video now a well-viewed item on YouTube ( the embattled senator has said that the affair could mark the end of his political career.

    “This is terrible, never in my life have I experienced anything like this. Nothing like this has ever happened to me,” he told Super Express. “This incident has destroyed my career.”

    But so far his party boss Donald Tusk has refrained from calling time on Mr Piesiewicz’s job.

    The prime minister said that he would not judge the man until the full truth had been revealed.

  • Sport...

    Belarus defender Dmitry Verkhovtsov desperate to join Celtic

    From: Times Online
    Verkhovtsov in his national team's colours playing against England. He could soon be wearing the green of Celtic
    Tony Mowbray met Dmitry Verkhovtsov yesterday to get the measure of the Belarus defender he can purchase for £500,000, but the Celtic manager has warned that his January transfer window activity will not be conducted at the expense of selling his title ambitions short.

    Mowbray is eager to trim the Celtic squad, not only to allow fringe players to find first-team football elsewhere, but to free up wages that can be made available to new recruits. However, he insisted yesterday that his aim is to “balance” the financial and football aspirations.

    So while 23-year-old Verkhovstov, who trained with Celtic yesterday at their Lennoxtown complex after arriving from Belarus on Sunday, could conclude a deal that sees the 12-times capped centre back move from Naftan Novopolotsk, Mowbray is in no mood to offload players with the Clydesdale Bank Premier League championship still a potential prize.

    Numerous suitors are keen on his players, notably Aiden McGeady, who was linked with Everton on Sunday, and Arthur Boruc, the Poland goalkeeper, who is of interest to Tottenham Hotspur. Gary Caldwell is also a signing target for Gordon Strachan, the man who took him to Celtic Park and is now in charge of Middlesbrough.

    Barry Robson, Scott McDonald, Paul Caddis and Chris Killen are also reported to interest several English sides.

    Mowbray said yesterday, however: “It’s a wait-and-see scenario. It’s about balancing your squad, and balancing what comes in as opposed to what might go out.

    “We have to make sure we don’t leave any gaping holes in the squad and that all areas are covered for injuries or fatigue or suspension. There will be inquiries for some of our players, of course. But we will decide when the other people come in if we let them go out or not.”

    Mowbray has just purchased Ki Sung Yueng, the South Korea midfield player, for £2 million from FC Seoul and Verkhovtsov hopes that he will be next. The Belarus defender said: “I’m confident the deal will go through. I’ll need a work visa, but I’m sure it will be OK.”

    The area in his team that Mowbray is most keen to improve is central defence. Caldwell is in the last six months of his contract and has not signed a new deal, prompting the belief that Celtic will try to obtain a fee for him now. That is why Mowbray is also assessing Matthew Kilgallon, Sheffield United’s central defender, whose situation mirrors Caldwell’s in that the 25-year-old is free to sign a pre-contract agreement from Friday, and the Coca-Cola Championship club may also opt to receive some compensation now.

    Verkhovstov caught Celtic’s eye when he played for his country in their World Cup qualifying ties with England. He will train this week with Celtic’s squad before the Old Firm derby but would not be eligible to play against Rangers even if a deal went through on January 1.

    “I’m delighted to be here and I hope everything will go well this week,” he said. “I want to play for Celtic and I believe I can make a difference. I’m strong in the air and two-footed. This is the chance of my life — and I want to sign for Celtic as quickly as possible.

    “I know Celtic are one of the two biggest teams in Scotland and they always play in Europe. It is my dream to play for them. I am looking forward to meeting the players and hearing about the club’s plans for the future.

    Verkhovtsov is rumoured to be attracting interest from clubs in Russia, Germany and Ukraine but said: “Celtic are my first choice.”

    Mowbray also wants to acquire, Olivier Giroud, the striker from Tours, the French club, but has also stated an interest in Florin Costea, a 24-year-old Romania striker rated at £2 million by his club, Universitatea Craiova.

    In addition, Lech Poznan, of Poland, have asked Celtic to make their bid for Semir Stilic, a long-time midfield target. Stilic is a Bosnian valued at £1.5 million.

    “What we hope to do in January is add players to help the squad and to help the existing players and not necessarily replace them,” Mowbray said. “We have been working very hard in the last few months to identify footballers and areas of the team which need strengthening and that continues, but there are no guarantees that we will bring in anyone other than Ki.”

  • Endnote...

    Lukashenko: everything necessary for happy childhood in Belarus

    From: BelTA
    In Belarus everything necessary for a happy life and creative upbringing of children is available, said President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko in his speech at the New Year charity performance held for children at the Palace of the Republic on 28 December.

    The head of state told the children that “In this complicated time when we build our country, we do our best to create conditions to allow you to grow up as smart, beautiful and happy people who will love their Motherland”.

    “The New Year is a special holiday that will set one’s mood for 365 days forward. This is why it is always very pleasant to start celebrating the New Year by meeting with you, younger citizens of Belarus. It is symbolical because you are the future of our country. You will be the ones to build our independent, beautiful and blue-eyed Belarus,” noted Alexander Lukashenko.

    The head of state stressed that young Belarusians have access to the latest technologies. “In short you can accomplish anything in your country,” said the President. He reminded that in Belarus computer and space technologies are developed, towns and villages are renewed, ice and water palaces are built as well as cycling tracks and Alpine skiing facilities. The National Library, one of the world’s best libraries, has been built in Belarus. The renewed opera and ballet theatre has been re-opened.

    “I would very much like you to treasure the fact that you have such a piece of land where the skies are peaceful, where you can study at good schools and go in for the things you like. We, the adults, have done our best to make the New Year a happy one for you,” said the Belarus President.

    Part of the action Our Children, the country’s most important New Year celebration for children has gathered 2,370 kids aged 8-14 from various parts of Belarus. The number includes children from asylums and children without parental care, children raised by foster families, kids from refugee families, and winners of international, national and regional academic excellence competitions, creative contests, festivals and sports competitions.

    The charity action Our Children is held from 20 December to 10 January 2010. Among the participants are government agencies, concerns, banks, public associations and other juridical persons (a total of 92). Their representatives are suggested to visit 142 children’s socially important facilities. The nationwide action is supposed to take care of over 12,000 sick children, orphans, handicapped children, children whose parents died on the line of duty.

    Happy New Year

    From: The Story