Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another Freedom-of-Assembly Demonstration Dispersed

In Moscow the police dispersed an opposition demonstration meeting in support of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees the "right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets." The opposition holds similar meetings on the 31st day of each month having 31 days. The meetings are invariably banned and dispersed by the authorities.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Deripaska Visited U.S.

Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska has visited the United States twice in recent months despite his longstanding inability to obtain a visa because of suspicion of ties to organized crime. Deripaska asserts thats the visits were regular business trips and that no visa restrictions are in place, while the FBI states that it made special arrangements for the visits in order to question Deripaska, and the State Department notes that it has not lifted the visa restrictions.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Death Penalty May Return

Russia’s Supreme Court asked the Constitutional Court to explain whether Russian courts may impose the death penalty from January 1, 2010. In 1999 the Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional before jury trials are introduced in all of Russia's constituent regions. On January 1 juries are to be introduced in the last region, Chechnya. On the other hand, Russia signed in 1997 Protocol 6 to the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits the death penalty. Although Russia has not ratified the protocol, the 1969 Vienna Convention arguably prevents Russia from taking measures contrary to the protocol before formally declining its ratification.

Court Holds against Parallel Imports

A St. Petersburg first-level appellate court upheld the claim of a trademark owner, the German manufacturer of UVEX safety eyewear, against a Russian company importing UVEX products without the trademark owner’s permission. The court found such “parallel import” illegal under Russian trademark law. On the other hand, a Moscow appellate court recently held for a parallel importer of trademarked automobile parts in a suit filed by the trademark owner, Japanese company Kayaba. The legality of parallel imports has yet to be resolved by the legislature, the Supreme Arbitrazh (Commercial) Court, or second-level appellate courts.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ingush Rights Activist Murdered

Prominent Ingush rights activist Maksharip Aushev was shot dead in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Russian region neighboring Ingushetia. The police found 60 machine gun shells at the crime scene. Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov stated that the murder may have been committed by siloviki (law enforcement or military officers). He promised to “do the best to solve this crime.”

Anti-Monopoly Service Fines Oil Companies

Russia’s Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) imposed a record fine of 5.3 billion rubles ($180 million) on state-owned oil company Rosneft for “abusing its dominant position in the wholesale market for oil products” and artificially pushing up oil product prices in the first half of 2009. Earlier two other major oil companies, TNK-BP and Gazprom Neft, were fined on similar grounds. Rosneft may challenge the FAS decision in court.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rights Activist Prosecuted for Defaming Chechen President

Criminal defamation charges were brought against Oleg Orlov, the head of Russian rights group Memorial, for stating that Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was “guilty” of the murder of Chechen rights activist Natalia Estemirova. Earlier Kadyrov won a libel suit against Orlov and Memorial for this statement.

Court Upholds Cristal Champagne Trademark

The Arbitrazh (Economic) Court of Moscow reversed an April 2009 decision of the Russian patent agency's Disputes Chamber that French champagne producer Louis Roederer's elite "Cristal" trademark is not protected because it is "confusingly similar" to "Kristal" vodka, a trademark owned by a Russian state company. The patent agency admitted in court that it was wrong, which it rarely does.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Millions in Cash Stolen from Traveling Lawyer

In the biggest burglary ever from a Moscow apartment, thieves took two suitcases with $4.5 million and €7 million in cash, and hid in the apartment an additional $1.5 million from one of the suitcases. A young lawyer from Novosibirsk, who had recently rented the apartment, says he was holding the money for his client who inherited it. Authorities are investigating.

Pro-Kremlin Youth Movement Sues Media

Pro-Kremlin youth movement “Nashi” sued several Western media in a Russian court for defamation. “Nashi” is unhappy with its media portrayal: The Independent - “Hitler Youth,” Le Monde - “an ideological battalion serving the Kremlin,” Le Journal du Dimanche - “a fierce mix of patriotism and xenophobia.” “Nashi” claims $12,000 from each defendant, and has also sued several Russian media on similar grounds.

Constitutional Court Dismisses Khodorkovsky Complaint

Russia’s Constitutional Court published its July decision denying consideration on the merits of a petition by former Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Jailed for tax fraud, Khodorkovsky challenged the constitutionality of statutes underlying new charges against him, arguing that if oil was sold for value, it cannot be considered “stolen.” The Court held that it lacks jurisdiction to rule on the law's application to Khodorkovsky's case. Justice Anatoly Kononov dissented, arguing that Khodorkovsky’s complaint “has all reasons to be considered on the merits.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bidding for High Court Holiday Concert

Russia's Supreme Arbitrazh (Economic) Court is requesting bids to present a New Year concert in the Court’s premises. The initial price is 1.5 million rubles($50,000). For that amount the organizer must secure the appearance of certain famous actors, as well as Ded Moroz (Russian Santa Claus, "Grandfather Frost") and Snegurochka (his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Moldovan Policemen Convicted of Heroin Smuggling

A Moldovan court sentenced two Turkish citizens and two high-ranking Moldovan police officers to various prison terms (2 to 13 years) for drug smuggling. According to the judgment, the Turks transported 200 kilos of heroin from Afghanistan to Holland through Moldova, and the policemen provided security.

Russian Customs Withdraws Suit against Bank of New York

The Russian Customs Service formally withdrew its $22.5 billion Moscow lawsuit against the Bank of New York for allegedly facilitating money laundering by its Russian clients. Apparently, no formal settlement agreement has been certified by the court. However, the bank reportedly agreed to pay $14 million in legal expenses and to grant $4 billion in low-interest loans to unspecified Russian banks.

Court Orders Vote Recount

A Moscow court ordered a vote recount in a Moscow election district in recent regional elections. The tally in that district shows no votes for liberal opposition party Yabloko, although Yabloko leader Sergey Mitrokhin and his family voted there. Opposition parties claim unprecedented vote-rigging, and on October 14 all State Duma deputies that do not belong to the ruling United Russia party left the assembly in protest.

(Update, October 23: The recount in Mitrokhin's district yielded 16 votes for Yabloko.)

Artist Sues TV Channel for Using Olympic Mascot

Viktor Chizhikov sued TV company NTV for using in its documentary series the image of Misha the Bear, the 1980 Moscow Olympics mascot that Chizhikov authored. Misha became a symbol of the TV program, although it is unrelated to sports. Chizhikov claims 20 million rubles (about $700,000) for copyright infringement and moral harm. NTV argues that its Misha was not authored by Chizhikov.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Kyrgyzstan Reorganizes Government

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev initiated a large-scale reform of Kyrgyzstan's state governance system. The government resigned. The presidential administration and the security council will be abolished, and most of their authorities will pass to the president.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Deputy Minister Accuses Investigators of Torture

The Interior Minister of the Russian region Buriatia and his deputy were arrested on large-scale smuggling charges. The deputy minister has asserted that when he was arrested, the FSB (State Security Service) tortured him, applying methods of drowning, electric shock, and freezing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Editorial Defends Juries

An editorial in the news daily Vedomosti criticized statements by Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of the General Prosecutor’s Office, that juries acquit too often and that the jury system should be changed to include more than one judge to preside with 12 jurors. The editorial asserts that less than one percent of Russian criminal cases are tried to juries, and that jury acquittal rates of around 20% in Russia are normal by European standards.

WTO Customs Union Application to Come Later

Reversing a June 2009 decision to apply for membership in the World Trade Organization as a customs union, representatives of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus met in Geneva and announced that the three countries will apply as separate states, but will coordinate their applications and after joining will seek membership of the customs union. (See 10/3/09 post for recent background.)

Warning Against Election Protests

The head of Russia's Central Elections Commission warned members of the Duma (lower parliamentary chamber) who are alleging vote-rigging in recent regional elections that their complaints may violate a criminal prohibition against interfering with elections.

Putin Criticizes Corruption

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a last-minute addition to the agenda of an October 15 meeting of top government officials: a report by General Prosecutor Yuri Chaika about corruption in regulatory bodies in key economic sectors. Based on Chaika’s report, Putin asserted that governmental supervision has become a “profitable business” in which governmental functions are delegated to private companies affiliated with officials in the relevant agencies. One attendee predicted personnel changes and reorganization of ministries by the end of the year as a result of the report.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Supreme Arbitrazh Court Publishes Future Judgment

Russia’s Supreme Arbitrazh (Economic) Court mistakenly published on its web site a judgment in advance of the hearing in the case, which is scheduled for next week. The case is a tax dispute in which the court, according to the published text, will hold for the tax authorities. Observers disagreed as to whether preparation of the document before the hearing indicates that the Court has reached a final decision on the result of the case, or the document is merely a draft prepared by a court employee and is subject to revision based on the Court's deliberations after the hearing.

Stalin’s Grandson Loses Libel Suit

A Moscow court dismissed a lawsuit by Josef Stalin’s grandson Evgueny Dzhugashvili against Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Dzhugashvili had claimed $300,000 in damages and a retraction of statements in the newspaper accusing Stalin of crimes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Conviction for Abducting Son from Finland

A Finnish court sentenced a Russian citizen to a suspended 1.5 year prison term for abducting her 6-year-old son to Russia. The court also ordered her to compensate her ex-husband for moral harm (€20,000) and to pay expenses related to the boy's return to Finland (€5,000). A Finnish consul who brought the boy to Finland in his car trunk was declared persona non grata in Russia.

Guinea Seeks Nationalization and $1 billion from Rusal

The Guinean government that came into power after a 2006 coup is seeking the return of the privatized Friguia bauxite and alumina complex from Russia's Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum producer, as well as $1 billion in damages including underpaid taxes and royalties. The government claims that the terms of the arbitration were unfair. Rusal is contesting, in Paris arbitation and in Guinea, a recent Guinean court order reversing the privatization.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Russia Liable for Restricting Speech

The European Court or Human Rights issued two decisions against Russia for violating journalists' right to freedom of expression under the European Human Rights Convention. In one case, a Ekaterinburg newspaper editor was convicted of criminal libel for publishing a report that a homosexual relationship led a regional administrator to use public funds to buy an apartment for an official in Moscow. In the second case, a civil libel action, founders of a newspaper in Vladivostok were held liable for publishing an open letter that criticized a local administrative department of the Supreme Court, which had a quota to sell timber, for undocumented cash sales to foreign companies.

Owner Refuses to Take Hijacked Ship from Navy

Finnish company Solchart, the owner of Maltese-flagged bulker Arctic Sea, which was seized by the Russian Navy near Cape Verde after it had been allegedly captured by Estonian pirates in the Baltic Sea, has refused to accept the ship from the Navy unless the owner’s losses from the seizure, estimated at €700,000, are compensated. The ship is stranded in the Mediterranean because no country has allowed it to enter a port with Russian military personnel aboard.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Armenia Normalizes Relations with Turkey

Armenia and Turkey signed an agreement to normalize relations. The agreement, which is subject to ratification by both countries’ parliaments, provides for establishing diplomatic relations, open borders. recognizing each country’s territorial integrity, and creating a commission to study historical records related to the countries’ dispute over whether Turkey committed genocide of Armenians at the end of World War I. Another remaining source of tension is Armenia’s conflict with Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, where Armenia’s occupation of an ethnic Armenian enclave led to the closure of the Armenian-Turkish border in 1993.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Prosecutors Oppose Variable-Interest Loans

A letter from the General Prosecutor's Office to the Association of Russian Banks states that banks may not unilaterally increase interest on loans to individuals, even if permitted by the loan agreement. This position is expected to lead to more inspections of banks by prosecutors and to court challenges by banks.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Medvedev Promises Cleaner Tenders

In his blog, President Dmitri Medvedev stated that a computer system will be unveiled in October that combats the use of Latin letters in government tenders in order to prevent potential bidders from finding requests for proposals. (For background, see September 25 posting in this blog, Rэs Ipsa Loquitur).

Kazakhstan Judge Accused of Attempted Murder

A judge in the city of Kostonai, Kazakhstan was questioned by local police in connection with accusations by his ex-wife, herself a former judge, that he tried to murder her by running up to her car and shooting in while it was stopped at a red light. The two have been in dispute over ownership of a brick factory.

Blogger Convicted of Extremism

A Samara court sentenced blogger Dmitry Kirilin to a one-year suspended prison term for extremist statements calling for overthrow of the regime. The blog stated that the current system of government is causing the degradation, demoralization, and dying out of the Russian people. Kirilin also advocated granting Chechnya independence, ceding the Kuril Islands to Japan, abolishing the draft, and disenfranchising alcoholics, criminal defendants, and people without secondary education.

Medical Malpractice Award Against Railroad

A Russian court awarded a cesarean section patient $17,000 for negligence leading to infection and a hysterectomy. Importantly, the award was made against deep-pocket Russian Railways Company, the hospital's owner.

Yukos Convict Punished for Newspaper Interview

A Russian court approved a prison reprimand and 12-day solitary confinement of former Yukos officer Platon Lebedev for unauthorized correspondence: answering readers' questions in Novaya Gazeta. The court rejected the suggestion of Lebedev's attorneys that because they transmitted his statements to the newspaper outside of the prison, those communications were not subject to prison regulations.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

St. Petersburg Gazprom Skyscraper Approved

The St. Petersburg city administration approved Gazprom's plans to build a 77-story skyscraper, which will be three times taller than St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, now the tallest building in the city. The project has been criticized as a threat to the city center's relatively intact 19th century architecture, to tourism, and to St. Petersburg's status as a UNESCO world heritage site, while supporters argue that the office and trade center will help the city share the prosperity that has transformed Moscow.

Chechen President Wins Libel Suit

A Moscow court held for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in his libel suit against rights group Memorial and its head Oleg Orlov for stating that Kadyrov was "guilty" of the murder of Chechen rights activist Natalia Estemirova. The court rejected Orlov's defense that he meant moral and political responsibility for creating an atmosphere in which such crimes were permissible, rather than criminal guilt. The court awarded $2,300 to Kadyrov. Kadyrov also asked the police to bring criminal defamation charges against Orlov.

Monday, October 5, 2009

VimpelCom War Over

Alfa Group’s telecommunications company Altimo and Norway’s Telenor announced the end of their five-year battle over corporate governance issues related to their holdings in Russian and Ukrainian telecoms providers VimpelCom and Kyivstar. Telenor’s stake in VimpelCom has been under threat of seizure to enforce a Siberian court’s controversial $1.7 judgment for a 0.0002% shareholder in VimpelCom that challenged Telenor’s opposition to VimpelCom’s entry into the Ukrainian market. Altimo and Telenor will create a jointly owned mobile operator, Vimpelcom Ltd., to operate in Russia, Ukraine, six other former Soviet countries, and Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

WTO Doubts Russia Will Join

World Trade Organization director general Pascal Lamy sees Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s announcement in June that Russia will seek WTO membership only as a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus as a sign that Russia has abandoned its 16-year effort to join WTO. Lamy noted in an interview with the New York Times that the proposal lacks precedent under WTO rules, and he observed that there is “no energy in Moscow” to join the group. Analysts point to Russia's emphasis on energy exports (rather than diversification) and suspicion of Western motives as reasons for the loss of interest in WTO membership.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bankrupt for a Day

On October 1, Raffeisenbank filed a bankruptcy petition against media and IT company RBC Information Systems, and announced the same day that it intends to withdraw the petition in light of continuing negotiations with the company. RBC is trying to restructure its total debt of $200 million, of which approximately $30 million is owed to Raffeisenbank.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Deripaska Wins Sochi Road Contract

Transstroi, of Oleg Deripaska’s Basic Element group, won a $1 billion contract for roadwork in Sochi. Transstroi was initially disqualified from the tender for submitting three bids, but the regional anti-monopoly authority ruled that this was a technical mistake and ordered that Transstroi be permitted to correct its submission.