Friday, September 30, 2011

Fugitive Prosecutor Unwanted by Russia

Russia’s General Prosecutor Office declined assistance from Interpol in finding a fugitive Russian prosecutor involved in a large-scale corruption affair. Russia’s Investigation Committee accuses Alexander Ignatenko, a former Moscow Region first deputy prosecutor, and a number of other high-ranking prosecutors of protecting a vast underground casino ring. On investigators’ demand a Russian court ordered the arrest of Ignatenko, who reportedly fled to Ukraine. In order for Interpol to issue an arrest warrant, a request from the General Prosecutor's Office is needed, which it refused to provide. "Ignatenko has not been put on the international wanted list as the Prosecutor General's Office refused to demand his arrest and extradition if he is found in other countries," the Russian bureau of Interpol's press service said. The General Prosecutor's Office says the accusations against Ignatenko “lack evidence.” Notably, a witness in the casino case reportedly said to investigators that Ignatenko vowed in case of his arrest to expose other high-ranking prosecutors allegedly involved in the casino affair, including the General Prosecutor’s son Artem Chaika.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Moldovan Constitutional Court Chairman Sacked for Demanding Parliament Dissolution

Moldova’s Constitutional Court (CC) Chairman Dumitru Pulbere was dismissed from the Chairman's post by a non-confidence vote from other CC judges. (Pulbere remains a CC judge.) The reason for the dismissal is that Pulbere said in an interview that the Moldovan Parliament must be dissolved by 28 September 2011 and that otherwise its acts after that date would be invalid. Moldova's Constitution indeed envisages the dissolution of Parliament if it fails to elect President (which it failed to do), but prohibits dissolving it more than once a year (the last dissolution was on 28 September 2010). The issue of the validity of acts adopted after the end of the one-year term seems disputable. The ruling coalition accused Pulbere of making a “politically engaged statement” and demanded his dismissal.

Medvedev Sacks Finance Minister for “Improper Comments”

Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin was dismissed after a public row with President Dmitry Medvedev. Kudrin said during his visit to the US that he would not serve in a new government next year if, as expected, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev switch roles, because of disagreements with Medvedev on economic issues. In response, Medvedev gave him a sharp rebuke saying the comments were "improper... and can in no way be justified," and ordered him to resign if he continued to disagree over economic policy. Kudrin responded that he would make a decision on speaking with Prime Minister [Putin]. Hours later, Kudrin’s dismissal was announced. Kudrin was believed to be the leader of the liberal economic wing of Putin’s government. Analysts speculate that Kudrin might have hoped to become prime minister himself after December's parliamentary elections. (video)

Russian Anti-Monopoly Service: Microsoft-Skype Deal May Restrict Competition

Russia’s Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) postponed to December 2011 the decision on the petition of software giant Microsoft to approve its acquisition of internet communication company Skype. The agency emphasized in a statement that the deal “can restrict competition.” If the acquisition is not approved by Russia, Microsoft will apparently have to either spin off the Russian part of the business or to abandon the Skype deal altogether. The FAS has denied suggestions that the delay in the approval may be related to Microsoft’s negotiations with Russia’s Federal State Security Service (FSB) on the disclosure of Skype codes to the FSB.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Greening of Skolkovo

Under a new deal signed last week, the Skolkovo innovation hub may pave the way for sustainable construction in Russia. The agreement between government agencies and green building trade groups provides that new construction at Skolkovo will conform to international green-construction standards, which encompass both energy-efficient building designs and green waste-processing programs. The construction agreement comes on the heels of another deal between the center and the Ministry of Regional Development to open a new urban planning school that will teach green planning techniques including rainwater management, managing transport systems without fossil-fueled vehicles, and using geothermal sources and biogas from waste processing to heat buildings.

Bribery - the "Ordinary Course of Business in Russia"

A June 2011 Colorado court decision provides an inside look at corruption in Russian business and law enforcement, including an acquisition agreement that recognizes bribery and kickbacks as being in the "ordinary course of business." A Moscow Times op-ed by the author of this post discusses the case's implications for the rule of law and protection of investments in Russia's one-party political system.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Foreign Minister: Russia Recognized Palestine Long Ago

Russia will support a Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “Russia has recognized the State of Palestine long ago, and we have no difficulty to support the bid,” the minister commented. “As long ago as 1989, when the Palestinian state was proclaimed, the Soviet Union at the time recognized the statehood of Palestinians… since then we have had in Moscow the embassy of the state of Palestine headed by a full fledged ambassador,” Lavrov explained. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to deliver a formal request for statehood recognition to the UN General Assembly. Israel and the U.S. strongly oppose the move.

Russian “Agent” Accused of Triple Murder in Turkey

Three Chechens were gunned down in Istanbul after Friday prayers by a lone gunman who fired 11 shots in less than 30 seconds from a silenced 9mm pistol before speeding away in a black Mercedes. The Chechens are believed to be linked with anti-Russian guerrillas. Three days later Turkish special forces received a tip as to where the assailant was staying, rushed to the location and breached the hotel room, only to find he had fled minutes before, leaving behind the silenced pistol, a night-vision camera, binoculars, and a passport identifying him as a Russian citizen named Alexander Zharkov. The Turkish authorities reportedly believe that Zharkov may be linked to the Russian government. Russia denies involvement. "Those are pure speculations having nothing [to do] with reality," Yevgeniy Khorishko, press officer for the Russian Embassy in the U.S., said. The case is not unique. In 2004 two Russian agents were convicted in Qatar for assassinating Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. State Duma deputy Adam Delimkhanov is wanted by Interpol in connection with the assassination of Hero of Russia Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai in 2009. Another State Duma deputy, Andrey Lugovoy, is wanted by Scotland Yard in relation to the poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. Alexander Zharkov himself was present in Istanbul in 2009 when another Chechen man was shot dead. (video)

Russian Supreme Court Bans Islamic Holidays

Russia’s Supreme Court found illegal a regional statute making major Islamic holidays non-working days. In 1992 the Republic of Bashkortostan, a Russian constituency populated mostly by Muslims, adopted a law making Islamic holidays Uraza Bayram and Kurban Bayram (also known under their Arabic names Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha) non-working days. In 2011 a Bashkortostan resident petitioned the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan to hold the statute illegal because it “violates his right to work on discriminatory religious grounds.” The Bashkortostan Supreme Court disagreed, but Russia’s Supreme Court has now reversed, pointing out that “the Labor Code does not allow a federation constituency to regulate labor relations on the basis of historical, ethnic, or other traditions.” The Islamic clergy criticize the decision. The Bashkortostan parliament intends to appeal further and to demand that the State Duma (Russia’s parliament) to amend the legislation so as to allow regional holidays. Notably, Orthodox Christmas is a national holiday (non-working day) in Russia. (judgment)

Tuvalu Recognizes Abkhazia

Tuvalu, a Central Pacific insular state, has recognized the independence of Abkhazia, announced the Abkhaz Froeign Minister Maxim Gvindzhiya. Abkhazia is a breakaway Georgian province first recognized by Russia in the wake of the 2008 Russian-Georgian war over South Ossetia, another breakaway Georgian province. Abkhazia has been recognized only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Vanuatu, but Vanuatu later withdrew its recognition.

UPDATE: Tuvalu Recognizes South Ossetia, Too

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Justice Minister: Russian Penitentiary System Reminiscent of GULAG

Russia’s Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov stated that the Russian penitentiary system is “enormously archaic.” According to the official, the system “carries many features reminiscent of the GULAG times and perhaps even of the pre-revolutionary katorga [penal servitude].” “We have a cumbersome, costly, crime-reproducing penal system, carrying systemic risks for the country’s security,” Konovalov stated. His revelations are especially remarkable given that his ministry is responsible for the penitentiary system, and he has headed the ministry for some three years.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cosmetics Company Gains Trademark Victory

A Russian patent court granted the cosmetics chain L'Etoile the exclusive right to use the "L'Etoile du Berger" trademark previously owned by Belgian jeweler Tolkowsky. In May, L'Etoile filed a request with the Russian patent authority to have exclusive rights to use "L'Etoile," claiming that Tolkowsky had not used the name in 3 years, thus effectively canceling the mark. L'Etoile is the largest cosmetics and perfume retailer in Russia, with more than 650 stores in the country and over 9 million shoppers annually, according to the company's website. Earlier this year, L'Etoile made headlines for deceptive advertising in connection with medical products, for which it was fined 200,000 rubles.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

European Court: Russia Violated Yukos Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that an investigation by Russia's tax authorities into collapsed Russian oil company Yukos was unfair and violated the firm's property rights. Yukos, once Russia's biggest oil company, first became the subject of tax proceedings in 2002, when tax authorities accused it of setting up shell companies to hide revenue. It was declared insolvent in 2006 and was liquidated the following year. Yukos lawyers claim the firm was deliberately targeted by the Russian government and that its actions amounted to "disguised expropriation" of the company. The firm's founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed in 2005 for fraud and tax evasion. The ECHR’s judgment does not deal with Yukos' claim of $98 billion in damages and is not final. In an earlier ruling, the ECHR said Russia violated Khodorkovsky's conditions of detention after his arrest in 2003, but the court did not back allegations that the charges against him had been politically motivated. (video)

Georgia: Russia Must Respect Khachapuri Brand

Russia, like other countries, must respect Georgia’s rights for its “patented” national brands, Georgia’s Deputy Foreign Ministry Nino Kalanadze stated. Recently Georgia’s intellectual property agency Sakpatent registered 37 national meals and drinks, such as chacha (grape vodka), khachapuri (cheese bread), churchkhela (grape candy), etc., many of them widespread in Russia as well. Georgia believes the protection of Georgian national brands is an obligation of Russia under a bilateral brand protection agreement of 2004.

Global Brands Boycott Uzbek Cotton

A number of global sportswear brands, including Adidas and Puma, joined the boycott of Uzbekistan’s cotton for use of child labor. The boycott was organized by US retail industry group American Apparel and Footwear Association. Tim Newman, campaign director at New York-based lobby group International Labor Rights Forum, said he has seen reports that children as young as 13 were being mobilised to pick this year’s crop. “There are estimates that it affects up to two million children during the harvest season,” he said. While child labour is a problem in agriculture in many developing countries, in Uzbekistan it is organised and sponsored by the state.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Russian Tycoon Attacks Kremlin “Puppeteer”

Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire leader of Russia’s liberal Right Cause party launched an unprecedented attack on the Kremlin after he was expelled from the party, allegedly as a result of a Kremlin-inspired “raiders’ attack.” Prokhorov called Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief of domestic political operations, a “puppeteer” who stifles political debate, and vowed to have Surkov sacked. Prokhorov asked for the return of the 500m roubles ($18m) he said he had invested in the party. “I want to give it to the people,” he said. Right Cause was created in 2009 as a pro-Kremlin party declaring liberal views, and Prokhorov was proposed to head it and was elected its leader in June. (video)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Defendants Believed to Be Scapegoats, Face Death Penalty in Belarus

The trial of the so-called subway-bombers began in Minsk, Belarus. Two defendants are accused of plotting the explosion in the Minsk subway in April 2011 that took 15 lives and wounded 300. The case investigation and all pre-trial procedures took only 5 months. The same defendants are accused of all major terrorist acts that took place in Belarus within the past 5-7 years. They are facing the death penalty, and their trial is perceived to be unfair and unjust.

Russian Duma Approves Third Antimonopoly Package

On September 9th, the Russian Duma approved the third antimonopoly package prepared by the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS). According to FAS head Igor Artemyev, the third package of amendments "considerably simplifies the work of businesses and increases liability of those officials who impede freedom of entrepreneurship. The adopted draft law will [also] enhance efficiency of the main institutes of antimonopoly regulation in Russia.” In particular, the amendments reduce the list of per se violations that are only applicable to horizontal agreements (or cartels), introduce the minimum market share that economic entities engaged in concerted actions must have, and clarify the concept of prohibited coordination of economic activities. The draft law also allows the Government of the Russian Federation to determine the rules for non-discriminatory access to the infrastructure facilities of natural monopolies, as well as to the goods that are technologically connected to them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Supreme Court: Khodorkovsky Was Arrested Illegally

Russia’s Supreme Court held illegal a lower court decision to extend the term of the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev for the period from May 17 to August 17, 2010. The Court also demanded Moscow Court Chairperson Olga Yegorova to “pay attention to the gross violations of the law committed during the consideration of appeals.” Earlier the Supreme Court found illegal the extension of the arrest term from August 17 to November 17, 2010. After serving a large part of their first prison term, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were formally arrested on new charges and brought to Moscow to stand new trial. The term of the arrest was repeatedly extended during the trial. The defense challenged the extensions, pointing out that under newly adopted legislation, defendants in economic cases normally should not be imprisoned. (In fact, the formal lifting of the arrest would not have resulted in the release of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, since they still had to serve their first term, but could have resulted in a milder prison regime.) Now the Supreme Court has agreed with the defense. Nevertheless, under the second sentence, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev should serve their prison term until 2016.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Moscow Court Finds Illegal “Volodya i Medvedi” Trademark Rejection

A court in Moscow found illegal the refusal by Rospatent (Russian patent and trademark registration agency) to register the vodka trademark “Volodya i Medvedi”. A company named “Royalty” filed an application for the “Volodya i Medvedi” (Volodya and Bears) trademark in 2009, but Rospatent rejected it, and its Patent Dispute Chamber affirmed the rejection. Rospatent suggested that the trademark refers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, and found that such usage of their names “infringes upon the image and the interests of the state, and is contrary to public policy.” The company argued that the usage of “one of most popular Russian names ‘Volodya’ and fairy tale characters (bears) cannot be detrimental to the society and the state.” The court apparently agreed with the company. Meanwhile alcoholic beverage company “Vinexim,” holder of the trademark “Putinka,” has registered the trademark “Volodya i Medvedi” in Ukraine and currently sells the vodka in Russia, too. However, “Vinexim” has stated the “Royalty” company (the applicant) does not represent “Vinexim.”

Friday, September 9, 2011

Ukrainian President Accused of Plagiarism

Upon the publication of “Opportunity Ukraine,” a new book by Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich, journalists discovered that it contains numerous fragments borrowed verbatim from other people’s works, mostly from articles published by Ukrainian media. In particular, Vitaly Sych, the Editor-in-Chief of the Korrespondent journal, points out in his blog that Yanukovich has copied (without citation) whole paragraphs from a Korrespondent article about reforms in Hong Kong and Singapore, which Sych himself co-authored. Yanukovich’s spokesperson, Anna German, called the plagiarism accusations a “provocation,” suggesting that the disputable fragments might have been in fact copied by their alleged authors from some other (unspecified) earlier works of Yanukovich.

Russian Military Whistleblower Gets Four Years in Jail

A court in Vladivostok sentenced former Interior Forces Major Igor Matveev to four years of imprisonment for beating a subordinate. Matveev denies wrongdoing and explains the prosecution as revenge for his disclosing large-scale violations in his military unit. In May 2011, Matveev published on YouTube a video address to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin unveiling a corruption network in the army and alleging that soldiers in his military unit in Vladivostok are fed with canned dog food. Matveev was sacked from the army and prosecuted on battery charges. Later local prosecutors stated that their investigation showed that dog food had indeed been substituted for canned stewed meat to conceal a theft.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Russian Pilot Gets Twenty Years in US Jail

Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen, has been found guilty of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US earlier this year and has been sentenced to 20 years behind bars. Yaroshenko, a pilot, was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and transported to America. The case itself sets a major precedent as it is the first time that a Russian citizen has been sentenced to a prison term in the US for intent to participate in a crime in a third country in a case that was built by US special agents; the agents posed as drug dealers and Yaroshenko allegedly agreed to transport a shipment of cocaine from Venezuela to Liberia. Moscow has condemned the sentence as excessively severe. Speaking in New York, Russian Vice Consul Alexander Otchaynov said that Russia had not expected the verdict to be as tough. Yaroshenko’s lawyers intend to push for his return to Russia. (video)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Solo Software Startup Gains Residency at Skolkovo

Dmitry Asonov’s solo startup software company, Proofreading Lab, recently became the 89th firm to gain residency at the Skolkovo innovation center. Skolkovo offers a grant of $50,000 for small businesses like Asonov’s, and more importantly, according to Asonov, will match any investments his business can attract by a factor of up to three. This co-finance strategy adds immediate value to a startup and is a powerful incentive to outside investors. Skolkovo residents also receive immediate tax breaks — they pay no profit tax and a significantly lower salary tax than nonresidents.

To gain resident status, a company must be a Russian legal entity and must submit an application. Applications are then evaluated by a randomly selected group of 10 of the approximately 100 Russian and international businesspeople and researchers on the Skolkovo evaluation committee. If more than half the evaluators give a positive review, as was the case with Proofreading Lab, it means acceptance as a Skolkovo resident.

Ukrainian General: President Kuchma Ordered Reporter's Murder

Olexiy Pukach, the main suspect in the notorious 2000 murder of Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze, has testified in court that then President Leonid Kuchma ordered the killing. Gongadze, an outspoken critic of President Kuchma, was kidnapped and his headless body was found months later in a forest in September 2000. Pukach, a former general at the Ministry of the Interior, was arrested in 2009 after six years on the run and confessed to personally strangling and beheading Gongadze. Pukach says Kuchma ordered the murder and was in collusion with current parliament speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn, and former Interior Minister Yuri Kravchenko, who has since deceased.

Ukrainian Court Dismisses Suit over Shooting Down Passenger Plane

A court in Kiev dismissed a $15.3 million lawsuit initiated by a Russian air carrier against the Ukrainian Defense Ministry over a decade-old incident in which a civilian plane was downed by a missile. The plane blew up in midair in 2001, en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk. The Moscow-based Interstate Aviation Committee, a civil aviation authority within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), found that the crash was caused by an accidental Ukrainian S-200 missile strike during military training exercises. However, in court hearings, Ukrainian officials maintained, and the court apparently agreed, that there was insufficient evidence that the Tupolev-154 had been struck by a Ukrainian missile.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Russian Ex-Governor Charged with Bribery

The investigators charged Vyacheslav Dudka, until recently the Governor of the Tula Region, with taking a $1.3 mln bribe for passing a land plot to a corporation for supermarket construction. Dudka denies wrongdoing. The court is to decide whether to arrest ex-governor within a couple of days. (video)


23 Ukrainians Arrested by Libyan Rebels

The Libya’s new rebel government arrested 23 Ukrainians on suspicion of acting as mercenary snipers for Muammar Gaddafi's regime. The Ukrainians strongly deny the allegations saying they are expats working in the Libyan energy sector. Ukraine has recently recognized the new authorities of Libya. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry says it is in touch with the arrested. (video)

Ex-Police Colonel Charged Over Murder of Politkovskaya

Retired Russian police officer Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov has been charged in connection with the 2006 murder of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya. The authorities also named a convicted criminal, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, as an organiser of the killing. It was announced that Lieutenant Colonel Pavlyuchenkov, then head of surveillance at Moscow's main internal affairs directorate, ordered his subordinates to follow the journalist to identify her schedule and commuting routes, and then shared the information with the other members of the gang. The colonel later passed the murder weapon to the suspected gunman. (video)

Police Arrest Opposition Demonstrators in Moscow

On August 31, Moscow opposition activists held their traditional demonstration on the Triumfalnaya Square in support of Article 31 of the Russian Constitution (freedom of assembly). As usual, the demonstration was banned by the authorities and dispersed by the police. About a dozen activists were arrested. (video)