Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Azerbaijan to Hike Radar Station Rent

Azerbaijan may increase the rent for using the Gabala radar station, which is currently being leased by Russia, some 40 times, from $7 million to $300 million a year, Kommersant newspaper reported. “This sum is in no way justified and is extremely high and we will seek a considerable reduction. We still hope that we will reach an agreement," a Russian defence ministry source said. Another defence source added that if Azerbaijan persists, Russia will have to leave the station. The Gabala radar station, located in north-west Azerbaijan, was built during the Soviet period as one of the most important elements of the USSR's missile defence system. After Azerbaijan gained independence, the radar station become the country's property and Russia continued to use it.

EU Recalls Ambassadors from Belarus

Brussels has recalled the ambassadors of all EU member states from Belarus, in response to Minsk’s expulsion of EU and Polish representatives from the country. A fresh set of sanctions imposing an asset freeze and visa ban on 21 senior Belarusian officials has triggered a chain reaction of diplomatic moves involving all parties in the dispute. Minsk has recalled its ambassadors to Poland and the EU for consultations, and instructed Polish and EU ambassadors to leave Belarus “for consultations” too. Brussels has responded by recalling not just two, but all 27 ambassadors of its member states from Minsk, and has expelled Belarusian diplomats from all the EU capitals. "In an expression of solidarity and unity, it was agreed that the ambassadors of the EU member states in Minsk will all be withdrawn for consultations to their capitals," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ukrainian Ex-Interior Minister Gets Four Years in Jail

A Ukrainian court sentenced Yuriy Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian interior minister and ally of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, to four years in prison for abuse of office. Lutsenko was found guilty of illegally employing and giving an apartment and pension to his former driver as well as of overspending government funds during Police Day celebrations in 2008 and 2009, when he was in office. The total damages caused by Lutsenko to Ukraine’s budget is estimated at $125,000. The former minister has denied any wrongdoing, saying his trial was politically motivated. Ukrainian opposition supporters view his prosecution as a continuation of President Victor Yanukovych’s crackdown on his political opponents.

WikiLeaks: Russian General Prosecutor Collaborated with Foreign Intelligence

Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika's office has labeled as a provocation media reports that he may have collaborated with foreign intelligence services. Some media outlets, citing WikiLeaks, asserted that Chaika was an informer for Stratfor, or Strategic Forecasting, Inc., a global intelligence company. Marina Gridneva, spokesperson for the Prosecutor General’s Office, denied the reports, which suggest that Chaika was a highly trustworthy informant and “a key source on Russia.” The new WikiLeaks documents in particular quote Chaika as commenting on the principle of “Kremlin clan wars” engineered by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ensure the stability of his regime. (video) (WikiLeaks document)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Moscow City Hall Council to Address Foreign Business Concerns

The Council for the Protection of Rights and Legitimate Interests of Business Entities convened for the first time at Moscow's City Hall on Friday.  The Council, which aims to deal with both Russian and foreign concerns, is led by Alexei Komissarov, chief of City Hall's Department for Science, Industrial Policy and Entrepreneurship.   "It's an effort to include foreign business" in shaping the city's investment policy, said Andrew Somers, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, who was invited to sit on the Council.  At its first session, the Council spent a significant portion of its meeting on the issue of connections to the electrical grid — a pitfall that bogs down many local entrepreneurs.  The Council then listened to concerns raised by Somers on behalf of foreign businesses, which included a requested transitional period for kiosk refrigeration requirements, and a softening of the city's stance on English-language signs. Somers said that while the meeting yielded no immediate promises, it "was to initiate dialogue."  The Foreign Investment Advisory Council, a high-level group of senior executives from multinational companies, also sent a delegate to the session.  Alexander Ivlev, a partner at Ernst & Young in Moscow, represented the Foreign Investment Advisory Council, and said that the next step for the Council was to tell businesses how they could use the new channel of communication with the city government.

LUKOIL Pays Over 600 Million in Fines for High Diesel Prices

On February 17th, LUKOIL companies paid over 600 million Rubles in fines for violating Russia's antimonopoly laws.  In course of the “third wave of antimonopoly cases”, Russia's Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) imposed the fines for fixing and maintaining monopolistically high prices for diesel fuel.  LUKOIL is not the only company to have been charged or fined in connection with the FAS's "third wave of antimonopoly cases." Total fines imposed by the FAS in connection with these cases (including against “Gazprom Neft” OJSC, “Bashneft ANK” OJSC, and “Risneft NK” OJSC) amounts to over four billion Rubles.

Russian TV: Putin Assassination Plot Foiled

Russian and Ukrainian security services have foiled a plan to assassinate Vladimir Putin, detaining suspected militants plotting to murder the Russian premier in Moscow after next month’s presidential election. Russia's Channel One reported that the group, the subject of an international arrest warrant, was arrested in the Ukrainian Black Sea town of Odessa after arriving there from the United Arab Emirates via Turkey. The suspects were acting on the orders of Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel who has previously claimed responsibility for attacks in Russia, according to the state-run television channel. (video)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Khodorkovsky Appeals to Supreme Court

The defense team for former YUKOS head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and former Menatep head Platon Lebedev has filed a supervisory appeal with Russia's Supreme Court against the prison sentence in their second case. According to the appeal, “the courts of all lower instances knowingly fulfilled the common task of unjust reprisal against innocents.” In 2005, Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, both arrested in 2003, were sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud and tax evasion. In late 2010, a Moscow district court sentenced them to 14 years in prison for oil theft and money laundering. They were expected to be released in 2017, taking into account the time they had already served for their convictions from their first trial in 2005. However, the Moscow City Court reduced their sentences by one year. They are now scheduled for release in 2016. (document)

Ukrainian Parliament Authorizes Trade Wars

Ukraine’s Supreme Rada (parliament) adopted a law allowing Ukraine to introduce counter-measures against “discriminatory or unfriendly actions of foreign states.” Now the Ukrainian government will be able to introduce the licensing of exports, and the Rada will be able to introduce trade embargos. Apparently, the legislators had in mind some actions of Russia, such as the recent ban of certain types of Ukrainian cheese.

Russian State Security Officers Must Dispose of Foreign Property

Russia’s Federal State Security Service (FSB) head Alexander Bortnikov issued an order directing all FSB officers to report any property they own abroad to their respective superiors, and to dispose of any such property by December 1, 2012. The only exception is where the foreign property is used for “operative activities.” The order does not say whether or not the property may be transferred to relatives or nominees. (document)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Abkhazian President Escapes Assassination Attempt

An assassination attempt has been made on the President of the Republic of Abkhazia, Alexander Ankvab. President Ankvab was unharmed, however, one bodyguard is dead and two more are seriously injured. The President's convoy was blown up by a powerful roadside bomb in the Gadaut region of the republic of Abkhazia, in the North Caucasus. After that, the convoy came under crossfire from a machine gun and a grenade launcher. Since 2005 Ankvab’s residence and his cars have been hit by grenades and gunfire five times. He has been wounded on several occasions. Abkhazia is a breakaway province of Georgia, whose independence was recognized by Russia in 2008. (video)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Russian Oppositionist Presents Shoe Sole to President

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on Monday with the leaders of several unregistered parties, including organizers of recent mass rallies for fair elections Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Sergey Udaltsov, and discussed with them the course of political reforms in the country. The time for change has arrived, said Medvedev, who is not running for re-election in the March 4 vote. In turn, the oppositionists shared with Medvedev their views on political reforms and gave him a list of political prisoners (including, e.g., Mikhail Khodorkovsky) the oppositionists suggest that he pardon. Udaltsov also presented to Medvedev "as evidence of the growing crisis" a sole torn from MP Ilya Ponomaryov's shoe by pro-Kremlin activists. On Monday State Duma's deputy Ponomaryov was attacked by activists of pro-Kremlin youth movements and policemen in the Moscow mayor's office. According to the legislator, he was attacked as he insisted on the observance of the law when both the "For Fair Elections" organizing committee and the pro-Kremlin activists submitted applications to hold their mass post-election meetings at the same place, the Lubyanka Square. Although oppositionists were first in the line outside the building, the pro-Kremlin activists were let in the mayor’s office through a back door and were first to submit their application, which may mean that they will obtain the permission, and the oppositionists will not. (video: Medvedev) (video: Ponomarev's sole)

Monday, February 20, 2012

4% of Russian GDP Laundered

Approximately 4 percent of the GDP was illegally withdrawn from the Russian economy last year by money laundering in Russia and abroad, posing a threat to national security, First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov said during a video conference call with President Dmitry Medvedev. "Thorough analysis of the situation in the financial sphere, the situation with capital outflow and schemes to launder criminal funds inside the country has shown that of the $84 billion net outflow of capital in 2011, according to Central Bank and Rosfinmonitoring (the Russian antui-laundering agency headed by Zubkov) estimates, about 1 trillion rubles ($33 billion) was removed with signs of money laundering," Zubkov said during the call. Another trillion was laundered inside Russia, according to Zubkov.

Russia Joins Anti-Bribery Convention

Russia has joined the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials of the OECD. On Friday, all the legal procedures necessary for Russia’s accession to this convention were completed. At the headquarters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Denisov handed the official ratification document to the organization’s Secretary General Angel Gurria. By joining this convention, Russia agrees to regular inspections of its efforts to implement effective anti-corruption laws. In addition, Russia has undertaken to introduce criminal responsibility for attempts to bribe foreign officials.

Russia Hits Out At Latvia Referendum

Russia said on Sunday that Latvia had "breached its international obligations" after the Baltic state declined to allow a Russian mission to observe at a referendum which rejected a proposal for Russian to be made the country's second official language. Latvia's decision caused "bewilderment," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement. With nearly all the votes counted, 75 percent of votes cast in the referendum were against the proposal. Ethnic Russians make up about one-third of Latvia's 2.1 million population; many of them have no Latvian (nor any other) citizenship.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Uzbekistan Blocks Wikipedia

Articles of the Wikipedia website in the Uzbek language have been inaccessible from Uzbekistan for several weeks. Visitors of are automatically redirected to Articles of the free encyclopedia in all other languages remain accessible. Reportedly, the Uzbek national internet provider has blocked the site following an informal order of the Uzbek authorities.

Russia to Probe Independent TV Channel

Russian prosecutors are investigating an independent television station for its coverage of two major opposition rallies in Moscow late last year. The Moscow Prosecutor's Office said on February 16 that the station, Dozhd TV, was being investigated to determine who financed the channel's live broadcasts of the December 10 and December 24 rallies. The probe was initiated by a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Russian MPs to Explain Their Visit to US Embassy

Russia’s State Duma Commission for Ethics launched a probe into the visit of several Duma members (one communist and two Fair Russia party members) to the US Embassy in January. The commission requested from the deputies a written explanation of why they made the visit, after which the commission will decide whether or not the visit violated parliamentary ethics rules. “Now foreign intelligence officers advise Russian MPs on what laws to adopt,” stated the Duma’s State Security Committee deputy head Alexander Khinshtein. “This is inadmissible,” he added. “These deputies must surrender their mandates,” said Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party faction in the Duma. Andrei Isayev, a top official of the ruling United Russia party and the head of Duma’s Labor and Social Policy Committee, stated that the discussion is very important because Michael McFaul, the newly appointed US ambassador to Russia, is an expert in “color” revolutions. His appointment “was no accident,” Isayev pointed out.

Russian MTV Cancels Political Talk Show

Russia's music channel MTV has cancelled a new political talk show after just one episode due to apparent political censorship, the show's host said. "Today my program Gosdep was pulled from the air despite the rating. On Friday we were planning to film (opposition leader) Alexei Navalny," the show's presenter Kseniya Sobchak wrote on her Twitter blog on Tuesday. Gosdep, which aired for the first time in early February, was a debate-style talk show about politics launched on MTV, a channel that targets primarily teenagers. Sobchak, a glamorous socialite and sharp-tongued journalist, has made no secret of her participation in anti-Putin protests in Moscow in recent months. (video: Gosdep, Episode 1)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

EU Bans Sale of Ammunition to Belarus Biathlonists

According to a Belarus sports official, Andrey Fomochkin, the German office of a Finnish company that contracted to sell cartridges to the Belarus national biathlon team has refused to perform on the grounds of an embargo imposed by the EU on the sales of ammunition to Belarus. “Company representatives explain that the EU denies granting a license to supply cartridges to Belarus,” Fomochkin complained to journalists. The team has already paid €34,000 for the cartridges.

Russian Radio Chief Claims Political Interference

A Russian radio station is engulfed in a row amid accusations of political interference ahead of next month’s presidential election. Two senior editorial figures have been removed from the board of directors in a reshuffle at Radio Echo of Moscow, one of Russia’s few independent media outlets. One of the ousted directors, Chief Editor Alexei Venediktov, sees the hidden hand of the Kremlin. “It’s quite possible that someone in those Kremlin towers is trying even before the presidential election to take control of the coverage of what comes afterwards, just in case. That’s a possibility,” he said. Venediktov says he will remain the Chief Editor of Radio Echo, because under the radio’s charter the editor is elected by journalists. However, according to some reports, the Prosecutor's Office has already launched an investigation into whether or not Radio Echo's charter is compliant with the law. Last month Venediktov clashed with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at an industry conference. The prime minister accused the editor of slinging mud at him "from dawn to dusk." Putin’s spokesman denied the two events were connected, while the station’s major shareholder Gazprom-Media, a subsidiary of the energy giant, said the changes were administrative and not editorial. (video) (video)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Putin Proposes Privatization Fine

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested imposing a one-off tax on the beneficiaries of “dishonest” 1990's privatization. Speaking to representatives of big business, one month before he is due to run in presidential elections, Putin said that some mechanism should be developed to win public acceptance for dubious privatization deals. “The solution lies in either a one-time contribution or something else, I believe that society and particularly the entrepreneurial class are interested in finding such a solution,” Putin said. Most experts believe the one-off privatization fine is both legally questionable and nearly impossible to implement in practice.

Turkmenistan’s President Re-Elected with 97% of Vote

The incumbent Turkmen President, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, won the recent presidential election with 97 percent of the vote, trouncing seven token competitors. All of the presidential candidates were from the same — in fact, the only — party, the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan. The results give Berdymukhammedov another five-year term as president of Turkmenistan, an oil- and gas-rich former Soviet republic bordering Iran and Afghanistan.

Russia Expels French Journalist for Interviewing Oppositionists

Prominent French journalist and author Anne Nivat was expelled from Russia based on an alleged violation of her visa status. Russian immigration officials in the provincial town of Vladimir detained her and gave her three days to leave the country. Officials who questioned her made clear that her meetings with opposition politicians were undesirable. However, Konstantin Romodanovsky, of Russia’s Federal Migration Service, has not ruled out the possibility that the officials may change their mind: “Preliminary facts show that the decision was wrong. Perhaps, it will be overturned.”

UPDATE: Russian ambassador apologizes and offers Anne Nivat a new visa

Putin Campaign Chief: We Returned to "Normal" Corruption

Vladimir Putin has tamed the gangster capitalism which accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union to make Russian corruption "normal and civilised," his presidential election campaign chief, well-known film director Stanislav Govorukhin, 75, said in an interview. "Putin didn't give birth to it. Corruption existed in tsarist Russia," Govorukhin stated. "In the 1990s, there was no corruption. Instead it was a thieving outrage, open plunder. Billions were stolen, factories and whole industry sectors. They destroyed and stole, they ground Russia into dust," he told the Trud daily newspaper. "Today we have returned to 'normal', 'civilised' corruption," Govorukhin added. Russia is ranked as the most corrupt country in the Group of 20 by anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International, though in 2011 it rose to 143rd place in the 183-country index, beside Nigeria and Uganda, from 154th place in 2010. (interview)

Friday, February 10, 2012

South Ossetian Ex-Presidential Candidate Hospitalized after Police Storm

South Ossetian opposition leader Ala Dzhioeva was hospitalized after law enforcement officers broke into her headquarters to arrest her. Reportedly, she had a hypertensic crisis. Meanwhile, acting president Vadim Borovtsev accused Dzhioeva of the preparation of a coup d'etat. "Dzhioeva publicly announced her inauguration on February 10, which contradicts the decisions of the South Ossetian parliament," Borovtsev said. Dzhioeva won the 2011 presidential elections defeating Russia-backed candidate Anatoliy Bibilov. However, the republic’s Supreme Court annulled the vote. Dzhioeva refused to acknowledge the annulment and declared herself President-elect.

Tomsk Duma Speaker Proposes Burning Oppositionists at Stake

The Speaker of the city Duma of Tomsk, Sergey Ilyinikh, said he thinks opposition activists who call the ruling United Russia party "the party of swindlers and thieves" should be burned at the stake.
Speaking during the regional Audit Chamber session, Ilyinikh said, "I distinguish those who participated in protest rallies from those who use certain forces to persuade people that the United Russia is the party of swindlers and thieves. This is very dangerous; I am sometimes afraid of what I read on the Internet. Those who write such things should be burned at the stake." “The party of swindlers and thieves” is a nickname of the ruling United Russia party popularized by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny. Notably, in 2007 a musician from the city of Syktyvkar, Savva Terentyev, received a year of probation after he, in his blog, suggested burning “wrong cops” (apparently meaning corrupt policemen).

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Kommersant Newspaper Demands Prosecution of Pro-Putin Activist

Kommersant Director General Demyan Kudryavtsev demanded the prosecution of the press secretary of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement, Kristina Potupchik, for preparing DDoS-attacks on Kommersant's website in 2008. According to Kudryavtsev, the content of Potupchik's email, which was recently published by Anonymous, a hacker group, clearly indicates that she was involved in preparing attacks on the newspapers' website. In one of the letters, which dated back to February 2008, Potupchik wrote to one of her colleagues suggesting methods for paralyzing the work of Kommersant. In particular, she said that DDoS attacks are needed to "psychologically and physically finish off" the newspaper. Thereafter, Kommersant's website was hacked and was unavailable for over a day. "Kommersant will require that the Interior Ministry initiate criminal proceedings against Ms. Potupchik and other persons involved in the case... Now that there is no need to look for the guilty, it is important to make sure that they do not go unpunished," Kudryavtsev stated. Kommersant is a leading Russian business newspaper and publishing house. (document)

UPDATE: Potupchik vows to sue Kudryavtsev in libel

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fugitive Kyrgyz President Obtains Belarus Citizenship

Deposed Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev obtained the citizenship of Belarus. Bakiyev fled Kyrgyzstan in April 2010 in the wake of a coup d’├ętat, and obtained asylum in Belarus. The General Attorney’s Office of Kyrgyzstan has requested Bakiyev’s extradition twice, but to no avail. It appears that Bakiyev obtained citizenship of Belarus in August 2010, but journalists only discovered it recently.

Pro-Putin Rally Participants Complain of Fraud

Dozens of participants of the recent pro-Putin rally complained to journalists that rally organizers have failed to pay them the money promised for the participation. It appears that the rally organizers have contacted casting agents specializing in finding extras for movies and TV shows to hire some rally participants. Allegedly, the organizers promised to pay 500 rubles ($17) to each participant, and 50 rubles ($1.7) per hired person to the agents. However, many of the hired participants and agents have not received their money. Some of the defrauded complained to the prosecutor's office, to the ruling United Russia party, and to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally, but to no avail; they then contacted journalists. The rally organizers call the complaint “a provocation.” “The organizing committee has held a number of meetings on this issue and specifically prohibited all invited organizations from purchasing extras or paying for participation,” committee representative Alexey Zhuravlev stated. (video)

Russia Denies Threatening Qatar

Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, called a special press conference to deny reports that he had threatened that Qatar could be wiped off the map. According to some media reports, during the UN Security Council meeting on Saturday, just moments before the Arab League-backed peace plan resolution on Syria (ultimately vetoed by Russia and China) was put to a vote, bin Jassim, Qatar’s Prime Minister, addressed Churkin by saying: “I warn Russia: if it doesn’t abstain from vetoing and doesn’t support the U.N. decision, it will lose all Arab nations.” Allegedly, Churkin responded by saying, “You speak to me again in that tone and Qatar won’t live long enough to see tomorrow”. Churkin said Russia's U.N. Mission has been deluged with calls about the reports, which he said are lies. “There is disinformation. There are lies, there are blatant lies. One has to come up with some different stronger description in order to characterize this kind of a thing,” Churkin stated. Qatar has not commented.

Russian TV Channel Censors Discussion of Censorship

Russian bloggers and web media noticed that the major Russian TV channel “Pervy Kanal” cut out a discussion of censorship from the program “Posner” by well-known journalist Vladimir Posner. The fragment was present in the live program broadcasted for the Russian Far East but disappeared from a later broadcast for the European part of Russia, including Moscow. In the fragment, Posner asked his guest, a pro-Kremlin TV presenter, Tina Kandelaki, whether she thinks the Kremlin is behind the apparent ban on certain political figures (such as Alexey Navalny) to appear on TV, which she denied. This is not the first time that politically sensitive material was broadcast by central channels for the Far East, which then disappeared from a later European broadcast. (uncensored fragment) (censored fragment)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Russia Introduces Castration for Pedophiles

The Russian parliament has approved a law on pedophilia. According to it, people found guilty of sex crimes against children under the age of 14 will face chemical castration, while repeat offenders face a life sentence. Previous laws on sex crimes against juveniles were more lenient, with the toughest sentence being an 8-15-year prison term.

Uzbekistan Convicts Tajik Spies

Four persons have been convicted in Uzbekistan on espionage charges and sentenced to 14 to 20 years in jail. Allegedly, the defendants, among whom are citizens of both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, gathered secret information for Tajikistan. During recent years, dozens of defendants have been convicted in Uzbekistan as Tajik spies and in Tajikistan as Uzbek spies.

Medvedev: 199 Spies Caught in 2011

Russian counterintelligence exposed 199 foreign spies in 2011, proving that “activity of [foreign] intelligence services is not decreasing,” according to outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev. The list included 41 professional spies and 158 agents in the pay of foreign spymasters, Medvedev said at a meeting with the staff of the Federal Security Service (FSB). He did not elaborate on the spies’ home countries, but added that some of the agents were Russian nationals.

Magnitsky May Be Convicted Posthumously

Russian Interior Ministry investigators are ready to file formal charges against late Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky and Hermitage Capital head William Browder, the Hermitage Capital investment fund reported today. In a letter to Magnitsky’s family and the team of Hermitage Capital attorneys, Interior Ministry Investigator Boris Kibis stated that the Magnitsky case was coming to a head and that it would soon be brought to trial. To avoid this posthumous prosecution, the late lawyers’ relatives were offered a deal whereby they would agree to “abandon their right to defend his honor and dignity” (which apparently means waiving any possible defamation claims). There have never been posthumous criminal cases in modern history before, William Browder said.

Russia Bans Ukrainian Cheese

The Russian Federal Service for Oversight of Consumer Protection and Welfare has banned, as of today, the imports of some Ukrainian-made cheeses, the Service Head Gennady Onishchenko has said. Onishchenko, Russia’s Chief Sanitary Authority, said in January that some Ukrainian cheeses contained a large amount of palm oil. Ukraine said the objections to Ukrainian-made cheese quality were unfounded.

Kyrgyzstan to Ban Moon Church

Kyrgyzstan’s Prosecutor General’s Office requested a court ban on the Unification Church, the controversial religious movement founded by Korean leader Sun Myung Moon. The prosecutors ruled that the religious group is “a danger to the country’s security,” said Abdilatif Zhumabayev, who heads a government commission on religion.

Putin: No Political Prisoners in Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin dismissed the idea of a political amnesty because there are no political prisoners in the country. “I don’t quite understand what is meant by political amnesty. I don’t think we have any political prisoners, thank God,” he said, adding that there is talk about political prisoners but no names are provided. “They [the opposition] should have shown at least one person who is in prison for political reasons,” Putin said. Meanwhile, opposition activists said at the recent mass anti-Putin rally that they had prepared a list of some 40 political prisoners (including, i.e., former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and would present it to the Kremlin shortly.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Russia, China Block UN Action on Syria

Western and Arab states voiced outrage after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up power, and Washington vowed to impose harsher sanctions against Damascus. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto a "travesty." It came a day after activists said that Syrian forces had bombarded a district of Homs, killing more than 200 people in the worst night of bloodshed of the 11-month uprising. Russia said the resolution was biased and would have meant taking sides in a civil war. Syria is Moscow's only major ally in the Middle East, home to a Russian naval base and a customer for its arms. China's veto appeared to follow Russia's lead.

Hundreds of Thousands Demonstrate in Frosty Moscow

Protests were held on Saturday in Moscow to demand fair elections. Estimates of the number of protesters ranged from 36,000 (according to police officials) to 120,000 (according to the rally organizers). The protesters hit the streets in minus 20 degrees Celsius (just under 0 degrees Fahrenheit) to voice their concerns over fair and transparent presidential elections, which are slated to occur on March 4. At the same time, a rally in support of Putin took place on Poklonnaya Gora. Estimates of the number of participants, according to different reports, varied from 38,000 to 138,000. Numerous media and blog reports said that many of the pro-Putin rally participants were state employees, who were forced to attend, though authorities denied these allegations. Several smaller demonstrations took place in other places in Moscow, bringing the total number of demonstrators to more than 200,000. (video)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Moscow: Ashton Interferes in Russia’s Home Affairs

The Russian Foreign Ministry's official spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said that the call by the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Russia to review its decision to bar liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky from taking part in the upcoming presidential elections is an interference into Russia’s home affairs. Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party and two-time presidential candidate, was disqualified last week after officials judged that 25.6 percent of the 2 million signatures submitted as part of his application were invalid or fake. “I call on the responsible authorities to review as a matter of urgency the decision not to register Grigory Yavlinsky,” Ashton said during the European Parliament’s debates on Russia in Brussels. “The EU leadership would better pay attention to their home problems, rather than lecturing others on democracy,” Lukashevich commented. (statement)

Voice of America Publishes Fake Interview with Navalny

Whistleblower lawyer, blogger and opposition leader Alexei Navalny has dismissed an interview with him posted on the Voice of America web site as a fake. “Voice of America has gone completely nuts. [They] have published a huge fake 'Interview with Navalny',” the blogger said on his Twitter account. The interview, entitled “If you want to do something well, do it yourself,” features details from Navalny’s childhood, his participation in a nationalist march and his opinion of opposition activists. In response, VOA apologized. “To obtain that material we used the channels that we, at that moment, believed to be reliable,” explained the VOA Russian service editorial board in a statement. Voice of America is the official external broadcast institution of the United States federal government.

Putin Orders Share Buyback

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin instructed the country's No.2 bank, VTB, to compensate small investors who lost money in its stock market flotation. Shares in VTB, which is 75.5 percent government owned, are trading at around 7 kopecks, just over half the price of 13.6 kopecks at which they were floated in 2007 when over 100,000 small investors bought the stock during its so-called “people’s IPO.” Answering a question of an unhappy foreign investor at an investor conference, Putin offered to buy back VTB's shares at the original issue price. "I can instruct the bank's management to work out a plan to buy back these shares so that you do not suffer any losses," Putin said. Calling on a surprised Andrei Kostin, the head of VTB who happened to be sitting in the audience, the prime minister announced that they would meet to discuss a share buy-back on Monday. The buyback should cost the bank about $500 mln.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Medvedev’s Rights Councils Suggests Pardoning Khodorkovsky

A working group of the Presidential Council for Human Rights proposed pardoning 30 defendants and convicts, including former YUKOS managers Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev. The list of those to be pardoned includes five scholars, twelve entrepreneurs (convicted in relation to their business activities), five alleged terrorists, and eight persons convicted (in the opinion of the working group) in relation to their civil protest activity. Working group member Tamara Morshchakova, formerly a Constitutional court Judge, opined that no formal petition of a convict (admitting guilt) is needed for the President to issue a pardon decree. Earlier, President Dmitry Medvedev stated that such a petition is necessary.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry Admits Copyright Infringement

The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior’s spokesman Vlolodymyr Polishchuk confessed that the computer software used by the Ministry is largely pirated. “Approximately 47% of the software in the Ministry is not properly licensed. However, the Ministry has informed Microsoft. Now the company is carrying on negotiations with the state bodies on how to legalize the software,” Polishchuk stated. The official added that the Ministry has not purchased computers with pre-installed pirated software since 2006.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Ukraine Shuts Down Largest File Sharing Website

Ukrainian police shut down the country's most popular file sharing website,, accusing its owners of illegally distributing copyright-protected software, music and videos. The move was a result of complaints by software companies such as Microsoft and Adobe, police said. "During a search at the website (owners') office and data centers, police confiscated numerous computers... including 200 servers containing about 6,000 terabytes of information in total," the Interior Ministry said in a statement. "Police have found out that the website was run by a citizen of Latvia." Under Ukrainian laws, the website's owners could face up to five years in prison if found guilty, it said.'s users numbered in the millions, according to police.

Russian FM Avoids Clinton's Calls on Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 31 that he was amazed by the hullabaloo over his failure to discuss a UN Syria resolution with US State Secretary Hillary Clinton. Clinton tried to reach Lavrov by telephone for two days, but he was "apparently unavailable" while on a visit to Australia, according to US Department of State press briefings of January 30 and 31. Clinton herself blamed the spotty connection in Australia for her failure to get in touch with Lavrov. However, Lavrov explained he was busy negotiating with his Australian partners, adding that he and Clinton would talk later. (transcript) (transcript)

Freedom of Assembly Demonstration Dispersed in Moscow

On January 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 special forces. Some 50 activists were arrested. (video)