Friday, May 31, 2013

Emergency Declared as Kyrgyz Gold Mine Protest Turns Violent

Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev declared a state of emergency in a district in the north of the country on Friday after protests at the nation’s biggest gold mine turned into violent riots, with dozens injured. At least one protester died and some 30 others were injured on both sides on Friday, reported, when protesters clashed with police near the huge Kumtor gold mine in northern Kyrgyzstan, which is run by Canada’s Centerra Gold. Police used firearms and tear gas to disperse the crowd as protesters threw stones. Atambayev said the protest “threatens the republic’s national security and has significantly damaged the country’s economy,” adding the resultant losses to the state’s revenues could be up to $125 million. He also claimed the stoppage of work at the mine due to the protest could “cause a serious environmental catastrophe” at the site. The protesters are demanding a bigger share of the profits from the country's most lucrative gold mine and more investment in local infrastructure.

Russia Seeks Amicable Settlement in Iran S-300 Lawsuit

Moscow is trying to persuade Tehran to withdraw its lawsuit against Russia’s state-run arms export company Rosoboronexport over a cancelled deal to supply S-300 air defense systems to Iran, Russian Technologies (Rostech) CEO Sergei Chemezov said. Iran’s Defense Ministry and The Aerospace Industries Organization have launched a $4 bln lawsuit against Rosoboronexport in an international arbitration court in Geneva in April 2011. Moscow was to supply five S-300PMU-1 battalions to Tehran. However, on September 22, 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree cancelling the contract in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which bans supply to Iran of conventional weapons including missiles and missile systems, tanks, attack helicopters, warplanes and ships. Tehran has insisted that the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems do not fall under the UN sanctions as they are considered defensive weapons. Chemezov criticized on Thursday the United States for the lack of support in the case. He said Washington applied heavy pressure on Moscow to stop the deal but later changed its rhetoric saying the UN resolution did not mention specifically the S-300, known in the West as SA-10 Grumble, and Russia acted on its own. “The Americans now agree that it is a defensive system and Russia alone should be responsible for the breach of the contract,” Chemezov said.

Russia to Finalize Kalashnikov Merger in September

The Kalashnikov Corporation, which will absorb major Russian small-arms makers, must be registered by September 19 when the country celebrates the Day of Arms Makers, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said. Rogozin, who oversees the Russian defense industry, proposed a merger between Izhmash and Izhmekh, which are both located in the city of Izhevsk, in November last year. He later suggested that some other small-arms manufacturers should join the corporation under the famed Kalashnikov brand. “We must set foot on a finishing line…and have the corporation registered as a legal entity by the time we celebrate the Day of Arms Makers in September,” Rogozin said on Thursday at a meeting on setting up the Kalashnikov Corp.

Rosneft-Owned Bank's Clients Linked to $1 Bln Fraud

Police have opened a criminal case involving clients of a bank owned by Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, over the reported laundering of almost $1 billion, according to the Ministry of the Interior. The All-Russian Regional Development Bank was the vehicle for three large transfers to Belarus - one of $290 million and two of $300 million – that took place in 2011 and 2012 as part of ostensible import deals, according to a report by the Vedomosti newspaper. Making payments for fictitious imported goods from foreign companies is a common way of illegally extracting money from Russia. The foreign companies later move the money they receive to offshore locations. The criminal case is "not against the bank or its employees, but in relation to unnamed clients of the bank," a spokesman for the main investigative department of the Russian Interior Ministry in Moscow said Friday.

Kremlin Refuses to Comment on S-300 Supplies to Syria

Presidential aide Yury Ushakov would neither confirm nor deny allegations that the first batch of S-300 missiles has already arrived in Syria. Yesterday, Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper, quoted an interview by Bashar al-Assad for the Al-Manar channel. Specifically, the Syrian president was quoted as saying that "Syria has received the first batch of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles." "I'd rather refrain from specifying whether or not it was the first or the second batch. I have no idea what batches he was talking about," Ushakov said when confronted with the question regarding the first deliveries of S-300 missiles to Syria. Russia repeatedly claimed that the defensive equipment is supplied to Syria under contracts signed before the conflict in the country. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov would neither confirm nor deny allegations that the missiles had been delivered to Syria at a news conference on May 28.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Navalny Moves to Exclude Wiretap Evidence

Opposition activist and blogger Alexei Navalny’s attorneys moved at his hearing on Wednesday to exclude evidence acquired via wiretap records from the Kirovles embezzlement case. Referring to the wiretapping of Navalny and fellow defendant Pyotr Ofitserov, Navalny’s attorney Olga Mikhailova stressed that the taped phone conversations were obtained illegally and therefore should not be used as evidence in the case. Included in the motion was a request directed at Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to reveal the grounds upon which the wiretapping took place and also to specify who transcribed them. Presiding judge Sergei Blinov said the request will be considered after the written testimonies are examined. According to the investigators, Navalny organized the theft of over 10,000 cubic meters of timber while serving as a voluntary adviser to the governor of the Kirov Region.

Russia Ratifies Mine Safety Convention

Russia’s parliament has ratified the international Safety and Health in Mines Convention of 1995, the Federation Council said on Wednesday. The convention sets guidelines for employees in the mining sector, including measures aimed at reducing work-related illnesses and preventing accidents. According to the Federation Council, the convention is in accordance with existing Russian mining regulating legislation. Passed by the International Labor Organization in 1995 and enforced three years later, the convention has been already ratified by 26 countries besides Russia, including Germany, Poland, South Africa and the United States. Mine safety conditions in Russia have often been a cause for concern.

Top Russian Economist May Flee Russia under Pressure

A top Russian economist and government adviser abruptly stepped down from his posts and, according to some sources,  left the country amid pressure on him from investigators, media reported Tuesday. Renowned economist Sergei Guriev has been pressured to leave his post as a professor and rector at the New Economic School in Moscow over his support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Vedomosti reported Wednesday. The newspaper, citing a federal government official close to the ruling United Russia party, said the authorities were irritated by Guriev's support of Navalny, for whom Guriev wrote a letter of recommendation to attend a program at Yale University in 2010. Guriev was one of the few prominent Russians to openly support Navalny, who is now on trial for alleged embezzlement. Mr. Guriev said publicly he and his wife had donated 10,000 rubles ($320) to Navalny's anticorruption fund last year. Mr. Guriev departed as investigators probed his role in a case linked to the controversial prosecution of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, sources said. (video)

UPDATE:  Guriev refuses to return to Russia

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Russian Supreme Commercial Court Head Urges Introduction of Jury Trial

Supreme Commercial Court Chairman Anton Ivanov advocated Monday for the introduction of jury trials to Russia's commercial court system as a means of increasing public trust in the Russian judiciary. "The use of juries will increase trust in the judicial system because it will be juries, and ultimately the public, rather than judges, who will deal with factual issues," he said at a meeting of the expert council headed by of Business Ombudsman Boris Titov on Monday. Ivanov said juries could be most effective in cases that depend on testimonies, as well as in corporate disputes, antimonopoly cases, and damages claims. He believes the innovation will foster improvements in commercial proceedings. "We could begin by trying out the innovation in some groups of cases," the judge said.

Chechen Leader Slams Killing of Tsarnaev Affiliate

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has described the Chechen immigrant killed in the US last week by FBI agents amid questioning over his connection to the alleged Boston bombers as “a good guy.” Ibragim Todashev, 27, a US green-card holder of Chechen origin, was shot dead Wednesday when he allegedly attacked an FBI agent with a knife during questioning at his home in Orlando, Florida. Media reported that Todashev had verbally confessed to participating in an unsolved 2011 triple murder in which investigators are seeking a connection to brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who are accused of organizing the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three on April 15. “I want to stress that the Tsarnaev brothers have no relation to the Chechen republic, they are US citizens. As for Ibragim Todashev, he was a good guy,” Kadyrov told reporters in the Chechen capital of Grozny. The Chechen leader criticized US policy, describing it as “double standards.” “When killings happen in America, the Americans start making an international fuss about them, but when terrorist attacks happened in Russia and innocent people died, the Americans showed no interest,” the Chechen republic's outspoken leader said.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Russian High School Exams Marred by Cheating

Russia's standardized state exams for graduating high school students, the results of which are a ground for entrance to university and college, were on the verge of failure on Monday, after the appearance of the test answers online threatened to derail the process. The reported answers to Russian language exams were posted online ahead of the first day of the tests, which kicked off in Russia’s vast Far East region. “If it is confirmed that these really are the answers, then it is usually possible to establish the identity of the wrong-doer, after which the [state examinations] commission will take a decision,” said Yekatarina Shcheglenko, an education official in Russia’s Far East. That could mean the “annulment” of the exam results, she said. According to a report, in some classes around 80% of pupils had had the answers before the exam started.

Turkmen Capital Hits Guinness Book of Records

Turkmen capital of Ashgabat has been included in the Guinness Book of Records for the highest density of white marble buildings in the city. The edition’s chief editor Craig Glendale travelled to the former Soviet country to present the certificate on Saturday to the city’s mayor of Ashgabat. The certificate names Ashgabat as the most white-marble city in the world for its 543 new buildings lined with white marble covering the total area of 4.5 million square meters. Earlier the capital of Turkmenistan, a Central Asian state widely known for its personality cult traditions and media censorship, had at least four mentions in the Guinness Book of Records for its world’s tallest flagpole (133 meters), largest fountain complex, the largest architectural image of the star and the largest Ferris wheel in an enclosed architectural design.

Tajikistan Blocks YouTube After Dancing President Video

Tajikistan blocked YouTube for the third time in less than a year without an official explanation, a representative of the country’s internet industry said Saturday. The ban was ordered by the governmental Communications Service, Asomiddin Atoyev, who heads the association of the country’s internet service providers, told RIA Novosti. The orders came by email or text message, depending on the provider, Atoyev said. Only one of the country’s six main internet service providers and one of six mobile operators have chosen not to comply with the order, he said. The Communications Service did not explain the reasons for the ban, and its leadership could not be reached for comment, Atoyev said. The ban may be backlash over a video report of the wedding of President Emomali Rakhmon’s son Rustam, BBC Russian said. The video featured apparently inebriated Rakhmon Sr. singing and dancing. The wedding took place in 2007, but the video only appeared online on May 18. YouTube was blocked in Tajikistan for more than two months between July and October last year and again for two weeks from March to April. (video)

UPDATE: Tajikistan unblocks YouTube

Friday, May 24, 2013

Russia Bans Largest Social Network "By Mistake"

Russia's top online social network was banned on Friday from distributing content across the country, raising concerns of a clampdown on a forum used by President Vladimir Putin's opponents to organise protests. The ban on VKontakte follows more than a month of pressure on the company and its founder, Pavel Durov, who has drawn comparisons with Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for building an online network with 210 million registered users. VKontakte's web site ( was still working in Moscow, but some media reports said it had been blocked in parts of the country. No reason for the ban was officially given. Several hours later, however, Vladimir Pikov, a spokesman for Roskomnadzor, the Russian media supervision agency, announced the ban was a "mistake." "A Roskomnadzor employee checked a wrong box," explained the official.

Ex-Russian Senator's New York Apartment at Center of Lawsuit

The landlord of a resident of New York City’s famed Time Warner Center has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court for the State of New York seeking an order for renovations to be halted in a condominium reportedly belonging to Russian billionaire and former senator Vitaly Malkin. While the court documents refer to the owner of the property simply as 22 CC SY74B LLC., a domestic limited liability company, local news source the New York Daily News reports that the condominium is owned by a trust belonging to Malkin’s family. The complaint was filed by landlord AEH JAY Corp. Monday on the basis of complaints made by tenant Samuel Nappi, a wealthy energy and entertainment professional who rents the condominium directly beneath the one reportedly owned by Malkin for $43,000 per month. According to Nappi’s affidavit, the noise endures each day from about 10 in the morning to four or five in the afternoon, with a lunch break worked in. He laments: “There is continual jack hammering, I believe, into the poured concrete floors above. The sound is painful and it is inescapable. We cannot sleep in the bedrooms or use the upstairs when the noise begins. We leave the upstairs and either go downstairs, or we leave the building. Other times, we simple [sic.] do not visit for fear of living in a noise hell.”

Russia: US Religious Freedom Report ‘Politicized’

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday dismissed as “politicized” the Religious Freedom Report recently published by the US Department of State and said that such documents incite religious conflicts. The annual report, released on Monday, mentions Russia among several countries around the world including Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba, Iran and China that it says imposed restrictions on freedom of religion last year. Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry's special representative for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, said in a statement that the State Department’s report “offers a distorted and politicized picture of the state of religious freedoms in 2012, by replacing the thorough analysis of reasons for religious intolerance with ill-founded accusations directed at numerous states, including Russia.”

Crimean Tatars Rally to Expel Russian Consul

About 300 people, mostly Crimean Tatars, were rallying outside the Russian Consulate in Simferopol on Thursday, demanding that Russia Counsel Vladimir Andreyev be stripped of diplomatic status and declared persona non grata. In a recent TV interview, Andreyev accused Crimean Tatars of collaborating with Nazi Germany during World War II. He criticized a movie about the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, saying the film does not mention the alleged collaboration. “We demand that the Russian leadership strip Andreyev of his diplomatic status and recall him from Ukrainian territory within 24 hours. We also demand that the Ukrainian government declare him persona non grata,” said Akhtem Chiygoz, one of the organizers of the rally.A senior official of the Russian Embassy in Ukraine was on Wednesday summoned to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry over the incident that Kiev said insulted Crimean Tatars. The Ukrainian ministry said it hoped the Russian ministry would “properly assess” the consul general’s statements. Andreyev replied that he stood by his opinion and would not retract his words, adding that he was not questioning the wrongfulness of the deportation of Crimean Tatars by the Soviet leadership. The Russian Foreign Ministry has admitted that recent statements by Vladimir Andreyev, the Russian consul general in Simferopol, Ukraine’s Crimea, about Crimean Tatars were inappropriate. Moscow “understands [Ukraine’s] reaction to certain… incorrect wordings used by the Russian representative without proper account for the sensitive issue demanding… a weighted approach,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday. About 190,000 people – almost all the Tatar population – were deported from the Crimea, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1944 as punishment for the alleged collaboration of some Crimean Tatars with Nazi Germany during the war. Tatars began to return to the Crimea in the ’80s and ’90s, and today, the Crimea’s Tatar population numbers about 260,000.

UPDATE: Russian Consul resigns

Russia, Venezuela Launch Joint Venture

Venezuela’s state-owned oil and gas company PdVSA and Russian state oil company Rosneft have signed documents to form a joint venture, Petrovictoria, the giants told reporters. The venture will oversee exploration and production of hydrocarbons at two fields in the Orinico Oil Belt in Venezuela. Petrovictoria is expected to produce 120,000 barrels a day by 2016, and hopes to to eventually reach 400,000, Venezuela’s oil minister, Rafael Ramirez, said during a televised meeting with Rosneft head Igor Sechin, The Wall Street Journal reported. Russia will control 40 percent of the joint venture, and plans to provide a $1.5 billion loan, and a separate $1.1 billion bond, to Venezuela for it.

Georgian Priests Charged Over LGBT Rally Violence

Two high-ranking Georgian priests have been charged in connection with the May 17 attack by conservative activists on a gay rights rally in downtown Tbilisi, the News Georgia news agency reported on Thursday. The head of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, Antimoz (Tamaz) Bichinashvili, and the head of the Ioane-Tornike Eristavi Monastery, Iotam (Irakli) Basilaya, have been charged with using or threatening the use of force to infringe on the right to peaceful assembly, the Georgian Interior Ministry said. They face up to two years in prison if found guilty. Gay rights activists from the Identoba (Identity) group planned to hold a rally outside the former parliament building on the city’s central Rustaveli Avenue last Friday to mark the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. Tbilisi authorities had authorized the event. However, thousands of anti-gay protestors, mostly Christian activists, priests and members of conservative non-governmental organizations, gathered in the designated location before the rally began, forcing gay activists to change the venue. Several dozen gay rights activists who came to take part moved to a small area adjacent to Freedom Square, about two hundred meters away from the initial site. After it became known that the venue of Identoba’s rally had been changed, participants of the anti-gay demonstration moved toward Freedom Square, breaking through police cordons on their way. A total of 28 people, including three police officers and one journalist, were injured in ensuing violence. Though the Georgian Orthodox Church has officially denounced the attack, it said that its clerics and believers only reacted to “an event that was provocative from the very beginning.”

Pussy Riot Members Denied Parole

A Russian court has denied parole to a member of punk band Pussy Riot who has begun a hunger strike in jail. The court in Berezniki accepted claims that Maria Alyokhina had systematically disobeyed prison authorities and failed to repent for her crime, Russian media reported. Last month, fellow band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was also denied parole. Internationally famous musicians including Paul McCartney had been among those calling for them to be freed. The women were jailed for two years in August for breaching public order motivated by religious hatred. "This looked not like a court hearing but like arm-twisting," Alyokhina's mother Natalia told Svoboda Radio, which carried a live web video feed from the court. Continue reading the main story “ Start Quote I believe that you granting this request would send a very positive message to all the people who have followed this case” Letter to judge from Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel "Clearly the court was not interested in the character of the convict, because the decision was likely made in advance," she added. Alyokhina announced a hunger strike on Wednesday after being refused the right to attend her own parole hearing. She also ordered her lawyer to boycott the hearing.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tornado Hits Russian Town

Over a dozen people were injured and 80 buildings damaged after a rare tornado ripped through the small town of Yefremov in central Russia.  Most injuries are caused by broken windows. The sate of emergency was announced by the Tula Governor Vladimir Gruzdev, who arrived in the wind-swept town on Wednesday night. “Now the region will be able to request help from federal relief funds,” Gov. Gruzdev said at an operative meeting. The regional authority said it was going to allocate $1,600 in damages to every low-income resident hit by the mini twister. (video)

Amnesty International Criticizes Human Rights in Russia

Amnesty International has again criticized Russia in its annual report on human rights released on Thursday. The mounting protests in early 2012 have led to increased pressure from the authorities, the international rights group said. Human rights defenders and journalists have continued to experience pressure, and most investigations into past attacks showed no progress. According to Amnesty International, Russian courts do not comply with international standards of justice, and the number of politically motivated rulings has grown over the past year. Cases of torture and denial of adequate medical care in custody are not properly investigated, the report says. Furthermore, Russia reacts very aggressively to any external criticism of its human rights situation, the report said citing the response to the Magnitsky Act, where Russia came up with its own list of undesirable US officials and banned them from entering the country.

McCartney Supports Pussy Riot

Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney has written letters to Russian authorities in support of two members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot, who were jailed last August on offical charges of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, his website says. The famous musician has asked the Russian officials to consider release on parole for Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who are serving two-year sentences for performing a "punk-prayer" against President Vladimir Putin in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in central Moscow in February 2012. “In the great tradition of fair-mindedness which the Russian people (many of whom are my friends) are famous for, I believe that you granting this request would send a very positive message to all the people who have followed this case,” McCartney wrote in a letter regarding Alyokhina. "I have had a long relationship with the Russian people, and, with this in mind, I am making the following request in a spirit of friendship for my many Russian acquaintances who, like me, believe in treating people - all people, with compassion and kindness,” he wrote in a letter regarding Tolokonnikova.  The letter is addressed to "Dear Lidia Mikhailovna" apparenly meaning Lidia Yakovleva, the judge who recently denied parole for Tolokonnikova. (document)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Pussy Riot's Alyokhina Declares Hunger Strike

Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina has gone on a hunger strike after The Berezniki City Court in the Perm Territory denied her access to the hearing of her parole appeal. Alyokhina takes part in the proceedings via videoconference. After being denied transportation to the courthouse, she refused to continue the conference and barred her defense team from representing her interests. Immediately after that court postponed the hearings until Thursday. In February 2012, five young women wearing brightly colored balaclavas staged a "punk-style" prayer in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in central Moscow. An edited video of their performance was posted on the Internet and caused a public outcry. In August 2012, the Khamovnichesky District Court in Moscow sentenced Alyokhina and two other Pussy Riot members - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich - to two years in a prison settlement for hooliganism. In October 2012, the Moscow City Court changed Samutsevich's verdict to a suspended sentence and released her immediately, based on her new attorneys' argument that she was seized by security guards prior to reaching the altar. Alyokhina's and Tolokonnikova's sentences were upheld. In April, the Zubova Polyana District Court in Mordovia rejected Tolokonnikova's request for parole.

Governor Testifies in Navalny Case

Russia’s beleaguered opposition figurehead, Alexei Navalny, was given a boost in his fight against controversial embezzlement charges on Wednesday when a regional governor testified in his favor. Navalny and a former political ally, Kirov businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, are charged with heading a criminal group that investigators say embezzled 16 million rubles’ ($500,000) worth of timber from state-run company Kirovles in central Russia’s Kirov Region in 2009. According to investigators, Navalny, then an aide to the local governor, Nikita Belykh, pressured Kirovles to sell timber to Ofitserov’s company, VLK, at below-market prices. Navalny denies the charges and says they are revenge for his outspoken criticism of President Vladimir Putin and allegations of high-level graft in government and state-run companies. He faces ten years behind bars if found guilty. “Could Navalny’s activities in the Kirov region have been harmful to it?” the anti-corruption crusader’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, asked Belykh in court on Wednesday. “I have no grounds to draw this conclusion,” replied Belykh, adding that he was unable to give an “official” opinion on this as the region had not carried out an investigation into the charges. Belykh earlier called the charges against Navalny “dubious.” The trial entered its ninth day on Wednesday.

Georgian Ex-Prime Minister Arrested

Authorities in Georgia have arrested former Prime Minister Ivane Merabishvili and former Health Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili. Georgian prosecutor Shota Tkeshelashvili told journalists in the western city of Kutaisi that the two have been charged with embezzling public funds. Tkeshelashvili said Merabishvili, Chiaberashvili, and "other individuals" had planned and enacted "illicit actions in order to buy off voters in favor of the United National Movement in the parliamentary elections of October 1, 2012, as well as to sponsor covertly the aforementioned party with state funds." Both Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili are close associates of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Reacting to the news, Saakashvili compared the two arrests to the jailing in Ukraine of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Russia Claims Vote Theft at Eurovision Contest

Russia's foreign minister has called Azerbaijan's failure to award any points to Russia's entry in the Eurovision song contest "outrageous". Sergei Lavrov said the points had been "stolen" from Russia's Dina Garipova. "That 10 points were stolen from our contestant during the Eurovision 2013 contest does not make us happy regarding the organization of the event," Lavrov said at a joint press conference with his Azerbaijan counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov. He warned that "the outrageous action at Eurovision regarding the Russian contestant will not go unanswered." Azerbaijan says it cannot explain how it awarded no points to Russia, when Garipova came second in its phone poll. Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has ordered an inquiry into how its votes for Russia apparently went missing. And the country's Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, sitting next to Mr Lavrov at a press conference in Moscow, called it a "detective story". He said records from all three of Azerbaijan's mobile phone operators show that Azeris awarded Ukraine's entry the most votes, followed by Russia's. "Where did the votes go? How did they disappear? This, of course, is a question for our public television," he said. The president of Azerbaijan has ordered an investigation as to why the Russian got no votes, which are submitted by viewers in text messages. Garipova finished fifth with her ballad "What If," coming in 17 points behind fourth-place Norway. (video)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tymoshenko Launches Prison Blog

Jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has started an online diary, entitled "Truth From Behind the Bars," published on the website of the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper. Tymoshenko, who is currently serving a seven year sentence for exceeding her authority in signing a gas contract with Russia in 2009, now faces charges of murdering a local politician in 1996. She has been undergoing treatment in hospital for over a year while in custody. In her diary, the first entries of which were published on May 15 and 16, Tymoshenko claims that the prison administration did not allow her to attend a Kiev court on Wednesday, where a witness in the murder investigation against her was to be questioned. “The authorities were simply afraid that my presence in court during the questioning of witnesses will completely prove the unlawfulness of the case against me over the deputy’s tragic death,” she wrote. (blog)

US: Russia Restricts Religious Freedom

Russia is among several countries around the world including Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and China that imposed restrictions on freedom of religion last year, according to an annual report released Monday by the US State Department. According to the International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, the Russian government “targeted members of minority religious groups through the use of extremism charges to ban religious materials and restrict groups’ right to assemble.” It said authorities also “restricted religious minorities through detention, raids, denial of official registration with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and denial of visas to religious workers.” “There is no state religion, but the Russian Orthodox Church and other ‘traditional’ religious communities received preferential consideration,” the report found. The annual report details the status of religious freedom in 195 countries throughout the world. Mandated by, and presented to, the US Congress, under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

EU Slams Russia Over Rights Abuses

EU officials criticized Russia over its human rights record, a perceived crackdown on civil society and its justice system at a recent meeting in Brussels. At EU-Russia consultations held Friday, EU officials urged Russia not to pass legislation hiking penalties for promoting homosexuality among minors, the EU said in a statement published Sunday. EU officials also said they would follow developments affecting NGOs in Russia after local elections watchdog Golos was fined for refusing to comply with legislation that came into force late last year requiring NGOs that receive funding from abroad and engage in "political activity" to register as "foreign agents." The "foreign agents" law, which leading Russian NGOs have said they will boycott, was earlier criticized by the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner. At the Brussels meeting, EU officials also questioned Russian counterparts about high-profile criminal cases against opposition leader Alexei Navalny and those charged with participating in mass riots on Bolotnaya Ploshchad last May, as well as the posthumous trial of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In response, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday urged the European Union to abstain from “ideology-based” remarks on the issue of non-governmental organizations in Russia.

Chechen Leader Denies 'Execution Lists' of Rebels

The head of Russia’s Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov has denied reports alleging the existence of “death lists” of locals identified as radical separatists. This is not the first time that Kadyrov has denied accusations that he is seeking to crack down on people the Chechen authorities identify as current or former supporters of the unrecognized, self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Many fled after the conflict in the volatile North Caucasus republic during the 1990s-2000s. “Talk about the existence of some kind of 'execution lists' of former Ichkeria supporters is absurd and a vile lie,” Kadyrov said during a government meeting on Monday. Foreign media reports have, in the past, speculated that the Chechen official keeps lists of people to be executed. Lists of hundreds of Chechen names have been circulated online, but these lists have not been independently verified or officially recognized.

After Fleeing French Taxation, Depardieu Willing to Pay Taxes in Russia

French film star Gerard Depardieu has received a sole business owner’s certificate in the city of Saransk, Depardieu’s friend Nikolai Borodachov told RIA Novosti on Monday. Depardieu obtained Russian citizenship and residence registration earlier this year. The actor has now decided to register a business in Saransk to pay taxes from his profits in Russia. “Depardieu has received his entrepreneur’s certificate,” said Borodachov, who heads Gosfilmofond, the Russian State film archive. “All the legal documents are in order.” Borodachov said earlier that the actor planned to engage in theater and cinema projects in Russia. Depardieu also mentioned plans to open a cafĂ© in Saransk, the capital of Mordovia. Depardieu received fast-tracked Russian citizenship back in January, and collected his new passport at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said he had renounced his French citizenship ahead of the government’s planned implementation of a 75 percent tax rate for annual earnings above $1.3 million. Russia has a single-band income tax of just 13 percent.

Terrorist Attack in Moscow Prevented

Security agents have killed two terrorists who were planning an attack in Moscow, and arrested a third, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee reported on Monday. "The militants were blocked off in the course of a special operation. They opened fire in response to a call to surrender. Two were killed during a brief skirmish, and one was arrested," the report said. The special operation against the group planning a terrorist attack in Moscow was conducted in Orekhovo-Zuyevo to the east of Moscow. A special police officer was slightly injured in the leg and hospitalized, the committee said. A Kalashnikov rifle with 25 cartridges was confiscated at the site. The three suspected terrorists are Russian nationals who had received training in a camp in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. The security service believes they were planning an attack in Moscow, but have not disclosed the specific location for the planned attack. News of the aborted attack in Moscow came hours after two bombs went off in the southern city of Makhachkala, killing four and injuring around 40.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Russian Supreme Court Chairman Earned $200,000 in 2012

Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev earned 6.2 million rubles (around $197,330) in 2012, or 100,000 rubles ($3,180) more than the year before, the court said on its website on Friday. Lebedev also owns a 4,000 square meter parcel of land and a 583 square meter countryside house, as well as half of a 231 square meter flat in the city. No vehicles are registered in his name. In 2009 the president signed a package of anti-corruption laws determining the circle of officials and members of their families that are required to file income tax returns. In 2010, the first lot of data was published on personal income and the income of family members of government employees. This included officials of the presidential administration, members of the government, members of the parliament, judges, law enforcement officials, and the military.

Uzbek National Arrested in US on Terrorism Charges

The US Department of Justice (USDOJ) announced the arrest Thursday of 30-year-old Uzbekistan national Fazliddin Kurbanov on a plethora of federal terrorism charges. RIA Novosti reported citing an identified Uzbek intelligence source that authorities are presently working to find more information on the suspect. According to the DOJ announcement, Kurbanov is accused of having conspired in Idaho to provide material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist association known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. He allegedly offered material support – including himself – to terrorists knowing that doing so would assist in preparations for the use of a weapon of mass destruction. Furthermore, he is alleged to have had in his possession various items that could be used to create destructive devices, including a hollow hand grenade, hobby fuse, aluminum powder, potassium nitrate, and sulfur. He is further accused of having taught lessons in Utah on making explosive devices, and of having distributed information relating to such, including recipes and shopping advice. Kurbanov faces charges in Idaho and Utah, having been indicted by federal grand juries in both states.

EU Appeals to Russia Not to Introduce Gay Propaganda Law

The European Union appealed to Russia on Sunday not to introduce a law banning so-called “gay propaganda,” the EU said. Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, intends to pass a law by the end of the current session (mid-July) banning dissemination of information among minors promoting homosexuality. Amendments will be made on May 26-27, after which a working group will compile the draft law along with representatives of civil society and gay rights activists. “The EU called on Russia to refrain from adopting federal legislation on ‘homosexual propaganda,’ which it believed could increase discrimination and violence against LGBTI individuals,” the EU said in a statement on its website.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Russian Company CEOs Arrested in Glonass Embezzlement Case

The previous and current general directors of high-tech company Synertech have been arrested on suspicion of embezzling funds from the federal program for the Glonass satellite navigation system, the Interior Ministry's Moscow Department said on Friday. The current chief executive officer was taken into custody, and the former CEO was placed under house arrest after Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court granted the investigators' warrant request on May 16, the same day that Moscow police reported another major embezzlement from Glonass, saying that Synertech management has stolen at least 85 million rubles ($2.7 million) “supposedly as payment” for conducting a research project. Synertech is a joint venture between Russian Space Systems with two European companies: EADS Astrium and Tesat Spacecom. It was set up in 2005 to promote the mutually beneficial cooperation of space industry enterprises in the creation and use of innovation technology for the manufacturing of space equipment. The Interior Ministry earlier reported the embezzlement of over 565 million rubles ($18 million) of federal budget funds allocated for the Glonass program, and initiated criminal proceedings. The ministry suspected Russian Space Systems’ management of concluding research contracts with commercial organizations that had neither the equipment nor the qualified personnel to implement the stipulated work. GLONASS, Russia’s GPS counterpart The commercial companies involved are the Space Instrument Making research and production association and Synertech. The Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass), which was officially launched in 1993, is Russia’s answer to the US Global Positioning System (GPS).

Russian Anti-Trust Watchdog Proposes Legalizing Parallel Import

The Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) has proposed legalizing parallel imports, which are non-counterfeit products imported from another country without the permission of the intellectual property owner, with the exception of companies that have localized production in Russia, said FAS head Igor Artemyev. He said they propose a system that will protect investment from depreciation and help maintain a positive investment climate. "Russian businesspeople must be able to import legal commodities from any country," Artemyev said at a roundtable discussion on the protection of competition and intellectual property, held during the 3rd St. Petersburg International Legal Forum. "With all due respect for the rights holder, we must think above all about consumers," Artemyev said.

Chechnya’s Kadyrov Embroiled in Instagram Controversy

Officials found themselves deflecting controversy on Thursday after Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was caught in an Instagram posing with a reportedly convicted murderer on Wednesday. Kadyrov posted an Instagram photo of himself standing with Bekhan Ibragimov, who had complained to Kadyrov of bribery at his local passport office, where he had applied for a new passport. Kadyrov posted the photo with a caption saying the official was fired and warning others against bribery. But bloggers soon identified Ibragimov as the same man who was convicted in 2011 for his role in the 2010 stabbing of a football fan to death in a fight in Moscow. Ibragimov was sentenced to five years in prison, and bloggers were wondering why he was at large. Ibragimov was found guilty of hooliganism for his role in stabbing Yuri Volkov, sentenced to five years in prison and sent to Chechnya to serve out his term, a Chechen law enforcement source told RIA Novosti. After serving more than half of his term, Chechnya’s Supreme Court ruled to release him on parole, the Federal Prison Service said in an official statement posted on its site Wednesday. Another man, Akhmedpasha Aidayev, is still serving out a 16-year sentence for the murder. Ibragimov was released just a week before complaining to Kadyrov. Kadyrov did not know that Ibragimov had been convicted, his spokesperson, Alvi Karimov, told Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei radio on Thursday. “[Kadyrov] had absolutely no knowledge of whether [Ibragimov] was convicted or not,” Karimov said.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Navalny Trial Continues

At the fifth hearing in the embezzlement case against opposition blogger Alexei Navalny on Wednesday, a Kirov official said Navalny could not have organized the theft of timber that he is accused of because he did not have the authority to do so. The alleged embezzlement scheme involves a company called VLK LTD, which was co-founded by Navalny and his co-defendant, Pyotr Ofitserov. Prosecutors say the company pressured the heads of logging companies into selling timber at below-market prices. Sergei Shcherchkov, first deputy head of the Kirov region, testified at the Leninsky District Court that he had never seen Navalny pressure any heads of forestry enterprises into disadvantageous contracts or heard any complaints about Navalny, RBC reported. Navalny is currently standing trial in Kirov on charges of embezzling 16 million rubles ($500,000) worth of timber from the state-owned company KirovLes while working as an adviser to regional governor Nikita Belykh in 2009. Navalny faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted and would be barred from running for political office in the future, an ambition he has previously expressed. Unusually, the trial is broadcast online.

Rosbank Chairman Arrested

The board chairman of Rosbank and its senior vice-president have been detained and questioned by the security and anti-corruption department of the Russian Interior Ministry on suspicion of receiving a five million-ruble bribe from a businessman. In what is understood to have been a 'sting' operation, the Chairman of the Board of Rosbank, Vladimir Golubkov was arrested by police when counting the bribe money. According to investigators, the chairman of the board demanded $ 1.5 million from a person described as a representative of a business organisations. The ministry said it has also detained the Senior Vice-President of Rosbank, Tamara Polyanitsina. Rosbank is a modern universal bank, part of Societe Generale Group, one of the largest European financial services groups.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kyrgyzstan Demands US to Explain Bakiyev Prosecution Dismissal

Kyrgyzstan has requested an explanation from the United States as to why a US investigation into Maxim Bakiyev, the son of the former Kyrgyz President, has been closed, Daniyar Mukashev, a Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Wednesday. Bakiyev had been accused of securities fraud in the United States. Bakiyev, who headed the Central Development, Innovation and Investment Agency in Kyrgyzstan under his father's presidency, was arrested in the UK where he had been living since fleeing Kyrgyzstan after a coup there in April 2010. The US Department of Justice accused him of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and obstruction of justice, and sought to extradite him. A London court released him on bail until an extradition hearing scheduled for May 13. However, it was revealed at the end of last week that the US authorities had dismissed the investigation for lack of sufficient evidence to file charges. Bakiyev has been sentenced in absentia to 25 years in prison in Kyrgyzstan for corruption.

Skolkovo Boss Denies Financing Opposition

The president of Russia's Skolkovo Foundation, billionaire businessman Viktor Vekselberg, denied on Wednesday earlier allegations that the foundation funded the political opposition. Russian investigators opened a criminal case last month against Alexei Beltyukov, the foundation’s vice president, over suspicions he illegally paid $750,000 to opposition lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov, ostensibly for a series of lectures and research projects. “No, [Skolkovo] is in no way involved,” Vekselberg said at a news conference. Both Ponomaryov and Beltyukov have denied any wrongdoing. Beltyukov was suspended from his post earlier this month. The Skolkovo Foundation which manages the eponymous high-tech hub, is a pet project of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and was opened during his presidency in 2010.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

CIA Agent Captured in Moscow

An alleged CIA agent has been briefly detained in Moscow for allegedly trying to recruit a Russian intelligence officer, Russian media report. The alleged agent was held overnight before being released to US officials, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said. He is said to have been working as a secretary at the US embassy in Moscow. The man was reportedly arrested with a large sum of money, technical devices and written instructions for the agent he had tried to recruit. He was named as Ryan Fogle, said to be a third secretary at the US embassy in Moscow.  "FSB counter-intelligence agents detained a CIA staff member who had been working under the cover of third political secretary of the US embassy in Moscow," the FSB said. "At the moment of detention, special technical equipment was discovered, written instructions for the Russian citizen being recruited, as well as a large sum of money and means for altering appearance." A letter found on the suspect (a photo was published by RT) promises an unnamed addressee $1 mln a year for "long-term cooperation" plus bonuses for valuable information. (photo) (video)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Russian MP Condems Stalin Statue Sales in Duma

Russian lawmaker Sergei Mironov on Monday condemned the sales of busts of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, one of the 20th century's most brutal dictators, at a kiosk inside the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. Visitors to the State Duma can buy a small figurine of the former Soviet leader for 6,000 rubles ($194) or a bigger bust for 30,000 rubles ($967). A full-length statue of Stalin smoking his pipe is also for sale for an undisclosed sum. “I think such busts should not be sold inside the walls of the State Duma,” Mironov, the head of A Just Russia's parliamentary faction and former Federation Council chairman, told reporters on Monday. Critics have accused President Vladimir Putin of attempting to bolster Stalin’s reputation. Recently introduced state-approved school history books describe Stalin as an “effective manager,” and have significantly reduced the number of those estimated to have been killed by his regime.

Navalny’s Party Denied Registration

A party linked to opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny is unlikely to be able to participate in this year’s regional elections after the Justice Ministry halted its consideration of the party’s bid for official registration, a party member said on Monday. The People’s Alliance party submitted registration documents in April, but was included on Monday on a list of seven parties whose applications had been frozen. “Freezing [the bid] is not a refusal, but the timing means we are 99 percent unlikely to be able to take part in the September 2013 elections,” tweeted one of the party’s leaders, Leonid Volkov. Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who is currently facing jail time over fraud charges he says are politically motivated, is not a formal member of the People’s Alliance party, which is run by his supporters. Navalny has however publically backed the party and spoke at its founding congress in Moscow last year.

Interpol Denies Russia's Request to Arrest Georgian Politician

A Georgian lawmaker sought by Russia over his suspected role in an alleged plot to topple President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday he would return to Georgia from Lithuania after Interpol withdrew his name from its wanted list. “I will return to my homeland on the earliest flight,” Givi Targamadze told Georgia’s Pirveli Radio. Russian investigators charged last year Targamadze and three Russian leftist activists with plotting to seize power in a number of Russian cities as part of a plan to overthrow Putin. One of the men charged, Konstantin Lebedev, a former member of a pro-Kremlin youth group, was sentenced to 2.5 years in jail last month after pleading guilty to the charges. His lawyer said he would also testify against Targamadze and his former fellow activists - Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov and another member of the leftsit movement, Leonid Razvozzhayev. All three men deny the charges, which could see them jailed for up to ten years. Udaltsov says the charges are the Kremlin's revenge for his role in helping to lead mass anti-Putin protests in Moscow last year. Georgia's foreign minister, Maia Panjikidze, said Targamadze - an ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili and the former head of the Georgian parliament’s defense and security committee - was free to return home. Targamadze has been in Lithuania for the past few months. Lithuania refused to extradiate Targamadze in April. Interpol refused to issue a warrant on the grounds that his prosecution in Russia was politically motivated.

Armenia to Pay Out €112,000 to Jehovah's Witnesses

The Armenian government allocated €112,000 to the Justice Ministry during its meeting on Wednesday to be paid out to Jehovah’s Witnesses in accordance with a judgment rendered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in November 2012, according to an official statement. In 2004, the claimants were assigned service positions in such institutions as hospitals and nursing homes as an alternative to military service based on their religious views. The following year, they informed their institutions that they would no longer be willing to serve due to the fact that their alternative service positions were controlled by the military. Criminal proceedings were brought against the applicants based on the refusal to serve, and they were placed in detention. Based on these issues, they filed complaints with the ECHR, alleging violations of their rights under the European Convention of Human Rights (Convention). The ECHR held that with regards to most of the applicants, there had been violations of the right to liberty and security and the right to compensation for unlawful detention, in violation of Article 5 of the Convention. Accordingly, the Court held that each claimant whose rights were found to have been violated should receive €6,000 in non-pecuniary damages, and that the lot of them should be awarded €10,000 for costs and expenses.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Resigns

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted the resignation of the Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s press service announced Wednesday. Surkov voluntarily chose to leave, according to the statement. Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told RIA Novosti that Surkov’s letter of resignation came on the heels of a meeting with the president about the implementation of ordinances. Peskov added that the president’s decision to accept the letter of resignation was connected with the implementation of presidential decrees and election promises. Surkov sits on the supervisory board of Russian high-tech innovation hub Skolkovo, which has found itself embroiled in a series of legal disputes in recent months. Surkov made headlines this week because of his statement on the funds misappropriation investigation which resulted in Alexei Beltyukov, Senior Vice President of the Skolkovo Foundation, being suspended from his post. Skolkovo, a pet project of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev opened during his presidency in 2010, has been popularly dubbed Russia’s Silicon Valley, and was intended to lead the country’s drive to diversify and modernize its economy and increase the output of high-tech products.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Kerry Meets with Russian NGOs as Crackdown Mounts

Leading Russian activists say U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has assured them that Washington is concerned about a crackdown on Russian nongovernmental organizations that have received U.S. funding. Human Rights Watch senior researcher Tania Lokshina, one of nine activists who met with Kerry on Wednesday, said he told them he had been up until 2:30 a.m. discussing the legal pressure on NGOs with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Russia is pushing to enforce a new law that requires all NGOs funded from abroad that engage in vaguely defined political activities to register as "foreign agents," a label with connotations of espionage. The law is part of a broad effort by President Vladimir Putin to stifle dissent. Prosecutors have raided hundreds of groups in recent months.

Deputy PM Wrangles with Investigators over Skolkovo

Alexei Beltyukov, a senior vice president at the Skolkovo Foundation, has been suspended, and oppositionist State Duma Deputy Ilya Ponomaryov is being questioned, over a criminal probe into fraud at the innovation hub. The developments came amid a war of words that broke out over the investigation between Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov and Investigative Committee spokesperson General Vladimir Markin. During a speech before students in London, Surkov warned the Investigative Committee against haste judgments. “The energy with which the Investigative Committee is publishing its assumptions evokes the sense that a crime has been committed,” Surkov said. “But that’s just the energy of the Investigative Committee. Let them prove that these people are guilty of something; we have yet to see whether they prove it or not.” Markin responded with an article titled "When Looking From London, Don't Lay the Blame at Someone Else's Door," full of ironic and sharp barbs addressed to Surkov. "It is a trend now to be a political prisoner, it guarantees you the attention of the BBC and support from Amnesty International," Markin wrote. Calling Surkov one of the "curators of [Skolkovo's] especially effective managers" and his criticism "arias of a Moscow guest in London," Markin said that seeking such international support was the only reason why Surkov had expressed his dissatisfaction in London — "in front of the target audience." Opposition leader Alexei Navalny wrote on his blog that the expressions used in the article by Markin  were usually reserved for the committee's accusations against opposition activists. When asked about Markin's article by reporters on Tuesday, Surkov said he would not "comment on graphomania." However, an unnamed government source speaking to ITAR-TASS news agency expressed "surprise" as to the tone of Markin's article.  The source went on to add that, according to the information from the General Prosecutor's office, General Markin's higher education diploma was forged. (video)

UPDATE: Surkov resigns

Three More Russian NGOs Branded ‘Foreign Agents’

The Prosecutor General’s Office has branded three more Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as “foreign agents” saying they were financed from abroad, Izvestia daily reported on Wednesday. The latest in a series of NGOs to be listed as foreign agents are the Moscow School of Political Studies, the Urals human rights group and the Public Verdict human rights foundation. “We have discovered three organizations, which within the period from December last year and until February and March this year received considerable sums of money from foreign sources, first of all from US sources,” the daily cited a source in the Prosecutor General’s Office. Russia passed a law last November requiring all NGOs engaged in political activity, and receiving finance from abroad, to register as a "foreign agent." That term has overtones of spying and indeed treason to many Russians.

Russia's Only Independent Pollster Resists 'Foreign Agent' Tag

Russia's only independent pollster could be forced to register as a foreign agent under a law which President Vladimir Putin's critics say is designed to tighten controls on groups that do not toe the official line. Some critics saw the possibility of Levada joining human rights groups on the list of "foreign agents" as evidence that Putin is clamping down on civil rights even while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's is in Moscow for talks. Prosecutors say Levada had received 3.9 million roubles ($125,400) between December 26, 2012 and March 24 this year from Italy, the United States, Britain, Poland and South Korea. Levada's director, Lev Gudkov, said authorities had started looking into Levada in mid-April, when it published a poll saying a majority of Russians agreed with the opposition's depiction of Putin's ruling party as "swindlers and thieves". "We will never declare that we are foreign agents," Gudkov said.

Russian Bird Support Group Branded 'Foreign Agent'

An ecological support group in Russia running a protected site for cranes has been branded as a "foreign agent" by Russian prosecutors - the latest in a series of NGOs to be listed as such by the authorities. "Crane Homeland," set up in the far east Amur Region, runs a protected park for rare cranes and storks, and is run by volunteers, naturalists, and staff from Moscow State University's biology department, according to its website. Russia passed a law last November requiring all NGOs engaged in political activity, and receiving finance from abroad, to register as a "foreign agent." That term has overtones of spying and indeed treason to many Russians. The group says it is "outraged" that its members have been branded "foreign agents." Set up by Russian ornithologist Sergei Smirensky, it says it has no other activity than running a small reserve protecting rare birds from forest fires and poachers, and running ecological awareness groups for children. The group says it cannot put up with the burden of being classed as a foreign agent, which incurs considerable extra supervision from government and time-consuming red-tape for disclosure of funding and reporting on activities. Crane Homeland says it gets some funding from the International Crane Foundation.

Hitman Tunnels Out of Moscow Prison with Spoon

An inmate charged with two counts of murder has escaped from one of Russia’s oldest and most famous detention centers through a hole in the ceiling. The escapee may have only used a spoon in his jailbreak, a police source said. Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison has seen just a handful of escapes in its history. Oleg Topalov, a 33-year-old from Sochi, may have outdone them all in sheer effortlessness: He allegedly used only a piece of tableware to escape. Early Tuesday morning, the prison’s guards discovered that Topalov, an inmate in an eight-person cell, was missing. Accused of two murders and illegal arms trafficking, Topalov was characterized as “mentally abnormal and liable to escape” by the prison staff. Having been detained for a year and a half, he was scheduled to appear in court soon, but made his escape before the hearings could begin. According to Federal Penitentiary Service spokesperson Sergey Tsygankov, Topalov “expanded the vent of an air-shaft with the help of some item.” He then climbed up the vent to the prison’s roof, and left the facility undetected. (video)

UPDATE: Topalov arrested

Thousands Rally In Russia for Political Prisoners

Thousands of people attended an opposition rally in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square. The Bolotnaya rally comes on the first anniversary of a mass antigovernment protest that ended in riots and the arrests of hundreds of demonstrators protesting Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency. The rally is calling for the release of over two dozen protesters detained since last year. Police say around 8,000 protesters attended Monday’s sanctioned event called ‘For Freedom!’ Organizers expected up to 30,000 to turn up for the meeting. Opposition leaders, including anti-corruption blogger Aleksey Navalny, co-chairman of Parnas party Boris Nemtsov and leader of democratic party Yabloko Sergey Mitrokhin, addressed the crowd from a stage assembled on top of a truck. They demanded to stop “repressions,” to release “political prisoners,” and to ban the same person from being elected president more than twice. Russia’s current constitution states that the same person cannot be elected head of state “for more than two terms running.” (video)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ireland Backs Down from Sanctioning Russian Officials

An Irish parliamentary committee on foreign affairs has backed down from sanctioning Russian officials implicated in rights abuse following a warning that it could jeopardize a bilateral adoption agreement. The committee unanimously passed a resolution urging the Irish government to express concern over the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow pretrial detention center in 2009. But it dropped its earlier plans to call for an EU-wide blacklist on officials implicated in the case, similar to the one passed in the United States last year. The Russian Embassy in Dublin said in March the blacklist could “have a negative influence” on the pending adoption agreement, though it later denied making a direct link between the two issues. Pat Breen, chairman of the Irish parliamentary committee, dismissed allegations that the Russian stance amounted to blackmail, while Senator Jim Walsh, who proposed the blacklist, called the resolution a “compromise.” Some 1,500 Russian children have been adopted by Irish citizens since the early 1990s.

Georgian Patriarch Calls to Ban Abortion

Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II called on the Georgian authorities to pass legislation banning abortion in the country. As Ilia II stated in his Easter epistle, the difficult demographic situation in the country makes this necessary. "It needs to be done in the short term, although of course there must be some exceptional cases. The media must prepare the population for a positive perception of the initiative, which will allow for a positive attitude in the country toward large families and negative attitudes towards abortion," the patriarch said. According to Ilia II, 36,000 abortions are performed in Georgia annually, although this is just the official figures, and in fact there are many more abortions performed. He also noted an average of 14,000 babies are stillborn in Georgia every year.

Tajikistan Jams Russian Radio Station

Tajikistan authorities began to jam the signal of Russian radio station Zvezda broadcast from the Russian military base in Dushanbe. Tajik Communication Agency spokesman Samad Khikmatov said that the signal covered all Dushanbe and the station had no official permission to broadcast in Tajikistan. "We took measures to jam the signal covering all Dushanbe territory," the official explained.

Turkmen President Falls Off Horse after Winning $11 Mln

Turkmenistan’s president, a known horse enthusiast, won US$11 million by coming first in a race organized to celebrate domestic horse breeding. The triumph was marred by a fall right after the finish line, news which the government tried to suppress. Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took part in last week’s Day of the Turkmen Racehorse by taking to the saddle and competing with six other riders. The president chose a horse of his favorite Akhal-Teke breed to be pitted against other breeds. All the riders in the race were at least 30 years old and were competing for a prize fund provided by the owners of the horses. The president, 55, and his racehorse Berkarar, reached the finish line less than a second ahead of the second-placed jockey. Skeptics were quick to accuse organizers of fixing the race. The victory however proved to be costly for the Turkmen leader. Just meters after the finish line his horse apparently stumbled, and Berdymukhamedov dived over its head and fell face-first into the turf. The development apparently caused several tense minutes for his security staff and cabinet members, who rushed on to the racetrack in their dozens. An ambulance arrived minutes later and took the president away. However about an hour later he was in good enough shape to appear at the event once more, so apparently the fall didn’t cause any serious injuries. Witnesses however say Berdymukhamedov was restrained in his movements as he waved to the spectators of the race day. Local media in the Central Asian country didn’t mention the fall while reporting the president’s victory, stopping the footage as he crossed the finish line. However the uncut version quickly leaked to the internet. Some online media said the footage surfaced despite attempts by security personnel to confiscate all copies made by the hundreds of people attending the event.