Weekly news returns after a slightly extended holiday hiatus. Happy New Year, one and all!
The focus this week is on elections and the spread of democracy throughout the CIS. There are even (very small) signs of increased opposition to Putin in Russia itself.
- The Ukrainan election saga seems to be drawing to a close. Yushchenko’s victory in the December 26th re-run has been endorsed by the Central Electoral Commission. Yanukovich is still blustering away and plans to appeal but, in reality, Yushchenko’s election is a done deal. This doesn’t, however, mean that Yanukovich will simply go away – he still has strong support, particularly in the East.
- Deja vu as the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia today makes its own second attempt at electing a President. This time, it was Russia, not the West, that took exception to the victorious candidate and demanded a re-run. Sergei Bagapsh and Raul Khadzhimba, the two previous candidates, have agreed to run on a joint President/Vice President ticket with Bagapsh, the marginally less pro-Russian candidate, getting the top job.
- Protests demanding free and fair elctions in next month’s parliamentary poll have been going on for several days now in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. The Argus has more.
- Democratic opposition is having trouble expressing itself elsewhere in the CIS, though. Kazakhstan has closed opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan. And Belarus leader Aleksander Lukashenko has promised that there will be no revolutions on is watch, whether "rose, orange or banana."
- In a brave move Turkmenistan cut off gas supplies to both Russia and Ukraine. Turkmenistan wants $60 per 1,000 cubic metres.
- Putin has made himself a hero by vetoing a law that prohibits beer drinking outdoors.
- He’s upset the pensioners though. They’ve been holding rallies across Russia to protest the introduction of cash only benefits and the elimination of non-monetary benefits such as free bus-passes.
- Now the Yuganskneftegaz sale has gone through, its owner Yukos is effectively dead and all that remains is to dismember its corpse. Indian and Chinese companies are both expected to bid for Yukos’ remaining assets.
- Andrei Illarionov, a senior economic advisor to Putin, recently took the seemingly suicidal step of calling the Yuganskneftegaz auction the "fraud of the year". Not surprisingly he was promptly fired. RIA Novosti speculates that he sees himself as Russia’s Yushchenko, and is positioning himself for a tilt at the Presidency in 2008.
- Yukos boss/jailbird Mikhail Khodorkovsky has handed over his stake in Menatep (major Yukos shareholder) to Leonid Nevzlin, his long-time partner. Khodorkovsky plans to concentrate on building Russian civil society. Probably he too has visions of the Presidency.
- The Russian Army has begun running tv ads in an attempt to recruit professional soldiers.
- Russia has announced that it will donate $30 million to the Tsunami Relief effort. The town of Beslan has offered $30,000 from its own relief fund.
- Rounding up loose nuclear material has taken on a new urgency for Russia, which recently flew 6kg of highly enriched uranium leftover from the Cold War out of the Czech Republic.
- The US and Russia are about to sign a deal to tighten restrictions on the sale of surface to air missiles.
- 2004 was a record year for the Russian arms exports – $5.7 billion worth of weaponry was sold in the last 12 months. Prospects for 2005 don’t seem so good, however, as many of Russia’s Southern Asian clients are diverting their money to more pressing needs in the wake of last month’s Tsunami. Indonesia has already strongly hinted that it will cancel a $890 million deal to buy Sukhoi fighter jets.
- The European Court of Justice has ruled that a Russian football (soccer) player is exempt from restrictions on other non EU players. The landmark ruling is based on the 1994 EU-Russia agreement on job discrimination and could open the way for a flood of high quality Russian players into EU leagues.
- Police officers in Krasnoyarsk dressed as Granfather Frost (Santa Claus) and spent the Christmas and New Year period wandering the streets looking for dangerous drivers. Instead of hitting them for a bribe they gently reminded drivers to take care – "if a driver smiles, he will be courteous on the roads, which means there will be fewer accidents and a stronger festive spirit." Umm, yeah.