Apologies for the slight delay in issuing this week’s news roundup. This is because I was seduced yesterday evening by the romance of the FA Cup 3rd Round Replay between Exeter City and Manchester United. Proof once again, were it ever needed, that watching 11 men from the Westcountry kicking lumps out of millionaires from Manchester is far more entertaining than anything that President Putin could ever serve up.
- Pensioners protested across Russia this week in an attempt to overturn reforms in the benefits system. At the heart of the issue was the decision to replace benefits in kind, such as free bus passes, with what was a frankly derisory increase in pension payments. The so called Babushka Revolution forced Putin to announce that the proposed pension increase would be more than doubled to 240 roubles (still less that $10) per month, but calls for Putin to dismiss his government have been ignored. Hopefully the protests will have the longer term impact of showing the Russian people that they can influence their own government.
- 18,000 Russians died in fires during 2004. This compares with an average of 4,500 deaths per year in the much larger United States. The cause is an appalling lack of regard for fire-safety regulations.
- Special forces supported by a helicopter gunship killed five rebels in Dagestan. They were reportedly planning a Beslan style attack, and took several hostages during the 17 hour seige. One Russian soldier was also killed.
- The Duma has rejected a bill that proposed making people legally responsible for the action of terrorist relatives.
- Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev is living abroad, sheltered by Arab sympathisers, say the FSB.
- A Chechen woman has been sentenced to nine years in jail for planning suicide attacks in Moscow. The defence claims that the evidence against her was fabricated.
- A woman who survived the 1999 apartment blasts in Moscow (which are alleged to have been planted by the FSB to give an excuse to invade Chechnya) has been granted asylum in the United States.
- The Russian army will have to look elsewhere for cannon fodder as the Defense Ministry announced that students will reimain exempt from the draft.
- Tennis star Svetlana Kuznetsova has failed a drug test. Although she tested positive for ephedrine she has been cleared by the WTA, as the drug is permitted out of competition with a doctors certificate. Kuznetsova now plans to sue the Belgian Minister who broke the story.
- Two gay rights activists have been denied the right to marry at a Moscow registry office. The Russian Family Code states that marriage is between a man and a woman.
- Garry Kasparov has pulled out of any future FIDE world title re-unification matches claiming that the four unification matches scheduled and then postponed are ruining his career and his nerves as he has to take three months off to prepare for each match.
- Evgeny Primakov has forecast that oil prices will fall to around $30 per barrel, a price that although not catastrophically low, will prove "rather painful for the Russian economy."
- Gazprom is the latest Russian company to be hit with a large claim for back taxes, probably in a desparate attempt to show that the government is being even-handed. They need to stump up $36 million.
- Russia is to get its very own Silicon Valley by 2010.
- Gazprom has announced plans to ship liquid natural gas to the US via Mexico.
- Oligarch and football dilettante Roman Abramovich has been sued by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for the return of $17 million in aid which was earmarked for developing small businesses.
- As part of President Bush’s wider theme of global democracy promotion, Condoleeza Rice told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committe that Russia was on an uneven path to democracy, but that the US will continue to push for democratic reform. She also named Belarus as one of six "outposts of tyranny" alongside such luminaries as Cuba and North Korea. No mention of tyranny in Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan though, so far as I could see.
- There are rumours that North Korean President Kim Jong-il has been invited to attend the 60th anniversary celebrations of the end of WW2, to be held in Moscow in May.
- Six Russians were killed in an air crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week. They are alleged to have been taking part in illegal smuggling operations, under the guise of flying humanitarian missions for MONUC, the UN mission in the DRC.
- Russia and the US have held talks on bilateral efforts to destroy chemical weapon stocks.
- Mahmoud Abbas’ first foreign trip as President of Palestine will be to Moscow.
- Russia expects to build nuclear power units in Iran, China and India in 2005. Over 40 of them.
- The saga of Ukraine’s Presidential election seems to be drawing to a close. Viktor Yanukovich’s final appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court in the early hours of this morning, paving the way for Viktor Yushchenko’s inauguration on Sunday.
- Yushchenko will spend most of his first week in office abroad, attempting to walk the tightrope strung between Russia and the EU. After attempting to normalise relations with Putin in Moscow, he will address the Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He’ll also find time for side trips to Poland and to Switzerland for the Davos economic forum.
- Peter Mandelson, the EU’s Trade Commissioner, has raised the prospect of recognising Ukraine as a market economy, which would give the Eastern Ukrainian steel industry the massive boost of access to the EU market. A free-trade agreement may follow not too far behind.
- Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was in Moscow this week to sign a border treaty with Russia. The two countries also agreed to split the Imashevskoye gas condensate field equally, after they reached an agreement on how not to disrupt the lives of ten shepherds who live above the gas field.
- Russia has, for what seems like the 10 millionth time, accused Georgia of harbouring Chechen terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge.
- Meanwhile Russia has continued its policy of buying large stakes in strategic Georgian industries. Vneshtorgbank, whose major shareholder is the Russian government, purchased 51% of Georgian United Bank.
- As expected, the dream team of Sergei Bagapsh and Raul Khadzhimba won the re-run Abkhazian Presidential election with over 90% of the vote. Even closer ties with Russia are promised…
- Vladimir Putin has discovered the dangers of letting his internet domain name registration slip, as his 2000 campaign site was taken over by someone advertising call girls. Sadly, the site seems to be back in Putin’s hands now, and the site is once again full of titilating photos of Russian technocrats.