This edition of the weekly news is dedicated to Rebecca, my lovely but long-suffering girlfriend, who celebrated her birthday yesterday.
- The Yukos affair rumbles on. Foreign banks have demanded the immediate repayment of $540 million in loans from Rosneft, while Menatep, Yukos’ main shareholders have launched a legal action against the Russian government through the UN Commission on International Trade Law. Meanwhile, Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov, major shareholders in Yukos, who are both wanted by police in Russia, attended a breakfast hosted by George Bush at the White House.
- Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov has announced a unilateral ceasefire through the month of February. Shamil Basayev has also announced that his forces will observe the ceasefire. So far the Russian response has been pretty negative – they’ve called the ceasefire a bluff and a provocation. There are some initial indications, however, that the ceasefire is being observed by the Chechens.
- Shamil Basayev gave an interview for Channel 4 in England in which he first expressed regret for the outcome of the Beslan seige, then promised to do it again. All while cradling a grenade launcher on his lap and wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo "anti-terrorist". Russia was not happy about the broadcast, and told Channel 4 that they were behaving irresponsibly by giving him a voice.
- Despite his interview, rumours have been flying around this week that Basayev had been killed. Basayev himself rebutted this rumour by giving yet another video interview in which he made reference to the Channel 4 interview. Then, in a demonstration of his rock solid mental stability, he stabbed his artificial leg twice with a knife.
- Kommersant has received a formal warning from the Kremlin for publishing an interview with Chechnya’s rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. If Kommersant receives three warnings, it could be legally shut down.
- Exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky claims that Chechen rebels have a portable (suitcase-style) atomic bomb. The Kremlin has dismissed his claims. Berezovsky has a history of coming up with nutty claims, so I’d take this one with a pinch of salt, too.
- Over 300,000 Russians are HIV positive, according to Russian Consumer Control’s HIVAIDS monitoring department.
- The Central Bank has announced that Russia will no longer tie the ruble exclusively to the dollar. Instead it will be tied to a foreign exchange basket where the Euro will gradually rise in importance relative to the dollar.
- The Communist Party sponsored vote of no-confidence in the Russian government (not in the President, however) failed. 112 out of 450 Duma deputies backed the Communists.
- A mine blast in Kemerovo region, 3,000 km east of Moscow, has killed at least 21 miners.
- New US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that, although the US has concerns about the state of democracy in Russia, she does not consider it helpful to isolate "Russia from the broader trends that are developing worldwide". This should mean that Russia’s bid for WTO membership stays on track.
- Mikhail Krotov, the Secretary-General of the CIS, has told the EU that it should see Russia as a "big Norway". No, I don’t see the similarity either.
- Over 100 passengers and four Russian crew died when an Afghan airliner crashed in Pakistan on Friday.
- Check out Nathan’s Central Asia summary on Winds of Change.net for a roundup of all the top news from Central Asia.
- Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania died last Thursday in the appartment of a friend – he seems to have been poisoned by a faulty carbon monoxide heater. Conspiracy theories, of course, abounded, especially after the suicide of Georgy Khelashvili, a relatively high ranking official in the Pardoning Commission. Neeka’s Backlog has a roundup of the coincidences. Some analysts are saying that Russia must reassess its relationship with Georgia now that Zhvania is no longer around to be a calming influence on hot-headed President Saakashvili.
- The buildup to the February 27th elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continues. Nathan is providing regular briefings at The Argus.
- Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has vowed never to expose his unreconstructed KGB to public oversight. He did criticise them slightly though, when he claimed they needed to do more to monitor political dissent!
- Lukashenko is making some friends in international financial institutions, though – Belarus has just made the final installment of its repayments to the IMF.