|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Recriminations Fly After Moscow Power Blackout
A May 25 electric power blackout in the southern part of Moscow interrupted the city's functioning for nearly 24 days and stranded thousands of people on the subway. The main cause of the outage was widely reported as equipment failure at a substation where the most recent upgrades date back to 1958-62. In addition, it was reported that the substation operators failed to shed load when the local failure occurredbeing under pressure not to cost the energy company one kilowatt-hour's worth of revenueand therefore guaranteed that that outage would snowball.
President Vladimir Putin made a late-night TV appearance about the situation. Charging the leadership of UES, the national power utility, with responsibility, Putin alluded to the "human" factor that compounded the non-investment in infrastructure (which is also a human factor, of course). He said, "As for the reasons for the accident, ... they are of a technological nature. I think we can say that there is insufficient attention by UES to the company's ongoing operations. Not only problems involving global energy policies and reform of the company need attention, but day-to-day operations do, too. I think that the problem is not just worn-out equipmentalthough this is also a factor, as at the substation where the accident took place, the main equipment dates from 1962but also of the low competence of those who should have maintained and repaired what needed repair."
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov (whose possible ouster, due to poor economic performance, is the subject of intense current rumors) likewise blasted UES leadership at a May 26 cabinet meeting. The CEO of the power utility is none other than Anatoli Chubais, architect of Russian industry's privatization during the 1990s. He was summoned for questioning about the blackout in a Moscow criminal court, but did not appear before the end of the court's work day on May 26.
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline Opened
The Presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakstan, and Turkey gathered in Baku on May 25 to celebrate the formal opening of a pipeline that was designed to prevent Russia from transporting Caspian Basin oil. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who also attended the opening ceremony, said the pipeline would "defuse the current tension on world oil markets." It is not clear what Bodman meant. Western geopoliticians have been ardent supporters of this pipeline, because it bypasses Russia. Although oil started pumping on the 1,100-mile-long pipeline on May 25, it will take at least another six months for it to fill completely, making it exportable to Ceyhan terminal by the end of this year. The $4 billion pipeline was built by British Petroleum.
U.S. Energy Secretary Visits Moscow
A few years ago, when the U.S.-Russian Commercial Energy Dialogue was launched, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos Oil starred in the cow-pat toss at the Bush-league conference held at Rice University to promote it. Today, Khodorkovsky is sitting in a cage in a Moscow courtroom, where the reading aloud of a 1,000-page verdict against him for tax evasion and other crimes went into its second week on May 23. But the Bush league is still pushing for Russian oil concessions. Before proceeding to the opening of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline May 25, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman visited Moscow for talks with Minister of Energy and Industry Victor Khristenko and Economics Minister German Gref, among others.
According to the May 25 Moscow Times, Bodman brought up the possibility of U.S. oil majors forming partnerships with Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company. Rosneft's merger with Gazprom has fallen through, and now Rosneft is to be auctioned. The Russians are also seeking for China or India to purchase a stake in Rosneft. (Gazprom, meanwhile, is reportedly seeking to purchase Sibneft, another West Siberia-centered oil firm, in order to proceed with the planned creation of a state-dominated oil/gas conglomerate.)
Andrew Somers, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, told the Moscow Times that U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez's visit to Russia the week of May 30 will also focus on the U.S.-Russia energy dialogue. Meanwhile in Washington, the government-funded Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars held a gala on May 26 to honor two individuals: former Ambassador Thomas Pickering for "public service" and Russia's LUKoil chairman Vagit Alekperov for "corporate citizenship"a somewhat strange designation, analyst Peter Reddaway pointed out in a communication to Johnson's Russia List, for a company "burdened by wide-ranging unanswered allegations ranging from murder to tax evasion to links to organized crime." On the other hand, Reddaway added, Bush Cabinet members Condoleezza Rice (Secretary of State) and Margaret Spellings (Secretary of Education) sit on the board of the Wilson Center.
Uzbekistan's President Karimov Visits China
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, who is under attack from the terrorists, human-rights activists, orthodox Islamic networks and Anglo-Americans, arrived in Beijing May 25. The visit took place just days after clashes in Andijon, Uzbekistan saw a violent uprising and hundreds of deaths in the Fergana Valley town. Ahead of the visit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry endorsed Karimov's position by saying that the crackdown against the Islamists and others in Andijon was necessary to prevent an armed insurrection and that most of the dead were Islamic extremists. Karimov had earlier announced that he would like to have the anti-terrorism unit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) headquartered in Tashkent.
Karimov received a red-carpet welcome in Beijing, with a 21-gun salute. Following his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Karimov said: "Uzbekistan sees the People's Republic of China as a reliable partner and friendly neighbor."
Meanwhile, a human rights activist from Uzbekistan was arrested following his visit to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz uprising was organized from Osh, which is at the head of the Fergana Valley, near the Uzbekistan border. The arrest has given a big play in the international media. The Financial Times of London forecast in a May 26 commentary, that Fergana will become a permanent hotbed of war, like the Balkans.