|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Russians Protest Jamestown Foundation Confab
The month of April has witnessed a number of frosty official statements by Moscow and Washington, aimed at each other, in addition to Russia's rejection of U.S. demands to clear out of Iran's Bushehr nuclear project. On April 18, U.S. Ambassador William Burns was called in by a Russian deputy foreign minister to receive an official protest against a conference on Chechnya, held by the neo-con think tank the Jamestown Foundation on April 14. Moscow charged that the event, titled, "A. Sadullayev's Caucasus Front and the Prospects for a New Nalchik" (a reference to the October 2005 raid on this city in Kabardino-Balkaria), had "provided a tribune for calls to carry out new terrorist acts on Russian territory." The occurrence of such meetings, said the statement, contradicts the USA's international obligations to fight terrorism, and undermines the U.S.-Russia partnership in the anti-terrorism effort and in other areas.
From the U.S. side, on April 19, came an announcement by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, that the United States will seek to put on the agenda of the July Group of 8 summit in St. Petersburg, "issues pertaining to conflicts very close to Russia's border," including events in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia/Azerbaijan).
George W. Bush's Rose Garden provocation that the use of nuclear weapons to attack Iran is not "off the table," received wide coverage in Russia.
Gazprom Plays Hardball
The April 20 Financial Times of London reported that Alexei Miller, CEO of the Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, addressed a meeting of the 25 ambassadors to Moscow from EU member countries, with a warning to them not to try and block Gazprom business initiatives in their region. This admonition followed reports in Vedomosti and other Russian press, that the British government is scrambling to change UK regulations so as to block Gazprom subsidiary Gazexport from buying Centrica, a natural gas distributor that handles 15% of industrial and 60% of residential British gas customers.
Gazprom followed up with a statement, criticizing "attempts to limit Gazprom's activities in the European market and politicize questions of gas supply." Gazprom added, "It should not be forgotten that we are actively familiarizing ourselves with new markets, such as North America and China. Gas producers in Central Asia are also paying attention to the Chinese market." Indeed, Turkmenistan's President S. Niyazov was in China earlier this month, negotiating gas sales and a possible pipeline that would be his country's first export outlet to the East. On April 17, Gazprom, in turn, had a delegation in Ashgabat, to nail down commitments for Turkmenistan's natural gas for sales to Europe to continue to go through Gazprom's hands for the next three years. Turkmenistan gas was involved, for example, in settling the Russia-Ukraine dispute at this past New Year.
Russia Tycoons Invest in Raw Materials Operations Abroad
Top Russian businessmen, the so-called oligarchs, have large cash revenues as a result of the hyperinflated prices on the commodities they export. (So does the Russian government, leading to the recent, unfortunate announcement that Moscow will invest its $60 billion Stabilization Fund in Western stock markets and foreign government bonds.) Vedomosti newspaper reported April 11 on two new overseas natural resource ventures by Russian magnates:
Oleg Deripaska's Russian Aluminum company (Rusal) secured a decree from Gen. Lansana Conte, President of Guinea, to sell 100% of the state-owned bauxite and alumina producer Friguia SA. Rusal will also acquire the remaining state-owned 15% stake in the Alumina Company of Guinea (Rusal already owns the rest). The new purchase is estimated at $300 million. The companies will feed Rusal's Bratsk and Krasnoyarsk aluminum smelters, and there is talk of building a new smelter, in Nigeria.
Vedomosti reports that Russia's largest oil company, Lukoil, is bidding for the right to form a partnership with Colombia's state-owned Ecopetrol SA, in a $1.6 billion oil exploration and development project in that country. Lukoil teamed with Ecopetrol in 2002 to explore the Condor oil field, which is now 70% owned by Lukoil. A spokesman for Vagit Alekperov's Lukoil said the company intends to sell the oil in the United States, where it acquired a chain of gas stations a few years ago.
Russian Poultry Devastated by Bird Flu Culls
Speaking April 14, at a meeting of Central Federal District officials, Russian public-health chief Gennadi Onishchenko said that Russia has already lost nearly half of its farm poultry because of the avian flu epidemic. Most of the losses are in southern Russia. He warned that migrating birds will spread the disease to the Ural area and Siberia in late April. The Central District is relatively less threatened, but Onishchenko warned that most of its poultry farms are unprepared to bring their flocks indoors. "This unpreparedness may completely strip Russia of poultry farms," he said. The spring hunting season has been banned and 150 million doses of bird flu vaccine are being brought into the area.
Orange Coalition Doesn't Coalesce in Ukraine
On April 18, ex-Orange Revolution leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko accused President Victor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party of negotiating, behind her back, with the Party of Regions to form a grand coalition government. Supposedly, Tymoshenko's bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party have agreed that the new government should be all-Orangebut, the other partners did not acquiesce to Tymoshenko's demand that she be the Prime Minister.
The election results have still not been officially published. The Central Election Commission was barred from doing so by court action the week of April 10, in response to a lawsuit by Natalia Vitrenko's People's Opposition bloc, which missed the threshold to enter Parliament by 7/100ths of a percentage point. Vitrenko has challenged the CEC decision on the many thousands of "invalid" ballots, from which the specific votes were not counted, but they were counted as "votes cast." If these ballots were thrown out altogether, the total votes cast would be lower and everybody's percentages higherand Vitrenko's bloc would enter the Supreme Rada.