|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Medvedev Elected President of Russian Federation
March 2 (EIRNS)Dmitri Medvedev was elected to succeed Vladimir Putin as President of the Russian Federation, receiving over 70% of the vote in the March 2 election. Gennadi Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Communist Party and nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia candidates, got over 17% and over 11%, respectively. Voter turnout matched the 64% level of the 2004 election, contradicting media chatter about voter apathy.
During his last press conference, Putin made a point of characterizing the opposition candidates Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov as "patriotic" figures, who share with him a united approach to Russia's foreign policy interests.
The transfer of power from Putin to Medvedev will take place May 7. Putin has said he would accept an appointment as prime minister.
Putin will do a last major diplomatic mission as President, travelling to Bucharest as a guest at the April 2-4 NATO summit there. It is the first time since the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002 that Putin has decided to accept NATO's yearly invitation for him to attend. There are unconfirmed reports that he has invited President George Bush to bilateral talks in Sochi, Russia, after the NATO meeting.
Russian Diplomat: NATO Must Limit Role in Afghanistan
March 5 (EIRNS)Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, in an interview with the BBC monitored by RFE/RL Newsline, warned March 3 that Russia will "definitely react," if U.S. and NATO forces exceed a terrorism-fighting mission in Afghanistan. "We accept the military presence of U.S. and NATO armed forces in Afghanistan only in the framework of our common campaign against terrorism," said Kabulov, "But if the military presence is for other political or economic gains in Afghanistan and the region, this certainly and definitely will cause special concerns." Kabulov added, "It may be that our partners have other agendas they are pursuing, under the pretext of the war against terrorism."
Gazprom Clash with Ukraine Resolved for Now
March 5 (EIRNS)Sergei Kuprianov, spokesman for Russia's natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, announced today the end of a 50% reduction of gas deliveries to Ukraine. According to RIA Novosti, he said the CEOs of Gazprom and Ukraine's Naftohaz company, Alexei Miller and Oleg Dubin, had agreed on terms for Naftohaz to pay its debts for January and February of this year.
Earlier in the day, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko threatened an immediate reduction of gas transshipments to Western Europe, saying at a press conference that not one cubic meter of gas from Central Asia would be forwarded to Europe on behalf of Gazprom, until Ukraine's needs had been met, despite the reduced supplies from Russia.
The gas wars could resume at any moment, especially as Tymoshenkowho boasts of her close ties to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheneyhas declared her intention to play hardball with Russia on gas policy, as part of the "Containing Russia" policy she presented in the New York Council on Foreign Relations magazine Foreign Affairs last year. On Feb. 27, Ukraine's President Victor Yushchenko had ordered Tymoshenko and her cabinet to stop foot-dragging on implementation of the gas accord reached in talks between himself and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Making its second 25% gas delivery reduction in the period of a week, Gazprom on March 4 cited the refusal of Naftohaz to return to the negotiating table and finalize work-out of its debt to Gazprom. The flare-up in the "gas wars" had ostensibly been resolved by Putin and Yushchenko in February, including through Russia's agreeing to eliminate the role of the shadowy intermediary company, RosUkrEnergo, as demanded by Tymoshenko. But, Naftohaz and Gazprom had not yet signed the executive documents for implementation of the Presidential accord.
Amid the threats by Tymoshenko and the Naftohaz leadership, to cover Ukraine's needs by diverting Central Asian gas headed for Western Europe through Ukrainian pipelines, European Union (EU) officials called for urgent measures to deal with the dispute. Confronting Russia as a threat to Europe's "energy security"because of its being a major oil and gas sourcehas been high on the agenda of EU officials who advocate a consolidated, and increasingly militarized EU through the Lisbon Treaty.
Belarus Recalls Ambassador from Washington
March 7 (EIRNS)Belarus has called back its ambassador in Washington, Mikhail Khvostov, for consultations, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 7. The government has also strongly recommended that the U.S. ambassador in Minsk, Karen B. Stewart, leave Belarus for consultations, said Andrei Popov, the chief of the ministry's press service. The Foreign Ministry gave a high profile to the moves, announcing them at a press conference. Reports indicate that the Belarusian Foreign Ministry's demand that the U.S. ambassador leave was prompted by U.S. sanctions imposed last Fall against Belarus's state-controlled oil-processing and chemicals company, Belneftekhim.
Washington has also slapped travel restrictions on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka and members of his inner circle, as well as financial sanctions against Belarusian authorities over their "crackdown" on opposition and free media. The Bush Administration has called Belarus "the last dictatorship in Europe."
"As soon as substantial sanctions against our economy are imposed, we will retaliate in the toughest possible way on all fronts," the Belarussian state media quoted Lukashenka as saying. "The U.S. ambassador will be thrown out first."
Armenian President Declares State of Emergency Amid Growing Transcaucasian Turmoil
March 1 (EIRNS)President Robert Kocharian of Armenia imposed a 20-day state of emergency today, banning public gatherings and putting restrictions on the media. Earlier in the day, police broke up a 15,000-strong demonstration, firing tear-gas canisters into the crowd and some bullets. Several demonstrators were killed. The protests had been going on for over a week, since Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian was credited with a 52% victory in the Presidential election of Kocharian's successor. Supporters of opposition candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian charge there was vote fraud and are demanding a new election. The protests turned into a serious political challenge, as numbers of officials and diplomats moved to support Ter-Petrossian.
In neighboring Georgia, opposition parties likewise continue to protest against President Mikhail Saakashvili's claim to have won a first-round re-election victory in January.
The Transcaucasus region, where Armenia and Georgia are located, is experiencing heightened tension also due to the declaration of independence from Serbia by Kosovo. The autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to do likewise, invoking the Kosovo precedent. RIA Novosti reports that today Abkhazian President Sergei Gabapsh mobilized military units, claiming there was an imminent danger of an attack on the autonomous region by Georgian forces.
DEA Rolls Up Viktor Bout's Guns and Drugs Operation
March 7 (EIRNS)Viktor Bout, the Russian "mafiya" arms dealer who has been accused of selling arms to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Chechen terrorists, and others, was arrested in Thailand, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced March 6. Bout and a co-defendant, Andrew Smulian, were charged with "conspiring to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the FARC." The arrest was made by Thai law enforcement authorities in Bangkok, after months of cooperation between the U.S. and various countries, including Romania and Thailand. A DEA document says Bout planned to provide the FARC with "millions of dollars worth of surface-to-air missile systems (SAMS) and armor-piercing rocket launchers." The DEA recorded numerous meetings where Bout and Smulian discussed the FARC deal with two confidential sources working with the DEA.
The arrest was announced in the midst of the ongoing crisis over Colombia's killing of top FARC leaders.
Who is Bout? This is a brief description of his operation from a January 2003 EIR article, "Sharon and His Mafiya Allies Plot Israel Election Theft," which discusses the role of U.S. fugitive financier Marc Rich: "Rich, for decades, had the exclusive foreign contract to market Russian minerals and precious metals; his Soviet and Russian ties also involved massive international arms salessome recent deals, reportedly, in partnership with Viktor Bout, the most notorious of the Russian black market gun-runners, who shares a base of operations with Rich in the tiny Arab Emirate of Sharjah, a well-known smugglers' haven, adjacent to the money-laundering capital of the Persian Gulf, Dubai. Bout has been linked to major arms sales to the Afghan Taliban, and to Liberia's Charles Taylor, and the murderous Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone. Rich, long ago, established Liberia and Sierra Leone as two of his major African bases, dealing in 'blood diamonds.' Further, Bout's arms sales to the Taliban were carried out with Vadim Rabinovich, Loutchansky's Ukrainian Nordex partner!"
Among Bout's companies were air transport firms based in the Persian Gulf emirates, which included a large fleet of Russian aircraft, which he used to supply combatants in Africa as well as Afghanistan, Southwest Asia, and Chechnya. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, media reports said that Bout was used by the U.S. for bringing in supplies to Iraq, despite the fact that he was evading criminal charges from a number of countries.