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Baku Denies Offering Air-Base Use to Israel, Temelin Troubles

Plus, Bulgarian police uncover alleged trafficking ring, and a smoking ban in Russia?

by S. Adam Cardais and Angela Almeida 30 March 2012

1. Azerbaijan rejects report of role in potential Israeli strike on Iran


Israel does not have access to bases on Azerbaijani soil that could be used in an air strike against Iran, Baku says, according to Radio Free Europe.


Ilham Aliev
On 29 March the office of President Ilham Aliev refuted an article in Foreign Policy magazine that quotes unnamed U.S. officials as saying that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to airfields along its border with Iran. The implication in the story is that Israel could use the fields to launch an air strike against Tehran's nuclear development program.


"The Israelis have bought an airfield," says a senior White House official, according to Foreign Policy, "and the airfield is called Azerbaijan."


Earlier this month Baku assured Tehran that Azerbaijan would not allow its territory to be used to attack Iran, and the president's office said "outside forces" are trying to stir trouble between the capitals, according to RFE.


Baku-Tehran relations have been tense. On 12 March Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiev met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss a series of events that have strained ties between the capitals, including Azerbaijan's recent purchase of $1.6 billion in arms from Israel, which raised the hackles of Tehran.


2. Who will help CEZ foot Temelin expansion bill?


The rumor mill has been churning in Prague lately over plans to build two new reactors at the controversial Temelin nuclear power plant, with concern mounting that majority state-owned power giant CEZ simply can't cover the $10 billion price tag.


Miroslav Kalousek
On 28 March Czech Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek told the Czech media that the government would not guarantee loans for the expansion, but that it might guarantee prices for nuclear power to offset the risk of such an expensive long-term project, Czech Position reports.


Alena Vitaskova, chairwoman of the Energy Regulatory Office, immediately objected. She opposes new power subsidies given that Prague has already rolled back hefty incentives for solar production that saw electricity prices soar.


"I cannot imagine guaranteed prices," she told the Czech media, according to Czech Position.


An expansion to the Temelin nuclear power plant remains in doubt amid questions of how it would be financed.


Though three bidders are preparing offers to build the new reactors, with a winner expected next year, the Czech government and CEZ have said there's a 30 percent chance the project might be scrapped. In response, U.S. Ambassador Norman Eisen, who is pushing a bid by Westinghouse, said earlier this month he is confident the expansion will happen.


"All of the participants have stated that the tender is continuing," he told the Czech media. "CEZ, like the Czech government, has invested a huge amount of money just to reach the current stage."


Nevertheless, an executive at Rosatom, a partner in the Russian-Czech joint venture developing a bid, recently called the financing concerns “very disturbing." He said Rosatom could finance the entire project, with the backing of Moscow if need be.


This offer might prove enticing, as CEZ is already considering bringing on a co-investor.


Assuming the tender goes forward, construction is slated to begin by 2016. The project could take 15 years.


Located near the Austrian border, Temelin has two 1,000-megawatt units, modeled after Russian designs and built in the 1980s. Czech authorities insist the plant is safe, but it has been controversial due to frequent malfunctions.


3. Three suspected human traffickers arrested in Bourgas raid


Bulgaria's organized crime unit has arrested three suspects in a human trafficking investigation. Apprehended in the city of Bourgas after a raid on several houses, the group is accused of trafficking pregnant women to Greece to sell their newborn children, Balkan Insight reports.


Sofia says the police uncovered substantial evidence in the raid. The detainees are under three-day house arrest.


Bulgaria is a source, transit, and destination country for sex trafficking and forced labor, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011. Sophia does not meet minimum standards to eradicate human trafficking, though it is progressing. The government took several positive steps in 2010 and 2011, including a boost in aid to child victims.


4. Russian parliament to consider public smoking ban


Clean air legislation is being submitted to the Russian parliament, RIA Novosti reports, citing the Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily. The measure would ban smoking in enclosed public spaces, including all restaurants and schools.


As is often the case, business groups oppose the bill, but a top Russian public health official has backed anti-smoking legislation, according to RIA Novosti.


Russia must adopt tougher legislation on tobacco sales and smoking in line with the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which went into force in 2005 in response to what the WHO calls the "globalization of the tobacco epidemic." Russia joined the framework in 2008.


Over 40 percent of Russians smoke, and domestic cigarette production has more than quadrupled since the 1990s, according to figures cited by RIA Novosti.


5. Brussels urges hockey boycott of Belarus


The European Parliament is further tightening the screws on the repressive regime of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka by urging the International Ice Hockey Federation to withdraw the 2014 World IIHF Championships from the country, Radio Free Europe reports.


The request is part of an escalation of sanctions against Belarus spurred by Lukashenka’s ongoing persecution of opposition figures, journalists, and human rights activists since the December 2010 presidential election. The resolution, passed on 29 March, calls for the release of political prisoners, reaffirms the decision to withdraw all EU ambassadors from Belarus, and condemns the executions of two alleged perpetrators of the Minsk subway bombing in April 2011.


The EU has imposed a travel ban on key figures in Belarusian politics and business. In retaliation, Minsk has been barring Belarusian citizens who support the sanctions from leaving the country.


Lukashenka is an avid hockey fan, and the hockey championships would be the first major sporting event in Belarus, according to RIA Novosti.


“For [a] country where seven out of nine opposition candidates can be imprisoned right after the presidential elections, and the permanent ruler manages its National Olympic Committee, sports are an important tool for internal ideology and external propaganda,” Belarusian journalist Kanstantsin Lashkevich writes in Belarus Digest.


Valery Fesyuk, executive director of Russian Hockey Federation, said Moscow would not support the EU’s efforts to boycott Belarus. “The IIHF is one family. We are involved in sport. And sport, as everyone knows, is outside politics. If a misunderstanding occurs with one of the members of our family, then we will take a stand to defend him.”

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Angela Almeida is a TOL editorial intern. 
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