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Support for Belarus Election Boycott Builds, EU and Macedonia in Reform Talks

Plus, Russia launches $5 billion bank sale, and Kyrgyz anti-corruption official's son is arrested for corruption.
by S. Adam Cardais and Ioana Caloianu 18 September 2012

1. Key opposition parties call for boycott of Belarus polls

 

Two main opposition parties have joined a camp calling for the boycott of Belarus' 23 September parliamentary elections, Radio Free Europe reports. Urging citizens "to go fishing or visit your parents" in lieu of voting, the United Civic Union and Belarusian National Front called the elections a sham and withdrew their candidates.

 

Alyaksandr Lukashenka
They say the vote cannot be democratic with the country's most prominent opposition and human rights figures in jail, RFE reports. Rights groups say some 15 political prisoners remain jailed out of the dozens arrested during a crackdown on peaceful protests after the December 2010 re-election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, whose regime has one of the worst human rights records in Europe.

 

Despite past misgivings, the Belarusian National Front and United Civic Union join several opposition parties that have called for a boycott for months. On 17 September, the Central Election Commission countered that the boycott represented a "travesty of law."

 

2. Fuele to meet with Macedonian leaders to discuss EU reform progress

 

European Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele traveled to Skopje 17 September for talks on reforms critical to Macedonia's European integration, Balkan Insight reports. They come a month before the European Commission's annual report on Macedonia and other EU aspirants' progress toward membership.

 

Though the report is expected to be positive, Fuele's office said the commissioner wants more progress on inter-ethnic relations after a year of heightened tensions between the Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority, Balkan Insight reports. Brussels also wants Skopje to decriminalize libel to meet European standards.

 

Fuele is meeting with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and Teuta Arifi, deputy prime minister for European affairs. Arifi will present the results of a plan of roughly 150 reforms and legislative changes in five areas where Brussels has identified room for improvement. She had pledged to implement the measures to strengthen rule of law, freedom of speech, and other areas this month, according to Balkan Insight.

 

Macedonia won coveted EU candidate status in 2005, but accession has stalled amid Skopje's poor reform record and a lengthy dispute with Athens, which says use of the name "Macedonia" implies a territorial claim to the Greek province with the same name. Fuele's office would not comment on whether Brussels would finally offer a date for the start of membership talks, Balkan Insight reports.

 

3. Bidders line up for stake in Sberbank

 

Stalled for over a year, the sale of a $5 billion, 7.6 percent stake in Sberbank, Europe's third largest bank, has attracted strong investor interest and signaled the Kremlin's willingness to move forward on key privatizations, Reuters reports.

 

The three-day stock offering began 17 September after Sberbank shares hit a five-month high on 14 September, attracting bids above the 91 ruble-per-share minimum. The stock climb and decision to go to market followed news that the U.S. Federal Reserve was taking new steps to bolster the American economy.

The Sberbank panel at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2011. Photo from http://www.sbrf.ru.

 

"This was the best imaginable day of the past 15 months to take the decision to go to the market," German Gref, the bank’s chief executive, told Reuters.

 

As Russia's most highly traded stock, Sberbank is a proxy for the larger economy, which is growing at a modest 4 percent, Reuters notes. The sale will replenish the Kremlin's coffers while signaling that President Vladimir Putin is willing to jump-start the sale of key state assets after what many investors saw as a stalled privation process.

 

Despite pledging to reduce the state's 50 percent share in the economy to boost growth, Moscow has held tight to many assets. But investors see Sberbank as a sea change.

 

"Russia will probably start to perform because Sberbank will perform," the head of the Moscow-based Verno Capital told Reuters. "First, if [investors] can find $5 billion for this they can find money for other privatizations. Secondly, there was a lot of worry that the government was not committed to reform. I think this forces [critics] to revise their opinions."

 

4. Son of Kyrgyz legislator arrested for fraud, corruption

 

Kyrgyz authorities have charged the son of Turatbek Madylbekov, chairman of the parliament's anti-corruption committee, with fraud and corruption, Radio Free Europe reports. Detained 15 September, Eldar Madylbekov is suspected of illegally obtaining property once owned by Former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who fled the country after opposition protests in 2010.

 

The elder Madylbekov declined to comment on his son's arrest, RFE reports.

 

Bishkek has launched a nationwide anti-corruption campaign after years of what even top officials describe as endemic graft and public misconduct. Turatbek Madylbekov had been a critic of that effort.

 

Kyrgyzstan has ranked near the bottom of Transparency International's annual Corruption Perceptions Index since being included in 2003.

 

5. Moscow moves to ban dissemination of incendiary anti-Muslim film

 

Russia’s chief prosecutor will seek to ban The Innocence of Muslims on the grounds that it is extremist for portraying Muhammad and Muslims in a negative light, RIA Novosti reports. Until then, the country’s media regulator will prevent "media distribution of the information contained in this film,” according to a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

 

An image from The Innocence of Muslims.

 

The move came on 17 September after Senator Ruslan Gattarov asked that the online dissemination of the film be prohibited on the grounds that "the purpose of this film’s promoters is a religious split of the society, which can have far-reaching consequences."

 

Russia has particular reason to be concerned about a reaction to the film, as Islamic radicals intensify a campaign of violence against moderates in some regions.

 

The Associated Press reports that U.S. authorities have linked Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Coptic Christian, to the pseudonym Sam Bacile, which was used to upload the video on YouTube.

 

The movie’s 14-minute trailer caused little reaction when it was posted online in June but sparked a wave of violence across the Middle East and Southeast Asia after parts of it were broadcast by an Egyptian television channel on 8 September. According to The Telegraph, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon warned against a "very dangerous" worldwide reaction if the entire film were to be released.

 

The Russian ban on the movie could lead to Russians losing access to YouTube in November, when a law limiting the access of children to damaging information comes into effect, the Kyiv Post writes. The law blocks access to websites displaying extremist content, which would include YouTube if Google, its owner, does not restrict Russian users’ access to the video. 

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor.Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. 
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