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Plus, Belarusian timber workers are barred from quitting, and a Kazakh activist is jailed as the anniversary of Zhanaozen nears.by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 10 December 2012
Moscow is preparing its response to a bill passed by the U.S. Congress last week to keep some Russian human rights violators out of the country and freeze their U.S. assets.
The so-called Magnitsky bill primarily targets those involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered a scheme to defraud the Russian government out of $230 million in tax refunds, and who died in prison in 2009 after being beaten by guards and having his pancreatitis left untended. The measure received final congressional approval on 6 December and is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
In retaliation, the chairman of the Russian Duma’s foreign relations committee said lawmakers will craft a bill to encompass “a far larger” range of Americans, including “lawyers, prosecutors, child care officials, judges, and diplomats,” according to the government-run Voice of Russia. Among those on the list will be former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former CIA Director George Tenet. They will be denied Russian visas and have any assets in Russia frozen.
According to Russian officials, those targeted by the Duma bill are linked to abuses of adopted Russian children, torture in secret CIA prisons, and the extradition of Russian prisoners to the United States from third countries – an allusion to the case of arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and convicted in a U.S. court last year of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and to abet terrorists.
Still, analysts from Russia and the United States told the Voice of Russia that the tit-for-tat hardly amounts to a return to the Cold War. One said the country’s leaders understand they must strengthen ties, while one called the issue a “hiccup.”
Preliminary results of this weekend’s legislative elections in Romania show the ruling, center-left Social Liberal Union (USL) winning a clear majority for both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, according to the Central Electoral Bureau. With 81.49 percent of the votes counted, 58.63 percent went for USL, while the Right Romania Alliance led by President Traian Basescu got only 16.69 percent of the votes. The populist People’s Party-Dan Diaconescu (PP-DD) received 13.53 percent, while the Hungarian Democrat Union of Romania placed fourth with 5.31 percent. Turnout was just 41.72 percent.
The Associated Press writes that the returns could set up another confrontation between Basescu and the leader of the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who tried to have Basescu impeached earlier this year. Basescu and Ponta’s allies are exchanging veiled threats over whether or not the president will nominate Ponta once again to be prime minister. Parliament must approve any choice the president makes or parliament could be dissolved.
In an interview with the B1 TV channel on 27 November, Basescu declared that a president who has to appoint a prime minister who wanted to suspend him “feels disdain, because you can’t swallow a pig; you can swallow a little frog, but a pig is hard to swallow,” Ziare.com writes.
Speaking at the end of October, Crin Antonescu, another leader of the ruling coalition, said he would not rule out another attempt to suspend Basescu if the president “goes against the spirit of the constitution and the clear display of the political will of the electorate” and names a different prime minister, according to Enational.
The center-right government in power until earlier this year pushed through austerity measures including pay cuts and tax hikes, some of which have been reversed by the current government. Romania has had to take out loans from the International Monetary Fund, and Reuters reports that a prolonged period of political uncertainty could imperil a new deal with the fund.
On 7 December, Belarusian President
According to the decree, which is now law, workers who leave the industry will be forced to repay all the wages they earned during their employment, the Associated Press reports.
The fines will be deducted from their salaries in subsequent jobs. Those workers who remain unemployed will be sent to wood-processing plants and made to work while still having to pay the quitting fine.
Lukashenka first mentioned the move during a visit to a lumber mill last week, Radio Free Europe reports.
Of Belarus’ 10 million citizens, nearly 1 million are said to have gone to seek work in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania, according to AP. The news agency says the Lukashenka decree is part of an effort to stem that exodus, but in remarks during his saw mill visit last week, the president said focusing on the timber industry is one part of his strategy to diversify the economy, making it less dependent on Russia, the European Union, and the United States.
The new law will cover more than 13,000 employees of nine state-controlled wood-processing plants and about 3,000 construction workers.
“Amid a severe economic crisis, Lukashenka is launching a risky experiment that could later be spread to the entire economy,” Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent analyst in Minsk, told the Associated Press. “It amounts to Lukashenka introducing elements of slavery in 21st-century Europe.”
Belarusian labor organizations plan to take up the matter with the International Labor Organization, RFE writes.
It took only one day for Kazakh civil rights activist Asel Nurghazieva to be tried and found guilty of hooliganism and resisting arrest after she was detained on 6 December, 10 days ahead of the first anniversary of protests in the western town of Zhanaozen, Radio Free Europe reports.
Nurghazieva had filed lawsuits against the police on behalf of people in Zhanaozen, where demonstrations by striking oil workers erupted in violence on 16 December 2011, killing more than two dozen people by some accounts.
The activist was sentenced to 12 days in jail, which, as RFE notes, will keep her locked up over the anniversary. Nurghazieva’s supporters contend she was jailed to prevent possible protests on 16 December.
Several police officials have been convicted of abuse in connection with the shootings, and scores of people were detained afterward.
The violence was the culmination of anger over a long-running oil workers strike. Two months ago Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing state-owned oil companies for brutality and harassment of workers.
In the meantime, the government has made it a priority to speed up provision of digital television, dominated by government-friendly channels, to the once-sleepy town of Zhanaozen. Astana has also shut down critical media and imprisoned the leader of an opposition party.
Russian energy giant Gazprom says it has kicked off construction on its much-delayed $20 billion South Stream pipeline project to carry natural gas to Europe. President Vladimir Putin oversaw the 7 December event near the Black Sea city of Anapa along with Gazprom head Alexei Miller, according to the Associated Press.
The pipeline, which is being built to bypass Ukraine as a transit country, will be able to carry 63 billion cubic meters of gas annually to Europe, about one-third of what the continent currently buys from Russia, AP reports. Plans for the pipeline to go under the Black Sea began to take shape after years of price disputes with Ukraine periodically left millions in Europe without gas.
Miller said South Stream would solve two of Gazprom’s main problems. “First, it does away with restrictions in the volumes of Russian gas exports, and it minimizes transit risks by expanding our transportation network,” he said, according to AP.
The new pipeline would take gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria, through Serbia, and on to southern Europe. The recently opened Nord Stream pipeline already takes about 55 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, AP reports.
Serbia was the first European country to give a go-ahead on construction in late October, and Bulgaria followed suit two weeks later. If construction goes to plan, the first gas could begin flowing through South Stream as early as 2015 and the project should be completed in 2019.
Not everyone in Europe is optimistic Russia can deliver. The EU says the final route for the pipeline is a year away from being settled and that a final investment decision is nowhere close to being made on the project, according to Radio Free Europe. EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, who declined an invitation to attend the South Stream groundbreaking, has called the underwater section of the pipeline a "phantom project," Reuters reports.