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Russian Social Network Raided, Church Urged Not to Locate Near Srebrenica

Also, the United States and Russia agree on adoption cooperation and Kazakhstan shines in the IT sphere.

by Erik N. Nelson, Ioana Caloianu, Vladimir Matan, and Connor Zickgraf 18 April 2013

1. How successful are websites in Russia? Ask the police


He’s the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia, creating the Motherland’s most popular social networking site, Vkontakte. And two years ago, Pavel Durov refused Russian security authorities’ order to remove an opposition group from the site.


pavel_durov_100Pavel Durov
So it’s likely that the more than 200 million users of Vkontakte will probably post a variety of theories as to why Durov is under investigation for a minor hit-and-run incident involving a police officer in St. Petersburg.


Durov denies involvement in the incident, according to the BBC. Police in St. Petersburg say a white Mercedes drove into a traffic officer, who suffered scrapes and contusions, on 5 April. A spokesman for Vkontakte told the BBC that Durov does not own a car.


"We are working ... and suddenly 20 silent men in leather jackets appear," said Nikolai Durov, co-founder of Vkontakte and brother of the suspect, wrote in a post on the network. Police told journalists they searched the network’s offices in central St. Petersburg and Pavel Durov’s residence.


The good news for the online sector in Russia is that popular websites can make serious money, The Wall Street Journal reports. Revenues from web advertising is so good that Russia’s premiere search engine, Yandex, earned 28.1 billion rubles ($899 million) in 2012 and was growing at an annual rate of 44 percent.


That’s 100 million rubles – a relatively modest sum – behind state-owned Channel One television, which grew last year at a sluggish 0.7 percent. The number of Internet users in Russia is still well below the number of television viewers, but it is gaining steam. The Journal reports that Channel One subsists on revenue from a few big advertisers, while Yandex reaps its harvest from small- and medium-size businesses seeking to connect with customers.


2. Russian reports cooperation in U.S. adoption talks


Russian representatives emerged from talks with U.S. officials in Washington with positive news about the adoption of Russian children by American families. The negotiations resulted in an agreement, the Russians said, to create a working group to monitor the well-being of Russian adoptees, The Moscow Times reports.


In December, the Russian government banned Americans from adopting Russian children, reportedly in retaliation for a U.S. law that imposed sanctions on Russians found to have violated human rights. Since then there have been well-publicized cases of an adoptee in Texas dying in an American couple’s care and a teenager returning to Russia with tales of mental abuse by his adoptive parents.


Russian human rights ombudsman Konstantin Dolgov, who led the delegation from Moscow, said, “There is a mutual understanding that the dialogue must be improved and expanded,” according to the Russian Legal Information Agency.


Pavel Astakhov, the children’s ombudsman, posted on his Twitter account that “the Russian-U.S. working group will gather twice a year by turns in the U.S. and in Russia. The working group will address the most urgent problems and inquiries and systemic current issues,” according to Russia Beyond the Headlines, a government-run agency.


On the U.S. side, however, Radio Free Europe reports cites government sources who say no progress had been made toward restoring the ability of Americans to adopt Russian children.


In the past 20 years, some 60,000 orphans have been adopted by American families, of whom 19 have died, The Washington Post writes. According to UNICEF estimates, about 740,000 children are not in the custody of parents in Russia, while some 18,000 Russians are on a waiting list to adopt, the Associated Press reported in January.


3. EU and U.S. denounce Serbian church near massacre site


European Union and U.S. envoys to Bosnia denounced the refusal by the Serbian Orthodox Church to halt the construction of a church near the Srebrenica massacre memorial, according to Balkan Insight.


Both delegations to Bosnia expressed their concern on 16 April over the church’s initiative, which they deemed “provocative” in light of the planned church’s “highly sensitive location.” The church is to be built near a memorial to the 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys rounded up, disarmed, and killed by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995.


The U.S. embassy added in a press release that, as the church is “far from a sizable human settlement and so close to a former mass grave and the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial,” its role seems “designed to provoke rather than to serve the legitimate needs of the faithful.”


The Srebrenica memorial. Photo by Michael Büker/Wikimedia Commons.


While both the EU and the U.S. bodies reaffirmed their commitment to freedom of religious expression, they repeatedly asked for construction work to be halted and “engage in talks with the municipality on a more suitable location which respects the memories of genocide victims and truly serves believers,” Balkan Insight writes.


Organizations representing the victims of Srebrenica also expressed opposition, saying that while they don’t oppose the construction of Orthodox churches, they deemed the one near Srebrenica “the church of spite” given its location only a few meters away from a mass grave.


Organized religion has always played a part in the identity of Bosnia’s three antagonistic demographic groups. In the aftermath of the 1992-1995 war, the rebuilding of religious monuments has been seen as a way of politicizing those divisions.


4. Kazakhstan climbs up the post-Soviet IT heap


In the annual Global Information Technology Report of the World Economic Forum, Kazakhstan has outshone its Central Asian neighbors – and Russia – to rank 43 of 144 countries, reports. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, ranks at the bottom of all post-Soviet nations, at 118.    


The IT report analyzes the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) on 144 economies, utilizing the Networked Readiness Index, which judges a nation’s progress using 54 indicators. Kazakh connectedness was ranked 55th in 2012, while Kyrgyzstan actually dropped three places from 115th.


The World Economic Forum emphasizes the importance of ICT to a country’s competiveness and prosperity. “It is clear that ICTs offer higher benefit-to-cost ratios in all sectors of production, while simultaneously offering new ways to create value by better and more efficiently organizing the use of natural, financial, and human resources.”


Kazakhstan’s new ranking put it behind only the Baltic states and among former Soviet republics in its IT prowess. Russia ranked 54th. According to Azerbaijan’s Trend news agency, Kazakhstan’s progress includes a rise to 11th place in cell phone users and a significant climb from 133 to 29 in mobile broadband subscriptions. The economic forum praised a strong government hand in the development of an ICT infrastructure but lamented a lagging education system, according to  


Kyrgyzstan, a much poorer nation, received criticism from the forum, as it fell behind equally poor Tajikistan, which moved up two places to 112th. The forum’s report said the country “has not managed to join its neighbors in better leveraging ICTs to boost its economic competitiveness.”


Finland and Singapore top the WEF rankings, surpassing the former leader, Sweden. Among former Soviet states, European and Caucasus countries tend to rank higher than their eastern cousins, led by Skype home base Estonia in 22nd place.


5. Georgian vintners no longer so sweet for Russian trade


In 2006, Russia stopped buying wine from Georgia. It was probably a minor inconvenience to Russian consumers, but it created a hardship for Georgian winemakers who never thought to export their wines anywhere else.


Today, as Russian trade authorities prepare to lift that embargo, Georgian viticulture has matured into a much more sophisticated industry, Radio Free Europe reports. During the embargo, winemakers made major changes in an attempt to appeal to alternative Western markets.


"To see it from today’s point of view, Georgians can be lucky that the embargo came," said Burkhard Schuchmann, a German railroad executive who started a winery in Georgia in 2006. "Because then they were forced to [concentrate on] quality and to think about marketing."


Until the embargo, Georgia’s winemaking had been mired in the restrictions of the Soviet Union, which allowed fewer than 20 types of grape to be used, even though Georgia is home to more than 100 varieties, RFE writes.


Nonetheless, Georgian wine was popular with Russians, who considered it better than their own wines and those of Moldova. After Georgia became independent in 1991, winemakers continued to pace their Soviet-built cage, continuing to send most of their exports – known for their sweetness – to Russia.


Some production has shifted back to a traditional Georgian method, with fermenting grapes mashed in bunches in clay barrels called qvevri, which creates a drier wine, as well as in European-style oak barrels.


The embargo, originally imposed by Russian authorities claiming Georgian mineral water and wines did not meet health standards, was widely seen as a symptom of political estrangement between the two countries. Since the October election defeat of the party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, relations with Russia have thawed, giving rise to new opportunities for trade.
Erik N. Nelson is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Vladimir Matan and Connor Zickgraf are TOL editorial interns.  
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