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Duma Approves Economic Amnesty, Slovak Paragliders Face Spying Charges

Plus, the Kyrgyz leader tries to smooth troubled linguistic waters and Poland's shale gas program takes another blow.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Vladimir Matan, and Molly Jane Zuckerman 3 July 2013

1. Russian Duma approves sweeping economic amnesty


Several thousand imprisoned Russians could go free in the coming months after the State Duma approved an amnesty for some economic crimes.


The lower house of the parliament easily passed the bill 2 July to pardon first-time offenders guilty of financial crimes that did not involve the use of violence, according to RIA Novosti.


President Vladimir Putin a month ago rejected a draft of the bill as not specific enough. Putin gave the green light to the revised bill 21 June. However, the bill needs neither the president's signature nor approval by the upper house to become law, RIA Novosti writes.


Putin told the Duma the law will “restore justice” and encourage “entrepreneurial initiative,” adding that it applies only to those who “compensated for the damage they have caused or agree to provide compensation.”


Russia Today quotes a Kremlin representative as saying about 3,000 people convicted of offenses such as money laundering, tax and loan evasion, and fraud will be eligible for pardon under the revised law.


About 600,000 people have been tried for financial crimes in the past three years, of whom 110,000 were sentenced to prison and 12,000 have already gone to prison, Russia Today writes, citing a governmental representative to the court system.


2. Kyrgyzstan’s president decrees increased use of majority language


President Almazbek Atambaev signed a decree 1 July “to develop the state language and to refine language policy in the Kyrgyz Republic,” according to Central Asia Online.


Almazbek Atambaev
The aim of the measure is to spread the use of the Kyrgyz language among officials in the country. It will double the budget for encouraging civil servants to use the language and foresees the introduction of a Kyrgyz language test for officials and the creation of a Kyrgyz language TV station.


The decree comes as official policy to foster use of the Kyrgyz language is coming under scrutiny. Atambaev himself recognized the delicacy of the matter in June when he returned a bill to parliament that would have established penalties for violating a requirement to use Kyrgyz in official settings. The bill was “formulated extremely broadly” and could lead to “arbitrary interpretation,” he said.


Atambaev also said the bill was vague on the use of minority languages and criticized it for increasing the number of officials required to speak Kyrgyz.


Critics have seen language measures undertaken by the Kyrgyz government as an attempt to undermine minority-language education, especially in the large Uzbek community, who made up about 14 percent of the population before thousands fled in the wake of the 2010 violence in the Uzbek-majority south.


At a cabinet meeting last summer, then-Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov said education “should be delivered either in Kyrgyz or Russian, and no other language should be applied.”


Kyrgyzstan has lost more than half of its Russian-speaking population since the breakup of the USSR when Russians and Ukrainians made up 24 percent of the population. Many cited the rise of Kyrgyz nationalism and a declining economy as drivers behind their decision to leave.


3. Slovak paragliders suspected of spying in Iran


Iran has confirmed the detention of eight Slovak citizens under suspicion of espionage. Police have also arrested one Iranian in conjunction with the espionage charge, AFP reports, citing the Iranian Students’ News Agency.


The Slovaks, members of a paragliding club, entered Iran as tourists in early May. Slovak news agencies write that Iranian authorities detained the group three weeks ago after they were caught purportedly taking aerial photos of military sites. Friends of the Slovaks have called the arrests a misunderstanding.


AFP reports that the military sites the Slovaks allegedly photographed were nuclear facilities in Isfahan province, a center of Iran's nuclear program, which Iran claims has no military purpose.


Iran has strict regulations banning photography near military and government sites. Violations of these policies could lead to criminal charges, including espionage.


The Telegraph reports the paragliders also had “unconventional devices in their possession,” according to Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi.


The Slovak Foreign Ministry is in contact with the Iranian government and the detainees but has not released details due to ongoing diplomatic discussions, Slovak news agencies report.


Iran arrested another Slovak citizen, Matej Valuch, in January on charges of espionage for the United States. Valuch denied the charges, although he reportedly said in a documentary that he was working for the CIA. Valuch was released in February.


4. Poland cannot protect shale gas drillers from competition, EU court says


A court ruling has delivered another blow to Poland's efforts to diversify its energy supply by exploiting shale gas.


The European Court of Justice found that the government's practice of issuing some production licenses without open tenders violates EU competition rules, Polish Radio reports. The government had given out the production licenses to companies that had already explored for gas, presumably in an effort to encourage more investment in exploration.


Shale_gas_Poland_Krynica1.3A shale gas drilling rig in eastern Poland. Photo by Karol Karolus/Wikimedia Commons


Poland could now be ordered to pay steep fines, the article says, citing Gazeta Wyborcza.


The country's drive to develop shale gas using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” methods is in difficulties on several fronts, Polish Radio reports.


The government has issued more than 100 exploration licenses since 2007, but energy companies have concerns about taxation and other issues.


Three Western oil companies have pulled out of the country after failing to find commercially viable sources of shale gas, according to Deutsche Welle, which reports that residents of a town in eastern Poland are trying to stop a Chevron drilling operation nearby, claiming the drilling is polluting their wells.


The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently shrank its estimate of Poland's “technically recoverable” shale gas resources from 187 trillion cubic feet to 148 trillion cubic feet (4.2 trillion cubic meters).


5. Most Russians indifferent to Chechen secession: poll


A spokesman for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has dismissed a prominent pollster's finding that more than half of Russians would not oppose Chechnya leaving the Russian Federation, Radio Free Europe reports.


Released 1 July, the survey by the independent Levada Center found that 24 percent of respondents would be “glad” if the North Caucasus republic were to secede from the federation. Russian forces fought two wars against Chechen separatists in the 1990s and the republic remains under tight control by Chechen and federal security forces.


The Chechen capital Grozny has been almost entirely rebuilt since the two wars for secession in the 1990s. Photo by Adam Smit/Wikimedia Commons


A further 27 percent of respondents said Chechnya's secession would make little difference to them, while 13 percent said they opposed secession but “were willing to tolerate it.”


Ten percent of respondents said secession should be prevented by any means, including military, and 12 percent said the republic was already in effect separate from the federation.


Although Levada's polling results have remained much the same for the past few years, Kadyrov's spokesman, Alvi Karimov, told RFE, "This poll does not reflect the real situation."


"Today, the Chechen Republic is a stable, calm region. I absolutely don't believe the Levada Center's data,” Karimov said.


The poll was conducted in June among 1,601 people in 45 Russian regions.


Levada's deputy director, Alexei Grazhdankin, said the survey reflects a growing sense of xenophobia in Russia, Kommersant writes.


Chechnya is “not perceived by citizens as part of the Russian Federation” and as “a time bomb,” he said. The public has the impression that federal agencies are not in control of the province, he added.


Valery Solovey, a professor at the prestigious MGIMO diplomatic academy, told Kommersant that Chechens also feel they are separate from the rest of Russia.

“In Chechnya, there are no rules of Russian law. The citizens of king and god Ramzan Kadyrov perceive it as a non-Russian territory,” Solovey said.


In May prosecutors ordered Levada to register under the controversial new “foreign agent” law, saying its surveys could influence public opinion and thus amounted to political activity rather than research.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Vladimir Matan and Molly Jane Zuckerman are TOL editorial interns.
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