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Obama Snubs Putin Over Asylum Row, Czech Political Crisis Escalates

Plus, Latvia will extradite an alleged hacker and a U.S. rock band is in more hot water over Ukraine performances. by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Vladimir Matan 8 August 2013

1. Obama cancels meeting with Putin following asylum offer to Snowden


President Barack Obama has canceled a September meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s refusal to extradite fugitive leaker Edward Snowden, Reuters reports.


Edward Snowden
“Following a careful review in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia summit in early September,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a 7 August statement.


Among the factors at play, Carney elaborated, was Moscow’s decision to grant Snowden temporary asylum. Moscow said it was disappointed by the cancellation. Obama still plans to attend the G20 summit in St. Petersburg the first week of September.


A planned 9 August meeting in Washington between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will go ahead, Radio Free Europe reports.


Obama canceled the meeting with Putin just under a week after Moscow granted Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, safe haven through 31 July 2014 despite Washington’s request that he be extradited to face charges for violating U.S. espionage laws for releasing to journalists information about a secret U.S. program to monitor online and telephone communications.


Discussing the case on the popular late-night Tonight Show With Jay Leno 6 August, Obama said, “I was disappointed because even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with [Russia], traditionally we have tried to respect if there is a lawbreaker or an alleged lawbreaker in their country, we evaluate it, and we try to work with them,” RFE writes.


“They didn’t do that with us,” he added. “And in some ways it’s reflective of some underlying challenges that we’ve had with Russia lately.”


The “challenges” include Washington’s concern over Russia’s deteriorating human rights record and longstanding tensions over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Central Europe.


2. Czech caretaker government loses confidence vote


The new Czech cabinet formed in the wake of a corruption scandal lost a confidence vote 7 August, making early elections likely before year’s end, Reuters reports.


Jiri Rusnok
Formed by economist Jiri Rusnok, the caretaker government lost by a narrow parliamentary vote of 100-93. Rusnok said he would resign but stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is formed or snap polls are held.


In June, President Milos Zeman appointed long-time ally Rusnok to succeed Petr Necas, who resigned as prime minister that month amid a corruption scandal. Rusnok’s government looked doomed from the start because the major parties opposed it, but Reuters suggests it ultimately outperformed expectations after gradually gaining support thanks to Zeman’s influence over left-wing factions, including the strong Social Democratic Party, which he used to lead.


Zeman said he will keep Rusnok on for several weeks at least. Business New Europe writes that the president has the sole power to appoint a new prime minister, but that he is not required to do so before the scheduled May 2014 elections.


Parliament, however, can dissolve itself to trigger early elections – a move looking more likely by the day. TOP 09, the second-largest party in Necas’ former government, now says it favors snap polls after initially opposing them, Reuters reports.


3. Latvian cyber-fraud suspect awaits extradition to U.S.


Latvia will extradite to the U.S. a programmer allegedly involved in a global cyber-theft ring that hacked into millions of computers, including at NASA, the Associated Press reports.


The U.S. has accused Deniss Calovskis, a 27-year-old Latvian citizen, of conspiring with two others to create and unleash the so-called Gozi virus that infected over 1 million computers worldwide between 2005 and 2012 and allowed hackers to pilfer private bank accounts.


They caused “millions in losses by, among other things, stealing online banking credentials,” the U.S. federal prosecutor's office said, according to the AFP.


Calovskis, alias “Miami,” allegedly wrote the code that alters how banking websites appear on infected computers, prompting victims to reveal personal information. He was arrested in Latvia in November.


A spokesman for the Latvian government said there was sufficient evidence linking Calovskis to the crimes. If convicted in a U.S. court, he faces up to 67 years behind bars, the AP reports.


Calovskis maintains innocence. His lawyers will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to prevent the extradition, and some 30 friends and relatives demonstrated in front of the Latvian government building 6 August, Al Jazeera reports.


One of the other suspects, Russian national Nikita Kuzmin, is already serving a prison term in the U.S. after pleading guilty to other computer fraud charges in 2011, and extradition proceedings against the third, Romanian Mihai Ionut Paunescu, are on hold pending an appeal, the BBC reports.


4. Ukraine bans U.S. rocker for flag insult


Kiev has banned the bassist of U.S. rock group Bloodhound Gang from entering the country for five years after he desecrated the Ukrainian flag, days after the band was booted from a Russian music festival for a similar stunt.


A video that has surfaced on YouTube shows “Evil” Jared Hasselhoff evidently urinating on the Ukrainian flag at a 30 July performance in Kyiv, the BBC reports. At a show the following night in Odessa, Hasselhoff stuffed a Russian flag down his pants and told the fans, “Don’t tell Putin,” prompting the organizers of a music festival near Anapa, a Russian Black Sea town, to cancel the band’s 2 August show.


Bloodhound Gang - OdessaBloodhound Gang's Jared Hasselhoff shows a Russian and a Ukrainian flag to the crowd at the band's show in Odessa. Photo: YouTube


A day later, assailants attacked band members as they waited for a flight at the Anapa airport.


Ukrainian authorities have begun criminal cases over the incidents at both performances, according to RIA Novosti. Moscow has also begun criminal proceedings. Desecration of the Russian flag is punishable by up to a year in prison. The Russian criminal code allows legal proceedings to be brought against foreign nationals who commit crimes abroad “if their crime is aimed against the interests of the Russian Federation or a Russian national.”


Known for his onstage antics, Hasselhoff has apologized for the Odessa stunt. Nevertheless, both Ukrainian and Russian lawmakers have proposed lifetime bans on the Bloodhound Gang, RIA Novosti reports.


5. Did the war with Georgia weaken Russia's influence in the South Caucasus?


On the fifth anniversary of Russia's brief war with Georgia, analysts are still pondering its implications for the South Caucasus region. Some argue, as Radio Free Europe writes, that despite Russia's military victory, a major consequence of the conflict was to discredit its role as a stability vector in the area. "[The conflict] also sent a signal to other post-Soviet countries that Russia is willing to use force to implement its interests," said Stefan Meister from the European Council on Foreign Relations.


The conflict exacerbated existing bad feelings between the two states over Moscow's support for Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia, where most of the fighting occurred, and Abkhazia. writes that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili put all the blame for the war on Russia, which, he claimed, wanted the “total destruction” of his home country – a notion Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rejects.


Saakashvili now claims he offered significant concessions, including an offer to Russia's prime minister at the time, Vladimir Putin, to abandon his quest to join NATO if Moscow helped smooth relations with the separatist territories. He also proposed a division of Abkhazia in June, two months before the war, writes.


The notion of ascribing blame for the war on both sides put forward by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili was part of “Russia’s propaganda,” he said.


Ivanishvili came to power last year promising a thaw in relations with Russia. His government has said it will investigate Saakashvili's part in the war. In 2011 he said Georgia had started the war and cited an EU-funded report that came to a similar conclusion while also citing Russia's disproportionate response to Georgian shelling of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.


RFE writes that one beneficial consequence of the war was greater involvement in the region from the European Union, which brokered the ceasefire in 2008. A year later the EU started the Eastern Partnership as a means of forging closer ties with Georgia and other former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.

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

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