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Major Flaws Cast Shadow on Azerbaijan Election, Russia Has No Rivals in Wealth Inequality

Plus, Chevron nixes an exploration deal in Lithuania and Putin wants to merge two high courts.

by Erik N. Nelson, Barbara Frye, Alexander Silady, and Martha Tesema 10 October 2013

1. Major problems damage credibility of Azerbaijan election

 

International observers of Azerbaijan’s 9 October presidential election held a press conference today in Baku to condemn the results, but they were shouted down by seemingly well-organized protesters, who also prevented reporters from foreign media, including Reuters and Radio Free Europe, from asking questions.

 

 

Those disrupting the press conference included members of pro-government youth groups and media, according to a TOL correspondent who attended. They accused the observer mission of bias.

 

In a report today, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited major problems with vote counting, restrictions on the rights of opposition candidates to assemble and use national television, and voter and press intimidation.

 

“The limitations placed on the fundamental freedoms of assembly, association, and expression, the lack of a level playing field, the allegations of intimidation all came in the lead up to an election day that our observers found to be seriously flawed,” Tana de Zulueta, who led the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights observer mission, said in a statement.

 

Routinely criticized for human rights abuses, the government of Azerbaijan has been especially intolerant of dissent leading up to the election.

 

According to preliminary results, incumbent Ilham Aliev won a third term, with 84.73 percent of the vote.

 

The outcome was virtually predetermined. Officials apparently published results of the voting before it had begun, showing Aliev with 72.76 percent, The Independent reports.

 

The OSCE’s report noted, “The count was reported as overwhelmingly negative, with 58 percent of the observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad, indicating serious problems. Indications of ballot box stuffing were noted by observers in 19 counts observed.” In many polling places, observers were not given a clear view of the counting and some observers even witnessed outright falsification of voter list entries or ballots.

 

The observer mission also cited a media environment marred by “detentions, criminal prosecutions, testimony of physical attacks, and other forms of pressure on journalists.” Of television coverage of the candidates during the campaign, 92 percent was dedicated to the incumbent, the mission concluded.

 

The best-known among the nine challengers to Aliev, Camil Hasanli, took 5.2 percent of the vote, according the Central Election Commission’s post-voting tally.

 

2. Russia’s top 110 own a third of its wealth

 

When the Soviet Union collapsed and modern Russia was born, it was hoped that Russia “would convert to a high skilled, high income economy with strong social protection programs inherited from Soviet Union days,” according to a new study by the Swiss bank, Credit Suisse.

 

“This is almost a parody of what happened in practice,” the report laments, laying out how Russia’s “chosen few” were handed the Soviet Union’s key assets and have thus ended up on a lofty pinnacle of billionaires with a lock on the nation’s wealth.

 

So lofty, it found, that only 110 billionaires own 35 percent of the nation’s wealth.

 

“Russia has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, apart from small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires,” says the study, Global Wealth Report 2013.

 

The researchers who compiled the data found the 110 Russian billionaires listed by Forbes magazine and divided that number into their estimate of Russia’s overall wealth based on economic information provided by Russia’s state statistics agency, The Wall Street Journal’s Emerging Europe blog reports.

 

Anthony Shorrocks of Global Economic Perspectives Ltd., who helped write the report, told the blog that there were no other countries with which to compare Russia’s wealth disparity.

 

“The situation in Russia has no parallel,” he said. “If you look at how Russians have made their money and the sort of political ties that seem to be necessary to maintain it, there are just very few places where the situation is similar.”

 

3. Lithuania reconsiders its restrictions on shale oil

 

U.S. energy corporation Chevron has abandoned a lone bid to pursue shale gas exploration in Lithuania, citing an unstable regulatory environment, Reuters reports.

 

The decision came to light 8 October, Reuters reports, in a statement from the company that blamed a changing “fiscal, legislative, and regulatory climate” that have affected investments.

 

Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius addressed the withdrawal in a statement, saying, “We regret the company’s choice, but we understand they have the right because parliament is still considering laws affecting fossil fuels in our country.”

 

The western area targeted for exploration, Silute-Taurage, covers 1,800 square kilometres (70 square miles), Reuters writes. The government approved Chevron’s lone bid to tap into natural gas deposits there a month before the company abandoned it.

 

Chevron will continue to explore the Rietavas block, also in the west, for oil and gas. In October 2012, the company purchased half the shares from a Lithuanian company that has access to the site.

 

Lithuania relies heavily on Russian fuel imports, but the Baltic nation’s officials believe that 30 billion to 50 billion cubic meters of gas could be extracted from the nation’s shale deposits, AFP reports. The country used 3.4 billion cubic meters of gas in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

 

Citing comments by Butkevicius, Bloomberg Businessweek writes that a steep tax hike on income from gas and oil production and a requirement that local governments sign off on environmental impact statements before exploration can begin were major factors in Chevron’s pullout.

 

Butkevicius said in a radio interview he would like to see laws changed to encourage more interest from foreign investors in its energy resources.

 

“It is worth a fresh look at those laws with an eye to preparing and eventually announcing a new tender,” he said.

 

4. Putin’s court revamp called power grab by critics

 

Vladimir Putin's administration has submitted a bill to Russia's parliament that will merge the Supreme Court and the Supreme Arbitration Court, raising new fears that judicial checks and balances on presidential power will be erased, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

The Supreme Arbitration Court, viewed by observers as relatively impartial and apolitical, formerly concentrated on trade disputes. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, handles both criminal and civil cases, and Russia has a separate Constitutional Court that determines the constitutionality of laws.

 

"People take a dispute before courts of general jurisdiction and then the side that is unsatisfied with the ruling appeals with the same question to the arbitration system and receives the opposite ruling," Putin said in June when he proposed the measure. Under the merger, the new high court would have 170 judges.

 

Seven Supreme Arbitration Court judges have already resigned in protest, RAPSI reports. They and other critics charge the move is a violation of separation of powers and brings the judiciary under the ruling party's control, Radio Free Europe writes.

 

"I haven't heard of one legal benefit of this so-called reform," said Moscow defense attorney Vadim Klyuvgant. "I also am very alarmed and doubt that there will be any benefit to this. If the Supreme Court will have 170 judges, then how will it function?”

 

As a constitutional amendment, the measure would require super majorities in both houses of parliament, RFE notes.

 

5. Italian court rules in favor of Czech ‘Budweiser’ over American rival

 

In a victory for Czech brewer Budweiser Budejovicky Budvar NP, an Italian court on 8 October ruled that the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, could not use the name “Budweiser” on its flagship brand of beer in Italy, the Associated Press reports, citing a statement by the Czech firm.

 

Photo by Dorisall/Wikimedia Commons.

 

The brewer from Ceske Budejovice, a town of barely 100,000 inhabitants, has been locked in a struggle over naming rights with the American “King of Beers” for the last century, according to the Quartz website. In German, the town is called “Budweis,” which the U.S. firm borrowed to name its signature brand – for generations the top-selling beer in the United States – back in 1876. The Czech company was founded in 1895.

 

The Italian ruling means that the U.S. brand must use the abbreviated “Bud” moniker rather than “Budweiser,” while the Czech firm can sell its beer under the “Budweiser” name, which is accompanied by the Czech name “Budvar” on its bottles.

 

According to Quartz, Budweiser Budejovicky Budvar, the Czech beer’s full name, has been prohibited from using “Budweiser” in countries including the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, and Peru.

 

In December, the two companies abandoned negotiations over where the name could be used by which company.

 

While the U.S. Budweiser – owned since 2008 by the Belgian firm InBev – lost in Italy, it can sell under the “Budweiser” name in some other European countries, such as Germany and Austria, and is now fighting for trademark rights in 20 countries around the world.

 

In 2011, the European Court of Justice ruled that both companies could use the Budweiser name in Britain, as they had carved out distinct identities. 

Erik N. Nelson is a TOL contributing editor. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Alexander Silady and Martha Tesema are TOL editorial interns.
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