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Belarus Wants Ransom for Potash Exec, No More Pirate Talk for Arctic 30

Plus, Washington washes its hands of an air base in Kyrgyzstan, and a mullah in Tajikistan is charged in a fertility fraud.

by Erik N. Nelson, Ioana Caloianu, Alexander Silady, and Martha Tesema 24 October 2013

1. Lukashenka makes ransom demand in potash case

 

Having already won some face-saving concessions from Russia in its fight over a busted-up potash cartel, Belarus is demanding payment before it releases the detained Russian director of the defunct joint venture, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

 

Vladislav Baumgertner
Belarus has been holding Vladislav Baumgertner, chief executive of Russian potash producer OAO Uralkali, in Minsk since August, resisting Russian appeals for his release.

 

On 23 October, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka demanded payment for unspecified damages from Russia in return for freeing Baumgertner.

 

Radio Free Europe writes that Putin planned to meet with his Belarusian counterpart to discuss the Uralkali issue that led to Baumgertner’s abuse-of-office charges in Minsk.

 

The two are already set to meet at the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council summit meeting today and tomorrow, but RFE predicts the Putin-Lukashenka potash discussions will be “tense meetings on the sidelines.”

 

Baumgertner was first detained in a Belarusian KGB jail on 26 August, then released in September to confinement in a Minsk apartment.

 

The charges followed Uralkali’s withdrawal from a consortium with Belarus-based Belaruskali that controlled two-thirds of the supply of potash, used as a source of potassium for fertilizer.

 

The move, which Uralkali said was prompted by Belaruskali’s selling outside of the cartel, knocked the wind out of global potash markets.

 

Russia has opened an investigation into Baumgertner’s actions, at Minsk’s insistence, although it could be quietly dropped as soon as the executive is back on home soil.

 

Lukashenka is also demanding that Uralkali’s ownership changes – now in the works as a few Russian billionaires angle for a share.

 

2. U.S. military trading air base near Bishkek for one in Romania

 

The U.S. military has decided to pull out of its air base in Kyrgyzstan after 10 years of rocky relations with the government there.

 

A row of KC-135 Stratotankers on the tarmac at Manas in 2007. Photo by Staff Sergeant Les Waters/U.S. Air Force.

 

In June, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted against renewing the base’s lease, which ends in July. Similar decisions in the past have preceded renewals with major rent increases, but U.S. Defense Department officials have decided to move the base, according to the Spokesman-Review newspaper.

 

The recent announcement appeared to reflect frustrations with Bishkek upping the ante on the base, Foreign Policy reports.

 

"It became too complicated," a senior U.S. Defense Department official told the magazine. "The juice wasn't worth the squeeze."

 

The base’s presence has also been a flashpoint for rival factions in Kyrgyzstan seeking either to strengthen ties with Russia or tilt westward.

 

Situated near the capital, the Manas Transit Center is used as a stopping-off point for U.S. and other members of the military coalition fighting in the 12-year-long war in Afghanistan.

 

One of Manas’ key functions is as a base for U.S. Air Force aerial refueling operations near the air crews’ home base in the northwestern United States.

 

The refueling crews would move to another base in southwestern Asia, a U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman told the Spokesman-Review without being more specific.

 

Other operations would be moved to a base in Romania, which, although much farther from Afghanistan, still works as a way station, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reports.

 

Romania’s Mihail Kogalniceanu air base is about 16 miles northwest of Constanta, a Black Sea port. The base is alleged to have housed a “black site” where terror suspects were brought by the CIA for interrogation, Stars and Stripes writes.

 

The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst reports that the loss of annual rent combined with “$200 million of various spending associated with Manas,” may be a significant economic loss for the impoverished Central Asian nation. 

 

3. Greenpeace defendants’ charges dropped to ‘hooliganism’

 

The Greenpeace environmental activists who were arrested by Russian authorities in September while trying to board the world’s only Arctic oil rig will face the lesser charge of hooliganism rather than piracy, RIA Novosti reports.

 

Thirty people aboard the icebreaker Arctic Sunrise were detained by the Russian coast guard in international waters after they demonstrated against oil drilling conducted by the Prirazlomnaya platform in the Barents Sea.

 

The hooliganism charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison, compared with up to 15 years for piracy. All 30 of those arrested – 28 activists and two journalists – were charged earlier with piracy, prompting an international outcry that authorities were treating members of the well-known environmental group too harshly.

 

The government of the Netherlands, where the ship is registered, has asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to order Russia to release them.

 

Greenpeace members are known for putting their bodies on the line for environmental issues, including getting between explosive harpoon guns and whales being hunted.

 

Vladimir Markin, the chief of Russia's Investigative Committee, which is prosecuting the case, said the detainees were uncooperative and had wasted authorities' time while drawing out the case. He also said the burden of proof was on them to show they did not intend to commit terrorism or steal research and trade secrets by approaching the rig.

 

“The failure of the accused to give evidence gave cause for investigators to carefully consider all alternative versions of what took place,” Markin said.

 

Greenpeace said in a statement that the accusations of both piracy and hooliganism were false and that Russia reacted recklessly and with excessive force to a legitimate protest.

 

“It is a cheap libel to accuse those campaigners of doing anything other than protesting peacefully; they arrived at that oil rig in a ship painted with a dove and a rainbow,” the statement said.

 

4. Cleric in trouble for familiar answer to ‘infertility’

 

Perhaps when women apply to their local cleric for help with producing children, they might expect a few readings from a holy book, some incantations, and maybe a bit of work with prayer beads.

 

That could be the basis for a court in Tajikistan taking issue with a mullah who promised to treat local wives’ infertility complaints, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

His technique, it has been documented on a video posted on YouTube, is to become somewhat familiar with the woman’s bodies – to the point of disrobing them enough to be considered highly inappropriate in a conservative, somewhat religious society.

 

The defendant, Asadullo Ibrohimov, has admitted being “partially guilty” of the charges of sexual misconduct and fraud, RFE writes. He faces up to seven years’ imprisonment if convicted.

 

In the damning five-minute YouTube video, a man is seen reciting the Koran, embracing, fondling, and kissing a woman before lifting her tunic and moving his body against hers from behind.

 

In nearby Kazakhstan, tradition would prescribe something quite different for infertility, according to “Curative Powers: Medicine and Empire in Stalin’s Central Asia.”

 

“Kazakhs tried to remedy infertility by skinning a sheep or goat, wrapping the hide around the afflicted woman and rubbing her genitals and stomach with fat from the slaughtered animal,” the author, Paula Michaels, writes.

 

If that was too icky, a draught of mare’s milk might have sufficed.

 

5. Bulgarian guilty in human trafficking deaths nabbed in U.S.

 

U.S. authorities have seized a Bulgarian man who fled a prison sentence for negligent homicide and human trafficking in his home country, according to Reuters.

 

Now working as a long-haul trucker in the state of Washington, Plamen Vladimirov Trifonov was convicted of trying to smuggle 40 Sri Lankan nationals in a truck going from Romania to Hungary in 1995, 18 of whom suffocated, the news agency writes, citing documents in the case.

 

After Trifonov opened the back of his truck and discovered what had happened, he abandoned it and the survivors to hitchhike back to Bulgaria, Reuters writes.

 

Trifonov was sentenced in 2002 by a Bulgarian court to eight years in prison, a term he never served. While it is unclear when Trifonov entered the United States, records indicate that he had been arrested by federal immigration officers in 2006.

 

Under a 2009 extradition agreement between the United States and Bulgaria, he could be returned to serve his Bulgarian sentence. Bulgarian authorities have already made an extradition request.

 

Trifonov is currently locked up in the municipality of SeaTac, which is next to Seattle’s airport of the same name. He is scheduled to appear in court for an extradition and detention hearing on 1 November. 

 

Bulgaria has long been an entry point for illegal immigrants and refugees from Asia. Their number has grown with the recent Syrian civil war, which has prompted thousands of refugees to enter via Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria.

 

The influx is putting a strain on Bulgaria's refugee system, prompting the country to seek help from the EU. 

Erik N. Nelson is a TOL contributing editorIoana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Alexander Silady and Martha Tesema are TOL editorial interns.
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