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Klitschko to Seek Ukrainian Presidency, Pussy Riot Spotlights Russian Prison Conditions

Plus, Kyrgyzstan's lawmakers reject a new Kumtor gold mine deal and the Black Sea lures energy firms. by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Alexander Silady 25 October 2013

1. Ukraine's Klitschko affirms 2015 presidential bid

 

Vitali Klitschko
During a 24 October parliamentary session, Ukrainian boxer and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko announced his 2015 presidential candidacy, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

The 42-year-old world heavyweight champion made the announcement after parliament, dominated by the ruling Party of Regions, passed legislation effectively barring citizens who hold permanent residence status abroad from seeking the presidency. Klitschko has German residency.

 

Striking a rostrum, Klitschko said: "To all the dirty machinations that are going on today in parliament … I want to say that it will not intimidate me or stop me. To stop any conjectures or attempts to prevent me from running in the election, I want to state: I will run for president," RFE reports.

 

Klitschko is the first declared rival to President Viktor Yanukovych, widely expected to run again in 2015, the BBC notes. He entered parliament after his Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms placed third in last year's elections, and frequently agitates against Yanukovych and his Party of Regions.

 

Although international attention typically focuses on Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s imprisoned former prime minister, as a challenger to Yanukovych, it is Klitschko who could be the real threat. Recent polls by the respected Razumkov Center show that he is much more popular − or at least less disliked − than Yanukovych or Tymoshenko. 

 

Klitschko and other opposition figures held anti-government protests in April.

 

2. Russian feminist rocker shines light on 'slavery-like' prison conditions

 

Russian officials say they will not investigate allegations of mistreatment by a jailed member of the Pussy Riot feminist punk band – the most recent development in a case that has spotlighted the country's abysmal prison conditions.

 

Nadezhda Tolikonnikova during her trial last year. Photo by Denis Bochkarev/Wikimedia Commons.

 

On 24 October, Russia's powerful Investigative Committee dismissed Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's complaint that an official at a prison colony in Mordovia threatened to kill her, saying "no crime was committed," RIA Novosti reports. In addition to that complaint, Tolokonnikova published an open letter last month declaring a hunger strike from 23 September over "slavery-like" conditions, including 17-hour work days.

 

A week later, the 23-year-old was moved to a hospital and suspended her strike, The Wall Street Journal reports. But Tolokonnikova announced another hunger strike 18 October after being returned to the Mordovian penal colony, even though prison officials had promised the Kremlin's human rights ombudsman she would be transferred to another facility, which she eventually was this week.

 

Tolokonnikova and two other Pussy Riot members were sentenced to two years in prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for performing a protest song against President Vladimir Putin at Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral in February 2012. The Economist points out that her allegations have "set off a storm of indignation" over what it calls a prison colony network resembling the Soviet-era gulag archipelago.

 

While international human rights groups often fault Russian prison conditions, the Russian public remains largely uninformed because former convicts are societally marginalized. But a Russian prison expert told The Economist that Tolokonnikova's letter "stirred up the swamp."

 

As a result, prison officials have raised inmates' wages and lowered working hours, though much reform is still needed, The Economist says. The Kremlin's human-rights ombudsman also publicly excoriated the Federal Penal Service for initially breaking its word on Tolokonnikova's transfer.

 

3. Kyrgyzstan’s parliament rejects new gold mine deal as unrest continues

 

Legislators in Kyrgyzstan have rejected a proposal to increase the government's share in the country's key industrial asset, the controversial Kumtor gold mine, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

The deal would have made Bishkek 50-50 partners with the mine's operator, Canada-based Centerra Gold. But on 23 October parliament gave the government until 23 December to reach a deal to increase its stake from the current 33 percent to 67 percent despite Centerra's insistence that it will not accept a minority share.

 

If a deal isn't reached by the deadline, legislators pledged to break the current operating contract – a move bound to look "a lot like expropriation," EurasiaNet.org points out.

 

Outside the mine, located in the northern Issyk-Kul province, protesters continued to demand Kumtor's nationalization, an increasingly familiar demand over the past year. Though Kumtor accounts for 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP, many say Centerra Gold pays too little in taxes and that the country deserves a better deal.

 

In May, thousands of protesters clashed with police near Kumtor, prompting the government to draft the more lucrative deal for a 50-50 partnership. In renewed protests earlier this month, demonstrators blocked a key highway and briefly took the provincial governor hostage.

 

4. More companies look to Black Sea for energy reserves

 

Energy companies in Europe and elsewhere are turning to the Black Sea as a potentially massive resource, but it could take years before they can make effective use of it, Reuters reports.

 

The deep Black Sea is largely unexplored for gas and oil, but it has become increasingly attractive after a major find off the coast of Romania last year, Bloomberg notes. Adding to the urgency is the eagerness of countries in the region to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas supplies.

 

Much of southeastern Europe depends on gas from Russia’s Gazprom, the cost of which is kept high by Gazprom’s insistence on linking it to global oil prices. Russia has also cut off gas supplies periodically during disputes with pipeline countries Belarus and Ukraine, leaving downstream customers looking for alternative sources.

 

Among the especial difficulties of drilling in the Black Sea are depths that can reach up to 2,200 meters (7,250 feet) and hard volcanic rock at the seabed. As a consequence, according to Bloomberg, there are fewer than 100 oil and natural gas wells in the Black Sea, as opposed to more than 7,000 in the North Sea.

 

In July, Ukraine inked a $735 million deal with ExxonMobil to drill two wells in its portion of the Black Sea, with a goal of producing about 5 billion cubic meters of gas a year, according to Bloomberg. That amounts to about 10 percent of Ukraine’s annual consumption.

 

Alexey Volostnov, business development director at consultancy Frost & Sullivan, suggested that it would take an investment of $10 billion a year over the next three to five years for the Ukraine's energy plans to become viable, according to Reuters.

 

Other companies with licenses to explore in the Black Sea include Shell, OMV, Petroceltic International, and Vanco International Ltd., Reuters reports.

 

If a gas windfall materializes, it could help nine Black Sea countries keep a pledge made last week to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants − many of which are coal-fired in the region − and oil refineries by 2027, Reuters reports.

 

5. Albania accuses tax officials of $5 million theft

 

Several Albanian tax officials have been suspended and face charges of abuse of power and theft of 515 million leks ($5 million) from the country's public coffers. Balkan Insight writes that the former head of Tirana's tax office and head of the tax inspectorate are among the accused.

 

A statement from the Albanian Finance Ministry said the fraud scheme involved 11 shell companies acting as recipients for valued added tax reimbursements. The charges are to be investigated by the Tirana prosecutor's office, the statement also said, according to Balkan Insight.

 

The tax fraud might have contributed to a dramatic drop in government revenues during the summer months, before the new Socialist government took office in September, Albanian Top Channel writes. Early this month, Top Channel had reported on a steep drop in revenues that could not be explained by the economic crisis alone. Two weeks later, Finance Minister Shkelqim Cani told a parliamentary committee the budget hole had been caused by the fact that “there are even criminal acts in the administration of the Albanian taxes.”

 

Committee chairman Erjon Brace urged Cani to identify the network responsible for the scheme, recover the revenues, and not offer any amnesty for tax evasion in the upcoming eight to nine months.

 

In September, Prime Minister Edi Rama promised to make a priority of paying the government’s substantial debts to businesses, which have been a hindrance to the development of the private sector in the Balkan country.
S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Alexander Silady is a TOL editorial intern.
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