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Belarus Chafes under Russian Trade Pact, Polish President Apologizes for Embassy Attack

Plus, Uzbekistan runs out of gas, and Albania mulls tackling Syria’s chemical stockpile. 

by Erik N. Nelson, Karlo Marinovic, Martha Tesema, and Alexander Silady 14 November 2013

1. Belarus gets short end of the stick in free trade area, officials say 


Just as Russia is trying to woo other countries into its Customs Union, a free-trade zone,  officials in Belarus are complaining that membership has done little for their country, Belarus Digest reports.


Specifically, they are peeved about a recycling tax on imported vehicles that will go into effect in Russia on 1 January. The Digest says the losses for Belarusian truck manufacturers could reach $350 million, presumably as the higher prices make their vehicles less attractive in the Russian market.


In addition, Minsk continues to lobby Moscow to drop export duties that the Kremlin demands when Belarus re-exports oil that it has bought from Russia and refined domestically. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka put the annual tab for those payments at $4 billion, according to the Digest.


Meanwhile, prices for some necessities have risen to the level of those in other Customs Union countries.


"Putin has promised – beginning 1 January – to remove all exemptions and restrictions with trade. Otherwise, we will not be able to stay in the Customs Union, since we would not see any economic benefits from it,” Lukashenka said, quoted by the Digest.


Belarus depends on Russia for more than half of its imports and sends about 40 percent of its exports there.


Still, the state-owned Belta news agency reports that some see economic ties between Moscow and Minsk as strong. “Manufacturers from the Belarusian capital, other cities and oblasts of the country are regular participants of Moscow weekend fairs. Their high-quality products are extremely popular with Moscow residents,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in a speech this week, according to the agency.


2. Embassy assaults exchanged in Poland, Russia


Polish President Bronisław KomorowskiBronislaw Komorowski
Poland’s president, Bronislaw Komorowski, took to the airwaves 13 November to apologize to Russia for rioters who threw firecrackers into the Russian Embassy in Warsaw two days earlier, The Moscow Times reports.


The same day, Russian protesters in Moscow chucked their own pyrotechnics onto the grounds of the Polish Embassy in Moscow, Reuters writes.


According to the Times, the presidential apology met Russia’s demand following the Warsaw incident.


"The Russian authorities have every reason for harsh judgments,” Komorowski said in his broadcast, reported by The Moscow Times, which cited BBC Russia. “Such a deplorable situation has arisen in which everyone is forced to be ashamed and apologize for the excesses of hooligans, the Polish government and its authorities most of all."


The Warsaw incident grew out of a demonstration by an estimated 50,000 Poles marking their Independence Day. The rally, organized by nationalists and far-right groups, spawned the firecracker assault, according to The Moscow Times.


The apparent retaliatory attack on the Polish Embassy in Moscow was reportedly organized by the Other Russia opposition movement. Flares were thrown at the embassy, and Russian police detained three people in connection with the incident.


3. Albania might take Syrian chemical weapons


Amid the thorny diplomacy surrounding the ongoing Syrian civil war, it may fall to Albania to take on the task of destroying the chemical weapons stockpile of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, Tribune newspapers report.


As al-Assad has agreed to give up those chemical weapons, which include sarin and mustard gas, he has refused to break them down on Syrian soil. The Obama administration has asked Tirana to take on the task, and Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government is considering the request, despite banning waste imports in September.


Albanians are usually pro-American, feeling a debt of gratitude for Washington for helping keep Albanian territory intact in the aftermath of World War I and leading military action in Kosovo in response to the killings of ethnic Albanians in 1999.


Edi RamaEdi Rama. Photo: Socialist Party of Albania


However, protests arose in Tirana this week over the government’s perceived sycophancy, with demonstrators chanting “Albania is ours” and “Yes, we can say ‘no,’ ” Reuters reports.


“Albania belongs to the Albanians, not the international community,"  activist Aldo Merkoci said. “Only the sovereign people can rule on this matter. We are here today to say no.”


One senior opposition lawmaker called the prime minister “Chemical Edi,” borrowing the nickname of a notorious former Iraqi official who used chemical weapons against civilians.


Rama downplayed concerns about the environment and Albania’s reputation.


"There is no doubt that were I not in my current office, I would have joined the protest upon hearing the experts painting such an apocalyptic scenario to Albanians,” he said. "But in my office I do not see this apocalyptic scenario.”


4. Uzbekistan copes with fuel shortage


In spite of its enviable oil reserves, Uzbekistan is having problems keeping its motorists tanked up.


Uzbekistani motorists have have had to wait in long lines to fill their tanks with price-controlled fuel or resort to paying higher prices on the black market, Radio Free Europe reports.


“I have just bought some gasoline and the queue was some 5 kilometers long,” one motorist told RFE. “There is virtually no gasoline in Samarkand. Look at this traffic, it's not moving. This is life! We're not living, just surviving.”


Motorists find many stations closed for lack of fuel, which the government keeps below $1 a liter.


Those who try their luck with the black market have reported paying as much as $3.60 for a liter.


All this is frustrating for Uzbekistanis, who know that their country is an oil exporting country. Anonymous sources in the oil industry told RFE the state refineries routinely run below capacity and are currently not producing any gas at all. Experts blame falling production in the country’s “Soviet era” oil fields and a lack of foreign investment to update extraction technology.


While state officials have been slow to acknowledge that there’s a problem, a subsidiary of the national oil holding company issued a statement saying it planned to do something about it.


Uzbeknefteprodukt, which is part of the national UzbekGazOil, issued a press release saying it planned to increase oil imports from neighboring Turkmenistan for refining within Uzbekistan, Ferghananews reports.


5. Ukrainian journalists quit, charging censorship


Kurchenko_100Serhiy Kurchenko
Fourteen journalists have quit the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine to protest censorship after the magazine was bought by Ukrainian gas mogul Serhiy Kurchenko, the Associated Press reports.


More than half the editorial staff, including senior editor Boris Davidenko, quit 13 November after the new chief editor, Mikhail Kotov, rejected an investigation into who reports variously say is First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov or his adviser.


Journalists complained of a “tiny little list” of topics the new management told them 12 November that were not to be investigated. They were not actually shown the list.


“They didn’t say which ones, but you could guess which group of people they were talking about from the pitch about Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Arbuzov’s adviser,” Davidenko said, quoted on Buzzfeed.


Kotov rejected the accusations, instead blaming journalists for “insufficiently high quality standards for the work, inflated egos and ambitions of a number of some staff members,” Buzzfeed reports.


Arbuzov is believed to be tied to Kurchenko, whose $400 million purchase of the magazine was concluded this month, the Kyiv Post reports.


Kurchenko was subject of a  Forbes' investigation a year ago, conducted by reporters Sevgil Musayeva and Alexander Akimenko, both of whom received threats during the investigation.


“When they asked a Kurchenko representative what the chances were that their article would have bad consequences for their health, the representative wrote ‘2/3’ on a piece of paper,” former senior editor Vladimir Fedorin told Buzzfeed.

Erik N. Nelson is a TOL contributing editorKarlo Marinovic, Alexander Silady, and Martha Tesema are TOL editorial interns.
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