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Putin to Free Khodorkovsky, Baku Arrests a Regime Critic

Plus, Albania becomes the latest country to scrap the flat tax, and developers see no end to Eastern Europe’s shopping mall boom.

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Karlo Marinovic 19 December 2013

1. Putin: Khodorkovsky pardon coming soon


Mikhail KhodorkovskyMikhail Khodorkovsky
Russian President Vladimir Putin said today he will sign a pardon for the jailed former Yukos chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.


Khodorkovsky had recently requested a pardon for humanitarian reasons, Putin said shortly after his annual question-and-answer session with the press.


“His mother is ill. And I think that a decision can be made and the decree on the pardon will be signed in the nearest time,” Putin told journalists, according to RT.


A lawyer for Khodorkovsky told RIA Novosti his client had not filed an appeal for pardon. A source on Khodorkovsky's media team also told a TOL correspondent that he was not aware of such an appeal, but he speculated that the former tycoon might have filed it after reports of a possible third trial against Khodorkovsky began circulating recently. "After a 10-year imprisonment, you'll sign any document if you face a new trial that threatens another seven years in prison," the source said.


Khodorkovsky’s 11-year prison term will expire in August. In 2010, his original sentence was prolonged when he was convicted on a separate charge of theft and money laundering.


At the meeting with journalists today, Putin said some protesters jailed after anti-government demonstrations in 2012 could be eligible for amnesty. The State Duma on 18 December voted unanimously to approve the Kremlin’s amnesty bill, which the AP reports could see around 2,000 people freed from prison, mainly those convicted of nonviolent crimes, first-time offenders, minors, and women with small children.


Last-minute amendments could also see charges dropped against 30 Greenpeace activists and journalists awaiting trial for hooliganism, although they could still face new charges, AP writes.


Two jailed members of the radical punk band Pussy Riot were also expected to be eligible for the amnesty.


Putin said it was up to the courts to decide if those jailed for protesting on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012 were eligible. The amnesty must not be used to free those who committed crimes against police, he said, according to the Russian Legal Information Agency.


2. Azerbaijan arrests another critic


A vocal critic of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government will be detained for up to three months as he is investigated for illegal business practices, RIA Novosti reports.


Anar Mammadli, head of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center, was arrested 16 December. The group had found fault with October’s election in which President Ilham Aliev easily won a third term in office. International observers also criticized the conduct of the election. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited major problems with vote counting, restrictions on the rights of opposition candidates to assemble, and intimidation of voters and the media.


The charges against Mammadli include tax evasion and illegal business activity, Radio Free Europe reports.


In November police raided Mammadli’s center as part of what the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety called a crackdown on civil society and the media in the wake of the election.


Also this week, the Azerbaijani parliament tightened the rules for foreign-based nongovernmental organizations in a bill that requires such groups to have Azerbaijani citizens as deputy directors, Bloomberg reports.


The bill will now go to Aliev for signature. It also bars foreign organizations from conducting “professional religious activity.”


3. Albanian budget counting on higher tax receipts and foreign cash


Albania will raise taxes and take out a new IMF loan to inject funds into its ailing economy, Reuters reports.


On 16 December the new center-left government said it will replace 10 percent flat income tax on individuals with 13 percent and 23 percent marginal rates. A tax exemption for foreign oil workers may also be scrapped.


The profit tax bill for large businesses will also rise, from 10 percent to 15 percent, while it will shrink for small businesses, the news agency writes.


The tax changes will take effect on 1 January.


The president of the Albanian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Ilirian Zhilla, complained that raising taxes is counter to a trend in other crisis-stricken economies to ease the burden on business, Albeu Online Media reports.


Finance Minister Shkelqim Cani said the government aims to cut the deficit in half from the current 6 percent of gross domestic product and bring the debt down from 70 percent to 60 percent of GDP, Reuters writes.


On 17 December Albania and the IMF reached agreement on a 300 million euro ($412 million) loan meant to help bring the deficit and debt under control, Reuters reports.


The World Bank will probably give Albania $100 million to $200 million next year as well, according to Reuters.


In September, new Prime Minister Edi Rama said paying the government’s substantial debts to businesses would be an economic priority.


4. Russian authorities question Circassian activists


After eight minority activists were questioned by police in the North Caucasus, Human Rights Watch has accused Russian authorities of “a new campaign of harassment” aimed at critics of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.


The activists, all members of the Circassian ethnic group, were detained 14 December at their homes in the Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Adygea regions, AFP reports. They were then driven to Krasnodar, the administrative center of Krasnodar region, but were released after several hours and told to return for questioning this week.


Reports vary, from seven to 11, on the number of people detained. According to the Caucasian Knot news website, the activists were detained 13 December. Three said they were questioned by police on 16 December. The others expect to be questioned soon, according to Aslan Beshto, a Circassian leader in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. All of the interrogations concentrated on the men’s social activism, Beshto said.


In a statement today, HRW said, “The activists questioned have been engaged in promoting minority rights in the Krasnodar region, where Sochi is located. Some have been critical of the Russian government’s decision to host the Olympic Games in Sochi. Many Circassian people and other ethnic minorities claim Sochi is part of their historical homeland from which they were expelled during tsarist Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.”


The heads of two Circassian civic groups, Ruslan Kambiev and Ibragim Yaganov, were among those detained. Law enforcement officers produced a court order and searched both their houses for a suspected terrorist, the men told HRW.


Circassians and other Caucasus tribes resisted tsarist Russia’s attempt to colonize the region in the 19th century. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians died or were forced into exile.


Last summer Islamist insurgents based farther east in Russia’s North Caucasus regions threatened to stop the Sochi Olympics.


An Olympic winter sports arena under construction in Sochi. Photo by RIA Novosti Commons / Wikimedia Commons


5. Shopping malls migrating east as Central European markets near saturation


Residents of Warsaw and Prague may find the statement hard to credit, but there is still room for new shopping malls in these wealthy Central European capitals, even as developers increasingly look to Russia and Ukraine as the region’s mall magnets. These are some of the lessons of new reports by the commercial property company Colliers and the property consultants Cushman & Wakefield, The Prague Post writes.


Colliers says the “traditional safe havens for investment” such as Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava, now chock full of malls, are fast being outstripped by Russia and Ukraine. Moscow alone is expected to add almost 700,000 square meters of mall space this year, nearly as much as the entire country of Poland, according to the company’s latest Eastern Europe forecast (pdf).


The largest number of shopping centers on the drawing boards in Eastern Europe is in Russia, with about 200 planned, followed by Poland with 175 and Ukraine with 90, according to the economic forecasters RegioData. However, “The likelihood of these projects being realized cannot be determined exactly,” the company cautions. “Some of them have been in the pipeline for years already but did not receive the necessary financing or enough assurances of lease due to various weaknesses and market developments.”


Cushman & Wakefield notes that “All the traditional [Central European] markets of Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest seem relatively full” of malls, although there is still room for “niche developments and extension or remodeling of existing projects,” according to The Prague Post.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Karlo Marinovic is a TOL editorial intern.


Home page photo: Mikhail Khodorkovsky smiles at spectators during a session of Russia’s Supreme Court in August. The court reduced the sentences of Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Platon Lebedev by several months. Image from a video by PravdaTV/YouTube

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