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Navalny Faces Second Trial in Week, Lukashenka Makes Overtures to West

by Ky Krauthamer Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Lily Sieradzki 23 April 2014

1. Libel conviction adds to Navalny’s legal woes

 

navalny 100Alexei Navalny
Prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was found guilty of libel 22 April, a ruling that could send him from house arrest to prison pending his upcoming trial for theft, Reuters reports.

 

The judge in the Moscow court fined Navalny 300,000 rubles ($8,500) for calling a Moscow city official from the governing United Russia party a drug addict on Twitter. The decision does not carry a prison sentence.

 

Navalny has used the Internet as a platform for vocal criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and what he calls a culture of crime and corruption among Russia’s political and business elite. He was a critical figure in the protests following United Russia’s disputed win in the 2011 parliamentary elections.

 

Navalny, who has been under house arrest since late February on a suspended theft charge, denied the libel charge on the grounds that he is banned from using online social media. Family members and supporters are thought to post in his name, Reuters writes.

 

Navalny and his brother Oleg face another trial 24 April on separate theft charges brought by the French cosmetics maker Yves Rocher. A company linked to the Navalnys, Glavpodpiska, is accused of defrauding Rocher out of 27 million rubles ($750,000) by overcharging for freight services. Both deny the charges, according to The Moscow Times.

 

In a surprise development 22 April, Navalny’s blog posted a letter from the company retracting its accusations. The letter could not be verified, the Moscow paper writes. In any case the trial will probably go ahead since a Russian company, MPK, has also filed a complaint against Glavpodpiska.

 

In 2013, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement, two months before he was slated to run for mayor of Moscow. After thousands protested for his release, the government suspended the charges and allowed him to run. He won around a third of the vote.

 

2. Pristina renews call to demolish downtown Orthodox church

 

A Kosovo government minister’s call to demolish an unfinished church in central Pristina has drawn the ire of Serbian Orthodox authorities, Balkan Insight writes.

 

Environment Minister Dardan Gashi said 20 April that the Sveti Nikola church “had no planning permission and will therefore be treated like every other building with no permission.”

 

Construction of the church in one of the largest open areas in downtown Pristina began in 1995 but stalled during the Kosovo conflict in 1998-1999. Never completed, the building sits in an undeveloped lot next to the Pristina University library near the city’s central pedestrian zone. Most Orthodox fled or were forced out of Pristina in 1999.

 

pristinachurch_350Photo by Arild Vågen/Flickr

 

The university and the Serbian Orthodox Church dispute ownership of the site, Balkan Insight writes. Church officials accused Gashi of using the church as a political bargaining chip and making it “a provocation aimed at disrupting interethnic and inter-religious relations.”

 

An association of Kosovo Serbs condemned Gashi’s statement and drew attention to the “pogrom” of March 2004, according to B92.

Many Orthodox churches and monasteries were damaged as ethnic Albanians assaulted Serbs in the worst violence to hit the former Serbian province since 1999.

 

3. Kazakhstan eyeing final candidates for nuke plant

 

In small steps, Kazakhstan is moving toward exploiting its abundant supplies of uranium for nuclear power.

 

A village near Lake Balkhash has been selected as the most promising site for the country’s first domestically built nuclear power plant, Mazhit Sharipov, the chairman of the Industry Ministry’s committee for nuclear industry has said, according to Tengrinews.kz.

 

The area is prone to power shortages yet its good connections to the national grid permit sending electricity where it is needed, Sharipov told a nuclear industry meeting. Two other sites are also being considered, he said.

 

President Nursultan Nazarbaev had set a late-March deadline for the government to decide the plant’s location, financing, and construction timetable, Tengri reports.

 

A Soviet-built nuclear power plant operated in Kazakhstan from the 1970s until 1999, according to the World Nuclear Association, which notes that Kazakhstan became the world’s biggest uranium producer in 2009.

 

Last week Nazarbaev warned that rising tension between the United States and Russia could slow progress toward nuclear disarmament.

Nazarbaev has in the past been praised for ridding the country of Soviet nuclear weapons in the 1990s.

 

4. On Ukraine, does Lukashenka smell a payoff?

 

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka does not think Russia was right to annex Crimea, but he refused to back a UN resolution against the move.

 

Lukashenka is also ready to work with the government in Kyiv, which Moscow insists is illegitimate, while offering “to go to the end of the earth” to do Russia a favor.

 

Long adept at wringing aid and attention from suitors in Moscow and Brussels, Lukashenka appears to be using the crisis in Ukraine “to score points with all sides,” The Moscow Times reports. He is also stepping up rhetoric apparently aimed at warming recent cool relations with both poles of power on the Continent.

 

Belarus has been one of the few countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to diverge from Moscow’s line on Ukraine, The Moscow Times notes, and Lukashenka has compared the installation of the new government there to the one that replaced – with Moscow’s blessing – deposed Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010.

 

In his annual state of the nation address this week, the president also reached out to the European Union and United States, Naviny.by reports. With an eye on foreign investment, he urged that Belarus and Western powers put their differences aside. Possibly because those differences tend to lie in Lukashenka’s stifling of free expression and political opposition, and the presence of political prisoners in the country’s jails, on which he gives no indication of budging.

 

“Even amid the complicated political relations, the European Union remained one of our main trading partners and sources of loans and investment. Our country is important for the EU as a transit state and a gate to the huge promising market of the Customs Union and the future [Eurasian] economic union,” he said, according to Naviny.by.

 

On the other hand, nor is Lukashenka interested in alienating Russia, which, as The Moscow Times notes, has made available up to $6 billion in loans to Belarus since 2011 and provides all of Belarus’ natural gas.

 

Lukashenka has made overtures to Moscow about resolving a dispute over the dissolution of a joint Belarusian-Russian potash conglomerate. In this week’s address, he also defended the status of Russian as a state language, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

“Lukashenka’s flirtation with the Western position on Ukraine could lead Russia to buy back Belarus’ loyalty. And it could also win him favors from the West,” The Moscow Times notes.

 

belaruspresident_350Alyaksandr Lukashenka delivers the annual state of the nation address to lawmakers. Photo: Belarusian presidential office

 

5. Energy, conservation on the table at Caspian Sea talks

 

In a Caspian-sized version of the half-full or half-empty conundrum, the latest meeting of the five countries that share the world’s largest landlocked body of water is being seen in varying lights.

 

RIA Novosti quotes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s pronouncement of “significant progress” on clearing up the legal status of the sea after meeting his counterparts from Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan 22 April in Moscow.

 

Bloomberg Businessweek puts a negative spin on the meeting, suggesting Lavrov really meant the five countries “are still far from overcoming an almost quarter-century deadlock over dividing the area’s oil and gas riches.”

 

If the Caspian is defined as a lake, the five countries would share its huge hydrocarbon resources equally – 18 billion tons of them, according to RIA. Iran is pushing this line, while Russia and the other former Soviet states want to allot economic sectors corresponding to each country’s portion of the shoreline, sharply cutting Iran’s share of the pie, Bloomberg writes.

 

Energy reserves under the sea could be half those of the United Arab Emirates for oil and comparable to Saudi Arabia’s for gas, according to Bloomberg.

 

Conservation was also on the agenda, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said. According to Trend.az, Mammadyarov backs a moratorium on sturgeon fishing to preserve the endangered Beluga sturgeon, source of much of the world’s caviar.

 

The five countries plan to ratify an agreement on security cooperation in the Caspian at a November meeting in Baku.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Lily Sieradzki is a TOL editorial intern.
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