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Plus, Kyrgyzstan leads the region in maternal deaths and Armenia’s civil society protests Russian envoy’s remarks.by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Jeremy Druker, and Lily Sieradzki 12 May 2014
While Moscow beats Ukraine with a stick, it’s all carrots for Belarus, which has won some key concessions from Russia in trade talks, Reuters reports.
Russia has agreed to ship 23 million tons of duty-free oil to Belarus this year and to halve the duties it assesses on products Belarus makes from Russian oil then sells on the world market, Voice of Russia reports.
Minsk will save about $1.5 billion on oil products duties, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka told reporters.
The deal also includes a 10 percent hike in the amount of oil Russia ships to Belarus.
The arrangement is a climbdown for Moscow, which only started charging duties on oil exports to Belarus in December 2006. But it has bought the Kremlin a staunch ally as the 29 May signing of a customs union agreement among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan approaches.
Apparently sensing his advantage with an increasingly isolated Kremlin, Lukashenka threatened to hold up the signing if Belarus did not receive some trade concessions, including on oil product tariffs, according to Reuters.
In April, Lukashenka made an appeal for closer ties to the EU and took issue with Moscow’s line on the legitimacy of the new government in Kyiv.
“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 noted at the time.
In announcing the oil agreement last week, Lukashenka said his country would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Russia as it faces widespread condemnation over its actions in Ukraine, Reuters reports.
Kyrgyzstan has the highest rates of pregnancy- and childbirth-related death in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to an April report by the UN assessing the country’s progress in reaching its Millennium Development Goals.
Set in 2000, the eight goals include eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, improving maternal health, reducing infant mortality, and stopping the spread of fatal communicable diseases by 2015.
The report shows that Kyrgyzstan has made virtually no progress in reducing maternal mortality, which dropped by 0.2 percent from 1990 to 2010, compared with a global decrease of 3.1 percent.
The country’s maternal mortality rate stands at around 50 deaths per 100,000 births, several times the national mortality rates of 15.7 deaths per 100,000 births, according to Alexander Avanesov, the UN Development Program’s representative in Kyrgyzstan, the 24.kg news agency reports.
The country had aimed to cut the rate by 75 percent, according to the UN study.
The report cited underfunding of maternal health care, poorly equipped clinics and hospitals, a lack of facilities in rural areas, and an increase in teenage pregnancies. Some programs implemented to save pregnant women’s lives have not been rolled out across the country, it said.
Early marriages have also been on the rise, especially in southern Kyrgyzstan, where some couples wed in a Muslim Sharia rite called nikah. The ceremony is not always accompanied by an official one in front of the authorities, thus creating the potential for forced marriages for girls below the official age of consent, which is 18.
The UN report suggests officials work on raising awareness about reproductive and sexual health issues, particularly among disadvantaged women and women living in rural areas.
One day after concluding a controversial trip to Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniester, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin warned Chisinau not to sign a free trade and political association agreement with the EU, Radio Free Europe reports.
The warning echoes those made to Ukraine last year in the run-up to the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit, at which Kyiv was to sign a similar agreement. Russia threatened then to support pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine and to abandon the treaty that delineated the border between the two countries.
On leaving the region 11 May, Rogozin’s jet was refused clearance to enter Ukrainian air space and had to land in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, where officials confiscated “lists of names” on a petition calling for Russian annexation of Transdniester, Reuters reports.
Rogozin said most of the papers made it back to Russia.
“The Russian delegation has ... brought home the appeal to the Russian authorities by Transdniestrians. And even if it’s of symbolic rather than legal character, it is now important to us,” Rogozin wrote on Facebook, according to Reuters.
Transdniester is a sliver of land between Ukraine and Moldova proper that broke away from Moldova more than 20 years ago. Its independence is not recognized by any country.
One-third of the region’s roughly 500,000 people are ethnic Russians and it hosts around 2,500 Russian soldiers, Reuters reports, prompting fears of an impending annexation similar to Crimea.
Rogozin visited Transdniester on 9 May to mark Victory Day, which celebrates Soviet Russia’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Armenian civic activists are on edge after the Russian ambassador to Armenia called for a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations because of their alleged attempts to harm relations between Moscow and Yerevan, EurasiaNet.org reports.
Speaking to Noyev Kovcheg, an Armenian-language newspaper in Moscow, Russian Ambassador Ivan Volinkin complained that Armenian NGOs are trying to “drive a wedge” between the two countries. Earlier, at an April meeting of the “Russian Compatriots in Yerevan,” Volinkin said Russia would move against “any aggressive intervention in the internal affairs of its neighboring countries” that had the purpose of promoting “ideas that are alien to our minds and hearts,” according to EurasiaNet.org.
In the Noyev Kovcheg interview, Volinkin advocated an information campaign “and other methods” against the NGOs and mentioned Russia’s highly criticized 2012 law that forces independent civic groups that receive international funding to label themselves "foreign agents.”
Such comments have sparked widespread anxiety among civil society groups, already worried that Armenia’s planned entry into the Russia-led Customs Union will translate into greater Armenian servility, EurasiaNet.org reports.
“Russia is trying to silence independent voices in Armenia – the moderate, but strong civil society, which they have failed to conquer,” Artur Sakunts, head of the Helsinki Civil Assembly’s Vanadzor office, told EurasiaNet.org.
Activists are also angered that Volinkin’s comments have not prompted any public reaction from the authorities in Yerevan. A group of about 25 NGOs called for Volinkin’s recall to Moscow or at least an official apology. The Armenian Foreign Ministry has said that the government has been in touch with Volinkin but gave no details.
For his part, Volinkin has claimed that his words had been subject to “free interpretation” and that he was not advocating repressive steps against civic groups.
Whether Armenian citizens would actually rebel against a Russian-style crackdown against NGOs is an open question, writes Aram Abrahamyan, editor in chief of the Yerevan-based daily Aravot, in a 10 May commentary.
“Do we, the citizens of Armenia, want a law restricting the rights of NGOs in our country according to Russia’s pattern? Let me promptly say that 90 percent of our citizens do not care about this issue. Most of them just want to live the good life,” Abrahamyan writes.
The former editor of a government-owned newspaper in Serbia is blaming his firing last week on his criticism of nominees for posts in the country’s new cabinet, Balkan Insight reports.
Srdjan Skoro said he was given no explanation for his 9 May ouster from Vecernje Novosti, but he linked it to comments he made during a recent appearance on the morning show of Serbia’s public broadcaster, according to Balkan Insight.
The appearance prompted a statement from the country’s ruling party that the television station had damaged “the reputation of the new government and the party's leader, Aleksandar Vucic,” Balkan Insight writes.
The Serbian government recently took over the heavily indebted Vecernje Novosti.
Vucic distanced himself from the ruling party’s statement and urged the public broadcaster to continuing being critical “because if corrects us and makes us better,” B92 reports.
Vucic became prime minister in late April after his Serbian Progressive Party won parliamentary elections in March.
A national journalists’ organization condemned Skoro’s firing as “an attack on freedom of expression,” according to B92.