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Another Russia-China Hookup, More Pressure on Political Prisoners in Belarus

Plus, heads start to roll after Kazakhstan violence and minorities sue Tirana for the right to be counted.

by Barbara Frye and Ioana Caloianu 2 January 2012

1. Huge power station gins up on Russian-Chinese border


Russia and China began testing their largest cross-border power-transmission line on 31 December, Chinese news agency Xinhua reports. A border substation and power lines, called the trans-Amur project for the river that serves as a boundary between the two countries in that location, can send as much as 750 megawatts of electricity, according to the report. Russian companies aim to transmit tens of thousands times more juice across the border by the end of this decade.


Xinhua notes that the transmission test coincides with the one-year anniversary of the opening of an oil pipeline between Russia and China. But an analysis in The Washington Post says energy cooperation between the neighbors is hampered by “a long history of mutual distrust, similarly hard-nosed business styles, and gnawing fear of dependency [that] keeps them apart.”


For instance, Post reporter Andrew Higgins writes, Gazprom “has spent a decade haggling with [the China National Petroleum Company] over a proposed gas pipeline and a mammoth supply deal worth up to $1 trillion. Not only has construction not begun, but the two sides can’t even agree within a thousand miles on where the pipeline would go.”


Even the pipeline opened a year ago has been the subject of dispute. With construction partially funded by a loan from China, to be repaid with Russian oil, Higgins notes, the countries have been arguing over who owes whom, and how much.


2. Belarusian prisoners’ wives sound alarm over fate of their husbands


Iryna Khalip
The wives of imprisoned opposition figures in Belarus have said prison officials are stepping up pressure on their husbands, denying them family visits and legal help. One said her spouse had even told her he was contemplating suicide “as I will have no other way out,” according to the independent Belapan news agency.


Volha Bandarenka said her husband, Dzmitry Bandarenka, gave her that warning during her last visit with him. Dzmitry Bandarenka, a former journalist and aide to presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau, was arrested in the December 2010 crackdown after protests following the questionable re-election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. In March 2011 he was sentenced to two years in prison for disturbing “public order.”


Volha Bandarenka said political prisoners are being pressured to ask for pardons because Minsk authorities “want to release them but on their own terms” and hope to show that the opposition leaders “have been humiliated, broken down,” Belapan reports.


Sannikau himself is serving a five-year prison sentence. His wife, Iryna Khalip, said prison officials have not permitted her to visit her husband for months. Based on reports from other prisoners’ relatives, she said she fears Sannikau could be ill. He has also been denied access to a lawyer since early November.


In a joint press conference, Khalip, Volha Bandarenka, and Maryna Adamovich, who is married to former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich, criticized the EU’s approach to Belarus. Khalip called a current travel ban on certain officials “laughable.” Those affected do not travel anyway, she said: “They have spent all their lives on vegetable beds and will stay there until death.”


Instead, Khalip said EU countries should use economic sanctions against Minsk. "The Netherlands buys more Belarusian petroleum products than the rest of Europe,” she said. “Stop buying these petroleum products for one day, and everybody will fly out of prison by the evening."


3. President’s son in law is first to go after Kazakhstan riots


Timur Kulibaev
In the wake of deadly riots in the western part of the country, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev has fired Timur Kulibaev, director of the country’s sovereign wealth fund and husband of the president’s daughter Dinara.


The riots on 16 December left at least 16 people dead. They started when striking oil workers clashed with police amid preparations for the country’s Independence Day celebrations. According to some reports, police tried to evict the strikers from a central square where they had been holding a vigil during their seven-month strike, while other accounts say the strikers starting throwing stones at workers trying to install yurts on the square for the festivities.


The sovereign wealth fund formerly led by Kulibaev controls KazMunaiGas, the state oil and gas company that has been the target of the strikes. Gas and oil workers are demanding that they receive a raise promised them nearly three years ago.


Kulibaev, who has been mooted as a possible successor to the 71-year-old president, has served in top positions in the state’s large oil and gas industry over the past decade.


The Telegraph says the move suggests that Nazarbaev intends to blame Kulibaev for the unrest. In the meantime, the president has been making conciliatory noises about the violence. “One shouldn't confuse an oilmen’s working dispute with the criminal acts of bandits who aimed to take advantage of the situation," he told Reuters. Astana has also invited representatives from the United Nations to help investigate the violence.


4. Tirana deletes nationality category from official registries


Representatives of several minority groups in Albania plan to take Tirana to the European Court of Human Rights over its decision not to include a category for nationality in official registries, Balkan Insight reports.


If the decision stands, for instance, the children of Greeks born in Albania could not be listed as Greek in birth registries.


Some minority spokespeople say being forced to list their nationality as Albanian amounts to discrimination, but Balkan Insight quotes an official with a judicial oversight committee as saying, “Some artificial Greek minority is going to ask for special status, maybe for a percentage in parliament or government.” The country’s highest court had earlier struck down challenges by minority groups to the decision.


The prohibition could mean that future censuses will reflect a diminishing minority population, as it is illegal in Albania for a person to declare a nationality in the census that does not jibe with official registries.


The groups involved in the international lawsuit are Greeks, Macedonians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Vlachs, Roma, and Egyptians.


5. Central bank legislation could imperil Budapest’s bid for aid


New central bank regulations approved on 30 December threaten Hungary’s bid for financial aid from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union, The Wall Street Journal reports. The law, which expanded the rate-setting Monetary Council and created a third vice president, has been criticized by the European Central Bank for threatening the national bank’s independence.


Prime Minister Viktor Orban dismissed those concerns. “It is a European fashion that the central bank must be in a sacred state of independence,” he said in a radio interview. “Every time there is a hint of government influence, the nerve endings jerk, sending a signal all the way to Brussels.” Orban said the government would send an envoy in early January to hold talks in Washington with the IMF but if the negotiations fail, "We can still stand on our own two feet."


But analysts say a failure to obtain the loan could trigger a sharp increase of the country’s borrowing costs. Hungary’s credit rating was downgraded to junk by the Moody’s agency in November.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is TOL's editorial assistant.
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