News & Current Affairs

September 14, 2008

Scores die in Russian plane crash

Scores die in Russian plane crash

A Russian airliner that crashed near a city in the Urals, killing all 88 people on board, caught fire and exploded in mid-air, reports say.

The Boeing-737-500, belonging to a branch of the national airline Aeroflot, was on a flight from Moscow to Perm, near the Ural mountains.

Twenty-one foreign passengers were on board the Aeroflot Nord flight.

Radio contact with the plane was lost as it was landing. One witness said it looked like a comet as it came down.

“It looked like a… burning comet. It hit the ground opposite the next house, there was a blaze, like fireworks, it lit the whole sky, the blaze,” the witness told Russian TV.

A still from Russian TV shows flames at the crash site early on 14 September

One witness said the blaze lit up the whole sky

The Boeing-737 had 82 passengers on board, including seven children, and six crew, Aeroflot said.

Those killed include Gen Gennady Troshev, a former commander of Russian forces in Chechnya and military adviser to former Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A spokesman for Russian federal prosecutors, Vladimir Markin, said a criminal inquiry had been launched to examine whether safety procedures had been violated.

Earlier, Mr Markin said the most likely cause of the crash was technical failure but Aeroflot says the plane had “a full technical inspection” early this year and was judged to be in a “proper condition”.

Aeroflot conducted its own investigation into the causes of the crash and, without giving details, announced it was stripping Aeroflot Nord of the right to use its name from Monday onwards.

‘Completely destroyed’

Contact with the plane was lost at 0521 Perm time on Sunday (2321 GMT Saturday) as the plane was coming in for landing at a height of 1,100 metres, Aeroflot said.

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The minister for security in the region said the plane had caught fire in the air at an altitude of 1,000 meters.

It crashed on the outskirts of Perm, just a few hundred meters from residential buildings, but no one was hurt on the ground.

Part of the Trans-Siberian railway was shut down as a result of damage to the main east-west train track and the blaze took two hours to extinguish.

The 21 foreigners killed were listed as nine people from Azerbaijan, five from Ukraine and one person each from France, Switzerland, Latvia, the United States, Germany, Turkey and Italy, Aeroflot said.

Investigators have recovered two black box recorders from the crash site. There was no immediate suggestion of an attack or sabotage.

Aeroflot’s managing director, Valery Okulov, told reporters in Moscow that his company had already conducted its own, private investigation into the crash and decided to sever ties with Aeroflot Nord.

“We have paid too high a price for lending out our flag,” he added.

Scorched earth

Correspondents say the tragedy will be a setback for Russian aviation, which has been trying to shake off a chequered safety record.

A woman in Perm told Vesti-24 TV how she was thrown out of bed by the force of the blast when the plane crashed.

She said: “My daughter ran in from the next room crying: ‘What happened? Has a war begun or what?’

“My neighbors, other witnesses, told me that it was burning in the air.”

Sunday’s accident was the deadliest involving a Russian airliner since 170 people died in August 2006 when a Tupolev-154 bound for St Petersburg crashed in Ukraine.

September 7, 2008

Poles first in Euro dance contest

Poles first in Euro dance contest

Polish Eurovision Dance Contest winners Marcin Mroczek and Edyta Herbus

The Poles beat 13 other couples to win the Eurovision title

Poland claimed first place in the Eurovision Dance Contest, which was held in Scotland on Saturday.

Actor Marcin Mroczek and dancer Edyta Herbus won the votes of watchers throughout the continent with a routine set to Michael Jackson’s music.

Russia finished second and Ukraine were third, while hosts UK finished ninth out of 14 competitors.

A television audience of millions watched the 135 minute program, which came from Glasgow’s SECC.

Graham Norton and Claudia Winkleman hosted the show, which featured 14 couples from Austria, Azerbaijan, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Each couple – one celebrity and one professional dancer – performed a freestyle dance with a national flavor which could have elements of Latin and Ballroom.

Graham Norton and Claudia Winkleman

The show was fronted by Graham Norton and Claudia Winkleman

A panel of expert judges as well as the TV audience voting from home then decided on the winner.

The UK was represented by Vincent Simone and Eastenders actress Louisa Lytton.

It is the second time the contest has been run. Finland won last year’s vote.

“With this competition, we created a fantastic new Eurovision tradition, which we are confident will last for many years to come,” said Bjorn Erichsen, Director of Eurovision TV.

Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

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Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Thousands of Armenians lined the streets of the capital Yerevan Saturday, protesting the Turkish president who drove past in the first ever visit by a Turkish leader. Many held placards demanding justice for massacres that took place nearly 100 years ago.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Abdullah Gul arrived in Armenia to watch a Turkey vs. Armenia football World Cup qualifier game with President Serge Sarkisian that many hope will help the two countries overcome decades of antagonism rooted in Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians.

Gul is the first Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia since the ex-Soviet nation declared independence in 1991. The two neighbors have no diplomatic ties and their border has been closed since 1993.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Ties have also suffered from Turkey’s opposition to Armenia‘s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

As Gul left the airport, the presidential motorcade drove along streets lined with thousands of people holding up placards, mostly in English and Armenian, that read: “We want justice,” “Turk admit your guilt,” and “1915 never again.”

Others held up names of places in Turkey from which their ancestors were forced to leave as the Ottoman Empire uprooted Armenian communities between 1915 and 1922.

Little progress is expected on the genocide issue or on Nagorno-Karabakh when Gul meets Sarkisian for talks just before the game — which Turkey is favored to win.

Still, the visit is a sign of a diplomatic thaw.

“I hope that (the visit) will help lift the obstacles that stand in the way of rapprochement between the two peoples and contribute to regional friendship and peace,” Gul said before his departure.

Gul’s decision to accept Armenia’s invitation to the match is linked to Turkey’s desire to carve out a regional peacemaker role amid tensions sparked by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia.

Turkey, a NATO member, has cause for alarm about how Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia might inspire its own separatist Kurds, or provoke Armenia to boost support for separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the wake of the Georgia conflict, Turkey proposed a regional grouping for stability in the Caucasus that would include Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“About a month ago, we all saw how conflicts that have remained unresolved threatened regional stability and peace in the Caucasus,” Gul said in reference to the Georgia crisis.

Armenia is the last of Turkey‘s neighbors with whom Ankara has failed to mend ties since the end of the Cold War. Turkey has gradually improved relations with old foes such as Greece, Bulgaria and Syria.

Improved ties with Armenia are likely to help lift strains on Turkey’s relations with other countries that have or plan to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.

In October, a measure that would have declared the Armenian deaths as genocide in the U.S. Congress was stopped after President George W. Bush’s administration warned relations with strategic ally Turkey would be damaged.

On the plane, Gul paid tribute to the Armenian president.

“President Sarkisian was brave in taking the opportunity of inviting me to this game,” he said.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara, in order to pressure Yerevan into ending the conflict. he move has hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia.

Armenia’s bitter ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have resulted in the tiny country being excluded from strategic energy pipelines that connect Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia.

Armenians, supported by numerous scholars, claim an organized genocide was carried out in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and are pushing for the killings to be recognized as among history’s worst atrocities.

Turkey contends the 1.5 million death toll is wildly inflated. It also says the Armenians were killed or displaced in civil unrest during the chaos that surrounded the empire’s collapse.

Turkey has called for the establishment of a committee of scholars to study the WWI events in a bid to improve ties, but Armenia has declined to consider this until relations are forged.

September 3, 2008

Russia praises EU’s approach

Russia praises EU’s approach

Lavrov, left, said Russia did not discriminate against Turkey in trade relations [AFP]

Russia has praised the European Union for taking a “responsible approach” to its conflict with Georgia by declining to impose sanctions on Moscow.

But Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said the EU had failed to understand Moscow’s reasons for moving into Georgia and recognising the separitist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“In my view, the outcome is double-edged,” Medvedev said at his summer residence on the Black Sea.

“This is sad, but not fatal because things change in this world. Another situation, in my opinion, is more positive.

“Despite certain divisions among the EU states on the issue, a reasonable, realistic point of view prevailed because some of the states were calling for some mythical sanctions.”

He later said that he does not consider Mikhail Saakashvili to be Georgia’s president, in an interview with a Russian television channel.

“For us, the present Georgian regime has collapsed. President Saakashvili no longer exists in our eyes. He is a political corpse,” Medvedev said.

EU leaders met in Brussels on Monday to discuss Russia and Georgia and threatened to postpone talks with Moscow on a new partnership pact if it did not withdraw its troops to pre-conflict positions in Georgia by mid-September.

The leaders were unable to reach a consensus on the sanctions that some members, including Britain and the Baltic states, had been pushing for, highlighting the bloc’s divisions over how best to deal with its largest energy supplier.

Cheney visit

Ahead of a visit by Dick Cheney, the US vice president, to US allies in the region, a Kremlin aide said he expected Washington would also opt against imposing sanctions.

Cheney, due to leave on Tuesday for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, has been an outspoken critic of Russia, saying last month its push into Georgia could “not go unanswered”.

Sergei Prikhodko, chief foreign policy advisor to Medvedev, told reporters:”We hope that a positive agenda in relations with the United States will prevail.”

Cheney has been an outspoken critic of Russia since the war broke out [EPA]

The statements contained none of the strident remarks made by Kremlin officials in the run-up to the EU summit.

It also appeared designed to signal Moscow’s readiness to take a conciliatory stance with western countries if they also avoid confrontation.

Russia sent its forces against its southern neighbour in a brief war last month after Georgia tried to recapture by force its pro-Moscow, separatist region of South Ossetia.

It has drawn Western condemnation by pushing beyond the disputed area, bombing and deploying troops deep inside Georgia proper and recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia said it was forced to intervene to prevent what it has called a genocide of the separatist regions by Tbilisi, and says it is honouring a French-brokered ceasefire deal.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is strategically important to the West because it hosts oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia.

August 23, 2008

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August

Ukraine’s leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia’s edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia’s leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the “guarantor of stability” in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the “former Soviet space”, there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own “frozen conflict” unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia’s military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)

Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine’s right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours’ notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia’s relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August

Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia’s action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent – so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow’s military operation had been conducted “calmly, wisely and beautifully”.

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released – the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

“It’s very significant,” said Britain’s Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. “For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners.”

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.

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