News & Current Affairs

July 15, 2009

Russian activist ‘found murdered’

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Russian activist ‘found murdered’

A prominent Russian human rights activist, Natalia Estemirova, has been found dead in the North Caucasus.

She was bundled into a van and abducted as she left her home in Chechnya on Wednesday morning, a colleague said. Her body was found in Ingushetia.

The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed “outrage” at the murder, and ordered a top-level investigation.

Ms Estemirova had been investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya for the independent Memorial group.

Memorial is one of Russia’s best known rights groups, working to document Soviet-era abuses and those taking place more recently, especially in Chechnya.

In recent months, she had been gathering evidence of a campaign of house-burnings by government-backed militias.

Forcefully taken

Ms Estemirova, who was 50 according to Russian prosecutors, had worked in the past with the activists Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in 2006, and Stanislav Markelov, who was killed in January this year.

In 2007 she was awarded the inaugural Anna Politkovskaya Prize, and had also received awards from the Swedish and European parliaments, Memorial said.

In a statement the group said she “was forcefully taken from her house into a car and shouted that she was being kidnapped” at about 0830 local time (0430 GMT).

Her body was found in woodland near Nazran, the main city in neighbouring Ingushetia, about nine hours later. She had bullet wounds to the head and chest.

Dangerous work

The New-York based human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Ms Estemirova had been working on “extremely sensitive” cases of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

“There is no shred of doubt that she was targeted due to her professional activity,” said Tanya Lokshina, HRW’s Russian researcher in Moscow.

Ms Estemirova was engaged in very important and dangerous work, says the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow, investigating hundreds of cases of alleged kidnapping, torture and extra-judicial killings by Russian government troops or militias in Chechnya.

Memorial says it believes that government security services of some nature must be involved in her killing.

Our correspondent says no evidence of that has emerged so far, but that it was the government sponsored militias that had most to fear from her work.

She is the most recent in a long line of human rights activists and lawyers to have been killed or attacked in Russia. The history of these sorts of cases over many years is that very rarely are their killers ever brought to justice, our correspondent says.

September 7, 2008

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Russian navy ships in Sevastopol

The exercises will be the first of their in the region

Venezuela says it plans to hold joint naval exercises in its territorial waters with Russian forces in November.

A senior Venezuelan naval officer said four Russian ships would take part in the exercises, which would also involve Venezuelan aircraft and submarines.

Correspondents say the move is likely to raise concern in the US, whose relations with Russia have been soured by Moscow’s recent conflict in Georgia.

Washington already has rocky relations with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

In July, he called for a strategic alliance with Russia to protect Venezuela from the US.

Caracas and Moscow agreed to extend bilateral co-operation on energy, with three Russian energy companies to be allowed to operate in Venezuela.

Regional first

On Saturday, Venezuela’s Rear Admiral Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas said four Russian ships and 1,000 Russian troops would take part in exercises in Venezuelan territorial waters from 10 to 14 November.

“This is of great importance because it is the first time it is being done (in the Americas),” he said in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency and local media.

President Chavez supported Russia’s intervention in Georgia last month and has accused Washington of being scared of Moscow’s “new world potential”.

Earlier, US Vice-President Dick Cheney launched a furious attack on Russia over the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

Mr Cheney described Moscow’s actions against Georgia as an affront to civilized standards and said it was reverting back to old Soviet tactics of intimidation and the use of brute force.

He added that Russia was also seeking to use its energy resources as a weapon.

Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 4:30 am

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.

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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