Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Khodorkovsky Faces Kremlin

By Erica Marat

On February 20 for roughly 30 minutes, a large banner featuring images of the imprisoned former CEO of Russian energy giant Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hung facing the Kremlin until Moscow police took it down. The interesting aspect of the banner was that Putin, not Khodorkovsky, was depicted behind bars in the images.

In the spirit of provocation, activists from the Russian youth movement “We” hung the banner, which depicted the images and the words “Time to change”, some 50 meters away from the country’s symbol of power.

According to “We” leader Roman Dobrokhotov, there were no police around to stop the hanging of the banner. Minutes later, however, police officers were on the scene and tried to prevent anyone from photographing the banner. Roughly half an hour later the banner was taken down, but Russian photographers were able to capture its image and spread it across social networking websites.

Over the years, Khodorkovsky has crafted a succinct message about his imprisonment. Through Twitter and his website, Khodorkovsky shares his thoughts with the wider public. The number of sympathizers for him in Russia and across the world dramatically increased after his second trial earlier this year when Khodorkovsky’s prison term was renewed until 2014.

New details of the second trial became available as Natalya Vasilyeva, an assistant to Judge Viktor Danilkin, who found Khodorkovsky guilty, revealed the court was under strict control of Russian authorities. She claims that the verdict Danilkin read in court was not written by the judge himself.

Although the banner has been taken down, Russian opposition movements use the example of Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment to illustrate the oppressiveness of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev’s regime. In their latest Washington Post op-ed piece, the co-chairs of the opposition People's Freedom Party called on the United States to “discontinue their kisses-and-hugs ‘Realpolitik,’ which has failed, and to stop flirting with Russian rulers."

“It is unfair when a man who could be accused of many more criminal charges than Mikhail Khodorkovsky is ruling the country,” said Dobrokhotov.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Kyrgyzstan, Russia Move Closer to New Agreement on Fuel Supplies to Manas

By Erica Marat

On February 10, the Kyrgyz-Russian intergovernmental commission on trade-economic, scientific and humanitarian cooperation requested the Kyrgyz government to form a special joint venture between Russian energy company “Gazpromneft-Aero” and Kyrgyzstan’s “Refueling Complex Manas." The joint venture will supply Russian fuel to the U.S. Transit Center at Manas airport.

Deputy Prime Minister on economic issues Omurbek Babanov said that the joint venture will be formed by end of this month and the company should begin work on the fuel supply by March.

President Roza Otunbayeva also said that she welcomes new opportunities for bilateral cooperation with Russia. Without mentioning the new joint venture, the president expressed her hope that new bilateral initiatives will be implemented as soon as possible.

Last year, when the U.S. Department of Defense renewed its contract with Mina Corp Ltd., the Kyrgyz government expressed its disappointment with the decision. According to government officials, Mina’s work in Kyrgyzstan lacked transparency and the company was engaged in corrupt deals with former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Otunbayeva has been pushing for greater transparency in the government. However, despite the formation of a new joint stock company, questions of transparency in fuel contracts still remain. It is unclear who will be the main informal stakeholders of fuel supplies on the Kyrgyz side. Kyrgyz NGOs and journalists have been pressing for greater transparency in fuel contracts.

The Kyrgyz president has been pressing for the elimination of Mina from the equation, arguing that it would save up to $50 million per year. In an attempt to save its DoD contracts in Kyrgyzstan, Mina has launched an aggressive PR campaign to improve its image in Bishkek, Moscow and Washington. Mina representatives have been emphasizing that the Congressional subcommittee’s investigation did not find any major cases of corruption in the company’s work.

It also still remains unclear whether or not the Russian side supports Otunbayeva’s suggestion on ousting Mina from the existing contracts.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tajik Parliament Introduces New Tax on Marriage

By Erica Marat

Tajikistan’s parliament has ruled that any foreign man wishing to marry a Tajik woman must provide her with real estate to qualify as a future husband. The parliament also requires that foreign men spend at least one year living in the country before tying the knot with local women.

The motivation behind parliament’s latest decision is the idea that the state must control the rights and interests of Tajik women. Too many marriages with foreigners end in divorce. Committing foreign men to real estate in the country might increase their loyalty to Tajik women, the parliament argues. Out of 2,500 international marriages, 600 ended in divorce. The majority of foreigners marrying Tajik women come from Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, India and Pakistan.

This is not the first time the Tajik parliament has tried to regulate traditional practices. In 2007 the Tajik parliament adopted a law regulating the population's spending on wedding and funeral ceremonies.

The law is quite rigid, with precise details on most rituals’ limitations. It only allows 150-200 guests per wedding, with one hot meal served, no more than four cars in a wedding procession and three hours allocated for the entire celebration. The families of the groom and bride should provide equal funding for the celebration. Funerals may bring together no more than 100 people, a low number according to local standards.

The law also provides elaborate enforcement mechanisms. A penalty for violating these regulations comprises 2,000 somoni (approximately $580). The penalty is higher for people with political ranks or owners of a business. The law was created after Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon noticed how these ceremonies produce a devastating economic impact on the impoverished population. Surprisingly, the law has been quite popular, being reinforced by many in Tajikistan.

However, unlike the law on wedding and funeral spending, linking marriage to real estate shows the Tajik parliament’s inability to empower women though public policy. The law, in effect, will serve the interests of Tajik men, rather than women.