MOSCOW, January 10 (RIA Novosti) Moscow to use new law on sanctions against Minsk/Lukashenko may use "Sakhalin scenario" in oil conflict with Moscow/Oil and gas crisis may encourage regrouping of forces in post-Soviet states/United States to discourage Russian arms exporters from accepting payments in dollars/Disabled children in Russian orphanages cry out for help
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Moscow to use new law on sanctions against Minsk
Belarus has insisted it be paid a duty for the transit of Russian oil across its territory. In response, Moscow has threatened to impose in February an import duty on Belarusian commodities, whose value exceeds 50% of Belarusian exports to Russia.
On January 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed the government to draft measures to protect the Russian economy in its relations with Belarus.
A source in the Russian government said that a block of economic measures would be prepared within days, including the introduction of duties for Belarusian commodities, which are currently imported untaxed. On December 29, 2006, a customs duty was imposed on Belarusian sugar.
According to the source, customs duties for meat and meat byproducts (99.9% of Belarusian imports in this category go to Russia), milk and dairy products (over 90%), television sets (about 90%) and furniture (more than 80%) may be imposed in February.
The official said the duties would be levied on products that account for more than 50% of Belarusian exports to Russia (worth $6 billion).
Putin signed a law on special economic measures on the last day of 2006, which allows Russian officials to forgo anti-dumping investigations and other formalities and allows the president to impose sanctions as "an immediate response to the actions of foreign states or their agencies and officials that contradict international law or are hostile."
Under the law, the president may freeze economic programs and military-technical cooperation, curtail foreign economic and financial transactions, and change customs duties.
The Russian government has admitted that the measures amount to a temporary breach of the customs union with Belarus. "We seem unable to come to terms with [President Alexander] Lukashenko," said a source in the Kremlin administration.
Oil is the root cause of the conflict. An export duty on oil supplies to Belarus has been set at $180 per metric ton from January 1, 2007. The duty was zero for the past 11 years.
However, Belarus stopped sharing with Russia its revenues from the export of petrochemicals stipulated by a relevant treaty, and withdrew from it in 2001.
Lukashenko may use "Sakhalin scenario" in oil conflict with Moscow
Analysts have said the oil conflict between Minsk and Moscow now depends on Lukashenko and warned that he may use his trump card, following which Russia could find itself in the position foreign investors now find themselves in on Sakhalin.
According to high-ranking officials, Moscow is prepared to protect its interests at all cost.
"The Kremlin wants to settle the problem forcefully," said Natalya Milchakova, an analyst with the Otkrytie brokerage. She said that if Russia kept pressuring Belarus, the EU would be undersupplied with oil and Russia would be to blame.
"The West considers Belarus part of the Russia-Belarus single economic space," the expert said. "Unless we use civilized methods to persuade Lukashenko, Europe will lay claims to us. The West has had enough of Lukashenko's regime, so it will demand that Russia stop supporting it."
Experts said Belarus could use levers against Russia.
"Lukashenko might resort to a powerful measure, the so-called Mitvol scenario," said analyst Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis.
"The Belarusian sector of the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline, which is owned by Gazprom, was built in 2003. I am sure a lot of violations of Belarusian environmental laws could be found there."
Korchemkin said photos taken from space showed that the land allocation was almost three times as wide as the 45-meter standard.
"Belarus may use the Sakhalin scenario and charge Gazprom billions worth of fines to get hold of a 51% stake in the transit pipeline legitimately," the expert believes.
"I guess we will soon hear Lukashenko say that the Yamal-Europe gas pipeline is a hideous scar on the beautiful face of Belarus. All methods used by Gazprom and Mitvol, from illegal felling of trees to environmental violations of water bodies, will come in handy."
Oil and gas crisis may encourage regrouping of forces in post-Soviet states
Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are pondering the possible consequences of the Moscow-Minsk energy standoff, although no one is eager to voice an official opinion.
However, experts said that the oil and gas crisis would bury the union of Russia and Belarus, complete the disintegration of the CIS, and provoke a regrouping of political forces in the post-Soviet states.
Nikolai Azarov, first deputy prime minister of Ukraine, said his country would maintain its neutrality in the conflict, although some time earlier, Fuel Minister Yury Boiko said publicly that Ukraine might increase the transit of gas to Europe (to help Gazprom put pressure on Belarus) through its pipelines.
Azarov said: "Statements on a possible increase in gas transit are an expression of a personal opinion."
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has spoken only positively about Ukraine and Ukrainians, which political analysts interpret as a desire to find a new ally, Kiev.
Vladimir Filin, an expert with the Institute of Globalization Problems, said: "The idea of a union state of Russia and Belarus has died, whereas the idea of Belarusian-Ukrainian rapprochement and their East Slavic Union is winning over more supporters."
On January 9, Alexander Lukashenko and Viktor Yushchenko agreed to meet, possibly in the second half of February. A source in the Ukrainian government said the president might sign important documents that would dramatically change the lineup of forces in the CIS.
Many experts believe that the clash with Russia can force Lukashenko to make a compromise with the West.
Sergei Tolstov, director of the Ukrainian Institute of Political Analysis and International Studies, said the West supports Moscow's intention to put an end to the Soviet practice of privileges and to develop market relations with post-Soviet states.
Tolstov said: "In itself, the elimination of privileges for post-Soviet states is seen as the end of an era, the final dismantling of Soviet-era relations, and a forerunner of the decline of Russia's influence in the post-Soviet states, a crisis, the possible dissolution of the CIS and the strengthening of NATO and the EU."
United States to discourage Russian arms exporters from accepting payments in dollars
The U.S. State Department has introduced sanctions against Rosoboronexport, Russia's main state arms exporter, for the second time in the last six months. However, experts said these sanctions are not a serious threat, though they could complicate bank transfers in dollars.
The sanctions against Rosoboronexport do not invalidate sanctions already in place and are not associated with them, a U.S. government source told the paper. He said the previous and new sanctions are set to expire in August and December 2008, respectively.
The State Department declined to comment on the reasons for imposing new sanctions.
A source in the Russian defense industry said these sanctions are probably motivated by last year's sale to Syria through Rosoboronexport of short-range Strelets surface-to-air missiles, developed by the Kolomna machine-building design bureau, as well as by a contract with Damascus for the sale of Pantsir air-defense weapons, developed by the Tula instrument engineering design bureau.
Rosoboronexport spokesman Valery Kartavtsev explained U.S. sanctions by Washington's possible discontent over Russian arms sales to Latin America, rather than to Iran or Syria.
Last year, Russia and Venezuela signed an unprecedented $3 billion contract on the sale of Russian aircraft, helicopters and assault rifles to Caracas.
Kartavtsev said Moscow stepped up talks with Brazil and Argentina in 2006, and Rosoboronexport did not violate any international regulations.
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said U.S. sanctions would hardly affect Russian arms exporters.
They do, however, provide U.S. security agencies with a legal pretext for monitoring dollar payments for Russian arms shipments, including such sensitive aspects as the payment of commissions to intermediaries, Pukhov said.
According to Pukhov, Russian exporters should now opt for euros or some other currencies instead.
Commercial secrecy has virtually been abolished because U.S. authorities can now oversee all bank transfers in dollars, said Andrei Cherepanov, a former Finance Ministry and Central Bank official.
But payments can be reliably concealed by breaking them down into installments through layaway plans, separate payment of commission and other gray-market schemes, Cherepanov told the paper.
Disabled children in Russian orphanages cry out for help
The Russian Prosecutor General's Office has published the results of a probe into the observance of the rights of disabled children, which revealed more than 6,000 violations.
Half of the more than 600,000 disabled children in state care lack medicines, hearing aids and wheelchairs. However, the statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, experts said.
Human rights activists said disabled children living in orphanages are in a horrifying situation.
As a rule, children who cannot move on their own lie motionless for years. Nurses only have contact with them during feeding time. The corridors are so narrow that it is impossible to move along them in wheelchairs, and buildings are not equipped with ramps. Children often have to share warm clothes, so they must take turns going out.
"Orphanages in this country are storehouses, which keep children without providing them with either education or mentoring," said Boris Altshuler, executive director at the Child's Right public organization.
"Officially, boarding schools are not educational establishments. All that their employees do is look after children without communicating with them or educating them. Children are treated like animals," he said.
According to Sergei Koloskov, president of the Down's Syndrome Association, the country still lacks educational programs for children with physical and mental disabilities. The principle of "there are no un-teachable children" turns out to be an empty slogan.
Experts said the Prosecutor General's Office investigation is unlikely to improve the situation.
"Similar checks have been held repeatedly," said Sergei Komkov, president of the All-Russia Education Foundation.
"The problem is that both the education and health ministries, which have for many years failed to share responsibility for children in wards, have charge of disabled children in this country. As a result, children continue to suffer."