MOSCOW, April 10 (RIA Novosti)
Russia won't find a better Georgian president than Saakashvili / Turkmenistan accuses Russia over gas pipeline explosion / Beslan children required to pay taxes on free education / Pork scandal brewing in Russian-U.S. relations
Russia won't find a better Georgian president than Saakashvili
The growing political tensions in Georgia naturally suggest the question of which of the possible scenarios would be best for Russia. Some say the early downfall of President Mikheil Saakashvili would be to Moscow's advantage, but they are wrong, said Valery Khomyakov, director of the National Strategy Council, an independent Moscow think-tank.
The history of independent Georgia has so far had no precedent of change of president by election. Saakashvili took control as a result of the "Rose Revolution," replacing Eduard Shevardnadze, who had become national leader after overthrowing Zviad Gamsakhurdia. This practice, established in the post-Soviet period, is what modern Georgian opposition expects while trying to destabilize his regime.
However, there is an important difference from 2003 now, Khomyakov said. The Kremlin has entirely lost ability to influence the process. In 2003, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov flew to Tbilisi to persuade Shevardnadze to cede his post to the new leader. This time around, Moscow cannot approach Saakashvili and will therefore have to step aside and watch what happens.
President Dmitry Medvedev announced for the whole world to hear that he doesn't want to deal with Saakashvili. But a true politician is never guided by his likes and dislikes, pondering every matter as objectively as possible, Khomyakov said.
As long as Saakashvili holds power, Georgia might as well forget about its NATO membership plans. Western investors also question the country's attractiveness as long as he is president, especially as far as pipeline projects bypassing Russia are concerned.
A potential seat of anarchy and instability in the Caucasus, which is quite likely to emerge if Georgia attempts another velvet revolution, would be equally bad for Russia and the West.
However, it would be too simple to claim that the West threw Saakashvili to the wolves. They might put a lot of blame on him for the Caucasus war. They might dub him a lame duck and never invite to Western clubs anymore, but the good old formula, He may be a SOB, but he is our SOB, still exists, Khomyakov concluded.
Turkmenistan accuses Russia over gas pipeline explosion
Turkmenistan claims that the explosion on the Central Asia-Europe pipeline happened because Russia dramatically lowered the intake without notifying it. Analysts say Ashgabat has started a new round of political games and warn that Gazprom can play rough.
Gazprom Export, the export arm of the gas monopoly, rejects the accusations as groundless, and analysts support this view.
"An explosion can happen when the gas intake is reduced only if there is a flaw in the pipe," said Dmitry Aleksandrov, an analyst at the Financial Bridge investment company. "Gas pipes are made with a triple margin of safety for operation at 80 atmospheres. A pressure of 240 atmospheres can be created only if gas is pumped into a closed pipeline."
Gazprom lowered the intake because of falling demand, but this did not cause the accident, said Alexander Razuvayev, chief analyst at the Galleon Capital investment company. Turkmenistan "should have invested in its gas transportation system to maintain it in working order and prevent such wear."
"The tone of the Turkmen Foreign Ministry's statement shows that this is a political problem," Aleksandrov said. "Unfortunately, this is also direct evidence that Russia is losing its positions in Central Asia."
In late March, Moscow and Ashgabat postponed the signing of an agreement on the East-West gas pipeline, which is planned to deliver gas from Turkmen deposits to the Russian gas transit network. And now Turkmenistan has accused Russia of the pipeline explosion.
"This could be a result of U.S. influence, as Washington wants to encourage Turkmenistan to join the Nabucco project," said Razuvayev.
Gazprom will take a tough stand now, said Dmitry Abzalov, senior expert at the Center for Current Politics think tank.
"Turkmenistan's example may encourage Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to attempt to get some kinds of concessions" from Russia, the analyst said. "Therefore, we must not create a precedent."
Kommersant, Novye Izvestia, Gazeta.ru
Beslan children required to pay taxes on free education
The tax service of North Ossetia, a Russian republic in the North Caucasus, have ordered the parents whose children were hostages during the Beslan school siege in September 2004 to pay income tax for the three years of their children's stay at the Podmoskovny boarding school.
Members of the Voice of Beslan group have refused to pay, saying this is one more attempt to pressure their organization.
The patron of the Podmoskovny Lyceum, as the school is called, is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon who is serving an eight-year prison sentence for fraud and tax evasion. His father, Boris Khodorkovsky, is the director of the school where children from socially vulnerable groups and victims of emergencies study and live free of charge. The school is being funded by the Khodorkovsky Foundation in London.
The tax has been set at between 50,000 rubles ($1,491) and 70,000 rubles ($2,088), said Ella Kesayeva, co-chair of the Voice of Beslan. Kesayeva, whose daughter is studying at the school for the fourth year, is to pay 71,800 rubles.
She said the pressure did not come directly from the tax agencies, which are merely acting on someone else's orders, and that pressure had also been put on the school.
The Mothers of Beslan group also complains about their continuing confrontation with the local authorities. Last year the organization was accused of extremism because one of their appeals described former President Vladimir Putin as an accomplice of the terrorists.
Boris Altshuller, head of a Moscow-based nonprofit group, Rights of the Child, said the situation was grotesque. "It is like giving alms to an old woman and then demanding that she pay the tax on them."
Irina Yasina, a member of the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, said the tax agencies were acting in accordance with law. Sergei Shapovalov, a partner at the Tax Assistance law firm, shares this view.
"Formally, these children received an income in kind and should pay a tax on it," he said. "However, the tax agencies will have problems with collecting it. Besides, the Beslan children are a painful issue for Russia, which the tax agencies have apparently failed to take into account."
Voice of Beslan was set up in the aftermath of the 2004 North Ossetian Beslan school hostage crisis, as a splinter group for the more radical members of the Mothers of Beslan support and advocacy group of parents whose children were caught up in the tragedy.
Pork scandal brewing in Russian-U.S. relations
The U.S. National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) called on President Barack Obama to delay Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) after Moscow removed over 30 U.S. companies from the pork exporters' list and said 50% of U.S. pork did not match Russian sanitary standards.
Russian market participants said Moscow had doubled 2009 U.S. pork-import quotas now totaling 100,000 metric tons to the detriment of other nations.
Last year, a series of food safety scandals in the United States led to the removal of foodstuffs from stores. The hiring of illegal migrants by U.S. companies was repeatedly discussed in the press.
NPPC President Don Butler said Russia should accept the U.S. food-inspection system, which is just as good as its own system. Alexei Alexeyenko, spokesman for the Russian veterinary watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor, said U.S. food-safety standards were far more lenient than those in Russia.
"U.S. pork producers do not want to admit Russian inspectors because they do all the checking themselves," Alexeyenko said.
The NPPC is in panic because Russia is among its major markets. In 2005, Moscow and Washington signed a pork-export quota agreement. Since then, U.S. pork exports to Russia have soared by 560%, reaching $476 million in 2008, the NPPC said. Late last year, Russia became the fifth largest importer of U.S. pork.
The NPPC's appeal to President Obama came several months after Russia doubled U.S. pork-import quotas.
Russia's National Meat Association estimates that the United States accounted for 10% of Russian pork-import quotas before 2009.
In late 2008, Moscow made an unprecedented decision to double U.S. pork-import quota, said Sergei Yushin, chairman of the National Meat Association's executive committee. "This violated the rights of Brazilian, Canadian and EU pork producers," Yushin said.
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