|Russia and the CIS News Digest
Lavrov Backs 'Comprehensive' Conference on SW Asia
In Israel Sept. 8, after diplomatic visits to Lebanon and Syria the previous day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov endorsed the Arab League proposal for a conference to seek a comprehensive peace in the region. He urged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to call such a conference, "with the participation of all the parties." He said, "I came here from Beirut and Damascus. And today everybody wants peace more than ever.... Everyone wishes to reach a decision that would be suitable to all, certainly to Israel."
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected the idea, saying that Israel "does not believe that all issues of comprehensive settlement should be considered as a whole, which means that Israel does not support the idea of the conference," according to RIA Novosti. Livni did say, however, that there need not be any conditions placed on a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), a shift from Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres's statements earlier in the week, that no such meeting could be held until the Israeli soldier seized by Palestinian militants on June 25 was released.
While travelling in Africa with President Putin, Lavrov on Sept. 6 also addressed the latest developments around Iran, stating that Russia would seek "the optimal way for advancing towards the goal of non-profileration of WMD," but that the UN Charter must be the basis for any measures that are taken. Specifically, Lavrov added, the Charter "states unequivocally that economic measures exclude the use of force."
Russia Nixes Maneuvers with U.S. Forces
Russian Defense Ministry Igor Kostyshin confirmed Sept. 5 that the "Torgau-2006" U.S.-Russian military exercises, scheduled for Sept. 21-Oct. 8 in the Nizhny Novgorod area, are now off the agenda. The official reason is "legal technicalities" concerning foreign soldiers on Russian territory. Russian commentators cite two real factors: a mobilization by Russian political forces, and anger at U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, after his recent talks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. About 300 American officers and soldiers had been slated to take part.
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and the Anti-Globalist Resistance denounced and demonstrated against the maneuvers. Former Defense Ministry official Gen. Leonid Ivashov, in an Aug. 28 webcast on KM.ru, said it was outrageous to name maneuvers after the town where Soviet and American forces met up on the Elbe in 1945, but to hold them on the Volga, deep inside Russia. Nizhny Novgorod city officials vowed "No second Feodosiya!"referring to anti-NATO protests in Crimea last spring that deep-sixed the Sea Breeze-2006 NATO exercises with Ukrainebut the CPRF claims to have achieved exactly that.
Gazeta.ru on Sept. 7 quoted Alexei Arbatov, a defense expert based at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), on a link between the cancellation and Russian anger at Rumsfeld. At Rumsfeld's recent meeting with Ivanov, Arbatov said, "they couldn't even reach any preliminary agreements." Inside Russia, he added, "there is an intensifying campaign against any kind of military cooperation with the USA whatsoever."
Putin in S. Africa Makes Hi-Tech, Resource Deals
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a two-day state visit to the Republic of South Africa, arriving Sept. 5 in Pretoria, with a delegation of about 100 industrial and banking leaders. At the outset, Putin and RSA President Thabo Mbeki signed cooperation agreements in several areas, among them nuclear power, health care and medical research, civilian space exploration, and the protection of intellectual property rights during military-technical cooperation. South Africa is planning to build a large nuclear-power plant to meet its near-term energy requirements. A delegation from the RSA Department of Minerals and Energy had toured Russian nuclear facilities in July, leading to discussion of Russian participation in this project. Russia already supplies enriched uranium/nuclear fuel to South Africa for its operating reactor at Koeberg. Putin announced the signing of a fuel-supply agreement, lasting till 2010.
Anatoli Perminov, head of Russia's space agency, Roskosmos, was in the delegation. Under the Agreement on Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes, the two countries finalized ten-year specific agreements on remote probing for minerals, monitoring the Earth from space satellites, joint R&D in space medicine and biology, space communications, and satellite navigation systems. Research and engineering firms in Cape Town will be involved in joint development and design of new space vehicles.
In addition to these state-to-state high-tech agreements, the Russian-South African economic talks involved some of the biggest international and Russian raw materials cartels. Accompanied by officials from Alrosa (Diamonds of Russia, the national monopoly), Putin met with Nicky Oppenheimer, chairman of the De Beers group. Alrosa and De Beers signed an agreement on future joint prospecting and exploration in Russia and elsewhere. Together accounting for 75% of the world diamond market, the two companies were targetted by EU anti-trust investigators five years ago.
Also with Putin was Victor Vekselberg, head of the SUAL aluminum company, who finalized a billion-dollar investment in a manganese plant in South Africa. Vekselberg is in negotiations to merge SUAL with Russia's largest aluminum company Rusal, forming a giant company in which the third partner would be Swiss-based Glencore (formerly Marc Rich & Associates).
Natural Gas, Minerals, Water Deals Between Russia, Morocco
Visiting Rabat, Morocco Sept. 7, the first state visit by a Soviet or Russian leader since 1961, President Putin signed nine government cooperation agreements. Existing joint ventures in port facilities construction, extraction and processing of minerals, sea drilling for gas, and the production and sale of agricultural machinery, were also extended. The new projects involve minerals, water supply, irrigation for farming, space research, and banking. Russia has also offered to build Morocco's first nuclear-power plant, to be operational in the middle of the next decade. The Russian Magnitogorsk Steel Works is bidding for contracts on a natural gas/liquefied gas complex in Morocco, while the North African country may also purchase Russian Kornet and Tunguska air-defense systems.
Putin Attempts To Jump-Start Black Sea-Med Pipeline
President Putin stopped in Athens Sept. 4, en route to South Africa, for a tripartite summit with the leaders of Greece and Bulgaria. The main agenda was the project to build a 285 km oil pipeline from Bulgaria's Black Sea port of Bourgas to the Greek Mediterranean port of Alexandropoulis, giving Russian oil another outlet to world markets, circumventing the Bosphorus, which is controlled by Turkey. The scheme has remained stalled for want of government agreement. According to Greek news wires, the situation in Southwest Asia was also discussed, while the Russian and Bulgarian delegations reviewed long-term guarantees for Russian nuclear fuel for Bulgaria's nuclear-power plants.
Russia Might Strip Shell of Sakhalin License
Kremlin official Igor Shuvalov has offered a "soft solution" to Royal Dutch Shell, which has a production-sharing agreement (PSA) for the Sakhalin II oil-and-gas project. If Shell will renegotiate its PSA, recent legal claims against the company for not meeting anti-pollution standards could be dropped, said Shuvalov. The implication is that a Russian company will enter the project on a significant scale. Shuvalov's statement is in line with other Russian attempts to reverse or modify the PSA concessions, including for the large Sakhalin I and II projects. These were granted in the 1990s, when the Yeltsin regime was far more free and easy with admitting foreign companies into Russian industry, than the Kremlin is today. In any event, the recently affirmed Gazprom monopoly on natural gas exports from Russia forces the foreign participants to make new arrangements, even when the PSAs are formally not changed.
Arrests in Alleged Georgian Coup Plot
On Sept. 6, the Michael Saakashvili regime in Georgia rounded up 29 opposition leaders, charging 14 of them with high treason for plotting a coup on behalf of former security chief Igor Giorgadze. The latter, wanted in connection with the 1995 assassination attempt on then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, is believed to be in Russia. Among those arrested were Maya Nikoleishvili, head of the Anti-Soros Movement; Maya Topuria, leader of the youth wing of Giorgadze's Samartlianoba (Justice) movement, which conducts high-profile street demonstrations against "Rose Revolution" poster boy Saakashvili for selling out to U.S./NATO interests; and Temur Zhorzholiani, head of the Conservative-Monarchist Party. Early reports that Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, widow of assassinated National Democratic Party leader Giorgi Chanturia, had also been arrested, proved untrue. Sarishvili is campaigning to "free Georgia" from Saakashvili, and she heads a foundation tied to Giorgadze.
Shalva Natelashvili, chairman of the Labor Party, condemned the arrests as "political repression."
The Georgian political scene was already in an uproar, over Saakashvili's Aug. 26 decision to move up regional and municipal elections from December to October 5, leaving opposition parties barely time to register, much less campaign. Nor have tensions abated around the breakaway autonomous regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On Sept. 3, a helicopter carrying Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and senior Georgian military officers was fired on in South Ossetia, sustaining damage, but managing to land. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli blamed Russian military commanders.