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January 16 2014

Facebook Teams Up with Russia's Top Search Engine

Yandex gets to drink from Facebook's firehose. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock, pulled from YouTube captures.

Yandex gets to drink from Facebook's firehose. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock, pulled from YouTube captures.

Scholars and researchers of the Russian Internet can rejoice this week, for Russia's leading search engine, Yandex.ru, is now the second website in the world, after Bing in the United States, to gain access to Facebook firehose data [ru]. This means that Yandex can now search Facebook's streaming API and provide live results for all public posts. The new deal with Facebook is limited to users based in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. Currently, only Yandex's blogs-specific search feature is capable of returning Facebook results, but the company's spokesperson told TechCrunch on January 13, 2014, that Yandex hopes to incorporate Facebook links in its general Internet search results soon.

September 07 2013

Presidents, Oligarchs and Potash: Russia's Trade War With Belarus

Kerimov meets with Lukashenko in March 2013

Kerimov meets with President Lukashenko in March 2013. YouTube screenshot.

At first glance, there are no truer friends than Russia and Belarus. The two states are united by a common history and have strong ethnic and linguistic links. Russia has long subsidized her neighbor with cheap oil and gas, which has kept Belarus’ Soviet-era manufacturing industry from keeling over. For Russia's Vladimir Putin, Belarus is a key linchpin in a new “Customs Union“, a geopolitical block he hopes can become a major, Russian-led, international force.

Despite these close links, Belarus and Russia have had disagreements in the past, and their presidents, Lukashenko and Putin, are widely suspected to personally dislike one another. The occasionally tumultuous relationship was strained further than usual on August 28 2013, when Belorussian authorities arrested Vladislav Baumgartner, CEO of Uralkaliy, a large Russian potash mining company. He was detained after arriving to the country at the invitation of the Belorussian prime minister. Russia retaliated by cancelling some of its subsidies and banning Belarusian pork imports. Belarus shows no sign of backing down and has put out an Interpol warrant for Uralkaliy majority shareholder Suleiman Kerimov, a Dagestani oligarch and Senator with close links to the Kremlin.

Uralkali had for years been part of a profitable joint venture (many would say cartel) with Belaruskaliy, the Belorussian state-owned potash company. Potash is Belarus’ second most important export and a key part of its largely state-run economy. Problems had arisen when the global price of potash had plummeted and both companies attempted to conduct business on the side without informing the other, further depressing the price. Uralkaliy ultimately unilaterally withdrew from the consortium in July 2013.

Uralkali Potash Plant in Magadan, Russia (CC3.0) Photo by ICT Group

Uralkali Potash Plant in Magadan, Russia, June 29 2011, Photo by ICT Group CC3.0

The affair has left many in Russia shaking their heads, as on the surface Belarus needs Russia more than Russia needs it, and any burgeoning trade war could have serious repercussions. Many saw the split between the two large potash companies as evidence of a deeper conspiracy. Writing on his LiveJournal, conspiracy theorist Nikolino saw Putin's invisible hand [ru] behind the whole affair.

После ареста Владислава Баумгертнера ряд экспертов высказал мнение о том, что за произошедшим в Минске стоит чуть ли не лично Владимир Путин, решивший таким образом наказать Сулеймана Керимова, входящего в «медведевский» пул олигархов… Те, кто придерживался менее радикальной точки зрения, утверждали, что даже если Путин и не сам организовал всю эту ситуацию, то он, по крайней мере, не будет слишком усердно защищать хозяев «Уралкалия».

After Putin's arrest a host of experts expressed the opinion that standing behind the events in Minsk was none other than Vladimir Putin himself, deciding in this way to punish Suleiman Kerimov, for belonging to “Medvedev's” circle of Oligarchs… Those who possess a less radical point of view maintain that even if Putin didn't personally organise this situation himself, then at the very least he isn't going to try very hard when defending Uralkaliy's owners.

Nikolino referenced an article [ru] on IAREX [ru], a Russian expat news portal, by Spain-based political commentator Lev Vershinin, who claimed Kerimov was “one of the main sponsors of the anti-Putin campaign between November 2011 and March 2012.”

Others argued that the impetus for the disagreement came not from Moscow, but from the west. Mikhail Delyagin, a Russian academic and anti-globalisation politician released a 20 minute video, arguing that the whole affair was instigated by the Kremlin's “liberal” faction.

Для либерального клана, самая страшная что есть на пост-советском пространстве, это ре-интеграция этого пост-советского пространства с участием России. Не потому, что либеральному клану не нравится пост-советское пространство, а потому что этот клан обслужит интересы глобального бизнеса, которому, во первых не нужна российская федерация как что то сильное. Россия должна быть такая уже трофейная пространство как Египет или Ливия, или Сомали. Чтобы можно было осваивать малыми ресурсами.

For the liberal clan, the worst thing in the post-Soviet space is Russia's reintegration with this post-Soviet space. Not because this liberal clan hates the post-Soviet space, but because this clan serves the interests of global business, which first and foremost doesn't need a strong Russia. Russia needs to be an already defeated country like Egypt of Libya or Somalia, so it can be exploited with little effort.

Delyagin went on to claim that the liberal clan of oligarchs was attempting to sabotage the Customs Union by sowing disharmony between Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin.

Other Russian commentators took a more prosaic view of the affair. Yaroslav Romanchuk, in a blog [ru] for Ekho Moskvy, chalked the issue up to Baumgartner's naivety.

Владислав Баумгертнер решил поиграть с «Беларуськалием» по правилам российского рынка, по тем схемам, которые используются даже на Западе для захвата предприятий или рынков. Он не учёл, что играет не столько в корпоративную игру с «Беларуськалием», сколько политическую игру с А. Лукашенко.

Vladislav Baumgartner decided to play with Belaruskaliy according to the rules of the Russian marketplace, using the schemes which can be used even in the West for seizing an enterprise or a market. He didn't consider that he wasn't so much playing a corporate game with Belaruskaliy, but a political game with Lukashenko.

Few netizens have much sympathy for Baumgartner, who faces a daunting 10 years in a Belorussian prison for actions that, as Romanchuk correctly points out, would not be considered illegal in the west. Instead of indignation at Lukashenko's actions, many seem to approve of them, as a bold defense against Russia's oligarchs, still much reviled by the populace. Kerimov may be one of Russia's rich and powerful, but judging by the Uralkaliy affair, few would shed tears if he ended up joining Baumgartner in a Minsk prison cell.

April 26 2013

Chernobyl: “The Most Horrifying Phone Talk of the Century”

chernobyl dispatchers

April 26, 2013, marks the 27th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Andriy Pryimachenko of peredova.com has created a video transcript [ru] of the audio recordings of the conversations that took place shortly after the blast between the dispatchers of the plant's firefighting unit and other firefighting dispatchers and officials. On his Korrespondent.net blog, Ivan Mateyko comments [uk] on this “most horrifying phone talk of the 20th century”:

[...] Hard to guess what these people were thinking back then and whether they knew how serious the situation and its possible consequences were, but the horror in their voices is evident. [...]

March 10 2013

The State of Torture in the World in 2013

On January 23, 2013, an excerpt from the annual report of l'ACAT-France, A World of Torture 2013, makes a fresh assessment of the state of torture in the world [fr]:

“A report called A World of Torture in 2013, assesses torture practices that continue to be alarming, from Pakistan to Italy, by way of South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Bolivia. From authoritarian regimes to democratic countries, none are exempt from criticism on the topic. In 2013, torture remains as endemic, omnipresent and multi-faceted as ever”.

February 28 2013

“The World's Grumpiest Traveler” Smiles Virtually :-)

It's not true that Vitaly Zelkovsky [ru], better known as “the world's grumpiest traveler,” never smiles. He does – virtually, at least. Reacting to the unexpected fame, Zelkovsky re-posted a Broken News Daily “report” about himself and exchanged a few words with two of his VKontakte friends. Both times, he used smilies:

[...] If you work hard enough on something, it will definitely bring results :-)

“[...] If you work hard enough on something, it will definitely bring results :-)”

"You should just do what you love to do and the reward will find the hero :-)"

“You should just do what you love to do and the reward will find the hero :-)”

September 22 2012

Belarus: Early Voting Boosts Turnout Amid Calls to Boycott Elections

More than 39,000 users have joined the Stop Luka [be, ru] VKontakte group, which is urging voters to boycott the Sep. 23 parliamentary election in Belarus (the “non-election,” as The Economist's Eastern Approaches blog calls it):

[…] When we come to the polling station, we put our signatures and “vote.” The only thing that matter here is the turnout, which legitimizes the regime, and our illusion that we are making “some sort of a choice.” […]

There's no point voting - your vote will be stolen. There's no one to vote for - only pro-regime bureaucrats and special services' proxies are running. There's no use coming to the polling station and thus complying with falsifications. Only the boycott. Only the refusal to cooperate with the regime. […]

It's easy to steal the vote, but impossible to falsify the turnout. If Belarusians don't show up at the polling stations, it will be visible with the naked eye. And it will mean that the people oppose the tyrant. […]

If you're boycotting the election, you're helping your country to make a step towards freedom. […] It's up to you to choose whether to play the dictator's games or to refuse to help [President Aleksandr Lukashenko]. […]

A banner calling to boycott the Sep. 23 “election” in Belarus, posted in the “Stop Luka” VKontakte community.

It appears, however, that there'll be no problems with the turnout.

Journalist Pavel Sheremet wrote [ru] on Facebook on Thursday, Sep. 20, that 3 percent of the voters had cast their votes on the first day of early voting.

User Aleh Pov pointed out [ru] in a comment to Sheremet that on the second day the turnout was already 7 percent:

[…] At this rate, we'll have 25 percent by Sep. 22.

User Irena Ławrowska posted this comment [be]:

Just returned from the hairdresser's… [Educated the ladies] there - and what do you think? Most of them aren't going [to vote]. Among those who are going [to the polling stations] are […] the pensioners, because they've never skipped a vote, [those who couldn't care less], because “their boss asked them to,” and, of course, the complete “blondes”!

On Friday, BelarusPartisan reported [ru] on Facebook that 12.5 percent of the votes have been cast in the first three days of the early voting.

Invitation to the parliamentary election in Belarus: “23 September 2012 - Elections of the members of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus - Everyone come to the election!” (Image in public domain.)

In another Facebook post, Sheremet shared [ru] BelarusPartisan's photo of a group of soldiers queueing for an organized early vote in Machulishchi [ru], a village near Minsk that houses a military base. Below are some of the readers' comments:

Lyudmila Saakyan:

The patience of Belarusians must end eventually.

Vadim Savransky:

I think Belarus will explode sooner or later. This cannot go on forever.

Marina Pavlova:

It can [go on forever].

August 30 2012

Kyrgyzstan: Facebook Post Spurs Row with Belarus

A photo taken by a Minsk-based democracy activist, Mikhail Pashkevich, has sent relations between the former-Soviet republics of Belarus and Kyrgyzstan into a nosedive. The snap, which was posted on the Facebook profile of the group “Говори Правду“, or “Tell The Truth”, has so far managed to spark an extradition request, the withdrawal of an ambassador and the storming of a diplomatic embassy. Mikhail additionally claims to have received a napkin with a threatening message from the photo's subject, Janysh Bakiyev.

A series of pictures of a person resembling Janysh Bakiyev, detested brother of ex-Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek, surfaced on Pashkevich's personal Facebook profile and the public profile of Tell the Truth on August 17. After online discussions filtered through to the mainstream media, Kyrgyzstan demanded [ru] the extradition of all Bakiyevs on Belarussian territory. Such attempts had been made before and ignored, but faced with a public inflamed by the sight of Janysh ambling around the streets of Belarus' capital, where his brother has long been thought to be taking refuge, Bishkek decided to take a stand, withdrawing [ru] its ambassador to Belarus on August 24, when the latter failed to respond to the request. On August 28, around 20 protesters stormed the Belarussian embassy in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, in order to force a response from the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.

Wanted

Misha Pashkevich took this picture of the ousted Kyrgyzstani president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the capital of Belarus. Image is used with permission.

So why are Janysh and his brother such wanted men? According to Eurasianet.org's Inside the Cocoon blog:

If Kyrgyz prosecutors are to be believed, there is good reason to demand Janysh’s extradition. Stories about him read like something out of Mario Puzo's The Godfather. For example, besides being a main suspect in the murder of Kurmanbek’s one-time chief of staff, Medet Sadyrkulov, Janysh is accused of sending a cautionary message to Sadyrkulov in the form of a severed nose and ear. Testifying in court on August 10, one of Janysh’s former bodyguards claimed that his then boss had threatened to “rip his head off” if he ever told anyone of his connection to Sadyrkulov’s demise.

Moreover, the blog adds, as the ex-head of the security forces, Janysh is personally thought to have ordered the presidential guard to open fire on protesters during the April 7 revolution that overthrew the Bakiyev family in 2010. Over 80 people died in clashes between people and state.

According to Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Internal Affairs, the men Janysh Bakiyev was pictured with are no random acquaintances either. They say Bakiyev is accompanied by two former employees [ru] Rustam Saiduev and Tahir Rysaliev, also wanted in connection with Sadyrkulov's murder.

In this second photo taken by Pashkevich, Bakiyev is accompanied by two former employees who are wanted in Kyrgyzstan in connection with a murder investigation. Image is used with permission.

The publication of the pictures led to immediate reactions among netizens in Kyrgyzstan. Asan comments [ru]:

Нашим чиновникам не выгодно арестовывать ни Бакивых, ни Акаевых! Представьте себе, что они приехали и дают показания!!! Пол Кыргыхстана надо будет расстрелять, а другую пересажать… Кто ж на это пойдет?

For our officials it is not beneficial to arrest the Bakiyevs or the Akaevs [the family of Kyrgyzstan's first president]! Imagine them coming back and testifying! Half of Kyrgyzstan would have to be shot and another half put in jail. Who would want that?

And Mirsuljan Namazaliev tweeted [ru]:

Герой недели - Миша Пашкевич! Инструмент героя - Facebook! Антигерой недели - Жаныш Бакиев. Инструмент антигероя - минивены и салфетка…

Hero of the week - Misha Pashkevich! The instrument of the hero - Facebook! Anti-hero of the week - Janysh Bakiev. The instrument of the anti-hero - minivans and a napkin…

“Minivans and a napkin” refers to Mikhail Pashkevich's own claim that having uploaded the photos on Facebook, he received a napkin which read: “Mikhail, hello from Mr. Bakiyev.” Pashkevich says that the note [ru] was passed to him via a waiter in one of the restaurants in Minsk. He subsequently uploaded a photo of the napkin:

This napkin, which Pashkevich claims he received in a cafe in Minsk, reads in Russian: “Mikhail, hello from Mr. Bakiyev”. Image has been cropped and is used with permission.

Mixed reactions

On the public group “Tell the Truth”, Facebook users were divided. Some showed genuine concern for his safety, others were confident that the napkin was a cruel joke, while another camp thought the note was the activist's own invention. Dzmitry Tectus Stepanec comments [ru] that the hand writing appeared unnatural:

Ок.

Сравнить все букавки, ну ладно)

Человек, преднамерено хотел изменить почерк, наклон изменился с каждой строчкой, Заглавные буквы, всегда писались прописью, а сейчас четежным шрифтом, нажим на частях букв ( заглавных) ясно виден). Буквы “а”

не соответствуют друг-дружке в слове Вам и Бакиева, попытка соответствовать одна одной - лажа ( нажим разный), поправление

Мое мнение, мое - самопал!

Ok. Let's compare the letters. A man deliberately wanted to change his handwriting since the slope changes in each line, capital letters were always written in cursive, but here they are printed. The “A”s do not look alike in the words “Bakiyev” and “Vam” (the Russian for “you”). The attempt to make them look alike has failed. My opinion - [the note is] fake!

Kiyalbek Kyrgyz is [ru] of a similar opinion:

Миша не притворяйся а? Бакиев плевать хотел на твои фотки

Misha, why don't you stop pretending? Bakiyev couldn't care less about your pictures

Still, the majority of the commenters shared the opinion that Bakiyev was sending a threatening message to the activist and that he had reason to be afraid.

Taciana Reviaka exclaimed [ru]:

я бы, Миша, на твоем месте ноги уносила, и желательно не в одиночку.

If I were you, Misha, I'd be running away, and preferably not alone.

News editor Eldiyar Arykbaev assessed [ru]:

Вот и началась возможная слежка за Misha Pashkevich, который сфотографировал Жаныша Бакиева в Минске. Надеюсь не дойдет до того, что ему будет присылать отрезанные части тела на Новый год, как это было с Садыркуловым.

A possible shadowing of Misha Pashkevich, who took a photo of Janysh Bakiev in Minsk, has started. I hope that it won't come to the point when he will be receiving severed body parts on the New Year's Eve, as was the case with [Medet] Sadyrkulov.

Michail Pashkevich himself strongly believes that the note was genuine. In his interview with Kloop.kg, the activist stated [ru]:

Это вообще было случайно выбранное кафе, куда спонтанно приехали на машине. И записку нам передали уже через пару минут как мы сели. Это значит что ехали за нами по всему маршруту по городу

This cafe was chosen randomly, we drove there sponteneously. And the note was delivered several minutes after we took our seats. This means that we had been followed as we drove through the city.

Whatever the truth, the Pashkevich-Janysh sub-plot has gripped netizens, who are eagerly awaiting another installment on Facebook. As cocerns the bigger picture, Bishkek's diplomatic relations with Minsk are under a heavy strain. While Belarus has belatedly agreed to respond to Kyrgyzstan's latest extradition request, Kyrgyz protesters took matters into their own hands [ru], wreaking havoc in the Belarussian embassy on August 28, reportedly breaking windows and furniture.

The general reaction to the attack on the embassy has been one of shock. Kloop.kg reader Ruslan Shylov summed up [ru] the current situation succinctly when he said:

Это не хорошо…

This isn't good…

June 23 2012

Belarus: Views From the Ground

In his June 20 text for The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor, Grigory Ioffe discussed the prevalence of Russocentric tendencies in the cultural, political and economic sectors in Belarus, and, on the other hand, the country's relative lack of isolation from the West, concluding, among other things, that “the cliché-ridden thinking [was] inadequate for understanding Belarus.”

Below are some relevant statistics from Ioffe's article:

[…] According to Demoscope, a Russian demographic portal, about half of all Belarusians have relatives in Russia and one-third of them have close friends there. Only 17.5 percent of Belarusians have never been to Russia, while 51.6 percent have been to Russia multiple times […].

[…]

According to the European Commission for Home Affairs, in 2011, for the second year in a row, Belarus was the world leader in terms of the number of acquired Schengen visas per 1,000 residents. In 2011, Belarusian citizens received 580,000 C-type (qualifying for up to 90 days of stay) Schengen visas (a significant number for a country with a population of less than 10 million) – 150,000 more than in 2010. For comparison, citizens of China (with a population of 1.3 billion) received about one million Schengen visas, whereas citizens of Turkey, a country seven times more populous than Belarus, received only 592,000 visas. With 61 Schengen visas per 1,000 residents, Belarus is far ahead of Russia (36 visas), Ukraine (24 visas) and Georgia (13 visas). Even in absolute, not relative, terms Belarus is the world’s fifth highest recipient of Schengen visas. This is despite the fact that Belarusians pay 60 euros for their Schengen visa – much more than citizens of other post-Soviet countries who pay only 35 euros […]. […]

And here is a selection of some “views from the ground” - recent posts by Belarusian bloggers about the situation in the country and what it is like for ordinary people to live there.

Minsk-based LJ user vandrauniczy loves to travel [ru] and is upset [ru] that there are too many negative stereotypes about his country, blaming it not only on the current regime, but also on some of the exiled representatives of the Belarusian opposition:

[…] 9.5 million people live in the country, and they want to have world stars [come to Belarus], and they want to have all sorts of world brands enter their market, instead of having to travel abroad for that, but these fighters [EU-based members of the opposition] do not understand this, as they have all of it right in front of them in the foreign lands. I totally cannot grasp how such methods would affect the political problem. I do understand, for example, calls not to do business with companies close to [President Alyaksandr Lukashenka], not to invest money in these companies. But it appears as if the goal is to isolate the country as much as possible - that is, if there's no way to get rid of the dictator, let's do everything so that those who do have an opportunity leave for good, and only [the most unworthy ones] remain. Take those calls to refuse to hold concerts [in Belarus]: the thinking is that the people would be deprived of the much-needed entertainment, they'd hate [Lukashenka] for that and would learn that such entertainment is only possible after the [political] changes have occurred. Personally, I feel nothing but rejection and aggression towards these “bright minds” because of their stance.

[…]

I am categorically against isolation of any country in general, and especially of my native country. For example, the lack of tourists [in Belarus] has nothing to do with the lack of places of interest - it is due to the horrible image of the country that has been created in the long 18 years of [Lukashenka's] rule (the lack of investments has the same explanation, but ordinary citizens do not feel the consequences as much). It is actually really clean here and even when I'm walking around the city at 2 AM, I've never faced danger from packs of stray dogs or groups of thugs. There are problems with service. But the main stereotype [that Belarus is a place] “where they can throw us in jail just because we are foreigners” has no justification whatsoever. […]

LJ user rastaev writes [ru] about those who consider emigration to the West a better option than staying in Belarus - if not for themselves, then definitely for their children:

My old friend - once a successful businessman, who [had problems with the authorities], had his business taken away from him unlawfully, and even though he managed to keep his honor, [the ordeal drained him psychologically] […]. He is not participating in any [political activities], isn't going to rallies, isn't trying to prove more than he has proved already.

He's just raising his daughter. A beautiful and bright daughter.

He's hiring foreign language tutors for her, music and drawing teachers, is trying to teach her the basics of programming. In general, he's doing everything so that she could enter adult life as a diversely educated person.

What's so special about it? Many parents do the same. But there's one important little aspect in his educational approach: the words “motherland” and “patriotism” are banned in my friend's house.

My friend is preparing his daughter for a life outside this country. And the daughter knows about it. And she knows why. And since she's a smart kid, she doesn't object.

“In this country, my life has been [wasted], and I don't want my daughter to follow in my steps,” my friend tells me, and I can't argue with him.

[…]

It is sickening here. Unbearably sickening. No matter where you look. […]

It's sickening to watch how boorishness, ignorance and impunity flourish, how the basic human rights are violated, how innocent people are being thrown in jail and how this gets sealed with the “just” court decisions.

[…]

Sickening to understand that it's impossible to change anything, because a person capable of thinking and sympathizing is deprived of a possibility to influence anything here.

When people wish to express pride for a place they live in, they say “in our country.” When they want to emphasize their contempt, they say “in this country.” […]

The country isn't to blame, of course. Like the majority of us, it is a victim, too.

[…]

It is not scary to find oneself in a foreign land in the age of fast internet and comfortable airplanes. What's scary is when your native land turns foreign. When the only way to stay in your motherland is to carry it inside you underneath the distant skies of the strange shores.

LJ user head-of-babulka writes [ru] about those who remain in Belarus, coping with reality by ignoring its ugly aspects, tolerating the regime, refusing to get involved in politics, seemingly unaware that eventually they'll have to face the consequences of the long-term destructive actions of the current regime:

[…] But collision with reality will take place sooner or later. The only question is what conclusions a person who'll hit his forehead on it would draw. Will he be able to see his own guilt behind the dirty floors of small-town hospitals, where severely ill people lie in the hallways, post-stroke patients for whom there's not enough space in hospital rooms, and the medical staff, detached and uncaring? When he sends his kids to schools that used to give excellent knowledge just 15 years ago, will he be able to see how rotten they've become, the degradation and opportunism that have replaced the joy and initiative of the teacher's profession? What will he decide when he notices that [schools are] fully staffed with people who do not give a crap about children's education and, naturally, about their future? Will he be able to notice the link between what he sees and the 20 years of the lack of alternative and the complete annihilation of competition of ideas?

Common sense tells me that no, he won't be able to see it. But I would very much want to believe that this person isn't blind, that he is just living with his eyes shut.

In a comment [be] to this post, LJ user genevien explained his decision not to leave Belarus:

[…] Because for me to stay is also one of the methods to influence the situation, to not detach myself from it.

On his blog, he posted [be] a user-created video for the song “Hray” (”Play”) by the Belarusian band Lyapis Trubetskoy, which is banned in Belarus. The video includes footage of the post-election clashes that took place in Minsk in December 2010, and the blogger posted it on the first anniversary of these events because he considers this song “an anthem for the past year [2010] and this year [2011].” (A similar video for this song, also using the December 2010 footage, was created [be] by LJ user manivid, who has also translated the song's lyrics into English.)

June 20 2012

Caucasus: Photo Reports by a Belarusian Blogger

Ani Wandaryan (@GoldenTent) links to this photo report [ru] from Armenia by Anton Motolko, a photographer, blogger and traveller from Minsk, Belarus (LJ user toxaby, @Motolko). More of his photos [ru] - from Azerbaijan and from Georgia.

Belarus: Parliamentary Elections Set for Sept. 23

Transitions Online (TOL.org, @TransitionsMag) reports that the parliamentary elections in Belarus have been scheduled to take place on September 23 - and tweets this question: “Will they be (un)free and (un)fair?”

May 28 2012

Belarus, Russia: An Online Charity Auction With People For Sale

The idea of auctions as a fundraising tool is not a new one in the charity world — everything from paintings to exclusive trips are sold this way. Sometimes, there is even a market for people: dinners with celebrities and business-breakfasts are sold under the hammer, too. Warren Buffet, for example, has auctioned lunch dates with himself since 2000. The most recent one (in 2011) sold in an open auction on eBay for 2,626,411 dollars [ru]. But that kind of fun is not available to everyone.

Ma Sense [ru], a Belarusian project, aims to introduce to philanthropy two new categories of people that, as a rule, have not been active in charity: young members of online social networks and fans of dating sites. In a nutshell, Ma Sense is a hybrid of a charity auction-house and a dating site. Anyone interested may come and register as a ‘lot,' proposing to go get a coffee or take a trip to the cinema with the highest bidder. Whoever likes the proposal can place a bid and buy the ‘lot.' Four months into its existence, 11,200 people have registered with the project, raising more than 450,000 rubles (14,000 U.S. dollars). Apart from the average date, there are also business meetings, and even more ‘exclusive lots' (with celebrities and businessmen), now appearing on the site.

Screenshot from goodwillion.ru, 29 May 2012.

The charitable foundation Nastenka [ru], which has been helping children with cancer for the last ten years, has become the new partner of the date auction site GoodWillion [ru]. All proceeds raised from the sale of a date go to the treatment trust fund for Diana Cherbadzhi and Andrewshi Onikienko.

One of the most tempting auction lots [ru] belongs to Pasha Kiriloff, a Radio Maximum discjockey who sells meetings with himself, as well as time in the Radio Maximum studio during his evening show, ‘Pashkov and Kiriloff.'

What do you get out of it?

People get to know one another, have a good time, and enjoy pleasant surprises (and any company that wants to present gifts to the the project's participants is able to become a partner) – all while helping sick children.

It makes sense for everyone!

Original

March 24 2012

Belarus: “15+2=17″ - Bloggers React to Executions of Kanavalau and Kavalyou

At TOL's East of Center, Jeremy Druker and Anna Shamanska review and translate some of the reactions from the Belarusian blogosphere to last week's executions of the two young men convicted for the 2011 Minsk subway bombing: “Many Belarussian users on [… Vkontakte …] used pictures of Kavalyou and Kanavalau as their profile, along with the mathematical equation 15+2=17. The 15 stands for the number of victims of the metro bombing and the two for Kanavalau and Kavalyou themselves.”

March 17 2012

Belarus: The 2011 Minsk Metro Explosion - A ‘Hall of Mirrors'

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Vladislav Kovalev and Dmitry Konovalov - the men convicted and sentenced to death for their actions surrounding the April 2011 explosion in a Minsk subway station (GV coverage here and here) - have been executed despite international appeals to Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko for clemency.

Writing for The Telegraph, Andrew Osborn referred to Belarus as ‘Europe's last dictatorship' when he provided details of the explosion, which claimed the lives of 15 people and injured hundreds.

Controversy surrounding the prosecution of Mr. Kovalev and Mr. Konovalov takes on two major themes - 1) The existence of the death penalty, as Belarus is the only European nation that still executes prisoners, and 2) the integrity of the prosecution of these men.

Flowers at the entrance to the Minsk metro station where the blast occurred on April 11, 2011. Photo by IVAN URALSKY, copyright © Demotix (12/04/11).

Just days after the explosion, The Economist posted in its blog a variety of theories about who could have been responsible:

In other countries, the finger of suspicion for the latest bomb would point immediately to Islamist terrorists. But they seem a highly unlikely culprit. Belarus has stayed clear of Russia's war in Chechnya, so attracts no jihadist ire for that. […]

It is hard to see why anyone in the mainstream opposition would be behind the outrage. It does not destabilise the regime. It would carry huge risks to the perpetrators. And it would be completely out of character. […]

A slighly more plausible candidate would be an extremist movement. Belarus has no real tradition of political radicalism. Russia has skinheads, persecutors of ethnic minorities and even neo-Nazis (puzzling: do they think they are übermenschen or untermenschen?). Such groups have minor offshoots in Belarus. Perhaps one such is showing off its abilities, for purposes of its own.

A Belarusian outfit called the “White Legion” was linked to the 2008 bombings and may have had a hand in two earlier explosions in 2005. But nobody knows much about it. Some even doubt it exists. […]

Splits within the regime are a possibility. The arrest in December 2010 of Igor Azarenok, the air-force chief, remains a mystery, and may be resented by his friends. Some analysts posit the existence of rival factions of “young wolves” and “old wolves” (the former friends of Mr Lukashenka's son Viktar, the others old KGB men).

Another analysis involves a hardline faction determined to push Belarus further towards autocracy and away from the West. […]

Such secret internal machinations can of course explain almost anything. But it would be nice to have some evidence. In this case little exists.

The post concluded by emphasizing that no real evidence had been produced, as it likened the case to a ‘hall of mirrors':

The result is a hall of mirrors: did the authorities let off a bomb hoping to discredit the opposition? Or did the opposition do it in the belief that the authorities would take the blame? Or was it the Russians, for some conspiracy theorists the all-purpose malefactors? Did the regime do it in order to highlight the threat from “extremists”, or in the hope of pinning blame on outsiders? Or was it NATO: after all, the wicked Westerners have bombed Libya, so why not Belarus? The explanations become steadily more absurd and inconclusive.

The only hard fact so far is that the bombing was a professional job, callously executed. Mr Lukashenka took his usual fatherly line, attending the scene of the blast with his six-year-old son (his companion in almost all public appearances).

In November 2011, Death Penalty Blog quoted an article found in the Independent, which illuminated the controversy surrounding the investigation into Mr. Konovalov and Mr. Kovalyov:

Police quickly arrested Konovalov and Kovalyov, however, and the former confessed to making the bomb and detonating it, while the latter admitted he knew his friend's plans and did nothing to stop him. The pair also admitted to a number of smaller attacks. Konovalov said that he carried out the attacks “to destabilise the situation in the Republic of Belarus” and because he disagreed with Mr Lukashenko's policies, but the bizarrely stilted admission, which mirrors an official legal definition, left many suspicious, as did the fact that Konovalov appeared to be entirely apolitical.

During the two-month trial, Kovalyov has said he only implicated his friend after being pressured by investigators, and Konovalov has said nothing. Besides the confessions, the prosecutors have offered little substantial evidence against the two men.

Although the verdict has not yet been delivered, Mr Lukashenko has already publicly rewarded officials for solving the case, and state-controlled media have frequently referred to the two men on trial as “terrorists”.

Mr. Kovalyov's mother took an active role in public efforts to exonerate her son. Through Change.org, she set up a multi-lingual online form enabling netizens to petition a variety of European foreign affairs officials:

I am writing you on behalf of Lyubou Kavalyova, a mother of Uladzislau Kavalyou. On November 30th, her son together with Dzmitry Kanavalau was convicted to the death penalty by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus. […]

I joined this campaign, because I believe the two men cannot be sent to death, until they are proven guilty. […]

I am writing you also on behalf of Belarusian and international human rights groups and many victims of the attack, who say the trial is unjust and that the Supreme Court has made a mistake sentencing the two men to death. […]

Thus, I am writing to you to ask only two things: please take a stand on this issue publicly, please condemn the death penalty in Belarus. Please write to the Belarusian authorities and demand not to execute Uladzislau Kavalyou and Dzmitry Kanavalau, but instead to start a new investigation! […]

Petitioners left comments explaining why they felt moved to take action in defense of these young men.

Olga Nikonova [ru]:

They aren't guilty!!!! The presumption of innocence states - a man is innocent until proven guilty in a court. The court hasn't provided evidence!!!! […]

Iryna Lysenko [ru]:

I'm against the death penalty. History is full of situations where innocent people were executed. This case might be one of them. It must not be allowed to happen!

Dzmitry Shymkin [en]:

Everybody knows that this process is farce and everybody knows who is real organizator of that murder.

Voice of America Blog announced on Nov. 30 that the death penalty had been handed down and that international human rights groups continued to call into question the legitimacy of the investigation:

The judge said Wednesday that Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov present an extreme danger to society and thus require the ultimate punishment — death by execution. […]

Rights activists had called on authorities in the former Soviet republic not to impose the death sentence. An Amnesty International researcher expressed shock at, in her words, the “cynicism” of the judgment.

Amnesty says it has concerns about the investigation, namely the speed with which the case was announced resolved and that the two suspects confessed to not only masterminding the April metro bombing but others as well.

Voices of Russia Blog published a letter to the editor a few days later entitled “Apparently, the West is Against Terrorism Only When it Suits its Own Agenda,” which supported the prosecution of Mr. Konovalov and Mr. Kovalyov:

Apparently, the West’s against terrorism only when it suits its own agenda. Despite the overwhelming physical and circumstantial evidence against the Minsk Metro Bombers, including a video tape of one of the perps planting the bomb, the Western media’s already screaming that the trial was unfair. They’re even stating that the Byelorussian government planted the bomb in order to create a situation of fear. At this point, I believe it’s a waste of time even answering the anti-Belarus and anti-Lukashenko ravings in the West. No matter what we say, no matter what evidence we present, they’ll continue to demonise Belarus and President Lukashenko. […]

In recent days there have been unverified reports that one or both men have already been executed. RT.com reported that Mr. Kovalev’s family received a letter signed by the Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court stating that their son had been shot on Mar. 15. What is certain is that if these men have been executed, their families received no advance warning.

December 12 2011

Belarus-Poland: Ex Presidential Candidate Arrested in Warzaw

According to LJ user artem_ablozhei [ru], former Belarus presidential candidate Ales Michalevic earlier today was arrested at Warzaw airport by Polish police acting on an extradition request by Belarus authorities.

November 08 2011

Russia: Drug Control Service Goes After a Blogger Who Commented on Steve Jobs Taking Drugs

Russian Drug Control Service had approached Habrahabr.ru, a popular IT-portal, and demanded [ru] personal data of the Belarus-based staff-writer Alizar [ru]. He is accused of drug propaganda in his post [ru] which speculates on Steve Jobs' innovativity, marijuana and LSD, and the governments' policies towards light drugs, citing Time magazine, the New York Times, etc. Alizar is one of the most prolific writers at Habrahabr and had sometimes covered political topics. The portal representative tweeted [ru] that they will not disclose the data without a court order.

October 23 2011

Russia: Success of National Wrestling System Explained

Russian wrestlers are often considered to be the best in the world. Citizen media suggest that a possible explanation for this is the relationship between politics and wrestling in Russia as exemplified by Alexander Karelin. Mr. Karelin was an elite Russian wrestler and Olympian and is now an elected official who serves on the Russian Duma's Committee on International Affairs.

Vladimir Anoshenko was a Belarusian National Champion wrestler as well as an American university wrestling coach. He discussed in an entry from last year on his blog why the Russian team is so effective:

2010 was again a successful year for Russian wrestlers. They dominated in all big international competitions. Many people in the international wrestling community (particularly in the U.S.) are trying to figure out the success of the Russian Wrestling System. My opinion of why Russia dominates is that the system is built on deep wrestling traditions with tremendous financial and political support.

Vladimir went on to discuss how American wrestlers start at a younger age and practice more intensely - and thus get burned out before they are able to compete at the international level. By contrast, Russian wrestlers start a little older - between the ages of 10-13. They participate in fewer tournaments and practice for shorter amounts of time per day, instead focus more on their technique, while Americans focus on conditioning.

Later in the post Vladimir Anoshenko introduces the relationship between Russian wrestling and Russian politics:

In Russia, big bonuses and incentives are good motivation to wrestle. Usually all of the best wrestlers are provided with career opportunities by government or businesses. While athletes wrestle or they finish their sport career they know they will have a good job. This is very important for the Russian Wrestling System.

In U.S., wrestlers don't have opportunities like this. Only a few can afford to wrestle 10-15 yrs. at the senior level. The U.S. can beat Russia in wrestling some years. But to dominate the World constantly, the U.S. has to create a wrestling system that is better or at least competitive to the Russian Wrestling System.

Alexander Karelin fits exactly the profile Vladimir Anoshenko described, as illustrated by Mr. Karelin's MySpace blog from 2007. Although he joined the United Russia party and was elected to the State Duma in 1999, he did not officially retire from wrestling until after the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

• Jan 5, 2007
Chronology
..> ..>
1967 Born September 19 in Novobirsk, Siberia
1980 Takes up wrestling at age 13
1988 Wins Olympic gold medal in Seoul, South Korea; also wins European Championship
1989-91, 1993-95, 1998-99 Wins European and World Championships
1992 Wins Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, Spain; also wins European Championship
1996 Wins Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, Georgia; also wins European Championship
1997 Wins World Championship
1999 Elected to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament
2000 Wins European Championship
2000 Wins Olympic silver medal in Sydney, Australia; also wins European Championship
2000 Retires from wrestling

BlogSochi.ru, a blog pertaining to the Winter Olympic Games which will be held in Russia in 2014, shared a video of an interview with Alexander Karelin. He is introduced as an “Olympic Champion” but in the interview his persona reflects more his current role as a state official when discussing the efforts put forth to preparing the city for the Olympics.

Aldar Balzhinimaev jogs a victory lap with the Russian Federation flag in celebration of his gold medal win at the Inaugural Youth Olympic Games, 46kg freestyle wrestling event, Singapore. Photo by Ray Shiu, copyright © Demotix (17/08/2010)

Alexander Karelin is a wrestler from the past, but other citizen media outlets capture current and future Russian wrestlers.

CompoundWrestling.com posted a video of the 2011 Russian National Championships, which were held in Yakutia over the summer. The author described the video:

Notice all the different angles and methods being used to attack, shucks, fakes, snaps all accompanied by great footwork and position.

The Moscow-based radio station, Voice of Russia, announced on Twitter the results of the Youth World Sambo Wrestling Championships:

Russia reaps gold in sambo wrestling: Russian boys have won 16 gold, 9 silver and 8 bronze medals at a youth world championship bit.ly/pSBniV

Perhaps one of those boys is the next Alexander Karelin in the making.

August 01 2011

Belarus: Almost 30% of Belarusans Get Lower Salary Than Moldovans

LJ user Pavel Kuznetsov points to [ru] recent statistics showing that almost 30% of employees in Belarus earn less than in Moldova - the poorest country in Europe.

July 25 2011

Belarus: East and West and Nothing in Between?

“East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” This chronically misused Kipling phrase seems to catch realities for an increasing number of Belarusians, as recent protests and crises have become a rude awakening from the torpor of the last Soviet “sleeping beauty.” Waking to a wild and hostile world, many people now start asking: “Who cares about Belarus?”

Coverage found in the Western media of the recent developments in Belarus largely follows the general pattern of repression, with a few opposition activists highlighted, but still with little added to the familiar story. It is true that the economic crisis that has recently hit the country and Russia's gradual takeover of Belarus' economy have added spice to the stew, where the ultimate news would be the ouster of President Lukashenko. Until that day, though, Belarus seems deemed to remain in limbo between East and West. Or would Lukashenko or no Lukashenko really make a difference? By all appearance, an increasing number of voices in Belarus say that the limbo will linger on, and Belarus is bound to remain in a grey zone between East and West.

Thus, LJ user by_volunteer complains [ru] that the country's economy is sold out to Russia, whereas Europe has enough problems of her own to trouble to care:

Беларусь пошла с молотка и это очевидный конец. Руководство Беларуси заключило сделку и тихонько распродаёт страну, в расчёте на политическое убежище, все наши ура-патриоты спокойно на это смотрят. Основные предприятия страны переходят в собственность к России, это российские капиталовложения в нашу собственность. Как можно это допустить и как может ЕС так спокойно упускать свои перспективы на будущее в Беларуси?! Это же полный провал европейской политики, тем более в ЕС нарастает огромный финансовый кризис, европейский бизнес девать просто некуда. Это немощный инфантилизм и позор, нельзя допускать завершения сделки с Россией, это огромная ошибка, нужно срочно принимать меры!

Belarus went under [the auctioneer's] hammer and it was a foregone conclusion. The leaders of Belarus made a deal and are quietly selling off the country, counting on political asylum, and all our hooray-patriots calmly look at it. The main enterprises of the country are becoming Russian property. It is a Russian investment in our property. How can this be allowed, and how can the EU so calmly give up on its views on Belarus?! It is simply a total collapse of European policy, especially as an enourmous financial crisis is brewing in the EU, and European business simply has nowhere to turn. It is powerless infantilism and a shame. Оne cannot allow dealing with Russia. It's a big mistake, and urgent action is needed!

But where is Europe, and where is justice? Feelings of abandonment and, for all appearances, being treated unfairly are obviously spreading, adding to a sense of general disappointment and hopelessness in everyday life and in hopes for the future. Writing about a denial of an EU-Schengen visa for her son, a mother laments [ru] over how she feels people from Belarus are regarded:

Нет правды в Беларуси. Десятки лет мы получаем лживую информацию, слышим безответственные обещания, видим потемкинские деревни. Наелись. Все цивилизованные страны единодушны в оценке и называют такое поведение властей издевательством над народом. Но как оценить издевательство над многострадальными гражданами посольств этих цивилизованных стран, когда после заявлений о смягчении визовых режимов для белорусов, отказывают в визе даже тем белорусам, которые по всем критериям очень даже выездные. [—] Мой сын закончил третий курс университета. Хотел съездить во Францию по частному приглашению. Получил отказ. Поскольку ничего плохого за ним никогда не водилось, единственной причиной отказа считаю административный арест 19 декабря на 15 суток. Он проходит по спискам и, скорее всего, поэтому посольство Франции ответило: «У нас нет уверенности, что вы покинете страну по истечению срока визы». Интересно получается. Два списка фигурируют для запрета въезда в Евросоюз: официальный - список чиновников и неофициальный список задержанных. [—] И стало, знаете, очень обидно. И очень одиноко. И за демократию бьют по голове, и демократия бьет по голове. И никому мы не нужны. Ладно бы не нужны – и на порог не пускают. А главное, никакими демократическими процедурами это решение не оспорить. Где справедливость, где права человека, какие гаагские суды рассматривают отказы в выдаче визы? Какие правозащитные организации защищают таких людей? А главное, отличается ли белорусская судья, превентивно выносящая приговор за несовершенное правонарушение, от французского чиновника, отказывающего в визе за несостоявшийся невозврат?

There is no truth in Belarus. For decades, we have been getting a pack of lies, listening to irresponsible promises, seeing the Potemkin villages. We are fed up with it. All civilized countries unite in their judgment and name such conduct of power a mockery with the people. But how is such mockery with the long-suffering citizens valued by embassies of these civilized countries, when - after declarations of a softened visa regime for Belarusians - visas are denied even to those Belarusans who really by all criteria are liable for them. [—] My son finished his third year at university, and wanted to go to France on a private invitation. He got a rejection [to his visa application]. As he has never been up to anything bad, the only reason for rejection, I think, is the administrative [post-election protest-related] arrest on December 19 for 15 days. He is on the lists, and therefore, supposedly, the French Embassy replied: «We don't know if you leave the country after your visa expires». It all becomes interesting. There appears to be two lists for denial of entry to the European Union: An official - the bureaucrats' list - and an unofficial list of those who had been arrested. [—] And then, you know, it becomes really hurtful. And very lonely. Getting hit on the head for democracy, and then getting hit on the head by democracy. Nobody needs us. It's okay if we are not needed, and not let over the threshold. But the main thing is that there are no democratic procedures by which to appeal this decision. Where is justice, where are human rights, which Hague courts review the denials of visas? What civil rights organizations defend these people? And above all, does a Belarusian judge, who preventively passes verdict for a crime not committed, differ from a French bureaucrat, who denies a visa for a non-return that has not taken place?

Touching on the classical Tolstoian question of the evil inside us all and the need to come to terms with it, LJ user dolka777 asks [ru] how people allowed the Lukashenko regime to develop:

Как мы вскормили диктатора. Это вопрос, который я себе задаю постоянно. Мучительно вспоминаю, как и когда я сама впустила в себя эту диктатуру. Свято верю, что в каждой судьбе должен быть такой момент, когда ты соглашаешься со злом только потому, что твой двоюродный брат работает в КГБ и он – клевый парень, а тебе не хочется его обижать. Или хвастаешься другом, который парится в парилке с личным сантехником Его Величества. Шугаешься коллег или сокурсников, которые связаны с оппозицией. Думаю, что здесь, в бай-политикс собрались те, которые, возможно, ничего такого не делали. Но все же. [—] И теперь вопрос каждому: что ты лично сделал для того, чтобы в Беларуси воцарился диктатор?

How did we nourish a dictator? It's a question I ask myself all the time. It is painful to remember how and when I, myself, let this dictatorship in. I sincerely believe that in every destiny there has to be such a moment when you consent to evil only because your cousin works for the KGB, and he is a cool guy and you don't want to hurt his feelings. Or you boast about a friend who has steamed in the same sauna as His Highness. You vilify those colleagues or classmates who are connected with the opposition. I believe that here, in the .by-politics, those have gathered who perhaps did nothing like this. But still. And now a question to each and everyone: What have you personally done so that a dictator could reign in Belarus?

So, as the shrill voices of Lukashenko loyalists and opposition activists reach crescendo, perhaps there are weaker voices wondering why they cannot simply be allowed to be here, “tuteishi”, and lead a normal life between Russia and Europe.

Kipling's famous poem on East and West has a less-known ending: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

So, even if Russia and Europe, as two strong men, would learn to respect each other, where would that leave Belarus but in a grey zone? Perhaps, for many Belarusians, East is East and West is West, and there is no place for the rest, living in between.

July 13 2011

Belarus: Vkontakte Social Network Blocked by the Providers

Vkontakte, Russian social network, is unavailable for Belarus Internet Users. The network hosts “Revolution Through the Social Network” [ru] group used to organize non-violent protests, telegraf.by reported [ru]. Individual Belarus-based users told GV that the page loads only header but the rest of Vkontakte is not accessible. Interfax.by claims [ru], however, that in their office, the page opens freely.

July 10 2011

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