RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Dec 31, 2008

blast123108.jpgTODAY:  The RA Blog wishes you a very happy new year, Opposition gathers momentum in Georgia, Spain extradites a Chechen to Russia, reactions to the doomsday professor, former North Ossetian Mayor gunned down, Nicaragua wants closer relations with Moscow, and the Czechs prepare to handle a difficult EU presidency.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve is pretty serious business in Russia – making Times Square look like a Disney on Ice – and as such, I’d like to communicate the personal best wishes to all our readers from Robert Amsterdam, Grigory Pasko, and the entire team at this blog. We’re grateful for your interest in this project, and look forward to making the RA blog even better in 2009. We are especially happy that at least one political prisoner, Vasily Alexanyan, will finally be able to spend the holiday with family.  (The only downside of NYE – there is not a tremendous amount of exciting news for us to discuss, so the news blasts may be quite brief today.)

Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili has more problems than just hisnew, foreign occupier.  Throughout the fall, the local opposition hasbeen successfully organizing to challenge Saakashvili’s administration,questioning the success of a confrontational orientation.  In an attackpiece in the New York Times, Ronald Asmus of the German Marshall Fundsays: “The advice of people like me is: To whatever degree possible, forgetabout the Russians. (…) Accelerate reform and regain the moralhigh ground you had, and lost.

A Chechen prisoner held in Spain, described by the Kremlin as a militant, has been extradited back to Russia today.  Murat Gasayev, who is accused of participating in an attack against Interior Ministry forces in the South Caucasus in 2004, is the very first prisoner of this kind to be extradited to Russia from a European country.  Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch expressed vigorous opposition to this extradition as Gasayev would be at risk of torture.

Earlier this week we reported on the sudden, convenient popularity of Russian academic Igor Panarin, who predicts the disintegration of the United States by 2010.  The reactions continue to roll in.  Arthur I. Cyr believes that Panarin’s popularity is disturbing:  “Good intelligence officers, like good historians, collect informationfrom many sources. By all means consider Panarin’s views, but more forwhat they reveal about Russia than about us.

Kazbek Pagiyev, the former mayor of Vladikavkaz, was murdered today in a “hail of machine gun fire” as he was driving in a car near his home.  Pagiyev had just resigned a few days ago as the deputy head of the North Ossetian regional government – his mayoral successor was also murdered by sniper fire last month.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, under significant pressure from cancelled aid deals from Europe and the United States in the wake of a disputed election, is seeking to move closer to Russia.  “Ortega has become a deeply unpopular president after a series ofscandals,” the U.S.-based Stratfor consulting firm said in a recentreport. “Making grand gestures in the international system is one wayfor Ortega to step into the spotlight and perhaps attract aninternational sponsor.

Tonight at the stroke of midnight, the Czech Republic will be passed the torch of the EU presidency in a very difficult moment, as members of the alliance struggle to coordinate fiscal policies in response to the economic crisis, and speak with one voice in relations with Russia. The Czech government says it will focus on three E’s during its presidency: the economy, energy and external relations – but it is unclear how it will handle European divisions over relations with Russia in terms of the energy trade and peace process in Georgia.

Photo: Men wearing costumes of Ded Moroz(Grandfather Frost), the Santa Claus in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine,and women wearing costumes of Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), Ded Moroz’traditional companion, sing and dance in a ring with children markingthe upcoming New Year in the Belarus’ town of Smolevichi, 30 km east ofthe capital Minsk, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008. The Soviet style board withphotos of honored local citizens is seen in the background. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)