RA’s Daily Russia News Blast – Jan 2, 2008

blast010208.jpgTODAY: Worries over the gas cut off, no more jury trials, an evacuation in Gaza, war games with Greece, Czechs in charge of the EU, a scandal with the Philippines, more Arctic fighting, and the Russian Navy is deployed to fight the Somali pirates.

The new year’s day cut in natural gas supplies to the Ukraine has provoked a number of political reactions across Europe.  Beyond the non-payment of debt, Russia has accused the Ukraine of stealing gas.  The United States seemed more concerned about the situation than the Europeans.  Western Europe has not yet been affected, and in general, the continent is better prepared with reserves than it was in 2006. “Public opinion will matter immensely in how this is resolved,” Dmitri Trenin told the FT, and Russia has the upper hand in the public relations war given the Ukraine’s severe political infighting.

As reported on the blog yesterday, Dmitry Medvedev has signed a bill to eliminate jury trials.  Today the critical reactions are rolling in.  Andrei Illarionov:  “It’s a preparation for terror, although not the grand terror of the1930s. (…) They are much smarter now.They are preparing some kind of selective terror against those who arecourageous enough to speak up.”  Lev Ponomarev (hours before the signing):  “I’m convinced that Medvedev himself understands quite well that if hesigns the law on jury trials, he crosses out his own legal career. (…) Finally, without any questions or suspicions, he becomes an outright shadow of Mr. Putin.

On Friday, Russian Embassy officials completed the evacuation of their citizens from the Gaza Strip, where fighting has intensified between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.  The Kremlin, along with others, has been urging an immediate ceasefire, and even appears to be brokering a deal on behalf of Hamas.

Over the next two days as well as later this month carrier-based fighter jets from the Russian air force will participate in exercises and war games in Greek airspace.

All eyes are on VáclavKlaus, the Eurosceptic Czech PM who took over the rotating presidency of the EU yesterday, to see how he would handle stepping into the formidable shoes left behind by Nicholas Sarkozy. Klaus has already called upon EU member states to collectively put an end to fighting in the Gaza Strip and has called the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute a “bilateral” problem.

A retired Philippino police chief, Eliseo de la Paz, was arrested in Russia two months ago, but the Philippine National Police (PNP) have still not recovered about one hundred thousand euros confiscated by the Russian authorities (allegedly funds for espionage), leading to a simmering diplomatic situation.

The territorial disputes between Russia, Canada, the United States,Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland in the Arctic continue indeadlock.  John Pike of globalsecurity.org tells CNN: “The Russians have got a half-dozen icebreakers. Americans have apair of icebreakers, but they are old and worn out. (…) Building a ship to operate in a foot of ice is no big deal. Buildingan icebreaker that can get through 2 yards of ice, now you’re talkingserious icebreaking. The Russians can get through 2 yards of icewithout breaking a sweat.

A task force from Russia’s Pacific Fleet will join international anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa in response to the escalating situation.  Apart from the Admiral Vinogradov destroyer, the naval task force alsoincludes the rescue tug-boat Foty Krylov and the tankers Boris Butomaand Pechenga.

Photo credit: A gas pipe is pictured at agas-compressor station in the Ukrainian city of Boyarka, not far fromKiev. Russia has accused Ukraine of “stealing” gas bound for Europeancustomers and called for an emergency session of the Europeanparliament to make its case in the latest energy crisis. (AFP/Sergei Supinsky)