Russia polices South Ossetian, Abkhazian borders with Georgia / Russia warns Europe of possible gas crisis / Russian, Chinese meat restrictions unnerve U.S. exporters / Moscow hotels hike rates to cash in on Eurovision
Russia polices South Ossetian, Abkhazian borders with Georgia
Over the weekend, Russian border guards began to police the South Ossetian and Abkhazian borders with Georgia under agreements signed between Moscow and the former Georgian republics a few days ago.
This is the second time (after Tajikistan) that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) border-control units have operated outside Russia.
Nikolai Lisinsky, head of the FSB's regional border control division for the Southern Federal District, said that "state-of-the-art technical systems, including video-camera sensors, radars and unmanned aerial vehicles" would be used to protect the border.
South Ossetian Information and Press Minister Irina Gagloyeva said the republic's Akhalgor region would receive increased surveillance, as the most likely starting point for a potential Georgian invasion.
Tbilisi has called the deployment of Russian border guards on the South Ossetian-Georgian border an act of retaliation for the decision to hold a NATO exercise May 6 - June 1 at the Vaziani military base in Georgia.
The Georgian government is convinced that the relevant agreement on deploying Russian border guards in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is aimed at convincing the West that any NATO activity in the Caucasus will meet with an adequate Russian response.
"Russia continues to violate the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement, bolstering its military presence in South Ossetia," said Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Georgy Baramidze.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, said the latest Moscow agreements would be instrumental in preventing new conflicts.
He said administrative borders could be crossed at any time, increasing chances of conflict many-fold, but that the border-protection agreement would prevent Georgia from attacking both states once again.
Kosachev said the agreement should not be linked with the upcoming NATO exercises in Georgia. "Although both events are a logical coincidence, the sides have their own action plans," Kosachev stressed.
Russia warns Europe of possible gas crisis
Russian natural gas supplies to Europe are still at risk, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin has warned. To avoid interruptions, Europe would need to give money to Ukraine and invite Russia to participate in the modernization of Ukrainian pipelines.
He briefly outlined the prospect of another gas crisis in Eastern Europe next winter at a meeting with Europe's Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, explaining that the only way to avoid it would be to combine Russian and European efforts to pump gas into Ukraine's underground storage facilities. He added that a high-level political decision had to be made: "The risks should be shared by all the countries interested in stable gas supplies."
If Kiev is not given money to buy more gas, "last January's tragedy will develop into a larger catastrophe," Sechin said, because, Ukraine has no more reserves to pump gas into the tanks.
Ukraine expected a $5 billion loan from Russia, a Ukrainian government official said. However, the issue was not settled at talks between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Yulia Tymoshenko in late April. The issue requires "additional examination, study and consultations. There is no final decision today," Putin said at a Moscow news conference after the meeting.
There are other risks as well, according to Sechin, who also cited the Ukrainian pipeline system's limited capacity. He said a new agreement replacing the EU Energy Charter could guarantee stable supplies. Russia insists that the new agreement include a scheme for coordinating all agreements between fuel suppliers, consumers and transporters.
The European Union is reluctant to revise the Energy Charter. On the other hand, the European Commission has agreed to discuss Russia's proposals on setting up an international consortium to modernize the Ukrainian pipeline system.
All the parties to the gas talks have moved from confrontation to extensive consultations, said Ukrainian Presidential energy adviser Bohdan Sokolovsky.
Russian, Chinese meat restrictions unnerve U.S. exporters
In late April, Russia's agricultural regulator Rosselkhoznadzor banned imports of all meat from Mexico, Texas, California and Kansas. Additional meat import bans are likely to follow in May.
It is forbidden to import any meat from Texas, California and Kansas. Pork imports are banned from nine countries and several other U.S. states. However, the ban does not apply to products which have been thermally processed for at least 30 minutes at temperatures not less than 80 degrees centigrade.
Many critics overlooked the fact that airline passengers and crews are not allowed to eat meat onboard and to bring it into Russia.
China has introduced similar tough restrictions on meat imports. Some analysts are calling Rosselkhoznadzor's measures strange and surprising.
Analysts of the UN and the World Trade Organization are making similar statements. Even the World Health Organization is hinting that Moscow and Beijing should not limit pork imports.
The present outcry, motivated by the fact that both Russia and China are the main foreign clients of U.S. farmers, does not match the level of preventive Russian measures.
The ban only applies to meat that has not been thermally processed. Although Russia receives virtually no Mexican pork, it gets 20% of its pork imports from the United States. In 2008, Russia received almost 16,000 metric tons of U.S. pork.
Naturally, some Russian meat-processing companies could be deprived of foreign feedstock. But it would be appropriate to choose the lesser of two evils pending a complete study of the swine flu outbreak.
Rosselkhoznadzor measures could be called excessive if Russian companies unfailingly abided by European hygienic and sanitary standards. However, it would now be better to take extra precautions.
Moscow hotels hike rates to cash in on Eurovision
Russia's Federal Anti-trust Service (FAS) has launched a probe of several Moscow hotel owners who have hiked rates for the period of the Eurovision-2009 song contest, to be hosted by the Russian capital. If the regulator finds evidence of price collusion, the perpetrators will face fines of 15% of their annual turnover.
Moscow hoteliers raised their nightly rates for the period of May 10-16 by 20%-30%, which the FAS interprets as violation of anti-trust laws. The case is to be considered on May 14.
Eurovision guests will stay at 13 hotels, with a total of 738 rooms booked as of the end of last month for members of participating countries' delegations and 83 rooms for reporters. Intourist, the official hotel operator for Eurovision, said the expected number of participants and guests is 305,000.
Hotel operators and owners say the FAS claims are unjustified. "The current prices are low-season," said Alla Panarina, director of two hotels, Budapest and Peter I. Hotel rates always grow in May, usually by 10%-20% for major clients including travel agents, added Alexander Polyakov, deputy CEO of Intourist Hotel Group.
However, the anti-trust watchdog is not to be satisfied by simple explanations. "The flow of tourists has been down due to the general economic downturn, and it seems strange that hotels should cite seasonal changes for rising prices," said Timofei Nizhegorodtsev, a FAS official responsible for social services and trade.
Moscow hoteliers have hiked rates during high-profile events before. Last year during the UEFA Champions League, prices surged by over 50%, but the regulator did not object. However, the FAS accused 11 hotels in St Petersburg of price collusion, after they raised their rates 80%-100% during the St Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2008, according to the officials.
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