Nuclear deal in ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ threat
The U.S. Senate’s repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy banning openly gay military service members may damage the chances for ratification of the new nuclear arms control agreement to be signed with Russia. President Barack Obama on Sunday made a last desperate attempt to win the lawmakers over in a letter reassuring them that the new START Treaty will not erode the country’s security.
Several Republican Senators, who had been expected to support the new START ratification, announced on Sunday that this change of mind stems from the Senate’s decision reached late last Sunday to repeal the homosexual army recruiting ban. Leading Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) expressed his disappointment over the repeal of the military's DADT policy. Yet, he added, he could still support the new START ratification provided the Russian authorities explicitly confirm they accept U.S. plans to develop four stages of strategic missile defense.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) and Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said they won’t support the new START because it seriously limits the prospects of the planned missile defense system.
President Obama issued a letter to the Senate on Sunday pledging that the U.S. missile defense system would be fully developed in Europe, in a last-ditch attempt to relieve the lawmakers’ concerns about the START treaty, which is moving toward a final vote. He tried to reassure them that the nuclear pact with Russia in no way limits the United States’ ability to develop its missile defense systems. However, his rationale is apparently failing to convince the opposition.
Analysts believe that the Republican minority leaders’ resistance is a serious threat to the new START treaty’s future. The Senate is close to a split, whereas in the past, all agreements with Russia were passed by majority vote, if not unanimously. No arms control initiative has ever triggered so much debate.
Washington still seems to be in a confident and optimistic mood. Top Democrats, including Vice-President Joe Biden, said on Sunday they believe they have sufficient support in the Senate to ratify the arms reduction pact between the United States and Russia, Obama's top foreign relations priority. The final vote is slated for Tuesday.
The new U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty limits each side’s strategic warheads to no more than 1,550 (down from 2,200), and sets a maximum of 800 land-, air- and sea-based launchers. The treaty needs two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes for ratification. Each of the last three START treaties was ratified with over 90 votes. The previous treaty expired in December, 2009.
Belarusian riot police hit back at Russian media
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has shown the world once again that he is not to be democratized. The crowd of protesters trying to storm the parliament in Minsk on Sunday following presidential elections was brutally dispersed by riot police.
According to preliminary information, about 20 journalists suffered police violence. It is standard practice throughout the world not to touch people carrying cameras and press cards while breaking up rallies. In Belarus, however, police attacked reporters carrying cameras, particularly targeting Russian TV correspondents.
The police seemed to be getting their own back for all the uncomplimentary reports aired on Russian TV about Lukashenko. Crews working with Russia Today, REN and Channel One were beaten up.
Moskovsky Komsomolets asked Russia Today to comment on the physical violence meted out to Russian journalists. This is their response: “RT Channel cameramen Anton Kharchenko and Viktor Silyaev were brutally beaten up by Belarusian police when they were covering an opposition rally on Independence Square in Minsk. Police officers that formed part of the cordon began hitting them on the head with rubber truncheons. Both cameramen received extensive injuries. However, the team continues to cover the elections in Belarus. They are to return to Moscow on Monday.”
This is how Dmitry Tarkhov, a REN television correspondent, describes his experience: “Personally I do not have any major injuries – all I got was several blows to the stomach. REN cameraman Ilya Omelchenko was punched several times, flung into the snow and had his camera seriously damaged … Ordinary Belarusians had a much worse time. Police beat everyone indiscriminately, including the elderly, women, and teenagers. Russian riot police methods are child’s play in comparison.”
Other victims include a journalist from the website Lifenews, and Irina Khalip, a Novaya Gazeta correspondent in Belarus and wife of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov. She was attacked as she was giving an interview to Echo Moskvy radio.
A press photographer from the St. Petersburg newspaper Moi Rayon was also detained in Minsk. John Hill, a correspondent with The New York Times, correspondents for the news agency Belta, the website TUT.by, and a photographer working with Belorusskaya Gazeta all received various injuries. Natalia Radina, the editor-in-chief of the opposition website Charter 97, was arrested.
The Russian Embassy in Minsk has intervened on behalf of the battered journalists. “The Russian Embassy in Belarus is aware of the complex situation that developed in Minsk on December 19, but at the same time it believes that the actions of the Belarusian riot police against officially accredited Russian reporters were not always justified,” an embassy spokesperson said. He added that journalists could be distinguished from the crowd since they have cameras and badges.
Casino ban fails miserably
Despite the 2009 ban on gambling, dozens of casinos operate openly in major Russian cities under modified signs. There are semi-legal lottery clubs and underground casinos in temporary premises with no addresses. In fact, there are many more gambling establishments in Russia than are officially registered. Concerned citizens who remember Vladimir Putin's pronouncements that all casinos must be relegated to special gambling zones do not know what to think.
Three illegal gambling clubs were closed on Monday in Moscow. Two more are under investigation. On Monday, the Public Chamber announced that over 520 gambling establishments are operating in Moscow today, not including underground clubs. Moscow has the most casinos with 523, St. Petersburg is in second place with 316 and Novosibirsk is third with 33.
In the fall of 2006, Putin, then president, proposed a solution to Russia’s gambling problem at a meeting with parliamentary leaders. He proposed that the State Duma draft a law on state regulation of gambling operations, which essentially limited gambling to four specially designated zones: the Altai and Primorsky territories, the Kaliningrad Region and the border of the Rostov Region and the Krasnodar Territory. The law stipulated that by July 1, 2009, all gambling establishments in Russia would be moved to these special zones. However, Putin still cannot claim that this law is being successfully enforced.
Views on the situation with casinos differ dramatically. Authorities say that the current legislation is sufficient and all the regulations are clear, so issues should be taken up with law enforcement agencies, not lawmakers. Law enforcement agencies, in turn, point to the lack of standards for lottery equipment. Lawyers also point to the vagueness of existing legislation, which actually allows gambling establishments to stay open.
“The law has at least three loopholes,” said Pyotr Klyuyev, an analyst at 2K Audit Business Consultations / Morison International. “First, slot machines can be used as a lottery – the same machines, only without a coin receptacle. You can place bets at the club's cash office. The second is poker clubs, where players are not playing the house, but with each other, which is considered a sport. The third is online casinos, which have the same roulette but online and for virtual money.”
Many cite the government’s lack of commitment to implementing its own initiative, but another explanation could be that the authorities are turning a blind eye to casinos to let people have their fun in a period of instability.
There are other opinions. Andrei Spiridonov, presidium chairman of the Association of Young Entrepreneurs, said that the authorities cannot be blamed for inaction.
“There is an active campaign against gambling,” he said. “We will see results early next year. A law banning lotteries using electronic equipment will come into force on January 1, 2011. The Law On Lottery has introduced the necessary restrictions and limited profits, which have eliminated small market participants.”
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