So here we go again. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka seems to be doing what he does best: flirting with the West, antagonizing Russia, and implicitly threatening to stray from Moscow’s orbit.
It’s the Lukashenka two-step. And it seems we’ve seen this movie before.
And every time the Belarusian strongman has tried this trick in the past, it’s worked like a charm. He gets some concessions from the West and Russia keeps feeding him subsidies.
But if Lukashenka has been a master gamer in the past, this time the game feels different.
With Minsk and Moscow at odds over gas prices, oil deliveries, food exports, Belarus granting visa-free travel to Westerners, Russia imposing border controls, and the Kremlin’s push for a new air base, this time it all feels much more dangerous.
Ukrainian border guards detained a soldier suspected of being a Russian army officer who was picked up while riding in a military truck packed with ammunition at the Berezove checkpoint, about 28 miles southwest of the militant-held city of Donetsk.
Guards found nearly 200 cases containing grenades and ammunition, including rocket-propelled shells, inside the military truck.
“He (the Russian officer) had no documents. But he admitted that he was a chief of an RAO (rocket-artillery weapons unit). He is responsible for ammunition supply.
He said that while delivering the ammunition they had got lost,” Oleksandr Tomchyshyn, a border-guards spokesman said. Another man who was detained identified himself as a pro-Russian separatist fighter.
If he is confirmed as a Russian soldier, Ukraine is likely to use the case to bolster its charges that Russia is continuing direct involvement in the 15-month-long conflict and failing to honor a peace agreement worked out in Minsk, Belarus, in February.
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Western countries contend that Russia is providing troops and weaponry to pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Since April 2014, at least 6,400 people have been killed in the region while Russia continues to deny such allegations, the Associated Press reports.
A spokesman said the two men may have taken a wrong direction and driven toward Ukrainian forces manning a checkpoint southwest of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk by mistake.
“We can assume that they took a wrong direction while driving, got lost, and came on our checkpoint,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanuk told a briefing.
The two men wore military uniforms without insignia and carried no identity documents, he said.
In the face of what Kiev and Western governments say is undeniable proof, Moscow denies its regular forces are engaged actively in the conflict on behalf of the separatists.
Though a fragile ceasefire seems to be holding, thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Ukraine’s industrialized Russian-speaking east.
Ukraine is still holding two Russian soldiers who were captured in May and have been charged with terrorism. Russia says the two men had quit their special-forces unit to go to Ukraine on their own.
Here is a video of the truck found at the Berezove checkpoint:
A World Health Organisation (WHO) report has been released which details the levels of alcohol consumption across the world, revealing an interesting order of countries in the top-ten heaviest drinkers.
Belarus, in eastern Europe, proved to be the world’s biggest lovers of alcohol, downing 17.5 litres of beverages on average per year.
Surprisingly, the United Kingdom and Ireland do not make the top ten. The report revealed that Britons over 15 years old drink 11.6 litres on average every year, making it joint 17th with Slovenia.
Australia and Canada also failed to meet the top 10 but maintain high levels of drinking at 12.2 and 10.2 litres a year respectively.
The global average figure is 6.2 litres of pure alcohol per person every year, taking into account that the majority of the world’s population (61.7%) does not drink at all.
“More needs to be done to protect populations from the negative health consequences of alcohol consumption,” said Dr Oleg Chestnov, WHO assistant director-general for non-communicable diseases and mental health.
“The report clearly shows that there is no room for complacency when it comes to reducing the harmful use of alcohol.”
Dr Shekhar Saxena, director for mental health and substance abuse at WHO, said: “We found that worldwide about 16 per cent of drinkers engage in heavy episodic drinking – often referred to as ‘binge-drinking’ – which is the most harmful to health.
“Lower-income groups are more affected by the social and health consequences of alcohol. They often lack quality health care and are less protected by functional family or community networks.”
Scroll below to see which countries made the top 10 heaviest-drinkers. Top 10:
10th: Portugal – 12.9 litres
Wine wood barrels are lined up to be transported at Palmela’s cellars on the outskirts of Lisbon.Reuters
Joint 9th: Czech Republic – 13 litres
A bartender serves alcohol at a bar in Prague
Joint 9th: Slovakia – 13 litres
Vladimir Banak of Slovakia presents his Sweet Road cocktail with which he won the final of the classic category in the 35th World Cocktail competition
8th: Hungary – 13.3 litres
Antal Kosa, 67, drinks a can of beer during a May Day celebration at the city park in Budapest
7th: Andorra – 13.8 litres
This tiny landlocked mountain paradise between France and Spain has a huge problem with alcoholism. Andorra is closely associated with the spirit of absinthe.siakhenn.tripod.com
6th: Ukraine – 13.9 litres
A man holds a bottle of beer while smoking with air temperature around minus 15 degrees Celsius in Kiev
5th: Romania – 14.4 litres
People drink beer inside a frozen truck with a temperature of -8 degrees Celsius during an advertising campaign in Bucharest.
4th: Russia – 15.1 litres
A customer takes a bottle of vodka from a shelf at a Russian supermarket
3rd: Lithuania – 15.4 litres
Lithuanian FA President Liutauras Varanavicius (L) and former Heart of Midlothian football club owner Vladimir Romanov share a drink at a reception in Kaunas, Lithuania
2nd: Moldova – 16.8 litres
Bottles of vintage wine are seen in the world’s largest Cricova wine cellar, located outside Moldova’s capital Chisinau
1st: Belarus – 17.5 litres
Belarussian hunters have vodka with fried wild boar liver after hunting in a forest near the village of Barovka, east of Minsk
A millennium ago, grand prince Vladimir of Kiev cast a civilisational fault line across Eastern Europe – one that divided the states of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine from the rest of the continent.
Vladimir’s decision to ditch a pantheon of bloodthirsty pagan gods for eastern Christian Orthodoxy was meant to unite the peoples of Kievan Rus, a territory along the waterways between the Baltic and Black seas.
But on the 1,000th anniversary of the death of Vladimir the Great – later to become Saint Vladimir – two of Kievan Rus’ successor nations, Russia and Ukraine, appear to be tussling over his legacy.
Announcing a national programme of festivities around the 15 July anniversary, Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian President, called Vladimir the founder of the “European state of Rus-Ukraine”.
Many in Russia, whose government is also celebrating the jubilee, were incredulous:
“It’s hard to call that an opinion. It’s easy to call it a fantasy,” said Andrei Nazarov, director of the state-backed Russian Military-Historical Society.
Mr Nazarov and many Russian politicians claim Vladimir as a symbol of Russia.
“Thanks to him, Russia became what she is – a mighty state with a strong, Orthodox Christian base,” Mr Nazarov said.
The tug-of-war over Vladimir mirrors a struggle between Moscow and Kiev that heightened last year with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
The conflict highlighted Ukrainian efforts to carve out a historical identity separate from Russia’s, and Moscow’s efforts to stop it flying the Russian coop.
Historians and church figures have stressed that Vladimir is common property and defies nationalisation by any one country.
But according to some, the past is being weaponised:
“We are seeing that archives can also shoot,” said historian Oleg Ulyanov.
A planned 24m statue in Moscow of Vladimir bearing a sword and holding aloft a cross has become a symbol of Russia’s anniversary celebrations. Standing atop one of the city’s few hills, the monument would dominate Moscow’s skyline.
Not everyone thinks the statue is innocuous. Its purpose is to enthrone Moscow as “the mother of Russian cities,” author and poet Dmitry Bykov wrote in a blog post for radio station Ekho Moskvy.
That status has long belonged to Kiev. It was Kiev that Vladimir, then still a full-blooded pagan with a well-stocked harem, reconquered from his brother, Yaropolk, after fighting his way back from exile around 980, according to the histories.
Vladimir in Kiev drove his people into the Dnieper river for a mass baptism. A monument to the prince has overlooked the river since 1853.
Though Kievan Rus controlled the territory around Moscow during Vladimir’s reign, the city had not yet appeared on the historical record.
Vladimir’s association with Russia is doubly helpful for Vladimir Putin – the prince accepted Christianity in the Crimean city of Khersones, adding sheen to Mr Putin’s already popular seizure of the peninsula last year.
Yet ultimately Vladimir, and the common Christian cultural heritage to which he laid the foundation, is a uniting force for Russia and Ukraine that will outlast the current political crisis, says Andrei Zubov, a historian and philosophy professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.
“We’re talking about two very close peoples that want to be culturally – not politically, but culturally – together,” he said.
But stressing unity may not be risk-free.
“The thesis that we are all one people and brother folk may sound peace-loving but it is one of the key reasons for the current war,” said Vladimir Vyatrovich, head of the Ukrainian National Memory Institute.
“The idea that we are one nation with the Russians provides a basis for lots of Russian politicians to sound off about Ukraine’s past and future. Relations between our countries will only normalise when we will respect one another’s desire to be independent and independently assess our own past and future.”
The ministry said President Poroshenko had “totally ignored” Minsk provisionscalling for dialogue with the pro-Russian rebels on arrangements for local elections and the regions’ future status.
A statement from a Donetsk rebel leader, Denis Pushilin, also castigated Mr Poroshenko over the “non-agreed amendments”, which he said “breach the spirit and letter of the Minsk accords”.
Mr Pushilin said “the Minsk process is in fact interrupted” because Mr Poroshenko “does not respect the Donbas [Donetsk and Luhansk] people, he does not want peace”.
Mr Poroshenko’s bill says special status would have to follow local elections held in accordance with Ukrainian law and under international observation.
In addition, he says the elections would have to take place without any presence of “mercenaries” and with open access for Ukrainian media.
Separately, Ukrainian MPs adopted a resolution describing as “temporarily occupied territories” parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Kiev government, Western leaders and Nato say there is clear evidence that Russia has helped the rebels with troops and heavy weapons. Russia denies that, insisting that any Russians on the rebel side are “volunteers”.
More than 6,000 people have been killed in clashes since the rebels seized large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April – a month after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula.
The world’s longest train route spans more than 8,000 miles, crosses through eight countries, and covers a greater distance than the diameter between the North and South pole.
The China-Europe Block Train begins in the east Chinese city of Yiwu and crosses through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, and France before reaching its destination 21-days later in the Spanish capital of Madrid.
Also called Yixinou, the route surpasses the world’s second and third longest routes, the Trans-Siberian railway (5,772 miles) and the Moscow-to-Beijing (4,340 miles) train.
STR/AFP//GettyJournalists wait to take photos of the first cargo train ‘Yixinou’ from China’s Yiwu to Spanish capital Madrid on November 18, 2014.
In mid-November China launched the 82-railcar freight train from Yiwu, an important wholesale distributing hub near Shanghai, to Madrid.
The maiden convoy pulled approximately 1,400 tons and switched engines 16 times (about once every 500 miles) during the entirety of the journey, Spain’s El País reports.
And now it is sitting in Madrid, despite operators hoping the train would return to China in time for the country’s new year on February 19.
While the new train service is nearly 10 days faster than the traditional sea route, the cost is also 20-30% higher, El País reports. Another drawback of the marathon route stems from the variety of climates the cargo undergoes while in transit.
The harsh Russian winters of minus-22 degrees Fahrenheit cause serious problems for commodities like Spanish wine and jamón, increasingly popular products among China’s middle class, The Local Spain reports.
Consequently, the report adds, “thirty containers set to make the voyage to China remain empty in a Madrid warehouse.”
Yazhong Huang, the Director of Business at the Chinese Embassy in Madrid, told El País, that the European Union is currently China’s largest trading partner with Spain being China’s seventh largest partner within the EU.
“The volume of bilateral trade in 2013 reached $24.9 billion,” Huang said.
Ukrainian troops launched a “mass operation” overnight, retaking almost all the territory of Donetsk airport in eastern Ukraine lost to separatists in recent weeks, even as thousands gathered in Kiev for a state-sponsored peace march on Sunday.
The army’s offensive at the airport brought the fighting close to the big industrial city of Donetsk itself, center of a pro-Russian separatist rebellion.
Residents reported intensified outgoing shelling including from residential areas in central parts of the separatist-held city.
With attempts to restart peace talks stalled, pro-Russian rebels have stepped up attacks in the past week and casualties have mounted, including the deaths of 13 civilians in an attack on a passenger bus, which Kiev has blamed on the separatists.
The separatists had gained control of new areas of the airport and retaking much of this territory was a symbolic victory for Kiev, whom rebels have accused of escalating the conflict.
“The decision was taken for a mass operation … We succeeded in almost completely cleaning the territory of the airport, which belongs to the territory of Ukrainian forces as marked by military separation lines,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.
Lysenko said the operation had returned the battle lines near the airport to the previous status quo and that the Ukrainian army had thus not violated the Minsk 12-point peace plan agreed with Russia and separatist leaders last September.
President Petro Poroshenko underlined the need to fight for Ukraine‘s territorial integrity, as he addressed a crowd of several thousand gathered for a peace march in memory of those killed on the passenger bus.
“We will not give away one scrap of Ukrainian land. We will get back the Donbass … and show that a very important aspect of our victory is our unity,” he said.
Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko accused Kiev of attempting to return to all-out war, blaming the shelling around Donetsk on Ukrainian army troops.
“We’re talking about Kiev trying to unleash war again,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
SYMBOL OF VALOUR
In Kiev, the army defenders of the airport are known by the science-fiction nickname of “cyborgs” in tribute to what is perceived as their superhuman valour.
“Just this past night our ‘cyborgs’ at Donetsk airport demonstrated their courage, patriotism, heroism, as a model for how our country must be defended,” Poroshenko said.
A ceasefire agreed at the talks in Minsk, capital of Belarus, in early September has been regularly violated from the start by both sides, and hopes of de-escalation have diminished in recent days as violence flared after plans for peace talks last week were abandoned.
In Donetsk, residents reported a sharp intensification of fighting.
“It was impossible to sleep — explosions, the walls were shaking. It seemed like they were firing from near the building … The DNR (rebel) army were firing from our district,” 53-year-old advertising executive Alla said by telephone.
Forty-year-old plumber Andrey Tkachenko, who lives in southern district of Donetsk, said the shelling had become noticeably worse in the past 24 hours.
“By now we are able to tell from the sound what’s flying. We’re used to the GRAD missiles, but now something stronger is firing all night and all day,” he said.
The World Health Organisation says more than 4,800 people have been killed in the conflict pitting Kiev’s forces against separatists whom the West say are supported and armed by Russia.
Despite what Kiev and the West says is incontrovertible proof, Russia denies its troops are involved or that it is funneling military equipment to the separatists.
With its runways pitted and cratered, the airport itself, with a multi-storey control tower and extensive outbuildings, has long since ceased to function.
But its hulk, battered by shelling and gunfire, has taken on symbolic value for both sides with government soldiers and separatists hunting each other often at close range in a deadly cat-and-mouse game among the ruins.
My observations as an artistic, writer, blogger, computer geek, humanist, mental health activist, lifelong learning and researcher of life living with lifelong severe depression, anxiety, social anxiety with agoraphobia, PTSD, A Nervous Breakdown, as well as a Survivor of Sexual Abuse and Rape.