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2009 - the year in review

2009 was a year of crisis recovery, of a change in political relations and of great advances in technology. Here is a summary of the year's biggest events in Russia.

January

Gas – Europe freezes while Ukraine decides: to pay or not to pay?

On January 7, Ukraine shut four gas pipelines and left several countries running out of fuel. Before that, Ukraine was stealing Russian gas bound for European consumers, according to Gazprom and the results of an independent monitoring by a national resource analysts’ group from Switzerland. It was then that Russia decided to stop gas supplies via Ukraine to avoid the illegal siphoning. Later the two countries signed a gas deal on 19th January, which allowed the two sides to resume transit of Russian fuel to European customers. In 2009, Ukraine has paid 20% less than the European market price for Russian natural gas, and Russia’s payment for its gas transit to Europe is also discounted.

On 18th November, Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko announced that Ukraine will significantly increase its tariffs for the transit of Russian gas through its territory. On 19th November, both sides confirmed this intention. In 2010, payment of the transit bill will be increased by 60% and in turn Ukraine will receive Russian gas at the European market price, with no discount.

Russia welcomes a new Patriarch

Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad became the new head of the Russian Orthodox Church on 27th January. For almost twenty years he acted as foreign spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. Kirill is one among those who helped reunify the Russian Orthodox Church with its branches outside of Russia. He hosted a TV program, popular among Russian believers and shown on one of Russia’s main television channels. After the death in December of Aleksiy II, Kirill was temporarily put in charge of the church.

Originally, three Metropolitans – Kirill, Kliment and Filaret – had been short-listed by the Archbishop Council as potential successors to Aleksiy the Second. They were elected by secret ballot from 145 potential candidates. Filaret later withdrew from the race in favor of Kirill.

March

The Reset button pushed by Russia and the US

On 6th March, before a two-hour meeting in Geneva, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed a small gift box to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was a red “reset” button fixed to a bright yellow box, symbolic of Vice President Joe Biden’s memorable pledge to “hit the reset button” on US relations with Russia.

Unfortunately, the American side had attached the word “peregruzka” on the makeshift device as the Russian translation for the word reset. Lavrov could not resist a lighthearted remark, saying that it was wrong. He later explained that the word the Americans chose – “peregruzka” meant “overload” as opposed to “reset” (The correct choice of word should have been “perezagruzka”). But the Russian minister nevertheless thanked Clinton for the warm intentions.

Hillary Clinton impressed with Medvedev

April

Obama and Medvedev – first meeting face-to-face

The first ever eye-to-eye meeting between Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama took place in London on 2nd April, on the eve of G20 summit. The two presidents agreed to start work on a new START treaty. Since then the two presidents have established personal contact and continued their partnership. Later, the two leaders met in Moscow on 7th July during Obama’s visit, during the G8 summit in Italy, and during the Asia-Pacific forum in Singapore in November, where they focused on a new nuclear arms reduction agreement and other issues. Obama and Medvedev have also had talks by phone about key political issues, including Afghanistan and START. The last meeting of 2009 between the two presidents took place at the Copenhagen Climate summit.

Chechnya – “Peaceful day” ends terror alert mode

The National Anti-terrorism Committee officially ended the security alert status in the Chechen Republic, launched a decade ago. Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov welcomed the decision and said that the republic will be marking April 16th as a holiday from 2009 onwards.

The end of the terror alert mode is meant to improve the situation in the republic in all spheres, including economic.

The Chechen Republic is now on the path of progress with restoration works, and it is hard to believe that, just a few years ago, the capital of Grozny was in ruins. Despite the advancement, there are still severe social problems in Chechnya. The unemployment rate is high, and one of the main goals of the Republic’s president, Kadyrov, is to create new job opportunities. Normalization of the situation in North Caucasus remains one of the most important lines of the federal policy.

Killer-cop on the rampage

A Moscow police officer, Denis Yevsyukov, went on a shooting massacre through a supermarket on 27th April. He shot dead two people and wounded another seven.

After expert court psychiatrists stated that the Major was perfectly aware of what he was doing. At the same time, investigators claim that Yevsyukov was under the influence of alcohol at the time he committed the crime.

Yevsyukov was charged with killing of two and wounding of seven and may face life in prison if convicted.

The police officer has refused to be tried by a jury, instead requesting a panel of judges, and has already admitted to being partly guilty of the crime.

The verdict in Yevsyukov’s case may be brought in March 2010.

May

Hockey: Champions again!

For the second consecutive year, Ilya Kovalchuk et al claimed the World Ice Hockey Championship, and again it was Canada who the Russians beat in the final. As many of the players later stressed, the gold in Bern was even more difficult that that of Quebec in 2008. Despite a series of injuries and the absence of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin and other NHL stars, the Russians did not let anyone doubt their superiority during the whole tournament.

Following the success, Russia took over first position in the IIHF World Ranking.

Moscow hosts Eurovision – the most lavish in the show's history

Eurovision Song Contest 2009 was held on Moscow’s Olympiysky Stadium on 14th May. Violinist and singer Alexander Rybak, representing Norway, was the winner with his song "Fairytale". Iceland came second, with Azerbaijan in third place. Moscow became host city for the contest after Russia’s Dima Bilan won the competition in Belgrade in 2008. Eurovision in Moscow was officially proven to be the most expensive in the history of the Song Contest, costing $40 million. The show in the Russian capital was not only a great performance for international guests and Muscovites, but also became a cause of traffic jams which paralyzed the city’s roads for two weeks.

Moscow blaze – gas pipeline

A powerful blast hit a gas pipeline in the west of Moscow on 10th May, causing a massive fire which spread across 800 square meters. Reaching almost 300 meters into the sky, the fire could be seen from almost any point in the city. The cause of the blast was human error. According to the statement of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, the pipe was incorrectly laid in 1976. No one was killed in the incident.

June

Sukhoi Superjet, presented at Le Bourget, gets orders from several airlines

The centenary year of the Le Bourget air show in Paris became the world premiere of the SSJ-100, Russia’s first civil aviation plane in 20 years. The airliner is intended to replace most of the country's outdated short and mid-range civil aircraft. In July, the Russian plane maker Sukhoi signed a $600 million contract to deliver 20 Superjets to a European client.

President of Ingushetia – attempted murder by a suicide bomber

The President of Russia's southern Republic of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, was wounded in a bomb attack on 22nd June. He was critically injured in the attack, and spent more than a week in a coma in a Moscow hospital. Later, Yevkurov cut short his rehabilitation and returned to his duties in Ingushetia.

After his recovery, Ingushetia’s president claimed he was sure it was militants who were behind the assassination attempt. A group led by Chechen warlord Doku Umarov claimed responsibility for the attack. But only a close advisor to Doku Umarov, Rusteman Makhauri, was detained.

July

All casinos shut down by 1st July

A new ban came into force on 1st July, ordering all casinos in Russia to be shut down. Gambling was restricted to four far-flung special zones. The State Duma’s decision to move casinos out of residential areas was made in 2006. This resolution was widely announced to all industry enterprises. Surveys suggested that Russians were concerned with crime and compulsive gambling and were worried about youth becoming addicted to slot machines. Despite the government’s announcement three years in advance, no casino or any other gambling establishment had been built by the businessmen in special zones since the State Duma’s decision.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev sums up results of the year

Obama comes to Moscow

Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama, on his first visit to Moscow on 6th July, agreed on strategic arms reduction and on the signing of a new treaty to replace the current one, known as START. The two presidents agreed they are going to reduce the number of nuclear warheads to between 1500 and 1675, and nuclear missiles to between 500 and 1100, within seven years after a new agreement is ratified. Russia and the US have since signed a number of bilateral agreements on anti-missile defense and Afghanistan.

Human rights activist killed in Grozny

Human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped in Chechnya and then found dead in the neighboring north Caucasian republic of Ingushetia. The Russian Investigation Committee considered her professional activities to be the main reason for the murder. The attackers are still yet to be found.

UN wants to investigate human rights activist murder

August

Arctic Sea enigma – lost and found

The vessel Arctic Sea suddenly disappeared on July 28th, and was only found on August 18th near the Cape Verde Islands. It was allegedly hijacked by eight pirates. After the Arctic Sea was found, rumors abounded that the ship’s cargo included drugs, nuclear weapons or uranium for Iran, but a team of Russian investigators reported that it found only timber on the ship. On October 29th, the vessel was finally handed over to Malta, where it was registered.

Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric plant catastrophe

An explosion at Russia's largest hydro-plant occurred on 17th August, with a death toll of 75 people. The Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro-electric station on the Yenisey River is the largest in Russia and the fourth-largest in the world. According to the report, a total of 18 people – including the head of the company that owns the plant, Rushydro, and of the plant itself – are being held responsible for the disaster. The economic damage caused by the accident exceeds US$244 million. A reconstruction plan for Russia’s biggest power plant was approved and $717 million will be allocated to repair the damages. Organizational problems, negligence and equipment failure have been named as the main causes of the catastrophe.

September

Obama scraps the Bush anti-missile defense plan

The Obama administration decided to scrap plans for a missile defense system in Europe. Instead, Washington announced a new plan that will involve a more mobile and global force that can counter any apparent threat from Iran. This prompted the Russian president to announce the cessation of plans to deploy defenses in the Kaliningrad Region.

The new missile defense system, according to US President Barack Obama, will provide stronger and smarter security to American forces. He added that the US will continue to work cooperatively with its “close friends and allies,” Poland and the Czech Republic, in which the scrapped system were due to be based.

Discussing this year's diplomacy with Russia's Foreign Minister FM Sergey Lavrov

European commission report: Georgia started the war

Georgia is responsible for unleashing the Five-Day War in the Caucasus in August 2009. That’s according to an investigative report carried out by the EU, which put an end to the long-standing dispute between Georgia and Russian over who started the war.

The report was commissioned by the Council of the European Union. More than 30 European military, history and legal specialists – headed by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini – compiled the document. The group concluded that it was Georgia who fired the first shot and the opening attack was not justifiable under international law.

From the very beginning of the war, Russia was blaming Georgia as the aggressor. And while Georgia was shelling Tskhinval, the Western media was bombarding Moscow with criticism for what they called a Russian invasion.

The report says that Russia was preparing for a possible conflict in the region and the war followed “long periods of increasing tensions, provocations and incidents” between Russia and Georgia.

Russia’s actions have been qualified as a response to the Georgian military operation. At the same time, the commission says that Russia used excessive force, which led to the conflict spreading outside South Ossetia to Georgia.

Giant leap for a clown

Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, carrying the crew of the 21st ISS mission as well as Canadian billionaire and circus entrepreneur Guy Laliberte, blasted off from the Baikonur launch pad on 30th September.

The circus entrepreneur put on a show that was literally out of this world on 10th October. The space tourist directed a performance dedicated to the problem of water shortages on Earth. Laliberte returned to Earth on 11th October.

The billionaire buffoon could be the last space tourist in years to come. The American shuttle will be retired next year, and the Soyuz rocket might be too busy to carry tourists.

November

Mask season – swine flu hysteria

As the H1N1 or “swine flu” virus hysteria came to Russia, flu medicine and face masks were selling like hot cakes across the country.

By early November, about 2,000 Russian had been diagnosed with swine flu.

The vaccination period was moved from the beginning of December to November 2009. More than 30 million people were vaccinated against the influenza strain.

According to Russia’s Ministry of Health Care, the situation with the epidemic was blown up by the media, and in a number of regions, pharmacy inspectors have begun to investigate artificial price mark-ups. Pharmaceutical giants were allegedly making millions off the swine flu, and the population was voluntarily paying for the privilege of being fooled.

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service and the Prosecutor General’s office to establish control over sales of anti-flu medications.

In neighboring Ukraine, President Victor Yushchenko called on the international community to help combat the swine flu epidemic, which hit the country in the late October.

The Ukrainian government supposedly tried to use the H1N1 virus as a means of political manipulation in order to postpone the presidential election, scheduled for between January and May 2010.

Yushchenko also vetoed the allocation of another billion Ukrainian hryvnas (US$125 million) to fight the flu. But the interested parties were trying to overcome the veto and launch a media virus in favor of pharmaceutical companies, which were enjoying enormous profits.

Russia’s World Cup 2010 dreams ruined in Maribor

After finishing second in their group Guus Hiddink’s charges were still hoping to make it to South Africa. For their dreams to come true they needed only to beat Slovenia in a two-leg clash. Going into the qualifiers, Team Russia were seen as clear favorites, while Slovenia were widely regarded as the most preferable opponent. But the ball is round, and everything in football is decided on the pitch. Russia won the first leg 2-1, missing numerous opportunities to score more, while Slovenia made the most of their chances. The tricky score meant Arshavin and Co. didn’t have the right to slip up in the second game, but what the fans saw in Maribor was something way more woeful. The Russians turned out to be absolutely unprepared for the decider, failing to create a single opportunity to score. Given such a performance, they got off lightly, losing just 1-0, and letting Slovenia pack their bags for South Africa.

The nightmare in Maribor triggered scathing criticism of the players, and was later dubbed by the most influential Russian sports paper, the Sport Express, as “the biggest disappointment in 2009.”

“Nevsky Express” train blast

An explosion on November 27th caused the derailment of the “Nevsky Express” train, killing 28 people. The leadership of the so-called “Caucasus Mujahideens” claimed responsibility for the incident.

Russian forensic experts investigating the derailment have reportedly established that 26 of the victims were killed not by the explosion, but were crushed to death by the train chairs, which tore from their fittings as the conductor applied the brakes and the cars hit several posts and crashed into the ground. An RT employee was among those killed.

On August 13th, 2007 a Nevsky Express train was derailed on the same route in the Novgorod Region, injuring 60 of its 251 passengers. An explosive device loaded with the equivalent of 2 kilograms of TNT was placed under the rails on a bridge.

December

Perm nightclub tragedy

152 people were killed and dozens more injured in a nightclub blaze in the Russian city of Perm. The fire started as more than 200 people were gathered to celebrate the club's eighth anniversary. Most victims are said to have died from smoke inhalation, severe burns and during the ensuing crush as people fought to escape.

A preliminary investigation indicates that the fire was most likely caused by fireworks used during the celebration, compounded by a complete disregard for fire safety regulations.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a thorough investigation into the tragedy, saying that although the crime was not premeditated, its consequences are nonetheless very serious and the culprits should be severely punished.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin noted that this incident was far from unique, and Russia’s current safety regulations are insufficient and ineffective.

Following the tragedy in Perm, Russian authorities have ordered major fire safety checks at all nightclubs and holiday venues. A large number of places could face suspension.

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