- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

MOSCOW

Russia becomes chairman of the Group of Eight industrialized nations this year, cementing its place in the elite club of economic powerhouses after 15 years of informal probation over its economic troubles, corruption and democratic shortcomings.

Yet Moscow faces new questions over President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to protecting basic freedoms. He will be watched closely in setting planned new rules governing nongovernmental groups, which have complained of growing restrictions.

The fighting that erupted over a decade ago in Chechnya still bedevils Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, a region where poverty, unemployment and police brutality are fueling a simmering Islamic insurgency.

With oil prices still up, Russia’s economic boom is likely to continue through 2006. Government coffers will swell and foreign debt will be retired, while Russians feel the effect of some $4 billion in oil-funded social spending.

Russia can realistically expect to join the World Trade Organization in the spring, assuming Moscow can convince the United States it has a handle on a piracy problem second only to China’s.

Ukraine faces critical parliamentary elections in March that could change the political landscape of the former Soviet republic, either cementing the gains of the Orange Revolution or severely crippling the pro-Western reformers who came to power in 2004.

Belarus will hold a presidential election that incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed Europe’s last dictator, is expected to win by a landslide.

More unrest is expected in formerly Soviet Uzbekistan as President Islam Karimov’s government presses his crackdown on dissent after a May uprising put down by troops who killed dozens of mostly unarmed protesters.

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