Plus, Armenians wonder how the military spends its treasure and Romania looks for millions of missing citizens.by Ky Krauthamer and Ioana Caloianu 15 November 2011
1. Smog settles over Prague, other Czech cities
Dust-laden fog continues to plague much of the Czech Republic for a second week as windless conditions prevail with little relief in sight, meteorologists say. Prague authorities announced a smog warning on 14 November as the level of airborne dust reached almost triple the allowable maximum in the dirtiest areas. Motorists were told to avoid unnecessary trips, and children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems were advised to remain indoors.
The situation is worst in the coal-mining region around Ostrava, the third largest city in the country, where industrial polluters have been asked to reduce emissions until the air clears. Some localities in the area have exceeded 24-hour emissions limits more than 100 times this year, the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute reported. Smog is so much a part of life in Ostrava that people there are developing genetic resistance to it, a small-scale study by a Prague medical institute suggests, according to Czech Position. Researchers found that residents of Ostrava were three times more likely than Praguers to carry a gene that stimulates repairs to body tissues damaged by small particles or chemical pollution.
Foul as the air is in Czech cities this week, the air is far cleaner overall than during the 1980s and early 1990s, meteorologists say. Natural gas has largely replaced the locally mined brown coal that powered most industry and heating plants in the past.
2. Ukraine unlikely to win promise of EU membership at December summit
Ukraine has reportedly moderated its stance on a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union and will no longer insist that the agreement refer to its membership prospects, the Kyiv Post reports, citing an article in Kommersant Ukraine. EU and Ukrainian negotiators completed talks on the association agreement on 11 November, leaving unresolved the possibility of future Ukrainian membership. The case of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko also threatens to hold up the agreement, EU officials have said. Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of power in connection with a gas import agreement with Russia in a trial the EU believes was politically motivated. The Ukrainian parliament voted down a proposal to reduce the severity of the offenses for which Tymoshenko was convicted, a move that might have led to her release, Reuters reports.
Kyiv hopes to have the agreement in final form in time to sign it at a summit with the EU on 19 December.
3. Armenians seek clarity on rising military spending
Armenia will devote nearly one-seventh of its budget, or about $400 million, to defense in 2012. On 1 November the parliament approved a 5.6 percent military spending increase, Radio Free Europe reports. That sum may seem large for a small country that is struggling to emerge from the world recession – the 2012 budget anticipates deficit spending of about $344 million, the ARKA agency reports – but neighbor Azerbaijan spends four or five times as much on its military, and small-scale clashes between the two countries near the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh are a daily occurrence.
Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian said part of the additional military spending would help the army recruit and equip more soldiers, according to RFE. However, the military is notoriously close-mouthed about how it spends its money and some civil society activists are calling for greater transparency, EurasiaNet writes.
A representative of a group that lobbies for soldiers’ interests told EurasiaNet, “In a state of frozen war with Azerbaijan, when the opponent’s budget is six times bigger than Armenia’s military budget, a question keeps coming up: How are they [Armenian officials] spending that small budget of ours?”
Varuzhan Hoktanian, executive director of Transparency International in Armenia, said the military’s uncooperativeness may work against it. Some activists have called for President Serzh Sargsyan and Ohanian to resign over the unresolved, non-combat-related deaths of 23 army conscripts this year, EurasiaNet notes.
4. Romanian census to show serious population drop, but can it be trusted?
In a recent poll, 10 percent of Romanians admitted they did not take part in the nationwide census held in late October, the Southeast European Times reports. The poll casts doubt on the data collected in the census, which started off on the wrong foot when many census takers quit after the first day due to the low pay and heavy workload, according to Ziarul Financiar. Conflicting messages from the government about whether it was mandatory to include people’s national identification numbers also spread confusion among the public.
Early results appear to confirm fears of a continuing decline in the Romanian population. The official population count was 22.8 million after the 1992 census and 21.7 million at the next headcount in 2002. The figure is expected to be under 20 million when the final results of this year’s census are tabulated in early 2012.
Analyst and former Economy Minister Ilie Serbanescu attributed the decrease to the constant exodus of migrant workers. He told Evenimentul Zilei, “We have the lowest employment rate in Europe, around 57 percent, and the ratio between the active and inactive population is growing. A country of 4 million employees is a disaster.”
5. Glamorous dance couple leap away from Bolshoi
Just two weeks after the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow reopened after a long, hugely expensive reconstruction, two of its leading dancers are moving to a rival ballet company.
Osipova told Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times that she felt shoehorned into a limited number of roles in Moscow and needed a new challenge. Her fiancé echoed her thoughts, saying he had been typecast in heroic roles and wanted to tackle more “lyrical” characters.