Plus, Azerbaijan mourns Karabakh massacre victims and Putin tells Europe to put its economic house in order.by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, and Joshua Boissevain 28 February 2012
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht traveled to Moldova 27 February to begin preliminary trade negotiations and is expected to do the same in Georgia today, according to Radio Free Europe. The two countries hope to agree on so-called Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas, which will make it easier to export their products to the EU and bring their economic legislation more in line with EU standards. The free-trade talks are part of the larger Association Agreements the EU has been negotiating with the two countries to strengthen political, economic, and cultural ties, according to the European Commission.
In Chisinau, De Gucht met with Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat. In a joint statement, the two said that the agreement would be signed by September 2013, according to Unimedia.md. The first round of trade negotiations with Moldova are set to start on 19 March. In 2011, trade between the EU and Moldova was worth 2.7 billion euros, according to the EU.
After leaving Moldova, De Gucht was expected to meet Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri on 28 February to lay the groundwork for trade talks in late March. In 2011 trade between the EU and Georgia reached 2.2 billion euros.
Following up an earlier wave of attacks on Romanian websites, the hacking group Anonymous defaced and temporarily disabled the sites of several government agencies and the International Monetary Fund’s Romanian mission over the past week, Balkan Insight reports.
Among the sites was the Giurgiu County Social Services and Child Protection Agency, targeted because of its notorious corruption and because its website was badly secured, hackers claimed. Websites of several regional institutions, city halls, and technical institutes were also defaced and some information was leaked. The hackers threatened to post confidential information gathered from these websites.
Last month, a group affiliated with Anonymous, #antisecRO, posted online data it claimed to have retrieved from the hacked website of the Horia Hulubei Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, including financial data and personal data and passwords.
The Internet attacks came after Romania signed the ACTA anti-counterfeiting treaty on 26 January, days before the government led by former Prime Minister Emil Boc collapsed amid growing public discontent over the country’s austerity measures. Boc later said he allowed the treaty to be signed without a public debate, admitting he “didn't have enough information at that moment.”
The European Commission last week put the treaty on hold, asking the European Court of Justice to review it.
Thousands marched through Baku on 26 February in an official commemoration of the victims of a mass killing on that date in 1992, during the war with Armenia.
President Ilham Aliev led the march to honor more than 600 people Azerbaijan says were killed by Armenian and CIS troops at Khojaly in the Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides were displaced during the six-year conflict as forces backed by Armenia took control of the region, which has a majority Armenian population.
Armenia does not dispute the attack on Khojaly but says the death toll was far lower and has accused Azerbaijan of failing to evacuate civilians from the area in time, the BBC reports.
It’s been a long, hard winter for Albanian power users, as record-breaking cold has overstressed the country’s aging electricity grid even as the region recovers from a severe drought that emptied the reservoirs needed to generate hydro-power.
On top of these natural disasters, a former state-owned electric utility is facing allegations of over-billing customers, Balkan Insight reports. An Albanian television station reported that the electricity distributor CEZ Shperndarje, a subsidiary of the Czech power group CEZ, was the subject of a legal probe over its billing practices and was suspected of issuing fake fines to nonexistent customers to make its losses appear higher. The company claims it cannot modernize the creaking electricity grid unless rates are raised.
On 24 February Balkan Insight quoted company officer Erideta Basha as saying the conditions the CEZ subsidiary found when it purchased a majority of the state utility OSSH in 2009 were much worse than it expected. Basha said the electricity grid needs major investments in order to reverse the current high levels of loss and theft. Electricity prices need to rise by 2 percent to 5 percent annually, but state regulators have rejected the company’s proposed rate hikes for the past two years, she said.
CEZ Shperndarje has had to cut off power at times this winter to keep the grid from collapsing, Reuters reports. On 22 February the government admitted it might have to find money in the budget to buy imported electricity if reservoir levels did not start to rise, the agency said.
With less than week to go before Russia elects its next president, frontrunner Vladimir Putin devoted his latest newspaper commentary to foreign affairs. The prime minister has published a series of analytical articles setting out his view of Russia’s social, economic, and now foreign policy priorities. The article published 27 February in Moskovskie Novosti mostly restates standard Kremlin thinking, charging the United States and NATO with taking steps that “contradict the logic of modern development, relying instead on the stereotypes of a bloc-based mentality.”
The commentary shows Putin playing a familiar role, Radio Free Europe senior correspondent Gregory Feifer told the state-owned Russia Beyond the Headlines website: “accusing western countries of exacerbating violence and extremism in the Middle East and meddling in Russian electoral politics has been part of his tactic of playing on the perceived Russian fear of anarchy and desire for a strong leader.”
Putin also addressed Russia-EU relations, indirectly chiding some EU countries for reckless spending practices. “European leaders face the task of effecting large-scale transformations that will fundamentally change many financial and economic mechanisms to ensure genuine budget discipline,” he said.
Putin also said the two sides should consider closer cooperation in energy, “up to and including the formation of a common European energy complex” building on the Nord Stream and proposed South Stream pipelines. The EU’s energy liberalization scheme, which aims to break up vertical monopolies in Europe, was “aimed at squeezing out integrated Russian companies,” he wrote, in an allusion to the Gazprom conglomerate. It “is frankly not conducive to stronger relations between Russia and the EU,” Putin wrote.