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Fires Sweep Across Siberia, Tymoshenko May Face Murder Charge

Plus, Tajik president’s relative is gunned down and the Macedonian government plays good cop, bad cop with the media.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Joshua Boissevain, and Sofia Lotto Persio 19 June 2012

1. State of emergency in fire-affected Russian regions


A state of emergency was declared in parts of Russia 18 June as fires continued to burn thousands of hectares in Siberia and the Far East.


The areas covered by the state of emergency are dotted across a huge swath of central and eastern Russia. The restrictions cover all of Khanty-Mansiysk region in central Siberia and the Tuva Republic, bordering Mongolia, as well as parts of five other regions, The Moscow Times reports.


An aerial view of raging wildfires in Siberia, which have sent smoke across the ocean to North America. Image from a video by RT.


Siberian forestry officials said the fires cover more than 8,000 hectares (30 square miles), RT reports. About 1,600 firefighters and 42 planes are fighting the blazes.


The fires cover a larger area than that affected during the summer of 2010, when dozens of people were killed and thick smoke blanketed Moscow. However, no population centers are under threat. Eight firefighters died fighting a fire in Tuva last week.


2. Tymoshenko may face murder charges


The alleged involvement of Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former Ukrainian prime minister, in shady deals and mob-style killings in the 1990s may come to the fore in a new trial.


Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor Renat Kuzmin said in a recent interview that Tymoshenko could be charged in connection with the 1996 murder of Yevhen Shcherban, a powerful businessman and politician from the eastern Donbass region.


Eight members of the “Kushnir gang” were convicted of the Shcherban murder in 2002. In the interview for Kommersant Ukraine, Kuzmin revived old allegations of links among the gang, Tymoshenko, and another ex-prime minister, Pavel Lazarenko, who is serving time in a U.S. prison for money laundering.


“The Kushnir gang was in the service of Pavel Lazarenko. This gang fulfilled his instructions and orders in the interests of Yulia Tymoshenko. … We have no doubts that the Kushnir gang worked for Lazarenko and Tymoshenko,” Kuzmin said, according to Itar-Tass.


Meanwhile, President Viktor Yanukovych said he would like to pardon Tymoshenko but claimed he lacks the authority to do so until her case has worked through the Ukrainian and European legal systems. In an interview with Time apparently given before the opening of the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, Yanukovych said he cannot act until “the courts have made their decisions, including the European Court of Human Rights.”


3. Belarus to hold parliamentary elections in September

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has set 23 September as the date for parliamentary elections. He stressed the need to involve political parties and civic organizations “regardless of their political affiliation,” according to the Belta state news agency.


International observers may also be allowed to monitor the election process, The Voice of Russia writes.


Lukashenka said it was important that political provocations and illegal acts not be allowed to disrupt the elections, reports.

Alyaksey Yanukevich


The opposition is divided over whether to take part in the elections, the independent news site Naviny says. Belarusian Popular Front leader Alyaksey Yanukevich and the leaders of the Tell the Truth! movement and the United Civic Party said their parties were prepared to put up candidates, while other dissident parties may boycott the vote.


These will be the first national elections since December 2010, when Lukashenka was re-elected, setting off mass protests and the arrests of dozens of opposition activists and presidential candidates.


4. Rahmon relative gunned down in Dushanbe


The circumstances surrounding the murder of Tajik President Imomali Rahmon's brother-in-law last week remain unclear, Radio Free Europe reports. Kholmumin Safarov, the husband of Rahmon's eldest sister, was found dead 13 June near his house in Dushanbe. On 14 June, a police source cited by Agence France Presse said the killers first fired on Safarov’s car, then killed him with a shot to the head.


The Interior Ministry announced a large cash reward for help in tracking down Safarov’s killers, writes.


Safarov has been the head of the State Forest and Hunting Agency since 2009. However, unlike other relatives of Rahmon, Safarov reportedly maintained a fairly modest lifestyle and wasn't thought to have economic interests in state enterprises, according to RFE, which cites political scientist Davron Zokirov as telling Central Asia News Online that Safarov’s business affairs, rather than politics, may explain the murder. However, think tank head  Zafar Abdulloev told RFE the killing may have been set up to destabilize the political climate ahead of next year’s presidential elections.


5. Macedonia libel deal and TV channel closure spark concerns


The closure of another television channel in Macedonia and some provisions of a recent move by the government to decriminalize libel are generating new concerns over the country’s press freedom.


Last week, Macedonia’s broadcasting council revoked the license of popular TV channel A2, Balkan Insight reports, on the grounds that it violated its license by not providing enough news and educational programs. On the same day, the Macedonian Journalists Association announced it had struck a deal with the government to have defamation decriminalized. The move angered many journalists because although journalists will not now face criminal charges for libel, they can be hit with steep fines if found guilty and may thus be reluctant to report on controversial topics. Many saw the timing of the deal as a distraction from A2’s closure.


A2 is the sister station of A1, which was shut down in July 2011 after being hit with a tax bill in late 2010 of more than 9 million euros. In March, A1’s owner, media mogul Velija Ramkovski, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for tax evasion and money laundering.


Ramkovski said he was targeted for criticizing the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. A2 was the last piece of Ramkovski’s media empire, Balkan Insight reports.


The new agreement to decriminalize libel is part of Macedonia’s move to get in line with European standards. Macedonia has increasingly faced criticism over its press freedom record. Under the new agreement, journalists could be fined $2,500 (or about 10 months’ salary), editors would have to pay $12,600, and the organization’s owner would be liable for $19,000. Journalists association president Naser Selmani defended the deal, saying it was the “optimal compromise” and that the fines would be a last resort for the courts.


Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor for TOL. Ioana Caloianu and Joshua Boissevain are TOL editorial assistants. Sofia Lotto Persio is a TOL editorial intern.
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