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EU Opens Gazprom Probe, Bulgaria and Poland Back Away From Euro

Plus, a new round of arrests hits Belarusian opposition and Latvian Russians mount another drive for citizenship rights.

by Ky Krauthamer, Joshua Boissevain, and Nino Tsintsadze 5 September 2012

1. Free speech suppressed ahead of Belarusian elections, critics charge


The media freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, said she is concerned over the recent arrests of administrators of social media sites in Belarus, as other critics charge the Belarusian regime with stepping up pressure on freedom of the press ahead of the 23 September parliamentary elections.


Dunja MijatovicDunja Mijatovic
“Unfortunately, recent detentions and searches in Minsk and elsewhere in the country show continued efforts to muzzle dissenting voices and clamp down on freedom of expression online,” Mijatovic said in a statement 4 September.


Four administrators of opposition sites on the Vkontakte social media network were detained last week. Pavel Yevtikheev and Andrey Tkachev were sentenced to five and seven days in jail for petty hooliganism; the others were released after being interrogated.


Reporters Without Borders said the opposition news sites Charter 97 and Belorusski Partizan were blocked on 31 August by the BelCel mobile phone company, citing the Viasna human rights group.


Another form of censorship reported by the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists is the Electoral Commission’s vetting of televised political speeches. The commission reportedly has warned candidates not to mention a proposed opposition boycott of the elections, the existence of political prisoners, or the country’s serious economic crisis.


2. Gazprom faces EU probe


The European Commission will probe Russian energy giant Gazprom for anti-competitive practices, the EU said 4 September.


According to BusinessWeek, EU officials want to know if Gazprom, which enjoys a monopoly on the export of Russia’s natural gas, created barriers to competition by linking natural gas and oil prices, preventing EU countries from trading gas, and hindering the diversification of energy supplies.


The EU will look into Gazprom deals in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia, Radio Free Europe reports.


EU officials raided the offices of Gazprom and several of its European customers last year. Companies found in violation of competition rules can be fined up to 10 percent of annual revenue, BusinessWeek writes. Gazprom estimates that revenues from gas sales to Europe will rise to $61 billion this year.


Russia’s Kommersant business daily writes that while the effect of the EU investigation is hard to predict, Gazprom’s contracts with EU customers may well be reviewed.


3. Bulgaria, Poland pooh-pooh the euro


Sofia and Warsaw are voicing reluctance this week at the prospect of adopting the euro any time soon given Europe’s continuing financial difficulties. Both countries announced separately that they were indefinitely shelving plans to join the euro zone until the common currency emerges from its deep crisis of confidence.


Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Finance Minister Simeon Dyankov made the announcement in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal. Once a long-term goal of the EU’s poorest country, Borisov and Dyankov said abandoning the lev doesn’t make sense for Bulgaria at the moment. The country was originally scheduled to adopt the euro after 2015.


"The momentum has shifted in our thinking and among the public. … Right now, I don't see any benefits of entering the euro zone, only costs," Dyankov said. "The public rightly wants to know who would we have to bail out when we join? It's too risky for us and it's also not certain what the rules are and what are they likely to be in one year or two."


Sikorski100Radoslaw Sikorski
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski echoed Bulgaria’s concerns 3 September in speaking with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, saying the Polish government wants to wait until it can convince its citizens that joining the euro club is safe. "You can hardly blame us for not wanting to enter while the euro zone is in a grave crisis," he told the paper, as quoted by Agence France Presse.


Poland’s and Bulgaria’s statements come on the heels of news last week that Lithuania and Latvia will also be putting off joining the euro zone for the time being.


4. Latvia’s Russian minority backs referendum on citizenship


Berzins100Andris Berzins
Activists in Latvia delivered more than 12,000 signatures to elections officials this week to push for a referendum granting citizenship to about 300,000 native-born residents – 16 percent of the population – who now lack it.


Most non-citizens are native Russian speakers. These non-Latvians must be able to trace residence or ancestry in the country to before the Soviet invasion in 1940 in order to become citizens, or pass a Latvian language exam.


The authorities recently tightened the requirements for passing the language test, Russian RT reports. Non-citizens cannot vote or work in many government jobs, according to RIA Novosti.


Earlier, Andrejs Tolmacovs, a representative of the group backing the referendum, said 10 percent to 15 percent of those who signed the petition were Latvians, the Baltic Times reported. If officials verify the initial batch of signatures, the Election Commission must hold a second round where 10 percent of voters’ signatures are required to send the question to voters.


Latvian President Andris Berzins said a proposed referendum is not the right way to solve the problem of the country’s stateless people, the Baltic Times reports.


5. Pessimistic parting words from EU’s Ukraine envoy


The EU’s outgoing ambassador to Ukraine, Jose Manuel Pinto Teixeira, gave a glum assessment of the country’s progress in an interview for the Kyiv Post.


Teixeira100Jose Manuel Pinto Teixeira
Reflecting the union’s distant relations with Kyiv, Portuguese diplomat Teixeira, who took up the post in 2008, said he has never met President Viktor Yanukovych and has little contact with the Foreign Ministry. The EU has sharply criticized Ukraine over the conduct of elections, the media climate, and the convictions of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko.


High-level meetings are unlikely to be held any time soon, Teixeira said.


Teixeira suggested the Yanukovych administration is not committed to real political reform or fighting corruption. Referring to Yanukovych’s aim of building a “vertical of power,” he said, “I think that there is a relation between verticality and authoritarianism indeed. What is still regrettable is that in this part of the world people are still convinced that they need an authoritarian dispensation to have order and to stop the mess.”


The ambassador said his best memories of Ukraine are of visiting rural communities where people are being trained in accountable financial management as part of EU-funded projects.


In a second interview last week, Teixeira told the independent Ukrainska Pravda newspaper the Ukrainian authorities seemed to be playing off the EU against Russia to gain leverage. However, “[t]hey are saying that they are moving toward European integration and that Ukraine's future is in the European Union. Accordingly, we expect their policy to correspond to these statements," he said, as quoted by the Ukrainian News Agency.



Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor for TOLJoshua Boissevain is a TOL editorial assistant. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern.
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