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Protests for the Press in Ukraine, Hope for Gas Relief in Lithuania

Plus, Kazakhstan’s oil workers were systematically victimized, and the photos of Kosovo’s missing finally come down.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu and Nino Tsintsadze 10 September 2012

1. Thousands rally for independent reporting in Ukraine


Thousands of people across Ukraine turned out for demonstrations on 8 September to support independent television station TVi, Reuters and Russian news website report.


In the past year, TVi, which investigates and often criticizes the country’s rulers, has had its offices raided by tax police, seen its chief executive brought up on then cleared of tax-evasion charges, and been dropped by cable providers across the country, Reuters writes.


The largest rally, in Kyiv, drew about 1,500 people, the news agency reports. The head of a journalists’ union told Reuters that TVi is one of only a few channels that “has dared to provide balanced coverage of the situation in Ukraine."


Viktor Yanukovych
Since coming to power in 2010, President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions has been closing the space for freedom of expression, critics and international watchdog groups warn. That campaign seems to be escalating as the party’s poll ratings sag ahead of October parliamentary elections.


Reporters Without Borders cited the harassment of TVi in a July report that raised alarms about press freedom in Ukraine. The study also noted a criminal complaint about journalists who took an embarrassing photograph of a lawmaker during a session of parliament, moves by the government to regulate Internet access, and threats by officials in Kyiv to sue outlets that “published or broadcast biased reports” about the country’s stewardship of the Euro 2012 soccer championship.


Speaking to an international gathering of journalists in Kyiv on 3 September, Yanukovych criticized his country’s media for a lack of professionalism and objectivity. His speech was interrupted by a dozen Ukrainian journalists who accused the president of censorship and attempts to control independent media. 


2. Lithuania could be winner in EU’s Gazprom probe


Saddled with perhaps the highest natural gas prices in Europe and highly dependent on Gazprom for its supply, Lithuania might have the most to gain from an EU investigation into anti-competitive practices by the Russian energy giant, The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Brussels blog notes.


For several years the EU has been working to break up vertical monopolies that produce and supply energy. That is a problem for Gazprom, which owns many of the pipelines through which it pumps its gas to Europe. In Lithuania, The Journal writes, the company owns 37 percent of the pipeline operator, “which makes it even easier to prevent other companies from shipping gas to Lithuania.” Gazprom has resisted new EU rules that would force it to sell its pipeline stake.


Lithuania complained to the European Commission that Gazprom “was exercising ‘economic and political pressure’ to stop the country from ‘restructuring’ its gas sector to allow for more competition,” the newspaper writes. Now the country is among nine where the EU is examining whether Gazprom has engaged in anti-competitive practices.


Lithuania’s bid for help in its fight with Gazprom has echoes in a proposal for an EU banking union, which could help dilute Russian influence in the banking industry of Lithuania’s neighbor, Latvia.


3. Kazakhstan’s oil companies engaged in brutal union busting


Oil workers in Kazakhstan were subjected to sustained harassment, intimidation, and violence that culminated in a brutal police crackdown in December, Human Rights Watch said in a report released 10 September. 


“Oil is fueling Kazakhstan’s growing economy, but the government and companies ignore the basic rights of workers who do the difficult and often dangerous work of bringing Kazakhstan’s oil to market,” said Mihra Rittmann, the report’s author.


According to HRW, efforts to organize and negotiate with oil companies’ management were met with harassment, firings, interrogations, and imprisonment. In May 2011 workers launched hunger and labor strikes, and a lawyer representing the workers was sentenced to six years in prison last year for “inciting social discord.” She was later released.


The tensions erupted in December when police opened fire on a crowd of striking miners in the western town of Zhanaozen. At least 15 people died in that clash.


The rights group notes that Kazakhstan is a party to international agreements that aim to ensure workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. It also notes that two of the three oil companies that engaged in the union-busting activities are joint ventures with foreign companies, one in China and one in Italy.


“The European Union, which is seeking to upgrade relations with Kazakhstan, and a number of its member states that are heavily invested there, should be especially concerned and set benchmarks for human rights improvement,” the group said in a statement.


4. Amid plans for memorial, Kosovo families remove photos of missing loved ones


The photos of hundreds of missing people that lined a fence near Kosovo’s parliament building for more than seven years have been taken down by their families, Radio Free Europe reports.


The images of people who disappeared during the Kosovo war in 1998 and 1999 were posted on the fence in January 2005 by protesters upset at authorities’ failure to resolve questions about what happened to their loved ones. The families agreed to take the photos down when the government promised to erect a memorial to the war’s victims elsewhere in Pristina.


Relatives of the missing are still mounting a desperate push for excavations of mass graves. RFE says 1,700 families in Kosovo have a member who remains unaccounted for since the war. 


The fate of some Serbs who went missing in Kosovo is still unknown as well. The EU’s rule of law mission in Kosovo, EULEX, had to suspend a search for Serb victims in July, when a fire broke out at the excavation site, but since then investigators have said no remains were found there and no evidence was destroyed by the fire. According to RFE, EULEX has a list of 30 other suspected mass graves it plans to investigate.


Estimates of the number of missing from the wars across the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s range from 12,600 to 14,000.


5. Missing painting returns to Poland, but mystery remains


A renowned Renaissance painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder has returned to its hometown in Poland after disappearing at the end of World War II, Der Spiegel reports.



Madonna Under the Fir Tree. Image from


Painted at the beginning of the 16th century, The Madonna under the Fir Tree was a gift from Cranach to the bishop of what was then Breslau but is now Wroclaw.


The work was taken to a monastery for safekeeping in 1943. Three years later, an artist made a copy of it, allegedly at the request of a Breslau priest whom the artist said planned to use the fake to fool the communist authorities in order to smuggle the original to the West.


A Parisian photo agency discovered that the version hanging in Wroclaw was a fake in 1961. When the priest, Siegfried Zimmer, died in a Bavarian town in 1979, Der Spiegel notes, “he turned out to be a surprisingly wealthy man,” but nowhere in his estate was the Madonna painting.


After decades of rumors and offers by middlemen, the Catholic Church declared the Madonna officially missing in 1981 and announced its intention to buy it back for 1.5 million German marks. However, the painting turned up only this summer, when the family of a deceased Swiss art collector donated it to a Swiss diocese, which returned it to the Catholic Church in Wroclaw. The details of its whereabouts during the decades it was missing are still under investigation.


“Criminal and art history are sometimes interwoven,” one art historian told Der Spiegel.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern.
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