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Dissidents Self-Immolate in Albania, Croatian Court Delivers a Budget Blow

Plus, Serbia balks at Brussels’ demand to respect Kosovo’s ‘territorial integrity,’ and Ukraine’s prime minister speaks up for an embattled news channel.

by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 11 October 2012

1. Second protester sets himself alight in Albania


A second man in Albania set himself on fire 10 October in a dispute with the government over compensation for political prisoners locked up during the 40-year rule of dictator Enver Hoxha.


Reuters reports that 47-year-old Lirak Bejko suffered third-degree burns to his limbs and face and is in critical condition. Gjergj Ndreca, 51, set himself ablaze 8 October and is also recovering, the news agency reports.


At issue is a law that allocates 2,000 leks ($18) to each political prisoner for each day spent in prison. Thousands of people were locked up during the Hoxha regime, and some spent decades behind bars. Bejko, Ndreca, and 18 other dissidents say they have not been compensated and have been on a hunger strike to draw attention to their protest.


But the Albanian government says the former prisoners have already received compensation, according to Reuters, which reports that “Prime Minister Sali Berisha said his party had granted former political prisoners $100 million in cash and privatization vouchers.”


2. A veteran’s successful lawsuit could lead to chaos for Croatian budget


A Croatian court’s decision that the government must compensate a Bosnian Croat war veteran for unpaid benefits threatens to upend the country’s budget, according to Balkan Insight.


The September ruling, which was reported by Croatian media this week, obliges the government to pay disability benefits to veterans of a unit that fought under the command of the Croatian army during the war of the mid-1990s, Balkan Insight reports. The country’s minister for veterans affairs said the number of former fighters who could be eligible for payments is more than 10,000.


The government of the late President Franjo Tudjman, who led the country during the war, had agreed to make the veterans eligible for disability benefits, but only as a technicality, according to former Defense Minister Ljubo Cesic Rojs. Tudjman actually wanted to provide them with pensions, but the law required that they first must be eligible for disability benefits, Rojs said, according to the news agency.


Predrag Matic, the veterans affairs minister, said the arrangement was “a gentleman's agreement” that the veterans would receive Croatian pensions instead of disability benefits.


The ruling orders the Croatian government to pay 4.5 million kuna ($773,000) to a wounded Bosnian Croat veteran. If it opens the floodgates for other claims, the tab could amount to 60 billion kuna ($10.3 billion), half the size of the country’s budget, according to Balkan Insight. The government says three of its ministries are analyzing the situation in hopes of preventing further lawsuits.


In August, Croatia’s finance minister declared that the government would have to cut benefits, lay off contractors, and sell a public bank and insurance company to avoid an economic crisis that would force it to ask for an IMF bailout,.


3. Independent news channel gets top-level support in Ukraine


Mykola Azarov
Ukraine’s prime minister has urged cable operators to include a besieged news channel in their broadcasting packages, the Kyiv Post reports.


In September, TVi, which specializes in investigative journalism and is often critical of the government, was taken out of the country’s major cable packages. Thousands of people protested the exclusion at rallies around the country, and TVi’s troubles have been cited by watchdog groups as evidence of a clampdown on freedom on the press in Ukraine.


In a letter sent to key Ukrainian operators on 10 October, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov requested that they restart transmitting TVi ahead of the country’s 28 October elections.


“Freedom of speech is a basic principle of democracy and the main factor in the development of society, and it's especially important to guarantee it at a time when citizens are deciding on their choice before the vote for deputies of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine,” Azarov wrote, according to the newspaper.


TVi was ordered to pay a fine of 4 million hryvnia ($500,000) for tax avoidance earlier this year. In the past year, its offices have been raided by tax police and its chief executive has been brought up on, then cleared of, tax-evasion charges. Reporters Without Borders noted the harassment of TVi in a July report that raised alarms about press freedom in Ukraine.


4. Serbia EU talks hits snag on Kosovo integrity


The European Commission said Serbia is not ready to start EU membership negotiations because it has not done enough to improve tensions with neighboring Kosovo. Specifically, the commission said Serbia must respect the “territorial integrity” of Kosovo, using a phrase that has raised hackles in Belgrade.


In response, the Serbian government accused the EC of requiring de facto recognition of Kosovo, which it rejects, as a condition for the talks.


Serbs barricade a road in Zvecan, northern Kosovo, in October 2011. Photo by Usama from Wikimedia Commons.


In its annual progress report on Serbia, released 10 October, the EC said that while the country needs to continue strengthening the rule of law and to ensure freedom of expression, accession talks could begin as soon as Serbia normalizes relations with Kosovo. In a 10 October speech to the EC foreign affairs committee, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said Belgrade must address an impasse in northern Kosovo, where Serbs refuse to cooperate with Kosovo’s institutions and where Serbia funds parallel government bodies.


Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said a demand to recognize Kosovo’s integrity could jeopardize the talks and called it a new condition for accession. “Perhaps it would have been more honest to ask Serbia to recognize Kosovo than to recognize [its] state integrity,” Dacic told reporters at a press conference, B92 reports.


Fuele, who arrived in Belgrade 11 0ctober to present the report and meet with Serbian leaders, said the commission used the phrase to signal its opposition to dividing Kosovo into a Serb north and Albanian south.


“We are not revealing some new concept,” Fuele said, according to B92. “Mentioning of the territorial integrity has nothing to do with Kosovo’s status and the commission clearly said in its report that it remains status neutral.”


5. Poland’s Tusk tries to think his way out of budget box


Donald Tusk
Facing few options for boosting growth and the possible collapse for his fragile political coalition, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk will deliver a speech 12 October on his plans for the country’s economy, Reuters reports.


Poland’s GDP grew by about 4 percent in 2011 and the government is projecting 2.5 percent growth this year, slowing to 2.1 next year, according to Reuters. That is better than many of its European neighbors, but Warsaw is running out of ways to maintain growth, the news agency reports. At least temporarily, it has no more EU money to spend on infrastructure projects, and all that remains of a large-scale privatization effort are less-desirable state companies.


Tusk’s task, then, could be to encourage private investment in public projects and to hold the line on government spending while not alienating constituencies needed by his center-right Civic Platform party or its coalition partner, the Peasants Party, maintain a tenuous grip on parliament.


A source told Reuters that Tusk “may mention plans to reform the inefficient public health system and to cut some of the privileges enjoyed by teachers.”

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editorJoshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern.

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