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Scandal Brings Down Russian Defense Minister, Ukraine Warms to German Gas

Plus, Bulgaria digs deep and Moscow aims high to claim European firsts.

by Ky Krauthamer, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 6 November 2012

1. Putin sacks defense chief


Anatoly SerdyukovAnatoly Serdyukov
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced 6 November that he was relieving Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov of his post, Radio Free Europe reports.


The dismissal comes days after the Defense Ministry and Serdyukov were caught up in a corruption scandal involving the sale of state assets below market value. In late October, authorities from Russian Investigative Committee raided the office of Oboronservis, a defense contractor that Serdyukov oversaw until last year, as part of an investigation into the disappearance of nearly $100 million from the state budget.


In 2007, then-Prime Minister Putin appointed Serdyukov to be the country’s first civilian defense chief. Previously he was head of the Russian tax service. During his tenure in the Defense Ministry, he oversaw large reforms and cost-cutting measures to streamline the military.


Putin tapped Sergei Shoigu, a close friend and political ally, to take over the ministry. Shoigu, an army general, served as head of the Emergency Situations Ministry until earlier this year when he was named governor of the Moscow region.


Analysts say this major personnel shift could signal that Putin is trying to clean up the military, which has long been plagued by accusations of corruption, according to Bloomberg. In February, Putin announced a 23 trillion ruble ($773 billion) defense spending package.


2. Ukraine takes first delivery of German natural gas


The first 3.3 million cubic meters of natural gas from Germany’s RWE arrived in Ukraine 5 November, RIA Novosti reports, citing Ukrainian sources.


The amount is minuscule compared with Ukraine’s regular imports of Russian gas, but the deal could prove significant down the line, as it marks the first west to east delivery of gas to Ukraine, the energy market monitor ICIS reports.


According to ICIS, RWE is contracted to supply 56 million cubic meters to Ukraine’s Naftogaz in November and December. The contract calls for annual deliveries of 1.4 billion cubic meters, with a possible increase to 4 billion to 5 billion, RIA Novosti writes.


This year, Ukraine plans to buy 52 billion cubic meters of gas from its main supplier, Gazprom of Russia, but wants to slash that figure to 24.5 billion cubic meters in 2013, RIA Novosti reported in September.


The German gas is being sent via Poland down a pipeline that normally runs the opposite direction. RWE declined to comment on the price, but German media reports suggested it was less than the price Gazprom charges, according to ICIS, which writes that Ukraine has been seeking cheaper sources of gas on the European spot market. Ukraine paid $426 per 1,000 cubic meters in the third quarter of 2012.


3. New Romanian anti-corruption bosses named


Romanian Justice Minister Mona Pivniceru announced her choices for two of the country’s most powerful legal officers 1 November, Balkan Insight reports. Pivniceru nominated Tiberiu Nitu for the post of chief prosecutor and Ioan Irimie to head the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). President Traian Basescu will accept or reject the names following an assessment later this month by the country’s Superior Council of Magistrates.


The EU has made fighting corruption a condition for Romania to join the Schengen area and enjoy the full benefits of borderless trade and travel, so the center-left government of Prime Minister Victor Ponta needs to find trustworthy legal chiefs.


Although Pivniceru told the media the selection process for the two positions was transparent and held according to advice from Brussels, some legal specialists are casting doubt on her choices. The Romania Libera newspaper writes that several better-known Romanian prosecutors were deterred from participating in the selection procedure owing to its lack of transparence. Outgoing DNA chief Daniel Morar called the selection "a farce," because Pivniceru chose "those willing to execute the political orders coming from the [ruling[ Social Liberal Union." says that during the 1989 revolution Nitu, then in the military, fired on anti-communist demonstrators, and Irimie was sacked by Morar as the regional DNA chief for Cluj in 2005 for unnecessary delays in investigating a case.


Pivniceru said "my options were limited, according to the candidacies received," writes.


Romania may be making progress against high-level corruption, Balkan Insight writes, noting that since 2010, 11 high officials have been jailed, including former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. No member of government or legislator was convicted of corruption between 2002 and 2009.


4. Moscow skyscraper wins brief moment of fame as Europe’s tallest


Moscow’s Mercury City Tower has nosed out London’s Shard for the honor of being Europe’s tallest building, The Moscow Times writes.


Four reddish-gold rhomboid forms rise in a series of setbacks to the final height of 339 meters (1,112 feet). The project came in at more than $1 billion, developer Igor Kesaev said 1 November. Interior work on the 75-story multi-use building should be completed by year’s end.


Mercury City TowerMercury City Tower. Photo: BpbAlonka/Wikimedia Commons


Just as the controversial Shard’s reign as Europe’s tallest building lasted only a few months, Mercury City is soon due to be overtopped by its neighbor, the Federation Tower, the Guardian writes – two of the dozen or so high-rises planned for the Moscow International Business Center, described by the Guardian as “a strange gaggle of maladjusted outcasts standing on the western edge of the city: an estranged monument to [former Mayor Yuri] Luzhkov's lust for iconic buildings.”


Moscow City Hall last year banned any new buildings in the city center taller than 75 meters (246 feet), except for projects already approved, The Moscow Times writes. The new financial center dominated by the Mercury and Federation towers is not covered by the ban.

5. Ancient town thrived on salt, Bulgarian archeologists claim


Bulgarian archeologists claim to have unearthed the oldest urban settlement to date in Europe, The Huffington Post writes.


An excavation near the town of Provadia in eastern Bulgaria uncovered walls 3 meters high and 2 meters thick, estimated by specialists to date from between 4,700 and 4,200 B.C.


Vasil Nikolov of  Bulgaria's National Institute of Archaeology and the head of the excavation team believes the ancient town was an important center for the production of salt.


"They boiled brine from salt springs in kilns, baked it into bricks, which were then exchanged for other commodities with neighboring tribes," Nikolov said, referring to huge discoveries of the gold and copper jewelry and artifacts found in the region 40 years ago.


The dig began in 2005 and has so far turned up evidence of a 100-meter-wide settlement of two-story houses.


Salt’s high value as a trade item in prehistoric times probably explains the high defensive walls around the site, Nikolov said.


Salt was also used to cure meat, the BBC Russian Service writes. 


Archaeological site in BulgariaThis screen shot from a Reuters video shows the site of what Bulgarian archeologists say is a more than 6,000-year-old town.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor for TOLJoshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern.
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