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Bulgarian Energy Protests Claim First Scalp, Major Polish Companies Announce Firings

Plus, Eastern European filmmakers take the Berlinale spotlight, and a man who saved the world gets a prize.

by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Anna Novosad, and Richard Parrish 18 February 2013

1. Energy protests rock Bulgarian government


In response to growing protests over energy prices, the Bulgarian government announced the firing of Finance Minister Simeon Djankov 18 February and said it was considering revoking the license of one of the county’s largest utility providers.


Simeon Djankov

The protests in Bulgaria that erupted last week over high energy bills intensified 17 February with tens of thousands ofpeople turning out in at least 20 cities across the country, Reuters reports. Demonstrators angry over spiking energy bills threw rocks, eggs, and snowballs, and some called for the re-nationalization of utility providers.


“We cannot stand it anymore,” one protestor told Reuters. “My pension is 155 levs [$106] and my December bill was 175 levs. What should I do?"


The mass protest has the potential to sap support from the country’s center-right ruling party as the nation goes to the polls in July. In response, the government said it would investigate claims of overcharging by Czech power company CEZ. Economy and Energy Minister Delyan Dobrev, citing data showing irregularities between CEZ Bulgaria and its contractors, said the government was looking into the possibility of withdrawing CEZ’s license, Novinite reports.


The government also announced it was dismissing Djankov and replacing him with the current EU funds minister, Tomislav Donchev, according to Reuters. Djankov had made a name for himself in European fiscal circles by reining in the budget deficit in 2012 for the EU’s poorest member.


2. Big Polish firms announce layoffs


A few major Polish companies have announced plans to lay off almost 3,000 people, The Wall Street Journal’s Emerging Europe blog reports.


The country’s top insurer, PZU, said it would trim its work force by 5.5 percent, or by up to 630 jobs, between March and June. That would be at least the third round of mass layoffs for the company since 2010, according to the Warsaw Business Journal.


In addition, Telekomunikacija Polska, a formerly government-owned telecommunications firm, will cut 1,700 jobs. The company, controlled by France Telecom, cited the need to compete in a deregulated market. It has shrunk from a work force of 70,000 in 2000 to its current 22,413 employees, The Wall Street Journal reports.


“The Polish telecommunication market is going through the moment of the most severe changes in its history. Even though we are increasing market share the market’s shrinking and revenue growth isn’t possible,” Maciej Witucki, the company’s chief executive, told reporters, according to Bloomberg.


Another troubled Polish company, LOT Polish Airlines, is to let go 500 employees as it prepares for privatization. Sebastian Mikosz, the new LOT chief executive, said he expects the government-owned airline to go on the market by the end of 2013, the Warsaw Business Journal reports. LOT received a roughly 400 million zloty ($127.5 million) bailout in December, the newspaper writes.


“I am convinced and I believe that LOT can be privatized. That is my most important goal,” he told reporters last week, according to The Financial Times.


The unemployment rate in Poland inched upward to 14.2 percent in January, a rise of nearly 1 percent from the previous month, according to preliminary data from the Labor Ministry.


3. High-profile prizes go to low-budget Eastern European films


Jurors at the Berlin International Film Festival, better known as Berlinale, handed the festival’s top two awards 17 February to modest Eastern European productions, the Guardian reports.


The first prize, the Golden Bear, went to the Romanian drama Child's Pose, directed by Calin Peter Netzer, while the Bosnian “quasi-documentary-style” drama An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, directed by Danis Tanovic, reaped the Jury Grand Prix as well as best actor honors for its lead, Nazif Mujic.


Child's Pose won its director, Calin Peter Netzer, top honors.


Child’s Pose tells the story of a mother willing to go to extremes to keep her son from going to prison after he kills someone. Romanian filmmakers have been garnering international attention in recent years, with Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days receiving the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.


Netzer said the Berlinale prize was important “for my career, for Romania and for the value of Romanian cinematography in general,” according to Romanian website


Academy Award-winning director Tanovic was inspired to make An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker by a news report about an uninsured Romani woman denied life-saving medical care after a miscarriage, according to AFP. Tanovic made the movie on a budget of 17,000 euros ($23,000), the news agency reports.


Mujic, the real-life protagonist of the story who played himself in the film, said, “We can't change the color of our skin – we're Roma. I'm an honest man, I am living my life, I don't steal and I've never been ashamed of who I am, that I am a Roma.”


4. Former Soviet officer lauded for averting ‘World War III’


An annual peace prize was awarded to a retired Soviet lieutenant colonel on 17 February for his role in averting a nuclear crisis nearly 30 years ago, RIA Novosti reports.  


Stanislav Petrov
Stanislav Petrov, 73, won the Dresden Prize in recognition of his cool-headedness when, in September 1983, he was working at nuclear early-warning system command center outside of Moscow. Petrov ignored a warning that five nuclear missiles had been launched from U.S. territory, reckoning that it was likely an equipment malfunction and that five missiles were insufficient for a proper war, RIA Novosti writes. 


An investigation proved Petrov correct, concluding that the report was triggered by sunlight reflecting off a monitoring satellite. The incident remained classified until 1998.


The Dresden Prize, which includes a check for 25,000 euros ($33,400), has for the past four years been given out on the anniversary of the city’s bombing in 1945.


Heidrun Hannusch, the senior manager of the Dresden Prize Fund, called Petrov's act “a heroic exploit which saved world peace.”


Hannusch said, “Mr. Petrov prevented what could have unfolded into World War III.”


But Petrov, who has been honored by the United Nations and been the subject of a documentary, downplayed any claims to heroism. 


“I believe I do not deserve particular praise for what I did in 1983,” he said. “People say I acted heroically. In fact, however, I did nothing heroic. I was simply doing my job. And that’s it,” according to The Voice of Russia


5. Chelyabinsk cleans up after meteor blast


Almost 1,200 people injured, about 4,000 buildings with shattered windows, a blast the size of 20 Hiroshima bombs, 1 billion rubles ($33.2 million) in damages. Those are some of the numbers Russia is facing as it deals with the aftermath of the meteor that streaked across the sky over the central city of Chelyabinsk 15 February, the Associated Press reports.


Citing the regional governor’s office, the news agency reports that more than 24,000 people have begun to “cover windows, gather warm clothes and food, and make other relief efforts.”


The governor has promised to have the broken windows replaced within a week, with Chelyabinsk locked in the middle of winter and experiencing a recent midday temperature of minus 12 C (10 F), AP notes.


As people clean up and divers search a lake west of Chelyabinsk for a meteorite that crashed through its icy surface, nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is insisting that the bright light over the Russian sky was not a meteor but a new weapon being tested by the United States.


“When something falls – it’s manmade. People are warmongers and provocateurs,” Zhirinovsky said, according to state-owned news agency RT.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor.  Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants.  Anna Novosad and Richard Parrish are TOL editorial interns.
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