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Bugging Scandal Rocks Bulgaria, Cyprus Scrambles to Regain Russians’ Trust

Plus, four-fifths of Croatian voters stay home on Euro-election day and Moscow threatens to close a vital transport link for migrant workers.

by Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, Vladimir Matan, and Connor Zickgraf 16 April 2013

1. Bulgarian politics on the boil as new scandal breaks


stanishev_100Sergey Stanishev
Bulgarian authorities say a wiretap investigation initiated on a tip-off by Socialist Party leader Sergey Stanishev has turned up numerous violations, Balkan Insight reports.


At a press conference 15 April, Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov said investigators had found evidence of official misconduct and improper use of wiretaps. Three Interior Ministry officials and one employee are under investigation.


The wiretap scandal will add to the already highly fractious atmosphere ahead of 12 May elections to choose a new parliament after protests brought down the center-right government of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.


In March, Stanishev said he had information that a former interior minister and deputy prime minister under Borisov, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, and other officials had illegally tapped the phones of many political and business leaders. The victims were said to include President Rosen Plevneliev, former President Georgi Parvanov, and former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov.


The Socialists demand that Tsvetanov, who is running for parliament, pull out of the election campaign over the accusations, Balkan Insight writes.


Tsvetanov countered 15 April saying there was no evidence against him and took part today in campaign events for his center-right GERB party, The Sofia Globe reports. He said he would be available to return as interior minister after the elections.


2. Cyprus may tempt Russian investors with EU citizenship


In a bid to offset damage from the terms of a recent bailout package and keep foreign investors interested in the country, Cyprus may ease naturalization rules and allow anyone who lost more than 3 million euros ($3.9 million) as a result of the bailout to get EU citizenship, according to Der Spiegel.


Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, speaking at a Russian business conference 14 April, said his cabinet would adopt the measures early this week. Russian investors, who hold an estimated 31 billion euros in Cyprus’ debt-stricken banks, reacted with anger last month at the terms of the demands by the EU and International Monetary Fund for a one-time levy of up to 60 percent on all deposits over 100,000 euros to help fund the bailout. Cyprus is now expected to raise 13 billion euros of its own money for the overall 23 billion euro bailout package.


Anastasiades said he hoped the measure, along with others on the table, would “mitigate to some extent the damage the Russian business community has endured,” RT reports. He also said his government could reduce eligibility requirements for its “citizenship by investment” program from 10 million euros ($13 million) to 3 million euros.


3. Low turnout marks Croatia’s first Euro-parliament elections


Croatia’s first elections to the European Parliament failed to galvanize voters, EurActiv writes. The opposition Croatian Democratic Union party won six of the 12 seats being contested in the 14 April elections, the ruling Social Democratic Party won five seats, and the Labor Party one seat.


Ivo JosipovicIvo Josipovic
Although President Ivo Josipovic urged citizens to cast their votes, which he deemed “extremely important not only on a symbolic level but since we [are entering] the decision-making process in the EU,” EurActiv notes that turnout was just 21 percent, the third worst result ever recorded in European Parliament elections.


Croatia will join the EU on 1 July, after a tortuous accession road that has included rows with Slovenia over fishing rights, borders, and a Yugoslav-era bank. The newly elected deputies will start their work on the same date, but will remain in office only until May 2014, when all EU members will hold elections for their representatives at the union’s legislature. This short tenure helps explain the low level of public interest in the process, experts quoted by EurActiv say. Political analyst Zarko Puhovski also blamed the low level of interest on the lack of an electoral campaign.


However, disillusionment with the EU may run deeper than that, as suggested by recent opinion polls that found only about half of Croatians in favor of membership.


4. Georgia strengthens links to Turkey, Azerbaijan


The foreign ministers of Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan moved to strengthen mutual economic and security ties at a meeting late last month in Batumi. The tripartite talks followed a similar meeting in June and could be a signal the three Caucasus neighbors are looking to form a more permanent grouping, the Caspian Research Institute blog site writes.


In a joint communiqué, the foreign ministers stressed the role of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway as a transport link between Europe and Asia, in particular as “the shortest and the most effective route” for the transport of military material out of Afghanistan when international forces begin pulling out of the country next year. Other countries along the overland supply route, notably Uzbekistan, are also eager to join in what could be an extremely lucrative business as huge quantities of material are removed from Afghanistan.


The railway will be finished this year or next, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev promised at the latest meeting of his cabinet.


The cross-Caucasus railway aroused debate when first mooted because it bypasses Armenia, which has been the subject of an economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey since the Nagorno-Karabakh war ended in 1993, although influential allies such as the United States and the EU have come to terms with the project. Another indication of Yerevan’s continued isolation in the region is that Georgia seems to be moving toward more military cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan.


Georgia is talking with the United States on including Turkey and Azerbaijan in joint military exercises planned for 2014, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania said 2 April. He praised Georgia’s “special military cooperation” with the countries that flank it to the west and east.


In spite of the encouragement by the Azerbaijani foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov, for Armenia to “join the club rather than [get] out of the club” and thus help resolve conflicts and promote prosperity, Yerevan has remained deaf to such arguments, the Caspian Research Institute comments.


5. Tajik migrants become pawns in Russia’s great game


As part of a possible deal to ease mutual visa requirements with the EU in time for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia may require passports for citizens of former Soviet republics trying to enter the country, The Moscow Times reports.


During a trip along the Moscow-to-Dushanbe railway 14 April, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said, “I think it is necessary in the near future to stop people from coming into the country with documents that don't properly identify the holder.” Citizens of the former Soviet republics usually require only an internal travel document to enter Russia.


Rogozin suggested that Tajiks may feel the impact of tighter border controls first, possibly within months, but he rejected the border control agency’s proposal to shut down the Tajik railway connection, according to The Moscow Times.


The EU insists on tighter border controls before liberalizing the visa regime with Russia.


“We want to achieve a certain liberalization of relations with the EU, including visa-free travel, but we will never be allowed into Europe if we continue to manage our own borders like this,” Rogozin said. comments that Rogozin’s remarks may have less to do with the million or so Tajik migrants in Russia than with Moscow’s attempt to renegotiate the lease on a Tajik military base that houses 7,000 Russian troops, and suggests the Kremlin may have run out of patience with the Tajiks’ demands for more aid and investment. Moscow has offered to allow in more labor migrants and to cut the duties on oil products as part of a deal to extend the lease until 2042.



 Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Vladimir Matan and Connor Zickgraf are TOL editorial interns.


Home page photo: Tajiks aboard a train bound for Russia. Source: Radio Free Europe/YouTube

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