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Plus, Armenia and Brussels open another round of trade talks and Estonia’s Russian-language schools face closure.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said his country plans to deploy fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles in Belarus within the next two years. Shoigu made the announcement 23 April after meeting Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Minsk, Reuters reports.
Shoigu said the first fighters should arrive in Belarus this year, with a fighter regiment in place by 2015. A Russian aviation regiment typically counts about 60 planes, according to Reuters.
RT reports that four battalions of S-300 surface-to-air missiles will be delivered to Belarus in 2014.
Moscow’s decision should be seen in the context of Washington’s plans to base interceptor missiles in Poland and Romania, Reuters writes. Although the missile shield program has been scaled back, Moscow still views it with concern, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated 23 April during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Russia operates a military radar station and a communications center in Belarus, according to RT.
Several court cases involving former high officials of the previous government dominated by Saakashvili’s supporters could be affected by whether parliament upholds or overturns the veto of the jury trial bill. The legislature is controlled by the Georgian Dream coalition headed the president’s chief rival, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Jury trials are unusual in Georgia. In January lawmakers voted to allow current or former officials facing criminal charges to choose a jury trial or follow the normal practice of having a judge rule, Civil.ge writes. In March, Bacho Akhalaia, a former minister of the interior and defense, and his co-defendants requested that a judge hear their case, although the prosecutor wanted the case to go before a jury, according to Civil.ge. Shortly afterward, on 5 April, parliament voted to give prosecutors, rather than defendants, the right to make the choice.
Presidential chief of staff Andro Barnovi said Saakashvili’s veto followed complaints by civil society groups that the amendment could interfere with the implementation of justice, Democracy and Freedom Watch reports.
The second veto overturned parliament’s bill to reorganize the High Council of Justice, a judicial coordination and watchdog body.
On 5 April parliament approved amendments supporters of the bill said were aimed at depoliticizing the courts. The bill strips the president’s right to appoint some members of the council and prohibits the chairman of the Supreme Court from serving as head of the council.
Members of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party said the reform would force current members off the council, according to Democracy and Freedom Watch.
Barnovi said the amendment also goes against the view stated by the Council of Europe’s legal advisory body, the Venice Commission, that the council’s chief function is to protect judges from political influence.
Armenia is asking for major trade concessions as negotiations continue on a free-trade agreement with the EU, Radio Free Europe reports. One of Yerevan’s pleas is to retain the term cognac for Armenia’s famous brandy, in a derogation from EU rules that restrict the term to brandy made near Cognac, France.
The agreement, known as the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, will eliminate many trade barriers and bring Armenia’s economic regulations in line with EU standards. Armenia wants to be able to continue levying import duties on a number of agricultural products in order to ease the transition to the competitive European market.
Yerevan is requesting transition periods for these products of from three to seven years, its chief negotiator, Deputy Economy Minister Garegin Melkonian, said at the start of the latest round of talks.
While Armenian brandy has long been a popular tipple in Eastern Europe, the recent thaw in relations between Georgia and Russia may harm Armenia’s budding wine industry, the Georgian wine newsletter Hvino News writes, citing Armenian media.
Armenian winemakers have been looking to fill a niche left vacant when Russia banned Georgian wine imports several years ago, Armenian wine producers’ union head Avag Harutyunyan said. Three-quarters of their exports last year went to Russia, but the expected lifting of the ban on Georgian wines could be a headache. Georgian winemakers will be able to offer “the best products” on the Russian market at prices similar to those for Armenian wines, Harutyunyan said.
A Tallinn court has upheld a government order forcing Russian-language high schools to teach most subjects in Estonian, according to Estonian Public Broadcasting. The decision came after the cities of Tallinn and Narva appealed against the rule that 60 percent of the courses for grades 10 to 12 must be taught in Estonian.
Fifteen high schools serve the large Russian-speaking communities in the two cities, the Russian Legal Information Agency writes.
Knowing Estonian is vital for the integration of the country's sizeable Russian-speaking population. A law adopted after independence in 1991 granted automatic citizenship only to those resident in the country prior to its incorporation into the Soviet Union and their children. Later arrivals, who include most of the Russian speakers, must pass a language exam in order to be eligible for citizenship.
Primary schools in Russian-speaking areas can continue to use Russian as their primary language, the public broadcaster says.
In one of a number of recent warnings over declining media freedom in Bulgaria, media analyst Nelly Ognyanova comments, “There is a growing concern that most of the media have retreated from their main function, to inform the public on relevant topics,” The Economist’s Eastern Approaches blog writes.
“The media is often serving political parties and various economic groups,” Ognyanova said.
The Economist lists some of the heavy hitters who have been cautioning Bulgaria about the state of media pluralism, such as the U.S. State Department, EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes, and the watchdog group Freedom House, which in its 2012 Freedom of the Press report warns that Bulgarian journalists “continue to face pressure and intimidation aimed at protecting economic, political, and criminal interests.”
Media analysts often point the finger of blame for the cozy relationship between the media and powerful interests at Bulgaria’s murky media ownership structures. Indeed, according to Italian journalist Francesco Martino, electronic media, unlike print media, are not obliged to disclose their ownership.
There are also concerns over a seemingly uncompetitive allocation of digital broadcasting licenses, which led the European Commission to take legal action against Bulgaria earlier this year. Bulgarian media looked into reputed links between two companies bidding for the licenses and the powerful New Bulgarian Media Group, which owns a number of major newspapers and a TV station.
The haziness of links between media and political interests leads to much rumor and little verified fact. As The Economist writes, the private Corporate Commercial Bank is a major financial backer of the group and is rumored to have close ties to politicians and to hold many assets of state-owned companies. However, the bank’s major shareholder, Tsvetan Vassilev, recently blamed the rumors on what he called the “Kapital circle” around President Rosen Plevneliev, a reference to a prominent business paper owned by a rival business magnate.
“This president defends corporate interests and not the interests of the nation,” Vassilev said.