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Russia Launches Public TV, Romanian Soccer Boss Jailed

Plus, more bloodshed in the North Caucasus and a sweet solution to Croatia's land mine problem.

by Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Vladimir Matan 21 May 2013

1. Owner of Romania's Steaua soccer team, two others jailed for property speculation

 

George Becali, a member of Romania’s parliament and owner of the Steaua Bucharest soccer team, will go to prison for abuse of power, according to Reuters. Becali was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on 20 May for acquiring Defense Ministry-owned farmland in an illegal deal that cost the state the equivalent of $900,000.

 

A former interior and defense minister, Victor Babiuc, and former Defense Ministry official Dumitru Cioflina were given two-year prison terms in the same trial. Becali was handed a longer sentence because of his prior criminal record. Last month he was given a three-year suspended sentence for conspiring to kidnap men he suspected of stealing his luxury car.

 

Commonly known as Gigi, Becali, 54, grew wealthy through property deals after starting out as a shepherd. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 and to the national parliament in 2012, but is best known as the outspoken owner of Steaua, Romania's most successful soccer club with 24 league titles, the latest clinched on 4 May.

 

George Becali

Several Romanian politicians have expressed their sympathy for Becali, including Prime Minister Victor Ponta, although he refused to comment on the sentence, according to Romania Libera.

 

Becali is not the first high-profile Romanian politician to be convicted on corruption-related charges. In 2012 former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase was sentenced to two years in prison for illegal use of campaign funds, but he was granted early release in March after serving nine months of his sentence.

 

2. Four die as car bombs hit Dagestani capital

 

Two car bombs in the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala, killed four people and injured dozens on 20 May, the Russian Health Ministry reports.

 

The twin blasts went off 15 minutes apart in the afternoon near the headquarters of the Dagestani bailiff service, RIA Novosti reports. Officials said the explosions may have been triggered remotely. No one had claimed responsibility for the attack by evening.

 

dagestan_bomb_350Wreckage littered the streets of Makhachkala after two car bombs exploded on 20 May. Photo from a video by Euronews/YouTube.

 

In recent years Dagestan has become the most violent North Caucasus republic, and gun battles often break out between security forces and an array of armed groups including Islamic separatists. The violence has also seen the murders of several prominent Muslim clerics, including opponents of the fundamentalist Salafi, or Wahhabi, movement.

 

Russian security forces engaged in two deadly shootouts with suspected militants in the past two days. Two men were killed in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia today, and authorities said two people killed and a third detained in the Moscow region 20 May had recently arrived from the “Afghan-Pakistan region” after being trained for an attack on the capital. The three were Russian citizens, Bloomberg reports.

 

3. Russia launches answer to BBC

 

Russian viewers turned on their television sets to a new national station on 19 May with the launch of the country’s first public channel, RIA Novosti reports

 

Russian Public Television, or OTR, has been in the works since 2011 when then-President Dmitry Medvedev proposed it as a way to diversify Russia’s media in response to mass protests in the wake of that year's parliamentary elections. Government critics accused the major television stations, most of which are government owned, of providing unbalanced coverage of the vote and subsequent unrest. The station will offer educational programming with no advertising and is being positioned as an alternative to the country’s current lineup.

 

Russia Public tv_350The newsroom of Russia's new public television broadcaster. Photo: OTR Facebook page.

 

So far however the channel has received less-than-enthusiastic reviews and some skepticism, even from Kremlin-backed media. Government-funded Russia Beyond the Headlines likened it to Soviet television in the 1980s, replete with nostalgic programming about the Young Pioneers youth group, and talk shows about farmers and village life.

 

Critics have also questioned whether a channel almost entirely supported by the government can realistically expect to stay neutral. The channel was intended to generate its own running costs through public donations, but lack of interest forced the government to subsidize the channel to the tune of $60 million annually.

 

“The government pays the piper, so the government calls the tune. Given [that] the channel is heavily subsidized, it may take root in its market niche, which is, most probably, the niche of another government television network,” Andrei Reut, an editor at the RBC business news channel, told RTBH.

 

4. Russian pollster ordered to register as 'foreign agent'

 

The independent polling agency Levada is the latest prominent Russian nongovernmental organization to fall foul of the country’s controversial “foreign agent” law. Prosecutors told the pollster 20 May to register under the law, which applies to civil society groups that engage in political activity and receive foreign funding, RIA Novosti reports.

 

Prosecutors said Levada's surveys could influence public opinion and thus amounted to political activity rather than research, the agency stated on its website.

 

Levada director Lev Gudkov said the agency may now be forced to close. He denied that it engages in political activity and said foreign funding contributes only from 1.5 percent to 3 percent of its budget, while it receives no funding from Russian government sources.

 

Another large polling agency, the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion on Social and Economic Questions (VTsIOM), was also instructed to register under the law 20 May, RIA Novosti reports, citing Gazeta.ru.

 

The BBC reports that a number of prominent human rights groups and other nongovernmental groups have refused to register as foreign agents including the election monitor Golos, which was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine last month.

 

5. Croatian honeybees could be drafted to sniff out landmines

 

A new method of mine detection being tested by Croatian scientists could dramatically reduce the danger to human searchers who are still at work years after the last fighting of the Yugoslav wars.

 

Scientists have successfully trained honeybees to locate TNT by smell, researcher Nikola Kezic of Zagreb University announced at a demining symposium held last month in the Croatian town of Sibenik.

 

Now the task is to train the bees to associate the smell of TNT with food so they will seek it out, Kezic said, according to the Associated Press.

 

"It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search," Kezic said. "You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem."

 

Further study is required before bees can be released at real minefields, he said.

 

Croatian officials believe around 90,000 land mines were planted across the country during the war against Serb forces from 1991 to 1995. Since the conflict ended, mines have killed 316 people, including 66 deminers, Dijana Plestina of the Croatian government’s mine removal bureau said at the symposium.

 

About 750 square kilometers (466 square miles) of Croatian territory still need to be checked for mines, the AP reports.
Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistantsKy Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Vladimir Matan is a TOL editorial intern.
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