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Gazprom Snaps Up Kyrgyz Energy Supplier, Azerbaijan Slated for Arrests of Government Critics

Plus, Ljubljana and Budapest plan further austerity measures and China plans a high-tech city in Belarus.

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, Vladimir Matan, and Molly Jane Zuckerman 28 May 2013

1. More austerity in store for Slovenians, Hungarians


Hungary and Slovenia have taken additional austerity steps to stave off the threat of EU economic sanctions.


Slovenia's parliament last week passed a law requiring the government to balance its budget starting in 2015, AFP reports.


Once seen as southeastern Europe's most advanced economy, euro zone member Slovenia struggled to emerge from the 2008-2009 slump and has been unable to shake off rumors it may require an EU bailout.


Bratusek_100Alenka Bratusek
The new law permits an unbalanced budget only in “extraordinary circumstances.” The government of Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek had wanted the law to take effect only in 2017 but acceded to opposition demands to push the deadline up by two years.


Parliament also voted to tighten the conditions under which a referendum can be held and to bar referendums on economic laws, AFP writes.


Hungary's conservative government, meanwhile, is pushing for a tax on advertising revenues that could cost large media companies millions of dollars, reports.


Companies that earn up to 1 billion forints ($4.5 million) in net ad revenue would pay no tax. The rate would rise in three stages up to 20 percent on ad revenues of more than 10 billion forints.


The bill is seen as another way to boost state revenues and help keep the budget deficit below the EU's recommended threshold of 3 percent of economic output, The Wall Street Journal reports.


2. International monitors urge release of jailed Azerbaijani activists


Azerbaijani authorities appear to be stepping up the pressure on government critics ahead of this fall's presidential election, Human Rights Watch alleges, citing four recent arrests of political activists on drugs charges.


“Over the last two years, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders on questionable or no evidence, and accused them of various drug or weapons possession, hooliganism, and disturbance of public order offenses,” the organization said in a statement on 27 May.


In March, a youth activist, a member of the opposition Popular Front Party, and a religious activist were arrested and charged with possession of small amounts of drugs in separate incidents, HRW reports. On 9 May, blogger Rashad Ramazanov was picked up on a similar charge.


Adding to the international criticism of harsh measures against critics of President Ilham Aliev's government, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, is urging the authorities to release jailed activists.


“Journalists, bloggers, activists, and other independent thinkers continue to experience severe limitations to their freedom of expression in Azerbaijan,” Muiznieks said 27 May after a three-day visit to the country.

The government is also seeking to undermine legal protections for the press and online content, critics charge. Not long after drafting a bill to extend criminal defamation law to the Internet, the government has deleted clauses in the measure repealing criminal penalties for defamation and limiting the amount of compensation for damages caused by defamation, according to the Azerbaijani Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety.


AzerbaijanProtesters350Azerbaijani police and opposition supporters face off during a rally in Baku last November. Photo by Aziz Karimov/Flickr


3. Gazprom moves into Kyrgyz energy market


A deal between the Russian and Kyrgyzstani governments over the sale of Kyrgyzstan’s national gas operator to Russian giant Gazprom has been approved by the Kyrgyzstani parliament.


The state-controlled energy giant paid a symbolic $1 for 75 percent of debt-saddled Kyrgyzgaz, RIA Novosti reports. Gazprom pledged to invest around 20 billion rubles ($640 million) into the modernization of Kyrgyzstan’s gas infrastructure.


The two countries reached the deal late last year, according to RIA Novosti. Gazprom also agreed to pay off the Kyrgyzstani company's debts to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which amount to almost $40 million.


Kyrgyzstan is almost entirely dependent on its neighbors for gas imports. In December, Kazakhstani gas company KazTransGaz reduced supplies to Kyrgyzstan over unpaid supplies, making Bishkek residents switch to electricity for heating and causing power cuts.


4. China reportedly to build new city in Belarus


Bloomberg is reporting a Chinese-financed project to build an “entire city” and high-tech industrial park near the Belarusian capital, Minsk.


The project envisages housing for as many as 150,000 people and will be built in two stages, with the first set to be finished by 2020 and the second a decade later. The site, near Minsk's international airport and a major east-west highway, will allow Chinese companies operating at the park easily to ship products to the EU and to Russia, Bloomberg writes.


“Nobody will be able to build anything like this industrial park anywhere else in Europe anymore. The infrastructure is so powerful,” Chinese Ambassador to Belarus Gong Jianwei said 17 May after Belarusian authorities approved the project.


The park will aim to attract high-tech enterprises. Tax waivers will be available not just for Chinese companies but for any business that plans to invest more than $5 million, according to the project’s website, Bloomberg reports.


China is said to see the development as a means to boost trade with Western Europe and the former Soviet Union. Products bound for Russia and Kazakhstan will benefit from lower taxes thanks to Belarus' membership in the Russian-led Eurasian customs union.


5. Has Russia overcome its demographic crisis?


A rise in the birth rate indicates that Russia's population decline has “stopped,” Radio Free Europe quotes Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova as saying.


Skvortsova said 24 May the birth rate rose from 12.6 per 1,000 people in 2011 to 13.3 last year. At the same time, the abortion rate fell by 5.5 percent, with almost 54,000 fewer procedures recorded in 2012, a trend she attributed to government support for poor mothers, UPI writes, citing RIA Novosti.


However, the outlook for the population is far from “rosy,” she said, according to RFE. Russian authorities have been concerned for years over the declining population and high mortality rates, often attributed to an unhealthy lifestyle and heavy alcohol use.


Russia_children350An endangered species in Russia? Photo by Adam Jones/Flickr


Although Russia does face demographic challenges, however, the oft-used label of “crisis” is not warranted, commentator Mark Adomanis writes in Forbes.


“Numerous other countries that border Russia, and numerous other countries in post-communist Eastern Europe, have long-term demographic outlooks that are at least as harrowing,” he writes in a piece critical of British journalist Oliver Bullough's new book on Russian population decline. He notes that fertility rates in future EU members Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic plummeted at rates similar to that in Russia during the 1990s, even though these countries were supposedly reforming and adopting Western ways. The rates began to climb in all five countries as economic conditions improved in the 2000s, even as Russia moved further toward authoritarianism.


On his Twitter page, Bullough says Skvortsova is “wrong” to claim the population loss has turned around.




Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Vladimir Matan and Molly Jane Zuckerman are TOL editorial interns.
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