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Bulgarian Socialists Return to Power, Mystery Over Ban of Russian Networking Site

Plus, Czech cabinet ministers in dramatic standoff at Prague airport and Azerbaijan must choose between rival gas pipelines.

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, Vladimir Matan, and Molly Jane Zuckerman 29 May 2013

1. Socialists tapped to head new Bulgarian government

 

Bulgaria's parliament has approved a minority government headed by the Socialist Party under a former conservative now viewed as a bridge-builder, Plamen Oresharski.

 

Today's vote was made possible when a quorum of 121 lawmakers yesterday said they would take part. The winning party in 12 May snap elections, center-right Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), walked out of the chamber yesterday, Novinite reports. GERB, headed by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, earlier failed to gather the needed support to form a government. Borisov left office on a wave of protest against energy prices in February.

Plamen Oresharski

 

The new minority government, backed by the Socialists and the primarily Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, will be led by Oresharski, 53, a former finance minister.

 

Yesterday's quorum was met only when a single member of parliament from the far-right Ataka party remained in his seat, Novinite writes. Ataka had played coy until the last minute, refusing to throw its weight behind either the conservatives or leftists. The party will hold 23 seats in the next parliament. Borisov earlier rejected the idea of a coalition with Ataka.

 

2. Russia's VKontakte networking site banned by 'mistake'

 

A “mistake” that saw Russia's leading social network site blocked for several hours 24 May may have been meant as a warning to Russian Internet users, blogger Oleg Kozyrev tells Radio Free Europe.

 

Officials said VKontakte.ru was placed on a list of banned websites by mistake, according to Reuters.

 

“In this case, someone checked a box against the address of the social network. The site has been removed from the list, and restrictions on access to it have been lifted,” spokesman Vladimir Pikov of the federal communications regulator said.

 

Since November regulators have had the authority to shut down websites containing child pornography, depictions of drug use, forums for suicidal people, and other content considered socially harmful.

 

The site's brief ban is the latest in a string of run-ins with the Kremlin. Activists’ use of VKontakte in 2011 to organize protests after contested State Duma elections prompted the Federal Security Service to request their removal from the site, only for VKontakte founder Pavel Durov to turn them down, RFE reports.

 

Pavel Durov VK pageA detail of one of Pavel Durov's VKontakte pages. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

 

In April, sources close to Durov reported he had left the country after alleged video footage appeared online of Durov hitting a traffic police officer with his car. Durov denies even owning a car.

 

A police search of the VKontakte offices and Durov's home on 17 April preceded by one day a 48 percent stake purchase of the site by the Kremlin-friendly United Capital Partners (UCP), RFE writes.

 

Durov had previously resisted attempts by UCP to buy into VKontakte. The site's other major owner is Mail.ru, another Kremlin-friendly company.

 

Kozyrev, described by RFE as a media analyst and opposition blogger, said the VKontakte ban was “an attempt to teach the Russian online community to be more compliant, less independent, and more deferential."

 

Durov's biographer Nickolay Kononov said, “All big media have been brought under the control of the Kremlin, and [VKontakte] is the last medium that is free,” Reuters writes.

 

3. Zhanaozen protesters freed

 

Six people imprisoned for their roles in the 2011 mass riots in the Kazakhstani city of Zhanaozen were released by the country’s Supreme Court 28 May, Radio Free Europe reports.

According to EurasiaNet.org, the move may be an attempt by authorities to close a particularly painful chapter, given that the December 2011 violence left 15 civilians dead and “damaged the reputation of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.” The riots broke out after police tried to break up a strike by oil workers in December 2011.

 

The Supreme Court suspended the sentences of six protesters convicted in June 2012. Ten others remain in prison. Their convictions came after a trial plagued by allegations of torture, EurasiaNet.org writes.

 

Six police officers are serving prison terms for killing civilians in the riots.

 

4. EU, Russia await crucial Azeri pipeline choice

 

The EU's dream of using a new pipeline to break Russia’s grip on its gas supply could be slipping away, Reuters reports.

 

The EU-supported Nabucco pipeline is meant to pump gas from Azerbaijan to the main European gas markets, bypassing the network of pipes controlled by Russia's Gazprom and thus reducing Europe's heavy dependence on Russian imports. But its backers have yet to nail down a deal with Azerbaijan or other Caspian Sea suppliers, and earlier this year they proposed a scaled-down version called Nabucco West stretching from the Turkish-Bulgarian border to Austria.

 

The Shah Deniz consortium, led by BP and Azerbaijan's state-run Socar, is expected to choose either Nabucco West or the shorter Trans-Adriatic Pipeline as its main route to Europe in June. TAP may be politically attractive because it lies far from Russia's sphere of interest and would not necessarily antagonize the Kremlin, Reuters writes. This would allow the consortium to remain in the running to be part of Russia's South Stream pipeline, a rival to Nabucco. South Stream is expected to start pumping gas in 2015.

 

The Azerbaijani side will make its decision based on the commercial prospects of the two pipelines, Industry and Energy Minister Natik Aliev said in late April.

 

Nabucco has the upper hand because it offers the most diversification for Azerbaijan’s gas exports, Nabucco chief executive Reinhard Mitschek said in an interview published today on EurActiv.

 

“South Steam for me for the time being is not a concrete project,” Mitschek said in reaction to the Reuters article. “I haven’t seen a route for South Steam and I don’t know where South Steam stands for the time being.”

 

5. Czech politicos in last-ditch effort to stop extradition of Russian businessman

 

Czech media are reporting on an incident when government ministers frantically tried to remove a Russian crime suspect from an aircraft at Prague's Vaclav Havel Airport.

 

Alexei Torubarov, a Russian businessman, had applied for asylum in the Czech Republic after being charged with fraud and attempting to blackmail a Russian intelligence officer, Radio Prague reports.

Alexei Torubarov

 

Torubarov claimed he had been threatened by Russian authorities and criminal groups. However, three Czech courts found in Moscow's favor. Justice Minister Pavel Blazek then signed the order for Torubarov's extradition, even though his asylum request had not been properly assessed, according to Radio Prague.

 

When Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg learned of Torubarov's impending deportation on 2 May, he called the interior minister, who then asked the head of the state police to stop Torubarov from being handed over to Russian agents on board a Moscow-bound plane, reports the daily Lidove noviny, which broke the story on 27 May. Schwarzenberg is a fierce critic of Russian human rights abuses and feared for Torubarov's life should he be sent to Russia, an unnamed source told the paper.

 

Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, whose ministry is responsible for managing the airport, then got in on the act, reportedly calling the airport to demand that traffic controllers stop the plane, even suggesting a fuel truck be parked in its path.

 

The plane did take off, however. Torubarov's lawyer said he has had no contact with his client since, Radio Prague writes.

 

The deputy chairman of parliament, Lubomir Zaoralek of the opposition Social Democrats, said that while Torubarov's extradition was a mistake, Kalousek overstepped his authority in trying to block the takeoff, calling it “a definite violation of international regulations,” Lidove noviny reports.

 

Kalousek has spoken little of the extradition, although on 28 May he accepted responsibility for the actions of airport personnel during the incident.

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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