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Balkans’ Unsafe Roads in Spotlight, Bulgaria Faces Fines for Energy Monopoly

Plus, Bosnian lawmakers look to restrict access to public information and an anti-Roma march turns violent in the Czech Republic.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Vladimir Matan, and Molly Jane Zuckerman 1 July 2013

1. Major accident spotlights Balkans’ unsafe roads

 

A major accident last week in Montenegro has focused attention on the sorry state of roads in the Balkans, Southeast European Times reports.

 

On 23 June a bus carrying Romanian tourists went off a road skirting the Moraca River canyon and plunged into the gorge. Eighteen people were killed and 29 injured, a police spokeswoman told SETimes.

 

 

The Moraca River canyon. Photo by Kris12/Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Moraca canyon road is “one of the most dangerous routes in the Balkans,” according to the news agency, claiming more than 1,000 lives in the past 30 years.

 

Overall traffic safety in the Balkans has improved due to better law enforcement – Montenegro passed a measure in January that includes tougher penalties and expanded police authority, and its traffic fatality rate has fallen by nearly 40 percent in the past five years – but the region still has some of the world’s worst roads, according to a recent international survey.

 

A March report on tourism competitiveness by the World Economic Forum ranks Montenegro’s ground transport infrastructure 93rd of 144 countries, with the most of the rest of the region trailing – Serbia at 122, Bosnia at 134, and Romania at 142. Only Croatia, at 29, sits near the top.

 

Road investment and traffic safety are emerging priorities in the region. Serbia’s president, Tomislav Nikolic, recently starred in a video that promotes seat-belt use, and SETimes notes that Montenegro plans to spend 40 million euros ($52 million) on road rebuilding this year.

 

2. Bulgaria faces penalties for not unbundling energy companies

 

Bulgaria could be looking at fines of 9,000 leva ($6,000) per day “for months on end” for failing to dismantle its government-owned vertical energy monopoly as required by EU law, Novinite reports.

 

An EU directive, which was supposed to take effect in 2011, requires members to de-link their energy transmission networks and power producers. Bulgaria was among a handful of countries that did not comply, and Brussels took the matter to the European Court of Justice in January.

 

With the second deadline of 30 June just passed, the country’s new energy minister, Dragomir Stoynev, told reporters that the debt-ridden National Electric Company would probably have to pay the fines. Stoynev said the company already had debts of 1.9 billion leva and has suffered from a lack of investment, according to the Focus Information Agency.

 

Stoynev is part of a Socialist-led government that took power in May. He said the previous caretaker government had “deliberately blocked” implementation of the EU directive by upending the leadership structure of the company that runs the electricity transmission network two days before the new government took over. Stoynev said that per month the fines would be the equivalent of about 2,000 minimum Bulgarian pensions.

 

3. Bosnia eyes limits on public information, ethics laws

 

Civil society groups say several changes Bosnia’s government is considering to sunshine and conflict-of-interest laws would set back democracy in the country, Balkan Insight reports.

 

Among the proposals is a significant limit on what information is available to the public, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting personal data. Government funds spent on health care, unemployment benefits, and welfare would not be subject to disclosure, according to an analysis by Access Info Europe, whose executive director sat on a committee that wrote Bosnia’s first Freedom of Information law in 2000.

 

The group also warns that most information about the performance of “public office holders” would be withheld, as would information on court decisions outside “a limited list of ‘cases of public interest’ ” that includes decisions on war crimes, organized crime, corruption, terrorism, and tax evasion.

 

In early June, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s media freedom representative said the proposal “runs directly counter to international standards in multiple ways.”

 

Another change would take decisions on ethics cases involving politicians out of the hands of elections officials and give them to a commission made up of representatives of political parties, Balkan Insight notes.

 

“That means that [the politicians] will be deciding by themselves whether they're in a conflict of interest or not,” said Tija Memisevic, director of the European Research Center, a Sarajevo think tank that focuses on European integration. “That way they can legalize conflicts of interests.”

 

4. Violence erupts at Czech anti-Roma rally

 

A weekend rally in a largely Roma neighborhood in the southern Czech city of Ceske Budejovice turned violent and forced the police to intervene, according to the Czech News Agency.

 

The violence erupted after the crowd that gathered 29 June at a public housing project inhabited mostly by Roma started shouting slogans such as “Czech lands to Czechs” and “black pigs.”

 

 

Police detained 39 demonstrators. Thirty-two are being investigated for misdemeanors, while seven could face charges of violence against an official, according to police spokeswoman Lenka Holicka.

 

Emergency services spokeswoman Petra Kafkova said 10 people were injured, including two who suffered concussions.

 

Ceske Budejovice Mayor Juraj Thoma said town officials could not have prevented the rally, as the law requires organizers only to report an upcoming event. Several hundred police officers were deployed and used tear gas against the protesters, according to the Czech News Agency.

 

One of the march organizers distanced the event from the violence, saying, “What is going on in the streets has nothing in common with our activity and we cannot influence it in any way.”

 

Despite several governmental and EU-funded integration programs in the years following the Czech Republic's accession to the union, discrimination and violence against Roma are still rife in the country

 

5. Jailed Macedonian journalist fails in bid for freedom

 

A court in Skopje has decided to keep an arrested journalist behind bars for another 30 days after his original 30-day detention ended last week, Balkan Insight reports.

 

Tomislav Kezarovski
Police arrested Tomislav Kezarovski in late May over a 2008 article in Reporter 92 magazine in which he revealed the identity of a protected witness in a murder case. The witness claimed police had forced him to give false testimony. According to Balkan Insight, the witness also stated that he received protected status only in 2010, two years after Kezarovski’s article appeared.

 

B92.net reports that Kezarovski has refused to identity his source, a move that is in accordance with both Macedonian and European laws on freedom of expression.

 

Vladimir Tufegdzic, the spokesman for the Skopje Criminal Court, said Kezarovski’s original detention “was ordered for two reasons: the risk of his escape and the danger that he may influence witnesses who in this phase of the investigation have not yet been examined,” Balkan Insight writes. The court gave the same reason for Kezarovski’s extended sentence in its 26 June ruling.

 

International media watchdogs and journalists have called for Kezarovski’s release, Balkan Insight also reports. On 31 May, around 100 journalists protested Kezarovski’s detention outside of a Skopje courthouse.

 

Jim Boumelha, president of the International Federation of Journalists, said, “We condemned the heavy-handed arrest of Kezarovski. He was arrested for his legitimate exercise of rights as a journalist who is providing information that is of the public interest,” according to B92.net.

 

The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index of 2013 ranks Macedonia 116th of 179 countries. Macedonia has fallen 22 places since last year due to “the arbitrary withdrawal of media licenses and deterioration in the environment for journalists.”

Barbara Frye is TOL’s managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Vladimir Matan and Molly Jane Zuckerman are TOL editorial interns.
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