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Romanians March Against Controversial Gold Mine, Ukrainian Opposition Leaders Meet EU’s Fuele

Plus, concertgoers go on a rampage in Almaty and Iran frees six Slovak paragliders.

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Vladimir Matan 3 September 2013

1. Romanian president mulls referendum on Rosia Montana mine 


A crowd estimated at from 4,000 to 7,000 gathered in Bucharest 1 September in the largest of several street protests across the country after the government moved to restart a gold mining project that could pose environmental hazards and destroy historical heritage, AFP writes.


On 27 August the government approved a bill that could allow the Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources to start extracting gold and silver from the Rosia Montana in Transylvania.


Rosia Montana 350Rosia Montana


The company has had it sights on Rosia Montana and its enormous gold and silver deposits since the 1990s, spending $400 million to develop the site, Bloomberg reports. Its permit applications have been held up because the area contains historic Roman mine works and other culturally valuable sites, and because of the planned use of cyanide to process the ore on site.


The day following the protests, President Traian Basescu proposed a referendum on the mine, Bloomberg reports.


Prime Minister Victor Ponta said the referendum was “a good idea” in a speech 1 September.


The two political rivals have bickered over the mine, Romania's Curentul writes. In 2012 Ponta attacked the president for lobbying in favor of Gabriel Resources and said his government would never approve the project while environmental and political objections remain unresolved. However, Ponta voted to send the draft law, which would increase the government’s stake in the mine and double the royalties the state will receive, to parliament last week. Then, on 31 August, he said he would vote against the bill when it comes before the legislature, saying, “as prime minister, I wouldn't have had the right to do it, given that my duty is to open Romania to international investments.” The parliamentary vote is expected this month. 


2. EU enlargement czar meets Ukrainian opposition leaders


As tensions between Ukraine and Russia heat up amid a trade war Kyiv finds itself closer to the European Union, while Moscow still seeks a way to persuade Ukraine to join its Customs Union instead.


Speaking to reporters 29 August with the European enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia’s Vladimir Putin was unwittingly aiding Ukraine’s chances of signing an association agreement with the EU, EurActiv reports.


Yatsenyuk and fellow opposition party chiefs Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tiahnybok held talks with Fuele in Brussels.


“Russians have decided to make punitive actions against Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk said, an apparent reference to trade restrictions imposed on several Ukrainian products recently. Russian officials have warned they could take harsher measures if Kyiv signs the association agreement at a Vilnius summit in November. Moscow wants to see Ukraine join the Customs Union, which now includes just Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.


Oleh Tiahnybok 100Oleh Tiahnybok
Fuele’s invitation to Svoboda party leader Tiahnybok raised eyebrows, The Wall Street Journal writes. Svoboda, with its power base in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, has been accused of xenophobic and anti-Semitic statements, and Tiahnybok in 2005 called on the government to halt the “criminal activities” of “organized Jewry.”


According to Fuele’s spokesman, Peter Stano, it made sense to include Tiahnybok in the process as “he is leading one of three parliamentary opposition parties which publicly support Ukraine’s political association and economic integration with the EU.”


Svoboda will open an office in Brussels to counter what it says is misunderstanding about its message on the part of EU officials, the Journal writes.


Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said 30 August that the choice between the EU trading bloc and the Russia-led Customs Union should be left to popular vote, RIA Novosti reports. For nearly two years, polls by the respected Razumkov Center have shown a slight majority in favor of EU integration, with the margin widening lately.


3. Iran frees Slovaks accused of unauthorized aerial photography


Six of eight Slovaks held in Iran since May for alleged espionage are back home.


Prime Minister Robert Fico and Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak flew to Tehran 31 August to take the six home, The Slovak Spectator reports.


The eight Slovaks are members of a paragliding club and reportedly entered Iran as tourists in early May.


Iranian authorities revealed in June that the paragliders had been detained for "illegal activities, including taking photos of prohibited places.”


The paragliders were detained in Isfahan province near several nuclear facilities.


One of the released men, Vladislav Frigo, said they were aware of a ban on taking photos below a height of 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) and claimed their pictures were taken above that altitude, according to Deutsche Welle.


Frigo said the detainees were well-treated.


Slovak officials have been negotiating for the paragliders’ release.


"Negotiations were fair and their result is the release of six out of eight detainees," the government website quoted Fico as saying. Slovakia has not made any “financial commitments” to secure their release.


4. Azerbaijan slammed in new HRW report


Accusing the government of Azerbaijan of a “concerted effort to curtail opposition political activity” over the past year, Human Rights Watch is calling for the immediate release of jailed activists and journalists. In a report (pdf) published 2 September, HRW says the persecution of political opponents is part of a wider crackdown on regime critics that got under way in 2011, coinciding with the wave of unrest across North Africa. The persecutions “intensified in mid-2012, apparently in anticipation of the October 2013 presidential elections,” the report says.


A range of methods have been used against active or potential regime critics, from arrest and imprisonment to changes in the law on nongovernmental organizations, according to the 100-page report.


“Azerbaijan has a large and vibrant community of NGOs. ... Legislative amendments adopted in February 2013, however, make it impossible for unregistered groups to legally receive grants and donations,” the report summary states.


One effective tool the government has employed is the “longstanding practice of pressing bogus drugs charges against its critics,” the report says.


“From May 2012 to May 2013 at least six government critics were arrested on narcotics possession charges,” HRW claims. In several of these cases, police said they found drugs on the suspects during searches at a police station following the arrest. Lawyers for two of the suspects said their clients were questioned primarily about their political activities, not drug use. There are also allegations that police beat suspects in custody.


HRW also alleges a rise in arrests of journalists, after an improvement last year, when “the authorities released several journalists who had been wrongfully imprisoned.”


“[S]ince January 2013 at least six more journalists have been handed prison sentences on spurious charges in apparent retaliation for doing their job of engaging in critical and investigative journalism. We documented four cases taking place in February, March, and April 2013 alone in which threats, smear campaigns, and violent attacks clearly sought to silence critical journalists and a writer.”


HRW also notes the new law that expanded the definition of criminal slander to include Internet content. The law was recently used to jail a man for defaming the bank where he used to work.


5. Stars sizzle, fizzle at Almaty shows


In most countries a minor riot at a pop concert would probably not set the pundits muttering about political conspiracies. But in Central Asia, where rumors of rent-a-mob protests are not uncommon, you can never be sure.


The “rare riot in normally supine Almaty,” as describes it, broke out 31 August at a free pop concert in the parking lot of a shopping mall. The unruly crowd went into a frenzy when the headliner, star singer Kairat Nurtas, left the stage before finishing his first number. Riot police were called in to deal with the stone-throwing crowd and about 90 people were injured, according to the Voice of Russia, before calm was restored.


Nurtas blamed the incident on poor organization and inadequate security. “People started throwing something on the stage. I think there was a knife and some bottles,” Tengrinews quotes him as saying.


Kairat NurtasKairat Nurtas on stage, shortly before the unruly crowd forced him to stop his performance. Photo from a video by Самсон Безмятежный/YouTube


Several “analysts” and “experts” questioned by Tengrinews generally agreed, although some said the incident underlined the decadence of Kazakhstani youth.


But think tank director Andrei Chebotarev said the riot was “very well organized” and mused, “It is possible that some forces interested in influencing the situation in the country orchestrated this incident – that [it] was a sort of a drill – in preparation for arranging similar outbursts at critical times.

"Considering that the existing opposition has no such capacities and resources, there must be some third party interested groups or extremists behind it,” Chebotarev said.

There was no audience trouble at a different concert in Almaty this weekend, one that featured A-list stars Kanye West and Beyonce Knowles. The event was a wedding party President Nursultan Nazarbaev threw for his grandson Aisultan and new granddaughter-in-law Alima Boranbaeva at the Royal Tulip Hotel.


Rapper West reportedly was paid $3 million for his set, according to the Voice of Russia.


The U.S. stars were apparently not put off by the bad publicity heaped on Jennifer Lopez when she appeared at a birthday party for Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, in July. Lopez’s publicist said she had not been aware of the country’s human rights record, the Voice of Russia notes.


The British singer Sting performed in Uzbekistan in 2009, but  he pulled out of a scheduled show for Nazarbaev in 2011 in a protest against the government’s harsh reaction to a strike by oil workers.


Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL.Vladimir Matan is a TOL editorial intern.
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