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Putin 'Doesn't Exclude' Syria Strike, Turkmenistan, China Sign Major Gas Deal

Plus, more protests erupt in Croatia over Cyrillic signs, and Romania launches a landmark communist-era crimes case.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Vladimir Matan 5 September 2013

1. Putin doesn't rule out Syria attack but warns against unilateral U.S. action


While the U.S. should not strike Syria unilaterally, Russia might support a U.N resolution on military action if it is proved that Damascus used chemical weapons on its own people, President Vladimir Putin said 4 September.


In an interview with The Associated Press and Russian state television on the eve of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Putin said he "doesn't exclude" backing force if evidence proves U.S. claims that Damascus violated international norms by using sarin gas. But he said Washington must first get approval from the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power and has blocked sanctions against its ally Syria before.


The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in a 21 August attack in Damascus that killed 1,429 people. Obama has asked U.S. legislators to authorize cruise missile strikes against Damascus, with a final vote expected in the coming days.


While online videos from the carnage seem to support the administration's conclusion, Assad says rebels in the country's lengthy civil war launched the attack to undermine him. A UN team is waiting for lab results before releasing a report from a site inspection.


In the interview, Putin said it was "ludicrous" that Assad would use chemical weapons just as the regime is getting the upper hand over the rebels, "while realizing quite well that it could serve as a pretext for applying sanctions against them, including the use of force," the AP reports.


Comparing the evidence presented thus far to bogus intelligence about weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Putin said he wouldn't be convinced without a "deep and specific probe" that "proved beyond doubt who did it and what means were used."


Putin said he hoped to meet with Obama informally during the G20 summit, RIA Novosti reports in a piece on the strained U.S.-Russia relations since Moscow granted fugitive leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum.


Putin said the former intelligence contractor had not leaked secrets to Russia, according to Radio Free Europe. He also challenged criticism about recent Russian laws widely seen as anti-gay, saying he wanted to meet with leaders of the country's gay community to discuss their concerns.


2. Turkmenistan, China ink big new gas supply deal


Turkmenistan has opened a massive natural gas field that will cement its dominance as China's largest gas supplier, RIA Novosti reports, citing local media.


China's Xi Jinping, left, and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov of Turkmenistan mark the start of production of more gas headed for China. Photo by Ju Peng/Xinhua.


On 4 September, Chinese President Xi Jingping and Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov attended an opening ceremony at the Galkynysh (Renaissance) field in southeastern Turkmenistan.


With estimated reserves of up to 21.2 trillion cubic meters, Galkynysh is the world's second-largest natural gas deposit, Reuters reports, citing figures from an international petroleum consultancy. China has loaned Turkmenistan $8 billion to develop the field, and Turkmenistan says its gas exports to China should leap to 65 billion cubic meters a year from 20 bcm last year by 2020.


Turkmenistan is already China's largest natural gas supplier. It has the world's fifth-largest gas reserves, according to the CIA World Factbook.


3. Croatian vets protest bilingual signs in wartime flashpoint


Croatian veterans led a third day of protests 4 September over new signs with Cyrillic script on state buildings in Vukovar, a hotspot in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Balkan Insight reports.


The protests followed efforts earlier this week to rip down the signs, which appear in Croatian in the Latin alphabet and in Serbian in Cyrillic script. They were reposted in five locations in the city, and riot police were on standby.


Under Croatian law, a minority may use its language and alphabet for official purposes if it comprises at least one-third of the population. Roughly 35 percent of Vukovar's population is ethnic Serb.


However, many Croatians see Vukovar as having special significance because it was besieged by Serb forces in 1991, leaving more than 1,000 dead. The protesters want Vukovar exempted from the law, Radio Free Europe points out, and earlier this year some 20,000 people protested plans to erect the signs.


Zoran Milanovic
This week Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic asked the demonstrators to "understand that the war is over." Vukovar Mayor Zeljko Sabo, himself a veteran, urged calm to "not let Vukovar become Beirut," according to Balkan Insight.


Protest leader Tomislav Josic insisted the demonstrators are peaceful.


The Vukovar protests follow similar demonstrations last month in Udbina, a small town evenly split between Croats and Serbs.


4. Romania launches first prosecution of communist-era atrocities


For the first time in the country's post-communist history, Romanian prosecutors have charged the commander of a communist-era prison with genocide. The BBC writes that Alexandru Visinescu, who ran the Ramnicu Sarat prison from 1956 to 1963, faces charges for alleged involvement in human rights abuses and the deaths of political dissidents.


Alexandru Visinescu
Visinescu was charged after the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER) referred the file to a court after an investigation carried out with the help of the Interior Ministry. His first hearing in the case was on 3 September, when he pleaded innocent on the grounds that he was following orders, according to the BBC.


In an August interview on Romanian television, Visinescu said he felt sorry for the camp's inmates but did what was expected of him in order to advance his career and escape the poverty of his childhood.


Valentin Cristea, the only surviving political dissident imprisoned at Ramnicu Sarat, recounted for the Gandul newspaper the deaths of fellow inmates. He said he is not seeking vengeance but that “such acts deserve at least a public admonishing,” and the fate of Visinescu should be decided by society.


However, Andrei Muraru, executive president of IICCMER, told he doubts Visinescu will serve time behind bars even if convicted, primarily because he is now 88.


In April, Muraru said the institute had identified 35 former prison officials from the communist era whose files will be taken to court.

5. Lithuania gives shale gas tender to Chevron


A tender to explore for shale gas in western Lithuania has been granted to the U.S. energy giant Chevron, the country’s government announced on Twitter 3 September, Reuters reports. The move is part of the country's attempt to free itself from dependence on expensive Russian natural gas.


The western Silute-Taurage field could hold up to 80 billion cubic meters of recoverable gas, according to Reuters, which cites Lithuanian experts. That would dwarf the 3.3 billion cubic meters of natural gas the news agency says Lithuania bought from Russian energy giant Gazprom in 2012.


Lithuania gets all of its gas from Russia and accuses Gazprom of overcharging. Gazprom’s pricing policy in Eastern Europe has come under investigation by the European Commission. A commission report (pdf) on the European gas market in the second quarter of 2013 found Lithuania paying the highest wholesale price in the 28-country bloc.


According to officials the deal between the government and Chevron is to be signed by the end of the year, Reuters writes. In exchange for a seven-year permit Chevron will be expected to invest 80 million litas ($31 million) in exploration. The U.S. major was the only bidder for the tender.


Chevron entered Lithuania last year by buying 50 percent of local energy company Investicijos, Business New Europe writes. The decision was hailed by the then-prime minister, who said, “Chevron is such a company that is not afraid to step into Gazprom's field” of influence.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant.Vladimir Matan is a TOL editorial intern.
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