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Opposition Strength Surprises in Russian City Voting, Report Says Moscow Sneaking Weapons Into Syria

Plus, Bucharest's strays are in the cross hairs after a child's mauling death and Skopje feels pressure over a journalist's jailing.

by Barbara Frye and Ioana Caloianu 9 September 2013

1. Russian elections show signs of life for opposition


Russia’s rulers got some unsettling results in local elections over the weekend.


In Moscow, incumbent Sergei Sobyanin – the Kremlin’s choice – has won re-election, but opposition figure and anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navalny made an unexpectedly strong showing.



In Yekaterinburg, preliminary results show a controversial anti-drug activist and former member of parliament winning the race for mayor, defeating several other candidates, including one from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, RIA Novosti reports.


According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, Sobyanin got just enough votes in the Moscow race to avoid a run-off, RIA Novosti reports. But Navalny is vowing not to accept the results, which he says were marred by numerous violations, according to the Guardian.


Election officials said Sobyanin received 51.37 percent of the vote to Navalny’s 27.24 percent. But Golos, an independent election monitor that has been a target of the Kremlin’s wrath since the parliamentary elections of 2010, says Sobyanin just missed the 50 percent mark, while Navalny’s campaign says its exit polls indicate Sobyanin got 46 percent to Navalny’s roughly 36 percent, according to RIA Novosti.


Even by the official calculations, Navalny made a strong showing, considering that his numbers were significantly lower – around 20 percent – coming into the race and that candidates had only three months to mount a campaign since the announcement of early elections in June. Although gubernatorial elections were held in several Russian regions, Moscow’s race was not due for another two years.


One political analyst called Navalny’s results “a sensation,” according to RIA Novosti.


Reuters says low turnout – 33 percent – worked in Navalny’s favor because younger people, his traditional base of support, voted in greater numbers than did their more conservative elders. But a Deutsche Welle commentator says the low voter participation shows that no opposition figure, including Navalny, has yet figured out how to appeal to most of Moscow’s opposition-minded voters.


Others have said the relatively tight race shows that an apparent attempt by Russian authorities to legitimize the contest by allowing Navalny to run pending his appeal on a July embezzlement conviction – and presumably to lose big – may have backfired. There was to be a rally today of Navalny supporters on Bolotnaya Square, the site of a notorious crackdown on anti-government protesters in May 2012, RIA Novosti reports.


Meanwhile, in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, Yevgeny Roizman appears to have won with a plurality of the votes, as allowed under that city’s election law. Ingo Mannteufel, the Deutsche Welle commentator, writes that “Roizman's victory would be a small sensation because it would show that the Kremlin can be undercut even in one of Russia's big and important cities.”


2. Report: Ships likely taking Russian arms to Syria, surreptitiously


Russia has likely stepped up arms exports to the Syrian government, using a secretive port in Ukraine, and has made efforts to hide those shipments, according to a report by a Washington, D.C.-based conflict research center, The Washington Post reports.


The organization, C4ADS, bases its conclusion on several pieces of evidence. It says much of the materiel arriving in Syria appears to be coming in commercial vessels, according to intelligence analysts; that there has been a “heavy volume of traffic in the past two years from Ukraine’s Oktyabrsk port … to Syria’s main ports on the Mediterranean”; that there is a pattern of the ships turning off their transponders as they near Syria, in an apparent effort to avoid detection; and that the owners of the port and the larger ships are influential businessmen with ties to top Russian and Ukrainian officials.


Some Western and Middle Eastern governments have noted a “flood” of Russian and Eastern European military equipment coming into Syria recently, helping to build momentum for government forces, The Post writes.


RBC Ukraine reported last week that traffic at the Oktyabrsk port was up by 31 percent year-on-year in August. The port was the site of a Cold War-era military installation and is still heavily guarded, according to The Post.


There is no arms embargo against Syria, but The Post notes that the incidence of ships leaving Oktyabrsk and headed toward Syria before slipping off the radar has increased as Russia has come under increased international criticism for arming Bashar al-Assad’s regime.


Reuters reports that the Syrian president is stepping up payments to Russia for arms deals, showing “how Assad has sustained his ties with his main diplomatic defender.” Citing a source in Russia’s defense industry, the news agency says Syria has recently begun paying off huge contracts for anti-aircraft missiles and fighter planes.


3. Bucharest’s stray dogs likely face death after child’s killing


Residents of Bucharest will soon head to the polls to decide the fate of the Romanian capital's stray dogs, The Telegraph reports. With their number estimated at around 64,000, the dogs have long been a heated topic, but the issue is coming to a head after the fatal mauling of a 4-year-old boy in a field close to the city center on 2 September.


stray_dog_romania350One of thousands in Romania. Photo by brimborion/flickr.


Romanian television station B1 TV reports that Ionut Anghel was set upon by a pack of stray dogs while playing with his brother in a field near a city park. Though severely bitten as well, his brother escaped and ran to fetch their grandmother.


Statistics from the Matei Bals Institute for Infectious Diseases in Bucharest show that more than 16,000 people were attacked by stray dogs in the city last year, and the number for the first six months in 2013 was roughly 8,600, writes.


In an interview with, Marcela Pisla, president of the Cutu-Cutu dog protection society, said the city Authority for Animal Supervision and Protection (ASPA), which is in charge of clearing the streets of stray dogs, has badly mismanaged funds. She said only two dogs are sterilized every day in shelters run by City Hall and that ASPA staff collect only non-aggressive dogs that are easy to catch.


Existing law requires that dogs be taken to shelters, where they are sterilized and then returned to their collection point if they are not adopted within 30 days.


Romanian President Traian Basescu called for the quick adoption of legislation that would permit the euthanasia of stray dogs, saying “dogs should not be put above humans,” according to The Telegraph. According to the daily Romana Libera, the lower house of parliament will this week debate amending a law that allows for euthanasia only of sick dogs.


Bucharest Mayor Sorin Oprescu has also announced a referendum on euthanasia toward the end of the month, according to Romanian TV channel Digi24. Half of the capital's population of 1.8 million must participate in order to validate the results of the referendum.


4. OSCE turns up heat over Macedonian journalist’s case


Macedonia’s prime minister is coming under pressure from the OSCE over the pretrial jailing of a journalist, Balkan Insight reports.


Tomislav Kezarovski
Dunja Mijatovic, who monitors freedom of the media in the OSCE’s 57 countries, disputed Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s recent assertion that he is powerless to do anything in the case of Tomislav Kezarovski, who is charged with revealing the identity of a protected witness.


“It is the responsibility of the political leadership to ensure that the laws of the country protect journalists and do not place journalists in jail for their writing,” Mijatovic told Balkan Insight.


Kezarovski was jailed in May over an article he wrote in 2008 suggesting that police had framed the suspect in a murder committed three years earlier. The witness he named was not protected at the time and has since said he was forced by police to lie in court.


Kezarovski’s trial began in August. Journalists in Macedonia have protested his being held in the months before the proceeding, and Mijatovic has repeatedly requested permission to visit him.


“The case of Kezarovski is the only one in the Western Balkans region where a journalist is being held in jail pending a trial,” she said, according to Balkan Insight.


5. Cross-border cops team takes aim at Lithuanian car thieves


German and Lithuanian police are joining forces to break up gangs of thieves who steal luxury cars in Berlin and take them east, Spiegel Online reports.


The website says the theft of expensive cars in the German capital is on the rise, with 240 being taken in the first half of this year, and that many of them end up in Lithuania. The thieves are aided by the EU’s passport-less borders and technology from Bulgaria that circumvents many vehicles’ computerized anti-theft systems. The thieves either drive the cars into Lithuania or dismantle them and carry the parts across the border, one former gang member told Spiegel.


A joint Lithuanian-German investigative team, formed at the initiative of a Berlin prosecutor, busted a major gang leader in August. Spiegel calls it “probably the most powerful criminal organization in Lithuania at the moment,” dealing in “car theft, the drug trade, the arms trade, trafficking in women, and money laundering.”

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is TOL's editorial assistant.
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