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Macedonia Busts Spy Ring, Lithuania Blasts New Russian Border Checks

Plus, a trans-Baltic high-speed railway moves closer to reality and a corruption fighting David takes on the Turkmen Goliath.

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Alexander Silady 17 September 2013

1. Prominent names among 17 Macedonians suspected of selling secrets abroad

 

Macedonian police announced 16 September they have cracked a highly placed spy ring that was selling information to foreign governments, AFP reports.

 

Seventeen people were arrested 15 and 16 September, including the chief of staff to the speaker of parliament, intelligence service personnel, and employees of the defense and interior ministries, police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said.

 

The detainees are suspected of espionage, blackmail, and extortion. Some of the suspects "cooperated with foreign intelligence services, revealing state secrets and classified information of various levels," Kotevski said. He did not name the foreign countries.

 

The state MIA news agency identified Marijan Madzovski, the head of Parliamentary Speaker Trajko Veljanovski’s office, as one of those arrested, Balkan Insight reports. The former head of the state anti-money laundering agency, Vane Cvetanov, and television director Boris Damovski were also reportedly arrested.

 

Police said they seized classified information on laptops and mobile phones, along with 16 weapons, according to Balkan Insight.

 

The opposition Social Democrats released a statement claiming that the arrests were politically motivated, saying, “The government is obviously determined to fill up the prisons with people who oppose it. They violently prosecute, arrest, try, lustrate and punish their opponents.”

 

2. Lithuanian truckers fuming over long waits at Russian border

 

Lithuania is complaining about border checks recently imposed by Russia and asking for solidarity from other EU countries, according to EUobserver.com.

 

New checks Russia introduced on its border with Lithuania 11 September are forcing trucks to wait as long as a week to cross, instead of half a day as before. Russian border guards have also been "harassing" Lithuanian-registered cars as they enter or leave the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, EUobserver writes.

 

Russia.Lithuania.borderA guard inspects a car at the Morskoye-Nida checkpoint on the border between Kaliningrad and Lithuania in February 2012. Photo: RIA Novosti archive/Wikimedia Commons

 

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said that, in light of the measures Russia has been taking in its trade relationship with other Eastern European countries, particularly Ukraine and Moldova, "it is difficult to see this situation in an isolated manner."

 

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele recently spoke out against Moscow’s "unacceptable" tactics toward Ukraine and Moldova, such as manipulating energy prices, blocking trade, and withdrawing security guarantees.

 

Linkevicius said he "expects" other EU states to urge Russia "to stop and refrain from any discriminatory practices directed at Lithuania as the rotating EU presidency."

 

Lithuania will host a summit of officials from the EU and six Eastern European and Caucasus countries in November.

 

EU concerns over Russia’s economic arm-twisting of its neighbors rose after Armenia decided to join the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union. The EU free-trade and association agreement Armenia was expected to sign at the November summit is incompatible with its membership in the Eurasian bloc, Fuele told Radio Free Europe in Yerevan 13 September. 

 

3. Baltic ministers launch regional rail project

 

Transport ministers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania agreed 16 September to form a joint venture as part of a regional high-speed electric rail project, Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) reports.

 

The project, named Rail Baltica, will begin construction as early as 2017 and should be usable by 2023 or 2024, according to Estonian project head Indrek Sirp. He said the trains could travel as fast as 240 kilometers (150 miles) per hour, but Lithuanian officials estimate a top speed of 120 kilometers per hour for passenger trains and 80 kilometers per hour for freight trains.

 

Rail Baltica trackPreliminary construction on the Warsaw-Lithuania segment of the Rail Baltica line. Photo: Lithuanian Transport and Communications Ministry

 

Ministers from Finland and Poland were also present at the meeting, as their nations will be given the option to partner with the newly formed company in the future. Each nation involved in the Riga-based company is expected to contribute 650,000 euros ($870,000) annually to cover administrative costs. The new firm is charged with lobbying for the project and obtaining European Union financing.

 

The three Baltic states plan to raise 85 percent of the costs from EU funds, ERR reports.

 

According to the project's website, the Rail Baltica line will link Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw when finished, and is meant to be an environmentally friendly means of transporting cargo from the Baltic states to the rest of Europe.

 

Rail Baltica mapThe proposed Rail Baltica route. Photo: www.rail-baltica.com/

 

4. Campaigner calls for clarity on Turkmen state spending

 

Tens of billions of dollars in export earnings flow annually into off-budget Turkmen state funds, only to disappear from public view, a campaigner with the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness claims.

 

In a paradoxical situation, corruption may be even worse today than during the repressive regime of the current president's predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, Tom Mayne told the opposition Chronicles of Turkmenistan website in an interview posted last week.

 

“Sources suggest that here the situation is getting worse. This may be because [President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov] has less control over those below him than Niyazov did. With Niyazov, people were held firmly in check through the maintenance of a state of fear. With Berdymukhamedov the fear appears to be less, and so people feel more able to take their own cut and work for their own interests,” Mayne said.

 

He estimated the Turkmen state will earn about $20 billion from gas and oil exports this year. Most of those revenues will go into one of two state funds that are not included in the annual budget. One, the foreign exchange reserve fund, grew enormously in the last decade as Turkmenistan sold more gas at higher prices, Mayne said. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimated the fund held $2.6 billion worth of foreign exchange in 2004, a figure that ballooned to $19 billion in 2009.

 

Global Witness thinks this fund “could be an even greater untransparent repository of oil and gas wealth than it was under President Niyazov,” he said.

 

“Berdymukhamedov has kept up Niyazov’s tradition of releasing only the barest of information regarding the state budget. The [foreign exchange fund] is separate, and could almost be counted as a state secret. But it is clear that majority of the money isn’t reaching the budget,” Mayne added.

 

Much of the energy earnings is going into enormous state construction projects, such as the Avaza resort complex, Mayne said.

 

“But like most things in Turkmenistan, the situation is unclear. Where is the money coming from – from the Stabilization Fund, the [foreign exchange fund] or elsewhere? Which of these projects have been evaluated for their costs? What is the economic rationale for building many of these buildings?” he asked.

 

5. Shouting turns to shooting in Russian philosophical debate

 

In what one columnist is calling a case of “nerds gone wild,” an argument between two young men over the author of Critique of Pure Reason turned nasty in Rostov-on-Don 15 September, giving a field day to headline writers both in Russia and abroad.

 

It happened after a celebration of Rostov’s anniversary, RT writes, as the two men chatted about the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant while standing in line to buy beer.

 

“The discussion turned into a heated debate, which was followed by a fistfight and then one of the debaters pulled out a nonlethal pistol and fired at the other’s head,” RT writes under the headline “Impure reason.”

 

The victim was treated in a hospital for “non-life threatening injuries,” and the suspected shooter was arrested later. He faces up to 15 years in prison if charged and convicted for intentional infliction of serious bodily harm.

 

The Guardian got in on the punning act, running a Reuters story with the headline, “Unreasonable critique of Kant.” Citing RIA Novosti, Reuters identifies the weapon as a rubber-bullet pistol.

 

“Many Russians love to discuss philosophy and history, often over a drink, but such discussions rarely end in shootings,” Reuters notes.

 

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Alexander Silady is a TOL editorial intern.
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