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Russia Predicts ‘Chaos’ After EU-Ukraine Deal, Albania Vows to Pay Its Debts

Plus, a depressed Czech mining town gets more bad news and the Aral Sea regains ground.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Jennifer Day 23 September 2013

1. Moscow makes ever-darker threats over Ukraine-EU pact

 

Bankruptcy. Separatist violence. Chaos. Those are some of the scenarios Ukraine faces if it signs a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union in November as expected, according to a top Russian official.

 

Sergei Glazyev
At an annual conference of European and Ukrainian officials in the Black Sea city of Yalta, Russian envoy Sergei Glazyev said a Ukrainian default would be “inevitable” if the country throws its lot in with Brussels instead of joining a Russia-led customs union, the Guardian reports. Russia is Ukraine’s largest creditor.

 

Further, Glazyev said, “Russia would consider the bilateral treaty that delineates the countries’ borders to be void” and could intervene on behalf of separatist movements in pro-Russian areas, according to the Guardian.

 

Others at the conference encouraged Ukraine to stay the course toward deeper ties with the EU. Drawing on the experience of his own country, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that only by aligning itself with Europe and being unambiguous about its independence from Russia could Ukraine gain Moscow’s respect.

 

At the same time, however, EU officials said there would be no deal with Ukraine if opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is not freed from prison, where she is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office, The Telegraph reports. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele and others have called the former prime minister’s conviction a case of “selective justice.”

 

“I want to underline how important this is,” Fuele said at the Yalta meeting, according to The Telegraph.

 

Last week the Ukrainian government approved the EU trade pact that is up for signature at a November summit in Vilnius.

 

2. Albania’s new government makes debts to firms a priority

 

Seeking to kick-start Albania’s stalled economy, new Prime Minister Edi Rama is vowing to tackle a mountain of debt that the government owes to businesses, Balkan Insight reports.

 

Edi Rama
Citing a recently leaked government auditor’s report, the website says Tirana owes at least 43 billion leks ($405 million) to contractors.

 

The debts are fueling a vicious circle in which businesses have little room to maneuver and pay their own debts. That rising tide of bad loans is further freezing bank lending, Reuters reports.

 

Rama, a Socialist who took office last week, said the effect had been to “asphyxiate” private industry in Albania, according to Balkan Insight. The country’s economy grew by 1.7 percent last year, Reuters writes.

 

Rama said the government would pay the debt “at any cost” and the ruling coalition is aiming to stem tax evasion. “Experts suggest that Albania might collect 320 million euros ($423 million) less in taxes than was planned in 2013, while continuing to run a high budget deficit,” Balkan Insight reports.

 

3. Czech company to shutter mine in eastern town

 

More than 1,000 workers at a coal mine in the eastern Czech Republic are set to lose their jobs when it shuts down next year, the Czech Press Agency reports.

 

In a televised interview 22 September, Jan Fabian, chief executive of mining company OKD, said the firm shut the loss-making Paskov mine following failed efforts to sell the facility or obtain government financing to keep it open.

 

The mine loses about 1.5 billion crowns ($78.6 million) per year, with the company losing about 3.7 billion crowns in the first half of this year.

 

Fabian said it costs about 4,300 crowns to extract one ton of coal from the deep mine, but that same coal fetches only about 2,750 crowns on the market, as prices are half the level of two years ago.

 

Last week, about 3,000 miners marched through the nearby city of Ostrava, de facto capital of the Czech Republic’s faded industrial belt, to protest wage and job cuts, Bloomberg reported. A union leader predicted the mine shutdown would cause a “social catastrophe” in the region, the news agency reported, citing the Czech Press Agency. The unemployment rate in the district where the mine is located stood at 12 percent in August, according to Bloomberg.

 

Fabian said some of the mine’s 2,500 workers would be offered jobs elsewhere and others will continue to work at Paskov in 2015, preparing it for liquidation. That leaves 1,200 to 1,400 jobs to be cut. He said the laid-off workers would get “28 monthly salaries” plus severance pay “equal to 20 times the monthly pay, which is 35,000 crowns on average in our company."

 

4. Efforts to replenish Aral Sea in Kazakhstan get results

 

The Aral Sea is returning to its previously dried-up northern seabed in Kazakhstan, according to EurasiaNet.org's Inside the Cocoon blog. Thanks to a dike project inaugurated in 2005 and partially funded by a World Bank loan, the Aral’s waters, which had retreated 74 kilometers (46 miles) from the city of Aral, have crept back to within 17 kilometers (11 miles) of the former port, said Krymbek Kusherbaev, the regional governor.

 

The remnants of the Aral Sea. Photo from NASA'S Visible Earth catalog.

 

The fourth largest lake in the world in the 1960s, the Aral began to dry up after the Soviet authorities diverted the course of its two principal tributaries, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, to irrigate cotton and rice crops in Central Asia. As a result, the sea had split into two parts and shrunk to a fraction of its initial volume by 1990. The dried-up seabed, loaded with salt and fertilizer runoff, became an environmental wasteland.

 

In addition to recovering lost ground, the northern part of the Aral Sea has also seen a return of more than 20 fish species as its salinity decreases.

 

The southern half of the lake sits in Uzbekistan, where, EurasiaNet.org writes, there are no efforts under way to save it. But there are regional efforts to mitigate the devastation, including tree planting to stop the frequent dust storms and the development of fuel-efficient stoves to slow logging in the area.

 

5. Sofia tells Britain to stop worrying about Bulgarian ‘benefit migrants’

 

A new report submitted by the Bulgarian government to Britain's Home Office aims to counter growing sentiment in the UK that Bulgarian immigrants are guilty of “benefit tourism,” The Observer reports.

 

Concerns about an influx of freeloading immigrants are fueled by the looming expiration of restrictions that have kept many migrants from Bulgaria and Romania from working in the UK since those countries joined the EU in 2007.

 

But the leaked report says Bulgarian immigrants are more willing and more likely than UK nationals to take on seasonal agricultural jobs at minimum wage and without benefits; that the migrants are mainly "young, single, relatively well-educated"; and that there is "no evidence" of benefit tourism taking place.

 

For support, it cites a report by the UK government showing that 6.6 percent of migrants in Britain claimed benefits in 2011 compared with 16.6 percent of UK nationals.

 

Sofia’s main aim is to preempt possible restrictions on its migrants’ access to public services in the UK, The Observer writes.

 

Last week, UK officials announced they would scrap an agricultural worker program for migrants from Eastern Europe when the immigration restrictions are lifted next year, the BBC reports.

 

An advisory committee to the Home Office predicted in May that the lifting of immigration restrictions would hurt the agriculture industry, as migrants once limited to farm work became free to seek jobs elsewhere. It suggests the program be replaced by another effort to attract farm workers from abroad if domestic recruitment falls short.

Barbara Frye is TOL’s managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Jennifer Day is a TOL volunteer.
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