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While U.S. President Barack Obama’s reputation sagged under withering friendly fire from allied leaders his government reportedly bugged, former KGB spymaster and Russian President Vladimir Putin has picked up the slack.
Forbes magazine has put Putin atop its list of most powerful people in the world for the first time since the list was created in 2009. In January, Foreign Policy magazine similarly crowned Putin.
For all but one year from 2008 to 2012, Obama topped the Forbes list, but the magazine says Putin knocked him down a peg in 2013 because the Russian president “so frequently shows his strength at home and on the global stage.”
In Forbes’ estimation, Putin is an autocrat who gets high marks for his ability to defy the United States by granting NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum and for his handling of the Syria crisis, as well as for his army’s nuclear capabilities, his country’s permanent UN Security Council seat, and Russia’s huge oil and gas reserves.
The list is scored according to the raw number of people over whom a candidate holds sway (Russia has a population of 143 million, the tenth-largest in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook), the amount of money the leader controls (determined by Russia’s gross domestic product of $2 trillion), and the number of areas of interest in which the person has influence.
The Ukrainian government plans to sign an agreement with U.S. energy firm Chevron on 5 November to jointly drill for shale gas, Radio Free Europe reports.
The three sites Ukraine, Chevron, and other foreign energy companies are eyeing contain an estimated 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Ukraine consumed a small fraction of that – almost 65 billion cubic meters – in 2011, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The move would help Ukraine wrest itself from dependence on Russian energy giant Gazprom, which provides about 70 percent of Ukraine’s gas.
Gazprom head Aleksei Miller said Ukraine owes his company more than $880 million for past gas shipments, a debt Ukrainian Energy Minister Eduard Stavytskyy said he believes will be discharged soon. Complaints from Moscow about the debt come weeks before Ukraine is set to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the EU that the Kremlin vociferously opposes and has warned will have serious consequences for Kyiv.
The project in the western Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts is expected to cost $10 billion over the next several years. If its exploration yields significant deposits, it could fuel Ukraine for decades, RFE writes.
In January, Ukraine signed a similar agreement worth $10 billion with Royal Dutch Shell. Chevron and Shell plan to capture the reserves with the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which splinters a bed of hard rock with a blast of high-pressure water and chemicals.
Environmental groups and some scientists are concerned about the potentially harmful effects of this technique, which has been known to contaminate ground water.
Ukraine may also look into other innovative energy sources to escape its Russian energy dependence.
“Unconventional gas is not only shale. Also coal-bed methane and tight gas [extracted from sandstone] are quite important," Danila Bochkarev, a researcher in Brussels, told Radio Free Europe in January.
Seven biological siblings of a Roma girl mistakenly believed kidnapped in Greece will be taken into state custody, according to the Guardian.
Sasha Ruseva and Atanas Rusev are the parents of 4-year-old Maria, who received international attention after Greek police raided a Greek Roma camp and suspected that the blond, blue-eyed girl had been kidnapped or trafficked.
The Guardian reports that DNA tests indicated that Maria's parents are a Roma couple living in the Bulgarian city of Nikolaevo. They have eight other children, ages 2 to 20.
AFP writes that Sasha Ruseva said she had given birth to Maria while working in Greece, then gave her away to a local couple when she returned to Bulgaria because she didn't have any documents for the child.
The impoverished Ruseva denied suggestions that she had sold Maria. “I gave her, I made a mistake. But I haven't taken any money,” Ruseva said, adding that she wanted Maria back.
The family that raised Maria since she was 7 months old and, according to child welfare workers, made her dance and beg, also said they want her back. “They are the ones who have raised her and they love her,” their lawyer said, according to AFP.
The Guardian writes that Maria is currently looked after at the Athens-based charity Smile of the Child. After footage of the poor living conditions of Maria's biological siblings emerged, Bulgarian authorities decided to remove the minor children from their parents’ care.
A local official said four of the children will be placed with foster families, two will be taken in by state institutions, and one will be sent to relatives.
Early marriages and teen pregnancies are common among Bulgarian Roma communities, a condition that, along with widespread discrimination, hinders access to education and vocational opportunities.
Estonia, the land of high-tech accomplishments such as Skype, is relatively lacking in the Elizabethan-era invention known as the flush toilet.
Estonian Public Broadcasting reports that the 2011 census shows that nearly 12 percent of homes in Estonia are without a toilet – well above the 3.1 percent EU average.
The census also shows that some 13 percent of Estonian homes lack running-water bathing facilities such as a shower or tub.
The good news is that Estonia is coming up in terms of toilet technology: the 2000 census showed that a quarter of Estonian residences relied upon privies or other waterless waste facilities.
In the 2011 census, 94.6 percent of homes had at least some running water available, up from 85.6 percent 11 years earlier.
According to this year’s EU statistics on housing conditions, Romania faces united Europe’s worst shortage of flush toilets, with nearly 39 percent lacking this basic facility. On the upper end of the scale, there were no reports of being toilet-deprived in Spain or the Netherlands.
The children of Omsk are getting a big Halloween scare this year: they’re discovering that the Russian Orthodox Church has the power to spoil their fun.
The ban comes after statements from Russian Orthodox clerics warning that the holiday – known for inspiring children and adults to don horror-themed costumes – could turn revelers toward the dark side.
"At first, people play with the evil spirit as a joke, but then they begin to play seriously with these things,” said church official Vsevolod Chaplin in an interview with the website LifeNews, cited by RFE. "Then the serious problems start: sickness, despondency, and despair.”
And the clerics may be on to something, considering the holiday’s pagan origins. The Celts believed that on the eve of their new year, Samhain, spirits and demons walked among the living. Animal sacrifices and emulating the dead may have been involved.
The holiday was adopted as a Christian holiday in the seventh century by the Catholic Church as the eve of All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows Eve.
Today the full-tilt American observance of the holiday is finding its way back to Europe and points east, and is even raising some eyebrows for its ghoulishness in Poland, The Catholic Register writes.
Now available! A new TOL e-book: "Crimea: The Anatomy of a Crisis" is a compilation of articles from TOL’s past coverage about Russia's annexation of Crimea, placed in the context of long-running disputes over the region. Find out also what's happened to Crimea and its people nearly a year after Russia's move shocked the international community.