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Bulgarian Student Protests Escalate, Ukraine Shuts off the Gazprom Tap

Plus, beleaguered Czech leftists will try to form a government, and Serbia announces the launch of construction on a major gas pipeline.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Alexander Silady 12 November 2013

1. Students blockade Sofia University, plan parliament occupation


Sofia University was on lockdown 11 November, as students escalated a blockade amid reports that they also plan to occupy parliament.


The full blockade comes three weeks after students began occupying university buildings to demand the ouster of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's Socialist-led government. Now even staff can't enter, with the university's gates padlocked and chained, Novinite reports.



More than 10 other Bulgarian universities have also been blockaded, and students were planning to occupy the parliament building in Sofia on 12 November, according to a separate Novinite report.


In addition, on 10 November Sofia saw its 150th day of anti-government street protests. Referencing the 24th anniversary of the end of communist rule in Bulgaria, one protest banner read, "Your time is up! 24 years of false transition is enough," Reuters reports.


The unrest has its roots in the controversial June appointment of media tycoon and parliamentarian Delyan Peevski as director of the State Agency for National Security. While Peevski quickly withdrew after protests erupted, the demonstrators stayed put and began calling for the Oresharski government's head. After the Constitutional Court effectively allowed Peevski to return to parliament last month, students began taking over Sofia University in what they call an "indefinite" occupation.


Oresharski's government took office in May after protests brought down the previous leadership.


2. Ukraine stops buying Russian gas


Ukraine has stopped imports of gas from Russian state-owned energy firm Gazprom, RIA Novosti reports.


Tension is high between the two countries as Ukraine prepares to sign historic trade and association agreements with the EU later this month, over Russian objections. Russian officials have called the decision to choose an EU trade agreement over membership in a Russia-led customs union “suicidal.”


Further complicating the picture, Gazprom Chief Executive Aleksei Miller said in late October that Ukraine was $882 million overdue in its bills since August. Ukraine’s energy minister said his country would soon settle its accounts, but by last week a Gazprom spokesman said the company had received only “small installments.”


Ukraine gets about 70 percent of its natural gas from Russia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and it pays among the highest prices in Europe. Citing Kommersant, Reuters reports that Ukraine’s gas monopoly does not plan to buy more Russian gas this year.


Ukraine is a transit country for Russian gas to more than a dozen of Gazprom’s European customers. Allaying fears that the stoppage could lead to a repeat of a gas cutoff in 2009 that left those downstream countries in the cold, Moscow’s Alfa Bank said, "Gas storage facilities (both European and Ukrainian) are almost full. And, thanks to unusually warm weather in Europe, we do not expect any significant increase in gas consumption that could lead to a supply disruption."


Ukraine is looking for ways to wean itself off of Russian gas. It has struck deals with Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell to drill for shale gas. On 1 November, the head of the IMF’s mission to Ukraine urged Kyiv to end subsidies  for household gas and oil sales that have its state-owned companies selling Russian gas at a massive loss.


3. After failed putsch, Social Democratic leader to form Czech government


Surviving an inter-party rebellion, Social Democratic leader Bohuslav Sobotka has won a mandate to try to form a new Czech government following early elections, Reuters reports.


Bohuslav Sobotka
On 10 November, the party’s leadership gave almost unanimous support to Sobotka, putting down a low-level rebellion to oust him as chairman after the Social Democrats underperformed expectations in the 25-26 October elections. Sobotka will begin talks with ANO, the new centrist party of billionaire Andrej Babis, and the Christian Democrats. He wants to form a new government by year's end to replace the current caretaker cabinet, according to Reuters.


The Czech Republic held early elections after a corruption scandal toppled the previous, Civic Democratic-led government in June. The Civic Democrats were wiped out in the polls, but Sobotka faced calls for his resignation after his Social Democrats, though placing first, won a disappointing 20.5 percent as disillusioned voters flocked to fringe parties like ANO.


However, facing defeat in the 10 November party vote, Sobotka's main rival resigned from an executive position on 8 November. Sobotka is also the party's candidate for prime minister.


The center-left Social Democrats are expected to clash with ANO and the Christian Democrats over several issues, including tax policy.


4. Serbia to begin work on key South Stream investment within weeks


Construction of the Serbian link of Russia's ambitious South Stream natural gas pipeline to Europe will begin 24 November, Radio Free Europe reports.


Belgrade made the announcement after an 11 November meeting between Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and Aleksei Miller, chief executive of Russian energy giant Gazprom. South Stream is designed to pump up to 63 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas a year to Europe via the Black Sea and the Balkans. That dwarfs Serbia’s own consumption of 2.4 billion cubic meters in 2011.


The 415-kilometer (258-mile), 1.7 billion euro ($2.3 billion) Serbian section is one of the biggest investments in the country in years and comes as its struggling economy desperately needs a boost. The link will make Serbia a regional energy hub and secure its own gas supplies.


South Stream is a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But some analysts say it is a dubious investment that will cost Gazprom $50 billion-plus just as its revenues are falling due to falling demand and increased competition in Europe.


5. Opposition newspaper in Azerbaijan appeals for support


Azerbaijani opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat (New Equality) is appealing to its readers for support amid growing pressure from the authorities, Radio Free Europe reports. Rauf Arifoglu, the newspaper’s founder and editor in chief, has launched an appeal via his personal Facebook account asking supporters of independent media to subscribe, as copies are being withdrawn from circulation by authorities.


“We need your prayers, your subscriptions, and your support as the authorities have confiscated 3,000 copies of our newspaper," he said, according to RFE.


The paper has for years been the target of government harassment and crippling lawsuits. Staff at Yeni Musavat received death threats earlier this year after publishing articles critical of some local officials.  Last year, the paper was hit with steep fines for damaging the honor and reputation of a businessman who is the son of the country’s transport minister.


Caucasian Knot reports that another prominent opposition newspaper, Azadlyq, has been facing threats of closure due to its debts to the state publishing house. Youth activists have launched a Facebook fundraising campaign in support of the newspaper.


Azerbaijan sits near the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, ranking 156th of 179 countries.


The “authorities have taken full control over 99 percent of the media; the rest of them are on the verge of extinction," Mekhman Aliev, director of the Turan news agency, said at a recent roundtable, according to Caucasian Knot.


A primary obstacle to development of independent media in Azerbaijan is the scarcity of ad money, due to the economy's domination by foreign energy giants such as British Petroleum and Lukoil instead of smaller businesses in need of advertising. That leaves media outlets dependent on aid and advertising from the authoritarian government and subject to explicit or implicit censorship. 

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant.Alexander Silady is a TOL  editorial intern. Home page image from a video by Yvo Bojkov/YouTube.
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