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Fifty Killed as Airliner Crashes in Kazan, EU Eyes Easing Visa Rules for Moldovans

Plus, calm prevails in northern Kosovo’s revote and Russia’s Navalny is tapped to lead a new party.

by Barbara Frye and Karlo Marinovic 18 November 2013

1. Investigators find ‘black boxes’ from Kazan plane crash


Investigators have found the flight recorders among the ruins of a plane crash that killed 50 people in the central Russian city of Kazan on 17 November, RIA Novosti reports.


According to the news agency, 44 passengers and six crew members were on board. Among the dead are the son of the president of Tatarstan, the republic of which Kazan serves as capital, and the republic’s security chief.


The Boeing 737 that crashed had reportedly been in service for 23 years. Image from a video uploaded by Tony Montana/YouTube.


A fuel tank on the plane reportedly exploded as the pilot made a second attempt to land. RIA Novosti says officials have ruled out terrorism. Russia’s Investigative Committee is looking into the possibility that the plane was running on “low-quality” fuel, according to the RT news agency.


A journalist who had flown on the same plane earlier in the day told RT that the aircraft was “shaking from side to side” before it landed in Moscow.


The craft was a Boeing 737 and various reports say it had been in service for 23 years. It last underwent a complete servicing in March 2012, RIA Novosti writes, citing a source in Russia’s aviation regulatory agency.


This weekend’s crash is the latest in a string of horrific disasters involving Russian aircraft. In May 2012, a Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 carrying about four dozen people crashed in Indonesia; there were no survivors. In September 2012, investigators discovered that the pilot of a plane that went down in the city of Yaroslavl a year earlier, killing an entire professional hockey team, was not trained to fly the aircraft and had used falsified documents to gain clearance to do so.


The number of crashes of Russian planes doubled from 2010 to 2011 and casualties increased fivefold. An expert told TOL in 2011 that overworked pilots are a major hazard in Russia. In addition, the Guardian cites experts who blame “poor crew training, crumbling airports, lax government controls, and widespread neglect of safety protocols in the pursuit of profits.”


Citing the International Air Transport Association, Britain’s Mirror reports that in 2010 Russia and the former Soviet countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States had a combined accident rate nearly three times the world average.


2. Visa-free EU travel in the cards for Moldova


Moldovans could get the chance to travel to the EU without a visa by the end of next year.


The European Commission announced 15 November that it will consider recommending dropping visa requirements for citizens of Moldova traveling to most countries in the EU for fewer than 90 days.


Brussels began visa-liberalization talks with Moldova in June 2010. Since then the country has had to jump through several hoops, including reforming its Interior Ministry, cooperating more closely with the EU in judicial and police matters, and working with Ukraine to secure their common border. Anti-corruption efforts and human rights and equal protection laws were also part of the deal.


The visa-free travel would apply to the Schengen area, which includes most of the EU (excepting Ireland and the U.K.) plus Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland.


The European Commission will likely recommend the switch after the 28-29 November Vilnius summit of EU officials and the Eastern Partnership countries of the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. Moldova is due to initial a free trade and political association agreement with the EU at that meeting.


The new travel regime would still have to be approved by all 28 EU members. The timing will be crucial for Moldova’s domestic politics, notes the EUobserver website: “Moldova’s fragile governing coalition of three parties with pro-EU ambitions view a positive commission verdict as essential in the run-up to next year’s general elections, which will pit them against the Communist Party.”


Cecilia Malmstroem, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, called the step toward visa-free travel “a very tangible element toward a closer political association and economic integration with the EU.”


Ukraine and Georgia are also in visa-liberalization talks with the EU, but there is no recommendation forthcoming for them. Representatives of those countries will likewise attend the Vilnius summit, where most will be watching to see whether Ukraine signs a free-trade pact with the EU or decides to join the Russia-led Customs Union, under intense pressure from Moscow.


3. Kosovo rerun voting smooth but sparse


Kosovo held repeat elections 17 November at three precincts where voting was disrupted by violence earlier this month.


Despite reports of people being coerced into voting, turnout at the polling places in the northern, predominantly Serb part of the city of Mitrovica was low, at 22.38 percent, according to Balkan Insight.


That number was carefully watched by officials in Brussels and in the Serbian and Kosovan governments, all of whom had urged ethnic Serbs in Kosovo to take part in the balloting to choose mayors and local councilors. Those calls were opposed by some local Serbs, who argued that doing so would amount to recognizing Kosovo as a state.


Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement under the auspices of the EU in April that dismantled some institutions in northern Kosovo that had been funded by Belgrade in exchange for some autonomy for the region.


“[T]here was evidence of the Serbian state mobilizing voters to legitimize the accord, elect a Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor, and maintain influence over” northern Mitrovica, Reuters reports.


One Mitrovica woman who receives welfare payments from Serbia told the news agency she was promised “sugar, oil, and a bit of money sent by the state” if she voted for Belgrade-backed mayoral candidate Krstimir Pantic. She said she was threatened with being taken off the welfare rolls if she sat out the election.


“Several residents, clutching bags of sugar and oil, said they had received state handouts on the promise they would vote,” Reuters writes.


Elections were conducted 3 November throughout Kosovo. They suffered from low turnout, including in precincts that are populated largely by Albanians, the country’s dominant ethic group.


In northern Mitrovica, masked men stormed three polling stations and destroyed ballots, precipitating the rerun that took place over the weekend. Others stood outside polling places filming and shouting at voters.


Kosovo’s Central Election Commission had not released results at press time.


4. Navalny chosen to lead new opposition party in Russia


Anti-corruption blogger and activist Aleksei Navalny has been elected chairman of the People's Alliance, a new Russian opposition party that has yet to be registered, Interfax reports.


Aleksei Navalny
The party was founded by Navalny allies in December, the RT agency writes. He said he hoped to lead it to at least a 10 percent showing in the next round of municipal and parliamentary elections.


The People’s Alliance has struggled to register with the Justice Ministry, as required by law. In May, the Green Alliance-People’s Party threatened to sue the ministry if registration proceeded, arguing that the People’s Alliance was using part of its name, RT writes.


Navalny said the party will try again. He said another refusal “will prove once more that all the talk of the authorities that it allows the opposition to [participate] in elections is empty,” RFE reports.


Navalny gained international prominence by exposing corruption in Russia’s national and local governments in online posts and has become a popular face of the country’s protest movement. In July he was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzlement, a case he called “fabricated and politically motivated.” In October the sentence was suspended.


5. Armenia wants younger workers to beef up their pensions


Some young workers in Armenia are up in arms over proposed changes to the country’s pension system the government aims to implement as it struggles to fund retirement benefits for an aging population, IWPR reports.


The changes, due to take effect 1 January, would apply to people born after 1974. Those in that group who earn less than 500,000 drams ($1,200) per month would be required to kick in 5 percent of their wages to the pension system. Workers who make more than that would contribute 10 percent of their pay. The average monthly wage is about 155,000 drams.


Currently the government contributes a fixed 25,000 drams monthly to each worker’s pension, but, as IWPR notes, that is “likely to be whittled away by inflation as both wages and compulsory contributions rise.”


According to the UN Population Fund, nearly 15 percent of Armenians were aged 60 or older in 2010, and that number will climb to 20 percent in 2024. That is well above the 12 percent international threshold to be considered an “aged population.”


But young workers say they are already pinched. “These extra pension payments will be added to the 26 percent [income] tax take, and the total amount will come to 33 or 34 percent, which we’ll have to pay out of our own salaries,” an engineer told IWPR.


Opponents say the measure will exacerbate an exodus of working-age Armenians. From 2002 until 2010, nearly 58,000 more people left the country than settled there, according to government statistics. Many leave for work in Russia.


An emergency parliamentary debate on the issue, demanded by the opposition, was scheduled for 15 November but abandoned when the ruling party boycotted the session. Opponents want the measure delayed and the mandatory contributions lowered.


The government says the changes are needed to prevent a sharp drop-off in living standards for workers when they retire.


“If someone is used to high earnings and there’s a big discrepancy between their pay and their pension, there will be an uprising,” a presidential aide told IWPR. “Employees are saving this money so that they can use it later. They will get more later than they are now putting in now.” 

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Karlo Marinovic is a TOL editorial intern.
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