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Bulgarian Opposition Grows, Russian Crash Probe Eyes Pilot Error

Plus, Hungary’s banks are served with a record fine and the Sarajevo U.S. Embassy gunman gets a long prison term, again.

by S. Adam Cardais, Karlo Marinovic, and Alexander Silady 21 November 2013

1. Workers join growing Bulgarian opposition


Bulgaria's emerging opposition movement appears to be blossoming, with some 4,000 Bulgarian workers demonstrating in the capital, Sofia, on 20 November after months of student-dominated protests, Reuters reports.



Led by the CITUB trade union, the workers demanded a 10 percent raise in public sector salaries and reforms to the corruption-riddled health care and energy industries. CITUB leader Plamen Dimitrov told Reuters workers will strike if the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski does not heed their demands.


In office since May, Oresharski's government has faced daily protests since the controversial June appointment of a media tycoon and parliamentarian as director of the State Agency for National Security. But Reuters emphasizes that the protesters have mostly been students and urban professionals angry over government misconduct and incompetence, not specific issues like low wages.


Students also demonstrated in Sofia on 20 November. "Armed" with paper swords and toy handguns, they staged a mock attack on the parliament building, Novinite reports. The day also saw reports of the first clashes between  protesters and riot police.


2. Probe of Russian crash points at pilots


Pilot error is the most likely cause of a Tatarstan Airlines plane crash in central Russia that killed 50 on 17 November, investigators have said, according to RIA Novosti.


A report by the Interstate Aviation Committee (IAC), which oversees airline safety in most of the former Soviet Union, concluded that the captain failed to communicate with Kazan airport air traffic control after overshooting the runway and turning around to make a second landing attempt. The pilots also failed to take corrective action when the plan began to nosedive, investigators said.


Tatarstan Airlines representatives said the captain, 47-year-old Rustem Salikhov, had never performed a go-around maneuver in a real flight before.


The IAC’s findings said the go-around was undertaken without autopilot and at full throttle. When the plane made its nosedive, it was angled nearly perpendicular to the ground, but the pilots did not pull up or take any other corrective action, suggesting that they were paralyzed by terror, RIA Novosti writes.


The BBC notes that international critics have questioned the IAC’s reports on past air crash incidents, which almost always fault pilots rather than technical trouble. The body has been criticized as unaccountable and having a conflict of interest, since it also certifies whether aircraft are fit to fly.


A journalist told Russian television that she had flown from Kazan to Moscow on the aircraft that crashed earlier in the day and felt the plane shake heavily during landing, the BBC reports.


3. Hungarian banks face record fine for cartel activities


Eleven of Hungary’s biggest banks have been fined a total of 9.49 billion forints ($43.1 million) after regulators determined they had colluded to prevent thousands of customers from taking part in a mortgage-repayment scheme that would have cost the banks money, The Wall Street Journal’s Emerging Europe blog reports.


The Hungarian Competition Authority said the banks “coordinated their strategies” from 15 September 2011 to 30 January 2012 to make it difficult for their clients to use the program, under which homeowners could repay costly foreign-currency loans in much-devalued forints, leaving the banks to take a loss.


The banks fined were Erste Bank Hungary, K&H Bank, CIB Bank, MKB Bank, Raiffeisen Bank, UniCredit Bank, Budapest Bank, UCB Ingatlanhitel, Magyar Takarekszovetkezeti Bank, Citibank, and OTP Bank Nyrt, which was fined the largest amount, 3.9 billion forints.


OTP Bank, one of the largest in Central and Eastern Europe, was hit with the highest fine. Photo by Orange Man/Wikimedia Commons.


Most of the banks denied wrongdoing. According to the MTI news agency, OTP will appeal the ruling, stating for the agency that its activities “had in no way fallen in line with other banks' efforts to restrict lending.” CIB and MKB also plan to take the matter to court, according to The Journal. K&H, Erste, and UniCredit said they are considering a court challenge.


The government's early repayment scheme was introduced in 2011, to ease repayments for borrowers with foreign currency mortgages after the value of the Hungarian forint dropped. The government set a fixed rate between the national and foreign currencies that favored borrowers, in turn forcing banks to lose money.


According to MTI, 170,000 borrowers wrote off 24 percent of household debts by February 2012 under the program.


Regulators said their investigation involved examining emails and internal communications. The ruling took into account the losses banks made under the scheme as a mitigating circumstance. On the other hand, the fact that the banks share in total 90 percent of the market, was considered an aggravating factor.


4. Bosnian appellate court upholds U.S. Embassy shooter conviction


After a second trial, a man who attacked the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo in 2011 was sentenced to 15 years in prison 20 November, Radio Free Europe reports.


Mevlid Jasarevic
Mevlid Jasarevic was initially convicted in December 2012 of terrorism for opening fire on the embassy and wounding a guard. He was given 18 years in prison – then the stiffest sentence ever handed down for terrorism by Bosnia's State Court.


In July, the verdict was overturned following complaints by defense attorneys that they did not have access to key evidence. However, appellate Judge Hilmo Vucinic said Jasarevic was guilty of a terrorist attack that aimed to harm U.S. embassy staff, spread fear, and retaliate against the United States and Germany for the war in Afghanistan, Balkan Insight reports.


In his closing remarks last week, Jasarevic expressed regret for the attack, which the judge said he took into account in the sentencing. However, the judge also said the sentence reflects Bosnia's stiff anti-terrorism efforts: "A message is now being sent that the country will fight it."


Jasarevic's attorney intends to appeal to the Constitutional Court, according to Balkan Insight.


5. Amnesty slams Russian 'foreign agents’ law on one-year anniversary


One year on, Russia's so-called "foreign agents law" is "choking" independent think tanks, watchdogs, and other civic groups, Amnesty International says.


John Dalhuisen
"One year after coming into force, the record of the foreign agents law is a grim one," said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty. "More than a thousand NGOs have been inspected and dozens have received warnings. Several of the most prominent human rights groups have been fined and some forced to close."


Introduced on 21 November 2012 following parliamentary approval in July, the law requires think tanks, rights groups, and other civic organizations that authorities deem political and that receive funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents," a term that connotes "spy" to most Russians. It is one of several pieces of what Amnesty International calls repressive legislation introduced since President Vladimir Putin's election to a third term last year.


To enforce the law, authorities launched "inspections" at roughly 1,000 organizations earlier this year. Scores of civic groups have subsequently been taken to court for alleged administrative violations or for failing to register as an "organization performing the functions of a foreign agent."


Among them is Golos, which as Russia's only independent election observer alleged large-scale fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential polls. After being fined and suspended, Golos disbanded, according to Amnesty. The Kostroma Center for Support of Public Initiatives also closed after being fined, and court cases against myriad other civic groups are ongoing.


Amnesty says it is drawing attention to Russia's deteriorating human rights record as the country prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Karlo Marinovic and Alexander Silady are TOL editorial interns.
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