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Dozens Dead as Riga Supermarket Collapses, Ukraine Abandons EU Deal

Plus, Belarus extradites a Russian executive and scientists find traces of WWII chemical weapons worryingly close to the Polish coast.

by S. Adam Cardais, Karlo Marinovic, and Alexander Silady 22 November 2013

1. EU will not sign key agreement with Ukraine


Yanukovich_100Viktor Yanukovych
Plans for Ukraine to sign an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union have hit a wall after a last-minute about-face from Kyiv.


On 21 November, senior EU envoy and former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski told Polish media that Brussels would not sign a so-called association agreement with Ukraine at a summit in Lithuania next week as planned, Radio Free Europe reports. His comments followed two pivotal developments earlier in the day.


First, Ukrainian legislators voted down a bill that would have allowed imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seek medical treatment abroad for an ailing back. Brussels said Ukraine had to pass the bill on her release to sign the agreement, but Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his parliamentary allies have resisted international pressure to release Tymoshenko, who challenged him in the 2010 presidential election.


Second, the Ukrainian government issued a decree saying it had suspended preparations to sign the EU deal in order to analyze its potential impact on trade with Russia. The EU agreement would tear down trade barriers with Ukraine, among other benefits, but Moscow wants Kyiv to join its Eurasian Customs Union and has threatened retaliatory trade repercussions.


The decree said Ukraine would renew "active dialogue" with Russia, Reuters reports. The Kremlin welcomed the diplomatic change of heart.


Earlier this week, Reuters reports, Yanukovych told EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele that he could not sign the deal because it would cost Ukraine $500 billion in trade with Russia in the coming years and over $100 billion to implement the necessary EU reforms. Initially, some European diplomats thought Yanukovych was bluffing to negotiate better terms, but Kwasniewski made it clear 21 November that the deal was dead.


Ukraine's opposition slammed the government decree. Before Kwasniewski's comments, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said failure to sign the EU deal would be grounds for Yanukovych's impeachment.


Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told parliament today the decision to suspend the  agreement was “tactical” and “the only possible option given the economic situation in Ukraine,” Ukrinform reports.


Brussels has said Ukraine might have to wait years for another chance at an association agreement. 


2. Roof of Latvian supermarket falls 'like a house of cards'


More bodies may lie in the wreckage of a collapsed supermarket in Riga, rescue workers warned today. The death toll had risen to 32, including three rescuers, by this morning, Reuters reports. At least 28 injured people have been taken to hospitals.


The roof of the Maxima supermarket in the Zolitude suburb "fell like a house of cards" the night of 21 November, RIA Novosti reports, citing eyewitnesses and Latvian media.


Image from a video by Muslim Unmah Productions/YoutubeEmergency workers outside the Maxima supermarket after its roof collapsed on the evening of 21 November. Photo from a video by Muslim Ummah Productions/YouTube


Eyewitnesses said they heard a loud sound before the collapse. Workers had been building a winter garden on the roof of the single-story building, Reuters reports.


The cause of the collapse is not yet known, but it is possible there were violations of construction rules during the building activity on the roof, the head of the city’s construction board, Inguss Vircavs, said today, the Baltic Course reports, citing Latvian media.


Today Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said “a criminal process has started about violating building standards,” the BBC reports.


It is not known how many people could be trapped in the rubble, rescue service chief Oskars Abolins told Latvian Television this morning, according to the Baltic Course. According to Reuters, the store was full of shoppers heading home after work when the roof caved in.


The rescue operation could continue for at least another 24 hours, Abolins said.


3. Minsk frees Uralkali CEO in apparent end to diplomatic row


Belarus has extradited Uralkali chief executive Vladislav Baumgertner following an ownership change at the potash firm that has evidently resolved a months-long diplomatic dispute, Bloomberg reports.


Belarus handed over Baumgertner, who was under house arrest in Minsk, to Russian authorities on 21 November, a day after deciding to extradite him, Bloomberg reports, citing Belarusian media and a statement by the Russian Prosecutor General's Office. Baumgertner, 41, was arrested in Minsk on abuse of power charges on 26 August, a month after Uralkali withdrew from the Belarusian Potash Company, a joint venture with Belarus' Belaruskali and one of two dominant players on the world potash market.


Stocks in the fertilizer ingredient plummeted on global markets as a result, threatening Belarus' economy and infuriating President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Baumgertner was arrested in Minsk after being invited to meet the Belarusian prime minister to discuss Uralkali's decision.


Baumgertner's extradition comes days after Onexim, an investment fund owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, bought the 21.75 percent stake of Uralkali's biggest owner, Suleiman Kerimov. Lukashenka had demanded Kerimov sell his stake as a condition for Baumgertner's release.


The Kremlin has denied involvement in the Kerimov-Prokhorov deal. But it "was blessed by President Vladimir Putin" in an effort to repair relations with Minsk, Reuters reported.


In October Russian authorities said they might open their own probe into Baumgertner’s business activities.


4. Scientists find traces of mustard gas near Polish coast


Polish scientists have found that Baltic seawater just off the coast of Poland is contaminated by German chemical weapons dumped by the Allies after World War II, UPI reports.


Poland's Military University of Technology (WAT) tested water samples collected near the floor of the Gulf of Gdansk as part of the EU's Chemsea project, which seeks to locate former Baltic dumping grounds and stem the spread of old toxins. The findings turned up traces of mustard gas, as well as tear gas and the irritant phosgene. UPI notes that an unknown amount of the refuse may be explosive.


"If this data is confirmed, you either have facilities in the Gulf of Gdansk which no one ever knew of, or there is a far greater spread of these compounds in the sediment than we thought," Polish Institute of Oceanography scientist Jacek Beldowski told Polish television.


The Economist  suggests the presence of the toxic chemicals may be a result of carelessness on the part of the Soviet fleet. British and Soviet ships sunk more than 65,000 tons of German munitions 800 feet into a basin between Sweden and the Baltic coast in the late 1940s, but some Soviet ships may have jettisoned their perilous cargo as soon as they lost sight of land, according to Beldowski.


Beldowski noted genetic damage in fish near the contaminated areas, suggesting a gradual but significant leakage.


The majority of the munitions containers are likely to remain intact, and cold water condenses mustard gas, the most dangerous of the compounds discovered, into a thicker state. Regardless, Stanislaw Popiel of the research team said the worst-case scenario was an environmental disaster “greater than Chernobyl.”


5. More bad PR for notorious Russian drug rehab center


A drug treatment center in Yekaterinburg founded by an ex-con who is now the city’s mayor is in the news again over the conviction of one staff member and detention of another.


Igor Shabalin, an employee of the City Without Drugs center, was sentenced to two years and four months imprisonment 21 November for the unlawful imprisonment of nine female patients at the facility, RIA Novosti reports.


Shabalin was released from the courtroom because he had served sufficient time in pretrial detention.


Eugene  Roizman-100 Yevgeny Roizman
City Without Drugs was founded by Yevgeny Roizman, a former convict and Duma deputy who became the surprise winner of the Yekaterinburg mayoral election in September.


Roizman's popularity in Russia’s fourth-largest city owes much to his tough approach to drug users.


"They're not humans, they turn into animals, they walk around smiling and dribbling," he recently told a BBC reporter.


Until complaints from human rights groups forced the center to ease its harsh treatments somewhat, new patients spent their first month chained to their beds and fed near-starvation rations, the BBC writes.


Authorities opened several criminal cases against center employees after a female patient died of meningitis last year, RIA reported.


Today, drug enforcement authorities announced the detention of the center’s vice president, Yevgeny Malenkin, on unrelated drug trafficking charges.


Malenkin is also suspected of the unlawful detention of patients at the center.

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