Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!
Plus, a Bosnian court hands down tough sentences in a big organized crime case and Bulgaria builds a small wall to tackle a big problem.by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Jeremy Druker, and Karlo Marinovic 2 December 2013
The week-old protests in Ukraine's capital over the government’s rejection of an association pact with the EU took a new turn today as demonstrators barricaded themselves inside a government building, the BBC reports.
Meanwhile, fallout continues from a move to violently disperse protesters over the weekend. According to The New York Times, President Viktor Yanukovych’s chief of staff resigned over the crackdown, and two members of parliament quit the ruling Party of Regions. The government is setting up round table talks with the opposition and protesters, to kick off today.
Among the protesters reportedly holed up in Kyiv’s City Hall is Pyotr Verzilov, who is married to imprisoned Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. He told the BBC the building had become “a sort of headquarters for the protests.”
Estimates put the crowd on at the capital's Independence Square 1 December at between 100,000 and 500,000, in spite of a ban on protests. Opposition leaders are calling for a general strike across the country and plan to picket a cabinet meeting and push for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the government. Inna Bohoslovska, one of the lawmakers who left Yanukovych’s party, pledged support to the protests and called on the government to resign, The New York Times writes.
Meanwhile, some in the crowds have been confronting police, ignoring pleas from rally speakers to avoid violence. Ukrainian public broadcaster Hromadskie.tv reported on 1 December that “nobody knows who the people are and desperate attempts have been made by other demonstrators to stop them, with shouts of ‘this is a peaceful demonstration,’ ” according to Halya Coynash, a human rights journalist (and frequent contributor to TOL). Many suspect they are government-friendly thugs intent on provoking a clash so that the government can declare a state of emergency and quash the rallies, Thomson Reuters reports.
The protests erupted after Yanukovych abandoned the long-planned EU association deal following top-level meetings of Russian and Ukrainian officials. Bloomberg reports that the Kremlin is offering cheaper Russian gas to Ukraine, which pays some of the highest prices in Europe, if the country joins the Russia-led Customs Union instead of opting for a free-trade pact with the EU.
“A gas agreement could help relieve Ukraine of a huge problem. We can also give them a loan, but we will not help them without commitments on their part,” said Igor Shuvalov, a Russian deputy prime minister.
Croatians voted to ban gay marriage in a referendum held 1 December, Reuters reports.
Nearly 90 percent of Croatia’s population is Catholic, and the church strongly supported the measure. Croatian law already defines marriage as a union between a man and woman, but referendum supporters said enshrining that in the constitution will make it more difficult for future governments to change marriage laws, according to Reuters.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic called the referendum “sad and pointless” and announced a forthcoming bill on civil partnerships to give the same rights to all couples, regardless of sexual orientation.
One woman who came to vote with her girlfriend told Reuters, “I have no right to inherit my girlfriend's property, we cannot adopt children or get married, I could not visit her if she ended up in an old people's home.”
Critics of the vote say the sponsoring group was a Trojan horse for an unpopular right-wing party, with which it shares leaders. Others contend it was a warmup for another referendum effort to limit ethnic minorities’ rights to use their alphabets and languages in official contexts, Balkan Insight reports.
That proposal by a group of veterans of the 1990s war between Croatia and Serbia would allow such usage if a minority constituted at least 50 percent of a town’s population. The current threshold is 30 percent. In Vukovar, a city with a 35 percent ethnic-Serb population that was heavily damaged by Serb forces during the war, Cyrillic signs were posted on government buildings earlier this year, to loud protests by veterans. The local government voted last month to take down the signs.
The government opposes the language referendum. Milanovic said the gay marriage vote “was the last referendum in which a majority limits the rights of a minority,” according to Balkan Insight. He vowed that the language vote would not go forward “regardless of how many signatures the organizers collect.”
In a case that laid bare many of the sordid details of Balkan organized crime, one of Bosnia’s top gang leaders, Zijad Turkovic, received a 40-year sentence on 28 November for his role in a string of murders, drug smuggling, robbery, and other offenses, Balkan Insight reports.
War veteran Milenko Lakic, who served as a hit man for Turkovic, also got 40 years, while three other accomplices received from three to 12 years. According to the Associated Press, Boris Grubisic, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said a Bosnian gang had never before been punished so harshly. He labeled Turkovic’s group “the most dangerous criminal organization in postwar Bosnia.” Others called the trial the most significant case launched against the local mafia in the past 20 years.
The gang was blamed for five murders, three attempted murders, narcotics trafficking, weapons smuggling, extortion, and the dramatic 2007 robbery of 1.3 million euros ($1.76 million) from the Sarajevo airport’s cargo center. Turkovic’s men, acting on information from an insider and wearing the uniforms of special police units, made off with bags of cash owned by ABS Bank. According to Balkan Insight, investigators also discovered the bodies of some of the gang’s victims walled up in a house.
In one of the trial’s dramatic exchanges, Turkovic questioned one of several turncoats who testified against him, asking if anyone could corroborate his version of events. “No. You killed everybody else,” said the witness, according to AP.
Turkovic maintains that he was framed for others’ crimes and alleges that the state prosecutor was bribed. His wife, a fixture on the Bosnia media scene as a journalist at popular dailies, has also come to his defense.
In an analysis of the trial, the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso website said the investigation had helped provide insights into the inner workings of criminal groups in the Balkans and the complicated relationships among the various gangs, with bands of hit men out to eliminate rivals. Turkovic’s hired gun, Lakic, is an ex-secret police agent and served in a notorious paramilitary group led by Milorad Ulemek Lukovic, later connected to the postwar Serbian government and the 2003 murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
Bulgaria plans to build a wall along a section of its border with Turkey in an attempt to stem the tide of Syrian refugees flowing into the country, according to Balkan Insight. Three meters (10 feet) high and 33 kilometers (20 miles) long, the concrete and barbed-wire fence will be complete by February, Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetelin Iovchev said at a press conference.
Iovchev said the first part of the project, which consists of repair works to more than 100 kilometers of roads, is finished. The total price tag will be 2.5 million euros ($3.4 million), he said.
But critics point out that it covers only a fraction of the 274-kilometer border between Bulgaria and Turkey.
“Such problems cannot be solved with walls, and especially by such a short wall,” political scientist and sociologist Evgenii Dainov told Balkan Insight.
Still, Dainov said, the wall could help in “redirecting migrants toward the official border crossings, where they will be processed legally.”
Last month, Bulgarian officials said more than 8,000 migrants were in the country illegally. Some 4,000 were seeking asylum, half of whom were Syrian. Those numbers are far more than the country’s shelters can accommodate.
Balkan Insight now reports that “more than 10,000 refugees and economic migrants have crossed into Bulgaria from Turkey this year, the majority of them Syrians fleeing the brutal civil war raging in their country.”
Police in Moscow have broken up a sex slavery ring and freed six Moldovan women, RIA Novosti reports. One man from Moldova was arrested.
“After arriving in the Russian Federation, the group put [the women] in flats or houses in the Moscow region, took their documents and, with threats or beatings, forced them to work as prostitutes,” police said, according to the news agency.
Though experts say it is on the decline, sex trafficking has been a problem in Moldova since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The victims are most often sent to Turkey, Russia, Northern Cyprus, and the United Arab Emirates, an Interior Ministry official told TOL in 2011. Moldova is Europe’s poorest country, though the percentage of those living under the national poverty line has fallen, from 30.2 percent in 2006 to 17.5 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank.
Domestic trafficking and labor exploitation have recently begun to rise just as officials tackle the cross-border sex trade, TOL reported in 2011.