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Kremlin to Shutter RIA Novosti, Lenin Falls in Kyiv

Plus, Azerbaijan hikes gasoline prices as oil revenues slide and Russia nabs an alleged ‘paunchy’ cybercriminal.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Karlo Marinovic 9 December 2013

1. RIA Novosti to close as Russia seeks to ‘defend its national interests’


The Russian government has announced the closure of  state-run news service RIA Novosti.


Reporting on its own dissolution, the respected news agency said it and The Voice of Russia radio will be scrapped. They will be replaced by a new organization called Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), which is apparently different from RT, a state-operated media venture that used to bear that name.


Dmitri Kiselyov
Managing the new entity will be Dmitri Kiselyov, a Russian television journalist who said last year that gay people should be banned from donating organs “and if they die in a car crash, their hearts should be burned or buried in the ground as unsuitable for the continuation of life.”


RIA Novosti said the moves “appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.” Established in 1941, the agency has developed a reputation for straightforward reporting in a country where most media outlets are loyal to the government or face intense pressure to be.


Speaking to reporters about the news agency’s closure, Sergei Ivanov, a top Kremlin aide, said, “Russia has its own independent politics and strongly defends its national interests: it’s difficult to explain this to the world but we can do this, and we must do this.”


RIA Novosti said it has reporters in more than 45 countries providing news in 14 languages. The closures and consolidations will take place “within three months,” it reports.


2. Kyiv protesters topple Lenin statue


In scenes reminiscent of the fall of communism, protesters in Kyiv this weekend toppled a statue of Vladimir Lenin that had stood in the Ukrainian capital’s center.


For three weeks the protesters have filled Bankova Street, which runs through the government quarter, and nearby Independence Square, decrying President Viktor Yanukovych’s last-minute decision to back away from closer ties with EU and calling for his resignation. 


“Yanukovych, you’re next!” read a sign hanging from the plinth where the Lenin statue stood, Reuters reports. A woman planted an EU flag on the pedestal in the statue’s place.


Opposition leaders have distanced themselves from the monument’s destruction. The Kyiv Post reports that police have opened an investigation.


A new wave of anger swept through the crowd this weekend amid suspicion that Yanukovych had signed on to a customs union agreement with Russia. The Ukrainian president met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on 6 December, but both deny that a deal was struck, Reuters writes.


Meanwhile, new tents have gone up in Independence Square. According to CNN, “barricades have been reinforced, and a food kitchen in a trade-union building prepares and distributes donated hot meals to the crowds gathered in subzero temperatures.”


Some demonstrators continue to occupy government buildings, which authorities are threatening to clear by force. Opposition leaders had called for 1 million demonstrators to amass over the weekend, but estimates put the crowd at 100,000 to 200,000, CNN reports.


3. Drivers in Azerbaijan face steep hikes in gas prices


Government-set prices for gasoline in Azerbaijan have spiked, with one economist blaming declining oil revenues, Radio Free Europe reports.


The hikes, instituted last week, ranged from 27 percent to 33 percent, the news agency reports. That means drivers now pay 0.7 to 0.8 manats ($0.89 to $1.02) per liter of gasoline, depending on the type of fuel, according to RFE. Diesel prices rose from 0.45 to 0.60 manats per liter.


In the absence of any government explanation for the hikes, an independent economist told RFE that Azerbaijan’s oil revenues will drop by about $2.43 billion in 2014. “Apparently, the government wants to compensate for this lost revenue by raising prices,” said Rovshan Agayev, deputy director of the Public Union to Assist Economic Initiatives.


Agayev and some legislators are predicting that the increases will result in higher prices across the economy.


Azerbaijan’s oil revenue has declining since 2010. The government took in about $20.1 billion in 2011 and $18 billion in 2012, according to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a coalition of government, industry, and civil society of which the country is a member.


In 2012, Azerbaijan produced almost 932,000 barrels of oil per day, a 6 percent drop from 993,000 in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.


Although still a major oil exporter, the country has faced technical problems at its major field, which is located in the Caspian Sea, according to the EIA.


4. Russian bust nabs alleged mastermind of Blackhole cyber scam


Russia’s Interior Ministry says it has arrested the creator of the infamous Blackhole tool used to install malware on computers around the world and steal login information, IDG News Service reports.


The ministry announced 6 December that it has charged the person, who reportedly goes by the alias “Paunch,” and 12 others with “creating and participating in a criminal organization.” Paunch was arrested 4 October arrest in his home city of Tolyatti in central Russia. Officials did not publicize his arrest at the time, but it and the Paunch alias were leaked, IDG reports. The leak was subsequently confirmed by an arm of Europol that probes cyber crimes.


The Interior Ministry investigation found the group withdrew money from several banks across Russia using information from customers’ Blackhole-infected computers, causing damage worth 70 million rubles ($2.1 million), according to IDG.


The website says Blackhole first surfaced in 2010 and was rented on the black market. Blogger Brian Krebs writes that Blackhole is likely responsible for a huge increase in cyber crimes in the last three years. Citing a security firm that assisted the Russian investigation, Krebs said Paunch was earning $50,000 per month from the software.


Blackhole’s development could be taken over by another group or it could disappear, Alex Gostev of Internet security firm Kaspersky Lab told IDG in October after news of Paunch’s arrest broke.


“Whilst the arrest would be significant ..., there are still many functioning kits out there compromising machines and stealing data all over the world,” Carl Leonard of Websense, a computer security company, told TechWeek Europe in October.


Indeed, creators of other “exploit” kits could be rushing to fill the gap left by Blackhole. In October the price for another kit, Neutrino, went up to $10,000 a month for non-Russians, IDG noted, citing a tweet by an independent malware researcher who goes by the name Kafeine.


5. Winter storm kills four in Poland


A storm that brought hurricane-force winds to northern Europe has caused four deaths in Poland, AFP writes. In addition to leaving 350,000 households without electricity and hundreds of motorists stranded on snowy roads, Storm Xaver was responsible for the deaths of three people in northwestern Poland after a tree fell on their car 7 December. Another person died in southwestern Silesia after strong winds swept him from a balcony.



The fatalities bring Xaver’s death toll across Europe to 14. An estimated 53 people were also injured in Poland alone, according to official reports quoted by AFP.


Reuters writes that the Polish Institute of Meteorology and Water Management forecast for 6 December included wind gusts of up to 110 kilometers (68 mph) per hour in the center of the country and up to 135 kilometers per hour on the Baltic Sea coast.


Firefighters have been offering food and hot tea to people trapped by the storm and evacuating people stranded on highways covered in snow, AFP reports.


Xaver comes weeks after the St. Jude storm hit northern Europe, causing widespread power outages in the Baltic countries.

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