Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!
Plus, Lithuania’s president decides to skip the Olympics and VIPs in Tajikistan reportedly drive cars stolen in Germany.by Barbara Frye, Jeremy Druker, and Karlo Marinovic 20 December 2013
1. Ukraine amnesty might protect the wrong people
Ukraine’s parliament has passed a law granting amnesty to those charged with offenses related to the ongoing protests in Kyiv, RIA Novosti reports, but a Ukrainian human rights organization is worried about the measure’s fine print.
The new law “means that no new cases will be opened against Ukrainian pro-EU protesters and that their convictions will be annulled,” according to the news agency.
That could be good news for nine men who were reportedly beaten by riot police in early December and then arrested on charges of organizing a disturbance. Most, if not all, have been released, but at press time it was not clear if they still faced criminal charges carrying prison terms of up to eight years if they are convicted.
Several of the men were hospitalized with injuries, according to various reports, and their treatment was decried by rights groups, including Amnesty International. “Judges approving their detention failed to question statements presented by the police as evidence, and disregarded obvious contradictions and inconsistencies,” the organization wrote in a statement.
Another controversial detention was that of journalist Andriy Dzyndzya, who works for a watchdog group that monitors the traffic police, according to Halya Coynash of the Karkhiv Human Rights Protection Group, a frequent TOL contributor.
But the amnesty measure is written so broadly that it might also apply to thugs who tried to provoke clashes between police and protesters, Coynash writes. “The huge number of titushki or hired louts who were brought into Kyiv and who actively tried to provoke trouble and beat up journalists will also be amnestied as participants in the events,” she says.
2. Serbia’s deal with Gazprom complicates EU talks
Serbia’s talks on entering the European Union could be endangered by a pipeline agreement it has struck with Russia’s Gazprom, a top EU official said this week.
At issue is an EU law that prohibits vertical monopolies in the power industry, effectively forcing Gazprom to relinquish control of its distribution network within the EU’s borders if the company also wishes to supply all the gas going through the pipelines. The Kremlin has refused to recognize the law’s legitimacy.
In addition to Serbia, EU members Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Greece have signed on to have Gazprom’s South Stream gas pipeline cut through their territory. Those agreements will be the subject of talks between the EU and Gazprom in January, Deutsche Welle reports.
Brussels is keen to ease the EU’s energy dependence on Russia, which supplied 32 percent of the bloc’s natural gas imports in 2012.
“Serbia's talks with the EU and the EU-Russia talks on revising the contracts, which should start at the same time, are two connected and parallel processes,” Oettinger told Tanjug, according to B92.
For their part, officials in Serbia said the fight is not theirs but is between Brussels and Moscow.
South Stream will pump Russian gas under the Black Sea, coming ashore in Varna, Bulgaria, and eventually ending in Italy. It is designed to carry up to 63 billion cubic meters of gas per year, more than 10 percent of Europe’s consumption in 2012.
Critics of the project say it is anti-competitive, but defenders say that as Gazprom is footing most of the 16 billion euro ($22 billion) price tag, it should not have to offer the pipeline to other suppliers.
3. Citing human rights and other abuses, Grybauskaite to boycott Sochi Olympics
Lithuania’s president will skip the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Associated Press reports. In announcing her decision 19 December, Dalia Grybauskaite cited Russia’s poor human rights record and its “ ‘attitude’ toward neighboring countries,” according to the news agency.
During its six-month term at the helm of the EU, which ends 31 December, Lithuania hosted a key summit that was aimed at strengthening ties with the bloc’s eastern neighbors and was strenuously protested by the Kremlin. The country is also in court with Russian energy giant Gazprom in a bid to wrest its gas distribution system from the firm’s control, as required by EU law.
Preparing to step down from the EU presidency, Grybauskaite said the union must once again focus on collective security threats, including cyber attacks, cuts to its energy supply, “information attacks” of the kind she said were to be used against her, and Russia’s military buildup in Kaliningrad, according to the Lithuania Tribune.
“Because those threats are growing and becoming more active, Europe must speak about them,” she said.
Grybauskaite joins the presidents of the United States, France, and Germany in deciding to boycott the Olympic Games, according to AP.
4. Kosovo police charged for using violence against Serbs
Eleven members of a special police unit in Kosovo have been charged with mistreating a group of Serbs they arrested in January, the SETimes reports.
The Serbs were reportedly detained while accompanying a Serbian government official to Gracanica, site of a revered Orthodox monastery, to celebrate Orthodox Christmas.
Prosecutors pressed charges against the officers last week after an investigation by the EU’s rule of law mission and Kosovo police concluded they had roughed up the Serbs while escorting them to court in January and in the courthouse itself.
Most commentators for the SETimes said the charges are meant to instill confidence in Kosovo’s justice system among Serbs.
“What happened ... does need to go through the justice process and, if wrongdoings occurred, then proper disciplinary actions should be taken," said Ramadan Ilazi, executive director of the Kosovo Institute of Peace in Pristina. He said the incident should not detract from the overall contribution by Kosovo police to safety of Serbs, according to the SETimes.
Police said they arrested the Serbs “for security reasons and further verification,” SETimes reports.
The indictment drew attention to tense relations between the local police and Kosovo’s Serb minority. “Serbs do not trust the Kosovo judiciary and police, and rightfully so, that is the key problem,” Mitrovica Mayor Krstimir Pantic told the SETimes.
Last week Kosovo police raided houses belonging to members of a Serb civic group, allegedly searching for illegal weapons. A local politician said the move was meant to pressure the Serb community ahead of mayoral election reruns, Vestionline reports.
And tensions between Serbs and Kosovo police intensified 13 December when Kosovo’s intelligence service announced that most members of the Serbian Interior Ministry’s police force integrating into Kosovo’s force had failed to pass security checks.
The Serbian officers are meant to ensure the safety of local Serbs, and their integration into Kosovo’s force is part of a deal reached between Belgrade and Pristina in April. The thumbs-down in the vetting process apparently does not disqualify them from serving on the force, but it does limit their career prospects.
5. Where do the luxury cars of Tajikistan’s power set really come from?
A trove of stolen BMWs that allegedly ended up in the hands of people close to Tajikistan’s first family has prompted a dispute between the country and Germany, according to various media reports. The squabble has apparently escalated to such an extent that Tajikistan’s foreign minister recently canceled a meeting in Berlin to avoid answering questions about the case.
The story broke in the German tabloid Bild on 19 December, and details have been confirmed by other publications, including The Wall Street Journal. Berlin officials have said that the revelations emerged as part a years-long investigation into stolen car rings run by Eastern Europeans and that the Tajikistan-related findings were based on GPS tracking.
The Journal quoted a letter from Thomas Heilmann, Berlin’s director of justice and consumer affairs, who wrote that most of the 93 cars in question “are in the possession of persons with economic and familial connections to the family of the Tajikistan president,” Imomali Rahmon. Heilmann complained that Tajikistani authorities had failed to answer “adequately” questions about the origin of the BMWs.
For its part, Tajikistan’s embassy in Berlin blamed Germany for not providing sufficient data to stop stolen cars from crossing the Central Asian country’s border. The embassy also issued a statement calling the reports of presidential family members sitting behind the wheels of stolen cars “entirely unfounded” and “disseminated to damage the reputation of the state and of its leader.”
EurasiaNet.org, citing Deutsche Welle, wrote that Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi called off a visit to Berlin because the local government wanted to talk about stolen cars.
At an earlier point in the dispute, Tajikistan’s ambassador was reportedly summoned to respond to the allegations. The German Foreign Ministry would not confirm that report, with a spokeswoman simply saying, “There have been talks with the Tajik side on cooperation in fighting organized crime,” AFP reports.
While sensational, the allegations will come as no surprise to Central Asia watchers. Tajikistan has long ranked toward the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index and faces serious challenges in fighting crime, especially drug-smuggling from neighboring Afghanistan.
According to EurasiaNet.org, “There have long been detailed rumors in Dushanbe’s Western diplomatic community that many of the luxury cars plying Dushanbe’s streets were stolen in Europe (and traded, somewhere along the way, for heroin), and that Tajik police officials are unwilling to address the problem.”
The president’s 26-year-old son, Rustam, happens to be the head of the country’s customs service. For several years preceding his appointment in late November, he was in charge of the fight against smuggling.