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Journalists Possibly Targeted in Kyiv, No More Free Gas in Turkmenistan

Plus, Lukashenka calls for a building cap in Minsk and Serbia kicks off EU entry talks.

by Piers Lawson, Ioana Caloianu, Karlo Marinovic, and Aliona Kachkan 20 January 2014

1. Ukrainian journalists say riot police target them

 

Journalists were among the dozens of people injured in clashes in Ukraine over the weekend between the security forces and pro-EU protesters, amid reports that they are being specifically targeted.

 

Two reporters from Radio Svoboda (the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Dmytro Barkar and Ihor Iskhakov, were detained by the police and later released, RFE reports. They said they had been beaten while in custody. “Their faces showed bruises and scratches. Iskhakov said his nose may have been broken and he also might have a concussion,” according to RFE.

 

Reports indicate an apparent attempt to block coverage of the protests. Radio Svoboda and Channel 5 have released video footage they say shows police shooting rubber bullets at journalists. 

 

Another report, by the Institute for Mass Information watchdog group, said police shook a bus marked “press” on which journalists were standing, then when a cameraman fell, ripped off his press badge and dragged him to a police van.

 

The IMI has released a list of 26 journalists who have recently been injured in the protests. About 20 were hurt in street violence on 19 January alone, Telekritika reports.

 

Most were injured by a grenade explosion in Kyiv, including six cameramen from the online independent media channel Spilno TV, three TV journalists, and several reporters who write for Ukrainian websites and newspapers.

 

Meanwhile the campaigning group Reporters Without Borders has condemned measures signed into law 17 January by President Viktor Yanukovych that greatly reduce basic freedoms.

 

The omnibus law includes restrictions on speech, assembly, and representation, and criminalize libel.

 

“The international community needs to understand the full significance of this development,” the group said. “This law drastically restricts freedom of information and other fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Ukraine’s constitution.”

 

2. Turkmenistan to end gas free-for-all policy 

 

Turkmenistan is ending more than two decades of free natural gas supplies to its citizens, as the waste created is deemed too much of a financial burden for the resource-rich country, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov
Announcing the move on 17 January, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said meters would be installed in households to encourage people to consume energy more efficiently. He did not say when the measure would take effect. 

Gas, electricity, and water have been supplied free of charge to households in the insular, authoritarian country since 1993 as a means to stimulate the economy.

 

Berdymukhamedov had originally pledged to extend that policy until 2030, but it has led to a wasteful culture, in which stoves are left turned on because matches to light them are not free, a pensioner in Turkmenistan told Central Asia Online in October.

With a population of 5 million people, Turkmenistan sits on massive natural gas reserves. The Associated Press puts them at the world’s fourth-largest, although the U.S. Energy Information Administration puts the country in sixth place globally. 

 

"The installation of the meters will allow people to economically consume natural gas, while the maximum payment for using the gas will not create difficulties for the population," the president said in a televised address, according to the AP.

 

The agency says the move comes amid signs that Berdymukhamedov's government is seeing the subsidized domestic energy market as too heavy an economic burden and is making profitable energy exports a bigger priority. The government divulges little information, but a delegate at a conference last year that was attended by the president said the free provision of natural gas costs Turkmenistan about $5 billion per year, the AP reports.

 

Turkmenistan is China's largest natural gas supplier, providing the country with more than 21 billion cubic meters of gas annually.

 

This would not be the first time that the government had tried to rein in the use of subsidized resources.

 

In 2007, Berdymukhamedov established a monthly limit of 120 free liters of gasoline per passenger car, Central Asia Online noted.

 

3. President orders an end to Belarus building boom 

 

Belarus’ capital city is getting too crowded and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has called for a cap on infrastructure and housing construction work in Minsk, the Belarusian Telegraph Agency reports.

 

Alyaksandr Lukashenka
“There are too many people living in Minsk,” Lukashenka said at a government session last week, according to the news agency, which puts the population of Minsk at more than 2 million. That congestion has caused traffic jams and a housing squeeze, the president said, while migration to the city has depleted the surrounding rural work force.

 

“Therefore, the construction of homes, industrial infrastructure facilities and other kinds of infrastructure can be allowed in the city only as an exception,” he told the government, according to the agency.

 

Lukashenka said the population of Minsk had increased annually by 10,000 to 17,000 – making it two to three times more densely populated than Berlin or Prague.

 

In addition to a building cap, Lukashenka suggested development of unused land plots close to the Minsk ring road, to be “auctioned and sold in a fair manner.”

 

In a commentary in The Belarus Digest political scientist Vadzim Smok writes that construction and development, with its potential for “high and quick profits,” is one of the few industries in Belarus that remain attractive to foreign investors despite the country’s isolated and opaque economy.

 

New housing and business and shopping centers have mushroomed in the city, he says, and somehow the authorities have managed to find land for them.

 

“But as usually happens in Belarus, people do not know how the deals are made,” Smok writes. “This behind-the-scene politics causes discontent of the public. This discontent is fairly justified – very often good pieces of Belarusian land go to president’s friends without asking people’s opinion.”

 

“Clearly, those projects are highly profitable and Minsk authorities do not miss a chance to earn some more cash and report to the top about their success,” he concludes. 

 

4. Serbia to begin EU accession talks 

 

Serbia will kick off accession talks 21 January with the European Union, and the country’s government hopes the move will provide a boost to its struggling economy, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

 

Serbia wants to become the 29th member of the bloc, following its neighbor Croatia, which became the newest EU member when it joined in July.  

 

Slovenia – also among the six nations once part of the former Yugoslavia – joined the EU in 2004.

 

Serbia’s economy lags behind that of other post-communist countries that have joined the bloc, Bloomberg Businessweek notes, but as accession talks open yields on the country’s bonds have dropped.

 

The country cleared a major hurdle last year on the path to EU entry in agreeing to ease its hold on northern Kosovo, which Serbia considers a province despite its declaration of independence in 2008.

 

Michael Davenport, director of the EU’s delegation to Serbia, said the stages of accession talks that deal with judicial reform, security, and fundamental freedoms will be the most important, Serbia’s Tanjug news agency reports, citing local media. In the past, those “chapters” have come later in talks but based on experience, Brussels has begun moving them forward, and they were the first to be opened when Montenegro launched its accession talks in 2012.

 

The country’s government has to commit itself to making painful reforms as soon as possible, British expert for the Balkans James Ker-Lindsay told Tanjug.

 

Although the accession process is often referred to as a negotiation, that is a misnomer, he said, as little is up for debate.

 

“The only room for maneuver really concerns when the laws must be enacted. In some cases there is room for delays. However, it is extremely rare that a full exemption is given,” Ker-Lindsay said.

 

“In the years ahead, almost every aspect of life in Serbia will be affected as hundreds of new laws will have to be passed to ensure that Serbia meets the conditions of membership.

 

“While the vast majority of these laws will eventually lead to significant improvements in the day-to-day life of Serbian citizens, many of the measures will not be popular.”

 

5. Anguish on anniversary of controversial Russia US-adoptions ban 

 

One year after Russia imposed a ban on adoptions by parents in the United States, affected American families are either looking elsewhere to adopt or are refusing to give up hope of one day being able to bring their would-be children home, The Washington Post reports.

 

The newspaper says 33 families have filed appeals with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the ban violates the rights of the orphans whose adoptions were blocked by the Russian authorities.

 

But it says that the families have few grounds for optimism. There is no time frame for the case and even a favorable ruling might be unenforceable if Russia objects.

 

The Voice of Russia website recently wrote that cases of Russian children being mistreated by American adoptive parents are still frequent and that offenders often escape punishment.

 

Alexei Pushkov, a member of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, said U.S. officials were forced to confront  “the abuse and other acts of violence that have been perpetrated against Russian orphans on its soil” only after Moscow passed the law banning adoptions, according to Voice of Russia.

 

"The law laid bare a very serious problem, which was a lack of concern that U.S. authorities had about the lives of Russian children in the U.S.,” Pushkov said, the website reports.

 

Russia has also banned adoptions to same-sex couples and to citizens of countries where same-sex marriage is legal. A heterosexual couple in Canada that is caught in that ban has penned an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin that appeared in The Moscow Times

 

“Russia's cancelling of adoptions where  the parents and children have bonded makes no sense to us,” it says, adding that in the two years the boy they wanted to adopt had lived in an orphanage, they had been his only visitors.

 

The ban, they said, “is inconsistent with the warmth and kindness that Russians have shown us throughout this process.

 

“It is cruel to those small Russian children who already love their adoptive parents and are waiting to go home.”

Piers Lawson is a is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Karlo Marinovic and Aliona Kachkan are TOL editorial interns.
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