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'Hostage' In Khodorkovsky Case Freed, A Possible Breakthrough in Polish Shale Gas

Plus, Latvia appoints its first female premier, and deported workers tell of exploitation at Sochi construction sites.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Aleksandra Zivkovic 24 January 2014

1. Court orders early release of Khodorkovsky ally


Russia's Supreme Court has ordered the release of the former business partner of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time oil magnate who was amnestied last month after over 10 years in prison, Radio Free Europe reports.


Platon Lebedev
On 23 January, the court reduced Platon Lebedev's term to time served. Arrested in 2003, he was to be released in May. Lebedev's lawyer said he could walk free today. 


The ruling comes weeks after President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly amnestied Khodorkovsky eight months ahead of his scheduled release. Khodorkovsky became one of the world's richest men as head of the Yukos oil company but ran afoul of Putin by financing the political opposition.


After being pardoned, Khodorkovsky vowed to stay out of Russian politics. But the prominent Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen suggested in a recent television interview that Lebedev was the Kremlin's insurance policy – or, in her words, its "hostage."


Arrested in 2003, Lebedev and Khodorkovsky were subsequently convicted of tax evasion, fraud, and money laundering in two controversial trials widely seen as political. In its ruling this week, the Supreme Court upheld a court order holding the men responsible for repaying a combined 17 billion rubles ($500 million) in back taxes owed by the now-defunct Yukos, RIA Novosti reports.


2. Promising tests in Poland could herald breakthrough for European shale gas


Successful shale gas tests at wells in northern Poland could mark a breakthrough in the development of shale gas reserves across Europe, Bloomberg reports.  On 23 January, natural gas and oil company San Leon Energy said the results obtained at the vertical Lewino well in the Polish Baltic Basin, which yielded a flow of 60,000 cubic feet per day, will soon lead to the establishment of a more productive horizontal well.


“We’re confident we can show real commercial flow rates,” San Leon Chairman Oisin Fanning told Bloomberg. “If you can prove the shale play in Poland, it will open up in other countries.”


The development of shale gas reserves has been a priority in Eastern Europe, which is heavily dependent on Russian energy giant Gazprom for its supplies. The EU has been trying to break Gazprom’s vertical monopoly in the region and Ukraine has been aggressive about shale exploration in efforts to free itself from expensive Russian gas, although Russia has since cut Ukraine’s tariff.


Dennis McKee, chief executive of United Oilfield Services, which worked on the Lewino well and is Poland’s largest fracking practitioner, also hailed the tests as a “major milestone in the process of commercialization of shale gas in Poland.”


San Leon estimates the well could produce as much as “4 million cubic meters per year, or 0.03 percent of Poland’s fuel use,” according to Bloomberg.


Shale gas exploration in Poland hit a snag in 2013, when the European Court of Justice ruled that production licenses issued buy the government without open tenders violated EU competition rules, while international assessments of the country’s gas reserves indicated a smaller output than initially predicted.


3. Latvia's first female prime minister to lead center-right government


Laimdota Straujuma became Latvia's first female prime minister this week, two months after a fatal supermarket accident in Riga toppled the previous government, the Associated Press reports.


Laimdota Straujuma
On 22 January, parliament approved Straujuma's new center-right coalition by a vote of 64 to 27. Nine legislators didn't vote.


A former agriculture minister, Straujuma was little known to voters before emerging as a compromise figure in coalition negotiations this month. The ruling center-right Unity party nominated her after President Andris Berzins rejected all other nominees.


The previous government collapsed in November, when then-Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis resigned after 54 people died in a supermarket roof collapse in Riga. Among Straujuma's priorities, the AP reports, will be ensuring a transparent investigation of the tragedy.


The economy is another priority. Dombrovskis is credited with steering Latvia through a post-2008 economic crisis. Today, the Baltic nation has the fastest-growing economy in the European Union, and it adopted the euro 1 January.


Earlier this month, Straujuma pledged to keep a watchful eye on the budget and create programs to use EU development funds, The Wall Street Journal reports. She might not get much time in office, though, with general elections scheduled for October.


4. Serbian and Bosnian construction workers tell of exploitation in Sochi

More than 100 Serbians and Bosnians have been deported to their native countries after being arrested by Russian authorities. They were accused of working illegally on the Sochi Olympic construction sites, Radio Free Europe reports. They say there were exploited by unscrupulous supervisors and middlemen.

Most of the deported workers got their jobs via an employment agency in Serbia that promised salaries in the hundreds of euros for manual labor at the Olympics compound. But some say as soon as they arrived on site, they realized they had been duped.

Construction in Sochi. Photo by rapidtravelchai/flickr


“I went to Russia two months ago – not by myself, but with a lot of people from Bosnia and Serbia. We were deceived. We worked there on some construction site and we were not paid,” worker Miomir Stolica from Bosnia told RFE. “The important thing is that when we got back to our homes five or six days ago, we were arrested. First we were in detention and then in prison.”

The Serbian government organized a flight from Sochi to Belgrade to bring the workers home. On 23 January, Serbian police arrested Dusan Kukic, whom they suspect of running an unlicensed recruiting company for construction jobs in Sochi.

About 74,000 laborers have been working at 230 construction sites (stadiums, hotels, roads, tourist facilities) associated with the Olympics, according to Human Rights Watch. The group estimates that 16,000 of the workers are migrants but there is no official information on how many are working there illegally.


HRW says workers in Sochi face exploitation and inhumane treatment. Most toil more than 12 hours a day without overtime pay, live in overcrowded flats without regular heating and water, and have no employment contract. Some employers have confiscated their identity documents.


Russian President Vladimir Putin even canceled the holidays for workers in Sochi. “We have the new year and Christmas holidays ahead of us. I’d like to say, I think it should be clear that for you, new year’s will come …  on March 18 [the last day of the Paralympics]. For you and for everyone who is working on the Olympic venues,”  Canada’s National Post reported in November.


5. The Hague cuts Serb sentences in Kosovo atrocities


The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal at The Hague reduced the sentences of three former Serbian officials on appeal 23 January, while upholding much of the original ruling.


The three defendants, plus another whose sentence stands, were convicted in February 2009 of orchestrating a "campaign of violence" against ethnic Albanian civilians during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war. But appellate Judge Liu Daqun said the four men cannot be held responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed by Serb forces during the conflict, warranting "a limited" reduction in sentences, AFP reports.


The court reduced former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic's sentence from 22 to 18 years; former Serbian police chief Sreten Lukic's from 22 to 20 years; and former Yugoslav General Vladimir Lazarevic's from 15 to 14 years. Ex-Yugoslav Army Chief-of-Staff Nebojsa Pavkovic's 22-year sentence was upheld.


Specifically, the appeals chamber cleared Lukic and Pavkovic of several murders for lack of evidence that the victims were not killed in battle, the Associated Press reports. All four men were acquitted of driving Albanians from one town because it was unclear that Serb forces expelled them.


While some in Kosovo slammed the 23 January ruling, Azem Vllasi, a former Yugoslav politician, told the AP that the court still established that the men committed war crimes.


The men's February 2009 conviction was the tribunal's first judgment on crimes by Serb forces during the Kosovo conflict.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Aleksandra Zivkovic is a TOL editorial intern.
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