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Mass Layoffs at Albanian State News Agency, Macedonian Heritage Official Accused of Plunder

Plus, Moldova inches closer to visa-free travel, and a wanted ex-Georgian official walks free in France.

by S. Adam Cardais, Sarah Fluck, and Karlo Marinovic 28 February 2014

1. Albania news agency gutted in unprecedented media layoff


Journalists have slammed huge staff cuts at the Albanian Telegraphic News Agency (ATA), Balkan Insight reports.


This week 42 of 80 ATA staffers were sent home in what the Albanian Union of Journalists calls the largest public sector media layoff in the country's history. Among those let go were 26 editors and reporters, according to Balkan Insight.


"This drastic measure of layoffs leaves on the street journalists who for decades or years have invested in their profession … and who now find themselves without any economic safety net," the union said, Balkan Insight reports.


The union said the cuts further undermined an already weak media environment where journalists often go months without pay. In Reporters Without Borders' 2014 World Press Freedom Index, Albania ranked 85th out of 180 countries.


The ATA evidently offered no explanation for the layoffs. But the union suggested that they violated labor law and were not merit-based. It added that similar cuts are expected soon at the public broadcaster TVSH.


2. Former Macedonian heritage official accused in antiquities theft


Macedonian police arrested a former senior heritage official, suspected of stealing the country’s valuable cultural artifacts, on 27 February the Macedonian Information Agency reports.


Pasko Kuzman
Pasko Kuzman, former director of the Macedonian Cultural Heritage Protection Office, was arrested in the country’s capital, Skopje, along with seven others suspected of stealing 162 ancient artifacts from the Museum of Macedonia in November and in a series of thefts from November 2011 to October 2013, according to the agency.


During the arrest, police found some of the missing items in the suspects' houses, as well as others not yet reported stolen.


In a statement, prosecutors said results of the searches, which turned up “documents and items, a number of inventory books, inbound and outbound books, report[s] of archaeological excavations,” raised reasonable suspicion about the involvement of the suspects, reports.


Kuzman and the others face charges of abuse of office, negligence, and illegal possession of cultural artifacts. Last year he was arrested and accused of issuing illegal permits for archeological excavation in connection with an artifacts-smuggling ring.


Macedonia has suffered a series of thefts of items that tell the story of its cultural heritage, including the plunder of  valuable artifacts in numerous Orthodox churches in the country's remote areas.


3. Moldova a step away from EU visa-free travel


After over three years of negotiations, the European Parliament voted 27 February to lift visa requirements for Moldovans traveling to the so-called Schengen area, Radio Free Europe reports.


Once the European Council also signs off – expected as early as May – Moldova will become the first country in the Eastern Partnership program, which also includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine, to win visa-free travel. Moldovan citizens with biometric passports could then travel in most of the EU for 90 days in a six-month period. They would not have work privileges.


"The Moldovan authorities have worked hard toward achieving this important goal and their efforts have paid off," European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in a statement. "This is indeed good news and a tangible step toward closer association and economic integration with the EU."


Since the visa talks began in 2010, Moldova has stepped up anti-corruption efforts and pushed through a number of reforms. It is also working on joining a free-trade area with the EU.


Yesterday's European Parliament vote follows a green light from the European Commission in November. Earlier this month, the parliament's Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs Committee also recommended the move.


4. French court rejects extradition of former Georgian official


France will not extradite former Georgian Defense Minister David Kezerashvili, wanted at home for alleged financial crimes, Radio Free Europe reports.


Vano Merabishvili
On 27 February, a French court rejected Georgia's extradition request and ordered Kezerashvili released from house arrest. An electronic tracking bracelet was removed.


An ally of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Kezerashvili was arrested in France in October on weapons trafficking charges at Tbilisi's request. Georgia's new government has gone after former officials from Saakashvili's United National Movement, and during extradition hearings in January the French prosecutor said Tbilisi's request seemed to be political, reports, citing AFP.


Kezerashvili, 35, was a top law enforcement official before serving as defense minister from 2006 to 2008. He faces bribery, money laundering, and other charges in two criminal cases in Georgia. One case implicates him in $12 million worth of bribes to officials for "protection" in an alcohol smuggling scheme from 2007 to 2012, reports.


Meanwhile, former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili received another prison sentence 27 February. A domestic court convicted him of abuse of office in connection with the state's response to a 2011 protest.


Earlier this month he was sentenced to five years for offenses including vote buying, and more charges are pending. Merabishvili, another Saakashvili ally, says he's being targeted for his links to the former president.


5. EU funds in the balance as Kosovo drags feet on dirty coal plant


An EU official in Kosovo warned this week the country is taking too long to shutter a notoriously dirty coal burning power plant, and delays could cost it EU money set aside for closure.


The EU cannot “forever” sit on 60 million euros ($82 million) allocated for the closure of the plant near Pristina, warned Radica Nusdorfer, an economy and trade adviser to Kosovo, Balkan Insight reports.


The infamous power plant A in Obilic, Kosovo. Image from a video by Eclo Kosovo/YouTube


“The air pollution caused by this power plant cuts the lifespan of the Kosovo people by at least five years,” Nusdorfer said at an international conference on energy options for Kosovo.


She said Brussels “is concerned about the slow pace of implementing [existing laws],” let alone amending them to bring them into line with those of the EU, Balkan Insight writes.


Kosovo holds the world’s fifth-largest reserve of lignite and runs two coal-fired power plants that generate an estimated 98 percent of country’s electricity, Balkan Insight writes. Plans to close one of the plants may not happen by the target date of 2018, one Kosovo official told the gathering.


A 2010 study by the World Bank estimated that air pollution caused about 835 premature deaths per year. In addition, environmentalists note that lignite, or brown coal, is famously inefficient, with much of its energy wasted as it burns.


But it could be too costly for Kosovo, an impoverished country, to give up the fuel. A 2011 World Bank study said brown coal is “the least expensive thermal option, even when the relatively higher environmental costs are priced in.”


The World Bank is supporting the upgrade of one of the country’s existing plants and construction of a new coal-based plant, known as Kosova e Re, which is scheduled for 2015.


Also speaking at the conference, the World Bank’s Jan-Peter Olters said Kosovo’s development depends on a consistent supply of energy that “remains affordable in a country with high rates of unemployment and poverty, and energy that is generated within the stringent environmental constraints defined by the EU.” 


“No one is helped by an energy crisis a few years down the road, by energy shortages – with all the effects that these would have on jobs and income,” he said.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Sarah Fluck and Karlo Marinovic are TOL editorial interns.
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