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Plus, a Montenegrin journalist gets a police guard and an air base in Kyrgyzstan sends off its last NATO refueling mission.by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Annabel Lau, and Lily Sieradzki 3 March 2014
Leaders in Washington and Europe are assessing their options in response to Russia’s decision this weekend to send troops to the Crimean peninsula.
On the diplomatic front, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to the formation of a fact-finding mission in Crimea, which several news outlets report could be under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Russia and Ukraine are members.
By various accounts the group would be charged with facilitating a dialogue among interested parties in the crisis.
Meanwhile, the presidents of Lithuania and Poland are calling for NATO consultations on Article 4 of the alliance’s founding treaty, which reads, “The parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any of the parties is threatened.”
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but neighboring Lithuania and Poland are.
The Lithuanian and Polish presidents, Dalia Grybauskaite and Bronislaw Komorowski, agreed during a telephone conversation Sunday “that Russia’s actions close to the alliance’s border pose a threat to the security of the entire region,” news service The Lithuania Tribune reports.
That issue was likely on the table during emergency talks among NATO ministers 2 March, but it’s not clear what the alliance can do.
“NATO is seen almost certain to cancel a range of joint meetings with Moscow and pull out of joint anti-terror exercises,” Reuters writes. “The alliance could also decide to extend membership – or lesser ties – to both Georgia and Ukraine, although that might prove several steps too far for some member states. More major exercises and shows of force from NATO in areas bordering Russia now appear all but inevitable ...”
EU foreign ministers were also meeting today to address the issue.
The United States is considering imposing economic sanctions, including disruption of trade and asset freezes and visa bans on top Russian officials, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prepares for a trip to Kyiv 4 March, according to Bloomberg.
The possibility of economic repercussions is already hitting Russia’s finances, with the ruble dropping to a record low against the euro and the dollar and the Russian stock market losing 10 percentage points, the Associated Press reports. The Russian currency “fell below 50 to the euro for the first time” and “traded at 36.89 rubles to the dollar, also a record, before stabilizing around 36.49,” the news agency reports.
“The most powerful non-military tool the United States possesses is exclusion from its banking system. [President] Obama should make clear that if Russia does not retreat from Ukraine, it will expose itself to this sanction, which could sink its financial system,” The Washington Post wrote in an editorial this weekend.
Hungary is experiencing another historic exodus of its population, spurred by a weak economy and dysfunctional politics, AFP reports.
The recession of 2008 sparked a mass movement of Hungarians that had seen 500,000 living abroad by the beginning of this year, according to the news agency. Most of the emigrants – some 300,000 – headed to Britain. The rest went to Germany, Austria, and other EU countries, AFP reports.
“That is comparable to the mass departures of Hungarian history – the exodus to the United States in the early 1900s, and the 176,000 who fled in the wake of the 1956 uprising and its brutal suppression by Soviet tanks,” AFP writes.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Hungary’s economic output isn't expected to reach pre-crisis levels again until 2017.
About half of those leaving are under 30 years old, and politicians campaigning for next month’s parliamentary elections are looking to ways to get them to stay, AFP reports.
Gordon Bajnai, an opposition leader and former prime minister, is looking to promise jobs to young people under 30 who have been out of work for six months or more.
The Fidesz party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, set up a campaign called “Come Home” in 2011 to provide legal, administrative, and employment information to departed Hungarians who wanted to return, according to AFP.
Despite the incentives, most expatriates are not looking to come home or even vote from abroad due to the lack of “decent options,” AFP says.
Ads sponsored by the pro-Orban Civil Union Forum featuring Bajnai and three other opposition politicians next to a clown are plastered all over Hungary, according to The New York Times. The poster reads, “They Don’t Deserve Another Chance.” That, along with the phrase, “Viktor [Orban] is Disgusting,” scrawled over one of the posters, seems to echo the mindset of many Hungarians who don’t intend on coming back.
Expatriates like Agnes, a press officer whom AFP identified only by her first name, blame the economy and “ubiquitous corruption, suspicion, bad humor and lack of perspective” of politicians.
"I could have lived with this if I'd seen a possibility for change in the country's political, economic or social climate," she told the news agency. “That possibility does not exist.”
It was not clear why the order was given now. The NSA evaluation apparently arises from a November 2007 attack in which two hooded assailants beat Softic in front of his home. He had been reporting on organized crime in northern Montenegro, a recent Human Rights Action report notes.
Softic said his case was never fully investigated and a key figure was never interrogated, a charge confirmed by a top police official, according to Dan online.
The journalist was again a target in August, when a bomb exploded outside his house in the eastern town of Berane.
Softic himself was not sure why he is receiving protection only now but speculated it could be because he raised the issue of the prior, incomplete investigation with a commission that is monitoring attacks on journalists, Dan online writes. Although he said he has received threats from local politicians and anonymous threats to “lynch” him, Softic did not ask for blanket security, according to the Vecherni Novosti newspaper.
“I feel safer and more comfortable because I got security, but I am aware that I will lose some privacy," Softic said after meeting with police in Podgorica, Balkan Insights reports.
In February someone set fire to a vehicle owned by Vijesti, which has seen a string of arsons against its property. Its reporters and those from Dan have been repeatedly beaten and threatened in the past decade.
Several international media watchdogs have urged Montenegro to step up efforts to catch those responsible for the attacks. It is a sticking point in the country’s negotiations for EU accession, which began in 2012.
Montenegro ranks 114th of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 press freedom index.
As NATO troops prepare to leave Kyrgyzstan’s Manas air base, the last KC-135 Stratotanker – essentially a giant, flying oil tanker used for refueling jets in flight – took off from the base last week, Air Force Times reports.
The wind-down is part of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and is a result of Kyrgyzstan’s determination to oust U.S. troops by July, under pressure from Moscow. In December, the Russian government proposed that the facility be transferred to a Russian airport investment firm, UPI reported at the time.
“Over the past 12.5 years, KC-135 [Stratotankers] flew 33,500 sorties, refueling more than 135,000 aircraft with more than 12.2 billion gallons of fuel, according to the Air Force,” reports Air Force Times, an independent publication which covers but is not part of the U.S. military branch.
Some operations will continue at the base through July, notably the transfer of troops out of Afghanistan, base spokesman Lt. Col. Max Despain told the Army Times.
In February, the U.S. military began to use a new refueling hub on Romania’s Black Sea coast.
Estonia and Finland have agreed to build two import terminals for liquefied natural gas in a joint project that could render them independent of gas supplies from Russia, Finnish national broadcaster Yle reports.
The countries signed the agreement after more than a year of competing with each other to build a single regional liquefied gas platform, for which the EU “had hinted it could chip in up to 40 percent of the cost … provided it serves the interests of more than one country,” according to Natural Gas Europe.
The compromise joint venture will include the construction of two smaller platforms on both sides of the Gulf of Finland, at a cost of 500 million euros, The Wall Street Journal reports. The countries will also build a cross-border gas pipeline at a cost of 100 million euros. The project's financial and technical details are to be presented to the European Commission by the end of May.
The agreement comes as Lithuania seeks to recoup what is says is overcharging by Gazprom, the Russian energy giant that supplies all the natural gas for Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland, according to Natural Gas Europe.
The new terminals could ease that dependence and even supply all of Estonia’s and Finland’s gas, according to Yle, but some experts said the demand for gas in the region is not great enough to justify the costs of two terminals.
The fall of communism brought with it expectations of an unfettered press safeguarding the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. But for the region's media, the past quarter-century has turned out to be much less uplifting. From oligarch-controlled television stations to politically partisan newspapers, from woeful ethical standards to outright corruption, the media often fall far short of acting as independent watchdogs over their societies, despite the existence of some scrappy publications and feisty reporters willing to uncover official wrongdoing and expose poor governance. If that weren't enough, the region's press has been hit hard by the same trends transforming the media around the world, including an explosion of alternative forms of entertainment, the growth of social media, decreased advertising revenues associated with the rise of the Internet, and general economic malaise. Get your copy here.