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Plus, a Russian historian loses his job for criticizing military action in Crimea, and the Czech post office stops selling cigarettes.by Ky Krauthamer, Sarah Fluck, Anna Kotlabova, Lily Sieradzki, and Karlo Marinovic 5 March 2014
Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has ordered the next step toward linking Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula to southern Russia, The Moscow Times reports.
Medvedev signed a decree 3 March to create a company to oversee the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait to connect Crimea with Russia’s Taman peninsula. The decree came two days after Russian senators approved sending troops to Crimea to protect the Russian-speaking majority on the peninsula.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today reiterated Moscow’s argument that no new Russian forces have been deployed in Crimea beyond the sailors permanently stationed at Sevastopol.
The “self-defense units” operating on the peninsula were local paramilitaries not under Russian control, he said after a meeting with his Spanish counterpart in Madrid, according to the Associated Press.
Lavrov is due to meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU diplomats in Paris later today.
The idea of spanning the 3-mile strait goes back at least to World War II, when Germany commissioned a rail and road bridge to shorten the invasion route into southern Russia, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Ukraine and Russia have been negotiating the construction since 2004. The two sides signed another document related to the project in December, the same month that then-President Viktor Yanukovych accepted Russia’s offer of a $15 billion aid package, according to Reuters.
In 2003, relations between the two countries cooled to the point that Ukraine sent ships to the area in a show of force after Russia began building a causeway to a disputed island in the strait.
Armenia’s road toward the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union is sparking debate between opposition leaders in their aims to consolidate public support.
The government now hopes to join the free-trade area by mid-April, according to Radio Free Europe. Parliament will begin debate on the agreement after approval by the three current members, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Former president, now opposition party leader Levon Ter-Petrosian on 1 March voiced his support for the customs union while calling for Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan’s resignation, RFE writes. He was addressing a rally in Yerevan to commemorate the deaths of 10 people in the 2008 post-election violence under his successor, former President Robert Kocharian.
“Clearly, Armenia’s membership of the customs union is irreversible and European integration impossible in the foreseeable future,” Ter-Petrosian said.
Kocharian, also a Sargsyan critic, recently described the prime minister as “morally defective” and “mediocre” in what EurasiaNet.org sees as a move to position himself for a political comeback. More recently he criticized the rush to join the Customs Union, telling PanArmenian.net, “I’m trying not to focus on the reputation loss that accession to the CU, which shocked our European partners, will bring to Armenia. This is something that can’t be repaired. Russia’s response, on the other hand, was quite predictable.”
The continued weakness of the economy and unpopular reforms are pushing down popular support for Sargsyan and President Serzh Sargsyan. The National Statistical Service reports a 17 percent increase in poverty over the past five years, EurasiaNet.org reports.
A professor at Russia’s prestigious diplomatic academy says he was fired over a newspaper comment comparing Russia’s incursion into Crimea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, The Moscow Times reports.
Sending the army into Crimea could launch Russia on “a terrible, horrifying venture,” Zubov wrote, deeply harming its relations with Ukraine and the West and bringing the world to the edge of another cold war.
"We need to come to our senses and stop," Zubov wrote. "Historical experience tells us that nothing costs so much.”
In an interview published the previous day, Zubov explained his motives in writing the piece to Radio Free Europe. “Firstly, I wanted to tell the truth and bring Russians to their senses. People have been going crazy on the Internet, pledging to forgive Putin everything if he succeeds in returning Crimea. Secondly, I wanted to show Ukrainians that not everybody in Russia shares Putin's opinions, that there also is another Russia.”
He also compared Russia’s Crimea incursion to Germany’s manipulation of public opinion to justify its land grabs in Czechoslovakia and Lithuania just before World War II.
He told The Moscow Times, “Hitler and Putin – they are completely different people, they have very different goals and aspirations. But it is a fact that the foreign policy of 1930s Germany and modern Russia are similar, very similar institutionally.”
[Editor's note: According to a late report from The Moscow Times, Zubov's boss, Anatoly Torkunov, denied Zubov's firing and said Zubov "continues to work at the institute." "The professor's daughter Irina Bobrinskaya, confirmed that her father would stay at the institute on her Facebook page, where she had previously announced his sacking, and thanked his supporters," the newspaper writes.]
Czech post offices will stop selling tobacco products this week under mounting disapproval of the scheme, Lidove noviny reports.
Within months after the postal service began selling cigarettes alongside stamps and postcards, “pressure from the government, health ministry, NGOs, and [the] public became untenable,” writes The Wall Street Journal. Around 600 of more than 3,100 post offices have been selling cigarettes.
Much the same thing happened in 2004, also over health and ethical concerns, according to The Journal.
Although with 33,000 workers it is the largest employer in the country, the state-owned post office receives no state subsidies and must fund itself, General Director Petr Zatloukal told Novinky.cz. Seventy percent of its revenues, around $50 million a month, go toward employee salaries, he said.
Last year the postal service made a $6 million profit from sales of supplemental items, but tobacco products contributed just 3 percent of that, a spokeswoman told The Journal.
On the heels of Russia’s decision to deploy surveillance drones in Tajikistan, a new report argues that Russian and U.S. military aid to Central Asia works as much to prop up local strongmen as to combat Afghanistan-based terrorism and drug trafficking.
In the 90-page report for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Open Society Foundations, Harvard University security analyst Dmitry Gorenburg writes that all five former Soviet Central Asian countries “have for years successfully manipulated the competition among world and regional powers for influence in the region to achieve their own political and strategic goals” – which often revolve around strengthening the ability of rulers to fend off potential domestic rivals.
Regional states are stepping up their efforts to extract as much material and technical support from outside powers before the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan winds down later this year. “They have been helped in this effort by statements by various Russian and U.S. officials highlighting the potential threat posed by the spread of radical Islam into Central Asia,” Gorenburg writes.
Russia has a natural role in the region as a neighbor and former master, while Washington “has long sought to use the region’s energy resources as a strategically important alternative to Russian supplies in Europe.”
Yet U.S. officials believe that “internal instability resulting from poor governance and low levels of economic development” is a major security threat, alongside terrorism and the drugs trade, he writes, citing a recent U.S. government report.
American assistance “is often criticized for its potentially negative impact on regional security, especially to the extent that it appears to be at least in part provided as a quid pro quo for continued access to Afghanistan rather than as a result of a realistic assessment of local needs. However, the officials in charge of such programs are quite vocal about the importance of U.S. assistance programs for maintaining stability in the region and securing it against hostile outside forces, all while seeking to improve the region’s admittedly poor human rights record.”
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