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Russia, Ukraine Skirmish in Cyber Space, Czechs Score Huge Heroin Bust

Plus, Kosovo to get its own army and a human rights report provokes an anti-gay backlash in Kyrgyzstan.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Sarah Fluck 6 March 2014

1. Security experts warn of simmering cyber conflict over Ukraine

 

Cyber warriors appear to be on the front lines of the conflict in Ukraine.

 

As top Russian and U.S. diplomats met in Paris 5 March in the hopes of encouraging a dialogue between Moscow and Ukraine's new leadership, security experts were warning that Kyiv and Moscow are “locked in a cyber standoff,” the BBC reports. Ukraine says the Russian army has attacked telecommunications infrastructure. News websites and social media are also targets, evidently from both sides.

 

Specifically, Ukrainian officials say communications infrastructure at Ukrtelecom has been physically damaged and manipulated by unidentified armed men in the Crimea, which Russia effectively occupied last weekend. As a result, Ukrainian legislators and many others have lost mobile service in recent days. Moscow hasn't commented on whether it's responsible, the BBC reports.

 

Hackers are also taking matters into their own hands. The Ukrainian group Cyber-Berkut posted a list of 40 websites that it recently targeted. It includes state-funded broadcaster RT, formerly Russia Today, where the word "Russian" was briefly replaced by "Nazi," according to the BBC.

 

At the same time, the online publication Quartz points out that the these attacks are actually tame compared with what happened in Georgia in 2008, when hackers used "denial of service" campaigns to overwhelm websites and servers in the weeks before the military conflict with Russia. Or in Estonia, which suffered a 10-day assault on its Internet services in 2007 following a disagreement between Tallinn and Moscow over a Soviet war memorial.

 

One explanation for the caution now, Quartz says, is that Russia fears retaliation from equally skilled Ukrainian hackers. Meanwhile, former CIA officer Marty Martin told Reuters that Russia would step up the cyber attacks only if a military conflict erupts.

 

“A lot of times you don't want to shut things down,” he said. “If you do that, then you don't get your flow of intelligence. You are probably better off monitoring it.”

 

2. Czech customs seizes massive heroin shipment

 

The Czech Republic made its largest-ever drug bust last weekend, seizing $37 million worth of heroin, The Wall Street Journal reports.

 

Czech customs found the 182 kilogram (401 pound) shipment in a truck carrying kitchen equipment that, after departing from Turkey, was traveling along a route usually used to move Afghan heroin into the European Union. Prague said the Czech Republic wasn't the final destination because the shipment was too big.

 

“[T]his shipment would cover the entire annual use of heroin in the Czech Republic,” a police spokeswoman said, according to The WSJ.

 

No suspects had been charged at press time.

 

The seized bricks were roughly 60 percent pure, compared with the roughly 30 percent average of seizures in Western Europe last year. Still, Czech officials said, the bust will probably only drive up prices and drug-related crime by worsening the current shortage of heroin in Europe, according to The WSJ.

 

The last big Czech heroin bust was in 1998, when a 120-kilogram shipment was seized.

 

3. New Kosovo army to replace NATO-overseen force

 

Kosovo is creating its own army of 5,000 soldiers over the objection of Serbia, Reuters reports.

 

Hashim Thaci
Announced by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, the new army will be an upgrade to the existing Kosovo Security Force, a lightly armed policing unit overseen by NATO-led peacekeepers. It will also include 3,000 reservists.

 

Thaci said the new army will benefit all Kosovans, “regardless of their ethnic, religious, or political orientation,” according to Reuters. But Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic fired back that it violated the terms of a 2013 EU-brokered deal to improve relations between the long-acrimonious neighbors by, in part, granting the Kosovo Serb minority increased autonomy.

 

Speaking to reporters at a business conference in Serbia, Dacic said he had asked NATO to ensure that no Kosovo army would ever enter the northern, majority-Serb part of the country without the alliance's permission, Reuters reports. On 5 March, Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's powerful deputy prime minister, said he would discuss Pristina's plans with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, B92 reports.

 

The Kosovo Security Force. Photo by NJPN/Wikimedia Commons.

 

“There are many things taking place that are not in line with the [Brussels] agreement,” he said.

 

NATO officials had not publicly commented at press time. It has had a peacekeeping presence in Kosovo since the end of the conflict with Serbia in 1999.

 

4. More hostility to gays in Kyrgyzstan after human rights report

 

A report documenting police abuse of gay men in Kyrgyzstan has generated a backlash against the LGBT community,EurasiaNet.org writes.

 

Maksat Hajji Toktomushev
Human Rights Watch published the report in late January, recounting instances of police detaining, beating, and sexually abusing the men, and extorting money from them using the threat of “outing” them to loved ones.

 

The organization called on authorities in Kyrgyzstan to “acknowledge the scope and gravity of the problem […] and commit to taking all necessary steps to end these abuses.”

 

On the day of the report’s release, Zhorobay Abdraimov, spokesman for the country’s Interior Ministry, dismissed the accusations as “unfounded” and challenged gay-rights groups to provide evidence for them, Kloop.kg reports.

 

Then in late February, Kalys, a nationalist youth group, organized an anti-gay protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Bishkek, EurasiaNet.org reports. Human Rights Watch is headquartered in New York.

 

Demonstrators burned a photo of a local ethnic Ukrainian blogger whom the group’s leader called a gay activist “attempting to foment a Ukraine-style revolution in the country,” according to EurasiaNet.org, which said the rhetoric at the rally “echoed Kremlin talking points” in its criticism of Western-funded civil society groups.

 

When asked if Human Rights Watch should have taken a quieter approach to the issue, Anna Kirey, author of the report, told EurasiaNet.org: “Human Rights Watch is a research organization, we document abuses and expose them and provide recommendations to improve the situation.” It is “the obligation of the government of Kyrgyzstan,” to protect the human rights of the LGBT citizens, she added.

 

In a related development, Maksat Hajji Toktomushev, who issued a fatwa condemning same-sex relations a day after the report was issued, was elected the country’s grand mufti 4 March, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

5. Romania-IMF deal includes fuel tax, stepped-up privatizations

 

Romania and the IMF have entered into a deal that will likely see fuel taxes rise and will nudge the country toward more aggressive privatization of state-owned companies, Reuters reports.

 

In return, Romania will get a 4 billion euro line of credit that it might not use but will reassure “foreign investors concerned about fiscal slippage before a European election and a presidential election later this year,” the news agency writes.

 

Romanian President Traian Basescu, who signed the agreement this week after weeks of delay, warned that some of its conditions, including the fuel tax and a plan to reschedule bank loans for low-income borrowers, “don't seem to be the most pleasant.”

 

Basescu had initially opposed both measures, a fact that also delayed approval of the country’s 2014 budget. He gave in only after the government agreed to delay the introduction of the fuel tax until April 2014, according to Ziare.com.

 

The tax will add 7 euro cents to the price of a liter of fuel. Indirectly accusing Prime Minister Victor Ponta, a bitter political foe, of corruption, Basescu said the levy is a way “of helping Ponta’s local barons get even richer.” Similarly, he said he opposed loan rescheduling “for somebody who wanted to change his TV for a plasma display,” Ziare.com writes.

 

In November, Romanian lawmakers negotiated an IMF deal that set up a schedule for the privatization of state-owned companies and assets, such as energy company Hidroelectrica and the CFR Marfa Railways, which should be completed by the end of 2014 and mid-2015, respectively.

 

Despite 5.2 percent growth in the last quarter of 2013, the country’s economy risked being affected by political turmoil, as well as the unrest in neighboring Ukraine, according to Reuters. At the end of February, Romania’s ruling coalition of Liberals and Socialists broke up after disagreements over the composition of the government.
S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Sarah Fluck is a TOL editorial intern. 
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