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Plus, Kosovo towns try to cut nepotism in the schools and a Hague court hears the Serbia-Croatia genocide case.by Barbara Frye, Piers Lawson, Sarah Fluck, Annabel Lau, and Karlo Marinovic 7 March 2014
1. Unnerved by Russia, eastern governments look for protection
Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has given many governments in Eastern Europe a case of the jitters, as they seek to protect themselves from any escalation in the conflict.
In the Baltics, NATO is stepping up air patrols, according to the Associated Press, which reports that six U.S. fighter jets and two air tankers have arrived in Lithuania.
“Though the beefed-up U.S. contingent headed to the Baltics more than doubles the number of U.S. warplanes currently patrolling the skies over the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, a senior NATO diplomat said Thursday, ‘this is essentially a symbolic action,’ ” Stars and Stripes reports. “ ‘It’s a demonstration meant to reassure those allies of the American presence and commitment,’ said the envoy, who spoke on usual condition of anonymity.”
Likewise, 12 U.S. fighter jets and 300 U.S. service members are headed to central Poland for a training exercise next week, International Business Times reports. Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said “the exercise was originally planned to be smaller but Poland requested that it be strengthened after Russia invaded and took control of the Crimea region,” according to the website.
Earlier this week, the presidents of Lithuania and Poland called 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.”
The prime minister got a surprise meeting with President Barack Obama, having been scheduled to meet with Vice President Joe Biden, the AP reports. Leanca took home an extra $2.8 million in U.S. aid, bringing the total amount to $7.5 million.
And in Bulgaria officials are stockpiling gas, almost all of which comes from Russia via Ukraine, Reuters reports.
Although Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski downplayed the possibility that the country would see supplies shut off, he said, “We are building up gas stocks so that if we have a potential, I underline, potential cut in gas supplies, we can use the storage for about month and a half after we rationalize supplies within the country.”
The country has only one gas storage facility, Reuters notes, and might have to limit supply to industry.
Russia is to make it easier for native Russian speakers in former Soviet countries to get citizenship, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev announced 6 March, Reuters reports.
The news agency calls the move “a signal to the West that Moscow is not backing down over Ukraine.”
Citizenship would be given to Russian speakers who have lived in Russia or on the territory of the former Soviet Union, with priority given to professionals and specialists educated at Soviet or Russian universities, according to Reuters.
Those granted Russian citizenship under the new law would have to give up their existing citizenship, although they would not be required to move to Russia, which is an obligation under existing law, EurasiaNet.org reports.
The prime minister’s announcement coincides with an initiative launched by the Russian parliament to simplify the citizenship procedures for Ukrainians, the Voice of Russia reports.
The Federal Migration Service has received more than 5,500 applications for Russian citizenship from Ukrainian citizens – an increase of more than 80 percent – since the beginning of the political crisis there, according to the VOR.
"Our support for citizens of Ukraine ... will be extended by Russia at all levels of power ... until the situation in this country fully stabilizes and returns to normal,” said Andrei Klishas, chairman of a constitutional committee in the Russian legislature’s upper house.
Although it has denied sending troops to Crimea, Russia has defended its intervention there as a means to protect ethnic Russians. It has also granted passports to people in the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and used the role of protector to justify its 2008 war with Georgia over South Ossetia.
The new measure would apply to millions of people who live in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Ukraine, Moldova, and other parts of Europe, EurasiaNet.org says.
Local officials in Kosovo are changing the way teachers are hired in an effort to stamp out widespread nepotism and corruption in education, SETimes reports.
Bribes and blood ties – rather than education and professional experience – heavily influence hiring decisions in Kosovo’s schools and in the health and energy industries, according to a report on an ongoing anti-corruption project backed by the UN Development Program in Kosovo.
"There is high unemployment and many municipal structures have used the education and health sectors to accommodate political party [preferred candidates] as well as family members," Dukagjin Pupovci, executive director of the nongovernmental Kosovo Education Center, told SETimes.
With the changes, parents and members of civil society organizations will work with the municipality selection committee that conducts job interviews in the Pristina and Mitrovica municipalities. Only committee members will be able to vote on a hiring decision, but inviting parents and members of the community to the table is part of an effort to increase transparency in the employment process. Candidates will also be interviewed in their prospective schools instead of in the municipal education offices.
Jehona Krasniqi, a doctor and parent in Pristina, said corruption in the system has led to the hiring of unqualified teachers.
"Hiring better qualified teachers will make a huge contribution to better quality in schools,” Krasniqi said, according to SETimes. “Unfortunately, often teachers were not well enough prepared to work with children. I have experienced that in the case of my children."
The International Court of Justice in The Hague has begun hearing genocide claims brought against each other by neighbors Croatia and Serbia, Australia’s SBS news service reports.
Croatia’s allegations of ethnic cleansing against Serbia date from 1999, when it began legal action against what was then known as Yugoslavia.
Croatia says the Yugoslav National Army committed many of the abuses after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, SBS says.
Serbia has filed a countersuit claiming that it was Croatia that committed abuses by forcing about 200,000 ethnic Serbs to leave Croatia in 1995. Serbia says the Croatian army forced them out as it strove to capture territory.
Lawyer and international war crimes expert William Schabas told SBS that one of the reasons the legal process has proved so protracted is because allegations of genocide are “extremely difficult” to prove.
Earlier this week Croatian officials told the top UN court that Serbian leaders were “in denial” over genocide committed in Vukovar in 1991 and other parts of Croatia throughout the 1990s, the BBC reported.
Vukovar was leveled during a protracted siege in 1991, after which it fell to Serbia.
About 20,000 people were killed during Croatia’s four-year war of independence, the BBC says, and about 2,000 people died four years later – during and after the Croatian counteroffensive known as Operation Storm.
Vesna Crnic-Grotic, leading Croatia’s legal team, said unrest and instability began in areas where Serbs lived in the summer of 1990 and “grew gradually” into a “genocidal campaign incited, organized, controlled and facilitated” by Serbia, according to Reuters.
But Crnic-Grotic’s Serbian counterpart, Sasa Obradovic, said the crimes committed “did not have ‘the characteristics of genocide,’ ” Reuters reports.
Arguments in Serbia’s counter-claim are expected to start next week, and a binding ruling is due either late this year or in early 2015, according to Reuters.
Hungary’s government and citizens are saddled with too much foreign currency debt, and persistent economic headwinds are keeping Budapest from trimming its public debt, a new European Commission report says.
The commission’s annual report on economic imbalances in EU countries says Hungary’s “large external liabilities remain a vulnerability.”
Hungary’s public debt stands at 79 percent of its GDP – the highest in Central Europe – with 40 percent of that denominated in foreign currency, The Wall Street Journal reports. Before the financial crisis, many Hungarians took out mortgages and other loans in Swiss francs. When the value of the forint dropped in the past few years, those loans became harder to repay. In 2011, the government forced banks to accept repayment at a lower-than-market exchange rate with the franc.
Meanwhile, although Budapest has managed to meet its EU-mandated deficit reduction target, the EC report says, “a weakened exchange rate, a poor growth potential and elevated financing costs have kept the debt from declining. Hungary is not expected to meet its medium-term objective and its structural balance is projected to deteriorate in 2014.”
The commission does not recommend a specific remedy but says the country’s “macroeconomic imbalances … require monitoring and decisive policy action.”
But amid the warnings there are reasons to be optimistic about the Hungarian economy. It emerged from recession in 2013 with GDP growing by 1.1 percent, an EU Commission economic forecast notes, saying the country is experiencing a mild recovery, sustained by domestic demand.