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Hitches Hit Giant Kashagan Oil Project, Serbian Doctors Strike Over Wage Cuts

Plus, uncertainty mounts over the OSCE’s role in Crimea’s independence vote, and Slovakia’s conservatives try to head off populist Fico’s presidential run.

by Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Ky Krauthamer, and Karlo Marinovic 11 March 2014

1. Kazakhstan sues oil majors over Kashagan pollution


The Kazakhstani government is seeking $735 million in damages from the group of companies developing the Kashagan oil field for environmental damage caused by a gas leak, The Wall Street Journal writes.


The fine is the latest blow to the $50 billion megaproject that has suffered several delays, increasing cost, and technical difficulties. Discovered more than a decade ago, the offshore Caspian Sea field produced no oil until September, but the flow stopped weeks later when gas was found to be leaking from pipelines, Reuters writes.


Residual gas had to be burned off so the pipelines could be inspected, according to The Journal.


The Kashagan oilfield has been dubbed the largest oil discovery in the last 35 years and the largest outside the Middle East. Shareholders include ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Eni, and Kazakhstan’s state energy company, KazMunaiGas, Reuters writes.


Astana may use the fine as a pretext to take a bigger share of the project, Reuters reports.


Pollution aside, Kazakhstan is trimming down a climate-change mitigation scheme launched last year to cut greenhouse gases. The goal is to reduce emissions by 15 percent by 2020 and 25 percent by 2050. However, the country’s parliament recently voted to postpone handing out fines for excess greenhouse-gas emissions and cut the fines in half so as not to hamper industrial growth, Tengrinews writes.


Kashagan_oil_platform_350A drilling site at the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea. Image from a video by Aker Solutions MC/YouTube.


2. OSCE not welcome ‘as military advisers,’ Crimea official says


It remains unclear whether Crimea’s planned referendum on seceding from Ukraine will be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.


The autonomous republic’s deputy prime minister today denied earlier reports that an official invitation to monitor the vote set for 16 March had been sent to the organization, Interfax-Ukraine reports.


“We are really ready to accept monitors from the OSCE, but not as military advisers, let alone the NATO countries, but real monitors,”  Rustam Temirgaliyev said. The invitation was a verbal one by the region’s prime minister, Sergei Aksionov, he said.


An OSCE spokeswoman said yesterday no invitation had been received, Reuters reports.


“As far as we know, Crimea is not a participating state of the OSCE, so it would be sort of hard for them to invite us,” she said.


OSCE observers have been prevented from entering Crimea by armed groups.


The presence of international observers could help legitimize the outcome of the referendum, Oxford University international relations expert Adam Roberts says. An internationally monitored vote in favor of secession “would strengthen Russia’s position,” although other countries might still not be willing to accept it as a legal basis for annexation by Russia, Roberts told Radio Free Europe.


Roberts compared the Crimean situation to northern Cyprus in 1974, when Turkey, like Russia now, claimed its intervention was necessary to protect frightened ethnic kin.


“The world reacted very strongly against that action,” including the Soviet Union, he said. “And now when similar grounds are proposed in Crimea, that inhibition of the international community, the nervousness about undermining the integrity of states by interventions is rightly apparent.”


Another complicating factor is that Crimea enjoys autonomous status within Ukraine, added to the fact that the self-declared Crimean authorities have not consulted with the national government in Kyiv and are not recognized by it, he said. 


3. Serbian doctors stage work slowdown over austerity measures


Serbian doctors and pharmacists held a one-day work slowdown 10 March to protest the so-called solidarity tax on high earners and a public-sector hiring freeze, Al Jazeera reports.


The labor action is the latest sign of discontent over sweeping budget cuts enacted partly to satisfy EU demands to trim public spending as Serbia begins negotiations to join the union.


Some 12,000 members of the Serbian Trade Union of Medical Doctors and Pharmacists, joined by some non-member doctors, dealt only with emergency cases in more than 130 health-care institutions around the country, to warn of the measures' potential damage to the health-care system.


“Salaries of the best, the most valuable, and most experienced doctors are being taxed and reduced,” union president Dragan Cvetic said, adding that new graduates are being sent a clear message to leave the country, according to Al Jazeera.


Cvetic warned the action could be renewed when a new government is formed after parliamentary elections set for 16 March, BETA reports.


The solidarity tax was introduced 1 January to reduce the country's fiscal deficit by some 130 million euros ($180 million) in 2014, according to the government-run Tanjug news agency. The tax reduces public employees' salaries by 20 percent if higher than 60,000 dinars ($715) monthly, and 25 percent if above 100,000 dinars.


The same day a two-year hiring freeze took effect in the public sector, including health care, meant to save some 45 million euros this year, BETA reports.


The solidarity tax led to a wave of discontent among public workers and an initiative for a constitutional review, Tanjug reports.


4. Conservative candidates pledge mutual support in Slovakia’s presidential election


A relatively obscure businessman and philanthropist seems likely to emerge as the major challenger to Prime Minister Robert Fico in the race for Slovakia’s presidency following the first round of voting on 15 March.


Polls taken last week show Andrej Kiska’s support at 27 percent, nine points behind Fico, whose abrasive style as leader of the moderate nationalist Smer party has won support from left-leaning voters. While Fico’s numbers and those of the other challengers have stayed fairly stable since January, Kiska’s support doubled, taking him well clear of the chasing pack, the Slovak daily Sme reports.


With little doubt of Fico’s winning the first round, Kiska and three other center-right candidates – actor-politician Milan Knazko, former Christian Democratic Movement leader Pavol Hrusovsky, and constitutional lawyer Radoslav Prochazka – pledged to unite against him in the second round two weeks later during a 3 March televised debate, the The Slovak Spectator reports.


Kiska and his brother pioneered the installment-plan consumer loan in Slovakia in the 1990s. Kiska cashed out in 2005 and started a charity, Dobry Anjel (Good Angel). In eight years the charity distributed nearly 22 million euros ($30 million) to 6,000 families, according to its website.


Kiska has campaigned on his image as a philanthropist but denies using Good Angel as a political springboard, The Spectator writes.


5. Ancient Armenian temple spared café


Armenian officials have canceled plans to build a café near the Garni temple, the country’s only pagan place of worship that survived the country’s conversion to Christianity, according to One of the country’s most popular attractions, the Greco-Roman temple built in the first century B.C. was restored in the 1970s after being destroyed in a 17th-century earthquake.


ArmeniaNow writes that activists opposed the Culture Ministry’s initial plan to open a café close to the temple in order to attract more tourists and more revenues. Opponents argued it would diminish the touristic appeal of the site and that current revenues should be enough for maintenance works.


Deputy Culture Minister Arev Samuelyan confirmed to the online publication Hetq that the plan has been canceled, according to ArmeniaNow.


Garni and the nearby Geghard monastery complex are two of the country’s biggest tourist draws. The state cultural heritage agency estimates that 200,000 tourists visited Garni with its temple, ancient fortress, and bath house in 2013, although that figure seems high compared with the estimated total of 677,000 tourists countrywide in the first nine months of the year, Hetq notes.


Garni_temple_350The Garni temple is the only standing Roman-era structure in Armenia. Photo by Ahaik/Wikimedia Commons.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Sarah Fluck and Karlo Marinovic are TOL editorial interns.
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