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Plus, Kosovo public workers get an election-year pay raise and more signs appear of Taliban incursions into Turkmenistan.by Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Ky Krauthamer, Karlo Marinovic, and Lily Sieradzki 12 March 2014
A day after the EU put a hold on talks with Gazprom on the South Stream gas pipeline, the Kremlin-controlled company said 11 March the project will continue as planned, Reuters reports.
Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said contracts for laying the first leg of the pipeline from Russia to southeastern Europe will be signed by the end of March after a supervisory board meeting in Zurich.
EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger announced the suspension 10 March of talks on South Stream and a second Russian-built pipeline as the EU considers whether to impose economic sanctions on Moscow for its military intervention in Crimea.
Gazprom has signed South Stream deals with Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, and Slovenia, but the EU has requested changes in the contracts to allow greater participation by other companies, RT reports.
The pipeline aims to supply Central and southern European countries with 63 billion cubic meters of gas, bypassing the Ukrainian pipeline network. South Stream is planned to supply about 15 percent of the EU’s gas needs, according to RT.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski said 10 March his country had not stopped preliminary work on the pipeline but was closely monitoring Russia-EU relations, Reuters reports
Bulgaria depends on Gazprom for 85 percent of its gas supplies.
The Latvian government is urging people to avoid a planned march by SS veterans through Riga in an effort not to widen internal divides over the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Reuters reports.
Russia’s stance as the protector of Crimea’s Russian population has raised anxieties in Latvia, which contains a significant Russian-speaking minority.
According to the Baltic Times, a survey in early March found that two-thirds of the “non-Latvian” population felt Russia’s actions in Crimea are partly or completely justified.
Even a substantial minority of ethnic Latvians – 17 percent – partly or fully approved of the incursion, while 77 percent disapproved.
The march set for 16 March commemorates 140,000 Latvian soldiers who fought with the Nazi Waffen SS during World War II. Many object to it on the grounds that it promotes Nazi sympathies, according to Reuters.
The veterans claim they were forcibly conscripted and were fighting for Latvian independence from Soviet control.
Parliament voted 6 March to allow the controversial march to take place, while also approving an anti-Fascist rally for the same day, RIA Novosti reports.
The government’s statement, however, calls on the population “not to participate in any events,” Reuters writes.
In a speech in Estonia on 11 March, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier promised that the EU and NATO would not “leave the Baltic countries alone.” He cited the Baltic countries’ “special” situation due to their Russian populations, the Associated Press reports.
Some experts are criticizing the Kosovo government’s decision to hike public sector pay in an election year, Balkan Insight writes.
Thaci did not say how the raises will be funded or if Kosovo will face cuts to its $2.2 billion budget, Reuters reports. Economists estimate the pay raises will cost about $138 million.
The hike contrasts sharply with neighboring Serbia’s unpopular budget-cutting moves to freeze public sector hiring and raise taxes on the highest-earning public employees.
“Kosovo is currently in a pre-campaign period and most of the promises and decisions are motivated by the upcoming national elections,” Kosovo Chamber of Commerce President Safet Gerxhaliu told Balkan Insight. Elections are planned for some time between June and September.
Economics journalist Ibrahim Rexhepi said, “We cannot deny the right of those employees to have better salaries, but the government has also to reduce the number of unemployed people and improve conditions for different social categories.”
The International Monetary Fund said it would look into the decision ahead of this month’s scheduled talks on a possible new financing deal, Reuters reports. When Thaci followed through on his 2010 campaign promise to raise public sector wages by 50 percent, the IMF suspended a line of credit worth about 110 million euros ($152 million).
Kosovo is one of Europe’s poorest countries, with an official jobless rate above 35 percent, Reuters writes, although many believe it is significantly higher.
Turkmenistan is apparently stepping up security on its border with Afghanistan following a recent clash in which three border guards were killed, Central Asia Online reports.
Although the Afghan Taliban denied responsibility for the 26 February incident, the Turkmenistani Border Service believes there is a real threat of militant incursions across the two countries’ 750-kilometer (466-mile) border, the U.S. military-supported website writes.
One Border Service officer “spoke of increasingly frequent cases in which armed groups, whose members appear to have combat training, [try] to cross into Turkmenistan from Afghanistan.”
Central Asia Online and Radio Free Europe report on a second border clash earlier in February, and both note the tightly controlled Turkmenistani media’s silence on the incidents.
RFE spoke with a resident of Marchak village in Afghanistan’s Badghis Province where the clashes occurred. The man blamed the 26 February incident on fighters taking revenge for the killing of one of their fellows around two weeks earlier, even though Turkmenistani border guards returned his body and two captives to the Taliban.
The border officer interviewed by Central Asia Online confirmed the earlier incident and described the attackers as “genuine militants.”
A counterintelligence officer named as Suleiman R. told the website the authorities will strengthen the border and provide special training to security personnel.
The Foreign Ministry and intelligence agency “are establishing contacts with Afghan officials and with ethnic Turkmen elders” in Afghanistan’s border provinces, according to the website.
Prior to the latest clash, RFE wrote that “Ashgabat has not shown any particular distress about the impending changes in Afghanistan” as the international force there winds down its mission, in contrast to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, all of which “are worried about what happens when Afghan government forces assume responsibility for security. All four countries have been regularly conducting military/counterterrorism exercises for months now.”
Ashgabat's apparent nonchalance may mask a fear of the militarization of Turkmen on both sides of the border, RFE suggests. Its correspondents in Afghanistan note the increasing presence of Taliban forces in regions adjoining Turkmenistan. “These correspondents report an increasing number of Afghanistan’s ethnic Turkmen arming themselves, and some joining the Taliban or foreign fighters, among them Uzbeks allied with the Taliban.”
Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov has ordered senior officials to ask his permission before traveling abroad, according to EurasiaNet.org. The decree, published 10 March, lists state officials, ranking from the prime minister to the central bank governor, presidential advisers, and regional governors, who must now clear foreign trips with the president.
The decree "aims to improve the rules for officials to go abroad, improve the efficiency of official trips, ensure national security and protect state secrets," according to the official text cited by EurasiaNet.org.
The decree strengthens the state secrets law, which permits authorities to “restrict the mobility of those of its citizens who are deemed to possess state or military secrets,” Uznews.net writes.
High-ranking officials are not the only ones who need official approval for their trips. University presidents, heads of large companies and news agencies, as well as other officials, must now have their trips approved by the cabinet. EurasiaNet.org writes that regular citizens are already required to submit travel applications certified by an employer or a neighborhood committee to local police offices.
The government is also beefing up security at the local level. Podrobno.uz, cited by EurasiaNet.org, reports a new initiative to set up “neighborhood guards” to improve communication with local and state institutions on matters of “peace, stability, and security in the country and maintaining public order [and] improving vigilance."
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