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EU Opts for Limited Russia Sanctions, Henchman Turned Reformer Takes Helm in Serbia

Plus, Kosovo probes nearly 200 for corruption and Lithuania detains an ex-Russian solider for suspected involvement in a bloody 1991 crackdown. 

by Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Annabel Lau, Karlo Marinovic, and Lily Sieradzki 17 March 2014

1. 21 Russians and Crimeans hit with EU travel bans, assets freezes in secession vote’s wake


The EU’s foreign ministers have agreed on travel bans and asset freezes for 21 people involved in the Russian incursion into Crimea and the peninsula’s vote 16 March to join Russia, the Associated Press reports.


The targeted officials have not been named, but two diplomats told the AP they were “13 Russians and eight people from Crimea.”


The list is short, partly as a result of some EU countries’ reluctance to impose sanctions, but it could be widened when the foreign ministers meet again later this week, Reuters reports.


“At the end of last week, the EU had drawn up a master list of 120-130 names for possible sanctions, which has now been whittled down to around 20,” according to Reuters.


Whether sanctions are broadened will depend on what moves Crimea and Russia make later this week, as Crimea formally asked to join Russia today. The 16 March referendum on Crimea’s fate saw about 96 percent of votes cast for Russian annexation, according to Crimea’s chief electoral officer, Mikhail Malyshev, Euractiv reports.


Russia’s lower house of parliament will pass legislation approving Crimea’s entry “in the very near future,” the Associated Press reports, citing news agency Interfax.


That could lead to disruptions in Russian trade and banking with the EU and the United States. Aleksei Kudrin, an economic adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has warned that comprehensive sanctions could spur an estimated $50 billion exodus of capital from Russia per quarter this year.


In a 16 March interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said EU states “are all reluctant to impose sanctions because Russia will probably respond and we’ll all suffer as a result. But Russia is leaving us no choice.” 


About one-third of the natural gas and crude oil imported into the EU annually comes from Russia.


Bulgaria has been hesitant to support EU sanctions, EurActiv reports. Sergei Stanishev, leader of the Socialists, the country’s largest party, chastised the Bulgarian foreign minister for criticizing the Crimean referendum. He said Bulgaria should not join the EU’s “hawks” toward Russia, from which Bulgaria receives nearly all of its natural gas.


2. Vucic and his Progressives sweep to victory in Serbia


The ruling Serbian Progressive Party won almost half the votes cast in parliamentary balloting 16 March, propelling the center-right leader Aleksandar Vucic into the prime minister's seat in one of the most decisive electoral victories since the introduction of multiparty democracy in the 1990s, Al Jazeera reports.


Aleksandar Vucic
In his victory speech, Vucic promised extensive economic reform and pledged to combat corruption and crime, but opposition leaders are accusing him of imposing a Russia-type regime in a country that is torn between support for Brussels or for Moscow.


“The whole country is mesmerized by this super-guy, Mr. Vucic, who controls all the media and decides on everything,” said the Democratic Party’s parliamentary leader, Borko Stefanovic, according to the BBC. “What we are facing now is a one-man regime.”


In 1998, as minister of information in former President Slobodan Milosevic’s administration, Vucic banned foreign television networks and issued fines for journalists who criticized the government. But he told the BBC in January that he had changed.

“I was not ashamed to confess all my political mistakes,” Vucic said. “After 1999 we saw the result of our politics – it was very bad in all social spheres.”


According to polling organization CeSID, Vucic’s Progressives took approximately 48.2 percent of the votes, far ahead of the second-place Socialists’ 13.6 percent. Al Jazeera reports that those numbers equate to 157 of parliament’s 250 seats for the Progressives and about 50 for the Socialists. The two parties were coalition partners in the previous government.


The Progressives’ victory comes as Serbia is negotiating entry into the EU in a period marked by social discontent and subpar living standards caused by war, sanctions, and maladministration. One in three Serbians is unemployed, the BBC writes. Vucic now supports joining the EU as a way to raise living standards.


Serbia’s EU membership talks follow a deal signed last year normalizing relations with Kosovo, which split from Serbia in 2008. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s claim to sovereignty.


3. Nearly 200 probed for corruption in Kosovo since November


Kosovo’s anti-corruption coordinator announced 14 March that prosecutors have charged 196 people with corruption in the last four months, Balkan Insight reports.


Laura Pula
Among those named in 83 indictments, “eight people are officials in government, nine people working in governmental agencies and eight people working for the Kosovo Police,” Laura Pula said at a news conference. Others work in public and private companies, public health institutions, the judicial system, and local government, statistics showed.


“If we add to this number the people accused by the Special Prosecution, which has indicted one judge, six lawyers, two legal counsellors, and four doctors, we reach a total of 196 accused people,” Pula said, according to Balkan Insight.


The compilation of data is part of an effort to more effectively pursue corruption cases, Pula said, noting that employees of her office spent more than two weeks in February trying to reconcile information from prosecutors and that contained in a database tracking such cases.


The coordinator offered few specifics about the types of cases being investigated, but a statement from her office said it had filed “29 cases against different officials for failure to report or falsely reporting of the property,” and that “one case against 13 persons is a case of high corruption, in which are involved former judges, lawyers, doctors and representatives of insurance companies.”


Transparency International ranked Kosovo 111th of 177 countries in its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.


Kosovo’s fight against corruption will be a priority as it seeks closer ties with the EU, Balkan Insight notes.


4. Lithuania jails former Russian soldier in probe of 1991 incursion


A Lithuanian court ordered the detention last week of a former Russian soldier accused of involvement in a deadly 1991 attack in the country’s capital after Lithuania broke away from the Soviet Union, Reuters reports.


The burial ceremony for the January 1991 attack victims. Photo by the Lithuanian Defense Ministry/Wikimedia Commons.


Yuri Mel, a former Soviet tank officer, will remain in custody for two months pending the results of an investigation into his role in the Russian attack on the tower and headquarters of the national broadcaster in Vilnius 13 January 1991, 10 months after Lithuania declared independence.


The attack, involving infantry and tanks firing shots and blank rounds at the tower, resulted in 14 deaths and hundreds of injuries, according to the Associated Press. Mel is one of 79 people suspected of involvement in the 1991 events for whom European arrest warrants have been issued, The Lithuania Tribune reports.


Mel, arrested 12 March at a checkpoint between Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, faces life in prison on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Following his arrest the former soldier “in essence agreed with the detention” and said he participated in the 1991 events, “possibly near the TV tower,” The Lithuania Tribune writes, quoting Mel’s state-appointed attorney, Anatolij Svila. Mel denied killing anyone, according to the Associated Press.


The Russian Embassy in Vilnius has offered to provide legal assistance, the AP writes.


Most the accused live in Russia. Lithuania has repeatedly asked prosecutors there for for cooperation, to no avail, Elena Martinoniene, a spokeswoman for the office of the General Prosecutor office, told Reuters.


Lithuanian prosecutors came close to laying hands on Mikhail Golovatov, a former Russian KGB officer suspected of involvement with the 1991 attack, when he was arrested in July 2011 in Austria. Golovatov was released for what Austrian officials said was a lack of sufficient information from Vilnius, a claim hotly contested by Lithuanian officials.


5. Czech priest wins $1.8 million prize for work in spirituality, communist-era underground


Tomas Halik, a Czech Roman Catholic priest, philosopher, and former dissident, has won the £1.1 million ($1.8 million) Templeton prize for his advocacy of understanding and tolerance between believers and non-believers, according to the Templeton Foundation


Tomas Halik
The prize, one of the world’s largest annual awards to an individual, was established in 1972 by British philanthropist John Templeton to recognize “a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”  Past recipients include Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama.


In a 13 March statement the foundation said the award also honors Halik’s work as a communist-era dissident who helped set up “an extensive secret network of academics, theologians, philosophers and students” that contributed to the country’s transition to democracy.


A friend of late Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel, Halik, 65, said he was inspired by Havel’s belief that truth and love would ultimately triumph over lies and hatred. At a press conference after the award ceremony in London, he said he will use the proceeds of the prize to promote dialogue among faiths.


A student of English at the University of North Wales during the Prague Spring in 1968, Halik returned to his home country at the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion. His doctoral graduation speech at Charles University, which centered on the need for “truth,” made him an enemy of the regime and got him banned from academia. As a result, Halik united a group of intellectuals and students sharing his democratic ideals in an “underground university” which, after the Velvet Revolution, became the Czech Christian Academy, one of the largest Czech civil society organizations.


Clandestinely ordained as a priest in 1978, Halik has authored numerous books on the dialogue between faith and atheism, including Patience with God, which was named European Theological Book of 2009-2010, according to the Templeton Foundation.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Sarah FluckAnnabel LauKarlo Marinovicand Lily Sieradzki are TOL editorial interns.
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