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Ukrainian Military Withdraws From Crimea, Svoboda Members Rough Up TV Boss

Plus, Romania pushes for a Moldova EU membership date and Georgia’s former prime minister tells off the man he groomed for the presidency.

by S. Adam Cardais, Sarah Fluck, and Karlo Marinovic 20 March 2014

1. U.S. warns Moscow of "dark path" as Russia seizes base


Backed by unarmed volunteers, Russian forces stormed Ukraine's naval headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea, 19 March, hours before Ukraine announced plans to effectively surrender the peninsula.


BidenJoe Biden
The dramatic seizure unfolded without shots fired and came as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Vilnius on a brief trip to reassure NATO allies Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, Reuters reports.


"As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing political and economic isolation," Biden said, referring to earlier reports of attacks against Ukrainian soldiers.


The seizures of the headquarters and a second naval facility came a day after Russia said it would annex Crimea and appeared aimed at expelling Ukrainian military from the area.


The New York Times reports that Ukrainian military personnel were seen leaving the base as Russian Black Sea Fleet officers entered the facility. Ukraine's interim government said Russia-backed authorities in Crimea rebuffed their request to send a high-level delegation there 18 March to discuss the roughly 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers that have been trapped on bases and installations since Russia effectively occupied the peninsula.


Within hours of the headquarters' seizure, Kyiv announced plans to evacuate all military personnel from Crimea, effectively surrendering it. Security chief Andriy Parubiy said the government would ask for UN support to declare the region a demilitarized zone, The Washington Post reports.


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was scheduled to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow today and, on Friday, with leaders in Kyiv, in the hope of negotiating a peaceful settlement to a crisis that has brought East-West relations to a post-Cold War low.


This week the United States and European Union imposed visa bans and asset freezes on some Russian and Crimean officials. But Putin has so far dismissed the sanctions that Bloomberg suggests have few teeth, pointing to a deal between Russian oil giant Rosneft and Morgan Stanley that's moving forward despite the punitive measures.


2. Ukraine public TV chief assaulted by nationalist lawmakers


Members of parliament of Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda (Freedom) party invaded the office of the head of a state TV channel and forced him to sign a resignation letter, the BBC reports.


A recording, made by Svoboda members themselves, shows a group of men including Igor Miroshnichenko, a member of parliament’s freedom of speech committee, entering the office of acting National Television President Oleksandr Panteleymonov on the night of 18 March.




The men, angry with the channel’s broadcast of the Russian parliament signing a bill to annex Ukraine's Crimea region, beat Panteleymonov around the head, cursed him as “Moscow trash” and forced his signature on a letter of resignation, Euronews writes.


Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk condemned the attack as “unacceptable for a democratic society,” Euronews writes. "These aren't our methods," Yatsenyuk added. "A country that is entering the [European Union] will profess the basic principles and values of the European community," The Wall Street Journal writes.


Panteleymonov stated later in a TV interview that he is "completely OK now" and added that his resignation will not take effect until Yatsenyuk approves it.


Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok “attributed the attack to the party's growing pains in moving from opposition to government” in a Facebook post, according to The Journal.


"If yesterday such methods were acceptable (for example, the storming of an administration and the forcing of the bloody regime's leadership to sign letters of resignation), today they are unacceptable," he wrote.


Svoboda first entered parliament in 2012 and joined the protests in Kyiv that brought down former President Viktor Yanukovych and the previous government, The Journal writes. The party controls about 8 percent of seats in the 450-member legislature.


Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitskiy, a former Svoboda member, opened what he said would be an objective investigation into the incident, The Journal writes.


Panteleymonov’s editorial decisions during the Kyiv protests were seen by some as pro-Yanukovych, Euronews reports.


3. Romania fears a Crimean scenario in Moldova


Basescu_100Traian Basescu
Romanian President Traian Basescu wants the EU to fast-track Moldova's membership to prevent Russia from annexing the quasi-independent Transdniester region, Radio Free Europe reports.


Speaking in Bucharest 19 March with Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti at his side, Basescu said accelerating Moldova's European integration would protect the country's security. His remarks came two days after the speaker of Transdniester's separatist parliament urged Russia to absorb the predominantly Russian-speaking region, Balkan Insight notes.


Transdniester declared independence with Russian help in 1990 on concern that Moldova would reunite with Romania. No country recognizes its independence.


Calling Transdniester's parliament an "illegal body," Timofti said 18 March that Russia would be making a mistake by agreeing to its request.


By May, Moldova is expected to win coveted visa-free travel to the EU. It is also expected to sign an EU association and free-trade deal later this year, but – as with Ukraine – Moscow wants the country in its Eurasian Customs Union.


4. Georgian president tongue-lashed by kingmaker Ivanishvili


Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has described as “painful” the criticism dished out by former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in a recent interview, Democracy & Freedom Watch reports.


Ivanishvili chose Margvelashvili as the Georgian Dream coalition’s presidential candidate in last year’s election before himself leaving politics after steering his Georgian Dream coalition to power.


“His opinion is important for me, hence his attitude and his criticism are not so pleasant for me,” Margvelashvili told a press conference at the presidential palace 19 March, Civil Georgia reports.


The palace itself, built on the orders of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, is one bone of contention between the former allies.


Margvelashvili himself spoke of the palace as a symbol of violence, evil, and indecency, Ivanishvili said in the interview. The president says he needs more space than is available in the offices he now uses while the planned Georgian-American University in the palace takes shape, according to Civil Georgia.


Ivanishvili is also unhappy with Margvelashvili’s foreign-policy adviser, Vano Matchavariani, a former member of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, and took issue with the presidential veto of an amendment governing witness testimony in court, Democracy & Freedom Watch reports.


5. Will Vucic become the next Orban?


The unexpectedly strong showing of Serbia’s Progressive Party (SNS) in last weekend’s snap elections has Balkan pundits pondering the country’s future under its likely new prime minister, a onetime ally of strongman Slobodan Milosevic.


SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic “has turned overnight from an informal [center] of power into an undisputed leader of Serbia. He has concentrated power at a degree unprecedented since the tenure of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s” when Vucic served as information minister, European Council on Foreign Relations fellow Dimitar Bechev writes on his blog.


milosevic_100Slobodan Milosevic
"Even Milosevic did not possess the power Vucic now has, except after his first election. Of course, Milosevic dominated in different ways," Balkan scholar Florian Bieber tells RFE. "However, Milosevic was forced [after 1992] to share power in coalition governments. We'll see if Vucic intends to rule alone, but calling [an] early election is itself a bad omen, because he misused a democratic institution in a populist way just for the sake of his own party. "


The Progressives will control a majority of seats in the next parliament. The Socialist Party headed by former Prime Minister Ivica Dacic won 44 seats, while some other parties saw their support collapse. Bechev writes: “The opposition Democratic Party suffered a humiliating loss, ending up with roughly 6 percent of the vote, after they were abandoned by ex-President Boris Tadic whose New Democratic Party (NDS) finished fourth with 5.7 percent.”


The hammering led Democratic Party founder Vojislav Kostunica, who led the internal revolt against Milosevic in 2000, to announce his resignation from politics.


"The key point is how Vucic will use his power. We've been witnessing his strong grip over the media, controlling them 100 percent," analyst Gordana Susa tells RFE. "Simultaneous processes are under way: media spin aimed at strengthening Vucic's power accompanied by the traditional story that Serbia needs strong leaders, etc."


Bieber says Vucic may be tempted by the example of neighboring Hungary, where under the strong majority rule of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, “There are not enough strong institutions to control absolute power by setting necessary check[s] and balances. The problem is even more vivid if such [a] party is dominated by one person, as Vucic in this case."
S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Sarah Fluck and Karlo Marinovic are TOL editorial interns.
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