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Crimean Tatars Seek Asylum, Lithuania Slaps Russian Broadcaster

Plus, Bosnian Muslims say Serbs are erasing genocide history, and the U.S. prods Montenegro on a stalled corruption probe. by Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Karlo Marinovic, and Lily Sieradzki 24 March 2014

1. Crimean Tatars request asylum in Poland while Ukraine commander is held incommunicado


A group of 32 Crimean Tatars requested political asylum in Poland on 21 March, AFP reports.


The Tatar refugee group, which included several teenagers, came from Yevpatoria, a city in western Crimea, according to Polskie Radio. They will be directed to a refugee center but will not be required to stay there, Agnieszka Golias, a spokeswoman for the Polish border service, told AFP.


Poland will grant the Tatars social assistance and free medical care pending a decision on their asylum application, said Eva Pehota, a spokeswoman for the country’s office for foreigners’ affairs, Polskie Radio reports.


Poland is prepared to receive more refugees from Ukraine, with 11,000 places available in its immigration centers, according to the country’s ombudsman, according to Polskie Radio.


Tatars, who make up about 15 percent of Crimea’s population, protested against Russia’s intervention and stayed away from the 16 March referendum on secession from Ukraine, Radio Free Europe notes. Estimates of the number of people who have fled Crimea “under duress” range from 1,000 to 1,600 since the referendum, the news agency writes.


Meanwhile Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, called for the release of Col. Yuliy Mamchur, commander of the Belbek air base in Crimea, the Associated Press reports. Mamchur was taken on 22 March, during clashes between Ukraine’s air force and pro-Russian forces who attacked the base.


In a statement Turchynov said Mamchur “was kidnapped” and asked for his immediate release as well as “an end to provocations and attempts to capture Ukrainian military units,” the Ukrainian News Agency writes.


Ukrainian Marine Commander Dmitry Delyatitsky was taken from a base in Feodosia, Crimea, today during an attack led by Russian soldiers and Russian-backed Crimean self-defense forces, the Kyiv Post reports. It is unknown where the commander, who was taken by a helicopter, is being held, the newspaper writes.


2. Russian channel NTV Mir partially banned in Lithuania


A Lithuanian court slapped a partial ban on domestic broadcasts by a Russian TV station for three months after the station disseminated what the court said was inaccurate information about events in Vilnius in January 1991 as the country broke from the Soviet Union, Reuters reports.


On 19 March the court agreed with a proposal from the  Radio and Television Commission of Lithuania, the country’s media regulator, to ban the Gazprom-owned NTV Mir from running programs produced outside the EU for three months, the Lithuania Tribune writes.


Two weeks ago NTV aired a documentary titled The Damned: Trap for the Alpha Group, about clashes between Lithuanians and the Soviet army in 1991. The film, shown on the eve of the anniversary of Lithuania’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, said civilians were killed by undercover Lithuanians rather than by Soviet troops, Reuters writes.


The movie “disseminated false information about the events of 13 January 1991 in Lithuania, was abusive and insulting, underplayed Soviet aggression against the Republic of Lithuania, mocked the Lithuanian people and scorned the fighters for Lithuanian independence,” the Radio and Television Commission said in a statement.


Fourteen civilians were killed and some 1,000 injured when the Soviet army stormed the headquarters of a TV station in the Lithuanian capital in January 1991. The attack followed Vilnius’ rejection of a USSR ultimatum demanding that Lithuania recognize Soviet rule.


Edmundas Vaitiekunas
Edmundas Vaitiekunas, chairman of the broadcast commission, told the Baltic News Service that only NTV Mir programs produced outside the EU, and not the entire channel, would be banned from broadcasting. But he said some regional officials were taking the channel off the air entirely, and one town has opted to air a Ukrainian station instead.


Lithuania depends heavily on Russia for energy and trade, Reuters writes. According to the country’s statistical yearbook for 2013, it sends 18.9 percent of its exports to and receives 31.3 percent of its imports from Russia. According to the Lithuanian census of 2011, 5.8 percent of the country’s population is Russian.


On 8 October, a similar three-month ban was imposed on Russia's First Baltic Channel, also for misrepresentation of the 1991 Vilnius events, Radio Free Europe writes.


3. Symbolic battle goes on between Bosnia’s Muslims and Serbs


An alternative history of the Bosnian war seems to be unfolding in Republika Srpska, the Guardian writes, as Muslims try unsuccessfully to commemorate their losses in the mostly Serb-populated region of Bosnia.


In late January, officials in the eastern town of Visegrad had the word “genocide” ground off a monument to the victims of a 1992 pogrom that happened in the town. The worker came accompanied by police troops in riot gear, the Guardian notes. 



"The huge numbers of police in their uniforms and caps brought back the memories of 1992. You relive those moments. My legs were shaking. When we arrived, we had no idea they had already done that to the monument. People started crying when they found out,” said Bakira Hasecic, a survivor who was raped by Serb paramilitaries in 1992. Hasecic’s daughter was also raped and her sister raped and killed, according to the Guardian.


The incident followed an attempt by the local authorities to raze a house planned as a memorial to 59 Muslims incinerated there 14 June 1992. Officials say the house stands in the way of a planned road project.


"Those who committed the war crimes against us are still winning. They are killing our truth,” Hasecic said.


A 1994 UN report noted that in 1991, before the conflict, Visegrad’s population of almost 25,000 was “63 percent Bosnian Muslim and 33 percent Bosnian Serb. … [T]wo reports suggest that the area was ‘ethnically clean’ by July 1992 and that no Bosnian Muslims lived in the town of Visegrad after that date.”


The UN panel found evidence of organized mass rape in the town.


The conflict in Visegrad is part of a systematic plan by Republika Srpska’s authorities to create a version of history that presents local Serbs as the victims and not the perpetrators of war crimes, the Guardian writes.


The nearby town of Foca – the scene of expulsions and systematic mass rapes of Muslims, according to the UN – hosts a monument to fallen Serbs. A large statue of a knight dedicated to “the defenders of the Republika Srpska” stands in Visegrad’s city center.


Visegrad is also the future home of a literary theme park, Andricgrad, named after Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, to be built on the site of a detention camp run by Serb paramilitaries. The town also hosts an annual commemoration to Draza Mihajlovic, a leader of the ultra-nationalist Chetnik movement during World War II.


“No one wants to admit anything. They never want to talk about it," one Muslim man in Visegrad told the Guardian.


4. U.S. seeks Podgorica probe of Montenegro telecom deal


The U.S. Embassy in Podgorica is prodding authorities in Montenegro to look into evidence of corruption surrounding the privatization of Crnogorski (Montenegrin) Telekom that U.S. investigators unearthed in late 2011.


The firm was bought in 2005 by Hungary’s Magyar Telekom, which in turn is owned by Deutsche Telekom. In the privatization, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said, “Magyar Telekom paid approximately $9 million through four sham contracts to funnel money to government officials in Montenegro” to obstruct the entrance of later competitors into the market.


U.S. prosecutors have jurisdiction over Magyar Telekom because it had listed shares in the United States. In a settlement, the company paid $90 million, with Deutsche Telekom paying $4.36 million over its actions in Montenegro and a similar case in Macedonia.


But, as a press release from the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica notes, the Securities and Exchange Commission “does not have, and never had, jurisdiction over the actions of the Montenegrins involved in this case.”


Prosecutors in Montenegro opened an investigation in 2012, and U.S. officials have handed over supporting documents, but the case is at a “standstill,” according to the Independent Balkan News Agency


Other privatization initiatives in Montenegro have been clouded by corruption allegations. A 2012 investigation into Prva Bank, or First Bank, which is controlled by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his family, revealed mismanagement, preferential loans to VIPs, and a 44 million euro ($60.7 million) bailout paid with taxpayers’ money.


Corruption is among the issues Montenegro must tackle in ongoing talks to join the European Union.


5. Work starts on new Macedonia-Bulgaria rail line


Construction has begun on the first phase of a new railway route between Macedonia and Bulgaria, according to the Focus Information Agency, which cites Macedonian daily Vecer.


The Kumanovo-Beljakovce line is the first of three phases that will eventually include a direct route between the capital cities of Sofia and Skopje.


The new railway is part of Pan-European Transport Corridor 8, which aims to link the Adriatic and Black seas through Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, and Italy. Eptisa, the engineering company leading the project in Macedonia, estimates that only 154 kilometers (96 miles) of Macedonia’s 313-kilometer section have been built, with the missing links in the north and west.


Macedonia received a loan of approximately 47 million euros ($65 million) from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2012 to reconstruct the 30-kilometer line between the northern towns of Kumanovo and Beljakovce, according to trade magazine Railway Pro.


In a press release late last year, Eptisa said 89 kilometers of new railroads will be built in Macedonia. The project, one of the country’s largest infrastructure endeavors, could boost the economy of its eastern regions and promote cooperation with Bulgaria, Vecer writes. The company says the region’s rail infrastructure “is rather weak and some crucial links are still missing, while the existing ones are patently insufficient.”


All three phases of the project in Macedonia will be complete by 2022, according to various reports. 

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

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