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Transdniester Says It Felled Ukrainian Drone, Top Croatia Soccer Figure Sentenced for Corruption

Plus, Minsk sees its largest opposition rally since 2011 and Bulgarian tobacco farmers fume over low prices.

by Ioana Caloianu, Sarah Fluck, Barbara Frye, Piers Lawson, and Lily Sieradzki 26 March 2014

1. Transdniester says it shot down a Ukrainian drone


A surveillance drone that appears to have come from Ukraine has been shot down while flying over the pro-Russian Moldovan breakaway region of Transdniester, the region’s security service said in a statement, AFP reports.


The statement said the drone was launched from neighboring Ukraine by persons connected to the Defense Ministry or to a far-right movement and had “ceased to function.”


But an official from the Moldovan government brushed off the claims as unfounded, citing Transdniester’s lack of air defenses, according to AFP.


The predominantly Russian-speaking region, which declared its independence from Moldova in 1990, is not recognized by any other country as an independent state.


On 24 March, NATO's military commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, said the alliance was especially concerned about the threat to Transdniester region in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.


“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniester if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” he said, according to various reports.


Romanian President Traian Basescu has urged the EU to fast-track Moldova's membership bid in an attempt to prevent Russia from annexing Transdniester.


Russia's military, meanwhile, staged training exercises on 25 March in Transdniester, Reuters reports.


They consisted of “an anti-terrorism drill” and “operations to rebuff an attack on their military base,” according to a Russian army official.


A spokesman for Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces told Reuters that in addition about 10,000 Russian troops will take part in drills organized in Siberia and the southern Urals.


2. Former top Croatian soccer figure sentenced for corruption


A former top Croatian football official has been sentenced to four years in prison for taking bribes in return for guaranteeing certain referees presided over and unfairly influenced first-division matches, AFP reports.


Zeljko Siric
Zeljko Siric, a former referee and ex-vice president of the Croatian Football Federation, was found guilty of receiving 30,000 euros ($41,000) in bribes.


A court heard that he received the cash in 2011 from an official of the first division Hajduk Split soccer club.


In return Siric promised “correct refereeing” of the club’s matches, meaning that only referees from names put forward by Hajduk Split would preside over its games, according to AFP.


“He subordinated his position in sports ... to his own profits,” Judge Gordana Mihela Grahovac said.


Former Croatian soccer official Neven Sprajcer received a lesser punishment, with the Associated Press calling it an eight-month suspended sentence and AFP calling it 10 months’ probation.

Sprajcer was charged with agreeing to pay Siric 15,000 euros ($20,000) “to ensure ‘fair refereeing’ for his club” in the city of Karlovac, AFP reports.


Financially weak Croatian football has been marred by recent bribery and match-fixing scandals in recent years, AFP notes. But efforts spearheaded by former top player and Croatian football federation head Davor Suker are under way to rid the sport of corruption.


Croatia was one of six countries where between 6 percent and 29 percent of respondents to a recent Eurobarometer poll said they had been asked or expected to pay a bribe in the past year. 


A nation of only 4 million people, Croatia has produced significant soccer talent over the years, missing only one World Cup since independence, notes the Croatian Sport Report website.


But it says that more recently the problem of “underlying corruption” meant that “the [national] squad encountered some bumps that almost cost them a World Cup spot and nearly caused a disaster.”


It is a narrative dating back to the early 1990s, the website says, and “engraves itself in not only in sports but the very politics that hold together this modern European country.”


3. Annual opposition rally in Belarus draws largest crowd since 2011


More than 1,500 Belarusians marched through the capital, Minsk, Tuesday in part to protest Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Radio Free Europe reports.


The annual opposition rally on 25 March, known as Freedom Day, commemorates the anniversary of the founding of the Belarusian People’s Republic, which formed in 1918 but was soon swept aside as the country was subsumed into the Soviet Union.


Protesters were angry at comments made by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka two days earlier that Crimea had become de facto part of Russia.


“Crimea isn’t an independent state. It’s part of the Russian territory. One can recognize or not recognize that, it will change nothing,” he told journalists in Minsk, according to RT. He added that Belarus would remain “with Russia forever” if forced to choose between its eastern neighbor and NATO.


In response, Ukraine withdrew its ambassador to Belarus, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying Lukashenka’s comments “were contradicting universally recognized norms of international law and the position of most countries of the world which condemned Russia’s actions,” according to Russia’s Itar-TASS agency.


The protest was the biggest in Belarus since 2011, when thousands of protesters took to the streets over Lukashenka’s disputed December 2010 re-election. The president has been in power since 1994.


The protesters held Belarusian and Ukrainian flags and waved posters reading, “Russia Means War!” and “Glory to Ukraine!” according to RFE.


Hundreds of people were arrested, including about 12 activists.


Maksim Vinyarski from the opposition group European Belarus was arrested and today was sentenced to 15 days in jail on charges “of chanting extremist slogans and using vulgar words,” RFE reports.


4. Bulgarian tobacco farmers protest for better prices


About 100 Bulgarian tobacco farmers near the southern town of Svilengrad protested 25 March over low prices offered for this year’s harvest, Nova TV reports.


Tsvetan Filev
They are urging the government to provide higher tobacco subsidies and establish an arbitration body to mediate between growers and corporations buying their produce.


Protesters at one point blocked the under-construction Maritsa motorway close to the Turkish border and are threatening to take their campaign to Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, Nova TV reports.


Last year, Bulgaria’s 200,000 tobacco farmers made 3 euros for every kilogram sold to companies chosen by the government. That is less than their counterparts in Greece, who qualify for EU subsidies as part of a deal made before Bulgaria joined the bloc in 2007, the BBC reported in June. 


Bulgaria’s National Association of Tobacco Producers head Tsvetan Filev said tobacco farmers are at the mercy of multinational companies that renege on deals to buy crops or haggle the price down, arguing that the crop is inferior, reports.


However things may be looking up for Bulgarian producers. Lyutvi Mestan, leader of the predominantly Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms party and a member of parliament, announced on 23 March a 50 percent increase in subsidies per kilogram of tobacco to compensate for lower purchase prices, reports.


Mestan also suggested that tobacco farmers form a national chamber to represent their interests more effectively and establish better relations between them and tobacco-buying companies, according to Novinite.


And on 25 March the Bulgarian company Bulgartabac announced it would buy some of the 150 tons of tobacco that has not yet been purchased, the Focus news agency reports.


5. Kosovo official’s thank-you tweet to NATO riles Belgrade


A spat over a tweet by a member of Kosovo’s government underscores how differently Serbia and Kosovo continue to see the NATO bombing that 15 years ago led Slobodan Milosevic to pull Yugoslav troops out of Kosovo.



Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s minister for EU integration, posted on Twitter the well-known Nike logo, doctored to read: NATO AIR Just Do It,” and with the addition of a fighter jet, Balkan Insight reports.


“15 years ago NATO intervened to stop genocide in Kosovo! Will never forget!” Citaku tweeted.


But in Belgrade, where memorial services were held 24 March for Serbian victims of the bombings, the Foreign Ministry “called the gesture disrespectful,” the news agency writes.


Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s prime minister, said his country had suffered 2,000 deaths and thousands more injuries during the 78-day air campaign, but Balkan Insight points out that no comprehensive totting up of losses has ever been released.


The Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade counts about 275 deaths in what was then Yugoslavia, excluding Kosovo. In Kosovo, the organization estimates 484 deaths, according to Balkan Insight.


Stoking Belgrade’s anger, a NATO spokeswoman retweeted Citaku’s post. Serbia raised official protests with NATO, but the alliance’s spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, said, “NATO reacted quickly to protect people in Kosovo in 1999 and our peace mission KFOR continues to provide a safe environment for all people in Kosovo based on UN Security Council Resolution 1244,” referring to the measure that called for Yugoslavia’s withdrawal from Kosovo, established a UN administration there, and acknowledged Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity.


The overwhelming majority of Serbians oppose joining NATO, with support for the alliance highest among educated young people.


As the Belgrade memorial services were going on, the Humanitarian Law Center unveiled an online database  of “facts and evidence regarding the crimes committed during the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the [1990s] for which no one has been held responsible.”  

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Sarah Fluck and Lily Sieradzki are TOL editorial interns.
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