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Plus, Slovakia and Hungary link up for alternatives to Russian gas and Tajikistanis face severe power cuts.by S. Adam Cardais, Sarah Fluck, and Karlo Marinovic 28 March 2014
Newly freed opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko announced her presidential candidacy 27 March, just as Ukraine secured a multibillion dollar international aid package to shore up its economy.
The 2004 Orange Revolution leader told reporters she would run in the 25 May poll as "a candidate for Ukrainian unity" under an anti-corruption platform, the BBC reports.
"My presidential campaign will be the campaign of direct action: no promises, but immediate actions, and then – in a couple of days – reporting on what's been done," she said.
The announcement came a month after Tymoshenko was released from prison following the ouster of archrival Viktor Yanukovych amid mass protests. In 2011, Tymoshenko was convicted of abuse of office over a gas deal she negotiated with Russia while serving as prime minister in 2009. Many said the case was orchestrated by Yanukovych, who barely beat Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential elections.
Tymoshenko has since become an opposition leader despite suffering a sharp drop in popularity since the heady days of the Orange Revolution due to widespread accusations of government corruption and incompetence during her second term as prime minister from 2007 to 2010. Earlier this week, Tymoshenko took fire for a recording of a telephone conversation in which she calls for Russia to be destroyed for annexing Crimea, among other provocative comments. She says some of the conversation, believed to have been recorded by Russian security services, was altered but that it is her voice.
In May, Tymoshenko will likely face off against Vitali Klitschko, the boxer turned opposition politician, and chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, who leads the polls, according to the BBC.
Also on 27 March, Ukraine secured a $27 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund, the United States, European Union, and other lenders to shore up its debt-ridden economy. Reuters called the deal "a boost for the pro-Western government" in Kyiv.
Ukraine will receive a $14 billion to $18 billion loan from the IMF in return for economic reforms that will open the door to more aid, Reuters reports. Kyiv got off to an aggressive start on the reform front this week by raising natural gas prices – long subsidized below market levels – 50 percent from May.
Explaining the belt-tightening to parliament, interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the economy could contract 10 percent this year without austerity. "Ukraine is on the edge of economic and financial bankruptcy,” Yatsenyuk said.
Investigators have uncovered a mass grave in northwest Bosnia with the remains of up to 147 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) murdered during the 1990s conflict, Reuters reports.
The Institute for Missing Persons said the victims were likely Muslim civilians killed in Kozarac, a town in the Prijedor municipality, in 1992. Exhumation of the grave – itself located in the village of Oborci – is expected to begin soon.
Prijedor is also the name of the biggest town in northwestern Bosnia, a Bosnian Serb stronghold where detention camps were based and thousands of Bosniaks and Croats were killed during the 1992-1995 conflict. Many people from the area are still missing, Edin Ramulic of Izvor (Source), a victim's organization, told Balkan Insight.
"These could be the victims from the municipality, which were either taken from a [detention] camp or were taken during the closure of some of the camps, even during the [ethnic] cleansing of a village," Ramulic said. "There are a lot of those situations."
Investigators are still uncovering mass graves from the war. Last year 435 bodies were exhumed from the Tomasica site near the city of Prijedor that could ultimately prove larger than the mass grave near Srebrenica where 629 bodies were discovered. Forensic experts say Tomasica could contain 850 bodies, Reuters reports.
Slovakia and Hungary have taken steps toward reducing their dependence on Russian natural gas, as new research shows how the EU could completely replace it with alternative sources.
The prime ministers of Hungary and Slovakia, Viktor Orban and Robert Fico, unveiled a link between their countries' natural gas pipelines 27 March, in the town of Szada near Budapest, which will allow a reverse of gas flow to Hungary from alternative sources in Europe, EurActiv reports.
A Gazprom subsidiary imports 65 percent of Hungary’s natural gas from Russia.
The 100-plus-kilometer (62-plus-mile) pipeline between the countries, with a capacity of 5 billion cubic meters per year, is part of the North-South Corridor, an EU project that will eventually link liquefied natural gas terminals off the coasts of Croatia and Poland, running through Eastern and Central Europe.
Set to start operating in 2015, the Slovakia-Hungary segment will allow the countries to reverse the flow to receive gas from sources such as the planned LNG terminal in Croatia.
Slovakia also plans to link its natural gas pipelines with the Polish LNG terminal and could receive up to 5 billion cubic meters a year that way beginning in 2017, EurActiv reports.
The Belgian think tank Bruegel published research last week showing how the EU could reduce or eliminate entirely imports of Russian gas.
Bruegel said Russian gas exports to the EU, amounting to some 130 billion cubic meters per year, or 27 percent of the bloc's supplies, could be replaced by alternative sources such as Norwegian natural gas and LNG imports.
The group found that the EU's LNG import capacities are underused, as only 46 of a possible 180 billion cubic meters was used in 2013. According to Bruegel, more liquefied gas could be brought from Africa, the Middle East, and South America.
In addition, the organization suggested filling the “large west-Ukrainian storages (up to 30 bcm) with western European gas during summer” to meet the increased demand during winter, and increasing natural gas imports from North Africa, which would, in combination with natural gas saved by switching away from its use in electricity generation, industry, and heating, yield some 190 billion cubic meters this year.
Such moves would have an ‘impact on Russia ... more severe than the impact on the EU,” according to Bruegel.
Tajikistan is severely rationing electricity due to cold weather, Radio Free Europe reports.
On 27 March the Barqi Tojik state energy company said a cold snap had decreased water levels in rivers feeding the Nurek hydropower station, forcing it to ration electricity as energy output falls. Some regions have only 30 minutes of power a day, and the cold front is expected to last through the middle of next week, according to RFE.
The ITAR-TASS News Agency reports that Barqi Tojik has restricted homes to four hours of power a day. Even the capital, Dushanbe, has suffered blackouts. On 27 March, electricity was cut to the main building of the Slavonic University, which is hosting an international security conference.
Tajikistan faces frequent winter energy crises due to the vulnerability of its hydropower infrastructure and high demand for heating, according to The World Bank. Rural areas are hit hardest, with more than 1 million people suffering long blackouts each winter, and the problem is only expected to get worse if nothing is done.
Uzbekistan’s Agriculture Ministry is years behind in payments of up to 2 billion soms ($873,000) to 14 farm-supply companies, some of whom face financial collapse as a result, uznews.net reports.
For the past 10 years, the ministry has been delaying payments to farm equipment suppliers representatives of those companies told the website.
Ten years ago, the companies started selling imported farm equipment to a commercial arm of the Agriculture Ministry, which in turn supplied cotton farmers.
The middleman, called Keles, paid a 15 percent advance on the equipment, but then delayed the rest of the payments, uznews.net writes.
Officials said the delay was caused by farmers not paying the debts on their end, uznews.net reports.
In 2009 Keles filed for bankruptcy. In December 2011 the ministry agreed to pay Keles’ debts to the suppliers by October 2012 but did not do so, according to uznews.net.
After one company sued, in May 2013 a court ordered the ministry to pay the company 850 million soms but reversed the decision five months later.
Problems in cotton farming are serious business in Uzbekistan: the crop accounted for 11.3 percent of the country’s export earnings in 2010-2011, according to the Responsible Sourcing Network. Human- and labor-rights organizations have long campaigned to get major retailers to boycott Uzbekistan’s cotton, as the country relies on forced and child labor to harvest it.
Uzbekistan produces about 0.9 million tons of cotton annually, making it the world’s sixth largest producer and fourth largest exporter of the crop, according to a U.S. industry group.