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Russia, U.S. Face Off Over Transdniester, Polish Disabled Activists in Parliament Protest

Plus, plans for a resort on a pristine Black Sea beach divide Bulgarian public opinion, and Abkhazia opens its doors to ethnic kin fleeing the Syrian crisis. 

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, Marketa Horazna, and Ky Krauthamer 1 April 2014

1. Putin demands end to Transdniester ‘blockade’


Since Russia’s incursion into Crimea, some have been warning that Transdniester, a separatist region in Moldova, could be next – especially as officials in the region have asked Russia to incorporate Transdniester.


Victoria NulandVictoria Nuland
Against that backdrop, Moscow is starting to make demands about the fate of the sliver of land that lies east of the Dniester River between Moldova proper and Ukraine. In recent telephone calls with U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an end “to what amounts to an external blockade of the region,” according to the Kremlin website.


Transdniester’s de facto foreign minister recently complained that the region has suffered economically since 2006, when Ukraine accepted Moldova’s request to stop the transit of Transdniestrian goods via its territory without Moldovan documents, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.


About one-third of Transdniester’s 550,000 people were Russians in a 2004 census. Its government is not recognized by any country, but it relies heavily on Moscow to fund welfare benefits and has years of outstanding bills to Russian energy giant Gazprom. Estimates of the numbers of Russian troops stationed there range from 1,000 to 2,000.


U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland denied claims of a blockade.


Speaking at a press conference in Chisinau over the weekend Nuland said, “This is not a blockade by any means. Commerce and trade is continuing to move normally across that border, as are tourists and business people,” according to Radio Free Europe.


Of the “tens of thousands” who have crossed the border in the past month, she said only about 200 have been turned back. 


Nuland announced the United States will increase its security spending in Moldova by $10 million to help beef up the border. Altogether, Washington has pledged $19.7 million in aid to Moldova this year, with $3.8 million of that going for “peace and security” before Nuland’s announcement.


2. Polish disabled activists demand more state aid


Caregivers for the disabled in Poland expanded their demands for higher benefits last week after the government agreed to increase payments to parents of disabled children.


Parents won the initial concession after several days of protests inside the Polish parliament. Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the monthly benefit would rise to 1,200 zlotys ($400) from the current 820 zlotys by 1 January 2015 and to the national minimum wage of 1,680 zlotys a year later, the Warsaw Business Journal reports.


Parents had demanded an immediate increase to the minimum wage level. Tusk said the increase would be funded by tapping money earmarked for the country’s road construction fund.


Later in the week, caregivers of adult disabled people joined in the protest, some camping outside the parliament, Polish Radio reports.


One activist accused the government of trying to drive a wedge between caregivers for children and adults. In a 27 March meeting with protesters, Labor Minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz said the government differentiated between the groups because disabled adults often can draw on their pensions and other sources of support.


The government claims state spending on families with disabled members rose from $165 million in 2007 to $560 million in 2013, Polish Radio reports. 


3. Black Sea resort plan divides Bulgaria


Bulgarian public opinion is split over a development project targeting a protected area on the Black Sea coast, The Sofia Globe writes in a report on protests both for and against the plan.


New protests against the hotel and resort complex at Karadere broke out 30 March in Sofia, Plovdiv, and other cities, while counter-protesters in smaller towns said the construction would bring much-needed jobs to the country’s deprived rural areas.


The government will not approve the project in its current form because it would encroach on a protected natural area but will consider a slimmed-down version once an environmental impact assessment is done, Environment Minister Iskra Mihailova said 25 March, according to The Sofia Globe.


Environmentalists oppose the Karadere project, which is planned for a site in the EU’s Natura 2000 nature conservation network. However, locals, landowners, and developers say the resort would create hundreds of new jobs in the area.


The project’s main investor, Madara Europe, last week revealed its sources of funding to combat rumors it lacked sufficient funds, Novinite writes. Madara Europe also pledged not to start construction until it gets a positive environmental impact assessment.


Despite a tourism boom in recent years, the EU’s poorest country has had to confront concerns over poor infrastructure and environmental damage as it tries to attract more visitors and investment.


bulgaria beachOn the beach at Karadere. Photo by L'imaGiraphe (en travaux) / Flickr


4. Mishandling likely cause of Prague Palestinian envoy’s bomb death


After a three-month investigation, Czech police believe the death of the Palestinian ambassador to the Czech Republic was probably caused by his mishandling of explosives.


Jamal al-Jamal
Ambassador Jamal al-Jamal was fatally injured in the New Year’s Day explosion. Police initially suspected that he accidentally set off an explosive security device in a safe after it was moved to a new embassy building in a Prague suburb.


Police spokeswoman Andrea Zoulova said al-Jamal was probably holding the explosive when it went off, reports.


Police found another chemical explosive device identical to the one that killed al-Jamal hidden in a book, an anonymous police source told iDNES.


Further results are expected in a few weeks after genetic and chemical tests, Zoulova said, according to the Czech Press Agency.


Police still believe negligence was the likely cause of the blast, although al-Jamal’s daughter said soon afterward she suspected he had been murdered. Police found 12 unregistered firearms in embassy, apparently gifts to diplomats from officials of communist Czechoslovakia.


Diplomats and embassy staff moved in to the new building in the Suchdol district in February over protests by the district mayor and local people worried for their safety, reported.


5. New lives in Abkhazia for Syrian exiles


A century and a half after the mass deportations of Muslims from Russia’s Black Sea territories, a trickle is coming home as refugees from the Syrian civil war. Authorities in Abkhazia say about 500 Syrians of Abkhaz descent have been resettled there since 2012, writes.


The Abkhaz were among hundreds of thousands of Circassians and related peoples killed and deported during Russia’s advance into the Caucasus in the 19th century. The exiles settled mostly in Turkey and the Middle East. Several thousand are thought to live in Syria.


Some of the refugees are having trouble adjusting to life in the territory, which only Russia and a handful of other countries recognize as a sovereign country.


“With unemployment high and living standards low, getting diaspora Abkhaz to return and stay has been a hard sell – unless the alternative is life in a refugee camp,” writes.


The head of the Turkey and Middle East department at Abkhazia’s de facto Foreign Ministry, Inar Gitsba, said, “The conflict in Syria made them decide to come faster. … But they always had the idea to come back to their homeland.”


Russian authorities helped by arranging a charter flight from Beirut to Sochi, Abkhazia’s de facto deputy foreign minister, Irakli Khintba, said. Abkhazia is heavily dependent on Russian economic aid and trade.


Abkhazia has spent about $1.5 million since 2012 for housing, education, and financial assistance for the refugees, according to The refugees live in rented apartments in and near the capital, Sukhumi, and receive monthly support of 10,000 rubles ($285).


Abkhazia’s government has built new apartments for them in a village southeast of Sukhumi, IWPR reported in 2013.


After Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s the authorities encouraged ethnic Abkhaz to immigrate and offered them automatic citizenship.


“Many families responded to the call, and as I recall, up to 3,000 people returned to Abkhazia, mainly from Turkey. But they were unable to fit in, and soon went back again,” the International Crisis Group’s Medea Turashvili told IWPR.


“At the moment, there’s a specific reason why people are returning – the intolerable conditions and crisis in Syria,” Turashvili said.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Marketa Horazna is a TOL editorial intern.
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