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Ukraine Arrests Provocateur Suspects, Croatian Graft Probes Roll On

Plus, the sons of Georgia’s first post-Soviet leader call for new probe into his death and an Estonian startup claims to make language learning a snap.

by Jeremy Druker, Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, and Lily Sieradzki 2 April 2014

1. Ukraine targets home-grown, foreign violence


Ukrainian lawmakers on 1 April urged the disarmament of illegal armed groups, Interfax-Ukraine reports.


In a resolution, the Verkhovna Rada called on the authorities immediately to disarm such groups to stem "the escalation of criminal situations and numerous incidents of unsanctioned use of arms, which led to death and injuries of people," and complained of "constant provocations from foreign citizens in southeastern Ukraine and Kyiv."


The same day, a standoff in downtown Kyiv between police and the nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) organization ended without violence when several Pravy Sektor members laid down their weapons and left their headquarters in the Dnepr hotel, The Moscow Times reports. Police surrounded the hotel after arresting a Pravy Sektor member who reportedly opened fire on the street, injuring three people including the deputy chief of the city administration.


Authorities began rounding up Pravy Sektor members last week after a leader of the group, Oleksandr Muzychko, was killed as police tried to arrest him in western Ukraine, the Moscow paper writes.


Pravy Sektor provided security for anti-government demonstrators during the three months of unrest that led to the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych. Their violent attacks on police escalated the conflict to a new level, Euronews writes.


Pravy Sektor will continue to arm itself until the security situation improves, its Kyiv regional leader, Ihor Mazur, said 1 April. Mazur insisted group members’ weapons were either registered personal firearms or borrowed from friends, according to Interfax-Ukraine.


Ukrainian authorities are also concerned about the foreign provocateurs alluded to in the Verkhovna Rada resolution. On 31 March the Security Service (SBU) said a leader of an extremist Russian youth group was under investigation for planning to lead as many as 200 people in an armed takeover of government buildings in Kyiv, the Kyiv Post reports.


Also 31 March, the SBU said it had detained an intelligence officer from the Moldovan breakaway region of Transdniester suspected of smuggling arms into Ukraine.


Kyiv_remembrance.ceremonySeveral thousand Kyivans came to Independence Square 30 March to attend a remembrance ceremony for the dozens of people killed in months of street clashes. Image from a video by JewishNewsOne/YouTube


2. Croatian anti-corruption drive rolls on


Croatian anti-corruption police announced on 1 April that they had indicted the head of Hungary's MOL energy group for paying a bribe to gain greater influence in Croatian oil and gas company INA, Reuters reports. The same day the country's former army chief was sentenced to 18 months in prison over a real-estate scandal that reportedly cost the country more than $10 million in losses.


According to Croatia's anti-corruption body, USKOK, MOL chief executive Zsolt Hernadi paid off then-Prime Minister Ivo Sanader “to do everything possible for the amount of 10 million euros to change the shareholders' agreement in INA” to help MOL secure a dominant position in the company. In a statement on its website, USKOK said the agreement was indeed changed to favor MOL, which owns almost 50 percent of INA, and Sanader got his money.


Sanader is already serving a 10-year sentence for accepting a bribe from MOL. Both he and the Hungarian energy giant have denied any wrongdoing and Sanader has issued an appeal to the Croatian Supreme Court. According to The Wall Street Journal, MOL has claimed the case is politically motivated as talks over the future of INA's ownership continue, and says that Hernadi has already convinced its board of his innocence.


Last month, in the biggest anti-graft trial in Croatian history, Sanader and the party he led for nearly a decade, the Croatian Democratic Union, as well four other defendants, were convicted of siphoning off 70 million kunas ($12.7 million) from state companies.


The new indictment is sure to worsen the already poor relationship between the Croatian authorities and MOL, which has said it would part with its share in INA if ongoing talks with Zagreb over new terms of their partnership ended without a new agreement.


kruljac_100Mladen Kruljac
Meanwhile, a county court in the city of Osijek issued a guilty verdict against retired General Mladen Kruljac, former commander of Croatia's army in 2007-2011, and five other defendants for a real-estate scheme that involved selling off state land at under-market values, Reuters reports.


These cases represent only the latest in the anti-corruption campaign that the country launched in 2009 to boost its credentials for membership in the European Union, which eventually came in July 2013.


3. VKontakte boss steps down


The 29-year-old founder of the Russian social network VKontakte said 1 April he would step down as chief executive, The Wall Street Journal reports.


Pavel Durov has been embroiled in a conflict with a major shareholder, Russian investment fund United Capital Partners. But the Kremlin’s meddling in the company was the last straw for Durov, TechCrunch reports.


VKontakte quickly overtook Facebook and other rivals to become the most popular social networking site in Russia and other former Soviet states after Durov and his older brother, Nikolai, founded it in 2006. Valued at $3.5 billion, it claims 240 million registered users and 60 million daily visitors.


With popularity came Kremlin scrutiny, according to The Journal, notably when opposition supporters used the site to organize demonstrations against disputed elections in 2011 and 2012.


VKontakte was briefly blacklisted last May in what federal regulators called a “mistake,” several months after a new law allowing the authorities to close websites containing socially harmful material took effect.


According to TechCrunch, more recently, “as we understand it Durov came under strong pressure to shut down pages related to [Kremlin critic] Alexei Navalny and his supporters and give out private data for Ukraine’s opposition leaders.” group, held by oligarch and Kremlin ally Alisher Usmanov, boosted its stake in VKontakte to 52 percent in March, increasing to three the number of large Russian social networking sites it controls, TechCrunch writes.


4. Gamsakhurdia kin urge new probe into his death


gamsakurdia_100Zviad Gamsakhurdia
The three sons of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first president after the country’s split from the Soviet Union, are calling for a new investigation into his suspicious death, Radio Free Europe writes.


Gamsakhurdia died on New Year’s Eve 1993 in a village in western Georgia. His wife, Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia, contested the initial finding of suicide by a gunshot to the head, claiming he was murdered. His death occurred shortly after a failed attempt to regain power nearly two years after Georgian warlords ousted him. His body was buried in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where he and his family settled after the coup. His grave and remains were only identified in 2007 and then moved to Tbilisi for a state funeral.


An autopsy done in Russia reportedly found two bullets in his skull, RFE says. Gamsakhurdia’s son Konstantine was elected to parliament in 2008 and chaired a parliamentary commission to re-examine his father’s death, although according to a 2011 report, the commission’s mandate was limited to “studying” rather than “investigating” the incident.


The commission’s report charged the initial investigation with negligence and ignoring crucial facts, and claimed that important evidence such as the gun and bullet that killed Gamsakhurdia had disappeared.


The commission concluded that the suicide verdict was open to question. The Prosecutor General’s office did not take action, despite a February 2011 parliamentary resolution requesting that it do so.


5. New startup extends Estonia’s enviable IT pedigree


Estonian startup Lingvist claims its new software can teach a new language in 200 hours by eliminating irrelevant vocabulary and cutting down on memorization time, TechCrunch writes.


The company has raised 1 million euros to polish what it calls “adaptive” language learning software. So far only beta sites for French and Spanish study are available.


“Most digital language learning tools are still using teaching methods that might as well be set in a physical textbook – i.e. they are not making use of the fact that the student is learning on a device that has computational power and the capability to record and analyze usage data,” Lingvist co-founder Mait Muntel said.


Although Lingvist does not offer speech recognition like some other language learning programs, its word-crunching power lets “students learn words that they’ll actually hear in the language they’re studying,” Arctic Startup writes.


Lingvist is only a small part of the tech scene in a country that produces more startups per capita than any other, according to The Economist. Skype, the widely used online calling service, was started by Estonian programmers in 2003 and acquired by Microsoft in 2011.


Much of Estonia’s government functioning happens online, according to an official website. Citizens hold an electronic ID card, can vote and file taxes online, and can start a new business almost instantly online, The Economist reports.


In addition, Estonia hosts the European Union’s large-scale IT agency and NATO’s cyber-defense center. For a few years, the country’s schools have been teaching coding to students as young as 7.

Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Lily Sieradzki is a TOL editorial interns.
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