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Plus, Macedonia's high court signs off on a controversial lustration law and a Russian court convicts five in a horrendous 2010 bombing.by By S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Jeremy Druker 11 April 2014
1. Putin: Ukraine gas cut could disrupt European supplies
Vladimir Putin is back wielding his favorite foreign policy cudgel: natural gas.
In a 10 April letter to 18 countries, the Russian president warned European leaders that Gazprom might cut gas supplies to Ukraine over a $2.2 billion gas debt, potentially disrupting flows to Europe, Reuters reports. Putin called for talks on bolstering Ukraine's spiraling economy.
Gazprom, he said, will begin demanding payment up front. If Kyiv doesn't pay, the state-owned energy giant “will completely or partially cease gas deliveries.”
Reuters points out that this is Putin's clearest threat to cut gas to Ukraine since Moscow's standoff with the West began. When Gazprom cut supplies to Ukraine in 2009 during a payment dispute, EU countries saw energy shortages because the bloc receives around 30 percent of its gas from Russia, much of it through pipelines in Ukraine.
Germany is the largest EU consumer of Russian gas. At press time, Chancellor Angela Merkel hadn't commented. White House spokesman Jay Carney said he hadn't seen the letter, Reuters reports, but fired back anyway: "We've made clear in the past that it is wholly inappropriate to use energy exports to achieve diplomatic or geopolitical objectives."
Kyiv has long struggled to pay Russian gas bills that it says are too high. In December, Moscow offered a significant price cut after then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych walked away from signing an EU free-trade deal the Kremlin opposed.
Russia has since canceled that discount, and another tied to its lease of a port in Crimea, just as Gazprom raised prices to account for Kyiv's debt. Ukraine's gas bill nearly doubled to $485.50 per 1,000 cubic meters in a matter of days in what it called an act of aggression. Ukrainian leaders are looking for alternative sources of gas in Europe.
But Putin might be bluffing about cutting the gas. Europe is less vulnerable to short-term supply cuts than it was in 2009 and, at the same time, Gazprom is stretched thin due to falling European exports and high investment costs in recent years. Last month, Mikhail Korchemkin of East European Gas Analysis suggested Ukraine and Europe could weather gas cuts while Gazprom could not.
2. Temelin expansion falls to economic concerns
Czech majority state-owned utility CEZ is cancelling a $10 billion bid to double the capacity of its controversial Temelin nuclear power plant on economic concerns, The Wall Street Journal reports.
CEZ still plans to upgrade its nuclear fleet, but the project to build two new reactors at Temelin is no longer economically viable because wholesale electricity prices have cratered since the expansion effort began in 2009. Some Czech officials also bristled at Rosatom's participation after Russia annexed Crimea last month.
“While originally the project was fully economically feasible given the market price of electricity and other factors, today all investments into power plants, which depend for revenues on sales in the free market, are threatened,” CEZ Chief Executive Daniel Benes said in a statement, Reuters reports. “In the future it will be necessary to cooperate closely with the state in order to secure further development of nuclear energy.”
CEZ had asked Prague to guarantee higher domestic power prices to ensure the expanded production would be profitable. This week the Czech government again balked at this condition, Reuters reports.
Located near the Austrian border, Temelin has been controversial due to frequent malfunctions. The project to double its capacity to 4,000 megawatts by 2025 was the largest tender in Czech history.
In July 2012, CEZ received bids from Rosatom, Westinghouse, and France's Areva, which was excluded. After a corruption scandal toppled the Czech government last June, CEZ delayed a final decision on the bid until this year at the earliest in order to give the new government time to update the national energy strategy.
Both the Czech prime minister and president said CEZ's decision to scrap the project was logical, The WSJ reports.
3. An end to Macedonia's lustration-law saga?
Following nearly two years of deliberations, Macedonia's Constitutional Court has given its approval to a controversial law aimed at uncovering Communist-era secret police collaborators, Balkan Insight reports.
On 9 April, the court rejected motions against 14 disputed provisions dealing primarily with the scope of the government-backed law. It was the first time in the lengthy saga over the law that the court flatly rejected a legal challenge.
The Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which filed one of the two motions against the legislation in 2012, said the decision shows that the judiciary is in the pocket of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party, which voted the most recent version of the law through parliament in June 2012. It made files of informants public and available online, one of the provisions the committee contested.
Lustration has inspired a heated political battle between the VMRO-DPMNE-led coalition and the Constitutional Court, which has challenged the law twice since its adoption in 2008, according to Balkan Insight. In March 2012, it scrapped large parts of the original law as too broad because it forced journalists, lawyers, clergy, and other professionals to swear they never collaborated with the secret police.
While the new law, effective from July 2012, had a narrower scope, it covered a longer time period than the court had deemed allowable, among other provisions that seemed to fall outside previous rulings. But Balkan Insight suggests that this week's decision seems to sign off on the amended version.
Many post-Communist states have lustration laws. But critics say Skopje is trying to discredit opposition leaders and others critical of the government.
4. Russian court convicts five in horrendous 2010 bombing
A group of alleged Islamic militants were found guilty on 9 April of a 2010 terrorist suicide bombing in Russia’s North Ossetia republic that killed 20 and injured hundreds, Radio Free Europe reports.
Isa Khashagulgov, reported by RFE as the ringleader, received life in prison. Four others were sentenced to between 14 and 25 years in jail. They were also held responsible for a string of other “criminal” acts in North Ossetia and neighboring Ingushetia.
A car bomb exploded in the main marketplace in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, on 9 September 2010, shattering the comparative calm in the republic. While North Ossetia was the site of the infamous Beslan school hostage massacre, the republic had seen fewer attacks by insurgents than neighboring areas in the North Caucasus.
Soon after the Vladikavkaz bombing, Russian security forces picked up Khashagulgov and two others, including his brother, Yakuba. Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, said at the time that Isa Khashagulgov was a close associate of Chechen warlord Doku Umarov and had organized the marketplace bombing and more than 10 other attacks in the restive Ingushetia republic.
As security forces attempted to arrest a third brother, Sultangery Khashagulgov, in February 2013, he allegedly opened fire and was shot dead. Sultangery was a former construction minister in Ingushetia, according to Reuters.
Isa Khashagulgov has proclaimed his innocence, and his wife even made an appeal posted on the Internet, standing by her husband. He and the other defendants will file appeals, according to their lawyers.
5. One for the bucket list: a dip in the Aral Sea
Adventure-seekers can now enjoy travel packages to the shrinking Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, one of the largest man-made environmental disasters in history, EurasiaNet.org reports.
“[L]ocal tour operators say the number of sightseers is growing each year,” according to the website. The packages on offer include camping trips to the coastline, and even “swimming,” although some might be discouraged by the high salinity and the chemicals in the water.
The Aral Sea, once one of the largest lakes in the world, started to shrink in the 1960s, when Soviet authorities diverted the Amu Darya and Syr Darya, its main tributaries, to rice and cotton crops. As a result, the sea had only a tenth of its volume left by 1990 and had split in two. However, thanks to a dam partially funded by the World Bank, the sea has been returning on the Kazakhstan side, along with various species of fish, thanks to a drop in salinity.
On Uzbekistan’s side, however, it’s a different story.
According to an unnamed lecturer for a tour operator in a town in Uzbekistan, water loss upstream on the Amu Darya river keeps the lake from recovering: the poor state of the irrigation system results in less than 10 percent of the water from the river reaching the fields, he said.
EurasiaNet.org writes that the receding waters have taken a heavy toll on residents of former fishing villages, which were once thriving by the water’s edge. Dust storms, extreme weather, and pesticide-laden soil have been linked to lung diseases, while the villages have died off as the fishing industry disappeared.
Efforts from activists to raise awareness of the problems have met with resistance on the part of the authorities, who reportedly threatened one woman with forced psychiatric care, according to EurasiaNet.org.