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Another Siege in Eastern Ukraine, Serbia Takes Aim at Tax Cheats

Plus, a report alleges evidence tampering in the probe of the Riga supermarket collapse and Russians in Estonia reject separatism. 

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Annabel Lau, and Lily Sieradzki 14 April 2014

1. Another town in eastern Ukraine sees pro-Russia siege


With attention focused on the standoff between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian security services in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, a separatist group stormed government buildings in a town about 25 miles to the northeast this morning.


Shots were heard and Molotov cocktails were thrown into the police station in Horlivka, according to francetvinfo, the website of French public television.


A group of people had tried to take over the building 13 April but were repelled by police, Bloomberg reports. Accounts were sketchy at TOL’s press time, but twitter postings by correspondents in Horlivka and Donetsk describe a series of events today that included a “small explosion” going off at a pro-Russia protest and a spontaneous uprising in which protesters stormed City Hall and the police station. One police officer was reportedly beaten and taken away in an ambulance.


Meanwhile, after the Ukrainian government announced that it would mount a military campaign against separatists who had taken over government buildings in Sloviansk, Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council 13 April to urge Kyiv to backpedal.


Vitaly Churkin
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, said the Ukrainian government, which Moscow does not recognize, contains neo-Nazis and that “the opinions and interests of protesters in eastern Ukraine had not been taken into consideration,” according to the BBC.


The United States accuses Russia of being behind the unrest in Ukraine’s east and using the threat of incursion – with tens of thousands of troops and heavy equipment camped out just over the border – to intimidate its western neighbor.


“The Ukrainian government has reporting indicating that Russian intelligence officers are directly involved in orchestrating the activities of pro-Russian armed resistance groups in eastern Ukraine,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.


“In addition, the Ukrainian government detained an individual who said that he was recruited by the Russian security services and instructed to carry out subversive operations in eastern and southern Ukraine, including seizing administrative buildings. All of this evidence undercuts the Russian government’s claims that Ukraine is on the brink of ‘civil war,’ ” the State Department said.


2. New government in Serbia eyes stepped-up tax collection


Serbia’s new government aims to ferret out tax evaders and boost collections, SETimes reports.


Aleksandar Vucic, who is likely to be the country’s next prime minister, has said the new government will have to focus on reshaping Serbia’s economy, which has a bloated public sector and a balance sheet weighed down by unprofitable companies.


In addition to planned spending cuts of about 400 million euros ($549 million) and an IMF loan, the strategy includes clawing back money the country’s losses to to tax evasion and the gray economy, which Economy Minister Lazar Krstic puts at between 850 million and 1 billion euros a year, according to SETimes.


A massive shadow economy took root in Serbia in the 1990s as the country underwent war, hyperinflation, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and a first wave of privatizations, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Foundation for the Advancement of Economics, a Belgrade think tank.


Today that gray economy accounts for about half of all Serbian trade in goods and services, tax official Milan Knezevic told SETimes.


“Faced with loss of income or even property, households turned in large numbers to the shadow economy as their primary or extra source of income. Workers, although generally retaining formal jobs, nonetheless lost reasonable or indeed any wages, and supplemented them by finding employment in the shadow economy,” the USAID report states.


Last year Serbia’s government promulgated a rule requiring that anyone with property worth more than 350,000 euros must report it to the tax office. That information would be checked against reported income to determine if the owner could afford the property through legal means.


To date the rule has lacked teeth because parliament has not passed a law allowing for the confiscation of property in cases that do not pass muster, an anti-corruption campaigner said. All parties in the March parliamentary elections backed “a law on determining the origin of property, which would enable such confiscation,” SETimes reports.


3. Report: Evidence-tampering impedes supermarket collapse probe in Latvia


An investigation into the catastrophic November collapse of a supermarket in a Riga suburb has been hindered by the removal of part of the collapsed building by a worker for the construction company that built it, Baltic News Network reports.


Pictures taken by an ITAR-TASS photographer shortly after the collapse show a man in a red jacket at the scene cutting off one of the building’s supports, which cannot be found in later photos. The disassembled parts were then moved to an unknown location, suggesting an attempt to remove evidence, according to BNN.


The supports are of particular interest. BNN reports that
“an experienced builder” approached it to point out that photos of one “deformed” support showed it had a different arrangement of bolts than the other supports, which “indicates that the deformation was noticed earlier, and was attempted to be stopped by adding additional supports,” the business news site writes.


Workers were installing a garden on the building’s roof when it gave way, killing 54 people.


Although police said the worker who disassembled the part was sent by the Riga City Council, enhanced photos show the man wearing a jacket from Re&Re, the construction company that built the supermarket, according to BNN.


A Re&Re representative confirmed that one of the firm’s workers had been sent to the disaster scene.


“As we have already publicly stated – we offered our assistance to rescuers and the police,” the representative said, according to BNN. “Following a request from state police to help with welding, we sent a qualified worker. He carried out orders given to him by the police.”


4. Russian Estonians reject calls for separatism


A group of Russian-speaking Estonians has dismissed claims that the Baltic country’s ethnic Russians intend to follow in the footsteps of Russians from Crimea and seek “protection” from Moscow.


Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) says around 380 Estonian public figures, activists, and members of parliament have signed a petition stating their lack of support for “separatist feeling and statements made on behalf of the Russian-speaking community of Estonia.


The petition came in response to a news report in Russia that the Baltic country’s Russian minority would organize demonstrations in support of Crimea, which seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia after a March referendum. The report said ethnic Russians plan to hold a similar vote for the secession of northeastern Estonia, according to ERR.


When Estonia gained independence in 1991, it was home to one of the highest percentages among former Soviet republics of people not legally considered ethnic natives – a little more than half a million people, almost 36 percent of the population, according to a 2011 TOL report. Mostly Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian, they were not automatically granted Estonian citizenship, thus creating a class of “non-citizens.” About 100,000 people in the country of 1.3 million remain in that status.


Estonia requires knowledge of the Estonian language to get citizenship, a condition human rights watchdog the Council of Europe has asked the country to drop.


While Russians in Estonia have long protested their gray status, signatories of the petition stated that “issues regarding the development of our society, including education, language, and citizenship policies, must be resolved according to the principle of the sovereignty of the state,” ERR notes.


5. Sarajevo’s city hall rises from the ashes


Sarajevo’s historic city hall has entered the final phase of restoration after being burned down during the Bosnian war, Balkan Insight reports.


The municipal hall, or Vijecnica, dates to the Austro-Hungarian era. According to the City of Sarajevo’s website, it was built between 1892 and 1894 in a style based on Moorish architecture. It housed the city’s civil administration and, from 1949, a public library.


Sarajevo's boarded-up city hall, circa 2007. Photo by Damien Smith/Wikimedia Commons.


The building was gutted in a fire caused by Bosnian-Serb rockets in August 1992. According to Balkan Insight, more than 2 million books and magazines went up in flames.


The reconstruction was hindered by the loss of drafts and plans for the original, the restoration’s main architect told the website.


According to eKapija, a Bosnian business-news site, the fourth and last stage of construction was inspected for approval this week by Sarajevo’s technical commission. The building will re-open officially on 9 May in honor of what Brussels calls Europe Day, an annual celebration of peace on the continent.


The European Union has given 9 million euros to fund the restoration project since 2000, Andy McGuffie, a spokesman for the EU delegation in Bosnia & Herzegovina, told Balkan Insight.


In June, the Vijecnica will host a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra to commemorate the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb and subsequent outbreak of World War I.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Annabel Lau and Lily Sieradzki are TOL editorial interns.
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