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New Armenian Premier Named, Russia Braces for Early Fire Season

Plus, Lavrov accuses the West of double standards on Ukrainian press freedom, and a former U.S. envoy to Kosovo paves a golden road to a new career.

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, Marketa Horazna, and Ky Krauthamer 15 April 2014

1. Armenian political veteran becomes prime minister


Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan appointed Parliamentary Speaker Hovik Abrahamyan as the country’s next prime minister 13 April, 10 days after his predecessor resigned amid widespread criticism of a new pension law.


Hovik Abrahamyan
Abrahamyan, 56, a member of the ruling Republican Party, became parliamentary speaker in 2008, Reuters reports.


The reasons behind previous Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan’s sudden resignation remain unclear, Radio Free Europe writes, although some saw him as the victim of a struggle for power with Abrahamyan, “who has reportedly long aspired to the premiership.”


Sargsyan stepped down the day after the Constitutional Court overturned parts of his government’s hugely unpopular law instituting mandatory worker contributions to pension funds.


The court temporarily suspended the law shortly after it took effect on 1 January. Designed to force workers to save more as a way of supplementing state pensions that typically pay only about $24 a month, the law requires workers aged 40 or younger to contribute 5 percent of their monthly salaries to private pension funds.


2. Russia on fire watch as mild winter turns to warm spring


If warm, dry conditions continue, Russia could be facing massive fires on a scale similar to the catastrophic summer of 2010, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines.


After an unusually mild winter with little snow, the season’s first peat fire ignited in late March in the Moscow region. In Siberia, forest fires also arrived early and had affected 31,000 hectares (77,000 acres) of land by 31 March, a federal forestry official said.




“The forest fire situation is tense in Russia this year. Due to a shortage of precipitation the forest fire season has begun almost one and a half months ahead of the norm,” Natural Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi said earlier this month, The Siberian Times reports.


In 2010, record-breaking heat and drought provided ideal conditions for fires to cause havoc throughout western and central Russia. About 60 people died and 2,500 houses burned down, with eight villages destroyed in the flames, Russia Beyond the Headlines writes. Thick smoke enveloped Moscow and other cities in choking smog.


Similar situations occur periodically when conditions allow long-smoldering fires in peat bogs to erupt into full-scale disasters. Peat bogs cover 568,000 square kilometers (220,000 square miles), equal to the area of Ukraine, in northern European Russia, western Siberia, and Kamchatka.


The Emergency Ministry predicts a dry summer.


3. Lavrov lashes out at Kyiv for barring journalists


Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has charged Ukraine with systematically refusing to let Russian journalists enter the country, RIA Novosti reports.


Lavrov said 14 April that Western countries’ silence on the issue revealed their “double standards” regarding the lack of press freedom in Ukraine. RIA said two of its staff as well as three other Russian journalists were prevented from entering Ukraine last week.


On 9 April the Committee to Protect Journalists urged Ukrainian authorities not to hinder the work of Russian journalists, citing reports that reporters for a half-dozen major Russian media outlets had been refused entry for not having enough cash, not being able to justify the purpose of their visit, or merely working for Russian media.


Several journalists have been refused entry on the basis of a December law that requires Russians to carry $600 in cash plus $100 for each day of their stay. “However, many of those who have been barred recently said that they had sufficient funds,” The Moscow Times writes.


Lack of cash was the reason given when a reporter for Ekho Moskvy radio was turned back at the border 14 April, according to the Moscow paper, citing Interfax.


Ukrainian authorities may be reacting to what they see as biased coverage of the political crisis by Russian reporters, Ekho Moskvy editor in chief Alexei Venediktov said. However, he added, “if you do not let journalists into the territory of your country for made up and laughable reasons, there emerges suspicion that you are hiding events that are unpleasant for the Ukrainian authorities.”


In January, Russia expelled American journalist David Satter, who was working as an adviser and contributor to Radio Free Europe’s Russian service. Satter’s 2003 book, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, supports the theory that Russian security forces carried out a string of deadly apartment bombings in 1999 and blamed them on Chechen terrorists to fire up support for a new invasion of Chechnya. It was reprinted in Russia last year.


4. U.S. ambassador who pushed costly Kosovo road lands job with road-builder


A former U.S. ambassador to Kosovo who lobbied the young country to pursue a budget-busting highway project has taken a job with the company that built the road, Balkan Insight reports.


Christopher Dell
Christopher Dell, who served as ambassador from 2009 until 2012, took a job late last year as an African country manager with U.S. construction firm Bechtel, according to the website.


While in Pristina, Dell championed the controversial highway despite reservations by Peter Feith, the EU’s top diplomat in Kosovo. Together the two men were the “most senior foreign officials supervising Kosovo’s campaign for recognition as a sovereign state following the 1999 war,” Balkan Insight notes.


The highway links Pristina to the border with Albania, where it connects with a new route to Tirana and the Adriatic port of Durres. The contract to build it was awarded in 2010 to Bechtel, in partnership with a smaller Turkish company, Enka.


It was a bad deal from the beginning, according to a former economic adviser to Kosovo, handing more negotiating leverage to the company than to the government.


The price tag rose from 400 million to 659 million euros ($910 million), Andrea Lorenzo Capussela, former director of the International Civilian Office’s economic and fiscal affairs unit in Kosovo, wrote for TOL in January 2012.


The final cost came to about 820 million euros – a bit more than half of Kosovo’s budget for 2012 – for 77 kilometers (48 miles) of highway, according to Balkan Insight.


A line of credit that the government secured from the IMF in 2010 “was effectively an attempt to save Kosovo’s budget from the weight of this huge expenditure,” according to Capussela.


The overruns were likely exacerbated by the government’s failure to supervise the work, which the contract allowed, until more than a year into the project, Capussela noted. Corruption allegations have clung to the contract, and it is under investigation by the EU’s rule of law mission to Kosovo, a source in the mission told Balkan Insight. The Albanian government is launching a second probe into wrongdoing on its portion of the project.


Feith recently said he disagreed with Dell’s push for the expensive contract and had asked to see the details but was rebuffed by the U.S. Embassy. He is now urging an investigation into Dell’s role in the contract, given Dell’s new position with Bechtel.


5. Don’t harass opposition candidates, Georgian officials urge police


Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has called for a temporary halt to detentions and what he termed other “legal restriction of rights” of candidates in the 15 June local elections, reports.


Garibashvili’s Georgian Dream party was criticized by the country’s Western partners when new legal authorities arrested dozens of officials of the former ruling United National Movement after Georgian Dream’s comprehensive win in the 2012 general election.


More recently, Georgian watchdog groups criticized the arrests of several local officials for relatively minor corruption cases dating to 2009 and 2010. One of the municipalities concerned, Khoni, was one of only three in the country still headed by a UNM member, the groups said in a February statement.


“Apparently referring to recent cases when pro-government groups confronted UNM opposition leaders and activists, PM Garibashvili said that ‘aggression, accumulated in the society, is periodically expressed toward the former government representatives,’ ” writes.


Tbilisi Mayor and prominent UNM member Gigi Ugulava was suspended from office in December when corruption charges were filed against him.


Justice Minister Thea Tsulukiani also stepped into the debate, asking a new, temporary inter-agency election commission, which she chairs, to suggest guidelines for criminal investigations involving candidates in the upcoming local elections, Democracy and Freedom Watch reports.


The UNM claims some of its candidates have been questioned for their actions when the party was in government and accuses Georgian Dream of using the police to put pressure on its members. However, as Democracy and Freedom Watch writes, UNM itself was widely criticized for employing similar tactics ahead of the 2012 elections.


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.

Home page photo: A forest fire burns in Russia’s Khabarovsk region on 28 March. Image from a video by GuberniaTV/YouTube.

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