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Russian TV Banned in the Baltics, Ukraine Pleads for Slovak Gas

Plus, the Hague tribunal rejects Mladic’s attempt to stop his genocide trial and Bulgarian g-men seize thousands of antique artifacts.

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, Ky Krauthamer and Lily Sieradzki 16 April 2014

1. Latvia blocks Russian state broadcasting for three months


ZatlersValdis Zatlers
With an eye to Latvia’s large Russian population and Moscow’s aggressive propaganda campaign over events in Ukraine, the Latvian government has banned broadcasting from Russian state television for three months, UPI reports.


Programming on the Russian RTR channel is “likely to incite discord,” the Latvian broadcast regulator said in announcing the ban, according to UPI.


“To watch the television news in Russia is to be pulled into a swirling, 24-hour vortex of alarmist proclamations of Western aggression, sinister claims of rising fascism, and breathless accounts of imminent hostilities by the ‘illegal’ Ukrainian government,” The New York Times writes.


Latvia’s nearly 560,000 ethnic Russians account for about 27 percent of the country’s population, and there are many more in Latvia who use Russian as a primary language. One research agency found that four of the country’s most popular television stations are beamed from Russia, according to UPI.


To reach that audience, the Latvian public broadcaster wants to launch its own Russian-language channel at a cost of $2.5 million.


In the meantime, Russia may be trying to determine how its side in the information wars is faring in Latvia.


Former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, who chairs a parliamentary committee on security, has charged that Russian agents are questioning people who cross into Russia in the Latgale region on their attitudes toward Russia’s annexation of Crimea and more recent events in Ukraine, The Wall Street Journal reports.


“The Russians are interested in one thing: How effective is their propaganda?” he told the newspaper.


A recent poll in the Latgale region “found that 54 percent of those listing Russian as a home language said the annexation of Crimea was justified,” according to The Journal. Nationwide, 66 percent of non-Latvians voiced some support for the annexation.


In March, a Lithuanian court suspended broadcasts by a Russian TV network for disseminating what it said was inaccurate information about events in Vilnius in January 1991 as the country broke from the Soviet Union.


2. Ukraine begins weaning itself from Russian gas


Natural gas from Germany began flowing into Ukraine 15 April under a contract that could see Germany’s RWE supplying nearly a fifth of Ukraine’s annual consumption.


Under an agreement signed in 2012, RWE can supply up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year, Deutsche Welle reports.


Ukraine consumes about 55 billion cubic meters of gas a year and has relied on Russia to supply more than half of that, but Russia’s Gazprom has nearly doubled the price in recent weeks amid rising tensions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued unrest in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.


Gazprom could cut supplies unless Ukraine pays its $2.2 billion debt to the company, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned last week.


As Kyiv looks to secure its gas supplies, a hitch has appeared in a proposal to obtain Russian-sourced gas from Slovakia, Reuters reports. After meeting his Ukrainian counterpart, Yuri Prodan, on 15 April, Slovak Economy Minister Tomas Malatinsky said his country could not meet Kyiv’s request to reverse the flow of one of the main pipelines carrying Russian gas to Europe. Doing so might violate Slovakia’s agreements with Gazprom, Reuters writes, and while the Slovaks believe they can circumvent this hurdle by pumping gas back into Ukraine after it has been contractually delivered to Slovak buyers, this method would supply less gas than Kyiv says it needs.


Slovak gas could not reach Ukraine until the beginning of next winter, at an initial level of 3.2 billion cubic meters annual flow, gradually rising to around 10 billion cubic meters, reports.


Prodan said that solution would not guarantee enough gas, Reuters reports. The two sides plan to sign a memorandum on 28 April. 


3. Mladic set to begin defense at Hague tribunal


Judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have rejected former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic’s request to quash charges of genocide and other crimes against him, AFP reports.


Ratko Mladic
Mladic was present 15 April as the court in The Hague rejected his request. Judge Alphons Orie said the tribunal “is satisfied that there is sufficient evidence under the applicable legal standard at this stage for these counts to stand” and “considers that the accused has a case to answer on all counts of the indictment.”


Arrested in 2011 after 15 years on the run, Mladic stands accused of 11 counts of genocide and war crimes during the Bosnian conflict of 1992-1995. He denies the charges. His legal team says he was unaware of the crimes committed by his subordinates during the conflict.


The main counts against him relate to his role in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces entered a UN “safe area” guarded by Dutch troops and executed around 8,000 Bosniak men and boys.


Orie said the prosecution’s evidence, if accepted, could show that Mladic took part in “a joint criminal enterprise” with the purpose of “permanently removing non-Serbs from Serb territories through the commission of crimes,” Balkan Insight writes.


Orie referred to testimonies of former Bosnian Serb fighters as well as inmates of Serb-run detention camps.


Mladic will begin his defense next month, according to Balkan Insight.


The almost five-year trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is closer to conclusion. Karadzic, who is representing himself, and prosecutors will present their closing remarks in September.


4. Kazakhstani lawmakers debate sweeping new criminal code


Under proposed changes to Kazakhstani law, such acts as provoking labor conflict, hosting an unauthorized meeting, or promoting separatism could be punished severely, human rights groups in the country charge.


Lawmakers began debating the changes last year, but the most striking amendment “looks like a reaction to events in Ukraine,” writes. It would make those who make “illegal and unconstitutional calls for changes to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Kazakhstan” liable to up to 10 years in prison, a representative of the Prosecutor General’s office said last week.


“The amendment would cover calls for separatism or independence made in the media, including the Internet – and thus, it seems, on social media platforms like Facebook,” writes, noting the amendment could be aimed at stifling separatism among ethnic Russians, who comprise 22 percent of the population.


IWPR reports that all of the changes have been approved in first reading in the lower house of parliament, while some have made it through their second reading. The new laws would take effect in January 2015 if approved by both chambers of parliament and signed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev before parliament’s summer recess.


Pressure groups have criticized other amendments, or failures to amend existing law, IWPR writes. The new criminal code would retain the death penalty for acts of terrorism that result in loss of life, and libel would remain a criminal rather than civil offense.


Operating an unregistered religious organization or taking part in an unauthorized public gathering would become crimes rather than administrative offenses.


“There are even provisions envisaging criminal responsibility for ‘provoking’ labor conflicts, which threaten to put an end to the work of independent trade unions and workers’ organizations,” rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told IWPR. “There are provisions envisaging the use of the death penalty, even though there is an unlimited moratorium on capital punishment decreed by the president of Kazakhstan.”


5. Bulgarian police seize huge ancient treasure hoard


Bulgaria’s National Museum of History took charge 14 April of about 15,000 ancient artifacts confiscated from smugglers, The Sofia Globe reports.


The archeological treasures include three gold necklaces likely worn by elite women of the third millennium B.C. These necklaces may be Bulgaria’s second oldest gold artifacts after the items excavated from the Varna necropolis in 1972, thought to be among the world’s oldest gold treasures. 


Details of the operation led by the country’s SANS counterintelligence and security agency were not released as the investigation continues, The Globe writes. Two suspected smugglers have been detained and one person faces charges, according to a statement by the Bulgarian Culture Ministry.


“These amazing golden findings are 1,500 years older than the Trojan War and 2,500 years older than all Thracian treasures we know,” museum director Bozhidar Dimitrov said 14 April, according to Reuters.


Culture Minister Petar Stoyanovich said the country might set up a special police unit to combat the thriving trade in ancient treasures.


Dimitrov said each of the three gold necklaces could have been sold to private buyers for as much as 5 million euros ($7 million).


The finds also include around 100 coins and small items dating up to the Middle Ages, two cannons, and a marble carving of a Thracian horseman dating from the second or third century B.C, The Sofia Globe reports. 


Or_de_Varna_350Part of the Varna treasure dating to around 4,600 B.C. on display at the city’s museum of archeology. Photo by Yelkrokoyade/Wikimedia Commons

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