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Ukraine’s Oligarchs’ Loyalty Questioned, Russian TV Makes Inroads in Kyrgyzstan

Plus, Czechs greet their 10th anniversary in the EU with skepticism and supporters of political rivals brawl in Macedonia.

by Ioana Caloianu, Jeremy Druker, Marketa Horazna, Annabel Lau, and Piers Lawson 17 April 2014

1. Whose side are Ukraine’s oligarchs on?

 

As officials from Russia and Ukraine gathered on 17 April to try and defuse the crisis in eastern Ukraine, one issue could complicate the situation just as much as national identity and Russia's role: the legacy of corruption in Ukraine and suspicions over the motivations of the country's oligarchs.

 

In a 16 April interview with RFE, Ivan Lozowy, a political analyst in Kyiv (and former TOL correspondent), spoke about the destabilizing influence of some local oligarchs, who he said seem happy to support the separatists (either openly or covertly) if that means retaining their power and business empires. According to Lozowy, law enforcement agencies, often in cahoots with these powerful businessmen, have failed to act, as they only want a return to the “fairly easy life” of the past: “corruption, protection, racketeering ...”

 

Just back from a trip to Luhansk, a city in eastern Ukraine, Lozowy pointed a finger specifically at Oleksandr Yefremov, the head of the parliamentary faction of the Party of Regions, whom Lozowy said is in control of the entire oblast. “He's interested in Luhansk being a problem area, so that his hold on local business, local politics is not dislodged by the new government in Kyiv,” he said. Lozowy levied similar charges against top officials in Kharkiv, saying, “For them money is everything. I don't think they have any political values. They just don't want to be arrested and put in jail. … So what they do is play these games. The current chaos works to their advantage, because it keeps them out of reach.”

 

The Financial Times reported earlier this week that Andriy Senchenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, had accused local oligarchs of trying to hold on to their fiefdoms so they could “further rob” eastern Ukraine and “continue exploiting millions of people” as cheap labor. Debates continue to rage over whether these wealthy businessmen, some of whom took appointments as regional governors to ostensibly reduce separatist tensions, are, in fact, fanning the flames. That would then allow them to convince the Kyiv-based government “to preserve their clout,” as the FT put it. 

 

The oligarchs and those close to them dismiss the accusations that they are playing both sides, saying they are doing their best to quell tensions and that they can't be held responsible for taking on the separatists themselves. 

 

But it's not just corruption at home that could derail any kind of peace plan. Writing in The American Interest earlier this week, Lilia Shevtsova, a prominent Russian analyst, argued that financial sanctions are unlikely to force Putin's hand in the near future. That is partly because Putin and his allies will always find accomplices in the West, she wrote.

 

“The Russian ruling elite has used globalization to corrupt the West, and it will find the ways to use the laundry machine it has created (with the assistance of many Western helpers) to circumvent the 'financial containment,’ ” Shevtsova wrote. “Think not? Ask yourself, how many people in the West have we seen who would agree even 'to sacrifice a little' in order to stop Putin?”

 

2. Popularity of Russian TV grows in Kyrgyzstan

 

Kyrgyzstan's relatively free and “perennially noisy” domestic media are coming under increased pressure from Russia's state-controlled media as a result of the crisis in Ukraine, Eurasia.Net.org reports.

 

In a recent annual poll funded by USAID and carried out by a Gallup-endorsed consulting company, more than 90 percent of respondents said they rely on television for news and information about politics.

 

Presenter Vladimir Posner interviews then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on TV1 in 2010. Photo by the U.S. State Department/Wikimedia Commons.

 

The Kremlin-funded Russian Public Television (formerly ORT, now called First Channel or TV1) is the second most-watched channel in Kyrgyzstan, with 20 percent calling it their “most frequent” source of political information and 16 percent as the “most trusted” outlet – up from 13 percent and 10 percent respectively in last year’s poll.

 

On the other hand, 34 percent chose Kyrgyzstan’s national broadcaster, OTRK, as their favorite news outlet, down from 38 percent in 2013, according to EurasiaNet.org. The station’s perceived trustworthiness also slipped, from 32 percent to 29 percent.

 

That trend could fuel the anxiety already in the air over Moscow’s recent rhetoric about protecting ethnic Russians in other countries.

 

In the 2009 census, Kyrgyzstan was home to about 420,000 Russians, which amounts to about 8 percent of the country’s population.

 

At the same time as pro-Russia television is on the ascendancy there, an American air base a short drive from the capital, Bishkek, is packing up for closure by July. Russia, too, has an air base near Bishkek, to which it recently sent more equipment and personnel, as well as two other military facilities in Kyrgyzstan.

 

Most people in Kyrgyzstan supported the closure of the American base when it was announced, but Russia’s incursion into Crimea to “protect native Russians” has raised concerns in Kyrgyzstan and has changed some minds about the departure of the Americans, TOL’s Askar Erkebaev wrote in March.

 

3. Most Czechs don’t trust EU after 10 years of membership

 

The prevailing mood in the Czech Republic is far from celebratory 10 years after the country’s accession to the European Union, the Czech Press Agency (CTK) reports.

 

Vaclav Klaus, the country’s famously euroskeptic former president, said the anniversary is no cause for celebration. He said that like communism, the style of EU governance is incapable of learning from crisis, according to CTK.

 

Vaclav Klaus
Klaus, who was president on 1 May 2004 when the Czech Republic joined the union, acknowledged, however, that joining the EU had helped the country regain its place in Europe, according to CTK.

 

Klaus became known throughout Europe for his opposition to Brussels’ policies, skepticism about climate change, and favorable view of the Russian leadership.

 

On the EU, he is echoing the sentiments of his countrymen. A recent survey by the STEM polling agency showed that two-thirds of Czechs share Klaus’ mistrust of the EU, CTK reports.

 

Only about 34 percent of those surveyed said they trusted the bloc, the lowest number since the first poll of this kind took place in 1994.

 

The highest trust rates were registered in 2009, when the Czech Republic held the EU presidency, according to CTK.

 

Younger, better-educated, and better-off people professed the highest trust in the union, the news agency reports.

 

4. Six face charges after political rally fight in Macedonia

 

Police in the Macedonian capital of Skopje are planning to file charges against six people in a 15 April clash between supporters of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party and the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM), Balkan Insight reports.

 

VMRO-DPMNE party members were allegedly hurling insults as Social Democratic presidential candidate Stevo Pendarovski campaigned in a district of Skopje.

 

Stevo Pendarovski
“The clash happened after a short verbal dispute after the end of the rally of the candidate Stevo Pendarovski in Lisice when several people traded punches,” police said in a statement, according to Balkan Insight. Pendarovski had already left the area by that time.

 

Macedonia went to the polls in the first round of the presidential election on 13 April. A second round will take place on 27 April, together with the parliamentary election.

 

SDSM vice president Radmila Sekerinska said the incident may have been sparked by Social Democratic leader Zoran Zaev’s accusations of corruption against Prime Minister and VMRO-DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski.

 

The VMRO-DPMNE declined to comment on the clash but had previously rejected the corruption allegations, Balkan Insight reports.

 

President Gjorge Ivanov, a member of the VMRO-DPMNE who is running for his second turn, won 449,000 votes, to Pendarovski’s 326,000 in the first round, according to the website.

 

But Pendarovski, who is rumored to have accused the VMRO-DPMNE of vote-rigging, wishes to boycott the second round, Focus News reports.

 

“My personal opinion, if you would like to know it, is the elections need to be boycotted,” Pendarovski said, according to Focus News. “But, you know, it is not me who makes the final decision concerning this.”

 

Zaev said the party will stay in the race until the end, Focus News writes.

 

5. Brussels sues Poland over greenhouse-gas regulation

 

The European Commission is suing Poland over the country’s lack of information about its regulation of some greenhouse gases, UPI reports.

 

At issue is how Polish regulators plan to sanction companies who violate EU rules on the handling of fluorinated gases (F-gases), a group of chemicals containing fluorine that contribute to global warming.

 

F-gases are used in refrigeration and cooling systems, among other places. The aim of the EU regulations is to prevent their leakage and require companies to recover the gases at the end of the equipment's lifetime.

 

The commission says Poland has failed to provide information to Brussels on possible penalties for violations. As a result, it is taking the matter to the EU Court of Justice.

 

Warsaw and Brussels have repeatedly butted heads over greenhouse gas emissions. More than 90 percent of the country’s heat and electricity are generated from coal, and Poland has resisted EU efforts to tighten emissions restrictions.

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director. Marketa Horazna and Annabel Lau are TOL editorial interns. Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor.
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