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Another Hurdle for Labor Migrants in Russia, Another Black Eye for Kosovo-Albania Highway

Plus, Bulgaria ignores Brussels’ signal on South Stream and Macedonia’s opposition files corruption charges against the prime minister.

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Erin Murphy 24 April 2014

1. Russia to require Russian-language skills for migrant workers

 

Starting next year, immigrants seeking to work in Russia will be required to prove their Russian language skills and knowledge of basic Russian history and laws, ITAR-Tass reports.

 

Backers of the new rules, signed into law 21 April, say they will aid in creating social cohesion at a time of increasing tension over immigration in Russia.

 

Labor migrants on a forced march in a Moscow suburb after being rounded up by police in May 2013.

 

Official estimates put labor migrants in Russia at nearly 2 million, but most who follow the issue say the real number, including those working illegally, is easily double that. Only about 50 percent have a decent command of Russian, according to ITAR-Tass, citing the country’s Center for Migration Studies.

 

Discussions of “cultural erosion” or “dilution” have fueled hard-liner rhetoric and policy. Conditions for migrant workers in Russia are notoriously bad.

 

The issue was front and center in last year’s Moscow mayoral race.

 

“If anyone should stay, it should first and foremost be Russophones with a culture that adequately meets our traditions. The compatriots, as we often call them,” incumbent and eventual winner Sergey Sobyanin said in July. “For people who speak Russian poorly, who have a very different culture, it is better to live in their own country.”

 

Mohammad Amin Majumer, president of the Federation of Migrants of Russia and a Bangladeshi immigrant, and Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center human rights organization, warned the rules could breed corruption, with workers paying for falsified credentials, according to ITAR-Tass.

 

Children, the elderly, students, and highly skilled specialists would be exempt, according to The Moscow Times, as would those with diplomas or education certificates issued before 1991, when Russian language instruction was compulsory throughout the Soviet Union.

 

2. Documents further cloud Kosovo-Albania highway deal

 

The drip-drip of bad news surrounding a cripplingly expensive highway project in Kosovo and Albania continues, as Balkan Insight reveals damning information from a court case connected with the deal.

 

Documents in an aborted prosecution of former Albanian Transportation Minister Lulzim Basha show that the winning bidder’s prices “were known to be more than double that of local contractors, costing Albanian taxpayers an extra 191 million euros [$264 million],” according to Balkan Insight.

 

The contract for the Albanian segment of the highway was awarded in 2006 to a joint bid by U.S. construction giant Bechtel and Turkey’s Enka. Four years later, the Kosovo segment was handed over to the same partnership.

 

Initial costs in Albania were put at 418 million euros for a 60 kilometer (37 mile) mountainous stretch, but that ultimately climbed to 950 million euros, according to Balkan Insight, citing a leaked email from the then-minister of finance, Ridvan Bode.

 

The pattern was the same in Kosovo. Costs spiraled from 400 million euros for 102 kilometers to 820 million euros for 77 kilometers, according to Balkan Insight, citing an audit, although the website reports that Finance Ministry figures show an even higher payout – 838 million euros – for the Bechtel-Enka joint venture.

 

Basha, who is now mayor of Tirana, urged the contract be put on a fast track to avoid costly delays, although, according to Balkan Insight, he never provided evidence that a slower process would be more expensive or hurt the region’s economy.

 

The case against Basha and two of his advisers was dropped in 2009 on a technicality.

 

Among the cost overruns were PVC ducts for which Bechtel charged the Kosovo government “more than seven times the local market price” according to Balkan Insight. In Albania, the company claimed to have excavated more than five times as much earth as it had estimated would be necessary at the beginning of the contract.

 

Last week Balkan Insight reported that Christopher Dell, the U.S. ambassador to Kosovo who pushed for the road project, had landed a job with Bechtel.

 

“There is no discernible economic rationale for this project, dubbed the ‘Patriotic Highway,’ ” Andrea Lorenzo Capussela, a former economic adviser with the International Civilian Office in Kosovo, wrote in 2012. “Trade between Kosovo and Albania is minimal: according to the national statistics office, in the last five years less than 3 percent of Kosovo’s imports came from Albania, and around 12 percent of its (few) exports were sent there. Nor is it a favored transport route: only around 5 percent of imports reach Kosovo via Albania, and total traffic flow follows a similar pattern.”

 

3. Bulgaria champions South Stream despite Brussels’ opposition

 

Bulgaria is swimming against the Brussels tide as it vows to push on with the South Stream pipeline, which would carry Russian natural gas under the Black Sea to its port city of Varna and on to southeastern Europe, Novinite.com reports.

 

The rationale behind the project, which has been on the table for seven years, is to circumvent countries that sit between the EU and Russia, including Belarus but more notably Ukraine. Disputes between Moscow and those countries’ governments have led to gas and oil cutoffs in the past decade that affected downstream customers.

 

 

The South Stream pipeline route. Image from Gazprom.com

 

But the crisis in Ukraine has bolstered opposition to South Stream in some quarters, as it would do nothing to help wean European countries off Russian gas. Last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution opposing the project. While the measure was only symbolic, it follows years of ambivalence in Brussels about South Stream and pressure on Russian energy giant Gazprom to break up its  gas production and delivery vertical monopoly in Europe.

 

But Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Kristian Vigenin, told Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency that his government would do everything it could to make South Stream happen, according to Novinite. Acknowledging that Bulgaria gets nearly all of its gas from Russia, Vigenin said cutting transit countries out of the equation would boost energy security.

 

In March the European Commission expressed concern over proposed legislation in Sofia that would redefine the South Stream pipelines on Bulgarian territory as an “interconnector” in an apparent attempt to circumvent the EU rules against energy producers also acting as suppliers, EurActiv reported. The project would create about 5,000 jobs in Bulgaria, according to EurActiv.

  

4. Macedonian opposition accuses prime minister of corruption

 

Macedonia’s opposition Social Democratic Party (SDSM) is leveling corruption charges against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski less than a week before presidential and general elections, Balkan Insight reports.  

 

Nikola Gruevski
The favorite in the upcoming elections, Gruevski is facing accusations of bribery and tax evasion related to the 2004 sale of Makedonska Banka to Serbian businessman Jovica Stefanovic, known as Gazda Nini, or Boss Nini.

 

The SDSM claims Gruevski took a 1.5 million euro ($2.1 million) bribe to expedite the sale, according to Balkan Insight.

 

In addition to the paperwork accompanying the sale, which according to the Social Democrats showed financial and legal irregularities, the evidence includes a telephone recording allegedly of Gruevski negotiating the deal.

 

The SDSM said it had presented its evidence to prosecutors. Party leader Zoran Zaev called for a quick response, saying, “Gruevski is very much in a position to influence witnesses; Gruevski could also repeat such acts because he is in power.”

 

Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE party denied that the voice on the recordings is his, and Interior Minister Gordana Jankuloska said the party would file slander charges against Zaev. Macedonian media have largely ignored the scandal since the recording was uploaded to YouTube, Balkan Insight writes.

 

The Social Democrats are also accusing the ruling party of skullduggery after the VMRO-DPMNE went on a real estate buying spree over three recent months despite being in debt, Balkan Insight reports.

 

According to the Social Democrats, documents show the VMRO-DPMNE bought apartments and offices worth 1.6 million euros between November 2013 and January 2014, despite a 2011 financial report showing the party’s debt at 3.5 million euros. 

 

The ruling party said it had come by the money to buy the property legally and the purchases were all above board.

 

5. Is there a gap in the curtain drawn around Turkmenistan?

 

People in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most repressive countries, are doing something that was until recently almost unheard of: they are complaining openly about problems with local authorities, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

One woman, unemployed and living in penury with a disabled husband and three children, even invited RFE’s correspondent to film her squalid, mud-brick home, according to the news agency.

 

“[D]ozens of people from across Turkmenistan have been contacting correspondents from RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, known as Radio Azatlyk, to voice their frustration with the authorities,” RFE reports, noting that they are careful, however, to avoid criticizing President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov.

 

A common complaint is the loss of homes due to a massive facelift that has turned the capital, Ashgabat, into a sea of white marble

 

The upsurge in contacts with reporters is remarkable, given Turkmenistan’s deplorable human-rights record and its near-total repression of the media. It ranks 178th of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

 

An expert for the press freedom group told RFE the slight opening might suggest that the government will tolerate some criticism “if it doesn’t directly point at the head of the state or the authorities as such.”

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Erin Murphy is an outreach and development officer at TOL. Home page photo from the website of the Kosovo prime minister.
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