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Ukrainian Relief as Slovakia Agrees Gas Deal, Azerbaijan Holds Rights Activist

Plus, Tajikistan ups the pressure on Islamist opposition, and a Polish ex-dissident forces Wroclaw to stop exploiting his gnomes.

by Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, Marketa Horazna, and Ky Krauthamer 29 April 2014

1. Kyiv, Bratislava nail deal for reverse-flow gas


barroso_100Jose Manuel Barroso
Slovakia agreed 28 April to start pumping Russia-sourced gas back into Ukraine by the fall. The agreement signed by Ukrainian and Slovak officials in Bratislava, with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso looking on, will make Slovakia the third and largest supplier of “reverse-flow gas” to Ukraine after Hungary and Poland, EUObserver reports.


Slovakia’s EUstream gas distributor will deliver the gas via a currently unused pipeline between Vojany, Slovakia, and the nearby Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod.


Once modernized, the Vojany pipeline will have a capacity of about 8 billion to 10 billion cubic meters a year, by various reports, or around a seventh of Ukraine’s annual consumption, much of it currently imported from Russia’s Gazprom.


More than a year after Bratislava and Kyiv started talking about it, the negotiations on a reverse-flow deal quickly gained momentum in recent weeks as Russia nearly doubled the price Ukraine pays for gas, Slovakia’s reports. Germany’s RWE is contracted to deliver up to 10 billion cubic meters a year to Ukraine.


Ukraine and the EU would prefer to use a bigger pipeline to carry more gas, but that pipeline is owned by a subsidiary of Gazprom. EUstream says it would have to sort out its contractual obligations to Gazprom first, according to EUObserver.


2. Azerbaijani activist Leyla Yunus detained, fears official harassment


Leyla YunusLeyla Yunus
Leyla Yunus, Azerbaijan’s “most prominent human rights activist” in the words of Radio Free Europe, was detained at Baku airport 28 April as she tried to leave the country.


Yunus was held with her husband, historian Arif Yunus, as they waited for a flight to Doha. Her lawyer came to the airport but was not permitted to see her, Yunus told RFE’s Azerbaijani service from the airport.


According to the Azerbaijani news agency APA, the French Embassy in Baku issued a visa to Yunus and her husband the same day, and French and U.S. diplomats accompanied them to the airport. One “diplomatic source” told the agency the couple could have been heading to France after leaving Doha.


Yunus was told her office would be searched, according to APA.


Later that day, Yunus told reporters she had been interrogated about her relationship with journalist Rauf Mirkadyrov, who was recently arrested on suspicion of spying for Armenia. The organization she founded and leads, the Peace and Democracy Institute, has been actively involved in building contacts with Armenians. The two countries have no official relations and remain formally in a state of war over the disputed, Armenian-controlled territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.


Yunus’ activities in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh led to trouble with the authorities in the past. She has accused officials of mounting a media campaign against her and other activists who met Armenians in the disputed territory.


She has also been targeted by officials for her domestic activism. In 2011 Baku authorities bulldozed her offices only hours after The New York Times ran a story about her campaign against forced evictions.


3. EU sitting on Hungarian development funds


Officials in Brussels and Budapest are not calling it a suspension, but the EU is holding back payments for development projects in Hungary pending a review of the country’s processes for handling the funds.


The European Commission is seeking more information about a reorganization in the way Hungary distributes EU funds to winners of tenders for development projects, The Wall Street Journal reports. Budapest received the commission’s go-ahead in January for the first step in its planned two-stage reorganization, “while the second, April step is currently under scrutiny,” The Journal writes.


The review, including time for Hungary to respond to Brussels’ findings, could stretch into May. The European Commission has asked Budapest not to submit any invoices to Brussels until the process has finished, meaning the funds will probably be held up until the middle of the year.


A spokesman for the ruling Fidesz party said it was possible the EU could suspend funds, but Hungary would cover payments to recipients from its budget, reports.


European funds pay for most of Hungary’s development projects, according to The Journal, which reports the country received 24 billion euros ($31 billion) during the EU’s 2007-2013 budget period.


As the review gets under way, the Budapest Business Journal reports that Hungary is going after businesses that “siphoned off European Union grant money through offshore companies.” The newspaper says the government has identified 276 suspect companies that will be ordered to repay a total of 15 billion to 20 billion forints ($67 million to $89 million). Another 2,000 companies remain under scrutiny, according to the BBJ.


4. Arrests, sex tapes hit Tajikistan’s Islamist party


The leader of Tajikistan’s opposition Islamist party claims the government is using financial and legal pressure against him and other members to weaken the party ahead of parliamentary elections next year, reports.


Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) leader Muhiddin Kabiri may lose control of a market after a court ruled it was illegally privatized, and the heads of two regional party branches have been arrested.


“Reports attributing crimes to party members regularly appear on state television. … The anti-IRPT onslaught has included videos spread by social-networking sites purporting to show members engaging in extramarital affairs, including a sexual encounter between two men. More recently, on 24 April a report broadcast by state television linked the party to the civil war in Syria and Islamist radicals,” writes.


One of the arrested party members, Saodatsho Adolatov, faces five to 12 years in prison if convicted of extremism by inciting national, racial, or religious hatred, Interfax reports. Adolatov is party leader in the isolated Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, where dozens were killed in a 2012 shootout between security forces and local militants.


The previous IRPT leader in the region was killed during that operation, Interfax reports.


The party emerged from the civil war of the early 1990s as the legal face of the country’s Islamist rebels. It remains the only legal Muslim-oriented party in the former Soviet Central Asian countries.


5. Gnome creator wins copyright suit against Wroclaw city hall

For years, Wroclaw in Poland has used the comic figure of a gnome in a floppy cap for official promotional purposes. A bronze statue of the little fellow brightens a city street.


But the city can no longer use the gnome to promote itself and must apologize to its creator, former dissident Waldemar Fydrych, Polskie Radio reports.


Fydrych, 61, filed the copyright infringement complaint in 2011.


Known by the nom de guerre of “Major,” Fydrych led Orange Alternative, one of the eastern bloc’s more outrageous dissident movements in the 1980s.


“Orange Alternative did its best to get its members arrested ... for the most ridiculous reasons, including the distribution of free sanitary towels and a parade of cardboard tanks daubed with Duchampian slogans such as: ‘Watermelon in Mayonnaise,’ ” wrote the Krakow Post, introducing a 2011 interview with Fydrych.


Fydrych moved to Paris in 1989, working as a painter and decorator.


“Shunning more traditional forms of protest, art historian Fydrych staged vast 1960s-style situationist happenings with protesters dressed as orange gnomes,” Polskie Radio writes. “His ‘Revolution of Gnomes’ undermined the regime through humor and the absurd.”


Wroclaw gnomeThe Orange Alternative gnome memorial. Photo by Julo/Wikimedia Commons

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.
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