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Slovenian Government Collapses, Bulgaria Accused of Mistreating Refugees

Plus, Serbia’s new prime minister delivers somber economic news, and Turkmenistan stops handing out free gas to car owners.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Lily Sieradzki 30 April 2014

1. ‘Total political crisis’ as Slovenian premier loses party leadership


Slovenian Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek agreed to step down after losing the leadership of her center-left Positive Slovenia Party 29 April, AFP reports.


Bratusek, Slovenia’s first female prime minister, said she wants to see early elections occur before summer and will retain her position until then.


Jankovic_100Zoran Jankovic
Bratusek lost the party leadership struggle to Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic. But with Jankovic and another possible challenger in those elections embroiled in corruption allegations, a state of what local commentators describe as “total political crisis” or even anarchy prevails in Slovenia, EUobserver writes.


Despite Jankovic’s rejection of the corruption allegations, several coalition partners refuse to cooperate with him. He has come out against a snap election, perhaps over fears the new party Bratusek has said she plans to lead will take many Positive Slovenia deputies with it, AFP writes.


Bratusek and Jankovic will both remain on the party list for next month’s elections to the European Parliament, EUobserver reports.


Former Prime Minister Janez Jansa, a possible challenger to Bratusek from the center-right ranks, is in even hotter water after he lost an appeal this week against a two-year sentence for bribery. Jansa was convicted of soliciting bribes from the Finnish arms maker Patria while in office. He has said he will remain as leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party even if imprisoned.


Jansa’s government collapsed in 2013 over his inability to explain all the sources of his income, Reuters reports.


Both Jansa and Bratusek courted public discontent with biting austerity programs designed to rescue the once-flourishing economy after the batterings of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and recession.


2. Bulgaria accused of pushing back, beating refugees


Bulgaria has been illegally pushing would-be asylum seekers back across its border with Turkey and even brutalizing some of them, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.


In interviews with 177 migrants, the organization said it heard of incidents involving “at least 519 people in which Bulgarian border police apprehended and returned them to Turkey, in some instances using violence.”


In one instance, an Afghan asylum seeker told HRW that guards beat him so badly they broke a bone in his lower back before driving him back to the border and pointing him toward Turkey.


Bulgaria_350Children at the Harmanli refugee camp in Bulgaria last winter. Most residents of the camp are Syrian. Image from a video by Krassimir Yankov/YouTube


Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev said the allegations are “lies” that can be disproved, thanks to camera surveillance along most of the border, according to EurActiv.


The report comes six months after Bulgaria drew up a plan to stem the flow of refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan and elsewhere. More than 11,000 people sought asylum in Bulgaria last year, according to HRW, up from an annual average of about 1,000. They were housed in substandard buildings that amounted to little more than holding pens, with little access to sanitation, medical care, or schooling for the children.


The country sent 1,500 more police to the border with Turkey, welcomed guards from other EU states and erected a fence along a 33-kilometer (20-mile) stretch of the border, Human Rights Watch notes.


The situation for refugees in Bulgaria has improved enough so that the UN has rescinded a January request to European countries to stop sending refugees back to Bulgaria who had first entered Europe there, as is normally done, AFP reports. Some refugee camps where people weathered the winter in tents now offer heated converted shipping containers and adequate access to food.


But HRW points out that the improving conditions coincide with “a 27 percent decrease from the number of refugees the country was hosting in late 2013” and the “pushback” policy, which has prompted an investigation in Brussels to see if the country broke EU laws by arbitrarily turning away refugees.


3. Work harder, incoming Serbian premier tells public workers


Aleksandar VucicAleksandar Vucic
Serbia’s new Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic launched his mandate 29 April with a reminder of the belt-tightening Serbs must bear if the country is to pull out of an economic slump.


Public workers will work a half-hour or an hour longer each day starting tomorrow, Vucic said, according to Balkan Insight, and his government will observe “no holidays and no Saturdays or Sundays.”


Serbia is under pressure from the EU to cut state spending and free up the economy as conditions of closer integration and eventual membership.


One hugely unpopular budget-cutting step of the previous government was scrapped last week, although some of its effects will remain, B92 writes.


The “solidarity tax” of up to 20 percent on salaries of higher paid public workers will end 1 July, Finance Minister Lazar Krstic said. However, wages for public workers will be cut by 10 percent.


The tax was introduced 1 January, along with a two-year hiring freeze in the public sector.


Official statistics put the average gross salary in Serbia at 59,782 dinars ($715) in March, inSerbia reports. That represents a 1.4 percent annual increase after adjusting for inflation.


4. Polish coal miners ask for state help


Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk gave his partial backing to a protest by coal miners against planned cutbacks, The Warsaw Voice writes.


Unions in the southern city of Katowice, located in Poland’s mining belt, staged a demonstration 29 April to demand a government rescue for the weakened mining sector after Kompania Weglowa (KW) said it would suspend work at nine mines for a week and limit production at six others in a cost-saving measure.


About 55,000 people work at KW, Europe’s largest coal mining company.


The company justified the measures by a fall in demand for coal, which caused losses of 1 billion zlotys ($330 million) last year and left the company with 5 million tons of unsold coal in storage.


Tusk admitted KW had “objective concerns” while also blaming some of its woes on bad management and saying its difficulties are not characteristic of the entire sector, the Warsaw news site writes.


"In the case of today’s protests, the unions are much more in the right than usual,” Tusk said.


Poland’s coal industry took a hit from a global fall in prices last year, as well as this year’s mild winter in Europe, Xinhua reports.


Ineffective technologies, high labor costs, and overproduction are long-term drags on the industry, Xinhua reported, citing a 2013 Roland Berger assessment.


Poland’s heavy reliance on coal to generate power has helped turn the southern industrial belt into one of Europe’s dirtiest regions. Legislators in southern Poland voted to ban coal furnaces last year to try to clear the air.


5. Turkmenistan ends free gasoline handouts


Turkmenistan’s drivers will soon lose one of the valuable subsidies that have partially compensated for low living standards in Central Asia’s most isolated state.


President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov abolished the monthly quota of 120 liters (32 gallons) of free gasoline for each car owner, “in a move aimed at relieving pressure on state coffers from the populist subsidy,” Reuters reports.


The decree published by state media said its goal is “to help sustain the growth of the national economy, achieve the efficient use of oil products, and ensure their orderly converting to cash on the domestic market.”


The decree takes effect 1 July, according to Radio Free Europe, which notes that Turkmenistani citizens also enjoy free natural gas, water, and electricity.


“Critics say the much-publicized handouts of energy and water to the population simply supplement low wages in the country, which seldom rise above $300 a month,” Reuters writes.


Wages may be low, but they are growing at a healthy pace in step with Turkmenistan’s natural gas-based economy, estimates released in the World Bank’s latest economic update show.


Average wages rose 11 percent in 2013 and the overall economy grew by 10.2 percent, the report notes (pdf). Similar growth occurred in 2012, when wages rose about 6 percent after inflation.


Economic output per head has nearly tripled since 2004 to about $10,000, putting Turkmenistan ahead of Ukraine, and behind only Kazakhstan in Central Asia, according to the IMF.

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