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Plus, wildfires run rampant in Siberia, and a rare trade dispute hits Russia’s Customs Union.by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Marketa Horazna 6 May 2014
Siberia and Russia’s Far East are a tinderbox, with the arrival of a forest fire season officials had feared would be worse than usual.
As of 5 May, the two regions had more than 124 fires combined, covering a total of more than 145,000 hectares (360,000 acres), Voice of Russia reports.
Almost all of the fires in the Far East had been extinguished by this morning, ITAR-Tass reports. That region has seen almost 1,500 fires on more than 300,000 hectares since the fire season started, according to the news agency. That is nearly five times the number of fires in the Far East in the same period last year.
The area of Siberia on fire has more than doubled since 30 April, according to VOR.
Russia’s fire season started early this year, thanks primarily to a relatively dry, warm winter. Most of the fires are started by the “negligence of local residents and agricultural burnings,” according to VOR, but long-smoldering peat fires are a danger throughout the spring and summer. Peat bogs cover 568,000 square kilometers (220,000 square miles), equal to the area of Ukraine, in northern European Russia, western Siberia, and Kamchatka.
At least seven people were killed last week in explosions started when a fire spread to a military ammunition warehouse in eastern Siberia, Radio Free Europe reports.
This year’s season could rival the horrendous fires of 2010, when about 60 people died, thousands of houses were destroyed, and volunteers mobilized to help put out the blazes and bring the charred forests back to life.
Putin signed the decree honoring the print and broadcast reporters 22 April but the news was kept under wraps, Reuters reports.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed the honors to The Moscow Times.
"I can confirm that such a decree was signed, but we usually do not publish them,” Peskov said.
The honorees are almost all from public or state-controlled outlets.
“The list of recipients included Federal Mass Media Inspection Service head Alexander Zharov, whose organization was recently criticized for blocking access to prominent opposition blogs and websites,” the Moscow paper writes.
The objectivity of the official results of the March referendum in which Crimeans voted to rejoin Russia by a huge margin is being questioned by a blogger for Forbes magazine and a Ukrainian human rights activist.
Officially, 97 percent of Crimeans voted for Russian annexation on turnout of 83 percent. According to the Forbes post, the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council’s own blog briefly posted very different figures of 30 percent turnout, with 50 percent of those in favor of annexation, but the post was soon taken down.
Ukrainian activist and occasional TOL contributor Halyna Coynash draws attention to a report on the council’s website of a fact-finding mission to Simferopol and Sevastopol in April by two Human Rights Council members and a lawyer. They reported that “almost all” those they talked to agreed that the turnout for Crimea as a whole was in the range of 30 to 50 percent, of whom 50 to 60 percent voted in favor of annexation. In Sevastopol itself, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, “the vast majority of inhabitants” voted to join Russia.
Josic heads a group called Headquarters for the Defense of Croatian Vukovar, which spearheaded protests last year against a law requiring official signs in both languages in towns where one community comprises at least a third of the population. Croatian and Serbian are almost identical although Serbian is normally written in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Although Serbs make up 35 percent of Vukovar’s population, the local city council voted to opt out of the law in November, given the city’s “special significance” in recent Croatian history. Vukovar was heavily damaged by Serb forces in 1991 at the outset of Croatia’s war of independence from Yugoslavia.
About 650,000 people signed a petition Josic’s group circulated, calling for a referendum on raising the threshold to half the population, Balkan Insight writes. The government strongly opposes the referendum.
Opponents of bilingualism also claim that some Serbs are registered as Vukovar residents although they actually live in Serbia or Serb-populated areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croatian news website Dalje.com writes.
The Uzbekistan-operated railway that delivers many vital supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan – and to much of Afghanistan’s economy – is not likely to be handed over to Afghanistani control for some time, EurasiaNet.org reports.
The line from the rail and river port of Hairatan on the two countries’ border to Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, opened in 2011 and was initially meant to come under local control this year. Writing that news from the area is hard to come by, EurasiaNet.org notes that just 10 Afghans, none with experience on railways, joined the first U.S. military training session for future railway workers in November, as a military website reported.
The Asian Development Bank built the 80-kilometer (50-mile) line, and Uzbekistan’s government takes the revenues from operating the route, according to fayobserver.com, a website out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the Fort Bragg army base. As the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan winds down, some outgoing military equipment is sent to ports in Latvia and Estonia along the railroad.
More than 90 percent of the fuel for international forces enters Afghanistan via the railway, said Captain Donald Moyer, a U.S. logistics officer based at Hairatan. About 4,600 rail cars move between the border and Mazar-e-Sharif every month, Moyer said.
While sparse reports from the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border hint at an increasing Taliban presence in the area, the situation several hundred kilometers away at Hairatan is calm, Moyer said.
In July, EurasiaNet.org said “attempts by militants to lay mines on a road leading to the bridge to Uzbekistan” prompted Afghanistani authorities to step up security in the area.
When the five-man team of U.S. military transport advisers leaves Hairatan in two months, the next team “will shift its focus to creating a safety framework for the future rail system and look at helping Afghanistan join several international rail organizations to link the system to its neighbors,” fayobserver.com writes.
Kazakhstan’s restrictions on imports of Russian and Belarusian poultry do not amount to an import ban, as that would violate the rules of the three-country Customs Union, a Kazakhstani official said 4 May, according to Azerbaijan’s Trend news agency.
The head of Kazakhstan’s consumer protection agency, Bolatbek Kuandikov, told the presidential communications office the ban concerns only the sale, not imports, of Russian and Belarusian poultry.
Kazakhstan applied the ban in April after detecting water content well above the permitted level in imported poultry. Veterinary experts also found traces of salmonella in the meat, GlobalMeatnews.com reported.
Kazakhstani importers have also accused poultry producers from the other two countries in the Customs Union of unfair competition, the meat news site reported, adding, “Experts say the use of water injection is common practice in the meat industry in the post-Soviet Union, as it allows producers to set a more attractive marketing price per kilo of poultry meat.”
GlobalMeatnews also mentions a warning by unnamed experts that the dispute “could have far-reaching consequences and may even lead to a revision of some aspects of the agreement [among] members of the Customs Union.”
Now available! A new TOL e-book: "Crimea: The Anatomy of a Crisis" is a compilation of articles from TOL’s past coverage about Russia's annexation of Crimea, placed in the context of long-running disputes over the region. Find out also what's happened to Crimea and its people nearly a year after Russia's move shocked the international community.