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Minsk Silences Activists on Eve of World Hockey Tourney, Ukrainian Cities Look to Curb Energy Waste

Plus, Albania seeks exploration bids from big oil players, and a questionable land deal fells Croatia’s finance minister.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Marketa Horazna, and Lily Sieradzki 8 May 2014

1. Belarus jailing young activists as Minsk hosts global sporting event


Authorities in Belarus are rounding up activists before the Ice Hockey World Championship begins in Minsk 9 May, Radio Free Europe reports.


Mikhail Muski, Andrey Tsyanuta, and Mikola Dzemidzenka were sentenced to 10 to 20 days in jail 6 May on charges of “minor hooliganism and resisting police,” according to RFE.


Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's team defeated the Latvian parliament team in an October friendly match. Photo from the Belarusian president's website.


Several other youth activists received similar sentences on similar charges last week. They told RFE they were being jailed to stop them from protesting during the games.


More than 20 organizations in and outside of Belarus have signed on to the Fair Play Beyond Sports campaign to use the tournament to throw a spotlight on human rights abuses in the country.


The effort was organized by Freedom House, a democracy watchdog that consistently gives Belarus its lowest rating for press and civil liberties. The campaign notes that the country has not seen an election deemed free and fair by respected observer organizations for 20 years – since President Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to office.


Belarus has been under particularly tight repression since the disputed presidential election in December 2010 brought protesters out into the street. Demonstrators were brutally pushed back by police and many of whom were arrested.


Among the actions urged by the campaign are writing letters to political prisoners in Belarus – nine of whom the Viasna (Spring) human rights center lists on its website – and carrying protest posters to games.


2. Ukraine cities plea for European help to save energy


For years, international lenders and other institutions have been nudging Ukraine to phase out energy subsidies, which take a chunk out of the national budget and contribute to a culture of waste. The country has taken small steps, including hiking rates for district heating systems by 50 percent in 2010, but little else has been done to implement what is a politically unpopular policy.


Now, however, with gas supplies from Russia becoming more expensive, officials in 35 Ukrainian cities have reached out to their counterparts elsewhere in Europe for help in becoming more energy efficient, EurActiv writes.


In a letter to about 1,000 local officials in the EU, Volodymyr Harazd, president of the Association of Energy Efficient Cities of Ukraine, “cites ‘hostile and often aggressive actions by the Russian Federation against Ukraine’ and ‘the limited ability of the central government in Ukraine to address these’ as pressing reasons for tackling energy waste,” according to EurActiv.


The 25 April missive includes a request for twinning projects to help get Ukrainian officials up to speed on conservation methods. Energy Cities, the group of local officials who received the letter, sent it on to EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger with a call to action, EurActiv reports.


Ukraine is the fourth most intensive energy user in the world, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In a 2012 report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) blamed the country’s massive energy drain on aging industrial machinery and district heating systems, leaky buildings, and the lack of a “consumption-based” tariff system, such as metering.


A study published in the Journal of Economic Structures cites IEA estimates that Ukraine lost about $10 billion on natural gas subsidies and $4 billion on electricity subsidies in 2007.


In 2011, the World Bank lent Ukraine $200 million to improve energy efficiency in industry.


EurActiv notes that at least five of the cities signing on to the plea for European expertise are in “Ukraine’s Russian speaking east.”


An official with a town on the Russian border told the news agency, “One of our main goals is to save budget funds by using safe energy resources. The main goal of this project is [also] to save energy resources.”


3. Albania readies for oil exploration auction


Albania will open 13 new oil exploration blocks to bids by international corporations after recent oil discoveries, Reuters reports.


Interest from foreign oil companies increased after Royal Dutch Shell and Canadian company Petromanas Energy reported “good quality oil and gas in test flows” in November from their original well in Shpirag in southern Albania, Reuters writes.


Energy and Mining Minister Damian Gjiknuri did not identify which companies had shown interest but told Reuters that they included “oil majors and also second-level companies but much more powerful than most companies that have come to Albania.”


The Dumre oil block in central Albania will likely be the first sold, due to high interest, according to the news agency.


Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, claims to have 220 million barrels of “proven and provable” oil reserves, Reuters wrote in June. High hopes for foreign investment in the country have been set back by political disputes, disorganization, and corruption.


Kastriot Bejtaj, former manager of the government-owned Albpetrol company, told Reuters last year that exploration rights have often been granted to small and inexperienced companies.


Gjiknuri also said many oil blocks had fallen into the “wrong hands,” citing data showing that some foreign companies had not been as profitable as Albanian oil companies.


This latest oil play follows Albania’s failed attempt to privatize Albpetrol in 2012. According to Balkan Insight, Albania received an 850 million euro ($1.2 billion) bid from Singapore-based company Vetro Energy, which is owned by Albanian tycoon Rezart Taci.


The company canceled its bid in January 2013 after failing to come up with the money. The deal is now suspected to have been a scam, Balkan Insight reports.


Albania is weighing whether to sell Albpetrol, use it to create a partnership with a foreign company, or upgrade it and use it to oversee the oil industry, Gjiknuri told Reuters.


4. Croatia finance minister fired over questionable land deal


Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has sacked the country’s finance minister over his inability to explain why his ministry overpaid by 20 million kunas ($3.7 million) in a real estate purchase, Reuters reports.  


Slavko Linic
Milanovic said he had lost his confidence in Slavko Linic, whom he called “politically responsible” for deal.


The overpayment comes as Croatia is under fierce pressure to slash spending. Earlier this year, Brussels put the country on a kind of economic probation as Croatia sought to cut its deficit from the current 6.4 percent of GDP – more than twice that allowed by EU criteria – to 2.4 percent.


Croatia’s anti-corruption police are investigating the documents surrounding the land purchase, according to Reuters.


The Linic case comes two months after the biggest anti-graft conviction in Croatian history. Former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and other defendants were found guilty of diverting 70 million kunas from state companies. Shortly afterward, retired Croatian army general Mladen Kruljac was also convicted, along with five other defendants, for selling public land at under-market value.


Milanovic has nominated Minic’s deputy, Boris Lalovac, to succeed Linic.


5. Armenian capital to erect statue to Stalin-era enforcer


Municipal leaders in Yerevan have approved a monument to Anastas Mikoyan, a Soviet-Armenian politician who oversaw Stalin-era purges among Armenian Communists and intellectuals, reports.


The 30 April vote by the city council has angered many, although Mikoyan has his defenders.


“Why are we now putting [up] a statue of a man who supported summary executions of Armenians?” said Anahit Bakhshian, a council member who voted against the measure, according to


Left to right: Anastas Mikoyan, Josef Stalin, and Grigory Ordzhonikidze, who orchestrated Georgia's inclusion into the Soviet Union.


Citing Radio Free Europe, Asbarez reports the move was recommended by the council’s education and culture committee at the request of city hall. When asked about Mikoyan’s controversial biography, the committee’s chairwoman said, “I’m not a historian and don’t have such information.”


Vardan Jaloyan, a specialist in cultural studies, said the interest in Mikoyan is part of a Russian effort to reframe the Soviet Union as a glorious period and the apogee of Russian imperial success, reports.


“In this regard, I believe that the decision reflects the interests of Russia, and this is perhaps what should have happened, considering the economic and political dependence of Armenia’s elite on Russia,” he said.


Armenia has further cemented long-standing ties to Russia in the past several months, most notably with a decision in November to join the Russia-led Customs Union and reject membership in an EU free-trade area. Yerevan also counts on a sizable Russian military presence on its soil to deter attacks by neighbor and arch foe Azerbaijan.


Tigran Kocharyan, an information security expert and prolific blogger, defended the statue proposal, telling that while “Mikoyan is a controversial character” he is a figure of global importance. Kocharyan credited the former Soviet official with averting World War III for his role in persuading Fidel Castro to give up nuclear missiles in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Marketa Horazna and Lily Sieradzki are TOL editorial interns.
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