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Balkans, Caucasus Counting Costs of Natural Disasters

Plus, protests as another Russian rocket fails over Kazakhstan and analysts assess the peacemaking qualities of Ukrainian presidential frontrunner Poroshenko.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, and Barbara Frye 19 May 2014

1. Flood threat not over in ravaged Bosnia, Serbia


Several Balkan countries are struggling to recover from one of the worst floods on record. The Associated Press writes that days of heavy rain caused more than 3,000 landslides in Bosnia and Serbia, leading to fears that land mines left over from the Balkan wars could be unearthed.


In Bosnia, about 500,000 people had been evacuated or left their homes by today, Reuters reports, with another 25,000 evacuated in Serbia. The death toll rose to at least 38 today.



Parts of Serbia and Bosnia and the Vukovar region in Croatia declared a state of emergency late last week after a slow-moving storm dumped several months’ worth of rain in just three days causing the worst floods since record-keeping started in the region in the 19th century.


Although the rain has subsided, water levels might continue to rise in Bosnia, the AP writes, quoting emergency officials. According to official accounts, more than a quarter of Bosnia’s population, or an estimated million people, live in heavily affected areas.


The mayor of the eastern city of Brcko said the city could be flooded completely unless the army erected flood barriers.


Another fear concerns the estimated 120,000 mines still in place in Bosnia. Floods and landslides have washed away warning signs and even dislodged the buried mines, the AP writes.


The Bosnian Mine Action Center said mines could even float down the Sava and Danube rivers into the Black Sea, Balkan Insight reports.


In Serbia, high waters caused severe damage to the country’s largest power plant and a nearby coal mine, according to Serbian Energy Minister Aleksandar Antic, who urged people to save power, according to the AP.


2. Landslide leaves dozens missing, cuts off gas to Armenia


A rock slide in a gorge near the Russian-Georgian border has closed the only road linking Georgia and Armenia with Russia, and has shut down a pipeline carrying Russian gas through Georgia to Armenia.


Dozens of people are missing and reports are conflicting about casualties, according to Vestnik Kavkaza.


The landslide in the Darial Gorge was caused by heavy rain, Vestnik Kavkaza reports, although the news agency also cites geologists who blame the melting of a glacier on Mount Kazbeg, which looms over the gorge and the Terek river that flows through it.


The Georgian Military Road, which runs past Mount Kazbeg from Vladikavkaz in Russia to Tbilisi, was closed, and hundreds of cars, including some from Armenia, were having to turn back while “millions of cubic meters of earth and stone” are removed, according to Vestnik Kavkaza.


It’s unclear how long the gas pipeline will be shut. The Georgian Oil and Gas Corporation told Azerbaijan’s Trend news agency that it had been damaged, while locals said it had been destroyed. The road’s closure has complicated attempts to assess or repair the damage, according to Trend.


Armenia gets 90 percent of its natural gas from Russia, all of which comes through the closed pipeline, with the remainder coming from Iran. In the first quarter of this year, it imported 937.6 million cubic meters total, according to the Arka news agency.


3. Pundits see Ukraine’s Poroshenko as potential bridge-builder


As more polls show Petro Poroshenko the clear frontrunner in the 25 May Ukrainian presidential election, some analysts suggest his election might ease tensions with Russia.


Petro Poroshenko
Poroshenko, a wealthy confectionery company owner and former cabinet minister, is seen as a pragmatic politician who could work with Moscow.


“He doesn't have an ideology,” Oleh Rybachuk, a former deputy prime minister, told The Wall Street Journal. “Does he have managerial capabilities? Yes he does. Does he have political instincts? Yes he does.”


A poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in late April and early May showed nearly 34 percent of respondents supporting Poroshenko and about 6 percent backing second-place Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister. A quarter of respondents had not yet made up their minds, The Journal writes. However, another poll indicated Poroshenko could win more than 50 percent of the vote needed to be elected outright in Sunday’s election to replace the ousted Viktor Yanukovych.


Russian President Vladimir Putin may be willing to work with Poroshenko because “he is a pragmatist and he was in the Yanukovych government,” Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council told The New York Times.


“He is a person who is a dealmaker. From that point of view, it may mean that Putin is willing to give it a chance of trying to get something out of this.”


Poroshenko served as trade minister during Yanukovych’s presidency and was foreign minister under Yanukovych’s bitter rival, Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko.


A supporter of the Maidan protests that brought down Yanukovych, Poroshenko has recently seemed to make overtures to Russia. He opposes a referendum on whether Ukraine should join NATO, he said 18 May, according to The Times, which adds, “He has also sought to bring normalcy to the campaign, assuring voters that he will provide security if elected but stressing a more traditional message: jobs.”


Another oligarch-politician, Serhiy Tihipko, and former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hritsenko each scored 4 percent support in the Kyiv institute’s survey.


4. Satellite launch disaster fuels more protests in Kazakhstan


For the second time in a year, the launch of a Russian rocket from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome has failed.


The Proton-M rocket was carrying a satellite intended to bring Internet access and other services to remote regions of Russia, according to Kazakhstan’s Tengri News agency. Contact was lost 540 seconds after its launch on 16 May.


Although “the toxic components of the rocket fuel” that had not yet been spent likely burned up in the atmosphere, according to Itar-TASS, the accident re-activated protests that occurred after a Proton-M rocket failed in July. At that time, “the exploded Russian carrier rocket released 600 tons of highly toxic fuel, including kerosene, heptyl, and amyl,” according to Tengri.


Shortly after last week’s crash dozens of activists presented a petition to officials of Kazakhstan’s space agency demanding the resignation of the agency’s director and an end to Proton-M launches, Radio Free Europe reports.


The Proton rocket has been a stalwart of the Russian space program since 1965 and was used in several successful launches after the July failure, according to specialist website NASA Further launches using the rocket, however, have been suspended pending an investigation of this accident, Tengri reports.


5. Region gets bad marks in WHO’s latest alcohol survey


High alcohol consumption and bouts of heavy drinking remain serious health problems in Eastern Europe and Russia, according to the World Health Organization’s 2014 “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health.”


The report, the WHO’s first global survey of drinking habits since 2011, found that Europeans, including Russians, drink more than inhabitants of any other continent: 10.9 liters of pure alcohol per year for each person over the age of 15, compared to the world average of 6.2 liters.


As in many previous studies, the WHO finds that people in the former Soviet Union and other ex-communist countries consume more alcohol than anyone else. The “champion” for the 2008-2010 period is Belarus, at 17.5 liters per year. Moldova, Lithuania, Russia, and Romania fill out the top five.


Although men typically drink more than women in most countries, the gender imbalance is larger in Eastern Europe, where men tend to drink around three times more than women.


Worldwide, 7.5 percent of adults engage in binge drinking, defined by the WHO as consuming at least 60 grams of pure alcohol, or about six drinks, on at least one occasion in the past 30 days. Europe has the highest level of binge drinkers, 16.5 percent of adults, with many of the hardest-drinking countries again in Central and Eastern Europe, although the Swedes, French, and British were also prone to binge drinking.


WHO also calculates an overall “patterns of drinking” score, which correlates with health and social problems associated with drinking. Russia and Ukraine were the only countries ranked at 5 on the 1-to-5 risk scale. Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova scored 4, along with a few countries in southern Africa.

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