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Downed Ukrainian Helicopter Kills 14 Soldiers, Putin Forms Eurasian Trade Bloc

Plus, a leading Hungarian opposition leader quits, and Russia arrests an alleged Islamic terrorist leader.

by S. Adam Cardais, Barbara Frye, and Rebecca Johnson 30 May 2014

1. Fourteen killed as army helicopter shot down in Ukraine


Fourteen Ukrainian soldiers died 29 May when their army helicopter was shot down by separatists in fighting around the eastern city of Slovyansk, the Associated Press reports.


Speaking to parliament, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said the helicopter was taking troops to a hill outside Slovyansk “where Ukrainian forces have set up positions,” according to the AP.


“I have just received information that terrorists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles shot down our helicopter near [Slovyansk]. It had been ferrying servicemen for a change of duty,” Turchynov said, according to Reuters.


Among those killed was General Serhiy Kulchytskiy, a veteran of the Soviet army who trained Ukraine's National Guard for combat, the AP reports, citing Interfax.


Officials also said Russian arms had helped rebels in an unsuccessful effort to seize the airport in Donetsk on 26 May.


Dozens were killed – up to 100, some insurgent leaders told AP – in that attack.


“These are not our weapons – they were brought from Russia. Serial numbers, year of production, specific models. ... I am publishing this photograph as proof of the aggression of the Putin regime,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page about arms abandoned at the airport by rebels, according to Reuters.


2. Ex-Soviet states ink Eurasian Economic Union treaty


The leaders of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus signed a treaty 29 May to formally create a Eurasian trade bloc aimed at rivaling the European Union, Radio Free Europe reports.


Signed in Astana, the deal paves the way for the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union to launch 1 January 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin has championed the free-trade bloc and aims to expand it, namely to Ukraine, which backed away from signing an EU free-trade deal in November under pressure from Moscow but now appears poised to ink the agreement in June following the 25 May election of pro-European President Petro Poroshenko.


Many observers have called the Eurasian Union Putin’s attempt to resurrect the Soviet Union, but Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, said at the signing that the bloc is purely economic. Putin, for his part, said it will serve a market of 170 million people as a major global economic force, RFE reports.


The presidents of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Russia shake hands upon signing up to the Eurasian Economic Union in Astana 29 May. Kremlin photo.


More cautious, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suggested that the deal, while far from ideal given Ukraine’s exclusion, was the best compromise available. He said the union would blossom into a larger political, military, and humanitarian partnership.


Bloomberg points out that the 29 May signing marks the culmination of two decades of talks among the former Soviet states. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan aim to join the union by year’s end.


The union will unify customs tariffs, and the partners will also “gradually align” their currency and monetary policies to encourage trade, Putin said, according to Bloomberg.


With its mineral wealth and large market, Ukraine is seen in the Kremlin as key to the Eurasian trade bloc’s future. Although former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s move to abandon the EU deal for closer ties with Moscow sparked the mass protests that cast Ukraine into crisis, the Eurasian union partners still appear hopeful that Ukraine will join them.


It will happen “sooner or later,” Lukashenka predicted, according to RFE.


3. Hungarian Socialist head steps down after election loss


Attila Mesterhazy, leader of Hungary’s opposition Socialists, has resigned over the party’s embarrassing performance in last weekend’s elections for European Parliament, The Wall Street Journal reports.


The largest opposition party in Hungary, the Socialists won 10.9 percent of the vote, for only two of Hungary’s 21 seats in the European Parliament despite growing support for other left-leaning parties. While the Socialists were the only leftist party to win seats in the last European parliamentary elections, three of its rivals entered the body Sunday.


“It has become apparent that there are alternatives to the Socialists on the left side of the political spectrum,” Orsolya Szomszed of the Nezopont think tank told The WSJ. She added that voters “punished” the Socialists for their failures in recent national polls after leading the government for eight years before being ousted by the now-ruling Fidesz in 2010.


Fidesz placed first Sunday with 12 seats in the European Parliament. The radical, nationalist Jobbik Party won three seats.


In a statement explaining his resignation, Mesterhazy referenced the string of election defeats, saying he takes “full responsibility for these fiascos,” Reuters reports.


The party is expected to meet over the weekend to discuss a new chairman. Reuters points out that the Socialists’ “crushing election defeats” are part of a “downward spiral” after being blamed for Hungary’s economic woes amid the post-2008 global economic slump. These losses and Mesterhazy’s resignation will probably reinforce Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s dominance because Fidesz no longer faces a strong opposition.


4. Report: Terrorist leader arrested near Moscow with weapons stash


Moscow police have arrested the suspected leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an outlawed terrorist group believed to be recruiting Central Asian migrants, The Moscow Times reports, citing Russian media.


Identified as a 27-year-old citizen of Tajikistan, the man was apprehended with a stash of weapons including an AK-47 assault rifle. He also had a phony passport.


The Interior Ministry suspects the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in a 2012 armed robbery in the Moscow region, Radio Free Europe reports. Its members have also been accused in several armed assaults in and around Moscow.


Established in 1991, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan aims to create an Islamic state under Sharia law in Uzbekistan. Also active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the group is on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations and is believed to have ties to Al-Qaeda.


5. Former KLA commander, three others, acquitted of war crimes

Four former fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army were acquitted 29 May of war crimes during the Kosovo conflict, including former commander Sylejman Selimi.


A court in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica deemed that EU prosecutors had not provided enough evidence to support the charges, Balkan Insight reports. The prosecution could appeal.


The testimonies of two ethnic Albanian women from Mitrovica were the basis for the indictment, in which Selimi was alleged to have frequently attacked them at a KLA detention center in Likovac, central Kosovo, during the conflict with Serbian forces in the late 1990s.


Three other defendants – Shefki Hyseni, Nexhat Qubreli, and Ismet Haxha – were accused of assaulting the women at a KLA base in Mitrovica.


“We [the court] still believe something happened in Vaganica in Mitrovica, but we were not able to prove the evidence given by witnesses A and B,” Judge Phillip Kanning said.


Selimi, Kosovo’s ambassador to Albania, is also among 15 former KLA fighters in the high-profile Drenica Group case facing charges of war crimes for allegedly “torturing and mistreating” prisoners at the Likovac camp in 1998, according to Balkan Insight.


A former commander of Kosovo’s security forces, Selimi has denied all charges against him.
S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Rebecca Johnson is a TOL editorial intern. 
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