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Abkhazia’s Leader Steps Down, Russia’s Air Force Bulks Up

Plus, a Czech project looks to revive border ghost towns and Georgian activists seek to protect an ancient mine.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Rebecca Johnson 2 June 2014

1. Abkhazian ‘president’ resigns on heels of parliamentary call for early election


After the resignation of its de facto president this weekend, Abkhazia will hold an early presidential election in August, Itar-TASS reports.


A breakaway territory of Georgia and a self-proclaimed state, Abkhazia saw former President Alexander Ankvab driven out of his headquarters last week by protesters who said they were angry about high-level corruption.


Ankvab stepped down on 1 June, a day after the territory’s de facto parliament voted to hold early elections and following his meetings with mediators from Russia.


"The president decided [to resign] in order to prevent the situation from worsening," a spokeswoman said, according to Reuters. Valery Bganba, speaker of the parliament, has been appointed acting president, Itar-TASS reports.


Parliament also passed a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya, who denounced the legislature’s actions as “anti-constitutional and revolutionary.”


Ankvab also criticized the votes, saying on 31 May, “The fate of the country, including of the president, cannot be decided at rallies with the participation of 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 people. This is the matter of the nation,” according to Itar-TASS.


The government-owned Voice of Russia quoted Abkhazian opposition leader Sergei Shamba as saying Russian mediators played “significant roles” in resolving the crisis.


“Abkhazia was and will be an independent state, for which relations with Russia are sacred," Shamba said.

Russia is one of four countries that recognize the independence of Abkhazia, which relies heavily on aid from the Kremlin.


2. Russia adding new bombers, fighters, choppers in airborne military buildup


Russia is buying more aircraft and missile defense systems for its air force amid a long-term bulking up of its military, RIA Novosti reports.


The purchase will include new bombers, fighter jets, carriers, attack helicopters, and radar stations, the news agency writes, citing a Defense Ministry spokesman.


In addition, Russia’s Airborne Forces last week started receiving automated shoulder-fired missile systems that have “no foreign rival,” a military spokesman told RIA Novosti on 30 May.


“The systems automatically provide information on the air environment, fix the target, and command a strike against the target within several seconds,” saving time and ammunition and ruling out human error, the news agency reports.


The airborne upgrade comes amid an ongoing Russian buildup. Writing in October in foreign policy magazine The National Interest, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, says that by 2020 Kremlin military planners aim to have in place a force of “a million active-duty personnel, backed up by 2,300 new tanks, some 1,200 new helicopters and planes, with a navy fielding 50 new surface ships and 28 submarines, with 100 new satellites designed to augment Russia’s communications, command, and control capabilities.”


The price tag for the transformation will be about $755 billion over the next decade, according to Gvosdev, but he added that it’s not clear if Russia itself can produce the necessary technology, and looking for it abroad would be controversial domestically.


While Russia is bulking up, only four NATO countries – the United States, Greece, the UK, and Estonia – meet the alliance’s requirement to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product annually on defense.


3. Project aims to rejuvenate depopulated Czech border zone


A project is under way in the Czech Republic to revive a border region from which German inhabitants were ejected after World War II, Radio Prague reports.


The area along the country’s western border is largely uninhabited, and few buildings remain in places where ethnic Czech and German communities coexisted for hundreds of years before the war. Most Germans were expelled or killed after the defeat of the Nazis.


Some 3 million Germans were pushed out of Czechoslovakia beginning in 1945.


“Some houses were deliberately pulled down because after the war it was feared the Germans would be back. Some villages were used for target practice by the army,” Radio Prague says.


Efforts to repopulate the region have failed – initially due to drought in the 1940s and later as a result of the area’s depressed economy and the general trend of rural emigration, according to Radio Prague.


But a call recently went out for ideas about how to bring the region back to life. According to Jan Salzmann, whose wife, Klara, is a landscape architect and one of the project’s leaders, proposals have come from Romania, Germany, and Hungary as well as the Czech Republic.


One plan Salzmann favors is the creation of frameworks or transparent façades representing the buildings that existed before the war, surrounding a central meeting place – creating “the illusion of a village which you may imagine yourself,” he told Radio Prague.


In addition, the project is looking at ways to revive the economy, perhaps with tourism or agriculture, Radio Prague reports.


About 3 million Germans were driven from what was then Czechoslovakia, and the issue still complicates Czech-German relations. As recently as 2010 a mass grave of more than a dozen murdered Germans from that period was unearthed in the central Czech town of Jihlava.


The Czech Republic is also the sole EU holdout in signing an agreement with Germany on the care of wartime graves. Czech officials do not want to be responsible for tending the graves of those German civilians killed during or after the war but before the expulsion decree was issued, the Czech Press Agency reports, citing Czech media.


4. Activists protest plan to renew gold extraction at ancient Georgian mine


Once a protected cultural heritage site, a grassy knoll in southern Georgia’s Bolnisi district that researchers claims marks the oldest gold mine in the world is now hanging by a golden thread. Activists are trying to hold back development of the Sakdrisi site, for which the government has given mining rights to a Russian company, the BBC reports.


Sakdrisi was designated as a heritage site in 2006. But when experts hired by RMG Gold determined that drilling could not come within a kilometer of the protected area, the government set up a commission that studied the issue and withdrew the site’s protection, according to the BBC.


The Sakdrisi site in southern Georgia is a gold mine, but is it the oldest in the world?


“It’s not proven that Sakdrisi is an ancient gold mine – it’s just an assumption,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili recently told university students.


The Sakdrisi hill takes up only nine of the 193 hectares (477 acres) allotted to RMG Gold, but the company estimates that 30 percent of the 14 tons of gold on-site are under it, the BBC reports.


In his remarks to students in March, Garibashvili emphasized that RMG Gold had already invested $300 million. The company’s commercial director, Soso Tsabadze, told the BBC its products make up 10 percent of Georgia’s exports.


In addition to plundering a valuable ancient site, activists say the mine would taint water sources of nearby villages, many of which supply produce to the capital, Tbilisi.


Thomas Stoellner, an archaeologist at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, is among those who have studied the area for 10 years. He believes the oldest sections haven’t been discovered yet.


“At once I realized the importance of the site. When we got the first value carbon dates, and they were around 3,000 BC, it was clear that this was an exciting find which had never occurred in prehistoric mining,” Stoellner told the BBC.


5. Mongolia tops post-communist table as a spot for foreign investment


Mongolia is the best country to invest in from TOL’s coverage region, while Poland takes the top spot among former communist countries that are now EU members, according to Foreign Policy’s global Baseline Profitability Index for 2014.


Daniel Altman
Developed last year by Daniel Altman, an economics professor at New York University, the index ranks 112 countries according to how profitable an investment in any one of them could be in the next five years.


Mongolia takes the 10th spot on the list, dropping six spots from last year. The country’s economy plunged in 2013  amid disputes between private mining companies and the government. That year saw a drop of 54 percent in foreign investment and the tugrik, the national currency, slid by 25 percent.


The next entries on the same side of the former Iron Curtain are also the highest-ranking in Europe, with Poland at 14, Lithuania at 16, and Estonia at 18.


That somewhat mirrors an optimistic outlook for Central Europe in the Purchasing Managers Index released in October. The strongest performance in the region came from Poland, which registered the best employment figures in more than six years.


Bulgaria ranked highest among Balkan countries in the Baseline Profitability Index, taking the 28th spot.


Belarus, Azerbaijan and Russia fared the worst in the region, at 96th, 102nd, and 108th


The BPI score takes into account economic growth, financial stability, physical security, corruption, expropriation of property by government, exploitation by local partners, capital controls, and exchange rates, according to Altman. It does not consider, however, interactions among the eight factors and cannot be computed for countries where any of the indicators are fluctuating, such as the IMF economic forecast for Ukraine, which is missing from the list.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Rebecca Johnson is a TOL editorial intern.
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