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Turkmen Prisoner on Hunger Strike, Ukraine Starts Selling State Assets

Plus, Mongolia does a U-turn on mining policy and a plane crash reveals extent of Albania’s marijuana exports.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Rebecca Johnson and Madeleine Stern 4 June 2014

1. Kyiv to unload coal mines as austerity measures take hold


Coal miners in eastern Ukraine made news recently when industrial magnate Rinat Akhmetov called on workers in his mines to resist pro-Russian separatism and hold protests until peace is restored.


Now it appears some miners could lose their jobs because of a decision by the Kyiv authorities themselves. Some 38 government-owned mines are to be auctioned off following a 29 May cabinet decision, the Kyiv Post reports. Many of the mines are unprofitable and have been propped up by direct subsidies, contrary to rules set by the IMF and other potential international lenders, whose aid is critical for Ukraine’s financial survival.


Under ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, mines received state subsidies of almost $1.8 billion last year to pay workers. Yanukovych, a native of the eastern coal-mining region, was keen to keep on good terms with miners, the Kyiv Post writes.


Ukraine’s output of 86 million tons last year made it the fourth-largest coal producer in Europe, World Coal writes. Nearly 20 million tons was unsold, however, which is a major reason that state-owned mines lost $410 million.


The government plans to cut mine subsidies by $230 million and step up plans to privatize state-owned mines, First Deputy Energy Minister Yuriy Zyukov said 29 May, according to the Kyiv Post.


Separatist forces took control of four coal mines 22 May, Al Jazeera reported, and miners demonstrated against the government’s use of force against separatists a week later, according to Russian media.


2. Turkmenistan: Hunger strike prisoner reportedly near death


Amnesty International is urging the authorities in Turkmenistan to grant a retrial to a prisoner reportedly near death two weeks after he went on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions.


“The Turkmenistani authorities can avert his death by abiding by their obligations and granting Mansur Mingelov a fair trial,” AI Deputy Director Denis Krivosheev said.


Mansur Mingelov
Mingelov, 39, was sentenced to a 22-year term in 2012 for drug offenses and child pornography. According to AI, he had been gathering evidence of police brutality against members of his Baloch minority.

“Mingelov was imprisoned after an unfair trial after daring to expose police human rights violations against an ethnic minority group,” Krivosheev said.

His trial was rife with procedural violations, AI charges. The conviction was based on the testimonies of four supposed victims who did not understand the Turkmen language and signed documents under threat and intimidation, and Mingelov says he watched state officials upload child pornography to his computer to fit the allegations.


Mingelov’s complaints to the Supreme Court and other authorities have all gone unanswered. He has also written to the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat and the OSCE. Human Rights Watch calls Turkmenistan “one of the world’s most repressive countries.”


“Torture remains a grave problem, particularly in high-security facilities. The International Committee for the Red Cross does not have full access to Turkmen prisons. The government has persistently denied access to the country for independent human rights monitors, including international NGOs and 10 United Nations special [rapporteurs],” HRW’s World Report 2014 states.


3. Mongolia could open huge swath of land for mining


Mongolia hopes to lure back investors through legislative changes that would more than double the area available for mining and eventually end its dependence on foreign energy sources, Bloomberg reports


Deputy Mining Minister Erdenebulgan Oyun said the new laws, which parliament is expected to consider soon, would open up 20 percent of the country’s land to mining, compared with 8 percent under current legislation.


After a mining boom in 2011 and 2012 helped stoke robust economic growth, miners and other big foreign investors cooled to Mongolia, partly over problems with the country’s banks and the government’s unclear stance on foreign ownership of mines.

Although the government hopes the new laws will attract $1 billion in new investments this year, the latest round of job cuts at the huge Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mine announced by British-Australian miner Rio Tinto will not help the company’s bid to expand the mine,
according to


The government and the company’s failure to agree on costs, revenue-sharing, and environmental issues has delayed the mine’s planned underground expansion.


The government also wants to attract investors to shale oil and other energy projects as it tries to ease its heavy reliance on imported oil, according to Bloomberg.


4. Albania steps up fight against marijuana trafficking


The crash of a small plane piloted by a suspected drug trafficker in Albania last month galvanized authorities into action, SETimes reports.


Albanian police on 11 May arrested the pilot of the plane, an Italian national, and his suspected Albanian accomplice in a car carrying 460 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of marijuana, Balkan Insight reported at the time.  Albania is a major cannabis-producing country, with an annual crop that the country’s financial police recently estimated at worth some $6 billion. Albania also serves as a major transit point for marijuana bound for destinations all over Europe.


Authorities responded to the plane crash and a report that a military airfield was being used for drug flights by blocking runways at three airfields, SETimes writes.


The government claims several significant blows against drug gangs in the past several years. Authorities seized more than 20 tons of the drug in the last eight months, a spokesman for the interior minister told SETimes.


Despite these gains, Albania continues to face significant challenges in combating marijuana trafficking, according to AFP. Several marijuana-producing areas of the country remain outside the control of the authorities, notably the village of Lazarat, which itself produces 900 tons of marijuana per year.


Albania has sought help from abroad, participating in 42 anti-drug operations with six partner countries, according to SETimes.


“We will forge cooperation with our partners because this is a war which we cannot win by ourselves,” Deputy Interior Minister Elona Gjebrea said.


5. Bosnian Serb entity among biggest spenders on U.S. lobbyists


Bosnia’s economically challenged Republika Srpska region, along with Georgia and Azerbaijan, were among the top 10 spenders on lobbying in Washington last year, according to the Washington-based nonprofit Sunlight Foundation.


The government and Economy Ministry of Republika Srpska, home to most of Bosnia’s Serbs, together disbursed $2,397,650 to U.S. lobbyists. Georgia and Azerbaijan also spent more than $2 million each on lobbying U.S. politicians, journalists, and other potential allies last year, taking the ninth and 10th spots on the Sunlight Foundation’s list.


The organization uses data supplied to the U.S. Justice Department required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This law is a boon for anyone interested in how foreign entities try to gain influence in Washington. As The Washington Post notes, its detailed reporting rules require countries “to say who they contacted, when, and why.”


“Generally, it’s easy to surmise that the countries spending the most on U.S. lobbyists are ones with substantial energy, trade, immigration, agriculture, or other notable business dealings in Washington,” the paper’s In the Loop column writes.


That profile fits Azerbaijan, which has plenty of exportable energy products as well as a reputation for human rights abuses it tries hard to obscure. Baku channels funds to lobbyists mainly through its embassy, the state oil company SOCAR, and a group called the Azerbaijan America Alliance, headed by the extravagant son of the Azerbaijani transport minister, Buzzfeed reports.

“Experts say these organizations are often the work of the offspring of the Azeri elite,” Buzzfeed writes.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Rebecca Johnson and Madeleine Stern are TOL editorial interns.
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