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Plus, Bulgaria stops work on South Stream but says it will ultimately press on, and long sentences are handed out in a Russian journalist’s killing.by Jeremy Druker, Barbara Frye, Rebecca Johnson, Piers Lawson, and Madeleine Stern 9 June 2014
1. Ukraine’s president eager to sign association and trade pact with EU
Newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he is ready to move forward with an association and trade agreement with the European Union, despite threats of trade barriers from Russia, EU Observer reports.
“We, the people who were isolated from their great European homeland, are coming home,” he said.
In turn, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the government–owned RT broadcaster that Russia would adopt protectionist trade measures when the EU-Ukraine agreement enters into force, “in order to secure the Russian economy,” according to EU Observer.
Russia and the EU are Ukraine’s largest trading partners. Each receives about one-quarter of Ukraine’s exports, while Russia accounts for a slightly higher percentage of Ukraine’s imports: 32.4 percent compared with the EU’s 30.9 percent, according to the World Trade Organization.
Despite the potential economic risks of the EU association agreement, Poroshenko is undeterred.
“We consider it as the first step toward full membership in the EU,” he stated in his inaugural address. “Nobody has the right to veto the European choice of Ukraine.”
Although the EU association agreement allows for free trade between Ukraine and Russia, its rules conflict with those of the Russia-led Eurasian Union, and therefore Ukraine has had to choose between the two.
EU leaders are expected to agree this week to sign the document with Ukraine, according to EU Observer.
In addition to European integration, Poroshenko pledged to put an end to fighting in eastern Ukraine “this week” and offered an amnesty to pro-Russian militants, as long as they “have no blood on their hands,” the BBC reports.
2. Kosovo ruling party rides low turnout to elections victory
Kosovo’s ruling party has claimed victory in elections held on 8 June that were marred by desultory voter turnout.
With 95 percent of the ballots counted, the Democratic Party of Kosovo has won 31 percent of the votes, a plurality. The second-place Liberal Democrats took about 26 percent, according to the country’s election commission.
But the big story was the small turnout, with only 42 percent of the country’s registered voters casting ballots.
Low turnouts in Kosovo elections are not unusual, and they are typically traced to depressed numbers in the regions where Serbs predominate. Serbia does not recognize the independence of its former province and some Serbs argue that casting a ballot would amount to conferring legitimacy on Kosovo’s government.
But this election’s numbers were worse than those in 2010, when 47.8 of voters participated, Balkan Insight reports. And returns from the Serb-dominated north were no worse than those across the country. In Mitrovica, a city divided by Serbs in the north and ethnic Albanians in the south, turnout was 39 percent, compared with some figures in the 20s elsewhere in Kosovo.
Indeed, the tiny municipality of Klokot, where Serbs make up almost half of the population, was one of only three polling districts to see turnout above 50 percent.
Serbs likely make up less than 10 percent of Kosovo’s population of 1.8 million, although a firm count is impossible, as many boycotted the most recent census. Majority-Serb municipalities were granted some autonomy in a landmark deal with Serbia in April 2013 that saw Belgrade acknowledge the Kosovo government’s authority in northern Kosovo and give up its practice of backing parallel institutions there.
There were “no major irregularities” noted in the weekend’s voting, although some monitoring groups reported “thousands of cases of family voting and other incidents of voters being bribed,” according to Balkan Insight.
These elections were called early after a few parliamentary impasses on major legislation. The results mean the Democrats will be looking to form a coalition, almost certainly with incumbent Prime Minister Hashim Thaci at its head again.
Thaci has led the country since 2008. As Balkan Insight notes, “his government has been blamed for widespread corruption, poverty and unemployment.”
3. Bulgaria says suspension of South Stream pipeline only temporary
Bulgaria opted 8 June to stop the construction of a Russia-backed natural gas pipeline, but the country’s energy minister said ultimately it is not a question if, but how, the pipeline will get built.
The South Stream project is intended to pump up to 63 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas to Europe annually via the Black Sea and the Balkans.
Sofia has bowed to EU pressure to suspend work on its segment. The decision was made after Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski met with visiting U.S. senators over the weekend, but in a statement, Energy Minister Dragomir Stoynev predicted the project would eventually move forward.
“If we look at the situation strategically and without emotions, the South Stream project looks irreversible and important for both Europe and Bulgaria,” he said.
Last week Brussels ordered Bulgaria to suspend construction on the pipeline pending an investigation into how contracts were awarded for work on it. It suspects Bulgaria of violating European public procurement rules.
The commission is “concerned that the contracts for the Bulgarian portion of South Stream were not awarded transparently,” Radio Free Europe reports.
Sofia contends that all the contracts were awarded in line with Bulgarian and EU law.
Stoynev in April accused Brussels of trying to block the construction in retaliation for Russia’s incursion in Crimea a month earlier.
Sofia’s decision not to continue work on the pipeline until it is officially sanctioned by the European Commission “could inflame tensions” between Moscow and the EU, Reuters reports.
Russian gas exporter Gazprom is determined to go ahead with the $40 billion project in defiance of Western sanctions against Russia, Reuters says.
It says that Bulgaria has agreed to the suspension even though it is “the EU's poorest member and almost wholly dependent on Russian gas.”
4. Five sentenced to prison in Russian journalist’s 2006 killing
Five men are headed to prison for the murder of famed Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the BBC reports.
Various trials have taken place since Politkovskaya was gunned down at the entrance to her Moscow apartment building in 2006, but this is the first time that anyone has been sentenced for the killing.
Five men were convicted last month:
Gaitukaev and Rustam Makhmudov received life sentences, and the others received between 12 and 20 years in prison, AFP reports.
Another former police officer, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2012 for providing the murder weapon and tracking Politkovskaya’s movements.
Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, along with Khadzhikurbanov, were acquitted of involvement in the murder in February 2009. But that verdict was overturned by the Russian Supreme Court because of procedural violations, and the five current suspects were charged again with murder and illegal weapons possession in October 2012.
As a TOL editorial recounted in 2006: “Anna Politkovskaya – crusading journalist, human rights activist, nemesis of Russia's power elite, 48-year-old mother of two – was undoubtedly killed in connection with her professional activities. Those activities included stripping away the layers of lies, distortions, and subterfuge surrounding President Vladimir Putin's brutal war in Chechnya – and publishing the naked, ugly truth in her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. They included giving a voice to, and putting a dignified human face on, the helpless and forgotten civilian victims of that war. And they included demanding accountability from a Kremlin that appears to detest that very word.”
While Politkovskaya's friends and family can be satisfied that the Russian judicial system has finally made a definitive ruling in the case, many remain frustrated that the court cases have never indicated who ordered the murder.
Law enforcement agencies are still trying to answer that question, a spokesman for federal investigators said last month, according to The Moscow Times.
“There is one fundamental question: who ordered it? Until that is resolved the case has to remain open,”
Lyudmila Alexeyeva from the Moscow Helsinki group told Interfax, according to AFP.
5. Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of ‘escalation,’ threatens to recognize Nagorno-Karabakh
The Armenian government is threatening to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory at the center of a decades-old dispute with Azerbaijan, in response to what it calls a “continued escalation” of hostilities by Azerbaijan, ArmeniaNow reports.
Armenia’s Defense Ministry last week said an Azerbaijani sniper had killed two of its soldiers along the countries’ southwestern border, Radio Free Europe reports.
The incident took place along the border of Armenia and Nakhchivan, an Azerbaijani exclave that also shares borders with Turkey and Iran, according to ArmeniaNow. Armenian officials charge “that there are Turkish units in the separate army formed in Nakhchivan,” the website reports.
Both sides have suffered shooting deaths in recent weeks, RFE reports.
Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war in the early 1990s over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is located wholly within Azerbaijan and populated predominantly by ethnic Armenians. A cease fire was signed in 1994 and Armenia acts as a protector for the territory. Nagorno-Karabakh considers itself a state but no country, including Armenia, has recognized it as such. Doing so would further complicate already stalled peace talks.
A research organization in Baku estimates that more than 600 soldiers in Azerbaijan have been killed in combat-related deaths since the cease fire was signed.
Skirmishes along the countries’ border “underline the risk of broader conflict in the South Caucasus, where vital oil and natural gas flow from the Caspian region to Europe,” Reuters notes.
The latest shooting comes a day after a representative from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is the umbrella organization for the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process, visited the region.
The OSCE will monitor the contact line between Armenia and Azerbaijan on 10 June, as it does periodically.