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Russia Shuts off Ukraine’s Gas, Planes Vanish from Central European Radar

Plus, a crucial gold mine in Kyrygzstan averts a shutdown and Croatia loses a war-crimes judgment. by Piers Lawson, Barbara Frye, Rebecca Johnson, and Madeleine Stern 16 June 2014

1. Gazprom ends gas supplies to Ukraine amid lawsuits


Russian energy giant Gazprom shut off supplies of natural gas to Ukraine today as both sides take a gas-pricing dispute to court.


Gazprom is suing its Ukrainian counterpart, Naftogaz, for $4.5 billion in unpaid gas debts, The Washington Post reports. The suit was filed today in a Stockholm arbitration court after Naftogaz missed a deadline to pay a $1.95 billion installment.


Gazprom also said in a statement that it had switched Ukraine to an advance-payment system, effectively cutting off the gas.


The shutoff does not apply to gas passing through Ukraine en route to European customers, but Gazprom implied Ukraine might try to siphon some off. The company said it had notified the European Commission “about possible disruptions of gas transit if Naftogaz of Ukraine illegally withdrew gas from transit flows.”


The latest developments “follow crisis talks between Ukraine, Russia, and the European Union on the issue” which Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov said had “ended with no agreement” and with “slim chances” of them meeting again, according to the BBC.


Naftogaz has filed a countersuit against Gazprom, seeking to recover $6 billion in what it says are overpayments for gas from 2009 to the present, Reuters reports.


Naftogaz is also demanding a renegotiation of its contract with Gazprom for a “market price” according to Reuters, which says Ukraine pays the highest gas tariffs in Europe.


2. Why did planes vanish from radar over Central Europe?


NATO is denying that recent military exercises were responsible for brief disappearances of some planes from Central European radar systems over the past two weeks, Reuters reports.


The aircraft went missing briefly from radar screens in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, and Austria on 5 and 10 June. Last week, Slovak authorities blamed “military electronic warfare exercises,” Reuters reported.


Accounts vary of how many planes were affected, with The Telegraph putting it at 13 and Reuters at “dozens.”


The Slovak statement did not name the military organization, but Austrian media blamed NATO, according to Reuters.


An Austrian newspaper also “suggested that a targeted cyber attack may have caused the disappearances,” according to The Telegraph and “claimed the aircrafts' transponders may have been interfered with, but that, it stresses, would have required the use of a satellite.”


On 14 June a military official with NATO told Reuters, “our assessment is that” the exercises did not interfere with air traffic control, noting that the alliance uses only frequencies allocated by host countries.


The official said NATO “did carry out some training that involved ‘localized and low-power jamming’ in the skies over Hungary during the 2-6 June period and that it was currently conducting similar training in southern Italy from 9-20 June,” Reuters reports, but that “no jamming was conducted on 5 June.”


That still leaves the mystery of why air traffic controllers briefly lost information about the planes’ position, direction, height, and speed.


The Slovak statement said the planes remained in radio contact with the towers and “immediately after the identification of the problem with the displays, the side organizing the exercises was contacted and the exercise was stopped.”


European air safety agencies are investigating, Reuters reports.


3. Kyrgyzstan’s Kumtor mine saved at last minute from shutdown


The company that operates Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine says work will continue uninterrupted after its mining plan for 2014 was approved by the government, The Times of Central Asia reports.


The announcement brings an end to uncertainty over the future of the mine, the website reports, and came shortly before a shutdown deadline set by its Canadian investor.


The Kumtor mine. Photo from the Kumtor Mine Company website.


After months of delays, Canada-based Centerra Gold Inc. – which majority-owns the mine through its Kumtor Gold Company subsidiary – warned in early June of an “orderly shutdown of operations” if “approval and permits” were not obtained from Kyrgyzstan’s government by 13 June, The Times of Central Asia reports.


Centerra and the Kyrgyzstani government are in a drawn-out struggle over ownership of the mine. The most recent proposal was for the government to swap its 32.7 percent share in Centerra to a 50 percent share in the mine, Canada’s Financial Post reports, saying the deal is “in flux” pending more demands by lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan.


Kumtor accounted for nearly 8 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s gross domestic product and a quarter of its industrial output in 2013, according to a company statement.

The mine “is a key source of foreign exchange for the country of 5.5 million people. It is also the main taxpayer and biggest employer in Kyrgyzstan,” according to Reuters.


Any closure of the mine “would further aggravate the bitter dispute between Centerra and the government, which wants more revenue” from it, Reuters writes.


In recent years there has been a low chorus of accusations about environmental mismanagement at the high-altitude site, which has been dogged by high levels of pollution and health problems. Even so, independent audits have found it does not violate Kyrgyzstani or European regulations.


4. European court orders Croatia to compensate war-crime victim’s widow


Croatia will have to pay 20,000 euros ($27,000) in damages to the widow of a Serb man whose wartime killing was not properly investigated, the European Court of Human Rights ruled last week.


Ana Jelic told the court that on the evening of 15 November 1991 “five armed men in camouflage uniforms and balaclavas” took away her husband, Vaso Jelic, from their home in the central city of Sisak.


He was found three months later, shot dead.


Sisak, which had a mixed Serb-Croat population before the 1991-1995 war between Serbia and Croatia, was a flashpoint during the war. It was on the border of Serbian Krajina, a predominantly Serb region that declared independence during the conflict. A camp was established in Sisak where local Serbs were rounded up at the time.


It was not until 1999 that there was any movement on the Jelic case. That year, according to the court’s judgment, “police interviewed a man who had collected information about the arrests and killings of 83 civilians of Serbian origin and the disappearances of a further 500 civilians of Serbian origin in the Sisak area. He indicated that the head of the Sisak county police had been involved in those arrests and killings.”


In the early 2000s, more witnesses came forward who said the local police had systematically targeted local Serbs in 1991 and 1992. A former deputy police chief was convicted of war crimes in December 2013.


The court found the investigation and prosecution of the case was “plagued by inexplicable delays and by long periods of inactivity without justification, which had to have had a negative effect on the prospects of establishing the truth.”


In its most recent annual report on global human rights, Human Rights Watch blasted the countries of the western Balkans for, among other things, dragging their feet on prosecuting war-crimes cases.


Both sides in the case have three months to request a review of the decision by a higher chamber.


5. Pope’s first European trip will be to Albania


Pope Francis has told crowds in St. Peter’s Square that his first European trip will be in September, to the Albanian capital Tirana, Reuters reports.


The pontiff wants his first visit in Europe to be to “a country on the margins” with a past of persecution whose people continue to live in poverty, a Vatican spokesman said, according to the agency.


Pope Francis
Albania is one of Europe’s poorest countries, and for decades one of the most isolated. About 14 percent of its citizens live in poverty, down more than 10 percent from a decade ago, according to the World Bank.


Dictator Enver Hoxha declared the country the first atheist state in 1967, Reuters notes, ordering the destruction of many mosques, churches, and religious libraries, and the arrests of imams and priests.


On his trip to Albania, the pope said he wants to “encourage a country [that has] suffered from the consequences of the ideologies of the past.”


Just over half of Albanians are Muslim, a legacy of Ottoman control that ended in 1912. Nearly one-fifth of the population is Christian, mainly Orthodox and other Roman Catholic denominations.


Hoxha’s communist regime lasted for 46 years until 1990, five years after his death, when the country began its transition to democracy.


On a visit to the country in 1993, Pope John Paul II said, “History has never seen before what happened in Albania. Dear Albanians, your drama must interest the whole European continent: Europe must not forget.”


The country has battled unemployment and lack of investment since then. The IMF and the World Bank have issued loans to help build the economy and encourage investment, but debt is still 60 percent of gross domestic product.

Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Rebecca Johnson and Madeleine Stern are TOL editorial interns.
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