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Police Swoop on Albania’s Drug Capital, Ukraine Refugee Count Rises

Plus, Georgian Dream sweeps local elections and Poland’s central bank chief faces resignation calls after bad-mouthing his colleagues.

by Ky Krauthamer, Mane Grigoryan, Marketa Horazna, and Rebecca Johnson 17 June 2014

1. Ukraine refugee numbers rising


A week after new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said humanitarian corridors would be opened for refugees from the fighting in the eastern part of the country, the size and severity of the refugee situation remains hazy. All sides agree that thousands of people have left eastern Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea, but their reasons for leaving and their destinations are varied.


The most extreme reports come from Russian media. A Rostov region official said 16 June that more than 122,000 Ukrainian citizens had fled to the region, ITAR-Tass reports. Earlier this month the region declared a humanitarian emergency in several districts, bringing a denial by Kyiv that Ukrainians were fleeing across the border.


Questions remain about the numbers of Ukrainians crossing the Russian border, but the scale of the internal refugee situation is becoming clearer.


Many internally displaced people appear to be staying close to home. The small city of Svyatogorsk, population 5,000, had taken in at least 25,000 people from eastern Ukraine, Deputy Donetsk Region Governor Elena Petryaeva told Vice News a week ago. Since the end of May, 15,000 to 20,000 refugees had arrived from the nearby heavily contested city of Slovyansk, Mayor Alexander Dzyuba told the Guardian last week.


Smoke billows from a building in Slovyansk after fighting in the city on 8 June. Image from a video by NewestNews1000 / YouTube


The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, recently estimated the number of internally displaced people as 19,336, more than 11,000 from Crimea and the rest from the eastern regions. According to the agency, the eastern metropolis of Kharkiv alone had taken in more than 3,000 eastern refugees, while many Crimeans went to Kyiv and Lviv.


In addition, a spokeswoman said in an email that the agency is “aware of” 15,000 unregistered internal refugees reportedly in Svyatogorsk and unconfirmed reports of “several thousand” still within the eastern region itself.


UNHCR based its figures on reports from local authorities and civil society groups, and thus probably significantly undercounts the real numbers because many never declare themselves, Radio Free Europe wrote 13 June.


The agency’s representative for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, Oldrich Andrysek, said most internal refugees are women and children.


“There are relatively few old people, pensioners. They are reluctant to leave their homes even though conditions are very bad,” he told RFE.


Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said 60,000 Ukrainian refugees are in Russia. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told the Security Council that 34,000 Ukrainians had fled their homes and 4,600 had applied for asylum or refugee status in Russia, the Associated Press reports.


2. Ruling party dominates Georgian local elections


Candidates of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition won a majority of local council seats contested in elections 15 June and were well placed to take mayoral races in Tbilisi and other large cities after runoffs in two weeks’ time.


With 98 percent of the votes counted, Georgian Dream had 51 percent of the vote nationwide to 22 percent for its chief rival, the United National Movement (UNM), Democracy and Freedom Watch reports. A coalition headed by a former parliamentary speaker and acting president, Nino Burjanadze, is in third, with around 10 percent.


The election is the latest sharp defeat for the UNM, which was ousted from power two years ago by Georgian Dream, a startup project of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Local councils were the UNM’s “last remaining bastion,” Reuters reports.


Low turnout of 43 percent showed voters deeply distrusted the current Georgian Dream-led government, the UNM said in a statement.

“The elections were substantially affected by an undemocratic ... election environment marred by frequent violence, well-documented pressure on UNM candidates, and statements by top government officials justifying violence,” the statement read.


In the race for the influential post of Tbilisi mayor, Georgian Dream candidate David Narmania won 46.3 percent of the vote in preliminary results. If his total stays under 50 percent, Narmania will face the UNM’s Nika Melia in a 29 June runoff.


Georgian Dream members appear to be winning more than two-thirds of the 50 seats on the Tbilisi city council, reports.


3. Albanian police storm pot-growing village


About 500 police officers invaded a marijuana-growing village in southern Albania 16 June, coming under fire by hand-held grenade launchers, mortars, and heavy machine guns, Balkan Insight reports.


The firing reportedly broke out as police tried to seize warehouses used by a local drug baron in Lazarat, close to the Greek border. Police said no one was hurt in the clashes.


The military-like operation was mounted when a weekend raid by a smaller police force was repelled, according to the Associated Press. A police spokeswoman said officers took control of the village after coming under fire by around 30 armed men.


Lazarat is notorious as a center of the local marijuana business. Police have rarely entered the village in recent years, except for occasional raids such as one in 2012 when they reportedly came under fire by elderly women, among others, aboard a fleet of SUVs equipped with machine guns.


Gangs based in Lazarat are believed to produce about 900 tons of cannabis a year, worth about $6.1 billion, according to the AP.


Police said they found 10,000 cannabis plants in the village.


Drug traffickers in Albania have come under increased pressure recently as the authorities try to put the brakes on a thriving trade in local and imported drugs. 

4. Polish central bank head in hot water over frank talk


A leaked recording of a compromising conversation involving Marek Belka, Poland’s central bank governor and former prime minister, is putting pressure on him to resign, but Reuters reports Belka has no intention of leaving his post.


Marek Belka


In a transcript of the recording published in the Wprost news magazine, Belka and Interior Minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz discussed the stability of the Polish currency last July in a Warsaw restaurant popular with officials for its privacy. Their conversation lapsed into expletives on the subject of financial policy and members of the cabinet and central bank officials.



They also talked about the removal of Jacek Rostowski, the finance minister. Belka said the bank could help the state with economic issues if Rostowski were removed.


Prime Minister Donald Tusk sacked Rostowski in November in what both Tusk and Belka recently said was a personnel reshuffle unrelated to the restaurant conversation, according to Reuters.


Tusk said Belka had not committed a crime and had made his remarks to Sienkiewicz out of concern for the country’s economy.


“Irrespective of how nasty was their way of expressing their opinions, they were talking about how to help the country, not how to harm the country, about joint actions in times of crisis,” Tusk said in his first comments after 14 June report, according to Reuters.


The zloty recovered slightly after falling to a three-month low after the recording was published. Still, economists and bankers doubt Belka can stay for long, Bloomberg reports.


“In the worst case, this may end badly for Belka, because we are talking about an independent central bank governor lending his support to one side of the political divide,” Michal Dybula, chief economist for Central and Eastern Europe at BNP Paribas, told Bloomberg.


5. Kazakhstan to ease taxes, visa rules for foreign investors


Nursultan Nazarbaev
In its latest move to open up its hydrocarbon-dominated economy to new industries, Kazakhstan has suspended some taxes for foreigners who invest outside the oil industry, President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced last week.


“We want to create a new type of industry in our country. Historically, we were a raw materials-producing appendage of the Soviet Union, which only brought raw materials out of here but built nothing,” Nazarbaev said, according to Reuters.


Astana will also ease visa regulations for 10 countries with strong investments in Kazakhstan, reports Citizens of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States will be allowed to enter Kazakhstan for 15 days visa-free starting 15 July for a one-year trial period, Deputy Foreign Minister Rapil Zhoshibaev said.


The tax relief for foreign investors outside the oil industry exempts them from land or corporate taxes for 10 years and from taxes on non-land assets for eight years. They will also be reimbursed for 30 percent of the costs of building new plants, Reuters reports. Such investors will be permitted to bring foreign workers without permits or quotas for the first year after a new business starts.


Astana’s latest economic diversification drive got under way in May when the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development agreed to manage $2.7 billion from Kazakhstan’s oil fund in a scheme to attract outside investment into non-oil sectors.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Mane Grigoryan, Marketa Horazna, and Rebecca Johnson are TOL editorial interns.

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