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Washington Slashes Central Asian Security Aid, Croatia Widens Oil and Gas Search

Plus, Georgians rally against harsh drug laws and a new report details the long hours and low pay of garment workers in the region.

by Ky Krauthamer, Mane Grigoryan, Rebecca Johnson, and Madeleine Stern 18 June 2014

1. Croatia invites bidders for oil, gas exploration

 

With an offshore exploration tender open until November, Croatian officials have decided to open an international bid for exploration of inland deposits of gas and oil next month, Reuters reports.

 

“There are 40 companies interested in the Adriatic seabed. By September, a lot of other prominent oil companies will come to Croatia,” Economy Minister Ivan Vrdoljak said, according to Balkan Insight.

 

Vrdoljak said the potential areas of exploration include the Sava river basin in central Croatia, the Drava river basin in the east and the Dinaric Alps in the south. Another round of tenders was likely later this year or in 2015, he said.

 

Offshore concessions opened in the Adriatic in February include 29 sections of the central and southern coastlines and could eventually earn $700 million in annual revenue, the government said. Companies such as Russia-based Gazprom and Lukoil, France’s Total, Germany’s RWE, and ExxonMobil are among potential bidders, Reuters cites Croatian media as saying.

 

The Croatian government hopes to spur economic recovery by building energy independence. The economy of the newest EU member is struggling to shake off the after-effects of the 2008-2009 slump and may clock up its sixth recession in a row this year, Reuters writes.

 

Vrdoljak expressed anxiety that the crisis in Ukraine could interrupt gas supplies.

 

Croatia generates two-thirds of the electricity it consumes, while its total oil production amounts to only 21 percent of consumption, and its gas production is about 50 percent of consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

 

2. Fugitive Nazarbaev foe held in Austria on murder charge

 

Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s former son-in-law Rakhat Aliev could spend from 20 years to life behind bars in Austria if he is convicted of the kidnap and murder of two bankers in 2007, Tengri News reports.

 

Rakhat Aliyev
Aliev, who handed himself in to Austrian police 5 June, was sentenced in absentia in Kazakhstan to 40 years in prison in 2008. A former security agency chief, deputy foreign minister, and ambassador to Austria, and wealthy businessman, he fled Kazakhstan in 2007, the same year he divorced Nazarbaev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbaeva. Austria earlier rejected an extradition request from Kazakhstani authorities because of the country’s poor human-rights record, the BBC reports.

 

Aliev was a part owner of Nurbank, whose former chief executive, Abilmazhen Gilimov, and his deputy, Zholdas Timraliev, were found dead in 2011, Bloomberg reports. Suspicions of his involvement in the 2006 slaying of opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbaev led to Kazakhstani prosecutors reopening an investigation into the crime. Sarsenbaev’s widow suggested that he ordered the killing as revenge for her husband’s foiling his and his wife’s plan to stage a power grab in 2001.

 

Aliev has denied involvement in any of the killings.

 

3. Manas closure underlines Washington’s strategic rethink on Central Asia

 

The closure of the U.S. military’s Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan is part of a larger drawdown of the American presence in Central Asia, reflected in major cuts in military aid in the region, EurasiaNet.org reports.

 

Defense Department aid for counter-narcotics operations in four Central Asian states, a major component of Washington’s security policy in the region, plummeted in the first half of the current fiscal year. Last year the four countries received from $5.7 million (Uzbekistan) to $21.3 million (Kyrgyzstan). Those amounts dropped to $156,000 and $1.2 million for the October 2013-March 2014 period.

 

ManasTroops350U.S. troops prepare to depart for Afghanistan from Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan. Photo: U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Jason T. Guiliano

 

Afghanistan, in contrast, received nearly $24 million in the same six-month period.

 

Such aid has fluctuated widely year to year and could rise again, but, EurasiaNet.org writes, “given that the aid was so clearly a quid pro quo in exchange for access to Afghanistan, it's not surprising that as that mission winds down, the aid is dropping. Meanwhile, of course, Russia is substantially increasing its military aid to the region.”

 

Manas, which is also Kyrgyzstan’s main international civilian airport, was the primary transit point for personnel and equipment involved in U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Some 5.3 million service personnel from 26 countries passed through the base after it opened in 2001, the Diplomat reports.

 

The withdrawal of most U.S. personnel from Afghanistan by the end of the year will render Manas unnecessary, and the base was handed back to Kyrgyzstani officials earlier this month.

 

The Manas closure met with a largely positive response in Kyrgyzstan, whose parliament passed legislation authorizing the eviction of U.S. forces in 2009. Russia has promised the Kyrgyzstani government $1.1 billion in military aid and the forgiveness of $500 million in debt in exchange for the eviction, The Economist noted in December. Russia operates its own air base about 20 miles from Manas, and the departure of U.S. forces is expected to cement Russia’s status as the dominant foreign power in Kyrgyzstan, The Moscow Times reports.

 

4. A new breed of protest brightens the streets of Georgia’s capital

 

Georgia’s harsh drug penalties are coming under scrutiny after a string of recent noisy, smoke-enveloped marches and protests in Tbilisi.

 

The case of a man who faces seven to 14 years for marijuana possession galvanized the first protest 31 May when marchers set off from Tbilisi State University down central Rustaveli Avenue, Democracy and Freedom Watch reports.

 

Beka Tsikarishvili, 28, was arrested in 2013 at the Tbilisi central train station with four grams of marijuana, EurasiaNet.org reports, adding, “He claims that a promise of leniency prompted him to hand over another 65 grams.” Tsikarishvili, described in various reports as a journalist, civil society activist, and musician, is now free on $5,600 bail. He “launched a campaign to liberalize punishments for marijuana use that has since morphed into a decriminalization initiative. He now ranks as a semi-national symbol, with supporters staging rallies in downtown Tbilisi and for his court appearances,” EurasiaNet.org writes.

TbilisiProtest350A demonstration for drug policy reform in Tbilisi. Image from a video by Konstantin Stalinsky / YouTube
 
 

After another rally on 2 June demanding the decriminalization of marijuana, demonstrators a week later carried cups of urine to protest the common police tactic of rounding up young people and ordering them to undergo urine tests for drugs.

 

Interior Ministry figures show that nearly 200,000 people were tested for drugs in police stations between 2008 and 2013, according to EurasiaNet.org. A third of the tests came back positive.

 

After the 2 June rally, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said his Georgian Dream party would not countenance the decriminalization of marijuana, a U-turn from statements he made while campaigning for office, according to EurasiaNet.org.

 

Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani admitted last year that the country has a “repressive machine to deal with drugs” and pledged an effort to move away from heavy-handed persecution of drug users to softer treatments, something that has yet to materialize, a separate EurasiaNet.org story reports.

 

5. Garment workers in region earn far below poverty line: Report

 

Adidas, Hugo Boss, Tesco, and other major clothing manufacturers and sellers have criticized an advocacy group’s report alleging poor wages and widespread mistreatment of textile workers in Eastern and southeastern Europe.

 

The report from the Clean Clothes Campaign claims, for instance, that workers in Croatian factories that supply Benetton and Hugo Boss clothing earn “only one-third of a minimum living wage.”

 

In Bosnia, workers at Adidas suppliers “don’t earn enough to buy food for their families,” as wages of 9 euros ($12) per 10-hour day are only 26 percent of “an estimated minimum living wage,” the study claims. Their peers in Georgia are even worse off, earning just 5 euros for an eight-hour day. In both countries wages “are considerably below the national poverty lines.”

 

Adidas responded saying it had “no authorized production in Georgia,” and requested Clean Clothes Campaign to supply more details so it could investigate the claims, the Guardian reports.

 

The group’s researchers interviewed hundreds of workers in 10 countries including four EU members, Georgia, and Turkey. Three million people work in the garment industry in these countries, often in dangerous conditions, they say. Mandatory overtime is common, workers may be pressured not to take sick leave, and women are often harassed.

 

The legal minimum wage in Bulgaria, Romania, and Macedonia was lower than in China in 2013, while the minimum wage in Ukraine and Moldova was lower than in Indonesia, the group says. Its estimate of a “minimum living wage,” based on interviews with workers, is from three to 10 times higher than the legal minimum wages in the study countries.

 

“While [the study’s authors] stop short of suggesting that labor laws are being violated, they are calling on brands and retailers to ensure all those who work in their supply chains are paid a living wage,” the fashion site Just-style writes.

 

Some of the two dozen or so brands mentioned in the report said they had little or no presence in the countries covered, the Guardian writes.  H & M said in a statement, “We believe that it is an outdated view that foreign companies should determine what a living wage is.”

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