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Serbia’s Police Chiefs Get the Boot, Belarus Activist Unexpectedly Freed

Plus, Lithuania gets a green light to join the euro, and violence erupts in northern Kosovo.

by S. Adam Cardais, Rebecca Johnson, and Madeleine Stern 24 June 2014

1. Citing failed anti-drug operation, Serbian PM fires police chiefs

 

Five police chiefs in Serbia were fired 20 June after Prime Minster Aleksandar Vucic said an effort to launch a major operation against drug trafficking had netted only small fry, inSerbia reports.

 

Aleksandar Vucic
“I was looking for results in the fight against drug cartels, but the people in the police were more interested in some internal things,” Vucic said, according to the website.

 

Instead of identifying drug barons for surveillance and prosecution, Vucic said police went after street-level dealers and engaged in “infighting” and “meddling in politics,” according to inSerbia.

 

 

 

President Tomislav Nikolic, who supported the purge, said Serbia has made little headway in the fight against crime because “crime groups have collaborators and moles in the Ministry of the Interior and thus succeed to avoid facing law and justice,” according to B92.

 

The last straw may have been the escape from Serbia of accused drug lord Dragoslav Kosmajac, who crossed the border into Montenegro on 20 June and could not be arrested because Serbia had not issued a warrant, Balkan Insight reports.

 

“Everyone is keeping quiet about officials from the police and other services’ contacts with Kosmajac. I have called for action to be taken against him but this has not been done to this day,” Vucic said at a press conference in which he announced the police firings, according to Balkan Insight.

 

One expert told Balkan Insight the dismissals were politically motivated. “This is an attempt by officials to take control of the most important police unit – the criminal unit,” organized crime expert Milos Vasic said.

 

2. Belarusian activist calls for release of other political prisoners

 

Prominent Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski has been unexpectedly released after almost three years in prison on charges that the West called political, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

Byalyatski’s wife, Natalya Pinchuk, and a group of supporters met him at a Minsk train station 21 June. The 51-year-old activist said he had been informed of his release under a new amnesty law at 9 a.m. the same day.

 

The European Union and United States welcomed the move after years of demanding Byalyatski’s freedom. But the U.S. State Department urged Belarus, sometimes called Europe’s last dictatorship, to release all political prisoners.

 

A longtime critic of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Byalyatski echoed this demand 23 June, according to a separate RFE report. He said he does not plan to leave Belarus and will continue to fight for human rights in “an unfree country.”

 

Founder of the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center, Byalyatski was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in November 2011 for tax evasion. Authorities say he used personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to receive international funding for domestic human rights work.

 

Byalyatski reportedly resisted pressure from Minsk to ask for a pardon. In 2013, he received the inaugural Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize.

 

Six other political prisoners remain behind bars in Belarus, rights groups say, according to RFE.

 

3. Lithuania to become 19th euro zone member

 

Lithuania is set to join the euro zone in 2015 after a thumbs up by European finance ministers, despite waning enthusiasm for the currency union in other EU countries, Reuters reports.

 

The 20 June vote follows a recommendation by the European Commission earlier this month. Lithuania has fulfilled all the criteria, including a stable exchange rate and public debt and deficit within EU limits.

 

The last Baltic nation to join the euro, Lithuania has struggled for nearly a decade to meet the strict Maastricht criteria. Heralding a “very important day for Lithuania,” Finance Minister Rimantas Sadzius said his country “will try to be a responsible member of the euro zone,” evidently a reference to debt-ridden countries like Greece that dragged the union into crisis in recent years.

 

Reuters points out that, come next year, only nine EU countries will remain outside the euro zone. None has plans to join any time soon because the bloc’s reputation has taken a beating.

 

EU Economy Commissioner Olli Rehn said Lithuania’s accession demonstrates the euro zone’s strength after emerging from recession last year, The Baltic Times reports.

 

“Contrary to what the Cassandras were saying some years ago, the euro zone did not break up, but instead it has been enlarged from 16 to 19,” he said.

 

Brussels is expected to give Lithuania the final, official approval to adopt the euro next month.

 

4. In divided Kosovo town, blockade protest turns violent

 

More than 30 people were injured 22 June after violent protests erupted in northern Kosovo, Balkan Insight reports.

 

What began as a peaceful demonstration by Kosovo Albanians over Serb barricades on the main bridge in Mitrovica, an ethnically divided city, quickly escalated as demonstrators threw rocks and torched cars. Police responded with tear gas in clashes that left 13 officers and 21 protesters injured.

 

 

Balkan Insight reports that some demonstrators burned Serbian flags and shouted “KLA, KLA, KLA,” referring to the Kosovo Liberation Army, which launched a guerilla war against Serbia in the 1990s.

 

The protest began over the most recent effort by the majority-Serb population in northern Mitrovica to block vehicular traffic over the bridge to the Albanian southern section of the city, Radio Free Europe reports. Last week, ethnic Serbs cleared a controversial roadblock on the northern end of the bridge in place for three years only to replace it with large concrete flower pots.

 

Kosovo Serb authorities said they were turning the bridge into a “peace park,” RFE reports.

 

Mitrovica has been an interethnic flashpoint since the 1998-1999 conflict. Under an EU-brokered deal between Belgrade and Pristina last year, all barricades are supposed to be removed in northern Kosovo, but the Serbs there reject the agreement.

 

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called Sunday’s violence “unacceptable” and called for constructive efforts to guarantee freedom of movement in Kosovo, Balkan Insight reports.

 

5. To modernize economy, Russia offers scholarships abroad


The Russian government has unveiled a program that will allow Russian students to undertake graduate study at top foreign universities free of charge, The Moscow Times reports.

 

The program, open to all students who are citizens of Russia and hold bachelor’s degrees, will provide funding for more than 1,500 students at up to 1.4 million rubles ($41,000) each, RIA Novosti reports.

 

In return for the financial aid, students must return to Russia after graduation and spend three years working for a Russian company. If they do not comply, they face a fine equal to three times the cost of their tuition, The Moscow Times writes, citing Russia media.

 

The effort is meant to help modernize Russia’s natural-resource-reliant economy. For students to qualify, they must be accepted by a top university or a medical school approved by the Health Ministry.

 

The government has set aside 4.4 billion rubles ($128 million) over the next four years for the scholarships, according to the newspaper.

 

Russia’s Education Ministry is in the process of assembling an oversight committee for the program, which will launch in the next academic year, RIA Novosti reports. 

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Rebecca Johnson and Madeleine Stern are TOL editorial interns.

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