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Central Asians Lured to Fight in Ukraine, Bulgaria Copes with Floods Aftermath

Plus, Croatia is the new Greece and police in Dagestan kill a suspected militant.

by Piers Lawson, Barbara Frye, Mane Grigoryan, and Madeleine Stern 26 June 2014

1. Report: Central Asians recruited to fight in eastern Ukraine


There is “fresh evidence … that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine are looking to Central Asia as a potential source of trained military fighters,” Radio Free Europe reports.


Underneath a news agency picture of a man identified as a Kalashnikov-carrying Uzbek in the Donetsk region, the RFE report says separatists are allegedly offering cash and Russian citizenship to Central Asians with military experience to enlist with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).


An anonymous RFE correspondent contacted Moscow-based recruiters for the self-proclaimed republic in eastern Ukraine saying he was an Uzbekistani citizen and wanted to enlist.


The correspondent was assured that he was welcome to do so “in principle” but that “specific measures” would be required to “address the lack of a Russian passport,” according to RFE.


“The revelations appear to confirm the composite nature of eastern Ukraine's separatist armies,” the news agency says.


It says that “separatist battalions at first claimed to be homegrown but have since proved to include fighters from throughout Russia, including the North Caucasus”, as well as from South Ossetia, breakaway region of Georgia, and a  “small number of Central Asians.”


The London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs in March said the crisis in Ukraine “has put Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders in a double bind.”


“While they are concerned about Moscow’s military show of power in Crimea, they are also keen to downplay popular revolts that end in the ouster of a corrupt and iron-fisted leader of an independent state within Russia’s orbit,” analyst Annette Bohr wrote.


Russia is “actively backing the recruitment drive,” RFE reports, citing military observers and journalists in eastern Ukraine.


“Some of the fighters claim to be fighting out of pro-Russian or Orthodox Christian sentiment,” the news agency reports. “Others appear to be mercenaries drawn by the promise of steady pay.”


The Ukrinform news agency recently reported that Russia had even attempted to recruit French Foreign Legion veterans, offering up to 10,000 euros ($13,600) per month.


2. Homelessness, grief, and a poor harvest in the wake of Bulgaria’s floods


Heavy flooding in eastern Bulgaria earlier this month is having significant after-effects, The Sofia Globe and Novinite report.


The Black Sea city of Varna is struggling to house more than 770 people who lost their homes because of landslides, The Sofia Globe reports, citing Bulgarian National Television.



In addition, Agriculture Minister Dimitar Grekov said up to 250,000 decares (74,000 acres) of wheat have been destroyed by the rainfall and that it could take at least a week longer than usual to collect the harvest, Novinite reports, citing local media.


“Estimates of the Agriculture Ministry suggest that this year’s crops could be up to 20 percent lower than in 2013,” Novinite reports.


Grain shortfalls and price rises are not expected, and farmers who have lost all their crops will be compensated for up to 80 percent of their value, Grekov said, according to Novinite.


Meanwhile the body of a child was found today, bringing the death toll to 12, Novinite reports.


About a month's normal rainfall fell in the regions of Varna and Burgas in a 24-hour period last week, the BBC reported. Floodwaters in Varna reached heights of up to one meter and many people needed to be rescued as cars were swept away, according to the news agency.


Hundreds were left without electricity or food.


3. Croatia edges out Greece for dubious honor


Croatia has replaced Greece as Europe’s “new economic laggard,” the Financial Times reports.


It is now the worst-performing economy in the European Union, earning it the title of Europe’s No. 1 “basket case,” the newspaper writes.


The FT’s Tony Barber cites several reasons why the Croatian economy is in the doldrums:


  • An inefficient public sector “that keeps people in jobs that serve no obvious public purpose”
  • A shortage of private companies capable of creating jobs
  • A center-left government that “lacks the energy, desire and self-belief to carry out essential reforms”
  • Political parties that “spend too much time playing politics for its own sake”
  • “Exceptional slowness” in using EU finds made available for development in the seven years before Croatia joined the bloc in July 2013


Although most of Europe is enjoying a recovery from the recession caused by the 2008 financial crisis, the FT says the Croatian economy is now in its sixth year of recession, with a youth unemployment rate of almost 50 percent.


Unions protested in Zagreb in February against changes to labor laws that the government said would help lower unemployment. Image from a video by SensServis Agencija/YouTube.


The Moody’s credit rating agency cut Croatia’s sovereign debt rating to junk status in December 2012, citing “policy inertia and opposition from vested interests” as the main factors contributing to the country’s economic stagnation, Bloomberg reported at the time.


According to the FT, efforts to modernize the economy continue to meet internal opposition from the government, due in part to a culture of political patronage and nepotism in public-sector hiring.


Any economic recovery will hinge on Croatia’s ability to make use of economic aid from the EU, the FT says.


4. Suspected militant killed in Dagestan operation


Police in Dagestan, Russia, say they have killed a 25-year-old militant suspected of taking part in a deadly attack on police officers in May, Vestnik Kavkaza (Caucasus Herald) reports.


Malik Ulubekov was the target of an operation in the Caspian Sea-side city of Derbent that Itar-Tass reports began late on the night of 25 June and lasted into the next day.


In the May attack, three police officers were killed and 10 wounded, according to Vestnik Kavkaza, when they were ambushed in a Dagestani village about 160 kilometers (100 miles) inland from Derbent, Caucasian Knot reported at the time. The website said police were conducting a manhunt a few days after someone had blown up a monument to the village’s War World II soldiers.


That ambush, in turn, reportedly precipitated a warrantless, house to house police search in the village and then the formation of a local “self-defense unit” of villagers to turn in those who cooperate with insurgents.


In this week’s operation, police evacuated Ulubekov’s neighborhood in Derbent and arranged for the escape of his mother and wife, according to Vestnik Kavkaza. Police said Ulubekov was killed after refusing to surrender.


Police also conducted an operation in a district of western Dagestan. “Manhunt activities designed to neutralize militants are under way,” a police spokesman told Itar-Tass. 


Dagestan has become the epicenter of an insurgency in Russia’s North Caucasus that claimed nearly 1,000 lives last year, according to Caucasian Knot. What began in the 1990s as a separatist struggle in Chechnya has spread across the region and become a fight by Islamists to establish a caliphate there.


Of the 300 people killed last year in fighting in Dagestan, almost half were civilians.


5. Christian group defends Skopje’s second giant cross


A new, 50-meter- (164-foot-) tall Christian cross that dominates the skyline of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, has rankled some, but its defenders say it is not intended to provoke religious strife, Balkan Insight reports.


“The towering cross” was erected in the city’s Aerodrom municipality and was “sanctified” this week by the leader of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, according to the website.


Most Macedonians are Christians, but about one-fourth of the population is ethnic Albanian, most of whom are Muslim.


Another cross, 66-meters tall, has stood on a mountain overlooking Skopje for more than a decade.


Todor Petrov, director of the World Macedonian Congress, the organization behind the new cross, said it “is not erected to provoke and it is not an anti-Albanian or anti-Muslim symbol.”


“On the contrary, the cross is an inseparable part of Macedonian culture and belongs to the Albanians as much as it belongs to the Macedonians, because both peoples have Christians and Muslims among them,” Petrov said, according to Balkan Insight.


Still, the new cross has riled some Albanian Muslims and even some ethnic Macedonians in Skopje, Balkan Insight reported in November.


Locals complained that the city already has one huge cross on its outskirts and that there were more pressing priorities for the Aerodrom area, including the construction of kindergartens, schools, and a hospital.


The decision to approve the latest cross earlier this year came “amid speculation on social networks” that a Turkish investment group was planning to build four skyscrapers in the Aerodrom area, which could have led to “an influx of Muslim buyers in the ethnically and religiously homogenous” municipality, according to Balkan Insight.


Ethnic Albanian rebels and government security forces fought in a short separatist conflict in 2001 that ended in a peace agreement granting some autonomy and other rights to the country’s Albanians.

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