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Russia Mounts Massive Military Exercises, Montenegrin Court SuspendsTabloid for Tarring Activist

Also, scandals prompt Serbia to mull vetting officials’ academic claims and the Eurasian Union remains open to Ukrainian imports – for now.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Mane Grigoryan, and Madeleine Stern 30 June 2014

1.Snap exercises show Russian military turning eyes to Central Asia

 

The Russian military held massive, surprise exercises last week to test its combat readiness.

 

Some analysts say the exercises, held in Russia’s Central Military District and involving troops stationed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are meant to shift the armed forces’ focus to operations in Central Asia.

 


 

“The main tasks of the Russian army in the near future will be focused not only on the Western, but also on the Central Asian military theater,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, according to EurasiaNet.org.

 

“The just-finished exercises focused on mobility, which will obviously be a big issue if Russia decides to intervene in Central Asia some day,” the website writes.

 

But a NATO spokeswoman said the snap exercises, which were held June 21-28 and involved 65,000 troops, “can be seen as a further escalation of the crisis with Ukraine,” the Associated Press reports.

 

A larger context for the exercises could be the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan, military experts told Nezavisimaya Gazeta. An upcoming exercise involving the Collective Security Treaty Organization – Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan – “will be aimed at ‘working out tasks connected with the protection of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border,’ ” defense analyst Eduard Rodyukov said.

 

2. Montenegrin court blocks newspaper that accused government critic of bestiality

 

A court in Montenegro has temporarily blocked distribution of a tabloid newspaper that has been publishing accusations of bestiality against a prominent human rights activist, Balkan Insight reports.

 

Vanja Calovic
Vanja Calovic, who heads an organization that aims to combat corruption and organized crime in Montenegro, was accused by Informer of having sex with her dogs. The Belgrade-based tabloid posted a video last week that it says contains “proof that Calovic is an animal abuser” and called upon readers to “investigate” the authenticity of the video for themselves, Balkan Insight reports.

 

 

 

Calovic denied the allegations, saying she is the target of “the dirtiest campaign ever registered in Montenegro.” About 100 Montenegrin journalists and human rights activists demonstrated in Podgorica in support of the activist last week, trampling on copies of Informer, Balkan Insight writes.

 

Calovic’s organization, the Network for the Affirmation of the NGO Sector, recently published documents is says demonstrate serious wrongdoing by officials of Montenegro’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists. Last year Calovic was included in the Natalia Project, an initiative that provides human rights activists with GPS-equipped bracelets that put out an alarm on social media and to other activists in the event of an attack or kidnapping.

 

The court was slated to render a final decision about the temporary Informer ban on Monday, Balkan Insight reports.

 

Montenegro is an EU candidate. Corruption, media freedom, and the rule of law are among the issues upon which Brussels is focusing in the country’s accession process. 

 

3. Serbian academic scandals fuel plan to check government officials’ diplomas 

 

Serbia’s Education Ministry is pushing for authority to check the authenticity of future government officials’ claimed academic credentials, Balkan Insight reports.

 

The proposal comes after Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic was accused of plagiarizing parts of his doctoral dissertation. Stefanovic denied the allegations, and his academic adviser at the private Megatrend University, Mica Jovanovic, stood by him. But Jovanovic was then himself exposed as having falsely claimed a degree from the London School of Economics and resigned as Megatrend’s rector.

 

Belgrade-based Megatrend, which opened 25 years ago, has a mixed reputation. An academic at Belgrade University’s School of Economy told AFP last week it enjoyed a close relationship with the ruling party.

 

A petition drive is under way among students and academics in Serbia to have the accusations against Stefanovic investigated independently, AFP reports.

 

The proposal to have the Education Ministry check future officials’ credentials would not be retroactive, Balkan Insight reports.

 

“In 2012, the Education Ministry found that of 2,000 diplomas issued by Serbian universities, about 10 percent of them were forgeries,” according to the website.

 

Eric Gordy, a professor at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, told the news agency that higher education in Serbia is plagued by “the failure of the state to regulate the increasing number of private universities and by doing so to maintain the credibility of university degrees, and the failure of the academic community, in both private and public institutions, to regulate itself.”

 

4. Russia meets recalcitrance on restricting Ukrainian trade with new bloc

 

Russia is not finding willing partners in its bid to limit Ukrainian imports into the Eurasian Economic Union, Vedomosti reports. Fellow members Belarus and Kazakhstan have rejected a proposal from Moscow to restrict Ukrainian products in the trading bloc, according to the business daily.

 

The Russian government argues that the lower trade barriers Ukraine enjoys with both Russia and – since the signing of a free-trade pact on 27 June – the EU will bring a flood of cheap European goods labeled as Ukrainian into the Eurasian free-trade area, Vedomosti writes.

 

A Kremlin spokesman said last week Russia is ready to take “defensive measures” to protect its economy now that Ukraine has signed the EU agreement, reports Itar-Tass.

 

But Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Rumas said the threat to the Eurasian union is impossible to estimate at this point and there should be no rush to impose restrictions, according to Vedomosti.

 

A Kremlin source told Vedomosti that Moscow understands its partners’ objections: Kazakhstan is trying to join the World Trade Organization and fears Ukraine could scuttle its bid in retaliation, and Belarus would find it costly and “technically very difficult” to shut its 600-kilometer (370-mile) border with Ukraine.

 

According to the most recent EU figures, Russia was Ukraine’s biggest trading partner in 2012, buying 13.7 billion euros’ ($18.4 billion) worth of Ukrainian imports and edging out the EU, which bought 13.3 million euros’ worth.

 

5. Bulgarian banks hit by rumors, deposit runs amid government collapse

 

As officials in Bulgaria prepare for early elections in the wake of the resignation of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's cabinet, they are also having to deal with a run on deposits that shook the banking system.

 

The collapse of the government comes a month after the ruling Socialists fared poorly in elections to the European Parliament.

 

The cabinet will be replaced by an interim government to be appointed on 6 August, paving the way for elections on 5 October. During its year in office, Oresharski’s government faced large-scale protests and corruption allegations.

 

Then last week the media reported on “suspect deals” involving Bulgaria’s Corporate Commercial Bank after it was taken over by the central bank. Depositors “rushed to withdraw their savings,” EurActiv reports, noting that the bank has denied any wrongdoing.

 

Customers of First Investment Bank also withdrew more than 800 million lev ($540 million) in a matter of hours on 27 June after receiving emails, text messages, and messages via social media questioning the bank’s liquidity.

 

The country’s National Security Agency announced on 29 June it had arrested three people in connection with the rumors after tracing the IP addresses from which the emails originated.

 

According to Novinite, “One of the detainees is Ventsislav Angelov, known as ‘The Chicago.’ He is a former employee of the Interior Ministry, with an extensive criminal CV. Angelov has been previously convicted of tax fraud and drug trafficking.”

 

Speaking at a press conference, President Rosen Plevneliev called the current situation “a crisis of trust and a criminal attack” and said those who started the rumors would be prosecuted.

 

Significant foreign ownership in the banking industry has allowed local branches to meet depositors’ demands and remain solvent, EurActiv writes. Further, the European Commission offered Sofia a credit line of 3.3 billion leva to ensure liquidity in the banking system.

 

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Mane Grigoryan and Madeleine Stern are TOL editorial interns. 
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