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Plus, more violence in Macedonia as Albanians clash with police, and Russia puts new restrictions on foreign Internet companies.by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Mane Grigoryan, and Madeleine Stern 7 July 2014
1. Ukrainian conflict intensifies, officials vow to blockade cities
Ukrainian officials are vowing to blockade two large eastern cities as separatist fighters fall back after losing control of the city of Slovyansk.
“My order is now in effect – tighten the ring around the terrorists,” President Petro Poroshenko posted 6 July on Twitter. “Continue the operation to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” he added, according to Reuters.
Government forces took control of the rebel stronghold of Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk 5 July and there were reports that separatist forces were falling back on the large cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
A senior security official said a plan had been approved to blockade the two cities, the BBC reports.
Rebel commander Igor Strelkov said from 80 to 90 percent of his fighters in Slovyansk managed to escape, Reuters reports.
Ukraine’s new Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey denied that government forces had allowed the separatist fighters to escape.
“This is disinformation. The main column of militants which moved from the city of Slovyansk to the city of Kramatorsk was stopped,” the Kyiv Post quotes him as saying.
A statement from the government’s anti-rebel operation said fighting broke out in Luhansk on the evening of 6 July and large numbers of armed people were seen in Donetsk.
2. More violence over ethnically-tinged Macedonian murder case
Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia kept up a protest campaign over the weekend against life sentences handed down to six alleged Muslim radicals for a 2012 mass murder at a Skopje lake.
The largest demonstration took place 6 July in the Albanian-majority city of Tetovo in western Macedonia, where about 600 youths clashed with police, the Associated Press reports.
Smaller, peaceful rallies took place in Skopje and the western towns of Struga, Kicevo, Gostivar, and Deba, a police spokesman said.
The most violent incident since the six men were sentenced in a Skopje court on 30 June broke out in the capital on 4 July. Police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of about 2,000 protesters, some carrying Palestinian and Hamas flags, Euronews reports.
Police said six people were detained and 20 police were wounded, Balkan Insight reports.
The execution-style killings of five fishermen in 2012 stunned the country and set off angry demonstrations by ethnic Macedonians who blamed the large Albanian minority for the murders.
3. Russians’ online data must be stored in-country: Duma bill
A bill adopted by the lower house of the Russian parliament 4 July will require Internet companies that store personal data on Russian citizens to locate such data on servers inside the country, The Moscow Times reports.
Russian officials contend that requiring the use of Russian servers reduces citizens’ susceptibility to cybercrime and fraud. But the law’s critics say it is part of a larger effort to silence social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, which were crucial in organizing the 2012 protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin, the BBC reports.
“The ultimate goal is to shut mouths, enforce censorship in the country and shape a situation where internet business would not be able to exist and function properly,” Russian Internet expert and blogger Anton Nossik said.
The law will require foreign Internet companies that store user data such as Facebook, Twitter and others to open Russian offices, State Duma deputy Vadim Dengin, a co-author of the bill, said, according to the Voice of Russia.
Russia has passed several laws meant to protect Internet users and cut down on online crime. Legislation signed last week by President Vladimir Putin sets criminal penalties for disseminating material considered extremist online.
Putin maintains that the purpose of the Duma bill is mainly to help protect children from indecent content. If passed by the upper house of parliament, the law is expected to take effect in September 2016, The Moscow Times reports.
4. Tourists shun Russia’s newest territory
Crimea’s first tourist season since the Ukrainian autonomous region’s annexation by Russia is looking dire. Tourism-review.com writes that the number of tourists to the Black Sea peninsula, whose economy relies on summer tourism, dropped by 35 percent in the first half of this year to 1 million, compared to last year.
“With Crimea now under Russian control, Ukrainians, who traditionally account for two-thirds of tourists to the region, are snubbing it in favor of other destinations,” Radio Free Europe writes.
The trouble is that Russian travelers are not enthusiastic about their new in-country potential holiday destination either. Although the authorities have been advertising holiday packages on Russian TV channels, reaching the peninsula remains the main problem, even though the flagship air carrier Aeroflot recently launched a low-cost subsidiary, Dobrolyot, that flies exclusively to the peninsula.
This summer a holiday in Crimea also comes with additional inconveniences, such as a shortage of cash machines, some food items, and prohibitive prices.
“It was livelier last year, it was a lot more fun. Now it’s dead and expensive,” said a Russian tourist, quoted by RFE/RL.
5. Czech cabinet cracks down on slumlords
The Czech government wants to put end to taxpayer-subsidized profiteering by landlords in the country’s most deprived areas, Radio Prague reports.
Private owners operate about 4,000 hostels for low-income people, billing the state welfare system for the rent payments. Many hostel residents are Roma, a large minority who often cannot find steady jobs.
Draft legislation approved by the center-left cabinet last week will cap payments to landlords and, crucially, calculate the payments on the basis of apartment size rather than number of residents as is the case now.
“Until now, hostel owners place eight people in one room, and each of them received the highest possible welfare payment. That will no longer be possible because these people will be legally considered a household, and the payments will not increase according to the number of people,” Labor and Social Affairs Minister Michaela Marksova said.
Payments under the system have steepled in recent years. The state paid out 2.8 billion crowns ($139 million) to 65,000 recipients in 2013, EuroZpravy.cz reports. The corresponding figures in 2011 were 850 million crowns and 24,000 recipients.
The proposal is meant as an intermediate step until a new law on social housing can be prepared, EuroZpravy.cz quotes Marksova as saying.
“It will make it impossible for hostel owners to blatantly make money from poverty and for public money to be used to house people in undignified conditions,” the minister said.
A spokesman for one of the country’s most active charities, People in Need, said the poor often end up in the hostels because they cannot afford the rent deposit often demanded by landlords on the open market, according to Radio Prague.
“Also, there is rampant discrimination: when a Romany wants to rent, it’s quite common they are turned down just because of their race, which makes it extremely difficult for these people to rent regular apartments or houses,” the spokesman said.