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Death Toll at 23 in Moscow Metro Disaster, Serbian Unions Plan General Strike

Plus, Armenians claim capture of Azerbaijani ‘commandos,’ and Romania rejiggers its tax structure to boost the economy.

by Ky Krauthamer, Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Mane Grigoryan 16 July 2014

1. Maintenance workers held in Moscow metro disaster

 

Two Moscow metro workers were held today on suspicion of negligence leading to one of the worst accidents in the system’s 79-year history when three cars derailed 15 July in western Moscow.

 

The death toll rose to 23 today, and a further 146 passengers were injured, the Voice of Russia reports.

 

The Investigative Committee said it detained a maintenance foreman and his assistant, “and added that high-ranking officials could also be arrested,” according to the report.

Moscow Metro crash 350Rescue workers bring an injured passenger out of a Moscow metro station after the deadly 15 July crash. Image from a video by BBC News / YouTube

 

The two men oversaw work earlier this year on switching mechanisms between the Slavyansky Bulvar and Park Pobedy stations, The Moscow Times reports, citing Interfax.

 

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin told Interfax the work was carried out improperly. He said investigators would also interview a subcontractor and the head of a construction firm involved in the work.

 

The accident was the deadliest incident on the Moscow metro since two suicide bombings in 2010 in which at least 40 people died. One of the world’s largest metros, the system transports up to 9 million passengers daily.

 

2. Serbian unions call general strike over labor law changes

 

Union leaders have called a general strike in Serbia for 17 July unless parliament drops amendments to the country’s labor, pension, and disability benefits laws, Tanjug reports.

 

Approved by the cabinet over the weekend and taken up by parliament on 15 July, the measures would, among other things, raise the retirement age for women, drastically reduce the number of workplaces covered by collective bargaining agreements, and trim vacation, seniority, and severance pay.

 

Labor leaders also want the government to specify which of Serbia’s 153 publicly held and deeply indebted companies that are undergoing “restructuring” will continue to operate and to create a plan for paying social benefits and overdue wages to their employees, Tanjug reports.

 

The strike involves two major confederations of trade unions. Some leaders said they would camp out in a park near parliament through the scheduled 17 July vote on the amendments.

 

One labor leader said the two confederations would launch a petition drive to have the amendments withdrawn.

 

"We need to collect 100,000 signatures [for a referendum], but I expect we will have half a million in a short period of time," Ljubisav Orbovic said, according to Balkan Insight.

 

The government of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has been in place for less than two months. After winning a commanding majority in early elections, Vucic pushed ambitious plans to transform Serbia’s economy. The labor market is key to many of the changes, as about 780,000 of Serbia’s 1.7 million workers (pdf) are employed in the public sector.

 

The government says the changes will help bring down public debt, attract investors, and whittle away at Serbia’s unemployment rate, which stood at 21 percent in the first quarter of this year. 

 

3. Romania cuts social security tax to boost economy

 

Romanian authorities are contemplating higher taxes to fill the budget gap caused by cuts to employers’ social security contributions. The measures under debate in the cabinet include a 250 percent tax hike on some small cars and hefty increases in property taxes on commercial buildings, according to Balkan Insight.

 

Financial analyst Emilian Duca told the Digi 24 news channel the property tax hike was justified, since it would bring taxes on non-residential buildings in line with those on other properties. However, he said the tax on small cars favored owners of “large, luxury brands,” which runs counter to the center-left government’s professed populist agenda.

 

The 5 percent cut to employers’ social security payments, approved by parliament 3 July, was proposed by Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s government over the objections of the IMF, Reuters reports. The cut will leave a hole in the budget of around 850 million lei ($265 million).

 

Balkan Insight reports that the tax cut is meant to give the economy a boost by creating jobs.

 

President Traian Basescu opposed the social security tax cut, arguing it threatens fiscal stability and jeopardizes an agreement with the IMF, Business Review writes. 

 

The IMF has postponed a review of its $4 billion loan agreement with Romania until after November’s presidential election, according to Reuters. 

 

4. Nagorno-Karabakh claims Azerbaijani infiltration foiled

 

The discovery of the body of a missing Armenian teenager is the most dramatic incident so far since a band of alleged Azerbaijani “saboteurs” was seized in Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

The body of Smbat Tsakanian, 17, was found 15 July in the village of Nor Erkedj with “multiple stab wounds on his body and deep lacerations on his neck,” Asbarez.com reports, citing Armlur.am. Tsakanian disappeared on 4 July, his father said. The village lies in a disputed district between Armenia proper and the unrecognized, Armenian-controlled region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

 

According to Asbarez.com, authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh believe the boy’s death is linked to the alleged infiltration by Azerbaijani “saboteurs” who they claim were “to commit a slew of crimes” in the region. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war in the 1990s over the area, which has a majority Armenian population but lies within Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders.

 

Nagorno-Karabakh authorities said they had “neutralized” an unspecified number of “saboteurs” 14 July, several days after the Azerbaijanis reportedly killed an Armenian officer and wounded the wife of another in the disputed Kelbajar district, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

One Azerbaijani, identified as Shahbaz Quliyev, was reportedly captured 10 July. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said Quliyev was not a member of the country’s military.

 

Each side regularly accuses the other of firing across the cease-fire line but incidents of this nature are rare.

 

When photos of captured Azerbaijanis were released and video they allegedly shot appeared online, some Armenian Facebook users “were skeptical about the announcements of the authorities, saying that the arrested people did not exactly look like commandos,” ArmeniaNow.com writes.

 

On 14 July the Armenian Defense Ministry announced the captured men would be considered criminals rather than prisoners of war, according to ArmeniaNow.

 

“There is irrefutable evidence that we [are dealing] with a criminal group,” the ministry said, adding that the men had not worn military insignia. 


5. Windsurfers battle windless conditions at Turkmenistan’s Avaza resort

 

Isolated Turkmenistan threw open its doors to world-class windsurfers earlier this month, bringing joy to locals, AFP reports.

 

“It’s happiness for me to take part in a competition with sportsmen who are known around the world,” sports instructor Orazmyrat Arnamammedov said.

 

The country welcomes only 15,000 foreign visitors a year, and events like the PWA World Cup windsurfing competition on the Caspian Sea are part of the state’s strategy to boost tourism, AFP writes.

Turkmenistan Windsurfing Sean Obrien 350 Australian competitor Sean O'Brien works the waves off Avaza during Turkmenistan's first professional windsurfing event. Photo by pwaworldtour.com

 

“Turkmenistan is not known for its windsurfing, but is known for its reluctance to allow foreigners, especially foreign media, into the country,” RFE’s Qishloq Ovozi blog points out.

 

As things turned out, the biggest problem was the weather. Rain and lack of wind hampered the six-day competition. It “proved to be a tricky, and sometimes frustrating affair, as light and shifty winds unfortunately interrupted the regular thermal winds which usually frequent Avaza,” the Professional Windsurfers Association website wrote.

 

The country will promote itself as a destination for sports, adventure travel, and beach holidays, Turkmenistani officials told AFP.

 

“Holding world-class windsurfing competitions will be a significant step, taking Turkmenistan to a new level,” President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said as he opened the event, held at the Caspian resort of Avaza.

 

“By 2020 Ashgabat hopes to transform the desert resort, whose name means ‘singing wave’ in Turkmen, into a vast complex that can compete with Turkey’s huge southwestern sea resort of Antalya,” AFP writes.

 

The resort can now house 7,000 visitors in six hotels and other accommodation, with dozens more hotels, a winter sports arena, and a convention center planned.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor.Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Mane Grigoryan is a TOL editorial intern.

 


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