Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!
Plus, Ukraine may prosecute Russian officials and oligarchs for aiding rebels, and international donors pledge billions in Balkan flood relief.by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Mane Grigoryan, and Madeleine Stern 23 July 2014
Strengthening NATO’s eastern flank is vital in the current context of Ukrainian unrest, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said 22 July at a Warsaw meeting of nine EU heads of state from Central and Eastern Europe.
The statesmen gathered to discuss regional security ahead of a September NATO summit, which Komorowski said would be the most important of its kind in 15 years, The Warsaw Voice writes. A main topic on the agenda this week was the recent crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, which the Polish president called “a new challenge that we must respond to in the NATO framework.”
Ahead of the summit Romanian President Traian Basescu criticized the EU for its weak stance on the Ukrainian conflict and failure to impose sanctions in the face of Russia’s aggression, Evenimentul Zilei writes. Basescu told journalists in Bucharest 21 July the downing of the airliner was a “terrorist act” on the part of not only separatists in Ukraine but also those in Russia who aided them.
Basescu added that, although economic arguments are important, “the EU is about values, and aren’t EU citizens its greatest value?”
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev used the Warsaw meeting to call for NATO to send more troops to the Balkans and Black Sea regions to improve the security climate in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Reuters reports.
Plevneliev said Bulgaria will raise its defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP in 2015 with further gradual increases to 2 percent.
Controversy-prone Russian investor and philanthropist Konstantin Malofeyev plans to open the country’s first historically themed amusement park, The Moscow Times reports.
Malofeyev confirmed the project to Vedomosti 21 July, announcing as his partner the French developers of the popular Puy du Fou theme park in western France. The following day Ukraine announced that Malofeyev and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were being investigated for helping form illegal armed groups in the country. A statement on the Interior Ministry’s website accuses Shoigu of creating illegal fighting groups operating in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and Malofeyev of financing the groups.
Malofeyev is known for his support of Orthodox and traditional causes in Russia. Rumors of his support for the rebel cause in Ukraine have circulated for some time. He “has been linked to Russian rebel leader Igor Strelkov, Donetsk People’s Republic head Denis Pushilin, and Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed republic,” The Moscow Times reported 4 July.
Strelkov, whose given name is Igor Girkin, and Borodai “both once worked for Konstantin Malofeyev, a tycoon who reportedly funded much of the break-away activity in Crimea,” The Independent alleged in a 21 July profile of Borodai.
In June Austrian media reported on Malofeyev’s hosting of a secretive gathering in Vienna of European far-right activists, aristocrats, and other enemies of Europe’s “satanic gay lobby.”
Malofeyev said the theme park would open in around three years on a site near a hotel complex he owns in the Moscow region, according to The Moscow Times.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that he will visit Serbia in October for talks with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, Balkan Insight reports.
Putin and Vucic are expected to discuss the controversial South Stream gas pipeline, part of which will pass through Serbia. The European Union objects strongly to the pipeline on the grounds that it will grant Russian state gas company Gazprom a monopoly that violates EU antitrust laws. Bulgaria halted preparations for its stretch of the pipeline under heavy pressure from the EU, although Austria took the opposite tack by signing an agreement with Gazprom for its segment in late June during a visit by Putin to Vienna.
Serbia has been a close ally of Moscow since the period of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s and has refused to join EU countries in levying economic sanctions against Russia in connection with its involvement in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Balkan Insight reports. The news that Putin will visit Serbia comes at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and Europe over the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine that some European and U.S. officials blame on Kremlin-backed separatist militias there.
Vucic straddled the EU-Russia fence during an early-July visit to Moscow, saying, “I have never concealed that Serbia wants to become a part of the EU, but at the difficult moment Serbia does not want to damage good, the best, friendly relations with Russia,” according to B92.
Serbia backed all of Putin’s “peace initiatives” for resolving the Ukrainian crisis and “also backs Germany’s position on the issue,” Vucic added.
Last week’s donor conference raised $2.4 billion to help Serbia and Bosnia continue the process of recovery from devastating floods in May, The Sofia Globe reports.
Representatives from around 60 countries and 23 international organizations attended the 16 July conference co-hosted by the EU in Brussels. The EU itself will pitch in with 195 million euros ($263 million) from its central institutions, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said, according to B92: 85 million for Bosnia and Herzegovina, 80 million for Serbia, and 30 million for general regional aid. Fule said the European Commission had asked member states to contribute an additional 123 million euros.
At least 33 people lost their lives in Serbia and 25 in Bosnia when three months’ worth of rain fell in just three days, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
Flood damage and losses to the economy could reach 2 billion euros for Bosnia and 1.5 billion for Serbia, the Sofia paper writes.
In addition to the financial aid, Balkan military leaders used their annual summit in June to discuss coordinated responses to future natural disasters, SETimes reports. Military chiefs from nine southeastern European countries and Turkey have met annually since 2007 in the so-called B9 Forum.
Partly for fun but dedicated to a risky, semi-legal hobby, the Czech Union of Chimney Climbers is helping call attention to the Czech Republic’s endangered industrial heritage, Radio Prague reports.
The club claims more than 1,000 members of what Radio Prague says may be the only association of its kind: “People who have a head for heights and like to map out and climb industrial chimneys in the Czech Republic and across Europe in their spare time.”
Members from countries as far away as China and Cameroon have climbed 33,489 chimneys with a total height of 1,448,615 meters (about 900 miles), the club’s website claims. The site includes a glossary of whimsical “specialist” terms like “globonic ulhorf” (a very tall chimney). While the claims are hard to verify, the site does include the fruits of club members’ enthusiasm for chimneys, with interactive maps, photos, and descriptions of hundreds of chimneys, several located in China but none in Cameroon.
Many Czech industrial chimneys are “brick built masterpieces,” Radio Prague notes, although many have been leveled in recent years by local authorities unaware of their historical value. That attitude is beginning to change with the realization that the country has a rich inheritance of old factories, mines, bridges, and other industrial design. Sixteen Czech localities plan to apply for the UNESCO World Heritage list, the Czech Press Agency (CTK) writes, including several with industrial pasts: a historic paper mill, medieval fish ponds, mines, and the vast, abandoned Vitkovice steel works in Moravia, part of which has been converted into a cultural center.
The fall of communism brought with it expectations of an unfettered press safeguarding the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. But for the region's media, the past quarter-century has turned out to be much less uplifting. From oligarch-controlled television stations to politically partisan newspapers, from woeful ethical standards to outright corruption, the media often fall far short of acting as independent watchdogs over their societies, despite the existence of some scrappy publications and feisty reporters willing to uncover official wrongdoing and expose poor governance. If that weren't enough, the region's press has been hit hard by the same trends transforming the media around the world, including an explosion of alternative forms of entertainment, the growth of social media, decreased advertising revenues associated with the rise of the Internet, and general economic malaise. Get your copy here.