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Kosovo Crackdown on Islamist Cells, Russian Neighbors Brace for Sanctions Blowback

Plus, more reports emerge of Serbian ‘chetnik’ fighters in Ukraine, and Poland mulls a new Russia-free Baltic shipping route.

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, and Anders Ryehauge 12 August 2014

1. Kosovo police round up 40 suspected Islamist fighters


Kosovo police have arrested 40 people in a wave of raids on suspected Islamist militant fighters, the BBC reports.


Police believe the men fought with radical Islamist forces in Syria and Iraq. Police seized explosives, weapons, and ammunition in some 60 raids aimed at uncovering potential recruitment centers.


A police statement said the suspects face charges of posing threats to state security. Some of the men may have fought with the Islamic State militants in Iraq and the Nusra Front group in Syria, according to the BBC.


AtifeteJahjaga_100Atifete Jahjaga
President Atifete Jahjaga said the country will “not be a shelter of extremism,” and that threats to state security would be punished “without mercy.”


Kosovo is not the only Balkan country trying to contain the dangers of radicalization within its Muslim population. Hundreds of fighters of Albanian descent from Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania have reportedly joined Al Qaeda-related groups in Syria, which are increasingly using social networking sites for recruitment purposes.


As SETimes reports, the social media presence and activities of some Islamist fighters have also aroused widespread disapproval. An outcry over a photo on Facebook of a Kosovo fighter beheading a Shiite Muslim boy forced the company to take down the fighter’s page.


Member of parliament Gezim Kelmendi said the photo posted by Lavdrim Muhaxheri exposed him as “a murderer and a big enemy of Islam, of Kosovo, and the Albanians in general,” according to SETimes.


2. Belarus backs Russian food bans, Kazakhstan sits the fence


Russia’s closest trading partners are far from united in their responses to its decision to embargo a range of Western food products.


Customs Union member Kazakhstan has no plans to join the sanctions, Deputy Agriculture Minister Gulmira Isaeva said 8 August, according to The Moscow Times, citing


Russian agriculture and food inspection officials had not asked their Kazakhstani colleagues to back Russia’s position, she said.


Belarus, a Customs Union member with a long border with the EU, will follow Moscow’s lead, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said 11 August, according to Charter ’97.


“As Russia closed its market for certain goods, we should not allow the transit of these products to Russia via Belarus,” the presidential press service quoted him as saying after a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.


He added that Belarus would continue importing food from the EU for domestic consumption.


Baltic leaders said they were not expecting the sanctions to seriously damage their economies, the Baltic Times reports, although some sectors such as trucking could be harder hit.


Among the larger Eastern European economies Poland may be most vulnerable because of its relatively large volume of trade with Russia, according to Bloomberg, which says 5.5 percent of Polish exports went to Russia in 2013 compared with about 3 percent for Hungary and the Czech Republic.


One unforeseen outcome of the embargo could be falling food prices in the EU.


The buildup of unsold fruit, vegetable, meat, and dairy products and other embargoed goods could push down prices in the Czech Republic by 10 to 15 percent, unless officials guard against other EU countries trying to sell food at dumping prices, a spokeswoman for the Federation of the Food and Drink Industries of the Czech Republic told the Tyden newsweekly.


3. Serb volunteers reportedly helping Ukrainian rebels


A report by RIA Novosti is the latest to claim Serbian volunteers are fighting alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine.


The press office for separatist fighters in Donetsk said Serbian volunteers claimed to have destroyed two tanks and a self-propelled gun with their crews, and a mountain gun in a recent battle, RIA reports.


RIA writes, “Reports claiming that volunteers from the Jovan Sevic militia battalion were fighting in the breakaway Donetsk territory … started emerging as early as in May, when a group of Serbs first arrived in the then besieged city of Slavyansk near Donetsk.”


Serbian “Chetniks” (a term for royalist and nationalist forces during World War II) commanded by a man named Bratislav Zivkovic were photographed in March aiding pro-Russian forces in Crimea, shortly before Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory.


Zivkovic acknowledged the presence of “Chetnik volunteers” in the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” in a letter to Serbia’s president and prime minister printed 1 August by inSerbia.


The letter claims Serbian authorities shut down the Chetniks’ social media pages on a request by Ukraine, and says Serbian diplomats urged Moscow to bar them from entering Russia.


InSerbia estimates that 45 Chetniks are fighting in Ukraine along with around 20 other Serbian volunteers and 20 to 30 Ukrainians of Serbian descent.


4. A man, a plan, a canal: Vistula Spit


Poland is reviving a plan for a new canal that would allow its shipping to avoid crossing Russian waters in the Vistula Lagoon, The Telegraph reports.


The government is considering backing an 880 million zloty ($280 million) plan to begin digging the canal across the Vistula Spit next year, with construction expected to be complete in 2022, Polskie Radio reports.


Only a year ago Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s center-right government scotched the plan, “but the war in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s apparent willingness to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors appear to have changed the government’s mind,” The Telegraph writes.


All Polish shipping to and from the port of Elblag now must pass through Russian waters to reach the only canal linking the Vistula Lagoon to the Baltic, located in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave.


port of ElblagThe port of Elblag in 2011. Photo by Arkadiusz ZgliƄski / TransBaltic


A bilateral five-year agreement on navigation rights in the lagoon will expire this year, “and there are fears that Moscow may not extend the agreement,” the London daily writes.


The notion of digging a new canal has surfaced several times since the fall of communism only to be rejected by the governments of the day, Polskie Radio comments.


“The Ukraine crisis has shown clearly that we need to rely more on ourselves and become independent of our largest neighbor,” The Telegraph quotes Polish parliamentarian Stanislaw Lamczyk as saying.


The new canal construction is a political signal as well as an important business deal. A report from EU-funded TransBaltic (pdf) in 2011 estimated that the annual throughput of the port of Elblag could reach 3.5 million metric tons when the new canal is completed.  


The port’s turnover this year is expected to be far less, around 400,000 tons.


5. Leaders of Russia, Kyrgyzstan discuss aid and economic union


Atambaev_100 Almazbek Atambaev
Russia has pledged more aid to ease Kyrgyzstan’s integration into the Customs Union, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said 11 August after talks between the Russian and Kyrgyzstani presidents in Sochi, Radio Free Europe reports.


The package, worth about $500 million, would support Kyrgyzstan's economy and help it “comfortably” integrate into the Customs Union, Lavrov said.


Moscow is eager to expand the trade bloc into a full-fledged Eurasian Economic Union with more than just the three current union members, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Kyrgyzstan and Armenia have promised to join the union but negotiations have dragged out as they maneuver for better conditions. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who also met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Sochi, afterward reiterated earlier promises to join the Customs Union this year, The Moscow Times reports.


In June Moscow said it would provide $1.2 billion for Kyrgzystan’s integration into the bloc, most of it earmarked for a Russian-Kyrgyzstani development fund to support major investment in Kyrgyzstan’s underfunded economy.


After his meeting with Putin in Sochi, President Almazbek Atambaev said Kyrgyzstan planned to join the Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union “by the end of the year,” Xinhua reports.


“We have many plans, such as investment plans especially in energy, and serious plans to develop cooperation in certain sectors,” Putin said, according to Interfax.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern. 
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