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Sputtering Truce Talks in Ukraine, Paramilitary Drills at Kids’ Church Camp in Serbia

Plus, Bosnian archivists struggle to save precious documents after the February violence and Russia's oil tsar defends his reputation.

by Piers Lawson, Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Anders Ryehauge 19 August 2014

1. Little hope for eastern Ukraine cease-fire


Diplomatic efforts to secure a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine have made little progress, the Financial Times reports, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Kyiv for the first time since fighting erupted earlier this year.


Pavlo Klimkin
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had only “modest expectations” about the chances of a peace deal after talks in Berlin among Germany, Ukraine, France, and Russia, his spokesman told reporters, according to the FT.


While the talks produced no agreement on a cease-fire, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a deal was reached on the delivery of Russian humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine, the BBC reports. It says a large Russian aid convoy is parked near the border.


Meanwhile Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has outlined the conditions by which his country will accept a cease-fire in the east.


He said an agreement would be possible only with effective border controls and if observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were allowed to operate freely in the war zone, according to RIA Novosti.


Klimkin also said progress needed to be made in securing the freedom of “hostages” held by pro-Russia forces.


The foreign minister accused Russia of not meeting the conditions required for a cease-fire to be implemented, the Kyiv Post reports, including stopping “the flow of mercenaries and military equipment to the Kremlin-backed insurgents in Ukraine.”


He also accused Russia of not recognizing the fact that Ukrainian forces were “being shelled and fired upon from Russia in border areas.”


Klimkin said such conditions made it difficult for observers from the OSCE to work.


2. Anger over Serbian splinter church’s military training for children


An Orthodox Church splinter group in Serbia has caused public outrage and been accused of violating the law after it was revealed that children younger than 10 have received military training, SETimes reports.


The military exercises took place at an annual youth camp held by the Serbian True Orthodox Church, where children were taught how to handle knives and replica Kalashnikov rifles, according to the website.


Police say they are investigating the group’s activities.


Video footage on the group’s website has provoked widespread condemnation among politicians.



Maja Gojkovic, who chairs a parliamentary committee on children’s rights, said it was “unacceptable that children are abused in that way.”


The church’s leader, Bishop Acacius, has denied any wrongdoing. The organization says on its English-language website that it aims to stimulate in children “a deeply rooted sense of undaunting loyalty towards the Orthodoxy,” which necessitates military discipline and basic military training.


The group says its use of military uniforms is important to inspire “a sense of readiness to serve one’s fatherland” under the motto “Be Prepared!”


But Zivica Tucic, an editor at the Religious Information Agency in Belgrade, told Vesti online that military exercises are a government, not church, function. Such activities could be interpreted as religious extremism, he said.


With slogans such as “Orthdoxy or death,” members of the religious splinter group have a reputation for fanaticism, the Serbian daily Politka wrote in 2010.


The group broke from the Serbian Orthodox Church in the 1990s over accusations that the church had made too many concessions to ecumenicalism and modernity.


3. Five centuries of Bosnian history lost in fire, smoke, and water


Some of Bosnia’s most treasured archival documents appear to have been destroyed amid civil unrest in the country six months ago, Balkan Insight reports.


In addition, other documents damaged when the country’s national archive was firebombed in February cannot be restored because of a shortage of funds, the website reports.


Among the items destroyed was a collection of official orders by sultans from the Ottoman period and “illuminated manuscripts and philosophical works from the 17th and 18th centuries,” while valuable records from the era when Austria-Hungary ruled Bosnia “were also charred.”


The unrest in February was the worst since the war in the mid-1990s and involved the torching of government buildings by protesters angry over corruption, unemployment, and poor living conditions. The building of the presidency, which houses the state archives, was hit by a Molotov cocktail, according to Balkan Insight.


“Tomes seized by the flames contained letters, government orders, and historical accounts from centuries of history. Some are burned to pieces; others are still legible,” Balkan Insight reports.


To make matters worse, many of the documents were soaked by the water used to put out the blaze, Balkan Insight reports.


A team of 19 people is now working to preserve what can be saved of the documents, but the pleas of the archivists for help from the government and the international community have largely gone unheeded, Balkan Insight reports, which means that they have little choice but to improvise. 


“Wet papers are laid out to dry. Each page must be painstakingly separated to prevent sticking and tearing,” it reports.


4. Moscow insider sues newspaper for writing about his power


Igor Sechin, chief executive of Russian oil giant Rosneft, is suing one of the country’s top business newspapers, Vedomosti, over a June editorial that probed the nature of his influence and position, The St. Petersburg Times reports, citing Forbes Russia.


Igor Sechin
Sechin served as deputy to Vladimir Putin while Putin was prime minister, from 2008 to 2012. When Putin came back to the presidency in 2012, he made Sechin chief executive of Rosneft, of which Sechin had been chairman from 2006 to 2011.


“The editorial implied that Sechin is able to unlawfully influence state officials while enjoying de facto independence at Rosneft, where he allegedly answers to no one except Putin,” according to The St. Petersburg Times, which cited Forbes’ reporting.


Putin and Sechin have worked together since their time in St. Petersburg’s government in the early 1990s.


Sechin said the Vedomosti editorial left the incorrect impression that he “has been operating in violation of applicable law,” according to Forbes. He is demanding that three passages be excised from the piece.


Last year, Sechin oversaw Rosneft’s purchase of TNK-BP, an Anglo-Russian joint oil venture, making Rosneft the world’s largest oil company. He and his company are among the targets of EU and U.S. sanctions. Rosneft reportedly asked the Russian government last week for $45 billion to help it pay off debts, as it has been locked out of long-term financing in the West.


Last month, Sechin won a lawsuit against Forbes Russia and the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper “for calling him Russia's highest-grossing CEO and estimating his 2013 salary at $50 million, with the court ordering the newspapers retract the statements,” The St. Petersburg Times writes. Forbes said it would appeal.


5. Lithuanians who saved Jews during WWII could be deemed ‘freedom fighters’


More than 70 Lithuanians who helped Jews escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis during World War II have applied to receive official acknowledgement as freedom fighters.


Genocide and Resistance Research Center head Gintaras Sidlauskas told the Baltic News Service that up to 135 Lithuanians are eligible for freedom fighter status, but of those about 25 have died.


Along with public acclaim, those recognized as freedom fighters under the terms of a new law are entitled to a state pension.


Sidlauskas, who leads a commission reviewing applications for freedom fighter status, said the organization sent out letters about the new law to almost 110 people who had been named by a Jewish museum as having saved Jews during the war. They have so far received 72 replies along with documentation supporting each application.


About 90 percent of Lithuania’s prewar Jewish population of 160,000 were murdered during the German occupation from 1941 to 1944, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia.


Several unresolved issues, such as financial compensation for Jews who had property confiscated during the war, the prosecution of Lithuanians who took part in the Holocaust, and the preservation of Jewish cemeteries and other historical sites, dog relations between the government and Jewish communities.

Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern.
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