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Ukraine Tightens Grip on Russian TV, Bulgaria’s Border Barrier Gets Longer

Plus, a Russian opposition leader ends his prison hunger strike and Iran weans itself from Turkmenistani gas.

by Ky Krauthamer, Barbara Frye and Anders Ryehauge 20 August 2014

1. Bulgaria plans longer fence at border with Turkey


Bulgaria has announced plans for a major extension of a fence along its border with Turkey that was erected to hold back a tide of refugees from Syria.


The first section of fence, completed in July, extends for 30 kilometers (19 miles). The new section would stretch for another 131 kilometers, The Sofia Globe reports.


Work on the barrier began late last year, as tens of thousands of refugees from the conflict in Syria were making their way out of Turkey, with which Bulgaria shares a 274-kilometer border. Officials cite the movement of terrorists, “the spread of epidemics,” and the renewed bloodshed in Iraq as an impetus for the expansion.


bulgaria_fence_350The border fence under construction last November. Image from a video by turan utkan / YouTube


“You remember the reaction in Bulgaria when it came to refugees from Syria. Imagine something doubled or even more serious,” caretaker Foreign Minister Daniel Mitov said, according to The Sofia Globe.


The details of the new 40 million leva ($27 million) barrier are being worked out even as Bulgaria faces domestic and international criticism for the project.


Officials with the UN’s refugee agency and the EU have criticized the fence, and in April Human Rights Watch said some refugees attempting to enter Bulgaria were being illegally forced back across the border with Turkey, with some even being brutalized.


Human rights lawyer Michail Ekimdzhiev told Bulgaria National Radio that the fence proposal was “disgraceful” and could trigger legal proceedings in Brussels against Bulgaria, The Sofia Globe writes. But a spokesman for EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem acknowledged to EurActiv last year that while pushing refugees back across a border is illegal, fences are not.


2. Ukrainian viewers face new restrictions on Russian TV


Ukrainian cable operators face sanctions if they continue to defy a ban on broadcasting Russian TV channels, RIA Novosti reports.


Interior Minister Arsen Avakov signed documents 19 August to allow the authorities to punish cable operators that continue broadcasting channels that were suspended in March, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.


The 14 state-controlled channels have persistently “broadcast propaganda of war and violence,” Interior Ministry official Anton Gerashchenko wrote on his Facebook page, Reuters reports.


Cable operators could be fined or have their licenses revoked if they continue providing access to the channels, writes RT, itself one of the affected channels. Others include Russian TV heavyweights Channel One, NTV-Mir, and Life News.


Kyiv justified the March TV bans as payback for the exclusion of Ukrainian media from Crimea as Russian-backed elements gradually took control of the Ukrainian autonomous republic.


Ukraine is considering blocking Russian websites as well, Gerashchenko told a news conference 19 August, RAPSI reports.


“We are discussing legal and technical implications of blocking some websites, as Israel, the U.S., and China do. Those websites that promote illegal activity. The decision must be made by a court,” he said.


3. Iran to curtail gas imports from Turkmenistan


Turkmenistan’s exports of gas to Iran, its second largest trading partner, could fall sharply in coming months, Iranian officials have said.


Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh said last week the country plans to increase gas production by 200 million cubic meters per day by March 2016, thus eliminating the need for imports from neighboring Turkmenistan, the Zawya agency reported, citing Press TV.


Although Iran is the world’s second largest gas exporter, it has imported the fuel to serve northeastern regions that are far from its own gas fields.


Iran purchases the gas mainly for non-economic reasons, Zanganeh said.


“Iran is importing Turkmen gas just because it is important to promote political and economic relations with Turkmenistan,” he said 11 August, according to the Tehran Times.


The gas pipeline between the two countries has a capacity of 8 billion cubic meters per year, and there had been talks about Iran increasing its imports to 20 billion cubic meters per year.


“A new gas-compressor station started operation in western Turkmenistan in December 2013, built specifically to export more gas to Iran,” Radio Free Europe’s Qishloq Ovozi blog writes. Iran is now the second biggest buyer of Turkmenistani gas.


But there have also been disputes and even a gas stoppage in 2012 at a time when Iran’s balance of payments was in arrears, writes. Since then China has stepped in as the biggest buyer of Turkmenistani gas, committing to financing new pipelines allowing it to import 65 billion cubic meters annually by 2020, well above the quantity it will buy from Russia’s Gazprom.


On 19 August National Iranian Gas Company managing director Hamidreza Araqi said Iran would not stop importing Turkmenistani gas, although it has reduced imports since this spring, according to the Tehran Times.


4. Anti-Putin protest leader Udaltsov ends hunger strike


Udaltsov_100Sergei Udaltsov
Health problems forced imprisoned Russian opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov to end a 26-day hunger strike 19 August, The Moscow Times reports, citing Russian media.


Udaltsov began the hunger strike after he and another activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, were each sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for inciting mass disorder during protests against the 2012 re-election of President Vladimir Putin.


Russia media said Udaltsov had lost 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and developed heart and kidney problems.


A prison official said he was in satisfactory condition 19 August, Itar-TASS reports.


In the latest trial stemming from the 2012 protests on Bolotnaya Square, four defendants were sentenced to up to 3 1/2 years in prison 18 August, The Moscow Times reported in a separate story.


Twenty-nine people including Udaltsov have been indicted for their part in the 6 May 2012 protest on the square on the eve of Putin’s inauguration for a third presidential term. The latest trial brings the number of convictions to around 18.


5. Does Xi visit signal Mongolian pivot to China?


As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to visit Mongolia this week, followed shortly by a visit by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Mongolia may be planning a major foreign policy shift amid continuing nervousness among Western investors over access to its huge mineral resources, Bloomberg writes.


Mongolia may be ready to forge closer ties to China with a new rail connection, a step it has long avoided, according to Reuters. China’s deputy foreign minister, Liu Jianchao, said Xi and Mongolian leaders would discuss improving freight links during his two-day visit starting 21 August, the first by a Chinese head of state in 11 years.


“Everyone knows that Mongolia is a landlocked country with no sea ports, so the issue of trans-shipment, especially via China, is a very important need for Mongolia,” Liu said.


Ulan Bator previously considered a longer and more expensive railway to ship its mineral products through Russian territory to the Pacific, “a plan the World Bank said was unrealistic,” Reuters writes.


The timing of the Xi and Putin visits is “critical,” said Peter Morrow, a partner at Mongolia-based financial and consulting firm NovaTerra LLC.


“Both China and Russia are keenly interested in Mongolia’s resources, and both know that the country is going through a rough economic patch,” Morrow told Bloomberg.


Major Western mining companies are losing interest in Mongolia despite its almost untapped reserves of coal, gold, copper, and other minerals, deterred by the government’s vacillating policies, Bloomberg writes. The largest single investor, Rio Tinto, has been in dispute with the government since “nationalist-minded investment laws” passed in 2012, although they were later repealed, and has been unable to win approval to expand its huge Oyu Tolgoi mine.


Foreign investment slumped by 70 percent in the first six months of the year, Bloomberg writes. 

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern.
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