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Ukraine on the Brink Amid Growing Reports of Russian Involvement

Plus, booming Poland plans to boost public spending while recession-hit Croatia scrambles to find more budget cuts.

by Ky Krauthamer, Barbara Frye, and Ioana Caloianu 28 August 2014

1. Fighting in southeast Ukraine worsens

 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko canceled a trip to Turkey today, saying in a brief speech from an airport the “deteriorating situation in the southern Donetsk region” required his presence at home as the focus of the war in eastern Ukraine shifts to an area near the Sea of Azov and the city of Mariupol.

 

Fighting in the area around the border town of Novoazovsk intensified overnight, The Washington Post reports, with both Ukrainian and Western officials claiming Russian troops are directly involved.

 

Separatist forces in the Donetsk area claimed to have taken control of checkpoints and “strongholds” on the outskirts of Mariupol today, RIA Novosti reports. The Kremlin-controlled news service says forces from the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic “began moving south to the Sea of Azov” on 24 August and claimed they had moved tanks into Novoazovsk on 27 August.

 

Poroshenko.28.08.14Petro Poroshenko delivering his brief address today. Image from a video by Ukraine Today / YouTube

 

A spokesman for the Ukrainian army told the Guardian today government forces controlled the right bank of a river in Novoazovsk but not the opposite bank.

 

Russia continues to deny it has sent troops or military material into eastern Ukraine.

 

“Many refugees who fled to [Mariupol] from embattled Donetsk, Makiivka, Gorlovka, and Illovaisk are rapidly fleeing Mariupol, with the number of cars shrinking on the city’s roads,” the Guardian’s Oksana Grytsenko writes.

 

Also today, Ukraine’s European Union envoy, Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, called on EU leaders to provide what the Ukrinform agency describes as “large-scale military assistance to Ukraine” when they meet 30 August in Brussels.

 

Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke twice by telephone 27 August to work out a common stance ahead of the EU summit, RIA Novosti reports.

 

Also yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Merkel Russia planned to send more humanitarian aid convoys to Ukraine, The Moscow Times reports. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said 4 million people in eastern Ukraine stood in need of assistance.

 

2. Polish pensioners, families promised more state support

 

tusk_100Donald Tusk
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is promising to increase pensions and family support in what some observers see as a reaction to a poll showing his party trailing ahead of two major elections, Bloomberg reports.

 

Tusk told parliament the economy was strong enough to compensate for the additional state spending, which will be at least 2.5 billion zlotys ($783 million) next year, Finance Minister Mateusz Szczurek said. Poland continues to outperform most of its neighbors economically, with growth forecast to reach 3.3 percent this year.

 

The center-right government plans to tweak the tax system so that not just high-income families take full benefit from tax breaks for additional children, Polskie Radio reports.

 

The family support plan may be tied to troubling prognoses of the country’s demographic future, Polskie Radio suggests. Some estimates say the population will shrink by 2 million in the next 20 years. Another startling piece of news is that Polish-born women in Britain are having almost twice as many children as women in the home country.

 

The family support proposals “are an investment in the coming 50 years,” Tusk said.

 

With local elections set for November and a general election expected in the second half of next year, Tusk’s centrist Civic Platform party is casting a worried eye on new polls showing rising support for the conservative opposition.

 

A poll by the CBOS Institute shows the Law and Justice party and two smaller conservative partners at 32 percent support, compared with 26 percent for Civic Platform, Polskie Radio reports.

 

Law and Justice formed an election bloc with the Poland Together and United Poland parties this summer.

 

3. Tehran links Azerbaijan to downed Israeli drone

 

An Azerbaijani official has dismissed what he called “provocation by outside circles” after Iran indirectly accused Azerbaijan of launching an Israeli-made reconnaissance drone over its territory, EurasiaNet.org’s Bug Pit blog writes.

 

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard said it shot down the Hermes 450 drone near the Natanz uranium enrichment plant on 23 August, the Associated Press reports.

 

An Iranian deputy chief of staff, General Masoud Jazayeri, claimed the drone took off “from a northern country that once was part of the Soviet Union,” the AP writes, noting that while Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan each meet that description, Azerbaijan is known to operate Israeli drones.

 

A similar drone crashed in Iraq near the Baghdad airport 27 August, according to Iran’s Fars news agency.

 

Relations between the Islamic government in Tehran and Azerbaijan’s strongly secular regime have been strained in recent years, in part over Baku’s defense purchases from Israel, such as a $1.6 billion deal for drones and missile defense systems in 2012.

 

Baku has accused the Revolutionary Guard of links to 22 Azerbaijanis sentenced to long prison terms for planning terrorist attacks in the country. In November each country briefly closed several border crossings after a shooting incident. Iran is also home to a large ethnic Azeri minority.

 

Although Iran did not explicitly accuse Azerbaijan of launching the drone, the Israel-based intelligence and security monitor Debka cites “military and Iranian sources” as saying it took off from an air base in Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan region. Drones from the air base regularly overfly Iranian nuclear facilities to measure radiation levels, and Iran “has tried for two years to down these drones” without success until now, Debka alleges.

 

4. Zagreb chips away at a mountain of debt

 

Beset by woeful financial news, the debt-ridden Croatian government is trimming its payroll by canceling supplements to some workers, Balkan Insight reports.

 

The civil service offers 367 possible salary supplements across a wide range of jobs, inflating the payroll by about 15 percent, according to Balkan Insight.

 

“[M]ost are for overtime work, physical disability supplements or child-care supplements. Some are for working in especially hard conditions, working with severely disabled people, or for those in ‘risky’ professions, such as demining or firefighting,” the website reports.

 

The cuts come weeks after Fitch Ratings cut Croatia’s credit rating and the country announced it would not meet interim deficit-reduction targets agreed upon with the EU.

 

Fitch dropped four currency and bond ratings, all of which now sit in the speculative range.

 

The agency cited questions over whether Croatia could tame its public debt, which sits at 67 percent of GDP, over the medium term, predicting the debt level would peak at over 70 percent of GDP in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

 

Fitch also cited Croatia’s recent backpedaling from deficit-reduction targets. The country had come under EU fiscal oversight in January, with its deficit around 5 percent of GDP, well over the 3 percent limit for all EU countries.

 

Brussels and Zagreb agreed on gradual deficit reduction, to 4.6 percent this year and eventually to 2.7 percent in 2016. But lagging tourism revenues could put this year’s goal out of reach. 

 

Critics say Croatia has a bloated public sector and point to its “exceptional slowness” in using EU funds. Fitch said “hesitant structural reforms continue to cloud the investment climate” and noted that elections set for next year would likely mean no serious revamp of the economy’s structure would come anytime soon.

 

5. Historic photo archive of Eastern European Jewish life now online

 

vishniac_100Roman Vishniac
Photographer Roman Vishniac’s snapshots of Eastern European Jewish life are some of the most evocative images of European Jewry on the eve of World War II. Only around 350 of his photos have ever been published or exhibited. Now his entire archive of 9,000 negatives documenting daily life in cities and shtetls has been digitized and made available online through a partnership between the International Center of Photography (ICP) and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Vishniac, a Russian-born Jewish photographer, traveled through Eastern Europe and photographed Jewish communities in the late 1930s for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes.

 

“Vishniac created some of the most enduring images of Eastern European Jews immediately before the Holocaust,” the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington writes in a press release on its website. The negatives were digitized by Ardon Bar-Hama, the expert who also digitized the Dead Sea Scrolls.

 

In addition to making the collection available to the public, the museum invites viewers to contribute by sharing information helping identify the subjects of the photos and the places shown. “Our shared goal is to make the images available for further identification and research, deepening our knowledge of Vishniac’s work and the people and places he recorded in his images,” ICP head Mark Lubell said.

 

Vishniac was born in 1897 and grew up in Moscow. His family emigrated to Berlin after the Bolshevik Revolution. He and his family reached the United States in 1941 after his release from an internment camp in France. He worked as a freelance photographer and helped develop new techniques of scientific color micro-photographs, the museum writes. He died in 1990.

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