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Donald Tusk Tapped to Head EU Leaders’ Council, Confusion Over Putin’s Use of the S-word

Plus, Croatia warns ex-Yugoslav neighbors to cooperate on wartime disappeared and Skopje’s retro makeover rolls on, whatever the cost.

by Piers Lawson, Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu and Anders Ryehauge 1 September 2014

1. Russian fury over Polish airspace snafu


A Russian deputy foreign minister described a move by Poland to refuse permission for a plane carrying Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to fly over Polish airspace 29 August as a “crude violation of the norms and ethics of inter-state conduct,” Reuters quotes Interfax news agency as saying. 


Poland said that permission was denied because Shoigu’s plane described itself as a military rather than civilian craft. Ukraine also denied the plane permission to overfly its territory. Poland said the plane then identified itself as civilian and was granted overflight permission.


The incident is a reflection of tense relations between the two countries in recent months. Poland – a NATO member – has strongly condemned Russia’s actions over Ukraine, accusing Moscow of aggressive action against its neighbor.


EU leaders’ selection of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to be president of the European Council “marked a major advance in influence for the eastern states who joined the bloc this century and who share non-member Ukraine’s concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions,” Reuters writes.


In other developments:


  • Ukrainian forces withdrew from the airport of the eastern city of Luhansk after all-night fighting with rebels, military sources quoted by the BBC say.
  • Moscow has announced that it will provide about $15.5 million to help an estimated 700,000 refugees who have fled into Russia from Ukraine, RIA Novosti reports.
  • In a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine, Reuters reports, Ukraine handed over 10 captured Russian paratroops and Russia in return returned 63 Ukrainian soldiers.
  • Although the exact number remains unclear, The Telegraph quotes Ukrainian soldiers as saying hundreds of troops were killed when pro-Russian separatists went back on a deal to allow them to withdraw from a besieged town 20 miles east of Donetsk.


2. Putin raises issue of “statehood” for Ukrainian rebel areas


A prominent U.S. senator describes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call over the weekend for Ukraine to begin negotiations with separatists on “statehood” for its southeastern regions as a “watershed moment.”


Robert Menendez
Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee and an “Obama administration loyalist,” according to the Guardian, also said during a visit to Kyiv that thousands of Russian troops are in Ukraine and are “directly engaged in what is clearly an invasion.”


Menendez went on to say that Washington should provide Ukraine “with the types of defensive weapons that will impose a cost upon Putin for further aggression.”


The New York Times says that Putin was speaking 31 August as European Union leaders pledged to stiffen economic sanctions against Russia by the end of the week if the conflict in Ukraine continues.


Putin’s use of the term “statehood” in his interview with a TV news program in Moscow was a “vague and provocative” turn of phrase he used while demanding that negotiations commence, the Times writes.


His words calling for immediate talks “not just on technical issues but on the political organization of society and statehood in southeastern Ukraine” have been interpreted elsewhere in the Western media as implying support for the rebel demand of independence, Reuters reports, a move Russia has up to now not publicly endorsed.


But Reuters says that that presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov made clear that his comments did not mean any new backing from Moscow for independence. When asked if the conflict-wracked territories sometimes known as “New Russia” should remain part of Ukraine, Peskov replied, “Of course.”


“Only Ukraine can reach an agreement with New Russia, taking into account the interests of New Russia, and this is the only way to reach a political settlement,” he said.


Putin’s remarks came two days after a public appearance in which he compared Kyiv’s operations in the east to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and warned the West “not to mess with us,” Reuters reports, and his comments provoked suspicion in Germany that Moscow may be trying to create a land corridor to supply Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in March.


Putin warned that Ukraine should cease fighting and top up its natural gas supply, almost all of which it buys from Russia, to get through next winter, The New York Times reports.


3. Zagreb warns neighbors over issue of wartime disappeared


Just a day after Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia agreed to further the search for thousands of people still missing from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Croatian officials said lack of cooperation by the other three countries could hinder their chances of joining the European Union.


Predrag Matic
The four countries’ presidents signed a declaration on the search for missing persons 29 August in the Bosnian city of Mostar, B92 reports.


Of the approximately 40,000 people that disappeared during the regional conflicts in the 1990s, the bodies of about 70 percent have been exhumed and identified, International Commission on Missing Persons Chairman Thomas Miller said in Mostar.


Most of the wartime dead and those still missing are from Bosnia. The current chairman of the Bosnian presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, said about 8,000 of 30,000 missing Bosnians are still listed as missing.


Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic gave the total number of missing persons as 11,000, and said the government regards about 1,750 Serbs as missing in Croatia.


Croatian authorities estimate about 1,700 Croatians remain unaccounted for since disappearing during the 1991-1995 “Homeland War” with Serb forces, reports.


As the only EU member in the group, Croatia has the right to veto union membership for any of the others, and is warning it could do so unless they pass on more information about missing Croatians.


“Some of our neighbors want to join some European associations. ... However, until they prove their honest intentions and provide us with the full information that we have reason to believe they have ... Croatia will not allow their EU accession,” Veterans Minister Predrag Matic warned 30 August, Balkan Insight reports.


President Ivo Josipovic, who the day before put his signature to the Mostar declaration, said at the same event in honor missing Croats, “The relations with our neighbors will depend on the commitment of all of us in the search for missing persons.”


4. Concern over eastern EU’s shadow economies


Developing countries from Central Europe and the Baltic and Balkan states have the largest black economies in Europe, the The Wall Street Journal reports, citing recent studies from the Randstad Dutch human resources consulting firm.


Bulgaria, where paid activities that are not illegal but not declared to the authorities make up an estimated 31 percent of gross domestic product, leads the list. Croatia and Romania, both with 28 percent, are next, with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania close behind.


On the other end of the scale, undeclared economic activity makes up only 8 percent of economic output in Austria and Luxembourg.


Unlike earlier studies, the report fingers public sector corruption rather than increasing tax burdens as the main force driving the growth of the shadow economy.


In all, corruption costs the European economy 120 billion euros ($158 billion) per year, a report by the European Commission said in February.


The World Bank warned about the scale of the problem caused by the shadow economy in Eastern Europe in 2012, when a report revealed its impact on workers and firms.


These countries “cannot afford” the shadow economy, “either in the short run due to fiscal concerns, or in the long run due to the shrinking labor force,” a World Bank adviser, Katarina Mathernova, said at the time.


The scale of the shadow economy in Bulgaria is nothing new: it was estimated at 32 percent of GDP in 2012 and 33 percent in 2007, EUobserver reported.


Former Finance Minister Traicho Traykov drew attention to the problem in 2011 when he said it was “better to have a black economy than none.”


5. Opinion divided over Macedonia makeover


After four years of a radical makeover, opinion is divided in the Macedonian capital Skopje as to the architectural benefits, the BBC’s Guy de Launey reports.


One key area of contention is the cost of the recently completed Skopje 2014 project, which in 2013 was estimated to be around $260 million, more than double the original figure. Today some critics are even predicting that the final price may climb above $1 billion.


Alexander_the_great_350The monument to Alexander the Great, or someone with a close resemblance to the Macedonian ruler. Photo by Prince Roy / Wikimedia Commons


The urban-renewal scheme has seen several large new museums and government buildings spring up on the banks of the Vardar River in central Skopje. Their neoclassical and baroque designs, in sharp contrast to the modernist look of the rest of the capital, leave some critics cold.


Costs are also rising for the planned 57-meter (187-foot) Ferris wheel on a new bridge across the Vardar, Balkan Insight reports.


“Then there are the statues,” the BBC says, referring to “dozens of bronze-cast figures” which have been erected “seemingly everywhere.”


But the piece de resistance, the BBC says, is in Macedonia Square where a huge warrior on a horse towers imperiously on a thick column – surrounded by water fountains, lions, music and lights – over the once empty plaza.


This figure “may may or may not be Alexander the Great, depending on whom one asks.”


The statue, and the entire makeover, has also attracted much attention for its ideological implications as a nation-building endeavor.


However, its appropriation of Alexander the Great, and even its name, has locked the country in a dispute with Greece, which claims the historical figure as its own, and has insisted that the country should be known as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOLIoana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern.
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