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(updated 20 April 2012)

   Rise and fall of Hungary's president
   Russian carmaker AvtoVAZ axes classic Lada
   Building of oil pipeline from Iran to Armenia to begin in next two years
  Czech coalition party in turmoil after conviction of leader
   Family Law struck down in Slovenian referendum

   Belarus-Russia air traffic tit-for-tat ban

   Former KGB chief ahead in South Ossetia presidential election
   Storms leave 86 Ukrainian towns and villages without electricity
   Slovak MPs might donate a month’s salary to restore Krásna Hôrka Castle
   A ballot choice 'Against All' would have given Putin 47%
   Two men executed for Minsk metro bombing
   Moldovan parliament elects President, ending 3-year deadlock
   Slovak election result can provide single-party government

   Rail controller faces prosecution over Polish train crash
   Lithuania and Gazprom negotiate over EU gas market reform
   Second round of negotiations on Transdnestr open in Dublin

   EU foreign policy chief backs Serbia's bid for candidate status

 

Sub-zero weather in Russia risks gas shortage in Europe
UNDP research pinpoints areas of social exclusion
Roma - implementing the EU Framework
Muslim leaders lament restrictive legislation and media bias in central Europe
European Parliament 2009 election results
Schengen area enlargement
How the European Union has grown

 

Albania
Armenia
Belarus
Bosnia
Bulgaria
Croatia
Czech Republic
Estonia
Georgia (Gruziya)
Hungary
Kaliningrad

Kosovo

 

Latvia
Lithuania
Macedonia (FYR)
Moldova
Montenegro

Poland
România
Russia
Serbia

Slovakia
Slovenija
Ukraine

 

News from central and eastern Europe

Reports are grouped by country, alphabetically
  For quick links use the News Index at the top of the page or the indexed Map

Albania     (Shqipëria)

VAT removed for imported machinery and equipment

The Regulatory Task Force chaired by the Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha decided on 10 April to remove the Value Added Tax for imported machinery and equipment.

It also announced the creation as a single institution of a National Business and Labour Council.

Ombudsman shelters homeless Roma

The authorities have been struggling to house dozens of homeless members of the Roma community after the state ombudsman sheltered them his Tirana office six days ago to highlight their plight.

Ombudsman Igli Totozani was working with the Ministry of Labour and Equal Opportunities and the municipality of Tirana to find a solution. “What the ombudsman has asked from the start is to find a dignified and permanent solution for their housing,” a spokeswoman said on 7 February.

That day eight Roma families comprised of 37 children, of whom 30 are under the age of seven, were being housed in the Ombudsman’s office. Up to that point the municipality of Tirana had offered a gym and an old military barracks to house the Roma families. However, the Ombudsman’s office said that both structures were not suitable and has insisted on a permanent solution.

Totazani had taken the Roma families into his office the previous week, after visiting a tent camp where they were housed in the outskirts of Tirana, following an arsonist attack on their shacks a year ago. They had been living in near-freezing temperatures in a tent camp without heating, electricity and running water.

Amnesty International called on Albanian authorities to provide adequate housing for the Roma families. “Dozens of Romani people, including the elderly and small children, are facing winter on the streets without a roof over their heads, without any certainty about their future security or adequate assistance from the authorities,” said Jezerca Tigani, the Amnesty International deputy programme director for Europe and Central Asia.


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Armenia     (Hayastan)

Worldwide promotion of Armenian wines discussed in Yerevan

The Ministry of Economy hosted a discussion on 16 April on wine-making, which has become a priority element in the export-oriented industrial policy adopted by the government.

A selection of Armenian wines

The seminar brought together leading specialists in the sphere, as well as invited experts from Russia.

The participants discussed the international wine market and explored the prospects of exporting Armenian wines to these markets.

Deputy Armenian minister of economy Tigran Harutyunyan said many issues had to be tackled in order to export Armenian wines to foreign markets and achieve their recognition. The current event, he said, aimed to find ways to implement the goals set by the government’s industrial policy for promoting Armenian wines.

Building of oil pipeline from Iran to Armenia to begin in next two years

The construction of an oil-product pipeline running from Iran to Armenia is tentatively scheduled to start in the next year or two, having earlier been planned to start late last year, Armenian Energy and Natural Resources Minister Armen Movsisian said at a government meeting on 12 April. It should be completed two years from now, he said.

The Armenian government confirmed the rules for using the main oil pipeline running from Tabriz in Iran to Yerask in southern Armenia at the meeting. "This project is connected with the building of a new oil-product pipeline, and we are obliged to confirm the technical rules at first," Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said. The guidelines were drawn up with the aim of ensuring safety in the process of delivering, storing, and selling Iranian oil products in Armenia.

The cost of building the pipeline on Armenia territory is estimated at $100 million. Plans call for the money to come from Iran, and then Iran will make profit on the sale of oil products in Armenia.

The pipeline will give Armenia the opportunity to acquire oil products at Persian Gulf country prices, or $15-$20 per tonne lower than European prices. The delivery of fuel from Iran will make it possible to substantially cut transport expenses and make prices competitive on the domestic market. Also, it should increase the country's energy security.


2800 years of Armenian history on internet

An internet website has set out to contain the complete history of Armenia, covering the period between 800 BC and 2004 AD. The site includes 370 pages, more than 1000 references and hundreds of maps. Yet its organisers say the data online is still just a fragment of the planned content and it will be continuously updated.

Armenica aims to serve as a free complete reference source regarding Armenia, its history and other relating issues such as the Armenian Genocide and the Karabakh conflict.

The launch of the Armenica website came alongside the 24 April 2005 commemoration day 90 years on from the Ottoman Genocide. Among many other topics, it aims to inform and shed light on the rationale, the implementation and the result of the first genocide of the 20th century.


Armenia: some facts and figures

Geography - Area of 29,800 square km. Bordering countries are Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Turkey.
Population - 3.2 million (October 2001).
Capital - Yerevan, population - 1.1 million.

Ethnic composition - More than 95% Armenian. There are small minorities of Russians, Kurds (Yezids), Greeks, Assyrians and Jews. Most ethnic Azeris fled in the late 1980s and early 1990s following clashes between the two communities.
Languages - Armenian. Russian is also widely spoken.
Religion - Most Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, an ancient independent branch of Christianity. in In AD 301, Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its state religion. There are small Catholic, Protestant and Zoroastrian minorities.

Government - Under the 1995 constitution Armenia is a republic.
The President is directly elected for five-year terms, of which he may serve no more than two. The President appoints and sacks ministers, including the Prime Minister and Supreme Court officials. The President can disband the National Assembly (parliament), after consulting its speaker and the Prime Minister.

Parliament - 131 members elected in 2007 for four years.
Parliament can remove ministers by expressing no confidence in a simple majority vote, and can impeach the President by a two-thirds majority vote once the Supreme Court has ruled that the President has committed treason or another major crime.

Armed forces - No official figures, number of regular troops thought to be 50-60,000. Young men are conscripted aged 18 for two years.

Economics

Currency: Dram. (£1 = about 680 drams; $1 = 345 drams).
Inflation 2.0% and GDP growth at 11% in 2006.
Industry - Agriculture, textiles, food processing, construction materials, diamond cutting, mining and chemicals are all major industries. Gold and molybdenum are mined, mainly for export.

History - In 2100 BC a greater Armenian state extended from the Mediterranean Sea to the Caspian. Over the first millennium AD, Armenians lived mainly in two distinct areas, where they live now and in what is now the eastern Anatolia area of Turkey.

These areas, western and eastern Armenia, were generally under Persian and Ottoman rule but also had periods of domination by Byzantines, Mongols, Arabs and Russians. Armenians also lived in smaller communities in Persia, present-day Syria, Gruziya, Azerbaijan, and the Lebanon.

Russian armies invaded what is now Armenia in 1820, and Armenians were caught up in the 1914-17 Russian-Turkish war. It is claimed that 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were exterminated between 1915 and 1923 by Ottoman Turkey. Turkey denies the charge but acknowledges that thousands of Armenians may have been victims of the Russian-Turkish war raging at the time.

An independent Armenian state existed from 1918 to 1921 but was swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1921, later becoming a full republic until independence in 1991. Russia and Armenia still have a close strategic relationship.


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Belarus      (Беларусь)

Belarus-Russia air traffic tit-for-tat ban temporarily lifted

Belarus and Russia temporarily lifted the ban on air traffic between Minsk and Moscow, Belavia General Director Anatoly Gusarov announced on 26 March. "We have learned that Russia is lifting the flight ban. We are lifting the ban, as well," he said.

"However, " he added, "this is an interim decision valid until Thursday. Negotiations on air traffic between Minsk and Moscow will begin on Thursday."

Belavia Deputy General Director Igor Cherginets said that passengers were being registered to board two Belavia flights to Moscow at Minsk Airport. He stressed it was an interim decision.

The jetliners will depart as soon as possible, probably, after 11:00 a.m. Minsk time. Cherginets

The situation had arisen when the Russian aviation authorities informed Belavia, the Belarussian national airline, that their licence to fly to Moscow had been unilaterally cancelled. The unprecedented step arose over a disagreement about the number of flights by both Belavia and Russian airlines on the Moscow-Minsk route. Earlier, Belavia and Russian airlines had scheduled four flights per day. "However, Russian airlines insisted on making more flights. This position led to the unprecedented step - the revocation of Belavia's licence to fly to Moscow," Belavia General Director Anatoly Gusarov said.

"The Belarussian aviation authorities (the Air Transport Department) replied with the revocation of licences of all Russian airlines to make regular flights [to Minsk]," General Director Igor Cherginets explained.

Two men executed for Minsk metro bombing

Two men convicted of carrying out a deadly metro bombing last year in Minsk have been executed, drawing strong condemnation from activists and the European Union.

The mother of one of the two 26 year olds said that she had received official notification of the execution of her son, Vladislav Kovalyov. National television reported late on 17 March that both Kovalyov and Dmitry Konovalov had been put to death, which in Belarus is done with a shot to the back of the head.

The men were convicted in November 2011 of planting a bomb in April at one of the busiest underground stations in Minsk. The bomb killed 15 people and wounded more than 300.

Dmitry Konovalov had acknowledged his guilt. Investigators said Kovalyov was aware of the plans to bomb the subway, but he insisted he did not take part and entered a not guilty plea. The rushed trial, which failed to identify a motive for the bombing, raised serious questions about fairness. Their defence lawyers said the evidence presented in court was circumstantial and inconclusive.

President Aleksandr Lukashenko refused clemency to the two men after they had been sentenced to death in November. Critics of the president accused his regime of staging the bombing to divert attention from the worst economic crisis in the country's post-Soviet history. "The government shot these boys so quickly that I have even more doubts about their guilt," said Tatyana Snezhinskaya, a 42-year-old teacher, who was among several people laying flowers outside the subway station. "The death penalty should be abolished. We should not take the lives of people, especially of those who might be the victims of judicial errors or political orders."

Human rights activists also condemned the hasty executions, saying it prevented any opportunity to learn the truth. "The government was in a rush to throw a white shroud over all the contradictions and discrepancies in the case," said Lyudmila Gryaznova a human rights activist. "The execution of the so-called terrorists, whose guilt remains in doubt, gives the appearance that the government is concealing the traces of the crime."

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also criticised the executions. In a statement she said she was "aware of the terrible crimes that these two men were accused of and her thoughts are with the victims and their families." At the same time she noted that the two accused were not accorded due process in law.

Belarus is the only country in Europe that still puts people to death, and rights activists claim that around 400 people have been executed since the 1991 Soviet collapse.

EU recalls ambassadors to Belarus

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced on 28 February that the EU was going to recall its ambassadors to Belarus after the regime in Minsk expelled the EU representative and the Polish envoy in protest over new sanctions.

The Belarus regime also recalled its own ambassadors from Brussels and Warsaw.

The EU had already in January blacklisted at least 160 Belarusian officials, including an asset freeze imposed on Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko. The latest move came after the EU announced it was imposing restrictions on 21 people because of human rights violations.

Belarus foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said "it has been suggested" that the EU and Polish envoys "return to their capitals for consultations to communicate to their leadership the firm position of the Belarussian side that pressure and sanctions are unacceptable".

Minsk was recalling its own envoys from Brussels and Warsaw and could take "other measures to protect its interests" under further pressure, Savinykh was quoted as saying.


Belarus - key data

Geography
Area - 207,600 sq km (80,200 sq miles).
Landlocked, Belarus is surrounded by Poland on the west, Lithuania and Latvia to the north and north-west, Ukraine to the south, and Russia to the east. A distinct strip of territory to the west was previously part of Poland and ceded to the Soviet Union in 1939. Mainly flat, one third of the area is forested, and 46% is farmland. Extensive Pripyat Marshes lie in the south, bordering Ukraine. The principal river is the Dniepr to the east.

People

Population
9.85 million, primarily ethnic Slavs; 7 million eligible to vote.
Ethnic breakdown: Belarussians 77.9%, Russians 13.2%, Poles 4.1%, Ukrainians 2.9% and Jews 1.1%.
Capital city Minsk, population around 2 million.
Religion: Mainly Russian Orthodox. Also substantial Roman Catholic and eastern rite Catholic communities.
Language The Belarussian language, an eastern Slav tongue similar to Russian and Ukrainian, has been subject to pressure. Russian dominates the country's political life and state-controlled mass media, and is therefore spoken by most people.

History

Originally part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th century, then in 16th century controlled by Poland. Partition of Poland in late 18th century made Belarus part of Russia. Soviet Socialist republic 1939. Severe health and agricultural problems followed fall-out from the Chernobyl explosion (just south of its border) on 26 April 1986. Independent state from 1991, initially with liberal government until 1994. Administrative centre of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Under President Aleksandr Lukashenko, in office since 1994, Belarus has become increasingly isolated. Its government is widely criticised for repression of opposition politicians and news media; four opposition figures have disappeared under mysterious circumstances in recent years. Lukashenko, probably not without reason, frequently alleges international organisations and governments are working to unseat him.

Political system
Belarus is a presidential republic and the President is elected for five years. The President appoints the Prime Minister, who must be confirmed by parliament, other ministers and heads of local administrations.

The Parliament consists of two chambers. The lower house of parliament is made up of 110 members elected every four years. The upper chamber has 56 members -- 10 members are appointed by the president while others are elected by local councils.

Incumbent President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a former KGB officer, was first elected in 1994. He then extended his rule through a referendum in 1996 and secured apparently landslide victories in 2001, in March 2006 and again for a 4th term in December 2010.  All polls have been condemned by independent observers, Western governments and opposition as tainted.


Economy
The Belarussian economy is centralised with government controlling most prices and ordering companies what to produce. In the past two years Belarus has enjoyed a steady economic recovery, mainly due to an economic boom in neighbouring Russia, its main trading partner. The government expects to secure about 10% GDP growth this year and next. The International Monetary Fund forecasts 6.4% GDP growth in Belarus this year. The IMF stopped giving loans to Belarus in 1996, and has said that reforms, tight monetary policies and a balanced budget were required to sustain growth.

Relations with the EU
The European Commission policy paper "What the European Union could bring to Belarus" outlines what Belarussian people could expect if the country succeeded in establishing good relations with the EU. The aim of the paper has been to rebuff propaganda from the government in Minsk message that nobody in Europe cares much about political reform in the country.  EU-Belarus: New message to the people of Belarus


Link:

The Belarussian exile organisation in Prague publishes the Belarusian Review in English. Click for an on-line version.


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Bosnia  (Federacije Bosne i Hercegovine)

Foreign Minister in Brussels to discuss SAA progress

The Bosnian Minister of Foreign Affairs Zlatko Lagumdzija met with European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle in Brussels on 17 April.

They talked about key priorities for Bosnia's progress towards reforms to EU requirements. They agreed it was of great importance for Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) to come into force as soon as possible. For this to happen the Constitution of Bosnia-Hergovina needed to be co-ordinated with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lagumdzija pointed to the fact that efficient co-ordination did not necessarily mean new institutions. Existing mechanisms could make progress on the decisions needed to work through the process of adopting the acquis communitaire.

Füle emphasised that it was necessary fully to implement recommendations about the Bosnian judiciary. He was also interested in open issues between Bosnia and Croatia and promised full support and constructive role of the European Commission in solving them.

Soldiers help after record snowfall

The Bosnian military has mobilised hundreds of soldiers to help its citizens cope with record snowfalls that have engulfed the region, cutting off entire towns and villages and leaving many without electricity. On 13 February more than 1,700 soldiers were involved in rescue operations. In some areas snow had built up as high as 5 metres.

Chief of Joint Staff of the Armed Forces of Bosnia, General Miladin Milojčić, said that the army had been involved in the effort since the very first round of paralysing storms. "The army becomes involved as soon as the Civil Defence authority estimates that the assistance of the Armed Forces is necessary. A few days ago, we had to rescue 15 workers at a company that was buried in snow. After our intervention, workers were saved and safely returned to Sarajevo." Military equipment involved in rescues included helicopters, trucks, tractors and other heavy equipment. "The rescue operations are being made throughout the whole country; most evacuations were made in villages where people are stuck in snow, as well as delivering food and medicine to those places which are completely blocked," Milojčić added.

At the weekend, another 50cm of snow fell across the country. At least 20 people were known to have frozen to death. Meteorologists were expecting significantly more snow during the following week, with temperatures between -10° and -20°C.


Balkan countries and the EU

EU foreign ministers agreed on 21 November 2005 to start negotiating a stabilisation and association agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The move came exactly 10 years after the end of the Bosnian war. The SAA was eventually signed in June 2008.

All the Balkan countries hope to follow in the footsteps of Slovenija, which joined the EU among the central European accession group in May 2004. Croatia began EU accession talks in October 2005, while in the same month Serbia and Montenegro began stabilisation and association talks.  Macedonia was granted EU candidate status in December 2005. Albania reached a stabilisation and association agreement in June 2006.

EU progress reports (2005)


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Bulgaria     (България)

Severe weather warning for central and southern Bulgaria

A "Code Orange" hazardous weather warning was declared in seven districts in central and southern Bulgaria on 18 April. The warning was prompted by continuing heavy rain and thunderstorms in the area. Rainfall in these districts was forecast at between 40 litres and 60 litres per m2, meteorologists said.

Parts of the country might also be buffeted by strong winds. Because of heavy clouds and intermittent squalls of wind, the port of Varna on the Black Sea coast put a temporary ban on any ship movement.

Residents of the areas covered by the Code Orange warning were advised to exercise caution, since the warning implies possible damages and casualties as a result of hazardous weather.

ECB advises against Silver Fund proposal

The European Central Bank has strongly advised Bulgaria against investing state assets to guarantee the stability of the state pension system.

The statement in mid April came shortly after the government approved a draft law amending and supplementing the Law on the State fund for guaranteeing the stability of the state pension system, known as the Silver Fund.

Investing up to 70% of the Fund's assets in securities issued or guaranteed by the Republic of Bulgaria, as envisaged by the law, might lead to unequal treatment of the different investment instruments, creating competition and market distortions, ECB said in an official statement. It pointed out that the draft law did not require an investment grade credit rating to apply to securities issued by the Bulgarian government, whereas the other debt securities did require such a rating. That would put the government in a privileged position compared to other issuers.

"If the Fund purchases the envisaged amounts, exclusively in the primary market or in the secondary market, the prices and yields of Bulgarian government securities will not reflect the true state of the Bulgarian economy and the position of the country's public finances," the ECB said.

The potential distortion of this market, as a result of the predominant participation of the Fund acquiring high volume of government securities on a small market with low liquidity could undermine the credibility and accuracy of the fulfilment of the long-term interest rates criterion, according to the ECB.

Bulgaria's central bank BNB has also vehemently criticised the draft law, saying it puts at risk the funds already accumulated, as well as the country's financial stability.


Progress reports on EU measures

On 23 July 2008 the European Commission issued its latest reports on progress by Bulgaria and Romania in meeting the measures required by the Commission when both countries joined the EU.

Download key findings:  Word  or PDF

Download the EC monitoring report on Bulgaria
Download the EC report on funding for Bulgaria

 
Links: 

Bulgarian Government

The European Stability Initiative looks at the transformation of Bulgaria since 1997

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Croatia     (Hrvatska)

Workers receive supermarket vouchers instead of pay

The daily newspaper Poslovni dnevnik reported on 24 February that workers at Croatian petrochemical company Dioki had received supermarket vouchers instead of their pay.

The workers who have not been paid a salary for the past six months, have been given 200 kuna (£22.45) in Konzum supermarket coupons as compensation by management. Dioki have had their accounts blocked due to large debts and therefore could not pay their staff.

Dioki were optimistic of a bail-out from oil giant INA, but that has yet to happen. The board of Dioki met with representatives from the Ministries of Labour, Economy and Finance looking for ways to rescue the company.

Konzum supermarket confirmed they had given the firm 200 kuna vouchers, which they say were compensation for a plastic order they placed with Dioki.

Aeroports de Paris to build new terminal at Zagreb Airport

Deputy Prime Minister, Radimir Čačić, was reported on 24 February as saying that the government would accept an offer from Aeroports de Paris to run Zagreb Airport and build a long-awaited new terminal. The French group, which bid under the name Zagreb Airport International, proposed to build the new terminal from scratch and pay €87 million in concession fees over the next thirty years. “Construction work will start by the end of the year”, Cacic said, and the new terminal should be in use by 2015.

Announcing the decision, Radimir Čačić said the new terminal should help boost tourism and would also provide a chance for Croatia to become a regional hub in the Balkans. The offer by Aeroports de Paris proposes that during the first phase of the project a new terminal would be built with the capacity to handle five million passengers. The cost of the project would total approximately €190 million. A further €29 million would be invested once passenger traffic through the airport had exceeded five million travellers.


Croatia and the EU

Croatia has been an EU candidate country since June 2004 and began accession negotiations in October 2005. At present 30 of 35 negotiation chapters have been closed. Chapter 23 on the Judiciary and Fundamental Rights is expected to be the most difficult.

The other open chapters are regional policy, fisheries and two technical chapters (budget and 'other issues'), which must be closed last.

On 16 February 2011 the European Parliament decisively voted by 584 votes to 43 in favour of a resolution congratulating Croatia for "substantial progress", stating that negotiations "can be completed in the first half of 2011 provided that the necessary reforms continue to be pursued resolutely".

A recent survey of Croatians has shown that, after a sharp dip in April, support for EU membership has recovered in anticipation of the end of accession talks. A majority of 52% of citizens would vote in favour of joining the EU if a referendum had been held this May. In April, such support had fallen to its lowest levels in five years, 44.6%, after the Hague Tribunal convicted former Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač of war crimes.


Croatia (Hrvatska) - facts and figures

History   Slav coastal tribes the Chrobati and the Hrvati migrated from White Russia in the 6th century. The Croat kingdom reached its peak in the 11th century. The king of Hungary subsequently claimed the Croatian throne (1091). In 1526 the defeat of Hungary by the Turks brought the north-eastern part of Croatia into the Ottoman Empire; the rest of the country elected Ferdinand of Austria as king. In 1918 it became part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, joining with Montenegro and Serbia in what became in 1929 Jugoslavija (the south Slavs). Croatia left socialist Jugoslavija in 1991, following the collapse of communism across central Europe, but had to wage an independence war with its ethnic Serb minority and the Jugoslav army. The war ended with a peace treaty in 1995, after it had recaptured territory held by rebel Serbs in a swift offensive.

Croatia's first President and architect of its independence, Franjo Tudjman, died in 1999, and a pro-western reformist coalition came to power in 2000.

The government estimates that some 300,000 ethnic Serbs have left Croatia since 1991, mostly after their rebellion was crushed in 1995, and gone to such areas as Serb-held Bosnia. According to recent U.N. figures about a third have returned to their pre-war homes in Croatia.


On 4 October 2005 the EU opened membership talks with Croatia. It followed a statement by Carla del Ponte, the UN chief war crimes prosecutor, that the government was now fully co-operating with the Hague tribunal.  The talks had been due to start in March, but were held up by Croatia's failure to hand over General Ante Gotovina, charged with war crimes against Serb civilians during a 1995 offensive.

The European Commission said on 10 June 2011 that Croatia had now met the requirements for closing the last four chapters in its EU entry talks. The EC is proposing 1 July 2013 as an indicative date for the Balkan country's admission into the EU as its 28th member.

Population 4.4 million (2001 census): Croats 3.98 million, Serbs 201,600, Italians 19,600, Slovenes 13,000. Muslims 20,755, Hungarians 16,600, Albanians 15,000

Geography  The land area is 56,538 sq km (21,829 sq miles) plus territorial waters of 31,900 sq km (12,316 sq miles). The Adriatic coastline, which includes 1,185 islands, islets and reefs, is 5,740 km (3,566 miles) long. There is fertile plain in the cetre and east and a fairly barren mountainous coastal region. One thrd of the country is forested. The river Danube forms its north-eastern border with Serbia. Croatia is bordered by Slovenija in the north-west, Hungary in the north, Serbia in the east, Bosnia in the south and Montenegro in the south-east. It also has a maritime border with Italy in the Adriatic.

The capital Zagrab (Zagreb) has a population of 867,865.

Language  The official language is Croatian, written in Roman script.

Religion  Roman Catholic 88.6%, Orthodox 4.5%, Muslim 1.3%, with 5.3% of the population declared as agnostic or atheist.(2001 census).

Economy  Mainly agricultural, with tourism a major contributor on the Adriatic coast. Natural resources include bauxite, coal, copper, and iron. Other industries are metal-working, electrical engineering, lumber and oil-refining. The Balkan civil war badly affected its economy. Croatia became member of the World Trade Organisation in mid-2000. It was left out from the first group of former central European communist countries to join the European Union in 2004 because of its poor human rights record and nationalist government. Croatia applied for full membership in February 2003.   EU leaders agreed in December 2004 to start entry talks with Croatia if the country co-operated with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Jugoslavija. The opening of accession talks was delayed until October 2005, but Croatia still hopes to join the second enlargement group together with Romania and Bulgaria.

Annual inflation was forecast at below 2% this year. Before an austerity programme was introduced in 1993, inflation ran at 38% a month.

In 2002, Croatia's GDP grew 5.2%, reaching $5,130 per capita and is expected to rise to almost $6,000 this year. Unemployment stood at 18.3% in September.

Currency - the kuna, introduced in May 1994, valued at about 7.6 to the euro and 6.5 to the U.S. dollar.

Link to Croatian Information Centre

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Czech Republic    (Česká republika)

South African court to review Czech extradition request

A South African court is to review the Czech Republic's request for the extradition of Czech fugitive businessman Radovan Krejcir. Back in 2008 a Johannesburg court rejected the Czech request but the Czech Justice Ministry appealed the verdict and the Supreme Court has now ruled that the case should be reopened on the grounds that the judge may have been biased. Krejcir, who is wanted by the Czech authorities on charges of tax fraud and conspiracy to commit murder, fled the Czech Republic in 2005 and has since become a reputed major player in the South African underworld. South African police are investigating several murder cases in which his name appears, and he is to face trial over insurance fraud in April.

Public Affairs party in turmoil after bribery conviction of leader

The Public Affairs party is a junior partner in the current government coalition. Its leader defacto Vit Barta was found guilty of bribery on 13 April, but remains a powerful figure. The court imposed an 18 month suspended sentence. Since his conviction and the suspension of his party membership a fierce battle for power has surfaced between two factions in the party - one centred around Barta, the other around Deputy Prime Minister Karolina Peak. Barta has been exerting pressure on Transport Minister Pavel Dobes to resign from office or face expulsion from the party for insubordination to the party leadership. Prime Minister Petr Ne
čas said he was shocked by that news. He said he was satisfied with the Transport Minister’s performance in office and intended to stand by him.

Prime Minister Petr Ne
čas and other politicians have called on Barta to give up his parliamentary mandate. However, Barta told TV Nova on 14 April that he would not step down until his appeals proceedings were complete. Following the verdict the unofficial party leader gave up his chairmanship of Public Affairs' group of MPs and discontinued his party membership. MP Jaroslav Škárka, who was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for perjury in the same trial, also told Nova that he would not give up his mandate.

Vit Barta then announced in a TV interview that he would be running for governor in regional elections in Plzen in the autumn. He said that he wanted to continue his work in politics but remain outside of the party he effectively led, so as not to be a burden on it

Karolina Peake, a leading member of Barta's Public Affairs party, and deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government, said it was an "unexpected and probably unfortunate idea" that he intended to remain, adding that he should focus on his appeals process.

After Vit Barta’s conviction for corruption the Public Affairs party leadership decided to elect a new chairman. Current chairman Radek John said he would call a party conference by the end of May and deputy chair Karolina Peake, who has assumed a leading role in the party in the wake of numerous scandals over the last year, has said she would be in the running for the post.

In an interview for the daily newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes, recently resigned education minister Josef Dobes said that Public Affairs was now a dead party that could not hope for recovery. Dobes emphasised that its credit as an anticorruption party was exhausted. While the party itself was not corrupt, he said, its image had become comic.

Fischer would receive one-third of the vote in presidential elections

According to a poll conducted by the Median agency the independent presidential candidate Jan Fischer would receive nearly one-third of the vote in direct elections. The survey put the former head of the 2009 caretaker government at 31.5% in the first round, more than 12 points ahead of his nearest rival, economist Jan Svejcar, who ran unsuccessfully against President Václav Klaus in 2008. The poll also suggested high voter turnout, with 72% saying they would cast a ballot. Former prime minister Milos Zeman, previously a Social Democrat and now honorary chairman of the extra-parliamentary Party of Citizens' Rights), was placed third with support from 10% of the respondents.


The results of the poll were similar to another survey released the previous week, though the figure for Jan Fischer in the Median poll was significantly higher.

Court finds Vit Barta and fellow MP guilty

In one of the most high profile cases in recent years a Prague district court found head of the Public Affairs party Vit Barta guilty of bribery, handing him an 18-month suspended sentence on 13 April. Fellow MP and former Public Affairs member Jaroslav Škárka was found guilty of fraud and received a sentence of three years in prison as well as a 10-year ban as an MP. The court ruled Jaroslav Škárka had intentionally accepted a loan of 170,000 koruna (£5657) from Barta in order to try and discredit him. The previous day Vit Barta, who had been accused of giving fellow party members hefty bribes in the form of interest-free loans in order to increase his influence said he would leave high politics if convicted.

Judge Jan Sott, who handed down the guilty verdicts, called on the police in his ruling to look further into former top Public Affairs member Kristýna Koci's role in the affair, on the grounds she may have committed fraud as well as provided false testimony. In the judge's view, some steps taken by Jaroslav Škárka and Kristýna Koci could be tantamount to intentional false accusation, a felony that carries a sentence between two and eight years in prison; Koci could also face charges for fraud. In effect, the judge said, Vít Bárta had been framed by the two MPs, Jaroslav Škárka and Kristýna Kocí, who had by that time become his rivals within the party. The anticorruption unit police spokesman, Jaroslav Ibehej, has confirmed that the police will look into the matter.

Government approves austerity measures for 2013 and 2014

The government on 11 April approved new austerity measures that should keep the deficit of the state budget below 3% of the country's GDP. As of next year, the VAT rates would increase by one percent to 21% and 15% respectively, while income tax would rise from 15% to 20%. For three years, those with monthly salaries over 100,000 koruna (£3328) would pay a 7% "solidarity tax". The government has also removed a ceiling for health insurance payments while pensions would grow at a slower pace.

In 2013, the government aims at a deficit of 2.9% of GDP while in the following year, the deficit should drop to 1.9% of GDP.

It was only the previous day that the leaders of the three parties in the government coaltion managed to reach agreement, without which the right-wing government would not have been able to continue. After several hours of negotiations, the parties agreed on measures intended to keep the budget deficit below 3% GDP for 2013 and 2014. The junior party in the coalition, Public Affairs, had ignited a crisis the previous week with far-reaching demands. After the meeting they said they had pushed through a concession on maintaining maternity subsidies, which the party said was a priority.

Czechs want early elections

A flash poll conducted by an internet daily news site indicated on 9 April that the vast majority of Czechs want early elections. Over 70% of respondents opted in favour of early elections, just over 20% said they wanted the three ruling parties to patch up their differences and less than 8% said they would prefer a minority government of the two senior parties the Civic Democrats and TOP 09.

Another opinion poll conducted by Factum Invenio the previous week showed that left-wing parties have been gathering strength in recent months. If elections were held today, the opposition Social Democrats would win 26.9% of the votes, and the Communists would get 14.9%. If the main opposition party were to choose to enter into a coalition with the Communists they could have a comfortable 111 vote majority in the lower house.

Former PM Fischer and economist Svejnar favourites in presidential race

Direct presidential elections will be held for the first time in 2013 to elect a successor to President Václav Klaus.


According to a new poll by the Factum Invenio agency released on 11 April former prime minister Jan Fischer and economist Jan Svejnar remained favourites in direct presidential elections. If the elections had been held late this March or in early April, Jan Fischer would have received 23.3% of the vote, while Jan Svejnar would get 17.2%. Another former prime minister Milo
š Zeman would come in third with 10%, while current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg would finish fourth with 8.3% of the vote.

Freezing Easter breaks temperature records

A freezing Easter Monday broke temperature records in many parts of the country. Monitoring stations recorded a record night low of minus 22°C in Jizerka in the north of the country, with temperatures in the Sumava mountains in southern Bohemia and in the Moravian Highlands also dropping to minus 20°C. A monitoring station in the town of Opava recorded minus 8,2°C, the lowest measured on that day since 1888. Decades old records were broken in many parts of the country, with snow reported at lower altitudes.

Prime Minister defends refusal to join EU fiscal compact

On 9 February Prime Minister Petr Nečas presented in the lower house of Parliament his reasons for not signing the EU's fiscal compact. He said that the government had given him limited authority to sign the compact. For this reason, he was not able to give a clear "yes" or "no" at the EU summit in Brussels, where 25 out of 27 EU member states signed the new treaty, which aims to establish greater fiscal responsibility across Europe. However, he noted that nothing stood in the way of the Czech Republic signing the fiscal compact at a later stage.


Why the Czechs refused fiscal treaty

The Czech refusal to join the EU's fiscal compact split the government. Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg condemned the PM’s decision, stating that he had damaged the country's interests.

On 8 February the Czech Senate also dissented from the PM’s decision. It passed a resolution recommending that the country join the compact. Ahead of the vote PM Petr Nečas addressed the Senate to explain the reasoning that led him to stay out of the treaty. However, the majority of senators remained unconvinced, saying that his decision went against the country's interests.

On 4 February it was reported that members of the Learned Society of the Czech Republic had sent an open letter to Prime Minister Petr Nečas demanding that the country join the EU pact. The scientists wrote that it was time for the Czech Republic to stop behaving like an erratic troublemaker and join the countries that are trying to solve problems. They criticised the PM for saying that the budget pact "does not bring us anything advantageous" while at the same time preaching budgetary discipline at home. The idea that the national interests of the Czech Republic could be markedly different than those of other EU countries was illogical, the scientists’ letter said.

Why the Czechs refused fiscal treaty

The Czech refusal in Brussels to endorse the fiscal compact aimed at solving the eurozone crisis has already caused consternation on the domestic scene. Certainly Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has said the move would harm the Czech Republic’s interests.

Prime Minister Petr Nečas mentioned three reasons for the Czech government refusal to back the EU plan.

   First, that he had no mandate to sign the treaty because it was unclear how the ratification process would proceed in the Czech Republic. President Václav Klaus had publicly declared his unwillingness to sign it, and in order to ratify the treaty in the Czech Republic, the President has to put his signature to it.
   The second reason was that the countries with their own currencies would not be able to attend every summit of the eurozone member states.
   The third reason was that the Czech Republic wanted to stress the debt criterion in the sanctions process. Currently, the prime criteria in the eurozone were based on excessive deficits procedures, and Czechs also wanted to include debt.

However the foreign minister, and head of the coalition TOP 09 party, Karel Schwarzenberg promptly came out very strongly against the decision taken by Nečas, saying it harmed the country’s interests. It would be nearly impossible to join the treaty in March when the fiscal compact should be signed.

Political commentators thought however that TOP 09 would be unlikely to move to bring down the coalition government until later; the obvious date for eventual reconsideration would be March 2013 when the second term of President Václav Klaus expired.


Official website of the Czech Republic

British Czech and Slovak Association


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Prague city's website
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Praha.eu - Portál hlavního mesta Prahy (English pages)


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Estonia    (Eesti)

Security official alleged to have spied for Russia

Aleksei Dressen, who works for Estonia's security police, and his wife, Viktoria Dressen, have been arrested on suspicion of passing classified information and state secrets to Russia.

Prosecutors said on 22 February that the couple were arrested at Tallinn Airport as Viktoria Dressen was boarding a flight to Moscow. Aleksei Dressen had been to the airport to give his wife a folder that contained classified information.

Viktoria Dressen, who does not work for the government, was alleged to have been acting as a courier, forwarding information to the FSB, Russia's main security agency, which her husband had collected "over a period of several years," according to a prosecution spokeswoman. Aleksei Dressen had access to documents considered state secrets, she said, without giving details. He had worked for Estonia's security police for nearly 20 years and most recently dealt with domestic security and extremist groups in the country

Raivo Aeg, the chief of Estonia's security police, said the incident showed that countries hostile to Estonia have a keen interest in learning about its security matters and that Dressen's case serves as "a warning to us all".

In another recent Estonian spy case in 2009, one of Estonia's top security officials, Hermann Simm, was sentenced to 12½ years in prison after being convicted of treason. He was said to have passed domestic and NATO secrets to Russia.

Tallinn to sell its excess carbon quota to Japan

The Estonian environment ministry was poised to sell its excess carbon pollution quota to the Japanese Marubeni Corporation, local media revealed late in January. A deal was reported to be expecting finalisation shortly between the Estonian environment ministry and the Japanese company.

The revenues from the sale are destined to be used in low energy consumption theatre lighting and environment-friendly theatre buses. In eight Estonian theatres, outdated lighting equipment will be replaced partly, making stage activities more environment-friendly thereby helping to reduce permanent costs.

The theatre bus programme would enable five theatres to give up the old buses they use now and replace those with modern environmentally friendly ones. Estonia has actively worked on finding buyers for excess AAUs and the government thus far concluded five agreements with European governments, two with Austria and Spain and one with Luxembourg as well as 15 agreements with Japanese corporations. Marubeni Corporation buys AAUs from the Estonian state for the third time.

Assigned Amount Units” (AAUs)

Under the Kyoto Protocol committed parties have accepted targets for limiting or reducing emissions. These targets are expressed as levels of allowed emissions, or “assigned amounts”, over the 2008-2012 commitment period.
Emissions trading, as set out in Article 17 of the Kyoto Protocol, allows countries that have emission units to spare - emissions permitted them but not "used" - to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.


Facts about Estonia (Eesti)

Geography  The country is 45,100 sq km (17,409 sq miles) in area, including some 800 islands. The northernmost of the three Baltic countries, Estonia borders the Baltic Sea to the north and the west, Russia to the east and Latvia to the south. 36% of the land is forested, and there are over 1500 lakes.

Population  1.4 million, of which 65% are Estonian, 28% Russian, 2.5% Ukrainian, 1.5% Belarussian and 1% Finnish.

Capital  Tallinn, population 400,000.

Language  The official language is Estonian (quite closely related to Finnish), and Russian is widely spoken (the home language of 32% of the population, especially in north-eastern parts of the country).

Religions  Lutheran and Russian Orthodox.

Government  The Republic of Estonia is a parliamentary democracy. Power is divided between the 101-seat single chamber parliament, or Riigikogu, the cabinet and the non-executive presidency.
President: Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Prime Minister: Andrus Ansip.

History  Estonia was under Swedish rule from 1629, and then was ceded to Russia in 1721. It first gained independence in 1918. It remained an independent nation between the two World Wars, then in 1940, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, it was invaded by Russia and became part of the Soviet Union. Subsequently Estonia was occupied by Germany 1941-44 during World War 2. After WW2, Estonia was subject to the Soviet economy and politics, including collectivisation of farms, suppression of religion and massive deportations. The rapidly expanding planned economy brought hundreds of thousands of Soviet immigrants to Estonia, causing widespread fear among Estonians that their national identity would eventually vanish. The Gorbachev reforms prompted an upsurge in nationalism across the Baltic region in the late 1980s, and independence movements won control in 1990 after the 'Singing Revolution'. Estonia declared a transitional period leading to its declaration of full independence on 20August 1991.

Economy  Estonia set out to turn itself into a Western-style market economy at breakneck speed after regaining independence in 1991 and was the first country in the former Soviet Union to introduce its own currency, the kroon (=100 centts), in 1992.

It quickly became the most liberal Baltic economy in the often painful transformation to a market-based system, and has enjoyed fast economic growth despite a global slump, GDP expanding by 5.8% in 2002. Exports are now mostly forestry and agricultural products. Estonian sea ports are important transit points for Russian oil bound for the west.

The weak economies of its main European trading partners slowed its year-on-year growth to 4.1% in second quarter 2003 and full-year growth is estimated at 4.5%.

A monetary policy of balanced budgets, moderate inflation and a simple currency board fixing the kroon to the euro has convinced Estonian leaders that switching to the European single currency will be largely a technical matter. The government wants to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM-2), the waiting room for the euro, in 2004 and become part of euroland in late 2006 or early 2007.

Link: Estonian government website

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