Abkhaz leader escapes roadside ambush
A land mine exploded as the president’s convoy passed on the road from Gudauta to Sukhumi, the region’s capital, at about 8.30 in the morning of 22 February. Alexander Ankvab confirmed he had not been hurt despite damage to his car, which was attacked as he travelled to work in Sukhumi, the capital of the Abkhazia region.
Ankvab is said to have survived six attempts on his life. He was elected president in 2011 after the death of veteran leader Sergei Bagapsh.
Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in 1993 and declared independence six years later. The region’s independence is recognised only by a handful of states, including Russia.
After the landmine had exploded assailants opened fire with machine-guns and grenade-launchers, destroying one car completely.
The Abkhaz leader has been wounded several times in previous attacks. His car was shot at on the same road twice in 2005. A land mine attack in June 2007 was followed by a grenade strike on his jeep a month later in which he suffered mild concussion and several shrapnel wounds in his back. In September 2010, a house near Gudauta where he was staying the night was hit by a grenade and he was slightly wounded.
15 new hydroelectric power stations to be constructed
She said the construction of the new power plants is the continuation of the energy-independence policy of the government, which also was aiming to create about 13 thousand new jobs.
Manana Manjgaladze also said the opening of new hospitals would continue and several significant projects in the education sector would be announced soon.
President points to great progress in recent years
He also criticised lack of progress in reform in Russia. Referring to the question of sanctions against Syria, President Saakashvili said that the Russian Federation tended to react with panic and outrage to freedom movements in the Middle East and had tried to prevent international support for these uprisings.
Russian nominee quits South Ossetia election
“I will not put forward my candidature for the new polls in March so that our citizens can avoid conflicts and make their choice in calm surroundings,” Bibilov announced in Tskhinvali, the region’s capital.
In November 2011 Bibilov, the Russia-allied region’s emergencies minister, was defeated by opposition leader Alla Dzhioyeva in the second round of voting. But the region’s Supreme Court then declared the results invalid and barred Dzhioyeva from the March elections after Bibilov accused her of vote-rigging.
Alla Dzhioyeva, South Ossetia’s former education minister, denounced the ruling and declared herself president. She called on all candidates to ignore the March vote and recognise her as president. She also announced her inauguration date as 10 February.
Bibilov said the unrest which followed the annulment had “split our society”. He urged all candidates who had taken part in the November election to follow suit and quit the race. “We should forget for the time being about our personal ambitions,” he said. “I am confident that the appearance of new politicians and presidential candidates will create conditions for our citizens to figure out the situation for themselves and elect an authority that will reflect their interests.”
Qatar Airways hopes to boost tourism to Georgia
Al-Baker said that Georgia’s emerging tourism industry, along with infrastructure developments and high-potential business opportunities were key factors leading the airline’s decision to begin flying there.
Prime Minister Gilauri is known to have big plans for his country, including a planned global tourism campaign to ensure Georgia continues to thrive, develop and attract visitors from across the world.
Who owns fire-damaged 300 year-old church
When a fire broke out on 9 January at the church, called Surb Nshan, or Holy Sign, by Armenians, and the Church of St Nicholas by the Georgian patriarchate, the emergency services failed to get it under control, and the roof collapsed.
The church, which dates back to 1701, has not functioned as a place of worship since Soviet times, and has remained in a semi-derelict state. It has been used as a manuscript store, despite requests for it to be returned to the control of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
A fire in 2003 burned many of the books, and Armenians say the Georgian authorities’ failure to learn the lessons symbolises the scant attention paid to their faith.
“Nine years ago, despite our appeals to the police, no one established the cause of the fire. We don’t expect anything to change now,” said Armen Agadjanov, a representative of the Armenian community in Georgia.
Although both Georgians and Armenians are ancient Christian nations, they practice different versions of the faith. Georgians are part of the Orthodox Church, like the Greeks and Russians. The Armenian Apostolic Church, meanwhile, is a separate and unique institution. There have been Armenians living in Tbilisi for centuries, but they only have two functioning churches there now, out of 41 that existed in the city before the 1917 Russian Revolution. They would like to regain control of five others, including Surb Nshan/St Nicholas.
Samvel Karapetyan, who heads Research on Armenian Architecture, a foundation campaigning for the protection of old buildings, said things got worse with the rise of Georgian nationalism in the late 1980s. “In 1988 and 1989, a new wave of attacks on Armenian churches started. Armenian historical treasures were stolen under the pretext of restoration. Many of the churches were reconsecrated as Georgian, while others were simply knocked down,” he said.
Karapetyan cited the case of the Church of St Gevorg (St George), also in Tbilisi, which collapsed in 2009. “The Georgians promised to restore it, but three years have gone by and nothing has been done. I believe the church of Surb Nshan will share the same fate,” he said.
In a statement, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate said the first priority was to restore the church of Surb Nshan/St Nicholas. Only then could discussions take place about who it properly belonged to; these would involve the Armenian community as well as Georgian church leaders.
EU threatens to freeze funds for Hungary because of budget deficit
The sum represents 29% of Hungary’s cohesion fund allocation for development. The EU cohesion funds are designed to improve infrastructure and the environment in the poorest regions of the EU.
The EU’s Excessive Deficit Procedure rules say EU member states should keep their budget deficits below 3% of national output (GDP) and government debts below, or sufficiently declining towards, 60% of GDP. “Hungary has been in excessive deficit since it joined the EU in 2004. And the deadline for correcting the excessive deficit has been pushed back twice, by three years in total,” said Economics Commissioner Olli Rehn. “This decision today is to be regarded as an incentive to correct a deviation, not as a punishment. It is a fair and proportionate measure of a preventive nature,” he said. “Hungary has until 1 January next year to bring its deficit back on track and avoid these consequences, and I trust it can and it will do so.”
In January the EC threatened Hungary with legal action over new laws which appeared to restrict the independence of its central bank and courts.
Parliament approves EU fiscal pact
Both the governing parties and MSzP (socialist) MPs voted in favour. The LMP MPs abstained and far-right Jobbik members voted against. Jobbik MPs displayed a poster during voting saying “We shall still be a colony”.
Countries that sign the EU fiscal pact must incorporate the reference to the required budget discipline in their constitution or by means of new law. The European Court of Justice will verify compliance with the agreement if member state requests it. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in Parliament a week earlier that all the provisions of the pact were acceptable to Hungary.
Railway from Hungary to Ukrainian border to be modernised
The Hungarian National Development Agency of Hungary announced that 42.6 kilometres of full gauge railway will be modernised at a cost of 21.6 billion Hungarian forints (about £61.4 million), 85% of which will be funded by the EU and 15% by Hungary. The modernisation would be finished by the end of the 2012 year.
MEPs discuss Hungary
EU Commissioner for Media Affairs Neelie Kroes, judicial affairs director Françoise Le Bail and Hungaraian deputy prime minister Tibor Navracsics addressed the meeting.
Fidesz MEP Kinga Gál dismissed the hearing as unnecessary, arguing that the task of ensuring that member states’ laws were in harmony with European norms belonged to the European Commission not to the European Parliament.
State may have to pay huge price following Malév airline collapse
Accordingly, he added, the state would have to compensate Budapest Airport’s majority owner Hochtief for 97% of a €1.5 billion loan, a further 60 billion forints for the shares of the airport operator, 390 billion forints for the 75-year right to manage the airport and 15 billion forints for equipment.
Budai said he would complete a report to the police on the matter, as the privatisation contract did not serve Hungary’s interests. Abuse of official position and negligence might be uncovered, he suggested, saying it was impossible that former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and former finance minister János Veres were not aware of the clause in the contract.
He also recommended that a parliamentary committee be formed to investigate the privatisation of the airport operating rights.
But former finance minister Péter Oszkó commented “Budai may have added up assets and liabilities to come up with the 1 trillion forint figure, which is double the privatisation price.” He also pointed out that the state’s contractual duty arises in the event of the bankruptcy of Budapest Airport, not that of the airline Malév.
A new Facebook group has been set up with the aim of saving Malév. The campaign hopes to draw on the savings of hundreds of thousands of private investors. The Facebook page had already received 28,000 ‘likes’ and thousands signed a petition stating that they would be willing to pay for the start of a new national flag carrier owned by themselves. Only a small portion of Malév could be saved by such a method, but the organisers say it would be a victory to collect enough money for even 2-3 planes.
Bleak fate in prospect for national airline Malév
Cloud hangs over President
A scandal based on allegations of plagiarism broke out in January when weekly news magazine HVG reported that over three-quarters of Schmitt’s thesis on the modern Olympic Games bore a close resemblance to a scholarly work in French by a now-dead Bulgarian historian. The paper subsequently unearthed an article by a German sports historian that bore an equally close resemblance to another chunk of Schmitt’s opus.
Schmitt – a former Olympic fencing champion who became a Fidesz politician, diplomat and MEP – was elected president in June 2010 by government MPs, who occupy the necessary two-thirds of seats in Parliament. The office of president is largely ceremonial, although he can return legislation once to Parliament for reconsideration if he suspects it may be unconstitutional, or can request a court review. But Schmitt has remained true to his inauguration pledge that he would not impede legislation. In fact, the President has not queried a single item from among some 350 pieces of legislation, including a new Constitution, that have been pushed through Parliament by an overwhelming government majority in the past 18 months. Many of them were highly controversial, some were subsequently struck down by the Constitutional Court, others were deemed illegal by the European Commission. Schmitt signed them all into law without any apparent hesitation.
Jobbik dabbles in anti-semitism
A senior civil servant in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry warned about the Jobbik party, which is also notorious for its homophobia and anti-gypsy stance: “We are very, very worried. The prime minister could easily fail in the coming months, taking the ruling party down with him, and Jobbik is well-placed to become the largest party in Parliament in an election.”
In 2007, Jobbik’s president, Gábor Vona, founded the Magyar Garda, a now-banned civil defence force which uses the same insignia as the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascist movement which in the 1940s helped the Nazis murder many of the country’s Jews.
In a court case filed last year in Chicago, a group of Holocaust survivors and descendants of victims are suing the Hungarian state railway company for its role in transporting Jews to Auschwitz. The subject provoked fury in Gyöngyösi, who said: “This money-searching is playing with fire in Hungary.”
Zoltán Balog, Hungary’s Minister of State for Social Inclusion, said: “Jobbik play a dangerous game. They are making use of old paranoia at a time of economic crisis.”
Prime Minister defends his policies in European Parliament
In a short speech to the Strasbourg parliament, Orbán said he was engaged in “restructuring of enormous scope and importance” in Hungary and “it is understandable there are debates about that”. He did his best to play down the dispute with the European Commission, arguing that its objections related to technical points not to Hungary’s controversial new constitution. He insisted that his government had been forced to make changes because Hungarian institutions had been “on the brink of collapse” when his party came to power in 2010.
MEPs on the left and centre sharply criticised Hungary’s conservative prime minister. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament Liberal group, urged the parliament to vote next month to suspend Hungary’s voting rights in the Council of Ministers. He said the dispute with Hungary was not just a technical matter. “It’s about checking the conformity of the constitution and cardinal laws with European values.”
Currently attempting to negotiate an IMF aid package, Orbán cannot afford to lose EU backing. Hungary is struggling to service its debts and wants to reach a new deal with the EU and IMF on a standby loan worth up to €20 billion euros. Hungary’s total debt has risen to 82% of its output, while its currency, the forint, has fallen to record lows against the euro.
Orbán’s party Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in parliament, giving it considerably more power than any previous government since the collapse of communism in 1989. It has used this majority to force highly controversial changes through parliament. But now his government has been given a month to make changes to the controversial laws. Failure to do so would be grounds for the European Commission to levy fines or take Hungary to the European Court of Justice.
EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso said he had received a letter from Orbán in which “he has indicated to me his intention to modify the relevant legislation”. Nevertheless, he added, “beyond the legal aspects, some concerns have been expressed regarding the quality of democracy in Hungary, its political culture, the relations between government and opposition and between the state and the civil society.”
EU opens legal action against Hungary over new laws
The government responded saying that it would try to “resolve the problematic questions as soon as possible”, so as to avoid an escalation of the legal dispute. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán argued that all “convincing arguments” will be listened to, and laws will be changed if necessary.
Two formidable critics of the government of the Fidesz party now hold influential positions in Europe – Commissioner Olli Rehn and Martin Schulz, newly elected Speaker of the European Parliament.
There are fears that Hungary’s new data protection authority will come under Fidesz influence and that a plan to make 274 judges retire early will undermine the judiciary’s independence by enabling new pro-Fidesz appointees to replace them. A new media authority set up by Fidesz is also highly controversial. The changes are part of a new constitution which took effect on 1 January.
Thousands of Hungarians demonstrated early in January over what they claim is Fidesz authoritarianism.
Klubrádió turns to court on lost licence
Klubrádió owner András Arató told the daily newspaper Népszabadság on 17 January that Autórádió’s bid had not included a valid business plan.
After the Media Council’s decision on 20 December, spokeswoman Karola Kiricsi said Klubrádió had received maximum points for the proportion of music offered, public service, programming plans and experience, but that weaker scores on other criteria caused the bid to fail. She did not clarify what these other criteria were. According to the Media Council decision, Klubrádió is to close on 31 March.
The Media Council in nominally independent but has been staffed by nominees of the Fidesz party. It has drawn criticism from EU institutions. Ryan Heath, spokesman for EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, said the loss of Klubrádió’s frequency cannot be examined in isolation from the wider debate on the media in Hungary.
The Italian Journalists’ Federation also criticised the “silencing of such independent information channels as Klubrádió” and the “concentration of communication” in government control. On 18 January the Federation organised a sit-down strike outside the Hungarian embassy in Rome.
Bleak fate in prospect for national airline Malév
The airline is certainly not capable of repaying the amount from its own resources. The state is no longer able to bail out Malév because the financing of the airline from tax money has been banned once and for all by the European Commission.
The Hungarian government now has four months to find a solution. Sale of the airline is currently not on the agenda. Although the Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines earlier put in an offer, the negotiations were discontinued. The daily newspaper Népszabadság reported that the Hungarian side was primarily responsible for the negotiations breaking off because it considered Hainan’s offer to be far too low. The airline’s head János Berényi told Népszabadság that the ruling of the EU Commission did not at present affect the daily operations of the airline. Financing was still in place for Malév flights.
The Ministry for Infrastructure Development promised that a decision will be made on Malév within a week. The EC procedure against Malév was initiated years ago by the budget carriers Wizz Air and Travel Service, on the grounds that the huge state subsidies given to Malév distorted competition. During the procedure, the government attempted consistently to prove that the financial aid was in line with EU law. Malév was renationalised in 2010.
The Malév Group employs around 2,600 people and works with about 500 Hungarian companies on a contractual basis. The airline contributes around 70 billion forints (£190 million) to state revenue annually. Malév accounts for roughly 40 per cent of flights at Liszt Ferenc International Airport. The airline carries just under three million passengers annually and offers connections to 45 cities worldwide.
Several new S-400 Triumf air defence systems will be placed near Russia’s borders in 2012, Air Force Commander Alexander Zelin said on 13 February.
“The Russian Armed Forces will receive several S-400 air defence systems this year,” Zelin said. “This time they will be deployed in air defence units guarding the border regions.” There are currently two S-400 regiments protecting the airspace around Moscow.
While Zelin did not specify the deployment locations for new S-400 units, it was understood that some of them would most likely be placed in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad as part of the response to the planned European missile shield initiative by the United States, which Moscow considers as a threat to its national security.
The S-400 can engage targets at a range of up to 400 km and an altitude of 40,000-50,000 metres. It uses a combination of systems optimised for engaging ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia is planning to arm 56 battalions with S-400 systems by 2020.
Military build-up causes NATO chief concern
Billionaire presidential candidate suggests moving Russian ‘silicon valley’ to Kaliningrad
The Skolkovo Innovation Centre, being set up in the village of that name just outside Moscow, is intended to focus on research in five priority spheres: energy, information technology, communications, bio-medical research and nuclear technology. The site is intended to be an ultramodern complex created to encourage scientifically-technological based companies and the development of break-through projects and technologies. The project is headed by a prominent Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg.
Final trials of Indian frigate completed
Russia and India signed a $1.6 billion contract on construction of three modified Krivak III class (also known as Talwar class) guided missile frigates for India in 2006. The first frigate, the Teg, was scheduled for delivery in April 2011, but funding shortfalls have delayed the work.
Two other Talwar class frigates, the Tarkash and the Trikand, are at various stages of construction and testing at the Yantar shipyard.
The new frigates are each armed with eight BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles. They are also equipped with a 100-mm gun, a Shtil surface-to-air missile system, two Kashtan air-defence systems, two twin torpedo launchers, and an anti-submarine warfare helicopter.
Russia has previously built three Talwar class frigates for India – INS Talwar (Sword), INS Trishul (Trident), and INS Tabar (Axe).
Military build-up causes NATO chief concern
Rasmussen questioned Russian moves to bolster its forces in the Kaliningrad region, which borders NATO members Lithuania and Poland. “It is a complete waste of Russian financial resources, because it is a build-up of offensive military capacities directed against an artificial enemy, an enemy that doesn’t exist,” he said.
“NATO has no intention whatsoever to attack Russia,” he added, speaking alongside Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite.
Moscow has warned that it plans to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, and earlier this month, Russian media reported that an S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft missile system would go into service there in April. It was a response to NATO plans for a missile defence shield. As a lead partner in NATO, the United States has been insisting that a shield is needed against potential threats from Iran, but Russia has been concerned that anti-missile facilities planned in Poland would undermine its own security.
Rasmussen said “It doesn’t make sense to build up offensive military capacities in the Kaliningrad region. I would encourage the Russians to face a new reality, we are not enemies, we are not adversaries, we should be partners and it would be of mutual benefit if we develop peaceful co-operation.”
Lithuania and fellow Baltic states Estonia and Latvia have been nervous about Russian military moves. After gaining independence in 1991 after five decades of Soviet rule, relations with Moscow have remained strained. “Russian actions do not increase trust between NATO and Russia,” Grybauskaite said. “We invite Russia to be open for dialogue, to see new threats and realities and to seek smart defence.”
With a total population of 6.3 million and professional forces of 20,500, the Baltic states lack enough fighter planes to police their skies. Other NATO members therefore take turns doing so, from a base in Lithuania.
Polls open in two-day referendum in north
By the afternoon of the first day of voting 8,356 citizens had cast their ballots in three municipalities of northern Kosovo, said the organisers.
Final results were expected to be released on 19 February.
Representatives of international community and the government in Priština had been against holding the referendum, saying it would have no legal outcome. Officials in Belgrade were also against, as they believe it could damage the position of Serbia and Serbs in Kosovo.
Serbian President Boris Tadić said on 14 february that the holding of the referendum in northern Kosovo was harmful to the interests of the state of Serbia. He said he understood the need of the Serbs in northern Kosovo and Metohija to express their political will, but also pointed out that local governments could not do more than the state in resolving the problems of the population in the southern Serbian province.
In a statement to the media, Tadić reiterated that Serbia would not recognise Kosovo’s independence, that it respected UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and that it was seeking a solution for the participation of representatives of Priština in regional forums. But that would not mean recognising independence, either explicitly or implicitly.
Family dies in avalanche but child survives
Col. Shemsi Syla, a spokesman for the Kosovo Security Force, said on 12 February that the girl was discovered in the ruins, buried under 10 metres of snow. Officers heard her voice and the ringing of a cell phone. Rescuers cheered in delight as the girl emerged alive. A video shown on Klan Kosova TV showed rescuers from the Kosovo Security Force and villagers covering the girl with blankets before rushing her from the remote village to a hospital.
Osman Qerreti, an emergency official at the site, reported that at least nine members of one family died in the avalanche that hit the village of Restelica, lying near the border with Macedonia and Albania on 11 February, destroying seven houses of which only two were inhabited. Heavy snow had been blanketing the Balkans for more than two weeks, with Restelica and roads in the region blocked for several days.
Amid subfreezing temperatures the next day, local villagers used shovels to dig deep into the snow-covered rubble – all that remained of two one-story brick houses that housed the Reka family. One more person is believed missing. The girl, identified as Ansera Reka, was recovering in hospital in the nearby town of Prizren where doctors said her life was not in danger. They said she lost both her father and mother in the avalanche and had been buried for more than 10 hours.
KFOR peacekeepers had been called in to help local authorities in the rescue operation, but were unable to land a helicopter in the blizzard.
The rescuers initially dug out the bodies of a married couple and their 17-year-old son. Six more bodies were discovered during the overnight and Sunday excavation.
Slovenian to take over as EU Special Representative
Žbogar will also head the EU office in Priština and hold this position for four years.
Earlier he said that in the new job he would face two major challenges. The first was “to help Kosovo stay on the course of building its institutions, the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights, whereas the second challenge is related to the relations between Serbs and (ethnic) Albanians”.
The EU office in Priština employs 85 staff, “which makes it one of the biggest EU offices”.
Thaçi “only wants to discuss recognition”
Ethnic Albanians in the province unilaterally declared independence four years ago, but Serbia rejected the proclamation. A number of other European countries still do not recognise the region as independent.
Serbian President Tadić responded to an invitation to meet the previous week by saying that he would accept – unless the aim of the meeting was “to promote Kosovo’s statehood, symbolic verbal sparring or political folklore”.
Thaçi, on the other hand, said that a possible meeting between Tadić and himself “would only have one point to discuss – reciprocal recognition. Other points and problems can be solved through relations between the governments.” He was reported as saying “The meeting would serve the purpose of peace, stability, cooperation and good neighbourly relations, as well as Euro-Atlantic perspectives of the two countries and the entire region.”
Czech appointed new chief EULEX prosecutor
EULEX was established in 2008 with the aim of helping to secure the rule of law in Kosovo. It includes a team of prosecutors from EU countries who co-operate with their local opposite numbers in the prosecution of organised crime, war crimes, terrorism, ethnic violence and corruption. There are currently two other Czech prosecutors working in Kosovo.
Kosovo police and protesters clash near Serbian border
They tried to block two border crossings. In the town of Podujevo near the main Merdare border crossing, heavily-armed riot police fired tear gas and water cannon after some 500 demonstrators blocked the road and ignored calls to disperse.
The protesters responded by throwing rocks. Dozens were detained, and some protesters and police were injured, a Reuters witness said. The security operation was led by Kosovo police, without any apparent involvement of NATO peacekeepers or European Union police who also patrol the country of 1.7 million people.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999. But Serbia’s opposition to its existence has slowed Kosovo’s development as an independent state, obstructing its representation in regional and international bodies and the free movement of people and goods. Tensions resurfaced in mid-2011 over the status of a small slice of northern Kosovo abutting Serbia and populated mainly by Serbs who were able to continue in effect as part of Serbia.
A few days earlier Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi said that he would not allow members of the Self-Determination Movement to block Kosovo’s borders. “Announcements by the movement’s leaders about violent attempts to take control of Kosovo border posts were the worst possible for Kosovo at this time,” Thaçi said. He added that members of Self-Determination “should understand that violent acts are not the means for getting into power”.
Language referendum symbolic of wider issue
The day before the language referendum Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis addressed Latvia’s Russian-speaking community on radio, emphasising that the national language was essential to the country’s status of independence. But he conceded that more active work on integration must be carried out to achieve a sense of national unity.
In the national referendum on 18 February, over 820,000 Latvians voted against granting the Russian a status of the second state language, while more than 273,000 supported the idea. Support from at least 771,893 Latvian citizens, or half of eligible voters, would have been required to win approval for the proposal.
The day before the vote President Andris Berzins, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and Solvita Āboltiņa, the Speaker of the Saeima (parliament), called on the electorate to vote against the adoption of Russian as a recognised state language.
Nil Ushakov, the Mayor of Riga, vowed on 19 February to continue safeguarding the interests of the Russian-speaking population despite the referendum results. “A total of 273,347 people voted for this initiative. For me, this number formulates a clear-cut task: to defend till the end your interests,” Ushakov stated.
Votes on state appointments to be open
Amendments to the constitution were forwarded for further consideration by Saeima committees which would stipulate that the state president and Constitutional Court judges should also be elected by open vote.
Moves to recognise Russian as a state language
Berzins said that he had passed the matter to the Constitutional Rights Committee and requested its assessment of the issue. The President confirmed that he was ready to participate actively in uniting society. The Central Election Commission announced on 19 December that the necessary number of signatures for staging a referendum on granting the status of a state language to Russian has been collected.
Meanwhile MPs had passed a bill demanding a referendum on the subject, which if it prevented the recognition of Russian, a populist likelihood, would contradict the constitution, a matter for the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court promised to act as swiftly as possible to make sure that its verdict did not come only after the potentially anti-constitutional referendum. The Constitutional Court’s chairman Gunars Kutris said on 15 January in an interview broadcast on the TV3 channel that the court aimed to rule on the status of the state language referendum promptly and possibly suspend the referendum.
Census shows rise in ethnic Latvian population
The number of ethnic Belarussians living in Latvia has fallen from 4.1% of the total population in 2000 to 3.3% in 2011. There are currently 68,174 ethnic Belarussians living in Latvia. The number of ethnic Ukrainians has dropped from 2.7% in 2000 to 2.2% in 2011. The number of ethnic Poles has fallen from 2.5% in 2000 to 2.2% in 2011. The number of ethnic Lithuanians living in Latvia has fallen from 1.4% in 2000 to 1.2% in 2011.
Increasing internet access
This year, the highest proportion of Internet access was registered in the Netherlands – 94%, followed by Luxembourg and Sweden – 91% each, and Denmark – 90%. The lowest internet access rate was recorded in Greece – 50%, Romania – 47% and Bulgaria – 45%. In 2010, compared with the neighbouring Baltic states, the Internet was available in 71% of Estonian and 62% of Lithuanian households.
Demand on welfare in Riga increased in 2011
Lithuania and Gazprom negotiate over EU gas market reform
Gazprom owns 37.1% of Lithuania’s gas-mains company, Lietuvos Dujos. EU competition measures bar suppliers from also owning the gas-mains system – a significant challenge to Gazprom which supplies most of Lithuania’s gas.
The talks, described as “constructive”, were attended by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, Gazprom export chief Alexander Medvedev and Philip Lowe, the European Commission’s Director-General for Energy. “It was agreed to meet again by the end of March,” the government statement said.
Lithuanian officials earlier suggested that Gazprom might be able to remain in Lithuania’s gas sector as a “financial investor” after the reforms, if it could secure a “fair” price and the plan was approved by the EU executive.
Lithuania has been seeking to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, which followed 50 years within the Soviet economy.
Prime Minister welcomes Latvian vote
“The Lithuanian government and Lithuanian people express support for Latvia’s unity,” Kubilius said. The ‘no’ vote in the Latvian referendum on 18 February came from an overwhelming 75%, the highest voter turnout since the first parliamentary elections in 1993.
Lithuania, however, does not face the same level of tension between the two main ethnic communities in the country. Lithuania automatically granted the Russian-speaking population citizenship after gaining independence, an example not followed in Latvia.
Language referendum symbolic of wider issue
Disappointing revenues from income tax and excise duty
“We are going to analyse and solve the problems. One of the reasons for poor revenue from the excise tax is smuggling. However, we have achieved some significant results in restraining smuggling,” Kubilius said.
Finance Minister Ingrida Simonyte said that the national budget plan was a little underspent – by 220 million litas (€63.7 million euros). This meant that the deficit limit would not be exceeded, and “we will not borrow more than we have been planning to borrow. That is very important,” she said.
Simonyte explained that a lower amount of money had been collected from income tax, due to behavioural issues. She said that the plan for collecting the excise tax had been too ambitious, and that smuggling was not efficiently or effectively being prevented.
Last year, Lithuanian border guards intercepted 6% more smuggled cigarettes than they did in 2010. The State Border Guard Service (VSAT) statistics reveal that the flow of tobacco smuggling from Belarus had grown, whereas smuggling from Russia had declined. In 2011, officials intercepted about 2.2 million packets of contraband cigarettes, which is 6% more compared on a year-on-year basis. Tobacco products had been the most popular smuggling item, as last year 87.4% of smuggling attempts prevented by the VSAT were related to cigarette contraband. Most of the prevented attempts to smuggle were at the border with Belarus (328 attempts), followed by Russia (123 attempts, a rather large decrease from 2010) and inside the country (123 attempts).
President meets OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities
Considering progress on implementation of the Ohrid Agreement, Ivanov and Vollebaek agreed the protocol was valuable by putting Macedonian long-term tradition of co-existence into a legal frame, offering solutions and serving as an example to other multi-ethnic countries in the region.
Ivanov and Vollebaek also tackled the recent incidents in the country. Ivanov believed that Macedonian society fiercely condemned those isolated incidents and urged that such acts should not be exploited for political or other gains. Isolated incidents, he added, should not in any way jeopardise Macedonia’s stable model of multi-ethnic democracy.
The two also emphasised the importance of implementing the Integrated Education Strategy.
Army helicopters to distribute food and medicines during winter crisis
“The food comes from the commodity reserves and defence reserves. The Red Cross will provide personal hygiene packages, and the Ministry of Health has determined a list of medicines necessary for the population”, said Minister of Transport and Communications Mile Janakieski.
If weather conditions allowed, the operation would continue on 9 February. Janakieski urged local councils to engage all available forces in clearing local road sections, but fresh snowfalls were expected over the weekend. He added that it was not necessary to declare a state of emergency though the Co-ordination Body would be monitoring developments on a daily basis.
Museum of Contemporary Arts gallery to be renovated
“The depot has a significant collection of over 5,000 works from different art categories. It is significant that the Republic of Macedonia should have a permanent display available to the public,” she stressed.
World Bank says Macedonia is the 3rd most improved economy in the world
Presenting the report for the government, Finance Minister Zoran Stavreski said “This year’s report shows that Macedonia moves ahead by achieving success. Macedonia is the third most improved economy according to the world-renowned report assessing the business climate for 2012, in which an incredible jump of 72 places have been made compared to 2006.”
He added that Macedonia marked continuous progress in relation to many indicators, noting that it came as a result of demanding reforms, measures and activities carried out the past five to six years. “The report will motivate us additionally to make efforts in identifying the areas where more headway can be made, where business conditions can be improved with additional reforms,” Stavreski emphasised.
Lilia Burunciuc, country manager at the World Bank Office in Macedonia, said that the breakthrough contributed to improving businesses and creating new jobs. “It takes time for reforms to translate into changes in the economy, but we can already see some positive signs reflected in the recent pick up of economic activity and increase in foreign direct investment.”
Progress over the past 6 years had been made in creating a regulatory environment more favourable to business. Four areas of progress were highlighted by the report: dealing with construction permits, registering property, getting credit (credit information), and resolving insolvency.
Macedonia takes over chairmanship of Decade of Roma Inclusion
The Decade brings together governments, transnational organisations and NGOs to improve Roma participation in education, employment, housing and healthcare, but also commits governments to address other core issues like discrimination.
“Macedonia’s chairmanship will focus on Roma education and housing in the upcoming 12 months”, National Implementation Co-ordinator Nedzet Mustafa said. He emphasised that since 2005 the Roma community had experienced positive progress throughout Europe. During its chairmanship, Macedonia will organise several international workshops and conferences on developing Roma employment initiatives.
The Roma are Europe’s most numerous minority, 12 million strong, concentrated primarily in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Spain and Turkey.
In Macedonia, the number of Roma is 53,000 or 2.6% of the total population, but only in this country have they been recognised as a distinct ethnicity in the preamble of the constitution. The Skopje neighbourhood of Shuto Orizari is Europe’s first Roma municipality and the only one in the world where the Roma language is official.
World-renowned singer Esma Redzepova said that Macedonia’s systematic support for Roma issues – including the Roma primer, dictionary and grammar – should be the basis for replication globally. “The first song I performed setting me on the path to be recognised eventually as ‘queen of the Roma song’, was through the airwaves of, and with the support of Radio Skopje,” she said.
One of the problems facing Macedonia during its chairmanship concerns the number of Roma who seek asylum in the EU. To retain its visa-free status Macedonia must meet strict recommendations to address asylum-seekers. For this the government has undertaken a variety of employment and social support measures.
According to Belgium’s Immigration and Asylum Ministry data issued last month, the number of asylum applicants has fallen to less than 500 this year, down from 4000 in 2010.
Roma – implementing the EU Framework
Parliament elects President, ending 3-year deadlock
The president in Moldova is elected by parliament and not by popular vote. The former communist government led to the formation of the Alliance for European Integration, a westward-facing coalition of three rival parties. A minimum two-thirds threshold of votes in Parliament was required to elect a president and, until now, the AEI had failed to get a candidate elected in previous votes and had been unable to reach a compromise with possible defectors from the communist MPs.
On 16 March the political deadlock ended when three MPs who were formerly part of the communist opposition and one independent MP voted for Nicolae Timofti, the candidate backed by the AEI group, at last enabling the required majority to be secured.
On this occasion Timofti was the only candidate running for the post.
Recent moves to solve the impasse:
Second round of negotiations on Transdnestr open in Dublin
The first round of negotiations resumed in November 2011 after five years of stalemate.
The breakaway region of Transdnestr separated from the Republic of Moldova after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1992 the conflict between the separatists and the Chisinau government escalated, resulting in hundreds of deaths. In the ceasefire established in July 1992 the parties were urged to negotiate settlement of the conflict.
Moldova-EU free trade agreement negotiations begin
Jointly with acting President Marian Lupu and Prime Minister Vladimir Filat, Karel De Gucht planned to confirm the parameters within which the negotiators will operate.
De Gucht said the negotiations should quickly clear the way towards closer economic ties with the European Union. The process was part of the European Union’s commitment “to deepen progressive economic integration and political association with the EU’s Eastern Partners”.
PM thinks that a female President could calm down politics
He admitted that women who were often the more active and efficient in election campaigns, failed to be nominated to work on administrative posts that were given mostly to men, “so, this omission shall be necessarily corrected”.
The chairwoman of the LDPM women’s organization, Deputy Speaker of the Moldovan Parliament Liliana Palihovici stated that the party had set itself an objective to appoint minimum 5-6 women as ministers of government, and to have minimum 30 female MPs in the 101-member Parliament. She pointed out that 51% of Liberal Democratic Party members were women.
Discussions to start on plans for €100 million aid from Romania
“Before the meeting it is necessary to establish a number of projects liable to consideration in this format that will help Moldova join the economic, social, cultural, political and moral area of the European Union. It could perhaps be related to bridges, gas mains or a railroad, that is to projects that connect Moldovan infrastructure with Romania and the EU. Together with Chisinau authorities we will make a decision on projects that will be implemented. It is clear that the money will finance large projects”, the Ambassador said.
Lazurca said that joint meetings of Governments in Chisinau and Bucharest also gave an important political signal that Moldova was ready to makes its debut in dialogue with the EU.
Romanian President Traian Băsescu promised €100 million of assistance to Moldova back in January 2010 for modernisation of local authorities and schools infrastructure. However, up to date, the only aid has been construction materials brought in to help flood victims.
Two candidates for presidential election
Acting president Marian Lupu has suggested holding the presidential election on 15 March.
Prime Minister Vlad Filat commented that both these candidates were good enough to undertake the president’s responsibilities. “Both Ababii and Bacalu have qualities necessary for becoming a good president,” Filat said.
Moldova has had no President for two and a half years now. A candidate needs to have the support of at least 61 out of 101 MPs in order to be elected as president. However the Communist party MPs have been boycotting Parliament’s plenary sessions ever since the beginning of the Spring-Summer session, and in effect have blocked the election of the head of the state.
Protest rally against the current administration
Chants of “Down with the Alliance (for European Integration)!” and “Alliance – leave!” reflected anger at the current government leadership. Protestors allegde that the level of corruption had increased, as well as the poverty level.
Vladimir Voronin, the leader of Communist Party and former president, stated that he would be willing to support the demonstrations. At the same time, AIE leaders said that it was a human right to protest, as long as the demonstrations were peaceful.
Doubts over freedom of press in Transdnestr after leadership change
Volovoi said that the struggle for an independent press focused on Vladimir Antyufeyev, the former Minister of Security in Transdnestr and a KGB officer during the Soviet times. Antyufeyev, a Russian citizen, came to Tiraspol to take part in the Transdnestran independence movement in September 1991 and played a key role in forming the internal affairs and security organisations of the seceded government.
Video of his attempt to report was uploaded to YouTube showing an officer of the Ministry forcing the cameraman to turn off his camera. He asked them for permits and then ordered them to follow him inside the security service building. Parts of the video were recorded on a mobile phone while the professional equipment was impounded.
Grigori Volovoi is the chief-editor at the independent newspaper for the Transdnestr region. Between 1990 and 1994 he was an MP in the Moldovan Parliament.
Higher wine exports to EU in 2011
There were alsoi exports of wheat, barley, maize, white sugar and wines to the EU. The export of maize went up by 5,000 tons against 2010, with the 30,000-ton quota being fully used. The main destinations of the maize export were Greece, Italy and Cyprus. The EU’s quota for wheat was 40,000 tons of which 67.6% was used, with the export of wheat dropping by 7,340 tons against 2010. The same decreasing trend was recorded for barley, with the country exporting only 8,819 tons of the 35,000 tons allowed. The decrease in exports of wheat and barley to the EU appears to be the result of low prices for these goods on the European market. Most wheat and barley was exported to Italy.
Despite the decreases, the Economics Ministry announced higher quotas for exports to the EU in 2012. Thus, the quota for Moldovan wines will grow from 150,000 to 180,000 hectolitres, for barley from 35,000 to 45,000 tons, maize from 30,000 to 40,000 tons, wheat from 40,000 to 50,000 tons, and sugar from 26,000 to 34,000 tons.
Constitutional Court invalidates presidential election
The court delivered the ruling at a request of non-affiliated MP Mihai Godea, who demanded the invalidation of the 16 December presidential election, on grounds that MPs had revealed their ballot papers, thus violating the secrecy of their vote.
In their pleadings before the court, representatives of the parliament and government said that the legal provision of the secrecy of vote is a right, not an obligation.
The presidential ballot scheduled for 15 January could therefore not take place. The head of the commission for holding the presidential election, Tudor Deliu, said that the court decision meant that parliament should convene again in order to set the date of a repeat presidential election.
Moldova fails to choose a new president
Stranded train passengers rescued
Police said a 55-year-old passenger had died from a heart attack the previous night, while the other passengers were sheltering in a nearby tunnel waiting for evacuation.
The airport in Podgorica remained closed on 12 February and streets were blocked by snow over half a metre deep – the 57 cm recorded was the highest level of snowfall in the capital since measurements started in 1949. The authorities banned driving in Podgorica, while many parked cars were damaged after snow-covered trees fell on them.
Montenegro suffers severe weather conditions, three people die
The state and municipal authorities, together with police and army members, have been struggling to clear motorways, open rural areas, remove snow drifts and provide emergency accommodation for the endangered population.
Government of Montenegro has committed €303,000 in order to provide the affected municipalities with food, clothing, medication, firewood, fuel and other necessities.
Two people have frozen to death and one died after being swept away in an avalanche since 3 February.
School attendance in 11 northern municipalities has been suspended due to weather conditions.
On 8 February Prime Minister Igor Lukšić said that all emergency services were engaged and that it was crucial to provide power supply in the whole municipality as soon as possible. He was on a visit to two areas that had been without electricity since the previous day. “It is impossible to meet all demands,” he said, “but we can ease the consequences of the snowstorm.”
Montenegro establishes structure for EU accession negotiation
The decision has been reached in consultations with the European Commission and a wide range of Montenegrin stakeholders including the civil society, Government, Parliament and all parliamentary political parties.
Aleksandar Pejović said that in order to facilitate the negotiation process, Montenegro’s mission in Brussels would increase in size. The Cabinet had decided that representatives from the ministries of interior affairs, justice, agriculture and finance would be assigned to Brussels by April.
The only expert currently in Brussels represents the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Tourism, who has been there since September 2011.
More protests over price rises
Organisers announced they would be holding a protest in Bijelo Polje on 10 February and in Podgorica a week later. More than 10,000 people came out to protest on 21 January after electricity prices rose by 6.7%.
Pero Vucković, deputy director of the national RAE (Agency for Energetics), which is responsible for determining the price of electricity in Montenegro, said that an increase in prices over then next few years would be offset by service fee reductions.
“The current price of one megawatt in Montenegro is €34,” he explained. “It is planned that in the next eight years this price will increase by 5% annually. On the other hand, some services that citizens are paying now will be reduced or ablished, so that the total cost of electricity for regular consumers will increase very little.” He pointed out the price of electricity in the past three years had consistently fallen.
The government announced that it would allocate more money to subsidise electricity for the most vulnerable sectors of the population, and was likely to expand the list of those who could receive help to pay the bills.
At the time of the January protest, organisers said that they would demand the dismissal of the government if it did not fulfil their demands. Prime Minister Igor Lukšić suggested that protest organisers should set up a political party because, he said, their message crossed the line from civilian to political.
The average monthly salary in Montenegro is €475. At €1.25 billion euros, or 45% of GDP, Montenegro’s projected total debt is second in the region only to Albania.