News & Current Affairs

December 25, 2008

Gazprom to control Serbia’s oil

Gazprom to control Serbia’s oil

NIS archive)

Serbia is being offered a secure gas supply in return for its oil monopoly

Russia and Serbia have signed a controversial energy deal that will hand Russian gas giant Gazprom control of NIS, Serbia’s oil monopoly.

Under the deal, Gazprom is to build a gas pipeline through Serbia and an underground gas storage facility there.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and his Serbian counterpart Boris Tadic signed the agreement in Moscow.

The plan is for Serbia to host part of a new pipeline called South Stream, to deliver Russian gas to southern Europe.

Gazprom is taking a 51% stake in NIS for 400m euros (£380m; $560m), officials say.

Diplomatic tensions

Both countries signed an energy co-operation agreement in January, but the details have only just been finalised. Belgrade had delayed signing because a small party in Serbia’s ruling coalition had argued that the terms on offer to Gazprom were too generous.

Critics say Russia’s pledges to build South Stream by 2015 are not firm enough, given the current economic downturn.

South Stream is designed to take Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then to Serbia for transit towards the lucrative markets of southern Europe.

Washington and the European Union are backing a rival pipeline project called Nabucco, to bring gas from Central Asia, which would bypass Russia.

Correspondents say the planned pipeline could undermine the European efforts, which aim to reduce European dependency on Russian gas.

Serbia’s energy diplomacy is complicated by the fact that Nabucco has EU backing – yet Serbia wants to join the EU.

Political tensions over Kosovo are also a complicating factor, with the EU supporting Kosovo’s independence, while Belgrade and Moscow insist the territory remains part of Serbia.

Graphic showing Nabucco and South Stream pipeline routes
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September 16, 2008

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

The European Union’s freedom of movement laws mean Eastern Europe’s large population of Roma (Gypsies) is now spreading west.

Roma family in Hungary

Roma make up around 10% of the population in Eastern Europe

The effect of this influx on national economies, as well as the deep poverty of the EU’s Roma, are high on the agenda as the first summit on Roma integration within the EU begins in Brussels.

Italy and Spain have received the most Roma, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, where they make up more than 10% of the population.

Italy has witnessed the most serious effects – murders blamed on Roma, and revenge attacks by vigilante groups, followed by controversial government attempts to fingerprint Roma immigrants.

In Hungary, there is tension between Roma and non-Roma, after the lynching of a teacher by a Roma mob in one village, and attacks on a lorry driver and his family in another – both after road traffic accidents involving Roma children.

The creation of a “Hungarian Guard”, by far-right groups who arrive in villages after such incidents, is fueling fears of an explosion.

Integration key

“I don’t really know how the EU could help,” said Andras Ujlaky, head of the Chance for Children Foundation in Hungary.

“But perhaps they could start by pressurizing national governments to implement their own declared policies in housing, employment and education.”

Hungarian customs trainee Jozsef Nagy
There weren’t many opportunities… This was the chance for me!
Jozsef Nagy
Trainee customs officer

In Hungary, an earlier policy to give money to schools for the mentally disabled, to which a disproportionate number of Roma were sent, was abandoned when it was realized that it encouraged segregation.

Now funds are focused on mainstream schools which accept more Roma – though they impose limits of 25% Roma in a class.

There has been a wave of school closures in recent years in Hungary, as population figures fall.

That cuts both ways for the Roma. When Roma ghetto schools close, and the children are redistributed among schools with an ethnic Hungarian majority, it helps integration efforts.

The town of Hodmezovasarhely in south-eastern Hungary has been a pioneer, with five out of 11 primary schools closed last year alone.

But in far-flung villages with a majority Roma population, Roma and non-Roma parents alike are upset when local schools close and children are bussed off each day to towns.

The links between the parents and the schools are broken.

An alternative policy, supported by opposition parties, would be to improve the facilities and standard of teaching in existing schools.

Police drive

In eastern Hungary poverty is so endemic – with the Roma blamed for widespread petty theft – that the head of the Hungarian Poultry Board recently complained that people are no longer raising hens in several counties.

One new initiative for Roma integration in Budapest is being run by Gyorgy Makula, a policeman of Roma origin.

Hungarian police officer Gyorgy Makula (left) and some Roma boys

Officer Gyorgy Makula (left) hopes to help Roma boys out of the ghetto

Giant placards will be placed at strategic points around Budapest, to try to encourage more Roma to consider a police career.

Data protection laws make it impossible to measure how many Roma police there are in Hungary, but Gyorgy Makula estimates no more than 200, in a police force of 38,000.

“We should show to the Hungarian people, to the majority, among them the police staff, that there are really excellent people in this community who have been working for the police, who are not criminals of course.

“So we would like to change the mind of the people,” said Capt Makula.

At the Police High School, on Szecsenyi Hill overlooking Budapest, Jozsef Nagy, a third-year trainee customs officer, says he always wanted to join one of the law enforcement agencies.

“There weren’t many opportunities in our village to get somewhere in life. This was the chance for me!” he said.

Bending rules

One obstacle to increasing Roma numbers in the police is the fact that fewer than 10% of Roma students complete secondary school in Hungary.

A new idea is to bend the rules – to let them begin police training, and take their school-leaving exams inside the police academy.

In Csorog, a village less than an hour’s drive north of Budapest, with a large Roma population, the idea of more Roma policemen goes down well.

“I can foresee some problems,” said Zoltan Lakatos, a dustman, “if a policeman was forced to arrest one of his own relatives. But on the whole it’s a good idea. I think it would help.”

But his son, Zoli, 15, cannot imagine himself in uniform, planning a career steeped in Roma tradition.

“I’ve already decided,” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer. I’m going to teach Gypsy dance.”

September 7, 2008

Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

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Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Thousands of Armenians lined the streets of the capital Yerevan Saturday, protesting the Turkish president who drove past in the first ever visit by a Turkish leader. Many held placards demanding justice for massacres that took place nearly 100 years ago.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Abdullah Gul arrived in Armenia to watch a Turkey vs. Armenia football World Cup qualifier game with President Serge Sarkisian that many hope will help the two countries overcome decades of antagonism rooted in Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians.

Gul is the first Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia since the ex-Soviet nation declared independence in 1991. The two neighbors have no diplomatic ties and their border has been closed since 1993.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Ties have also suffered from Turkey’s opposition to Armenia‘s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

As Gul left the airport, the presidential motorcade drove along streets lined with thousands of people holding up placards, mostly in English and Armenian, that read: “We want justice,” “Turk admit your guilt,” and “1915 never again.”

Others held up names of places in Turkey from which their ancestors were forced to leave as the Ottoman Empire uprooted Armenian communities between 1915 and 1922.

Little progress is expected on the genocide issue or on Nagorno-Karabakh when Gul meets Sarkisian for talks just before the game — which Turkey is favored to win.

Still, the visit is a sign of a diplomatic thaw.

“I hope that (the visit) will help lift the obstacles that stand in the way of rapprochement between the two peoples and contribute to regional friendship and peace,” Gul said before his departure.

Gul’s decision to accept Armenia’s invitation to the match is linked to Turkey’s desire to carve out a regional peacemaker role amid tensions sparked by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia.

Turkey, a NATO member, has cause for alarm about how Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia might inspire its own separatist Kurds, or provoke Armenia to boost support for separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the wake of the Georgia conflict, Turkey proposed a regional grouping for stability in the Caucasus that would include Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“About a month ago, we all saw how conflicts that have remained unresolved threatened regional stability and peace in the Caucasus,” Gul said in reference to the Georgia crisis.

Armenia is the last of Turkey‘s neighbors with whom Ankara has failed to mend ties since the end of the Cold War. Turkey has gradually improved relations with old foes such as Greece, Bulgaria and Syria.

Improved ties with Armenia are likely to help lift strains on Turkey’s relations with other countries that have or plan to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.

In October, a measure that would have declared the Armenian deaths as genocide in the U.S. Congress was stopped after President George W. Bush’s administration warned relations with strategic ally Turkey would be damaged.

On the plane, Gul paid tribute to the Armenian president.

“President Sarkisian was brave in taking the opportunity of inviting me to this game,” he said.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara, in order to pressure Yerevan into ending the conflict. he move has hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia.

Armenia’s bitter ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have resulted in the tiny country being excluded from strategic energy pipelines that connect Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia.

Armenians, supported by numerous scholars, claim an organized genocide was carried out in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and are pushing for the killings to be recognized as among history’s worst atrocities.

Turkey contends the 1.5 million death toll is wildly inflated. It also says the Armenians were killed or displaced in civil unrest during the chaos that surrounded the empire’s collapse.

Turkey has called for the establishment of a committee of scholars to study the WWI events in a bid to improve ties, but Armenia has declined to consider this until relations are forged.

August 26, 2008

Russia recognises Georgian rebels

Russia recognises Georgian rebels

South Ossetian residents celebrate the Russian parliament's decision (25 Aug 08)

Many South Ossetians feel closer to Russia than Georgia

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared that Russia formally recognizes the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The move follows a vote in both houses of parliament on Monday, which called on Moscow to recognize the regions.

Mr Medvedev defied a specific plea from US President George W Bush not to go ahead with the move.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war this month over the provinces, which already had de facto independence.

Analysts say the move is likely to further escalate tensions between Russia and the West.

Rift with Nato

“I have signed decrees on the recognition by the Russian Federation of the independence of South Ossetia and the independence of Abkhazia,” Mr Medvedev said in the announcement.

BBC map

“That was no easy choice to make, but it is the sole chance of saving people’s lives,” Mr Medvedev added.

He blamed Georgia for failing to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the problem and called on other states to follow Russia’s example.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking from the West Bank city of Ramallah, said Russia’s decision was “regrettable”.

The US state department had warned that recognition of the two provinces’ independence would be “a violation of Georgian territorial integrity” and “inconsistent with international law”.

In a statement, Mr Bush called on Russia’s leadership to “meet its commitments and not recognize these separatist regions”.

In the two breakaway regions, however, Moscow’s move was warmly welcomed.

Residents in Abkhazia took to the streets to celebrate the news, firing into the air, Reuters reports, and in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali there were scenes of jubilation.

‘New understanding’

Earlier on Tuesday, Russia cancelled a visit by Nato’s secretary general, one of a series of measures to suspend co-operation with the military alliance.

Russia’s ambassador to Nato said the trip would be delayed until relations between the two were clarified.

Dmitry Rogozin said a “new understanding” needed to be reached between Russia and Nato.

The recognition is bound to dramatically heighten tensions in Russia’s already fragile relationship with the West.

He says this and a series of other announcements indicate that Russia is preparing itself for a showdown.

Although most of Russia’s forces pulled out of the rest of Georgia last Friday, it is maintaining a presence both within the two rebel regions and in buffer zones imposed round their boundaries.

Port control

Some Russian troops also continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti, south of Abkhazia, where Russia says it will carry out regular inspections of cargo.

The US said on Tuesday that its warships would deliver aid to Georgia’s port of Poti, which is under Russian control. The move could mean US and Russian forces coming face-to-face.

HAVE YOUR SAY

Russia is right to recognise South Ossetia and guarantee its security

Branco, Bulgaria

Earlier, the head of European security organisation, the OSCE, Alexander Stubb, accused Russia of trying to empty South Ossetia of Georgians.

Speaking to the BBC’s Europe Today program, he said: “They are clearly trying to empty southern Ossetia from Georgians, which I don’t think goes by any of the books that we deal with in international relations”.

A South Ossetian commander said many Georgian civilians had already left of their own accord, because they were scared of the guns.

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