- Russian Ex-Prez Warns of ‘Incidents’ at EU-based Nuclear Plants as Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Shelled Again
Plus: Malkovich’s Skopje Hollywood, Romanian woman fined after beating, Sweden extradition to Turkey, and more.
The Big Story: ‘Grave Hour’ at Ukrainian Nuclear Plant as Russian Ex-Prez Issues Veiled Threat
What happened: Commenting on multiple attacks yesterday on Ukraine’s Zaporizhihia nuclear power plant, Russia’s former President Dmitry Medvedev warned European leaders today that “incidents” are “possible” at nuclear power plants in their own countries, The Moscow Times reports.
More context: Up to 10 strikes were reported yesterday – adding to the attacks over the weekend – on Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant complex, which is occupied by Russian forces, The Guardian reports. Russia and Ukraine again blamed each other for the shelling. “Kyiv scumbags and their Western patrons are ready to orchestrate a new Chernobyl,” Medvedev said in a post online, adding: “Don’t forget that there are nuclear sites in the European Union … incidents are possible there as well.”
Worth noting: “This is a serious hour, a grave hour,” International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said while calling for officials to be allowed to visit the site as soon as possible.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Dozens of leading figures in the Czech Republic have signed on to a call for former Prime Minister Andrej Babis to retire from public life after he called his opponents “fascists and Nazis,” Romea.cz reports. The signers of the open letter include relatives of Holocaust survivors, dissidents from the communist era, the directors of the Vaclav Havel Library and the Museum of Roma Culture, plus renowned writers, journalists, and theater directors.
- Latvia and Estonia have pulled out of the exclusive diplomatic club that China created in 2012, joining Lithuania which exited last year, Politico reports. China’s chummy relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin are repugnant to Baltic nations, which see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a part of a piecemeal attempt by Moscow to regain its Soviet empire, Politico notes. Meanwhile, Tallinn has announced its intention to ban Russians with Estonian-issued Schengen visas from entering Estonia, according to ERR.
- U.S. film star John Malkovich plans to create facilities for Hollywood-quality film production in North Macedonia, according to bne Intellinews. Speaking from Serbia, where he is currently staying for a performance, Malkovich said his Stonebridge Studios project – named after a bridge on the Vardar River in Skopje – is awaiting government approval.
- A Roma woman in Romania who was brutally attacked in 2019 while holding a baby in her arms – with the beating going viral in online videos – has been found guilty of disturbing the peace and public order, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) reports. The bus driver – and ex-policeman – who assaulted her with a mop handle was given a suspended sentence. The verdict against the woman is “a damning indictment of a criminal justice system that is racist to its core,” the ERRC writes.
- The glamor and glitz of the 28th Sarajevo Film Festival opening today is balanced out by sobering reminders of how the event was founded amid the city’s 1995 siege during the Bosnian War, BIRN writes. The festival’s “Dealing With the Past” program – featuring presentations on history, reconciliation, and how different societies deal with conflict and its consequences, includes a special project aimed at the young people who may not be aware of the traumas of previous generations.
- UK conservatives are using reports that Albanians make up almost 40% of the immigrants illegally entering Britain by boat to argue that most immigrants are not fleeing war or seeking asylum, Exit News reports. Meanwhile, a BBC investigation found that, since 2018, Albanians have been involved in 146 out of the 365 “sham marriages” to fraudulently obtain rights to remain in the UK.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- After reportedly being fined earlier this week for a Facebook post, Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova is now under house arrest and facing up to 10 years in prison, The Moscow Times reports. Ovsyannikova, who became famous in March for her live-on-television protest against Russia’s war on Ukraine, was charged with spreading false information about the Russian armed forces over a separate incident in July.
- Ukraine’s football (soccer) season is going ahead despite the Russian invasion, EUobserver writes. The Ukrainian Premier League is starting up on 23 August, though martial law in the country means that matches will be held without fans, and stadiums will be equipped with shelters to be used during air-raid alerts.
- Kazakhstan’s sugar shortage, caused by the Russian ban on its export, has led to black-market trading facilitated by bribes to government officials, anti-corruption officers told the Tengri News site cited by Eurasianet.
- The recent escalation of armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has led Karabakh Armenians to utter unprecedented amounts of criticism of Russian peacekeeping efforts, according to RFE/RL and Eurasianet. Local residents increasingly doubt the effectiveness of the Russian forces, and Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has charged that Russian peacekeepers stood by as Azerbaijan violated the ceasefire.
- Sweden has announced that it will extradite a man to Turkey, Reuters reports, in the first case since Ankara demanded such extraditions in exchange for its approval of Sweden’s NATO bid, according to Euractiv.
- Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s central role at the recent Russia-Turkey talks in Sochi indicates a thawing in relations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chechnya, probably at the behest of Vladimir Putin, Al Monitor reports. Erdogan’s pursuit of closer ties to Russia led him to publicly accept Kadyrov in Sochi despite a long history of conflict, including Kadyrov’s links to the murders of Chechen exiles in Turkey and a Chechen troop presence in both Ukraine and Syria that clashes with Erdogan’s policies.
- Russia Recruits Convicts for War on Ukraine
Plus: Bulgarian gas protests, Turkmen dog killers, Serbian environmental patrol, and more.
The Big Story: Russian Mercenary Group Said to Lure Prisoners to Fight in Ukraine
What happened: Amid heavy losses to Moscow’s forces in Ukraine, Russia is looking to its prisons to find new soldiers, according to a CNN investigation. Hundreds of prisoners – including convicted murderers – are being recruited with offers of pardons and money, according to interviews with inmates and reports from human rights groups. The recruitment of prisoners has been going on for weeks in as many as seven Russian regions, AP writes.
More context: Sources said the recruitment is being done through mercenary organizations like the infamous Wagner group, which has been linked to atrocities in Ukraine.
Worth noting: The Kremlin has so far avoided a full-blown war mobilization, which could prove very unpopular, but the number of Russian troops in Ukraine is insufficient for the kind of large-scale war it’s waging, according to an analysis in The Kyiv Independent.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- The Slovak media outlets that were blocked by the government for spreading Russian disinformation about the invasion of Ukraine are now back online, SME reports. The National Security Authority (NBU) failed to extend its initial block even though parliament voted to extend it through September.
- In the latest in a series of large-scale protests, Bulgarians rallied in the capital Sofia yesterday against the government potentially making new deals with Russia’s oil giant Gazprom, according to The Sofia Globe and Euronews. The “#GAZwithme” protests are prompted by concerns that the previous, pro-Western government was toppled in June because of its opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its refusal to pay Russian energy giant Gazprom in rubles.
- Serbian authorities plan to step up the fight against environmental crime, according to an announcement by the Ministry of Internal Affairs cited by bne Intellinews. Since the launch of a special unit earlier this year to combat trafficking in protected species, animal abuse, poaching, timber theft, and pollution, authorities have logged 291 cases of environmental crimes, according to the ministry.
- Slovenian President Borut Pahor met with Turkish officials Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the war in Ukraine and increasing economic cooperation, The Slovenia Times reports. Pahor held talks with Turkish ministers including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and yesterday met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Newly released satellite photos from Tuesday’s explosions at a Russian military base in occupied Crimea show massive damage as well as evidence of a targeted attack, The Guardian reports. The images, showing that at least eight military planes were damaged or destroyed at the base some 160 kilometers from the front line, suggests the possibility of a targeted attack, something Kyiv has denied, the BBC says.
- In “a brutal campaign of animal cruelty,” dogcatchers in Turkmenistan’s second largest city have been ordered to catch and kill at least seven stray dogs every day, RFE/RL writes. If no stray dogs can be found, the dog exterminators sometimes take away people’s pets to reach their daily quota, dog owners claimed. The authoritarian regime in Turkmenistan “has long been criticized for the systematic slaughter of stray animals using barbaric methods,” RFE/RL notes, and the public is generally too afraid of the government to complain.
- Slovak Teachers Learn to Communicate With Ukrainian Pupils
Many children at a summer language camp arrived in Slovakia months ago but are yet to attend local schools. From Dennik N.
Children sit in a circle, passing an apple around. Whoever holds the apple must speak. And they have to speak Slovak, which nobody feels much like doing. They would much rather enjoy the summer holidays at home with their friends and family, the way they like best – in Ukrainian.
Instead, they are now in Zilina, in northern Slovakia, spending time in the Zaymusova elementary school. They have already given up hope that the war will soon be over and that they can start the new school year in Ukraine. Local activists in Zilina have organized a daily camp for some 400 children, who can meet friends there and practice their Slovak. Among other reasons, to make their return to Slovak schools in September easier.
When the camp teacher asks the kids how their weekend was, the answer she gets is the one that’s linguistically easiest – it was “good.” Only one boy say it was better than good. “Father came,” he says, and everyone understands all the things hidden behind that answer. Other kids now find it easy to say that they spent the weekend “at home,” even though in reality they are a long way from home. Many of them have been in Slovakia for close to six months now, and the initial shock is gone. They are getting used to their new life, behaving like normal kids anywhere – looking bored in class, running down corridors, not listening to the teacher.
Still Kids, but Growing Up Fast
Even though many of the children have already spent months in Slovakia, they still need to work on their Slovak quite a bit. For example, so that they can study history or geography in the new language, alongside their peers from Slovakia. That was one reason for the camp in Zilina, to get them ready for September.
“Who understood what I said? Raise your hands,” asks teacher Hana Malgotova after explaining a task to the kids. Most hands are raised, but a few stay down. Then Olya steps in: “Kto neponimaje?” she asks (“Who doesn’t understand?” in Ukrainian). Again, many hands are in the air. It is clear the kids are not quite sure what’s going on.
Olya is only in the ninth grade, but she takes over the teacher’s role and explains the task. Calmly and with authority, she explains how kids should color in different parts of the body. Her brother Sasa, of a similar age, is meanwhile telling children in the back to be quiet.
Ukrainian teenagers can no longer afford to be children. “Parents are working, providing for their basic needs. Older children want to help them, [they] take care of younger siblings. They are accepting their responsibility,” special educator Malgotova says.
She can see this especially with boys like Sasa. When she had to go grab something from her office, she tasked him with looking after a group of children. Sasa watched over them, keeping them quiet, and when they walked down the corridor, he lined them up in twos. “Most refugees are moms with kids. If there are sons in the family, they are taking over the role of the father – they feel a responsibility,” says Renata Dubec of Camp Zilina, the camp operator.
Memories of Blood and Guns
When Ukrainian children entered Slovak schools in March, they were frightened, in shock, and did not know what to expect.
“This has already passed. They are children just like any others, you have to keep providing them with stimuli so that they don’t get bored,” the teacher says. She works as a special educator at the Jarna elementary school in Zilina, which has accepted some 40 children from Ukraine.
Some have adapted better, but others got stuck and are refusing to speak Slovak. “It all depends on how they coped with the fact of their leaving. Some of them do not want to accept that they have been taken out of their homes, and do not want to speak Slovak. They say they find it pointless, because they will soon be going home anyway,” the teacher says. She recalls a boy from Odessa who showed her photos of himself surfing. A child that didn’t know life without the sea now has to get accustomed to life in an inland country – his home, friends, and all interests have all been taken away from him.
Two sisters from Kyiv attend the camp, They came to Slovakia immediately after Ukraine was attacked. Neither of them wanted to speak. Not Slovak or even Ukrainian. The younger one was in the first grade and fiercely resisted going to school. She wanted to fight, didn’t want to let anyone near her, responded by shouting and crying.
Malgotova would take her to her office, where they would draw together. The teacher drew a city – streets and roads. The six-year-old girl drew in blood stains, broken windows, people with machine guns.
“Once she let all that out of her, she started to communicate a little,” the teacher says. Her older sister doesn’t speak either, but the teacher considers it a great success that she recently smiled at her. “It is not realistic to ask children with this type of trauma to learn Slovak,” she says.
Hundreds of refugees from Ukraine have already passed through the Zilina refugee camp. Renata Dubec and her husband opened the camp when the war started. At first, they provided for basic needs such as food, heat, and shelter. “Later we started looking for long-term accommodation, then jobs. Even before we hit that point, an important need presented itself – language courses,” explains Renata Dubec.
So far some 700 Ukrainians have gone through the intensive course, studying Slovak for 90 minutes a day. “We found out that many mothers want to attend the courses, but they have nowhere to place their little children, because they haven’t been accepted in nursery schools,” she says. That prompted them to start providing child care for the children of mothers attending the courses.
But it’s not just adults who need language courses. “Children in Zilina can get into schools easily. But they have a problem with adaptation,” Dubec says. They don’t understand Slovak, so they typically sit at their desks quietly, as Slovak kids learn geography.
More Ukrainian Pupils in September?
And so some 400 children from Ukraine joined the day camp in Zilina.Each week, up to 120 kids attend. Some only go to the camp for a week, but there are also many who stay for the full five weeks of planned activities. In the morning they have Slovak classes in the classroom; afternoons there are activities aimed at learning Slovak indirectly.
Even after spending close to six months in another country, many children still don’t really speak Slovak. Many children in the camp have never attended a Slovak school. Data all over Slovakia show a similar picture. The Center for Education Analysis estimates that more than half of the refugee children are not attending any elementary school in Slovakia. In May, almost 8,000 children were attending Slovak schools, but the total number of children with temporary protection in Slovakia is twice as large.
Many children in their new country have instead preferred online classes, connecting with their Ukrainian teachers. “They were relying on the idea that the war would be over by September and that they would return home,” Malgotova says. She believes schools should plan for many more children from Ukraine trying to enroll in September, as online education will no longer be enough for them.
The Education Ministry, however, sees things differently. Citing data that the number of Ukrainian pupils in Slovak schools fell by 20 percent from May to June, the ministry says it expects fewer Ukrainian refugee children to attend in-person classes when the new school year begins.
Ukrainian children, however, do not as a rule go to school in June – their school year ends in May. That could be one reason why the June figure was lower. Ukrainian refugees are under no obligation to enroll their children in school here, which is something the Ministry of Education is not planning to change in September either. Compulsory school attendance does not apply to foreigners who do not have permanent residence in Slovakia, the ministry explains.
Starting in September, however, Malgotova thinks schools should get ready to put in much more effort to integrate Ukrainian children. “Teachers thought that this would pass, that the kids were only here for a short period of time. But it turns out this is not the case,” she says.
First of all, schools should offer welcome classes, she proposes. This is common practice in schools in Western Europe. Children who do not speak Slovak are not immediately “thrown into the pool,” but first spend several weeks adapting to the new environment. “Over here, we wanted too much from the kids too soon,” she explains.
Once children move to regular classrooms, she says, each class with Ukrainian children should have a teaching assistant.
In her view, Ukrainian children need to learn Slovak as a foreign language. “When Slovak children studied pronouns in a Slovak class, Ukrainian pupils were just sitting there, with no idea of what was going on,” she explains. These kids have to study Slovak in a different way – just as they would, for example, English.
Malgotova says teachers would ideally also be familiar with Ukrainian school curricula, giving them an idea of what their pupils already know and what they need to learn. This would help the children adjust to Slovak classrooms and, once the war is over, help them continue with their education in Ukraine.
This article originally appeared on the Slovak news site Dennik N. Republished with permission. Translated by Matus Nemeth. Photos by Tomas Benedikovic.
- Georgia and Its Crystal Ball
Georgia’s experience shows us that a one-sided approach to imposing a legal state is doomed, and Moldova must do better to avoid a similar fate. From ZDG.
Some 10, 15 years ago, Georgia was held up as an example worth following in terms of eradicating systemic corruption and organized crime. These were heights that Moldova, or Ukraine, could not even dream of. There is no doubt that our high-ranking corrupt people in Moldova were, back then, small fry compared to Georgian ones.
My generation still relishes the jokes about filthy rich Georgians giving away Volga cars [first manufactured in the Soviet Union] to relatives and friends left and right. The very bold reforms in internal affairs, the judiciary, and the prosecutor’s office that started during Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency set in motion waves of study visits from all over the former Soviet space. Such reforms were seen as a miracle of transformations in governance. We looked with great envy at their police patrols, the legal aid system for vulnerable groups, crime reduction, and judicial reforms.
All of it, up to a point! It was like a plane that, after a full power takeoff, suddenly lost all traction until it reached cruising altitude. The first signal came from human rights activists. The acquittal in the courts of people accused of corruption, money laundering, or illicit enrichment had reached 0.01 percent. In other words, once in front of the prosecutor, the person had only one chance, that of admitting guilt by signing a plea bargain (a criminal procedural institution borrowed from the United States.) that included a confiscation of assets. The alternative was torture and facing a justice system that did not dare to oppose the prosecutors (by that time, the local justice system was already a farce, with roots in the Soviet past).
As such, the accelerator was suddenly pressed to the floor, generating torture as an adverse effect. I’m not suggesting that Saakashvili got drunk with power, giving in to totalitarian impulses, but it is certain that the opposition took advantage of the government’s many loopholes and stumbling blocks, making a real U-turn. Great corruption clad in oligarchic garb once again entered the game, through Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Russian sympathizer who was installed as prime minister in 2012, also with Moscow’s support.
Since then, the very good relations of the EU and U.S. with Georgia have gone into a steady downward spiral, reaching in 2022 the level of furious and aberrant verbal attacks that Georgian governmental leaders unanimously voiced against European and U.S. diplomacy. The Russian satisfaction is commensurate: Georgia, which used to be the ram’s head of democracy and rule of law in the North Caucasus, has become a Russian mouthpiece, without a shot being fired this time. It was all about infiltrating the right places at the right time and exploiting the many hurdles a small country faces on the road to democracy and European integration.
The wave of insinuations and accusations that happened this time are not only unprecedented but are generated by the very weaknesses and complexities of the European integration process. More precisely, the techniques of this process, in the deft hands of a geopolitical illusionist of Russian origin – skilled in intrigue, manipulation, and conspiracy – turns into a curse and a generator of euroscepticism long before integration becomes conspicuous even on the distant horizon.
Russian influence peddlers affiliated with the Georgian Orthodox Church have played a special role in this decline. Orthodox mysticism and messianism fit like a glove in this context because Georgians are a very religious people. The cleverly manipulated narrative of saving the thousand-year Orthodox tradition from the pagan “filth” coming from the West played a brilliant role! As usual, minorities, especially sexual minorities, became the scapegoats; by early July 2022 they were getting beaten up in the street by commandoes of bearded men in long black dresses.
The formal reason for the furious attacks on European and U.S. diplomats was the European Council’s decision in June 2022 to grant Moldova and Ukraine EU candidate status, while Georgia remained a potential candidate country. The ruling Georgian Dream party began to relentlessly attack U.S. diplomacy, blaming it for influencing and undermining the independence of the Georgian judiciary, and the Europeans for unjustifiably blocking the funds of the oligarch Ivanishvili.He, incidentally, holds no public office in the state (the situation seems familiar in a Moldovan context), but is instead known as a promoter of Russian interests in Georgia.
An Out-of-Touch Approach
What lessons can and should Moldova learn from Georgia’s situation? First, that this is the immediate future that awaits us if the Moldovan oligarchy, with local and Russian roots, returns because of backroom games and the country’s major challenges. The economic crisis is practically rolling out the red carpet for them. Who will then be surprised by the most bizarre accusations and insinuations leveled at the European Union, the U.S., Bill Gates, George Soros, and possibly even the Pope? The scenarios are well-known, and what is certain is that an EU candidate status is not a target that has been irreversibly set and achieved.
The integration process must be sincere and of substance, but we must be aware that, in the short term, it cannot feed the poor seated at the table, or heat the stove in winter. The hungry man looking for a scapegoat is more willing to believe conspiracy theories, and that makes him easily manipulated. The million- (or billion- dollar) question is how the Moldovan government will navigate its way out of the crisis, how it can implement its plans for European integration, lest we all find ourselves in the situation of Georgia, which is facing so many obstacles.
The teeth of power, however sharp, will first grind against the stone of justice. It seems paradoxical, but the place where the key to success lies is also that of a stalemate. Georgia’s experience shows us that a one-sided approach to this area can lead to doom. If the uninitiated man hears the word “vetting,” as the Georgians probably heard “plea bargaining,” it doesn’t mean much to him.
To clarify, this “vetting,” very simply put, is nothing more than a check, an assessment of the lifestyle and the integrity of judges and prosecutors. It is a comparison of income and lifestyle and wealth. Those who pass the test will remain in the judiciary. But that will take a few years – there are no guarantees of success, and no happy precedents. It is alarming how out of touch this is as the answer to people’s legitimate questions about the current debacle in the courts, and about the act of justice amid backroom deals done by the lawyers themselves.
When will we get our money back from the billionaire thieves? Do the vetting and then they’ll see! That sounds well and good, but what do we do now with the criminal networks, the one that, in the words of the current government – formerly part of the opposition – has captured the state and, by extension, the justicial system? Will the vetting succeed in decapitating the judiciary before the fugitive oligarchs strike back? That is unlikely! Especially since we have, at least, three politicians like Ivanishvili, ready to make a pact not only with the Russians but with the devil itself to regain their power and influence. It’s a different dynamic here in Moldova.
At the other extreme, in Georgia, courts appear to have been completely taken out of the game. At one point, the power of the prosecutors became too great. We bring the corrupt to the prosecutor, we tell him nicely that it’s better for the sustpect to give up everything he has and confess to his crime; if not, we will end up in court anyway, except that we can also get there through humiliation, through inhuman and degrading treatment, and torture. This unlimited power has been misrepresented to the public as the essence of the reforms under the name of “admission of guilt.” What this led to, you can see for yourself. In the case of Georgia, the attack was frontal and unabashed, but its adverse effects led to political crisis and the hijacking of judicial reforms.
The Need for Flexibility
The Moldovan judiciary remains deeply affected by influence-peddling, servility, and corruption. It really seems to me that the scare of vetting has made some people lose the last drop of common sense on the grounds that now is now, because afterwards you never know. One should only look at the imperturbable protection that the so-called real estate developers enjoy in court. We cannot sit by and watch impassively as injustice triumphs here too, and the only argument we give the population is that vetting will arrive and punish them. And what if it doesn’t, or if some other political power comes along and hijacks the vetting before it starts?!
I believe that we need more flexibility, wisdom, and even ingenuity, without overstepping the constitutional boundaries and those imposed by the principle of the separation of powers in the state. First, we must not put all our eggs in one basket. I believe that vetting is a good solution, but a slow-burning one. We also need immediate measures to reduce the criminal’s appetite for revenge. I don’t think that it’s impossible to find a handful of prosecutors, judges, investigating officers, and experts to handle the big cases now. This elite group should be endowed with legal power, security, and finances, but also with accountability to match. Abuse is punishable, as is collusion with high-ranking corrupt officials. The capture of justice is not an ordinary situation, but an immediate state security problem. The change of political power a year ago does not even come close to taking back power by default. On the contrary, there is an obvious process of resistance and entrenchment.
Therefore, neither the tough measures advocated by the current government nor the “vetting” mantra, repeated left and right, are enough for coping with the situation. Let’s not forget that we’re dealing with a system that has laundered a cool $20 billion out of Russia. It is to this system, unreformed and unclean, that prosecutors are going to send the files on high-level corrupt people. What’s the point? Thinking that here comes the Messiah, the United State’s anti-corruption prosecutor, Veronica Dragalin [Moldova’s new anti-corruption chief prosecutor, formerly an U.S. assistant attorney in California] and then they, the corrupt, will see the light, it’s like adding a steel arrow to the hoe; but you are still trying to take down planes with a hoe.
We need to put ourselves in the shoes of the Moldovan Ivanishvilis, who stand with their mouths agape and their hands outstretched to the Russians, to think about their possible intervention scenarios, and then we will find solutions to suit. What is certain is that justice, together with the entire coercive system of the state weighs heavily in their calculations. It’s time to strike preemptively, to prove to them that we are already on their trail, to hunt them down before they start to hunt others. Vetting is good, but it’s not for this crisis scenario, or at least not for now. It is a trap of time and bureaucracy, which is the exact opposite of what people now expect from justice.
Victor Munteanu is a lawyer. This article originally appeared on the Moldovan news site ZdG and has been slightly shortened and adjusted for Transitions’ style. Translated by Ioana Caloianu. Reprinted with permission.
- Blasts at Russian Base in Crimea Possible Sabotage, Zelenskiy Aide Says
Plus: FBI in Albania, Belarus gov-in-exile, Kazakh family map, and more.
The Big Story: Russian Base in Crimea Hit by 13 Explosions
What happened: The massive explosions yesterday that rocked a Russian military base in the Crimean Peninsula may have been the work of partisan saboteurs, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, according to Euronews. Ukraine announced that nine Russian military planes were destroyed in the attack, The Washington Post reports. Russia says that explosions were accidents caused by fire-safety violations, Politico writes. Russia occupied and annexed the peninsula in 2014.
More context: Last month, the governor of Sevastopol blamed Ukrainian “nationalists,” using a makeshift drone, for a smaller explosion in Crimea at Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters. “This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – with its liberation,” Zelenskiy said today.
Worth noting: Russian plans to annex various cities in southeastern Ukraine are threatened by growing resistance efforts, AP reports. Guerrilla forces loyal to Kyiv are assassinating pro-Moscow officials, exploding bridges and trains, and aiding the Ukrainian military in identifying key targets, contributing to a loss in the level of Russian control in the area.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- A Russian pipeline operator has announced that oil shipments to Hungary, Czechia, and Slovakia have been shut down via the southern branch of the Druzhba oil pipeline from Ukraine, according to Reuters and Czech Radio. Transneft says that its Ukrainian counterpart, Ukrtransnafta, turned off the oil flow because Transneft’s payment to the company was refused due to EU sanctions. Slovak Energy Minister Richard Sulik seemed to confirm that the country is no longer receiving Russian oil, saying “We are resolving the situation, but it is very unclear,” according to a local media report cited by Novinite.
- The long-running dispute between Poland and the EU over rule-of-law concerns appears to be at a total impasse, with the head of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party announcing no new concessions will be made toward unblocking 36 billion euros in EU funds for Warsaw, Politico reports. Jaroslaw Kaczynski also made wild claims about an international plot against Warsaw, accusing the European Commission of wanting “to break Poland and force it into full submission to Germany” as part of ”German-Russian plans to rule Europe.”
- Albanian Deputy Prime Minister Belinda Balluku has announced that a team from the FBI has been deployed to Tirana to help investigate the cyber attack that hit the country’s institutions in mid-July, Exit News reports. The attack shut down all online government services and websites for several days and took weeks to fully resolve.
- The 30 wildfires raging in Bulgaria are engaging hundreds of firefighters and other emergency workers, the head of the fire safety department announced today, BTA reports. The three biggest fires are in the Haskovo, Stara Zagora, and Sredets regions.
- Five out of 10 Romanian workers have changed jobs at least once in the last two years, according to a recent survey by a job recruitment company, Romania Insider reports. Layoffs accounted for a third of the job changes, while voluntarily leaving for better salaries or lighter workloads were the other main factors, according to those surveyed.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- On the second anniversary of the widely disputed elections that kept Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in power, exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya – the probable winner of the August 2020 presidential vote – established an interim government-in-exile, RFE/RL reports. Tsikhanouskaya made the announcement yesterday at a conference of Belarusian democratic movements held in Vilnius, Lithuania. The team plans to open offices in Brussels, Estonia, and Czechia, BNN reports.
- Thousands of third-country refugees who fled the war in Ukraine to be students in Germany are facing deportation because fast-track immigration procedures only apply to Ukrainian citizens, DW reports. German immigration procedures for these third-country nationals are complicated, and calls are mounting for the students to receive the same treatment as those with Ukrainian passports.
- Kyrgyz authorities have used a new law against “false information” to block the independent news website Res Publica, the Committee to Protect Journalists writes. According to editor-in-chief Zamira Sydykova, though members of Res Publica have in the past been prosecuted, imprisoned, and fined, this is the first time the website has been blocked, ACCA Media reports.
- A new “digital family map” by the Kazakh Ministry of Labor and Social Protection will use an automated system to notify people eligible for public assistance, The Astana Times reports. The pilot project will be launched on 1 September, state authorities announced this week.
- Tensions are on the rise between Georgians and the large number of Russians who arrived in the country since the invasion of Ukraine, according to reports in Eurasianet and RFE/RL. Opposition groups are calling for visa procedures and limited stays to be introduced for Russians, who currently are not required to obtain visas to stay in Georgia. Meanwhile, a Tbilisi bar that bans pro-Putin Russians was targeted for online harassment by the infamous extremist group “Male State” led by a Russian fugitive who moved to Georgia after being convicted in Russia of inciting hatred toward women.
- The plan for Turkish defense company Baykar to build a military-drone factory in an undisclosed location in Ukraine is going forward, according to the Ukrainian ambassador to Turkey, Newsweek reports. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told state media the plant would be a military target for Russia, according to News.am.
- The Last Remaining Traces
A Hungarian photographer captures the visual record of the brutality of the post-war period, slowly fading from memory. From Telex.hu.
It so happened that in 1956, my maternal grandfather became president of the Workers’ Council at the Szeged Fur Company. According to family tradition, he was liked by his coworkers and was elected by popular vote, which ended up determining the fate of my grandpa, who was in his fifties at the time. Having been charged with counter-revolutionary behavior, he was sent to the Interior Ministry’s internment camp (transformed from the former Hussar barracks) in the town of Tokol. After his release he couldn’t get a job at home in Szeged, so he went to Budapest where he worked as an unskilled laborer.
I also made it to the Tokol prison – as a journalist, at the turn of the millennium. At the time, my grandfather had been dead for 20 years, and the prison had been functioning as a juvenile detention facility since 1963. Although I was there to interview teenage inmates, I spent much of my time there thinking about where my grandpa may have sat and I stared mesmerized at the walls and anything else my grandpa might have seen, touched, sensed: the doors, the handles, the benches, the tall trees.
I was reminded of this search when I saw Daniel Kovalovszky’s photo series entitled: “Scenes of an Infernal Play.” Ah, yes, the scenes!
Looking at historical scenes is one of the most exciting things in the world, and one need not go far to do it around here – it’s enough to go out into the street. A good example is Kossuth Square in Budapest, where on 25 October 1956, people sought safety under the arcades of the building of the Ministry of Agriculture [Ed.note: during the first days of the Hungarian Revolution]. The building is still there today, and it still has the same function as it had under each Hungarian government since 1889.
Or another good example – and we have already arrived at Daniel Kovalovszky’s photos – is the well-known view of the Badacsony mountaintop. It is a small addendum that the mountain’s silhouette will forever be a reminder of where the basalt for the streets of Budapest was quarried between 1949 and 1954 by the inhabitants of the Badacsonytordemic prison camp.
The scenes photographed by Kovalovszky are even more exciting though. He worked on his two-part series for two years: the one entitled “Black Hole” is about elderly political prisoners, and the part entitled “The Heritage” is about the children of those who were once important players within the communist party or state leadership, but became victims of show trials. The photos show old or very old people (some of whom have died since being photographed) on carefully lit photographs. There is no background, nothing to distract from the face – almost as if they were all in some idealized afterlife.
Kovalovszky visited all the locations where those convicted in the forties and fifties spent their days. He went to prisons and courts that are still functioning today, and took a closer look at the rooms that have preserved the atmosphere of the mid-20th century. He photographed unchanged prison doors, fences, walls, window frames, spyholes, stages, barbed wire – things that those imprisoned in the fifties saw daily. His goal was to find the last traces and the last living witnesses of the injustices of the fifties.
Anyone expecting dark-toned images to match the subject is wrong. These photos are – as I have already said – the exact opposite of the heavy, confusing times they tell us about: they are bright, clear, transparent, almost otherworldly.
“The shabby, sterile world of the photographs helps to separate the subject from the reality of the present and evoke the mood of the time,” the author, who also had a grandfather, says of his work. Although his grandpa did not spend time in prison, when he was still courting his future wife, he had a rival: a young AVH (Allamvvdelmi Hatosag, the State Protection Authority – the secret service of the People’s Republic of Hungary from 1945 until 1956) officer. When the photographer’s future grandmother told him that she had already made a decision and did not wish to continue with the officer, he mentioned that he will gladly help “get rid of” his rival – who later became Daniel Kovalovszky’s grandfather.
The labor camp in Badacsonytordemic operated between 1949-1954. Given that the authorities at the time made sure to cover up as many traces as possible, very few documents survived. During the Rakosi-era [Ed. note: Matyas Rakosi was the communist ruler of Hungary from 1946-1956], for many years this was the place that supplied the basalt blocks needed in Budapest. The silhouette of the mountain clearly shows how much of it was illegally extracted. The mine was closed in 1960 and afterwards the entire mountain was declared a landscape conservation area.
Straub spent a total of 16 years and two months in prison. During this time he was under strict custody for 180 days, and spent 180 days in a dark vault. He was convicted in a show trial for attempting to cross the border illegally, taking part in the 1956 revolution, and for multiple counts of attempted murder. He was released in 1971.
Following the suppression of the 1956 revolution, between November 1956 and 1963, about 26, 000 individuals were sentenced to shorter or longer prison sentences or to death. The death sentences were mostly carried out in the yard of Kisfoghaz. This is where Imre Nagy and his companions were executed in the early morning hours of 16 June 1958 [Ed.note: Nagy was the reformist prime minister during the Hungarian Revolution].
Ferenc was a 23-year-old university student when he was arrested in 1951. His arrest happened 10 days before his planned wedding with his then-fiancee. He was accused of organizing Catholic youth camps. He spent two years at the Kistarcsa internment camp, and his parents knew nothing of their son’s whereabouts for a long time. He was released in 1953, after Imre Nagy ordered the closure of all internment camps and work camps. After his release he married his fiancee, who was – as a result – immediately kicked out of university.
A quote from Ferenc:
“The AVH arrested me at 2 a.m. on 11 May 1951. One does not forget that. I was questioned for three months day and night. Afterwards they made me sign my internment document. At first I didn’t want to sign it, but I saw that if I didn’t do it, they would beat my head to pieces. They beat my head against the wall, and kept kicking me. When I was in the cell, I had to lie motionless, because if you moved, they made you get up and hold a sharpened pencil against the wall – with your forehead.”
In the short time of his first premiership, Imre Nagy created and tried to implement the only positive economic and political program of the era. He closed all the internment and forced labor camps and curbed the all-out rampage of the State Protection Authority (AVH) by merging it with the Ministry of Interior. The reviewing of show trials and the rehabilitation of those who were innocently convicted or executed began. He also stopped the forced relocations and announced religious tolerance.
The Tiszalok internment camp operated between 1951-1953. It was established with the goal of building a dam and a hydroelectric power station. The prisoners were mostly POWs handed over to the AVH by the Soviet authorities in December 1950 and at the beginning of 1951 whom AVH did not release. Most of the captives were [ethnic] Germans (Swabians who had joined the Waffen SS during World War II).
After 1945, the Marko Street prison became the center of the justice system. It was here that war crimes against the people were tried, and death sentence convictions were passed. Among others, former prime ministers Ferenc Szalasi and Bela Imredi were both executed here. By 1946, the prison was so full that there were between 1,800-2,000 prisoners in a building originally designed for 700. They often held between 30-35 prisoners in a cell intended for six-seven people.
The cells were infested with lice and bed bugs, and the overcrowding made their eradication impossible.
Attila Toth-Szenesi is a journalist at Telex, where this article was originally published. Szabolcs Barakonyi is a photographer at Telex. Transitions has slightly edited the text for style. Reprinted with permission. Telex is a news website started by journalists from Index.hu who quit en masse in July 2020, citing government pressure. Donations can be made via Telex’s site. Telex also publishes a newsletter with links to its English-language content.
- Russia Shuts Doors to U.S. Nuclear Arms Inspections
Plus: Red paint protest in Albania, Lego boy in Hungary, river restored in Ukraine, and more.
The Big Story: Kremlin Cites Sanctions & Coronavirus in Suspension of Nuclear Inspections
What happened: Moscow is suspending cooperation with the United States in on-site inspections designed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced yesterday, according to Bloomberg. The ministry claims that Western sanctions – including travel and visa restrictions – as well as the spike in coronavirus cases in the United States interfere with Russia’s ability to do inspections agreed upon under the New START arms control treaty, The Moscow Times reports. The Kremlin also accused Washington of seeking “to create unilateral advantages” and deprive Russia of “the right to carry out inspections on American soil.”
Ukraine war reports: Russian forces were most likely behind the explosion at a Russian-controlled detention center that killed 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war on 29 July, according to an analysis by VOA’s fact-checking website Polygraph.info. Evidence from the scene at the prison near Olenivka, including images of the destruction, cast doubt on Russia’s claim that Ukraine struck the prison with the HIMARS missile system, and suggests the explosion came from within the complex.
Worth noting: The Bellingcat investigative journalism group says it has identified the soldiers seen in online videos apparently castrating and then executing a Ukrainian soldier in Luhansk as members of the Akhmat battalion from Chechnya. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Russian soldiers working under contract are refusing to take part in the invasion of Ukraine, and hundreds of the “refuseniks” are being held in camps and prisons in Russian-occupied parts of eastern Ukraine, according to human rights activists and media reports cited by DW.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- A 16-year-old Hungarian boy’s design for a foosball table has won a contest run by the Lego toy company, Telex writes. Donat Fehervari’s design will be revised and released as an official Lego product.
- A Latvian student organization is requesting an exemption for students and graduates from military conscription, BNN reports. Though the country has a volunteer military, Latvian President Egils Levits recently suggested the reinstatement of national conscription for men, ABC reports. As for the other Baltic countries, Lithuania reinstated compulsory conscription in 2016 in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and Estonia has maintained conscription since its independence in 1991.
- Slovakia’s sole Catholic cardinal, Jozef Tomko, has died in Rome, The Slovak Spectator reports. At 98, Tomko was also the oldest cardinal, a position now held by Angolan Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento. Meanwhile, Slovenian Bishop Andrej Saje is reportedly under criminal investigation for tax evasion in a case involving payments received for assisting religious services, Total Slovenia News reports, though Saje told news outlet STA that he has no knowledge of the case.
- Protesters in Albania flung red paint on Tirana’s Interior Ministry headquarters yesterday as part of ongoing demonstrations sparked by a seaside accident last week when an off-duty police commissioner’s jet ski reportedly killed a child, Vox reports. Several demonstrations have taken place since the incident, with protesters calling for the firing of Tourism Minister Mirela Kumbaro and Interior Minister Bledar Cuci, Euronews reports.
- Bulgaria will “unblock” weapons exports worth about 500,000 euros, the caretaker head of the Economy Ministry announced yesterday, Novinite reports. Previous Economy Minister Kornelia Ninova – leader of the pro-Russia Bulgarian Socialist Party – denied that any exports to Ukraine occurred under her watch, despite reports of over 4,000 tons of weapons being sent there via Poland since the Russian invasion began in February.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The successful removal of an obsolete dam in Ukraine’s Carpathian mountains has opened a stretch of the Perkalaba river to migratory fish for the first time in 120 years, according to the conservation group WWF. The dismantling of the Bayurivka dam near the border with Romania – the first such conservation project funded by the European Open Rivers Program – aims to create a “biodiversity hotspot” where the return of endangered fish will lead to the flourishing of other local wildlife such as brown bears, mink, and otters.
- Russian authorities have launched a third criminal case against journalist Isabella Yevloyeva under laws against spreading “fake” or “discrediting” information about the Russian military or the government’s activities abroad, according to the CPJ. Yevloyeva, who is currently outside Russia, has also reportedly been placed on Russia’s wanted list. Meanwhile, Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova – known for protesting live on television against the invasion of Ukraine – has been fined again by a Moscow court, reportedly for a recent Facebook post criticizing the Russian military, Euronews reports.
- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has stripped Ukrainian figure skater Viktor Petrenko of a monthly stipend for top athletes after the 1992 Olympic champion appeared at an ice show in Russia, The New York Times reports. Petrenko left the Ukrainian figure skating federation in June and then appeared at the July ice show in Sochi organized by Tatiana Navka, an Olympic ice dancing champion and wife of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, both of whom are under U.S. sanctions.
- Six separate attacks on religious centers and a leader of one of Turkey’s largest Alevi organizations have raised fears of worsening religious tension, Al Monitor reports. Orthodox Sunni Islam in Turkey has been in conflict for centuries with Alevism, a mystical religion with roots in Islam and Sufism – a rift made worse by the increasingly sectarian rhetoric and politics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Al Monitor writes. Alevis are thought to make up 15 to 25% of Turkey’s population.
- Ukraine Calls For Military-Free Zone at Nuclear Plant After Shelling Damages Site
Plus: Schools for fathers, Moldovan reporter banned, Baku’s London embassy stormed, and more.
The Big Story: International Alarm Over Strikes on Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine
What happened: Ukrainian authorities are calling for international peacekeepers to create a demilitarized zone around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant after multiple attacks over the weekend damaged part of the complex, CNBC reports. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned of a potential nuclear disaster, while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the offensive “suicidal” and urged that international inspectors be given access to the site, according to Euronews. The source of the shelling is so far unknown, and Russia and Ukraine are blaming each other for the attack.
Related: The Russian tactic of carpet-bombing Ukrainian cities has greatly diminished due to Kyiv’s effective use of recently acquired missile systems to attack the Russian army’s ammunition depots and command units, DW reports. Russia’s war in Ukraine is entering a new phase as most fighting moves to the front stretching southwest from the Zaporizhzhia region to Kherson, according to an assessment by British military intelligence issued on Saturday,Reuters reports.
Worth noting: Ukrainian partisans are having an effect in Russian-occupied areas like Kherson, according to Reutersand the ISW. An official of the Russian administration in the region was shot and killed on Friday; Russian news outlet RT reported the same day that the head of the administration was placed in a medically induced coma amid allegations that he was poisoned, though officials there later denied the reports and insisted he is only sick and “resting.” The resistance movement in Kherson is even publishing its own underground newspaper, Euromaidan Press reports. An explosion hit the Russian-controlled police station in the eastern city of Berdyansk on Saturday, and the Ukrainian Resistance Center issued an announcement the same day that “collaborationism is bad for your health,” writes the ISW.
News from the Regions
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling on Moldovan authorities to reverse the court penalties on a journalist that ban him from working in any top position in television or radio for six months. A court in Chisinau in late July ruled that Val Butnaru, founder of independent Jurnal TV and host of a culture program on the channel, was guilty of slander for airing an investigation alleging that the former head of the Dubasari city police and two other officers were involved in cigarette smuggling. Jurnal TV has appealed the verdict.
- Eighteen “Father Schools” that encourage men to become more involved in childcare have been established across Eastern Europe as part of the EU 4 Gender Equality project, EU NEIGHBORS east reports. Amid statistics that show women spend an average of 250% more time on unpaid care work than men, over 2,200 fathers have attended the programs on how to have a greater role in family childcare. The first schools opened in 2020 in Ukraine and Moldova and are now also running in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Georgia.
- The head of the Ukraine branch of Amnesty International quit in protest over the weekend amid the ongoing controversy over the organization’s report last week accusing Kyiv of endangering its own civilians and violating international law by placing armed forces and weapons in residential areas during the fight against the Russian invasion, Politico reports. An editorial in The Times on Friday charged that the London-based organization “has determinedly … set about shredding its credibility by serving as a megaphone for the propaganda of the Putin regime.” Amnesty released a statement of regret yesterday for “the distress and anger” caused by its Ukraine report, but added “we fully stand by our findings.”
Central Europe and the Baltics
- After Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka said he was instituting fast-track citizenship for people from Baltic countries and Poland, Lithuania’s State Security Department warned that anyone taking up the offer could be targeted for recruitment by the intelligence agencies of the Belarusian and Russian regimes, according to BNN. Kestutis Budrys, a national security adviser to the Lithuanian president, called Lukashenka’s statement “abhorrent propaganda” that “is intended primarily to show … that Belarus seems to be an open, friendly state,” adding “this is a complete lie.”
- Roma refugees from Ukraine are facing a pattern of racist discrimination by governments across Central and Eastern Europle, according to an in-depth CNN analysis. Reporting from the Czech Republic, Romania, and Moldova, along with assessments from human rights groups in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, show Roma refugees are routinely accused of not being Ukrainian; are segregated in low-quality accommodation; are given misleading information about their rights; and experience official rejection for issues that are easily solved for non-Roma refugees.
- A Serbian arms dealer has exported 926 tons of Serbian-made ammunition to the United States despite being on a U.S. blacklist for the past five years due to allegations of bribery and violations of arms embargoes, according to a BIRN investigation. Slobodan Tesic’s two Belgrade-registered companies have boosted their revenues by tens of millions of euros since 2019, when U.S. sanctions were expanded to a number of Tesic proxies.
- Eight people were arrested after members of an extremist religious group, the Mahdi Servants Union, stormed Azerbaijan’s embassy in London last week and replaced the Azerbaijani flag with one of their own, according to reports in Metro and Eurasianet. The protest was apparently in response to an alleged incident in Azerbaijan involving the Interior Ministry taking action against the display of a Shiite flag, though no such incident was reported in Azerbaijani media or mentioned on the Interior Ministry’s website.
- U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s half brother has threatened to sue Mongolia for $50 million dollars over money lost in an investment, Global Arbitration Review reports. Maximilian Johnson, who invested $19 million along with several other investors into the Zasag Chandmani mine, claims the mine’s owner and senior managers absconded with the funds while local authorities have failed to pursue the case.
- Payment in rubles for Russian gas, and the acceptance of Russian Mir payment cards for purchases in Turkey, are among the known agreements to come from the secretive meeting between Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Saturday, bne Intellinews reports. The attendance at the meeting by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader who has sent armed forces to the conflicts in both Syria and Ukraine, suggests that the discussions went beyond economics, Intellinews notes.
- Water Foul
No water is yet flowing through the turbines at the Dabar hydroelectric plant in Bosnia, but environmental experts warn that the project’s completion would be catastrophic.
Bosnia and Herzegovina could be called “the land of rivers.” Some 262 rivers flow within its West Virginia-sized territory. Identified as a crucial haven for freshwater biodiversity in Europe, Bosnia’s rivers are home to endangered species as well as critical spawning habitats.
For the past 20 years, however, the most frequent new “species” along the country’s rivers have been hydroelectric plants. Since 2002, several hundred small hydroelectric plants have sprung up. Most have been constructed for the benefit of private investors – on the heels of promises made to local populations about clean energy and increased prosperity.
Other hydropower projects are government-sponsored. One such proposed plant in the Republika Srpska entity is bitterly opposed by activists and scientists, who say it will reduce the flow of water and weaken the already perilous state of fish and other animals in the Neretva River, whose turquoise waters adorn many a tourist poster. Claims the project will benefit local people are belied by the fact that the power it generates will not even be used for the benefit of people living nearby.
The Dabar plant in the far south of Bosnia would divert water from the Neretva River in southern Herzegovina through tunnels and canals into the Trebisnjica, once the longest subterranean river in Europe. Dabar is the first and largest of three new plants planned for the already heavily-dammed Trebisnjica, now lined in concrete along 65 kilometers of its length, its flow gravely impaired.
Plans and Delays
In 2011, the Republika Srpska government awarded a 30-year concession to construct and operate the Dabar hydroelectric plant to Hidroelektrane na Trebisnjici (HET), a subsidiary of state-owned Elektroprivreda Republike Srpske, the Electric Company of Republika Srpska.
While construction did begin in 2011, it remains unfinished. HET had initially indicated the plant would come on line in 2017, but missed deadlines and rising prices made that impossible.
At the end of 2021, Elektroprivreda RS signed an agreement with China Gezhouba Group – one of several Chinese firms taking part in major Bosnian construction projects – to complete the 160-megawatt plant, at an initial price of 382 million convertible marks, approximately $220 million. Since then, the price tag has risen to about $346 million. The Chinese state-owned Export-Import Bank of China is funding 56 percent of the total investment. Elektroprivreda RS must provide or obtain the rest of the funds.
HET says that all of the preparatory work, such as access roads and tunnels, is now complete. On 1 April, the RS government prolonged HET’s concession for another 20 years.
‘They Are Writing Fairy Tales’
HET and its parent company Elektroprivreda RS contend that everything has been done transparently and that their environmental impact study demonstrates that Dabar will have minimal negative effects on the ecosystem. The Adriatic Sea Watershed Agency and other institutions in the Federation entity where most of the Neretva’s watershed lies lodged objections to the study, and authorities in neighboring Croatia asked for clarifications. In the end, however, the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Construction and Ecology of Republika Srpska approved the environmental impact study for the project.
Anes Podic works with Eko Akcija (Eco Action), one of Bosnia’s most active environmental organizations. He says that the project is one thing on paper but completely different in reality.
“[The investors] say that the situation will be better,” Podic says “– that there will be fewer floods, that new hydroelectric plants, including Dabar, will not affect the water, and that they will monitor water [levels] during the summer so there will be enough water for other rivers as well.”
But these pledges are nothing more than “fairy tales,” he insists.
Elektroprivreda Republika Srpska did not respond to a request to comment on questions around the transparency of the Dabar project and allegations it will have a negative impact on the Neretva and the wider environment.
Balkan activists, joined by many scientists, share Podic’s distrust of the power companies and governments that propose and approve hydropower projects.
Much of the rich habitat for fish and other organisms along the middle reaches of the Neretva has already been lost. “The entire upper Neretva River, including its headwater tributaries are being targeted for hydropower development,” according to a 2018 scientific paper authored by researchers from across the Balkans.
Seventeen fish species on the IUCN’s “red list” of threatened or endangered species are found in the Neretva basin, the paper says.
Muriz Spahic, founder of the Association of Geographers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also argues that Dabar will devastate the existing natural system.
If Dabar is built as planned, less water will flow into the Buna, Bunica, and Bregava rivers – three tributaries of the Neretva – and two large karst springs feeding the protected Buna and Bunica rivers will dry up permanently, Spahic explained in a scientific paper emailed to Transitions
Spahi’s study continues, “The Buna system is unique and irreplaceable. As such, it is under a strict protection regime. … Any reduction in the amount of underground water in the lower Neretva will allow salty seawater to infiltrate the river. That will have unimaginable ecological consequences in the near future.”
Salinity levels are already on the rise where the Neretva meets the Adriatic Sea in Croatia. On the lower Neretva and elsewhere in Bosnia, fishers are now taking saltwater fish because the freshwater species have disappeared.
On the upper Neretva, the last more or less untouched stretch of the 230-kilometer river, there are plans to build some 70 dams, the journal Science recently wrote.
The reduced flow of water into the Bregava River may also impact Hutovo Blato, a nature park dotted with bird-attracting marshland. One of Europe’s most important bird reserves, Hutovo Blato was also designated as a wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 2001.
The Bregava dries out during several months of the year, requiring at least a month of rainy days to fill the underground karst aquifers and start the river flowing. Only then can the water reach Hutovo Blato.
Spahic said the proposed new hydroelectric plants could destroy the unique habitats that protect flora and fauna in Hutovo Blato. Once Dabar goes into operation, it will cut the underground sources that feed the Bregava, “and this river will dry up,” he says.
If Hutovo Blato is starved of water, Spahic warns, some animal and plant populations could disappear completely.
And the project’s effects aren’t confined to Bosnia. Some 12 kilometers of the lower Neretva River, toward its delta with the Adriatic Sea, belongs to neighboring Croatia.
Power, or Disempowerment?
The project also has the potential to harm the farms that provide a livelihood for many of the 200,000 people in the area, Eko Akcija’s Podic said. Farmers from the Neretva valley are already reporting that their irrigation systems are spraying saltwater over their crops instead of life-giving fresh water.
Adding insult to injury, the electricity produced at Dabar is intended for export. Some new job opportunities might be created for constructing and operating the plant, but Podic says that the potential losses would be insurmountably bigger.
The plant’s investors have repeatedly pledged to adhere strictly to Bosnian law during construction. However, distrust of both those investors and the government has led some activists to conclude that existing law can’t guarantee protection.
“Our legal framework is filled with holes, and is therefore incapable of stopping the terrible consequences of this or similar projects,” Podic says.
Ratko Pilipovic, a researcher with the Center for the Environment in Banja Luka, agrees.
“Regarding some areas of the environment, Bosnian law is incomplete,” he says. “But the bigger problem is corruption, which is ever-present in Bosnia, especially in the area of the environment.”
Podic worries that the holes in the system effectively mean that the environment in Bosnia is without any protection at all.
“If someone decides to use the last drop of water to create electricity, they will do it,” he concludes. “No one will lift a finger to stop them.”
Jelena Jevdjenic is a reporter, columnist, and editor for the Bosnian news site Impuls. She also writes poetry and prose. She lives and works in Banja Luka.
- Erdogan & Putin Hold Talks as Turkey Helps Russia Evade Sanctions
Plus: Lithuania supports Pelosi, WNBA star sentenced in Russia, Ukraine slams Amnesty, and more.
The Big Story: Erdogan Meets With Putin as Grain Ships Depart Ukraine
What happened: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Sochi today to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Al-Monitor reports. The two leaders will likely discuss their countries’ roles in the recent escalation in armed conflict in Syria, along with the deal recently brokered by Turkey and the UN that ended Moscow’s blockade of Ukrainian grain shipments.
More context: Three more grain ships have left Ukrainian ports, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced today, in the latest positive results of the grain deal, RFE/RL reports. The ships are destined for Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Turkey, AP reports.
Worth noting: Ankara has not joined war sanctions against Moscow, and Turkish ports are crammed full of products bound for Russia, according to the Turkish outlet Dunya cited by bne Intellinews. Washington is increasingly concerned over NATO-member Turkey’s role as a sanctions-evading hub, as well as Erdogan’s recent meeting with both Putin and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, according to Intellinews.
News from the Regions
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Ukrainian authorities have blasted Amnesty International for accusing Kyiv of endangering its own civilians and violating international law by placing armed forces and weapons in residential areas during the fight against the Russian invasion, Euronews reports. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Ukrainian forces are deployed in cities and populated areas to defend them from Russian attack, adding “The Russian Federation is committing the crime here. Ukraine is protecting its land.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Amnesty “transfers the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.”
- WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison yesterday by a Russian court after pleading guilty to bringing cannabis into the country, ESPN reports. The sentencing of the American athlete sets the stage for a possible prisoner swap that could include Russian national Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer who has been in a U.S. prison since 2011, according to NPR.
- A Ukrainian retiree – who had been told by doctors to avoid stress – used a borrowed grenade launcher to take on a Russian military column, RFE/RL reports. Recently released footage of the incident from late February in Bucha showed destroyed military vehicles scattered across the neighborhood in the aftermath of Valentyn Didkovskiy’s attack on the invading forces.
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Lithuania, which has its own issues with China over Taiwan, was the only EU member to publicly support U.S. congressional leader Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to the island nation earlier this week, EUobserver reports. Amid China’s subsequent show of force in the Taiwan Strait, which Taiwan’s Defense Ministry called “a maritime and aerial blockade,” the G7 foreign ministers, EU chief Josep Borrell, and the United States issued a joint statement condemning China for “increasing tensions and destabilizing the region,” Politico notes.
- In a statement issued from Warsaw, the OSCE has urged governments to ensure that the World War II genocide against the Roma and Sinti is taught in schools, Romea.cz reports. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights issued the statement to coincide with this week’s Roma Holocaust Memorial Day on 2 August.
- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech at the conservative CPAC event in Texas yesterday hit the usual populist themes, mentioning “culture war” and the need “to revitalize our churches, our families,” BIRN reports. The autocratic leader didn’t mention the continuing controversy over his racist speech in late July, or the fact that NATO – which Orban recently criticized for supporting Ukraine – has just deployed troops in Hungary for training exercises.
- Czech police are conducting an internal investigation after a video showed plainclothes officers forcing a woman into an unmarked car during a visit by former Prime Minister Andrej Babis to Cesky Krumlov yesterday, Czech Radio reports. The woman had reportedly attacked one of the officers.
- Coronavirus wards have reopened in three military hospitals in Romania due to “the increase in the number of SARS-CoV-2 infections nationwide,” the Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday, according to Romania Insider. Hospitals in Timisoara, Sibiu, and Cluj-Napoca will “check their COVID-19 support capabilities … to back the efforts of local and central authorities,” the ministry said.
- A Slovenian hydroelectric power station is back online after rain raised the water levels of the Soca River, STA reports. The Solkan Hydropower Plant was shut down for a week due to low water levels.
- The sentencing of a married couple in northern Kazakhstan for calling on Russia to take over the region may be connected to a recent social media post by former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, according to Eurasianet. A local court announced the sentence the day after a quickly deleted post on Medvedev’s account called Kazakhstan “an artificial state.”
- State prosecutors in Armenia are looking to confiscate $100 million in property via an “unexplained wealth” anti-corruption law, Eurasianet reports. The first case under the law in September 2021 led prosecutors to seize an apartment valued at $460,000 along with two BMWs and a Porsche from a former employee of the National Security Service. One of the key promises of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on coming to power in 2018 was to “return the stolen money to the people and the state,” Eurasianet notes.
- The Sarajevo Underground’s Not Dead
A new arts, culture, and lifestyle magazine launches with a mission to give an impetus to subcultural creativity in Sarajevo, a city not yet known for it.
“Rock Under Siege” was a concert held in the center of Sarajevo as it was undergoing the longest siege in modern history at Cinema Sloga, a long-established (and still existing) club and concert venue. Organized by Radio Zid, an independent radio station, on 14 January 1995, 13 local bands – including Ornamenti, Sikter, and Protest – played punk, metal, and techno to a packed house for over five hours while recording a live album. These were not polished and professional acts; they were still demo bands made up of local kids who had written, rehearsed, and played their first shows during wartime.
A young journalist and supremely talented writer named Karim Zaimovic, covering the event for Dani magazine, wrote that the concert was “so good it went beyond the bounds of music.” It was an example of creativity and joy breaking into the most difficult of circumstances, a happening capable of “assuring us that there is still hope.” He quickly added a proviso: “of course, only if it continues like this.”
Tragically, Zaimovic didn’t live to see, nor contribute to, the development of art in Sarajevo after the war; he was killed by a mortar, at the age of 24, just a few months after the concert. And the hard truth is that, nearly three decades later, the hope that he felt on that night remains present but just as fragile as ever.
There are many reasons that Sarajevo’s cultural scene remains a tough place to create art, chief among them the absence of Zaimovic and the thousands of other young, talented people who died during that terrible war. Thousands more have emigrated in the years since, and, every day, more of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s brightest young people leave for attractive jobs in Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. The people leaving now aren’t being driven out by war, but by a lack of opportunities that results from the corrupt and ineffective governance the country is subjected to. Those who want to stay and want to create art are almost totally bereft of support, without even a common space in which young artists can gather to work.
These problems have existed for so long that it has begun to feel like it cannot continue like this. Thankfully, though, you can still find seeds of hope that can grow into something bigger – if you know where to look.
Just last week, a small festival showcased the current generation of Sarajevo’s punk scene – most prominently Moca i Biznismeni as well as younger punkers calling themselves Samo Srce and Srklet. These acts appeared among more commercial, graying bands, but their presence and energy meant a lot. Similarly, the skate scene in Sarajevo is growing too, because the people who love to skate have come together to stop their parks being turned into banks or parking lots and to build new ones. There are certainly talented DJs and producers around town, and the city’s rappers have, over the years, created a sound that is recognizably Sarajevan. And that’s to say nothing of the graffiti artists, painters, poets, and writers who populate and work throughout the city.
In response to this history and this present, we’ve been working on launching PUNKura* Magazine, a new publication that’s intended to elevate those people and works that prove Sarajevo’s scene has something to offer. The project is led by Nardina Zubanovic, a Sarajevan artist and cultural worker, and myself, operating as co-editors, with the involvement of many members of Kolektiv Kreaktiva – an informal cultural association made up of visual artists, musicians, skaters, and filmmakers.
We’re calling it an underground arts, culture, and lifestyle magazine, but, at its core, PUNKura* is meant to be a platform for those people who are working independently, who are creating art or music or communities on their own. And we know where to look to find them.
A magazine capable of representing subcultural creativity does more than just reflect what’s happening, it gives the scene a new impetus. It says, “if you paint a beautiful mural, write a great song or a touching story, there’s a place for you here.” It says, “Keep going …”
We want PUNKura* to exist as a stage, like the one at Sloga, where Sarajevo’s best can appear and make someone feel what Zaimovic felt those many years ago: that there is something happening here, that it is good, and that maybe, maybe, it can keep on rolling. But it has to continue to roll – and we’re trying our hardest to make sure Sarajevo does rock.
Adrian Pecotic is a writer and one of the co-editors of PUNKura*. In order to remain independent of commercial and governmental funding, PUNKura* has launched a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, where those interested can support the magazine and buy the 52-page pilot edition and other cool merch.
- Schools Not Reopening in Russian Border Area With Ukraine
Plus: Major escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh, women-led IT in Central Asia, Slovenia eyes UN Security Council, and more.
The Big Story: Russian Regional Schools to Stay Closed Next Month
What happened: Russian schools in areas bordering Ukraine will not open for the new academic year due to the threat of cross-border attacks from Ukraine, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region announced yesterday, The Moscow Times reports. Russia has blamed Ukraine for several attacks on Belgorod since the start of the Russian invasion, according to the BBC. Ukraine has denied the charge.
Related: Russian recruits being sent to the war’s front line with only days of training, combined with high casualty rates, are most likely hurting the cohesion of the Russian military, The Moscow Times reports. Ukrainian morale is up due to new supplies of Western weapons as Kyiv seeks to reclaim the Russian-occupied south, ABC reports. The Russian military command is having to choose between shoring up defenses in the south or going on the offensive in the eastern Donetsk region, according to a Ukrainian military analyst cited by ABC.
Worth noting: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has slammed former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s attempts at diplomacy with Moscow as “disgusting,” RFE/RL reports. Schroeder met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week and later said the recent deal to end Russia’s blockade of grain shipments could be “slowly expanded to a cease-fire.” Zelenskiy replied yesterday that “It is simply disgusting when former leaders of major states with European values work for Russia, which is at war against these values.”
News from the Regions
- A deadly flare-up in the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has led Armenia to call on the international community to intervene as Russia accused Azerbaijan of breaking the cease-fire, RFE/RL reports. Azerbaijani authorities announced yesterday that an Armenian attack killed an Azerbaijani conscript, followed by the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry conducting an operation dubbed “Revenge” against Armenian forces. Armenia authorities said two ethnic-Armenian soldiers were killed.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The only cargo ship to leave a Ukrainian port so far under the recently brokered grain deal to end the Russian blockade has made it past Istanbul on the way to Lebanon, according to Reuters. Authorities cautioned that it will take months for Ukrainian grain exports to reach prewar levels and make a dent in the global food crisis, the Financial Times reports.
- The UN announced this week that 10 million Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border out of the country while fleeing Russia’s war, EUobserver reports.
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Lithuania is working in consultation with the EU to update its laws dealing with illegal migrants, The Baltic Times reports. Earlier this summer, the EU’s Court of Justice ruled against Lithuania’s automatic detention of people who illegally cross its border from Belarus, saying the policy is incompatible with EU law.
- New outbreaks of the massive wildfire in Czechia, now in its second week, are impeding progress to contain the blaze, Czech Radio reports. The fire in the “Bohemian Switzerland” national park previously spread over the border into Germany, which is having its own wildfire problems – explosions at an ammunition dump started a large fire at a large urban forest outside Berlin this morning, Euronews reports.
- Montenegro’s Ministry of Finance is turning to European banks for financing of the 23.5-kilometer, second section of a highway that will run from the Adriatic coast to Belgrade in Serbia, BIRN reports. The first 41-kilometer phase, which cost over 1 billion euros and was mostly financed by Chinese funds, took seven years to complete and left Montenegro with a public debt equaling almost 91% of the country’s GDP.
- Slovenia is vying for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2024-2025, Total Slovenia News reports. Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon discussed Slovenia’s bid with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and other officials at the UN’s New York headquarters on Monday.
- An international initiative to promote women-led tech startups in Central Asia recently chose 16 projects from Uzbekistan, 15 from Kazakhstan, 12 from Kyrgyzstan, two from Tajikistan, and one from Turkmenistan, The Astana Times reports. The chosen projects have been included in acceleration programs conducted by international experts, which include training in financial literacy, public speaking, time management, and other subjects.
- Hungary’s Orban Visits Trump in Wake of PM’s Racist Speech
Plus: Lavrov hearts Myanmar junta, giant pro-Ukraine art in Vilnius, firewood hoarding, and more.
The Big Story: Orban Greeted by Ex-Prez Trump Despite ‘Nazi’ Speech Controversy
What happened: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited yesterday former U.S. President Donald Trump at one of the ex-president’s luxury golf resorts in New Jersey less than two weeks after the Central European leader’s now-infamous “mixed race” speech, Bloomberg reports.
More context: Orban is in the United States to attend this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas along with Trump, who issued a statement saying it was “great spending time with my friend.” Orban’s speech in Romania in late July was described by his own long-term advisor – who resigned over the incident – as a “pure Nazi text worthy of Goebbels.”
Worth noting: CPAC was enthused last month when announcing Orban’s visit, saying “He and President Trump forged a special relationship … they both understand that we should not be controlled by the UN, the EU, radical, woke corporatists, or the billionaires.” However, the conservative organization became a bit more circumspect after Orban’s public tirade about race mixing. “Let’s listen to the man speak,” CPAC chair Matt Schlapp said after the speech. “We’ll see what he says. And if people have a disagreement with something he says, they should raise it.”
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- The ruling right-wing party in Poland has stepped up its rhetorical attacks on transgender people to shore up political support in the run-up to next year’s elections, BIRN reports. The Law and Justice party is slipping in opinion polls and Poland still hasn’t received the 35 billion euros in EU funds blocked over the continuing rule-of-law dispute between the government and the European Commission, Politico reports.
- A former member of the Riga city council was arrested earlier this week by the Latvian State Security Service on charges of publicly supporting Russian war crimes against Ukraine, violating international sanctions, and spreading disinformation about Latvia and its allies, BNN reports, citing LETA. Ruslans Pankratovs visited Russian-occupied Ukrainian cities in mid-July and took part in a press conference organized by the occupational forces, according to the Latvia TV3 channel cited by LETA.
- An art project in Lithuania has placed a giant image of a Ukrainian woman wearing a traditional dress on the outside of the former Moscow House in Vilnius, LRT reports. The 200-square-meter photo by Ukrainian photographer Olena Tytarenko, featuring a volunteer working at the Zaporizhzhia Refugee Center, was taken during a photoshoot at a workshop where Ukrainian volunteers make anti-tank obstacles and other equipment for Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion. Estonian artist, engineer, and inventor Mihkel Joala oversaw the installation of the image. Donations from Lithuanians fully funded the project’s 13,000-euro budget.
- Europe is stocking up on firewood and supplies are running low as energy prices increase and Russian cutoffs threaten the supply of gas. From Slovakia and Ukraine to Belgium and Holland, worried consumers are rushing to buy this traditional heating source, according to multiple news outlets.
- The Albanian prime minister is attacking the media for focusing on a seaside accident in Vlora yesterday where an off-duty police officer’s boat reportedly killed a child, BIRN reports. Edi Rama blamed “political-media animalism” who report on “nothing but disaster to fuel the fire of their unjust and hopeless political war,” BIRN reports. On the same day of the accident, the state police fired the entire chain of command of the region’s Directorate for Border and Migration over inadequate “measures to prevent incidents with watercraft in coastal areas.” The accident was the third this summer involving boat collisions, Exit News reports.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Moldova’s pro-Russian opposition leader and former president, Igor Dodon – currently under house arrest on treason charges – called yesterday for snap elections while urging the pro-Western government to negotiate with Moscow for cheaper natural gas from Russia as prices soar, Eurasianet reports. Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spinu recently announced that Moldovagaz, the national gas company, had asked Russia’s Gazprom for a delay in payments amid recent price spikes.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Myanmar meeting with the junta and expressing support for the military leaders’ efforts to “stabilize” the nation, according to Russian state media cited by The Moscow Times. Myanmar has been in upheaval since the military coup last year, with over 2,100 people killed in the efforts to suppress all opposition, according to a local monitor cited by the Times. Myanmar’s prisons and interrogation centers routinely detain and torture dissenters for resisting the coup, Amnesty International said yesterday in a new briefing.
- Authorities in Uzbekistan are unblocking the social media platforms Twitter, WeChat, and Vkontakte while considering an end to the TikTok ban, the country’s media regulator announced this week, according to Eurasianet. The bans date back to July 2021 when the government declared that multiple social media platforms violated laws on protection of personal data by not hosting servers inside Uzbekistan, though critics say the server issue was an excuse for restrictions on self-expression.
- Armenia’s negotiations with Turkey aimed at cooling down tensions in the region are showing progress, Al-Monitor reports. Cargo flights from Turkey to Armenia are set to restart soon after 10 years, and a hoped-for opening of the land border between the two countries could quickly boost Armenia’s economy by 30%, Armenian Economy Minister Vahan Kerobyan said this week.
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