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Archive for March, 2014

Slovakia to hold a presidential runoff election

March 16, 2014

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Two candidates will compete in a runoff ballot to become Slovakia’s next president, election results indicated Sunday.

They are Prime Minister Robert Fico and businessman-turned philanthropist Andrej Kiska, who beat 12 other candidates in the first round of voting on Saturday. Fico, who won 28 percent of the vote, and Kiska, who got 24 percent, will compete in a March 29 election for the presidency, a largely ceremonial post.

Radoslav Prochazka, an independent conservative lawmaker with a degree from Yale Law School, was third with 21.3 percent. Milan Knazko, a leading figure of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, finished a distant fourth with 12.9 percent.

Fico’s first-round victory was less convincing than expected since public polls had predicted he could win up to 40 percent. “I have no reason to be disappointed,” Fico said about the election result. “I have won the first round.”

The leader of Slovakia’s dominant left-leaning SMER-Social Democracy party is the country’s most popular politician. The 49-year-old led his party to a landslide victory in the 2012 parliamentary election. That allowed it to govern alone, the first time a single party has held power in Slovakia since its 1993 split from Czechoslovakia.

Fico said Saturday’s relatively low turnout — 43.4 percent — might have been to blame. Looking ahead to the runoff, he has said his election would ensure political stability in Slovakia. While he served as Slovakia’s prime minister, it adopted the euro currency in 2009. Fico was a vocal opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but he supported the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

Kiska, 51, who has no experience in politics, attracts voters who are appalled by corruption and mainstream politics. He has said he wants to persuade those who voted for unsuccessful candidates in the first round to vote for him in the runoff.

“I’m sure I won’t disappoint them,” he said.

Prime minister leads in Slovak presidential race

March 16, 2014

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — Preliminary partial results from Slovakia’s presidential election are indicating the favored prime minister and his major rival are leading the first round of the race.

Results by the Statistics Office from 58.5 percent of almost 6,000 polling stations counted by Saturday night showed leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico leading with 28.0 percent while businessman-turned philanthropist Andrej Kiska in second with 24.1 percent.

An independent conservative lawmaker with a degree from Yale Law School Radoslav Prochazka was third with 20.8 percent while Milan Knazko, a leading figure of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, was distant fourth with 12.6 percent.

Final results are expected Sunday. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent, the top two will advance to a second round on March 29.

Serbia votes in early parliamentary election

March 16, 2014

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbs are voting in an early parliamentary election that is expected to benefit the governing Serbian Progressive Party, which has promised to fight crime and corruption in the troubled Balkan nation.

Sunday’s vote comes as Serbia is seeking entry into the European Union. Analysts say the Progressives, leaders of the previous coalition government, could win an absolute majority in the 250-member parliament, given divisions within the opposition. The Socialists, whose leader Ivica Dacic is the premier, were trailing in the polls.

Serbian Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vucic, a former hardline nationalist ally of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, is expected to become the next prime minister. Vucic has promised painful reforms needed to help Serbia’s economy, which has been ravaged by wars and international sanctions.

Scotland’s Vikings go own way in independence vote

March 23, 2014

GULBERWICK, Scotland (AP) — In the late winter dusk, hundreds of Vikings are marching down to the beach, bearing flaming torches. Their studded leather breastplates glint in the firelight as they roar and sing.

It’s a scene that would have struck terror into the hearts of Dark Age Britons — and also perhaps an unsettling one for modern politicians on both sides of Scotland’s independence debate. The fearsome-looking participants in a Viking fire festival known as Up Helly Aa live in Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands, a wind-whipped northern archipelago where many claim descent from Scandinavian raiders. They are cool to the idea of Scotland leaving Britain to form an independent nation, and determined that their rugged islands — closer to Norway than to Edinburgh — will retain their autonomy, whatever the outcome of September’s referendum.

“Shetland is different. We have Viking blood in our veins,” said the procession’s magnificently bearded chief Viking, or Jarl — by day a local authority housing officer named Keith Lobban. There are only 23,000 Shetlanders, too few to make much difference to the outcome of the independence vote. But they have Viking-sized confidence, and a big bargaining chip: a chunk of Britain’s oil and gas reserves lie beneath Shetland waters.

Shetlanders are seeking new powers and official recognition of their special status — possibly along the lines of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing dependency of Denmark. The islanders feel their moment may have come, as Scotland’s fluid constitutional status gives them opportunities to seek concessions from both sides.

Tavish Scott, Shetland’s representative in the Scottish Parliament, said an independent Scotland “doesn’t have an economy if oil and gas doesn’t happen. And that gives Shetland some leverage.” A “yes” vote for independence on Sept. 18 would trigger complex negotiations between Edinburgh and London over Scotland’s share of Britain’s offshore oil and gas — and of its trillion-pound national debt. A “no” vote is likely to lead to talks about giving Scotland more power of its economy and resources — especially its energy reserves.

Authorities in Shetland, which enjoys many local-government powers such as raising taxes and running schools, see the referendum as a chance to drive a hard bargain — something at which they have considerable experience.

For centuries, Shetland was a poor place, ignored by governments far to the south and reliant on the unpredictable fishery industry and on making knitwear from sturdy local sheep. But the islands have prospered since large reserves of oil were discovered offshore in the 1960s. Construction of Sullom Voe, one of Europe’s largest oil and gas terminals, brought jobs and new migrants who reversed decades of population decline.

Amid the rush of discovery, Shetland negotiated a generous compensation agreement with eager oil companies — creating an oil fund that has helped give the island chain well-paved roads, plentiful swimming pools and well-equipped community centers.

These days, oil production is dwindling, but French energy company Total is building a new natural gas plant on the islands. Shetlanders are keen to have control over their resources — oil, gas, fish and even wind — and are wary of government meddling, no matter where that government is based.

“Whether decisions are made in Edinburgh or in London, they are still distant from Shetland,” said Adam Civico, editor of the Shetland Times newspaper. Local lawmakers have suggested that Shetland and the neighboring Orkney islands might demand a bigger share of oil and gas revenue as a condition for joining Scotland. An online petition on the Scottish government website calls for residents of Shetland, Orkney and Scotland’s Western Isles to hold separate referenda on whether to join an independent Scotland, stick with Britain or declare independence — although any of those moves would require protracted negotiations, and the petition has only 525 signatories so far.

Officials in the island groups have formed the “Our Islands, Our Future” campaign to seek more power after the referendum, whatever the result. “We want to make sure that out of this big constitutional debate, we decide what we want for our future, because Edinburgh doesn’t tend to pay much attention to the islands,” Scott, the lawmaker, told the BBC.

Scott speaks with a confidence that’s the product of centuries of difference from the rest of Scotland. It’s hard to find tartan or kilts in Shetland, where Norse pride replaces the Celtic influence that shaped mainland Scotland. Shetland was Viking-ruled until it was mortgaged to Scotland by the king of Norway in 1469 to raise a dowry for his daughter.

There are still many Norse words in the local dialect, and Shetland abounds in Scandinavian place names such as Vidlin and Tingwall. With its raging surf, treeless hills and black volcanic rock, parts of Shetland could double for Iceland.

“I always feel when I go to Scotland I’m learning about someone else’s heritage rather than my own,” said Edna Irvine, who runs a clothing shop in Lerwick, Shetland’s only town. The most spectacular sign of Shetland’s cultural difference is Up Helly Aa, a series of festivals held in communities across the islands in wintertime whose name means roughly “the end of the holidays.”

The event’s focus is a fiery parade — powered by marching songs and brass bands — that ends when the well-drilled amateur Vikings hurl their torches onto a replica longship that has taken months to build. The orange fireball lights up the night sky. Once the vessel has sunk, smoldering, into the sea, the participants head to local halls for evenings of music and comic skits that are part barn dance, part Mardi Gras.

“Viking heritage means everything to Shetland folk,” said 24-year-old Paul Hutton, eyeglasses glinting under his Viking helmet at an Up Helly Aa procession in the village of Gulberwick. “Shetland heritage and Shetland culture is so strong that everybody would say we are definitely Shetland first. Shetland first, and then Scottish, then part of the United Kingdom.”

That distinct identity makes Shetlanders weigh up the pros and cons of independence differently to other Scots. For many on the Scottish mainland — home to most of the country’s 5.3 million people — the decision is a battle between heart and head, between Scots’ famous prudence and their longstanding adventurousness.

The pro-independence forces led by First Minister Alex Salmond say an independent Scotland will use its oil and gas wealth to create a prosperous and progressive nation of 5.3 million with generous welfare provisions — a bit like Scandinavia, in fact.

The anti-independence “Better Together” campaign argues that independence would bring huge economic uncertainties. Scots could face the loss of their currency, the British pound, and an end to European Union membership. Some say British companies headquartered in Scotland will pack up and move south of the border, while military shipbuilding will desert shipyards near Glasgow and Edinburgh for English ports. Battles over who owns the North Sea oil and gas could drag on for years.

Most polls show the “No” side ahead, but up to 1 million voters remain undecided. In Shetland, a strong sense of independence is balanced by a pragmatic streak that has led many to conclude their best bet is to remain part of Britain.

“I don’t think isolation works anymore,” said David Suckley, who runs an engineering firm in Lerwick. “We all depend on one other to such an extent nowadays. “You can be too independent, and you’re very lonely then.”

Hungary’s prime minster readies for elections

March 29, 2014

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s prime minister on Saturday predicted “a bright and great victory” in next week’s parliamentary elections for his governing Fidesz party, which has a substantial lead in the polls.

According to the Interior Ministry, around 450,000 supporters attended the rally at Heroes Square to hear Premier Viktor Orban, who said victory on April 6 would give his government the opportunity to tackle some of Hungary’s main challenges like job creation, an aging population and education reform.

“We are here to tell each other, the country and the world that we ask for four more years,” Orban said. “We are the favorites in this election.” The latest opinion polls show around 50 percent of likely voters backing Fidesz, about 20 percent support for the left-wing coalition led by the Socialist Party and 15 percent for the far-right Jobbik party.

Despite the favorable figures, Orban urged the crowd to vote “because there is no opportunity which cannot be wasted.” The upcoming elections will be the first under new rules created by Orban’s government.

The number of lawmakers will fall from 386 to 199 in a single round of voting, strict limits have been placed on campaign ads, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians from the neighboring countries and abroad who hold dual citizenship are expected to vote for the first time and, critics say, a reshaping needed because of population shifts has been used by Fidesz to gerrymander the voting districts.

During his 21-minute speech, Orban spoke about the policies and achievements of the past four years, like the repayment of a 2008 bailout loan from International Monetary Fund, heavy taxes on banks and multinational companies and a public works program which has pushed down the unemployment rate.

Fidesz and its small ally, the Christian Democrats, won a two-thirds majority in 2010, a win Orban has described a “revolution in the voting booth.” The landslide result allowed Fidesz to adopt a new constitution and reshape many aspects of Hungarian life, mostly by centralizing power and increasing the role of the state.

Crimea’s Tatars condemn annexation, seek autonomy

March 29, 2014

BAKCHYSARAI, Crimea (AP) — Leaders of Crimea’s Tatar minority gathered Saturday to condemn Russia’s annexation of the peninsula and appealed to international bodies for recognition as an autonomous group.

Tatars, an ethnically Turkic and mainly Muslim group that was subjected to mass deportation from their native Crimea by Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944, gathered to forge a collective response to Russia’s absorption of their native region.

Decisions on whether to accept Russian citizenship and possible participation in a Moscow-loyal government were deferred as the community further contemplates its options. But the forum of about 250 delegates underscored difficulties Russia will face in integrating a community that resisted annexation and largely boycotted the March 16 referendum to join Russia.

According to the most recent Ukrainian national census, carried out in 2001, the 245,000-strong Tatar community accounted for 12 percent of Crimea’s population. But anecdotal evidence of higher birth rates and a continued return of Tatars from exile in Central Asia suggest those figures may have grown markedly since then.

The Kremlin decision to annex this strategic Black Sea region, which has a large Russian majority, was backed by rhetoric of national self-determination, as Moscow argued that pro-Russian Crimeans had the right to break away from Ukraine.

“Recently, all decisions (by Russia) have been based on the presupposed right of every nation to self-determination,” said Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatar governing body. “One must now conclude that the Crimean Tatar people also have that right.”

Chubarov also appealed to the international community to recognize the Crimean Tatars as a “national territorial autonomy,” but fell short of demanding a referendum on independence or allegiance to Ukraine.

Yet the vociferous tone of the delegates who spoke demonstrated the lingering rage within the Tatar community. “Russia turned us out three times,” Aishe Setmetova, an elderly woman in a knit sweater, bellowed from the stage. “They think of us as worthless objects. I do not believe in Russia.”

Crimea’s Tatars began to return to their native peninsula in the late 1980s with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The population is growing fast compared to the ageing Russian population and presents the Kremlin with a long-term problem of integration.

Russia and the local Crimean government have assured Tatars that their rights will be fully respected on the peninsula. Tatar is to be elevated to one of the three state languages and the community has been given loose assurances it will be guaranteed a prominent political status.

But Tatars, who ruled the peninsula from the 15th century until the Russian Empire took it over in the 18th century, remain deeply skeptical of Moscow’s intentions. “We, as the native people of this land, shouldn’t collaborate with an occupying power,” congress delegate Ilver Ametov said.

“Ukraine, too, wasn’t our home, but at least it was a democracy,” he said. “There’s a story we have about the dog who ran to Moscow because things were better over there, but ran back to Ukraine because at least here he’s allowed to bark.”

Land key as Crimea’s Tatars discuss future plans

March 28, 2014

SIMFEROPOL, Crimea (AP) — As armed pro-Russian forces spread out across Crimea, Mustafa Maushev joined his Tatar neighbors on a nightly vigil to keep intruders off their property.

Almost exactly 70 years ago, Tatars were expelled from their homeland as a result of one of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s merciless mass deportations of perceived enemies of the state. Decades later, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, many returned and slowly reclaimed their place.

Following a March referendum that ended with Crimea breaking away from Ukraine and being swallowed up by Russia, disquiet is stirring that the Tatars’ hard-fought hold over their land could be lost once again.

On Saturday, 250 delegates are gathering in the southern Crimean town of Bakchysarai for a traditional Tatar Qurultay congress to decide whether to hold a referendum on yielding to absorption by Russia or clinging to their Ukrainian citizenship. The former choice might be easier, but few have any illusions.

“Russia is offering us all sorts of nice things. But we understand the essence of the Russian empire, because we are its victims,” said Zevget Kutumerov, a Tatar with extensive experience of dealing with land issues. “If (Russian President Vladimir) Putin says a word, they’ll pass any law tomorrow. That’s what we’re afraid of.”

One of the Tatars’ greatest problems is their legally tenuous control over the land on which they live. Maushev, a neighborhood delegate to the kurultai, arrived penniless from Uzbekistan in 1989 and was forced to scrabble and find a home for himself.

Linking up with about 100 other homeless Tatars, he pitched a tent in a field on the outskirts of the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Each settler built a “vremyanka,” or makeshift hut, which provided just enough shelter for squatters guarding the land overnight.

“About 30 or 40 people kept watch here at night so that nobody would trespass, nobody would come and break down the vremyankas,” Maushev said. By the community’s own estimates, Tatars on average own two-fifths as much land as ethnic Russians in Crimea. While Tatars account for only 12 percent of the peninsula’s population, space still remains tight for younger generations raising large families.

After a decade-long moratorium in which no group settlements were founded, Crimean Tatars organized thousands of land seizures in 2006, as the children of the first wave of migrants grew up, made families, and felt cramped in the old settlements.

“I was living in an apartment with my mother, grandmother, everyone — female warfare, every day,” said Sedomed Setumerov, who lives about a kilometer down the road from Maushev in a newer settlement. Yet regardless of how the kurultai dictates Tatars should determine their fealty, whatever victories the community has scored in securing land may yet be lost. Many Tatars worry that Russian laws will limit their ability to press for the government to recognized their land ownership.

In Russia, heavy fines are levied on those who participate in unsanctioned protests, which often end within minutes as demonstrators are swept brutally away. Setumerov moved here in 2010, and now lives in a self-built house with his wife and his three young children. The vast field around them, empty but for the identical but crumbling vremyanki on equal plots of land, gives it the air of a ghost town.

They have lived for three years without running water or electricity, using a generator that has enough gusto for a few lamps and a television but not for a washing machine. They are waiting for the government to recognize them as the owners of the land, which will allow them to use electricity and water from the public grid.

Setumerov acknowledges the wait may be long — especially now that Russia has annexed Crimea — but says it’s worth it. “I’d still rather live in a vremyanka,” he said. “At least it’s quiet and the air is fresh.”

Busloads of Ukrainian troops leave Crimea

March 25, 2014

FEODOSIA, Crimea (AP) — As former comrades saluted them from outside a base overrun by Russian forces, Ukrainian marines in Crimea piled into buses Tuesday to head back to the mainland.

It was a low-key exit from this eastern Black Sea port, with fewer than a dozen friends and relatives on hand to bid the marines farewell. A troop transporter bearing black Russian military plates trailed the bus as it pulled away.

Their departure came as Ukraine’s defense minister stepped down after harsh criticism for authorities’ often-hesitant reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which was formalized following a hastily organized referendum this month. And while Ukraine struggled to deal with its humbling by Russia, it also faced the menace of seething Ukrainian nationalists angered by the police killing of a leading radical.

Troops were given the stark choice of either staying in Crimea and switching allegiance to serve under Russia’s military, or leaving the peninsula to keep their jobs with the Ukrainian defense forces.

“The Russians threatened, intimidated, bullied and tried to get us to switch sides to Russia. It has been very difficult to resist this enormous pressure but I have made a choice that I can live with,” Senior Lt. Anatoly Mozgovoy told The Associated Press after arriving in the Ukrainian city of Genichesk .

“We were greeted as heroes in Ukraine. I was able to breathe freely for the first time in months,” the 30-year-old Mozgovoy said. He said he left behind his wife and 7-month-old daughter, who were staying with his mother-in-law in Crimea until he finds out where he is being permanently deployed.

So far, 131 Ukrainian marines have left Crimea, the defense ministry said. They were being temporarily stationed at a military barracks in Genichesk but their final destination was still unclear. At a summit on nuclear security in The Hague, Netherlands, President Barack Obama said Russian troops would not be dislodged from Crimea by force.

He noted that one of the achievements of his first nuclear summit in 2010 “was Ukraine’s decision to remove all of its highly enriched uranium from its nuclear fuel sites.” “Had that not happened, those dangerous nuclear materials would still be there now. And the difficult situation we’re dealing with in Ukraine today would involve yet another level of concern,” Obama said.

In an address to parliament in the capital, Kiev, Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh denied that he had failed to issue clear instructions to his troops but reserved the right to resign. The order to withdraw from Crimea was issued Monday, a week after many bases had already been stormed and seized by pro-Russian forces.

Lawmakers initially refused Tenyukh’s resignation but later accepted it and replaced him with Col. Gen. Mykhailo Koval. About 4,300 Ukrainian servicemen and 2,200 of their relatives have asked to leave Crimea, Tenyukh said Tuesday. That means about two-thirds of the 18,800 military personnel and relatives that he said were stationed on the Black Sea peninsula were taking their chances in Crimea.

Tenyukh said accommodations for incoming soldiers were being prepared at boarding houses and other facilities in Kiev. Oleksandr Rozmaznin, deputy chief of operations for Ukraine’s armed forces, said navy troops were being redeployed in port cities along Ukraine’s southern mainland — in Odessa, Mykolaiv and Kherson.

The Defense Ministry, meanwhile, said 11 of its servicemen have been abducted by Russian troops and remain unaccounted for, including Col. Yuliy Mamchur, a commander who earned wide acclaim in Ukraine for defying besieging pro-Russian forces until his base was stormed over the weekend.

Ukraine’s new government is struggling to consolidate control amid ominous signals of discontent from Right Sector, a radical nationalist movement that played a key role in the anti-government demonstrations that prompted President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia in February.

One radical, Oleksandr Muzychko, was shot dead overnight as he was being detained by police, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday. Moscow has cited the alleged influence of nationalist groups like Right Sector to justify its hasty annexation of Crimea, which has a large Russian majority.

Russian state television, which is widely viewed by Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population in the east, has regularly aired lurid reports on Muzychko’s antics as part of what media analysts say is a sustained effort to undermine the government in Kiev.

But many in Ukraine downplay the group’s importance and it has no posts in the new government. Police say Muzychko was being sought for organized crime links, hooliganism and threatening public officials.

Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh lashed out at his killing. “We cannot silently watch as the Interior Ministry carries out active anti-revolutionary activities,” Yarosh said. His group demanded the immediate resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and the arrest of the head of the Sokol special forces.

Amid the country’s political turmoil, Ukraine’s economy is in a dire state and representatives from the International Monetary Fund have been holding talks with the new government for weeks on the terms of a potential bailout.

Officials in Moscow, meanwhile, warned Kiev that the country’s new government will have to pay more for Russian gas. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said a gas discount that Russia had previously given Ukraine was linked to the Russian Black Sea fleet’s lease in Crimea and is no longer valid.

But he added that the Russian natural gas giant Gazprom would have to set the new price. In November, Russia agreed to help prop up Yanukovych’s teetering government by selling Ukraine gas at $268.50 per thousand cubic meters, but that discounted price has been scrapped. Ukraine’s Energy Minister Yury Prodan said Tuesday that Kiev would pay Gazprom no more than $387 per thousand cubic meters for gas.

The U.S. and the EU have both hit Russia with sanctions for annexing Crimea, and NATO member Norway on Tuesday suspended joint activities with Russia’s military. But Russia has so far shrugged off the sanctions, including being tossed out of the elite Group of Eight developed nations.

Officials say the other G-8 nations will meet, without Russia, in Brussels in June.

Leonard and Yuras Karmanau reported from Kiev. Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.

Ukraine orders troop pullout from Crimea

March 24, 2014

NOVOOZERNOE, Crimea (AP) — Russia’s foreign minister met with his Ukrainian counterpart for the first time on Monday and demanded more autonomy for Ukraine’s regions, even as Ukraine under pressure ordered its troops out from Crimea after the Russian seizure of military bases there.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an unexpected move agreed to the highest level meeting yet between the Russian government and a representative of the new Ukrainian government that Moscow has opposed vociferously over the past month.

The meeting took place on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Hague, Netherlands. Lavrov told Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia that Russia continues to want constitutional changes in Ukraine that would give more autonomy to all regions of Ukraine.

Russia is eager to retain its influence in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions and prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. It has pushed for the new Ukraine to become a loose federation — demands the new Ukrainian government has rejected.

Before the meeting, Deshchytsia said his government fears a Russian military buildup near Ukraine’s border. “The possibility of a military invasion is very high. We are very much worried about this concentration of troops on our eastern border,” he said.

The concerns have been deepened in by the intense military pressure Russia has applied in Crimea since Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed the peninsula last week. Russian forces have commandeered ships and broke into walled military installations with armored personnel carriers.

In the bay of Donuzlav in western Crimea, dozens of Ukrainian sailors marooned on the Konstantin Olshanskiy navy landing vessel abandoned ship Monday after weeks of tension and uncertainty. The Olshanskiy and two other warships have been trapped in the bay since Russian forces scuttled mothballed ships at the bay’s inlet.

The sailors, using a small rubber boat that needed several trips to ferry them to land, were greeted by the taunts of hecklers on the shore. One man shouted they were deserting “rats,” while another man blasted the Russian national anthem from his car.

“We aren’t rats, we aren’t running,” said one sailor, who only gave his first name of Yevgeny to discuss a sensitive subject. “Why should we have stayed, what would we have accomplished?” Twenty out of the estimated 60 sailors originally on board remained on the ship, which was later in the day stormed by armed men, presumed to be Russian forces.

Defense Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the crew, which barricaded itself in the bulkhead, heard stun grenades and rifle fire. At a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, two injured servicemen were taken captive earlier in the day and as many as 80 were detained at the site, Ukrainian officials said.

With the storming of at least three military facilities in Crimea over the past three days — and the decision by some Ukrainian troops to stay employed by switching to the Russian side — it wasn’t clear how many Ukrainian troops remained on the peninsula. The former chief of Ukraine’s navy, who was charged with treason after he swore allegiance to Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities and urged others to defect, was named a deputy chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchnynov, whose new government in Kiev has struggled to maintain control and cohesion, signed a decree Monday ordering the withdrawal of all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland.

But in remarks that seemed to underline the disarray that has characterized the Ukrainian authorities, the Defense Ministry spokesman later stated he had heard about no such order.

Leonard reported from Kiev. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report. Julie Pace reported from the Hague.

Greece child abuse rises as economy falters

29 Mar 2014

John Psaropoulos

Economic crisis has been linked to a growing number of abandoned and abused children, straining local charities.

Athens, Greece – Haritina is a fine-boned, well-mannered 16-year-old. She’s earned top marks in school and wants to study ancient Greek civilization in university. What sets her apart from most people is that since the age of three she has been raised in a home run by The Smile of the Child, a non-profit organization.

Like the 25 other children in this suburban Athens home, whom she considers siblings, Haritina was at some point abandoned or abused by her parents. Such instances of abandonment, abuse or extreme neglect of children have been on the rise during Greece’s economic crisis, and have now begun to overwhelm institutions which are capable of caring for them.

“The crisis has caused parents to lose their jobs, or to live in a state of terror because they can’t feed their families,” says Kostas Yannopoulos, who founded The Smile of the Child 18 years ago. “They start drinking, some commit suicide, some take drugs, some become mentally unbalanced. This impacts their children and in some cases endangers their lives.”

The Smile of the Child runs a 24-hour hotline and relays reports of abuse, neglect, or abandonment to the authorities. Sometimes they are unable to act in time.

“The prosecutor tells us that there is a lack of places for children to go to, so they are left in their abusive environment,” Yannopoulos says. “Not long ago, we had a case of a [little girl] who, on four separate occasions, was reported as being abused. She was found dead in her fridge at home. Her mother, a drug addict, had abused her to death and hidden her [body] there.” The Smile of the Child, however, did rescue the girl’s two little siblings.

On other occasions the hotline has saved lives. “We received a call from a father who could no longer provide for his family. He was about to commit suicide. We got his 17-year-old son on the phone, who said, ‘Please, dad, we need you,’ and talked him down.”

The effect of the crisis on families is evident in the organization’s aid to families who are emotionally stable enough to supervise their children. Last year, it delivered food and other aid to more than 2,600 families, twice as many as the year before.

Lack of state institutions

But it is the children who are emotionally orphaned that need help the most. Last year, The Smile of the Child increased its capacity and is now home to a record 306 minors. Greece’s other major non-profit childcare organization, SOS Children’s Villages, is also filled to capacity at 250, and plans to expand. Its director, Stelios Sifnios, agrees that cases of neglect and abuse are on the rise. The number of children that a third charity, Kivotos, cares for doubled from about 100 to over 200.

The Smile of the Child and SOS Children’s Villages are vitally important for vulnerable children because the government does not have the means and institutions to adequately support each abandoned child.

“Often the buildings are old and grand,” says Efi Bekou, general secretary for social security. “They are difficult to heat and maintain, and not all their wings are working. Most date to the early 20th century. In the town of Drama, for instance, our [social services center] used to be the old Ottoman hospital.”

The overflow of abandoned or abused children is now being directed to the state hospital system. The country’s two largest children’s hospitals, Agia Sofia and Aglaia Kyriakou, served as temporary homes to 177 children three years ago; that number rose to 216 two years ago and 301 last year.

Manolis Papasavvas, who runs both institutions, considers this as an inadequate solution. “In the past, children didn’t stay for more than two to three weeks. Now, we keep them for up to two to three months. It’s not the best thing for a healthy child to live in a hospital. It’s not good for them psychologically, and they can catch illnesses. And we shouldn’t be occupying the nursing staff with their care.”

Children aren’t allowed off hospital premises. There is a schoolroom in the hospital, but a network of volunteers is all they have for stimulation and companionship outside the school. Yet, even living in a hospital turns out to be better than what these children have experienced before. “What surprises me is that these children say to me, ‘It’s nice here, we feel welcome here,'” says Papasavvas.

An economic issue?

Abandonment often used to be the result of birth defects. Increasingly, though, it seems to be directly or indirectly a result of economic issues. “Last year, a parent brought their two-month-old boy to the hospital and left it by the elevators,” says Papasavvas. “They left a note saying, ‘I don’t want this child, I can’t take care of it, please take it.’ The child was entirely healthy.”

The health ministry says it is now preparing a new center to house healthy children currently in its hospitals, but it will only be able to accommodate about a tenth of them.

As the problem of abused, neglected and abandoned children grows, authorities are beginning to realize the ineffectiveness of dealing with the situation piecemeal. They do not even know the extent of it because neither social security nor prosecutors, who issue guardianship and adoption orders to public institutions and foster homes, have the staff to classify cases or produce centralized statistics.

In early March, Bekou invited private institutions to coordinate their actions, even though friction between the government and private sector exists. “I want [state] institutions to be better known… It’s not necessarily known that they exist,” says Bekou. “The state always has a greyer, mustier and more worn image. But it’s wrong to say that the state is entirely absent.”

Funding and taxes

Money will likely be a lively topic in this dialogue. Social security spent $13m on both children and the handicapped last year. The Smile of the Child and SOS Children’s Villages together raised $20.5m entirely from individual and corporate donations – a remarkable feat in a recession, largely thanks to a painstakingly built grassroots funding network and overseas remittances.

Despite the two non-profit groups’ significant contribution, the state has made life difficult for them during the crisis. A 2010 law stopped recognizing donations as tax-deductible, even as corporate social responsibility became vitally important. The law started taxing donations to the tune of 0.5 percent, and forced non-profit groups to pay 23 percent VAT on fundraising revenues. More recently, they have been forced to pay property taxes. In all, the two charities paid just under half-a-million dollars in taxes last year.

The figures suggest that wealth redistribution has failed to address Greece’s massive social distress. The country now has the fourth-highest rate of childhood poverty across the European Union according to Caritas, a Catholic charity.

However, Greece also has a powerful tradition of philanthropy dating back to ancient times, and it is this, rather than taxation, which has saved children like Haritina.

“When children have healthy role models and receive the love they need, they are emotionally full and can make their way in the world, even if that love hasn’t come from their biological parents,” says Stefania Tekou, a social worker who looks after the 26 children in Haritina’s home. She is assisted by a staff of 15 teachers and nurses, who care for the children around the clock.

Tekou recounts a recent conversation with Haritina. “She turned to me and said, ‘When I grow up and have children, I won’t need a nanny. I’ll have 16 grandmothers!’ We were all very moved by that.”

Source: al-Jazeera.


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