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German chancellor reaffirms Nato’s commitment to defend member states in eastern Europe.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images.
Reuters in Berlin.
Angela Merkel has accused Russia of interfering in the domestic affairs of countries that are seeking closer ties to the European Union.
“Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine are three countries in our eastern neighbourhood that have taken sovereign decisions to sign an association agreement with the EU,” Merkel told the German daily Die Welt in an interview. “Russia is creating problems for all three of these countries.”
She pointed to “frozen conflicts” in breakaway regions such as Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as Russian interference in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow has shown its displeasure with Moldova’s pro-European course – confirmed in an election last week in which a pro-Russia candidate was prevented from participating – by banning imports of Moldovan wines, vegetables and meat.
Last month Vladimir Putin signed a strategic partnership agreement with Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia, drawing strong criticism from Nato and the EU.
Merkel also accused Moscow of trying to make countries in the western Balkans economically and politically dependent on Russia in order to gain influence there.
She defended her decision at a Nato summit in 2008 not to put Ukraine and Georgia on track for membership of the military alliance, but reaffirmed Nato’s commitment to defend countries in eastern Europe that are members.
“There is no reason to talk about a war in the Baltics. But regardless, article 5 of the Nato treaty, which sees an attack on one member as an attack on the alliance as a whole, stands,” Merkel said.
A priest tries to stop a fight between the protesters and the riot police in the downtown of Kyiv on Jan. 22. © AFP
Ukraine is facing an end of obviously the hardest year it has had since gaining independence in 1991. Three month-long EuroMaidan Revolution took the power away from corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych and his government that he kept on a short leash. It led to more than 100 people dead, some of them foreign citizens.
Berkut, a special unit of local police, guards the street in the center of Kyiv on Jan. 23. © AFP
Pivot towards the European Union, that Yanukovych strongly opposed, was followed by the Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine and a home for 2.4 million people. A so called referendum that was held on March 16 became a basis for Vladimir Putin-led Russia to take the control over the Ukrainian land.
A local musician plays the piano set on the anti-government barricade in Kyiv during a concert organized on Feb. 10. © AFP
Putin didn’t stop there. On Apr. 6 his camouflaged troops, that called themselves “people’s militia”, started an invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in Ukraine’s east. Almost 1,200 Ukrainian soldiers were killed since then in an anti-terrorist operation focused at pushing the separatists and Russian army out of the Ukrainian territory, according to the official information.
A protester holds Ukraine’s national flag at a burned building on Feb. 20 in Kyiv. © AFP
Meanwhile, some sources say Russians lost up to 9,000 soldiers during the war in the Donbas, though it’s unclear how many of them are Russian citizens.
Protesters advance to new positions in Kyiv on Feb. 20, police tries to stop them as violence on Independence Square, Khreshchatyk and Instytutska streets escalates. © AFP
The international community doesn’t recognize Russian annexation of Crimea and self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. A number of economic sanctions applied by the Western democracies against Russia have been the main tool for calming down the Putin’s aggression. However, sometimes when Ukrainian authorities were asking for the support of a larger scale, Western countries did not go beyond the condemnation statements.
A protester throws a molotov cocktail at riot police in the center of Kyiv on Jan. 22. © AFP
On Sep. 5, Ukraine agreed a cease-fire with the separatists during the negotiations in Minsk, Belarus. However, fighting still continues.
People carry a coffin of a man who was killed during recent clashes, as they gather at Independence Square on Feb. 22 in Kyiv. © AFPProtesters catch fire as they stand behind burning barricades during clashes with police on Feb. 20 in Kyiv. © AFPProtesters advance to new positions in Kyiv on Feb. 20. © AFPProtesters advance to new positions in Kyiv on Feb. 20. © AFP
Self-proclaimed prime minister of the pro-Russian separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” Alexander Borodai (C) stands as he arrives on the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 17. © AFPPro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 26. © AFPA body lies in a wheat field at the site of the crash of a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in Grabove, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 19. © AFPA Ukrainian girl cries as she stands on the road with her luggage after she left her home near the village of Grabove, some 80 kilometers east of Donetsk on Aug. 2. © AFPMembers of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service search for bodies in a field near the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Grabove, in Donetsk region on July 26. © AFPPeople react as a man attempts to revive another wounded as a result of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk on May 26. © AFPBodies of crew members lie next to a destroyed Ukrainian tank in the northern outskirts of city of Donetsk, on July 22. © AFPArmed Ukrainian forces detain a pro-Russian militant in the village of Chornukhine in the Lugansk region on Aug. 18. © AFP
View of the outskirts of Mariupol on Sept. 4 under pro-Russian separatists heavy artillery action. © AFP
Nina Nykyforivna, a retiree in the rebel-held Ukrainian city of Donetsk, cries at her home on November 25, 2014 as the shooting continues despite the cease-fire, agreed in Minsk on Sep. 5. © AFP.
Oksana Torhan, Kyiv Post.
Donbas residents are facing the choice of which country they want to live in as Ukraine goes through the tenth month of war that Vladimir Putin-led Russia started in February. Some prefer Ukraine, others lean towards Russia.
Yelyzaveta Zaspa, a 23-year-old student of the master program in psychology at Luhansk Taras Shevchenko University, says she wants Luhansk, a city of some 420,000 residents that she grew up at, to stay with Ukraine.
After the pro-Kremlin separatists took over the city in May, Zaspa has lived in a dormitory in Kryvyi Rig in central Ukraine as an internally displaced person and then moved to Kyiv where she rented a hostel with her own money. After three months of such a life, she finally settled at Starobilsk, a major city in Luhansk Oblast that became a temporary home to her Taras Shevchenko University.
In a phone interview, Zaspa says she just wants peace.
Anna, 22, a graduate student in social work at Eastern Ukrainian Volodymyr Dal University, another Luhansk school, says she wants nothing but peace too, though prefers Luhansk, her home city, to get separated from Ukraine. She refused to be mentioned by her last name when the Kyiv Post approached her through Vkontakte, a social network popular with Ukraine’s Russian-speaking community.
Even though the Dal University officially moved to Severodonetsk, another city in Luhansk Oblast, Anna stayed in Luhansk to continue her studies in what now claims to be the Dal University too, but is not officially recognized and is ruled by so called “Luhansk People’s Republic,” a pseudo-state controlled by the Kremlin.
A seeker of master’s degree in social work doesn’t know whether her diploma will ever be accepted anywhere.
Anna says she doesn’t have any money or relatives outside the rebel-held territory and plans to stay in Luhansk as long as possible. She thinks Ukraine doesn’t help the Donbas, while she has received aid from the Russian humanitarian convoys.
Oleksiy Antypovych, head of Rating, a sociology center in Kyiv, says 17 percent of Ukrainians think Ukraine should let the Donbas join Russia or live its own life. “And these views get more popular,” he adds. “Western Ukraine doesn’t want to fight and central Ukraine is overcrowded with the displaced people from the east.”
United Nations Refugee Agency reported there were more than 450,000 internally displaced persons from the war-torn Donbas as of Nov. 21. Many also leave for Russia, looking for jobs in Russia’s western region that is neighboring with Ukraine’s eastern oblasts.
Spare a thought for the poor suffering civilian population who are too poor or feeble to flee the war zone, or maybe they simply have nowhere else to go.
Women stand outside their damaged house after government shelling in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk on Nov. 27. © AFPPeople shop at the market in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Nov. 17 as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebel bastion. © AFPWomen stand outside their damaged house after government shelling in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk on Nov. 27. © AFPA woman tries to get cash from an ATM machine on Nov. 26 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. No automated teller machines were working and most shops didn’t accept payment by credit cards in Donetsk after Kyiv asked for the suspension of banking activities in the eastern area controlled by pro-russian separatists. © AFPSchoolchildren listen to their teacher in the Eastern Ukraine City of Donetsk School number 32 on Nov. 18. © AFPA man stands with crutches as he buys vegetables in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Nov. 20. © AFPA market vendor sells clothes in the Kirovskij district of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Nov. 23 as houses were destroyed overnight in the district during fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russia militants. © AFPPeople buy food in a Kievsky district street of the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk on Nov. 28. © AFPWorkers repair a gas pipeline damaged during shelling between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukrainian village Krasnyi Pakhar, in the Donetsk region on Nov. 23. © AFPPeople wait in front of a post office to register to receive their pensions on Nov. 27 after Urkrainian government suspended their payment in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. © AFP
Mr. Putin you say that you care about the russian speaking population in eastern Ukraine, If that is true then pull back your troops now, let ‘your’ people live a normal life for they have suffered far more these last few months than at anytime in the last 25 years. or are we to believe that your intentions are politically motivated and nothing else, if you REALLY do care then do the right thing and withdraw your armies and ‘little green men’ and show the world that you are not the warmongering dictator intent on grabbing more land for mother Russia and that you truly want peace! Only you can stop the suffering.
After plans to introduce casinos to Crimea, Putin approves gambling zone in Winter Olympic resort. EurasiaNet.org report.
Can Sochi take the Black Sea casino crown? Photograph: JACQUELINE LARMA/AP.
Paul Rimple for EurasiaNet.org, part of the New East network
A decade ago Sochi was just another dilapidated holiday destination but the 2014 Winter Olympics transformed the Russian resort, which now hopes to become the Monte Carlo of the Black Sea.
The plan to bring gambling to Sochi is a surprise addition to Russia’s move to allow casinos in Crimea: the peninsula, annexed by Russia in early 2014, experienced an economic crash and officials hoped that casinos could help with recovery.
Sochi is also looking for money to pay the bills from its Olympic makeover and the state-owned Sberbank – which has a 92% stake in one of Sochi’s proposed gambling zones Krasnaya Polyana – had been lobbying for a gaming license to help recoup tens of billions of roubles it invested in the city for the winter games.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who had originally opposed gambling in Sochi, had a change of heart and approved the new gambling zones earlier this year.
Russia cracked down on the industry in 2009, restricting casinos to four far-flung areas: Yantarnaya in Kaliningrad, Altai in central Siberia, Primorye in the far east, and Azov City in Krasnodar.
The 2009 restrictions had created an opportunity for Georgia to establish itself as a gambling hub, buoyed by the fact that gaming is prohibited in neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey and restricted in Armenia. But just as it starts to make solid contributions to Georgia’s struggling economy, it faces a challenge.
Sochi could be the largest threat to Georgia’s industry since 2013, when parliament introduced a bill to ban gambling. The Orthodox Church, the country’s most influential institution, is also opposed to the spread of casinos.
But Georgian MPs understand the significant contribution casinos make to the state’s coffers. In 2013 Georgia generated nearly 105.26 million lari (£36m) in 2013 from gambling taxes, about two percent of the the state budget, according to the State Revenue Service.
For the past nine year the Black Sea port of Batumi, 370km south of Sochi, has been the centre of gambling in Georgia, as the operating costs are lower than in the capital, Tbilisi.
Casinos in Tbilisi face one of the highest annual license fees in the world: 5 million lari. By contrast Batumi casinos only have to pay 250,000 lari. Anyone building a 100-room hotel with a casino is offered a 10-year freeze on annual license fees. The port has five casinos, with two more slated to open next year.
Russian high-rollers go to Macau or Monte Carlo
Mehmet Esen, finance director of Batumi’s Peace Casino, said he was not concerned about the competition as Russians only make up a small percentage of Georgia’s gamblers. Most come from Turkey or Azerbaijan, and there is a growing number from Iran. “Russian high-rollers go to Macau or Monte Carlo,” he said.
If Russia were to become serious competition for Batumi, it would have to implement a sound gaming law and somehow change its negative gaming reputation, he added. Gambling is largely unregulated in Russia and has a reputation of being connected to organised crime.
At a two-day gambling industry conference in Sochi, Mustafa Yilmaz, a director at Princess Casinos International, which operates casinos around the world, said the Russian resort could attract some of Georgia’s Azerbaijani and Turkish clients. Turkey currently enjoys a 30-day visa-free regime with Russia. Azerbaijanis can stay in the country for 90 days visa-free.
Batumi’s tourist season lasts only a few months in summer but Sochi attracts visitors in both summer and winter, Yilmaz added.
But a lack of strategy for Sochi’s gambling sector leaves Yilmaz and other casino investors with more questions than answers: nobody knows whether the planned gambling zone will be at the Olympic Park media centre, 30km from the city centre or the Olympic alpine site of Krasnaya Polyana, 67km away.
Conference attendees also said they are still unclear about the tax rates, the number of licenses that issued and how the casinos will be regulated.
“It’s a big if; a big blank. We don’t know anything,” Yilmaz said.
Ultimately, whether or not Georgia’s gaming industry suffers from Sochi casinos depends on the scale of investment and services there, said Ian Livingston, managing director at the Casino Adjara in Tbilisi: “If Sochi were to develop to such a degree as to be a mini-Vegas, then we feel it might draw some of our foreign players from surrounding areas,” he said.
Gambling experts agree that this will not happen soon: “you need a few years just to start and it will take them one year just to figure out the legal questions,” said Darren Keane, chief executive officer of Storm International, a major gaming-industry player which operates in Tbilisi and Moscow.