The vice chairman of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said on Monday (4 September) that her website was recently hit with thousands of cyberattacks, many of which came from Russian IP addresses. Julia Kloeckner said the political website was the target of about 3,000 attacks ahead of the television election debate between Merkel and her Social Democratic rival Martin Schulz on Sunday, Reuters reports.
From the northern tip of the Baltics to the southern edge of the Balkans, Russia is stepping up spying on its neighbors, according to numerous reports from the region.
The most recent notice of such activity comes from Estonia, whose intelligence service’s annual report says the “Baltic Sea area is especially vulnerable to threats from Russia.”
According to Estonia’s national intelligence service, Russia, acting through its military intelligence agency, the GRU, and its Federal Security Service, or FSB, has taken a special interest in the foreign and security policies, defense planning, armed forces, arms development, and military capabilities of its neighbors.
We don’t know quite where flying bikes would fit into the overall transport mix, but designers all over the world are chasing after the goal.
It’s not exactly clear why the human race needs a flying bicycle. But that isn’t stopping the human race from trying to build one.
1. Yucatan, Mexico
The ongoing fascination with this part of the world looks set to continue well into 2015. This year, consider the Yucatán Peninsula in the South East of the country. Boasting breathtaking Maya ruins, some of the most heavenly stretches of beach you’ll ever see and vibrant culture by the bucket load, this is a great destination for those looking to camp out for a few weeks in a place that has it all. Don’t leave without exploring the rainbow-coloured coral reefs and visiting Merida market, for a taste bud-tingling insight into the phenomenal local cuisine.
2. Santorini, Greece
Note – the above image of Santorini IS real. It’s actually that dreamy. The crescent-shaped island is the perfect location for a luxury holiday, with its blue-domed roofs, black-sand beaches and wondrous sunsets over a giant sea-filled Caldera. Visit Fira, the insanely picturesque cliff top town and book at least one night in Grace Santorini, for impeccable Cycladic interiors and a plunge pool looking out over the Aegean Sea. Heaven, in a nutshell.
3. Panama, Central America
Ever since we featured the Ace Hotel’s brilliant American Trade Hotel situated in the heart of the city, we have been increasingly fascinated by Panama. Razor-sharp gentrification aside, this tropical country is resplendent with natural wonders so adventure is inevitable. Explore the dizzying cloud forests of Chiriquí, soak up the Caribbean vibes on the Northern shores and surf gigantic Pacific swells in the South. This is the destination for intrepid adventurers.
4. Montenegro, Southeastern Europe
While nearby Croatia has been buzzing for a few years now, our attention is firmly on Montenegro for 2015. A turbulent history has left a fascinating mish-mash culture fusing Roman, Catholic and Muslim influences. Nature lovers will rejoice over the gloriously unspoiled landscape; beautiful lakes, calm seas and the spectacular black mountains are bound to coax even the most unfit of visitors on a gentle hike. If you’re on a more generous budget, a stay at the Aman Sveti Stefan is a must. The entire island of Sveti Stefan, a former fishing village in the 14th Century, has been given over to this magical, peaceful hotel. A UNESCO heritage site in its entirety, every room, suite and cottage is to die for. Ultimately, if you’re craving leisurely exploration by day and slow summer evenings spent sipping local wine, Montenegro is the place.
5. Pilsen, Czech Republic
Culture vultures should head to Pilsen, the capital of West Bohemia. Nominated as the official capital of culture for 2015, a yearlong schedule of over 600 concerts, exhibitions, artistic interventions and theatre productions is set to revive the city unlike ever before. A dizzying climb to the top of the 13th-century Gothic church, St Bartholomew, will provide a welcome break from the arts…as well as a few pints of the outstanding beer. Pilsen is infamous for developing the very first lager back in the mid-19th century. These days, the city is known for making some of the best beer in the world – apparently something to do with the water. Hardcore enthusiasts can take a tour of thePilsner Urquell Brewery to see where the magic happens. All in all, this city is fast emerging as a favourite for stag weekends and guy time.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Across Eastern Europe, local oligarchs and investment groups — some directly connected to their countries’ political leadership — are snapping up newspapers and other media companies, prompting deep concerns among journalists and others about press freedom.
It is just one of an array of developments across the region raising questions, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, about progress toward Western standards of democracy and free speech.
As in Russia, there are increasing worries about a potentially dangerous concentration of power in the hands of people who have managed to acquire both wealth and political influence and are increasingly extending their control to media outlets.
Here in Slovakia, a German media company sold a substantial stake in the nation’s last serious, independent newspaper to a well-connected investment group that had been among its investigative targets.
At a time of similar developments across the region, what stood out in the investment in Petit Press and its prominent SME flagship newspaper by the group, Penta Investments, was the reaction of the paper’s staff.
Matus Kostolny, 39, editor in chief for the last eight years, walked out the door. Four of his deputies followed. And 50 members of the paper’s 80-person staff submitted notice to leave by the end of the year.
“I think Penta intends to misuse the newspapers for their own purposes,” Mr. Kostolny said. “Their idea of free speech is entirely different from mine.”
But the situation in Slovakia is just the latest in which owners, often Western European or American, have chosen to sell Eastern European media properties and powerful local interests have stepped forward and snapped them up.
In Latvia, opaque disclosure laws obscured who controlled much of the country’s news media until a corruption investigation of one of the country’s richest businessmen revealed that he and two other oligarchs were the principal owners.
In Hungary, beyond outright state ownership of much of the news media, top associates of Prime Minister Viktor Orban control significant chunks. Chief among them is Lajos Simicska, who went to school with the prime minister and whose construction company has profited lavishly from state contracts, although the two are said to be feuding of late.
In Romania, the leading television news station, the right-wing Antena 3, is only part of the vast media empire owned by the billionaire Dan Voiculescu, the founder of the country’s Conservative Party. In August, Mr. Voiculescu was sentenced to 10 years in prison on money laundering charges.
Several oligarchs control the media companies in Bulgaria, regularly ranked in last place among European Union nations in the World Press Freedom Index. That includes a former lawmaker, Delyan Peevski, whose New Bulgarian Media Group — ostensibly controlled by his mother, though opponents charge that he holds the real power — has been closely linked to governments controlled by several parties.
In the 1990s, after the collapse of Communism, most media outlets were either owned outright by the state or utterly dependent on government advertising. When foreign owners — most notably from Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States — subsequently bought up local newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, journalists found that the distant owners had no interest in local politics. That was a relief for a time.
“For us, it was perfect,” Mr. Kostolny said of the German conglomerate that owned SME. “We had very professional owners who never picked up the phone and tried to influence the newspaper. Not once.”
But when the economy sank in 2008, most of these foreign owners decided to retreat to their core businesses back home and put their media companies in Central and Eastern Europe on the block. At that point, the distance between their Western owners and the political realities in their countries began to seem like a drawback, especially as the owners began selling to local interests with a direct stake in the coverage.
“It turned out that as much as they didn’t care about Slovak politics, they also didn’t care about who they sold the papers to and the impact of the sale on Czech and Slovak society,” Mr. Kostolny said.
The end result, said Marian Lesko, a commentator for Trend Magazine, a Bratislava-based business journal also owned by Penta Investments, is that “in Slovakia, independent media is no more, basically.”
Alexej Fulmek, the chief executive of Petit Press and one of the founders of SME, said he was troubled by Penta’s stake in the company but decided to stay on to protect SME and the other Petit Press publications, including the most important network of regional papers in the country.
“I am not happy with the situation,” he said. “We don’t like Penta. They have too many economic interests with the government.”
For its part, Penta bristles at being compared to politically connected oligarchs in the region, instead presenting itself as a fairly standard, Western-style investment company with interests in hospitals, retail outlets, real estate and other industries that now happens to include media.
Officials of the company, led by its dominant principal, Jaroslav Hascak, said they were interested only in keeping their media investments profitable by consolidating them and had no intention of meddling in the newsrooms.
“We do not have any direct businesses with the state,” said Martin Danko, the group’s chief spokesman. “We are not providing any services, not participating in any state competitions to supply something. But we are definitely operating in regulated businesses.”
Penta got into the media business after other entities controlled by local oligarchs — Mr. Babis, the Czech finance minister, as well as Ivan Jakabovic and Patrik Tkac, who control the J&T Finance Group in Slovakia — had already started investing in the industry.
Penta’s 45 percent interest in Petit Press prevents it from dominating the newsroom, even if it wished to do so — which, Mr. Danko said, it does not, because it understands that the credibility of the news is the core of the company’s profitability.
Mr. Kostolny doesn’t buy it. “Penta’s real interest is in influence, in controlling their critics,” he said. “They will make back their investment with one state contract, and nobody will bother them by writing about it.”
Mr. Kostolny is now working on a plan under which his deputies and as many former SME staffers as he can afford to hire will produce Projekt N, a web portal and a print paper, perhaps weekly, perhaps daily. His plan is to offer breaking news for free online, but to charge for longer and investigative pieces.
For the moment, though, they have no office outside of the Next Apache cafe — the name, said aloud, sounds like “nech sa paci,” which means “here you are” in Slovak — where Mr. Kostolny and many former employees now hang out.
“I still don’t have investors,” he said. “I don’t have computers. I don’t have printing machines. I don’t have anything.”
For his part, Mr. Fulmek said he intended to spend the next several weeks trying to talk some of those who put in their notice to stay at SME with him and fight the good fight there. He even hopes to persuade Mr. Kostolny and his deputies to return, but he is not optimistic.
“They are very pure,” Mr. Fulmek said. “And that’s good, because the country needs such people.”
Russian spies in the Czech Republic are targeting international research projects in which Czech companies are participating and using Czechs to help them gather information, according to a report on last year’s activity by the country’s counter intelligence Security Information Service (BIS).
It said Russia was seeking to gain a competitive advantage by obtaining the know-how stemming from European funded projects as well as helping companies plug into the funds on offer from the Czech Republic and EU.
The counter intelligence service said that it tried to reduce the number of Russian intelligence officers active in the Czech Republic. It added that Chinese intelligence services also sought influence on Czech state and political structures with the aid of Czechs, including civil servants and politicians.
Eastern European nations from Poland to Serbia are boosting stockpiles of natural gas after Russia reduced deliveries during the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and concerns rose about a winter shutoff.
Underground storage in the Czech Republic and Poland is at full capacity, while Slovakia expects to top up its storage facilities in the next several days, the countries’ gas companies said. Serbia, whose sole depot has a capacity of 450 million cubic meters, may ask neighboring Hungary to store as much as 200 million cubic meters of gas in its reservoirs, according to Energy Minister Aleksandar Antic.
While the level of eastern European countries’ dependence on Russian gas through Ukraine varies, the region as a whole relies more on deliveries from OAO Gazprom (OGZD) than western Europeand is therefore stocking up in case flow from Russia via Ukraine stops entirely.
During the past few days, Russia began slightly reducing supplies to countries like Slovakia and Poland, which provide reverse gas flows to Ukraine.
“Only Latvia has enough storage capacity to survive through the winter without Russian gas,” Mikhail Korchemkin from East European Gas Analysis said by e-mail. “Other countries of central and eastern Europe don’t have enough storage capacity.”
Southeastern European nations such as Bulgaria and Serbia are particularly exposed to interruptions since they are almost 100 percent dependent on Russian gas coming through Ukraine. The current crisis has rekindled memories of 2006 and 2009, when Gazprom disputes with Ukraine left the Balkan nations without fuel for weeks.
As a result, southeastern Europe’s governments were long reluctant to halt preparatory work on Gazprom’s South Stream project, designed to run under the Black Sea from Russia and enter the EU in Bulgaria, bypassing Ukraine.
Authorities were betting on the 2,446-kilometer (1,520-mile) pipeline to boost the security of supplies and halted the construction under lobbying from Brussels and the U.S. earlier this year.
The U.S. expanded sanctions against Russia today to include the country’s largest bank, OAO Sberbank, as well as energy, defense and technology companies owned by the state. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew warned of Russia’s growing “economic and diplomatic isolation.”
In Serbia, where hundreds of thousands of households rely partly or completely on electricity for heating due to capped electricity prices, a gas shortage could cause a spike in power consumption that would destabilize the national grid, former Energy Minister Petar Skundric said. In case of a cutoff, Serb storage may cover as much as 45 days of consumption in wintertime.
The Czech Republic’s gas storage is full, one month before schedule, according RWE AG (RWE), which operates 92 percent of the country’s underground storage with a capacity of 2.7 billion cubic meters. Polish utility Polskie Gornictwo Naftowe i Gazownictwo SA also filled its 2.6 billion cubic meters of to the limit.
Still, gas companies across eastern Europe are reporting reduction in gas supplies from Russia. PGNiG said it received as much as 24 percent less gas from Gazprom than it ordered on Sept. 8 and 9.
Slovakia, which started the reverse flow to Ukraine at the beginning of September, saw a 10 percent decrease in the amount of gas ordered from Russia every day since Sept. 10, operator Slovensky Plynarensky Priemysel AS said. Gas flow to Romania was cut by 5 percent.
“We are seeing a similar story across emerging Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, as Russia tries to limit any surplus gas available in the region for reverse flow back to Ukraine,” said Timothy Ash, the chief economist for emerging markets at Standard Bank Group Ltd. in London.
Slovakia’s SPP said so far the supplies are sufficient to cover all of the country’s demand and the storage is almost full.
Gas supplies to Austria were also 15 percent lower than agreed yesterday and will remain at the same level today, OMV AG spokesman Robert Lechner said in a phone interview today. The Austrian oil company is getting more gas than what’s needed and its own gas storages are 98 percent full, Lechner said.
The Czechs are less dependent on the supply of gas via the pipeline than surrounding countries because of its interconnection with Germany, which can cover their entire consumption.
The country is also able to supply neighboring Slovakia, a former federal partner, in case it’s needed, Czech Industry and Trade Minister Jan Mladek said.
Lithuania has enough gas reserves to last until its new LNG terminal in Klaipeda opens in December, Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius said on Sept. 11.
Latvia’s Incukalns storage facility is 70 percent full, with enough gas to last the country for more than a year, Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said on Sept. 9.
Estonia, the smallest of the three Baltic republics, has gas stocks for only five days. While gas represents only 9 percent in the nation’s energy mix, it is used to heat 58 percent of the capital Tallinn.
Romania has a sizable domestic production and its storage with a capacity of 2.8 billion cubic meters is currently half full. The country can last about six months without any gas imports from Russia, Energy Minister Razvan Nicolescu said in June.
“Without Ukrainian transit, Bulgaria would suffer the most,” Korchemkin said. As for LNG potentially imported by Lithuania andPoland, it “would replace just about 25-30 percent of the daily volumes of Russian gas delivered via Ukraine.”