Tag Archives: Latvia

British troops arrive in Estonia as German spy chief warns of Russian troop build up

British troops began a long-term deployment to Estonia on Saturday as Germany’s intelligence chief warned Russia had doubled its military presence on its Western border.

An advanced contingent of 120 British soldiers landed at Estonia’s  Amari airbase late on Friday night as part of a new Nato deployment designed to deter Russia from attempting a repeat of its invasions of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in the Baltic.

Eight hundred British troops with Challenger 2 tanks, AS90 self-propelled guns, and Warrior armoured vehicles, will be based in the town of Tapa, 80 miles from the Russian border, from next month.

A British Army AS90 self propelled gun arrives in the port of Emden, Germany to be loaded and transported to Estonia - Credit: Dominic King/Army press office Germany

A British Army AS90 self propelled gun arrives in the port of Emden, Germany to be loaded and transported to Estonia Credit: Dominic King/Army press office Germany

Continue reading British troops arrive in Estonia as German spy chief warns of Russian troop build up

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Secret ‘KGB Room’ Discovered in Latvian Concert Hall

Latvia’s Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma (L to R) with her counterparts Taavi Roivas of Estonia and Algirdas Butkevicius of Lithuania pose for the media during their visit to the former Soviet secret service KGB house in Riga, Latvia.

Renovations at Latvia’s Academy of Sciences have uncovered a secret “KGB room,” where agents of the Soviet secret police could surreptitiously monitor visitors at a concert hall during conferences and performances, Latvian media reported.

The Stalin-era building in the capital, Riga, was being renovated after decades of disuse that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse, Latvia’s Diena newspaper reported Wednesday.

“Renovating the hall, we found a very interesting object: a KGB room from which they [agents] could observe the entire auditorium,” producer Juris Miller, who is in charge of the renovations, was quoted as saying.

Restorers plan to preserve the room and turn it into a museum, similar to DDR Museum in Berlin, to “expose” features of life under the Soviet regime, Miller told Diena.

The KGB room was at least the second secret found during renovations at the Academy of Sciences building.

kgb 1

 

While restoring the molded ceiling of the concert hall, workers found a handwritten note left behind a panel by their Soviet-era predecessors.

The note, dated March 1955 and apparently planted during continued work on the building after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s death in 1953, reads:

“At a distance of one meter from the emblem, two half-liters [bottles] of Moscow vodka have been drunk, to mark the completion of work on the ceiling and the border.”

The Soviet Union annexed Latvia in 1940, and then reclaimed control of the country again in 1944, following an interim period of occupation by Nazi Germany.

The renovated concert hall will open to the public on Sept. 20, Diena reported.

Oligarchs of Eastern Europe Scoop Up Stakes in Media Companies

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.

Andrej Babis, an agriculture and fertilizer tycoon, not only owns the Czech Republic’s largest publishing house and several important media outlets, he is the government’s minister of finance.

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.

Bulgaria: NY Times: Several Oligarchs Control Media Companies in Bulgaria

“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.”

Ukraine Conflict Forces Eastern States to Stockpile Gas

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.

South Stream

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.

Full Capacity

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.

Emerging Europe

“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.

Baltic Supplies

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.”

Scots ‘ghost’ companies suspected of alleged £12.5bn money laundering scam by Russian mafia

IT is claimed the crime syndicate are taking advantage of Scots corporate rules which allow companies to be set up who are little more than a name plate at an address. 

SCOTS companies are under suspicion of alleged money laundering by the Russian mafia.

It is claimed “ghost” firms based in Edinburgh and Glasgow could be involved in a laundering operation worth £12.5billion.

Police in the former Soviet republic of Moldova are probing some companies involved, as are non-governmental organisation the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

It is claimed the crime syndicate are taking advantage of Scots corporate rules which allow companies to be set up who are little more than a name plate at an address.

A probe by the Independent newspaper has uncovered at least six companies registered here who have come to the attention of investigators.

The launderers created UK front companies who carried out massive phoney business deals between themselves.

The front companies then sued each other in Moldova, demanding repayment of hundreds of millions of pounds of loans.

Money would be put into the UK front companies’ accounts in Moldova then transferred to another bank in Latvia.

Police are trying to identify the criminals whose money was being laundered, but it is virtually impossible to establish who owns the UK front companies.

One Edinburgh firm claimed a debt of $500million from a Russian guarantor in the Moldovan courts.

The company’s registered address is a small accountancy firm in Edinburgh not involved in any wrongdoing.

The man listed as the sole director of the company who claimed the debt told the Record: “According to the Independent, the criminals fake trials, so they must have a judge working with them in Moldova.

“They stage things so they get damages basically in the courts, then they force the Russian companies to pay up. In that way they money launder.

“But I am sorry I cannot help you because I have no idea. Nobody involved in any way with the company in Scotland knows what happens. That is a fact.”

Asked about his directorships of other companies registered to unlikely addresses here, the man said: “If the police would like to know more, I will talk to them. But I am not ready to waste time on newspapers.”

The scam appears to have gone on for four years before being shut down in May by the authorities in Moldova.

A Moldovan investigator said: “This money was routed from Russia, but the companies incorporated in Britain were instrumental to transit the funds.”

US troops drive in eastern Europe to show defense readiness

Stryker vehicles of the US Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment roll the highway, during ''Dragoon Ride'' military exercise,  in Riga, Latvia, Sunday, March 22, 2015. The troops began the trek on March 21, and will travel through Latvia, The Czech Republic and onto Germany by April 1 in an exercise designed to reinforce America's allies. (AP Photo/Oksana Dzadan)
Stryker vehicles of the US Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment roll the highway, during ”Dragoon Ride” military exercise, in Riga, Latvia, Sunday, March 22, 2015. The troops began the trek on March 21, and will travel through Latvia, The Czech Republic and onto Germany by April 1 in an exercise designed to reinforce America’s allies

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A U.S. army infantry convoy is driving through eastern Europe seeking to provide reassurance to a region concerned that the conflict between Russian-backed rebels and government forces in Ukraine threatens its security.

The U.S. “Dragoon Ride” convoy is attracting interest and greetings from people along its route. It started last week from Estonia and passed through Latvia and Lithuania before entering Poland on Monday.

A Latvian Army troop member shows his gun to a young  boy, during the ''Dragoon Ride'' military exercise, in Riga, Latvia, Sunday, March 22, 2015. The troops began the trek on March 21, and will travel through Latvia, The Czech Republic and onto Germany by April 1 in an exercise designed to reinforce America's allies.
A Latvian Army troop member shows his gun to a young boy, during the ”Dragoon Ride” military exercise, in Riga, Latvia, Sunday, March 22, 2015. The troops began the trek on March 21, and will travel through Latvia, The Czech Republic and onto Germany by April 1 in an exercise designed to reinforce America’s allies.

Flying U.S. flags, dozens of Stryker and other armored vehicles from the 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment are driving down the roads on their way back to base in Vilseck, Germany. They took part in the Atlantic Resolve exercise that shows NATO’s readiness to defend its members. They will stop in some Polish towns to meet local residents.

The move comes at a time when Poland is stepping up its own defenses by calling thousands of reservists for urgent military training and by hosting major NATO and international exercises this year. Also Monday, Canadian and Polish troops held exercises at a test range in Drawsko Pomorskie, in the northeast.

PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images
Soldiers of the US Army’s 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment meet with local residents upon arrival during the “Dragoon Ride” exercise in Vilnius on March 22, 2015. During the operation “Dragoon Ride”, the ability to move manpower and heavy vehicles will be trained in the Baltic countries

Bordering Ukraine and Russia, Poland says it has trust in NATO’s collective security guarantees but it also harbors bad memories of defense alliances with Britain and France that failed when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939.

Adviser to the defense minister, Gen. Boguslaw Pacek, recently stressed that NATO expects its members to also build their own defenses.

PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images
Soldiers of the US Army’s 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment arrive during the “Dragoon Ride” exercise in Vilnius on March 22, 2015. During the operation “Dragoon Ride”, the ability to move manpower and heavy vehicles will be trained in the Baltic countries.

In an apparent reference to Russia, Pacek said that the U.S. convoy is a sign to “those in the East” that NATO is strong and united.

Meanwhile, Poland is practicing mobilization by calling on hundreds of reservists to immediately show up for military training. In total, some 12,000 reservists are to go through various forms of training this year.

AP Photo/Oksana Dzadan
Stryker vehicles of the US Armyís 2nd Cavalry Regiment roll down the highway, during the ”Dragoon Ride” military exercise, in Riga, Latvia, Sunday, March 22, 2015.

U.S. military vehicles paraded 300 yards from the Russian border

MOSCOW – U.S. military combat vehicles paraded Wednesday through an Estonian city that juts into Russia, a symbolic act that highlighted the stakes for both sides amid the worst tensions between the West and Russia since the Cold War.

The armored personnel carriers and other U.S. Army vehicles that rolled through the streets of Narva, a border city separated by a narrow frontier from Russia, were a dramatic reminder of the new military confrontation in eastern Europe.

The soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Second Cavalry Regiment were taking part in a military parade to mark Estonia’s Independence Day. Narva is a vulnerable border city separated by a river from Russia.

It has often been cited as a potential target for the Kremlin if it wanted to escalate its conflict with the West onto NATO territory.

Russia has long complained bitterly about NATO expansion, saying that the Cold War defense alliance was a major security threat as it drew closer to Russia’s borders.

The anger grew especially passionate after the Baltic states joined in 2004, and Russian President Vladimir Putin cited fears that Ukraine would join NATO when he annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March last year.

Russia’s Baltic neighbors, meanwhile, have said that what happened in Ukraine demonstrates exactly why they wanted to join NATO in the first place.

U.S. tanks rolled through the streets of Riga, Latvia in November for that nation’s Independence Day parade, another powerful reminder of U.S. boots on the ground in the region.

The United States has sent hundreds of military personnel to joint NATO exercises in the Baltics. NATO nations committed in September to forming a rapid reaction force that could deploy quickly to eastern Europe if they are invaded.

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