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Budapest ‘Criminalizes Homelessness,’ Murder Suspect Accuses Ukraine’s Kuchma

Plus, Kazakhstan locks up labor lawyer and Russia mothballs pipeline through Bulgaria.

by Barbara Frye 5 September 2011

1. Budapest Makes Problem of Homelessness Go Away


There’s continuing fallout from the Budapest mayor’s decree making it illegal to sleep or “live” in public spaces, as a city councilor has resigned in protest, according to the Budapest Times. The law allows police to evict homeless people from public spaces and charge them with a crime. The report also says that plans are under way to build overnight shelters for 350 homeless people. Estimates of the number of homeless people in Hungary’s capital vary wildly but a survey in February by people who work with the homeless put the number at nearly 8,000. A similar law has recently been passed in a provincial town, where a homeless advocate says there are 23 beds (52 in the winter) to serve 458 people.


Homeless in Budapest. Photo by Marcos Reyes, from flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


2. Kazakh Labor Leader Faces Years in Prison as Astana, Foreign Companies Fret Over Strikes


Natalia Sokolova
Nearly three dozen human rights groups and media and governance watchdogs in Kazakhstan have protested the six-year prison sentence handed down to labor lawyer Natalia Sokolova, who was convicted last month of inciting social discord. As reports, Sokolova was representing striking workers for the KarazhanbasMunai oil company. One report says pay and benefits were the issue, but Ferghana writes that workers were demanding “equality.” It says Sokolova demanded that Kazakh workers get precedence over foreign workers, an argument that did not sit well with the company’s combined Chinese-Kazakh leadership. The news agency says the company’s director, Yuan Mu, demanded that Sokolova be put on trial.


An earlier report, from EurasiaNet, suggested that Astana is getting concerned that the unrest in its oil-producing regions will spook investors. And an unnamed analyst says those investors are indeed worried. If that’s the case, it underscores the prescience of remarks by Dosym Satpaev, a risk analyst in Almaty who was quoted in a TOL story in November. Explaining why a country that had manifestly not lived up to democratic commitments had been chosen to host the OSCE summit in December, he said, “Those countries are not participating in the OSCE summit in order to get something, they're participating in order not to offend Kazakhstan. OSCE members have become less sensitive to issues like human rights and democratic reforms. Today, realpolitik is king, meaning the supremacy of concrete pragmatic interests, even if such interests are achieved together with a non-democratic state.”


3. Official Charged With Journalist’s Murder Says Former Ukrainian President Ordered the Killing


Reports coming out of the trial in Kyiv of a former Interior Ministry official charged with the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze say he has testified that the killing was ordered by then-President Leonid Kuchma. Gongadze, the founder of the Ukrainskaya Pravda website, had written about corruption at the top levels of Ukraine’s government. He disappeared in September 2000 and his decapitated body was found two months later.


The trial of Oleksiy Pukach, former head of the Interior Ministry’s Department of External Surveillance, is being held behind closed doors, despite repeated calls by lawyers representing the journalist’s family and journalists’ organizations to open it up. Reports come from the family’s lawyers and family members, who have been briefed by their lawyers. Kuchma already faces abuse of office charges in connection with the slaying, and his lawyer has said Pukach’s testimony is an attempt to win leniency. The former interior ministry official also implicated two former colleagues and Vladimir Litvin, who is now speaker of parliament.


4. Tired of Waiting for Bulgaria, Russia Freezes Burgas-Alexandroupolis Pipeline


RIA Novosti and the Sofia Echo report that Russian oil pipeline builder Transneft is mothballing the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline, which would carry Russian oil from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to the Greek Aegean port of Alexandroupolis. A Transneft official told the Russian news agency that “in October or November we will freeze it and put it to sleep.”


For years Bulgaria has held up the pipeline for environmental reasons and has not funded its share of the construction costs, and Transneft officials have recently begun to hint that they will concentrate on other oil-transport projects that are meant to bypass the crowded Dardanelles straits. Sofia, for its part, has been looking for a way to become less dependent on Russian energy. As TOL noted in 2009, nearly all of Bulgaria’s gas imports come from Russia, and Russia controls the country’s (and the Balkans’) largest oil refinery and supplies fuel for Bulgaria’s nuclear power plant.


 5. Kosovo, Serbia Reach Agreement Over Customs Stamps


More on the issue of trade and customs formalities between Serbia and Kosovo: A disagreement over the legitimacy of customs stamps issued by Pristina and control over border posts in north Kosovo, which developed into a blockade of Serbian trade into Kosovo and culminated in violence that left one Kosovo police officer dead, has entered a new phase. Negotiators in Brussels say they have reached a deal that allows Kosovo customs stamps to be used at the border, provided that they bear no symbols of Kosovo’s statehood.


Protesters in Pristina didn’t like the deal because they fear that their government is preparing to offer autonomy to the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo, according to the EU Observer. A group that claims to speak for Serbs in northern Kosovo protested that the agreement further separates them from Belgrade, according to the state-owned  Tanjug news agency in Serbia. They have reason to be worried, according to an Economist assessment of Angela Merkel’s recent insistence that Belgrade dismantle its parallel institutions in Kosovo’s north.


6. Russian Arms Exporters Find Opportunity, Peril in Changing Middle East


An analysis in the Jerusalem Post looks at Russia’s efforts to capitalize on Western countries’ reluctance to sell arms to regimes that have been killing protesters this year. Quoting a Bloomberg report, it noted the shipment of “tens of millions of dollars’ [worth] of AK103 Kalashnikov rifles, together with grenade launchers and ammunition” to Bahrain. But analysts say that’s small potatoes and, in any event, some of those governments will remain customers of Western countries.


The big markets, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are still clients of the United States and Europe, and Russia may be digging its own grave by continuing to send arms to the tottering Syrian regime, the report notes. And it could be tough for Moscow to save face with the Libyan rebels, who enjoyed support from NATO countries but not from Russia.


7. Lukashenka May Seek Help from Foreign Armies


Alyaksandr Lukashenka appears so threatened by popular dissent over Belarus’ crumbling economy that he reportedly wants to call in the troops to help – foreign troops.


According to an analysis by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, the Belarusian president seeks to expand the use of the Collective Rapid Reaction Force, which comprises units from seven former Soviet republics. The multinational force is on call to deter external aggression and to provide joint support for counterterrorism operations and disaster assistance. Lukashenka is reportedly seeking to expand its mandate to quell domestic unrest.


RIA Novosti commentators Konstantin Bogdanov and Maria Selivanova suggest that the main contributor to the force, Russia, may not be keen on the idea. Facing economic woes and discontent, the Lukashenka regime has become increasingly ruthless toward dissidents since he was elected to a third term in December.


8. A Diplomatic Zinger for Russia’s “Male Bastion”


When was the last time you saw a female Russian ambassador? According to London’s Telegraph daily, America’s top diplomat in Moscow thinks that sexism is “rampant” in the Russian Foreign Ministry.


The Telegraph’s item on the latest WikiLeaks documents says U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle wrote that the Russian ministry is “a bastion of Slavic males,” and that women roaming around the halls of the ministry “are typically secretaries or freshly minted attaches who have yet to go overseas.” Women reportedly comprise some 15 percent of Russia’s diplomatic corps.


Perhaps things will change with Valentina Matviyenko as the new speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. As TOL’s Galina Stolyarova recently reported, the former St. Petersburg mayor was given the kick upstairs with the help of President Dmitry Medvedev (and a healthy dose of back-room politics).

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor.


Around the Bloc is TOL's daily digest of the important, the trivial, the tragic, the weird, and the sober from its coverage region. Got an item for Around the Bloc? Send it to


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