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Independent Voices in Russia Under New Pressure, Baku Woos Journalists

Plus, Astana may need a new game plan and Serbs in northern Kosovo seek influence in hugely different ways.

by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Joshua Boissevain 15 February 2012

1. Feisty radio station, election monitor in Russia take knocks


Officials in Russia have permitted huge opposition demonstrations and have labored to show that they understand the frustration driving tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands to march in the icy cold of the country’s cities. But there are signs that they are not as equable as all that and are still falling back on their favored ways of silencing critics.


In this screen grab from a video by, Ekho Moskvy Editor in Chief Alexei Venediktov conducts an interview in the studio.


On 14 February – two months after Prime Minster Vladimir Putin complained to Ekho Moskvy editor in chief Alexei Venediktov about negative coverage – the editorially independent and lively radio station saw a shake-up in its board of directors, according to The Washington Post and other outlets.


Ekho Moskvy is owned by the Gazprom state natural gas monopoly but often takes a critical stance toward the Kremlin. It is widely respected by the educated middle class. In the reshuffle, two independent board members were replaced, and Venediktov and another member quit the board in protest, although, The Post reports, they will keep their positions with the station. Venediktov has vowed not to change Ekho Moskvy’s news coverage.


“Some analysts suggested Tuesday that the scale of the public protests over dishonest elections had led the Kremlin to conclude that Ekho Moskvy was no longer a harmless bit of free-speech window-dressing, but a danger in its own right,” The Post’s Will Englund writes.


Meanwhile, Golos, an independent monitoring group that garnered international attention during the December parliamentary elections, has been evicted from its Moscow office. The landlord, publishers of the Literary Gazette, told Golos to leave in January, six months before its lease was to expire, on the grounds that the space was need for an expansion, RIA Novosti reports.


When Golos refused, the landlord said it would cut electricity to the office periodically between 25 January and 6 March, the group’s director, Lilia Shibanova, told Bloomberg.


Golos, which receives funding from the United States and European Union, is often used by the ruling party as an example of organizations working in the interest of foreign states to undermine Russia. The group was fined for violating election laws with its interactive, online map of election violations, collected from more than 800 polling stations around Russia.


Golos has now moved into a temporary office, deputy director Gregory Melkonyants told RIA Novosti.


2. Baku aims to accommodate journalists with offer of free flats


They’ve tried prosecuting them. They’ve tried framing and imprisoning them. Now officials in Baku are making journalists an offer they can’t refuse.


Construction began in December on a 16-story apartment building in a prestigious Baku neighborhood that is to become home to working journalists, with the government picking up the tab, EurasiaNet reports.


Although it raises obvious ethical issues, many journalists are likely to vie for the flats, media workers say.


“Journalists are seriously underpaid with an average [monthly] wage of 300 manats (about $380), while the average price of one square meter of housing in Baku is 650 manats (about $828),” Yadigar Mammadli, president of the independent Democratic Journalists’ League, told the EurasiaNet. In addition, he noted, many scribes work without contracts, which makes getting a mortgage difficult.


Even editors at independent newspapers who criticized the plan said they would not forbid their reporters from taking one of the flats, noting the tough living conditions for journalists in Baku.


Azerbaijan is notorious for its control of the press. Most broadcast media are tightly regulated and many have links with the government. Journalists have been harassed with criminal defamation cases brought by government officials and beaten by police with impunity. Last year, the Washington, D.C.-based democracy promotion group Freedom House called the atmosphere for freedom of expression in Azerbaijan “dire.”


EurasiaNet writes that the apartment offer may be a more seemly way of taming the press as international attention turns to Baku as it prepares to host the Eurovision song contest in May.


3. In Kazakhstan, tried and true methods of control show signs of wear


Nursultan Nazarbaev
Recent events in Kazakhstan could mean a more difficult political road ahead for President Nursultan Nazarbaev, according to EurasiaNet.


In the 20 years since independence, the country has seen relative stability under Nazarbaev’s tight rule. But an increasingly active opposition movement and the violent December clashes between police and protesting oil workers in Zhanaozen, which left 17 people dead, have some analysts wondering how Astana plans to maintain control of the country without resorting to full-on political repression.


So far the government seems focused on maintaining a crackdown on the opposition. One analyst said that approach could backfire if the socioeconomic factors causing the discontent aren’t addressed.


“Nazarbaev’s model is one that is able to deliver economic development results, but it remains unable to address social or political discontent that would be inevitable should the state administration not improve and wealth distribution remain polarized,” Lilit Gevorgyan, regional analyst with IHS Global Insight, wrote in a briefing note cited by EurasiaNet.


Already the country has seen an increasing number of incidents in which opposition leaders and protesters are arrested, put in jail, and then later released or given amnesty. But with outrage over Zhanaozen growing and opposition leaders pledging another protest on 25 February, many wonder how Nazarbaev will respond, or what would happen in case of the 71-year-old leader’s death.


4. Kosovo Serbs take radically different routes to political influence


As some Serbs in Kosovo vote in a referendum on whether to accept the institutions of the Albanian-led government, another group of Serbs in the new state is maneuvering for more influence in parliament.


A new coalition of parties called the Serb Movement of Kosovo has formed with the aim of offering the Serb minority a stronger political voice and more unity, Balkan Insight reports.  The coalition is composed of several of the country's Serb parties, as well as some municipal leaders and several nongovernmental groups.


Founders of the new organization say it will offer an alternative to the Serb Liberal Party, the only Serb party in the government. “We have nothing against this party, but we believe that a different way of thinking should be developed; they do not represent Serb interests sufficiently,” declared Mihajlo Scepanovic, leader of the Serb Popular Party, a member of the new group.


The unifying agenda of the coalition and its willingness to cooperate with the Pristina authorities stands in stark contrast to the referendum campaign in four majority-Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo. The vote, which is expected to succeed, is meant to send a signal to Belgrade as well as Pristina. The Serbian government has called the referendum unconstitutional, and some Serbs in Kosovo feel betrayed.


The contretemps is also complicating Belgrade’s efforts to join the  European Union.


“Violence and barricades solve nothing. Nor do referenda. We will get to a solution only through calm consultation and dialogue,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told EurActiv.


5. Latvian schools try out surveillance system to monitor attendance


A few Latvian schools are experimenting with an electronic monitoring system to keep track of students’ attendance, but some are uneasy about the innovation in a country with its own Soviet-era history of surveillance and repression.


Three schools began testing a keycard/turnstile entry system in October for security purposes, Deutsche Welle reports, but last month it was combined with an online application that harvests data from the card swipes to record which students come to school each day.


The news agency says more than half of Latvia’s 900 primary and secondary schools use a limited version of the app, with which teachers can manually enter attendance information online without having the keycard system installed. Parents can access the information under either the manual or automated versions of the app.


Klavs Sedlenieks, a social anthropologist at Riga Stradins University, told Deutsche Welle that the system should be optional so that not everyone is “controlled and monitored all the time.” 


“If a kid has some kind of problems or something, then you make these measures and say – well, until you behave as an adult we are […] controlling you," Sedlenieks said.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu and Joshua Boissevain are TOL editorial assistants.
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