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Mongolia's Unbalanced Boom, Wisdom from Khodorkovsky

Plus, St. Petersburg's gay "propaganda" bill passes final vote, and are Poland and Ukraine ready for Euro 2012?

by S. Adam Cardais and Joshua Boissevain 1 March 2012

1. As Mongolia rises, its poor fall behind


Mongolia's extraordinary economic rise has come at a cost to the poor. GDP grew 17.3 percent last year thanks to a mining boom, but with inflation at roughly 10 percent, low-income households are suffering, according to EurasiaNet.


A market trader in Mongolia. Photo by Francis Deport/flickr.


Rising food prices, especially, sting, as real wages for the lowest earners fell 13 percent last year, according to World Bank figures cited by EurasiaNet.

EurasiaNet highlights the plight of Amgalan Batdorj, a shoe vendor in a suburb of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, who has had to cut prices to maintain sales with the cost of basic staples climbing.


Economists say the government is making matters worse by increasing public spending, which grew by roughly 50 percent in 2011. Last month some 600 demonstrators gathered to protest rising fuel prices, and EurasiaNet suggests that inflation will be a key issue during the parliamentary elections this summer.


2. Khodorkovsky calls for a unified, sober opposition


With Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin expected to win a third presidential term this weekend, jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky says the opposition must remain united and peaceful to have a viable political future, Radio Free Europe reports.


Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Russia has seen mass protests over alleged voter fraud by Putin's United Russia party in the December parliamentary polls. While upturning the "myth" of Putin as the anchor of stability in Russia since the tumultuous 1990s, Khodorkovsky writes in a 29 February article

for the Kommersant newspaper, the protesters must avoid internal divisions and continue to express dissent peacefully.


If Putin doesn't win the 4 March vote in the first round, forcing a run-off, the "monopoly of power" in Russia would be undercut, he adds, according to RFE.


Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008 before becoming premier, is far ahead in the opinion polls. Criticizing the opposition for declaring the election "illegitimate in advance," he has warned against unsanctioned demonstrations after Sunday's vote, RFE notes.


The former head of the Yukos oil company, Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 on tax evasion charges and could remain in prison until 2017. Many believe the arrest, on Putin's watch, was political.

3. St. Petersburg anti-gay bill a pen stroke away from law


In November legislators in St. Petersburg passed in first reading a bill to penalize homosexual "propaganda." Now the bill is close to becoming law, with the Legislative Assembly giving it final approval 29 February, RFE reports.


If the governor signs the measure into law, people convicted of promoting homosexuality or pedophilia among minors will face fines of up 5,000 rubles ($172). For organizations, the maximum penalty is 500,000 rubles ($17,200).


The bill's author, United Russia deputy Vitaly Milonov, insists it does not aim to restrict civil liberties. It targets "propaganda … about sexual deviations that affects our children," he said in November.


Human rights groups disagree. Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch in Moscow says the proposed law is discriminatory, according to RFE. Yury Gavrikov, head of a St. Petersburg organization that promotes the rights of sexual minorities, goes further.


"I think it's absurd to tie sexual violence against children to homosexuality and related information campaigns," he tells RFE. "Linking such issues is unacceptable as well as incompetent."


Protesters reportedly gathered in several major European and U.S. cities against the bill.


4. Ukraine, Poland ironing out the Euro 2012 wrinkles  

With three months left before kick-off, Ukraine and Poland are in a final dash to finish preparations to co-host the Euro 2012 soccer championship, according to Radio Free Europe. It is the first major soccer series to be held in the former Eastern bloc since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and both countries are eager to quell concerns they are not ready for the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected this summer. Euro 2012 operations director Martin Kallen said preparations are “under control,” but UEFA officials are skeptical.


It has been a bumpy road for Poland. Delays and scandals – especially surrounding the construction of the new stadium in Warsaw, home to Euro 2012’s first match – have plagued Sports Minister Joanna Mucha. The stadium’s initial 2011 opening was put off until January because of construction problems, and its fist match was canceled in mid-February because of an unfinished communications system. Despite the setbacks, Poland put the stadium to the test with a friendly match against Portugal on 29 February. Mucha said she hopes to declare the country ready for the tournament on 15 May, according to Al-Jazeera.


While Ukraine has attempted  to cover its bases for the influx of visitors, including teaching its police English and tackling its stray-dog problem, organizers say officials are not doing enough to deal with the high prices of accommodations. RFE reports that “a room in a two-star hotel in Donetsk can cost $278 a night.”


Ukraine’s deputy prime minister and infrastructure minister,  Borys Kolesnikov, said hotel owners were being greedy and that he would “tame their appetite,” according to the Kyiv Post. Adding insult to injury, England recently snubbed Ukraine with its decision to base its team in Krakow even though the team’s matches will be played in Ukraine.


5. Johns in Albania to face tougher jail terms


Albania's parliament has introduced harsher penalties for patrons of sex workers. Under amendments to the penal code passed this week, clients of prostitutes face up to three years in prison, Balkan Insight reports.


The changes follow calls by many activists to decriminalize prostitution, Balkan Insight says. Some wanted a Scandinavian model in which it is illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them.


Vjollca Meco, head of Albania's Helsinki Committee, says criminal prostitution cases too often punish the sex worker, whom many activists consider victims.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Joshua Boissevain is a TOL editorial assistant.
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