Plus, Estonia’s ethnic-Russian integration improves and lobbying intensifies over more Belarus sanctions.by Angela Almeida, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Jeremy Druker, and Anna Shamanska 22 March 2012
A regional court in Siberia on 21 March threw out an attempt to ban a Russian translation of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, according to RIA Novosti. The ruling comes a day after a Moscow court upheld a ban on books promoting Scientology. That decision officially puts Scientology literature on Russia’s list of banned material.
In a statement on the Scientology case quoted by RT.com, the court said the texts, including those by founder L. Ron Hubbard, “foster the creation of an isolated social group, whose members are taught to precisely carry out commands, many of which are aimed at confronting the outside world.” Over the past decade and a half, Scientologists have fought in various Russian courts to be recognized as an established religion. The church won a case in 2009 at the European Court of Human Rights that said Russia’s ban on the church was illegal.
Religious followers of the Bhagavad Gita have also been dealing with the Russian courts for years. Most recently in December, a district court in Tomsk denied prosecutors’ requests to ban a translated version of the 2,000-year-old Bhagavad Gita written by the founder of the Hare Krishna movement. Prosecutors called the book an “extremist publication” and said it was hostile to other faiths, according to Reuters. Following the decision, prosecutors appealed at the Tomsk regional court, which dismissed the case this week.
The attempted ban has received much attention in India, where many lawmakers condemned the case. The country’s foreign minister called the controversy “absurd.”
These cases are not the first examples of non-established or foreign religions struggling to find their place in Russian society. Human rights activists have noted increased pressure by Russian authorities recently targeting non-Orthodox religions and their literature, especially those from abroad. The pressure stems from a vaguely worded law on extremism. In November, the leader of a Jehovah’s Witness group was convicted of extremism for publishing and distributing religious articles “aimed at discrediting other religions.”
A move to restore the reputation of Draza Mihailovic, a Serbian general who was convicted and executed for treason and war crimes in 1946, has met strong opposition from Serbian civic groups and the Croatian public, Balkan Insight reports.
The effort was initiated in 2010 when Mihailovic’s grandson, supported by some academics and political parties, took his case to the Belgrade High Court, according to Radio Free Europe. The court had said it would announce its decision, limited to the question of whether or not Mihailovic received a fair trial. on 23 March, but instead adjourned the case until 11 May.
Fourteen Serbian civil organizations declared that such a move “demeans the struggle of both the Serbians and all the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia against fascism,” and cited Mihailovic’s involvement in war crimes against Bosnians and Muslims, together with his support of Nazi troops during the World War II battles of Neretva and Sutjeska as evidence of his collaboration.
After the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 by Nazi Germany and its Axis allies, the resistance split into the Chetniks and the Partisans. The former were led by Mihailovic, who served the exiled Royalist Yugoslav government. Belgrade historian Slobodan Markovic claims that the Chetniks were the legal successor to the King’s Army of Yugoslavia and that they never collaborated with the Nazi troops.
However, Stjepan Mesic, the last president of Yugoslavia and former president of Croatia, released a statement condemning the move to defend Mihailovic as a “direct negation of undoubtedly established historical facts and a fatal concession to Greater-Serbian nationalism.”
Amid the nationalism of the Slobodan Milosevic era, both the Partisan and the Chetnik movements were portrayed as anti-fascist.
3. Russian-Estonian integration improves
A recent nationwide poll in Estonia suggests that Russian-Estonian integration has progressed, Estonian Public Broadcasting reports. Overall, ethnic Estonian respondents held a more positive view of the Russian population than those surveyed four years ago. The poll was commissioned by the Culture Ministry.
Sixty-one percent of non-Estonians told pollsters that they were moderately, strongly, or completely integrated.
The findings are significant because Estonia has long been criticized for its policies toward Russian-speaking nationalities that found themselves in an independent Estonia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The country’s first post-Soviet legislature decided in 1991 that citizenship could be restored automatically only to pre-Soviet citizens and their children. Others had to demonstrate Estonian-language skills and knowledge of the constitution. In 1994, non-citizens were issued gray passports, instead of the red and blue documents that Estonians received. The government has dismissed recent calls to waive the language requirement and to allow non-citizens to become members of political parties.
In the recent poll, the percentage of respondents with undetermined citizenship who desired Estonian citizenship increased from 51 to 64, and those who didn’t want any citizenship fell from 16 percent to only 6 percent. Seventy-six percent of non-ethnic-Estonian citizens considered Estonia their native country, up 10 percent from 2008, and almost one-third of the Russian-speaking respondents reported feeling a “strong citizen identity” within the country.
On the other hand, the percentage of people who said they were “completely non-integrated” nearly doubled, from 7.5 to 13.
Ethnic Estonians also expressed generally positive sentiments. Seventy percent agreed that the “involvement of non-Estonians in the Estonian economy and governance of the state is beneficial for Estonia” – up from 64 percent in 2008. And 66 percent – as opposed to 59 percent in 2008 – were willing to consider the opinions of the Russian-speaking population.
Belarus appears to be inching closer to increased economic sanctions, as the EU’s foreign ministers prepare to meet on 23 March to make a final decision. In the run-up to the event, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski warned Minsk that new sanctions would be imposed if political prisoners are not released. For its part, a spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said, “The EU should in the first place drop the practice of reinforcing its sanctions on a regular basis,” which, he said, “rules out the possibility of bringing sensibly and reasonably the positions closer to each other.”
Earlier this week, EUObserver reported on an “unprecedented amount of lobbying” in Brussels to remove certain people from the EU’s blacklist, which calls for asset freezes and travel bans for more 200 Belarusian government officials and other individuals. Most of the focus of the lobbying efforts has been to remove Vladimir Peftivev, the chairman of Beltechexport, the largest weapons manufacturer in Belarus. Another billionaire who might be added to the list is Yuriy Chizh, whose businesses range from health spas to soft drinks, according to EUObserver. Several of his companies are based in Europe, and business interests in Slovenia and Latvia have apparently led to those two countries’ efforts to prevent him from being targeted.
A heated discussion has also been raging within the Belarusian opposition over whether to add or remove names from the visa ban list. Much of the controversy has centered on a proposal made earlier this year by Olga Stuzhinskaya from the Brussels-based Office for Democratic Belarus. She suggested removing 25 people – some journalists for state-run media, current and former rectors of universities, and Peftivev. Stuzhinskaya has argued that the visa sanctions are counterproductive and adding names could lead to further repression, while her critics have accused her of lobbying on behalf of Peftivev, a charge she denies.
A man who never liked flying much will now have an international airport named after him. On 21 March the Czech government decided to rename Prague’s Ruzyne Airport after Vaclav Havel, the communist-era dissident, former president, and renowned playwright who died 18 December. The name change will take effect on 5 October, the 76th anniversary of Havel’s birth, the Czech daily Mlada fronta DNES reports.
Immediately after Havel’s death, voices across Czech society started to debate a fitting way to remember the late president. A school in the town of Podebrady, near Prague, quickly changed its name, and calls rang out to rename streets, squares, and public institutions. The idea for the airport rechristening soon emerged, pushed forward by filmmaker Fero Fenic. Despite a former aide’s recollection that Havel, though a frequent world traveler, hated flying, his widow, Dagmar Havlova, saw it as a fitting honor. More than 82,000 people have signed an online petition in favor of the move.
The exact future name of the airport – in English – seems to be a subject of debate. The name in Czech (Letiste Vaclava Havel – Praha) should normally be translated into English as Vaclav Havel Airport – Prague. The Transport Ministry has, however, apparently chosen the name Prague Airport –Vaclav Havel to the chagrin of professional translators who have pointed out that simply listing two unconnected subjects doesn’t make much sense. In any case, travelers can be comfortable that the airport’s logo will stay the same, as well as its international acronym: PRG.
*Editor's note: Reflects corrected version.