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Shein Starts to Eat, Blair Stumps for Kazakhstan

Plus, donors come up short on funds for Balkan refugees and Roma food sells in Budapest. by Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Stanislav Maselnik 25 April 2012

1. Russian opposition figure ends his hunger strike


Oleg Shein
A politician who has become a galvanizing force for the Russian opposition has ended a well-publicized hunger strike. Oleg Shein, a member of the Just Russia party who had been protesting results of the 4 March election, called off the strike on 24 April. 


Shein started the 40-day protest in mid-March after finishing second with 30 percent of the vote in the mayor’s race in the city of Astrakhan. He said the results were rigged in favor of governing party United Russia’s candidate, Mikhail Stolyarov, who was declared the winner with 60 percent of the vote.


Shein said the strike had “achieved its goal” since the director of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, admitted that the “law had been broken in 129 of 203 polling stations” and those cases will soon be reviewed in court, Radio Free Europe reports. According to Russian law, the results can be proclaimed invalid if the results are found fraudulent in 25 percent of election districts.


The Kommersant daily notes that Shein’s second reason for calling off the hunger strike was that the authorities released all of his 20 supporters who had been arrested for holding unauthorized demonstrations on his behalf.


At the same time, RIA Novosti observes that Shein had made three demands on the Russian authorities, only one of which had been met by the time he finished the strike. Besides an official investigation of the results, Shein had requested the dissolution of the responsible electoral commissions and immediate cancellation of the election results in Astrakhan. 


Meanwhile, an RFE profile of Shein recounts the new darling of the opposition’s earlier history as a diehard Communist and “obedient pro-Kremlin deputy in the State Duma.”


2. Blair under fire for role in Kazakh promotional video


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been taking heat for his appearance in a video promoting Kazakhstan, the BBC reports.


In the 67-minute video, an enthusiastic Blair calls the country's progress “remarkable” and says President Nursultan Nazarbaev had “a combination of the toughness necessary to take the decisions to put the country on the right path” and “a certain degree of subtlety and ingenuity that allowed him to maneuver in a region which is fraught with difficulties.”


Both the BBC and The Telegraph spoke to human rights campaigners who are irate over Blair's role. Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Telegraph, “Tony Blair is in a better position than most to know that a country that violates fundamental human rights is not a good environment for economic investment.”


A spokesman for Blair said the former prime minster had also spoken about the need for political reforms and improvements in human rights in the interview. Comments of that nature, however, did not appear in the final version. Blair's people have consistently denied that he has personally profited from a large deal signed last year to advise the Kazakh leadership.


Though the controversy has emerged now, the video was actually uploaded on to YouTube in early February, but only several hundred people had viewed it by early this week.


3. Sarajevo donor conference nets $340 million for refugees


International donors from 25 countries and organizations met in Sarajevo on 24 April to raise funds for housing more than 70,000 refugees still displaced from conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. The conference was expected to raise the needed $770 million to fund the program, but the event finished with only $345 million – with the lion’s share, $300 million, coming from the EU, according to a press release from the European Commission.


The Regional Housing Program – a joint effort by Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – is a five-year plan to help the estimated 74,000 refugees either voluntarily return to their homes or integrate locally. The four countries have pledged $110 million collectively, and officials said the EU guaranteed that the remaining funds will be found, RIA Novosti reports.


More than 200,000 people lost their lives and 2 million were displaced in the conflicts following the breakup of Yugoslavia, resulting in the largest European refugee crisis since World War II, according to the UN. Solving that crisis remains a major hurdle for these countries in the EU-ascension process.


4. Getting to know the Roma through their food


While the way to a man's heart may or may not be through his belly, a new restaurant in Budapest shows that good food can whet the appetite for different cultures. According to Reuters, the Romani Platni  (Roma Stove) restaurant, has been popular since its opening in February, with its weekly dinners booked up to a month in advance.


Using a grant from the Open Society Institute, the venture brought together a number of social aid volunteers and a half-dozen local Romani women in a project described as “part home restaurant, part social experiment.”


“We have tried very hard to avoid stereotypes and cook like my grandmother used to,” said Sandor Orsos, the leader of the project. For instance, pork oviducts (fallopian tubes) have been very much in demand, together with potato hanuska (potato and dumplings), served with garlic pork chops (ganca), and pasta fried in butter and served with vanilla breadcrumbs and honey-glazed peaches.


Orsos said this “simple, clean, and nutritious” style of cooking is a trademark of Romani cuisine and should attract lovers of organic food.  But most importantly, Orsos hopes that food will pave the way to deeper cultural understanding about Hungarian Roma.


“We leave [the customers] alone for most of the meal,” Orsos said. “Then the guests come and often chat with the women who cooked the food. They ask for recipes, and compliment them on the dishes, and then they go home,” he said.


5. Ukrainian students get the boot for Euro 2012


Last week officials in Ukraine boasted that their country is finally ready to house the 800,000 fans expected for the Euro 2012 soccer championship starting in June. They also promised that price-gouging “bandits and crooks” in the hotel industry have been reined in. In the rush to find enough housing, however, several student dormitories have been offered to foreign visitors in the four Ukrainian cities hosting the matches: Lviv, Donetsk, Kharkov, and Kyiv, and thousands of students are being asked to move out, according to Spiegel Online.


Photo by Ira Smirnova/flickr.


Even though exams will be finished by the time the championship starts, many students continue to live in the dorms during the summer and have not been offered any housing alternatives. In addition to moving out, students at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv will be forced to continue paying around $16 a month for their rooms. Students at Kyiv’s National Medical University have been told that they even need to fix up their rooms on their own dime before moving out. Students at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy were offered a contract that would let them keep their rooms if they agreed to work in the dorms without pay helping tourists.

Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director and editor in chief. Stanislav Maselnik is a TOL editorial intern.

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