Plus, Serbia’s new president denies that Srebrenica was genocide and Russian tourists get a warm welcome in Georgia.by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, and Ioana Caloianu 4 June 2012
Hajiyev was arrested in March 2011 after using Facebook to call on people to join demonstrations against the government. He was charged with evading military service and in May 2011 was sentenced to two years in prison. Hajiyev said he should have been eligible for alternative service as a conscientious objector. His supporters said his arrest was in connection with his Facebook activities, not military conscription.
In December, a statement from Index on Censorship said Hajiyev “remains in jail on a charge unrelated to his activism, a tactic increasingly employed to silence dissenting voices.”
Last month a group of U.S. senators increased pressure on Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliev to release Hajiyev, who graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2009.
Hajiyev told supporters last week that he had sent a message to Aliev asking for his release, telling the president, “I can be more useful not as a prisoner, but as a free young person who works for the continuous and sustainable development of his country.”
Experts in Baku predict Hajiyev will be called up to start his military service in July, as has happened in the past with pardoned activists, such as Jabbar Salavan.
According to one report, Hajiyev said his post-release plans include rest, travel abroad, and possibly marriage.
Facing stepped-up pressure from the West to improve its human rights record, Belarus has received a warm embrace from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose first official trip in office was to Minsk last week.
"Russia and Belarus will coordinate our efforts to counter attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the Union State and apply pressure through restrictive measures and sanctions," Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in a joint statement after their 31 May meeting.
The EU and the United States have imposed ever-increasing sanctions on Belarus linked to its brutal suppression of protests after the December 2010 presidential election, and to its continued imprisonment and harassment of opposition figures and protesters.
Minsk has for years played Russia and the West off each other, and its relations with each are characterized by periods of freezing and thawing. The EU and the United States call for political freedoms and the release of political prisoners, while Russia consistently lobbies for its companies to be able to buy up their Belarusian counterparts in strategic industries like energy and transportation.
The Belarusian economy has traditionally relied on the fruits of buying tariff-free Russian oil and selling it, refined, to European customers at a steep mark-up. That practice was scuttled two years ago, when Russia imposed tariffs on the oil that Belarus refined for export westward.
Minsk finally sold more than $2.5 billion worth of assets to Moscow in 2009 and 2010, with promises to sell more. In return, last week Putin promised to hand over the third installment, worth $440 million, of a $3 billion loan to Belarus.
Russian tourists are coming back to Georgia, the BBC reports. In February, Tbilisi dropped visa requirements for Russian visitors. The next month saw a three-fold rise in the number of Russian tourists, and their numbers are up by 55 percent for the first four months of this year over the same period in 2011, the BBC reports.
The trend is notable considering that official contacts between the countries have been cut off since their August 2008 war. But, as one tourism operator says, Russia is a huge and growing market that Georgia cannot afford to ignore. Tourism has become a major plank in the government’s economic development platform.
Tbilisi is also looking to lure Russian investors. “Let every Russian businessman know that Georgia is as attractive a country for any citizen of Russia as for citizens of any other country; free of corruption, lawlessness, bureaucratic pressure,” President Mikheil Saakashvili told parliament in February. “Let the Russian tourists know that they can visit Georgia any time and everyone will meet them with famous Georgian hospitality here.”
Tourist Yuri Krasnoselskikh told the BBC, “A lot of Russians think it's unsafe because of the tense relations between our countries. But in reality it's completely different. People here are very friendly, peace-loving, and happy.”
Newly elected Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic has caused international outrage by denying that the mass killings of Bosnian Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica represent an instance of genocide. Nikolic made the statement on Montenegrin state television on 1 June, adding that the “grave war crimes committed by some Serbs” should be investigated and punished accordingly. “It is very difficult to indict someone and prove before a court that an event qualifies as genocide,” he said.
Both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice have ruled that the July 1995 massacre was genocide. According to the Guardian, a spokeswoman for the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, drew attention to the International Court’s ruling and the fact that Srebrenica was “the largest massacre in Europe since World War II, a crime against all of humankind.”
Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of Bosnia's three-person presidency, expressed concern that denying Srebrenica was a genocide could mire attempts at “co-operation and restoring confidence” between the countries in the region by becoming “a source of new misunderstandings and tension.”
Nikolic, whose formative political years were spent in the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, has vowed to continue his country’s EU accession process, but he has also vowed never to recognize the independence of Kosovo.
A smoking ban in public places went into effect in Bulgaria on 1 June, but its enforcement remains in doubt, the Sofia News Agency reports.
The new law is broad, banning smoking in all work places and restaurants, on public transportation, “near administrative buildings, in the yards or [near] day care centers and schools, on playgrounds, at outdoor children’s events, open air performance venues, and sports facilities.” Airports can have smoking lounges but these must be “completely closed.”
The news agency reports that most Bulgarians favor the ban, but the country has only 650 health inspectors, who are tasked with enforcing the smoking law along with others concerning noise and hygiene.
Implementation of the law was delayed by two years over concern that it could depress tourism. Ireland saw its visitor numbers grow after it passed a smoking ban in 2004, until tourism dropped off in 2008 when the financial crisis hit.