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Floods Devastate Parts of Russia, Romanian President Suspended

Plus, Ratko Mladic’s trial resumes in The Hague and Hugh Grant irks Budapest.

by Jeremy Druker, Ioana Caloianu, Joshua Boissevain, and Ernad Halilovic 9 July 2012


1. Flooding wreaks havoc in southwest Russia


Russia is observing a national day of mourning on 9 July after heavy rains triggered flash floods and landslides in the southern Krasnodar region that left at least 171 dead and thousands homeless. The rain began on 6 July and dumped as much as 30 centimeters (12 inches) – equivalent to the average of two-months’ rainfall – over the course of the night, according to RIA Novosti. The weekend’s flooding came after more than a month of heavy rain in the Black Sea region.



Krymsk, a town of 57,000 located 200 kilometers northwest of Sochi, was the hardest hit in the region. Witnesses there say that a wall of water several meters high wreaked havoc on the town early Saturday morning, leading residents to wonder if the flood was in fact the result of a sudden release of water from a nearby reservoir, according to Reuters. Local officials are also facing criticism that not enough was done to warn people of the impending catastrophe. Residents accused officials of knowing about the danger of flooding but not giving an evacuation order or even a warning, the Guardian reports.


Russian President Vladimir Putin toured the area by helicopter 7 July and ordered an inquiry into the cause of the flood. Police are also looking into whether the deaths can be attributed to negligence by the local government, RIA Novosti reports.


2. In power struggle, Romanian president suspended

The Romanian parliament voted for the impeachment of President Traian Basescu, a decision that raised international concern over the future of democracy in the country, Deutsche Welle reports. The voting took place on 6 July, with 256 of the body’s 432 members for the motion and 114 opposed.


The decision, based on charges that Basescu exceeded his authority, must be confirmed in a public referendum that will take place 29 July. Crin Antonescu, president of the Senate and head of the National Liberal Party, will be the interim head of state until then.


Among the reasons mentioned in the document asking for Basescu's impeachment were his usurpation of some of the prime minister’s duties and his interference in the functioning of the government and the judiciary. According to the Romanian constitution, the president’s job is mostly ceremonial, although his or her responsibilities do include foreign policy, the selection of a prime minister, and mediation among the powers of the state.


The latest chain of events – the result of an ongoing power struggle between Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta – has drawn international concern. Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said the developments “threaten democratic checks and balances and weaken independent institutions,” while the Council of Europe has tasked the Venice Commission, its advisory body on constitutional matters, to examine the legitimacy of the suspension of the president.


3. Mladic war-crimes trial resumes


Ratko Mladic
Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic is set to face his first day of trial on 9 July at the Yugoslav war crimes court in The Hague following a six-week delay, according to The Telegraph. Mladic is charged with 11 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity, but his trial was postponed in May after his lawyers complained that the prosecution had not turned over all the evidence against their client. Mladic has denied the charges against him, saying they’re “heinous” and “monstrous,” Radio Sarajevo writes.


The first witness scheduled to testify is Elvedin Pasic, who will speak about how he survived a mass execution in the village of Grabovica in November 1992, Deutsche Welle reports. UN adviser David Harland is also set to speak on the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from 1993 to 1995.


The trial opens two days before Srebrenica Genocide Remembrance Day, which marks the slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys on 11 July 1995. Tractor-trailers loaded with the remains of 520 newly identified victims of the massacre were paraded through Sarajevo on 9 July as on-lookers threw flowers, according to The bodies will be transported to Srebrenica, where they will be buried on 11 July. Last month, authorities arrested two former Bosnian Serb military officers for their alleged involvement in the Srebrenica massacre.


4. No Hugh Grant fans in Hungarian government corridors


The British actor Hugh Grant has irked supporters of Hungary’s government with his recent comments at the European Parliament about the state’s relationship with the media, The Budapest Times reports.  


Free press organizations and various international bodies have repeatedly condemned Hungary for passing laws since the conservative, Fidesz-led government took power that restrict media freedom. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch issued a call for the European Union to act against Hungary for the government’s failure to respond to criticism of recent changes to media laws.


Spurred by the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom, Grant has recently become an activist against press intrusion and over-concentration of media ownership. During a panel discussion at the Pan-European Forum on Media Pluralism and New Media, he had been speaking about the dangers of unrestricted media ownership in the UK and Italy, when he referred to the “equally terrifying” danger of too much state control over the media. “One has to be equally vigilant about that, if you look at Hungary as an example,” Grant said. “So you’ve got two evils.”


In an article titled, “Hungarian government in ambitious bid to normalize relations with … Hugh Grant,” the website reports that the government’s public relations office has compiled an English-language “information package” for the actor to correct what an official called his “pretty patchy” knowledge of Hungary, especially on how the Hungarian press really works.


Christian Democrat Istvan Palffy, a former television news anchor, was also annoyed by the actor’s foray into international diplomacy. “I think Hugh Grant must be stuck in one of his acting roles and still believes he is the British prime minister, whom he played in the film Love Actually.”


5. Kazakhstan opens gigantic mosque


Kazakhstan officially opened the largest mosque in Central Asia, a massive building that spans the size of around 18 soccer fields. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev was on hand for the festivities, timed to coincide with “Capital Day,” a holiday to commemorate the move in 1998 of the country’s capital from Almaty to Astana.


The Khazret Sultan mosque, the world's largest – for now. Image from a video by KMassimovE


As AFP notes, the date is also Nazarbaev’s birthday and follows in the tradition of launching extravagant city projects on that day. In 2010, the elaborate indoor park of Khan Shatyr had that honor, and Sting was set to perform at last year’s celebrations until canceling his appearance in the wake of a crackdown on oil worker protests.


The mosque, called “Khazret Sultan,” went up in less than two years, with construction marred by a fire in January that caused the death of one worker. Decorated with Kazakh national ornaments, it can seat up to 5,000 worshippers and features a 51-meter-high (167 foot) central dome.


The mosque’s claim to be the largest in Central Asia won’t last long. Construction is under way in Tajikistan on the Dushanbe Grand Mosque, which will be, according to The Telegraph, one of the largest mosques outside Saudi Arabia – big enough to allow 115,000 worshippers at a single prayer session. The impoverished country will be footing only part of the bill: Qatar, a wealthy Gulf state, will be covering $70 million of the $100 million estimated cost.

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


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