Plus, Poland’s woeful level of scientific knowledge and the continuing Central Asian adventures of Russia’s biggest telecoms company.by Ky Krauthamer, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Ernad Halilovic 21 August 2012
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has dismissed Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov in the continuing fallout over a pro-democracy stunt involving hundreds of parachuting teddy bears over Minsk, according to Reuters. The airdrop, which was organized by a Swedish advertising agency, has caused increased diplomatic tensions between Belarus and the West. Martynov, who has been the country’s diplomatic chief since 2003, will be replaced by Lukashenka’s former chief-of-staff, Vladimir Makei, one of several top Belarusian officials on an EU travel blacklist.
Lukashenka’s decision to appoint Makei has raised eyebrows over just what message Minsk is trying to send. Some have seen the change as positive and a possible new leaf for diplomatic relations. Technically, however, Makei cannot travel to meet EU counterparts, unlike Martynov who was not on the blacklist.
The president’s office made no mention of the specific reasons for Martynov’s departure. However, it comes on the heels of the recent sacking of two top military officials for failing to stop the stunt. Minsk also booted the Swedish ambassador and ordered Stockholm to close its embassy by the end of August. Stockholm responded by canceling the residence permits for two Belarusian diplomats.
Last week, the EU stepped in to the conflict, backing Sweden and saying that it would consider new sanctions against Belarus in the fall. Earlier this year, Brussels put in place asset freezes and travel bans on 21 Belarusian officials who the EU says are responsible for repression in the country.
In response to news of the appointment, the EU said in a statement it would consider reassessing Makei’s status this fall, according to RIA Novosti.
Russia’s telecommunications giant Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) will return to Turkmenistan by the end of August, Reuters reports, 20 months after Turkmen authorities revoked the company’s license for reasons that have never been clarified.
In late July, the Turkmen government granted MTS a five-year license with a renewal option, Reuters reports. The company reportedly sustained a $140 million loss during its absence from the market, where it had held an 85 percent share.
In the meantime, government-owned Altyn Asyr has been the only Turkmen mobile phone provider but has failed to make good its promises to improve quality, according to the Associated Press, which notes that unlike MTS, the company offered no roaming services.
Success for MTS in Central Asia’s most tightly controlled communications market contrasts with developments in Uzbekistan, where a court recently suspended all the company’s licenses, RFE reports. The Uzbek troubles of the telecoms operator started in mid-July, with a temporary suspension on the basis of alleged technical violations and a tax audit that hit MTS with a $900 million bill for back taxes.
MTS vice president for strategy Michael Hecker accused the Uzbek court of violating the company’s rights to a fair trial and due process. The size of the tax bill suggests the government may be positioning itself to expropriate the company, he told RFE.
The Associated Press reports on a chance discovery revealing how Czechoslovak communist authorities psychologically broke one of its reporters during the height of the Cold War.
Recently Alena Simankova, an archivist at the Czech national archives, was processing a batch of files sent by the Czech Justice Ministry about three years ago when she found two audio tapes made during Oatis’ trial.
The tapes capture 29 minutes of court proceedings, including some of Oatis’ statements, but not those of his three Czech AP colleagues who were also convicted, AP reporter Karel Janicek writes.
“I'm sorry that I went in for espionage in this country," Oatis says. "I did it only because I listened to the wrong kind of orders from abroad and came under the influence of the wrong kind of people here in Czechoslovakia. I hurt myself, I hurt my friends, I harmed the republic and helped its enemies. I harmed the cause of peace and helped the cause of war. I repeat that I'm sorry for all of this."
Oatis himself later described how he was coerced into pleading guilty through psychological pressure, including being kept without sleep for 42 hours.
After strong protests from U.S. officials all the way up to President Dwight Eisenhower, Oatis was released in May 1953. After a reporting career that lasted another 30 years, he died in 1997 at the age of 83. Czechoslovakia officially cleared his name in 1990. The three Czechs convicted in the same trial, Tomas Svoboda, Pavel Woydinek, and Petr Munz, received sentences of from 16 to 20 years and were all released in the late 1950s, Janicek writes.
Bulgarian speakers in a Ukrainian city say they will keep trying to have Bulgarian granted regional language status under a controversial new law.
Bulgarians number 8,600 in the southwestern city of Izmail, exactly 10 percent of the population, Ukrainian News reports. The law, seen as chiefly benefitting the large Russian community, makes the use of languages other than Ukrainian mandatory in state institutions if native speakers of a language make up at least 10 percent of a city’s or region’s population.
The town council voted by a clear majority 15 August to grant Russian regional language status, Ukrainian News reports. Russian speakers make up 37 percent of the population.
However, one council member’s proposal to grant the same status to Bulgarian was blocked by Mayor Andrii Abramchenko, the For Izmail faction on the council reportedly complained. Members of the faction said they will lodge a complaint against the decision with a local prosecutor’s office.
The city of Izmail is the administrative center of the district of the same name on the border with Moldova. According to the 2001 census, Bulgarians are the third largest community, after Ukrainians and Russians, in the Odessa region, numbering 150,000.
Poles lack basic scientific knowledge and the country spends far too little on research. Those findings emerge from two separate probes into the state of European science and innovation.
In a recent survey of scientific knowledge in 10 EU countries and the United States, Poles rank in the bottom three, Polish Radio reports. In the survey by the Spanish BBVA Foundation, 1,500 respondents in each country answered questions about their interest in science and how closely they follow scientific developments, and took a 22-question quiz where Poles, along with Italians and Spaniards, performed the worst. Denmark and the Netherlands had the highest scores, with more than 15 correct answers, followed by Germany and the Czech Republic. Austria, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States fell in the middle of the table.
Overall, the differences are not extreme, but a high level of ignorance emerges in some of the answers. Only 42.1 percent of Italians correctly answered “false” to the statement, “The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs.” Americans did only slightly better (42.5 percent), and just over half of Spaniards and Poles gave the correct answer, compared with 77 percent of Czechs.
While most of the respondents in each country appeared to have a “middle” level of scientific knowledge, the greatest variations among countries were in the percentages of their populations who know a lot or a little about science. BBVA scored more than half of Danes, Dutch, and Germans as having a high level of knowledge, but only about a quarter of Italians, Spaniards, and Poles. Similar gaps showed up at the low end of the scale.
A related survey of innovation across the EU put the level of investment into research and development in Poland among the lowest in the EU (pdf). Polish public and private spending on R&D amounted to well under 1 percent of gross domestic product, compared with about 2 percent throughout the EU, according to the European Commission’s 2011 report on the country’s innovation potential.