Plus, Bosnia’s Croats and Bosniaks might study together, and a reported UK visa blacklist of Russian officials kicks up a row.by Barbara Frye, Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, and Nino Tsintsadze 3 September 2012
Relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia have deteriorated further following the pardon last week of an Azerbaijani soldier convicted in 2006 of murdering an Armenian in Hungary, Radio Free Europe reports.
Ramil Safarov was repatriated to Azerbaijan on 31 August and immediately freed by President Ilham Aliev. Safarov had been serving a life sentence for the 2004 ax murder of Gurgen Margarian while both were attending a NATO training course in Budapest. Hungarian officials said they had been assured by Azerbaijan’s Justice Ministry that the sentence would be enforced, according to RFE.
Aliev provided no public explanation of the pardon, which Yerevan has condemned. The two countries are locked in a stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave located within the territory of Azerbaijan. They fought a brief war in the early 1990s, and a cease-fire in place since then is periodically broken.
Kommersant reports that the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has promoted Safarov, a lieutenant at the time of the killing, to major and given him an apartment and back pay for the years he spent in a Hungarian prison.
Armenia has suspended diplomatic relations with Hungary over the repatriation and sent a letter protesting the pardon to France, Russia, and the United States, co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of countries leading peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Washington also condemned the pardon as “contrary to ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote reconciliation.”
Companies involved in developing one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves have issued conflicting statements over recent plans to shelve the project.
On 29 August, Russia’s Gazprom said it was indefinitely scrapping plans to develop the remote Shtokman field, located in the Russian Arctic and estimated to hold some 4 trillion cubic meters in gas reserves, according to Reuters. State-owned Gazprom owns a 51 percent stake in the project; France’s Total has 25 percent and Norway’s Statoil 24 percent.
“All parties have come to the conclusion that the financing is too high to be able to do it for the time being,” a spokesman for Gazprom said at a press conference.
Following Gazprom’s announcement, Total released its own, less definitive prognosis. “Total would like to point out that there has been no decision by partners to postpone Shtokman project sine die,” the company said in a statement quoted by The Telegraph. The French firm said it agreed that the costs were too high at the moment to continue but that it was looking for ways to “achieve an economically viable project.”
In July, Statoil said it wrote off $336 million in costs related to Shtokman and expressed interest in backing out of the effort. Total announced it would decide 4 September whether it, too, would throw in the towel, according to InterFax.
Falling gas prices and a boom in U.S. shale gas production, as well as Shtokman field’s inaccessibility, have cast increased doubt on the project’s future.
One of Bosnia’s two political entities is moving to end ethnic division in its education system, Balkan Insight reports. On 30 August, Damir Masic, education minister of the mainly Bosniak and Croat Federation described plans to get rid of the notorious “two schools under one roof” approach, which remains in use in three of the federation’s 10 cantons.
This system was devised by the Bosnia mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as a temporary arrangement to encourage people to return to their homes and prevent ethnic violence from erupting anew after the 1992-1995 war. Bosniak and Croat pupils and teachers use the same school facilities but have little to no contact with one another, usually entering through separate entrances to attend classes based on separate, ethnic-based curricula. Some reports about the phenomenon have even mentioned threats of punishment for those who enter facilities being used by the other group or try to socialize between classes.
The ministry’s two-year phase-out is set to begin this fall. The first step will be to unite the administration of the divided schools, which will then oversee the launch of integrated classroom and after-school activities. The goal is multiethnic classes and common textbooks.
Masic expressed optimism that the situation could change, and some signs point in that direction. A Mostar court recently ruled that the dual system violates Bosnian anti-discrimination laws, and Balkan Insight reports that local education officials have signed on to plan.
However, good intentions have been foiled in the past by recalcitrant local authorities and parents. In 2007, Greta Kuna, former education minister of the federation’s Middle Bosnia canton, famously explained her opposition to change by saying, “The ‘two schools under one roof’ project will not be suspended because you can’t mix apples and pears. Apples with apples and pears with pears.”
The Sunday Times reported on 2 September that the UK Foreign Office has sent the list to the British Embassy in Moscow.
Magnitsky, who died in Russian custody, was denied treatment for a medical condition and beaten to death by prison guards, according to a Kremlin human rights panel that looked into his death. He had been arrested on tax-evasion charges after he accused top investigative officials in Russia of claiming millions of dollars worth of tax refunds in the names of companies they had hijacked.
No top official has ever been punished for his death, and some have been promoted. The blacklist of officials originated in the United States as an attempt to prod Russia to take action on the matter. It is part of a bill passed by a Senate committee but not yet become law. Moscow has called the measure an interference in its internal affairs, and some analysts said a law passed by the Duma this year to label as “foreign agents” civic groups that receive funds from abroad was in part retaliation for the so-called Magnitsky list.
More and more Georgians are taking up a pursuit that has long been gaining popularity in the West but which has their priests frowning with disapproval: yoga.
Instructors say yoga is more popular than ever in Georgia, according to EurasiaNet.org, but some Orthodox priests are discouraging the practice for its associations with Eastern religions.
The problem seems to lie in the practice of meditation that is often a part of yoga classes. A website run by Orthodox priests warns that “even people who perform ‘simple yoga exercises … gradually develop some spiritual thoughts’ (a broad reference to meditation) that are not compatible with Christianity,” EurasiaNet.org writes.
Instructors say some students have stopped attending classes because of the warnings, and the president of the National Yoga Federation has come up with yoga classes more suited to Georgian traditions, leaving aside spiritual aspects and focusing on fitness.
Still, one yoga student told EurasiaNet.org that the meditation has helped her become more spiritual, with the weekly three-hour Orthodox church services now passing “like a minute.”