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USAID Gets the Russian Boot, Abuse Scandal Rocks Georgia’s Prisons

Plus, police nab journalists and protesters in Minsk, and Bucharest mulls using tax informers to boost collections.

by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 19 September 2012

1. Moscow orders USAID out of Russia


The U.S. Agency for International Development is shutting down its operations in Russia, at the Kremlin’s orders, Radio Free Europe reports.


Russian President Vladimir Putin has blamed the United States for feeding protests against his administration. Earlier this year, the government passed a law requiring civil society groups that receive funds from abroad to label themselves “foreign agents.”


One of the organizations providing those funds has been USAID. Its website says it has poured $2.6 billion into Russia since setting up shop there in 1992. “Local Russian organizations implement over half of USAID's activities in the country in the areas of health, civil society, rule of law, local governance, and conflict mitigation,” according to the agency.


A source in the U.S. administration told the Guardian the agency would look at other ways to accomplish its goals in Russia. 


Though the move was ordered by Moscow, the White House is coming under fire from political opponents and others, including Freedom House, a Washington-based rights watchdog that has had its own difficulties in Russia.


“What is most disappointing about this decision is that it appears the U.S. government didn’t push back on the Russian government’s request and force President Putin to publicly kick out USAID,” Freedom House President David J. Kramer said in a statement.


2. Prison abuse scandal spurs Tbilisi protests, resignation


An unfolding scandal in Georgia over the abuse of prison inmates has spurred street demonstrations and cost one cabinet minister her job.


Undated videos aired September 18 on two Georgian television stations depict guards beating and raping inmates with a stick, appearing to confirm persistent claims of inhumane treatment in the prison system. After the broadcast crowds gathered in front of a concert hall in Tbilisi where President Mikhail Saakashvili was to attend a performance, demanding an end to the abuse and the resignation of Corrections Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, who stepped down September 19.


Some protesters stayed overnight, and as of TOL’s press time Interpress was reporting that a crowd was marching across town from the concert hall to government headquarters.


“This is not the first incident of torture in prisons. Year after year there are documented cases in the ombudsman’s report about tortured prisoners,” Shorena Shaverdashvili, a Georgian journalist, told Radio free Europe.


According to the independent website, the Interior Ministry announced the arrests of three prison officials and released its own footage of guards beating an inmate just before the other incriminating videos were aired.


The government says the guards in the other videos were paid to abuse inmates and videotape it in a deal arranged by an inmate with links to the Georgian Dream Movement, the largest political force challenging the ruling United National Movement in elections on 1 October.


The TV stations that broadcast the videos, however, say they were given the recordings by a former prison guard who is seeking political asylum in Belgium.


The leader of Georgia’s parliament, a member of the United National Movement, has called for a committee to probe the issue of prison abuse, and the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch called on Tbilisi to launch a “prompt, thorough, and independent investigation into the abuse, hold those found responsible accountable, and ensure the victims a remedy.” 


3. Police break up pre-election protest in Minsk


Police in Minsk roughed up and detained protesters and journalists at an 18 September demonstration against the country’s largely discredited parliamentary elections, which will take place this weekend, Reuters reports.


“We were photographing the picket when a bus came up and men in civilian clothes jumped out and quite aggressively began to push everyone into the bus,” said Reuters photographer Vasily Fedosenko, according to the news agency.


Opposition figures and pro-democracy activists are calling for a boycott of the election. They cite the continued imprisonment of political opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka detained after a crackdown on protests against the presidential elections in December 2010.


Further, according to a report by international election observers (downloadable here), many would-be candidates in the upcoming balloting were denied registration via an opaque or arbitrary process, and candidates who support the boycott have been denied free air time that is supposed to be offered to all candidates. In addition, the report notes, some administrators of political social media groups were arrested on 30 August.


Pavel Vinahradau
The journalists detained in this week’s protest were released about two hours later with no explanation. According to Reuters, the Vesna-96 human rights group said four activists were still being held. Among them is Pavel Vinahradau of the Tell the Truth movement, who staged a protest in February with stuffed animals in front of the government headquarters. One of the figures held a sign that read, “Toys Against Lawlessness!” according to Bloomberg.


4. Romania mulls encouraging informants to boost tax haul


A Romanian tax official is proposing to offer financial rewards to those who report individuals or companies suspected of tax evasion, Balkan Insight reports.


The idea is based on the Swedish informer system, in which citizens receive letters telling them if they have paid more taxes than their neighbors and offering a reward for reporting any perceived irregularities, Liviu Voinea, the state secretary of the Finance Ministry, said, according to Pascaneanul, a regional newspaper.


In addition, the government is considering a new tax on swimming pools, which Voinea called “part of an attempt to reduce exceptions and implement the principle of solidarity between taxpayers, so that the average citizen won't be affected.”


The Romanian government is struggling to boost tax collections, which amount to 0.7 percent of the GDP, less than a quarter of the European average of 3 percent, according to Balkan Insight.


But the tax informer proposal has received a cool reception in Bucharest, especially considering Romania’s history of secret police control under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. The Bursa financial newspaper reports that Prime Minister Victor Ponta said he asked Voinea to look across Europe for ideas that had worked. At this point, they are suggestions, Ponta said, “some good, some less good.”


Daniel Ionescu, a former member of the National Securities Commission, called the law a step back to the times of “Soviet commissars” and a threat to democratic values. Ionel Blanculescu, director of a business advisory council for the government, said the proposal’s wording could lead people to level unfounded accusations in hopes of receiving compensation.


5. Czech alcohol ban spreads to Poland, Slovakia


A nationwide prohibition on the sale of Czech hard alcohol has spread to two more Central European countries this week as 22 people have died and dozens more were hospitalized after drinking poisoned bootleg liquor contaminated with methanol, according to Reuters.


The Slovak government announced 18 September it would block the import and sale of all Czech liquor containing more than 20 percent alcohol. The ban follows a similar move by Poland on 16 September and a ban on sales in the Czech Republic two days earlier. Methanol, a nonpotable alcohol, is extremely poisonous and can cause blindness, coma, and respiratory failure even in small doses.



Czech authorities have launched a nationwide inquiry into the extent of the contamination but have yet to trace the source of the poisonous alcohol. Police have arrested 23 people in connection with making or selling bootleg spirits, Reuters reports. Investigators have posited that the methanol might have come from Polish antifreeze, according to Czech daily Lidove noviny.


Slovakia instituted the ban following news that eight people in the eastern part of the country were hospitalized after drinking poisonous Czech-made spirits they bought over the Internet. In Poland, authorities reported that four have died from alcohol poisoning, with two of the deaths believed to be linked to bootlegged Czech liquor, according to TVN24. The first fatality of the methanol scare was reported 6 September in northeastern Czech Republic.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern.
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