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Another Belarusian Rights Group Faces Closure, 22 Sentenced in Baku Spy Case

Plus, Romanian public TV announces huge job cuts and Ukraine finds itself between a European rock and a hard-bargaining Russia.

by Ky Krauthamer, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Andrew McIntyre 10 October 2012

1. Minsk court shutters rights group


The Belarusian prisoners’ rights organization Platforma has been ordered to shut down after a Minsk economic court ruled the group was in violation of tax regulations, according to BelaPAN. The court said Platforma was not located at its legal address and it had failed to submit its tax returns on time.


Andrej Bandarenka
Platforma leader Andrej Bandarenka, who started the organization in 2011 after spending two years in prison before being acquitted of economic charges, argued he wasn't in violation of any regulation and would appeal the case at the European Court of Human Rights if needed.


“This court decision was predictable and expected,” Bandarenka told BelaPAN. “We all know that such decisions are made against human rights organizations and opposition political groups in our country.”

Earlier this year Platforma asked the EU to include on its visa ban list several prison officials the group accused of responsibility for the “inhuman treatment of citizens,” according to BelaPAN. The organization also angered authorities in June when it called for the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championship not to be held as planned in Belarus, according to The Minsk prosecutor’s office responded by warning Bandarenka against “discrediting” the country.


2. Espionage case may further strain Azerbaijan-Iran ties


In a closed trial on 9 October, 22 Azerbaijani citizens were given prison sentences of between 10 to 15 years for planning terrorist attacks against Western interests and embassies in Azerbaijan, Radio Free Europe reports. Officials accused the men of having ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Iran formally protested the charges when the men were arrested last spring.


The National Security Ministry said that the alleged plotters had received weapons and spy training at military camps in Iran, according to Agence France Presse. Officials said they seized weapons, explosives, and espionage equipment from the men.


The apparent strengthening of political and economic ties between Azerbaijan and Israel has caused worry in Iran. In May, two Azerbaijani poets were arrested in Iran. They were accused of spying but were released in early September. In late September, three Azerbaijani citizens—allegedly with ties to Iranian security services—were arrested and convicted of plotting to attack a Jewish school in Baku, Haaretz reported.


3. Russian Orthodox Church eases restrictions on political priests


Russian Orthodox clergy are allowed to run for political office when necessary to defend the church against opponents, the church’s supreme body announced last week.


The decision by the Holy Synod indicates that "the church ... wants more involvement in politics," Ksenia Sergazina of the Sova think tank said, according to Reuters. The church has been thrust into the spotlight recently thanks to the Pussy Riot case and President Vladimir Putin’s steadfast support for the church.


The Holy Synod clarified a 2011 decision permitting clergy to stand in elections when "schismatic" forces, or those of another faith, are also running. A church spokesman said such a case might arise when "a political force declares that it is running in elections and that one of its aims is to fight Orthodoxy and the Russian church.”


The ban on clerics joining a political party remains in force, although they may run on party lists as independents, RT reports. A priest or monk wishing to run for office must submit a request to the Holy Synod and receive the patriarch’s approval.


Human-rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva said the move to let priests run for office was another sign that “the Russian Orthodox Church is becoming a state religion,” Interfax reported, according to Reuters.


4. Russian gas offer puts Ukraine in a dilemma: Azarov


azarov_100Mykola Azarov
Russia promised to slash the price Ukraine pays for natural gas to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters if Ukraine joins the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said 9 October.


Currently, Ukraine pays more than $400 per 1,000 cubic meters as a result of a deal struck with Russia’s Gazprom gas monopoly by Yulia Tymoshenko, then the prime minister, in 2009. Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of office over the deal. The price Russia is now offering is less than that paid by Belarus and is a fraction of what Russia’s Western European customers pay, Business New Europe writes.


The offer puts Ukraine in a bind, Azarov admitted. The Ukrainian News Agency quotes him as saying, "It means we are facing a dilemma: on the one hand we are told to join the customs union. And on the other hand the European Union tells us that if you join the customs union then, naturally, you forget that you have made an agreement with us on association and on free trade.”


Forty percent of Ukraine’s foreign trade is with the three members of the customs union account for, while the EU accounts for 30 percent, Azarov said.


“But can we go in both directions? Well, not only can, but must. We must move not only in two directions, we must move in the directions where our commodities go and where our services go," he said, according to the Ukrainian News Agency.


5. Mass layoffs in store as Romanian public TV’s money woes continue


Hundreds of employees of the Romanian national broadcaster TVR held a protest 8 October against upcoming layoffs, according to Balkan Insight.


The broadcaster says the staff must be cut from 3,300 to around 2,400 as part of a restructuring plan announced in August. Other cost-cutting measures include closing two of TVR’s channels and renegotiating all existing commercial contracts to try to halve expenses to 5 million euros a month, TVR general manager Claudiu Saftoiu said in an interview with Mediafax in August.


One of the protesting TVR staff, Razvan Butaru, told they object to the lack of "professional criteria for layoffs," as well as the lack of credibility of some members of the commission tasked with interviewing all station employees before announcing the details of staff cuts. Some commission members are members of the ruling Social Liberal Union (USL). The media watchdog group ActiveWatch also objected to politicians taking part in the evaluations of journalists, Balkan Insight writes.


The heavily politicized Romanian media have been embroiled in the political turmoil of this year, which peaked with the USL’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to impeach President Traian Basescu. TVR managers sacked the then-director, Dan Radu, soon after the USL’s Victor Ponta was appointed prime minister in April in what many saw as a political retaliation against the previous, more conservative government.


TVR protest TimisoaraTVR employees in Timisoara staged their own protest against the station’s restructuring plan on 8 October. Screen grab from a YouTube video by TMPRESSRO.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor for TOLIoana Caloianu and Joshua Boissevain are TOL editorial assistants. Andrew McIntyre is a TOL editorial intern. 
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