Plus, Russia’s regional elections draw yawns and fraud claims, and Germany seeks to reinstate visas for some Balkan countries.by Barbara Frye,Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 15 October 2012
Voters in Lithuania have thrown out a government that had pushed through austerity measures since coming to power in 2008.
Reuters reports that the reins will likely be taken by a coalition of center-left parties that promised during the campaign to hike the minimum wage, raise taxes on the rich, and delay the country’s entry into the euro zone to buy some time for dealing with the deficit.
Lithuania was hit hard when consumer credit was effectively cut off by large Scandinavian banks during the financial crisis. According to the World Bank, the country’s post-Soviet GDP peaked at $47.3 billion in 2008 but plunged by 22 percent the following year and by another 7 percent in 2010.
By 2010, the economy had started growing again, and the government won praise from the International Monetary Fund. Political scientist Kestutis Girnius told Reuters, “If the IMF was voting then [Kubilius] would be re-elected. But the IMF does not live in Lithuania, and they could not live on a Lithuanian salary.”
About one-third of the religious organizations in Kazakhstan are about to be disbanded under a new law that requires faith groups to register with the government by 25 October, Radio Free Europe reports.
The law, passed a year ago, requires congregations to have a minimum number of members to qualify for registration at the local, regional, or national level. Kazakhstan’s Religious Affairs Agency reported in February that the changes would effectively de-register nearly 500 congregations, but that number is well below the current estimate of 1,500 that will lose their right to function.
The measure was prompted by what the government says is a wave of extremist violence that began with Kazakhstan’s first suicide bombing in May 2011. Speaking in parliament last year, one lawmaker said the country needed to update its approach to religion. Kazakhstan enacted a liberal faith law in 1992, but in the intervening years, as hundreds of different sects took root, Muslims and Christians began calling for tighter restrictions, he said.
Rights activists say the measure is a means for the government to control religious speech, and it has already led to some absurd situations. Earlier this year, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were charged with doing missionary work without proper registration for discussing the Bible with a grocery store clerk.
Relatively few people cast their votes in Russia’s local and regional elections held 14 October, RIA Novosti reports.
Although the low turnout was seen across the country, the numbers were especially bad in the Far East. The Kamchatka region experienced its lowest rate in 15 years, the news agency reports, with less than 15 percent of voters participating. The figure was even lower in the Primorye region.
An elections analyst told RIA Novosti that Russians were experiencing “election fatigue,” as the regional polls are the third since December, following national parliamentary and presidential balloting.
Aside from low turnout, the elections were notable because they were the first time some voters could choose their own governors since the early 2000s. In what he framed as an attempt to stem separatism, President Vladimir Putin abolished direct elections for regional governors in 2004 after the Beslan school tragedy. Gubernatorial elections were reinstated this year in response to large demonstrations against electoral fraud that began in late 2011.
In the five regions where governors were on the ballot, turnout was higher, according to RIA Novosti.
In early results, candidates from the ruling United Russia party fared well, but opposition candidates say those results are virtually guaranteed by a requirement that gubernatorial candidates receive the endorsement of local officials before they can run, Radio Free Europe writes.
The most high-profile contests took place in the cities of Khimki, outside Moscow, and Barnaul, in the south. In Khimki, environmental campaigner Yevgeniya Chirikova lost her bid to unseat the incumbent mayor and alleged fraud in the voting. In Barnaul, prominent opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov won a seat on the city council. He said he witnessed incidents of carousel voting, in which voters cast repeated ballots at different polling stations, according to Agence France Presse.
Charges by the Golos election monitoring group that there had been hundreds of election-law violations were labeled a “provocation” by the deputy director of the Central Election Commission, AFP reports.
German authorities want to reinstate visa requirements for citizens of Macedonia and Serbia in an attempt to curb an exponential increase in asylum seekers from those countries, Deutsche Welle reports.
Economic hardship, lack of access to education, and poor health care in their home countries have spurred thousands of Roma from the Balkans to seek their fortunes in Western Europe. The number of Serbian and Macedonian citizens applying for asylum in Germany has increased from 78 in all of 2010 to 2,345 in September 2012 alone, according to figures from the German Interior Ministry cited by Deutsche Welle. The trend is fueled largely by an EU decision in December 2009 to lift visa requirements for two countries and Montenegro.
Asylum seekers receive monthly financial assistance equal to three times the average monthly wage in Macedonia and Serbia. Manfred Schmidt, head of Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, told the news agency that the influx of immigrants is “an abuse of the visa exemption program” that puts a financial strain on the government. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has called for abolition of the program.
At the same time, Macedonian Roma say local border guards have begun using racial profiling to keep them from traveling outside the country in response to western concerns over increased asylum numbers.
Journalists in Tajikistan have launched a campaign to protect press rights and protest a recent increase in government censorship online, according to Asia-Plus.
The organizers of the “100 Days for Internet Freedom in TajNet” effort particularly condemned the government practice of blocking websites without a court order. The protest will publicize the journalists’ concerns with, among other measures, public service announcements on the radio and advertisements on social media websites.
As of September, 50 websites have been blocked at one time or another, including local news sites like news.tj and international sites like YouTube, RIA Novosti, and the BBC, according to a statement by the campaigners. Authorities in Dushanbe stepped up the online blocking in July and August when the Tajik military launched an operation against rebel forces in the restive Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region. While many of the sites have recently come back online, authorities have yet to explain the extended outage, EurasiaNet.org reports.
The protesting journalists warned that “ ‘Departmental feudalism’ is becoming a norm” for Dushanbe when dealing with the Internet, with the effect of “unintentionally turning the authorities into an ‘enemy of Internet,’ ” Asia-Plus reports, citing a statement by the group.