Plus, Azerbaijan ratchets up fines for protests and Uzbekistan spotlights three convicted spies.by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 5 November 2012
The Hungarian parliament passed a law last week that will require those who want to vote in elections to register at least two weeks beforehand.
The law’s backers in the ruling right-wing Fidesz party say it is necessary for officials to compile registration information on Hungarians living abroad. Although mechanisms were already in place allowing Hungarians abroad to vote, the country added hundreds of thousands of new voters in 2010, when it granted dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries.
Responding to charges that the measure is simply meant to discourage poor and less-educated voters, who are less likely to support Fidesz, the law’s backers say voter registration has long been a feature of other democracies, including the United States.
But critics point out that Hungary will require voters to register every four years, forcing rural voters to travel to administrative centers during working hours. In addition, unlike the United States, Hungary has a central registry of citizens and their addresses, which is already used to create highly accurate lists of eligible voters.
“[T]hose Fidesz-KDNP politicians who spoke on the issue fairly freely admitted that they would like to ‘filter out’ those who decide only in the last minute that they want to vote. Why? Because polls indicate that undecided, last-minute voters usually vote against the current government party,” writes Eva Balogh, a Yale history professor, on her Hungarian Spectrum blog.
Macedonia’s European Union entry talks have stalled for years over a dispute with Greece about who has the right to call itself Macedonia – the former Yugoslav republic or the northern Greek province. But this time it’s Bulgaria using its veto power to bar the door: Sofia has blocked the start of Macedonia’s EU accession talks over what it says is an “anti-Bulgarian campaign” being waged by the Skopje government.
His remarks come after a wave of ultranationalist articles about the alleged Macedonian origin of Bulgarians appeared in the Macedonian media this summer. Bulgarian authorities have also accused their Macedonian counterparts of demagoguery and false interpretations of historical events. The two countries have a shared history and language.
Plevneliev told Fuele that such developments threaten regional stability and show Macedonia is not ready to talk about joining the EU, although he said Sofia ultimately supports its southern neighbor’s membership bid.
An EU candidate since 2005, Macedonia has previously faced accusations of “aggressiveness” toward the Bulgarian nation and history. In 2006, then-Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin declared that his country supported the Macedonian EU bid “but not unconditionally.”
Fuele said he was disappointed with Plevneliev’s position. The commissioner asserted that “isolation boosts nationalism,” and added that Macedonia had been waiting “before a closed door” for too long in its bids to join the EU and NATO.
Azerbaijan has placed new restrictions on public rallies. Last week, the country’s parliament approved a measure to hike the maximum fine for participating in unauthorized gatherings from about $640 to about $10,000, Radio Free Europe reports.
Although the country is a member of the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental human rights group, it holds political prisoners, and independent journalists are often targeted for violence or intimidation through the courts. When permits are granted for opposition rallies, they are usually for locations outside central Baku.
According to RFE, dozens of people were dispersed last week for protesting the changes to the law in front of the parliament building and for calling on the body to resign, the the Panorama news agency reports. Some were detained and then released.
Rafael Jaibrailov, a lawmaker who sponsored the changes, said he took into account practices in about 30 other countries, according to the KM.ru news website. Responding to warnings in the parliamentary debate that the heightened restrictions would invite international condemnation, one legislator from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan (New Azerbaijan) Party, Mubariz Gurbanli, said outside organizations “can say whatever they want, we will continue to work,” according to Panorama.
Earlier this week Amnesty International called on Azerbaijan’s government to "end the crackdown on dissent and to ensure that all citizens are able to enjoy their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association."
Blogger Joshua Kucera writes that the cases of the women, who lived in a region bordering Tajikistan, was highlighted on a special program aired by government television.
Whether or not the women were spies, the attention they received “means it's a political warning to all the citizens whether they are Uzbeks or Tajiks that the government is watching their actions and interactions with the people of Tajikistan,” an unnamed Uzbek analyst told Kucera.
“There are tens of thousands of Uzbek citizens who have relatives in Tajikistan,” the analyst said. “It's become very difficult to cross the border and the authorities need a reason to justify the restrictions. This case is one of them.”
Bilateral ties have frayed as energy-poor Tajikistan pursues a massive dam project that Uzbekistan says will threaten irrigation of its crucial cotton crop downstream. Relations have worsened as Tashkent has intermittently cut off energy supplies and rail cargo to Tajikistan, and as the countries begin to compete to sell electricity to Afghanistan.
The diplomatic cold war has resulted in serious human suffering. Tajikistan’s government says there are more than 3,000 marriages registered there between Tajik citizens and foreigners. About 1,800 of them are in the Sogd region, through which about 80 percent of the Uzbek-Tajik border stretches. Bureaucrats and customs officials put up obstacles to couples traveling back and forth to visit family. In addition, part of the border is littered with land mines.
A recent spate of hunger strikes in Russia’s Ural district could spell political trouble for President Vladimir Putin, according to Reuters. Blue-collar workers in the once heavily pro-Putin area face an increasing threat of unemployment as more firms teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.
In Sverdlovsk, nearly 50 steel mill workers from the town of Verkhnyaya Sinyachikha participated in an 11-day strike in October over unpaid wages. This is the fourth such strike at the factory in the past year, and hunger strikes have been staged at two other Sverdlovsk plants, Reuters reports. Workers at a factory in Rezh have threatened to walk out on 6 November.
A Kremlin envoy to the area said in October that the amount of unpaid wages in the Ural district could be as high as 545 million rubles ($17 million). In Sverdlovsk alone, some 50 businesses are in danger of bankruptcy, Reuters writes.
Until now, the Kremlin has employed a kind of whack-a-mole economic approach to the area, stepping in to pay wages and rebuke owners when tensions run just high enough. This in turn has won Putin a certain loyalty from blue-collar workers in the region, but the recent strikes suggest that well could be drying up.
“The first time he ran, we voted for him. The second too, but this time we didn't,” one striking steelworker from Verkhnyaya Sinyachikha told Reuters.
But a growing dissatisfaction with Putin in this industrial region doesn’t necessarily mean that the workers there are ready to march the streets with Moscow’s growing – and largely middle class – opposition movement. The class issues and mutual contempt visible during the last election make it unlikely that the groups will join forces any time soon.