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Czechs Pass $3 Billion Church Restitution Bill, Georgian Authorities Arrest Former Interior Minister

Plus, journalists’ heads roll in Poland over an incendiary article and the contentious head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church dies. 

by Jeremy Druker, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 8 November 2012

1. Czech parliament passes mammoth church restitution bill

 

After years of twists and turns, the Czech lower house of parliament passed a church restitution bill that mandates the return of billions of dollars in assets seized by the communist regime, AFP reports. In a close call that overturned an upper-house veto, the bill gained 102 votes in the 200-seat chamber. After trying to block debate on the bill for three hours, the opposition Social Democrats and Communists walked out before the final vote, which took place early in the morning on 8 November. 

 

If signed by the president, the law would turn over communist-seized properties to 17 religious denominations. But it was the enormous amount in compensation, 59 billion crowns ($2.97 billion) spread out over 30 years, that sparked the most debate among politicians and ordinary Czechs – especially at a time of sweeping budget cuts and tax hikes. The Roman Catholic Church will receive the largest amount, 47 billion crowns. Over the next 17 years, however, the state will start to save money by lowering its subsidies to religious groups, including for the payment of clergymen.

 

A poll conducted in September found only 16 percent of respondents in favor of the bill, with 65 percent against. Around 29 percent thought that society had a moral duty to return the property, while 60 percent believed the opposite.

 

iDNES.cz, the website of the Czech daily Mlada fronta DNES, writes that it’s not clear if President Vaclav Klaus will sign the measure. In the past, he has warned that extending the timeline for restitution to before the communist takeover in 1948 would set a dangerous precedent.

 

Overall, it was a good day for Prime Minister Petr Necas and his government. He won a confidence vote linked to approval of a tax overhaul after rebel lawmakers from his own center-right Civic Democrats backed down, and parliament overrode a presidential veto to implement wide-ranging pension reform. For the past few weeks, the government has seemed on the verge of collapse only halfway through its term in office.

 

2. Tbilisi arrests three top military officials

 

Three former high-ranking Georgian military officials, including a former interior minister, were detained for questioning and are under investigation for abuse of power, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

Bacho Akhalaia
Bacho Akhalaia, former interior minister and a close ally of President Mikhail Saakashvili, was arrested 6 November. Hours later, chief of the Joint Staff Giorgi Kalandadze and armed forces brigade commander Zurab Shamatava were also detained, and the three were interrogated by police. Georgia's top prosecutor said his office is investigating whether the three verbally abused a group of soldiers in the defense minister’s office in October 2011 and if Akhalaia assaulted one of them with a knife handle. Akhalaia remains in pretrial detention, while the other two have been released, according to RFE.

 

Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, called the detentions politically motivated and temporarily suspended their activities in parliament in protest. “We face all the signs of using the prosecutor’s office for political goals,” Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria said. “There were no grounds for their arrests.” He said the move would damage the country’s democratic development and reputation abroad, especially as Georgia prepares for the upcoming NATO summit, where it will be considered for an invitation to join the alliance’s Membership Action Plan.

 

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a bitter rival of Saakashvili who booted the president’s party from power in October elections, called UNM’s accusations unfounded.

 

Akhalaia, one of the key figures of Saakashvili’s government, resigned in September in the aftermath of a scandal sparked by videos depicting the inhumane treatment of inmates in Georgia’s prisons. While Akhalaia is no longer in charge of the penal system, families of prisoners accuse him of being personally involved in the torture cases, Democracy and Freedom Watch writes.

 

3. Journalists fired and political repercussions in Poland over Smolensk TNT article

 

An inflammatory article published last week in Poland’s Rzeczpospolita newspaper could have long-term implications for both the local journalism community and the national political scene.

 

On 29 October Rzeczpospolita, a generally well-respected daily that has recently been aligned with the right, reported that traces of explosives were found on the wreckage of the plane that crashed in 2010 in Smolensk, Russia, killing Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of Polish diplomats, military officers, and political figures. The paper said Polish prosecutors and experts had detected traces of TNT and nitroglycerine on 30 seats and on the fuselage, even though earlier investigations had ruled out the presence of explosives. Later that day, after the article had generated a huge wave of attention, the Military Prosecutor’s Office, in charge of the investigation, denied the report.

 

Earlier this week, Rzeczpospolita announced that it had fired editor in chief Tomasz Wroblewski and reporter Cezary Gmyz over the article, AFP reports. According to the news agency, the paper’s owner and publisher, Grzegorz Hajdarowicz, wrote in an open letter on the front page: “The unthinking acts of a number of individuals once again stoked a Polono-Polish [internal] war. I ask for the forgiveness of all our readers. Mistaken decisions cannot be without consequences.” But the case has also opened up a range of questions about journalistic ethics and the relationship between newspaper publishers and their editors, said Wojciech Przybylski, editor in chief of Res Publica Nowa – a Polish quarterly on culture, society, and politics – in an interview with TOL.

 

According to Przybylski, the ousted reporter, Gmyz, claims to have four sources who confirm the accusations leveled in the article, but he defied an ultimatum from the publisher to identify them. Wroblewski and Gmyz were then fired. “There is now a debate going on in Poland whether he should have revealed his sources or not, even though he was under no legal obligation to do so,” said Przybylski, who added that the paper had crossed a line through a suggestive headline and accompanying commentary that served to fuel conspiracy theories over the crash.

 

The incident could also significantly damage the political prospects of the conservative opposition Law and Justice party. After the publication of the Rzeczpospolita article, JarosÅ‚aw Kaczynski, party leader and the brother of the late president, who has long stoked those conspiracy theories and Russia’s possible role, went on the offensive, the Warsaw Business Journal reports. At a press conference Kaczynski spoke about the “murder of 96 people” and suggested that Prime Minister Donald Tusk had been doing his best to derail a true investigation. Those fiery comments were a departure from the party’s recent strategy to, as the magazine put it, “shed its image of a rabble-rousing, radical party that is only interested in Smolensk and not in dull, earthly matters such as unemployment or the economy.”

 

That could now be history, Przybylski said. “Kaczynski exploded. He had been trying to reclaim the center, but he revealed his true self and again lost his credibility.” The Law and Justice leader’s comments have even been criticized by members of his own party, which had worked hard and successfully to improve its standing in recent opinion polls.

 

4. Controversial longtime head of Bulgarian Orthodox Church passes away

 

Patriarch Maxim
The head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church for more than 40 years died at the age of 98 on 6 November due to heart failure, The Associated Press reports. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov described Patriarch Maxim, born Marin Naidenov Minkov, as "one of the most principled and far-seeing heads of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church" while President Rosen Plevneliev praised his will and "great efforts to strengthen the unity of the church and fortify Christian virtues in our society" in letters addressed to the Holy Synod, Novinite writes.

 

Patriarch Maxim’s long life was not without controversies. The Communist authorities’ approval of his appointment repeatedly raised questions of a potential collaboration with the secret police. Despite the lack of evidence for those charges, the revelation in January 2012 that 11 of the 15 metropolitans, or senior clergy, of the Orthodox Church had been informers for the state security apparatus during communism again put the issue in the limelight.

 

Patriarch Maxim's alleged communist past also led to a schism within the Bulgarian Church, when some congregations broke away from his leadership in the 1990s and offered allegiance to Metropolitan Inokenty instead. The schism, which led to violent clashes between the dissidents and the Bulgarian authorities – who accused them of illegally occupying the property of the official Orthodox Church – ended in 2010 when the highest-ranking clergy from the Alternative Synod asked Patriarch Maxim for forgiveness, Novinite writes.  

 

5. Russia to provide huge military aid package to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 

 

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will receive more than $1.3 billion in military aid from Russia that aims to curb the United State' influence in Central Asia, according to a report that originally appeared in the Russian newspaper Kommersant on 6 November and subsequently reported by EurasiaNet.org.

 

While the details of the aid package will be discussed in March, Moscow has agreed to offer $1 billion to Kyrgyzstan and $200 million to Tajikistan, which will also benefit from a $200 million discount on fuel from Russia. By contrast, the total U.S. security aid allocated to the five Central Asian countries has been around $100 million per year, while Kyrgyzstan's annual defense budget stands at just $50 million per year.

 

The Kommersant article quoted an unnamed Russian government source that suggested the aid would be used to fortify the Collective Security Treaty Organization once the United States completes its upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, but geopolitical motivates were clearly paramount as well. “Moreover, Moscow hopes to prevent the Americans from strengthening their positions in Central Asia,” the source said.

 

The aid comes shortly after Russia obtained advantageous extensions of the lease of its military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had also agreed in September that Russia would write off all of Kyrgyzstan's $489 million debt by early 2016. 

Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director and editor in chief. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern.
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