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Plus, Estonia and Latvia brace for more asylum seekers and Georgia’s new prime minister takes on The Washington Post.by Nirvana Bhatia, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Jeremy Druker, and Nino Tsintsadze 29 November 2012
Albania marked 100 years of independence with lavish celebrations and statements that angered two of the Balkan country's neighbors, according to The Washington Post. On 28 November, thousands of Albanians joined in military parades and festivities that included an 18-ton, 550 square meter (6,000 square feet) cake distributed to the public gathered in Tirana’s central Skanderbeg Square.
Although the feast was initially planned to include the slaughter of 1,000 lambs, Balkan Insight reports that opposition from animal rights activists and an opposition Socialist youth group made the organizers reconsider.
Albanian flags of the black double-headed eagle on a red background were omnipresent in the capital. Commentator Ardian Vehbiu said the effect was that of a "platform for kitsch nationalism, in which football-stand passions are mixed with the imagination of kindergarten-age children."
But the most controversial part of the celebration was Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s reference to "the Albania of all the Albanian lands from Preveza to Presevo, Skopje to Podgorica." Skopje and Podgorica are the capitals of Macedonia and Montenegro, both of which are home to Albanian minorities. Presevo is a region in southern Serbia with a largely Albanian population, and Preveza is a town in northwestern Greece that was historically disputed between Albanians and Greeks.
Although Berisha’s office told The Post he was speaking in a "historical context" and that his statement didn't represent "any territorial claim toward our neighbors in the south, north, or east,” Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos canceled a visit planned during the celebrations.
Macedonian President Gjorgje Ivanov also called off a visit after the car of his country’s prime minister was pelted with eggs and several Macedonian flags were burned in Tirana during a visit to the capital last week.
“I think now is the time to assess ... how many people of Jewish origin there are here, and especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a certain national security risk for Hungary,” Gyongyosi said. Jobbik, the third largest parliamentary party, rose to prominence in 2010 on an anti-minority platform and has repeatedly made waves by holding anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rallies around the country.
Gyongyosi’s comment sparked outrage from within the government and from international groups. Several hundred protesters, many wearing yellow stars, gathered 27 November outside parliament to denounce Gyongyosi’s comments. “One of our fellow deputies stepped over a line that I thought until now could not happen in the halls of the Hungarian National Assembly,” said deputy parliamentary speaker Istvan Ujhelyi, AP reports.
Following the protests, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office released a statement condemning Gyongyosi’s comments “to the greatest possible degree.” But the government was criticized for not reacting immediately and for issuing a standard statement that contained elements copied, almost word-for-word, from earlier press releases, according to Spiegel Online.
The U.S. Embassy also weighed in, calling the remarks “atrocious [and] deeply offensive.”
Responding to the outcry, Gyongyosi said he was referring specifically to “citizens with dual Israeli-Hungarian citizenship,” according to AP.
Despite being gateways to the European Union, Latvia and Estonia have traditionally received low numbers of asylum seekers. As their economies boom and the rest of Europe struggles, however, that may soon change.
In the last 14 years, just 843 people have applied for asylum in Latvia, with only 47 obtaining refugee status and another 79 permitted to stay temporarily for protective purposes without being deemed refugees.
Estonia has the smallest group of asylum seekers in the EU, receiving fewer than 100 registered applications a year and approving approximately 50 refugees since 1997. Since the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis, most applicants to both nations have been Georgians, while Afghans are among those most frequently granted asylum.
Although Latvia and Estonia are typically transit countries and not final destinations, some activists suspect that both governments deliberately limit their quota of asylum seekers. The Tallinn-based Human Rights Center told Estonian Public Broadcasting that no impartial monitoring occurs on the Estonian-Russian border, making it impossible to determine whether officials properly process applications for asylum.
The center’s director, Kristi Toodo, said the country might not be abiding by international agreements on the conduct of border applications, noting that once UN monitors gained access to Latvia’s borders, the number of asylum applications rose.
In an interview with Diena, a Latvian newspaper, an unnamed former high official said it was an “unofficial tactic” to accept just 15 percent of asylum seekers. The Interior Ministry added that Latvia is able to accommodate 600 asylum seekers at any given time, as the government could not guarantee public services or national security for more.
A lawyer for the Latvian Center for Human Rights told Diena that the region should prepare for more asylum seekers in the next few years as it appears more appealing in light of the high unemployment in Western Europe.
In anticipation that the European Commission may soon ask the Baltic states to accept more refugees, Latvia is drafting contingency plans for a mass influx and Estonia is supporting foreign refugee aid, such as in Syria, while considering opening up its borders for inspection.
The 28 November article harshly criticized the politics of the new government in light of the recent arrests of Georgian senior officials, which Saakashvili’s party has criticized as politically motivated.
The Post editorial said that it was “a good thing” Ivanishvili postponed a visit to the United States. “As long as he is imprisoning opposition leaders and seeking to monopolize power, Georgia’s new leader should not be welcome in Washington,” it said.
Ivanishvili dismissed the criticism as a result of a Saakashvili lobbying campaign, Foreign Policy reports. “It is amazing and I will find out how [Saakashvili] managed that such an editorial appeared,” he told a press conference.
A group of Georgians responded by posting videos of police brutality during anti-government demonstrations that took place when Saakashvili’s party was in power on the Washington Post Facebook page and urging the paper not to rely on one-sided information.
While tensions between the two main political figures in Georgia escalate, Western diplomats and politicians are calling on them to work constructively. During her recent visit to Georgia, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged Saakashvili and Ivanishvili “to uphold European values of democracy, freedom, and rule of law,” Civil.ge reports.
"I am the last and only dictator in Europe. Indeed there are none anywhere else in the world," Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in a recent interview with Reuters. According to the news agency, Lukashenka ironically referred to himself as a dictator several times, “touting [the West’s] dictator tag as a badge of honor.”
He touched on a range of sensitive topics, including suggestions that an “Arab Spring”-like revolution could topple him. "There's no point in comparing the policy of Belarus and the Middle East. A few people tried through social networking to make the situation explosive," Lukashenka said. "But nothing came of it. … There is no scope for revolutions coming to Belarus."
Reuters said an angry Lukashenka displayed a “sense of seething injustice” over criticism from the West for anti-democratic practices. “You (Europe) do not like the course Belarus is taking,” he said. “You would like everything here to be sold off – in the interests of Russia or in the interests of Western companies."
The president also appeared enraged over the “teddy bear bombing” in July when a small plane from Sweden dropped stuffed animals over Belarus bearing messages supporting human rights and free speech. “You recently sent over a plane with humorous toys and this was a violation (of Belarus' air space). And what if the military had opened fire and people had been killed?” he said.
Lukashenka again dismissed speculation that he was grooming someone in his family to succeed him and said he would leave the scene when it was time. "I shan't be holding on to this job for life. As soon as people decline my services, I'll put my briefcase under my arm and I'll be off."
The fall of communism brought with it expectations of an unfettered press safeguarding the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. But for the region's media, the past quarter-century has turned out to be much less uplifting. From oligarch-controlled television stations to politically partisan newspapers, from woeful ethical standards to outright corruption, the media often fall far short of acting as independent watchdogs over their societies, despite the existence of some scrappy publications and feisty reporters willing to uncover official wrongdoing and expose poor governance. If that weren't enough, the region's press has been hit hard by the same trends transforming the media around the world, including an explosion of alternative forms of entertainment, the growth of social media, decreased advertising revenues associated with the rise of the Internet, and general economic malaise. Get your copy here.