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Journalist Gunned Down in North Caucasus, Canadians Bust Romanian Trafficking Ring

Plus, the Baltics race to space, and demolitions of Belarus homes before a presidential visit raise questions. 

by Nirvana Bhatia, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Jeremy Druker, and Nino Tsintsadze 6 December 2012

1. Extremists might be responsible for shooting in North Caucasus


A Russian television journalist was shot dead by unknown assailants in the Kabardino-Balkaria republic in Russia’s North Caucasus, on 6 December, Radio Free Europe reports


Kazbek Gekkiev, 28, had been working for Vesti-VGTRK for more than three years, mainly as an anchor on Balkar-language broadcasts. The police said they are investigating whether murder is connected with his professional activities. A witness said the killers, prior to the shooting, asked Gekkiev if he was a journalist, the BBC’s Russian service reports.


Gekkiev’s colleagues said he had never covered the counter-operations against extremists in the North Caucasus, but rather social issues, according to the BBC. But six months ago, he started anchoring the main Russian-language news program after several journalists left their jobs as a result of a menacing video posted on the Internet by an extremist group called Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate).


In the video, journalists were “promised to be left with the same smile” they had when they described in detail on air the success of counterterrorism operations. One of the extremists featured in the video was reported to have been killed in one of those operations, writes.



To honor Gekkiev’s memory, Vesti-VGTRK canceled all scheduled news and entertainment programs. In an emotional, on-air announcement about the programming change, a colleague said of Gekkiev: “He was young, talented, extremely intelligent, and beautiful. But this is all now over. … His flight ended with the bullet of a ruthless assassin. Rest in peace, Kazbek.” The TV station has prepared a documentary film devoted to Gekkiev that will be aired throughout the day on 6 December.   


2. Crime ring smuggling Romanians to Canada busted


Canadian immigration authorities have launched a search for dozens of Romanian children and adults who have entered the country illegally with the help of a Romanian crime ring since the beginning of 2012, The Canadian Press reports.


Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said his country welcomes “true immigrants and true refugees who follow the rules and who wait for their turn in line,” but it does not tolerate people “who are abusing our generosity or who are tricking their way in." Kenney made these statements at a press conference held in Stanstead, Quebec, a town on the border with the United States that is believed to have been the entry point for the illegal immigrants.


Government officials said 85 Romanians have been smuggled into Canada since February, only 40 of whom have been found so far; 30 of those were held in line with Canada’s new immigration law passed in June. That law stipulates that “irregular arrivals” will be subject to immediate detention and a five-year wait to apply for permanent residency, as well as restrictions on their family members who want to come to Canada.


According to the National Post, the migrants crossed the border into Canada in February, April, and October. They were first flown to Cancun, Mexico, then crossed the border into Texas, and travelled across the United States in SUVs. The Romanian crime ring that organized the operation was allegedly asking for $10,000 to $30000 for each smuggled person. Indebted to the smugglers, the migrants usually apply for asylum status and sometimes engage in petty crimes.


Canada has had problems with asylum seekers from Central and Eastern Europe in the past. In 2009, the Canadian authorities reintroduced visas for Czech citizens after a wave of Czech Roma applied for asylum in the country. This month, the Immigration Ministry is expected to announce a new list of countries, including EU states with large Roma populations, whose refugee claimants will come under increased scrutiny.


3. Speculation that Belarusian village was demolished in anticipation of presidential visit


Local residents in a small village in Belarus say they’ve been left out in the cold after their houses were bulldozed in the run-up to a visit by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.



Demolition crews arrived 3 December in Paulovichy in the northeast of the country and began to demolish houses, according to Radio Free Europe. Residents said officials had shown up at their houses with police two days earlier and told them to move out. “They burnt and cut down trees. Some people didn't even have time to get their things. The bulldozers came and tore down the houses,” one woman told RFE.


But regional officials say the town’s destruction has been in the works for a while and that local residents have known about and been compensated for their relocation. The head of the local housing services told RFE the residents even received free apartments in Vitebsk, the district capital. But villagers said they weren’t expecting to move out until spring 2013, and that they were taken by surprise by the move to tear everything down so soon.


The area, originally set aside to be used for an energy plant in the mid-1990s, is now slated to be the location for a tannery, according to officials cited by RFE. But news sources have speculated that the sudden razing happened because Lukashenka is scheduled to pass through the area in the near future. The website reports that the regional capital has come alive with renovation and decoration projects in the past few days in anticipation of the president’s visit.


4. Space race in the Baltics in full swing


Latvia recently stole the lead in the Baltic space race, stating it would launch its first satellite into orbit early next year.


Dana Reizniece-Ozola, a member of the Latvian parliament, made the announcement last week shortly after Lithuania said it would launch its own satellite next summer.


“The Lithuanians announced their plans during a space industry conference, where, naturally, everyone wants to say something good about their own country,” Reizniece-Ozola told LETA. “Nevertheless, we are confident that we will be the first ones to launch our satellite into orbit.”


A previous plan called for the Latvian satellite, Venta-1, to be launched from a spaceport in India at the end of 2011, but arrangements are now being made for a launch with a Russian carrier rocket in the first months of 2013. The Lithuanians intend to launch their rocket, Lituanica-1, through a Japanese rocket headed for the international space station.



Lithuania debuted its nano-satellite, which weighs less than 1.3 kilograms (2.9 pounds) and fits into a 10 cubic centimeter (0.6 cubic inch) container, at an international space conference in Vilnius last week. The satellite ambitiously includes a re-entry capsule that will deposit a payload of about 100 grams (3.5 ounces) back on Earth after six months in orbit.


Latvia’s Venta-1 will provide real-time navigation information through digital cameras and an automated system that communicates with stations in Latvia, Germany, and Italy.


As with Estonia’s EstCube-1 satellite, the Latvian and Lithuanian prototypes were created by student teams working in collaboration with universities in Germany and the United Kingdom. The Latvian government has allocated $94,000 to help with next year’s launch, while Lituanica-1 is costing Lithuania an estimated $379,000.


All three Baltic nations have space programs but have not breached the Earth’s atmosphere since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


5. Russia continues tit for tat in human rights reports


Tired of repeated criticism of its human rights record, Russia has been fighting back with its own reports on alleged violations in the West. On 5 December, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry's special representative for human rights, presented the ministry’s latest analysis, this time targeted at the European Union.


"We are seeing a certain deterioration in regard to safeguarding human rights in the EU member states,” Dolgov said, according to Reuters. "Undoubtedly during a financial and economic crisis, solving these problems will not become any easier," he added.


The list of problems in the report was extensive, alleging abusive treatment of people in custody and incarcerated in prisons, as well prejudiced attitudes toward ethnic minorities and labor migrants. Dolgov urged that the EU to fight “all this ugliness that is unfortunately taking place and continuing in the European Union members in terms of not observing human rights, not observing democratic standards and in terms of not following the rule of law.”


Voice of Russia reports that Georgy Muradov, deputy director of Russia's main international cooperation agency, was also on hand to complain about the mistreatment of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states and to allege a massive cover-up of human rights violations in many EU member states. Voice of Russia also reports that Dolgov said the EU and OSCE look closely only at “what’s happening east of Vienna.”


Last year, the Foreign Ministry’s first report on injustice elsewhere in the world focused on the situation in the United States – “a far cry from the ideals that Washington proclaims.” The Guantanamo Bay prison and wrongful death row convictions received special attention. At this week’s press conference, Dolgov also accused the United States of mistreating Russians held in American prisons, according to Voice of Russia.


Two weeks ago, the U.S House of Representatives has passed the “Magnitsky bill” to normalize trade relations with Moscow while penalizing Russian officials suspected of human rights violations. A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Kremlin would retaliate with an “equally tough response.”

Nirvana Bhatia is a TOL volunteer.Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director and editor in chief.  Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern. 
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