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Plus, Hungarian students plan more protests despite government climb-down and British celebs urge David Cameron to shun Lukashenka.by Ioana Caloianu, Nino Tsintsadze, Jeremy Druker, and Ky Krauthamer 19 December 2012
Hungarian students were planning further demonstrations today against cuts in the higher education budget, Politics.hu reports. The National Council of Student Governments said it would hold a sit-in at the parliament building, even though officials yesterday abandoned the plan to introduce college tuition.
On 17 December thousands of students marched through central Budapest in the third major protest this month over government education reforms, Reuters reports. The government reportedly planned further discussions on the reforms.
On 18 December, Human Resources Minister Zoltan Balog said the government “had heard the voice of students” and would give up its plan to introduce university tuition fees, according to Politics.hu.
The government earlier proposed to charge most university students a fee of from $230 to $465 per year, cut scholarship funds, and force students participating in a government-backed education loan scheme to sign a pledge to stay in Hungary after graduation, according to University World News.
Balog told students 18 December the state would finance at least 40,000 students next year, a rise of 3,000 places from this year. However, he told one questioner the government would not finance places in law schools or economics departments, Politics.hu writes.
Serbia’s economy continues to shed jobs at an alarming rate, data from the country’s labor agency show. Around 170,000 workers have lost their jobs this year, not counting those who did not register with the agency, Balkan Insight reports, estimating that a third of the working age population is now jobless.
B92’s prognosis is only slightly better. It cites several expert forecasts of an unemployment rate just below 30 percent. In the region, only Macedonia (around 31 percent) and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a jobless rate estimated at nearly 50 percent, score worse than Serbia.
The poor regional outlook is underlined by the World Bank forecast that the economies of Serbia and five other Western Balkan countries will contract by 0.6 percent this year and recover only slightly to 1.6 percent in 2013.
Their economies are particularly at risk from the continued weakness of the eurozone economies and high commodity prices. Further food price rises may also present a threat in the next year, the World Bank suggests.
While the jailing of two members of Russia's Pussy Riot has drawn the ire of stars such as Madonna and Paul McCartney, the plight of Belarus' political prisoners has not attracted the attention of many celebrities. A new initiative, however, is trying to change that, as several British actors have recorded video messages to British Prime Minister David Cameron on the fate of various people currently serving time in Belarus, the Guardian reports.
British stars including Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, and Joanna Lumley joined in the campaign, which coincides with the second anniversary of the marred presidential election. In a poll widely viewed as fraudulent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka won re-election and then ruthlessly cracked down on the subsequent protests, jailing hundreds, including several presidential candidates. The Belarus Free Theater, a group that performs underground at home and in exile, is behind the initiative, part of the Free Belarus Now movement to end human rights abuses in Belarus and enable free and fair elections.
In his contribution, Fiennes appeals to Cameron “to use the power of morality in politics, to disturb the sleep of conscience” and urge Lukashenka, “Europe's last dictator, to end the torture of his own people and release all political prisoners before the new year."
Keeping the pressure on Belarus to release the prisoners was also one of the recommendations of a new policy review process, “Belarus Reality Check 2012,” part of an initiative to regularly convene analysts, diplomats, and policymakers to assess the European Union’s foreign policy towards the Eastern Neighborhood countries. A report on the conclusions of the first meeting, held in Vilnius in November, advised that the political prisoner issue “remains the key line towards Minsk even though this means relations will remain in freeze.” Among other issues, the report also discussed the sanctions vs. engagement debate, the opposition’s tacit consensus with the regime, and the Russia-Belarus relationship.
Jailed Pussy Riot band member Maria Alyokhina describes conditions in the Russian prison colony where she is serving a two-year sentence as gray and “anti-life,” Agence France-Presse and other media report, citing her article in a Russian magazine.
The prisoners’ main goal is to “get a tick for early parole,” Alyokhina writes. Prisoners believe they can enhance their chances of early release through such activities as visiting the library or prayer room, seeing the psychologist, and staying in touch with family members.
Some women work, sewing 12 hours a day for a maximum monthly salary of 1,000 rubles ($33).
Alyokhina was sentenced to two years imprisonment for anti-religious hooliganism in August for a February performance in a Moscow cathedral against the rule of Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time. Two other band members, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, received the same sentence, but Samutsevich was released on appeal because she did not perform with the other band members, some of whom are now in hiding.
A bill banning some sex toys and condoms had its first reading in the Georgian parliament 17 December, evoking jokes by opposition deputies, Democracy and Freedom Watch writes.
The draft law would bar the sale and advertising of items of a sexual nature in stores where children’s clothing and toys are sold, or in schools or stores located near schools, EurasiaNet reports. Violators could be fined the equivalent of $60.
Aimed at protecting the psychological and moral health of minors, the bill, initiated by the Georgian Dream governing coalition, also bars the sale of condoms designed to increase sexual pleasure. A Georgian Dream legislator told the parliamentary legal committee earlier, “A condom can have not only a protective function, but also be meant to receive pleasure if it is enhanced by certain technical means.”
Members of the opposition United National Movement said the definition of sexual product in the bill was vague. Earlier, one UNM deputy said it could be considered as state interference in private life.
“People get aroused by very different things,” deputy Zurab Jafaridze said, according to EurasiaNet. “What kind of props people use during sex games is a very personal thing … and the state should not be regulating this.”
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.