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Russia Close to Banning U.S. Adoptions, Kosovo Premier Slams New Serbian Plan

Plus, Estonia to launch free public transportation and the trials of finding classic Czech Christmas ornaments.

by Ioana Caloianu, Nirvana Bhatia, and Jeremy Druker 20 December 2012

1. Russian Duma moves to ban U.S. adoptions


A bill that bans adoptions to the United States received strong support in the Russian parliament 19 December,  the BBC reports. While ostensibly prompted by several cases where Russian children were reportedly mistreated by their adoptive U.S. families, the move is widely seen as a retaliatory move against the Magnitsky act that the U.S. Senate passed in November. The legislation introduced travel and visa bans in the United States as well as the freezing of assets for Russian officials suspected of human rights violations.


RIA  Novosti notes that the proposal for the bill came on 17 December from Pavel Astakhov, the Russian ombudsman for children’s rights, who argued that the ”adoption industry attracts unscrupulous people.” It remains unclear whether criticism from several cabinet ministers will make a difference when the final vote takes place on 21 December. Education Minister Dmitry Livanov came out against the move, citing low adoption rates in Russia and saying the bill would “leave Russian orphans with no hope of adoption.” Still, adoptions by American families have been in decline for almost a decade. In 2010, 70 percent of Russian orphans were adopted domestically, an increase from less than 50 percent in 2005.  


The proposed law would cancel a bilateral agreement on adoption that came into force only weeks ago. “Why we would just throw that away doesn’t make any sense,” said Kathleen Strottman, the executive director of the non-profit Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, according to RIA Novosti.


The legislation still requires approval in the Federation Council and a signature from President Vladimir Putin. At a press conference 20 December, Putin called the bill an “emotional” but commensurate move, Ellen Barry of The New York Times reported via Twitter. Putin also said the majority of American parents were “honest and decent people,” but that the U.S. authorities did not allow Russia to monitor the adjudication of abuse cases. “The country should not be humiliated,” he said, Barry reported.


While receiving less attention, Russian parliamentarians also took another controversial decision, supporting changing legislation to ban Russian non-profits from receiving funds from the United States, the BBC reported.


2. Thaci slams new Serbian plan for northern Kosovo


Even though details of a new Serbian plan remain unrevealed, Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, has already rejected the new “platform,” which includes special autonomy for northern Kosovo, Balkan Insight reports. The platform is “a continuation of Belgrade’s old plans with regard to Kosovo … a plan that cannot be realized in any circumstances, with regard to autonomy in Kosovo or territorial partition,” Thaci said 19 December.


ThaciHashim Thaci
Belgrade’s proposal has not been presented to the public or to the Serbian parliament, though that is expected to happen before the end of the year. Balkan Insight cites the daily Vecernje Novosti as saying the document promises broad autonomy for northern Kosovo, transforming the region into “some kind of entity, such as the Republika Srpska” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The region, which has a Serb majority, has been a bone of contention between Kosovo and Belgrade since Kosovo’s independence in 2008.


Tough words also came from the Serbian side. On 20 December, the chairman of the Serbian parliament’s committee on Kosovo, Milovan Drecun, said Serbia would never recognize the independence of Kosovo, B92 reports. He said that Belgrade will continue to “take care of the specific position of the Serbs in northern Kosovo, since their position in terms of security is different from the situation of the other Serbs in the province.” He also said that Belgrade will keep financing Serb institutions in Kosovo until the two parties found a final solution.


3. Multimedia package explores the past, present, and future of Nagorno-Karabakh


A presidential aide in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, tells France 24 that Azerbaijan, despite its war-like rhetoric, actually prefers the status quo hanging over the unrecognized republic. The aide claimed that recovering the territory lost nearly 20 years ago in the war with Armenia would be more problematic for Baku since promises of autonomy would prompt similar claims from other prominent minority groups in Azerbaijan. Ethnic Armenians have made up the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants since hundreds of thousands of Azeris fled during the war in an ethnic cleansing campaign that was mirrored by the flight of Armenians from other parts of Azerbaijan.


“Eventually, the aide suggested, the integrity of the Azerbaijani state could be seriously compromised – and over a larger geographical area than just Karabakh,” France 24 reports. 


That observation is just one of the points of interest of an impressive multimedia presentation about the Karabakh conflict, which has essentially been frozen in time since a 1994 ceasefire ended the war that broke out in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The package produced by the French government-owned news agency includes a 17-minute documentary, a powerful slideshow, numerous interviews (including with an ethnic Azeri journalist who stayed in Stepanakert), a timeline, and an analysis of the current situation, including the prospects for renewed war.


Nagorno-KarabakhIn Nagorno-Karabakh. Source: France 24


4. Tallinn to ring in the New Year with year-round free public transport


Beginning New Year’s Day, Tallinn will provide its residents with free public transport, reportedly becoming the first capital city to do so.


Although turnout was low, 75 percent of respondents supported a March referendum granting free rides to registered residents, school-age children, and adults traveling with babies on the city’s public transportation network. Other visitors to the Estonian capital will still need to pay between 1.10 euros and 1.60 euros (($1.45-$2.10) per journey.


In addition to the social benefits for low-income people, city officials hope the initiative will make a big environmental impact by significantly reducing emissions from private cars.


When Tallinn experimented with a week of free transport in September, there were noticeably fewer cars on the road and a 5 percent increase in public transport users, Deputy Mayor Taavi Aas said. That number could eventually rise to 15 percent of the population switching over to city buses and trams.


To make up for 12 million euros ($15.9 million) in lost ticket sales, the city intends to generate tax revenue by registering more of the estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of unregistered city residents, Aas said. This will be supplemented by funds previously used for a now-completed water and sewage renovation project.


Tallinn will also introduce plastic smartcard and e-ticket technology on 1 January and will add more buses and trams to accommodate the extra passengers.


Several cities in Europe and the United States already offer a zero-fare system, but Tallinn will reportedly be the largest city in the world to provide such a service.


Even though neighboring Helsinki, Riga, and Vilnius are considering adopting a free-transport model if Tallinn’s proves successful, it seems unlikely that larger European capitals will follow suit. Experts point out that one of London’s Underground lines “alone carries more people in a day than Tallinn’s entire population of 416,000.”


5. Cost-conscious Czechs ditch traditional Christmas ornaments


Although the production of Christmas ornaments from glass, straw, and even gingerbread has a long tradition in the Czech lands, Czechs themselves are once again having a hard time finding anything Czech-made to hang on their trees, the print edition of Mlada fronta Dnes reports. About a dozen years ago, Chinese glass ornaments started to flood the market, leading to the closure of some local producers. Others have shifted their efforts toward Western, rather than domestic, markets. According to the newspaper, around 248 million crowns ($13 million) worth of ornaments was shipped off last year, mainly to Germany and Switzerland, while Christmas goods worth almost as much were imported, mainly from China. One company quoted in the article said only 10 percent of their production stayed in the Czech Republic, while others cited even lower numbers.


Interested customers also need to search for such rarities: The big chains typically carry only low-priced Chinese ornaments, meaning the only options are usually small shops and Internet businesses. And even those made in China sometimes don’t really fit the Czech market, as they are produced mainly for the United States and thus are dominated by Santa Claus, reindeer, and other symbols that don’t fit local customs.


Czechs disappointed at the situation, however, can largely blame their fellow citizens, as price often outweighs other considerations, and Czech handicrafts are more expensive. The newspaper, however, says that the trend has started to turn, and domestic producers have noticed a slight upswing locally. “Our ornaments have entered more into the consciousness of people and even during the crisis, they are making an effort to value Czech traditions,” said one. “We’re the only ones in the world who produce ornaments from glass pearls and people remember that they once put them on the tree at their grandmother’s.”

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Nirvana Bhatia is a TOL volunteer. Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director and editor in chief. 

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