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Plus, Vladimir Putin warns darkly of ‘foreign interference,’ and Macedonians might take energy prices to the ballot box.by S. Adam Cardais, Joshua Boissevain, and Nino Tsintsadze 15 February 2013
As many as 400 people were injured in several regions in Russia 15 February after a meteor shower lit up the sky and caused an explosion over the Ural Mountains, the Associated Press reports. The shower caused an explosion that rocked buildings and sent shattered glass flying in and around Chelyabinsk, a city 930 miles east of Moscow.
At least three people were hospitalized with serious injuries and a large portion of a roof at a zinc factory caved in. Officials mobilized some 20,000 emergency workers in response to the shower, according to RIA Novosti. Russia’s nuclear agency reported that the region’s many nuclear facilities remained unaffected.
So far no one has been able to confirm whether the shower was one large meteor or several small ones and officials are still searching for possible impact sites and remaining debris, RIA Novosti reports. Fragments have been reported in several regions, including Chelyabinsk, Tyumen, Kurgan, and Sverdlovsk, as well as in nearby Kazakhstan.
Witnesses in the region said the phenomenon was hard to miss. “All the city's residents saw blinding flashes, very bright ones,” a local teacher told RIA Novosti. “Suddenly, it was very, very horribly bright. Not like the lights got turned on, but as if everything was illuminated with unusual white light.”
Across the region, video phones and car dashboard cameras – a growing trend in Russia – captured footage of the meteor streaking across the sky and lighting up the morning, and the resulting images and videos spread across social networks.
The Czech economy shrank 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012, marking the fourth straight quarterly decline and the longest recession in the country's history, Bloomberg reports, citing government figures.
The economy is foundering as Czechs spend less due to government belt-tightening efforts. The euro zone crisis is also taking a toll. Central bankers are debating whether to weaken the crown in the hope of increasing exports to spur the economy.
"The economy faces the worst of both worlds right now: a collapse in domestic demand and insufficient foreign demand," a London-based analyst told Bloomberg.
To reduce the budget deficit, Prime Minister Petr Necas has raised taxes, among other austerity measures, putting pressure on households and businesses. Czech unemployment is also at an all-time high of 8 percent, according to government data cited by Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, foreign demand for Czech goods, cars especially, has fallen recently amid Europe's economic woes, which are getting worse. On 14 February, the euro tumbled on news that the currency zone fell further into recession than expected late last year, Reuters reports.
Russia's security officers must protect the country from extremists, foreign-funded attacks, and other threats, President Vladimir Putin said at a 14 February meeting with the Federal Security Service (FSB), The Moscow Times reports.
"Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs, any form of pressure on Russia, our allies and partners is unacceptable," he told top officials from the FSB.
The Moscow Times points out that Putin has been trying to stoke patriotism at home while reducing foreign influence. He submitted a bill this week that would ban government officials from having bank accounts abroad and has said that foreign powers encourage non-governmental organizations to foment instability in Russia. Last year parliament passed a law requiring such groups that receive international funding to register as "foreign agents."
The former KGB officer told the group to be on guard for potential attacks by militants in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Reuters reports. Russia faces an Islamic insurgency in its restive north Caucasus that claimed the lives of three police officers by a suicide bomber in Dagestan 14 February.
Putin also took aim at unbridled free speech and said the reintegration of the post-Soviet space is irreversible in an evident jab at former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently described a Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia as "re-Sovietization."
"We've heard some recent nervous and outspoken remarks regarding integration in the post-Soviet space," Putin said, according to RIA Novosti. "Let's put them down to the emotional rhetoric of these politicians."
Macedonian activists are threatening to push for a referendum on a proposed legislative amendment that would effectively lower utility bills, Balkan Insight reports.
The move comes after the ruling VMRO DPMNE party rejected on 13 February a petition by the Aman group to change the Energy Law. Formed on social networks, the group has 13,000 signatures but would need at least 150,000 to force a referendum, Balkan Insight notes.
Aman is staging weekly protests against utility prices that it says have risen 56 percent since 2008. Among other changes, it wants the government to re-introduce "off-peak" tariffs, eliminated last year, that offered cheaper electricity at certain times.
Ruling legislators rejected the petition by a comfortable margin. Many opposition legislators did not attend the vote. They're boycotting parliament over a demand for early elections.
More than 100 people celebrated the day of gender equality on 14 February, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, EurasiaNet.org reports. Gathered in front of a statue of Urkiya Salieva, a Soviet-era female activist, they demanded an end to violence against women. The event was aimed at raising awareness of the problem and raising funds for groups that help vulnerable women.
’’We want to make safe spaces and crisis centers visible,” one of the organizers told EurasiaNet.org.
Violence against women takes different forms in Kyrgyzstan, a strongly patriarchal Central Asian country. Earlier this year, the government decided to take get tough on bride kidnapping, a controversial practice widespread in the country, by passing a law increasing the punishment for those who abduct women for the purpose of forcing them into marriage. Women’s rights groups say that annually more than 12,000 such cases occur.
Kyrgyz women are also the victims of violence committed in the name of preserving the national dignity, openDemocracy writes. Last year, videos were posted online showing the abuse of Kyrgyz migrant worker women in Russia who were accused of having relationships with men from other Central Asian nations. Their attackers called themselves “patriots.”
According to a UN Population Fund study in 2008, much violence against women is likely to go unreported in Kyrgyzstan, partly because of attitudes. The study cited UNICEF-Kyrgyz government research that revealed that 38 percent of girls under 15 believed that a husband sometimes has the right to beat his wife; further, a significant minority of women, including those who had been victims, did not see sexual violence as a crime.