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Gorbachev Scolds Putin, a Soviet MIA Surfaces in Afghanistan

Plus, a gay and transsexual lawmaker in Poland rebuke Walesa from the front row, and protesters in Kyrgyzstan demand the release of jailed politicians.

by Nirvana Bhatia, Joshua Boissevain, Jennifer Hoch, Erik N. Nelson, and Connor Zickgraf 7 March 2013

1. Last Soviet leader decries Russian rights erosion


While the Soviet Union wasn’t known for a sterling human rights record, the current Russian leadership is now receiving flak from the USSR’s last leader and only president.


In an interview with BBC's Steve Rosenberg, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was known for improving human rights under Soviet rule, criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for enacting an “attack on the rights of the citizens” in the form of restrictive new laws.

putin_gorbacev350.jpgMikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin meet in September 2000 under more cordial circumstances. Kremlin photo.


“For goodness sake, you shouldn't be afraid of your own people,” he said to Rosenberg, speaking about the contentious laws that Human Rights Watch called “the worst political crackdown in Russia's post-Soviet history,” according to the BBC. The laws broaden the definition of treason, impose fines on demonstrations not approved by the government, and place restrictions on what Russians can post on the web.


The former Soviet leader said he initially supported Putin, “but then the relations between us soured,” he told the BBC. Gorbachev declared a year ago that Putin had “exhausted himself” as a leader and called for his resignation. He also warned that if he did not change course, Russians might change it for him, the Guardian reported at the time.


Gorbachev’s new advice to Putin? “He should concentrate on trying to drag Russia out of the difficult situation that she is in,” he told the BBC.


2. Missing Soviet soldier found alive after 33 years


A Soviet soldier who’s been listed as missing in action for more than three decades was recently discovered living as a nomadic healer in Afghanistan, according to RIA Novosti.


A team of Russian researchers announced 4 March that they had located the soldier, Bakhretdin Khakimov – now going by the name Sheikh Abdulla – in Afghanistan’s western Herat province. Khakimov disappeared from a battlefield in the early months of the decade-long Afghan War in 1980, according to RIA Novosti. He told the researchers he had been badly injured but was saved by a local healer. Then only a 20-year-old conscript from Uzbekistan, Khakimov lived with the man who saved him and learned his craft, eventually settling in with the semi-nomadic clan and marrying an Afghan woman.


The team who found Khakimov is part of the Warriors-Internationalists Affairs Committee, a Moscow nonprofit tasked with tracking down missing soldiers. He is one of 29 missing soldiers the team has located in Afghanistan since it started its search in 1993. Of those, three-quarters have volunteered to return home while the rest chose to remain in Afghanistan. The team is still searching for more than 260 soldiers, but a spokesman told The New York Times last year they believe only about 40 are still alive.


Khakimov told the team he wanted to stay in Afghanistan but would be interested in reconnecting with his relatives, RIA Novosti reports.


3. Walesa irks gay leaders with off-the-wall remarks


Lech_Walesa100.jpgLech Walesa
In response to anti-gay remarks made by the father of Poland’s democracy, Lech Walesa, protesters have staged a sit-in at parliament’s national assembly to express their outrage, the Guardian reports


Lech Walesa, known for leading Poland’s Solidarity labor movement in the 1980s that inspired anti-communist fervor across Eastern Europe, said in a television interview 1 March that gay people should not be able to sit on the front benches of parliament and should perhaps be placed “behind a wall.” 


He told a television reporter that gay politicians “have to know that they are a minority” and accept that they will not “rise to the greatest heights.”


Openly gay politician Robert Biedron and transsexual Anna Grodzka took two front-row seats in the national assembly’s session this week to protest Walesa’s declarations. Their election in 2011 as the first gay and transgender members of parliament is seen as a sign that the conservative views represented by Walesa’s statement are giving way to more progressive social views. The outraged Biedron, a member of the left-wing Palikot’s Movement, questioned the fate of other minorities if gays must, as Walesa put it, “adjust to smaller things,” CNN writes.  


Other Polish liberals remain shocked by the comments and say Walesa may have to stop his international tours as a lecturer for peace and democracy. 


Walesa was unapologetic, saying, “all I said (was) that minorities, which I respect, should not have the right to impose their views on the majority,” CNN reports. “I think most of Poland is behind me.” 


4. Kyrgyz protesters demand release of jailed opposition figures


Protesters gathered in three cities in Kyrgyzstan, demanding that the government free three members of parliament jailed on charges of inciting violent protests in the capital, Bishkek, in October, Radio Free Europe reports.


Hundreds of demonstrators in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s largest southern city, as well as in the south’s Jalal-Abad and the northern city of Karakol, demanded the release of Ata-Jurt (Fatherland) party chairman Kamchybek Tashiev, as well as party members Sadyr Japarov and Talant Mamytov. The three had been jailed for provoking public unrest in connection with a rally of about 1,000 people who called for nationalizing the nation’s Kumtor gold mine, which is owned by the Canadian firm Centerra Gold, Reuters reported when the three were arrested in October.


Gold mining is critical for the Kyrgyz economy, as is the foreign investment that the government fears will be chilled by pressure to take over a foreign-owned holding like the Kumtor mine. Prime Minister Zhantoro Satybaldiev, appointed just before the October protests, has resisted calls for nationalization and is courting more foreign investment. Next week, he is scheduled to discuss European trade with a high-level delegation visiting Bishkek from Austria.


Also this week, the Kyrgyz 24 News Agency reports the nation’s parliament decided that Kyrgyzstan’s police do not have a right to participate in demonstrations, even if they are peaceful. Police are allowed at such events only to maintain order, the agency reports.


5. Lithuania not amused by ‘Miss USSR’ contest


Was there nothing beautiful about the Soviet Union? Lithuanian officials don’t think so, demanding that their nation’s name be removed from the 28 April “Miss USSR UK” beauty pageant.


People wanting to watch the UK-based contestants – many of whom are probably too young to have lived in the Soviet Union before its collapse in 1991 – can reserve a table for four with a bottle of vodka for 215 pounds ($324) at a series of preliminary competitions.


The Lithuanian representatives were selected 1 March, prompting the Lithuanian Embassy in London to request the Baltic nation be dropped from the event and its publicity. It said that “inviting Lithuanian girls to participate in the beauty pageant named after the Soviet Union is an anathema,” and Lithuanians in the UK had complained to the embassy.


Yulia Titova, who organized the private event under Julia Boo Parties, took a different stance, telling Delfi.Lt this was a symbolic gesture and that she had no intentions of starting a political brouhaha.


“There used to be a Miss Russia UK pageant some time ago here, and I thought why were Kazakhstan, Latvian, Lithuanian girls taking part in the  Miss Russia UK pageant?” Titova told in January. “Why not to create a separate pageant for Russian-speaking girls?”

Nirvana Bhatia is a TOL volunteer. Joshua Boissevain is a TOL editorial assistant. Erik N. Nelson is a TOL contributing editor. Jennifer Hoch and Connor Zickgraf are TOL editorial interns.
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