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Hungarian Constitutional Amendments Get Red Card, Armenian Challenger Launches Hunger Strike

Plus, camp settlements, cheap stoves, make Ulaanbaatar’s air dangerous, and another scandal over the meat supply erupts in Poland.

by Barbara Frye, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Richard Parrish 11 March 2013

1. Concern from many corners over changes to Hungary’s constitution


Protesters on the streets and bureaucrats in Brussels have been trying to delay today’s vote by the Hungarian parliament to incorporate into the country’s constitution measures that have been struck down by its highest court.


Reuters reports that thousands came out in Budapest 9 March to rally against constitutional amendments that would fine people who sleep on the street, force students who get government scholarships to work in Hungary after graduation, and ban political advertising in privately owned media. The measures had been passed as laws but were voided by the Constitutional Court.


The package of amendments under consideration would also limit the high court’s jurisdiction over legislation to narrow reviews of procedural matters, according to the MTI news agency.


Last week, human rights watchdog group the Council of Europe urged Budapest to postpone the vote until the its commission on legal and constitutional issues could review the proposed amendments. On 8 March, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso phoned Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to urge that any new laws be compatible with EU legislation, the Associated Press reports.


In a March 7 statement, the U.S. State Department expressed concern that the proposed amendments threaten democratic checks and balances in Hungary.


Viktor Orban

Orban’s Fidesz party enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament, essentially giving it free rein to revamp the governmentand the country’s legislative framework. It has passed a new constitution and packed regulatory bodies. Orban recently named a political ally to head the country’s central bank, which had veered from the government line under its previous leadership.


“Although 97 percent of Hungary's development funds over the past years have been provided by the EU, Orban has said Hungary won't allow itself ‘to be dictated to by anyone from Brussels or anywhere else’ and that Hungary does not need ‘unsolicited comradely assistance’ from people in ‘finely tailored suits’ to write its constitution,” AP notes.


2. Failed presidential candidate launches hunger strike in Armenia


The second-place finisher in Armenia’s presidential election last month has gone on a hunger strike, alleging the vote was rigged for incumbent Serzh Sargsyan.


Raffi Hovannisian, leader of the opposition Heritage Party, told supporters at a 10 March rally in the capital of Yerevan that Sargsyan must step down.


“This is not just a hunger strike, but a boycott against lies and fraud,” Hovannisian told the hundreds gathered in Freedom Square, according to Reuters, which reports that Hovannisian submitted 70 complaints to the central election commission.


Raffi Hovannisian
Sargsyan won the 18 February election with 58.6 percent of the vote, to Hovannisian’s 36.7 percent. The commission has said there were no legal violations. International observers said the campaign was an improvement over past elections but still lacked real competition.


Hovannisian has filed a legal challenge to the results, which the Constitutional Court was to consider it today.


“If on April 9 [inauguration day] Sargsyan takes his fake oath on the Constitution and the Holy Bible and the Supreme Patriarch ... blesses the candidate, who mocks the people, then that will happen over my dead body,” Hovannisian said.


3. Coal keeps Ulaanbaatar in hazy shade of winter


Ulaanbaatar’s air-pollution problem is proving a tough nut to crack for Mongolian officials and international aid agencies, according to Smog is a significant issue in the country’s capital, recently named the world’s second most polluted city – after Ahwaz, Iran – by the World Health Organization. 


The primary culprit is the widespread use of coal-burning stoves, which provide heat for residents of the city’s many unplanned settlements. Called “ger districts” after the traditional Mongolian tent, the settlements house about 70 percent of the Ulaanbataar’s 1.3 million residents but are not connected to the municipal grid.


The city’s air can get so bad – with concentrations of particulates up to 60 times worse than WHO recommendations – that breathing it is the equivalent of smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, Global Post reports. Even an ambitious plan to reduce pollution could reduce that only by a couple of packs’ worth.


Over the last several years, international agencies have been trying to help Mongolia tackle the problem, responsible for more than a quarter of all premature deaths in the city.


In 2010, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation gave a $47 million grant to the Mongolian government to subsidize the purchase of more efficient coal stoves, among other antipollution measures. The project, which ended in late 2012, saw the distribution of nearly 100,000 new stoves. But in that same period, the corporation said, an estimated 40,000 new gers were set up in the city, severely offsetting any emissions reductions from the project, reports.


Mongolia is looking for power alternatives to coal. A new wind farm being built 45 miles south of Ulaanbaatar could provide 5 percent of the country’s power and reduce demand for coal by 150,000 tons, according to The New York Times.


4. Scandal over moldy, expired meat shakes Poland


In addition to horse meat, carnivores in Europe can put green mold on their list of worries when they tuck in, according to an investigation by a Polish television station.


TVN reported last week that a meatpacking plant in the northern Polish village of Lniano was using old meat that had been returned from stores in its sausage products. Sources told the channel that the practice had gone on for years, but the company that operates the plant, Viola, denies the allegations.


According to the BBC, an undercover journalist obtained footage of a slaughterhouse employee holding up a sausage “covered in green mold, saying it would be cleaned, dried and re-used.”


TVN says the company supplies meat to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Lithuania.


In the wake of the report, Poland’s military has stopped orders from Viola and the local veterinary inspector has been suspended, according to TVN. The local prosecutor’s office has launched a criminal probe.


5. In corruption fight, Russian ministry tells bureaucrats to watch their language

In an effort to tackle Russia’s widespread corruption, the country’s Labor Ministry is mulling seminars for bureaucrats on avoiding bribe innuendos, according to The Telegraph.


The ministry wants to prohibit state employees from sharing financial sob stories during encounters with the public or using phrases such as “Let’s come to agreement,” “We should discuss the parameters,” and “You can’t spread ‘thank you’ on your bread.” When in doubt about language or behavior, an official can consult a set of online recommendations.


Both President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor, Dimitry Medvedev, have targeted corruption, with mixed results. Russia ranks low in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index – 133rd of 180 nations reviewed, The Telegraph notes.


The current initiative is in line with a declaration made by Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov in February, when he stated that no one, regardless of rank or post, will be spared in the fight against corruption. But it is also being launched simultaneously with the posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney who uncovered a money-laundering scheme involving high-ranking officials in Russia’s law enforcement agencies. Magnitsky was imprisoned and died in custody in 2009 after being beaten and denied medical treatment.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor.  Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Richard Parrish is a TOL editorial intern.
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