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Soviet Award Dusted Off, Media Freedoms Take A Dive

Plus, Ukraine is dinged for piracy and Slovenia’s debts are deemed junk.

by Erik N. Nelson, Joshua Boissevain, Vladimir Matan, and Connor Zickgraf 2 May 2013

1. Putin revives Soviet ‘hero’ award

 

In spite of his repeated assertions that his country is not regressing, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on May Day to present five recipients with the Hero of Labor award, Reuters reports. The medal is a clear throwback to the Stalin-era Hero of Socialist Labor award that was given out on International Workers’ Day by Soviet leaders beginning in 1938.

 

More than 20,000 people received the medal, a gold star hanging from a red ribbon. They included composer Dmitry Shostakovich, AK-47 inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov, and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov.

 

 

putin_konovalov_350Vladimir Putin presents the Hero of Labor award to brain surgeon Alexander Konovalov. Photo from kremlin.ru.

 

Putin pinned the new medals, which feature the Russian two-headed eagle rather than the Soviet hammer and sickle, in St. Petersburg. The new awardees included brain surgeon Alexander Konovalov and Marinsky Theater director and London Symphony Orchestra conductor Valery Gergiev, along with a coal miner, a lathe operator, and an agronomist.

 

“The Hero of Labor title is ... a step toward resuming the continuity of traditions, tighter ties between eras and generations,” Putin told the crowd at the May Day celebrations, according to Reuters.

 

Polls have shown Russians favor the medal’s revival and Putin hopes to boost his popularity by evoking nostalgia and praising the working class, the Telegraph reports. Putin’s critics, however, see the medal as another step toward the kind of leadership Stalin was known for.

 

Putin rejected that notion during his annual, nationwide call-in show, saying, “Stalinism is connected to the cult of personality, massive legal abuses, repressions, and camps. There are no such things in Russia, and I hope they will never happen again,” the Telegraph reports.

 

2. Turkmenistan among ‘worst of the worst’ in media freedom

 

Media freedom around the world took a beating in 2012, but a U.S.-based monitoring group has put Turkmenistan at the bottom of its list, tied with North Korea, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

And two other former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan and Belarus, came in just above the two worst in the annual Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House, which monitors a range of factors it considers crucial to democratic societies.

 

 

This graph from the most recent Freedom of the Press report charts the gains and declines of the last four years. Graph from freedomhouse.org.

 

Uzbekistan’s neighbor, Kyrgyzstan, showed some progress, appearing as Central Asia’s “bright spot” with its tolerance of independent media even if the country continues to fall into Freedom House’s “not free” category.

 

Kazakhstan’s light dimmed somewhat. Freedom House deems it “not free” and called the nation’s media environment “very restricted.” Karin Deutsch Karlekar, a project director for Freedom House, told RFE the country took a “fairly significant decline that we noted in 2012, where the space for independent voices was sort of narrowed even further.”

 

In the Caucasus, “partly free” Georgia and “not free” Armenia showed improvements, while Azerbaijan registered some setbacks in its already “not free” status, the report notes. In Central Europe, Hungary was cited in the report for recent restrictions and a marked decline in press freedoms over the past four years.

 

“Restrictive conditions persist in Russia, where the relatively unfettered new media, which have somewhat mitigated the government’s near-complete control over major broadcast outlets, faced the threat of further curbs during the year,” the report says.

 

Apropos of Turkmenistan’s black mark, officials there carried out massive sweeps looking for whoever took video posted on EurasiaNet.org of the country’s president being thrown from a racehorse on 28 April. EurasiaNet.org reported on 1 May that opposition website Gundogar.org told of security agents “swarming” Ashgabat airport to find whoever recorded strongman Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s apparently injurious fall from grace – and to prevent the footage from leaving the country.

 

3. Azerbaijan legislating civil web discourse

 

Just as Azerbaijan is being criticized in the Freedom House report, the country’s legislature is considering a measure that would punish untoward statements on the Internet, EurasiaNet.org reports.

 

The bill has reached the floor of the Milli Majlis, or national assembly, and would make profanity or libel on the web a crime – just as such things are when delivered via other methods of communication.

 

If the Majlis passes the proposal as written, those who idly use uncivil verbiage against someone could face up to three years in prison, fines of up to 1,000 manats ($1,274), or community service, according to the Baku-based Media Rights Institute.

 

A written defamation, or libel, would net a similar sanction when committed online, EurasiaNet.org reports.

 

The trend is troubling to those who advocate free speech on the Internet, which is under threat in many countries that don’t have a tradition of free print or broadcast media. As in places like China and Iran, Azerbaijani authorities are already known for checking Facebook and other social media and taking action against government critics, according to EurasiaNet.org.

 

The media rights group noted that the measure contradicts a 2011 pledge by the government to reduce curbs on free speech. “MRI stresses that the initiative is contrary to the commitment and directed at adopting harsher punishments for use of freedom of expression. It should be seen as a step aside from its commitment to decriminalize defamation,” the group said.

 

4. U.S. calls Ukraine the pirate king

 

U.S. officials are calling Ukraine the world’s “worst abuser of intellectual property rights,” charging that Internet piracy there has gotten so bad that even government agencies are using illegal software, according to AFP. In response, U.S. trade officials said they are considering trade restrictions against Kyiv.

 

The charges came in the form of a watch list by the U.S. Trade Representative's office issued 1 May. The report, which monitors the ability of international trading partners to uphold U.S. patents and copyrights, listed Ukraine as a “priority foreign country.” The designation hasn’t been used in more than a decade and would allow Washington to seek sanctions against Kyiv through the World Trade Organization, AFP reports.

 

In addition, U.S. officials said they are considering reinstating import duties on Ukrainian goods, according to Reuters.

 

Kostyantyn_Gryshchenko_100Kostyantyn Gryshchenko
In response to the new designation, Deputy Prime Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, a former ambassador to the United States, took to Twitter and borrowed from English literature to defend Ukraine’s commitment to U.S. intellectual property rights, according to Urkayinska Pravda.

 

“The Statement by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative reflects the situation of yesterday, not today. Now we have improvements,” Gryshchenko tweeted. “Like in Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing.” 

 

5. Slovenia’s debt rating drops to junk status

 

Slovenia has joined the not-so-exclusive club of euro zone members with credit ratings in the tank.

 

The U.S. rating agency Moody’s cut the nation’s credit rating from Ba1 to Baa2 on 30 April, meaning its bonds are considered “junk” or as worthless as ratings get, Bloomberg writes. Slovenia is the fifth of 17 euro zone members to see its debt deemed “junk” by Moody’s, according to the news service.

 

The assessment prompted the Slovene government to postpone its dollar-denominated benchmark bond auction. The country is in its second recession since 2009 and the new government is struggling to prop up the country’s shaky banking industry. It will present a banking reform program to Brussels by 9 May, Deutsche Welle reports, and will pump 900 million euros ($1.2 billion) into the three largest state-owned banks.

 

Moody’s raters downgraded Slovenia due to “turmoil” in its banks, which are saddled with bad debt, and a crumbling government balance sheet, Reuters reports. The rating agency warned that Slovenia could join euro zone members Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus in seeking a bailout from healthier euro zone countries.

 

Erik N. Nelson is a TOL contributing editor. Joshua Boissevain is a TOL editorial assistant. Vladimir Matan and Connor Zickgraf are TOL editorial interns.  
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