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Former Kremlin Dark Arts Master Resigns, Belgrade's Gays Get a Haven

Plus, Romania goes another round in libel pingpong, and Hungary's parliament tries to limit access to information.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Vladimir Matan 10 May 2013

1. After tongue lashing from Putin, influential Russian official resigns


Vladislav_Surkov100.jpgVladislav Surkov
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov has stepped down in the wake of harsh words for the government by President Vladimir Putin, Radio Free Europe reports.


On 8 May, the Kremlin confirmed that Putin had accepted Surkov's resignation. Putin's former chief political strategist, Surkov stepped down a day after the president reprimanded the government for failing to execute his presidential decrees.


The departure is a significant setback in a 13-year political career that saw Surkov rise to a key Kremlin adviser and the fountainhead of Russia's current, highly centralized political system, which he called “sovereign democracy,” The Washington Post notes. Surkov started to fall out with the Kremlin in December 2011, when he was transferred to deputy prime minister – after a decade leading the Kremlin's Department of Domestic Politics – following the wave of protests that spread through Russia after controversial parliamentary elections that month.


The Telegraph notes that Surkov's resignation might also reflect a growing rift between Putin and the government of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, where Surkov was effectively in charge of economic policy. Russia's powerful Investigative Committee is looking into suspected embezzlement at the Skolkovo Foundation, a high-tech incubator and pet project of Medvedev.


Some analysts say the probe aims to undermine Medvedev, whom Putin might be trying to scapegoat for Russia's economic woes. Last week, Surkov slammed the Investigative Committee's probe of the foundation, The Telegraph reports.


Half Chechen, Surkov was in advertising before entering politics, and is an elusive figure. He has reportedly kept portraits of Che Guevara and Barack Obama in his study, according to The Telegraph.


2. Long discriminated against, Serbia's gay community finally gets a ‘corner’ of Belgrade 


Starting in June, members of the gay community in Serbia will have their own “corner,” a dedicated space in the capital Belgrade to work, socialize, and relax, Balkan Insight reports.


Initiated by three rights groups, including Loud and Queer, the space will be the first of its kind in Serbia. It will also include lodging and information on safety, including where gay people can move freely in Belgrade.


Belgrade LGBT_350.jpgAnti-gay graffiti popped up around Belgrade during preparations for the 2009 pride parade. Photo by Jonathan Davis/flickr.


Anti-gay sentiment is widespread in Serbia, Balkan Insight notes, and Belgrade has a poor record on LGBT rights. In October, the government banned all public demonstrations on the day of a scheduled gay pride parade in Belgrade, evidently fearing a repeat of the violence that broke out after anti-gay extremists attacked a similar event in 2010.


Last year was the second straight year the gay pride parade was banned. Several European leaders slammed Belgrade's decision, and in October the European Commission admonished Serbian leaders to take a more assertive approach to improving LGBT rights.


Currently under construction, the center will be open to known members of Serbia's LGBT community. Guests from abroad must register in advance, according to Balkan Insight.


3. Is libel still a criminal offense in Romania?


A Romanian court has put back into play the issue of libel and defamation, which has been pinging around the country's courts and legislature for several years, Balkan Insight reports.


On 29 April, the country's Constitutional Court struck down a previous court ruling that had decriminalized the offenses. That previous ruling, in turn, had been meant to clear up confusion stemming from a disagreement between parliament and the Constitutional Court over whether the offenses should come under criminal or civil law.


In last week’s ruling, the Constitutional Court effectively reiterated a stance it took in 2007 that “freedom of expression cannot be understood as an absolute right.”


That 2007 ruling, at odds with a parliamentary decision, caused confusion, and the country’s chief prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to weigh in. It ruled to decriminalize the offenses, only to be overturned last week by the Constitutional Court.


On 3 May, World Press Freedom Day, President Traian Basescu sided with those favoring decriminalization. “Any legislation controlling mass media should come from within the ranks of the profession, not from the outside,” he said in a statement, the daily Ziare reports. In addition, the EU has urged Romania to decriminalize libel and defamation.


Some journalists, however, back the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling. Cristian Tudor Popescu, who writes for the Gandul daily, said it would promote responsibility within the press corps, which often traffics in opinion and accusation more than fact, Balkan Insight reports.


In the past several years, Romanian media have seen an increase in low-brow entertainment and politicized news reporting, due to heavy commercial and political pressures.


4. Information restriction in Hungary gets a ‘soft veto’


Hungarian President Janos Ader has rejected a measure that would have limited the public’s access to information from the government, The Wall Street Journal’s Emerging Europe blog reports.


Ader sent the bill, which would allow agencies to determine if information requests were “abusive” and therefore could be ignored, back to parliament for reconsideration.


The proposal was pushed through parliament last week in a fast-track process that critics say was designed to limit debate and publicity about it.


The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union said it’s “conspicuous that the amendment was proposed [in parliament] when civil society organizations requested access to the bids in a tender for tobacco retail licenses, which reportedly went to government party loyalists. Voting this [into] law will allow public decision makers to get away with suspected bias and make corruption go unpunished.”


Transparency International welcomed Ader's decision. Together with Hungarian civic groups and the anti-corruption website, it called the proposal an attack on freedom of information.


Ader said he sent the measure back because it gives too much leeway to decide what demands are abusive, according to The Journal. Still, legislators are under no obligation to revise the bill and “can now vote it into law without any change,” the newspaper notes.


This measure is in keeping with other moves by the ruling Fidesz party, which holds a supermajority in parliament, to overhaul the country’s institutions. The party has pushed through a rewrite of the constitution that, among other things, nearly neutralized the power of the Constitutional Court and threatened the independence of the central bank. In 2011, it passed tight restrictions on the media.


5. Russian police kill suspected Islamists in North Caucasus


Eight suspected Islamist militants in the restive North Caucasus have been killed in shootouts with Russian police, Reuters reports.


Russian anti-terrorism officials said four men were shot dead in Dagestan after opening fire on police officers. Three others were killed in separate shootouts in two other parts of the majority-Muslim Russian republic, according to Reuters.


The eighth suspect was killed near Islamei, a village in Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria republic, according to Radio Free Europe.


The clashes are part of an ongoing fight between Russian security forces and insurgents who seek an Islamist state in the North Caucasus. For Moscow, the insurgency is a key concern with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi looming, Reuters notes.


The news agency also points out that U.S. officials are investigating possible links between the two Boston marathon bombing suspects – ethnic Chechens both – and the North Caucasus insurgency.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Vladimir Matan is a TOL editorial intern.

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