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Russia Gets Tough on Blasphemy and Rails at Lost Eurovision Votes

Plus, more politicians face corruption charges in Georgia and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan hangs a “closed” sign at Manas airbase.

by Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Vladimir Matan 22 May 2013

1. Georgian ex-prime minister held on corruption charges


Vano Merabishvili, a former Georgian prime minister, was detained 21 May on charges of corruption and abuse of office, the BBC reports.


Merabishvili is a close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili and chairman of the former governing United National Movement (UNM). He served as prime minister for four months before last year's parliamentary elections, and before that spent eight years in the powerful post of interior minister.

Vano Merabishvili

According to the Associated Press, prosecutors accuse him of using government funds to hire more than 20,000 party activists as canvassers during the election campaign. Saakashvili's party lost the vote in a shock defeat to the Georgian Dream coalition headed by current Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.


Another UNM official, former Health, Labor, and Social Affairs Minister Zurab Chiaberashvili, now governor of Kakheti province, was also arrested facing the same charges.


Merabishvili is also charged with illegally confiscating a luxurious villa and involvement in a heavy-handed  police crackdown on demonstrators in 2011. If convicted he could face seven to 12 years in prison, Reuters reports.


Saakashvili denounced the arrests of Merabishvili and Chiaberashvili as “a political decision.”


2. Russian Duma approves tough new blasphemy bill


A Russian bill imposing prison terms and heavy fines for offending religious feelings is moving closer to becoming law, Reuters reports.


Calls for a law against blasphemy grew louder amid the outcry over feminist band Pussy Riot's performance last year in Moscow's main cathedral.


The bill easily won preliminary approval 21 May in the State Duma and is likely to reach President Vladimir Putin for signature soon, according to Reuters. It was toned down after criticism of the first draft as too draconian, the government-owned RT reports. Under the current version, those who commit “intentional” and “public” displays that cause “offense to religious sensibilities” could be punished by up to one year in prison, and the desecration of religious sites or objects could be punished by up to three years in jail. The original draft set three and five years, respectively, for those crimes.


The weaker bill is still facing critics in the Duma and in civil society, RT writes. Just Russia party leader Sergei Mironov said the law could be interpreted so as to prosecute those who had no intention of offending anyone.


A lawyer whom legislators consulted during the drafting of the bill, Henry Reznik, said its wording was “legally meaningless” and a “rubber band.”


United Russia legislator Mikhail Markelov dismissed such arguments, RT writes, saying, “We are not talking about the subjective term ‘religious offense,’ which is admittedly difficult to qualify. The law only punishes public acts that obviously go out of their way to insult a religion.”


Markelov also said the law would cover all of Russia's major faiths, not just Orthodoxy.


3. Potential Rahmon rival arrested on return to Tajikistan


saidov 100Zayd Saidov
The arrest of prominent Tajikistani businessman and budding politician Zayd Saidov may be part of a campaign by the authorities to stamp out a potential rival to President Imomali Rahmon, Anvar Sattori writes for the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank.


Saidov was detained by officers of the State Financial Control and Anticorruption Agency 19 May as he returned from a trip to France. A week ago authorities said he was under investigation for polygamy and economic crimes.


Last month Saidov co-founded the New Tajikistan party, which Sattori says “represents a new development in the country’s political life because it is the first new political party to be led by such a wide assortment of independent, well-known, and respected politicians, businessmen, and academics.”


Even though New Tajikistan does not style itself an opposition party and ruled out fielding a candidate in the presidential election set for this fall, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the ruling elite centered around Rahmon sees Saidov as a serious rival, Sattori writes. The authoritarian Rahmon has never faced a strong challenger since first being elected in 1994 and is expected to run for re-election.


In addition to polygamy, Saidov is suspected of bribe-taking and abuse of office when serving as minister of industry. Saidov denies the accusations. On the polygamy charge, he said he has only one wife but takes care of children he fathered with other women. Tajikistan television channels have recently aired “a number of critical programs” about Saidov, the Tajikistan-based Asia-Plus agency reports under the headline “Information campaign launched against Zayd Saidov.”


4. Bishkek sets 2014 closure date for U.S. air base


The Kyrgyzstani government announced 21 May its intention to close down the NATO air base at Manas in July 2014, when the current contract expires, according to Radio Free Europe.


Opened in 2001, the base at the civilian Manas airport near Bishkek has hosted as many as 1,000 U.S. and NATO personnel deployed in Afghanistan. When Russia announced a large package of loans and development aid, Kyrgyzstan said it planned to close down the airbase in 2009, but later changed its position after negotiating a steep rent hike with Washington.


U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul set off a minor diplomatic ruckus last year with an off-the-cuff remark that Russia had “bribed” Kyrgyzstan with the aid package worth 10 times what Washington was prepared to offer. Russia made an agreement with Kyrgyzstan in August that enables it to use military bases there past 2030.


RFE writes that a U.S. State Department spokesperson refused to speak about “hypothetical next steps,” adding that the base continues to support the Afghanistan operation. The base will lose much of its reason for being when NATO forces complete their pullout from Afghanistan next year.


5. Russia claims vote theft in Eurovision contest


Top officials from Russia and Azerbaijan have weighed in on a scandal involving missing votes that threatens to complicate good relations between the two countries. Only these votes aren’t from some national election, but from the annual Eurovision Song Contest.


“Our participant has been robbed of 10 points,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained, according to Radio Free Europe. The missing points, however, would not have affected Russia’s ranking in the final tally. Emmelie de Forrest of Denmark won the 18 May contest, held in Malmo, Sweden. Azerbaijan hosted last year's contest, held each year in the home country of the previous year's winner.


russia_eurovision_350Russia's Dina Garipova performing at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden. Photo: Eurovision Facebook page.


Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov admitted that the points seemed to have disappeared. The country's three mobile phone providers all reported that Russian singer Dina Garipova was polling second, but the final result gave her zero points.


Lavrov, called the snub “outrageous” and Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliev, ordered an investigation into what happened to the votes, according to the BBC.


Viewers are allowed to vote for contestants from other countries via text message. Historically, voting has been as influenced by geopolitics as by the quality of the performance.


Eurovision is no stranger to political scandals. Last year’s contest in Baku was plagued by controversy. Azerbaijan, wanting to make a good impression, reportedly spent a whopping $76 million on the event – more than any previous host. But the extra media attention the event brought to the country focused as much on Azerbaijan’s human rights record as on the opulence of the contest itself.


Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistantsKy Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Vladimir Matan is a TOL editorial intern.
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