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Gay Vodka Boycott Misses Target, Georgian Teachers Miss Marks

Plus, the devil seen in Kazakhstan and Moldovan tests shed light on Russian sweets ban.

by Erik N. Nelson, Ioana Caloianu, Vladimir Matan, and Sintija Treimane 6 August 2013

1. Don’t hate me, I’m Latvian, says Stolichnaya to gays


Russia’s discrimination against homosexuals – from anti-“gay propaganda” laws to videos of gay-bashing – has aroused anger the world over, and in the United States, many gay-rights advocates are pouring out bottles of vodka in protest.


The problem, according to Time magazine, is that their target, the popular Stolichnaya brand, is not actually Russian. It’s produced in Latvia, although its grains and raw alcohol come from Russia.


“I don’t carry Russian Standard or any of the other Russian vodkas, [and] if I did, I would have immediately pulled it off the shelves,” said Lexi Stolz, owner of a New York City bar popular with the gay community. “But with Stoli it’s a bit confusing because the brand – or at least the marketing team in the U.S. – has been a huge advocate of LGBT rights and organizations.”


The boycott was the brainchild of American sex columnist Dan Savage. He started the “Dump Russian Vodka” campaign and leveled his sights on Stolichnaya in particular, according to CNN.


That prompted a response from the vodka maker’s chief executive, Val Mendeleev, in the form of an open letter saying the company was supportive of gay rights.


"We fully support and endorse your objectives to fight against prejudice in Russia," says the letter. "In the past decade, [we have] been actively advocating in favor of freedom, tolerance and openness in society, standing very passionately on the side of the LGBT community and will continue to support any effective initiative in that direction."


Stolichnaya is owned by the private SPI Group “headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe,” Mendeleev wrote.


Savage notes that a Russian businessman, Yuri Shefler, owns SPI. But Time maintains that “Shefler and SPI are no friends of the Russian government.”



2. Georgian teachers miss the mark, again


The poor results of a nationwide teacher examination in Georgia have raised questions about the country's education system, Radio Free Europe reports.


Preliminary results released by the Ministry of Education show that out of the 26,000 teachers who took the exam this year, 86 percent got a score below the 60-percent passing threshold for mathematics.


The teachers fared even worse on chemistry and physics, with more than 90 percent failing. Geography was the only subject that the majority, or 51 percent of test takers, managed to pass.


Failing the test will not get teachers booted from their jobs, however. The government introduced the yearly examinations in 2011 to assess the competency of its teachers. The plan is to incorporate the test into a future mandatory certification program, RFE reports.


Tamar Mosiashvili, a specialist with an independent Georgian education group, said she was surprised by the media attention devoted to this year's results because they were very similar to those from the last two years, when fewer than 10,000 teachers were up to the test’s standards.


However, Sergo Ratiani, a parliamentarian from President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, blamed his opponents in the governing Georgian Dream coalition. After they took power in October, previous efforts to prepare teachers to succeed at the exam were abandoned,  Ratiani charged.


"Georgian Dream [made a great] effort to discredit the examination during the election campaign and this created the expectation that the exam wouldn't be as difficult as it has been in the past," he said.


Several recent education reforms, such as giving netbooks to first graders as a learning tool, have been criticized for their lack of substance and for failing to address the problem of children's poor performance on standardized tests.


3. Sign of the devil or the Soviets?


A book and film called Chariots of the Gods studied lines in the South American earth that it claimed could only be recognized as pictures of animals from aircraft – or ancient spacecraft.


A recent web phenomenon noticed on Google satellite map images of Kazakhstan is getting a somewhat different treatment, Radio Free Europe reports. One might call it the sign of Satan, as its five-pointed star, known as a pentagram, points southward. On a north-oriented map, that’s upside down, making the gigantic star a widely recognized sign of the Devil.


The supposed pentagram outlined in trees is located on the shore of the Upper Tobol Reservoir, 20 kilometers from the city of Lisakovsk. To help conspiracy bloggers, religious scholars and Satan worshipers, someone – it’s not clear who – has added white outlines to the star as one zooms in, and then a dotted white line as one zooms still closer to the ground.


pentagram kazakhstan 350Photo: Google Earth


The story was also featured in NBC TV network’s LiveScience feature, which reveals that the 1,200-foot diameter circle with a star inside it is what remains of a summer camp that began construction during the Soviet period and was never finished.


"It is the outline of a park made in the form of a star," archeologist Emma Usmanova said.


The English Russia website features ground-level photos of the site.


LiveScience notes that laying out the park in the shape of a star should not be so mysterious, as it was the symbol of the Soviet Union. It also notes that the pentagram was used by the Mesopotamians, Greeks, Christians, and Freemasons.


4. Moldovan findings call into question Russian chocolate boycott


roshen chocolate 100
Chocolate produced by the Ukrainian confectionery giant Roshen is not a health hazard, Moldovan authorities have announced. The products were recently banned in Russia in what some suspected was a punishment meted out for the Ukrainian government's overtures to the EU.


The Moldovan health inspections agreed with those done earlier in Kazakhstan, which also found the Roshen sweets to be safe. The Russian prohibition cited its discovery of benzopyrene, linked to increased cancer risk, in the company’s products.


“Consumers can relax. The sweets delivered to Moldova do not contain anything hazardous to health and they comply with the necessary standards,” said Moldovan Agriculture Minister Vasile Bumacov, according to's article cited by Interfax Ukraine.


Russia imposed a ban on Roshen confectionery on 29 July. Russian Chief Health Inspector Gennady Onishchenko also said Roshen’s products had other deficiencies, such as poor taste and smell.


The ban came after a vehicle import fee dispute between the two countries. Russia then notified the World Trade Organization it would retaliate by restricting imports of chocolate, glass, and coal from Ukraine.


Roshen is Ukraine’s biggest confectionery company. It exports to former Soviet states, the United States, Canada, Germany, and Israel, Interfax notes.


5. Serbs, Montenegrins hold separate birthday parties at historic monastery


It has been destroyed or set on fire five times, but somehow the Djurdjevi Stupovi monastery is still operating 800 years after its founding. With a history like that, it could certainly survive a diplomatic slight at its anniversary celebration on 4 August.


The event featured Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej performing the liturgy for a congregation that included Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, two other Serbian ministers, and Montenegro’s Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors, according to InSerbia News.


But the native Montenegrin officials did not attend.


The ceremony, InSerbia News writes, recognized the monastery as a “keeper of the national consciousness and unity among the Serbian people,” which might explain the absence of officials of a country that broke away from Serbia by referendum only seven years ago. 


Serbian officials tried to make the best of it.


Dacic said Serbia did not believe that Montenegro and Serbia must be in the same state and that the question of statehood is up to each country's citizens to decide.


There are no closer states than Serbia and Montenegro, he added.


The Montenegrin observance of the monastery’s anniversary was held the day before, when that country’s President Filip Vujanovic said “the monastery is also a symbol of the cultural value of that part of Montenegro and a link with other parts of our country,” according to InSerbia News.


Djurdjevi Stupovi monastery, also known as Monastery of the Tracts of St. George, was built in 1213. The monastery was an important center for the spiritual resistance to the Ottoman Empire, the Voice of Serbia writes

Erik N. Nelson is a TOL contributing editorIoana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Vladimir Matan and Sintija Treimane are TOL editorial interns.
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