Plus, Hungary's leading party goes vote hunting, and a new film explores the masculine influence on Ukraine’s topless feminists.by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu, and Vladimir Matan 6 September 2013
A meeting of the Group of 20 developed and developing countries opened 5 September in St. Petersburg, where the U.S. push for military action against Syria was expected to dominate the two-day event.
Russia became the first so-called BRICS country – also including Brazil, India, China, and South Africa – to host the annual summit. Moscow steamed ahead by signing several agreements with Beijing, including a preliminary, long-term deal for Gazprom to supply China with at least 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year, RIA Novosti reports.
But Syria was center stage despite not being on the agenda, as U.S. President Barack Obama was expected to push his case for punitive strikes over Damascus' alleged use of chemical weapons. While Russian President Vladimir Putin says he doubts U.S. claims that the Syrian government used sarin gas in a 21 August attack in Damascus that killed over 1,400 people, Obama has said he will continue trying to persuade him.
A meeting between the leaders was not scheduled, but they were expected to speak informally during the summit.
The issue has divided the assembled leaders into two camps, Putin’s press spokesman Dmitry Peskov said following the group dinner 5 September.
“A number of states maintained the stance on the necessity of hasty measures [against Syria] ignoring any legitimate international institutions,” Peskov said, while other countries’ leaders called for international law to be upheld and insisted that only the UN Security Council can make decisions on the use of force against Syria.
In an interview a day earlier, Putin said Russia "doesn’t exclude" strikes against Syria if the U.S. proves its case "beyond doubt" and gets approval from the Security Council. The latter is unlikely because Russia has previously used its veto there to block sanctions against Syria, a long-time ally.
In any case, Moscow isn't the only obstacle to Obama building an international coalition for the use of force. In St. Petersburg, top European Union officials called for a political solution to the ongoing Syrian civil war, Reuters reports.
"There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said. "Only a political solution can end the terrible bloodshed, grave violations of human rights, and the far-reaching destruction of Syria."
Tbilisi has destroyed secret, illegal videos made by Georgia's secret services over the last several years, Civil.ge reports.
Politicians, journalists, and civic leaders were targeted for possible blackmail, according to Civil.ge. Some of the videos contain scenes of extramarital and homosexual sex, both frowned upon in conservative Georgian society.
The CDs were part of a larger archive of 24,000 audio and video files that includes secret recordings of private conversations by celebrities, politicians, and journalists, as well as videos showing the torture of people in custody. Radio Free Europe reports that they were also scheduled for destruction 5 September.
Garibashvili called for a thorough review and investigation of the illegal surveillance, Civil.ge reports. He also warned that copies might exist. In an effort to retrieve all the recordings, the government has offered amnesty to people who made or possess the tapes as long as they turn them in.
The archive was discovered in an arms cache in western Georgia in June. The current government, which took over after elections in October, says its predecessor used the tapes to try to silence opponents. The release of a video of prisoner abuse helped lead to the previous government's defeat at the polls.
A documentary on the Ukrainian feminist group Femen has been making waves at the Venice Film Festival for its depiction of one of the group’s early male adherents, according to Radio Free Europe. The film’s premiere 5 September featured an appearance by six topless Femen members. Ukraine Is Not a Brothel is the work of young Australian filmmaker Kitty Green, who filmed the daily lives of Femen activists in Kyiv over the course of a year. RFE writes that the most surprising aspect of the documentary was the light shed on Viktor Svyatski, the man whose influence in drafting the group’s agenda has gone unnoticed.
In the documentary, Svyatski describes his women colleagues in the group as weak, submissive, spineless, and lacking in punctuality, as well as “many other factors that prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them." For the topless protests that made them notorious, Svyatski selected women to take part according to their physical appearance, "because the prettiest girls get on the front page," Green said.
Femen leader Inna Shevchenko insisted that Svyatski was not one of the masterminds behind the group, which she said Ukrainian female students founded in 2008. Shevchenko writes in a letter to the Guardian that the strongly patriarchal nature of Ukrainian society allowed Svyatski to take control of Femen, and that the women members acceded “because we did not know how to resist and fight it.”
Shevchenko and other group members relocated to France last year. She said men are still involved in Femen – “those who support us but do not dominate. Unlike Svyatski, from whom we broke free.”
In July, Svyatski was severely beaten and several other Femen members were arrested as Ukraine hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin for ceremonies marking the 1,025th anniversary of the conversion of the eastern Slavs to Christianity.
Facing declining support ahead of general elections next spring, Hungary's ruling Fidesz party is doing everything it can to attract votes, even looking abroad.
After a party summit 5 September, Fidesz proposed reducing household energy prices 11 percent by as early as October, The Wall Street Journal reports. It also proposed to offer more tax relief for families with children from January, affecting up to 260,000 households. The government has already slashed the price of household power and other utilities this year.
Led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Fidesz won the 2010 general elections handily, but recent polls have it only taking a simple majority in the spring. The party’s support has eroded due to controversial legislative and constitutional changes that many see as undemocratic and a lengthy economic slump.
In 2010 Orban’s government passed a law allowing non-residents of Hungarian descent to become citizens and vote in national elections, meaning ethnic Hungarians living abroad can vote in national polls for the first time ever this spring.
The Christian Science Monitor suggests that Orban is betting these new citizens will support Fidesz thanks to the government's nationalist bent. For instance, Budapest has backed ethnic Hungarians' fight for more autonomy in Romania. In a recent poll in Transylvania, where many Hungarians live, 80 percent of those eligible to vote in Hungarian elections said they would support Fidesz.
Ukrainian legislators have adopted the first measures to align the country’s legal system with EU practices ahead of a key summit this fall.
On 5 September, parliament adopted a law to ease prison conditions by allowing some inmates to wear civilian clothes, use mobile phones, and enjoy longer visiting hours, Interfax reports. Legislators also passed in first reading laws on customs and judicial reform, according to Radio Free Europe.
The laws are in line with criteria Brussels says Ukraine must meet to sign an EU Association Agreement, which includes a free-trade deal, at a November meeting with six Eastern European and Caucasus countries in Lithuania. It also wants President Viktor Yanukovych to pardon imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
At the same time, Moscow is pressuring Ukraine to join its Eurasian customs union with Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia, which announced its membership 3 September in a surprise move.