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Belarus Oppositionist Leaves Prison, Budapest Opera Tackles Anti-Semitism

Plus, Podgorica hosts its first pride parade and Russia posts a ‘wanted’ notice via Interpol for an Estonian politician.

by Barbara Frye and Ioana Caloianu 21 October 2013

1. Freed Belarusian dissident vows a ‘moral revolution’


A leading opposition figure in Belarus has been freed after completing a three-year sentence of hard labor, AFP reports.


Pavel Sieviarynets, leader of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy party, was rousted from bed in his labor camp dormitory in the early hours of 19 October and handed a train ticket, according to the opposition website Charter 97. He told reporters that the prison’s deputy director reminded him, “smiling, that he would not be able to run for president because he had two convictions.”



Sieviarynets, 36, was arrested in December 2010 as part of a roundup of protesters and opposition figures in the wake of a disputed presidential election. He previously served a 21-month forced labor sentence from 2005 to 2007 for leading unauthorized demonstrations as head of an opposition youth movement, according to Charter 97.


Sieviarynets said the early morning release was to ensure that no one could pick him up when he arrived in Minsk. He said he was not allowed to make a phone call, and AFP reports that a group of reporters and journalists who were nevertheless waiting for the dissident’s train were detained by police until he had left the station.


“Now my task is to prepare a moral revolution” against the country’s authoritarian government, Sieviarynets said, according to AFP.


2. Opera takes on anti-Semitism in Hungary


Audiences in Budapest are getting the chance to watch an operatic treatment of a notorious 19th-century “blood libel” case, being staged partly as a commentary on increasingly open anti-Semitism in Hungary, The New York Times reports.


The Red Heifer deals with accusations made in 1882 that Jews in the northeastern village of Tiszaeszlar had killed a Christian girl and used her blood in their rituals. The opera also makes reference to the mood in modern-day Hungary, including a scene that “features lively folk dancing by the same crowd that later turns into soccer hooligans blowing vuvuzelas, waving Hungarian flags and calling for retribution against the Jews,” The Times writes.


Conductor and composer Ivan Fischer said he had been thinking about the Tiszaeszlar affair for some time, but the rise of the far-right Jobbik party was the final impetus for the opera. Jobbik won 17 percent of the vote in 2010 and holds nearly 50 of the Hungarian parliament’s 386 seats. Last year, a Jobbik lawmaker called for the case to be reopened, saying the judge had been forced to throw it out “under pressure from foreign ‘circles.’ ”


During a debate last year on Hungary’s policy on Israel, one of Jobbik’s leaders suggested that officials “assess ... how many people of Jewish origin there are here, and especially in the Hungarian parliament and the Hungarian government, who represent a certain national security risk for Hungary.”


The conservative, populist government condemned those remarks, but it has also tried to woo Jobbik’s voters with nationalist rhetoric that often condemns foreign influence.


Also last year, a theater in Budapest had to back away from plans to stage a play that blamed Jews for the post-World War I partitioning of Hungary. The 2011 appointment of the theater’s self-proclaimed Christian Hungarian artistic director led some artists to boycott the institution.


This atmosphere alarmed the World Jewish Congress enough that it held its annual conference this year in Budapest, the first time it had convened outside Jerusalem. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban denounced anti-Semitism in the conference’s opening address.


The Jewish group’s leader criticized Orban for not sufficiently distancing his government from Jobbik but later apologized after learning that Orban had said Jobbik posed a threat to democracy. In April parliament banned the display of Nazi and communist symbols in public.


3. Podgorica hosts its first gay pride parade


The first gay pride parade in Montenegro’s capital took place this weekend amid violent clashes, Balkan Insight reports. Podgorica saw several hundred people marching on 19 October beneath rainbow flags and banners proclaiming "Gay is OK" and "Love is love.”


The safety of the participants was ensured by the national government, which supported the event. The authorities deployed 2,000 police officers, who clashed with anti-gay protesters in several places throughout the city, detaining 60.


Balkan Insight writes that a coalition of groups protested the government’s endorsement and the cost of policing the parade. “The government is supporting Gay Pride, which costs tens of thousands of euros, at a time when most people are discriminated against, robbed, and hungry,” the coalition said.


The first Podgorica Pride, scheduled for the spring of 2011, was canceled after several attacks on the local gay community. The first pride parade in Montenegro took place in July in the seaside town of Budva amid violent attacks and disapproval from the Orthodox Church.   


4. Tallinn mayoral candidate goes on Interpol’s wanted list


At the request of Russia, Interpol has placed the name of a politician in Estonia on its wanted list, RIA Novosti reports.


Prosecutors in Russia accuse Eerik-Niiles Kross, a candidate for mayor of Tallinn, of piracy. They say he orchestrated the hijacking of a cargo ship, the Arctic Sea, in 2009 while it was en route from Finland to Algeria with a load of timber.


Eerik-Niiles Kross
The wanted notice appeared on the Interpol website the day before the 19 October mayoral vote.


The six men convicted by Russian courts in 2011 for the hijacking were Latvian, Russian, and Estonian citizens, and one of them reportedly named Kross as the mastermind. Kross, a candidate from the Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit party, mounted an unsuccessful challenge to incumbent Edgar Savisaar, who was backed by Tallinn’s Russian speakers and whose Center Party has ties to Russia’s ruling party, Bloomberg reports.


Kross accused Russian authorities of trying to discredit him, according to Estonian Public Broadcasting, and a leader of Kross’ party wrote on his Facebook page, "I don’t remember an election with this much Russian interference.”


The Arctic Sea went missing for two weeks in July and August of 2009 before turning up off the coast of West Africa. Although six people were convicted in the case in 2011, it has left many unanswered questions, including why the crew did not mention the ship’s being boarded by pirates for several days, especially as the intruders had apparently already disembarked; why the Arctic Sea turned up thousands of miles from its destination; and whether it was also carrying some illicit cargo.


Investigators in Estonia have found “no basis to detain Kross” and have asked Russian law enforcement officials to be more open in sharing information they have on the case, Estonian Public Broadcasting reports.


5. European Court nudges Russia to come clean on Katyn


Following complaints from relatives of victims of the Katyn massacre, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Russia is obligated to provide more information about its probe into the infamous World War II incident, according to the BBC.


The murders of 20,000 Polish prisoners of war were carried out in April and May 1940 by the Soviet NKDV on Joseph Stalin’s orders at sites in western Russia. For decades afterward the Soviet Union blamed the mass killing on the Nazis.


The victims were military officers, professionals, and other well-off or accomplished figures. NKVD head Lavrenty Beria described them as "steadfast, incorrigible enemies of Soviet power … waiting for liberation so as to actively join the struggle against Soviet power," the BBC notes.


Russia launched an inquiry into the massacre in 1990 but halted it in 2004 on orders from the chief military prosecutor's office. Investigators have never explained why the probe was aborted and have not shared information from the investigation with relatives of the murdered.


Russia has struggled to come to terms with the atrocity. The first Soviet leader to acknowledge his country’s responsibility was Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, but his admission didn’t carry the label genocide, didn’t result in the opening of relevant archives to Warsaw, and did not produce convictions of perpetrators.


It was not for another decade that the Russian Duma officially recognized Soviet involvement. The BBC notes that the Duma urged that more work be done in “verifying the lists of victims ... and uncovering the circumstances of the tragedy.”


In June 2012 a Russian historian found a list of names of almost 2,000 prisoners taken from cities in present-day Belarus and executed along with the Polish victims.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant.
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