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Ukraine Passes Anti-Protest Law, Snap Polls in Serbia?

Plus, a Kosovo Serb politician is murdered and Russian police arrest a suspect in a Koran burning.

by S. Adam Cardais, Ioana Caloianu and Aleksandra Zivkovic 17 January 2014

1. Ukraine legislslators pass draconian anti-protest law


Ukraine's parliament passed sweeping anti-protest legislation 16 January to the outcry of opposition and European leaders. The move came shortly after a Ukrainian court temporarily banned mass demonstrations in Kyiv.


Under the new legislation – passed under dubious procedures by ruling Party of Regions lawmakers – the unauthorized placement of tents, stages, or speakers in public places carries a maximum fine of $640 or up to 15 days behind bars, Radio Free Europe reports. Groups providing facilities or equipment for unauthorized meetings face a maximum fine of $1,275 or up to 10 days in jail.


The legislation is an evident response to the mass protests that have swept Ukraine since November, when Yanukovych backed away from an EU trade deal in favor of closer ties with Russia. Its passage came a day after a Ukrainian court banned large-scale demonstrations in Kyiv, where on 12 January 50,000 people protested a police attack against an opposition leader, until 8 March. The bill must still be signed by President Viktor Yanukovych, which one unconfirmed report says he has already done.


Defending the new sanctions, pro-government leaders said they aim to prevent protests that endanger public safety or the functioning of public institutions, RFE reports. Also on 16 January, parliament adopted amendments making it easier for the Party of Regions-dominated legislature to strip lawmakers of immunity.


Speaking in Kyiv, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said, "What happened today in parliament is a violation of laws." The EU and European leaders slammed the legislative changes, which Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said "severely" restrict freedom, RFE reports.


The Financial Times points out that the legislation was effectively rammed through by the ruling party. As opposition lawmakers were in the chamber dais, Party of Regions legislators moved to the other side and adopted 11 new laws by a show of hands that was too quick to count. Votes are usually conducted electronically.


The US and EU ambassadors to Ukraine questioned the legitimacy of the vote.


2. Report: Serbia headed to elections in March


With the government wobbling, Serbia will hold early parliamentary elections in March as the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) seeks to capitalize on its growing popularity, Reuters reports, citing Serbian media.


Aleksandar Vucic
On 16 January, Serbian daily Politika cited multiple government sources in reporting that President Tomislav Nikolic, the Progressive party’s former leader, will call early elections by the end of January. A government spokesman declined to comment on the report, which follows mounting speculation that the coalition is on the brink of collapse due to infighting over the pace of key reforms as Serbia prepares to begin EU membership talks 21 January.


SNS head and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has launched a high-profile anti-corruption campaign that is gaining public popularity. He is also pursuing economic reforms, including subsidy cuts to certain debt-ridden companies that create jobs but also sap Serbia's withering economy, The Economist reports. Some of these firms are led by members of the Socialist Party, the SNS' coalition partner.


Socialist leader and Prime Minister Ivica Dacic denies a coalition rift and opposes early elections that the SNS would easily win given its 70 percent approval rating, potentially putting the Socialists into opposition. But some SNS members have openly called for snap polls and hinted at tensions over the reforms.


If the government isn't committed to tough reforms, "it's better to have elections as soon as possible," SNS-appointed Economic Minister Sasa Radulovic told Reuters this week.


The Economist also points to a power struggle within the SNS – or a "bitter conflict" between Nikolic, who resigned as party head after becoming president, and Vucic. The magazine reports that Vucic plans to oust Nikolic loyalists at the 25 January party conference, push for early elections, and, if successful, appoint his allies to top posts.


The SNS placed first in Serbia's last parliamentary polls, in 2012, but formed a coalition with the Socialists because it did not win enough votes to govern alone.


3.  Kosovo president slams attack on ethnic Serb official


Unknown gunmen have killed a Kosovo Serb politician in what President Atifete Jahjaga called a "cowardly act" aimed at destabilizing the country, Radio Free Europe reports.


Dimitrije Janicijevic was shot dead early 16 January in Mitrovica, an ethnically divided city in the majority-Serb northern Kosovo. He sat on the recently elected local council, representing the Independent Liberal Party, a coalition partner in the Kosovo government.


In the controversial November local elections, Janicijevic also ran for mayor of northern Mitrovica, the majority-Serb section of the city, but lost to Krstimir Pantic. Citing local reports, Balkan Insight notes that the 35-year-old father of three had been targeted in several earlier attacks and that Mitrovica has been especially tense since the weekend, when Pantic refused to take the oath of office pledging allegiance to Kosovo's ethnic Albanian authorities.


As a result, the election results have been annulled, with new polls scheduled for February. The November mayoral and local council elections were a flashpoint for ethnic tensions, as some Serbs said participating was tantamount to recognizing Kosovo's statehood.


Most of the ethnic Serb population in northern Kosovo rejects  the legitimacy of Kosovo’s government.


4. Moscow police arrest man suspected of burning a Koran, beating a migrant


Moscow police said 15 January that they had detained a resident of the Tver region, between St. Petersburg and Moscow, on suspicion of burning Korans and attacking Muslims, RIA Novosti reports.


Although initially held for 48 hours on hooliganism charges, the man could receive a prison sentence of four or five years if found guilty of extremism or fanning religious hatred, according to RIA Novosti.


A screenshot from the video police cite as evidence against the suspect.


A police spokesman said the man is suspected of acting in revenge for two suicide bombings in late December in Volgograd that killed at least 34 people. Although no group claimed responsibility for the attacks, authorities said a similar bombing in October was carried out by a woman from Dagestan, the North Caucasus republic that has become the focal point of Islamist resistance to Russian rule.


On 5 January, a group of youths posted a video on YouTube in which they first burn a Koran, then force a man who appears to have beaten to repeat after them, “I renounce Allah.”


Immigration from the predominantly Muslim region of Central Asia as well as domestic migration from Russia’s mostly Muslim republics in the North Caucasus have fueled fiery political rhetoric and angry rallies in the country. It was a prominent issue in last year’s Moscow mayoral race.


5. Another supermarket ceiling collapses in Latvia

Two months after 54 people died in a supermarket roof collapse in the Latvian capital of Riga, another Maxima store ceiling has given way in the northern city of Valmeira, The BalticTimes reports.

There were no injuries in the 15 January collapse, but media paid attention to it because the November tragedy, which led to an investigation into building code violations by Maxima and to the fall of the government, is still an open wound for most Latvians.


The Baltic Times says the drop ceiling fell after a customer accidentally knocked down a signboard. The LETA news agency says the ceiling collapsed while workers were restoring the signboard for a neighboring restaurant that had come down.


Officials said the repairs would be minor, and fire and rescue workers were not called to the scene, although an investigation is under way, a fire and rescue spokesman  LETA.


According to the Maxima website, it is the largest employer in the Baltic countries. It also has stores in Bulgaria.

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Aleksandra Zivkovic is a TOL editorial intern.
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