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Ukraine Repeals Anti-Protest Laws, Serbia Calls Snap Elections

Plus, Hungary takes partial responsibility for World War II killings of Jews, and Croatian scientists unveil a robot designed to help autistic kids.

by Ioana Caloianu, Ky Krauthamer, and Karlo Marinovic 28 January 2014

1. Ukraine’s parliament repeals hated laws, Azarov steps down

 

azarov 100Mykola Azarov
The Ukrainian parliament voted today to repeal a package of laws banning most public protests, fulfilling a pledge by President Viktor Yanukovych to opposition leaders a day earlier.

 

A large majority of legislators voted to repeal the two-week old legislation at a special session of parliament, Radio Free Europe reports.

 

In a day of dramatic developments in Kyiv, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov announced his resignation at the start of the session. Azarov released a statement saying his departure would create “an additional possibility for a political compromise to peacefully resolve the conflict.”

At the meeting yesterday with opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok, Yanukovych agreed to repeal the laws, whose passage unleashed the most violent protests seen in the two-month political crisis that began when the government pulled out of a cooperation agreement with the EU.

 

Yanukovych also said he would pardon arrested protesters on condition that opposition groups dismantle the barricades and abandon government buildings they have occupied.

 

Klitschko said Azarov’s resignation was only “a step to victory,” RFE reports, and described it as a face-saving measure, according to The Wall Street Journal, which suggests he and other opposition leaders are unlikely to be mollified by today’s developments. Their main demand is for Yanukovych himself to step down and call new elections.

 

“The main idea of the protest was not a new government,” Viktor Zamyatin of the Razumkov Center told The Journal. "The aim was to stop repressions, to punish the people responsible and for the resignation of Yanukovych."

 

RFE reports that protesters now claim to be in control of government buildings in 11 of the country’s 27 regions, mainly in the west of the country where opposition to the government is strongest.

 

2. Pro-EU party pushes through snap elections in Serbia

 

Serbia will hold early parliamentary elections in an attempt to speed economic reforms and integration into the European Union, EurActiv reports. The initiative for the 16 March snap poll came from the conservative Progressive Party, the largest party in government and in the coalition government, EurActiv notes.

 

Aleksandar VucicAleksandar Vucic
The government’s decision to go to the voters two years early came only days after Serbia started accession talks with the EU, a process that requires the country to revise laws in the areas of justice, security, and human rights. In an interview with B92, Progressive Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said the party needs a “new, full mandate” in order to implement reforms.

 

The coalition member Socialist Party of Serbia opposed the snap poll, claiming it could slow down reforms, EurActiv writes. But Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, the Socialist leader, said he backed the proposal.

 

"We should do our maximum for the early elections not to jeopardize the reforms in Serbia, the negotiations with the EU, and the dialogue with Kosovo," Dacic said 26 January.

 

The Progressives, a moderate spinoff party from the nationalist Radicals, now lead the opinion polls, control all large cities, and have an influence in many media, while the other major pro-EU party, the Democrats, have imploded, EurActiv writes.

 

Economic reforms may face a tough battle in the arena of public opinion. Economy Minister Sasa Radulovic resigned 25 January in the face of strong resistance to his agenda, including faster privatization and more liberal labor laws.

 

3. Hungary admits guilt for Jewish genocide

 

Hungarian officials have taken the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day to make unprecedented apologies for the genocide of Jews during World War II.

 

“We owe an apology to the victims because the Hungarian state was guilty for the Holocaust,” the country’s UN ambassador, Csaba Korosi, told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York last week ahead of the 27 January memorial day.

 

Korosi’s statement was the first official Hungarian apology for the country’s part in the Holocaust, Haaretz reports.

 

The ambassador said the wartime Hungarian state “failed to protect its citizens” and aided and provided financial backing for the mass murder, according to Politics.hu.

 

Historians believe around 600,000 Hungarian Jews perished in the Holocaust. Massacres of Jews in Hungarian-held territory began at least two years before the Nazis invaded the country in 1944, although most victims were sent to death camps after the Nazi takeover.

 

Janos AderJanos Ader
On 26 January President Janos Ader also admitted the country’s partial responsibility for the Holocaust.

 

“Seventy years ago, after our nation's German occupation, the Nazi overlords and the Hungarian authorities that collaborated with them seemed to fulfill the will of Hitler's Nazi Germany,” Ader said in a statement, Reuters reports.

 

Despite the unusually frank statements from officials, most media are reporting a prominent Holocaust scholar’s protest against what he called the “history-cleansing campaign” in Hungary to improve the image of the authoritarian rule of Miklos Horthy from 1920 to 1944.

 

Historian and Holocaust survivor Randolph Braham said he decided to return a high state award after learning of plans for a public memorial to the victims of the German invasion in March 1944, the AP reports.

 

Planned to be unveiled in March, the memorial depicts the imperial eagle of Germany attacking the Archangel Gabriel. In a statement quoted by Reuters, Braham described the memorial as “a cowardly attempt to deflect attention from the role the Horthy regime played in the annihilation of Jews.”

 

Prime Minister Viktor Orban responded to criticism of the planned monument saying it was “dedicated to the victims of the German occupation,” the AP reports.

 

4. Azerbaijani youth activist jailed on drug charge

 

A youth activist and blogger held since last week for drug possession is a well-known critic of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev, AFP reports.

 

Omar Mammadov Omar Mammadov
Omar Mammadov, 19, was charged with possession of illegal drugs, a representative of the Axin (Current) youth movement he co-founded said. On 25 January a court ordered him remanded in custody for three months.

 

Mammadov was a member of the Civic Solidarity Party, which denounced his arrest on its website as part of a pattern of “unfair persecution and systematic arrests” of young political activists.

 

“Mammadov is known for harshly criticizing and mocking Azerbaijani authorities in his blog posts,” RFE writes. Drug charges have often been leveled at bloggers and journalists critical of the Aliev government. Last spring four political activists were held on drug charges in what Human Rights Watch called a crackdown on dissent ahead of the fall presidential election; blogger Rashad Ramazanov received a nine-year sentence after Aliev’s re-election. In a separate trial journalist Sardar Alibeyli was sentenced to four years for hooliganism.

 

Mammadov could spend up to three years in prison if convicted, RFE writes. 

 

5. Robot helps Zagreb scientists communicate with autistic kids

 

Croatian researchers are using a robot to diagnose autism in children, RFE reports.

 

Education and rehabilitation specialists at the University of Zagreb joined forces with computer scientists in the effort to develop a more systematic way of diagnosing and assessing the disorder in young children.

 

The French-made robot, called Rene, presents children with simple, repetitive stimuli that are easier to follow than complicated human behaviors, while recording their responses, according to RFE.

 

Children suffering from autism, a disorder characterized by limited social skills and repetitive behavioral patterns, have so far responded well to the robot's efforts.

 

“Filip actually watched and was focused on the robot, which is not his usual behavior. He normally runs around and his focus only lasts a few seconds,” the mother of one child in the study said, Tech Light reports.

 

Rene was developed by the French company Aldebaran Robotics for their ASK NAO project (Autism Solution for Kids). "It can code a child's vocalizations, his or her closeness to the parent, how many times the child initiates communication, how much eye contact the child makes, and so on,” Zagreb University’s Maja Cepanec said.

 

Robot Rene interacts with children. Image from a video by fairfest/YoutubeRobot Rene interacts with a child in this screen shot from a Euronews broadcast. Image from a video by fairfest/YouTube

Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Karlo Marinovic is a TOL editorial intern.
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