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Arrests, Trials for Media in Kazakhstan, An Opaque Russia-Hungary Nuke Deal

Plus, Romania’s president is fined for an anti-Roma slur, and Sochi gets more black eyes in the press. 

by Piers Lawson, Sarah Fluck, Aliona Kachkan and Karlo Marinovic 11 February 2014

1. Kazakhstan opposition trial begins as bloggers are arrested


Court proceedings against two opposition newspapers have begun in Kazakhstan as the authorities try to squeeze out independent media, Radio Free Europe reports.


Pravdivaya Gazeta, a consistent critic of the government, is charged with providing false circulation figures and operating while suspended for previous alleged violations. It faces possible closure if the new violations are proved, RFE’s Kazakh service reports.


Another newspaper is also facing proceedings, according to RFE’s Kazakh service. 


Since its launch last year, Pravdivaya Gazeta’s criticism of the government has led to it being regularly closed down or fined.


It is a problem faced by most independent newspapers in the country, with fines and restrictions imposed for minor infractions of publishing regulations.


Free-press activist and journalist Ramazan Yesergepov said the punishments meted out to dissenting publications are far out of proportion to the alleged violations, according to RFE.


The Kazakhstani authorities are now making a concerted effort to silence opposition newspapers, he said.


The beginning of the trial followed the arrest of an RFE social networks editor, Dana Baidildaeva, in Almaty on 8 February for protesting the imprisonment of three bloggers earlier that week, reports.


Dina Baidildaeva
Baidildaeva staged a five-minute protest to support the bloggers, who were sentenced to 10 days in jail on hooliganism charges after demonstrating against a lunch engagement staged by Almaty’s mayor with “tame” bloggers in a local restaurant.


“He only gathered bloggers that he liked and who were loyal to him, and that’s not what an intelligent government does!” Baidildaeva said during the protest, according to, which reports that she is charged with holding an unsanctioned public protest.


Baidildaeva faces 15 days in jail if found guilty.


Nurali Aytelenov, Rinat Kibraev, Dmitriy Shelokov, and Baidildaeva deny the charges against them.


2. Hungary-Russia deal on expanding nuclear plant slips through


A no-bid agreement that will see Russia finance and build two new nuclear reactors in Hungary has gone through largely under the radar, The Jamestown Foundation reports.


Under the agreement, Russia will loan Hungary 10 billion euro ($13.6 billion), or 80 percent of the project’s price tag, and Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear power company, will expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant with two new blocs, Economy Minister Mihaly Varga told the M1 television channel.


Citing Hungarian media, analyst Vladimir Socor writes for Jamestown that the conservative, ruling Fidesz party “quickly pushed through the agreement with Russia in parliament, against symbolic resistance from the left-liberal opposition. No Western company had been anywhere in sight to compete with Rosatom in this European Union member country.”


Socor said the terms of the agreement are generous to Hungary, with a long repayment period, low interest rates, and Russian guarantees to carry the waste out of Hungary for disposal.


"We have managed to reach a deal which we could not have been able to get on the market," Varga said, according to Reuters.


But critics say the deal makes Hungary fully dependent on Russia, the BBC reports. Russia is the leading supplier of natural gas and oil to Hungary. The EU has also objected to the “deal's lack of transparency and fair competition,” according to the BBC.


President Janos Ader had refused an opposition request for a national referendum over the expansion of the nuclear power plant, RIA Novosti reports.


3. Romanian president fined for anti-Roma slur


Traian Basescu
Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, has been fined 600 lei ($183) for making derogatory comments about Romani people, the BBC reports.


Basescu was fined by the National Council for Combating Discrimination for saying that "very few” Romani people “want to work'” and “traditionally many of them live off stealing” during a 2010 news conference in Slovenia, according to the BBC.


In January the president said, “Roma irritate people by begging” and are "perhaps more troublesome than a banker who makes tens of billions disappear from a bank,” the BBC reports.


National Council spokesman Istvan Haller told the AFP news agency that the president was fined because he has repeatedly made such discriminatory remarks.


More than 30 human rights organizations condemned the president’s comments in Slovenia as “racist,” AFP reports.


A Roma-rights activist told AFP this was the first time a fine has been levied against a Romanian president for such remarks.


“The fine is low but it sends a clear message: even if you are president, when you make discriminatory comments you will get a sanction,” Romani Crisis Executive Director Marian Mandache told the news agency.


Basescu has not yet responded to the fine. The council is an autonomous body that operates under the control of parliament, according to the BBC.


Romania’s 2011 census counted almost 623,000 Roma, or 3.3 percent of the population, but many Roma do not declare themselves as such in order to avoid the social stigma and discrimination that they would otherwise face. Roma in Romania and throughout Eastern Europe often live in ghettos with few or no public services and limited access to health care and employment.


Citing a report by the European Roma Rights Center, the Romania-Insider website says there has been a huge exodus of Roma from the country. 


4. No letup in bad press for Sochi Games


The Sochi Winter Olympic Games are again taking a beating in the Western press.


Radio Free Liberty reports that a disgruntled Moldovan composer says he was “insulted and humiliated” by the use of a piece he wrote for the opening ceremony.


Eugen Doga said officials used a waltz he wrote for the 1978 Soviet movie My Sweet and Tender Beast without consulting him, according to RFE, which reports that Doga said the song was “mutilated” during the performance and that he is considering legal action.

Meanwhile a list of the Games’ 20 biggest problems so far, compiled by the Bleacher Report, a sports website in the UK, includes stray dogs and attempts to eliminate them, delayed races, a lack of flush toilets, malfunctioning Olympic rings at the opening ceremony, unfinished construction, a shortage of pillows for athletes, poor hotel security, and lost luggage.


Then there are all the empty seats at some Sochi events, Euronews reports. Considering that nearly all tickets have been sold, according to organizers, it is not clear what is keeping people away. But a Sochi spokeswoman told the website that Russians are traditionally late arrivals at outdoor events and do not make allowances for the tight security in place due to the threat posed by Islamist militants from the North Caucasus region.


Further, U.S. bobsleigher Johnny Quinn – who famously got trapped in his bathroom last week – was stuck in a lift barely 48 hours later, the BBC reports.


It says that a few hours after Quinn had explained to journalists on 10 February how he managed to knock through his bathroom door to freedom, he became stuck with two teammates in the lift.


“It is not yet clear how they were able to escape,” the BBC said.


But not all news emanating from Sochi has been negative.


Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska told the BBC that the area where he spent his childhood, and where he sunk money into Olympics preparation, was a “unique place” that would eventually “pay back” the investment.


5. EU tries to firm up its approach to Ukraine, quickly


Western diplomats are frantically working on a financial and political package to resolve the crisis in Ukraine – and offer an alternative to Russian largess – before the end of the Sochi Winter Games, The New York Times reports.  


After the Games, the newspaper says, Russian President Vladimir Putin “will no longer have to play the congenial Olympic host and can turn his attention to scoring a Russian ‘win’ in Ukraine.”


Meanwhile there is much debate on the EU’s future relationship with Ukraine.


Catherine Ashton
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the bloc is committed to signing the free-trade and political association pact that was aborted by the Ukrainian government in November but that the agreement “does not constitute the final goal in EU-Ukraine relations." 


Ashton would not be drawn on whether Ukraine could be in line for eventual EU membership.


"I think wherever people believe the future might be, everyone recognizes that there is more to be done in the relationship with Ukraine. So the words mean what they say – that it's not the end, and there are many things that could happen in the future," Ashton said.


After a 10 February meeting, the EU’s foreign ministers released a joint statement offering Ukraine financial help, in cooperation with other international organizations, on the condition that the government pursue economic and political reforms, RFE reports.


In a separate development, Russian human rights activist Andrei Yurov was denied entry into Ukraine by border guards 7 February, RIA Novosti reports. The news agency speculates that the ban could be related to Yurov’s work documenting human rights abuses in Belarus after a crackdown on protesters following the presidential elections in 2010. He was deported from Belarus in March 2011, RIA Novosti says.

Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Sarah FluckAliona Kachkan and Karlo Marinovic are TOL editorial interns.
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