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Ukraine’s Presidential Favorite Rejects Federalization; Would Russia Annex Finland?

Plus, a tycoon-philanthropist will be Slovakia’s next president and Kyrgyzstan adopts a harsh anti-gay law.

by Piers Lawson, Ioana Caloianu, Annabel Lau, Karlo Marinovic, and Lily Sieradzki 31 March 2014

1. Poroshenko rejects Russia’s proposal for a Ukrainian federation


As diplomats from Russia and the United States talk about how to resolve the Crimean crisis, Ukraine’s leading presidential candidate vowed he would not accept Moscow’s proposition that his country be federalized.


Petro Poroshenko
In 30 March talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talked broadly about constitutional changes, with Russia pushing for a federation of autonomous regions, the BBC reports.


Many in Kyiv fear the proposal is meant to allow Ukrainian regions to more cleanly annex themselves to Russia, or to allow Russia to more easily separate some regions from the rest of the country. It has been strongly condemned by Ukraine’s most popular presidential candidate, Petro Poroshenko, who told The New York Times he would not allow the Russian government to dictate what sort of government Ukraine should have.


Poroshenko, a former foreign and finance minister, is leading in the polls for the 25 May presidential elections, after prominent opposition leader Vitali Klitschko pulled out of the race saying the opposition needed to unite behind one candidate, NBC reports.


The billionaire owner of a Ukrainian chocolate company, Poroshenko supported Ukraine’s integration with the EU after Russia banned imports of his chocolate last year.


He argues that he will bring considerable economic skills from businesses into government and create an “absolutely new page of Ukrainian history,” The New York Times reports.


He will face former Prime Minister and Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko and former Kharkiv Mayor Mikhail Dobkin, an opponent of the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv.


2. How wide-ranging is Russia’s expansionist vision?


Russia’s next move after its annexation of Crimea earlier this month is the subject of much media speculation.


A former close aide to President Vladimir Putin told a Swedish newspaper that the president “will not stop trying to expand Russia” until he has “conquered” Belarus, the Baltic states, and even Finland, according to The Independent.


Andrej Illarionov, Putin’s chief economic adviser from 2000 to 2005, is quoted as saying that the Russian president wants “historical justice” with a return to a Russia of the days of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Soviet Union under Stalin.


Illarionov said Putin could argue that the granting of independence to Finland in 1917 was an act of “treason against national interests,” The Independent reports.


“Putin’s view is that he protects what belongs to him and his predecessors,” Illarionov is quoted as saying.


Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that a 30 March meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry, took place as Russia amassed an estimated 40,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border and as Moscow repeated its demand that eastern and southern Ukraine be given more autonomy.


The “abnormal” troop buildup comes amid warnings from NATO and the Pentagon that Moscow is not merely carrying out routine exercises, the Guardian reports, pointing out that the maneuvers could be a prelude to an invasion.


However, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, insisted that Moscow has “no intent, no interest in crossing the border” of eastern Ukraine while appearing on ABC’s This Week program, Time magazine reports.


His statements did little to calm American lawmakers’ concerns over a potential invasion in eastern Ukraine, Time says.


On 29 March Russia conducted “a massive three-day nuclear war exercise involving 10,000 soldiers,” the Independent reports. Citing Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, The Independent notes that although the exercises were scheduled last year, they come against a backdrop of “the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.”


The drill was “to ensure that that Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces are prepared to conduct offensive operations in the event of a massive and simultaneous international use of nuclear weapons,” according to The Independent.


3. Kiska upsets favorite Fico in Slovakia’s presidential vote


Business magnate and philanthropist Andrej Kiska has won Slovakia’s presidential election by a landslide despite never having served in office, the BBC reports.


Andrej Kiska
“It's a new feeling to be voting for myself,” Kiska said as he cast his ballot in his northern hometown of Poprad.


The new president made his fortune in the consumer-credit business and has helped thousands of families whose children suffer from cancer through his Dobry andel (Good Angel) charity. He is a non-aligned centrist and the first president-elect without a background in the Communist Party to be elected since the country’s independence in 1993, the Guardian reports.


According to the BBC, Kiska’s win prevented Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Direction - Social Democrats from taking the presidency in addition to their control of parliament, where they secured a majority in the 2012 elections.


Analysts feared that, if elected president, Fico could increase his power through a submissive parliament and may even have tried to amend the constitution to boost presidential powers and transform the parliamentary system into a presidential one, according to the Guardian.

"This election was a referendum on Fico and his government, and he clearly lost it,” analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP. "Fico won't resign. He will try to finish his term until 2016, although his authority will be weakened – authoritarian politicians like Fico don't resign willingly."


Kiska’s success in the election can be attributed to his image as “a newcomer untainted by allegations of corruption that have ravaged Slovakia’s right wing,” according to the BBC.


The president-elect says he wants to make politics “more human” and re-establish the Slovakian people’s trust in the presidential office, the Guardian reports.


4. Kyrgyzstan lawmakers pass anti-gay bill tougher than Russia’s


Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has passed a bill that punishes people who voice a “positive attitude” toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people with up to a year in prison, Human Rights Watch reports.


In proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, offenders could face up to six months in prison and a fine of 2,000 som ($36) to 5,000 som for “creating a positive attitude toward nontraditional sexual relations, using the media or information and telecommunications networks,” according to the rights group.


For repeat offenders or for those attempting to advocate support for gays among minors, the prison sentence increases to a year and the fine to a range of 3,000 som to 6,000 som.


The bill defines “nontraditional sexual relations” as “sodomy, lesbianism, and other forms of nontraditional sexual behavior.”


According to the bill, the measures are necessary to “safeguard and protect the traditional family, human, moral, and historical values of Kyrgyz society.”


The legislation will be posted online for public comment for 30 days before it goes into effect.


Russia also passed legislation last year prohibiting the dissemination of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to children, HRW reports.


Kyrgyzstan’s bill extends to a broader range of activities and has harsher penalties, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights organization.


A January report by HRW condemning widespread abuse of gays in Kyrgyzstan triggered a wave of anti-gay protests, including a rally outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Bishkek, led by nationalist youth group Kalys.


Kyrgyzstan is a member of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which obliges it to protect its citizens from discrimination and guarantee the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression, HRW notes.


Hugh Williams, the group’s Europe and Central Asia director, said the bill is “blatantly discriminatory against LGBT people and would deny citizens across Kyrgyzstan their fundamental rights.”


5. Albania struggles to compensate former political prisoners


Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has promised to ensure that the country’s former political prisoners receive the overdue second installment of compensation promised for their time spent in prison, Balkan Insight reports.


Edi Rama
Rama said that the sum of 13.1 million euros ($18 million) has been earmarked from the 2014 budget to cover some of the payments promised to former political prisoners.


Under a 2007 law, political prisoners who served time in Communist-era prisons or labor camps are eligible for 2,000 lek ($20) for each day of imprisonment.


Thousands of people were locked up during the 40-year reign of dictator Enver Hoxha, some of them for decades.


The Albanian Human Rights Project says “more than 50,000 intellectuals, artists, writers, educators, clergy [members], and families with children were interned or imprisoned in a political cleansing campaign” initiated by the communist government during the Cold War from 1944-1991.


Their compensation has been divided into eight installments, but the former prisoners have received only one tranche so far, prompting impassioned protests from dissidents that have included hunger strikes and two cases of self-immolation.


Rama has acknowledged the complexity of the problem, Balkan Insight reports, and has promised that the Albanian authorities will “try first to close the wounds of their moral mistreatment while proceeding with the material compensation.”


According to Albania’s Association of Former Political Prisoners, almost 5,600 men and 450 women were sentenced to death for political crimes during communism, Balkan Insight writes.

Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Annabel LauKarlo Marinovicand Lily Sieradzki are TOL editorial interns.
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