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Vucic Invites Hungarians Into Serbian Government, Chechen Warlord 'Neutralized'

Plus, the Czech Catholic Church tries to hold on to its restitution gains and Albanian police seize tons of cannabis. by Ioana Caloianu, Jeremy Druker, Barbara Frye, and Ky Krauthamer 9 April 2014

1. Hungarian party invited to join Serbia’s next government


The man expected to become the next prime minister of Serbia has invited the country’s largest Hungarian party, the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM), to join the next government. Progressive Party leader Aleksandr Vucic made the offer after meeting SVM leader Istvan Pastor 7 April, Balkan Insight reports.


Istvan Pastor
The Progressives won a commanding 158 seats in the 250-seat parliament in the 16 March general election and are now looking to extend their reach to the northern Vojvodina province.


“The offer comes at the time of increasing tensions in Vojvodina, which is home to almost all Serbia's ethnic Hungarian community. … [The Progressive Party] has made no secret of aiming to topple the former ruling Democratic Party's last bastion – the province of Vojvodina,” Balkan Insight writes.


The Democratic Party won Vojvodina’s last regional elections in 2012, but was hammered by the Progressives in last month’s parliamentary elections, taking only about 6 percent of the vote in the province. The Progressives have mooted the possibility of an early regional election, hoping to repeat their strong showing on the national level.


The offer to the SVM comes as the Vojvodina assembly is discussing its response to Constitutional Court decisions that significantly weaken the province’s autonomy, Tanjug reports. In December, building on a 2012 decision, the court deemed unconstitutional parts of the provincial statute that underpin Vojvodina’s autonomous status. The assembly is debating a new statute that would effectively replace the provincial government with an executive council and transfer some financial authority to Belgrade, Tanjug reports.


Vojvodina’s status has bounced from one pole to another since the communist period. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic revoked its autonomy in 1989, a time when Serbs made up about 57 percent of the population and Hungarians, the next largest group in the province’s diverse population, 17 percent.


The Vojvodina assembly adopted a law on autonomy in 2009, which was signed by then-president and Democratic Party leader Boris Tadic.


The Hungarian share of Vojvodina’s population has dropped steadily for decades and stood at 13 percent in the 2011 census. The Serb share meanwhile ballooned to 67 percent, partially as a result of Serbs migrating from Croatia, Kosovo, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia.


2. Chechen insurgent leader Umarov rubbed out (again)


Russia’s most wanted man, the Chechen warlord Doku Umarov, is dead. Or “neutralized,” or “stopped,” depending on which news source you read.


Federal Security Service (FSB) head Alexander Bortnikov confirmed 8 April that the man responsible for the deaths of hundreds in a string of terror attacks had been “neutralized in a special combat operation” in the first quarter of the year, ITAR-Tass reports.


Interfax quotes a source as saying Umarov died of injuries sustained in a March 2011 operation, but as his body has not been found it is more correct to say he was “neutralized.”


Umarov’s death was announced, with no details, in mid-March by a website with ties to the North Caucasus Islamist insurgency, and at least one man claimed to be his successor as head of the self-declared Caucasus Emirate, which aims to wrest control of the region from Moscow.


Radio Free Europe provides a rundown on Umarov’s remarkable ability to bounce back after reports of his death from gunfire, diabetes, or perhaps poisoning dating back at least to 2009. The FSB avoided claiming he had been killed this time, RFE notes.


Bortnikov also announced the “neutralization” of 13 warlords and 65 “gang members” in counter-terror operations so far this year, ITAR-Tass reports. More than 240 “bandits and their accomplices” were detained, he said.


3. Albanian police make big marijuana busts


The discovery of 2.2 metric tons of cannabis stuffed into sofas brings the amount of the drug seized by Albanian police in two raids this week to just under 4 tons.


Police found 1.6 tons of marijuana in a forest in southwestern Albania 6 March. The contraband-filled furniture turned up on a truck in the port of Durres the next day, the Associated Press reports. The Macedonian driver of the truck was arrested. Both loads were probably destined for Italy.


Cannabis cultivation thrives in parts of southern Albania, where elderly people often raise it to earn extra money. The livelihoods of entire villages may depend on marijuana, as in notorious Lazarat, where a fleet of 15 machine-gun equipped SUVs reportedly opened fire on police during an abortive drug raid in 2012, Global Post writes.


“I saw a 70-year-old grandmother shooting at us with a heavy machine gun. I thought I was going to die,” one police officer said. Almost all villagers are said to be involved in the cultivation of marijuana.


lazarat_350Cleaning marijuana in Lazarat. Image from a DW video posted by figolin/YouTube


Local police are trying a different approach to dissuade villagers from growing cannabis. Police and other officials recently met students from a local school and advised them to put their time into “honest work” and to talk to their parents about investing their money wisely, Albanian Economic News reports, citing the Shqip newspaper.


Cannabis seizures in Albania totaled 48 tons in 2012, reaching a 10-year high, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which adds that Albania is a major supplier to the European marijuana market despite the “reportedly low THC content” of its produce.


4. Czech Catholic Church in job-creation scheme


The Czech Catholic Church will be working with the national Labor Office to employ the jobless to take care of the vast amount of property being returned through a restitution agreement with the government, the Czech Press Agency (CTK) reports. The announcement comes in the midst of new skirmishes between religious organizations and the government, which wants to water down the deal finalized under the previous administration after years of delay.


The agreement between the Czech Bishops’ Conference and the Labor Office should lead to hundreds of jobs across the country, said Marie Bilkova, the head of the Labor Office.


Unemployment fell 0.3 percent in March to 8.3 percent, according to the Czech Labor Ministry. The Czech website, quoting CTK, said analysts expect unemployment to drop further from historic highs as the economy revives but that significant improvement will only arrive next year.


The fate of the massive church restitution program agreed in 2012 after years of debate between conservatives and left-wingers was a touchy point during the discussions on forming the current government headed by the Social Democrats, traditional opponents of church restitution. The coalition member ANO party also favors cuts in the program, while the Christian Democrats, the smallest in the coalition, oppose any changes.


According to the agreement, properties worth 75 billion crowns ($3.8 billion) are to be returned to 17 religious denominations, which will also receive payments of 59 billion crowns ($3 billion) spread over 30 years. In return, the state will gradually stop paying the salaries of clerics and other subsidies.


The Catholic Church is due to receive 80 percent of the cash payments and the great majority of church buildings and other properties that the state seized in the late 1940s and early 1950s.


Although opinion surveys show most Czechs favor some form of church restitution, the new law was opposed by a large majority, an October poll found.


5. Polish politician goes down and out in London


Artur Debski is a Polish man seeking work in the UK. He says his English “isn’t great,” so he’s willing to do low-skilled jobs and plans to get by on about 100 pounds ($167) per week.


Artur Debski
That’s not an unusual scenario, except that, as The Telegraph reports, Debski is an opposition member of the Polish parliament. He plans to spend up to two weeks in Britain to see why so many of his countrymen have moved there, the BBC reports.


“It’s dangerous for Poland that so many of our young people are thinking about leaving,” Debski said, according to The Telegraph. “I want to see why the systems in Britain are working and why they’re not in Poland. I want to see why people in Britain are happy and we Poles are not.”


According to the UK Home Office, Poles have been the largest single group receiving permanent residency in Britain since 2010, making up nearly 20 percent of the 22,463 permissions in 2013. Romanians and Bulgarians were in second and third place in 2012 and 2013.


Poles also led the way in receiving “initial right to reside” from 2006 to 2011, but were overtaken in 2012 by citizens of Portugal.


The UK was one of a handful of countries in the EU that allowed people from Eastern Europe to live and work there immediately after their countries joined the bloc in 2004. Hundreds of thousands of Poles headed for Britain, where most cities now have Polish shops, bakeries, and bars, and the language is often heard in public places.


Citing a poll by the Ipsos market research company, The Telegraph reports that “72 percent of Poles living in the UK intend to stay as they are putting down roots, having children and taking out mortgages.”


In 2012, Poland had a GDP per capita of $12,708, compared with $39,093 for the United Kingdom, according to the World Bank.


Ewa Winnicka, a Polish journalist who has covered the migration from Poland to the UK, dismissed Debski’s experiment as a publicity stunt, suggesting that he read “some serious studies on the subject,” according to The Telegraph.


The lawmaker said he intends to write his own report when he returns home.

Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant.
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