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Russia Bans Swearing, Kosovo to Hold Snap Election

Plus, Azerbaijan takes over chair of human rights body amid rising criticism and EU leaders sign on to Polish premier Tusk’s ‘energy union.’

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Barbara Frye, and Lily Sieradzki 7 May 2014

1. Eight Azerbaijani activists handed long prison terms


Shortly before Azerbaijan takes over the chairmanship of a pan-European, intergovernmental human rights organization – during which it vows to make the “fight against corruption” and “education on human rights” its priorities – an Azerbaijani court sentenced eight human rights activists to seven and eight years in prison, writes.

Reuters writes that the eight defendants, aged between 18 and 28, were arrested in May 2013 for protesting against violence in the military and charged with possession of explosives and drugs, and hooliganism.


Defense lawyer Khalid Bagirov said the conviction was political and meant to discourage similar protest movements in the country. Similarly, Amnesty International called the sentence “an affront to human rights and a timely reminder of Azerbaijan’s continued refusal to respect basic freedoms.” Bagirov said the defense will appeal the sentence.


The defendants are all part of the NIDA group, which has emerged along with several others on the Azeri civic activism scene.


NIDA July 2013 in BakuMembers of NIDA being arrested in July 2013 in Baku. Image from a video by Obyektiv TV/YouTube


International rights groups are saying these convictions, the latest in a string of heavy punishments handed down to activists and journalists, often for drugs offenses or contacts with Baku’s enemy, Armenia, reflect the true state of the country’s human-rights record as it prepares to chair Europe’s most powerful human rights body.


Baku’s six-month stint at the helm of Council of Europe’s Commission of Ministers will center on “three key pillars of the Council of Europe – human rights, rule of law, and democracy,” Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told fellow council members in Vienna 7 May.


“Upholding and promoting core values of the Council of Europe will be at the center of all our activities and undertakings during this period,” he said, according to the Trend agency.


2. Kosovo army vote failure triggers parliament’s dissolution, early elections


After Kosovo’s legislature failed to vote on a measure to create a national army this week, parliament was dissolved and early elections set for 8 June, Reuters reports.


thaci_100Hashim Thaci
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci framed the 5 May army vote as a fundamental issue for the new country, but lawmakers representing ethnic Serbs torpedoed the effort by boycotting the parliamentary session. The measure was a constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of two-thirds of the legislature and two-thirds of lawmakers from minority communities.


Thaci said a parliament that “cannot vote on the army of its country makes a nonsense of any further proceedings,” before meeting with Kosovo’s president to announce the legislature’s dissolution, according to Reuters. Elections were originally scheduled for November.


The government of Serbia has protested the transformation of the Kosovo Security Force into a regular army, Balkan Insight reported in April. Belgrade sought assurances from international peacekeeping forces in Kosovo that the new army would not be able to enter the predominantly ethnic Serb territory of northern Kosovo.


The existing Security Force consists of “2,500 lightly armed active soldiers and 800 reservists,” Balkan Insight writes. Pristina wants to transform the force into an army of 5,000 active soldiers and 3,000 reservists.


3. Russia extends swearing ban to cultural performances


From 1 July bad language will not be permitted in films, television, theater, and all public performances in Russia, The Moscow Times reports. The law signed by President Vladimir Putin 5 May allows violators to be punished by a fine of up to 50,000 rubles ($1,400) for companies and organizations or 2,500 rubles ($70) for individuals. Books containing obscene language must display a warning sticker on the cover.


In addition, films containing obscene language will not receive official licensing, RT writes. Cinemas that screen unlicensed films will risk fines of between 100,000 and 200,000 rubles and a three-month suspension.


Cultural figures reacted with shock, claiming the law constrains their work and may violate intellectual property laws. 


“They [the government] want to designate their territory: this can be said and this cannot,” linguist Vadim Rudnev told The Moscow Times. “In reality it is a common practice to swear among the intelligentsia.”


The law follows one in late April that prohibits swearing in the media, with fines of up to 200,000 rubles. RT reports that the government has begun testing software to monitor online media content – both articles and user comments – for banned words, although it is not entirely clear what those words are.


A Culture Ministry spokeswoman said the law “is not aggressive.” According to the ministry, “the newly passed measures will only concern mass culture and will not concern art,” The Moscow Times writes.


The Institute of Russian Language at the Russian Academy of Sciences in December listed four words that should be banned (available here), The Moscow Times writes.


According to RT, a 2013 poll showed that 84 percent of Russians supported a ban on obscene language. 


4. Tusk’s call for EU energy union gains ground


tusk_100Donald Tusk
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s call for a European “energy union” to counteract Russian dominance in energy markets drew support from two EU leaders this week.


Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, on a working visit to Warsaw 6 May, said, “We support this initiative,” Polskie Radio reports. Orban said the Visegrad Group of four Central European countries would discuss the proposal at their next meeting.


Tusk broached the idea in a Financial Times article two weeks ago. First, “Europe should develop a mechanism for jointly negotiating energy contracts with Russia,” he proposed, then put measures in place to protect member countries threatened by energy cutoffs. The next steps would be to improve the EU’s energy infrastructure to reduce its dependence on Russia’s Gazprom gas distributor and finally to “make full use of the fossil fuels available, including coal and shale gas.” Poland depends heavily on coal, as well as Russian gas, and is one of a few European countries actively searching for shale gas deposits.


Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev also likes the idea, likening it to a bulwark against a return to the era when European powers trampled on the continent’s smaller states, Novinite writes.


“The EU must not allow a recurrence of the retrograde policies of the Great Powers and the periphery between them or destabilizing activities from any direction in Ukraine,” Plevneliev said in a 6 May speech on Bulgarian Army Day.


“We must work for a new stage of defense and energy integration, for a stronger EU,” he said.


Ironically, both Hungary and Bulgaria have made themselves more dependent on Russian energy recently, The Financial Times writes.


Bulgaria is a “key battleground” in the EU-Russia energy arena as the bloc’s entry point for Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline, due to start construction in June, and because “its socialist government has some of the EU’s strongest ties to Russia,” the FT writes.


Budapest “has aligned its energy policy with Moscow more closely this year by granting it a multibillion-dollar nuclear reactor deal,” the article says.


5. Bosnia runs afoul of IMF, again


Niksic_100Nermin Niksic
Officials from the IMF and the predominantly Bosniak and Croat half of Bosnia are blaming each other for the region’s cash flow problem, Balkan Insight writes.


Nermin Niksic, prime minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said 5 May the cancellation of the latest tranche of an IMF loan had pushed the entity budget to the brink of crisis. A deal agreed upon in 2012 makes Bosnia eligible for almost 400 million euros in IMF loans.


The IMF representative in Bosnia, Ruben Ayotan, said the tranche was held up over Bosnia’s failure to enact economic legislation.


In February the IMF put the loan arrangement on hold until the Federation and Republika Srpska, home to most of Bosnia’s Serbs, enacted the laws, Reuters reports. On 6 May the Federation raised the equivalent of about $14.3 million at an auction of government bonds.


Niksic’s government almost collapsed in February as protests over economic hardship and political infighting swept across the Federation.


Republika Srpska is also affected by the IMF freeze, but it earlier said it could make up the difference with a Russian loan, although it gave no details of the arrangement, Balkan Insight writes.


Bosnian officials and IMF representatives are expected to try and iron out their differences later this month. 

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Lily Sieradzki is a TOL editorial intern.
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