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Hungarian Pol Denies Spying for Russia, Floods Ravage the Balkans

Plus, an atheist in Kazakhstan talks about his prosecution for ‘inciting hatred’ and Georgia’s jonjoli pickers are freed.

by Piers Lawson, Ioana Caloianu, Jeremey Druker, and Barbara Frye 16 May 2014

1. Spy allegations swirl around Hungarian MEP


A member of the European Parliament from Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party has denied he is a Russian spy after prosecutors from his country asked Brussels to lift the legislator’s parliamentary immunity.


Bela Kovacs
“I have never been a member of the Hungarian secret services or that of a foreign country, I never collaborated, and I have never been contacted,” Bela Kovacs told reporters in Budapest 15 May, reports.


Investigators in Hungary said, “A serious crime investigation has been launched which could lead to a prison sentence of between two and eight years,” according to AFP.


A prosecution spokesman told Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet that the country’s “Constitution Protection Office had filed a case against Kovacs for allegedly spying against EU institutions. Kovacs is accused of regularly conspiring with Russian diplomats [while] travelling to Moscow on a monthly basis. Kovacs is married to a Russian-Austrian dual citizen, who had allegedly been working for the KGB earlier,” according to


Kovacs’ Jobbik Party has been supportive of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the spy scandal comes amid accusations that the Kremlin is funding or somehow supporting far-right parties in Europe in the run-up to European Parliament elections, which will take place in Hungary 25 May.


Kovacs dismissed the allegations as a “smear campaign” against him and Jobbik ahead of the elections, AFP writes.


Benedek Javor, co-chairman of a leftist opposition electoral alliance, wrote on his blog that “Kovacs is regarded in EU circles ‘simply as a lobbyist for Russia and Gazprom, someone whose career clearly demonstrates a commitment toward Russia,’ ” according to


2. Balkans face ‘catastrophic’ rainfall


A cyclone slowing moving across the Balkans is causing wide-ranging destruction, including flooding, power cuts, and the biggest rainfall on record in Serbia, according to media reports.


Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has described the storm as the “greatest catastrophe in Serbia's living memory,” Al Jazeera reports.



Several people have died and thousands were awaiting evacuation from zones at risk from flooding in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, according to the news agency.


Meteorologists have described the rainfall as the heaviest since measuring started 120 years ago, according to Britain’s Telegraph.


Authorities in Belgrade said the city received in just 40 hours the average rainfall for a two-month period, according to The Telegraph.


Al Jazeera reports that Serbia, parts of Bosnia, and Vukovar in Croatia have declared a state of emergency.


Around 100,000 Serbian households endured power cuts, it says, while the army helped evict thousands of residents from affected areas.


3. Atheist in Kazakhstan decries prosecution


An atheist in Kazakhstan who faces up to seven years in prison for “displaying a negative attitude toward religion” and “spreading atheist ideas” recently spoke about his plight to


“My criticism of religion was interpreted as incitement of religious enmity and strife,” said Aleksandr Kharlamov, who was released on bail in the autumn following concerted international pressure.


“There’s no crime. There’s no incitement of religious enmity. I criticized all religions – I didn’t choose just one,” said Kharlamov, whom describes as “an amiable 63-year-old with a ready laugh and a penchant for philosophical debate.”


Kharlamov said his right to believe – or not – is being violated by officials in Kazakhstan. “What is this, a theocratic state? No. So [it is] violating my rights.”


The human rights activists and journalist is accused of inciting hatred under under article 164 of the Kazakh criminal code, the Natskep (Natural Skeptic) website reported last year.


In its report for 2014, the U.S. International Commission on Religious Freedom cites “a deteriorating climate for religious freedom” in Kazakhstan. Similarly, in a March survey, campaign group Forum 18 noted “continuing violations of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights.” 


Both reports criticized a 2011 law that makes it more difficult for religious groups to receive state registration – which has long been required – restricts places where worship can take place, and requires groups to have their literature vetted by officials.


Natskep says Kharlamov heads a small human rights group called the Secret Service, which is often critical of local authorities and media. He has written two online books and has a blog he uses to highlight alleged corruption.


Reporters Without Borders ranks Kazakhstan 160th of 179 countries in its press freedom index. It said in September last year that “after six months in pretrial detention, including several weeks in a psychiatric clinic against his will, no hard evidence has been produced to support the grave accusations made against” Kharlamov.


Prosecutors and police would not discuss the case with, which says the authorities deny any “ulterior motives” in pursuing Kharlamov.


4. Herb-pickers in Georgia freed after crossing South Ossetian ‘border’


Picking jonjoli, a Georgian shrub used for cooking, can be a hazardous enterprise, as South Ossetia authorities have arrested dozens of villagers from Georgia proper in recent weeks who apparently wandered too close to the breakaway region's border. The European Union Monitoring Mission to Georgia has recorded 26 cases of detention since the beginning of May, Democracy & Freedom Watch reports. 


Harvesting season is in full swing, and jonjoli, also known as bladdernut, picked in the wild near the border serves as a major source of income for locals, who sell their haul at market, according to DF Watch. Several news reports mentioned Russian border guards, who patrol the border on behalf of South Ossetia, as those arresting the villagers.


Most of those detained for crossing the border – whether while picking jonjoli or doing something else – said they unknowingly ventured to the other side.


“It's a part of Georgia, our own land, but as you know, it is occupied,” Georgian Interior Minister Alexander Chikaidze said, according to The Messenger Online. "I think that in most cases, our citizens do not know where there is the so-called administrative line and accidentally cross it, and the representatives of the de facto authorities detain them.”


The latest batch of those arrested, 17 people, were released 14 May, reports. While those who “violate” the border, as the Ossetian authorities put it, usually pay a fine of 2,000 rubles ($57) before being let go, this group did not.


In a statement, the EU’s monitoring mission said it hoped “maximum consideration will be shown toward jonjoli pickers and that such detentions will be avoided in the future,” according to


Border issues have irked the Georgian authorities and locals since the end of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, during which Russia invaded South Ossetia, claiming the need to protect peacekeepers and civilians from military attacks ordered on separatists by the administration in Tbilisi. According to locals on the Georgia side, the erection of barbed-wire barriers demarcating the boundary involved moving it deeper into Georgian territory, restricting access to pastures, water sources, and even the village cemetery.


5. Czech EP candidate urges countrymen to stop the Muslim tide


The upcoming elections to the European Parliament offer Czech voters a chance to stem “the Islamization of Europe.” That is, at least, according to the Czech Sovereignty Party, which is selling its message in television spots featuring a candidate in a head-to-toe black chador, Radio Free Europe reports.


“Do you want your daughter or granddaughter to be forced to walk around covered up, for her to be stoned [to death] if she gives her boyfriend a kiss on the street?” asks candidate Jana Volfova.


Volfova asks voters to send her to Brussels to “defend Euro-Christian civilization.”


In 2010 Europe was home to about 44.1 million Muslims, or about 6 percent of the population, according to Pew Research’s Religion and Public Life project. In the Czech Republic, however, RFE notes that Muslims are estimated at “less than 0.1 percent” of the population of 10 million.


The Czech Sovereignty Party has no seats in the national legislature and is not registering in opinion polls ahead of the vote, which will be held in the Czech Republic on 23-24 May. That is unlike other nationalist or xenophobic parties, such as the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, which sits third in the polls, or Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party, in second place after the ruling, conservative Fidesz Party.

Piers Lawson is a TOL contributing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director. Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor.

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