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Plus, now Balkan flood victims must worry about disease, and Lithuania’s iron-lady president sets a precedent.by Ioana Caloianu, Jeremey Druker, Barbara Frye, Rebecca Johnson, and Piers Lawson 26 May 2014
General Wojciech Jaruzelski, one of the most divisive figures in Polish history for his role in crushing the Solidarity movement, died on 25 May in Warsaw. The 90year-old had been suffering from complications after a stroke.
"[T]he dour general with tinted glasses, a weak jaw, and a ramrod posture set in motion events that would earn him a villainous place in history,” recounts his obituary in The New York Times.
Complaining that the government had been too tolerant toward Solidarity, Jaruzelski, in an early-morning televised speech, said the country was “on the edge of the abyss.”
The response was swift and tough: Solidarity was outlawed, protests banned, activists arrested, a curfew imposed, and many schools shuttered. The violent suppression of a strike at a coal mine a few days later led to nine deaths.
Today Jaruzelski's defenders say, as the general later did, that he was under pressure from the Soviet Union and had only pre-empted an invasion by Soviet troops – similar to what had happened in the Warsaw Pact crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.
As the 1980s wore on, many of the martial law restrictions relaxed, according to The Times, and Jaruzelski increasingly distanced himself from Communist Party hard-liners.
He sympathized with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika efforts in the Soviet Union and, at the end of the decade, started negotiating with Solidarity leaders about their participation in parliamentary elections.
The subsequent defeat of the Communists led to the end of the one-party state, solidified when Jaruzelski soon resigned the presidency, paving the way for the election of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.
“The same general who had crushed Solidarity had permitted Poland to shed communism relatively bloodlessly, setting a pattern that was soon to be followed by the rest of the Warsaw Pact states. He had sawed off the branch that he had been standing on for so long,” The Times writes.
After stepping down, Jaruzelski worked to improve his reputation. He apologized for and spoke about the “nightmare” of martial law. His efforts and words of support from some of the Solidarity veterans he once imprisoned evidently paid off.
“Opinion has swayed somewhat in his favor. But Jaruzelski remains an enigma and the debate over his actions is certain to continue,” the Guardian writes.
Signifying the country's split over Jaruzelski's legacy, a debate has already broken out over an official period of national mourning for the general. “I'm against adding an air of sanctity to the memory of General Jaruzelski at the moment,” Culture Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski told Polskie Radio.
“However, it is worth remembering the Polish tradition: do not speak ill of the dead.”
Former Prime Minister Leszek Miller, one of the prominent personalities calling for a period of mourning, tweeted, “A great Pole has left us who was victimized to the end by political hyenas and common twerps.”
In a vote that had been closely watched for signs of a rising rightward or euro skeptic tide, elections for the European Parliament were a mixed bag across Central and Eastern Europe.
In Poland, most notably, the conservative, populist Law and Justice Party edged out the ruling center-right Civic Platform by a hair – 32.35 percent to 31.29 percent of the vote, Polskie Radio reports. Each party will send 19 members of parliament to Brussels. Though not strictly euro skeptic, Law and Justice developed a reputation for obstructionism when it led the Polish government in the mid-2000s as a new EU treaty was being negotiated.
Poland’s outright euro skeptics voted for the New Right Congress, which will send four members to Brussels and whose leader has vowed to “dismantle the EU ‘from within,’ ” according to Polskie Radio.
Hungary’s arguably anti-Semitic, nationalist Jobbik Party took 14.7 percent of the vote. That is on par with its performance in 2009 and puts it in second place behind the ruling juggernaut Fidesz Party, Politics.hu reports. The results will give Jobbik three seats in the European Parliament to Fidesz’s 12.
Jobbik’s strong showing came less than two weeks after one of its candidates, Bela Kovacs, was reported to be under investigation for allegedly spying for Russia. Party leaders rejected those claims and Kovacs won a set in Brussels.
In Bulgaria, the opposition, center-right GERB party is on track to handily defeat the ruling Socialists, Reuters reports. The Socialists took power in early elections last year but have been beset by anti-corruption protests ever since. His party’s performance this weekend led GERB leader Boyko Borisov to once again call for early elections, the news agency reports.
In Romania, exit polls showed the country’s Socialist-led ruling coalition in the lead.
In the Czech Republic – where in a recent poll only one-third said they trusted the EU – EU-friendly parties took the top three spots, all within a few percentage points of one another, the Czech Press Agency reports. Establishment, pro-EU parties also did well in Slovakia.
In Estonia, a pro-Russian candidate, Yana Toom of the Center Party, will take one of the country’s six seats for the first time. Representatives from Latvia will be a mix of veteran politicians and incumbent members of the European Parliament, and in Lithuania, which is losing two seats altogether, the Christian Democrats will lose the slight edge they held in the country’s delegation.
While there was no dramatic political shift in the results, voter turnout – which ranged from low to record-low – makes it impossible to draw any conclusions about voter sentiment from this election.
As water from the heaviest flooding in the Balkans in decades begins to recede, attention is focusing on the cleanup operation and the threats posed by disease.
While the situation in Serbia is stabilizing, Balkan Insight reports that cases of diarrhea and other illnesses linked to poor hygiene and a lack of clean water are starting to appear in flooded areas.
In some areas cases of scabies and lice infestations have been recorded, and there is even a danger of mosquito-borne diseases including malaria and dengue fever, according to the news agency. In addition, epidemiologist Branislav Tiodorovic told Balkan Insight that people would have to be careful to avoid rodents, which can thrive in flood conditions, or even rat urine in the polluted water, as it can spread leptospirosis, a serious infection that can lead to organ failure or death.
In Serbia, 33 people have died and more than 31,000 evacuated, according to Balkan Insight. In Bosnia, the numbers are 25 and 40,000, the Guardian reports.
The damage across the region is expected to cost billions of euros, according to the newspaper.
Writing in the Guardian, Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat says the governments of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia “were complicit in the tragedy.”
Horvat says that over the last 20 years Balkan states have drastically cut back on the construction and maintenance of dams and embankments. At the same time people have had to rely on their own resources to obtain clothes, food, and medicine.
Preliminary results gave Grybauskaite 58.6 percent of the vote, ensuring her victory over center-left rival Zigmantas Balcytis, who received 41.4 percent.
The elections, held on the same day as those for the European Parliament, saw a turnout of 43.7 percent among the 2.5 million voters registered.
Former Finance Minister Grybauskaite became the first woman to hold office in Lithuania after her first electoral victory in 2009, according to Deutsche Welle.
Speaking after the results were announced, she noted that her second victory represents another first in the history of the Baltic country, which has never had a president for two consecutive terms in office before.
The president had already outdistanced Balcytis in the first round of elections held on 11 May.
Grybauskaite’s typically tough stance with Russia, which last year blocked some food imports from Lithuania, only toughened this year after the annexation of Crimea.
Earlier this month, Vilnius secured a cheaper deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom, on which it relies for gas exports and which is the subject of an EU pricing probe.
Protesters at a rally in the Albanian capital, Tirana, last week demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama because of what they say is his failure to combat drug trafficking, Balkan Insight reports.
“Albanians have gathered here against a dangerous enemy, which seeks to destroy our freedoms and deny us our European dream,” chairman of the opposition Democratic Party Lulzim Basha said.
Banners at the protest read: “You are the mafia and we are the police,” Balkan Insight reports.
Albania was one of the most frequently cited source countries in reported seizures of cannabis and heroin from 2001 to 2012, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Last month police discovered just under 4 tons of cannabis in two raids in a southwestern village.
In one incident widely reported earlier this month, police detained an Italian man whose small plane crash-landed on a beach shortly after taking off from Tirana airport. Police found 460 kilograms of cannabis in a nearby car.
The opposition is calling for Rama to resign because of what it describes as his failed anti-narcotics strategy and has even accused him of abetting traffickers. Critics point out, however, that the marijuana trade also thrived under the Democrats.
Last week, a member of the Democratic Party charged that Rama had appointed a drug runner as regional transportation director in Saranda, southern Albania.
Rama has rejected the accusations of complicity in drug trafficking. The Interior Ministry recently reported that 19 tons of cannabis have been seized since January.