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Belarus May Impose ‘Serfdom,’ Kosovo Teeters Toward Vital Election

Plus, Montenegro’s odds of NATO membership on the rise, and a master craftsman revives an ancient art in Uzbekistan. 

by Ky Krauthamer, Ioana Caloianu, Marketa Horazna, Rebecca Johnson and Madeleine Stern 3 June 2014

1. Politicking in high gear as Kosovo heads for weekend election


Politicians’ economic promises are coming under increased srutiny with the general election in Kosovo less than a week away, Balkan Insight reports.


Hashim Thaci
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci called early elections after parliament failed to reach consensus on several important pieces of legislation in May, including bills on the creation of a national army and the allocation of parliamentary seats to representatives of minority ethnic groups, SETimes reports.


The incumbent government has some notable successes to its name, particularly in the normalization of relations with Serbia and the integration of Kosovo’s Serb minority, Naim Rashiti of the Balkans Policy Research Group writes in Balkan Insight.


But despite sprightly GDP growth the past two years, the economy remains the weak spot in one of Europe’s least developed countries. Unemployment is pegged at 45 percent. Thaci has pledged to attack joblessness, promising to create 200,000 new jobs if voters return his Democratic Party of Kosovo to power on 8 June, Balkan Insight reports. Although that would be a phenomenal achievement in a country with fewer than a million workers, the rival Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) claims it can match that figure, while the Democratic League of Kosovo promises 120,000 new jobs.


“Kosovo’s economy, including the private sector, which is dominant, does not have the capability to create 200,000 jobs,” economist Musa Limani told Balkan Insight.


The AAK also pledges to quadruple the average salary to 1,000 euros ($1,250), Balkan Insight writes.


Perhaps aware of his party’s vulnerability on economic issues, Thaci increased salaries for public workers ahead of local elections in April, but this has led to a sharp increase in taxes as critics warned, Balkan Insight writes.


It remains unclear how Thaci’s party would pay for its promises. “Until now we have heard only how they will spend the budget,” said Albert Krasniqi, a researcher at the Kosovar Institute for Research and Development, “but nobody talks about how that inflated budget will be obtained.”


2. Lukashenka threatens modern serfdom for farm workers


In an attempt to boost agriculture, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka ordered what Interfax calls a “military approach” to this year’s harvest, The Moscow Times reports.


“Everyone needs to be on a war footing, especially for the harvest of crops,” Lukashenka said 27 May and called for “iron discipline” to keep agriculture from suffering the fate of the dairy industry, which he said lost $700 million in 2013, according to the newspaper.


Lukashenka also announced a second plank in his farm support policy.


“Yesterday, a decree was put on my table concerning – we are speaking bluntly – serfdom,” he said 27 May, according to the Financial Times’ Beyondbrics blog.


He plans to introduce legislation to prevent workers from quitting jobs on farms and moving to cities, the blog writes, citing


At the same meeting he said, “You cannot quit,” apparently aiming his remark at farm workers, the opposition website Charter ’97 reports. “Start working so that people cannot say: you press on us, but you don’t work properly. ... Don’t expect unlimited freedom anymore.”


Such a law would violate a 1957 international convention against forced labor, Beyondbrics notes. However, the Eastern European country already has a precedent in a 2012 decree banning workers in the timber industry from quitting their jobs.


Agriculture employs almost 10 percent of the Belarusian labor force, according to The Moscow Times.


3. Next NATO member: Montenegro?


Montenegro’s chances of being invited to join NATO this year are looking up, thanks to the crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Slovakia-based regional analyst Milan Nic comments for Balkan Insight.


Only a year ago, “NATO’s open-door policy had slipped down the priority list. There was only one real candidate for membership – Montenegro – but it was considered too small to get an invitation alone,” writes Nic, the executive director of the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava.


Although the alliance’s focus remains on Georgia rather than the Balkans, Montenegro could get the invitation at the NATO summit in September, even as some alliance members wonder if the small Adriatic country can shake off a reputation for corruption and abuses of power.


Nic also writes that Montenegro has improved its reputation as a future ally. Support for NATO membership is on the rise from 38 percent in November 2013 to 46 percent today, according to one poll.


Milo Djukanovic
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who discussed NATO membership with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Washington in April, last month dismissed Russia’s longstanding objection to further expansion of the alliance, according to The Wall Street Journal.


Montenegro picked up the backing of Croatia’s foreign minister, Vesna Pusic, at a security meeting in the resort town of Budva last week, reports. She said the foreign and defense ministers of Croatia and Slovenia supported Montenegro’s membership in a letter to NATO members and Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.


4. Samarkand master craftsman revives an ancient industry


For centuries, the Samarkand region of Uzbekistan was known for the quality and durability of its handmade paper. Zarif Mukhtarov, who operates one of the only workshops in Central Asia to still practice the 1,000-year-old production process, has revived the craft and rediscovered its cultural connections, the Guardian reports.


“You have to have a clear vision of what you want to achieve. And then never give up until this vision comes true,” said Mukhtarov, one of a small but growing cohort of artisans working to revive traditional regional crafts.


A key ingredient in Mukhtarov’s paper is the bark of mulberry trees, which grow profusely around this ancient city on the Silk Road.


HandmadePaper350Bark being treated for papermaking in Samarkand. Photo by MaryjoO/Flickr


Mukhtarov’s mud-brick, watermill-powered workshop in the village of Koni Ghil receives some 5,000 visitors a year, despite doing no advertising. He hopes to expand his operations and open a restaurant alongside his workshop.


Several years ago Mukhtarov planted his own mulberry trees on leased land, IWPR wrote in 2009. He and his apprentices make about 50 sheets of “silk paper” a day. They also produce paper products including wallets, puppets, and traditional Uzbek costumes, the Guardian writes.


5. Bulgarian ascetic donates fortune to Orthodox Church


Beggars rarely have their own Wikipedia page or dedicated website. Not so Dobri Dobrev, the Sofia centenarian who collects thousands of dollars every year and donates it all to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.


Dobri.Dobrev350Dobri Dobrev collects alms in Sofia. Image from a video by Alinda Alanson / YouTube


Dobrev, known as “Good Father” Dobri, is revered as a living saint by many Bulgarians. He has donated tens of thousands of dollars to religious bodies since he began begging 20 years ago, AFP writes. In 2009 alone he gave 35,700 leva ($25,000) to Sofia’s Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Bishop Tikhon of the cathedral’s board of trustees said. Other churches and monasteries have received donations from him of $3,000 to $12,000.


Dobrev, born in 1914, suffered a partial loss of hearing when Sofia was bombed during World War II, a distant relative told AFP. He then left his wife and children and began doing various jobs in monasteries, later deciding to devote his life to collecting alms for the church. He refuses to give interviews, according to AFP, and lives in a small, simply furnished room in a town near Sofia.


Dobrev and several other altruistic citizens were recently named as Worthy Bulgarians of 2013. Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski praised them all for their rare acts of kindness and compassion in a selfish world.

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at TOL. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Marketa Horazna, Rebecca Johnson, and Madeleine Stern are TOL editorial interns.
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