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Muslim Leader Assassinated in North Ossetia, Sanctions Draw Kaliningrad Shoppers to Poland

Plus, far-right Hungarians crash WWII memorial protests and a new think tank aims to bolster Czech liberalism. by Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, and Anders Ryehauge 18 August 2014

1. North Ossetia’s deputy mufti shot to death


One of the leaders of North Ossetia’s Muslims has been assassinated, less than two years after his predecessor suffered the same fate, The Moscow Times reports.


Rasul Gamzatov, the Russian republic’s deputy mufti, was shot in the back of the head after getting out of his car on 16 August, Interfax reports. The Moscow Times, citing Russia’s Investigative Committee, writes that the murder happened shortly before midnight.


North Ossetia has so far escaped the violence that has plagued neighbors Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Image by Kbh3rd/Wikimedia Commons.


Russia’s North Caucasus is buffeted by clan and religious violence, but North Ossetia has remained more peaceful than neighboring republics. A count by news Web site Caucasian Knot of casualties in “armed conflicts” in the region show 96 killed and another 50 wounded in the second quarter of 2014, none from North Ossetia.


“This is either an attempt to destabilize the republic or to create artificial strife between our traditional religions – Islam and Christianity – which have coexisted in peace and harmony in the North Caucasus for centuries,” North Ossetian President Taimuraz Mamsurov said, according to The Moscow Times.


No one was charged in the December 2012 murder of Gamzatov’s predecessor, Ibragim Dudarov. The republic’s chief mufti, Khadzhimurat Gatsalov, said the killings are likely connected and charged that Dudarov’s death is not being investigated.


“Who benefits from killing devout Muslims? This was done by people who want to spread discord in our republic,” Gatsalov said, according to The Moscow Times. “We have no militants [here] and they do not come here from other places.”


2. Attention Kaliningrad shoppers – bargains across the border

Hundreds more Russians from the Kaliningrad exclave are streaming across the border to shop in Poland since the Kremlin imposed an embargo on some foodstuffs from the EU earlier this month, Polskie Radio reports.


Russians in Kaliningrad and Poles living near the exclave can cross the border without a visa. About 5,900 Russians came into Poland on 2 August, five days before the foodstuffs ban took effect. A customs officials told the PAP news agency that crossings rose to 6,600 on 9 August and totaled 6,200 the following day.


The official acknowledged that some of that traffic could be vacationers, but he said even leisure travelers do some shopping before heading back to Kaliningrad.


“[W]hile prices in Russian shops are increasing, the surplus of food in Poland has meant that prices have dropped,” Polskie Radio reports.


Meanwhile, Serbian producers, to the disapproval of the EU, are being courted by Russian importers and buyers looking for alternative suppliers, according to Balkan Insight.


One farmer told local media he is getting calls “all the time” and could not produce enough apples to meet the new demand. The owner of a dairy farm said demand for its products had more than doubled this year, thanks largely to business with Russia.


Serbia’s Chamber of Commerce has sent its Russian counterpart “a list of factories and producers that are ready to increase production in order to meet the demands of Russian market,” Balkan Insight reports.


Such moves have not sat well in Brussels. Serbia is not an European Union member and therefore is neither bound by EU sanctions against Russia nor the target of Russia’s retaliatory foodstuff bans. But it is a candidate country, and a senior EU official told Balkan Insight, “We expect compliance with our foreign policy, which at the moment includes sanctions on Russia, and at the same time we expect solidarity.”


The official said Serbia’s attempts to exploit the sanctions would be noted in an upcoming report on its progress toward EU membership, “where we will once more underline that we expect Serbia to fully adopt EU foreign policy,” according to Balkan Insight.


3. Clash erupts at controversial WWII statue in Budapest

Far-right sympathizers attacked members of a group that has been holding daily protests at a controversial new World War II monument in Budapest, reports.


After having their pictures taken next to the monument on 15 August, the counter-protesters started “mingling” with the regular demonstrators, hurling insults, and making “statements of Holocaust denial,” one person at the event told local media. She said police did not step in until the situation became volatile and that one radical rightist shattered a protester’s camera.


Protesters see the new World War II memorial as a whitewash of Hungarians' role in the Holocaust. Defenders see it as a tribute to those who fought the German invaders. Photo by Szilas/Wikimedia Commons.


The monument at the center of the dispute commemorates the German occupation of Hungary, but critics say it ignores the role of Hungarians in the deportation and extermination of their Jewish compatriots. Only about 255,000 Hungarian Jews survived the Holocaust, from a population of 825,000 in 1941, according to U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia.


Prime Minister Viktor Orban has courted far-right voters while distancing himself from a rising tide of overt anti-Semitism in Hungary. He has defended the monument –  a statue of the archangel Gabriel being attacked by the German imperial eagle – saying the country already has Holocaust memorials and the new statue is intended as a “freedom fighting people’s memorial of the pain of having its liberty crushed,” according to a new report by Human Rights First on hate groups in Hungary and Greece.


That report cites recent surveys that detect stubborn and widespread anti-Semitism in Hungary. One conducted in November by the Action and Protection Foundation, a Jewish group, “found that up to 40 percent of respondents had anti-Semitic attitudes.” Among those who accepted some anti-Semitic stereotypes, “the proportion of people who displayed open antipathy toward Jewish individuals increased dramatically in 2010, when the xenophobic far-right Jobbik party entered parliament for the first time,” the report notes.


4. New Czech think tank to promote increasingly embattled liberal ideas

Bucking recent signs that the Czech Republic is backing away from its post-communist Western orientation and concern with human rights, one of the country’s political leaders is establishing a think tank to promote the values of liberal democracy, The Wall Street Journal reports.


Andrej Babis
Finance Minister Andrej Babis, leader of the co-governing ANO party, will launch the Institute for Policy and Society in September with the aim “to anchor local political thought in a pro-European, liberal direction,” according to The Journal.


The initiative comes amid emerging questions about the Czech Republic’s commitment to the West and the concept of human rights.


Earlier this year, Deputy Foreign Minister Petr Drulak wondered whether civil liberties should remain a priority of the Social Democratic-led government, and in June Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka shrugged off U.S. President Barack Obama’s offer of an enhanced NATO military presence in Europe in light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Sobotka also reassured some pro-Russia members of his party that the Czech Republic would take a measured approach toward its former communist overlord.


In addition, eyeing huge opportunities for business and trade, government officials announced in April that they would abandon the country’s longtime support for Tibetan independence and seek to establish closer ties to China.


Such moves are a departure from the guiding philosophy of the country articulated by its first post-communist president, Vaclav Havel, a former political prisoner.


Babis, a billionaire businessman whose ANO group is a newcomer to the political scene, described his planned think tank in an interview with the Pravo newspaper, according to the Czech Press Agency. “First, we want to present these [liberal] values in this country,” he said. “Orientation toward the European Union will also be of key importance.”


5. Amid warnings of economic fallout, Kosovo mulls electricity rate hike

Kosovo’s energy regulator is recommending a 5 percent increase in electric bills, fueling concerns that the move will generate economic harm and civil unrest, Balkan Insight reports.


The measure aims to prevent disruptions in energy supply in the wake of a June explosion that caused major damage at a power plant in Obiliq, near Pristina. A final decision will be made after 22 August, the deadline for input from “interested parties,” according to Balkan Insight.


Ibrahim Rexhepi, director of the Center for Strategic and Social Research, told news service that the measure could drive up the cost of doing business and ultimately exacerbate Kosovo’s already high unemployment rate. Yll Rugova, who organized a protest last year over rate increases, predicted people would again take to the streets if the new hike is implemented.


The October 2012 privatization of the Kosovo Energy Distribution and Supply Company, the then-state-run power distributor, sparked street protests. Critics said the sale to a Turkish business consortium undervalued the company and its assets. Kosovo’s neighbor Montenegro also experienced large protests after a 6.7 percent hike in power prices following a severe drought in 2012.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editorial assistant. Anders Ryehauge is a TOL editorial intern.
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