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Poles on the March for Internet Freedom, Uzbekistan Somehow Short of Energy

Plus, Macedonia wrestles with lustration law, again, and Czechs search for Vietnamese speakers. by Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, and Kelly Klein 26 January 2012

1. Thousands of Poles march against the possibility of Internet censorship


Last week, it was SOPA and a blacked-out Wikipedia, amid a wave of Internet protests against controversial U.S. legislation to stop online piracy. This week, the acronym is ACTA, with more than 10,000 people marching in the streets of Poland’s cities against an anti-counterfeiting treaty that they say will lead to Internet censorship.


Photo by Alexey Sidorenko.


The BBC reports that the protesters called on Warsaw not to sign the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement on 26 January, in spite of the decision of countries such as the United States and Japan to endorse the document. While ACTA supporters say the treaty will enforce intellectual property rights and protect the entertainment and other industries, opponents worry that the efforts to restrict copyright infringement could lead to de facto censorship.


Over the past weekend, citing the debate over ACTA, hackers attacked Polish government websites, slowing down access or completely taking them down. In response, government spokesman Pawel Gras said the troubles were “just the result of huge interest in the sites of the prime minister and parliament,” a statement that led to jeers on Polish social networks, the BBC reports. Earlier this week, in other protests, young Poles taped their mouths shut outside of a European Union office and some popular websites posted a statement about ACTA instead of their normal content.


Although Prime Minister Donald Tusk called a special meeting to deal with the situation, he said Poland would still sign the treaty. “There will be no concessions to brutal blackmail,” Tusk told journalists, according to The Associated Press.


2. Uzbekistan exports energy, makes power cuts at home


As the Uzbek government prepares to start exporting natural gas to China in April, the country’s people have been facing increased gas shortages and regular electricity cuts.


The situation is not new for several Uzbek provinces, where authorities frequently blame tardy bill payers for the need to cut power, but where many locals suspect they are due to supply being sold abroad instead. This winter’s shortages, however, have reached the capital, Tashkent, and the surrounding region.


Fergananews reports that people in the village of Almazar, around 110 kilometers south of Tashkent, have been without gas since early December, causing the closure of many of the greenhouses where they grow vegetables, one of their few opportunities to earn an income. More than 500 companies have been slated to be cut off from the gas supply this winter. 


Tashkent now sees regular, planned power cuts. According to the website, city officials blame the poor condition of transmission lines.


A EurasiaNet analysis of the energy shortages cites the government’s decision to export gas, which is far more lucrative than selling it domestically, spotty bill payments, and decrepit infrastructure.


3. Macedonia court to revisit lustration law, again


Nikola Gruevski
The Macedonian Constitutional Court decided 25 January to suspend parts of a law that would require those in certain professions to disclose if they collaborated with state security services, according to Balkan Insight. The court announced the temporary freeze until it rules on 12 provisions included in the country’s 2008 lustration law. Among them is a recent expansion of the law to include journalists, clergy, professors, lawyers, and advocacy workers. Originally the law was limited to candidates for public office.


This is not the first time the court has limited the scope of the legislation. In 2010, the court ruled against the original law, which mandated that citizens who acted as informants or collaborators from 1945 to 2008 resign from public office. The court scaled back the time period to include just the years under communist rule and not the period after the country gained independence in 1991. However, in November, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, backed by the ruling parties in parliament, re-extended that time period even further, to 2019, and added the provision that forced journalists, clergy, and others to submit sworn declarations. So far, 26 people have been named as former collaborators by the State Commission for Lustration, according to Balkan Insight.


The court is expected to return its decision in two months, according to the independent MakFax news agency.


4. Czech Republic: Vietnamese speakers wanted!


As the Czech Republic’s Vietnamese community grows in numbers and economic strength, companies are reaching out more to potential customers. The Czech daily Mlada fronta DNES reports that banks, insurance companies, business chains, and others have been hiring more native Vietnamese to establish contacts with the community.


“It’s mainly about trust,” said Monika Halzova, the owner of a real estate agency that has hired a Vietnamese broker. “Because Vietnamese don’t directly use the services of real estate companies, they need to have their own person there.”


Several thousand Vietnamese first came to the country in the 1970s as guest workers, sent from one friendly communist nation to another. Many stayed, settling down with their families, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall, tens of thousands have swelled their ranks. While officially 50,000 Vietnamese live in the Czech Republic, unofficial estimates speak of up to 70,000, making them the second-largest immigrant community, behind Ukrainians.


In 2007, The New York Times called the Vietnamese community “one of Central Europe’s most abiding minority success stories.” Vietnamese businesspeople operate an estimated 20,000 shops throughout the country, especially mixed good stores that stay open into the night, long after Czech-run stories have closed. While the older generation tends not to speak much Czech, Vietnamese children attend Czech schools and succeed academically. Most Czechs tend to have positive feelings toward the Vietnamese, in contrast to the Roma, believing that they don’t depend on social handouts and cause few problems.


5. Ups and downs for TOL region in new press freedom report


The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders released its 2011-2012 World Press Freedom Index on 25 January, and TOL’s coverage region found itself scattered up and down the rankings. Estonia came in as the country with the region’s most free press at No. 3 (of 179), followed by the Czech Republic at 14.  Belarus and Turkmenistan came in at the bottom of the list at 168 and 177, respectively. Bulgaria showed up lowest among EU countries at 80, whereas Moldova topped the list of non-EU countries in TOL’s coverage region at 53.


While internationally, this year’s ranking was heavily influenced by protests around the world and how those countries’ media responded, the report also singled out several trends specific to TOL’s coverage region. In Europe, the report said the recent economic difficulties seemed to worsen the situation in Balkan countries, specifically in Bosnia-Herzegovina (58), Macedonia (94), Albania (96), and Montenegro (107).


The report characterized Russia’s situation (142) as “gloomy,” despite the recent convictions for the murder of a journalist and a lawyer. In the Caucasus, Georgia (104) traded relative places with Armenia (77) from last year’s rankings, while Azerbaijan hovered at the bottom of the rankings (162), near Belarus. In Central Asia, Mongolia took the top spot at 100, followed closely by Kyrgyzstan (108), whose situation the report characterized as improved but fragile. The remainder of the region fell toward the bottom third of the rankings due to lack of Internet access and tightening controls by authorities.

Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director and editor in chief. Joshua Boissevain and Kelly Klein are TOL editorial interns.
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