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More Language Protests in Kyiv, More Political Drama in Bucharest

Plus, Baku accuses a newspaper editor of treason and Moscow moves to discredit civic groups.

by Barbara Frye, Josh Boissevain and Sofia Lotto Persio 5 July 2012

1. Language bill passes in Kyiv with legislative sleight-of-hand


A measure to make Russian the official language in parts of Ukraine brought hundreds of protesters onto the streets of Kyiv and prompted the speaker of parliament to resign on 4 July.


The bill, which still must be signed by the speaker or his yet-unnamed successor and the president, was passed on final reading “minutes after a surprise proposal” by an ally of President Viktor Yanukovych, Reuters reports.



The move apparently caught opponents unprepared. Departing speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said he was “kept busy” in a meeting during the vote, according to Al Jazeera television.


The proposed law sparked violent clashes when it was introduced a month ago. It is controversial because to some it represents Ukraine’s return to Russia’s orbit after 20 years of independence, although Russian would be a state language only in regions where it is predominant. About 14 million Ukrainian residents, or 30 percent of the population, speak Russian as their native language.


Some analysts say the measure is an attempt by the ruling party, whose traditional base is the Russian-speaking east, to shore up support as it heads into October parliamentary elections.


2. Romania’s government launches endgame to claim presidency

Romania’s ruling coalition has begun suspension and impeachment proceedings against center-right President Traian Basescu. The move is part of an increasingly bitter power struggle between Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta that has drawn growing international concern.


The ruling Social Liberal Union (USL), led by Ponta, announced that it will vote on whether to suspend Basescu for one month on 6 July. Lawmakers accuse Basescu of violating the constitution and abusing his power, according to The motion is likely to pass given the ruling coalition’s sizable majority.


During the suspension, voters will decide in a referendum whether to allow Basescu to stay in office. He easily survived an impeachment attempt in 2007, but this time parliament has lowered the threshold for removal from a majority of all registered voters to a majority of those who actually vote.


The law would normally need approval from the Constitutional Court and the president, but the USL has taken measures to ensure its survival. Parliament replaced an opposition lawmaker with a USL member as president of the Senate, who will become interim president during Basescu’s suspension. And Ponta’s government issued a decree on 4 July that the court no longer had the authority to rule on parliamentary decisions.


3. Treason charges for journalist in Azerbaijan


Hilal Mammadov
An editor of a minority newspaper in Azerbaijan has been charged with treason. Baku has accused Hilal Mammadov, editor of the Tolisi sado (Talysh Voice) newspaper, of spying for Iran. The publication caters to the Talysh ethnic group that lives along the border with Iran, according to The Associated Press.


Radio Free Europe reports that Mammadov has been jailed since 21 June on suspicion of heroin possession.


The charges come amid increasing hostility between Iran and Azerbaijan and after arrests in Azerbaijan of people accused of plotting terror on behalf of the country’s southern neighbor.


But human rights activist Leyla Yunus told AP that Mammadov “may have been targeted because he had become too influential in the Talysh community for the government's liking.” Journalists are routinely harassed in Azerbaijan, which sits near the bottom of most indices of press freedom and whose president, Ilham Aliev, has been deemed a “predator” of the press by Reporters Without Borders.


Mammadov’s predecessor was also imprisoned for spying and died while serving his sentence in 2009.


4. Moscow tightens the noose for dissenters


Jailed members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot launched a hunger strike on 4 July, just as Moscow announced a new measure aimed at discrediting independent groups involved in politics.


The three band members are charged with hooliganism for an impromptu performance in a Moscow cathedral of a song protesting church support for President Vladimir Putin. Their hunger strike is in response to a court’s refusal to allow their attorneys more time to prepare their case. The defense had asked to be given until 1 September to look over the seven volumes of case materials, but the judge allowed them only until 9 July, according to RIA Novosti.


Defense lawyer Nikolai Polozov said the court and prosecutors are seeking to rush the process and send the women to prison as quickly as possible, RT reports.


The courtroom drama unfolded just as Russian lawmakers introduced a bill to label as foreign agents nonprofit groups involved in political activity that receive funding from abroad, Radio Free Europe reports.


The Kremlin has accused anti-Putin demonstrators of being funded by the U.S. State Department and appears intent on sowing suspicion about democracy-promotion and election-monitoring groups. Many of those groups do take foreign funding but say they do so only because they are denied domestic grants.


The bill would mandate that the groups’ websites and literature feature the words “foreign agent” and require that they publish financial statements every six months and undertake a financial audit every year, The Moscow Times reports.


It also broadly defines “political activity,” the director of an environmental group told the newspaper.


Proposed by the Putin-allied United Russia party, the measure seems like an attempt to discredit the groups’ work, according to The New York Times. In January, state-run television recycled old allegations that the Moscow-Helsinki group, a human rights organization that was planning to monitor March’s presidential election, was a foreign agent for having received money from the British Embassy.


5. Polish amnesty offer gets modest response


About 8,500 of what the BBC says are Poland’s 40,000 illegal immigrants have applied for amnesty.


Warsaw made the offer in January, with a 2 July deadline for application. In announcing the measure last year, the Interior Ministry had said about 15,000 foreigners would be eligible.


The offer applied to those who have been in the country since 20 December 2007 or earlier, or who were refused refugee status before 2010.


The largest ethnic group to apply were Vietnamese, followed by Ukrainians and Pakistanis, the BBC said, citing the Interior Ministry. The amnesty allows those whose applications are approved to stay and work in the country for two years.


Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor. Joshua Boissevain is a TOL editorial assistant.  Sofia Lotto Persio is a TOL editorial intern.
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