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Tajik Fighting Ends, Ukraine Gets on Anti-Gay Bandwagon

Plus, the Slovak government plans a health-care takeover and a flash fire destroys a Roma camp in Montenegro.

by Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Sofia Lotto Persio 26 July 2012

1. Tajik president calls for surrender of rebel leader


Tolib Ayombekov

On the second day of a cease-fire between the Tajik military and rebel forces in the semi-autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region, Tajikistan’s president, Imomali Rahmon, called on fighters to surrender their arms and turn over former warlord Tolib Ayombekov, according to Reuters. The cease-fire comes after an intense battle left more than 40 dead, including 12 soldiers, according to the government. The fighting broke out 24 July when Tajik government forces moved into the region to apprehend Ayombekov, who authorities say is responsible for the 21 July killing of the regional security chief, Major General Abdullo Nazarov. At least 30 civilians have also been killed during the fighting, Radio Free Europe reports.


Following a late-night emergency meeting with his cabinet, Rahmon offered amnesty to all combatants involved in the conflict except for the four – including Ayombekov – who Tajik authorities say had a hand in the stabbing death of Nazarov, who led the Gorno-Badakhshan branch of the national intelligence agency. Ayombekov, who has denied involvement in Nazarov's murder, was an opposition fighter during the 1992-1997 civil war but was later given a government post as part of the peace accords, according to Reuters. Tajik officials have also accused him of smuggling drugs and tobacco. 


2. Sweeping anti-gay legislation proposed in Ukraine


Ukrainian lawmakers have proposed a bill that would impose penalties that include prison terms of up to five years for any positive public depiction of homosexuality, The Associated Press reports. The bill would, for example, outlaw gay pride parades, TV dating shows for same-sex couples, and movies such as Brokeback Mountain. The move comes two months after the cancellation of the first gay pride parade in Kyiv due to potential attacks by radical groups.


Participants in a May march in Kyiv to promote the traditional family and protest rights for homosexuals hold a banner that reads Homosexuality - No. Image from a video by vorn diren.


Although the country decriminialized homosexuality after its independence from the Soviet Union, homophobic attitudes remain pervasive in Ukrainian society. The situation is similar in Russia, where St. Petersburg officials passed a law against "gay propaganda" in March that has already resulted in 73 prosecutions, according to AFP.


Pavlo Ungurian, an author of the Ukrainian bill, said it would help safeguard "the moral, spiritual, and physical health of the nation," while Ruslan Kukharchuk, the leader of the "Love Against Homosexuality" group  and a campaigner for the bill, called homosexuality "a disease ... a psychological disorder" for which people should get "rehabilitation therapy." No date for the vote has been set by the Ukrainian parliament, but it appears that President Viktor Yanukovych backs the legislation, as his representative in parliament has expressed support.


The bill sparked outrage in the international community, with the UN labelling it "state-supported discrimination against" homosexuals and warning that it could fuel an AIDS epidemic by banning some information on sexually transmitted diseases. 


3. Slovakia's Fico pledges to get rid of private insurers by end of 2013


In one of his most radical moves since sweeping to power in parliamentary elections earlier this year, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico promised 26 July to reinstate a single public health insurer, even threatening to nationalize the private carriers that do not agree to be bought out by the state.


Fico has railed against private insurers profiting from the current system instead of plowing profits into improving health care. Supported by Health Ministry officials, he contends that having a single insurer would cut costs and improve the quality of care, Reuters reports.


"It would be ideal if we could reach an agreement on the buy-back," Fico said at a press conference. "In case we do not reach an agreement, we will use the expropriation measure. This is a standard procedure written down in the constitution and known also elsewhere in Europe," he said.

The state does not have the necessary funds yet but will sell off unidentified assets to raise the needed cash to buy out insurers. The Health Ministry is supposed to come up with a plan by the end of September, with the transfer back to a single state carrier completed by the end of 2013.


According to Bloomberg, two private insurers – one, Dutch-owned, and the other, Czech-Slovak-owned – have a combined 1.8 million Slovak clients. The rest of the 5.4 million population is insured by the state-run General Health Insurance Company. The Dutch owner, Achmea, appears to be prepared to fight the decision, as TASR, the Slovak press agency, cited a statement from the company that said it was not interested in selling its Union insurer and would “take all steps necessary to protect the business interests of Union.”


4. Fire destroys refugee camp in Montenegro


At least 800 Kosovo Roma lost their homes in a fire that destroyed a controversial refugee camp on the outskirts of Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, in the early morning of 24 July.


There were no casualties, but the fire rapidly swept through the camp, destroying all in its path in about 10 minutes, a witness told The Associated Press. The police are investigating the causes of the fire, but so far a hate crime is not suspected.


Little remains of the Konik refugee camp in the wake of a devastating fire. Image from a video by


The camp was set up in 1999 to house those fleeing Kosovo during the war. One of the biggest settlements of its kind in Montenegro, the camp's living conditions were recently described by the Council of Europe as “inhuman and hazardous.”


On Tuesday, about 100 Roma protested at government headquarters in Podgorica, refusing the temporary tents set up by the Red Cross and demanding a permanent solution to their housing situation, B92 reports. The camp was supposed to be a temporary housing, but people have now lived there for 13 years.


Wildfires that have spread due to dry, hot weather, and strong winds have claimed victims elsewhere in the Balkans. On 23 July, a firefighter died in Croatia while trying to extinguish a fire, and that night two foresters died in Macedonia, while at least another dozen people reported serious burns or injuries due to a fire that broke out in a forest near Strumica, 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of the capital, Skopje, Balkan Insight reports.


5. Scientists: bacteria rise in Baltic Sea tied to climate change


A team of international scientists has found evidence of a link between warming patterns in the Baltic Sea caused by climate change and the recent emergence of a harmful form of bacteria normally found in warmer climates, according to Deutsche Welle.


In a paper published in the 22 July edition of Nature Climate Change, the scientists warned that water-borne infectious diseases could continue to spread as water temperatures rise and the Baltic Sea becomes less saline.


Strains of Vibrio bacteria can cause gastrointestinal infections, including cholera, in humans. And while scientists have previously found instances of the bacteria in other cold-water locations, including off the coast of Chile or the U.S. Pacific Northwest, researchers for this study said those were caused by sporadic events, while the Baltic Sea developments can be directly linked to climate change.


The paper focused on the sea surface temperature records in the Baltic Sea and the statistics of Vibrio infections. The sea warmed by 0.063 to 0.078 degrees Celsius from 1982 to 2010, which the report called “the fastest warming marine ecosystem examined so far anywhere on Earth.” The report also found that the incidence of Vibrio cases increased 193 percent for every 1 degree Celsius increase in the maximum annual seas surface temperature.

Jeremy Druker is TOL’s executive director and editor in chief.  Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Sofia Lotto Persio is a TOL editorial intern. 
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