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Around the Bloc - 10 July

The important, interesting, or just downright quirky news from TOL’s coverage region. Today: mind control in Russia; an underwhelming Melania Trump statue in Slovenia; pensions in eastern Ukraine; suspicious deaths in Tajikistan; Romania makes no progress in fighting corruption. 10 July 2019

Russian Journalist Charged for Mind Control


A Siberian journalist became the first person to be charged under a new law penalizing media for publishing information “containing hidden insertions affecting the human subconscious," The Moscow Times reports, citing the daily Kommersant. Mikhail Romanov, a reporter for the Yakutsk Vecherniy weekly, was accused after making a reference to George Orwell’s “1984” novel in one of his articles that read: "This is a story about how anyone can be squashed by the government machine. It's also about how Big Brother is watching, reading all comments on online forums.” Fines for violating this law range between 2,000 rubles ($31) and 50,000 rubles ($785), and the case has been forwarded to a Yakutsk city court for consideration.



Wooden Melania Trump Divides Slovenia


In her native Slovenia, Melania Trump’s popularity has skyrocketed since her husband Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2016. However, some of the local tributes to the U.S. first lady might have missed their mark, the most recent one being “a life-size wooden statue of her [that] has appeared on the banks of a river near her hometown,” according to The New York Times. Sculpted out of a block of wood, the 2.7-meter (9-foot)-tall statue, which was unveiled in late June, has been compared to Smurfette, while some social media users said that it complemented Melania Trump’s wooden public appearances. In Sevnica, the central Slovenian town where Melania Trump grew up, local businesses have been sticking her name on all kinds of products, such as lavish breakfast desserts, pancakes, and honey jars "from Melania's home garden." The sellers can rest assured of their compliance with copyright laws as long as their merchandise is only called Melania, or Melanija, after her maiden name Melanija Knavs. 


The controversial statue. Image via the.independent/Instagram.



Pensioners Caught in Eastern Ukrainian Crossfire


Adding to the daily hardships of living in a conflict zone, senior citizens from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have to jump through a number of loopholes to collect their pensions. International NGO Human Rights Watch has addressed a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asking him to end “discriminatory policies and practices that affect the way older people living in those areas can access and collect their pensions.” These include the requirement for Donetsk and Luhansk residents to register as internally displaced persons in government-controlled areas, as well as to maintain residential addresses there, and to cross the border into those areas at least once every 60 days, a trip that can last an entire day. Failure to respect these conditions could result in the loss of the pension. “Current practices have an enormous, negative impact on older people, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, wrote in the letter. “The government can and should remove its bureaucratic hurdles to pension collection.”



Romania’s Anti-Corruption Drive ‘Globally Unsatisfactory’


Two reports released on Tuesday concluded that Romania has made "very little progress" to prevent corruption in its government. “The reports evaluated Romania’s previous responses to the Group of States against Corruption or GRECO's recommendations and concluded that Romania had only fully complied with just over a quarter of the recommendations issued in two previous reports,” Euronews writes. One of the moves criticized by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body GRECO was the creation of a special prosecutor's section for the evaluation of the judiciary, which one of the GRECO reports qualified as “in full contradiction to GRECO’s recommendation, which is a deeply worrying development,” since the body could interfere in “sensitive high-profile cases.”



Food Poisoning or Something Else? 


Some relatives of 14 recently deceased inmates in Tajikistan have been questioning the official cause of death, which was food poisoning due to eating spoiled bread, RFE/RL writes. The mother of one inmate told RFE/RL "there wasn't an unharmed place left" on the body of her son, while the relative of another inmate said his face was covered in bruises and there was a wound on the back of his head, "as if he was beaten with a hammer." The official explanation was that the inmates ate the bread while being transported from prisons in the northern province of Sughd to other jails in Dushanbe and in the southern part of the country. However, an unnamed expert on penitentiaries told Asia-Plus, as cited by Eurasianet, that this version seems unlikely. “Moving such a large quantity of prisoners in road transport creates a huge flight risk,” he said. “And if it was absolutely necessary to transport prisoners in vehicles, they should have been fed warm food before departing from Khujand and not on the way.”

Compiled by Ioana Caloianu
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