Czechs, Slovaks, Poles firm in support for Cuban dissidents
15.4.2005 - Rob Cameron
The U.N. Human Rights Commission last week passed a U.S.-sponsored proposal condemning Cuba for its record on human rights. The vote has been widely welcomed in Central Europe where countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland are highly critical of Fidel Castro and his regime. But it wasn't always so. Before 1989 the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were close allies of fellow Communist Cuba.
The cell was erected by the Czech humanitarian aid organisation People in Need, to mark the second anniversary of the imprisonment of 75 anti-Communist dissidents by the Castro regime.
Mr Havel told the crowd of his own experience of incarceration as a dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia, an experience which has clearly informed his views on Cuba. He said those who spent their summer holidays lying on Cuba's sandy beaches should remember the many dissidents locked up in Castro's so-called island of freedom.
As he spoke, a row of well-known personalities - politicians, actors, artists - sat inside the cell, serving a symbolic prison sentence as a tribute to the dissidents. It was a reflection of the strong feelings about Cuba among many people in the former Communist bloc. Matej Cerny, from People in Need.
That personal experience with totalitarian rule has put former Communist countries on a collision course with their new EU partners over Cuba. The Czech Republic protested strongly when Spain's socialist government suggested that the EU should no longer invite dissidents to embassy functions in Havana - a move introduced as a response to the mass arrest of dissidents two years ago. And as Matej Cerny told me, the Czechs were not alone in their protests. "Well we are not alone, luckily. The Polish are with us and the Slovaks are with us. We cannot say that the whole of the EU has a completely opposite policy, it's not true. But what can be said is that we are quite opposite to the policy of Spain's socialist government."
One of those who donned prison clothes and served his symbolic prison sentence was Jan Bubenik, a former student activist from 1989. He himself has first-hand experience of a real Cuban prison cell - in 2001 he and Czech MP Ivan Pilip were arrested in Havana after being caught carrying materials to anti-Communist dissidents.
"I think we have first hand experience of how any kind of totalitarian regime behaves towards people who have different ideas. This schizophrenic society forces you to say one thing in front of your colleagues at work and something else in the privacy of your own home with your friends. I remember how quickly you adjust to such a normal situation and how awkward it felt in the Cuban prison when they were trying to force me to agree with their truth."
Up until now the Czech government has remained firm in its support for Cuban dissidents. But the current political crisis is likely to result in a shift to the left in Czech foreign policy. Some are anxious that a changing of the guard at the Foreign Ministry will mean a realignment of the country's Cuba policy and the gradual erosion of support for Cuba's dissidents.
Moscow and Warsaw wage war of words over street names
15.4.2005 - Krystyna Kolosowska
Moscow and Warsaw are at loggerheads over the late Chechen president Dzhokar Dudayev, who was killed in an air-strike back in 1996 during the first war in the southern Russian region. The row erupted when Warsaw city councillors decided to name a roundabout at the outskirts of the city after the Chechen freedom fighter. In response, Moscow threatened to name a street next to the Polish embassy after a Tsarist official notorious for hanging Polish freedom fighters.
In retaliation, Moscow reached for Mikhail Muravyov, an early 19th century Tsarist official, called the 'Hangman' for mass sentencing of Polish freedom fighters to death. It warned that a street at which Poland's embassy in Moscow is situated will be named after that evil figure. This plan has been abandoned however. The press attaché at the Russian embassy in Warsaw - Vladimir Vasilich - explains:
"Russia has officially denied this measure. The head of the Moscow City Council rejected it. It was just an idea, but no decision was taken to implement it. You see, there are as many ideas as there are people."
Jakub Boratynski, an expert on Russia at the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, says the row over the future Dudayev roundabout boils down to the fact that for Polish councillors he is a hero, while Russia argues that he is a terrorist:
"In Poland there is fundamental doubt whether we could simply call the Chechen rebels, Chechen insurgents, terrorists. And here comes again the very specific Polish historical memory when in the past, Polish rebels, Polish insurgents, were turned in such derogatory manner by the enemies."
"The Warsaw City Council might have gone too far. Maybe it would have been more appropriate not to name the roundabout after Djohar Dudayev but call it Free Chechnya or the Chechen struggle instead. But to actually pick a person with a rather controversial record is risky of course. But by the Polish people, looking at Polish public opinion, it is seen fundamentally different than by Russians."
Russians resident in Poland as well as Poles differ in their assessment of the decision of Warsaw city councillors.
"Poland is a sovereign country and its councillors have the right to name a street or a roundabout in the way they feel is right. I have nothing against it."
"I am against naming a roundabout in Warsaw after the Soviet general Dudayev. I don't think he was a big hero. I also think that Chechnya is an internal problem of Russia."
"I think a more diplomatic formula could have been found to demonstrate support for Chechen people, because Dudayev was a controversial figure. For example they could have dedicated a street or a roundabout to Chechen victims."
"Everybody has a right to name a street according to their democratic decision by the way Dudayev was democratically elected president of Chechnya."
Recent months have seen Moscow come up with many provocative statements towards Poland. For example, it claims that the shameful Yalta agreement, which placed Poland in its sphere of influence, was the start of freedom and democracy in this country, whereas in reality it marked the start of over three decades of enslavement. Such sore points are many and until they are cleared up, it will be difficult to improve the frosty Polish-Russian relations.
Slovaks and Hungarians a step closer to constructive debate on post-war expulsions
15.4.2005 - Anca Dragu
In Bratislava, the leader of an ethnic Hungarian coalition has asked both the Slovak and Hungarian Parliaments to apologize to each other for their persecution of ethnic minorities in the years immediately after WWII. This daring proposal has attracted some very harsh criticism.
Bela Bugar, photo: www.nrsr.skIn April 1945 Slovaks cheered for the Ukrainian and Romanian soldiers who entered the country as liberators. People were happy that the war was over and hoped a brighter future would lie ahead. But they did not know that the smile on some of their faces was about to fade away...
The new Slovak political elite with strong ties to communists in Moscow drafted the so called "Kosice governmental programme". It said that all those who collaborated with the Nazi regime must leave Slovakia and have their properties confiscated. It targeted mainly ethnic Hungarians and Germans. Historians have estimated that 90,000 Hungarians living in Slovakia were forced to leave for Hungary. It turned out to be a population exchange because a similar number of Slovaks living in Hungary had the opportunity to return to their motherland. However, the authorities in Budapest did not force them to leave and did not confiscate their property.
Sixty years later Bela Bugar, the leader of the coalition of ethnic Hungarian parties in Slovakia commemorated the event saying that the Slovak and Hungarian Parliaments should apologize to each other for the injustices their countries did to minorities after WWII. As Bugar is the vice president of the Slovak Parliament, his comments stirred the murky waters of Slovak politics. The opposition seized the opportunity to score some points for next year's parliamentary elections. Opposition leader Robert Fico advises Slovaks to ignore the past:
Bugar could not find supporters for his proposal among ruling coalition partners either. A few well known historians, however, spoke to local media trying to offer an objective picture of the events which took place sixty years ago. This fact encouraged Bugar to stick to his point:
"Who is afraid to lead an open debate on sensitive topics concerning our common history? It is those who don't have a clear conscience. We need to find out what exactly happened here between 1945 and 1948. If we keep on ignoring such questions they will not simply disappear and the tension between Slovaks and Hungarians will continue. It's up to Slovak politicians to close such historical wounds once and forever."
Interesting enough, part of the Slovak media seems to be willing to initiate public debate on controversial topics of Slovakia's history. For the first time, historians replaced the usual sharp-tongued political analysts on the pages of major dailies and on television screens. They expressed their concern that the lack of open discussion leads to an increased popularity of nationalist politicians. One of the champions of nationalist speeches is Robert Fico himself, who recent opinion polls portray as the most trusted politician in Slovakia.
Slovenian government introduces controversial bill that tightens control over public broadcaster
15.4.2005 - Ksenija Samardzija-Matul
Slovenia's government recently approved new draft legislation on its public broadcaster - RTV Slovenija. But the planned law has been heavily criticised by journalists and media experts from inside and outside Slovenia. Critics say the bill would infringe on journalists autonomy and open the door to more political influence.
"I think the alarm bells for all of us began to ring very loudly, when we heard the Slovenian prime minister make a statement, which appears to be to the effect that he considers the public broadcaster as a state broadcaster."
A number of Slovenia's leading journalism experts, journalists and RTV editors feared that the bill cuts journalist autonomy. They opposed the new concept of management for the public broadcaster as envisioned in the document, since this would definitely increase the power of the leading political group. Aiden White:
"It is quite clear - the attitude that active politicians and governments have an active role to play in the operation of independent media, whether it is public or private. That attitude has no place in a modern democracy and if that is what is lying behind the changes proposed in this draft law then the draft law should be withdrawn immediately in favour of an open and public debate about the future of broadcasting. So we are very concerned about what is happening in Slovenia."
However, after strong protests, the minister delayed the cabinet vote on the bill and discussed it with the trade union and management of RTV Slovenija. After talks with the Slovenian Association of Journalists, the ministry made changes to the controversial bill. But even after these minor changes, the Director General will have much more power and influence and he will still be appointed by the leading political power, since parliament appoints him. It's clear to many that changes to the current law on public broadcasting have to be made, but not by turning it into a state television broadcaster. Miran Ornik from one of Slovenia's union of journalists:
"After the first law proposal, all nine unions of journalists working within RTV Slovenija estimated that it gives governing politicians too many possibilities to nationalize Slovenia's public broadcaster. Of course it would be absurd and intolerable to oppose a legal framework for RTV Slovenija, because the old one has its faults. But the revised proposal of the law does not assure that the weaknesses will be abolished."
After talks with trade unions and the management of RTV, Slovenia's Culture Minister Vasko Simoniti promised to allow parliamentary debate on this issue. The government quickly accepted this newly revised proposal and the issue will now go into parliamentary procedure. The demands of Slovenia's union of journalists are clear:
"It would be absolutely appropriate to enable public debate because this new law is immensely important. This means that besides the submitters of the law and members of parliament, experts and the general public should be included in this debate. Slovenia's union of journalists believes a new law is necessary but haste and bad chances for a democratic discussion before the passing of the law are intolerable."
"University of Omniscience" holds special place in Hungarian hearts
15.4.2005 - Agi Varga
The University of Omniscience is a series of public science lectures launched in Hungary about 3 years ago. It recently celebrated its 100th lectures and is generally thought to be a sweeping success. The lectures also go out on public television, schools stage contests linked to them, and books are published. The man behind the lectures is Norbert Kroo, Secretary General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
How do you choose the themes?
"They select them. The first group at the beginning was connected with life. The second one was connected with basic ideas of science, starting with my lecture on the limits of physical knowledge. After that, the main conception was to find good lecturers. We considered that to be more important than to group the lectures, one after the other, on a logical sequence. The concept of this year is that this is the last semester of the three years - the sixth semester - and this is the year of physics and therefore there should be more lectures in physics than before.
"I am holding the last lecture, on July 6, and I'm going to speak about light as a messenger, which helps mankind collect most of the information that we collect from our surroundings. It will include information about the cosmos, everyday life events, about the micro-world, and even life. So what I will try to do in the last lecture of the three years is to 'put an umbrella' over what has been said up to now. It will, of course, have an outlook at the end on what I am expecting from the future."
What relationship do Hungarians have to science?
"To my great surprise, their interest is much higher than I expected. From the very beginning, there has been a stable attendance. Of course, we continuously monitor how many people view it on TV and whenever we discover that in some fields the interest decreases then we immediately try to correct it. That's probably the reason why we have up to now succeeded to keep society's enthusiasm on the same level as it was shortly after the start."
"It is something that I can't even understand myself. There might be many reasons. One could be that the average Hungarian citizen still admires science. The second reason could be connected with education. My experience is that the average Hungarian family pays more attention to the education of their children than elsewhere. Hungarian parents have learned the hard fact that anything can be taken from them except what they have in their minds. Another factor could be the Hungarian language. Although it is a very difficult language, it is very logical and those who speak it naturally think logically. Science is built on logical thinking. So this can be another reason for the relatively higher affinity of the Hungarian people for science."
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