Around the Bloc – 2 January – Transitions Online

Posted: January 5, 2020 at 5:42 am

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Todays regional news: Reflections on Putins career; an anguishing prisoner swap; more legal trouble for Hungarys MOL; Sputnik out of Estonia; and Polish education policy. 2 January 2020

It Was 20 Years Ago Today ...

The anniversary of Vladimir Putins stunning accession to the Russian presidency is prompting plenty of retrospectives. On New Years Eve 1999, Russias increasingly erratic President Boris Yeltsin told the nation he was resigning so that political rookie Putin, only recently named prime minister, could take power. Ahead of the March 2000 elections which returned him for a full term, Putin delivered a powerful message: Russians have had no sense of stability for the past 10 years. We hope to return this feeling, he said, Moscow-based journalist and author Marc Bennetts writes for Politico. During his first two terms especially, he seemed capable of delivering. The economy provided the stage for some of his greatest successes. Inflation began a decade-long fall and trade ballooned as the energy sector flourished, according to an RFE/RL data report. Putins approval ratings hovered between 70 and 80 percent throughout his first two terms, before sinking as the 2008 financial crisis set in but never falling below the mid-60s then shot to record highs after Russias intervention in Ukraine. On the down side, the Russian population continued to shrink and life expectancy for both men and women fell during his first term, although it has since recovered. Mens expected lifespan has increased by seven years since Putin took office, RFE says. According to Al Jazeera, critics respond that Putin and his allies failed to address Russia's most fundamental problems its dependence on energy exports, plummeting birth rates and industrial production, brain drain, an HIV/AIDS epidemic, and corruption.

Controversy Hits Ukraine Prisoner Swap

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy defended his difficult decision to include members of the now-disbanded Berkut police unit in a New Years prisoner swap with separatists. "If we hadnt exchanged Berkut fighters, we would not have returned our people living people," Zelenskiy told reporters after greeting released prisoners in Kyiv on 29 December, RFE writes. In the swap, agreed at last months meeting between the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, separatists handed over 76 prisoners, and the government freed 124 prisoners, among them five Berkut officers charged with shooting unarmed demonstrators during the 2014 Euromaidan uprising against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The swap included two RFE contributors held by separatists since 2017. As the Kyiv Post reports, joy over the return of prisoners, some held for almost five years in the separatist Donbas region, was tempered by anger at Zelenskiys decision to free the Berkut officers. The country has to return its heroes but not at the price of diminishing the values for which these heroes fought, said Oleg Sentsov, the filmmaker who was freed from a Russian jail as part of a prisoner exchange in September.

Bribery Convictions for Hungarian Businessman, Former Croatian PM

The strained relations between Hungarys MOL energy group and the Croatian state hit a new low yesterday, as a Croatian court convicted MOL chief executive and chairman Zsolt Hernadi of bribery. Former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader - previously sentenced to 8 and a half years in prison for accepting a bribe from MOL as the company acquired almost 50 percent of Croatian oil company INA - had his sentence cut to six years for health reasons, Court president Ivan Turudic said, Reuters reports. The verdicts are not final and can be appealed. MOL released a statement denouncing the courts baseless accusations, Hungary Today reports, and noted a Budapest courts refusal to execute a European arrest warrant for Hernadi on concerns that his right to a fair trial in Croatia might be infringed. Sanader, who served from 2003 to 2009, has been tried or convicted of a raft of crimes, from war profiteering to siphoning off state funds.

Sputnik Shutters Estonian Bureau as Sanctions Bite

Russias Sputnik news agency announced yesterday it was closing its Estonian bureau after pressure from the authorities. The state-controlled agency said its 35 staff in Tallinn had resigned, The Moscow Times reports. Estonian authorities last fall froze the bureaus assets and said the bureau would have to leave its rented offices by the end of February, and in December warned that its staff could be prosecuted on the basis of EU sanctions against Russia. Russian state-controlled media have come under pressure in the Baltics in recent years. In May, Lithuania expelled the chief editor of Sputniks local bureau to Latvia, where he holds citizenship, and banned him from re-entering Lithuania for five years. Dmitry Kiselyov, the head of Sputniks parent media group Rossiya Segodnya, is on the EUs list of individuals subject to sanctions for violating Ukraines territorial integrity, Estonian public broadcaster ERR reports. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told ERR that Estonias actions against Sputnik were financial sanctions only. The authorities have not taken measures against the portals media content, he said.

PiS Education Policy Comes Under Renewed Criticism

Polands ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) began reconstructing the primary and secondary education system three years ago, in part to reverse changes it said were undermining traditional educational values. Now, a parent group plans to file a collective lawsuit against the state for damaging the prospects of its children, Balkan Insight writes. The nationalist governments most dramatic change was the elimination of gymnasia, academically-oriented three-year schools introduced in 1999 as a step between primary and high school. PiS cited cases of aggression and misbehavior among gymnasia students as proof that the institutions were dysfunctional, Balkan Insight says. In their place, the government brought back eight-year primary schools. The introduction of gymnasia had also been controversial, but by the 2010s, excellent results on the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) student skills tests convinced many the new system was working, Wojciech Kosc wrote for TOL. The parents opposed to PiSs educational policies also say high schools are now overcrowded as they try to accommodate both the last crop of gymnasia students and those coming directly from primary school.

Compiled by Ky Krauthamer

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Around the Bloc - 2 January - Transitions Online

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