Sunday, May 24, 2015

Russian Official Stirs Scandal With Underage Marriage And 'Shriveled' Women Remarks

Russia's children's rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov (file photo)

The man tasked by the Kremlin with protecting Russia's children has riled his critics by defending marriages between adults and minors, adding that some women look "shriveled" by the time they're 27 years old.

According to Russian law, the minimum legal age to marry is 18. However, Pavel Astakhov, President Vladimir Putin's ombudsman for children's rights, noted in a May 14 radio interview that "in exceptional situations" the law allows for the minimum marrying age to be "established by regional authorities."

"In Chechnya it's 17 years old, in Bashkortostan it's 14 years old, in the Moscow Oblast it's 16 years old," Astakhov said in the interview with the Moscow-based Russian News Service radio station. "There are places where there is no minimum boundary." 

He added that in the Caucasus Mountains region, which includes several Russian regions and former Soviet republics, "emancipation and sexual maturity happens earlier."

"Let's not be hypocrites," he said. "There are places where women are already shriveled at age 27, and by our standards they look like they're 50. And, in general, the [Russian] Constitution forbids interference in citizens' personal lives."

As RFE/RL's Russian Service notes, Astakhov's comments came amid a murky story involving a purported pending marriage between a 17-year-old girl from Russia's mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya, in the North Caucasus, and a local police chief who is reportedly either in his 40s or 50s.

The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported last month that the girl appealed to its reporter, Yelena Milashina, who wrote that the police chief threatened to kidnap the girl if her parents did not bless the union. 

On May 12, the girl gave an interview to the tabloid-style news site LifeNews, which is believed to have close ties to the Kremlin, saying she planned to willingly marry the police chief. 

Chechnya's Kremlin-backed strongman president, Ramzan Kadyrov, took to Instagram on May 14 to defend the marriage, quoting a famous line from Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin: "All ages are to love submissive." 

Astakhov is widely despised among Russian opposition activists, in particular due to his support for a 2012 law barring U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children.

Putin signed the legislation in retaliation to a U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russians deemed by Washington to be complicit in the 2009 death of a whistleblowing Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other human rights abuses.

Kremlin critics piled on Astakhov following his comments on underage marriages and "shriveled" women.

"Why is he in the government? Why are we paying his salary?" Russian opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny wrote on his Twitter feed. 

-- Carl Schreck

Fashion Statement: Lukashenka's Top Cop Wears NKVD Garb At Parade

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (right) chose the standard military garb, while Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich (left) decided to go with something a little riskier.

It's Victory Day, there's a parade, and you're a top Belarusian official. What do you wear?
If you're President Alyaksandr Lukashenka or a member of his entourage, you go with the reliable standard: olive drab military garb, preferably with lots of medals. Barring that, a no-fail navy suit, red tie preferred. (And don't forget the new ribbons of compromise -- Belarusian colors on the right, Russia's St. George colors on the left.)
But what if you want to stand out?

That seemed to be the dilemma facing the country's interior minister, Ihar Shunevich, who showed up at the May 9 festivities in vintage attire: a deep-blue uniform from the NKVD, the Stalin-era secret police.

The 1943 model worn by Shunevich features a belted shirt with a stiff upright collar, a cross-shoulder holster, voluminous breeches, jackboots, and a blue cap with distinctive turquoise trim.
The press service of the Interior Ministry has declined to comment on the thinking behind Shunevich's outfit.
But Mechyslau Gryb, a retired lieutenant general with the Belarusian police, said Shunevich may have sought to honor the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany by adopting a World War II-era silhouette.
"It's the first time I've seen such a thing," Gryb said. "Usually, the police and the military stick with their new uniforms because they're considered more prestigious and more attractive than the old ones."
Others had stronger feelings about the minister's getup, recalling the NKVD's execution of hundreds of thousands of "enemies of the people" during Stalin's Great Purge.

"Of course, Minister Shunevich's unusual uniform is kind of a costume, something to have fun," said art and culture expert Syarhey Khareuski. "But when someone turns human suffering and death into a costume party, it means that society has reduced the value of human life."
There was no public word on the issue from Lukashenka, who has displayed strong nostalgia for the Soviet era -- the country's internal intelligence agency is still called the KGB -- and has faced questions over the disappearance of critics earlier in his 21-year rule.

-- By Uladzimer Glod & Daisy Sindelar

Karachi Dog Cull Sparks Anger

Pakistani commuters drive past a pile of dog carcasses on the road side in Karachi on May 12.

The killing of hundreds of stray dogs in a government-organized cull in Karachi, Pakistan, is meeting with fury as images spread through social media.

Photos showing scores of dead dogs lined up along roads have led to protests from animal-rights groups and a storm of criticism of city authorities.

Officials quoted by Spain's Cadena SER say the cull is necessary because many of the animals have rabies, a virally borne disease that kills tens of thousands of people worldwide every year.

Pakistani authorities say around 150,000 people in Karachi were bitten by dogs in the past year and some 15-20 percent of them contracted rabies.

Karachi is Pakistan's largest city, with a population of more than 23 million people.

But animal-rights groups say the cull -- in which dogs are usually poisoned -- is inhumane. They argue that rabies can be reduced by vaccinating the canines and the large stray-dog population controlled through sterilization.

Karachi officials say such measures are too costly.

Twitter users expressed alarm at the dog killings, with some arguing that Pakistan's questionable record on human rights suggests there's not much hope for the humane treatment of animals. 

Others have defended the government's actions, pointing to the high cost of a campaign to sterilize and vaccinate dogs in Karachi and the enormity of the city's stray canine population. 

But the problem of large packs of stray dogs roaming cities and biting residents is an international problem, and government officials have been criticized for their methods of culling dogs in such countries as Romania, Tajikistan, Ukraine ahead of the 2012 European soccer championship, and several Russian cities, including Winter Olympic host Sochi in 2014.

-- Pete Baumgartner

Estonian Weekly Urges 'Go Ahead, Make Fun Of Estonians'

Allar Tankler said his newspaper's greatest disappointment would be if it discovered that "people can't think of anything -- not even a crass, prejudiced joke -- when they hear the word 'Estonia.'"

An Estonian newspaper is using a debate about freedom of expression on religious and political topics to launch an international contest to find the best jokes about Estonians.

After proclaiming on Facebook, "we dare you to make fun of us," the weekly Eesti Ekspress announced competitions for the best political cartoon and joke about Estonia or Estonians, with the winners to receive all-expenses-paid trips to -- you guessed it -- Estonia.

Eesti Ekspress editor in chief Allar Tankler told RFE/RL that after the shock terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in early January -- in which 12 people were killed, including five political cartoonists -- his staff debated the issue of media freedom and its boundaries.

"What if our tolerance for freedom of speech only stands as long as someone else is being made fun of?" Tankler said his staff asked themselves. "Can we actually remain calm and carry on, maybe even laugh along, when it’s us being made fun of? So we wanted to test our tolerance."

The weekly says in a Facebook promotion that the contests are being held to further the debate about the "role and boundaries of humor" and to see if jokes are allowed to be offensive and to test what is "politically correct and socially acceptable."

The Eesti Ekspress, which is Estonia's first politically independent newspaper, adds that the ultimate goal of the contests is to increase "the tolerance of everyone."

Tankler said the contest was also inspired by the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat's call in April for Finns to send in nicknames -- many of which were derogatory -- that they use for the neighboring Estonians, whose capital, Tallinn, is a popular tourist destination for Finns.

Tankler said many Estonians -- and Finns -- were outraged by the newspaper's contest and that even Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves intervened.

The Helsingin Sanomat later apologized and the contest was canceled.

But Tankler said the incident led his staff to again wonder what the limits are to humor and who sets those boundaries.

He said he thought a large number of Estonians are "terribly worried" about what other people think about them, something he believes comes in part from Estonia being such a small country.

Tankler said his newspaper's greatest disappointment would be if it discovered that "people can't think of anything -- not even a crass, prejudiced joke -- when they hear the word 'Estonia.'"

He said that "then we will know we have to give the world something to joke about."

All of the entries for the contest, due by May 29, will be published online and in the newspaper on June 3.

Readers will then vote on their favorite joke and political cartoon to determine the two winners, who are to be announced on June 12.

Tankler said he and his staff were looking to see if they can actually get outraged by the contest entries, joking that it will take a lot because Estonians are considered by some of their "dear neighbors" to be "notoriously stone-faced."

If anyone has a particularly off-color or stereotypical joke about Estonia or Estonians, Tankler said it should be sent to by May 29.

-- Pete Baumgartner

Merkel's Remark On 'Criminal' Annexation Omitted In Russian Translation

Lost in translation? German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) gestures as Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the pair's joint press conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 10.

Since the Ukraine crisis erupted last year, Western leaders have consistently accused the Kremlin of manipulating media coverage, fudging facts, or concocting outright fabrications to deny its role in the conflict.

Now, an official interpreter at a Kremlin press conference has omitted a top Western leader's stinging criticism of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March 2014.

Standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a May 10 press conference in Moscow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear her views of the Kremlin's seizure of Crimea.

"We achieved cooperation between NATO and Russia," Merkel said. "Due to the criminal and illegal, under international law, annexation of Crimea and the military conflicts in eastern Ukraine, this cooperation has suffered a serious setback."
The word "criminal," however, was excised in real-time by the Russian-language interpreter at the press conference. Those listening exclusively to the interpreter were given the impression that Merkel considers the takeover of Crimea only a "violation of international law."

It is unclear whether the interpreter made a conscious call to soft-pedal Merkel's rebuke, or simply missed the word.

But in any case, her version of the German chancellor's words is the one posted on the Kremlin website and enshrined in the Russian government's official transcript of the events. 

The German-language transcript published by Merkel's office includes the chancellor's reference to the "criminal" annexation" of Crimea. 

One person who certainly would have understood the German word for "criminal" used by Merkel – "verbrecherisch" -- is Putin himself. The Russian leader, who was stationed in Dresden with the Soviet KGB in the 1980s, is a fluent German speaker and in the past has spoken with Merkel in her native language.

Whether he heard the word might depend on what ear Putin was listening with. He sported an earpiece on his left ear, presumably to listen to the Russian-language interpreter. His right ear -- the one closest to Merkel -- was free of electronic accoutrements.

-- Carl Schreck

In Macedonia, Resisting The Temptation To Divide

Protesters hold Macedonian and Albanian flags in front of a cordon of special police guarding the government building during an antigovernment protest in Skopje last week.

A deadly counterterrorism operation against what the government says were remnants of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army in an ethnically mixed northern Macedonian town has prompted Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, once bitter enemies in the civil conflict in 2001, to join forces in common anger against the government.

One of the most shared videos online is a four-minute monologue by an unnamed ethnic Albanian man speaking in Macedonian to News 24 in Kumanovo, shortly after the police operation ended. Kumanovo-Lipkovo was one of the two areas where hostilities erupted in 2001 between government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

The video was initially shared on Facebook and has so far been viewed by over half a million people. The clip has also drawn thousands of viewers on YouTube. Facebook users have dubbed it the "Speech of the year." 

(Link to video with English subtitles)

"I call upon everyone to remain calm and to protect our people," the man says, before accusing officials in Skopje of ulterior motives in connection with the May 9-10 violence, "But to remain calm while they play dirty games?"

Analysts and locals have expressed skepticism about what the government called "a terrorist threat" in light of the recent wiretapping scandal that implicates the government in a massive abuse of power.

Toward the end of the viral video, a man in green sportswear appears, turns to the camera and says, "I'm Macedonian; record this," before embracing the soliloquist. The first man resumes speaking, saying: "If we speak about terrorism and nationalism, these are constructed things to make us fight each other. I've lived here for 40 years. I have never exchanged even 40 bad words with a Macedonian or an Albanian."

Antigovernment protests in early May have seen increasing cases of the Macedonian and Albanian flags flying side-by-side at rallies over alleged official excesses, including this May 5 tweet: 

Facebook and Twitter have been buzzing with angry posts by journalists, citizens, and activists directed at the ruling party.

Naser Selmani, president of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, wrote on Facebook after the weekend counterterrorism operation: "When criminals rule the country, innocent people suffer! They cover their criminal rule with bigger crimes. They'll do this until they can. Condolences to all the victims." 

The hashtags #протести (#protests) and #протестирам (#Iprotest) continue to trend. A movement by the same name has also emerged calling for the resignation of the government. 

One Twitter user looked for the silver lining amid the current chaos. "For years and years I have been following [the situation] and there has never been such a positive mood, such unity, interest. Just beautiful." 

"The coffee brewer at our office (Albanian) said to me this morning: We should protest and no one should go home until they resign." 

The image being shared on social media commemorating the eight police deaths in Kumanovo.The image being shared on social media commemorating the eight police deaths in Kumanovo.
The image being shared on social media commemorating the eight police deaths in Kumanovo.
The image being shared on social media commemorating the eight police deaths in Kumanovo.

An image of the Macedonian and Albanian flags together on a black ribbon with the words "Not Forgotten" has also spread via Facebook. The reference is to the eight policemen killed in the Kumanovo operation.

Muhamed Zekiri, the editor in chief of Alsat-M, an Albanian TV station that broadcasts in both Macedonian and Albanian, made it his profile picture

A message shared by Macedonian and Albanian activists that calls for the resignation of the ruling conservative VMRO-DMPNE and its coalition partner, the ethnic Albanian DUI, has been making the rounds online. 

Whether this newfound desire for unity will serve as a turning point is an important question for Macedonia, which is still reeling from the short-lived but violent ethnic conflict in 2001. That bloodshed strained the fabric of Macedonian society, where ethnic Albanians make up around one-quarter of the country's 2.1 million people.

-- Deana Kjuka

Video 'Russian Tanks In Washington' Video Triggers U.S. Secret Service Probe

A screen grab from a video posted on YouTube that seemingly shows images of Russian military vehicles projected onto the facade of the White House.

WASHINGTON – Did pro-Kremlin activists beam images of Russian tanks onto the facade of the White House to protest what they call Washington's efforts to prevent foreign leaders from traveling to Moscow to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany?
A YouTube video of this purported light show has notched hundreds of thousands of views after it was uploaded this week by a nationalist-oriented Russian film group, which has claimed credit for the prank. 
It's unclear from the video itself whether the alleged prank is merely a ruse or whether the activists actually pulled off the stunt.
But the U.S. Secret Service, the federal agency tasked with protecting the president, is now investigating the authenticity of the footage.
"The Secret Service is aware of this alleged incident. Appropriate follow-up is being conducted at this time," Nicole Mainor, a spokeswoman for agency, told RFE/RL in an emailed comment.
The video was uploaded to YouTube on May 6 by a film production group called Set, or "Network," and had garnered more than 750,000 views on the site as of May 8.
It is prefaced with a text stating that U.S. President Barack Obama "has forbidden many world leaders" from visiting Moscow for the city's Victory Day parade on May 9 -- a clear reference to the fact that Western heads of state are skipping Russia's commemorations of the defeat of Nazi Germany in light of the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula last year and its backing for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"If Barack doesn't go to Moscow['s] Victory Day Parade, the Parade will go to Barack!" the text accompanying the video reads.
With a soundtrack comprising one of the most famous Russian patriotic military marches, Farewell Of Slavyanka, the video proceeds to show footage of tanks and missiles parading across Red Square being beamed onto the face of the White House as bystanders mill about and film the spectacle with their smart phones.

WATCH: 'Russian Tanks In Washington'

The Russian website TJ Journal reports that the film group was founded by alumni of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, which gained notoriety for its anti-Western stunts and for hounding foreign diplomats and Russian opposition activists. 
The YouTube video also provides a link to a website for a Russian patriotic film festival using a URL titled "vezhliviye tanky," or "polite tanks."
The title is an apparent reference to the phrase "polite people," a term used in Russia to refer to armed men who entered Crimea in February 2014 and seized government buildings, paving the way for the Kremlin's annexation of the peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin later admitted that the men were Russian troops.
TJ Journal notes that a member of the film festival's jury, Yury Degtyaryov, is linked to a March prank in which a light show was projected onto the facade of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. 
Anastasia Melnik, a spokeswoman for the film group behind the alleged White House light show, neither confirmed nor denied the authenticity of the stunt portrayed in the video.
Contacted by RFE/RL on May 8, she directed inquiries to a statement on the group's website noting that "the video was shot in May of this year."

-- Carl Schreck

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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