Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Photogallery Georgian Patriarch Blames Deadly Flooding On Communists' Sins

Georgian Patriarch Ilia II leads a midnight Christmas service at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi in January 2013.

Farangis Najibullah

The head of Georgia's Orthodox Church has an explanation for the heavy flooding that devastated Tbilisi on June 14, killing at least 13 people and leaving escaped zoo animals to fend for themselves.

According to Patriarch Ilia II, the devastation is punishment for the communist persecution of Christians and the origins of the zoo itself.

"When the communist regime was established in Georgia, it ordered that all the crosses and bells in churches be melted down and the money used to build the zoo," InterPressNews and Gruzia Online quoted Ilia as saying during a June 14 sermon.

The patriarch concluded that the deaths of people and animals were "the result" of the communist rulers' actions.

Ilia suggested that the zoo be vacated and rebuilt in a different location, because the current zoo "was founded on sin."

The Tbilisi Zoo, which was established in 1927, was almost entirely destroyed by the flooding. Three zoo employees -- including a married couple that lived on the zoo grounds -- were among those reported killed in the disaster.

Scores of animals also died as a result of the flooding. Most are believed to have drowned, but an undetermined number -- including a hippopotamus, tigers, bears, and wolves -- escaped from their enclosures and into the city streets. Some were rounded up and returned to the zoo, but others were shot and killed by police.

PHOTO GALLERY: Search and rescue operations were continuing in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, a day after deadly floods swept through the city. 

  • A runaway hippopotamus walks down a flooded street in Tbilisi.
  • Men push a hippopotamus out of a flooded street. Zookeepers shot one hippo with a tranquilizer dart in order to capture it.
  • Debris covers a road where the Vere river burst its banks.
  • A soaking wet bear tries to escape from a flooded area of the Tbilisi zoo on June 14.
  • Animal footprints are seen in the mud on the grounds of the zoo.
  • The body of a bear lies next to destroyed cars at the Tbilisi zoo.
  • Another zoo animal that did not survive the flood
  • A man surveys the damage to some of the zoo enclosures.
  • Zoo employees recover the body of a wild boar that escaped during the floods.
  • A section of the zoo that suffered major damage
  • A municipal worker sits near the body of a lion.
  • Youngsters carry a swan that had escaped from the zoo on June 14.

Zoo director Zura Gurelidze demanded an explanation for the killing of zoo animals, including a rare white lion cub called Shumba, one the zoo's favorite attractions.

Police shot and killed six wolves near a children's hospital, while the hippopotamus was tranquilized and taken alive while walking past shops.

Several potentially dangerous animals remain unaccounted for, leaving officials to urge city residents to remain indoors as a search continues.

Antigay Russian Lawmaker Takes Aim At Game Of Thrones

St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov says morally bankrupt values often portrayed in Western TV "work on a subconscious level" and are seeping into the national psyche.

Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW -- A St. Petersburg lawmaker who styles himself as the crusading guardian of traditional Russian values has set his sights on corrupt films and the American TV fantasy series Game Of Thrones.

Vitaly Milonov has appealed to the Culture Ministry to devise a system to brand any film containing what he sees as deviant Western values as "harmful," while also listing the TV shows he feels should be banned.

Milonov, a member of United Russia who is famous for campaigning against so-called gay propaganda, told Izvestia that morally bankrupt values often portrayed in Western TV "work on a subconscious level" and are seeping into the national psyche.

Citing a popular MTV program that began in the 1990s, Milonov said he belonged to the Beavis and Butt-head era. "I'm in general a person of the old generation," Milonov told the pro-Kremlin newspaper. "I grew up when Beavis and Butt-head laughed at homosexuals and it was considered funny."

The animated characters Beavis and Butt-head were famous for their barely literate critiques of music videos and for mocking civilized society, but were not known for laughing at homosexuals.

"Certain ideological things are skillfully edited into everything. They do not affect the content so as not to appear obsessive," Milonov added. "What's more, ideas that were previously unacceptable are treated as absolutely normal. For example, there might be a lesbian or a homosexual in a film."

Milonov singled out the cult fantasy drama Game Of Thrones atop his suggested list of TV shows to be banned. 

"Every one in 10 characters is a sexual deviant," he was quoted as saying. "It is precisely through these kinds of works and their popularization in our conscious that a new understanding is being laid down that certain things and phenomena are normal." 

The HBO drama, which is known for its nudity, gore, and sexual violence, is hugely popular in Russia. According to Izvestia last week, some Russian parents have begun naming their children after Game Of Thrones characters.

The name Arya -- a main character in Game Of Thrones -- appeared for the first time in Russian birth registries last year, with eight Aryas registered in Moscow Oblast and four more in St. Petersburg.

Milonov has appealed to the Culture Ministry to devise a quality-control system by which the ministry would authorize films and other works of art with a "stamp of quality." Morally devious works would be branded "harmful." The lawmaker of Russia's culture capital proposed naming the quality-control system "The Concept For Defending The Information Space Of The Fatherland."

Earlier this month Milonov proposed introducing fines on people appearing in public nude or in unacceptable clothing such as undergarments or swimsuits. 

No, Nikola Tesla's Remains Aren't Sparking Devil Worship In Belgrade

Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Museum -- or the devil's workshop?

The late Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla just can't catch a break in Belgrade.

Bizarre comments by a city councilor there have reignited a devilish debate over the final resting place of his ashes.

Nikola Nikodijevic, the Socialist president of the Serbian capital's city council, told fellow councilors in Belgrade on June 8 that an order had come from the senior ranks of the Serbian Orthodox Church for Tesla's remains to be moved out of the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade. 

In the middle of a debate about whether Belgrade should commission a monument to the world-renowned electrical engineer and physicist, Nikodijevic said, "If you really want me to tell you the truth, this is an initiative by Patriarch [Irinej], who came to the city council and begged us to remove the ashes because of the satanic rituals that are taking place in the museum."

He later acknowledged that he'd used "strong language," but stood behind his assertion that the Serbian Orthodox Church was requesting the relocation.

But Branimir Jovanovic, director of the Nikola Tesla Museum, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that it was all a big misunderstanding. "I have been working at the museum for more than 20 years. We preserve and take care of everything concerning Tesla. This kind of story has nothing to do with reality," he said.

Some of his most controversial theories on energy and matter, as well as his ambitious hopes for emerging technologies at the time, were regarded as heretical by critics in the religious establishment.

There was no confirmation of satanic concerns on the part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. But it wouldn't be the first time the church's leadership has gotten all charged up over Tesla.

In March 2014, government officials, reportedly pressured by the Serbian Orthodox Church, sought to move Tesla's ashes from the museum to St. Sava Church -- the largest Orthodox Church in the world, where other Serbian national heroes are buried.

However, the initiative -- proposed by the patriarch and supported by the energy minister and city mayor -- was dropped after citizens protested

An ethnic Serb born in Croatia, Tesla was a pioneer in harnessing electrical, radio, and X-ray technologies. After initially working abroad for another genius of invention, Thomas Edison, Tesla moved to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen and lived out an active if not necessarily lucrative experimental and entrepreneurial life until his death in 1943.

It wasn't until 1957 that his ashes were moved to the Nikola Tesla Museum in Belgrade.

-- Dusan Komarcevic and Deana Kjuka

Video VICE Uncovers Putin's Teenage Army

VICE News has an alarming video about children being trained in a patriotic youth club in the separatist Donetsk People's Republic.

VICE News traveled to Amvrosievka to meet children in a patriotic youth club that we first encountered on a Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) anniversary parade earlier this year, where they were marching, dressed in paratrooper uniforms, and waving a large DPR flag.

They have been trained in fighting with knives, hand-to-hand combat, and how to operate guns at the local school in Amvrosievka for the last five years. And they invited us as to see them participate in a regional competition called "Future Warrior." 

History Hijacked: Four Facts Recast By The Kremlin

According to Vladimir Putin, Soviet leader Josef Stalin (left, with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the pact's signing) had no choice but to agree to divide up Eastern Europe in a secret pact with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

A new Russian film on the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia has revived accusations that the Kremlin is twisting historical facts to forge a new ideology and justify some of its most controversial actions and policies.

Here is a look at some remarkable recent Russian treatments of history:

1968 Soviet-Led Invasion Of Czechoslovakia

A Russian film glorifying the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 has sparked fury among Czechs and Slovaks

Warsaw Pact: The Declassified Pages, which aired on state-run Russian television on May 23, justifies the armed crackdown on the democratic "Prague Spring" movement and claims Warsaw Pact troops were sent into Czechoslovakia to protect its citizens from a purported NATO threat.

Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek accused Russia of "grossly distorting" history and summoned the Russian ambassador in protest. Czech President Milos Zeman, who is seen as relatively Kremlin-friendly, dismissed the film as "Russian propaganda lies," according to his spokesman.

The Slovak Foreign Ministry accused Russia of "trying to rewrite history and falsify historical truths about this dark chapter of our history."

Defense Of The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Putin caused dismay across Europe last year by arguing there was nothing wrong with the infamous 1939 nonaggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which led to the carve-up of Eastern Europe.

"What's bad about that if the Soviet Union didn't want to fight?" he asked a meeting with historians in Moscow. "Serious research must show that those were the foreign-policy methods then."

Last month, Putin again defended the pact during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying the deal was signed "when the Soviet Union realized it was being left one-on-one with Hitler's Germany" despite what he described as "repeated efforts" by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to form an anti-Hitler coalition with Western countries.

Merkel responded by pointing out that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact encompassed a secret protocol under which Stalin and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler agreed to divide Eastern Europe into respective spheres of influence.

The agreement paved the way for Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, as well as the Soviet Union's invasion of eastern Poland in the following weeks and its occupation of the Baltic states in 1940.

Hitler Was 'Good' Until 1939

Amid Russia's persistent claims that Ukraine is teeming with neo-Nazis, a pro-Kremlin Russian newspaper caused stupor last year with an article asserting that Hitler was actually "good" before World War II.

"We should distinguish between Hitler before 1939 and Hitler after 1939, and separate the wheat from the chaff," read the piece in Izvestia, which rejected comparisons between Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland to Putin's annexation of Crimea. 

The author, Andranik Migranyan -- who heads the New York office of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, an NGO set up under President Vladimir Putin in 2007 -- credited Hitler with uniting Germany, Austria, the Sudetenland, and Memel "without a single drop of blood."

"If Hitler stopped at that, he would be remembered in his country's history as a politician of the highest order," Migranyan stated.

Critics reminded Migranyan about some of Hitler's most horrific policies prior to 1939, including the establishment of concentration camps, the purges of "non-Aryans," the creation of the Gestapo, and the bloody Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938.

Crimea As Sacred Cradle Of Russian Civilization

President Vladimir Putin has gone to great lengths to defend Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by portraying the peninsula as a holy cradle of Russian civilization.

Speaking in a state-of-the-nation address in December, he said Crimea had an "enormous civilizational and sacral meaning for Russia, just as the Temple Mount of Jerusalem does for those who profess Islam and Judaism."

Grand Prince Vladimir is believed to have converted Kievan Rus to Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century after being baptized in Crimea.

The logic behind the annexation, however, is disputed as the conversion of Kievan Rus established the foundations for both the Russian and Ukrainian states.

The Black Sea peninsula was also home to various populations before Russia first annexed it from the Ottoman Empire in 1783, including Greek colonies some 2,500 years ago and Crimean Tatars, who today are considered the region's indigenous population -- and have been under increasing pressure since the Russian takeover in March 2014.

-- Claire Bigg

Russian State Newspaper Duped By Parody About U.S. Military Strikes On FIFA

The Russian government’s official daily newspaper appears to have been duped by a satirical report stating that U.S. Senator John McCain supports American “military action” against FIFA after Switzerland this week arrested seven officials with global soccer’s governing body on corruption charges.

In a May 29 op-ed published by Russia’s state-owned Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the author states as a fact that McCain “has decided to sic the Pentagon” on FIFA after the officials were arrested in Zurich on May 27 based on a request by U.S. prosecutors.

“It seems the time is not far off when McCain will demand that American forces invade the UN headquarters,” writes the author, Vladislav Vorobyov.

The kindling for Vorobyov’s rage, however, was a parody piece by the well-known American satirist Andy Borowitz that was published May 28 on the website of the the U.S. magazine The New Yorker.

Borowitz’s piece, titled McCain Urges Military Strikes Against FIFA, clearly lampoons the U.S. senator’s reputation as a security hawk whom critics -- including top Russian officials -- regularly portray as dangerously supportive of deploying the American military to solve international crises.

In 2007, McCain famously quoted a parody of the Beach Boys song Barbara Ann in a joke about launching military strikes against Iran.

“That old Beach Boys song, ‘Bomb Iran,’” McCain said at an appearance in 2007 during his failed presidential campaign. 

In his Rossiiskaya Gazeta op-ed, Vorobyov cites the following fake quote from McCain concocted by the satirist:

“These are people who only understand one thing: force,” McCain said on the floor of the United States Senate. “We must make FIFA taste the vengeful might and fury of the United States military.”

Russia’s leadership, including President Vladimir Putin, have reacted angrily to the arrest of the FIFA officials in connection with a U.S. corruption case and a Swiss criminal probe linked to the bidding process that awarded Russia the World Cup in 2018 and Qatar the World Cup in 2022.

Swiss authorities announced they were opening their own criminal probe tied to the bidding process that awarded Russia the World Cup in 2018 and Qatar the World Cup in 2022.

Swiss authorities on May 27 arrested senior soccer officials for alleged corruption in connection with a U.S. case targeting FIFA executives and launched their own criminal proceedings relating to the way the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 were awarded to Russia and Qatar.

Before the Kremlin commented on the shocking legal drama unfolding over alleged activities at global soccer authority FIFA, the Russian Internet and other media lit up as Russians reacted to news of investigations that could cast a harsh light on Russia's successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

“If [McCain] had real power, who would he have given the order to bomb next?” Vorobyov writes in his op-ed. “Soccer stadiums?”

The Russian news portal The Insider cited Rossiiskaya Gazeta editor in chief Vladislav Fronin as saying that he was unaware of the situation with the op-ed and could not comment. 

-- Carl Schreck

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

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 transmission+rferl.org

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