News & Current Affairs

September 16, 2008

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

Roma poverty a major issue for EU

The European Union’s freedom of movement laws mean Eastern Europe’s large population of Roma (Gypsies) is now spreading west.

Roma family in Hungary

Roma make up around 10% of the population in Eastern Europe

The effect of this influx on national economies, as well as the deep poverty of the EU’s Roma, are high on the agenda as the first summit on Roma integration within the EU begins in Brussels.

Italy and Spain have received the most Roma, mainly from Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, where they make up more than 10% of the population.

Italy has witnessed the most serious effects – murders blamed on Roma, and revenge attacks by vigilante groups, followed by controversial government attempts to fingerprint Roma immigrants.

In Hungary, there is tension between Roma and non-Roma, after the lynching of a teacher by a Roma mob in one village, and attacks on a lorry driver and his family in another – both after road traffic accidents involving Roma children.

The creation of a “Hungarian Guard”, by far-right groups who arrive in villages after such incidents, is fueling fears of an explosion.

Integration key

“I don’t really know how the EU could help,” said Andras Ujlaky, head of the Chance for Children Foundation in Hungary.

“But perhaps they could start by pressurizing national governments to implement their own declared policies in housing, employment and education.”

Hungarian customs trainee Jozsef Nagy
There weren’t many opportunities… This was the chance for me!
Jozsef Nagy
Trainee customs officer

In Hungary, an earlier policy to give money to schools for the mentally disabled, to which a disproportionate number of Roma were sent, was abandoned when it was realized that it encouraged segregation.

Now funds are focused on mainstream schools which accept more Roma – though they impose limits of 25% Roma in a class.

There has been a wave of school closures in recent years in Hungary, as population figures fall.

That cuts both ways for the Roma. When Roma ghetto schools close, and the children are redistributed among schools with an ethnic Hungarian majority, it helps integration efforts.

The town of Hodmezovasarhely in south-eastern Hungary has been a pioneer, with five out of 11 primary schools closed last year alone.

But in far-flung villages with a majority Roma population, Roma and non-Roma parents alike are upset when local schools close and children are bussed off each day to towns.

The links between the parents and the schools are broken.

An alternative policy, supported by opposition parties, would be to improve the facilities and standard of teaching in existing schools.

Police drive

In eastern Hungary poverty is so endemic – with the Roma blamed for widespread petty theft – that the head of the Hungarian Poultry Board recently complained that people are no longer raising hens in several counties.

One new initiative for Roma integration in Budapest is being run by Gyorgy Makula, a policeman of Roma origin.

Hungarian police officer Gyorgy Makula (left) and some Roma boys

Officer Gyorgy Makula (left) hopes to help Roma boys out of the ghetto

Giant placards will be placed at strategic points around Budapest, to try to encourage more Roma to consider a police career.

Data protection laws make it impossible to measure how many Roma police there are in Hungary, but Gyorgy Makula estimates no more than 200, in a police force of 38,000.

“We should show to the Hungarian people, to the majority, among them the police staff, that there are really excellent people in this community who have been working for the police, who are not criminals of course.

“So we would like to change the mind of the people,” said Capt Makula.

At the Police High School, on Szecsenyi Hill overlooking Budapest, Jozsef Nagy, a third-year trainee customs officer, says he always wanted to join one of the law enforcement agencies.

“There weren’t many opportunities in our village to get somewhere in life. This was the chance for me!” he said.

Bending rules

One obstacle to increasing Roma numbers in the police is the fact that fewer than 10% of Roma students complete secondary school in Hungary.

A new idea is to bend the rules – to let them begin police training, and take their school-leaving exams inside the police academy.

In Csorog, a village less than an hour’s drive north of Budapest, with a large Roma population, the idea of more Roma policemen goes down well.

“I can foresee some problems,” said Zoltan Lakatos, a dustman, “if a policeman was forced to arrest one of his own relatives. But on the whole it’s a good idea. I think it would help.”

But his son, Zoli, 15, cannot imagine himself in uniform, planning a career steeped in Roma tradition.

“I’ve already decided,” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer. I’m going to teach Gypsy dance.”

August 23, 2008

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

Russia’s neighbours go their own way

It is easy to assume that escalating tensions between Russia and the West could mean an end to the blurry fudges of the post-Cold War years and a recasting of East-West relations into black and white antagonism, with two opposing camps, each surrounded by its own sphere of influence.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is flanked (right) by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in Tbilisi on 12 August

Ukraine’s leader (R) went to Tbilisi to back President Saakashvili

But look at how the Georgia crisis is being received around Russia’s edges. The response is often evasive, and sometimes downright surprising.

Among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which 20 years ago were constituent parts of the USSR whose loyalty to Moscow was automatic, Russia has won remarkably few endorsements. Some Central Asian states have sent in aid to South Ossetia. But on the whole the response has been decidedly muted.

To be fair, Georgia too has drawn criticism. But gone are the days when Moscow could rely on satellite states to speak up for it. For Russia’s leaders to declare that Russia was and always will be the “guarantor of stability” in the Caucasus is now a risky statement that could repel as well as draw regional backing.

Its neighbours are now independent countries whose priority is not to please the Kremlin but turn any crisis to their advantage, or worry about how it might adversely affect them.

Economic interests first

Next door to Georgia in the Caucasus, Azerbaijan’s top concern is to keep the pipeline that runs from Baku through Georgian territory to Turkey free from threat of attack.

But President Ilham Aliyev is also apparently wary of aggravating Russia. He has now publically backed Georgia’s territorial integrity, but steered clear of more vigorous support of Tbilisi.

Elderly refugees from South Ossetia sit in a refugee camp in North Ossetia, Russia,  on 10 August

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have donated aid for Ossetian refugees

Landlocked Turkmenistan too, with its immense gas fields on the other side of the Caspian Sea, has a lively interest in making sure the Baku pipeline is not disrupted and Georgia remains a stable reliable partner.

It competes as well as collaborates with Russia as an energy supplier. It does not want one of its main outlets threatened.

And beleaguered Armenia, at the southern tip of the Caucasus, has even more reason to be alarmed. Any prolonged conflict in Georgia would disrupt all its supply routes.

Further west and closer to Europe in the “former Soviet space”, there has been an even more marked shift in governmental responses.

Tiny impoverished Moldova, on the border between Romania and Ukraine, has its own “frozen conflict” unsolved from Soviet days: the Russian-supported and heavily armed enclave of Trans-Dniester.

So this week Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin pointedly turned to the European Union for help in finding a peaceful way out of that stand-off.

Ukrainian ambivalence

In Ukraine, President Viktor Yushchenko from the very start saw Russia’s military intervention in Georgia as an implied threat. Ukraine too is a Nato aspirant, and Russia has frequently warned it that Nato membership is something it will not tolerate.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (image from 14 July)

Yulia Tymoshenko is likely to run in the next election

So President Yushchenko was swift to define himself as the champion of Ukraine’s right to join Nato and defy Russian pressure.

Not only did he fly to Tbilisi to offer moral support, he issued a presidential decree to remind Russia that its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in the Crimea does, after all, use a Ukrainian port.

In future, he demanded, Russia must give 72 hours’ notice before moving its vessels and he once again raised the prospect that Ukraine might not renew its lease for the port when it expires in 2017.

But how Russia’s relations with Ukraine might unwind is not straightforward.

The fear has certainly been expressed in Kiev that a restive pro-Russian population in the Crimea might provide a pretext for another Russian military intervention. Russian nationalists who see the Crimea as historically Russian territory would seize any pretext to realise their ambitions, goes the argument.

What is certainly true is that a clash between Moscow and Kiev over the Crimea would probably cleave Ukraine in half and open up a dangerous conflict with widespread repercussions. But a more likely scenario is less dramatic.

Russia has only to wait for a change in Ukrainian politics. President Yushchenko may be a prominent leader but his long term-durability is not guaranteed. Opinion polls put his popularity at under 10%.

With presidential elections due in 18 months, the Kremlin may well reckon it can look for a more reliable partner in his likely opponent and current Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been remarkably quiet on the Georgia crisis.

Mixed signals from Minsk

But perhaps the most interesting response has come from Belarus and its President, Alexander Lukashenko, sometimes described as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Belarussian police arrest demonstrators outside the Russian embassy on 11 August

Belarussian police pounced on anti-Russian protestors during the conflict

Only a few years ago Russia was such a close ally, there was talk of the two countries merging, so one might have expected him to back Russia’s action in the Caucasus.

But Belarus has had a series of bad-tempered rows with Russia over energy supplies and has recently shown more interest in improving Western contacts.

The initial response from Minsk to Russia’s intervention in Georgia was decidedly ambivalent – so much so, that the Russian ambassador there even publicly expressed his displeasure.

President Lukashenko then travelled to Sochi to reassure President Medvedev that Moscow’s military operation had been conducted “calmly, wisely and beautifully”.

But he took steps to clear the way for better relations with the US and Europe.

In the last few days the final three political prisoners in Belarus have been suddenly released – the beneficiaries, it seems, of an unexpected presidential pardon.

“It’s very significant,” said Britain’s Ambassador to Minsk, Nigel Gould Davies. “For the first time in a decade Belarus does not have any political prisoners.”

And watch this space. Whether Belarus is really serious about improving its relations with the West will be tested in September, when it holds parliamentary elections.

August 19, 2008

One dead, many hurt in bus crash

One dead, many hurt in bus crash

 Crashed coach [BBC exclusive pic from Karen Taylor]

The passengers were foreign workers [BBC exclusive pic from Karen Taylor]

One man died and 70 others were injured when a coach carrying migrant workers rolled down an embankment and overturned in Staffordshire.

The vehicle collided with a car, crashed through a wall and ended up in a garden in Alton, near Alton Towers theme park, just before 1800 BST.

Those aboard were from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and South Africa.

Two people were flown to hospital and 29 others taken to hospital by road, ambulance officials said.

The man who died was 26 years old and from Poland, police said.

The passengers were reported to be living in the Peterborough area and to have been on a trip to Alton Towers.

Murray MacGregor, of West Midlands Ambulance Service, said the coach driver, a man from Lincolnshire, was also seriously injured.

Ch Insp John Maddox, from Staffordshire Police, said officers were trying to establish what caused the crash.

“The bus was coming down a steep hill towards the bridge at the bottom, and from what I can see at the scene, that bus has not managed to go round the bend, and has careered through a wall and down a drop into a garden,” he said.

All people on the coach have been accounted for, he added.

The ambulance service said 44 walking wounded had been taken to Alton Towers for medical treatment.

Two air ambulances, 10 land ambulances, five rapid response vehicles and five fire engines were sent to the scene.

Ian Sloss, a spokesman for the Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service, said the scene was very difficult.

“There’s a bus in a difficult situation which crews have had to secure and obviously the crews are working very hard in difficult circumstances,” he said.

Two of the seriously injured were flown from the scene, one to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and one to University Hospital North Staffordshire.

Terri Peachey, whose garden the coach crashed into, said she heard a sound “like thunder” when the accident happened and found injured people “bleeding”, screaming and “laying on the floor crying” in her garden.

Proposals have been made for alternative routes, but nothing’s ever been built
David Hughes

“It all happened so quickly,” she said, adding that the coach landed meters from her house.

Bradley Ford, who lives at the nearby Alton Bridge Hotel, told he had helped with casualties.

He said: “I heard this massive crash, rumble, of either crunching metal or what sounded to me initially as a thunderstorm as it was heavily raining before.

Walking wounded

“Then after that we heard shouts and screams so we obviously put it down to a crash.

“When I got to the scene there was a bus overturned, it looked like it had ploughed into a car and then down a neighbor’s driveway into the garden.

“It must have dropped about 20ft (6m). It was on a slope, it’s diagonal, not head-first.”

He added: “There were people climbing out of the fire exits on the bus. There were many walking wounded, all being seen to by the ambulance staff.”

Emergency services near the scene [James Hughes]

It is believed the bus was carrying foreign workers

The collision happened on Station Road, between Alton and the theme park, which is about one mile away.

Margaret Grice, who lives near the scene, said some of the injured banged on her front door.

She said: “I went to the front door and there was… there was about 12 to 15 people, all crying hysterically, blood running down their faces and their arms and… they couldn’t speak English but they were able to say “accident, accident” so at that point I then rang 999.”

Martin Bredda, who lives close to the scene of the crash, described the road as “an accident waiting to happen”.

“It’s a narrow country road. It’s mayhem, absolute mayhem. We had a torrential downpour of rain just before it happened.

“I was in the local pub when someone came in screaming for blankets and sheets.

“We all went to help but the area had been cordoned off by police.”

The staff canteen at the theme park has been set aside to provide shelter and refreshments.

The park sent a minibus to the scene to collect anyone who had been released by the ambulance crews, a spokeswoman said.

The bus was not connected to Alton Towers, she added.


Did you witness the crash? Send us your eye witness accounts

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Nato holds Georgia crisis summit

Russian soldiers near Gori, Georgia, on 18 August 2008

Moscow insists that its troops have begun pulling back, as promised

Nato foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels for an emergency summit to discuss how the alliance should respond to Russia’s military action in Georgia.

On the eve of the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the West must deprive Russia of any strategic victory from its assault on Georgia.

But major differences remain among Nato members as to how far they should go in seeking to punish Russia, analysts say.

Tbilisi says Russia is not pulling out, as pledged, but Moscow denies it.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

A ceasefire was signed at the weekend, with Moscow pledging to begin pulling back its troops on Monday, but correspondents say there has so far been little sign of any large-scale force withdrawal.

We hope the decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era
Dmitry Rogozin
Russia’s ambassador to Nato

Officials in Tbilisi said there was no evidence that Russian troops were leaving Georgian territory, but the Russian defence ministry said the redeployment had begun and would be complete within days.

As Nato’s 26 foreign ministers gather in Brussels, the BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says there is disagreement among the alliance as to how to respond, so the focus will be on where members can agree.

It is thought that in one camp, Britain, Canada, the US and most Eastern European member states will seek a tough stance on Russia, but most of Western Europe, led by France and Germany, is expected to be more cautious of harming ties with Moscow.

Flying to the Nato meeting, Ms Rice told reporters: “We have to deny Russian strategic objectives, which are clearly to undermine Georgia’s democracy, to use its military capability to damage and in some cases destroy Georgian infrastructure and to try and weaken the Georgian state.”

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

Our correspondent says the summit, called at the Americans’ request, looks set to offer strong support to the government in Tbilisi, stressing Nato’s commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty.

A Nato spokeswoman told AFP news agency: “I think you can expect a strong message to Russia.”

The alliance is also expected to reiterate its backing for the agreement it reached in Romania back in April that Georgia will one day be offered membership of Nato, without setting any dates.

Nato is also expected to offer more humanitarian aid and proposals on how to rebuild Georgian infrastructure damaged in the conflict.

Our correspondent says Nato’s immediate diplomatic goals are a full Russian withdrawal, an enhanced observer force and, ultimately, a more neutral peacekeeping arrangement.

He says high-level contacts between Nato and Russia could be suspended if Russians do not pull back to the positions their peacekeepers occupied before the hostilities.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The sight of GWB [US President George Bush] complaining about Russia’s “disproportionate use of force” is hilarious

Max, London

Washington has denied claims from Moscow that it is out to wreck the Nato-Russia Council – a consultative panel set up in 2002 to improve ties between the former Cold War enemies.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to Nato, said on Monday he hoped the “decisions by Nato will be balanced and that responsible forces in the West will give up the total cynicism that has been so evident [which] is pushing us back to the Cold War era”, reported the Associated Press news agency.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili struck a conciliatory tone on Monday as he called for talks with Russia, saying: “Let’s resolve problems through civilized methods.”

Map of region

Blog at WordPress.com.