Thursday, March 31, 2011

Gay Rights At Center Stage In Battle Over Moldova Antidiscrimination Bill

When the Moldovan government submitted a draft antidiscrimination law to parliament last month, conservative Orthodox Christian forces in the country treated it as a call to battle.

And that call was heeded by U.S. pastor and lawyer Scott Lively, who traveled to Chisinau to warn the country against adopting any measure that would bar discrimination against homosexuals.

The bill outlaws discrimination against anyone on the basis of religion, nationality, ethnic origin, language, religion, color, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, political opinion, or social status. It was proposed as part of Moldova's effort to gain an association agreement with the European Union.

The controversial Lively believes homosexuality is a lifestyle choice with dire social consequences and has made a career in recent years campaigning against gay rights around the world. His website claims he has spoken in more than 30 countries.

"I've been dealing with these laws all over the world and I recognize -- as I said there in the lectures I gave and the media interviews that I gave -- an antidiscrimination law based on sexual orientation is the seed that contains the entire tree of the homosexual political agenda with all of its poisonous fruit," Lively tells RFE/RL, "and that, if you allow an antidiscrimination policy to go into effect, it essentially puts the power of the law and the government into the hands of gay activists and makes people who disapprove of homosexuality criminals."

Mainstream science rejects the notion that sexual orientation is a matter of personal choice.

Antihomosexual Crusader

Lively was invited to Moldova in January by two conservative Christian groups -- Pro Familia and Moldova Crestina.

"The antidiscrimination bill is only a seed. Once it is planted in a country, it turns into a whole tree that bears poisoned fruit," Pro Familia Vice President Vitalie Marian tells RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.

Marian adds that Lively "explicitly told us that this bill is just the beginning, and later homosexuals will be given rights, starting with the right to hold public demonstrations."

Since Lively's visit, Pro Familia has created an online "black list" of Moldovan public figures who support gay rights. The list includes several parliament members and the head of state television. People who appear on the list can have their names removed by submitting a written statement opposing the antidiscrimination measure.

Lively, who heads the Temecula, California-based Abiding Truth Ministries, co-authored the controversial book "The Pink Swastika," which argued that homosexuality in the Nazi Party contributed to militancy in the Third Reich.

He played a prominent role in generating support for a widely criticized bill in Uganda that would criminalize homosexual activity and, in its original version, called for the death penalty for some homosexuals.

Fears Of Genocide, Child Abuse

Boris Dittrich, acting director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) program, just returned to the United States from a trip to Moldova, where he discussed Lively's visit with rights advocates in Chisinau.

"He came there with a story like what he told in Uganda, that if this antidiscrimination law would be accepted, the society would be homosexualized and the homosexuals would take over and it would be very dangerous," Dittrich says.

In Uganda, Lively met with lawmaker David Bahati, who drafted the antigay bill, and gave speeches in which he tied gays to the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

"He stirred up a lot of fear in Uganda," says Warren Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania, who has followed Lively's activity. "He told them that homosexuals had an unusual interest in children and so that to protect your children, you should construct stronger laws against homosexuality and enforce them."

In Moldova, however, Lively did not publicly advocate criminalizing homosexuality, but limited himself to campaigning against the antidiscrimination bill. He said he met with one member of parliament while he was in Chisinau.

Exporting U.S. Culture Wars

Lively is not the first controversial U.S. antihomosexual campaigner to find his way to Moldova. Psychologist Paul Cameron -- a sex researcher who argues that homosexuality is associated with child sex abuse and other social evils and whose work has been repudiated by major professional associations in the United States -- visited the country in October 2008 and again in May 2009.

Cameron campaigns actively for the criminalization of homosexuality on public-health grounds, Throckmorton notes, and so he "promotes laws against homosexuality much in the way some countries criminalize or sanction smoking in public places. He just believes that homosexuality is harmful to health and harmful to the culture."

Julie Dorf is a senior adviser with the Council for Global Equality, a U.S.-based NGO that works to oppose human rights abuses directed at individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. She criticizes Lively and Cameron for exporting a message that has been rejected in the United States.

"And in the last few years we've seen them increasingly going around the world exporting their hatred and spewing these complete lies and misconceptions about LGBT people, preying on the vulnerability and, in some cases, the ignorance of people around the world by getting them very excited with the idea of getting rid of homosexuality," Dorf says.

Angela Frolov, head of GenderDoc-M, Moldova's main LGBT group, tells RFE/RL that Cameron was allowed to address university students during his Moldova visits.

Long Battle Ahead

Lively says the effort to adopt antidiscrimination legislation around the world has been spearheaded by gay activists. He argues that they are distorting the historical conception of human rights and points to the United Kingdom as an example of the danger he thinks lies ahead for Moldova.

"By adopting this [antidiscrimination measures] and normalizing homosexuality, it [the United Kingdom] has turned real human rights on its head and the people who are attempting to defend and live out religious freedom and family values as they've always been understood are now the ones being discriminated against," Lively says.

"And people who define themselves by voluntary sodomy -- a voluntary lifestyle based on sodomy -- now have the power to suppress and oppress people who are simply attempting to exercise their religious freedom and long-established traditions as regards family and human sexuality."

Human Rights Watch's Dittrich says the proposed legislation in Moldova is similar to discrimination protections adopted in other parts of the region, such as Albania, Macedonia, and Croatia. He notes that the countries in that part of the world "didn't have antidiscrimination legislation, so it's very good that they include sexual orientation and hopefully also gender identity. So, it's not a wild law, no. This is to protect people against discrimination."

The Moldovan legislation has passed through two parliamentary committees, but is now stalled. Influential lawmakers from the opposition Communist Party have declared in the wake of Lively's visit that they will not consider the bill as long as it includes protections based on sexual orientation.

Dittrich says the measure faces a long political process.

By Mircea Ticudean, Robert Coalson. Published on 14 March 2011
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

EU Set To Retool Policy Toward Neighbors

The European Union is overhauling its policy toward its eastern and southern neighbors as the 27-nation bloc seeks a fresh approach to integrate post-Soviet countries.

Since 2004, the EU's Neighborhood Policy has sought to court those same 16 countries with offers of financial assistance in exchange for progress on political and economic reform.

A more targeted program, the Eastern Partnership, was established in 2008 and aims to strengthen political and economic relations between the EU and six former Soviet states -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- through visa agreements, free-trade deals and strategic partnership pacts.

Stefan Fuele, the EU's Enlargement Commissioner, said on March 27 that a revised version of the Neighborhood Policy will be rolled out in May. Speaking at the Brussels Forum, an annual meeting focusing on EU policy, Fuele said the revised approach will include stricter conditions for aid.

"As a result of this review process, you are going to have still one neighborhood policy covering both dimensions, east and south," Fuele said. "But you will have a much bigger differentiations not only between the south and the east but also within the south and within the east, with minimum of benchmarks and with individual programs for each and every of our partners."

Fuele added that the EU's new diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, would be deeply involved in the new policy and several EU embassies in target countries would be upgraded.

Pushing For More

The new catchphrase European officials are using to describe the policy change, "more for more," stresses that both expectations and rewards will be greater for participants in the Neighborhood Policy.

"A reformed European neighborhood policy should reward real progress. We want more for more," Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, whose country is due to take over the rotating six-month EU Presidency in July, said. "The faster the reforms, the greater the openness to European processes in the countries concerned, the faster the EU should respond."

Sikorski also stressed that the methods that had brought in the 10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, into the EU from 2004-07 are no longer applicable.

"I believe that we have run out of steam on the model that brought us, in central Europe, into the EU, and the model was this," Sikorski said. "We give you a very large carrot; membership after a grueling period of reform that requires a sort of national obsession on the part of the candidate countries. Since we are not prepared to give that big promise to the Eastern partnership countries, we should create a system of small carrots spaced out in sync with their political calendars so that particular government incentives to make reforms which they themselves would benefit."

The flip side of "more for more," of course, is that countries who fail to reform can expect "less for less," officials say.

Tough Postelection Tack

The policy changes come amid an ongoing crackdown on opposition activists in Belarus, a participant in both the Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership program, following a presidential election in December that critics say was marred by fraud.

Brussels had recently been courting Belarus with offers of better relations in exchange for political and economic reform.

Since the crackdown, the EU has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Belarus's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenska and 157 of his associates. Brussels added an additional 19 names to the sanctions list last week.

Both Fuele and Sikorski said the EU was monitoring the situation in Belarus closely and did not rule out more sanctions in the future.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Slovak Foreign Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, said he plans to push for a new round of economic sanctions at an EU foreign ministers' meeting on April 18.

"I am feeling from the beginning that only strong, tough economic sanctions can help," Dzurinda said, "especially to people detained in prisons on political grounds."

Likewise, Sikorski says Belarus's continued participation in the Eastern Partnership will be contingent on Minsk's behavior in the months prior to the program's upcoming summit in Warsaw in September.

Being Jaruzelski?

Due to the visa ban, Lukashenka will not be allowed to attend the Warsaw event. Sikorski says the Belarusian leader now has a choice: emulate Poland's last Communist ruler, Wojciech Jaruzelski, who negotiated a transition to democracy, or share the fate of deposed leaders in Egypt and Tunisia who were forced out of power in disgrace.

"It is still president Lukashenka's choice whether he wants to, metaphorically speaking, become General Jaruzelski," Sikorski said. "In other words, [become] a dictator who represses his people but then starts transition his country towards democracy, or whether he want to end up like the gentlemen in our southern neighborhood."

Meanwhile, several southern EU member states, most notably Spain, have argued that given the dramatic transition taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, the EU should divert more money to that region at the expense of Eastern Europe.

But Salome Samadashvili, Georgia's ambassador to the EU, told RFE/RL that Brussels should continue to reward the progress that has been made in her country and several others in the east.

"I am sure it is in the interests of the EU to continue to helping us to succeed because we also create a very good example to the southern neighbors," Samadashvili said.

By Rikard Jozwiak. Published on 28 March 2011
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Exiled Belarusian Presidential Candidate Senses Opposition's Moment To Unify

Ales Mikhalevich woke up on Belarus's election day -- December 19, 2010 -- as one of nine candidates vying to replace President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the man known as "Europe's last dictator."

Some 24 hours later, after a violent crackdown by the authorities on citizen protests against election fraud, Mikhalevich began the day in jail -- along with other top candidates and some 700 supporters.

The crackdown generated international condemnation and a fresh round of sanctions on Minsk by Brussels and Washington.

Now, the 35-year-old Mikhalevich is hundreds of kilometers from home, in the Czech Republic, which granted him political asylum on March 24. He told RFE/RL that from the safety of the European Union, he will devote his energy to activism and work to hold the Lukashenka regime's accountable.

"For the moment, I'm working more as a political activist," he says. "As a lawyer, I would like to make use of all international legal mechanisms -- and I've discovered that there are many of them -- because this isn't just about political prisoners; it's about torture in Europe on the borders of the European Union.

"I want to use my experience and knowledge in order to stop torture and ensure that there are no longer political prisoners in Belarus. I'm not thinking so much about my future political career."

Concentration Camp Conditions

Mikhalevich was discharged from a Minsk detention center on February 19, but only after he agreed to sign an agreement to collaborate with Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB).

In actuality, he said he never has -- and never would -- work with the security forces.

"I would be afraid above all of not being able to look my friends in the eyes if I became an agent of the KGB," he told RFE/RL. "I signed that document on cooperation knowing that I would immediately call a press conference and explain that I was in investigative custody and signed such a document."

Mikhalevich told reporters after his release that the conditions in jail were like a concentration camp. He said guards made him stand naked outdoors in freezing temperatures, deprived him of sleep, dragged him across the floor while handcuffed, kept him in an overcrowded cell, and interrogated him without a lawyer.

Recalling the experience, Mikhalevich said he knew that lesser-known prisoners probably experience even worse conditions.

"It's possible to survive under any circumstances. I calmed myself by thinking about the people imprisoned in secret camps -- in the gulag -- who were in much worse conditions and went through things that were much worse," he says.

"One of the main conclusions I reached was that, if they're going to publicly torture and mistreat former presidential candidates and public figures, understanding full well that sooner or later those people are going to talk about it, I could only imagine what would happen with former customs officials or law enforcement officers they're mistreating, understanding full well that no one is going to intercede on their behalf. Because who in our society is going to say, 'Oh, what a pity, they're mistreating customs officials.' "

Thorn In The Side

Mikhalevich said he also knew that regardless of what happened to him while he was in custody, he had already become a thorn in the side of the Lukashenka regime -- a role he says he now plans to expand by working closely with international rights groups.

"The authorities were in a situation where anything that they did with me would be bad. If they put me in jail, that would have created some bad publicity. If I stayed in Belarus, that would have been bad because they would have had to conduct a serious investigation into the acts of torture I talked about at [my postrelease] press conference." he says.

"The fact that I left is also bad because I'm now working with international organizations, with lawyers, with the United Nations commissioners on questions of torture."

Mikhalevich told RFE/RL that because the authorities had prohibited him from leaving Belarus, when he decided to leave the country he left his mobile phone in Minsk, suspecting that the KGB uses people's phone signals to track them.

He said a friend drove him into Russian territory and then into Ukraine. With his current passport in police custody, he used an old passport at the border crossings. In Kyiv, Mikhalevich got in touch with several embassies, but the Czechs agreed "pretty quickly," he said, to issue him an entry visa.

The former presidential candidate said he intends to return to Minsk "as soon as possible, as soon as such an opportunity presents itself," but doesn't rule out trying to have his family -- he has a wife and two daughters -- join him abroad.

According to the Belarusian news agency BelaPAN, the country's top prosecutor is likely to ask the Czech Republic to extradite Mikhalevich.

Still In Prison

Meanwhile in Minsk, fellow former presidential candidates Andrey Sannikau and Mikalay Statkevich remain in prison. Another ex-candidate, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, remains under house arrest.

More than 40 protesters have been charged with instigating mass disorder and several have already been jailed for up to four years.

Mikhalevich said as the repression continues, Lukashenka is unwittingly helping the opposition.

"I think that Lukashenka is now doing a lot to help the opposition unify. It's always easier to unify against someone," he says. "I was a very soft candidate. I didn't criticize Lukashenka. I simply said that I had a different program, that the present government doesn't have answers to most of the questions, but that the government undoubtedly had done some good things in the past.

"Even people like me, who are ready to work with the government, are being driven by it into open, radical opposition. So I think that precisely after December 19, after that night of mass arrests and cracked heads, unifying will be much more likely."

By RFE/RL. Published on 29 March 2011
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Wake Of Japan Disaster, Safety Of Armenian Nuclear Plant Questioned

Just a half-hour drive from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, a Soviet-era nuclear power plant sits precariously on an earthquake fault line.

Environmentalists have long said the Ararat Valley, located just 16 kilometers from the Turkish border city of Igdir, is an extremely dangerous place to house the Metsamor nuclear power plant. And those concerns have only become more urgent amid the ongoing crisis at Japan's crippled Fukushima plant.

"There are five earthquake tectonic breaks [near the plant] -- one is 34 kilometers [away], another is 16 kilometers away, and one is at a distance of only 500 meters," explains Hakob Sanasarian, chairman of Yerevan's Greens' Union environmental group. "And [yet] today they say it is safe. The one who controls such a facility would, of course, praise it."

Armenian government officials have until now insisted that their country is immune to the kind of nuclear emergency Japan now faces.

They say the Metsamor power plant's reactors could withstand up to a magnitude-8 quake, and that such a powerful earthquake is highly unlikely to hit the country anyway.

But amid fresh questions about the safety of the plant in the wake of Japan's crisis, Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian announced that a safety review would be conducted.

"We will once again discuss this question and invite international experts to get their assessment of what measures we must take in order to raise the safety standards at our nuclear power plant," Sarkisian told a cabinet meeting on March 18.

Vahram Petrosian, director of the government's research institute on nuclear power plant operation, defends the plant's safety standards. "Not only our experts, but also international seismologists" say the plant could withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.

Petrosian and others have made this claim, despite the fact that a devastating 6.9-magnitude quake hit the area just over two decades ago.

Nevertheless, Ashot Martirosian, the head of the State Committee on Nuclear Safety Regulation, says Metsamor's cooling system is more reliable than that of Japan's Fukushima plant.

"The Metsamor reactor is cooled by a second contour, which is a separate system, a separate barrier," Martirosian says. "Theoretically, such an emergency situation cannot arise here."

Critics Doubt Reliability

Gia Arabidze, a dean at Georgia Technical University in Tbilisi and a specialist on nuclear issues, takes issue with such claims.

Arabidze says that while Metsamor's normal operations pose no threat to Armenia or bordering countries such as Georgia and Turkey, if an earthquake the size of Japan's were to hit Armenia the results could be devastating.

"The probability for the plant to be damaged in the case of a powerful earthquake is high," Arabidze says. "The nuclear power plants in Japan are far more earthquake-resistant than those which were built in the former Soviet Union, and if we see these problems at the Japanese plant today, you can imagine what problems could occur in the case of a similar disaster in Armenia."

Karine Danielyan, a Yerevan-based environmentalist, says that seismically, the Ararat Valley is "the worst place for a nuclear power plant. The example of Japan shows how unpredictable [the reliability of safety features] is."

Likewise, Frank Barnaby, a U.K.-based nuclear physicist, says that based on the design and age of the station it is unlikely to maintain safety standards during a powerful earthquake.

"Nuclear power plants that are that old have very old-fashioned safety features. I mean, modern power plants are much safer, and even those are not safe enough to withstand a Japanese type of earthquake followed by a tsunami," Barnaby says. "So I think that story is probably incorrect; I would think the Armenian plant is certainly not safe."

Working To Meet Standards

Metsamor, which currently supplies 40 percent of Armenia's nuclear power, was shut down for seven years after a massive 6.9-magnitude earthquake in 1988 that left 25,000 dead. The epicenter of the 1988 earthquake was 75 kilometers from Metsamor.

The Soviet government, which then ruled Armenia, cited security concerns in closing it. But a crippling energy crisis in newly independent Armenia in the mid-1990's led the government to reopen the plant's second reactor amid strong international criticism.

The European Union has classified the plant's light-water reactor as one of the "oldest and least reliable" of 66 such facilities built in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Since 1995 both the EU and United States have spent tens of millions of dollars to improve safety standards at Metsamor.

Moreover, Suren Azatian, Metsamor's former director-general, cautions that the plant is "not that protected" against radioactive leaks. He says that unlike Metsamor, Fukushima has concrete containment vessels around its reactors that appear not to have been breached after the tsunami.

Azatian adds that Armenia should continue to rely on nuclear power, although the country's safety standards must be revised after the Japanese emergency, just as they were after the devastating 1986 Chornobyl disaster.

"One must not panic and say that this is terrible technology that must be abandoned. That's wrong," Azatian says. "Such an approach would be unjustified. After all, our nuclear power plant continued to operate during the [1988] earthquake, which was no less devastating."

According to Petrosian, more than 1,200 measures have been taken to enhance the safety of the facility at the demand of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency since the plant was relaunched in 1995. He says the implementation of such measures was continuous.

By 2016 the Armenian government intends to replace the old Soviet-era-built station with a new one that would meet Western safety standards. Efforts on construction of the new plant are behind schedule, and the Energy Ministry is considering extending the existing plant's term of operation.

By Astghik Bedevian, Ruben Meloyan, Courtney Brooks. Published on 19 March 2011
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of S & D.