Weekly News Update 
WASHINGTON, D.C. September 2, 2016

TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Dear Friend,
This week, speculation is growing over the health of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who is rumored to be in critical condition. While there has been no official confirmation, rumors of his illness have sparked questions about succession and the possibility of change in Uzbekistan. The update includes articles that detail the current situation in Uzbekistan, which has been plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and human rights violations. The articles also discuss potential candidates for succession.

I want to highlight two stories in the weekly update that discuss the state of reforms implemented by the Ukrainian government. The government has made impressive strides toward reform, and the financial situation in the country has improved. However, serious challenges such as renewed unrest in Eastern Ukraine, political divisions, and delays in satisfying IMF aid requirements threaten to undermine Ukraine’s recovery. 

The update also includes articles on the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia. A RFE/RL story on the pre-election situation in Chechnya details the crackdown by the Chechen authorities on the political opposition and independent media in the republic.

In Hungary, a Budapest court ordered temporary shutdown of over twenty websites that sell the Hungarian edition of a Swedish author’s book that denies the Holocaust. The Hungarian authorities also ordered further investigation of the book’s publisher in Hungary.

Finally, I want to wish everyone a great Labor Day holiday.

Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. September 2, 2016

Putin’s United Russia Drops In Polls Ahead of September Elections
By Damien Sharkov
Newsweek, September 1, 2016

Russia’s ruling party is suffering a sharp decline in the polls, only weeks before national elections, despite founder President Vladimir Putin’s high popularity.
United Russia’s support among voters is at its lowest point this year, according to an August poll by Russia’s top independent pollster the Levada Center, in what has already been an uneasy year for the governing party.
Only 31 percent of Russians said they would vote for the party, if the elections were this weekend, dropping eight points since July, when 39 percent of Russians backed the party. In April, United Russia’s approval rating reached 42 percent, nearing the vote share they received at the start of this parliament in 2011 (49 percent).

 Read the full article here.

Russian Court for the First Time ‘Liquidates’ a Local Jewish Community
By Paul Goble

Window on Eurasia, August 31, 2016

In the most disturbing indication yet that Kremlin-sponsored xenophobia will ultimately go to what has been its default setting in Russia and become anti-Semitism, a Russian court in Vologda oblast, at the request of prosecutors, has “liquidated” the local Jewish community, sparking fears among many and delight among Russian anti-Semites.
This action comes only a few days after a meeting of European rabbis in Moscow declared that there was no anti-Semitism in Russia and that the Jewish communities in that country were experiencing an unprecedented rebirth (interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=64225).
But it also comes on the heels of more anti-Semitic posts on the Runet and more attacks on Jewish memorials in various parts of the Russian Federation, some of which the authorities have brought those responsible to justice but others of which appear unlikely to go unpunished (sova-center.ru/racism-xenophobia/news/counteraction/2016/08/d35296/  and nazaccent.ru/content/21724-vandaly-razrushili-evrejskij-memorial-v-pskovskoj.html).

Police Detain Beslan Mothers Who Blamed Putin For School Tragedy
RFE/RL, September 1, 2016
A group of women who blamed President Vladimir Putin for Russia's Beslan school massacre were detained during a memorial ceremony in the North Ossetian town along with two journalists who filmed their brief protest.
The protest was on September 1 -- the 12th anniversary of the 2004 hostage tragedy at Beslan's School No. 1 that left 334 people dead, including 186 schoolchildren.
As a school bell rang near the ruins of the school on September 1, five Beslan mothers whose children died at the school took off their jackets to reveal T-shirts blaming Putin for the deaths.
Russian police accused the women of violating a law against unauthorized protests. It was not immediately clear if any charges were filed against them.
Police also detained two journalists who covered the event -- Novaya Gazeta reporter Yelena Kostyuchenko and a correspondent for the Takiye Dela online news site, Diana Khachatrian.

US Holocaust museum condemns attack on Ukrainian Roma
JTA, August 31, 2016
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum condemned an attack on Roma villagers in southern Ukraine.
Dozens of Roma, also known as Gypsies, fled their homes in the village of Loshchynivka, after a mob of local villagers destroyed their property and set fire to at least one home on Sunday night. The mob attack came after a local man was arrested on Saturday in connection with the rape and killing of a 9-year-old girl.
While villagers believed the arrested man was Roma, Ukraine’s Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group said that he was not Roma, the New York Times reported. Tensions between non-Roma and Roma in the village already were running high before the arrest.
Hundreds of residents reportedly demanded that the Roma be expelled, according to the report. The Roma are now seeking a safe place to live.
Read the full article here.

EU Prepared To Prolong Sanctions Against Russia Over Ukraine
RFE/RL, August 31, 2016
European Union ambassadors appear set to prolong asset freezes and visa bans against 146 individuals and 37 entities that, according to the EU, are responsible for actions against Ukraine's territorial integrity.
EU sources have told RFE/RL that the decision to prolong the measures by six months will be taken ahead of a September 15 deadline without much discussion.
The targets of the sanctions include companies in Crimea and various battalions formed by the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as Russian politicians like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Dmitry Kiselyov, a state media executive and presenter whom many regard as the Kremlin's chief propagandist.

Read the full article here.

U.S. skeptical about German call for new arms pact with Russia
By Andreas Rinke
Reuters, September 1, 2016
The United States said on Thursday it was skeptical about Germany's call for a new arms control deal with Russia to avoid an escalation of tensions in Europe, given Moscow's violation of a series of other agreements.
Daniel Baer, the U.S. envoy to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), told Reuters that Washington favors continued dialogue with Russia to enhance transparency, but is wary of entering into any new agreements at this point.
"Our focus will remain on the existing agreements and trying to get them to function they way they ought to be functioning, and continuing to engage on the serious concerns about the issues at hand," Baer said in an interview with Reuters in Berlin ahead of an OSCE meeting in nearby Potsdam.

Read the full article here.

Kremlin Dismisses U.S. Suspicions Russia Hacked Into Online Voting Systems
RFE/RL, August 30, 2016
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has rejected reports in U.S. media that Russia may have been involved in hacking into online voting systems in the United States ahead of the November U.S. presidential election.
Peskov said on August 30 that the reports were "absolutely unfounded" and "unsubstantiated," and that "as a whole, we don't consider it necessary to pay attention to this in any way."
U.S. media reported on August 29 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation found two U.S. states' online voting systems had been hacked and was urging all states to increase computer security before the election.
The FBI's Cyber Division sent out an alert this month after Illinois and Arizona reported breaches. The alert comes as U.S. intelligence officials increasingly worry that hackers sponsored by Russia or other countries may attempt to disrupt the presidential election.

Read the full article here.

Kazakhstan arrests 21 suspected of plotting 'terrorist' attacks
AFP, August 31, 2016

Kazakhstan said Wednesday it had arrested 21 members of radical groups plotting terror attacks in public places, after two deadly attacks that fuelled fears of rising extremism.
The security service of mainly Muslim Kazakhstan said in a statement that it had arrested 21 people from three groups after detaining them in two western regions bordering Russia.
The ex-Soviet country said it had foiled "attacks on law enforcement officers and also acts of terrorism in crowded public places" and had confiscated weapons, ammunition and TNT as well as "extremist" texts and symbols.
This summer Kazakhstan was shaken by two attacks with multiple victims that damaged its reputation for stability and led to concerns that home-grown radicalism could be on the rise in the oil-rich Central Asian republic.

Read the full article here.

Hungary blocks more than 20 websites for Holocaust denial
WJC, August 30, 2016
A Budapest court has ordered the temporary shutdown of nearly two dozen websites that carry content denying the Holocaust, the Budapest chief prosecutor said.
The websites sell the Hungarian edition of a Swedish author’s book that denies the Holocaust and other crimes committed by the Nazi regime, prosecutor Tibor Ibolya said. The sites also make some of that content available online.
The Hungarian authorities also started investigating the book’s publisher in Hungary but suspended the procedure because the company’s head is currently abroad.
Under a 2010 Hungarian law, Holocaust denial in public is a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment.

Slovakian Leader Renews Call For Ending EU Sanctions On Russia
RFE/RL, August 27, 2016

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico renewed his call for the European Union to end sanctions against Russia after a meeting this week with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Slovakia holds the rotating EU presidency and will host a meeting of the bloc's foreign ministers next week. He is one of several central European leaders opposed to continuing sanctions on Russia.
The EU imposed energy, financial, and defense sanctions on Moscow after it annexed Ukraine's Crimea in March 2014. The sanctions have been extended repeatedly and are due to expire at the end of January.
"Personally, I think it is time to view the sanctions rationally and to say that they harm both the EU and Russia," Fico said on Facebook on August 26. "We agreed with Vladimir Putin that our common pursuit is to revive our mutual trade again."

Read the full article here.

Armenia, Iran Creating Free Economic Zone To Expand Exports
By Sargis Harutyunyan
RFE/RL, August 26, 2016

Armenia’s government is working with Iran to create a free economic zone in the country’s southernmost Meghri region, Economy Minister Artsvik Minasyan said on August 25.
“The creation of a free economic zone with Iran will make available a good platform for the production of goods and rendering of services especially at the border sector,” said Minasyan, who did not offer a date when the zone would begin to operate.
The zone will stimulate relations between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Armenia is a part of, and the goods produced there will also enjoy preferential trade regimes Armenia has established with Europe, the United States, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan, he said.

Ukraine crisis: New ceasefire 'holding with eastern rebels'
BBC, September 1, 2016
Ukraine's defence minister says a new ceasefire has been holding in eastern Ukraine since midnight, despite a recent intensification of shelling.
"This morning I'm pleasantly surprised that at 09:00 (06:00 GMT), since midnight, we haven't had a single shot fired," Stepan Poltorak said.
It is the first time there has been a true halt to fighting in 11 months, says BBC correspondent Tom Burridge.
The truce was agreed with pro-Russian rebels and international mediators.
It marks the start of a new school year in Donetsk and Luhansk.


Read the full article here.

A Year After $18 Billion Debt Deal, Ukraine Is Hardly Better Off
By Natasha Doff
Bloomberg, August 29, 2016
A year after Ukraine averted default by reaching an agreement with creditors to restructure $18 billion of debt, the country’s bond market is again beginning to veer off course.
After outperforming all of emerging Europe in the first seven months of the year, some of those gains unwound as a flare-up in tension with Russia over Crimea heightened security concerns. The selloff demonstrates the fragility of investor confidence as the country struggles to rebuild reserves amid a freeze in aid from the International Monetary Fund.
“The rally in Ukrainian bonds has been driven by short-term money, which has the potential to leave the market very quickly,” said Vladimir Miklashevsky, a senior strategist at Danske Bank A/S in Helsinki, who recommends selling all but Ukraine’s shortest-maturity debt. “There’s still too much uncertainty about the IMF program and political risk to talk about Ukraine issuing new debt” as the aid program envisioned, he said.

Have Ukraine’s Reforms Stalled?
By Anders Åslund
Atlantic Council, August 29, 2016
President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman, and the National Council of Reforms discuss priorities for 2016. Credit: Presidential Administration of Ukraine
Few Ukrainians realize how impressive their economic reforms were in 2015. The question today is whether that reform wave will continue, or has come to a halt.
The slashing of energy subsidies by 10 percent of GDP by unifying energy prices from 2014 to 2016 was most important. As a consequence, Ukraine’s public expenditures fell by 9 percent of GDP in 2015 alone, and the budget deficit plunged from 10.5 percent of GDP in 2014 to 2.5 percent in 2015.
The floating exchange rate has stabilized and allows Ukraine to balance its foreign account. In two years, the National Bank of Ukraine has closed no fewer than 80 out of 180 banks because of corruption or failure. The payroll tax has been cut from 45 percent to 22 percent. Inflation has plummeted from an annualized high of 61 percent in April last year to 8 percent in July. These are great achievements by any standard.

Putin’s Military Is Playing the Long Game in Ukraine
By Michael Kofman
Foreign Policy, August 31, 2016
All August, Russia has been announcing new drills and military movements near the Ukrainian border. In Ukraine, the intensity of fighting has picked up over the summer and scaled up even further this past month, with daily shootouts and artillery duels. Between the fighting and large-scale maneuvers, Ukraine-watchers have grown awfully nervous.
Unfortunately, Western commentary on Russia and Ukraine tends to be anxiety prone, seeing military activity as a harbinger of an imminent attack. At the same time, it frequently misses the larger strategic picture. And that’s what’s happening today: Russia isn’t about to escalate the war in Ukraine’s east, but it is reorienting its forces to surround and contain Ukraine for years to come in a process that has been largely overlooked.

Read the full article here.

Rights Watchdog Condemns ‘Preelection Crackdown’ In Chechnya
RFE/RL, August 30, 2016
A leading rights watchdog has accused authorities in Chechnya of systematically erecting a "tyranny" in that southern Russian republic and using "thugs" to intimidate potential rivals and the public ahead of an election next month in which Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is seeking a new term.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says in its 56-page report -- titled Russia: Preelection Crackdown In Chechnya -- that "residents who show dissatisfaction with or seem reluctant to applaud the Chechen leadership and its policies are the primary victims of this [recent] crackdown."
It is a sweeping indictment of the 39-year-old Putin appointee's nine years in charge of one of Russia's most fractious republics following two destructive separatist wars fueled by separatism and Islamic extremism -- and chronicles mostly previously reported instances of torture, humiliation, and even the killing of detainees and other residents at the hands of Kadyrov-era officials.

Read the full article here.

Iran and Russia's Uncomfortable Alliance
By Mohsen Milani
Foreign Affairs, August 31, 2016
In a surprising move in late August, Iran allowed the Russian Air Force to fly from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base in central Iran to conduct bombing operations in Syrian territories that, Tehran and Moscow claim, are controlled by terrorists. This was no trivial decision; it runs counter to a foundational principle of revolutionary Iran's foreign policy. Since 1979, Iran has safeguarded its sovereignty through the principle of "No East, No West," a popular motto engraved on the colorful tiles of the entrance to the Foreign Ministry building in Tehran. Accordingly, for 37 years, Iran has not allowed any foreign power access to its military bases. So why now?
The decision is symbolic of the deepening political and military ties between Iran and Russia. The two countries’ collaboration in Syria is in fact the most significant military engagement Iran has had with any foreign country since 1979, and it could complicate Iran’s rapprochement with the West.

Read the full article here.

Three Mythologies of European Security
By Stephen Blank
Atlantic Council, August 29, 2016
Samuel Johnson famously told his biographer James Boswell, “Clear your mind of cant.” In thinking about European security, we should do so, too.
Russia’s latest actions of mobilizing its forces, fabricating pretexts for war, and breaking agreements show that it still believes that by force or threats, it can revise European borders and the status quo. Given Moscow’s behavior, however, we need to view reality clearly and strengthen our capacity to deter its threats.
First, we should stop repeating that NATO has moved from assurance or reassurance to deterrence. This mantra is simply not true. While the steps taken at Wales and Warsaw are commendable, eight battalions strung from the Baltic to the Black Sea will not deter a Russian invasion or successfully defend against it. Nor will NATO’s rapid reaction forces be of much use without the buildup of an infrastructure that can sustain them in Germany, Poland, and the Balkans. In the Black Sea, the evisceration of the Turkish military’s combat capability as result of the failed July coup and subsequent purge of its armed forces is forcing a reevaluation of regional defense plans there. And given Turkey’s new foreign policies, can NATO count on the country to grant it naval access to the Black Sea?

Rumours of Uzbek president's death raise questions over succession
Guardian, August 31, 2016
As in life, so in death: Islam Karimov’s regime was one of the world’s most secretive and opaque for a quarter of a century, and now his apparent demise is equally shrouded in mystery.
Uzbekistan’s president, a dictator who was ruthless with his opponents and even locked away his own daughter, is rumoured to have died on Monday, though there has been no official confirmation. On Tuesday, state television ran segments about fruit, vegetables and the upcoming Independence Day celebrations, without mentioning a word about the president’s health.
The president’s younger daughter, Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva, confirmed rumours of her father’s ill-health on Instagram on Monday, claiming he was in a stable condition in hospital after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. The Russia-based Fergana news agency, which first broke news of Karimov’s deterioration, announced on Monday evening that the dictator had died that afternoon.

Islam Karimov and the Dictator’s Playbook
By Nate Schenkkan
Foreign Policy, August 30, 2016

The as-yet-unconfirmed death of Islam Karimov, the only president independent Uzbekistan has ever known, is pushing Central Asia into uncharted territory. The most important country in the region — as measured by population and geography — Uzbekistan under Karimov became the archetypal post-Soviet police state: corrupt, brutal, and defiantly inward-looking. With Karimov’s death or incapacitation, Uzbekistan is transitioning to new leadership at a time of extreme economic distress and geopolitical uncertainty in Central Asia.
Even in a region defined by dictatorship, Karimov was known for never relaxing his iron fist. Under Soviet rule, Karimov had been the first secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party, and his suppression of the earliest opposition political parties started practically with independence. Two early opposition groupings, Birlik (Unity) and Erk (Liberty), had their public assemblies banned and their leaders driven into exile in the early 1990s. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other political exiles from these and other movements left as well, clustering in Turkey, Europe, and the United States. 

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Founded in 1971, NCSEJ represents the organized American Jewish community in monitoring and advocating on behalf of the estimated 1.5 million Jews in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including the 15 successor states of the former Soviet Union.