Lossi 36 Weekly #1: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia13 min read

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This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 1 June 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

Hybrid vs. Democratic Serbia. For the first time since 2003, Freedom House’s annual report, released on 6 May 2020, classifies Serbia as a ‘transitional/hybrid’ regime and no longer a democracy. ‘Since coming to power in 2012, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has systematically curtailed the ability of the opposition to play a role in the business of governing’, the report says. The boycott by the opposition of the upcoming parliamentary vote in June remains a topical issue. The Serbian Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, reacted to the report by sending a 16-page letter to the President of Freedom House, Michael Abramowitz, rejecting claims of democratic regression in Serbia. She insisted that according to reports from other international and domestic organisations, such as the EIU Democracy Index and the BTI Index, Serbia continues to qualify as a democracy. Overall, the cabinet denounces the report’s ‘one-sided observations’, suggesting it reached its conclusions in a way that was overly focused on the media and the opposition.

When a Theatre Becomes Political… The demolition of the National Theatre of Albania in Tirana on 17 May sparked a series of protests in the capital. It also disrupted the ongoing electoral reform process, as members of the opposition party left the negotiating table after calling for the theatre to be rebuilt. Following the events, Western diplomats showed concern. But this week proved somewhat reassuring; members of the opposition returned to the table for talks, agreeing on a calendar and ‘fair’ electoral programs, while smaller parties expressed their intention to make democracy more ‘direct’ in Albania. See ‘With the Opposition Under Curfew, Albania Demolishes its National Theatre‘ by Charles Fourmi to find out more on Lossi 36.

A Country without a Parliament. COVID-19 has become a factor of political instability for North Macedonia. By bad fortune, Parliament was dissolved in February right before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and general elections were postponed. Due to the pandemic, a state of emergency was imposed and all electoral activities suspended. A caretaker government with limited executive powers started to run the country. But last week, current interim Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski announced that, with the confinement coming to an end, the election timeline could resume and elections could be held on 5 July. Opposition parties have raised concerns over health matters and whether elections should be held in such conditions. Yet the ruling party wants the elections to go on. The ODIHR has expressed their readiness to re-deploy election observers while meeting precautionary measures imposed due to COVID-19.

Croatia, the New Côte d’Azur in Times of Pandemic? In recent decades, France, Spain and Italy have been listed as the EU’s top holiday destinations. But that may change this summer, to the benefit of Croatia. While Western Europe continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Croatian government has re-opened its tourist industry as of this week. Zagreb’s quick response to the corona crisis may explain its optimism today. Right after a few people were confirmed infected in late February, the ex-Yugoslav republic went into full lockdown. In March, Croatia was, according to Oxford University, the country with the world’s strictest restrictions and measures for infection reduction.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

Abkhazia Still Cabinetless one Month After Presidential Inauguration. Two months after the internationally non-recognised election of the new President of the de facto state, Aslan Bzhania, and one month after the ceremony of his inauguration, the formation of the ministers’ cabinet is still in progress. This is mainly because, contrary to previous governmental changes during the Khajimba presidency, the whole cabinet is going to be renewed. For the moment, at least one-third of ministers’ posts are unfilled, including the ministries of foreign affairs, culture, justice, and education. Moreover, parliamentary elections are still to be organized to fill the seats of the MPs who were promoted to the administration of the new president, including Alexander Ankvab, who became Prime Minister.

Armenian House Still Needs Fixing Up. Two years ago, in the spring of 2018, protestors filled the streets of Yerevan in a peaceful regime transition called the ‘Velvet Revolution‘. According to testimonials, it is now evident that the revolution brought about a wave of new energy and hope, which is why it became a symbol for new beginnings. Yet, although progress has been made in several areas, reforms have not been as rapid and far-reaching as many Armenians had hoped for. One woman mentioned that ‘the revolution was not a failure, but […] a revolution is like getting an empty new house; you still have to fix it up and furnish it’. Two years after the revolution, the frustration and disappointment of parts of the population are at risk of overpowering the wave of revolutionary hopes and democratic energy. Let’s see what is next to come…

In Central Europe…

Is Your Pain Really Better than Mine? Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling PiS party, is a very ‘sensitive’ man. Regardless of the temporary measures adopted due to the coronavirus epidemic, compulsory for all Polish citizens, Kaczynski went to the cemetery, together with several PiS members, to commemorate his mother and twin brother Lech who died in the Smolensk plane crash in May 2010. But his ‘sensitivity’ does not stop there. Kaczyński was also so deeply moved by the song Twój Ból Jest Lepszy Niż Mój (Your Pain is Better than Mine) by Kazik, that he had it censored by the Polish government at the end of May. Lucky Poland to have such a sensitive politician and lucky Kazik – thanks to governmental censorship, his song immediately became successful (11.5 mln YouTube views so far).

Protesters on Bikes Demand Government’s Resignation. In Ljubljana and other cities in Slovenia, protesters on bikes and with masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic demand the government’s resignation. The protests are taking place already for the fourth week in the row. This is an incredible phenomenon for a nation which rarely resorts to public protests. But the political situation is also extraordinary. The right-wing government of the Prime Minister, Janez Janša, was sworn in on 13 March, one day after the virus was officially declared a global pandemic by the WHO. Since then, the Slovenian public has faced various measures that support private capital interests while being detrimental to the environment. Moreover, the Prime Minister’s populist ideas and his imprisonment due to corruption in 2014 are fueling public outrage.

Don’t Step on my Freedom of Expression. László Kövér, speaker of the House, violated the right to freedom of expression when he expelled six journalists from the Hungarian Parliament in 2016, ruled the European Court of Human Rights. This benchmark ruling is set to serve as a precedent for future cases concerning the government’s restrictions placed on journalistic work. Kövér’s drastic measure, based on House rules he himself had written, came after the six journalists attempted to ask politicians questions related to corruption while leaving the restricted area for journalists. In a statement, the Parliament’s press office said that the ruling did not mean reporting restrictions within the building should be changed. ‘Looking into the mirror would be too fucking hard for them after shitting on a complete profession for 10 years,’ Dávid Sajó, a journalist at index.hu, one of the outlets where the expelled journalists worked, commented in a public Facebook post.

Russian Spy in Prague? A Russian diplomat is allegedly involved in a ‘murder plot’ targeting three Prague mayors under police protection. At the end of April, acclaimed weekly news magazine Respekt published a story claiming that a Russian man, travelling on a diplomatic passport, had arrived in Prague with a suitcase containing a deadly poison called ricin. Czech intelligence services evaluated his presence as a threat to three municipal Prague politicians recently critical of the Kremlin, who were then given police protection. The mayor of Prague, Zdeněk Hřib, re-named the square where the Russian embassy is located after Boris Nemtsov. The mayor of Prague 6 took down the statue of the controversial Marshall Koněv. And the mayor Prague-Řeporyje erected a new statue as a tribute to the oppositional Vlasov Army. The identity of the mysterious Russian man was then revealed to be Andrej Končakov. Because of alleged life threats which he received, the Russian embassy asked for police protection for him as well, protection which he recently obtained.

In Eastern Europe…

Worries Over Independent Health Service in Ukraine. The healthcare community in Ukraine is concerned about the latest decision of the Ukrainian Minister of Health, Maksym Stepanov regarding the appointment of the Head of the National Health Service of Ukraine (NHSU). Since its foundation in 2018, the NHSU has begun to implement a new funding model aimed at limiting out-of-pocket payments of citizens, which represent more than 50% of all payments in Ukraine. In January, an official competition to select the organization’s Head was held. Three NHSU employees received the highest scores. Since then, three healthcare ministers have been appointed and changed. On 20 May Minister Stepanov interviewed the finalists, but approved none of them. The new application process was announced and it is feared that the NHSU Head might be hired without a transparent competition. This could undermine both the NHSU’s independence and the successful transformation of the health financing system in Ukraine. See also on Lossi 36 ‘What’s Going on in Ukraine’s Health Ministry Amid the COVID-19 Outbreak‘ by Sofiya Kominko.

EU-Moldova Relations on the Move? The Moldovan President Igor Dodon signed decrees on the appointment of seven Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassadors to different countries of the European Union. The appointment was made based on a Government Decision from 13 May 2020. The relations between Moldova and the EU were also discussed on 27 May 2020 between the Head of the EU delegation to Moldova and EU ambassadors. Moldova’s Foreign Minister Oleg Țulea underlined the importance of integration with the EU, as well as the positive role played by the Eastern Partnership framework (EaP). He stressed the progress made by the Moldovan government on banking fraud investigation, anti-bribery and corruption actions, as well as anti-money laundering law, among others. However, President Igor Dodon himself said on 27 May that he did not think Moldova would become a member of the EU within the next 10-15 years.

Unknown Belarus. On 14 May, a car crash which happened en route from Gomel to Minsk cost the lives of film director Liuba Zemtsova, director Vladimir Mikhailovski and sound engineer Maksim Gavrilenko. All three were just returning from shooting a movie about volunteers helping the medical corps in the fight against COVID-19. The documentary project, titled Unknown Belarus, was launched on the Настоящее Время channel (Сurrent Time in English) in February 2020. The aim of the project was to transmit Belarusian culture’s singularity in images, especially through its different regions and meetings with their inhabitants. The BelarusDocs website has compiled Liuba Zemtsova’s films available for streaming on the internet. You can find the links and more details on the BelarusDocs’ Facebook page.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

Dagestan Not Coping With Corona. An interview published on 18 May between a local blogger and Dagestan’s health minister caused a stir among the public regarding Russia’s federal response to the pandemic, as the North Caucasus region appears unprepared and the infection cases underreported. Russia became, as of 27 May, the country with the third-highest number of reported coronavirus cases in the world. As a matter of fact, it has delegated much of its crisis management to its regional governors. The revelations about the situation in Dagestan prompted a rare federal intervention, with the Kremlin dispatching additional resources to the troubled region. Meanwhile, on 22 May, a special counter-terrorist operation in the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan resulted in five deaths, TASS reports.

Kazakhstan’s New Old Protest Law. Kazakhstan is in the midst of implementing new legal reforms of their current laws on protests. Officially, and in accordance with President Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Tokaev’s will to reform the country’s post-Soviet legislation, the new measures aim at facilitating the ability of the population to protest. The main change promoted by Tokaev is the shift from the previously required official authorization to a mere notice that must be given by the protesters to the authorities. However, in practice, most of the essence of the former law remained unchanged. Indeed, as criticized by Human Rights Watch in an open letter to the president, the legal language used is ambiguous. Furthermore, it is feared that the new concept of protest ‘notification’ will eventually turn back into the former officially required protest ‘authorization’.

The Invisible Hurricane. On 27 April Fergana News reported that Turkmenistan’s Western regions were struck by a hurricane which caused severe damage and an unknown number of casualties. This uncertainty comes from the lack of acknowledgement from the authorities about the tragedy, as so far no governmental response to the hurricane has been reported. On 14 May the damage and lack of action by the authorities prompted what RFE/RL called the largest protest in Turkmenistan’s post-Soviet history, attracting up to a thousand people to the streets of Turkmenabat. Turkmen human rights groups abroad claim that international aid sent to the country has not reached those in need. Meanwhile, the government in Ashgabat continues to claim that there are no COVID-19 cases in the country and even dispatches humanitarian aid to Russia to assist its efforts against the coronavirus outbreak.

Victory Day… a Month and a Half Later! On 26 May, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, to prepare the annual Victory Day military parade for 24 June. Traditionally held on 9 May, when Russia celebrates the end of WWII, the grand event involving around 10 000 soldiers was postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. While the situation in Russia seems to be stabilizing, it is still far from business as usual, and the decision to hold the parade so soon seems risky at best. Yet 24 June, marking the 75th anniversary of the very first Victory Day parade in 1945, would be a convenient substitute for the traditional date. Putin also hopes to organize the ‘Immortal Regiment’ march, during which Russians walk together holding pictures of their relatives who fought in WWII, on 26 July. Watch Putin’s (very formal) speech here.

⭐️  This week’s special

Belarusians, Welcome in the Schengen Area. After several years of negotiation in the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the conclusion of a visa-facilitation agreement and a readmission agreement between the European Union and Belarus is slowly becoming a reality. On 27 May, the EU member states, gathered together in the European Council, adopted two decisions to conclude these paramount agreements which are expected to enter into force on 1 July 2020. On the one hand, the visa-facilitation agreement will make it easier and cheaper for Belarusian citizens to travel to the Schengen Area, and vice versa. This will certainly enhance people’s mobility, while probably also deepening EU-Belarus relations. On the other hand, the agreement on the readmission of persons will pave the way for ‘the readmission of citizens illegally residing in the territory of the other party without authorisation’. In other words, yes to controlled mobility, no to illegal migration…

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Elise Mazaud, Evguenia Roussel, Fourmi Charles, Hanna Boiko, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, Jules Ortjens, Kristin Aldag, Lucie Janotová, Manon Gallet, Margarita Zilinskaya, Maša Šebek, Máté Mohos, Naser Bislimi, Silvia Travasoni, Zadig Tisserand, Valentina Bernt ?

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