Lossi 36 Weekly #2: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia15 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 8 June 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

We Won’t Give up Our Priests”– On 13 May, Montenegrin authorities put Serbian Orthodox Church (SPO) Bishop Joanikije of Nikšić and seven priests in custody for 72 hours for having led a street religious procession celebrating St Vasilije’s Day, despite COVID-19 restriction measures on public gatherings. Violent protests broke out in several towns immediately after the arrest. “We won’t give up our priests”, chanted hundreds of supporters gathered in front of the police station in Nikšić, Montenegro’s second-largest city. Similar incidents have occurred over the past three months, fueling the tensions sparked by the adoption of a new law on religious freedom by Parliament in December last year. Since then, the country has been in the grip of a quarrel between the state and the SPO over church property, a situation which divides Montenegro society and political parties, in advance of the parliamentary elections scheduled for  later this year.

Land Swap Deal Still on the Menu… Kosovo’s previous government has used taxpayers’ money to lobby European public opinion in favor of the idea of a ‘land swap’ as a solution to the Kosovo-Serbia problem, BIRN reveals. The Ministry of European Integration has signed a controversial contract with a Paris-based lobbying firm, amounting €168 000, to work on convincing the international community to support such a deal. The idea of ‘border corrections’ was born in the EU-mediated dialogue led by the former High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP), Frederica Mogherini. It was later publicly supported at the 2018 European Forum in Alpbach by both the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, and the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic. Donald Trump’s administration also seems interested in scoring a foreign policy success in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Its friends in Kosovo look on board, having allegedly contributed to oust the new reformist government of Albin Kurti, who served as Fourth Prime Minister of Kosovo from February to June 2020.

After 19 Years, Back to Celebrating Croatia’s Statehood Day on 30 May! Up to now, Croatia’s Statehood Day was celebrated on 25 June and the Day of Croatian Parliament on 30 May. The date change, proposed by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, generated controversy and debate. While President Zoran Milanović refused to support the change and participate in the ceremonies on the basis that it does not reflect the will of the majority, Prime Minister Plenković expressed that he felt ‘bad that Milanović spoke in such a way about this positive legislation passed by parliament’. What’s more, this situation makes it difficult for citizens to plan their holiday, as many Croats used to combine it with a long weekend on the seaside.

Albania Between Progress and Challenges on Racism and Intolerance. The Council of Europe’s 4-year report published last Tuesday presents a series of findings and recommendations on the situation of minority groups in Albania, with a specific focus on issues such as bullying, stigmatization, exclusion and hate acts. Although the report welcomes significant progress achieved by the Albanian authorities, some areas of concern remain. In particular, the lack of inclusive measures in employment and training for Egyptians and Roma, together with recurring eviction measures, constitute a form of segregation. The report also highlights that the non-inclusive attitudes towards asylum seekers and migrants confirm the latest trends in violence and poverty among refugees. Stigmatization of the LGBTI groups is also a source of concern, but one should keep in mind the recent prohibition of ‘conversion’ psychotherapies by Albania’s Order of Psychologists, which is clearly an improvement. Finally, it is to be noted that the report does not mention the difficult situation for Greek minorities in Epirus.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

Armenian Prime Minister and his Family are Not Immune to the Virus. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan issued a statement on 1 June revealing that he and his wife and children had been infected with the coronavirus. As the numbers of infected cases are rising steadily in Armenia, the government is trying to enforce stricter measures to contain the outbreak. On 4 June, wearing masks became mandatory in public places. Nikol Pashinyan and other officials have published statements to raise the awareness among the population of the danger posed by the coronavirus, including Facebook posts that outline the risks of attending public gatherings for national security and the elder generation. But it seems questionable whether the government will be able to enforce all the restrictive measures and whether the majority of Armenians will recognize the danger of the virus for their own and relatives’ lives.

Lockdown Eased does not Ease Concerns in Georgia. The start of summer marks the continuation of life as usual in Georgia. On 1 June, all unessential shops, malls and restaurants reopened and important talks about election reform renewed. This marks a stark shift from the strict restrictions on movement and socializing to a more relaxed environment. The last two months left a mark on the economy and now, with the opening of businesses, the country hopes to restart its economy. But a wider spread of the virus would certainly put a great strain on the progress that has been achieved both in the political and socio-economic sense. Thus, even with softer restrictions, concerns continue to mount in different circles.

Azerbaijan Loses Axe-Murder Case in Front of the ECHR. On May 26, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Azerbaijan had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by pardoning Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani military officer, who, in 2004, brutally murdered an Armenian, Gurgen Margaryan, with an axe during a NATO-sponsored course they were both attending in Hungary. Initially sentenced to life imprisonment by a Hungarian court, Safarov was transferred to Azerbaijan in 2012 to serve his sentence. There, however, he was pardoned, promoted, and provided a flat and salary arrears instead. The ECHR ruled that while Azerbaijan could not be held responsible for Safarov’s acts, it had failed to enforce his punishment and had been racially motivated in its measures in favour of the convict – during his initial trial Safarov had openly admitted to having killed Mr Margaryan on account of his Armenian origin. Details of the case can be found here.

Nagorno-Karabakh President Seeking Recognition in Armenia. The inauguration of the new President of Nagorno-Karabakh took place in the city of Sushi on 21 May. Arayik Harutyunyan, former Prime Minister and then State Minister, became the 4th President of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh on 14 April after unprecedented elections in the context of the global pandemic. Following the 2017 constitutional referendum and the transition from a semi-presidential regime to a presidential one, Arayik Harutyunyan will have more power than his predecessors. On 28 May, Arayik Harutyunyan visited Armenia, where he met with his counterpart, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, during the celebration of both the foundation of the First Armenian Republic and the victory of Sardarapat. Cooperation between Armenia and the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh on development and defense was reaffirmed.

In Central Europe…

Give Me a Reform, I will Give You European Credit. Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Chicu announced on 1 June that he would discuss with German experts his country’s ongoing administrative reform. This reform was set as a condition for Moldova to benefit from additional European credit worth €100 million, in line with the principle of “more for more”, which is expected to cover Moldova’s budget deficit. The reform consists of a law on non-commercial organizations, adopted in the first reading in May 2018 and now requiring a second reading to be implemented. Article 6 is the main bone of contention of the reform. It would prohibit non-commercial organizations from financially supporting political parties. Thus, non-commercial organizations, which are often used by political parties to receive and divert money from abroad, could only provide free services to political parties. Parliament, which is by an unfortunate coincidence in quarantine after an MP tested positive for coronavirus, has not yet succeeded in enacting laws that would make it possible to unlock EU macro-financial assistance…

Fined for Breaching his Own Corona Regulation and Smoking Inside. Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, who stayed in power to deal with the pandemic despite a motion of censure brought against him by the leftist opposition, had to pay a fine of 3000 lei (€620) on 30 May. He was spotted in a photograph shared on social media by one of his political opponents, in which he appears without a mask and smoking a cigarette. The scene takes place in his office, whereas wearing a mask is mandatory in closed spaces and smoking indoors has been banned in Romania since 2016. He explained afterwards that he wanted to share a drink with some cabinet ministers for his birthday after a long working day. Although he expressed remorse and acknowledged that the law should apply to all citizens equally, this outburst does not sit well with the dreadful situation in Europe regarding coronavirus fatalities.

Ukrainian Children also Pay a Heavy Toll. On 1 June, Ukrainian President Zelensky met the head of UNICEF in Ukraine, Lotta Silvander, to discuss the new cooperation programs with the Fund. The same day, First Lady Olena Zelenska and Silvander signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at ensuring the effective protection of the rights of children in various fields. Just in time, since due to quarantine, 42 000 children from boarding schools and orphanages were sent back home without prior monitoring of their families’ ability to provide them with proper care. Some cases have already been registered when the lives and health of children were endangered. According to Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights Mykola Kuleba, some children were forced to return to boarding schools. This situation has required the Ministry of Social Policy to hold joint meetings with representatives of the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Organised Crime, Collective Custody. Scandals related to shady waste imports to Bulgaria erupted last year, but it was only on 28 May 2020 that things got real. Bulgaria’s Deputy Environment Minister Krassimir Zhivkov was taken into custody along with five other persons over charges of participating in an organized crime group. Zhivkov is suspected of assisting crimes related to the import of hazardous waste into the country, mainly from Italy. This is the second high official from this Ministry to be taken into custody this year. In January, Minister of Environment Neno Dimov was detained over charges for deliberate mismanagement related to a water crisis in the town of Pernik, which left around 100 thousand people with limited access to tap water for several months.

In Eastern Europe…

Far-Right Marching Despite Social Distancing Laws. Hundreds of far-right protesters flooded the streets of Budapest in Hungary last Thursday for what organisers called a ‘commemorative event’ that had been banned by the police. The event was organized by László Toroczkai, the leader of Hungary’s nationalist party Mi Hazánk, as a response to a stabbing in the city, widely believed to have been committed by a member of the Roma minority. “Hungarians are not safe, the police protect the criminals”, Toroczkai said in his speech at the event. Starting at the building of the Roma Municipality and ending at the site of the stabbing, the protest took place under the supervision of police officers who even secured the location and let more than a thousand people join the march. The protest was widely labelled as racist and many opposition leaders denounced the police for failing to take a firmer stance against it.

Czech TV Under Increased Pressure. At the end of May, three highly controversial candidates were elected into the Czech TV Council, the main public television broadcaster. The candidates were mainly supported by the ruling party ANO 2011. They are known to be critical of the country’s public service media in general, and of its investigative programmes and financing in particular. Concerns over this choice were raised not only by the opposition and several Czech journalists, but also by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom. Although the public service media is considered reliable by many, it has been falling on the World Press Freedom Index  steadily since 2016, due to its exposure to increasing political influence. Only time will tell how this vote will affect Czech TV.

Election Campaign Ready to Begin in Poland. The Marshal of the Sejm, Elżbieta Witek, announced on 3 June that the presidential election will take place on 28 June. If the election goes to a second round, it will be held on 12 July. Both the option of mail-in voting and voting physically at the polling stations will be available. The election was originally scheduled for 10 May, however due to the failure of the government to secure safe voting amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, polling stations remained closed on that day. Incumbent President Andrzej Duda, who is backed by the Law and Justice party (PiS), is the current favourite, polling at 41%. Rafał Trzaskowski, the opposition Civic Platform (CP) candidate and current Warsaw mayor, is the second favourite with 26.1% according to IBRIS. He still needs to collect 100,000 support signatures as he replaces previous CP candidate Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska.

The Most Successful Approach to COVID-19? While most countries are coming out of lockdown in Europe, one Central European country and its coronavirus strategy may serve as a good example in case a second wave of epidemic kicks off. Slovakia, with about 5.5 million inhabitants, acted quickly when the virus appeared within its borders, which may explain why it has the lowest per capita death rate on the continent. From the very first days, politicians have set an example by consistently wearing masks in public. Even when President Zuzana Čaputová appointed the country’s new Prime Minister, Igor Matovič, both wore masks and gloves. While Slovakia has reported no new cases for days, Matovič warned that caution will remain on the agenda.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

Kyrgyzstan’s Problematic Debt Situation. The coronavirus pandemic is threatening Kyrgyzstan’s financial capacity to tackle its national debt. The situation is especially complicated because the country’s $4.6 billion debt is at 86% external. Kyrgyzstan notably owes approximately $1.978 billion to China. The nation is in a difficult position, as a failure to pay back China could engender deplorable diplomatic consequences. Kyrgyzstan has already announced its intention to prepare restructuring proposals aimed at easing the financial burden associated with this external debt. President Jeenbekov has been in contact with the UN about the matter, especially in the framework of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) online meeting that took place on 2 June.

Medical Aid from Uncanny Countries to Begarly Republics. As the coronavirus epidemic thrashes the North Caucasus, international aid is coming to the region from different countries. Dagestan, a particularly-affected region, received on 24 May a cargo of medical aid from Turkey worth several million rubles. According to Caucasian Knot, its expeditious delivery was a result of lobbying by the Turkish Circassian diaspora to the Turkish government. In parallel, the despotic head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, announced that a cargo plane with medical aid for Chechnya and Dagestan would arrive from the United Arab Emirates on 1 June. It is worth remembering that Kadyrov has for years fostered a cozy relationship with the Gulf monarchies, frequently traveling there on official business trips. Meanwhile, TASS reported on 21 May that Kadyrov had been transferred to Moscow to receive what is believed to be COVID-19 treatment. No official denial or confirmation of this suspicion has been issued.

When Closing Borders Opens Tensions. The long Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan border has witnessed many clashes since the collapse of the Soviet Union due to its complexity and the presence of isolated exclaves. Recently, the situation has gotten worse as the border closures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted cross-border travel that is essential for the residents of the exclaves. On 31 May, clashes occurred between Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents around the Uzbek exclave of Sokh (pop. 70 000). According to Eurasianet, the clashes occurred because of a dispute among the residents of two neighbouring villages over the use of a local water spring. Estimates of the casualties range from 25 to 187 wounded. Unlike previous instances of violence, the authorities responded quickly to de-escalate the tensions. The presidents of the two countries had a telephone call and sent officials to study the situation on the ground.

⭐️  This week’s special

Eastern Partnership (EaP) conditionality: Give Me a Reform, I will Give You European Credit. Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Chicu announced on 1 June that he would discuss with German experts his country’s ongoing administrative reform. This reform was set as a condition for Moldova to benefit from additional European credit worth €100 million, which is expected to cover Moldova’s budget deficit. It consists of a law on non-commercial organizations, adopted in the first reading in May 2018 and now requiring a second reading to be implemented. Article 6 is the main bone of contention. It would prohibit non-commercial organizations (which are often used by political parties to receive and divert money) from financially supporting political parties. Thus, non-commercial organizations could only provide free services to political parties. Parliament, which is by an unfortunate coincidence in quarantine after an MP tested positive for coronavirus, has not yet succeeded in enacting laws that would make it possible to unlock EU macro-financial assistance.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Ana Robakidze, Anastasia Korogodova, Bojidar Kolov, Cătălina Ceban, Elise Mazaud, Evguenia Roussel, Fourmi Charles, Ilinka Leger, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, Marysia Suchcitz, Marton Gera, Máté Mohos, Naser Bislimi, Ricardo Bergmann, Yanyu Chen, Zadig Tisserand, Zuzana Krulichova ?

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