Lossi 36 Weekly #3: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia14 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 15 June 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
? In the Balkans…
Unprecedented Agreement on Electoral Reform in Albania. While the EU is preparing the negotiation framework for accession talks with Albania, the Albanian government reached an unprecedented agreement on electoral reform. This agreement marks the first political consensus reached between the opposition and the ruling party, representing a fresh start after years of deep disagreements. The main elements of the accord concern the introduction of biometric identification in voting as well as changes in the administration of elections, among others. It is worth mentioning that in 2017, the opposition Democratic Party dismissed the general elections as not free, accusing the government of manipulation, while in 2019 it boycotted the local elections and en bloc left Parliament together with its partners. For opposition leader Lulzim Basha, this agreement opens the way for freer and fairer elections, and he urges that the reforms be implemented as soon as possible in order to organise new general elections.
New Report on Abuses of Religious Freedom in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 12 June, Bosnia’s Interreligious Council (IRC) released a report on abuses of religious freedom, which covers both the Bosnian Federation and the Serb Republic. It shows that interfaith dialogue is still necessary in a country where approximately half of the population is Muslim, a third Orthodox, around 15% Catholic, and 1 000 people living in Sarajevo Jewish. The report highlights that issues persist when one of the religious groups finds itself locally in a minority status. Cases were observed when people were denied permits for construction or repair of religious properties, as well as restrained access to education, employment, and provision of social services. Additionally, acts of vandalism on religious sites and verbal abuse against members of the clergy were reported. When it comes to the Muslim community, the report outlines the lack of religious accommodation in the workplace, the impossibility for children to miss school on a religious holiday without being sanctioned, and the fact that Muslim soldiers are served pork at meals.
War Criminal Diary Exhibited in Belgrade. Every page of a wartime diary, kept by former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladić, has been on display at the EUGSTER art gallery in Belgrade since Saturday 6 June. Artist Vladimir Miladinović has redrawn each page of the diary, based on the Hague International Criminal Court’s English translation, and framed them individually for his exhibition entitled ‘The Notebook’. The diary was found by investigators in 2010, behind a fake wall in a house where Ratko Mladić had been hiding when he was on the run from the International Criminal Court. It was used as evidence during his trial. The Hague Tribunal sentenced him in 2017 to life in prison for genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, terrorising the population of Sarajevo during the siege of the city and taking UN peacekeepers hostage. The hearings regarding his appeal against the conviction, supposed to be held in June, have been postponed for a second time due to COVID-19 restriction measures. No date has been fixed yet.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Fake News in Armenia, From the United States With Love. An investigation by OpenDemocracy reveals that a health news website propagating fake news in Armenia had been funded by the US Embassy. Trying to get news about the coronavirus pandemic, Armenian citizens who visit the website Medmedia.am are exposed to misinformation and conspiracy theories. For example, one of the site’s most-read pieces calls on people to refuse COVID-19 vaccination, while another claims that a morgue offered money to the relatives of a deceased patient so they would claim that COVID-19 caused the death. This kind of fake news is abundant on the Internet and social networks. But in this case, the website – which counts almost 15 000 likes on Facebook – was set up under a US grant in 2019. With Armenia lacking hospital beds and the country’s recovery relying on citizens’ behavior, misinformation is a dangerous enemy.
The Karabakh Conflict Not Yet Resolved. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Azerbaijan, shelling happened on 9 June in a village close to the Armenian border in the Karabakh conflict area, performed by Armenian forces. Despite a truce agreed to by both sides in April 2016, shelling was reported every day from 2016-2018. The trend slowed down in 2019, but tensions are still tangible. ‘Armenia must put an end to its hypocrisy and selectivity with regard to the human rights standards and the decisions of the European Court of Human Right (ECHR)’, the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister said in a statement on Wednesday, 10 June. He referred to the ECHR 2015 ruling, which declared that Armenia had been responsible for the violation of rights of six displaced Azerbaijani nationals who were prevented from returning to the district of Lachin following the 1992 conflict. The reaction of the Azerbaijani authorities is just one example of the constant quarrelling between the two countries.
Pardon Our Friends or There Will be no Reform (And no €€€). While Georgia managed to contain COVID-19 rather successfully, it will probably struggle with the economic and social setbacks caused by the outbreak. That’s unfortunate, because meanwhile, EU economic support seems to be conditional upon the conclusion of an electoral reform which is the subject of an ongoing political saga in Georgia. Following a series of protests in 2019, the government and the opposition agreed on changing the number of deputies elected through different voting systems. Currently almost half of the deputies are elected through the majority system which is said to be unfairly advantageous for the governing party. The reform would give more weight to proportional representation. In the meantime, however, three prominent opposition figures were sentenced to prison, which stalled reform progress and caused an international outcry against the ruling Georgian Dream party. Two of the imprisoned politicians were pardoned by the Georgian President on 15 May, while one remains in prison.
? In Central Europe…
It Is Okay to Panic. Warmer winters, no snow and drying rivers are the consequences of climate change in Poland, and the cause of severe droughts that have been steadily worsening since 2018. Taking into consideration that 70% of Polish water is used for electricity, it seems well-placed to quote atmospheric physicist Szymon Malinowski who affirms that “Można panikować” (‘it is okay to panic’). The Polish government is trying to face this dramatic situation by implementing a programme called Moja Woda (My Water), starting in July 2020. 100 million PLN (€22.5 million) will be spent creating up to 20 000 installations which should keep rainwater in the gardens of the citizens willing to participate in this ambitious initiative.
Stone Age Creativity. The Czech Republic is celebrating an archaeological sensation. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that black lines on a massive cave stone, nicknamed ‘The Brain’ for its wrinkly structure, are 7 000 years old. Interestingly, this Stone Age artwork had already been photographed 100 years ago by Karel Absolon. This world-renowned archaeologist and speleologist is mostly famous for his 1925 discovery of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice: a ceramic nude female figure dated to 29 000–25 000 BCE, making it the oldest known ceramic object in the world. The meaning of the cave artwork remains unclear due to its abstract nature, although archaeologists assume it played a vital role in spiritual rituals. It is located in the largest dome of Catherines Cave in the Moravian Karst, and after a temporary closure due to coronavirus can now be admired once again.
Another Protest Story: What is Happening With Culture in Slovenia? Culture is prospering in Slovenia, they say. This is why this year its capital, Ljubljana, is campaigning to be selected as the European Capital of Culture of 2025. However, cultural workers, many of them barely surviving, feel far from supported or wanted in Slovenia. The Ministry of Culture is not responding to their plea for more substantial financial support, which is why they joined in protest against the current Slovenian ‘fascist government’, as they call it. They covered the walls of the Ministry with their ignored emails. They also left costumes, paintbrushes, and sheet music in front of the building. On 9 June they went even further. They laid down as corpses outside the Ministry’s premises and declared the death of culture in Slovenia.
Hungarian Government Assigns Police Officers to Schools to Keep ‘Violence at Bay’. Do we need police in schools? This question has caused ripples in Hungarian public discourse after Zoltán Maruzsa, Secretary of State for Public Education, announced the foundation of a new branch of police called the School Guard. ‘They will be assigned to institutions where they are needed to maintain order’, Maruzsa said. Members of the new force will be sent to around 500 public schools, starting next school year. They will be equipped with handcuffs, batons and pepper spray – the latter two are illegal to use against children under 12. Péter Sárosi, director of the Law Reporter Foundation, opposed the decision, reasoning that police presence in schools would lead to discrimination and the criminalization of students. ‘They make it harder to maintain a humane, democratic climate’, he wrote.
Protect EU Citizens, Not Non-EU Foreigners. While the Estonian government has recently suggested passing a law which would allow the government to expel non-European foreigners the minute they lose their jobs, the Baltic republic has also argued for a much milder approach towards EU citizens. Last week, the government told the European Council that Estonia wants the EU to strengthen the protection of EU citizens against extradition. Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg was quoted in The Baltic Times saying that Estonia does not want the 2016 controversy – when neighbouring Latvia threatened to extradite an Estonian citizen to Russia – to happen again. The EU’s Court of Justice decided in 2017 that such a decision, when made against the interests of the citizen’s home Member State (Estonia in this case), is a violation of fundamental European rights.
? In Eastern Europe…
Moldovan Soldiers at the Victory Day Parade: Health Security vs. International Relations. Moldovan President Igor Dodon declared that he would take part in the Victory Day parade in Moscow on 24 June to celebrate the end of the Second World War. Dodon’s participation is not surprising given his pro-Russian sentiments. However, this year over 75 Moldovan soldiers will also participate in the parade for the first time in a decade. This might be linked to the last governmental twist in Moldova in November 2019, when pro-European Prime Minister Maia Sandu was replaced by Ion Chicu, politically closer to Dodon and Russia. Beyond political controversies, Dodon’s decision has above all been criticized for putting bilateral relations above the health of soldiers and accepting the risk of them becoming infected while the spread of COVID-19 is worsening in Moldova, with former health minister Ala Nemerenco declaring the situation ‘out of control’.
Calls For Dismissal of Ukraine’s Record-Holding Minister. On 5 June a mass protest erupted in front of the Ukrainian Parliament demanding the resignation of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov. Being a record-holder for the longest period of running the Ministry (since February 2014) and known as the second-most influential person in the country, Avakov has been responsible for the reorganization of law enforcement bodies. However, recent scandals in Kyiv region, such as two policemen being suspected of raping and torturing a 26-year old woman at a police station, as well as a mass shooting in broad daylight, have increased the criticisms of his failure to reform the police and bring order to the country. Last week a draft law of Avakov’s resignation was registered in the Verkhovna Rada and signed by 60 MPs. The question remains – will these events lead to him losing power?
Is a Law Enough? In 2001, for the first time in Eastern Europe, Ukraine introduced a law to prevent domestic violence against women. Where are we 19 years later? On 23 May a young lady was raped at a police station in Kagarlik, Ukraine. Thus far, the two suspects have been remanded for 60 days. While Ukraine is waiting for the verdict, the UN commented in a statement that the media plays an important role in fighting gender stereotypes and protecting the victim’s privacy and identity, as well as her personal details, which she has not expressly approved for publication.
Romania Names and Shames Russia in its National Defense Strategy. A new National Defense Strategy for the 2020-2024 period has been signed by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and forwarded to Parliament for adoption. This sparked a debate around the fact that the new document expressly lists Russia’s actions in the Black Sea, such as its hybrid war with Ukraine and the militarization of Crimea, among the main threats to Romania’s security. According to the document, further consolidation of NATO’s Eastern flank is highly important for Romania. This idea is in accordance with Romania’s National Defense Strategy 2015-2019, which highlighted strengthening Romania’s profile within NATO and the EU as the country’s main security objectives. However, mentioning Russia as a top threat has generated reactions from Russian representatives, such as the ambassador to Romania and two Russian senators.
? In Russia & Central Asia…
Arrested for Corruption or Corrupted Arrest? Bahrom Inoyatzoda, the former mayor of Kulob in South-East Tadjikistan, has been asked to step down due to corruption charges. He was also arrested and is currently in custody. In the Tadjikistani political system, President Rahmon himself appoints the mayors of the country’s major cities . This institutional setup ensures that Rahmon can reinforce and maintain widespread control over the country. It is hence very rare for mayors to be asked to resign (or arrested!), since they are appointed by the President. Furthermore, corruption is a widespread phenomenon in Tadjikistan. For these reasons, it is conceivable that Inoyatzoda’s forced resignation was the consequence of some other non-official matter.
Grozny Becomes Impatient With Border Demarcation. On 4 June Caucasian Knot reported that the Chechen government had grown impatient with Dagestan, as the border demarcation process with this neighbouring Russian Republic continues without a solution in sight. In an Instagram post, Magomed Daudov, speaker of the Chechen Parliament, warned about the potential for conflict between the inhabitants of the two neighbouring regions in the context of the unresolved demarcation. Experts interviewed by Caucasian Knot confirm that a conflict might be brewing between the two republics, a situation that the Kremlin would find undesirable. Chechnya-Dagestan relations have remained tense due to the demarcation process which began last year, peaking with open brawls at the border in June 2019.
Labour Migrants Stuck in Detention Facilities. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc and governments close borders, Central Asian labour migrants in Russia have found themselves stranded and unable to return home. Uzbek migrants are particularly vulnerable as their country is not part of the Eurasian Economic Union, which confers specific residence rights to citizens of its member states. Since border crossing restrictions began throughout the region in mid-March, tens of thousands have requested the Uzbek government assist their return back home, and several hundred have been languishing in tent cities and detention centres on the Russo-Kazakh border, Eurasianet reports. On 17 May, RFE/RL reported that up to 500 Uzbek nationals were stuck at a Russo-Kazakh border crossing.
⭐️ This week’s special
Is the EU Punishing the Good Guys? Although most EU member states reacted positively to the European Commission’s proposed €750-billion COVID-19 Recovery Fund, the Visegrad Four are once again the odd ones out. While Slovakia and Poland are largely in favour – with Poland projected to become the fourth-largest beneficiary -, the Czech Republic and Hungary expressed disagreement. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán commented that such a system is ‘an absurd and perverse solution, because it gives more resources to the rich than the poor’. Similarly, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš opposed the proposed amount and the criteria for the fund’s redistribution, on the grounds that they unfairly disadvantage countries which have managed to keep low levels of unemployment. Arguing that ‘it would be unfair to be penalized for being successful in dealing with the pandemic,’ he proposed using the countries’ fall in GDP as a fairer distribution mechanism.
Thank you to this week’s contributors: Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Elise Mazaud, Evguenia Roussel, Fourmi Charles, Hanna Boiko, Ilinka Leger, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, Jules Ortjens, Lucie Janotová, Manon Gallet, Margarita Zilinskaya, Maša Šebek, Máté Mohos, Naser Bislimi, Roxana Chiriac, Silvia Travasoni, Zadig Tisserand ?