Lossi 36 Weekly #4: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 22 June 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

What is the Price for Improved Serbia-Kosovo Relations? On 3 June, a few days after being approved by Parliament, the new Kosovo government decided to revoke the reciprocity measures on imports from Serbia introduced by the previous Vetevendosje-led government (which was toppled by a censure motion last March). Following a meeting of the recently-set-up cabinet on 6 June, Prime Minister Abdullah Hoti told the media that his government had made the important decision to lift obstacles to the dialogue on normalisation of relations with Serbia, provided that Serbia would do the same. The two parties are expected to meet in Washington on 27 June following an invitation from the US special envoy, Richard Grenelle. As a condition to the talks, Serbia accepted to interrupt its derecognition campaign against Kosovo, while Kosovo agreed to halt its push for international recognition towards international organisations – which the biggest opposition party, Vetevendosje, considers a setback to Kosovo’s interests.

Illegal Animal Trafficking Getting out of Control in Albania? An article posted last week on Brut relayed a Four Paws investigation presenting alarming evidence on animal well-being and animal protection in Albania. Wild animals were found online as sale objects on two major vending sites attracting individual buyers and restaurant owners alike. A shocking video revealed their unacceptable living conditions following illegal sales. Monkeys, foxes, bears, wolves, owls, and Albania’s heraldic eagles – whose population has reduced by half since the 1990s – were all seen caged or chained. The local NGO PPNEA also revealed that bear meat had been sold on the menu in one restaurant. Overall, activists are trying to hold local governments more accountable to punish such exploitations. Albania passed a law against illegal hunting in 2014, but so far its implementation has been insufficient, while environmental crimes have increased since the beginning of 2020.

Brussels Denies Covering up Croatia’s Human Rights Violations. Last week, the European Commission rejected The Guardian’s claim that Brussels had covered up Croatia’s failure to protect asylum seekers from police brutality. The European Commission, led by President Ursula von der Leyen, told Sarajevo-based news outlet Balkan Insight that ‘the Commission’s intention has always been, and remains, to establish a fully independent border monitoring mechanism in Croatia’. Although Brussels may have not tried to sweep Zagreb’s violation of human rights under the carpet, NGO Amnesty International concluded last week that the EU’s silence is ‘encouraging the perpetrators of this abuse to continue without consequences’. In 2018, the Commission invested €305 million in emergency assistance to support migration management at the EU’s external borders, of which nearly 7 million was saved for Zagreb.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

Assassination Attempt Against Journalist in Georgia. Last week, a murder plot flooded the news in Georgia. A Russian citizen was identified as having plotted the murder of Georgian journalist Giorgi Gabunia. With the help of the Gabunia’s security detail, intelligence services caught the man, however his motives remain the subject of speculation. A year ago, Gabunia used explicit language in relation to Russian President Vladimir Putin, which resulted in lots of negative traction. Looking at recent events, such as the attempted assassination of the Skripals in the UK, some have claimed that the assassination could have been commissioned by Russia or Chechen leader Kadyrov. With life and national security currently under threat, an adequate response seems utterly important.

Is Armenian Opposition Leader Gagik Tsarukian a Victim or a Criminal? On 16 June, the leader of the opposition faction Prosperous Armenia, Gagik Tsarukian, was deprived of his parliamentary immunity and questioned by the National Security Service (NSS). Three days earlier, the NSS had searched the house of Tsarukian, who also happens to be one of the most illustrious and controversial oligarchs in Armenia, employing thousands of people within his business conglomerate. The NSS opened three charges against him, including vote bribery during the 2017 elections and tax-related crimes. Political observers in Armenia give mixed assessments of the situation (see here in Russian or here in English). Tsarukian’s supporters accuse the government of using its powers to chase down opposition political forces, while members of the leading My Step faction stress that the case should not be politicized given that everyone is equal before the law.

Intimidations and Lively Debates in Parliament About Prisoners’ Conditions of Detention In South Ossetia. On 5 June, about 20 prisoners cut their wrists in a prison in Tskhinvali to protest against the use of torture and inhumane conditions. None of the prisoners died, but the event sparked heated debates in South Ossetia. The next day, an extraordinary parliamentary meeting was organized in the presence of around 200 armed security officers, in what resembled an act of intimidation directly ordered by President Anatoly Bibilov. During the session, some aggressive behaviors occurred against opposition MPs, who were accused of defending the interests of the criminal world instead of the population. Despite demands from the opposition, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Interior refused to resign and ended up denying the use of torture in Ossetian prisons.

In Central Europe…

The ‘Ricin Plot’ Continues to Deteriorate Russian-Czech Relations. In Lossi 36 #1, we explained that three Czech politicians, including the Mayor of Prague, were under police protection after the media reported on an assassination plot orchestrated by Russia. New developments in this so-called ‘ricin plot’ have aggravated diplomatic relations between the two countries. On 5 June, Czech Prime Minister Babiš claimed that the whole plot had been invented as part of an internal dispute between two diplomats at the Russian Embassy in Prague. He also announced that two Russian diplomats would be expelled from the country. The Russian Embassy reacted by calling the decision a provocation, and two Czech diplomats were reciprocally expelled from Russia in what seems to be a common diplomatic practice.

Europe’s Biggest Fireworks Show in Hungary? While fireworks have always been part of the celebrations on 20 August in Hungary, this year, Viktor Orbán’s government is planning something more grandiose for the State Foundation Day. After declaring victory over COVID-19, the Hungarian government announced that public gatherings would be allowed from 15 August onwards and it started planning the show for 20 August. Zoltán Guller, the CEO of the governmental organization Hungarian Tourism Agency, predicted that it would be Europe’s biggest. And indeed, it seems that the government is ready to spend more on the show than on the renovation of the famous Széchenyi Chain Bridge (the condition of which has become alarming over the last decades), as pointed out by Orbán’s opposition, in particular by Budapest’s Green mayor Gergely Karácsony.

For Polish President, LGBT Are Not People But an ‘Ideology’. Speaking to supporters last week, incumbent President Andrzej Duda said that the ‘LGBT ideology’ is more destructive than communism. ‘They try to convince us that LGBT are people, but it is an ideology’, claimed the President. Duda is a close ally of the ruling Law and Justice government, which has been accused of promoting an anti-gay agenda. Duda’s comments drew much criticism from the opposition, human rights groups and various institutions in Poland, as well as from the EU and international organisations. Poland has been ranked the worst country in the EU for LGBT rights by the group ILGA-Europa. With less than 2 weeks remaining before presidential elections, we will see whether these homophobic statements could prevent Duda from winning a second term in office.

In Eastern Europe…

Ukraine’s First Lady Hospitalized With Coronavirus. The wife of the President of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, who had previously been diagnosed with coronavirus, was hospitalized in Kyiv on 16 June. The First Lady has bilateral pneumonia despite the fact that during working meetings and at home she constantly adhered to the quarantine rules and regularly underwent testing for COVID-19. Where and when exactly she became infected is still unknown, and an epidemiological investigation is being conducted. President Volodymyr Zelensky and his children have also been tested, but their results are negative. Due to his wife’s illness, the President switched to a special working mode wherein he does not meet with others in person or participate  in any social events. Exceptions will only be allowed in the event of an emergency situation requiring an immediate response from the Head of State.

Extradition of Vladimir Plahotniuc for the Theft of One Billion Dollars. On 16 June 2020, Moldovan General Prosecutor Alexandr Stoianoglo requested that the authorities of the United States extradite the former leader of the Moldovan Democratic Party, Vladimir Plahotniuc. The request was based on the claim that Plahotniuc should be held accountable in his native country, the Republic of Moldova, where he had been accused of involvement in the theft of one billion dollars in 2014-2015 – the equivalent of 1/8 of the country’s GDP. It should be mentioned that as early as October 2019, anti-corruption prosecutors had requested a 30-day arrest warrant for Plahotniuc, and the Chisinau Court issued a warrant for pre-trial detention. On 29 October, Plahotniuc was placed in international and interstate search by the National Anticorruption Center, after not appearing at the criminal investigation body following the application of pre-trial detention.

Summer Holiday in Bulgaria Between the Excess of Constriction and the Dearth of Tourists. Since 15 June, when Athens and Sofia lifted all restrictions for tourism across their shared border, thousands of Bulgarian holidaymakers have queued to enter Greece, waiting sometimes for several hours at checkpoints. Bulgarian Prime Minister Borissov announced that by choosing foreign destinations, tourists undermine their own country’s domestic industry. Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s Environment Minister said that he would not interrupt the construction of a dubious vacation facility at the beach of Alepu on the southern Black Sea coast, a project that has brought much controversy due to its size and location. Earlier this year, the northern coast of the Bulgarian Black Sea was heavily polluted as a result of a damaged sewer pipe which contaminated the waters with tons of feces. Journalist Georgi Alexandrov, who was investigating the case, was found dead near the pipe in late May.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

Turkmen Nationals Abroad Demand President Resign. Northern Cyprus and the United States have witnessed a series of protests by Turkmen nationals demanding the resignation of Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the latest of them taking place in Nicosia on 14 June. While the protests have not drawn large crowds, they are a rarity given the systematic efforts of the Turkmen government to cow any opposition, at home and abroad. As mentioned in Lossi 36 #1, Western Turkmenistan was hit by a series of hurricanes that left scores dead and injured. The slow and lackluster response by the authorities prompted what has been called the largest protest in the country’s post-Soviet history. Adding to these woes, a rare outbreak of pneumonia was registered in Turkmenabat, which could mean that COVID-19 is gaining ground in the country. To this day, Turkmenistan has denied that any coronavirus cases have been found in the country.

Ethnic Clashes in Kyrgyzstan, What’s Changed Over The Years? Ten years ago, in spring 2010, one of the bloodiest events of modern Kyrgyz history took place. Violence erupted between ethnic Uzbeks and ethnic Kyrgyzs in the Southern city of Osh, causing hundreds of casualties. These events took place in a rather unstable political context, as president Bakiyev had just been removed from power. Ten years later, the power vacuum left by Bakiyev has been filled and the regime has become more stable. It is hence legitimate to ponder over the impact of the relative political stability of the delicate ethnic situation in Kyrgyzstan. New comparable outbursts of violence have not been recorded in the past ten years, and some positive steps have indeed been taken by the regime in the combat against ethnic violence. However, NGOs have recently expressed concern over the impunity and lack of prosecution faced by the actors involved in the ethnic clashes ten years ago.

Flash Drive Worth 16 Years in Prison. Paul Whelan, an American, British, Canadian and Irish citizen, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison by a Russian court on 15 June. The former US marine had been arrested in December 2018, straight after receiving a flash drive said to have contained classified information from a Russian Federal Security Service officer operating under the control of special services. Whelan called the trial a “sham”. He claimed that he had been in Russia on a personal trip and was arrested on false charges. He also said that he was denied proper medical treatment while in detention and called on the leaders of all his homelands to ‘end this political charade’. It is speculated that a prisoner swap could be arranged, during which Whelan would be exchanged for one or more Russians currently in US custody.

⭐️  This week’s special

Eastern Partnership (EaP) Annual Summit Turned Into Leader’s Video Conference. Keeping an active dialogue despite restrictions, EU leaders and their six EaP counterparts met via video conference on 18 June to discuss the response to COVID-19 and the strategic partnership. The EU had provided substantial financial support (€1 billion) and material support in the form of medical equipment to the EaP countries. EU leaders emphasized the importance of solidarity in times of crisis and their commitment to the EaP as a foreign policy priority. Nevertheless, critics pointed to the fact that the video meeting did not produce any tangible outcome besides the announcement of a March 2021 summit and the planned adoption of a joint declaration on five policy priority areas. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted that his country’s ambitions do not end in the EaP but include full membership in the EU, reopening discussions on the membership perspective and the need for more differentiation within the EaP framework.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Ana Robakidze, Anastasia Korogodova, Bojidar Kolov, Cătălina Ceban, Elise Mazaud, Evguenia Roussel, Fourmi Charles, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, Jules Ortjens, Kristin Aldag, Marton Gera, Marysia Suchcitz, Ricardo Bergmann, Zadig Tisserand, Zuzana Krulichova ?

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