Lossi 36 Weekly #5: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 29 June 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

Serbian Parliamentary Election: Vucic’s “Pyrrhic Victory”? On 21 June, Serbians went to the polls to elect new Members of Parliament after weeks of peaceful protests across the country against the growing authoritarian tendencies of President Aleksandar Vucic. Nine opposition parties had originally called for a boycott of the election and had denounced – as had ODIHR – the alarming bias of state-owned media. However, opposition leaders failed to maintain the blockade for fear of Vucic gaining monopoly power in the Parliament, all the more so because the electoral threshold had been lowered from 5 to 3%, thus benefiting smaller opposition groups. The ruling SNS party eventually won 189 seats out of 250 and thus reaffirmed its control of power. For Florian Bieber, a Balkan expert, “it is a pyrrhic victory, without opposition in parliament the election is discredited and its rule less legitimate than ever before”.

The Mysterious 15 Conditions. The European Parliament’s AFET Committee recently hosted Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, Director for Western Balkans at DG NEAR, for a discussion on Albania’s conditions to be met prior to its first accession-related intergovernmental conference. In March, when it approved the opening of the negotiations, the European Council listed 5 priorities and set 15 pre-conditions. However, the issue has become politicized both in Albania and the EU. The Albanian government claimed that there were no pre-conditions, prompting some media to call it a denial. Ruiz Calavera stressed that “some conditions” will need to be met before, while “others will be included” later in the negotiating framework. The Council agreed in March that the conference should be convened “as soon as possible after the adoption” of the framework currently being prepared by the CommissionEPP group members and some member states want the 15 conditions to be implemented before the process kicks off, potentially causing months, perhaps years, of delay.

North Macedonia: Ex-Special Prosecution Chief Goes to Prison. The Skopje Criminal Court in North Macedonia found former head of the Special Prosecution, Katica Janeva, guilty in a major high-profile corruption trial. She was sentenced to seven years in jail for misuse of office. Janeva had collaborated with the first defendant in the case, Bojan Jovanovski (a TV reality showman, known as Boki 13), to get the wealthiest man in the country, Orce Kamcev, out of detention and return his passport in exchange for a €1.5 million bribe. At the time, Orce Kamcev was being detained and prosecuted by Janeva’s Special Prosecution in a major investigation case codenamed “Empire”. The Special Prosecution was established in 2015 and was tasked with investigating high-level corruption and organized crime in the country, in order to restore faith in the judiciary.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

One Step Closer to Electoral Reform. As you might remember from Lossi 36 #3, one year after demonstrations rocked Georgia, its Parliament began discussing a major electoral reform. The parliament has now backed the reform in the first reading with a majority of 136 votes out of 150. The final vote was expected on 26-27 June.  In case you missed it, the constitutional amendment is meant to come into force in time for the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2020. Proposed changes in the mixed electoral system would see 120 MPs elected through a proportional and 30 MPs through a majoritarian system (instead of the current 77 and 73 respectively), while the electoral threshold would be lowered to 1%. According to analysts, the reform would make the system more fair and democratic. It has also found broad approval amongst international stakeholders, including the EU, the US, OSCE and the Venice Commission.

The National Assembly of Armenia (NA) VS. the Constitutional Court. The next chapter of the struggle between the two-year-old, post-revolutionary government and the Constitutional Court (CC) has been opened. Since 2018, the government under Nikol Pashinyan has been trying to find a way to remove those judges of the CC whom the ruling party and their supporters consider to be remnants of the autocratic, pre-revolutionary regime under Serzh Sargsyan. After calling off a referendum initially planned for April this year, the NA adopted a draft amendment to the Constitution, supported by the majority-holding My Step faction. This amendment would restrict judges’ mandates to 12 years. As a result, the three longest-serving judges would be forced to resign. The two opposition factions did not take part in the session of the NA and labelled the amendment and the legal procedure  unconstitutional.

You Shall Not Pass! Around 400 Azeris have recently clashed with Russian police and border guards in Dagestan during protests against restrictions on border crossings. Several hundred Azeris have been stuck in a temporary camp outside the village of Kullar on the Caspian Sea after both Russia and Azerbaijan closed their borders due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Around 100-130 people have been allowed to cross back to Azerbaijan weekly but anger and resentment are growing among those forced to stay. It is unclear who gets the lucky one-way ticket home, with some Azeris claiming that newcomers to the camp sometimes get to cross quickly while others need to wait for months. The recent clashes resulted in around 100 arrests – another topic to discuss as Russian and Azerbaijani authorities are trying to find a solution to this mutually inconvenient situation.

In Central Europe…

Andrej Babiš Still in a Conflict of Interest. On 19 June, the European Parliament approved a resolution to reopen the investigation against the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, on the misuse of EU funds and potential conflicts of interest.   Andrej Babiš owns an agriculture, chemicals, and media holding, AGROFERT, one of the top Czech recipients of EU subsidies. The European Parliament resolution calls for his exclusion from EU long-term budget negotiations as his impartiality and objectivity have been called into question. “It’s very harmful that a member who sits on the European Council can personally stand to benefit from EU money”, argued Lara Wolters, a member from the Budgetary Control Committee, before the vote. Although the resolution is non-binding, EU lawmakers demanded that Babiš either resolve this issue or step down. In response, Babiš said: “It is unnecessary to comment on lies of the useless European institution that costs more than 55 billion Kc and is filled with lazy parasites and green fanatics who endanger our industry”.

Protests Against Intolerance. Poland is now witnessing an important struggle between the LGBT community and their opponents. Several students of the University of Śląsk in Katowice informed the Rector of homophobic comments made by a Professor of Sociology during lecture. The police interrogated, and allegedly threatened, each student for several hours. The Jewish community in Warsaw showed solidarity with the LGBT community: “We Jews do not want and cannot be indifferent towards the dehumanization of the LGBT people. […] We know that depriving one social group of dignity and humanity, and that spreading illegitimate fear among the rest of the community, inevitably leads to tragedies and pogroms”. Peaceful protests have been organized in Kraków, Wrocław, Poznań, Katowice, Szczecin. “The rights of non-heteronormative people have become one of the main topics of this electoral campaign”, said a protestor before concluding: “Do politicians really have to act like this just to gain a bit of notoriety?”.

A War for Democracy? Slovenian Borders Deluged with Soldiers. For a while now, the role of democracy in Slovenia has been questioned. Slovenians have been protesting in the streets for weeks now, demanding political change. But the government responded with increased public force, allowing the police to carry tasers beginning 1 July. Meanwhile, the Slovenian Army started stopping and interrogating civilians at the Slovenian borders, acting beyond its initial prerogatives. On 7 May, two soldiers stopped a Slovenian civilian from Trieste by pointing a gun towards him. The incident is under investigation, as only the police are entitled to arrest civilians. The Army’s presence is aimed at protecting the border from illegal migrants. Prime Minister Janez Janša has defended the Army, saying that the civilian had a suspicious face, which gave the right to soldiers to use their guns.

In Eastern Europe…

Romania Bans Gender Studies. Following the trend in Hungary and Poland, on 16 June Romania banned schools and universities from teaching that “gender is a different concept from that of biological sex”. On 18 June dozens of protesters called on Romanian President Klaus Iohannis not to promulgate the law and send it back to Parliament. However, the President will not be able to act if Parliament decides to pass the law for the second time. According to political scientist Alexandru Gussi, the vote on this law is underpinned by the prospect of parliamentary elections to be held next autumn. With the idea to make gender studies a campaign issue, the social-democratic majority and the centre-right have formed an overwhelming alliance to pass this legislation, drowning out the voice of the liberal minority in the government.

How Ukrainian Activist’s Self-Defense Led to Politicized Justice. In 2018, during the third attack on Serhiy Sternenko, a Ukrainian civil activist from Odessa, one of the assailants was injured and later died in hospital. With numerous head injuries and a cut to his arm, Sternenko insisted that he had acted in self-defense. Over the course of the past two years his story has become a political case. In June 2020, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) notified Sternenko of a suspicion of premeditated murder and illegal possession of a knife. A series of demonstrations in support of the activist have followed – the latest ended with law enforcement officers detaining five protesters who had been rallying outside a district court in Kyiv.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

Kazakhstan to Offer Humanitarian Aid to Afghanistan – The Kazah government, will provide the Afghan people with 46 cargos of humanitarian aid, the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan announced on 22 June. Former Kazakh President Nazarbayev and Afghan President Ghani expressed a mutual will to strengthen their already good relations during a phone call the next day. This humanitarian gesture comes only weeks after Kazakhstan provided Kyrgyzstan and Tadjikistan with humanitarian aid. These efforts aimed to help the countries tackle the Covid-19 pandemic more effectively. Kazakhstan’s drive to help other nations around it is widely seen as part of the country’s aspiration to be the regional peace facilitator and acquire more international credit and recognition.

Low Productivity Cited as Reason of Disbanding Government Organization Responsible for Development in the North Caucasus Region. Low productivity was cited as the main reason for the disbandment and subsuming of the federal Ministry of North Caucasus Affairs (MinKavkaz) in the federal audit chamber. The original purpose of the organization, founded in 2014, was to coordinate and implement federal policy measures in the troubled North Caucasus region. On 21 January, Russian President Vladimir Putin elected to disband MinKavkaz altogether and incorporate its tasks to the North Caucasus Federal District. The audit chamber now found that the move was warranted, as MinKavKaz did not even reach half of its developmental targets.

Government to Throw Cash at Tourists who get Infected in the Country. Uzbekistan will offer compensation to tourists who get infected with coronavirus in the country as part of a plan to restart the economy after the pandemic. Tourists must be in the country on a guide-operated tour to make claims for up to 3000 USD. Another measure for the industry is a new tax relief for hotel operators and other companies. These fall in line with other reformist economic policies of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been credited with setting the country on a new path after the death of long-term ruler Islam Karimov in 2016. These reforms included simplifying visa obtention and increased promotion of the country as a travel destination. Local commentators say that the results are already tangible.

⭐️  This week’s special

Perspectives on EU-China Summit. On 22 June, the 22nd EU-China Summit was held through video conference. Among the wide range of topics addressed during the summit, many have a bearing on the region we are interested in, especially on the Western Balkans. The EU has urged China to commit to achieving climate neutrality as soon as possible. On an another key issue,it has been clearly stated that the EU will not tolerate cyber attacks and disinformation. President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen described relations with China as a complex and vital partnership. Considering China’s growing engagement in the Western Balkans and other parts of Eurasia – especially through strategic investments in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-, improved relations between the EU and China could have implications on the region’s development and its integration to the EU.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Evguenia Roussel, Fourmi Charles, Hanna Boiko, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, Kristin Aldag, Louise Guillon, Ilinka Leger, Lucie Janotová, Maša Šebek, Naser Bislimi, Ricardo Bergmann, Roxana Chiariac, Silvia Travasoni ?

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