Lossi 36 Weekly #8: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 20 July 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Back on Track Under EU-Restored, but Contested, Leadership. Following the French-German-hosted virtual meeting between Prime Minister Hoti and President Vučić, the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, Miroslav Lajčak, and the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, warmly welcomed the re-start of the process after a 20-month break. But this seems to be less a genuine resumption of dialogue than the lucky recapture of the US diplomatic leadership by the EU. Aside from the vague agreement on the agenda, no tangible progress has been made as regards the normalisation of relations. In Kosovo, serious doubts remain about the EU’s credibility to carry out that process given its internal divisions and tacit support for autocratic regimes in the region.

Albania Left Out of EU’s Travel List as COVID Cases Remain on the Rise. The Council of the EU has adopted a recommendation on the gradual lifting of the temporary restrictions on travel, presenting a list of 15 countries allowed entry into the EU. Although Albania has reopened its borders to the EU, it has been excluded from the list, and only Albanians with specific visas and permits are allowed entry into Italy. This decision has not affected airlines’ plans to open new air routes to Italy, Germany and the UK. New destinations to Bergamo, Pisa, and Verona were officially introduced last week. Today, a new flight is connecting Tirana and Frankfurt (GER), and Sunday will connect Tirana and Stansted (UK). Let’s see if tourists will be encouraged to travel to Albania under these conditions.

Montenegro Becomes First Country in the Balkans to Legalise Same-Sex Civil Unions. An historic decision has been taken by the Montenegrin parliament on 1 July 2020 in favor of the legalisation of same-sex unions. Rejected by parliament the same month last year, the law received 42 votes in the 81-seat parliament this time, overcoming opposition from the Serbian Orthodox Church. Montenegro becomes the 32nd United-Nations member to recognise some form of civil partnership for same-sex couples. President Milo Djukanovic and Prime Minister Dusko Markovic welcomed the decision, stressing that the country is affirming its European values, reports Reuters, a significant political and societal variable in the process of accession to the European Union.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

Abkhazia Reacts Strongly to a Proposal for Russian Annexation. At the beginning of July, Russian writer and politician Zakhar Prilepin proposed that Russia annex the unrecognized or partially recognized republics of the former Soviet space. Prilepin suggested that the annexation could take place if 75% of the local population voted in favour of joining Russia in a referendum. Some see these statements as a way to interfere in the internal affairs of the former Soviet Republics, while others speculate that Russia is preparing for annexation. The Abkhaz parliament responded by recalling that relations between Abkhazia and Russia are based on mutual recognition and treaties. The war veterans organization Aruaa expressed its concerns in an official statement, pointing out the lack of reaction by the President of the Republic, Aslan Bzhania.

Mysterious Murder of a Young Footballer in Georgia. This week marks a month of investigation into the murder of a young football player, Giorgi Shakarashvili. He disappeared after a birthday party on 19 June and was found dead in a river four days later. Giorgi was at the party when a fight broke out. Although the gathering was quickly dismantled, violence continued as the evening progressed. Allegedly, Giorgi did not participate in the fighting. Currently, 17 people are in custody for various charges, including a group conspiracy to commit murder. The results of an autopsy show that Shakarashvili was severely beaten shortly before his death. However, with little cooperation from the suspects and witnesses alike, the investigation cannot be concluded. The case, similar to many others from the past, once again shook Georgian society to the core.

Simmering War Starts Boiling Again. Fighting broke out once again between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the weekend of 11-12 June, with tanks and artillery involved. At least 16 people died during the clashes on the border between Tavush province (Armenia) and Tovuz district (Azerbaijan). With Azerbaijan reporting 12 out of the 16 deaths, social unrest is on the rise. Thousands of Azerbaijanis marched through Baku last week, calling for war against Armenia. The protest eventually turned violent, and the police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The UN, as well as Russia and the US, have called for a ceasefire. In the meantime, the Caucasian Knot reports that the President of a disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), Araik Harutyunyan, “has accused Azerbaijan of “deliberately aggravating the situation”” and 200 volunteers from the NKR are ready to join the fighting.

In Central Europe…

More than Half of All Czechs View Corruption as Acceptable according to the European Union Agency on Fundamental Rights (FRA). In short, the FRA´s 2020 fundamental rights report focuses on views on human rights, democratic process and the role of public services in accessing human rights amongst the citizens of the EU and Northern Macedonia.  The report examined inter alia experiences with and views of European citizens on corruption through polls. When asked whether it is acceptable to give a gift or do a favour for a public official or a civil servant if something is needed urgently, 59% of Czechs answered it is sometimes or always acceptable. It is the second highest figure after Slovakia (61%). By comparison, only 20% of citizens in Portugal or Finland consider it sometimes or always acceptable. In a context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also interesting to read that, out of different situations, people within the EU think it is more common that a person needs to give a gift or do someone a favor to get improved medical treatments than to register their ownership of land or property or obtain a driver’s licence.

Hungarian Ambassador to Peru Caught with Child Pornography Files. The Court in Budapest sentenced Gábor Kaleta, Ambassador to Peru from 2017 to 2019 and former Press Officer in the  Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to a one-year suspended prison sentence and a 540,000 Ft  fine (1,500 euros). Kaleta was charged with child pornography after he was caught with 19,000 pornographic images of minors stored on his computer. Although Prime Minister Viktor Orbán argued that the Ambassador faced a rather mild punishment, calling for a higher sentence, his government tried to keep the case secret after receiving the information from US authorities. The Hungarian police escorted Kaleta from Peru to Budapest, and his misconduct only became public when index.hu, a Hungarian news website, reported about it. Kaleta appealed the verdict. His lawyer announced that he regretted what he had done.

In Eastern Europe…

Ukrainian Parliament Legalized Gambling, Casinos and Betting Shops. On 14 July, the Verkhovna Rada legalized the gambling business in Ukraine, including on the Internet. The new law allows the activities of casinos, bookmaker offices, and slot-machine halls, as well as the organization of online poker. Some restrictions are however planned. For instance, the placement of gambling establishments will not be allowed within  500 meters of educational establishments. It should also be remembered that all kinds of gambling, with the exception of lotteries, has been outlawed in Ukraine since June 2009. While the authorities hope that gambling houses will attract tourists, an expert on psychological cybersecurity commented that, given the unstable economic and social situation in the country caused by COVID-19, the implementation of the law might create conditions for the development of addictive behavior among citizens.

Bulgaria Lurches Into Political Crisis Over Unprecedented Attack on the Presidency by the Prosecutor’s Office. On 9 July, armed officers of the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Interior raided the offices of both President Radev’s Secretary for Legal Affairs, Plamen Uzunov, and the President’s advisors. Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev announced that the actions were, among other things, motivated by suspicions over shady influence peddling by Uzunov. According to the Prosecutor, President Radev’s Secretary used his sway in the Presidency to lobby for different business interests. However, the presidency in Bulgaria carries out mostly ceremonial functions and hardly has a significant say in conducting policies. President Radev has been quite critical of the current leadership of the Prosecutor’s Office and of the government in the last months. Massive protests sparked across the country demanding the resignation of both the cabinet and the Prosecutor General.

Motion of Censure Against the Moldovan Government. The DA platform submitted to the Parliament a motion of censure against the Government signed by PAS deputies and the unaffiliated deputy Octavian Țîcu. The motion was presented in the plenary of the Legislature on 16 July. According to the signatories, the executive led by Ion Chicu ‘“demonstrated governmental incapacity and created sufficient premises to deepen the crisis in all spheres of social life.” The Pro Moldova parliamentary group has announced that it will support the dismissal of the Chicu government. On the other hand, the Democratic Party faction rejected the invitation to sign the motion. And the leader of the Socialist Party faction accused PAS of entering an “alliance with the oligarchic parties.” The initiative to cast a vote of no confidence in the current government will be examined at the next sitting of Parliament.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

North Caucasus: Influential Ingush Senator Arrested. Ingush senator and ex-mayor of Magas Yakub Belkharoyev was arrested in North Ossetia on charges of corruption on 10 June. Belkharoyev is said to be the leader of the Baltalkhadzhintsy group of Ingushetia, a vast, secretive Sufi brotherhood with far-reaching influence inside the region and connections to Chechnya. He is suspected of having forged documents granting disability benefits for himself, family members, and friends, the Tienda writes. During his detention, Belkharoyev may also be investigated for any involvement in the case of the 2 November 2019 assassination of the head of Ingushetia’s anti-terrorism body, the Komsomolskaya Pravda reports.

Turkmenistan: Facemasks Coming to Turkmenistan for Protection Against ‘Dust’. Turkmenistan is finally adopting something of a lockdown, the Akhal-Teke Bulletin reports. In early July, authorities started asking people to wear masks, stores closed down, and train travel was suspended. Yet the government has still not recognized the existence of COVID-19 in the country, and the guidelines issued are officially meant to protect people from ‘dust.’ These new measures coincide with the arrival of a World Health Organisation delegation, who, according to the Turkmenistani government, did not find any coronavirus cases in the country. While the government still maintains that Turkmenistan is one of the dozen countries without cases of the virus, the US Embassy in the country recently reported that it has “received reports of local citizens with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 undergoing COVID-19 testing and being placed in quarantine.”

Healthcare Workers Raise Concerns about Kyrgyzstan’s Handling of the Pandemic. Local and global concerns are growing on the evolution of Kyrgyzstan’s fight with COVID-19. Testimonies from healthcare workers and patients depict an overcrowded and inaccessible health care system. According to them, sick people are mostly inclined to self-medicate at home. They only seek hospitalization when their condition becomes critical, and they still struggle to find a hospital bed. However, the government is not considering re-introducing a stricter lockdown, as the country’s economy could not handle such measures. The evolution of the spread of the novel coronavirus in Kyrgyzstan was slow and relatively casualty-free: the state announced its first official coronavirus cases on 18 March. As a response, a curfew between 8 pm and 7 am was introduced. It was replaced by a more relaxed quarantine period that lasted from May until Mid-June.

⭐️  This week’s special

Promoting Gender Equality in the Eastern Partnership Region. A three-year programme called “EU 4 Gender Equality: Together Against Gender Stereotypes and Gender-Based Violence“ was recently launched in all six countries of the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine). The programme aims to achieve several objectives, such as transforming gender-stereotyped behaviour, strengthening men’s involvement in parenting and domestic responsibilities, increasing men’s access to parental leave, and reducing the number of people affected by gender-based violence through prevention interventions with potential perpetrators. ‘’This is our first regional programme covering gender equality in the Eastern Partnership region and we are intensely proud of it” said Lawrence Meredith, Director for Neighbourhood East in the Directorate-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations at the European Commission. The programme comes at a critical time. It has been reported that due to lockdown restrictions under the COVID-19 pandemic, many women, including in the Eastern Neighbourhood, face increased pressure and violence at home.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Ana Robakidze, Anastasia Korogodova, Bojidar Kolov, Cătălina Ceban, Elise Mazaud, Evguenia Roussel, Fourmi Charles, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, Louise Guillon, Marton Gera, Margarita Zilinskaya, Marysia Suchcitz, Silvia Travasoni, Zadig Tisserand, Zuzana Krulichova ?

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