Lossi 36 Weekly #9: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 27 July 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

Pop Music Spreading Patriotism and Controversy on Twitter. Dua Lipa, UK celebrity of Albanian-Kosovar descent, tweeted a map of Albania associated with so-called “Greater Albania”. The tweet received over 43,000 reactions and became viral. Comments condemned the message as hate speech, fascism, and nationalism, while others voiced their support for ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo, like the cultural site Team Albanians. Dua Lipa, who has over 5.6 million followers on Twitter, later clarified that she only aimed at supporting her country. She said: “We all deserve to be proud of our ethnicity and where we are from. I simply want my country to be represented on a map and to be able to speak with pride and joy about my Albanian roots”. Another UK singer from the region, Rita Ora, tweeted in support of a petition calling Apple Maps to show Kosovo as an independent country, which collected over 131,000 signatures.

Coalition Talks Following Elections in North Macedonia. The Social Democrat-led alliance won by a narrow lead in general elections, receiving 36% of the votes with 46 seats in the 120-member Parliament. Their main conservative rivals, VMRO-DPMNE, got two percent points less, 34% with 44 seats. The firstly-ranked DUI among the Albanian block of parties won 15 seats, just enough to reach a 61-seat majority in Parliament together with the Social Democrats. Yet coalition talks seem complex given that DUI (the Spitzenkandidaten concept) wants an ethnic Albanian politician as Prime Minister, considering it a new milestone in the country’s democratization. Both main parties have rejected this demand. The conservatives also announced that they would attempt to prevail in forming a new government, since they consider themselves winners in the Macedonian block. Complex coalition talks are expected in the weeks to follow.

Violent Rejection of Covid-19 Restrictive Measures by Serbs: Anti-lockdown Protests or Struggle for Democracy? Shortly after the pandemic reached another alarming peak, the government of Serbia announced on 7 July its intention to introduce a new one-off COVID-19 curfew. In response, thousands of protesters challenged the ban on public gathering and met on the streets of Belgrade to accuse President Vucic of being directly accountable for the worsening of the health situation in the country. Prior to elections, the President had agreed on the sudden and reckless lifting of preventive measures, while praising positive results of the emergency plan designed by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and victory over the virus. The political dimension of demonstrations has not been covered by state-owned media, which keep portraying protestors as ‘covidiots’. Violent clashes with the police have alerted the Council of Europe as well as civil society, both calling for thorough investigations.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Political Activists. Following the mass rally which we mentioned in last week’s newsletter, a number of activists of the oppositionist Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan (PFPA) were arrested or detained on various charges. OC Media reports that the day after the rally, on 15 July, President Ilham Aliyev accused the PFPA of “infiltrating the masses”, “trying to induce people to illegal actions” and “collaborating with the Armenian government in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict”. Gezyal Bairamly, the PFPA deputy chairman, told the Caucasian Knot that the detainees were kept in an unknown location and had not been allowed to contact their families and lawyers. In related news, at the beginning of July another activist and member of the PFPA, Agil Humbatov, was released from a psychiatric hospital in Baku, where he had been forcibly placed in April after criticising the authorities’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tensions Between Armenia and Azerbaijan Extend Beyond the Caucasus. After violent clashes on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan two weeks ago (see Lossi36 Newsletter #8), tensions rose between the two diaspora groups in various countries around the world. In Moscow, trucks importing apricots from Armenia were not allowed to enter a food market owned by an Azerbaijani businessman, followed by an Armenian solidarity action against the ban. More confrontations arose in Europe and beyond, including protests and counter-protests of diaspora groups in London. In other cities, like Amsterdam and Los Angeles, the demonstrations stayed mostly peaceful. Although the situation on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border calmed down last week, the conflict remains far from being resolved.

Georgia Debates Gender Quota. The June reforms in the Georgian election code introduced a system to increase female representation in Parliament. Currently, 90% of members of the Georgian Parliament are male. Under the new law, parties will have to award every fourth party-list seat they win to a person ‘’of a different gender’’. The quota aims to increase the number of female representatives to at least 20% in the October elections. This was well received by many civil society groups who had been calling for change for several years, and it is viewed by some as a victory against the male-dominated power structure in Georgia. This issue was high on the agenda of international partners, including the EU-Georgia Association Agenda, which called for taking “active steps to promote increased women representation in political decision making”. Critics say that the measures are counterproductive, as they let women fight in a separate political competition amongst themselves.

In Central Europe…

#FromMinuteToMinute. Regional Hygiene Station of the Republic Czech’s north-east Moravian-Silesian region announced on 17 July  stricter epidemiological rules to be applied immediately upon worsening coronavirus situation. These include a regulation stating that only 100 people at a time would be allowed to participate in cultural events. Last weekend, around five small festivals and other cultural activities took place. Among them NeFestival, a four-day music event organized by Colours of Ostrava, the biggest national music festival with a 19-year old tradition. NeFestival was supposed to present a message of hope, showing that the hardly-hit cultural sector is still alive, and revive business opportunities in the region. Because of a complete lack of communication surrounding this decision and its devastating impact on the already fragile cultural sector, an initiative of cultural organizers have decided to take it to court.

Phone Prank on Andrzej Duda. Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, two Russian YouTubers, known as Vovan and Lexus, went on to congratulate President Duda on his election victory, pretending to be UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. They expressed concern about the situation of the Polish LGBT community, but Duda affirmed that he does not discriminate against them, and that he respects every human being. When the Russian duo asked him his opinion on the Polish-Russian relations, Duda affirmed that he had a discussion with Vladimir Putin because of “a different understanding in reading history”, adding that “The Russians think that it was a friendly presence, but we call it occupation”. Finally, when asked about the city of Lvov, Duda immediately replied that it is Ukrainian, and that Poland does not want it back.

Did Slovenian Government Finally Address Social Housing Issues? In the past, the Slovenian government often disregarded social housing issues. The rising of market rents and social housing paucity has meant lower independence among Slovenian younger generations which were no longer able to afford to rent or buy apartments. Currently, an amendment to the Housing Act is under discussion. It aims to ensure improved access to housing for young people and the elderly. Suggested is an increase in the non-profitable rents to cover high costs and subsidies for the most vulnerable household members. Henceforth, the Housing Funds in the hands of either the state or municipalities would be able to incur 50% of the debts from their budget to enlarge the country’s social housing capacity.

Hungary’s Largest Independent News Site Under Siege. More than 80 members of staff walked away from index.hu, Hungary’s largest online independent media outlet. This came after editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull was fired by the management which for years had been courted by businessmen close to the governing Fidesz party and its ruler, Viktor Orban. Sources within the company say that the disbanding of index.hu had been a prerogative for the government for a long time, and that political agents had been endangering their editorial freedom. Index.hu is the latest of many press outlets critical of the government that were taken over or closed by the ruling party in recent years. After the mass resignation of nearly every journalist at the site, thousands attended a massive protest for press freedom in Budapest, organized by opposition party Momentum.

In Eastern Europe…

Romania and Ireland in Europe’s Biggest Fine Game. On 16 July, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that Romania and Ireland had to pay the European Commission a lump sum of 3 million and 2 million euros respectively. Both countries are accused of failing to transpose a key directive on money laundering into their national jurisdiction. Adopted in 2015, EU member states had until June 2017 to implement the directive. Both Romania and Ireland failed to meet the deadline. Despite protests from both countries, the Court stood firm, refusing to accept reasons ‘on a case-by-case basis’ for the imposition of a financial penalty. Beyond this decision, the Romanian Judges Forum Association is concerned about the long list of other unimplemented directives in Romania. The possible multiplication of fines risks penalising Romanian taxpayers.

Armed Man Hijacked a Bus and Took Hostages in Western Ukraine. On 21 July, police detained a gunman holding 13 hostages in the center of Lutsk. The attacker, a 44-year old Ukrainian national, seized control of a bus, opened fire, and threw a grenade, although it did not detonate. He demanded that dozens of government officials admit to being “terrorists”. After 12 hours of crisis, the man surrendered to law enforcement bodies and the hostages were released, as Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, consented to his demand by posting a link to the the 2005 animal rights documentary Earthlings on his social media feed. After the attacker surrendered, Zelensky deleted the post. The authorities reported that the gunman is currently being held in a temporary detention centre, while an accomplice was captured in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

Kazakhstan Strives to Improve Citizens’ Access Health Services. Kazakhstan is looking to establish a state-controlled medicine reserve, Health Minister Alexey Tsoy announced on 21 July. The goal of the initiative is to address inadequate access to medicine in the country. The plan will be implemented by the SK Pharmacy company, a state-owned company. Besides creating this “National Emergency Stabilization Fund for Essential Medicines,” Tsoy also announced a plan that focuses on strengthening medical accessibility in the rural areas, where the need is especially dire. The World Health Organization’s official statistics reflect the necessity of such measures. Kazakhstan has a very low density of available pharmaceutical personnel (8.27 per 10 000 inhabitants) and low availability of hospital beds (60.6 per 10 000).

New US Sanctions on Ramzan Kadyrov. The US State Department sanctioned Russia’s Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, for his responsibility for human rights violations. Under these sanctions, Kadyrov, widely seen as an autocratic leader, faces limitations in financial activities and is banned from applying for US visas. These measures also apply to his wife and daughters. As a BBC report in 2018 showed, the rule of law in Chechnya has deteriorated under Kadyrov, who rules the country with an iron fist in cooperation with his family members and close associates. What tangible outcomes may come from these new sanctions is not clear yet, although it may impact Kadyrov’s interest in international mixed martial arts competitions.

Ozodlik: problems continue for workers trying to return home in Central Asia. Uzbekistani laborers face severe difficulties in returning to their homes in Sokh. Many of them are stuck at the Kyrgyz border, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Ozodlik reported on 15 July. This is due to strict quarantine rules that are among the Coronavirus restrictions that had been extended or reintroduced in Central Asian areas (Lossi 36 #7). In particular, the Ozodlik report shows the problem that the inhabitants of Sokh, a Uzbekistani enclave inside Kyrgyzstan, are facing. Their struggle is worsened by the fact that the Sokh enclave was the site of violent conflict between inhabitants from Sokh and a neighboring town in Kyrgyzstan in the past, adding ethnic tension to the situation.

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

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