Lossi 36 Weekly #24: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
Originally published on 06.09.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: Talk of a mini-Schengen on The Balkans; Gazprom’s gasification of Abkhazia; Estonia‘s next president; Zelenskyy and Biden meet in D.C.; Tajikistan‘s cold response to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan; Belarusian comedian expelled from Russia; Crisis at the EU’s Belarusian border, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
The European Union’s Belarusian Border Crisis.
While the international community closely watches the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the situation on the European Union’s Belarusian border keeps worsening. Since July 2021, illegal migration from Belarus into Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland has kept thousands of migrants without proper access to food, shelter, or medical assistance stranded on the EU’s borders. The Belarusian authorities are believed to use a migrants-as-weapons package to cause “a pan-European migration crisis:” Minsk arranges the easy entries for tourists from Iraq and other countries, brings them to the border, and leaves them to cross the border illegally without a chance to be allowed back into Belarus. Alyaksandr Lukashenka denies any accusations of using migration as a weapon.
Over the past weeks, the Prime Ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland have expressed their concerns over the situation in a joint press statement; Poland has declared a local state of emergency at the border; Lithuania has started building a border wall; and Poland and Lithuania have called for the EU’s assistance in tackling illegal migration. Similarly, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson assured that the European Union should work collectively if it wants to prevent another European migrant crisis.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia push ahead with Open Balkan Initiative. Originally touted as creating a “mini-Schengen”, the Open Balkan Initiative seeks to bolster economic growth within the three countries by replicating the EU’s free flow of people, capital, and goods, resulting in a single market of 12 million people. The plan is to abolish border controls by 2023. While some critics argue that the initiative might discourage the participating countries from continuing to pursue EU membership, others see the coalition as a trial-run prior to EU accession. Initially, there was hope that the Open Balkan Initiative would encompass all Western Balkan countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo. However, representatives from those nations reportedly see no additional benefit in the creation of a Balkan supranational entity, citing that the existence of the wider CEFTA agreement already allows for the easing of travel and trade throughout the region.
Dodik expects Erdoğan to weigh in regarding the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On September 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) as part of his mini-tour of the Western Balkans. He met with the three members of the Bosnian Presidency, the Bosnian Croat Željko Komšić, the Bosniak Šefik Džaferović and the Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik. During a press conference following the meeting, Dodik raised the positions characteristic of his political program since 2006: the need to close down the UN Bureau of the High Representative for BiH; the dysfunctional nature of the common institutions, the political deadlock which they are causing, and finally; the possible dissolution of BiH to remedy the lack of conclusive dialogue between the representatives of the different constituent peoples. Although this rhetoric is not new, this time Dodik also endorsed Turkey as a key player in the region, declaring that Croatia, Serbia, and Turkey should act as mediators in Bosnia’s peace process.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Georgian Dream spites EU, continues authoritarian slide. In response to a serious warning by European Council President Charles Michel, PM Garibashvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) government has declared that not only will it decline financial assistance based on judicial reform, but that the €75 million “has lost its economic significance.” GD withdrew from the EU-negotiated reform agreement on July 28, although the party’s compliance with the agreement was long questioned. The judicial system, referred to as “The Clan” by critics, was central to the agreement and to later violations. The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights critiqued recent judicial appointments as “ultimately undermin[ing] the credibility of the appointments as truly merit-based,” while the EU simply referred to the lack of reforms as “failed.” This spat over EU funds and democratic reforms is similar to previous disagreements between the EU and Poland and Hungary. However, unlike its illiberal counterparts, Georgia does not have a seat at the table.
Gazprom intends to ‘gasify’ Abkhazia within a year amid regional energy crisis. Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom expects to bring gas to Abkhazia within a year – much needed amid the local energy crisis. The project was proposed after Abkhaz President Bzhania visited Russia this summer. During the visit, Bzhania asked Russian president Putin to assist with Abkhazia’s gasification. Notably, the costs of this project will be added to the comprehensive three-year program aiming to bring Russian investments in Abkhazia’s infrastructure construction. However, Abkhaz opposition forces have criticized Bzhania, posing that the energy crisis is indebted to the president’s decision to legalize crypto mining that has made Abkhazia susceptible to electricity blackouts. Opposition politicians demanded the resignation of the president in June, while two opposition politicians who claimed that key energy facilities should not be handed over to foreign investors have been summoned by the State Security Service.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Tajikistan takes hard line against victorious Taliban amid muted response from Central Asia. While most Central Asian leaders refrained from taking strong stances on it, Tajikistan has met the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan with contempt bordering on hostility. On August 25, in his first comment on Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul on the 16th, President Rahmon declared that Tajikistan would not recognize the Taliban government unless it provides Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajik population with a “worthy role” in how the country will be run. In an overtly provocative gesture, Dushanbe has since posthumously awarded anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Masood the country’s third-highest honor. Of all the Central Asian countries, Tajikistan has the most at stake in Afghanistan. In addition to the question of the approximately 10 million ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan, the two countries’ 1,357 km shared border is an enduring source of concern for Dushanbe regarding the flow both of refugees and extremist individuals.
Kazakh defense minister resigns after deadly accident. On August 25, a blast at a military facility in Kazakhstan killed at least nine people and injured around eighty others. The accident was caused by a combination of negligence and unfortunate circumstances: a fire started in the ammunition storage area of the military facility, later spreading to the ammunition themselves, further worsening the situation. Following the accident, harsh criticism was voiced against defense minister Nurlan Yermekbayev. Public outrage and internal pressure ultimately led Yermekbayev to resign on August 31.
🚃 In Central Europe…
V4 leaders to address demographic issues in Budapest this September. The fourth Budapest Demographic Summit will be held in Budapest on September 23-24. The summit aims to integrate the Hungarian government’s pro-family policy and global climate concerns. According to the UN World Population Prospects 2019, the Visegrád Group is among the most vulnerable regions to demographic decline. According to the projections, the population of the Visegrád Group is expected to decrease from around 63.8 million in 2019 to 44 million in 2100 (-31%), caused by low birth rates, high emigration rates, strict immigration policies, and anti-immigrant public attitudes. Prominent speakers of the summit include several regional leaders, including Serbian President Vučić, the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Presidency Dodik, Slovenian PM Janša, Czech PM Babiš, Polish PM Morawiecki, Slovak PM Heger, and Hungarian PM Orbán. Former US Vice-President Mike Pence and former Australian PM Tony Abbott are also invited to speak at this conference.
Meet Estonia’s new president. Last Tuesday, the Estonian parliament elected Alar Karis as the country’s next president. Karis is a biologist, whose former career posts include rectorships at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and University of Tartu, the position of Estonia’s Auditor General between 2013 and 2018, and the post of the head of the Estonian National Museum. The president-elect ran as an independent and was the only candidate in the election. The incumbent, Kersti Kaljulaid, failed to secure the support of the governing parties – the Estonian Reform Party and the Estonian Center Party. Despite this, Mr Karis did not manage to secure the post in the first round of voting, having fallen five votes short of the required two-thirds majority (68 votes). However, following additional talks with the opposition parties, Karis received 72 votes in the second round. He will take office on October 11.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Zelenskyy and Biden meet in Washington, D.C. This past week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet American President Joe Biden after two years of vying for a one-on-one meeting between the two leaders. The meeting comes only two years after Zelenskyy unexpectedly found himself at the center of an impeachment scandal surrounding then-President Donald Trump’s reelection efforts to take advantage of Ukraine’s weak political and judicial system for domestic advantage. This time around, however, the optics couldn’t be any different. The one-on-one meeting, which lasted an hour longer than planned, saw both leaders reaffirm their commitment to deepening military, economic, and cultural cooperation and to ensure the territorial integrity of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. However, Biden stopped short of offering more direct military American support as many in Ukraine would have hoped. Instead, more attention was paid to Ukraine’s ongoing struggle with endemic corruption, particularly in the judicial system. Despite this, both leaders called the American-Ukrainian relationship “stronger than ever.”
🌲 In Russia…
Russia’s latest moves following US pull-out from Afghanistan. While the United States completed their pull-out from Afghanistan on August 31, Russia is taking its first steps back into the area. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia was not going to get involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and that he had no intention of starting an “all against all” conflict, increased engagement was not long in coming. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan is to preserve stability, since the borders between Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are still highly permeable, leading Putin to fear a “spill” of Islamist extremists and drug traffickers into neighboring post-Soviet countries. In order to reassure its Central Asian partners, Moscow held a “high-profile” military exercise in Tajikistan in August, clearly visible from a Taliban position 12 miles away. Nevertheless, Russia maintains that it has no interest in deploying forces in Afghanistan, as it has learned the lessons of the 1980s Soviet Union intervention.
Belarusian comedian expelled from Russia. On August 30, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) declared Idrak Mirzalizade’s presence in Russia as ‘undesirable’, effectively expelling him from the country. Born in Azerbaijan, Mirzalizade grew up in Belarus, but recently spent more time in Moscow, receiving a residence permit in March 2021. That same month, he participated in a comedic performance on popular YouTube channel Stand-Up Club no. 1. One of his jokes about Russian people subsequently drew criticism from the famous Russian television host Vladimir Soloviev, who publicly accused Mirzalizade of Russophobia in June. Later that month, the comedian stated that he had received threats and had been attacked in Moscow. In early August, he was found guilty of inciting hatred and was put under 10 days of administrative arrest. He pleaded not guilty in court, but apologized to the people who had been offended by his jokes. More than a dozen Russian comedians rallied in support of Mirzalizade, yet despite this the MIA declared that his statements were ‘aimed at destabilizing interethnic relations’ and ordered his expulsion. The comedian left the country on August 29, before MIA’s decision was announced.