Lossi 36 Weekly #11: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 14 September 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

Washington agreement: Kosovo expected to move its diplomats to Jerusalem. On 4 September, President Vućič and Prime Minister Hoti agreed, under the mediation of the White House, on 16 measures to normalize their economic relations. The so-called ‘Kosovo and Serbia Economic Normalization Agreements’ provide for the mutual recognition of Kosovo and Israel, the renewal of diplomatic relations, and more surprisingly, the future relocation of Kosovo’s representation to Jerusalem. In reaction, the EU expressed its serious concerns about this move which clearly goes against the two-state solution Brussels has been advocating for in Palestine. Washington’s attempt to manage Pristina’s foreign policy and the dialogue with Serbia has traditionally been frowned upon by the EU. However, ahead of the EU Facilitated Dialogue on 7 September, both leaders stressed their strong attachment to the EU integration project and their commitment to ‘ensure further EU alignment’.

Migrants in Bosnia left stranded and homeless. After Hungary constructed a fence along its southern border in 2015, Bosnia has become the main route for migrants trying to reach the EU. Since August, their situation has been more than precarious, as released footage shows them trying to survive in this “no man’s land”. A transport ban by the local authorities has recently prevented further movement within Bosnia. In light of the 10,000 migrants that have entered the country this year, the situation raised security concerns both for them and for the local populations of Una-Sana Canton, near the Croation border. In the cities of Velika Kaldusa and Krajina, migrants were pulled out from buses by the locals who are reacting increasingly aggressively to their presence. The IOM coordinator Peter Van der Auweraert tweeted videos of refugees being moved  by police evacuating migrants from the Bira to Lipa camp, which is already full and cannot welcome a further 200 minors. Last week a COVID-19 case appeared in Bihac which raised the threat that the virus could spread rapidly in the overcrowded camps. As winter approaches, authorities  are under pressure to find a solution before  the situation of migrants turns into a humanitarian crisis.

New wave of protests in North Macedonia. Peaceful protests against the increase of electricity prices have been held now for the sixth time in a row every Friday at 19:00 in North Macedonia. In several major cities, including Skopje, Tetovo, Gostivar, Kumanovo and Debar, protesters conducted peaceful marches to express their revolt at the increase of the electricity price by 7.4%. Protestors demand the immediate revoking of the decision, and instead request easing of electricity prices during the ongoing pandemic. However, PM Zoran Zaev responded that “to date we have one of the cheapest electricity prices in the region” and that he is against the dismissal of the Energy Regulatory Commission, another demand of the protestors. Last Wednesday, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE held its own protest in parallel to those that started several weeks ago. It remains a question why the opposition has not called upon its membership to support the ongoing protests.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

“Mockery of Justice” in Azerbaijan. Tofig Yagublu, a leading Azerbaijani opposition politician and member of the National Council of Democratic Forces and the Musavat Party, has decided to go on hunger strike after he was sentenced to over four years in prison on charges of “hooliganism”. Convicted of causing a car accident and attacking a married couple, he claims the incident was a provocation and that his imprisonment was politically motivated. Yagublu has been a vocal critic of President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, and had previously been arrested and imprisoned as a consequence of his political activity. Human Rights Watch deemed the verdict a “mockery of justice”. The organisation called on the European Union to use its ongoing negotiations on a partnership agreement with Azerbaijan to pressure Baku to release Yagublu. So far, the EU’s reaction has failed to fulfil these expectations.

Uncertainty grows in pre-election Georgia. In Georgia, the number of COVID-19 infections is again increasing. As such, on the 9th of September, the government announced that holding events with more than 200 persons is prohibited. The decision upset many people, especially those whose personal plans, such as weddings, were affected. In response to the spike in new coronavirus cases, the authorities also postponed the start date for in-person teaching in educational institutions to the 1st of October. With a second wave of infections expected this autumn, government action is needed to maintain a stable situation in the country. However, because of the upcoming elections, many agree that a strict lockdown, as had been enforced earlier in spring, should be avoided. A lockdown would mean limited campaigning opportunities, weakening parties’ election performance and thus impacting the election results. Furthermore, a second lockdown is argued to have a severe impact on Georgia’s economy.

In Central Europe…

Slovenian loosens coronavirus restrictions despite record high case number. People entering Slovenia without a negative PCR test will have to stay quarantined for only ten days, instead of 14, the government announced on September 10. The relaxation of this rule was attributed to a recent analysis showing that most coronavirus-patients start developing symptoms within seven days after they were infected. Authorities also loosened some regulations with regards to family visits and funerals and extended the validity of negative PCR tests from 36 hours to 48. These changes came just a single day after 79 new infections were registered in the country, a then record high number, which was later surpassed on September 11, when 110 new cases were discovered.

School year is off to a rocky start in Hungary, thanks to coronavirus. School year has kicked off in Hungary amid fears of coronavirus. Some of these worries have proven to be warranted, since during the past two weeks, 14 educational institutions had to close due to infections. This is exasperated by the fact that the guidelines of the two governmental departments overseeing schools differ. ITM, which is responsible for monitoring vocational schools advises principals to make their own decisions about switching to digital education, while EMMI, which oversees all other institutions, prohibits this. “There’s also a law that in case of an emergency puts every decision about public institutions in the minister’s jurisdiction.” – the Democratic Union of Educators pointed out. “Which means there’s total chaos.” Furthermore, there are no specific  guidelines on handling coronavirus-related issues in schools, including disciplining students who refuse to wear their mandated masks.

Coronavirus again headlining the news in the Czech Republic. As the holiday season ended, the Czech government introduced, withdrew, then reintroduced measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The response was chaotic at first but received greater attention and critique in the last couple of days when the number of positive cases started rising rapidly. Compared to the rest of the EU countries, the country’s per-capita figures are some of the worst, with approximately one in every 315 citizens infected or previously infected. Travel restrictions have been placed on Prague by some European countries such as Germany and Belgium. According to the Ministry of Health, the uptick in infections was not caused by the start of the school year, but rather by increased social activity as a whole, itself largely due to people coming back from holidays.

In Eastern Europe…

Republic of Moldova vs Gazprom. Moldovan president Igor Dodon appealed to Russian gas giant Gazprom for a reduction in gas prices. The otherwise pro-Russian politician expressed concern over the particularly hefty bills his country continues to pay, and expressed a wish for this to change in the fourth quarter of 2020. The Republic of Moldova, despite being the poorest country on the European continent pays exceptionally high gas prices ($168 per thousand cubic metres) compared to EU member states ($110) and other former Soviet republics ($136). The problem is crucial for Moldova, which is entirely dependent on Russian gas imports. However, the new Ungheni-Chișinău gas transit pipeline to Romania, soon to open, could weigh in on negotiations with Gazprom as it is intended to reduce this dependence.

Putin and Lukashenko will meet to discuss “further integration”. Amid the ongoing political situation in Belarus, Lukashenko and Putin have agreed to meet on September 14 in Sochi in order to discuss the “further integration” of their countries. According to the Kremlin, important aspects of the “Russian-Belarusian strategic partnership and alliance” will be brought into discussion, as well as trade and energy projects. While the two countries have constantly maintained strong political, economic and military ties since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has long been pushing for the deepening of integration. According to analysts, there are high chances that the current situation within the country might push Lukashenko to make concessions and accept proposals from the Kremlin, which he otherwise would have dismissed. In spite of the current support which the Kremlin is showing for Lukashenko since the breakout of the protests, prior to the elections in Belarus the relations between the two presidents were often far from warm, with Lukashenko accusing Putin of cooperating with his opponents in the period of time preceding the elections.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

Militant attacks on the rise in Ingushetia. Since the start of the year, six members of the security bodies of Ingushetia have been killed in attacks by presumed militants, Caucasian Knot reports. While these incidents do not reflect a return to the large-scale violence that engulfed the region in previous years, it is a worrying trend that may signal a return of increased insurgency in the small Russian region. In a recent article at Caucasian Knot, experts commented on the chances for governor Kalimatov to stem the growing tide of violence in the republic. In their opinion, the actions of the administration to diminish and cut off contact with civil society organisations and NGOs reduces the scope for conflict management through means other than through police action.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan’s worrying extradition accord.  Uzbek journalist Bobomurod Abdullayev has been extradited back to his home country from Bishkek. The extradition was ordered by Kyrgyzstan’s GKNB (State Committee for National Security). Uzbekistan’s request allegedly stems from Abdullayev’s criticism of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. The US Department of State, as well as human rights activist groups have voiced concerns regarding this decision. The GKNB responded that Uzbekistan had claimed that Abdullayev would be treated humanely. However, international actors fear that this promise will not be respected, as the journalist explicitly accused Uzbekistan authorities of inhuman treatment during previous incarcerations. As this extradition displays, and as repeatedly confirmed by international human rights organisations, neither country offers a safe environment for journalists.

⭐️  This week’s special

Nordstream 2 projects questioned over suspected poisoning of lead Kremlin-opponent Alexei Navalny. Last week, Merkel confirmed that lab tests had found leading Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny to have been poisoned with the chemical nerve agent Novichok. Suspicion hangs over the involvement of Russian secret services, as the same poison was used in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in the UK in 2018. German officials have already raised the possibility of sanctions against Russia if Moscow fails to clarify the circumstances surrounding the poisoning. As argued in response by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, German accusations over the case based on laboratory analysis are legally “groundless.” Either way, the diplomatic crisis could potentially lead to halting the construction of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between the two countries, to the great relief of some European partners. As a result of the poisoning, pressure on the federal government to change its stance over the multi-billion Russian-German energy project has increased. In addition to German political leaders of various parties, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called on Germany on Wednesday to halt the construction of the gas pipeline, which confers an undeniable financial and geopolitical benefit to Russia.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Zuzana Krulichova, Mate Mohos, Maša Šebek , Charles Fourmi, Louise Guillon, Naser Bislimi, Roxana Chiariac, Ilinka Leger, Ana Robakidze, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Evguenia Roussel, Ivan Ulises, and Élise Mazaud ?

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