Lossi 36 Weekly #12: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

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This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 21 September 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

In the Balkans…

Parliamentary election in Montenegro: Dukanović on the brink of a precipice. The Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), which has been in power for nearly thirty years, suffered its worst political setback since independence in 2006. Even though the ruling party led the polls with over 35% of the votes, the alliance of convenience of the pro-Serbian party ‘The Future for Montenegro’ (ZBCG) with two opposition parties ‘Peace is Our Nation’ and ‘Black and White’ was sufficient to defeat the DPS. ‘The regime has fallen’, the ZBCG’s leader, Zdravko Krivokapić, declared after the announcement of results. The newly formed majority agreed on carrying on with the EU integration project, solving the ongoing dispute with the Serbian Orthodox Church, avoiding any form of revanchism and prioritising the fight against corruption and organised crime.

Butrint Archeological park to be managed by a non-public entity. The implementation of a new plan for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Butrint Archaeological Park will see a change toward partnership with Albanian-American foundation, which says it will “conform to UNESCO terms”. Butrint is one of the primary tourist attractions in Albania welcomes a large audience from cruise ships every year, a major source of public revenue. But experts are concerned, including the former site Director who said that “ you can’t give cultural heritage to foreigners “ in reference to the partner’s ties with the United States AID department, a public American institution. Another critic said the move “violates the UNESCO Paris Convention” which the US withdrew from in 2019. In theory, the agreement will not take away any public revenues. The final agreement still requires approval from the Albanian Parliament.

Bulgaria threatens to block North Macedonia’s EU talks. An Explanatory Memorandum threatening to block EU accession talks with North Macedonia over history disputes has been sent by Bulgaria in August to EU member states, becoming known to the public in the country only last week. The holding of the first intergovernmental conference between the EU and North Macedonia – planned for December to mark the start of accession talks, threatens to be cancelled. Anke Holstein, German Ambassador to N. Macedonia said that Bulgaria has made these demands to other member states in early August. “We, and to my knowledge, all other member states are of the opinion that bilateral issues should not be placed in the negotiating framework and that bilateral issues should be resolved bilaterally”, Gerberich said. Sofia accuses the country for lack of cooperation in the joint history commission, established to find common ground on historical disputes, which the Macedonian delegation abandoned over ten months ago. In response, Skopje announced that talks with Bulgaria will intensify at the highest level.

⛰️  In the Caucasus…

The number of coronavirus cases in Abkhazia grows after opening the border with Russia. Although Abkhaz medical authorities had warned about the risk of new coronavirus infections, thousands of Russian tourists crossed the border in Psou when it opened in August. Until then, Abkhazia had been dealing relatively well with the health crisis, with only 44 cases officially registered as of July 30. However, in September, the number of infections rose to almost 700 persons. The authorities decided to open the border with Russia to reinvigorate the weakened economy, heavily dependent on Russian tourists. Recently, some opposition parties called the authorities to implement new strict measures against the spread of the virus.. As announced by the government, restrictive measures should be reintroduced after 30 September.

Armenian National Embassy Appoints Three New Judges to the Constitutional Court (CC). On 15 September, the Armenian Parliament approved Edgar Shatiryan, Artur Vagharshyan and Yervand Khundkaryan as new members of the CC. After two years in power, the post-revolution government of Nikol Pashinyan has finally managed to change the  composition of the Armenian CC significantly. The authorities argue that the old judges remain loyal to the pre-revolutionary forces and thus have to be exchanged by new, independent staff. After the referendum in April 2020 was called off due to the COVID 19 crisis, the government, together with the My Step faction, passed constitutional amendments that allowed changes in the CC. The opposition parties, Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia, protested against what they considered to be an “unconstitutional process”.

Turkey and Azerbaijan Celebrate the Anniversary of the Liberation of Baku. 15 September marks the 102nd anniversary of the liberation of Baku, a significant moment in the history of Azerbaijan. In August 1918, Ottoman Turkey sent its troops to support the fight for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, which had declared its independence earlier in May. On 15 September 1918, Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers finally liberated Baku from the Armenian-Bolshevik occupation. The anniversary celebrations featured a series of events, including a visit to the Alley of Martyrs by a group of Azerbaijani soldiers and a delegation led by the Turkish Ambassador. During the event, the two sides spoke about their longstanding, fraternal relationship, and emphasised that cooperation and partnership continue to develop until today. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev sent a letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan thanking Turkey for the support in 1918.

In Central Europe…

New Covid-19 regulations set to deal a massive blow to the Hungarian catering industry. Not only nightclubs, but restaurants and pubs fall under the newest government decree that prohibits businesses to stay open after 11 pm. The highly contested new regulations are widely seen as unreasonably demanding for the catering industry that is still ailing from the lockdowns in Spring. Critics say that the new rules are not especially effective against the spread of the pandemic but could force several popular venues to close down, since they will be losing some of their most profitable hours of business. “We realise most of our profits between 11 am and 2 pm, so this is a major blow” – László Papp, a Budapest business owner said. “But it is not the first one, so all we can do is adapt and hope for the best.”

New restrictions in Slovakia. While European countries are facing a surge in Covid-19 cases, most of them seek to avoid new national lockdowns. The situation is similar in Slovakia, where 290 new cases were confirmed on September 18. Compared to other countries, this might seem low, however, it is already a record rise in coronavirus cases in the country. Slovakia managed the first wave of the pandemic quite efficiently: the government acted quickly when the virus had appeared within its borders. But the new numbers are worrying and although it seems that Slovakia also wants to avoid a second national lockdown, new rules and restrictions have been announced over the last days. Gatherings in restaurants, pubs and nightclubs will be banned in the country. It is a question, however, whether these restrictions will be effective enough as Prime Minister Igor Matovič said the situation was getting critical.

A legend of Czech cinema has died. On 5 September, Oscar-winning director Jiří Menzel passed away at the age of 83. Alongside Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Věra Chytilová (Daisies), Menzel was one of the leading representatives of the Czech New Wave and 20th century European cinematography. During his career, he directed around 30 films, acted in more than 75 performances, and also worked as a theatre director and screenwriter. His first feature Closely Watched Trains won an Academy Award for the best foreign language film in 1968, while Sweet Little Village earned him another nomination. His films were extremely popular in Soviet Czechoslovakia. As one critic explains: “Menzel’s films provided people in the 1980s with a powerful illusion that spending time in their cottages, gardening, drinking beer and loving food had some higher meaning. He gave an alibi to the undignified acceptance of living conditions under [socialist] normalization.”

In Eastern Europe…

Massive anti-government protests in Bulgaria continue for more than 70 days. The protesters’ two main demands – the resignation of Boyko Borissov’s government and of the Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, however, do not seem close to being met. On 3 September, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović stated that she is concerned about the numerous reports of violence by Bulgarian police against journalists covering demonstrations in Sofia. “Several journalists were reportedly beaten up and pepper sprayed when riot police clashed with demonstrators yesterday in Sofia. One journalist was reportedly detained for hours and others had their professional equipment damaged, Mijatović said. Two weeks earlier, in a televised address, Prime Minister Borissov announced that he plans to change the constitution because “the nation wants justice”, but critics say he is just trying to buy time for his government to remain in power until the regular election next spring.

Ukraine marks 20th anniversary of journalist’s murder. Kyiv has unveiled a commemorative plaque to Georgiy Gongadze, on 20  September 2020, an investigative journalist abducted and murdered 20 years ago on the same day. “The audacious assassination became a starting point for Ukrainian journalism,” said Oleksandr Nykoriak, director of the Cultural Heritage Protection Department. On 16 September 2000, Gongadze was abducted and murdered by four police officials. Although the perpetrators have been convicted, the investigation has not identified the person who ordered the murder. The prime suspect has remained then-President Leonid Kuchma, which prompted massive anti-government protests and undermined his presidency. In 2011 criminal proceedings against Kuchma were initiated, but charges were later dropped. The failure of a transparent investigation is an indictment on the dangerous work conditions for independent journalists in Ukraine. In October 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Gongadze’s murder must be solved, however the case has not progressed.

Moldovan President threatens to fire Minister of Education. President Igor Dodon has said that if he wanted, he would dismiss Minister of Education Igor Șarov tomorrow. The statement came in the wake of Sarov’s controversial visitation of a school where he was seen without wearing a mask. Sarov has since apologised for entering the school without the necessary protection. He referred to his action as an insult to teachers, who have to work in masks and visors in accordance with current rules. In a statement about his minister, Dodon seemed to be most upset about the apology itself. He said that Sarov entered the school with a mask, and only took it off for about 2-3 minutes. According to him, the minister did this merely as a sign of respect towards the students he was addressing.

?  In Russia & Central Asia…

New Parthian site discovered near Ashgabat. As Turkmenistan continues to feel the economic fallout from low energy prices and the COVID-19 pandemic (still not recognised to be present in the country), its tourism sector appears as a potential source of much-needed foreign currency. The discovery of a Parthian site just outside of Ashgabat may offer a boost to the country’s touristic offer, as argued by Eurasianet’s Akhal-Teke: A Turkmenistan Bulletin. As the Bulletin suggests, Turkmenistan’s archeological riches are also frequently used by the country’s government as a diplomatic tool, such as to mount exhibits in European countries boasting Turkmenistan’s archeological artifacts. The ancient fortress of Nisa, not far from Ashgabat, was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2007.

China-Kyrgyzstan meeting foresees strengthening of ties. On September 13, Kyrgyz President Jeenbekov met with Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan expressed gratitude for China’s assistance in their fight against Covid-19. China stated that the country would have priority access to their (currently in-development) vaccine against coronavirus. Wang also declared to ‘stand with Kyrgyzstan until the pandemic has been completely defeated’. Furthermore, Jeenbekov declared the will to strengthen the ties between both countries in the post-pandemic future. Kyrgyzstan’s economy was hit severely by the pandemic,with the country pleading China to reconsider the payment terms of their 1.8-billion-dollar debt to Exim Bank. No contractual change was observed after their meeting. This side of the story, unsurprisingly, did not appear in official Chinese reports of the meeting.

United Russia Victorious Again, and yet… A series of regional elections and national by-elections took place in Russia from 11 to 13 September, with the ruling United Russia (UR) party unsurprisingly claiming victory in most of them. According to preliminary results, candidates supported by the UR secured all 18 governor positions which were up for grabs. However, despite numerous vote-rigging charges, the so-called “smart voting” tactic promoted by oppositionist politician Alexei Navalny partly paid off. United Russia lost its majority in the local councils of Tomsk and Russia’s third biggest city of Novosibirsk, with candidates supported by Navalny winning several seats. Among other winners was a newly created “Новые люди” (New People) party, which won seats in four regions. The lowest support for the ruling party was reported in the Komi Republic (28.8%) and Kostroma and Novosibirsk regions (32% and 37.8% respectively). Meduza has a detailed rundown of all the results.

⭐️  This week’s special

Navalny wakes from coma, plans return to Russia. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny woke from a coma in Berlin on 7 September. Navalny’s awakening comes eighteen days after being poisoned in Tomsk by what Germany, France, and Sweden have confirmed was a form of the same Novichok nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisubury in 2018. Several days later, Navalny posted a photo of him walking down stairs on Instagram, where he also described his slowly returning physical and mental capacities. In the post, Navalny said that “a phone in my hands is as useless as a stone”, and that until not long ago, he was unable to talk or recognise those around him. According to a German security official, he has expressed his desire to return to Russia upon a full recovery.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Lucie Janotová, Máté Mohos, Marton Gera, Charles Fourmi, Louise Guillon, Naser Bislimi, Hanna Boiko, Cătălina Ceban, Bojidar Kolov, Ricardo Bergmann, Kristin Aldag, Zadig Tisserand, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Evguenia Roussel, Ivan Ulises Klyszcz, and Francis Farrell ?

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