Lossi 36 Weekly #13: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 28 September 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

? In the Balkans…

Peacekeeping monument in Srebrenica sparks fear of denial. A new monument was unveiled in Srebrenica last week to celebrate UN Peace Day. This year, as the town marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide of Muslim Bosniaks, victims’ families are still facing widespread revisionism and denial in Bosnia. The gold-coloured monument features a fountain spreading water toward two hands holding the planet earth, with three children  walking on its surface at the top, with no reference to the 1995 massacre whatsoever. Srebrenica’s mayor, Mladen Grujicic, said that the “monument will not be associated with the war..[and will] serve as a message of peace and coexistence… looking to the future for young people”. Genocide victim groups perceive the monument as yet another attempt to divide the local population along the lines of those that recognize justice, and those that avoid qualifying the events as genocide, including Grujicic himself.

Trump envoy promises “$1 billion” to Kosovo and Serbia. Accompanied by a large US economic delegation, Donald Trump’s special envoy to Kosovo and Serbia Richard Grenell visited Prishtina and Belgrade following the 4 September Washington Agreement for economic normalization between the two countries. A $1 billion figure for investments was mentioned by Adam Bohler, executive director of the US International Development Financial Corporation, also in the entourage. Bohler signed a joint statement expressing the desire to establish an ‘Investment Incentive Agreement’ between the US and Kosovo, while in Belgrade he opened an office of the American Economic Development Agency. While in Serbia, Richard Grenell published a video in the presence of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, where both delegations were celebrating with the song “Sweet Home Alabama” playing in the background. In Kosovo, Grenell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merits by Kosovan President Thaci.

The Washington Agreement: A hard blow for the Serbian-Chinese relations? On 4 September, Serbia and Kosovo agreed on banning the use of 5G equipment from ‘untrusted vendors’ as part of normalisation agreements signed at the White House. The move was made in the context of the US’ growing rivalry with China and the tech giant Huawei, which granted Serbia a prime position within the ‘digital silk road’ in Europe. China has been working on a high speed broadband project with Telekom Serbia based on a strategic agreement signed in 2017. The Washington Accord by no means puts a final end to the Serbian-Chinese digital cooperation, as shown by the removal by President Vucic of the five-year deadline clause for removing untrusted equipment. The opening of a brand-new Innovation and Development Centre in Belgrade by Huawei also warns against drawing early conclusions regarding the development of digital partnership between the countries.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

South Ossetian authorities accused of covering up violence against prisoners. After clashes in June over the treatment of prisoners, debate on the conditions in detention centres and prisons in South Ossetia has again escalated. Following an assassination attempt on the Minister of Internal Affairs, suspects Nikolai Tskhovrebov and Inal Dzhabiev, were illegally arrested. After being allegedly tortured, the former is currently unable to walk, while the latter died in prison. On 4 September, the cases of Tskhovrebov and Dzhabiev became public, leading to protests demanding the resignations of the president, Anatoly Bibilov, and prosecutor general, Uruzmag Dzhagaev. In response, Bibilov dismissed the Minister of Internal Affairs as well as several members of the administration. Nevertheless, the opposition continues to argue that Bibilov is equally responsible for covering-up the violence against prisoners.

Russian media platform alleges government agents’ involvement in Armenian politics. The Russian Dossier Center (RDC), a media project created by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, recently published an article claiming the Russian Government maintains an extensive network of agents within Armenian state structures. Among others, the leader of the opposition party, Prosperous Armenia, Gagik Tsarukyan, is accused of being part of the network, as a copy of his passport was found in the documents examined by the RDC. While it is no secret that Tsarukian is a supporter of stronger ties with Russia, his spokeswoman denied claims made in the RDC article. The Armenian National Security Service announced that it has begun examining the publication to establish whether a further investigation should be pursued.

Prisoner released as tensions remain high on Georgian frontline with Tskhinvali region. This week, Khvicha Mghebrishvili, a Georgian citizen jailed by authorities of the unrecognised South Ossetia back in July, was freed from a Tskhinvali jail. According to sources, he is in good health and has not been subject to physical violence. His release was a result of long negotiations, involving the Georgian government and international organizations, which play a key role in helping the victims of the borderization. However, even during the ongoing pandemic, acts of aggression continue. Over the last few years, “borderization” on the front line with South Ossetia has become a growing problem for Georgian society, splitting communities and forcing people off their land. Almost every month, a person or group of people are abducted and jailed by separatist forces. This week, Georgian PM delivered a speech at the UN assembly, calling on the International Community to adequately respond to Russia’s “illegal actions”.

? In Central Europe…

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša expresses support for Minister of Interior despite recent controversies. PM Janez Janša returned Minister of Interior Aleš Hojs’ letter of resignation after the National Assembly’s interpellation proposal against him failed to pass. Hojs handed in his resignation in June after being involved in several major scandals, including allowing a previously-banned performance of pro-Ustasha singer Marko Perković Thompson to go on, allegedly using his political leverage to buy land below the market price, and having his home searched by authorities due to his involvement in a scandal surrounding the procurement of medical equipment. At the time, Janša failed to inform the Assembly about Hojs’ attempt to resign, and the two are now reportedly discussing further steps together.

Six out of ten Czechs encountered fake news related to the Covid-19 pandemics. Six out of ten, or about 6 million Czech citizens were exposed to misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent survey. Around half of them believed at least one piece of misinformation, and 25% trusted more than one. This problem was most prevalent on the internet, especially on Facebook. Young people were in contact with fake news more often but were also more critical towards it, while people over 65 were the least able to distinguish between real and false information. Compared to the other 16 countries in the study, Czech people were more prone to believe that being exposed to sunlight can prevent infection (32% Czechs, 19% average), while the theory that it is possible to contract Covid-19 from international shipments was not as popular (19% Czechs, 35% average).

Hungarian government accused of collecting data on journalists. A letter leaked from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade showed that the Hungarian government tried to obtain information about foreign trips taken by Hungarian journalists from embassies in the EU this summer. They requested information detailing work trips and visits for Hungarian journalists in recent years. Replying to the allegations,  Secretary of State Tamás Menczer said that this was necessary because they suspected that these journalists were participating in “sensitivity training” organized by businessman George Soros, who is accused by the government of trying to unfairly further his “globalist agenda” in the country. “It is fair to assume that they were planning to use the information to harass journalists” – stated the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, who are taking legal action against the government. At the same time, the opposition party DK is bringing the case in front of the European Commission.

? In Eastern Europe…

President Dodon, despite ties to Russia, presses the importance of Moldova’s neutrality during UN anniversary speech. President Igor Dodon said that Moldova will remain neutral and will not side with Western or Eastern powers in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on the 75th anniversary of the UN’s foundation. He also stressed that the receipt of development aid from several countries will not influence this stance. In spite of these declarations, he also stated that Moldova would not join any sanctions taken against Russia, a country his government has strong ties to. Dodon also said that there is no alternative to the UN’s multilateral system at the world stage and that he was counting on international cooperation to guarantee universal access to future treatments and vaccines against COVID-19.

Lukashenka’s secret inauguration sparks outrage at home and abroad. Under-pressure Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka was inaugurated for a sixth term as president in an unannounced secret ceremony in Minsk on 23 September, sparking disapproval both among the Belarusian population and the majority of Western nations. That evening, mass protests were held in Minsk, which were met with arrests, tear gas and water cannon fire from riot police. The ceremony, attended by a few hundred loyal officials, was denounced as a “thieves’ meeting” by the Opposition Coordination Council, which also called on the international community not to recognise Lukashenka’s legitimacy. Since Lukashenka’s 80% victory in the highly-falsified 9 August elections, the United States, Canada, and European Union Leaders have refused to recognise the results of the vote. This non-recognition was repeated in light of the inauguration, with French president Emmanuel Macron saying that Lukashenka “has to go”.

? In Russia & Central Asia…

Kazakhstan takes new step towards abolishment of death penalty. On September 24, Kairat Umarov, the UN representative of Kazakhstan, confirmed that Kazakhstan has signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, committing it to abolish the death penalty. Kazakh president Tokayev had previously announced at a UN conference in December 2019 that the country would sign the protocol. The Kazakh foreign ministry stated that Tokayev is committed to improve the implementation of the fundamental right to life and human dignity. Before joining the UN protocol, the constitution of Kazakhstan allowed the death penalty to be assigned for two criminal offenses: terrorist activity resulting in fatalities and grave crimes committed in wartime respectively.

Sberbank announces $2.5 billion rebranding into aspiring tech giant. Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank with an annual revenue of $40 billion, announced what is to be its “biggest transformation” into a technology company that will incorporate a multitude of products services akin to those of Amazon and Apple. Removing the word “bank” on its new website Sber.ru, Sberbank’s new products include television and music streaming services, a home assistant akin to Amazon’s Alexa, a smart home tablet, a new payment method, and its own app store. The company’s flashy Apple-style presentations were met with mockery on Russian social media. However, the rebranding has every chance of success, due to the unique nature of the Russian tech landscape. Unlike in most developed nations, local tech companies like Yandex, Ozon, and VKontakte have largely held off the advance of American giants like Google and Amazon, thanks largely to government regulation looking to maintain the independence if not isolation of the Russian internet.

⭐️ This week’s special

Leaders of Russian religious sect arrested. Three leaders of the Church of the Last Testament, a religious sect uniting up to 10.000 people, were arrested in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk Krai on 22 September. The Church’s founder, Sergei Torop, also known as Vissarion, was detained together with Vadim Redkin and Vladimir Vedernikov during a special operation involving helicopters and dozens of security forces. They are accused of extorting money from their followers and abusing them emotionally, causing serious psychological harm to some. Kommersant reports that rumoured contacts between the Church and local authorities are also involved in the investigation. Torop, a former traffic policeman, founded the movement in 1991 after experiencing a “mystical revelation”. He considers himself a reincarnation of Jesus who came back to save the world. Those joining the movement have had to abandon their earthly belongings and move into the depths of Siberia where they build their new homes and live under strict rules. Veganism is compulsory for all, and smoking, drinking and using money is forbidden. Vissarion and his teachings are the main focus of the lives of his disciples. The New Yorker described the sect as combining “elements of the Russian Orthodox Church with Buddhist themes of reincarnation, as well as preparations for the impending apocalypse”.

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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