📨 Lossi 36 Weekly #22: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia8 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 30 November 2020. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

⭐️ This week’s special

Azerbaijani forces enter Kelbajar region as concerns over gold mine, cultural sites remain. After extending the initial deadline for Armenian soldiers and civilians to leave by ten days, Azerbaijani forces began entering the country’s Kelbajar region, just west of Nagorno-Karabakh, on 25 November. Before their departure, many of the region’s Armenian inhabitants were seen burning their houses and digging up graves of family members rather than leaving them to Azerbaijan. Some of these concerns seem to have been rightly held, as footage emerged shortly after of Azerbaijani soldiers destroying Armenian graves in the area. The medieval Armenian Dadivank monastery has been a particular source of concern, with the local priest removing numerous khachkar decorative stone slabs before the monastery’s handover. While it seemed at first that the Russian peacekeeping troops assigned to Nagorno-Karabakh would also protect the monastery, later footage showed Azerbaijani troops controlling the area. Confusion also surrounds the ownership of the Sotk gold mine which straddles the Armenia-Azerbaijan state border; Armenian border forces had initially tried to hold the road entering the mine, but the checkpoint was quickly dismantled by Azerbaijani troops. Though the ceasefire continues to hold, other matters remain unsolved: the fate of 17 Armenian POWs in Azerbaijani custody remains unknown, whilst some Armenians are reported to have remained in their homes with their weapons, planning to fight to the death.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Montenegro and Serbia expel each other’s ambassadors, Podgorica cites “interference”. On 28 November, the Foreign Ministry of Montenegro released a statement declaring Serbian ambassador Vladimir Bozovic persona non grata, citing “long and continuous meddling in the internal affairs of Montenegro”. The decision was taken by the outgoing Podgorica government, which is soon to be replaced by an opposition coalition including the pro-Serbian Democratic Front. The foreign ministry statement referred specifically to a comment by Bozovic describing Montenegro’s 1918 decision to unify with Serbia was a “liberation” and a “free expression of people’s will”. Within a few hours, Belgrade announced the reciprocal expulsion of Montenegrin ambassador Tarzan Milosevic. However, the next day, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced that Serbia was rescinding the expulsion of Milosevic on the request of President Alexander Vucic, a move that Belgrade hopes will be “interpreted as a sign of good will”.

North Macedonia Prime Minister announces move to legalise recreational cannabis. North Macedonia might become the first ever Balkan country to decriminalise the recreational use of cannabis. In an interview given to Deutsche Welle on 20 November, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev declared that his government could ‘allow consumption of marijuana in cafes, both in existing and new ones, and in tourist places, including Skopje, if they respect certain standards’. Medical cannabis in the form of oils, extracts and tinctures has been allowed since 2016 in the country and regular discussions have been held about authorizing the sale of the smokable bud since then. The main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, has continuously warned parliamentarians about the risk of corruption and nepotism after several production licenses were awarded to the Prime Minister’s relatives. For many NGOs, bigger industries might corner the entire market at the expense of smaller businesses. Due to the permeability of borders, others are complaining about the increased risk of illegal trafficking.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

More ministers resign as political uncertainty continues in Armenia. After a massive blow for Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government following the signing of the ceasefire agreement on 10 November with Azerbaijan, the political future of the country is still uncertain. Several leaders of opposition parties have demanded the resignation of Pashinyan, while some even started a hunger strike to express their dissatisfaction with the current government. However, Pashinyan has no intentions to leave the post as Prime Minister and sees his position backed by the majority of the Armenian population. Meanwhile, the reshuffling within the Armenian Government goes on with the Ministers of Economy and Education resigning from their posts. These are only the latest in a series of ministerial resignations, with the Ministers of Defence, of Emergency Situations and of Labour having resigned last week.

Post-election turmoil continues in Georgia as coronavirus figures surge. Amidst rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, the second round of parliamentary elections in Georgia saw the lowest turnout since independence. The runoff elections on November 21 were boycotted by the opposition based on the claim of unfair practices during the first round. As a result, the Georgian Dream party now occupies 91 of the 150 parliamentary seats. Representatives of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) as well as the US Department of State have called on the opposition to accept the parliamentary seats “for the sake of Georgia’s democratic consolidation.” According to the Minister of Health Ekaterine Tikaradze, rising coronavirus infection numbers are linked at least partly with the protests of opposition parties which swept over the country during November.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Major Hungarian news outlet strengthens ties with government. The saga of Index.hu, Hungary’s most widely read independent online news site reached another turning point on November 24, when Indamedia, a company run by figures close to the Fidesz government purchased the news site’s stocks from the foundation that originally owned them. This means the media outlet is no longer in the hands of László Bodolai, who had promised in the past that his ownership status was a guarantee for independence from the government. In July, almost the entire editorial staff had quit their jobs at Index, when Bodolai fired then-editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull, fearing he was pressured to do so.

Million Moments for Democracy organizes first nation-wide online demonstration. On the eve of the commemoration of the fall of Communism, the biggest Czech civil society group demonstrated against the alleged authoritarian practices of the current government, introducing 2021 as the Year of Change. The online demonstration was divided into three thematic blocs: political commentaries of current governmental missteps, a 1989 Velvet Revolution commemoration, and speeches by representatives of opposition parties. As Benjamin Roll, the head of the movement, stated: “2019 was the year of protests, 2020 was the year of crisis, and 2021 will be the year of change and renewed hope.” With 11 months until parliamentary elections in the country, and in light of recent coalition-building initiatives of opposition parties, there is a chance that Andrej Babiš’ ruling party may be defeated.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Moldova returns to state of national public health emergency. Moldova’s Extraordinary National Commission for Public Health has announced the country’s return to a state of emergency in public health throughout the country between 30 November and January 15, 2021, as a result of the Covid-19 Red Code at the national level. The risk level indicators of coronavirus transmission will be recalculated every 14 days and presented to CNESP to update the decisions. In order to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection, CNESP also decided to ban the activity of nightclubs from 28 November. At the same time, from November 30, restaurants, bars and cafes will be able to operate until 22.00. During this state of emergency, it will be forbidden to organize and conduct scientific conferences, sports competitions, and olympiads in-person. The organization of unique mass gatherings and festive events will be allowed, with the participation of less than 50 people, so long as public health measures are being observed and obligatory epidemiological risk assessments are drawn up .

Lukashenko hints at stepping down if new constitution adopted. As mass protests continue into their fourth month on the streets of Minsk, embattled Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has hinted at the possibility of resigning as leader if a new state constitution is adopted. Speaking to colleagues during a visit to a hospital in Minsk on 27 November, Lukashenko expressed concerns about handing over the office under the current constitution, in which power is concentrated in the hands of the president, but claimed that once changes were made, he will no longer be “working as president”. Lukashenko had raised the topic of constitutional amendments during the initial peak of anti-regime protests in August, but it did next to nothing to appease protestors. On 29 November, weekly demonstrations continued in Minsk, with over 300 people detained.

🛤 In Russia & Central Asia…

Court reopens case against Karelian historian Yuri Dmitriev. On 24 November, the Petrozavodsk City Court decided to reopen a previously acquitted case on the fabrication of child pornography and possession of weapons, threatening to add another ten years to the sentence of the historian and civil rights activist. Dmitriev, regional head of civil rights society Memorial, discovered several Stalin era mass graves in Karelia in the late 1990s, and has since worked to identify and rehabilitate the people buried there while commemorating their deaths. With increased foreign and domestic attention on his work, Karelian authorities became increasingly unhappy with Dmitriev over time. This discontent culminated in his arrest on suspicion of creating and spreading child pornography in 2016 – accusations broadly held to be fabricated. Last September, Dmitriev was found guilty of the sexual abuse of his daughter and was sentenced to thirteen years in a high-security penal colony. Dmitriev has denied all accusations, while numerous independent experts have cast doubts over the validity of the evidence.

Fear of more widespread protests in Kyrgyzstan. New protests have erupted in Kyrgyzstan, driven by the prospect of constitutional amendments that would yield considerably more power to the president. The draft was originally posted on the Kyrgyz parliamentary website on November 17, immediately inciting criticism from local pro-democracy groups. Critics raised concerns not only with the content of the draft but also its origin; some of the parliamentarians whose names were mentioned denied any involvement in the document’s creation. It is now feared that if these amendments are made Kyrgyzstan will have a second round of widespread violent protests.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Lucie Janotová, Máté Mohos, Louise Guillon, Cătălina Ceban, Kristin Aldag, Evguenia Roussel, Tijs van de Vijver, and Francis Farrell 💘

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