📨 Lossi 36 Weekly #25: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia9 min read

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

⭐️ This week’s special

Bombshell investigation into Navalny poisoning released. Alexey Navalny is back in the spotlight after an investigation conducted by Bellingcat together with the Insider, Der Spiegel and CNN indicated that he had been followed for several years by “FSB operatives from a clandestine unit specialized in working with poisonous substances”. The investigators have used extensive telecom and travel data to retrace the events leading up to Navalny’s poisoning on 20 August. Bellingcat also revealed the identity of the operatives supposedly involved in the affair and presented evidence for the existence of a specialized chemical weapons facility located within the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute. During his interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Navalny commented saying that although he had already known “how the sausage was made”, seeing what the Kremlin and FSB’s “infrastructure of killing” looked like was “terrifying”. During his annual press conference on 17 December, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the investigation a “legalisation of the materials of American special services”. Referring to Navalny as the “patient in the Berlin clinic”, he admitted that the FSB had been following him as he was “supported by American special services”. However, in Putin’s words, “that absolutely does not mean that he needs to be poisoned”- in fact, if the FSB wanted to kill him, they would “finish the job”.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Deadlock over Kosovo’s next presidential elections after Hashim Thaci resignation. Since the resignation of President Hashim Thaci in November 2020 to face war crimes and crimes against humanity charges in The Hague, the debate remains open about the outcome of the presidential elections and the intended future election date. Before running in presidential elections, potential candidates must first collect the exclusive signatures of 30 MPs. To be elected, candidates must then secure two third of the MPs’ votes. However, neither the LDK’s coalition partner nor the opposition agree with the ruling party about the name of the future candidate. With 28 seats at the National Assembly, the LDK is desperate for consensus with the AKK but no consultation date has been set yet. Failure to elect the president within 45 days would result in the dissolution of the Assembly, an idea preferred by Vetevendosje. Should the issue not be resolved, the country could face early parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Hoti stated.

EU enlargement policy ends the year in disaster. This year will be marked as a failure for the EU’s enlargement policy towards North Macedonia, which had changed its name to clear its path toward the EU by resolving a longstanding Greek veto. This time, it was Bulgaria this time blocking North Macedonia over common historical misinterpretations. Last year, objections from France halted the accession process for a while, but these objections were overcome after the accession process was reformed. However, EU politics in capitals is not the only constraint for Western Balkans countries. A year after Olivér Várhelyi took the helm of the European Commission’s enlargement portfolio, sources say he is too sensitive to Hungarian preferences. Some diplomats accuse Várhelyi of being too soft on Bulgaria, while others accuse him of being selective with the Balkan countries, because when it comes to Serbia for instance he is softer because of the close ties between Serbia and Hungary in the energy sector. Whether it is the Council’s indecision or Várhelyi’s ‘preferential’ treatment, the credibility of the Union in the region has been seriously damaged and undermined.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Fresh fighting breaks out in Nagorno-Karabakh villages, prisoners taken. Though the exact details remain unconfirmed, during the past week, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed in Nagorno-Karabakh in what was the first significant violation of the ceasefire agreed upon on 9 November and enforced by Russian peacekeepers. Reports first emerged on 11 December of clashes between the two sides in and around the villages of Hin Taghe and Khtsaberd (Azerbaijani: Taghlar and Caylaggala, respectively). The villages are located in a remote mountainous area where Russian peacekeepers were not deployed at the time. Both sides accused the other of violating the ceasefire; Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan called it an act of aggression by Azerbaijani and Turkish special forces, while Azerbaijan claimed to be conducting an “anti-terrorist operation” in response to attacks by ethnic Armenian forces. Both sides reported several casualties, and evidence soon emerged of dozens of Armenians having been taken prisoner. Soon after the clashes, Russian peacekeepers arrived in the area, later updating their map of the security zone to include the land in the peacekeeping mission’s mandate- and thus, in the Armenian zone of Nagorno-Karabakh. Meanwhile, dozens of other prisoners have been swapped between Yerevan and Baku as part of the “all-for-all deal” set in the ceasefire.

Political Turmoil continues in Georgia as opposition boycott officially begins: Georgia now officially has a de-facto one-party Parliament. The legislature is currently comprised of the ruling party only, as all of the opposition parties which have gained seats in parliament have not accepted their mandates. 50 out of 60 mandates have been revoked by the MPs themselves, whilst the remaining 10 have stated that they will not be taking their seats anyway. In response, the government has announced that the parties which have canceled their mandates will cease to receive state funding. The law states that opposition parties that manage to secure seats in the parliament receive funds proportionate to their election result, however now, if the seats are not occupied, the funds will not be given. Such a course of action would not be new: the previous government did the very same thing back in 2008. Back then, the government received a huge backlash over this action, and it will be very interesting to see how the country’s international partners will react to the repeated history.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Slovenia: arguments rage over spending on defence over health. The Slovenian Defence Committee has rejected the opposition’s proposal to assess the decree to spend 780 million euros on the Slovenian Army from 2021 to 2026. The opposition party Levica launched a collection of signatures for a referendum on the law on 26 November. According to them, the country needs more urgently to invest in its health and social infrastructure. More than 28.000 signatures have been collected thus far, enough for the referendum’s initiation. However, the Slovenian National Assembly labelled Levica’s concerns as unfounded.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán announces economic relief measures. To counter the impact of coronavirus on businesses, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has announced a number of relief measures on 19 December. The most major one involves halving the business tax that companies pay. The government will only compensate local governments in cities with a population of less than 25 thousand. Mayors of larger cities that typically represent opposition parties, including the mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, have labelled the move a politically motivated one. They claim that while the government does not relieve individual companies in a significant way, it cuts one of the most important sources of income that local governments have.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Influential Mayor of Kharkiv Dies of COVID-19 Complications. The mayor of Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, has died of COVID-19-related complications just weeks after being re-elected for a third term as mayor. It was revealed in early September that Kernes fell into a coma after testing positive for COVID-19. Kernes, who was left paralysed from the waist-down after a failed assassination attempt in 2014, suffered extreme health complications resulting from virus, from which he ultimately succumbed to on 17 December 2020. Although Kernes had not been seen publicly since August, he was decisively re-elected for a third term as mayor. A former political heavyweight from the now-banned ‘Party of Regions’, Kernes initially gave his backing to then-President Viktor Yanukovych and pro-Russian separatists in 2014, before quickly changing his allegiance back to Kyiv. It is not clear as of yet who will take the reigns of Kharkiv’s local government, which has long been dominated by Russia-friendly oligarchs.

European Commission refers Bulgaria to the Court of Justice over air quality breaches. On 3 December, the Commission announced that Bulgaria systematically and continuously violated EU’s air quality legislation and failed to comply with earlier Court judgements concerning air pollution. The country is among the worst offenders in Europe when it comes to exceeding the annual and daily limit values for particulate matter (PM10). The situation in the Bulgarian capital is particularly problematic, as Sofia has consistently been named among the most polluted cities in the world in recent weeks.

🛤 In Russia & Central Asia…

Putin to press: “Yes, we are white and fluffy”. On Thursday December 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual marathon press conference, which lasted nearly five hours. Putin took his sweet time to comment on the situation in Eastern Ukraine, the Khabarovsk protests, the Russian response to the coronavirus in Russia, on whether Putin himself had already taken the Russian vaccine (no), on alleged interference in the American elections, and on a plethora of other issues. Most of Putin’s statements were rather unsurprising, but two topics gained quite some attention. First of these was Putin’s long-awaited comment on the recent Navalny poisoning investigation (see weekly special). Putin insisted the FSB keeps an eye on Navalny because he would be supported by American special services – “but that doesn’t mean we have to poison him.” Secondly, when BBC journalist Steve Rosenberg asked Putin whether he feels any responsibility for the deteriorating state of relations with the West, Putin answered that “compared to the West, we are white and fluffy [warm and cuddly]. […] In terms of military spending, Russia is ranked sixth […]. So who is warm and cuddly and who is aggressive? Certainly not us.”

Turkmenistan’s Covid denial questioned by event cancellations. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Turkmenistan has officially had zero cases of Covid-19 reported. However, increasing signs from both official and unofficial sources seem to point to a different reality. Officially, it has been announced that most of the New Year festivities will be canceled because of the epidemiological situation across the world. Unofficially, there have been reports of overcrowded hospitals, sick children in schools and blunt denial from the government about any of these problems.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Masa Sebek, Mate Mohos, Louise Guillon, Naser Bislimi, Ryan Patterson, Ana Robakidze, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Tijs van de Vijver, Francis Farrell, and Evguenia Roussel 💘

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