📨 Lossi 36 Weekly #1: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia9 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 18 January 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

⭐️ This week’s special

Two men march on Moscow to topple Putin… with rather different approaches. After spending four months in Germany recovering from his near-fatal poisoning in August, Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was arrested upon his return to Moscow on the evening of 17 January. Navalny had announced the exact date and flight of his return a few days earlier, saying “To return or not was never a question, since I never left Russia- I went into a coma and woke up in Germany”. Many predicted his arrest on arrival, coming off an announcement by the Federal Prison service that Navalny’s 2014 suspended sentence had been replaced by an actual, which many interpreted as an attempt by the Kremlin to deter his return. On the afternoon of Navalny’s scheduled arrival, riot police detained dozens of his supporters who had gathered to meet him at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, where the arrivals hall was closed off from the public. Ultimately, the plane carrying Navalny, his wife, his personal lawyer, and a small horde of journalists was redirected to Sheremetyevo airport, where he was detained without resistance at passport control. Navalny is not the only one resuming his mission of ending Putin’s rule. Aleksandr Gabyshev, a Siberian shaman who wants to “drive the evil spirit” of Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin, has announced a new march on the capital, this time on horseback. Gabyshev became notorious for trying to walk from his native Yakutia to Moscow, with his first trek starting in March 2019 and ending six months and around 2700 km later in his arrest close to Lake Baikal. Following other unsuccessful attempts, he was placed in a psychiatric hospital in May 2020, a move strongly criticised by Amnesty International.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Constitutional court ruling paves the way for new parliamentary elections in Kosovo. In December last year, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo invalidated the former election results, which brought the LDK and Avdullah Hoti to power. Back in June 2020, Hoti’s coalition had indeed benefited from the support of convicted criminal MP Etem Arifi from the Ashkali party, who had no right to sit according to the constitution. For obvious legal and political reasons, Acting President Vjosa Osmani has had no choice but to dismiss the government and to call early elections on 14 February 2021. The Court’s decision seriously questions the eligibility of the main opposition party. Four Vetevendosje MPs, among them ex-Prime Minister Albin Kurti, had been indeed sentenced to conditional prison in January 2018 for throwing tear gas in Parliament. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, a lot of questions remain unanswered.

Harsh winter weather ravages Balkan countries. The recent snap of cold weather and heavy precipitation has wrought havoc in Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania, with road collapses and floods leaving many remote communities cut off and causing millions of dollars of damage. In southern Serbia, dozens of people needed to be rescued from their homes and many villages were left without power. Damaging floodwaters hit the small city of Fushe, just outside the Kosovo capital of Pristina, where cars were nearly submerged by the deluge. In western Albania, numerous roads collapsed. Winter conditions often pose challenges for critical infrastructure in remote Balkan regions, but perhaps nobody in the area has been suffering its effects more than the thousands of migrants who remain in limbo in poorly-equipped camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Lipa camp is an area of particular concern as the cold sets in, as it was burnt out completely several weeks ago, with the Bosnian government not able to erect new heated tents in time.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

First meeting between Aliyev and Pashinyan after the Second Karabakh War. On January 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in Moscow for the first time since the end of the Second Karabakh War. Many in Armenia feared that the meeting would result in further territorial losses and a possible withdrawal of Armenian military forces from the territory still under Armenian control, but the meeting mainly served to set up the mechanisms that will be used to organize further negotiations. The meeting led to the creation of a joint working group, consisting of the Russian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani vice-presidents. One of its goals is to re-establish road and rail communication links in the South Caucasus: the possibility of a railway connection between Armenia and Russia via Azerbaijan was discussed during the meeting. The next meeting of the working group is expected to take place before January 30. While Aliyev expressed his satisfaction with the discussions, Pashinyan expressed concern that neither the issue of prisoners of war, nor the status of Nagorno-Karabakh had been mentioned during the meeting.

Ruling Georgian Dream party chairperson leaves politics “for good”. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder and chairperson of Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream, announced his resignation from politics on January 11, stating that he had accomplished his mission. The decision by the country’s informal ruler was criticized by the opposition parties in  Georgia, arguing that he is avoiding the responsibility to deal with an ongoing crisis following the Georgian Dream’s victory in parliamentary elections third consecutive terms. Few in the country believe that Ivanishvili will actually withdraw from governing the country from behind the scenes, since it is not the first time that Ivanishvili announces his retirement from active politics. He first left his posts as Prime Minister and party chairperson in 2013, but he returned to the chairperson post in 2018 ahead of the presidential elections, citing the country’s wellbeing as his main motivation.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Corruption scandal in Estonia: Prime Minister steps down, just in case. Jüri Ratas, Estonia’s Prime Minister since 2016, resigned from his position on 13 January due to a (potential) corruption scandal involving his Centre Party and its coalition partner, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE). Last week, the Estonian Public Prosecutor’s Office announced it suspected the Centre Party and several individuals (though not the Prime Minister himself) of influence-peddling and bribery in relation to a private property development project in Tallinn. The Porto Franco project is said to have received loans from state agency KredEx, and the individuals involved in the investigation include Centre Party’s Secretary-General Mihhail Korb and an adviser to the Finance Minister Martin Helme from the EKRE. Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid has asked the leader of the Reform Party, Kaja Kallas, to start talks to form a new government but the current ruling coalition might still hold.

Slovak Supreme Court confirms Marian Kočner sentence. The court upheld the earlier ruling of the lower court, sentencing Kočner to 19 years in prison for forgery. Kočner, an infamous Slovak businessman, was found guilty of forging promissory notes worth €69 million in total, an unprecedented crime in Slovak history. The sentence is now final and cannot be appealed. The Supreme Court will be also deciding on Kočner´s faith soon. The businessman was recently, and suprisingly, acquitted in a separate case – the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak. Kočner was suspected to be the mastermind behind the murder, as Kuciak was investigating corruption between his business and the government when he was killed. The murder sparked mass protest and resulted in the prime minister´s resignation.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Calls mount to strip Belarus of hockey championship hosting rights over human rights abuses. After photos emerged on 11 September showing International Ice Hockey Federation head Rene Fasel cheerily embracing and shaking hands with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, pressure is mounting on the sports body to strip Belarus of the hosting rights for the 2021 World Ice Hockey Championship. The tournament is scheduled to begin in May of this year, co-hosted by Latvia, which has also requested to host the championship without Belarus. Exiled presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, tweeted “Fasel is shaking hands with the dictator… and a few miles away from them, people are imprisoned in inhumane conditions as political prisoners”. Responding to the controversy, Fasel called the meeting “absolutely necessary” and stressed that there were serious safety concerns that needed to be addressed by Belarus if the tournament was to go ahead. On 16 January, Czech automaker Skoda announced its withdrawal from the championship so long as it would be held in Belarus.

🛤 In Russia & Central Asia…

Russia’s troubled vaccination campaign continues. The Russian Federation has long been in the news for its domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine. Russia aims to reap significant benefits from having its own vaccine: it seeks to export its vaccine, through which it can earn back (part of) its production costs, and Russia itself will not be dependent on (more expensive) foreign suppliers. However, a variety of roadblocks that seriously hamper a successful nationwide vaccination campaign have recently transpired. Firstly, a report from independent think tank Peterburgskaya Politika revealed that nearly half of Russia’s 85 administrative subdivisions have limited or no access to a vaccine. The Moscow Times cites transportation and production problems among the key logistical issues underpinning the report’s conclusion. Moreover, only of 16% Russians spoke of a clear readiness to be vaccinated, while the number of Russians categorically opposed to getting vaccinated amounts to 40%, according to a Superjob survey as quoted in RBK.

Kazakh parliamentary elections held, lacking genuine competition. On January 10, Kazakhstan held elections to the Mazhilis, the Kazakh lower house of parliament. The first elections to be held under Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s presidency resulted in the ruling Nur Otan party remaining in power by winning 71.1% of the vote and securing 76 seats. Only two contesting parties, Ak Zhol Democratic Party and People’s Party of Kazakhstan, passed the necessary 7% electoral threshold and maintained 12 and 10 seats, respectively. Despite the efficient technical organization, the elections lacked full transparency and “genuine competition” as the two contesting parties expressed their support for presidential policies, with the only true opposition, All-National Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, boycotting the elections. These results show that the previous political reforms lack efficient implementation and that limitations to fundamental freedoms remain. The European Union calls on Kazakhstan to work with OSCE/ODIHR on implementing its recommendations on reforms and systemic shortcomings of the Kazakh electoral system.

Uzbek economy set to bounce back in 2021. Like elsewhere, 2020 was a hard year for Uzbekistan’s economy, as well as for President Mirziyoyev’s reform plan. Things may be about to turn around according to a recent report released by BNE Intelligence, which shows an overall positive picture for Uzbekistan in 2021. The World Bank expects the Uzbek economy to return to pre-pandemic growth rates this year, achieving growth rates of up to five per cent, with tax revenues growing, too. How this growth will reach average households is something to monitor, since gas shortages last December highlighted existing problems in the provision of public goods. The shortage also prompted a highly-visible case of media censorship on the matter. A presidential election in 2021 is not expected to derail the incumbent’s reforms.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Zuzana Krulichova, Tijs van de Vijver, Louise Guillon, Ia Khodeli, Zadig Tisserand, Vira Kompaniiets, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Tijs van de Vijver, Francis Farrell, and Ivan Ulises 💘

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