Lossi 36 Weekly #2: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 25 January 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

⭐️ This week’s special

Arrests and aqua-discotheques cause anger to boil over in Russia. On 23 January, the largest mass protests in years took place in dozens of Russian cities, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, in support of arrested opposition figure Alexei Navalny. While some of the protests remained relatively peaceful, during others, including in Moscow, police used force against the protesters. Around 3000 people, including Navalny’s wife Yulia, were detained. Saturday’s events were the culmination of a highly tense week in Russia. On 18 January, the day after Navalny’s arrest, during a court hearing hastily organised at a police station, a judge ordered him to be held in custody for 30 days while he awaited further trial. In response, Navalny and his team called for mass protests, whilst also releasing a bombshell investigation named “Palace for Putin. The history of the biggest bribe ever.” on YouTube, which has since reached over 80 million views. The two-hour-long film showcases what Navalny claims is an over 17,500m2 luxurious palace on the coast of the Black Sea, complete with a private casino, “aqua-discotheque”, and “dirt storage room”. The palace was supposedly built for Russian President Vladimir Putin as a collective bribe from a network of friends and associates who owe their positions in politics and business namely to the President. Following the release of the film and ahead of the planned protests, on 21 January, several of Navalny’s associates, including his press secretary Kira Yarmysh and his lawyer Lyubov Sobol, were detained. The latter was then released but was arrested once again at the protest on Saturday.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Montenegrin government facing open political obstruction from president Djukanovic. It has been a month since the Parliament formally approved Zdravko Kirokapic’s opposition government and the Democratic Party of Socialists was removed from power. Although President Milo Djukanovic pledged cooperation at first, his latest decisions show clear signs of political obstruction, with the potential to jeopardise the functioning of the state. The President refused to sign a set of laws, using legal arguments such as the non-compliance with the Rule of procedures and the Constitution to justify his rejections. The highly controversial law on Freedom of Religion has been sent back to Parliament for reconsideration. Djukanovic also blocked the recalling of seven ambassadors close to the DPS and the dismissal of two army chiefs. “Djukanovic is not resting and he will be ready to raise tensions even more, just to preserve his power” declared Branka Bosnjak the Deputy Speaker of Parliament.

Macedonian lawmakers pass bill on new census. North Macedonia has decided to hold a new census this April, 19 years later since it held its last one, in 2002. The parliament passed the bill on the census by a slim majority of 62 lawmakers, with no votes against’ and no abstentions. The right-wing opposition VMRO-DPMNE party boycotted the vote, announced it will start a petition to annul the bill on the census, and warned that it won’t accept the results. Censuses are usually held every ten years, but when in power ten years ago, VMRO failed to complete the census due to numerous political controversies, costing the country millions. The data of the 2002 census was used to grant more rights to the Albanian population at the time and has ever since been used for political confrontations.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Armenia’s opposition builds pressure on the Government. The head of the Bright Armenia opposition party, Edmon Marukyan, claimed that the Government would not allow discussions about the political future of the country. Leader of the opposition Homeland Salvation Movement, Vazgen Manukyan, called the people once more to demonstrate against the current Government. However, as Manukyan admitted himself, due to the national trauma of defeat in the war, significantly fewer people have taken to the streets than he expected. Despite the ongoing post-war crisis around Armenian prisoners of war in Azerbaijan and the fear of the loss of territory in Armenia proper, the opposition movement seems to lack the leverage to instigate major political change in Yerevan.

Zurab Pololikashvili is re-elected as UNWTO Secretary-General. On January 29, the 113th session of the Executive Council of the UN World Tourism Organization was held in Madrid. Members voted both in person and in secret for the Secretary-General for 2022-2025. According to the results, incumbent Zurab Pololikashvili won 76% of the votes beating Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, candidate for the position put forward by the Kingdom of Bahrain. As a result, Pololikashvili will maintain his post as the Secretary-General of UNWTO that he has been holding since January 1, 2018. His re-election campaign was based mostly on his leadership of global tourism throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the progressive institutional and policy reforms undertaken during his first term. The Secretary-General pledges to continue developing his vision of the “restart and rethink” of tourism while advancing the RestartTourism campaign.

ECHR rules against Russia in case over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After almost 13 years, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its final judgement in the case of Georgia vs Russia, originally filed by the Georgian government in August 2008 shortly before the end of the armed conflict over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Grand Chamber of the court found that Russia violated a number of articles of the European Convention of Human Rights. Notably, the ECHR ruling states that due to the “strong Russian presence and the South Ossetian and Abkhazian authorities’ dependency on the Russian Federation”, the Russian Federation has held “effective control” over South Ossetia and Abkhazia ever since, and was therefore responsible for any human rights violations committed during and after the war, including the poor treatment of prisoners and the failure to investigate and prosecute crimes.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Scandal continues to test Constitutional Arch Coalition in Slovenia. Three of the opposition parties have signed an interpellation against the Minister of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Janez Kralj Cigler. The minister comes from one of the coalition parties on which the Constitutional Arch Coalition counts for support. He is accused of financial support to the Institute Iskreni in a public tender created to provide support to projects aimed at the protection of the most vulnerable groups in society. The institute stands against the Covid-19 vaccination and defends the traditional nuclear family, as well as the banning of contraception and the right to abortion. The minister who was one of its founding members and currently volunteers for its projects denies any involvement in the decisions of those responsible for the public tender.

Hungary to become first EU country to buy Russian Sputnik V vaccine in bulk. Hungary has announced its decision to buy “a large amount” of the Russian Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine, alongside a stock of the British AstraZeneca jab. Hungary is the first and so far only European Union country to place its trust in the Russian vaccine, with which large-scale vaccinations have already begun in Russia itself. The decision comes after a meeting between Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó and Russian Minister of Health Mikhail Murashko on 22 January. “It is in Hungary’s national interest to secure further safe and effective vaccines in order to speed up vaccination in the midst of the pandemic,” Szijjártó said. The vaccine has done well in clinical trials, but has not yet received EU approval.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Date set for Bulgarian elections. On 14 January, President Rumen Radev signed a decree setting the date for parliamentary elections for 4 April. Following consultations with all the parties sitting in the National Assembly and various others, Radev announced the decision in a televised address. In his speech, the President called for adequate sanitary conditions in polling stations, an update of voter lists, as well as for several amendments of the electoral code. Radev argued that the latter needs to allow for mail-in voting for Bulgarians abroad, video surveillance at polling stations, and equal access to the media for all parties during the election campaign. Representatives of the ruling party reacted immediately saying that they would not support the amendments proposed by the President because making such “fundamental changes” less than three months before the elections “would disrupt the credibility of the electoral process and would serve shadowy interests”.

Moldovan President Sandu discusses EU cooperation in Brussels. During her recent visit to Brussels, Moldovan President Maia Sandu met with the leaders of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament, having also held talks with the top EU diplomat. Sandu discussed fighting corruption, supporting farmers affected by the drought, and assisting small and medium-sized businesses, but above all argued the case for relieving Moldova’s health system and for better access to the COVID-19 vaccines. Additionally, upon returning to Chisinau, Sandu reported that the assistance that Moldova could receive in the framework of the Eastern Partnership will be agreed on in Brussels over the coming months. According to Alexei Tulbure, Moldova’s former ambassador to the UN and the Council of Europe, Sandu’s visit to Brussels this early in her presidency constitutes a demonstration of priorities: by going to Brussels, Sandu showed her desire to fully implement the Association Agreement with the EU, despite the serious roadblocks – mostly domestically – that have emerged thus far.

Vaccine troubles continue to hinder Ukraine’s COVID-19 response. Ukraine is continuing to struggle in obtaining enough doses of the coronavirus vaccine . The country of nearly 42 million is set to receive only 8 million doses of vaccine from the WHO’s ‘COVAX’ program, but as of yet, there has been no other identified sources for the remaining vaccine doses. The Russian-produced Sputnik-V vaccine has already been ruled out by Ukrainian authorities, due to the country’s ongoing military occupation of Ukrainian territory. This predicament has left the Ukrainian government in political limbo: Western partners and allies have been largely absent as of yet in offering vaccine support, while Russian interests have taken advantage of the situation to advance the narrative that the Ukrainian government would rather let citizens die than buy Russian vaccine doses. Despite this, Ukrainian authorities are continuing to cooperate with Western allies, with recent news developing suggesting that the European Union may be able to supply excess vaccine doses to Ukraine. To date, Ukraine has seen 1.22 million coronavirus cases, with 22,521 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

🛤 In Russia & Central Asia…

From prison to the presidency: Kyrgyzstan has a new president. On 10 January, the Kyrgyz Republic elected a new president, Sadyr Japarov, after a long journey from prison to the top job. A nationalist and an ex-prisoner, Japarov was appointed after his predecessor Sooronbay Jeenbekov stepped down in October 2020 following violent protests over disputed parliamentary election results. Moreover, as a result of the referendum held in parallel with the presidential elections, Kyrgyzstan switched from a parliamentary to a presidential system, granting Japarov a double victory and more presidential power. Japarov ascends to power with the country in a difficult state due to the ongoing economic crisis, a split society, interethnic conflicts, and mistrust towards authorities. Elite corruption and high economic dependency on Russia make Zhaparaov’s critics fear a return to the authoritarianism which has historically prevailed in the country since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Masa Sebek, Naser Bislimi, Mina Medjedovic, Kristin Aldag, Ricardo Bergmann, Vira Kompaniiets, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Tijs van de Vijver, Ryan Patterson, Bojidar Kolov, Francis Farrell, and Kristina Pitalskaya 💘

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