Lossi 36 Weekly #3: 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 1 February 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

⭐️ This week’s special

Smooth transition to first female PM in Estonia. Despite a simmering corruption scandal, and contrary to other EU countries where governmental crises seem more volatile, Estonia saw a swift change of government following Prime Minister Jüri Ratas’ resignation on January 13. He is replaced by the leader of the Reform Party and a former MEP Kaja Kallas, the first female prime minister since Estonia’s independence in 1991. Kallas has formed a coalition with Ratas’ Centre Party, thereby removing the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE) from power. The new PM has appointed a gender-balanced cabinet which includes a longtime diplomat Eva-Maria Liimets as the Foreign Minister, and two former MPs and ministers Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (as Minister of Finance) and Maris Lauri (as Minister of Justice). Estonia is now also one of the few countries in which both head of state and of government are female.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Minority rights raised as contemporary issue in Montenegro. In the epilogue of the most recent elections held in August 2020, none of the minority party representatives has been able to become a member of the newly established government for the first time since Montenegrin independence in 2006. The domestic and international debate on this topic has been sparked by a series of crimes and vandalisms aimed at religious and ethnic minorities. This led to a conversation about the inclusion of minorities, elevating the monitoring of human rights, and equality of women in public life. Last week, a series of meetings were held among representatives of different minority groups, Prime Minister Krivokapic, the offices of the Ombudsman, and the ambassador of the European Union in Montenegro Ms. Popa. In these meetings, all parties stressed the importance of including minorities in the public life and decision-making process to avoid any form of further discrimination.

Human and environmental scandal in Chinese-owned copper mine in Serbia. The Serbian NGO Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute filed a criminal complaint against the Chinese-run copper mining and smelting company, Zijin Bor Copper, for violating the law on air protection, having increased the sulfur dioxide concentration in the air. In November last year, the non-profit organization had filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s decision to double the mine’s capacity through the flotation tailings disposal, without conducting a comprehensive environmental impact assessment. At the same time, fresh evidence from BIRN is raising serious questions about the working conditions and freedom restriction of Chinese workers, who recently protested in front of the complex. Human rights experts such as the Serbian anti-trafficking NGO ASTRA warn against potential ‘trafficking of human beings for the purpose of labour exploitation’.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Deputy Prime Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia meet in Moscow to organize new communication lines in the South Caucasus. The first meeting of the tripartite working group, bringing together the Deputy Prime Ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia, will take place in Moscow on January 30. It will focus on planning and constructing new roads and railways, according to the agreements of November 9. As a result of these agreements, Armenia will be linked to Russia through Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan will be linked with Turkey. Georgia and Iran, which have functioned as regional transit points as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh situation, are likely to lose the benefits of this position. The working group is expected to submit a list of decisions and a timetable for their implementation on March 1.

Political Prisoners freed in Georgia. A few months ago, in the midst of the Karabakh conflict, the Georgian prosecutor’s office started an investigation into two of the country’s civil servants who allegedly redrew the Georgia-Azerbaijan border against historical records. The two have been jailed, and the court ruled against freeing them on bail. The case gained great attention, as those in the opposition argued that it was politically charged and had no legal base. According to one opposition member, the two have been freed on bail as a result of post-election negotiations, but their respective positions have been revoked. The investigation has been ambiguous, to say the least, and was decorated with colours of political motifs. The claims of imprisoning the two have always been shut by the government and all the affiliated parties, yet the evidence and the events around the case might suggest otherwise. As the investigation continues, it is indeed interesting what the final ruling will amount to and if the court indeed decides based on legal grounds.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Czech Parliament Approved Mandatory Quota for Local Food in Stores. Despite several warnings that such a law violates the EU rules on free movement of goods, the Czech parliament backed a law which obliges stores to prioritise Czech foodstuffs. According to the law, stores larger than 400 square meters will be required to offer at least 55% of local food by 2022, which has to further increase to 73% in 2028. The aim of the law’s initiators is national self-sufficiency. The law has been criticised by many, including representatives of the EU and other EU member states. Within the Czech Republic, it has been criticised by the opposition, numerous commerce associations and experts. They argue that the law could harm food prices and quality, and that it could worsen the conditions of some of the local producers. Interestingly, the prime minister, whose party helped to push this proposal through parliament, said that the seems like a pointless gesture, and he hopes that the upper chamber will not approve it.

Near-total abortion ban now official in Poland. Thousands of Poles have taken to the streets again, after the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal banning abortion in cases of fetal defects was published in Poland’s Journal of Laws on 27 January. For three days in a row, the Women’s Strike activist group coordinated protests around the country. On Thursday, during a protest in front of the Constitutional Tribunal, several activists, including one of Women’s Strike’s leaders Klementyna Suchanow, climbed over the fence to stick a pro-abortion poster onto the Tribunal’s front door. They were detained by the police, which later surrounded the remaining protesters. In total thirteen detentions were reported, with several more reported on Friday. Women’s Strike is calling for legal abortion on demand, as even before the current ban fewer than 2,000 abortions were legally conducted in Poland every year, while the total number of abortions was estimated at 200,000.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Ukraine moves to reform its troubled Security Service of Ukraine. Ukrainian lawmakers have made the first steps in reforming its troubled Security Service of Ukraine, commonly known by its acronym of ‘SBU’. The department has witnessed numerous scandals over the past years, ranging from accusations of widespread corruption to even internal assassination attempts. Ukrainian lawmakers moved to reform the department by adopting long-awaited Western-standards, including increasing the SBU’s institutional capacity to fight terrorism, reforming cooperative procedures with other agencies within Ukraine and abroad, and to partially de-militarize sections of the department to bring the SBU more in line with its Western counterparts. However, perhaps the most important reform is the liquidation of the SBU’s ability to investigate and combat financial crimes. Western partners have applauded the move, saying that these crucial reforms allow Ukraine to fight corruption more efficiently and effectively.

Belarus marks six months since the start of the post-election protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s dictatorship. SviatlanaTsikhanouskaya, Belarus’ main opposition candidate and the leader of the protests, called on international supporters to mark the Day of Solidarity with Belarus on 7 February. In her statement at the online event ‘EU and Belarus in 2021’, she asked the West to be “braver and stronger” to speed up approval of its fourth package of sanctions on Lukashenka. Since August 2020, the number of protesters arrested and sent to detention exceeds 27,000 and continues to grow. In its recent report, Amnesty International described the pursuit of justice inside Belarus as ‘hopeless’ and called on the international community and human rights mechanisms for their active involvement.Moldova’s Constitutional Court rules against the law on Russian language’s special status. On 21 January, the Moldovan Constitutional Court declared the law that would offer the Russian language a special status unconstitutional. The law was voted on 16 December 2020 by MPs from the pro-Russian Party of Socialists and by MPs from Ilan Shor’ political party, whose leader was revealed to be involved in the massive Moldova’s $1 billion bank fraud scandal by the Kroll report. Moreover, it had been noted that the law was voted on without respecting the legislative procedure even before the Constitutional Court’s decision. The Constitutional Court’s decision has generated negative reactions from the Russian Embassy in Moldova, arguing that the decision can be compared and linked to Moldova’s anti-Russian chauvinism from the ‘80s and ‘90s in a press release. Igor Dodon, the former pro-Russian president of Moldova, has threatened with protests against the Court’s decision. On the other hand, the Moldovan Minister of Foreign Affairs has called on the Russian embassy to respect Moldova’s laws and institutions and to refrain from comments which could be qualified as an intrusion into the country’s internal affairs.

🛤 In Russia & Central Asia…

High-profile Russian media figures attend “Russian Donbas” forum in occupied Donetsk. On January 28 and 29, the forum “Russian Donbas” was held in Donetsk, Ukraine. On the agenda was a policy doctrine with the same name, which provides the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics with the course of action in seeking closer economic, industrial, and political integration with the Russian Federation. Despite Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s insistence that there are currently no Russian government plans to annex the Donbas territory to the Russian Federation, several high profile Russians attended the forum, such as a United Russia Duma member, RT head Margarita Simonyan, who called on Russia to “take Donbas home” in a speech at the forum, while state media propagandist Soloviev recorded a video message to the forum’s participants, expressing his sympathy and his regret that he had not done more to help their cause. Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs deemed the forum and the doctrine examples of Russia’s subversive activities in the Donbas, arguing it stands in the way of peaceful reintegration of the territories. Russian vlogger Ilya Varlamov commented that “this no longer looks just like a signal, but as the beginning of a unification process.”

China Remains Uzbekistan’s Main Trade Partner, Growth Prospects. In spite of the disruptions in world trade, China remained Uzbekistan’s main trade partner in 2020, Eurasianet reports. This is part of a longer trend of Russia losing ground in the Central Asian markets compared to China’s larger economy and market. Moreover, China’s investment in the country more than doubles Russia’s. Raw goods drive the Chinese-Uzbek trade, yet diversification may be in store. A trend since 2019 is that Beijing has been gradually opening its market to Central Asian firms, especially in the agroindustrial sector. As Tashkent continues to balance between the two great powers in its neighbourhood, it is possible to expect moves to enhance business and trade with both Beijing and Moscow.

Former Kyrgyz president involved in a corruption case. Former Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov was summoned to court as a witness in former Prime Minister Zilaliev’s corruption trial. As Jeenbekov is now officially a ‘regular’ citizen again, he can be summoned to court to discuss corruption charges without any institutional restraints on his testimony. More precisely, Zilaliev is accused of illegal enrichment: 900.000$ worth of undeclared assets were discovered by authorities. Since Jeenbekov was president at the time, the court ruled that his testimony was necessary. Neither he nor his lawyer have made any comments.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Zuzana Krulichova, Tijs van de Vijver, Louise Guillon, Ia Khodeli, Zadig Tisserand, Ana Robakidze, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Tijs van de Vijver, Mina Medjedovic, Evguenia Roussel, Roxana Chiriac, Ryan Patterson and Ivan Ulises 💘

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