Lossi 36 Weekly #4: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 8 February 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This week’s special
West reacts to sentencing of Alexey Navalny: Nothing gained, opportunities missed, reputation shaken. This is how the visit of HR/VP Josep Borrell in Moscow on 4-5 February can be described in face of a dramatic increase in the intensity of authoritarian repression in Russia.
Not only was Alexei Navalny present at yet another politically motivated trial in parallel with the EU and Russian Foreign Ministers’ joint press-conference, but several hours following the press briefing, Russia also expelled three diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden for joining “illegal demonstrations” in support of Navalny.
In comments described by some as “trolling” of the EU top diplomat, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shared strong messages towards the EU to stop any new sanctions, stop supporting democracy and human rights, and stop being too active in countries in its neighborhood.
Not only did the EU foreign policy chief stand by while Lavrov called the EU an “unreliable partner” and accused European leaders of lying about Navalny’s poisoning, but Borrell praised Russia’s efforts towards the Sputnik V vaccine and condemned the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which gave Lavrov an opportunity to highlight disagreement between Brussels and Washington.
While conveying the EU’s “deep concern” over jailing Navalny and calling for his immediate release in addition to impartial investigation of his poisoning, Borrell acknowledged that the EU had not taken any step toward imposing new sanctions on Russia over the Navalny case.
Borrell’s visit came only 24 hours after US President Joe Biden announced that “the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions are over”. While Biden engages with Moscow on areas of mutual interests, such as preventing nuclear war, he has pledged to hold Putin to account on cyberattacks and election interference, and has also called for Navalny’s release. Against this stark background, the visit of Borrell and his determined efforts to test the ground for selective engagement proved to be ill-placed and timed.
In the Balkans…
Israel formalises recognition of Kosovo. The official recognition of Kosovo, as well as the establishment of diplomatic relations by Israel, were formalized in a virtual ceremony on 1 February. In a speech, the Israeli foreign minister Gabriel Ashenazi stated that this recognition is in line with recent accords made with several Arab states, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Besides this, Mr Ashkenazi confirmed that Kosovo`s request to open an embassy in Jerusalem has been accepted. The recognition of Kosovo is a part of the Agreement on the normalization of economic relations signed by Kosovo and Serbia on 4 September in Washington under the mediation of the USA.
Telegram used to share explicit images and identities of girls in North Macedonia. A Telegram group with over 7,000 users has been revealed to have shared explicit pictures and videos of girls from North Macedonia – some of whom were underage. Anonymous users also exchanged the names and locations of these girls. The Telegram group named “Public Room” was publicly disclosed by one of the victims, a 28-years old called Ana, which came forward in a video address on Instagram about how her pictures and contact details had been shared in the Telegram group. “I started receiving messages and calls on my cell phone, on Viber, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram” she explained, crying. “I received a screenshot of my picture, which was not only posted on the “Public Room” but shared elsewhere too.” said Ana. Several people protested in Skopje, demanding penalties for the abusers and support for the victims. The authorities informed that four people have been detained, and the group has been shut down.
President Vučic makes friendly visit to Paris. Six months since the last working visit, President Vučic was back in France and met President Macron during a four-hour meeting last week. Belgrade-Pristina relations were a central topic, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, the state of the EU enlargement and the new methodology that Serbia accepted back in July 2020. Other bilateral issues were covered such as military-technical cooperation and the upcoming construction of 16,5 km of subway line and 18 stations in Belgrade by the French rail giant, Alstom. The two men stressed their mutual friendship and their willingness to accelerate reforms and make necessary progress on Serbia’s path to the EU. Emmanuel Macron’s second visit to Belgrade should be planned for September/October this year.
In the Caucasus…
Turkish-Russian Military Center established to monitor Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire. The newly established observation center, jointly run and staffed by Russia and Turkey and located in the Agdam region of Azerbaijan, started its operation on January 30th. Both countries agreed to set up the center in November with the purpose to monitor the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It will be staffed by up to 60 servicemen each from Turkey and from Russia. Although few details were made public, the center mainly appears to serve as a base for surveillance drones to monitor the agreed ceasefire lines. Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, said “We believe that the joint center will greatly contribute to the durability of the cease-fire and to the establishment of peace and stability”.
Georgian Parliament Speaker delivers annual report to Parliament. On 3 February, speaker Archil Talakvadze delivered the parliament’s annual report to lawmakers, Ministries, and diplomatic corps, amongst others, summarizing the activities of Parliament and looking into the legislative plans. The speaker overviewed the events throughout the year, including the pandemic, constitutional amendments to change the electoral system, Parliamentary elections, and negotiations with opposition parties. Looking ahead, he noted that the Parliament’s work will strive to be in line with the country’s EU and NATO aspirations. As for today, only six opposition MPs entered Parliament (four former Alliance of Patriots MPs and two Citizens party MPs) while 51 MPs continue to boycott the results of the elections of October 31, 2020, calling on the government to terminate their mandates.
Former Defence Minister adviser charged with defrauding Defence Ministry of Armenia. Armenia is still processing its defeat in the recent war with Azerbaijan. Davit Galstyan, businessman and one of the advisers having served to former Defence Minister Davit Tonoyan, was charged with potentially fraudulent behaviour towards the Armenian Defence Ministry. It is reported that he sold incorrectly labelled munitions to the Ministry which were of no use during the battles in Nagorno Karabakh. Additionally, the National Security Service of Armenia accuses Galstyan of defrauding the Ministry of around USD 1 million in the munitions deal. Galstyan has denied any wrongdoing.
In Central Europe…
Hungary fights for freedom of… conservative speech. In a tweet posted on January 26, Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga announced that the Hungarian Digital Freedom Committee would soon submit a legislative proposal to the Parliament concerning “#freedom in the online world”. Earlier last month Varga also addressed the topic of so-called “shadowbanning” on Facebook, accusing “tech companies” of “ violating all those fundamental democratic legal norms that form the basis of Western-type culture”. She said she was personally targeted by Facebook which limited “the visibility of Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions”. Although the European Union is working on a common legislative approach to Big Tech’s growing power, other member states, including France, Germany and Poland, are also introducing their own digital rules.
Poland’s famous charity foundation cracks fundraising record. The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (better known as WOŚP – its abbreviation in Polish) organised its 29th Grand Finale on 31 January, collecting a record PLN 127 495 626 (over 28 mln euros). Every year the money raised is spent on medical equipment used in particular domains of healthcare, with this year’s funds dedicated to paediatric laryngology, otorhinolaryngology, and head diagnostics. Usually WOŚP relies heavily on in-person collection of donations by thousands of volunteers across the country and its Grand Finale is accompanied by concerts and shows in various Polish cities. This year, due to strict sanitary restrictions, the foundation shifted more towards online methods of collecting funds. The amount raised sets a record compared to previous finales but the count is not over – fundraising activities, including auctions of different objects and offers contributed by famous Poles, are still ongoing. Since 1993, WOŚP has raised over 290 mln euros.
In Eastern Europe…
Zelensky offers new insights on relations with West and other topics in Axios interview. On January 23, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, gave an interview for “Axios on HBO.” In the interview, Zelenskyy expressed his opinion on Joe Biden’s election and highlighted the question of Ukraine’s NATO membership. Moreover, the President pointed out the fact that the Normandy format will exhaust itself if it continues this way. Zelenskyy suggested including the United States as an alternative. Other crucial topics discussed included COVID-19 vaccinations in Ukraine, the Ukraine-China row caused by the question of Motor Sich, Ukraine’s return to a nuclear status, the reforms held in the country, and the situation with corruption. The conversation could not leave out the impeachment of Donald Trump and the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6. Last but not least, the general tone of the interview left the impression that the President of Ukraine feels a “lack of support” of the EU to Ukraine.
Belarus Stripped of 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship Hosting Rights. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has reportedly stripped Belarus of hosting rights for the upcoming 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship amid continuing anti-government protests. The games, which will see sixteen teams from around the world compete, were originally supposed to be hosted between Belarus and Latvia in June 2021. However, amid security concerns stemming from months-long anti-government protests in Belarus led to the decision to relocate the games to Riga, Latvia. Presidential elections in Belarus last August were seen by international observers as highly-fraudulent. Months of protests ensued against Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka which were often responded to by police brutality and allegations of torture. The decision by the IIHF follows similar patterns of Western countries introducing political and economic sanctions against Belarus.
Moldovan President pays official visit to France. Maia Sandu has accepted President Macron’s invitation, paying an official visit to Paris on 3-4 February, several weeks after being sworn in. In his speech, the French president highlighted that this was the first time in 24 years that a Moldovan President officially visited France. President Macron outlined France’s support for Moldova’s path towards economic and political reforms, in addition to emphasizing the clear support for Moldova’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with regard to the conflict in Transnistria. Sandu’s official visit to France comes shortly after her meeting with the Romanian prime-minister, in which Romania’s support for Moldova’s European path was emphasized. Previously, in the electoral campaign, the Moldovan President expressed criticism over the fact that throughout his term, former pro-Russian President Igor Dodon did not pay official visits to Ukraine or Romania, while visiting Moscow on a frequent basis.
In Russia and Central Asia…
Transparency International denounces Kazakhstan’s growing NGO crackdown. In a statement released on February first, Transparency International calls for an immediate stop to the Kazakh clampdown on civil society following the country’s parliamentary election in January. The statement highlights the harassment of NGOs involved in election monitoring, government transparency, and media freedom by the Kazakh tax authorities in particular. Kazakhstan’s January elections, which were labelled as “not competitive” by international election observers, has been accompanied by reports of increasing numbers of politically motivated investigations, fines, and restrictive measures against NGOs by tax authorities over alleged financial misconduct. OSCE/ODIHR’s assessment of the recent elections in Kazakhstan also identified reports concerning “concerted efforts of the authorities to prevent […] effective observation of these elections,” such as the tax investigations faced by NGOs in the run-up to the election.
Turkmenistan introduces national holiday to honour Central Asian dog breed. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has chosen the last Sunday of April as the new annual national holiday honoring the local Alabai dog breed. This year, the event will be on April 25, about one month after Nowruz. Last year, Berdymukhamedov unveiled a giant gold statue of the shepherd dog in the middle of the capital Ashgabat, which made headlines around the globe. The Alabai also gained worldwide attention when Russian President Putin received a puppy Alabai as a diplomatic gift from Turkmen President in 2017. Berdymukhamedov continues the idea of placing the Alabai at the center of Turkmen national identity. He has been criticized for putting the dog breed above the horse breed, with the latter of higher symbolic standing. His cult around the Alabay breed has owed him an image of protector among Turkmen, which he undeniably thinks should play a significant political role.
Thank you to this week’s contributors: Naser Bislimi, Louise Guillon, Mina Medjedovic, Kristin Aldag, Ia Khodeli, Ricardo Bergmann, Vira Kompaniiets, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Boris Kowalski, Ryan Patterson, Roxana Chiriac, Charles Fourmi, Kristina Pitalskaya.