Lossi 36 Weekly #5: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 15 February 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This week’s special
Investigators draw new links between Navalny and Kara-Murza poisonings. The Insider, Der Spiegel, and Bellingcat, all part of the team that investigated Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in December, have recently released an investigation into the 2015 poisoning of another Russian opposition figure: Vladimir Kara-Murza. Kara-Murza is an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin and his regime who rose to prominence working as a parliamentary aide to Boris Nemtsov, a key opposition figure who was fatally shot in February 2015. Kara-Murza and Boris Nemtsov are credited for their work on the American Magnitsky Act, which allows the US government to freeze assets of human rights offenders and a thorn in the side of the Russian leadership. The report highlights similarities between Kara-Murza’s case and last year’s poisoning of Alexei Navalny with the Novichok nerve agent: Kara-Murza had been shadowed by highly specialized FSB officers during the months before his poisoning, local medical officials present in the hospital declared Kara-Murza “untransportable” when his family filed for medical treatment abroad, and the symptoms both oppositionists experienced were similar. Kara-Murza himself was involved in the research and has already commented on its outcomes. He stated that his work on the Magnitsky Act had likely served as the motive behind the attempts on his life. Kara-Murza also joined The Insider’s podcast to call up one of his FSB-shadowers- although with less luck than Navalny had in December.
In the Balkans…
Kosovo’s opposition leader Albin Kurti tops election polls despite legal uncertainties. According to recent election surveys, opposition party Vetevendosje is on track to win the parliamentary elections on February 14 with 41% of the seats, even though legal and administrative barriers cast doubt on the outcome of the election. The party enjoys wide support among diaspora voters, who have expressed deep concerns about the respect for their right to vote. In addition, the Constitutional Court’s recent ruling prevents Vetevendosje’s leader Albin Kurti from standing for parliament, as he was found guilty of a criminal offense in 2018. As a result, Kurti and four others have been removed from the party’s official list of candidates. “Even if Kurti and others are barred from running for MP, they should not be barred from taking any government post after the elections,” declared Rreze Hoxha, a researcher at the Group for Legal and Political Studies.
Montenegro continues to deepen partnership with China. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic was one of the leaders who took part in the China-led 17+1 summit on February 9. He expressed Montenegro’s readiness to align itself with the projects previewed for the countries participating in the format. China, the key player in this initiative, has already been involved in the territory of Montenegro since a Chinese company is the main constructor of a highway which constitutes the biggest infrastructure project of the last few years. Djukanovic has also expressed that he is more than open to future cooperation and Chinese investments, which are already very much present in some of the countries in the region as well as the EU Member States. The president added that among important components of the 17+1 mechanism were environmental protection, cultural exchange and the strengthening of collaboration, while the functionality of the mechanism had already been demonstrated through numerous donations made over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the Caucasus…
Group of Abkhaz MPs call to reopen railway linking Russia to Armenia through Abkhazia. In line with their desire to see Abkhazia “unblocked,” Abkhaz parliamentary deputies expressed their wish to organize discussions on reopening the railway that links Russia to Armenia through Abkhazia with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The rail line has been cut for almost thirty years, since the War of Abkhazia in 1993. Negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi recurred over the decades, but all attempts to negotiate eventually proved unsuccessful. Despite the Abkhaz MPs’ desire to see the twenty-first century as the one of “the end of Abkhazia’s isolation and the building of normal relations,” the likelihood of the proposal coming to fruition remains low as a result of various geopolitical issues.
Georgian COVID-19 restrictions eased, but few vaccines in sight. The coronavirus and the restrictions imposed to curb it have caused economic hardship for many Georgians. Two weeks ago, the hospitality sector in Georgia protested that they would open their businesses regardless of state regulations and restrictions. The country has witnessed increasing infection rates since autumn, which ended the lockdown-free summer Georgia managed to enjoy. With the large numbers of confirmed cases, restrictions have become much stricter over time. Although the government has still not procured any vaccines against COVID-19, it has decided to allow non-essential businesses to reopen on February 15, arguably as a result of pressure from the public and the business sector. This makes one question whether governmental restrictions in Georgia are conditional upon anything more than the society’s tolerance of what is being imposed.
In Central Europe…
Czech Constitutional Court annuls electoral law clauses favoring big parties. The Czech Constitutional Court has repealed aspects of the Czech electoral law, such as the clause on the distribution of votes in parliament, which gives bigger parties disproportionately more seats. The decision also changes the threshold for coalitions to enter parliament to five percent, while previously it was ten percent for two parties and fifteen percent for three parties. The judges ruled in favor of the proposal submitted by a group of senators who argued that the current system is unfair for smaller parties. This decision comes about eight months before the parliamentary elections set to be held in October. The changes must be implemented before the elections, for which both chambers of the parliament need to agree. The process is expected to be challenging, as the opposition holds a majority in the upper chamber. The reactions towards the ruling are mixed: on the one hand, the opposition is welcoming this verdict as fairer. On the other hand, it may result in a hung parliament.
Polish media protest new ad revenue tax proposal. In an act of protest, several independent media fell silent or ran black front pages after the Polish government revealed plans to levy a new tax on advertising revenue. According to official records, the rationale behind the bill is to help lift the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. Independent media, however, argue that the bill’s aim is to drain the revenue independent media make from advertisement. Once financially weakened, independent media will be an easier target for a takeover by state-owned media corporations. Wyborcza takes its criticism a step further: in order to safeguard similar levels of ad revenue, media outlets will raise advertisement prices, which will imply that advertisers will have to raise prices for customers. This would then defeat the official purpose of the bill as stated above: “ultimately, every single family in Poland will have to pay for it.”
In Eastern Europe…
Bulgarian prosecutor’s office refuses to investigate a journalist’s violent arrest. On February 11, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a statement against “the refusal of Bulgarian chief public prosecutor Ivan Geshev’s office to investigate the beating that freelance journalist Dimiter Kenarov received from the police last September.” Kenarov, known for his reports of armed conflicts for media such as BBC and Foreign Policy, was violently arrested and beaten while covering a protest against Geshev and Boyko Borissov’s government. RSF notes that several other journalists were victims of police violence during that demonstration. Bulgaria is ranked 111th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Ukraine sanctions three Russia-linked TV channels. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sanctioned three TV channels – 112, NewsOne, and ZIK – officially owned by Taras Kozak, MP for Opposition Platform – For Life. The sanctions were introduced to counter Russian hybrid influence in Ukraine, as the channels are allegedly de facto owned by Viktor Medvedchuk, a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The decision has been met with mixed reactions by Ukraine’s international partners. While the American embassy in Kyiv expressed its support for countering “Russia’s malign influence,” the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell noted that security concerns “should not come at the expense of freedom of the press.” Zelenskyy defended his decision on Twitter, describing the channels as “[…] propaganda financed by the aggressor country that undermines Ukraine on its way to EU and Euro-Atlantic integration.” Kozak and Medvedchuk vowed to challenge the sanctions in court.
Belarusian President Opens ‘All-Belarusian People’s Assembly’ in Bid to Maintain Power. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has convened a Soviet-style ‘All-Belarusian People’s Assembly’ this week in an attempt to maintain power amid months-long mass protests. Lukashenka, who has ruled the country for nearly thirty years, admitted that his position “wields too much power” and that he would promise meaningful reforms next year. This all comes in response to months of continued mass protests against the president over a widely-contested election. Belarus’ recent election is largely believed to be fraudulent, and Lukashenka is not accepted as the legitimate president by much of the Western world. The protests, which began last August, have often been met with police brutality and allegations of torture. Even though Lukashenka has promised reforms, he continues to believe that the recent protests are a “foreign-directed rebellion”. Many foreign observers, including the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, believe that such an assembly is largely for show and that meaningful reform in the country can only happen with Lukashenka gone.
In Russia and Central Asia…
Turkmenistan’s pipeline dreams becoming a reality? On February 6, an Afghan Taliban delegation visited Turkmenistan to discuss the TAPI Pipeline, which is projected to run through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. During the visit, the representative of the Taliban pledged to support the construction of the long-projected, so far unsuccessful, pipeline project. According to Eurasianet, this visit was brokered by the US government and may encourage international investors to engage the TAPI project once again. At the same time, RFE/RL reports that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan signed a preliminary agreement on the joint exploitation of an undersea hydrocarbons field in the Caspian Sea on January 21. Enhanced relations and increased energy cooperation between Ashgabat and Baku have revived the plans for the Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), so far hindered by the two countries’ dispute over the Caspian Sea basin resources. While neither TAPI nor TCP will be realized in the short term, Ashgabat is bound to celebrate these diplomatic developments.
EU responds to the expulsion of three European diplomats by Russia. After Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow on February 5, tensions between the EU and Russia seem to have increased to an unprecedented degree. Not only did Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov imply that Western governments interfere with Russian internal affairs, Russia expelled three European diplomats (from Germany, Sweden and Poland) for joining the protests supporting opposition activist Alexei Navalny. The actions immediately caught the attention of European leaders: German Chancellor Merkel called the Russian action “unjustified,” while French President Macron insisted that “political tensions must not be dealt with in this way.” Germany, Poland, and Sweden quickly responded by expelling Russian diplomats. The foreign offices of the three counties stated that this step was implemented as a response to Russia’s actions towards their diplomats only performing their duties. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, responded that the expulsions of the Russian diplomats were “unjustified, unfriendly,” and could be qualified “as interference in internal affairs.” The EU Foreign ministers will debate Borrel’s failure to relaunch EU-Russia relations and the consequential diplomatic tensions on February 22 as a preparation for the European Council strategy summit in late March, which may lead to new sanctions against Russia.
Uzbekistan Elections moved to October. Shavkat Mirziyoyev – Uzbekistan’s president – has signed a bill changing the election period from December to October into law. The official rationale for the change in date is the proximity to the holiday season and bad weather in December, which would weaken the public’s participation. However, political critics of the regime have argued that the real reason for the shift is that the government is usually critiqued for its (absent) provision of heating support to the population in December. Observers will have to wait until October 24 to see whether the date change influences the turnout.