Lossi 36 Weekly #7: 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 March 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

Weekly special

Political tension boils over in Armenia after armed forces’ general staff joins calls for Prime Minister to resign. The political crisis that has been ongoing in Armenia since its defeat to Azerbaijan in November reached its highest point over the last week. After the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s comments on the use during the Karabakh war of Russian-made Iskander missiles, Pashinyan alienated the military further with the dismissal of the first deputy general staff of the armed forces, Tiran Khachatryan. On 25 February, a declaration was signed by high-ranking Armenian army officers calling Nikol Pashinyan to resign, a move that Pashinyan himself declared to be the beginning of a military coup against his government. Pashinyan promptly called his supporters to Republic Square, and as a result, two simultaneous rallies took place that day, with clashes: one led by Pashinyan on the square, and another in front of parliament, led by the Armenian opposition and calling for the prime minister’s resignation. Speaking on Republic Square in front of his supporters, the prime minister demanded that the armed forces do not interfere in the country’s political life and called for the opposition to negotiate. The opposition later that day blocked a broad avenue in the capital and pitched tents there to spend the night, where they have since maintained a small presence in the days following. In the meantime, Pashinyan has attempted to fire the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, but the request was denied by President Armen Sarkissian, who has also previously called upon the PM to resign.

In the Balkans…

European Union releases draft report on accession process of Montenegro. Tonino Picula, representative of the European Parliament, presented a draft report for Montenegro on 22 February regarding the progress that the country has made on their accession commitments for the period of 2019-2020, concluding that Montenegro has done the most compared to other countries in the region. The remaining problems that were emphasized were the same as in other reports and comment on judiciary, corruption, and freedom of media, where limited or no progress has been made, calling for the special attention of the new government. In the most developed areas of the negotiation process, Mr. Picula specifically highlighted Montenegrin devotion towards regional cooperation and full compliance with European standards in its foreign and security policy, while appreciating the high level of public support towards the EU accession which were published recently. 

New bribery scandal hits Kosovo Agriculture Agency. A dozen people, including the head of Kosovo’s Agency for Agriculture, Agim Nuha, have been arrested on 24 February by Kosovo police on charges of bribery and misuse of public funds. Around EUR 400 000 in the form of cash, cars and laptops were confiscated by police forces. According to Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, Kosovo was ranked 104 out of 180 scored countries. The scandal broke only a few days after the landslide victory of anti-establishment party Vetevendosje, whose leader Albin Kurti claimed right before the parliamentary election: “The biggest obstacle in front of us is this huge wall of crime and corruption over the years. (…) It was not that we lacked institutions to fight corruption, it was the political will. Once the high-level politicians are corrupt, it seeps down through the system”’

In the Caucasus…

Head of Orthodox Church interrupts religious services in churches in Abkhazia. On February 21, the leader of the Orthodox Church of Abkhazia, Vissarion Aplia, announced that he had suspended religious services in all churches in the breakaway region, except at Sukhumi Cathedral, where he serves. According to Vissarion, this situation will last until the Orthodox Church of Russia grants status to the Orthodox Church of Abkhazia. The Orthodox Church of Abkhazia witnessed a schism in 2011 between the Orthodox Church of Abkhazia, led by Vissarion Aplia and close to Russia, and the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia, based in New Athos and led by Dorotheos Dbar, wishing to free the Abkhaz Church from both Georgian and Russian influences. While both factions want the Orthodox Church of Abkhazia to receive autocephaly status, that of Vissarion Aplia would like to receive it from the Russian Orthodox Church and that of Dorotheos Dbar, from the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople.

Political crisis deepens in Georgia in the aftermath of opposition leader’s arrest. This week, the fallout has continued from the 23 February arrest of Nika Melia, the leader of the biggest opposition party UNM was jailed by the government. The move brings many flashbacks from the past, a time which many argue that the ruling Georgian Dream party looks fondly upon. The use of force, political courts, and targeting political opponents have become common tools for the Georgian Dream government. This move was heavily criticized both with the country and from the international partners as well, but the ruling party continues to claim that the measures taken were relatively lenient. The opposition and its supporters argue that the government has shown total ignorance towards democratic rights and misused the power it has: jailing a political leader on a case with little merit. Protests have started in the country and given the extent of the political crisis, the only solution could truly be early elections, however, the governing party does not seem to be at all keen on this idea.

In Central Europe…

Czechia takes Poland to court over energy row. The Czech government announced last Monday that it would sue Poland in the Court of Justice of the European Union over plans to expand a lignite mine in Turów, located very close to both Czech and German borders. The mine and a 1.3-gigawatt power plant attached to it are run by state-owned PGE energy company, which wants to expand the mining area, and add a new 450MW unit to the complex later this year. The Czech authorities have been protesting against the expansion plans for several years, claiming that the additional pollution caused would deprive 30.000 Czechs of safe drinking water. Following a complaint submitted in September 2020, the European Commission issued an opinion in which it agreed that Poland had incorrectly applied certain provisions of EU directives related to the case, but did not find enough evidence to support Czechia’s environmental concerns.

Hungary becomes first EU country to give preliminary approval to Russian coronavirus vaccine.  According to the Hungarian officials, the vaccine, Sputnik V, is showing promising results. The Foreign Ministry is discussing a shipment and distribution deal with Moscow. The Hungarian officials are also negotiating approval and distribution of the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm, which is already being distributed in Serbia. The effectiveness of Sinopharm is lower than the one of Modena or AstraZeneca. However, the Hungarian prime minister said that buying from Russia and China is the only way to solve the current situation. Still, within the Hungarian society, there is scepticism towards both vaccines. The Hungarian government was criticised for these steps by some of the EU officials. Not all disagree. The Czech prime minister recently visited Budapest and Belgrade to gather information about the vaccination process in Hungary.

In Eastern Europe…

Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin met to discuss strategic partnership. On 22 February, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko met Vladimir Putin at the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. The two leaders talked, in a rather unofficial way, about the strategic partnership between their countries and the important topics in economics, trade, COVID-19 vaccination. Alexander Lukashenko expressed his deepest gratitude to Vladimir Putin for the $1.5 billion loan given by Russia last September as support for President Lukashenko during the mass protests following  the fraudulent election in August. While Belarus is sanctioned by western countries, including the United States, for the violence employed against the demonstrators at the peaceful protests, Russia remains the biggest partner and supporter of Lukashenko’s regime. Moreover, according to the statistics provided by the National Statistic Committee of the Republic of Belarus, the volume of external trade between the two counties counted up to $29,5 bn (50,2% for import and 45,2% for export). The whole conversation was not about the talks only, the meeting itself showed what kind of connections Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin do have: “[…] these are serious negotiations in ordinary clothes. It suggests that we are close people.” – said the Belarusian president. While two presidents were skiing and contemplating the beauty of hills covered in snow, echoes of Belarus in Russia’s Navalny protests can still be heard.

Ukrainian authorities step up actions against Viktor Medvedchuk. Following the sanctioning of three TV channels linked to Viktor Medvedchuk on 3 February, Ukrainian authorities have intensified legal actions against Medvedchuk, who has close alleged ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. On 19 February, President Zelenskyy sanctioned Medvedchuk and several associates for “financing terrorism” in Eastern Ukraine. Subsequently, on 23 February authorities seized an oil pipeline owned by a company allegedly linked to Medvedchuk. In addition, prosecutors named several former Privatbank executives as suspects in a $5mln embezzlement case, including its former CEO Oleksandr Dubilet. Dubilet’s former deputy, Volodymyr Yatsenko, was arrested at Boryspil Airport in Kyiv while attempting to flee the country. Privatbank’s former owner before its nationalisation in 2016, Ihor Kolomoisky, is a business partner of Medvedchuk. The U.S. embassy in Kyiv expressed its support for the sanctions and the embezzlement charges. Medvedchuk’s party, Opposition Platform – For Life, nonetheless remains Ukraine’s most popular political party according to opinion polls.

In Russia and Central Asia…

Gold mine hinders Japarov’s public credibility. The case of the Kumtor gold mine continues to shed light on Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov’s contradictory claims. The gold mine is currently controlled by a Toronto based gold exploitation company called Centerra. The Kyrgyz government owns a one quarter-stake in Centerra’s Kumtor project. However, Japarov ran his election campaign with the argument that if elected, he would fight for the nationalization of Kumtor. Yet, now that Japarov is in power, he seems more reluctant to act or even comment on the Kumtor situation. Furthermore, last week Centerra revealed its plans for the upcoming three years, and there was no mention of a will to decrease their activities…

Monument survey divides Moscow. Last week Muscovites participated in a short-lived survey aiming at selecting a monument to be erected on Lubyanka Square, in front of the FSB headquarters. The choice was between Felix Dzerzhinsky – one of the architects of the Red Terror and the first director of the notorious Cheka secret police agency – and Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, Kiev and Vladimir during and following the Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus’. The former’s monument used to stand on Lubyanka Square, but was moved in 1991 after pro-reform demonstrators tried to pull it down following the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Two days after its launch, Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin suspended the survey, as the voting turned into a heated historical and political discussion, with many strongly disagreeing with either of the two options. Sobyanin announced that for now Lubyanka would remain in its current monumentless state. 

European Parliament adopts resolution on human rights situation in Kazakhstan. On 11 February, the human rights situation in Kazakhstan was discussed in the plenary session of the European Parliament. Through the joint motion for the adoption of a resolution, the EP has urged the Government of Kazakhstan to end its harassment practices against human rights activists and civil society organisations, to drop all politically motivated charges and to immediately release all political prisoners. The EP plenary session on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan was also attended by EEAS representatives, with High Representative Josep Borrell expressing concerns over the fact that activists and journalists are unjustly and disproportionately charged over so-called accusations of disseminating “false information”. Earlier this month, the EU had called on Kazakhstan to urgently address the issue of increasing pressure of human rights NGOs.

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