Lossi 36 Weekly #8: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 8 March 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This Week’s Special
Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party jumps before it is pushed out of EPP. After a long saga of deteriorating relations with the European Union, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party finally left the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) on 3 March. Hungarian Prime Minister made the decision to exit the EPP pre-emptively, as the European Parliament bloc prepared to pass an internal rules change that would allow the expulsion of Fidesz. Hungarian Prime Minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán described the proposed rule changes as “clearly a hostile move against Fidesz and our voters…This is anti-democratic, unjust, and unacceptable”. The final withdrawal of Fidesz from the faction is the culmination of a long period in which the Hungarian party was seen to be increasingly at odds with the EPP and its values. The authoritarian turn observed in Hungary under Fidesz rule and the associated disdain for EU law has been a target of criticism from the EPP leadership, but for many years no action was taken because of the importance of the Fidesz MEPs in the parliamentary bloc. In 2019, after government billboards attacking European Commission President and EPP member Jean-Paul Juncker caused tension to boil over, the voting rights of Fidesz in the EPP were suspended indefinitely. Fidesz is now believed to be looking to join the eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformers party after reports of a letter sent by Orbán to the Italian nationalist party Brothers of Italy seeking cooperation with the ECR in the future.
In the Balkans…
New declaration signed within the consultative committee between European Union and Montenegro. On 2 March the consultative committee of the European Union and Montenegro signed the declaration about priorities and visible results regarding the rule of law, media freedom, and fight against corruption and organized crime. This document has served as support for the new Montenegrin government and has especially stressed the importance of progress in key negotiation chapters number 23 and 24. The declaration was adopted yesterday in the online assembly with the presence of the chief negotiator for the EU accession Ms. Kordic. The document has also emphasized the importance of full-functioning institutions and bodies which need to be fully independent and autonomous while freedom of media is an area of great concern as well as conditions in which Montenegrin media work which needs to be further addressed.
Still no justice for murdered young victim of interethnic hatred in North Macedonia. When 4-year-old Almir and his parents were hit on purpose by a car in 2016, video (contains sensitive content) images shook the ethnically mixed society in North Macedonia over the degree of ethnic hatred in the country. Ethnic Macedonian Boban Ilic ran into the three-member family on a hospital wall with his car, leaving the three-member Albanian family all with injuries, but worst of all, 4-year-old Almir who died after 3 days in a coma. The country’s prosecution and courts failed to proceed with a fair trial and instead charged the murderer Boban Ilic to only 4 years in prison. Almir’s father, uncle, and cousin were also sentenced to 9 months in prison. The Albanian community have since protested over the deep-rooted hatred in society and have demanded deep reforms in the judiciary. Five years later, the only remaining option for Almir’s family is to seek justice at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
In the Caucasus…
European Council President visits Georgia to mediate political crisis. On 1 March, European Council President Charles Michel made an unexpected visit to Tbilisi, which has been the centre of mounting political chaos after authorities recently raided the offices of the main opposition party and arrested its leader, Nika Melia. Surprisingly, President Michel’s visit was a game-changer, as the Council chief helped steer a negotiating session of irreconcilable political factions and declared dialogue “relaunched”, giving them a task to hand in after 16 days in Brussels. To quote President Michel, the EU “has opened its eyes” on Georgia. Meanwhile, Žygimantas Pavilionis, a Lithuanian politician, slipped the “s-word” (ie “sanctions”). On 3 March, during the online international discussion on Georgia’s crisis, Pavilionis suggested Secretary Blinken visit Tbilisi. Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent demurred, saying US Ambassador Degnan had things under control in Tbilisi and hinted that Georgians must embrace the “do it yourself” philosophy. How that works out will be made clear when the caravan goes to Brussels.
Political tension rises in Armenia as Pashinyan proposes snap elections. Armenia’s own political crisis has continued since 25 February, when the General Staff of the Armenian Armed Forces Onik Gasparyan demanded Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation, in response to the dismissal of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Tiran Khachatryan. Pashinyan repudiated this demand as a coup attempt and responded by issuing an order to suspend Gasparyan as well. However, this order needs to be signed by President Armen Sargsyan, who has twice refused to do so, further deepening the cleavage between the PM and the President. March 1 then saw large parallel rallies of Pashinyan and the opposition in Yerevan. At the pro-government rally, Pashinyan expressed readiness for early parliamentary elections, provided the opposition agrees to certain conditions and a certain level of public support is reached. The core underlying issue seems to be the Russian-brokered peace deal on Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended the 44 days of fighting in the most recent flare-up of the conflict and was accepted by Pashinyan but strongly rejected by the opposition.
In Central Europe…
Poland buzzing about another tape scandal. Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza recently published recordings that could compromise Daniel Obajtek, a rising favorite of ruling party Law and Justice (PiS). Obajtek, mayor of the small municipality of Pcim between 2006 and 2015, currently heads Orlen, a major Polish oil refiner and petrol retailer active across Central Europe. Obajtek’s increasing popularity among top PiS establishment had Polish political circles gossiping that he might soon replace Mateusz Morawiecki as prime minister of Poland. This, however, seems less likely now, as Wyborcza’s recordings suggest that during his time as mayor Obajtek violated regulations concerning local governmental officials by covertly running a company called TT Plast, trying to destroy his uncle’s rival business. He is also said to have lied in court about his involvement with the company. Obajtek denies any wrongdoing and has demanded an apology, removal of published materials, and a charity donation from Wyborcza.
Another March Lockdown in Hungary. In light of a potential third wave, the Hungarian government once again announced strict lockdown measures, effective between March 8 and 22 with the possibility of extension – nearly a year after Hungary’s first Covid-19 case. Additional measures include obligatory mask-wearing in all areas, as well as the closure of non-essential stores, various public services, kindergartens, and primary schools. Foreigners can expect more difficulty entering Hungary, as well as immigration office visits. Meanwhile, the government is speeding up the vaccination process, as well as an online consultation on lifting restrictions – all with the goal of having life return to normal after Easter. An interesting exception is that florists are allowed to be open on Monday, March 8, International Women’s Day. No update has been given about March 15th, a national holiday, but a cancellation of public events, just as last year remains a realistic scenario.
In Eastern Europe…
United States Announces $125 Million Defense Package for Ukraine. The United States Pentagon has announced a $125 million defense package for Ukraine to aid in the country’s ongoing war with Russia-backed forces in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The aid package includes patrol boats, counter-artillery radars, and a multitude of analysis, training, and support programs for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The announcement comes days after newly-elected U.S. President Biden reiterated support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression, with President Biden stating that the U.S. “does not, and will never, recognize Russia’s purported annexation of [Crimea], and we will stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggressive acts.” The aid package is set to be the first half of a large $275 million military aid package recently approved by the U.S. Congress, with the second half meant to be released after the Ukrainian government “has made sufficient progress on key defense reforms.”
Firm Lithuanian ‘no’ to Belarusian request to extradite Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The Belarusian authorities have requested Lithuania to extradite Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of democratic Belarus. Lithuania, whose President had called other EU countries to ignore the European arrest warrant initiated by Minsk in October, has served as Tsikhanouskaya’s home since she fled Belarus after the elections in August last year. Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Mantas Adomėnas declared that the country will not hand Tsikhanouskaya over to the Minsk authorities, for it considers the case against Tsikhanouskaya political persecution. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis went a step further, declaring that ‘hell will freeze over’ before Vilnius would even ‘begin to consider’ extraditing Tsikhanouskaya. He added that Lithuania will continue to function as a safe haven for all who flee undemocratic regimes.
In Russia and Central Asia…
United States introduces new sanctions over Navalny poisoning. On March 2, the United States Treasury introduced sanctions against seven Russian officials and thirteen entities over their involvement in the poisoning of Alexey Navalny. The sanctions target, among others, the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the National Guard Alexander Kalashnikov, and Prosecutor General Viktor Zolotov, as well as several companies allegedly involved in the production of chemical weapons. The sanctions were coordinated with the European Union, which earlier announced the sanctioning of four Russian officials. It is the first time the U.S. introduced sanctions against Russia over the poisoning of Navalny specifically. Navalny’s team previously called for a longer list of individuals to be sanctioned, including oligarchs with alleged close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following attacks by Russian hackers last year that infiltrated American government agencies, the United States Senate is considering further sanctions on Russia.
First official visit of Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov to Kazakhstan. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev hosted Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov to discuss the strategic partnership between the countries on March 2. It was Japarov’s first official visit to Kazakhstan as President of Kyrgyzstan and his second trip abroad after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in late February. During the two-day state visit, the two Presidents discussed economic, humanitarian, military, and technical issues, signed several important agreements, and visited the Astana International Financial Center. Japarov also met Kazakhstan’s First President Nazarbayev, Prime Minister Mamin, and Chair of the Mazhilis (the lower house of parliament) Nigmatulin. The main objective of the Presidential meeting was strengthening bilateral cooperation. Over the past fifteen years, Kazakhstan has invested more than $1 billion in Kyrgyzstan, and remains Kyrgyzstan’s third-largest trade partner, after China and Russia.
Kyrgyz gender activist defies national cultural norms by naming three children after her. While the norm in Kyrgyzstan is to give children a patronymic (with suffixes -ovich or -evich for men), Altyn Kapalova gave her children a ‘matronymic,’ which culminated into a legal battle with the Bishkek Civil Registry Office. Patronymic naming practices are so anchored into bureaucratic routines that the office currently suing her only realized its ‘mistake’ when Kapalova publicly revealed the birth certificates with the matronymics on social media. The Civil Registry Office argues that Kyrgyz law only allows patronymics, which, according to Kapalova, stands in the way of gender equality. She previously fought another legal battle against the biological father, who “hasn’t given the children any money or a minute of their time.” The Head of Civil Registry maintains that it “can’t become the basis to register a child with a matronymic”.