Lossi 36 Weekly #9: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia9 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 24 February 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

This week’s Special

Russia recalls ambassador to US amid diplomatic spat: The Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was summoned back to Moscow late last Wednesday, 13 March, for consultations following the U.S. President Joe Biden’s interview to ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. In this interview, as well as discussing domestic issues, Joe Biden named the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, “a killer” and that he would “pay a price” for interfering in U.S. elections. These accusations are related to a newly declassified intelligence report released on Tuesday concluding that Vladimir Putin did authorise “influence operations” to support Donald Trump’s bid for re-election and damage Joe Biden’s reputation in the 2020 presidential campaign. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that “there hasn’t been anything like this in history” and the relationship between two countries is “very bad.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated that “that there is no evidence of Russian government agencies’ interference in US domestic affairs”. After Antonov’s return to Russia, Vladimir Putin commented on the issue himself, recalling a Russian school playground rhyme, which literally translates as “whoever calls people those names is called those names themselves”, and equates in English to “it takes one to know one”. Meanwhile, the US is considering new sanctions on Russia in response to Alexei Navalny’s detention, election interference, and the SolarWinds hack.

In the Balkans…

Elections held in Niksic under strong Serbian influence campaign. On 14 March, the municipality of Niksic in Montenegro held elections for local assembly influenced by an extensive media campaign from Serbia. The previous ruling coalition won the most seats but because the electoral system requires a majority of 21 mandates, the coalitions that took second and third place, including the nominally pro-Serb Democratic Front and Socialist People’s Party, negotiated to take over the leading position. In the aftermath of the elections, the monitoring process uncovered that more than 961 registered voters are also registered in the voter list of the Republic of Serbia, which is a violation of the law and direct interference in the election process. During the campaign, over 4,730 texts were found to have been published in Serbian media regarding the elections in Montenegro, as well as numerous talk shows in Serbia which many analysts believe to be connected to the coalition– For Future of Niksic, led by the party of Serb nationals.

Montenegro to embark on contested first-ever offshore drilling operation. The winning Russo-Italian consortium formed by Eni and Novatek is about to start the very first offshore oil and gas drilling exploration in Montenegrin waters. Since Monday last week, the jack-up drilling rig Topaz Driller and its crew has sailed off and now stands ready to start drilling 28 km from the shore at a planned depth of 6,500 meters. NGOs such as Green Home, Eko Korijen and Dr. Martin Schneider-Jacoby Association have however expressed their serious concerns about the damages pertaining to tourism, fishery and biodiversity. A petition was launched to cancel drilling operations and preserve the shoreline.

In the Caucasus…

EU special envoy continues to mediate efforts to resolve Georgia’s political crisis. After the most recent political crisis in Georgia, the European Union has stepped up efforts to mediate the dialogue between the government and the opposition. The Swedish diplomat Christian Danielson, mandated by European Council President Charles Michel, arrived in Tbilisi on March 12 to establish political dialogue between the government and the opposition and help resolve the current political tension in Georgia. He initially met separately with the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition, before bringing them together at the same table at the EU Delegation office on March 17th. Despite progress, the negotiations did not reach any final agreement and talks will be continued, with Danielsson extending his visit to Georgia.

Armenia to hold snap parliamentary elections on 20 June. The announcement of the agreement to hold early parliamentary elections was released by both PM Nikol Pashinyan as well as by opposition forces. The agreement follows a month-long political battle between the current government and the parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties that was sparked by the loss of the recent war in Nagorno Karabakh and the subsequent trilateral agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. It is hoped that snap parliamentary elections will lead to an end to the current political stalemate in Armenia. A poll, recently published by the US-based International Republican Institute, suggests that Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party is still by far the most popular party in Armenia with all other parties not even reaching 4 per cent. However, more than 40 per cent do not favour any party in Armenia.

In Central Europe…

Lithuania’s pursuit of stronger ties with Taiwan sparks Beijing’s frustration. Last week, a group of Lithuanian public figures announced the founding of the Lithuania-Taiwan forum, which aims to deepen ties between Vilnius and Taipei. Several high-profile public officials – university lecturers, a Lithuanian MEP, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, and a mayor of a provincial town- are among the forum’s members, while former Minister of Education Steponavičius was elected as the forum’s chair. Steponavičius stated that the Forum “has pooled leaders from different areas who want to see value-based decisions in international politics and understand the challenges Taiwan is facing.” The Lithuanian move comes shortly after Lithuania’s decision to leave China’s 17+1 format, which, according to foreign minister Landsbergis, “is dividing Europe” and brought Lithuania “almost no benefits.” The announcement aligns with Lithuanian plans to open an economic office in Taiwan, to which China’s foreign ministry responded by reminding Lithuania of the “one-China principle,” adding that Lithuania should “avoid doing anything detrimental to bilateral political mutual trust.” Accordingly, analysts have warned Lithuania that its move brings serious economic risks: the value of Lithuanian trade with China is nearly 18 times the value of trade with Taiwan.

Hungary extends strict lockdown. The restrictions announced two weeks ago will still be in force at least for another week starting from Monday 22 March, announced PM Viktor Orbán on Friday morning. The government still considers Easter a risky period as families would gather and potentially spread the virus. Therefore, special restrictions regulating the Easter holiday could be expected soon. Despite more than 1.3 million people receiving at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, figures in Hungary remain on the rise. The government claims that “Eastern vaccines” from Russian and Chinese manufacturers are being given at full speed. Macroeconomic experts are hopeful that retail turnover can reach the pre-Covid level this summer, providing that the vaccination process goes smoothly. According to the national consultation, once more than 2.5 million people are vaccinated, Hungary could gradually open up again.

In Eastern Europe…

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya announces nationwide voting. On 18 March, a week before Freedom Day in Belarus, exiled opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya called for internationally mediated negotiations with the government. The talks would be facilitated by the OSCE and the UN. The opposition leader is urging Belarusians to vote online to support her call for international negotiations with President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. Tsikhanouskaya said that the initial results of the vote through the website belarus2020.org/home would be announced next Thursday, the anniversary of Belarus’s independence declaration in 1918.

The website allows users to vote anonymously from their phones using Viber or Telegram messaging apps. Tsikhanouskaya also called on Belarusians to initiate a “second wave of protests” next week against Lukashenko, and called on the international community to stand in solidarity with Belarus.

Ukraine plans to re-nationalise Motor Sich amid national security concerns. One of the world’s largest producers of aircraft and helicopter engines, Zaporizhzhia-based Motor Sich, is planned to be re-nationalised due to national security concerns over Chinese investors. The head of the Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, announced the decision last week amid U.S. sanctions against the majority-stakeholder Skyrizon. The U.S. State Department claimed that the company had significant ties to the Chinese military and that Skyrizon “is actively seeking to acquire intellectual property and technology to advance key military capabilities that threaten U.S. national security.” The move is one of many in an attempt by Ukrainian President Zelenskiy to curry favour with Ukraine’s Western allies amid the country’s continuing push for NATO membership.

In Russia and Central Asia…

Urban dog cull looms ahead of Alabai dog national holiday in Turkmenistan. In late April, Turkmenistan plans to honor its Central Asian dog breed. According to RFE/RL, residents of the Turkmen capital Ashgabat are worried about the latest pet culling campaign in the city ahead of this celebration, that will include a dog beauty contest, breeding rewards and other events that draw more attention than usual to animal rights issues. Last week, municipal officials entered  residential buildings tossing poisonous foods that are supposed to kill stray pets such as dogs and cats. The hunting and overall abuse of dogs often occurs in Turkmenistan, sometimes including cruel acts such as beating dogs and puppies in front of children. Alabai dogs remain untouched by this, as this dog is protected by Turkmen law as ‘national heritage’. As a result, the popular image portraying President Berdymukhammadov caring for the Alabai puppy in his arms seems not to reveal the real image of a ‘dog caring’ leader after all.

22 sentenced over border clashes in Uzbekistan. A court in eastern Uzbekistan found 22 people guilty of involvement in violent clashes which erupted last year between the inhabitants of Uzbekistan’s Sokh exclave and the Kyrgyz population of the surrounding areas. Two of the defendants were sentenced to five years in prison, with the others given milder sentences. Last year’s unrest started due a dispute between the residents of Kyrgyz village Chechme and Uzbek village Chashma over the ownership of a spring. As a result, 187 Uzbeks were hospitalized, including three people with gunshot wounds, while on the Kyrgyz side 25 were reported injured and 4 hospitalised. When the then-governor visited Sokh, he was reportedly attacked and pelted with stones. The clashes prompted visits from both Uzbekistan’s Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Sokh is one of several exclaves in the region facing tensions as a result of disputed borders.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Louise Guillon, Mida Medjedovic, Kristin Aldag, Ricardo Bergmann, Vira Kompaniiets, Charles Fourmi, Ryan Patterson, Tijs van de Vijver, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Thapanee Tubnonghee and Kristina Pitalskaya
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