Lossi 36 Weekly #13: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia8 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 12 April 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
Plane “full of returning POWs” arrives in Yerevan from Baku, empty. On the evening of 8 April, after numerous Armenian government officials had announced that 25 Armenian prisoners of last year’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh would be returned from Azerbaijan, dozens of families gathered at Yerevan’s Erebuni airport to meet the arrivals. However, when the Russian military plane landed, it soon became clear that it was empty, with only one passenger, head of Russian peacekeeping contingent Rustam Muradov. The following day, angry families of those still missing gathered in front of Armenia’s Ministry of Defence demanding answers, leading some officials to be evacuated by helicopter. Answers came soon after when Armenian journalists confronted Muradov at his hotel, with the lieutenant reply that claims of prisoners to be returned were “lies and provocations”. Deputy Speaker of Armenia Alen Simonyan later confessed to a bizarre case of wishful thinking on the part of officials, commenting that “there were no agreements, we just hoped, as every day, that the flight would bring good news”. Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of still holding around 230 prisoners of war, while Azerbaijan only claims to be holding 62, all of whom were captured since the ceasefire in November 2020 on terrorism charges.
In the Balkans…
UN calls for prompt action on Bosnia-Croatia migrant crisis. On 5 April, the United Nations Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina called for prompt action to stop the forced return and collective expulsion of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants along the Croatian border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The call comes after last week’s incident when 50 visibly exhausted and injured men were observed on the border. Many complained of being subjected to illegal return and violence from Croatian border police. Croatian authorities have repeatedly denied using physical force against migrants trying to reach Bosnia. According to reports conducted by the United Nations and domestic NGOs, thousands of migrants have been stopped in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thwarted in their goal of reaching Western Europe throughout Croatia. The UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina noted that return and collective expulsions are prohibited under international and European Union law.
European Parliament-backed mediation squeezed out of Interparty dialogue in Serbia. Following the parliamentary election boycott in June 2020 by seven opposition parties, the European Parliament launched the second phase of the EU-mediated Inter-party dialogue to “support the improvement of the culture of consensus-building and dialogue inside the Assembly” and avoid a new political crisis during the forthcoming 2022 presidential election. Yet, the initiative has been slow to set up and some Eurosceptic parties deem the initiative to be a serious violation of Serbia’s sovereignty. In response, the President of Serbia’s National Assembly, Ivica Dačić, announced on 6 April the start of the second lane of talks without the EP mediation. For the Freedom and Justice Party, the sovereignty argument is largely a window-dressing measure to create a parallel dialogue with government allies only, excluding the boycotting opposition.
In the Caucasus…
EU expresses discontent with Georgian inter-party negotiations. As EU-facilitated negotiations to solve the political crisis in Georgia continue to stagnate, numerous MEPs have declared their dissatisfaction with the process, in particular the lack of cooperation from both the governing and opposition parties. In a letter penned by seven MEPs but supported by more, repercussions have been threatened, including the ceasing of disbursements. This threat was again named as a possible course of action after the parliament failed to take note of the Venice Commission opinion on supreme court law reform.
As the feminist movement emerges in Azerbaijan, a wave of digital attacks against women sends worrying signals. In the month following the government crackdown on an International Women’s Day rally held by Azerbaijani feminists on 8 March, a series of digital attacks and smear campaigns targeting female individuals has been observed. A couple of days before the demonstration, which was quickly dispersed with 25 arrested, a feminist collective had organised an online concert featuring feminist protest songs. Since then, several of these activists have had their social media profiles hacked, personal data stolen and intimate videos shared online. Additionally, the family members of opposition figures, including the sister of blogger Mahammad Marzili and the daughter of opposition politician Jamil Hasanli, have been victims of online sexual blackmail. Given the context of impunity and high political stigmatisation of feminists, some consider these attacks as new governmental tactics to gag the nascent feminist movement.
In Central Europe…
Lithuania observes Holocaust commemoration. On Thursday, April 8, approximately eighty years since the beginning of the Holocaust, the approximately 70,000 Jews that were killed in Paneriai during the Holocaust were commemorated by members of the local Jewish community, foreign diplomats, Lithuanian politicians, and Vilnius Ghetto survivors. COVID-restrictions impacted the traditional March from the Paneriai Railway Station to the Paneriai Memorial, following the same route the victims took. The Paneriai site is currently home to a museum and a memorial complex.
Chinese Defence Minister rounds up official visits to Central and Eastern Europe. In late March, China’s National Defence Minister and State Councilor, General Wei Fenghe, made low-key official visits to several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as he met Hungarian, Serbian, Greek, and North Macedonian presidents and defence ministers. The meeting agenda revolved around the strengthening of strategic partnerships in areas such as cooperation in fighting against Covid-19, bilateral defence cooperation, as well as ambitious multilateral projects including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-CEEC format. It is worth noting that all four countries, largely seen as having warm relations with China, have adopted and intensively endorsed the Chinese vaccines. The visits have threatened to create tension in the EU and NATO. Some have interpreted these diplomatic overtures as China’s response to the EU moves in the South China Sea.
In Eastern Europe…
Three new parties enter Bulgarian Parliament following elections. GERB, the ruling party of the long-time Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, expectedly won the parliamentary elections held on 4 April. However, the party lost about a quarter of its votes from the last elections in 2017, allowing for the entrance into parliament of three new parties. The newly formed party led by the popular talk show host Slavi Trifonov – “There is Such a People” – surprisingly came second while the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s result collapsed to just over 15% compared to nearly 28% in 2017. Besides the Turkey-backed Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which received an unchanged result, two more parties got seats in the National Assembly: the right-liberal “Democratic Bulgaria” and the coalition led the former ombudswomen Maya Manolova – “Stand Up! Mafia, Get Out!”, both of which were formed recently.
President Zelenskyy calls for speeding up NATO membership amid tensions with Russia. In phone calls with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for speeding up Ukraine’s NATO accession process as tensions over Russian military build-up at Ukraine’s eastern border continued to rise. During his call with Stoltenberg, Zelenskyy said that “NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas,” and added that obtaining a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine, the roadmap to NATO membership, would be “a real signal for Russia.” In a reaction on Twitter, Stoltenberg expressed NATO’s support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity but did not address Zelenskyy’s call for a Membership Action Plan. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki did note that the U.S. has been discussing NATO membership with Ukraine, but added that “that is a decision for NATO to make.” Zelenskyy’s push for NATO membership comes as new reports claim that troops from different regions in Russia are moving towards the Ukrainian border.
In Russia and Central Asia…
Outdated bride-kidnapping practice in Kyrgyzstan claims new victim. The murder of Aizada Kanatbekova, a 26-year-old Kyrgyz woman, sparked widespread protest in the country over the controversial practice of “bride kidnapping”. According to the traditions of the practice, men kidnap the woman they want to marry and coerce her into marrying them. Aizda Kanatbekova was kidnapped on April 5 by such a man, and on April 7, her lifeless body was found in his car. This murder sparked anger as bride kidnapping has been officially illegal since 2013, but the police have been reluctant to act on the practice. Kanatbekova is unfortunately not the only victim of this practice and other women have suffered a similar fate in the country.
Alexei Navalny’s health condition assessed to carry risk of death. Alexei Navalny, prominent opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is in a critical state as his health continues to decline dramatically in prison. Navalny declared a hunger strike on 31 March, in a protest over the prison officials’ failure to give him proper medical care for severe pain in his back and his right leg. Navalny’s temperature was recently recorded as 38.1 degrees Celsius (100.6 Fahrenheit) and he had a severe cough. There was suspicion that Navalny could contract COVID-19 considering the conditions he was put in, however, his first test was negative, and he was then suspected of having contracted tuberculosis instead. His personal doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, tried to meet him several times to discuss his condition and medical treatment, however, was turned away by police. Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, claimed that the Russian authorities may be placing the opposition leader into a situation of slow death, where no one truly knows what is happening to Navalny.