Lossi 36 Weekly #14: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 19 April 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

This Week’s Special

Navalny “days away from death”; new protests announced as FBK threatened with “extremist” label. Alexei Navalny’s doctors and lawyers have sounded an urgent alarm regarding the health of the Russian opposition politician, who is now in the third week of his hunger strike in prison. Of particular concern have been the results of a recent blood test, passed on by Navalny’s family to his physicians on Saturday, which show heightened levels of potassium and creatinine, which carry serious risks of cardiac arrest and kidney failure respectively. Physician Yaroslav Ashikhmin wrote that in his current state, Navalny could die “at any minute”. Both the EU and the US, which placed new sanctions on Russia on 16 April over election interference, have threatened unspecified consequences if Navalny dies in prison, and have called for his immediate treatment. Meanwhile, the regime crackdown on Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (Russian: FBK) has intensified. On 16 April, the Moscow prosecutor’s office announced that it plans to designate FBK and Navalny’s regional branches as “extremist groups”, in a move that could lead to the rapid liquidation of the organisation along with all assets and key personnel. In response to the week’s events, senior Navalny associates Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov posted a video on 18 April calling for a new country-wide protest on Wednesday 21 April.

In the Balkans…

EU rejects Montenegrin request for China debt relief. The European Union has rejected Montenegro’s request for help in repaying the Chinese loan of $1 billion for the unfinished highway, which has plunged the country into a debt crisis. Over the past weeks, Senior Montenegrin officials asked the EU to help to repay the loan that sheds light on China’s influence in the Western Balkans and accounts for a quarter of the country’s total debt, but Brussels rejected the request on the 14th of April. The public address states that the EU is already the largest provider of financial assistance to Montenegro, its largest investor, and its largest trade partner, but the EU will not repay loans from third parties. This further heats the debate on Chinese investments and the debt that Chinese investments may bring to the country, because of the risk of macroeconomic imbalances and debt dependence they bring.

Drug trafficking hunt sees Macedonian police commander arrested. In a major anti-drug trafficking action carried out by the Macedonian authorities and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), 200 kilograms of marijuana worth €800.000 was caught. The police action was carried out on the road between Prilep and Rosoman, where police teams intercepted an Audi A8 with the commander of the Prilep police station and a companion. Both were detained for involvement in organized crime. During a press conference, Dimche Arsovski, spokesperson for opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, stated that the detained commander of the Prilep police station has close links to PM Zoran Zaev and Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski, while the person accompanying the commander used to works as Zoran Zaev’s cousin’s driver. Zaev’s party responded by dismissing any involvement of the Zaev family with the case, and accused the opposition of spreading fake news of an ongoing investigation. The seized marijuana was packed in forty cardboard boxes with 400 polyethylene packages and was being transported by a van.  

Divisive final report of the truth-seeking International Commission of Inquiry on Sufferings of Serbs in Sarajevo – The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Sufferings of Serbs in Sarajevo between 1991 and 1995, established in February 2019 by the Republika Srpska, issued a final but very controversial 1250-page report on Tuesday 15 April. The report contests the ‘image projected in the West of the Muslims as victims of the “evil Serbs.”’ The Commission has been accused by Turkish media and Bosnian Muslims of spreading Serb national propaganda, distorting the truth and minimizing the crimes the Serbs committed in Srebrenica. Back in 2019, the Commission’s independence was called into question despite the government’s attempt to gather international expertise. Simultaneously, the project law to change the Bosnian criminal code to prohibit the denial of the Srebrenica genocide was rejected by Serb and Croat lawmakers. The Bosniak community is now pushing Valentin Inzko, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, to make full use of his mandate to impose the law.

In the Caucasus…

CoE report on Georgia finds 7 of 16 anti-Corruption recommendations fulfilled. On 12 April, the Council of Europe (CoE) Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) published the second compliance report on Georgia, which was initially adopted in March and subsequently authorised by the Georgian authorities. The report finds that Georgia has implemented 7 of 16 recommendations to prevent corruption among MPs, judges, and prosecutors. Until March 2022, the report expects progress on the remaining nine recommendations, of which  seven have been partly implemented and two remain unaddressed. GRECO was established in 1999 by the Council of Europe to monitor States’ compliance with the organisation’s anti-corruption standards. The GRECO report urges the authorities to take further measures to enhance public trust in the recruitment processes of judges. Georgia currently ranks 45th out of 180 in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International. 

Newly-opened ‘War Trophies Park’ in Baku provokes outrage in Armenia. The new museum on the foreshore of the Azerbaijani capital does not only show military equipment seized during the recent Karabakh war but also grotesque wax mannequins of Armenian soldiers. After the opening of the park by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on April 12, many Armenian officials, journalists and activists from the non-governmental sector expressed their deep disgust about the park’s displays, including pictures showing children choking the Armenian figures. Particular elements of the park, including the figures and a tunnel made out of helmets worn by Armenian soldiers were perceived in Armenia as humiliation and desecration of the killed soldiers. 

In Central Europe…

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal finally rules on the Ombudsman saga. The post, abbreviated as RPO in Poland, has been in limbo since September 2020, when the then RPO Adam Bodnar’s term ended. With the lower house of Parliament controlled by the ruling Law and Justice (PIS) party and the Senate controlled by the opposition, a political stalemate emerged, as each house was blocking the other’s candidates for the next RPO. According to the current legislation this meant that Bodnar, who has repeatedly clashed with PIS authorities, has continued fulfilling his duties beyond his term. Two PIS MPs filed a motion to the Constitutional Tribunal, questioning the constitutionality of the law. After postponing the legal proceedings nine times, on 15 April, the Tribunal declared that the current legislation violated the Constitution, and gave Bodnar three months to leave his post. It also ordered the Parliament to modify the law to account for situations when no successor is elected by the time the RPO’s term ends. Also on 15 April, the lower house approved the candidacy of PIS MP Bartłomiej Wróblewski, who was one of the initiators of the motion which eventually led to an almost complete ban on abortion in Poland. Watch this space…

Czech Government accuses Russia of orchestrating ammunition depot explosion, expels diplomats. On 17 April, in a live television briefing, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis announced that there was “well-grounded suspicion about the involvement of officers of the Russian intelligence service GRU… in the explosion of an ammunition depot in the Vrbetice area.” The explosion, which took place in October 2014, killed two private contractors in the state-owned facility 330km from Prague. In the same announcement, the Czech government promptly moved to expel 18 Russian diplomats from the country, a step that was quickly matched by Russia’s own expulsion of Czech diplomats, and speculation that Russia would close its embassy in Prague. Meanwhile, Czech police announced a search for the Russian intelligence officers involved, with the pictures posted immediately recognisable as those of Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, the GRU officers widely held to have been behind the 2018 poisoning of  Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK.

In Eastern Europe…

Russian troop build-up in Ukraine continues with intentions still unclear. Russia’s continued build-up of military personnel and equipment around Ukraine seems as demonstrative and coercive in nature as the breakdown of the ceasefire along the Donbas frontline, both of which have alarmed Ukraine, the US and the NATO allies. Russian troops shifted several units to Crimea, with movements among the Southern Military District, among others. Intensions remain unclear while continuous fear is visible. As NATO called on Russia to halt its military buildup around Ukraine, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu responded that the ongoing exercise was a response to what he claimed as ‘continuous efforts by the United States and its NATO allies to beef up their forces near Russia’s borders’. He added that the exercise would last for 2 more weeks. Policy analysts speculate the Russian build-up is partly designed to openly threaten Ukraine’s security, while capturing the West’s attention while leaving it guessing about its ultimate intentions. 

Romanian health minister fired by PM over handling of COVID-19. On 14 April, Romanian Prime Minister Florin Citu dismissed the health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. After around 1,000 people took to the streets of Bucharest on 10 April to protest against restrictive measures to fight the spread of COVID-19, the health situation continued to escalate, with Romania having recorded 25,006 deaths since the start of the pandemic. The decision to sack the health minister was believed to have arisen after two fires in COVID-19 wards in recent months, killing at least 15 people, and the death of three COVID-19 patients at the Victor Babeș Hospital in Bucharest after its oxygen supply malfunctioned on 12 April. The final straw came when Voiculescu changed the government’s lockdown restrictions in local areas without informing the PM on Tuesday. Following the dismissal of both the health minister and secretary-of-state for health, Andreea Moldovan, PM Citu stated that such change will strengthen public confidence in state institutions. Dan Barna, the leader of the USR-Plus political alliance, will serve as interim health minister until further notice.

In Russia and Central Asia…

Ramzan Kadyrov’s polygamy revealed in investigation. Last week, investigative journalism platform “Proekt” published an investigative report (in Russian and in English) and a YouTube video detailing Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s marital status – or, to be more precise, statuses. Kadyrov, known to have defended polygamy by referring to Chechen traditions and known to have publicly encouraged the practice, now turns out to be married to a second wife alongside his ‘official’ one – despite Russian Federal Law prohibiting polygamy. Kadyrov’s second wife is Fatima Khazueva, a 30-year-old model who was a runner-up in Chechnya’s first and only beauty pageant in 2006. Kadyrov’s first wife’s property and real estate in Moscow registered in Khazueva’s name have a combined worth of $8 million – more than twice Kadyrov’s declared salary since 2008. Khazueva’s family also benefits from her marriage, with family members receiving donations from the Akhmat Kadyrov Public Foundation to run their private projects. Kadyrov is also rumoured to have a third wife: a Chechen singer and dancer Aminat Akhmadova.

Accused spy returns to Kazakhstan after 17 years in China camp. 58-year-old ethnic Kazakh Raqyzhan Zeinolla has safely returned from China, where he was held since 2004 on espionage charges. His arrest occurred following a regular visit to see relatives in Xinjiang, a region where hundreds of detention facilities and internment camps have been opened by Chinese authorities on the premise of fighting religious extremism. Zeinolla’s wife, Farida Qabylbek, welcomed him at the airport alongside other natives from Xinjiang, carrying signs with the pictures of their own relatives still in custody in China, hoping they would return soon too. Since 2020, Farida had been the lead campaigner to get her husband released, regularly holding peaceful protests in front of the Chinese embassy in Nur-Sultan. The couple expressed hope that ongoing pressure from human rights campaigners and potential sanctions from Western countries can lead to the release of more prisoners.

Constitutional referendum hands Kyrgyz president new powers. In a referendum held on 11 April, a 79 per cent majority of Kyrgyz voters approved constitutional changes that will hand president Sadyr Japarov significant new powers. Although turnout for the referendum was low at only 37 per cent, it passed the necessary threshold of 30 per cent. The constitutional amendments grant new executive powers to the president, most notably the ability to appoint judges and heads of law enforcement agencies, and to call for referenda without parliamentary approval, while also allowing the president to serve two five-year terms instead of the previous single six-year term. The amendments represent a move away from the constitution adopted following the revolution of 2010, which aimed to increase power-sharing between the executive and legislative branches by granting more responsibilities to the Kyrgyz parliament. In the run-up to the referendum, advocacy groups criticised the constitutional amendments for weakening checks and balances and failing to protect fundamental human rights in Kyrgyzstan.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Louise Guillon, Mina Medjedovic, Naser Bislimi, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Kristina Pitalskaya, Kristin Aldag, Ricardo Bergmann, Vira Kompaniiets, Charles Fourmi, Boris Kowalski, Tijs van de Vijver, and Francis Farrell
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