Lossi 36 Weekly #15: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 26 April 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

President Biden officially recognises Armenian genocide. 106 years after the start of what evolved into the mass killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Empire, US President Joe Biden has formally recognised the massacres as a genocide. “Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring”, Biden said in a statement published on the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, celebrated on 24 April. Turkish officials were quick to react, with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stating on Twitter that Turkey “entirely” rejected the statement and that “political opportunism is the greatest betrayal to peace and justice”. Reacting to the news, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that it was “a pity that the US has succumbed to an interest group at the expense of distorting historical facts and alienating a NATO ally”. The recognition comes after decades of Armenian efforts aiming at bringing the US to officially declare the events of 1915 a genocide. Previously, President Ronald Reagan referred to the Armenian genocide on the occasion of a proclamation concerning the Holocaust, without, however, turning it into a formal recognition. President Barack Obama promised to recognise it but failed to act upon this promise during both of his terms, unwilling to anger Ankara.

In the Balkans…

Slovenian non-paper is sowing discord in the Western Balkans. A hypothetical non-paper handed over by Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Janša to the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, on the ‘peaceful dissolution’ of Bosnia Herzegovina has become a source of controversy ahead of Slovenia’s own upcoming EC presidency. According to Bosnian media, Slovenia seeks the “final disintegration of Yugoslavia” by means of border changes not only in BiH, but also in North Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania. Bosnian Serbs have taken advantage of the situation to relaunch, together with Croat and Bosniak representatives, formal discussions over the independence of Republika Srpska and the country’s future. In response to the highly controversial non-paper, President Vućič has remained cautious, the US have categorically rejected the plan, while the EU is requesting further investigation.

EU`s new accession methodology  Serbia and Montenegro. The European Commission’s non paper on the application of new methodology in the accession negotiations was presented to the ambassadors of member states by the European Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi on 17 March. The main message for aspirant members Serbia and Montenegro was that no new chapter will be able be closed before all the transitional criteria concerning the rule of law are met. The European Commission’s (EC) proposal to apply this methodology to Serbia-Montenegro also emphasizes that the EU will maintain and further strengthen its strong focus on fundamental reforms. The new methodology that will be applied envisages negotiations according to the cluster model, which implies the grouping of chapters. This could accelerate the progress of Serbia as it fulfills the conditions and completes all the chapters in a certain cluster; as well as identify accelerated integration measures for Montenegro and Serbia, putting a stronger focus on key sectors of the most important and urgent reforms.

In the Caucasus…

Armenia and Azerbaijan trade accusations of provocations at the border and in Nagorno-Karabakh. On 22 April, the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh authorities accused Azerbaijani soldiers of firing on Stepanakert and the villages of Shosh and Mkhitarashen to create fear among the Armenian inhabitants and to discredit the peacekeeping mission of the Russian forces. The Azerbaijani authorities, for their part, claimed that on 21 April, after the eventful visit of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to the Syunik region, shots were fired at Russian and Azerbaijani forces, which Yerevan subsequently qualified as “absurd” given the strategic partne.ship between Russians and Armenians. These accusations of provocation follow the declarations of the Armenian Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan, according to which Azerbaijani forces fired on Armenian villages, are occupying military positions that have no legal basis and aim to provoke Armenians through signs installed on the road between the towns of Goris and Kapan.

Western-backed mediation plan for Georgian politics begins to stumble over political amnesty. After months of negotiations mediated by high-level EU and US representatives were finally able to produce a deal to steer Georgia out of a seven-month political crisis, a key disagreement still threatens to derail the plan. While enough opposition MPs supported the plan- first released on 18 April- to facilitate an end to the ongoing boycott since parliamentary elections in October last year, the United National Movement still refuses to cooperate. The UNM, the largest opposition party in Georgia, continues to resist over the refusal of the ruling Georgian Dream party to release UNM chair Nika Melia, who was arrested in February for inciting political violence in 2019. Melia’s release is facilitated by the plan through a general political amnesty law; however, that law would still have to be passed through parliament- still boycotted by the opposition- before Melia can be released. Though European Council president and chief mediator Charles Michel has called the larger crisis “resolved”, the question of Melia’s release certainly isn’t.

In Central Europe…

Czech–Russian relations deteriorate further over explosion scandal. Last week, Czech authorities expelled 18 Russian diplomats believed to be intelligence operatives over the suspected GRU role in the 2014 explosion of a munition storage facility. Moscow responded by expelling 20 diplomats of the Czech embassy, who had to leave the country within 24 hours. This response was seen as disproportionately harsh, as the Czech embassy in Moscow had around 60 employees, whereas the Russian embassy in Prague around 140. The Minister of Foreign Affairs subsequently announced that parity would be restored in the diplomatic relations, and thus around 63 Russian diplomats will be expelled by the end of May to match the numbers of Czech diplomats currently in Moscow. Further steps may follow. The EU and NATO released supportive statements. In the meantime, Slovakia expelled three Russian diplomats and the Baltic states expelled four in solidarity with the Czech republic.

Baltic politicians and journalists deceived by deepfake of Navalny chief of staff Volkov. On 21 April, Latvian TV network LTV broadcast a Zoom interview with Leonid Volkov, Russian oppositioner Alexei Navalny’s chief of staff residing in Riga. Volkov himself was quick to respond: it was not he who spoke to LTV, but “pranksters” known as “Lexus” and “Vovan,” known to have pranked pop stars, public figures, and even presidents, and often accused of having ties to the Russian security services. After Volkov’s statement, LTV quickly retracted the interview. Over the following days, it became clear that it wasn’t LTV that was targeted. In March, fake Volkov had spoken to members of Estonia’s, Latvia’s, and Lithuania’s parliamentary foreign affairs committees, but nothing made Latvian MP Rihards Kols think that they were dealing with a fake Volkov. Kols considers the incidents a “painful lesson” that shows that the countries should look for gaps in the system to ensure that nothing like this or worse happens in the future. Later it turned out that the pranksters spoke with Ukrainian, British, and Dutch politicians as well. 

In Eastern Europe…

Zelensky proposes meeting with Putin amid increased tensions. Shortly after Russia amassed (and then announced the withdrawal of) 150,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and in occupied Crimea, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy proposed to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Donbas in an apparent bid to end the war which has killed upwards of 14,000 people over since 2014. In response, Russian President Putin insisted that he would not meet with his Ukrainian counterpart until he first held talks with the so-called DNR and LNR Russian-backed breakaway states in Donbas. Moreover, a spokesman for the Kremlin claimed that Ukrainian President Zelenskiy “[has] taken many steps to destroy bilateral relations with Russia” and that “[President Putin] stood up for the rights of Russians and Russian-speaking citizens.” Despite the apparent push-back from the Kremlin, Ukrainian officials are still trying to revive peace talks, with lead negotiator and first President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk suggesting that talks could be held in a neutral country.

Russia expels two Bulgarian diplomats over spy row. As diplomatic tensions between Russia and Western countries continued to rise, on 20 April Russia expelled two Bulgarian diplomats over an espionage dispute between the two countries. The decision is a response to earlier expulsions of two Russian diplomats from Bulgaria for their alleged involvement in an espionage scheme. In March this year, Bulgarian authorities arrested six people accused of spying for Russia by passing on classified information to the Russian diplomats. The Russian embassy in Sofia at the time dismissed the accusations as “groundless” and “unfounded,” and stated that Russia “reserves the right to retaliate.” In 2020, Bulgaria already expelled five Russian diplomats over accusations of espionage. In response to the latest spying row between the two countries, Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov called on Russia “to stop spying in Bulgaria.” The tensions between Sofia and Moscow come as the U.S. and the Czech Republic saw similar mutual expulsions of diplomats with Russia. 

Parliamentary parties collaborate in attacks on Moldovan justice system, concerns raised. On 23 April, the Socialist Party and the Shor party adopted controversial measures in the Moldovan Parliament, dismissing the President of the Constitutional Court, a decision which has been labelled as a major assault on the justice system; the Socialist Party is led by pro-Russian former  President Igor Dodon, while the Shor Party is led by Ilan Shor, a controversial figure who- according to an investigative report by Kroll- was involved in massive bank fraud that took place in Moldova back in 2015. The recent moves taken by the two parties have generated protests, as well as reactions from the Venice Commission, High Representative Josep Borrell, EC President Ursula von der Leyen, Romanian MEP Siegfried Muresan, and the Romanian, French and German embassies, who all called for the respect of the constitutional order in the country. Furthermore, Moldovan President Maia Sandu asked the General Prosecutor of the country to investigate the Socialists’ actions, highlighting attempts of the opposition regarding the usurpation of state power.

In Russia and Central Asia…

Russia’s political roller coaster comes to abrupt stop, for now. After weeks of tensions caused by Russian troops gathering on the Ukrainian border and Alexei Navalny’s health deteriorating due to hunger strike, last week brought a quick and (luckily) rather uneventful end to both of these issues. Pressure was mounting ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual Address to the Federal Assembly, with many expecting major announcements concerning the breakaway Donbas region, yet the situation in eastern Ukraine was not mentioned even once. Instead, Putin received an enthusiastic applause from the audience when he declared that those who orchestrate “provocations that threaten the core interests of [Russia’s] security will regret what they have done in a way they have not regretted anything for a long time”. However, the next day, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the military exercises taking place in and around the Crimean peninsula had come to an end, and the troops had been ordered to return to their bases. Meanwhile, on the day of Putin’s address, Navalny’s supporters protested across the country to demand his freedom, or, at the very least, access to proper medical care, with the organisers calling it “the final battle between good and neutrality”. In the end, although estimates vary, not more than 50,000 people came out to protest and around 1,700 of them were arrested. Despite the low turnout, on 23 April Navalny announced that he was terminating his hunger strike, citing his doctors’ concerns and the slightly improved medical care he had started to receive.

Tajik Imam arrested on “Salafism” charges. 44-year-old Abdulhaq Obidov was arrested last week in a Dushanbe mosque following statements commemorating Hikmatullo Tojikobodi as “the country’s greatest leader“, as the late Sufi theologian died April 14. Previously quoted saying “Islam does not need a party” , Hikmatullo targeted had criticism toward the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), but also offered praise for Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon. It remains unanswered as to why Obidov was really detained, but some suspect the arrest will be used as a propaganda tool for the country’s new anti-terrorism push. Tajikistan and Iran are launching a new joint military defense committee to enhance cooperation and fight terrorism, in a region where extremism threatens to spread from neighbour Afghanistan, where US troops are soon to withdraw from. According to the latest US Religious Freedom Commision report, Tajikistan and Iran are both countries with particular concerns over religious freedoms.

Kazakhstan launches its own COVID-19 vaccine QazVac. On 23 April, the president of Kazakhstan, Qasym-Jomart Toqayev, announced that the first batch of 50,0000 doses of Kazakhstan’s locally-made COVID-vaccine QazVac had been dispatched to several regions of the country. Vaccinations with QazVac is expected to kick off on 26 April with the second batch of another 50,000 doses to be produced in May. The QazVac is the product of the Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems in Kazakhstan, with bottling and packaging carried out in Turkey Kazakhstan lacks the necessary industrial facilities. The Director-General of the Research Institute for Biological Safety Problems, Kunsulu Zakarya, informed that the third phase of clinical trials is likely to be finished by the 9th of July and that QazVac had 100% efficiency in the first stage of the clinical trials. Kazakhstan is among five countries in the world (the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and India) to have developed its own vaccine against the COVID-19.

Thank you to this week’s contributors:  Zuzana Krulichova, Louise Guillon, Mina Medjedovic, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Roxana Chiriac, Zadig Tisserand,  Vira Kompaniiets, Charles Fourmi, Boris Kowalski, Tijs van de Vijver, and Francis Farrell
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