Lossi 36 Weekly #16: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 10 May 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

This Week’s Special

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan agree to new ceasefire after border clashes. Fighting between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on a scale not seen in years broke out on 28 April over a long-disputed border area. The incident reportedly began after Tajik officials set up cameras to monitor a water supply facility near the Kyrgyz village of Kök-Tash in the Leilek district. As a result, at least 55 people were killed and more than 33,000 civilians evacuated. 

Both nations laid claim to these areas after they gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. A large part of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border remains unmarked to this day, fuelling disputes over land, water and pastures.

Both countries are members of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization and both host Russian military bases. Moscow and neighbouring Uzbekistan offered to mediate and help negotiate a lasting resolution. Tajik and Kyrgyz national security chiefs agreed to a cease-fire on 1 May, leaving the primary dispute unresolved. On the same day, Kyrgyzstan said that its death toll had risen from 31 to 33, with over a 100 other Kyrgyz injured and at least 30 properties destroyed. Tajikistan has not officially acknowledged any deaths or damage from the conflict.

In the Balkans…

Edi Rama and the Albanian Socialist Party secure third mandate. The Albanian Central Election Commission has announced the victory of the Socialist Party and its leader Edi Rama, following parliamentary elections on 25 April. Rama has secured his third mandate, winning 74 of 140 seats – the same result as the one obtained by the Socialist Party four years ago. While the main opposition center-right Democratic Party obtained 39% of the votes, with 56 seats, its ally, the Socialist Movement for Integration, captured only 7% of the ballots. In spite of a tense campaign with brief outbursts of violence, the election day proceeded calmly. Addressing the nation, Rama stressed his goals of ensuring the growth of the tourism and digital services sectors. EU officials have urged the new parliament to pursue the country’s reform agenda, paying special attention to rule of law, in light of possible EU membership.

Commissioner Varhelyi visits Montenegro as first EU-funded COVID-19 vaccines arrive. European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi visited Montenegro on 4 May, on the occasion of the first delivery of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines financed by the European Union. Varhelyi said that he was travelling to the Western Balkans to convey “a message that the EU cares about its partners.” In addition to the health situation, the Commissioner’s visit also involved discussions on prosecutorial laws, Montenegro’s upcoming Agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Chinese highway loan which has recently plunged the country into a debt crisis. Varhelyi once again stressed the importance of the new methodology of accession negotiations, saying that the EU expected progress from Montenegro in the area of rule of law and was closely monitoring developments regarding the prosecutorial law. The Commissioner also declared that the EU was considering helping Montenegro deal with the difficulties which had arisen in light of the country’s inability to pay off the highway loan.

Kurti’s first visit to Brussels ends with no firm date for Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. During his first international trip abroad, Albin Kurti, Kosovo’s newly-elected prime minister, failed to commit to resuming the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue on 11 May, as previously scheduled by the EU. Kurti justified his position by explaining that the meeting had not been agreed upon by the parties involved. He added that he was in favour of continuing the dialogue, but only after the necessary preparation was completed. Kurti’s stance is in contrast to the approach taken by the Serbian president, Aleksander Vučić, who had agreed on resuming the talks in the coming days. During the two-day meeting in Brussels, Kurti stressed that to have a successful dialogue between the two parties, Serbia would have to accept “the truth and the crimes and the genocide it committed”. The dialogue is now expected to resume in June, but the exact date is still to be decided.

In the Caucasus…

Georgian forces conduct multiple drills with allies. On 3 May, Georgian special operations forces launched “Trojan Footprint 21” exercises, alongside several NATO allies. Georgia hosts the exercises together with Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Romania, with additional troops from Germany, Spain, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States also participating. Meanwhile, Georgian and American Coast Guard units performed drills around Poti and Batumi for the first time since 2008. The exercises indicate an increased importance of the Black Sea region, as they constitute the first major regional exercises of the Biden administration, and come amid renewed tensions between Russia and Georgia and Ukraine. In Georgia, these tensions manifested themselves in South Ossetian borders being pushed closer to the E-60 highway, which is the only east-west route in Georgia linking Tbilisi to the sea, thus being crucial for moving goods and military units across the country. The latest borderisation efforts took place in Dirbi and Khurvaleti.

Azerbaijan criticises Biden’s recognition of Armenian genocide. Azerbaijani authorities condemned Joe Biden’s recent recognition of the 1915-1917 Armenian genocide, framing it as a “so-called and fake Armenian genocide”. In a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called this decision a historic mistake and emphasised his continued support for the position of Turkey. Aliyev repeatedly underlined that any step against Turkey would be an action against Azerbaijan, and vice versa. This stance is supported by some Azerbaijani MPs and reportedly by some, albeit unidentified, Azerbaijani NGOs, which are quoted as saying that Biden’s statement “does not have any historical, legal, and political basis” and that “historical facts confirm that no genocide was recorded in Anatolia during this period”.

“Restoration works” at a cathedral in Nagorno-Karabakh cause a spat between Armenia and Azerbaijan. A footage showing what appears to be reconstruction works at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral situated in Shusha (Armenian: Shushi) has sparked tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Azerbaijani officials stated that the cathedral was undergoing “restoration works”, Armenian authorities accuse Azerbaijan of destroying Armenian heritage at the religious site. In Armenia and among Karabakh Armenians, the case is perceived as another proof of the intended, systematic destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in the area which became part of Azerbaijan after the 44-day Nagorno-Karabakh war last year. 

In Central Asia…

Turkey and Kazakhstan sign a new military cooperation plan. On May 4, Kazakhstan and Turkey signed a new military cooperation plan for 2021. Under this new plan, the two countries are set to hold seventeen events on the theme of regional security. In 1991, Turkey was the first country to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence, and the two countries have, over the years, worked to develop a strong and stable diplomatic relation. The renewed military cooperation is the result of this closening diplomatic relationship.

Uzbekistan cracks down on LGBTQ+ activists, puts local blogger under house arrest. In Uzbekistan, a criminal case was opened against blogger Miraziz Bazarov, who has spoken out for LGBTQ+ rights and who has criticized President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. In late April, a court sentenced Bazarov to house arrest and banned him from communicating with anyone. The criminal case against the blogger was initiated on April 22 on the grounds of slander and insult following Bazarov’s TikTok last year, in which he openly critiqued the Uzbekistani school system. On March 28, the blogger was beaten by unknown persons, leading to severe internal injuries, an open fracture of his left leg, and a concussion. Before his discharge on April 28, Bazarov spent a month at the hospital recovering from the attack. If he is found guilty, Bazarov could spend up to three years in jail.

In Central Europe…

Recovery fund approved by the Polish parliament despite a rift in the ruling coalition. On 4 May, Poland ratified the EU’s Own Resources Decision, with 290 MPs in favor, 33 against and 133 abstaining. The ratification represents a necessary step for Member States to gain access to the Next Generation EU funds. Last month, conflicting opinions on the ratification emerged within the ruling coalition, despite Poland being among the highest beneficiaries of the funds, with around EUR 58 billion being provided to the country. Disagreements arose between the Law and Justice and United Poland parties, with the latter opposing the EU recovery package. The party justified its stance by referring to the hotly debated rule of law conditionality. The ratification of the Own Resources Decision was finally achieved thanks to the support provided by the opposition Left party. The decision now needs to be approved by the Polish Senate. 

Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamaček accused of trading Vrbětice in return for vaccines. Two weeks after Czech PM Andrej Babiš and Interior Minister Jan Hamaček disclosed information about the 2014 Russian military intelligence attack on the Vrbětice ammunition depot, Hamaček’s motivations behind a scheduled trip to Moscow were called into question by Seznam Zprávy journalists. Hamaček publicly stated that he was going to Russia to negotiate Sputnik V vaccine shipments, but he allegedly confided to Czech national security officials and diplomats that he would in fact go to Moscow to broker a Russian vaccine shipment in return for brushing the Vrbětice attack under the carpet before it turned into a national scandal. Hamaček also hoped for an agreement on the Czech Republic hosting a meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The minister has received criticism from across the country, as well as from Russia, but he has denied the allegations and intends to file a defamation complaint.

In Eastern Europe…

In a bid to end political deadlock, Moldovan President Sandu dissolves parliament. On April 28, Moldovan President Maia Sandu dissolved parliament, calling for snap elections that will be held on July 11. Sandu stated that “Moldovans can now elect their next leadership. They are no longer hostages to predatory interests.” The move follows months of political deadlock between the President and parliament, which is dominated by former President Dodon’s Socialist Party. Since Ion Chicu resigned as Prime Minister in December 2020, parliament rejected both Sandu’s proposed prime ministers. These rejections allowed Sandu to appeal to Moldova’s Constitutional Court to confirm the snap elections in order to break the stalemate. While Sandu and her political allies hope that new elections will allow for a more pro-Western majority to emerge in the parliament, Dodon and his party have rejected the Court’s ruling.

Bulgaria expels another Russian diplomat over arms depot explosions. On April 29, the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Bulgaria will expel another Russian diplomat. The decision follows prosecutors’ suspicion of Russian involvement in four explosions at Bulgarian arms depots. Following recent developments in Czechia, a former Bulgarian defence minister called for the reopening of investigations into unexplained blasts at Bulgarian weapon plants in 2014 and 2015, with new evidence indicating strong suspicion of Russian involvement. On April 28, the Russian envoy was summoned to the Bulgarian Foreign ministry. That same day, a spokeswoman for the Bulgarian Prosecutor-General’s Office reasserted the plausibility of the connection between the explosions in Bulgaria, the explosion in Czechia, and the poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer in 2015, which can be understood as a Russian attempt to cut off supplies to Georgia and Ukraine. 

Zelenskyy’s visit to Poland: Ukraine’s European integration aspirations. On May 3, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a working visit to Poland, where he participated in the festivities marking the 230th anniversary of Poland’s Constitution of 3 May 1791. Zelenskyy congratulated Polish President Duda and discussed the strategic partnership between the two countries. Duda stressed his support for Ukraine’s European integration aspirations and reasserted Poland’s refusal to acknowledge the occupation of Crimea. The festivities were attended by Estonian President Kaljulaid, Lithuanian President Nausėda, and Latvian President Levits as well. The Presidents expressed their strong support of Ukraine on its path to the European Union and signed a joint declaration. At the end of the meeting, Zelenskyy also invited the President and First Lady of Poland to participate in the Crimea Platform Summit, which is linked to the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence this August.

In Russia…

Judicial crackdown on Navalny’s organizations. On April 26, Russian prosecutors requested the Moscow city court to put an immediate halt to all public activities of Navalny’s Headquarters, a nongovernmental group run by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On May 17, the court will decide whether to add Navalny’s Headquarters, Anti-Corruption Foundation FBK, and the Foundation for Defending Citizen’s Rights to the list of extremist organisations, which would put them on par with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Anyone in charge of an extremist organization could face up to ten years in prison. Prosecutors argued that ‘under the guise of liberal slogans, these organisations are shaping conditions for a destabilization of the social and political situation.’ On April 30, Russia’s financial watchdog Rosfinmonitoring added FBK to its list of extremist and terrorist organisations, without waiting for the outcome of the court ruling.

Online media outlet Meduza declared ‘foreign agent’ by the Russian government. On April 23, Russian independent news website Meduza was designated as a so-called ‘foreign agent.’ The 2012 ‘foreign agent’ law targets foreign-funded people and organizations that participate in Russia’s political life and that share news material in Russian. So far, the only significant news outlet included in the list was Radio Svoboda, which is indeed funded by a foreign (US) government. Meduza, on the other hand, was founded by a group of independent Russian journalists in 2014 and mostly depends on ad revenue. After its inclusion on the list of ‘foreign agents,’ Meduza lost most of its revenue, having to close offices and drastically cut salaries. With a readership of 13 million people, this is the first time a popular independent news website is labelled a “foreign agent” – a dangerous precedent for all Russian independent media outlets.

Thank you to this week’s contributors:  Myriam Marino, Xhorxhina Molla, Caterina Barbi, Nina Vukoslavcevic, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Qianrui Hu,  Vira Kompaniiets, Charles Fourmi, Ricardo Bergmann, Kristin Aldag, Harold Chambers,  Evguenia Roussel, Kristina Pitalskaya, Aizada Aystanbek, Kirsty Dick, Martina Bergamaschi, and Tijs van de Vijver
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