Lossi 36 Weekly #17: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

 In News

This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 17 May 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.

This Week’s Special

School shooting tragedy in Kazan prompts Russia to tighten gun rules. President Vladimir Putin ordered a review of Russia’s gun laws after the 11 May school shooting tragedy at the School №175 in Kazan. A 19-year-old man, Ilnaz Galyaviev, was arrested, accused of killing nine people – seven pupils and two staff members – with dozens more wounded. This attack is the deadliest of its kind since the Kerch school shooting in 2018 and the Beslan school siege in 2004. Even though school shootings are relatively rare in Russia, issues remain such as poorly-guarded schools, a lack of data collection on gun owners and sales, cursory medical checks, the proliferation of Russian-made “traumatic” guns. Easy access to gun ownership, superficial psychological checks, a large black market in guns, lack of school security financing – all these factors enable school shootings to happen at the price of the safety and security of Russian citizens. National Guard head Viktor Zolotov proposed several solutions like raising the minimum age of gun possession from 18 to 21, developing better psychological tests for those seeking to obtain a firearm, issuing medical certificates for gun owners in state hospitals only, etc. Similar propositions were made after the Kerch school shooting but were never implemented.

In the Balkans…

Final verdict in Mladic trial expected soon. After exhausting all appeal options, former Bosnian-Serb colonel-general Ratko Mladic is scheduled to appear at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals on June 8. Mladic, aged 79, was convicted for genocide and other war crimes around the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica by the IRMCT in 2017, sentencing him to life in prison. Last August, Mladic appealed, calling for an acquittal on all counts. The presentation of appeals was postponed twice due to COVID and Mladic’s ill-health. The verdict comes amongst an alarming increase in the glorification of war criminals across Bosnia, especially in the Serb controlled Republika Srpska. A guilty verdict, while providing long-awaited justice for victims of the Bosnian War, could lead to inflamed ethnic tensions across the region.

Montenegro amends Law on the State Prosecutor’s Office. Montenegro adopted amendments to the Law on the State Prosecutor’s Office, including the termination of current members’ mandate in the Prosecutorial Council. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which was consulted twice during the process, praised the progress made since March but warned of a possible politicization of the Prosecutorial Council. European Union spokesperson Ana Pisonero Hernandez emphasized the need for further progress in reforming the rule of law and the need for inter-party dialogue on key upcoming appointments in the judiciary. The rapporteur of the European Parliament for Montenegro, Tonino Picula, welcomed the amendments for paving the way for an independent judiciary.

North Macedonia accelerates mass vaccination with Chinese help. North Macedonia is expanding its mass vaccination efforts against Covid-19 with 800,000 doses of Chinese vaccines. China delivered 200,000 Sinopharm vaccines in April and a donation of 100,000 doses last week. An additional 500,000 Sinovac doses are expected to arrive from China this month, along with 26,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses as part of Covax. North Macedonia has struggled to fulfil its vaccination ambitions since it began in February: only 60,000 people out of the desired 2 million had received a jab by April. Macedonian Health Minister Venko Filipce thinks that the incoming vaccines will change the epidemiological picture in the country, while Defense Minister Sekerinska said China’s help is coming at the right time. The Chinese Ambassador in Skopje added that China’s 100,000 doses in donation are proof that China supports the Macedonian people in such times of pandemic. 

In the Caucasus…

Armenia appeals to allies amid escalation of border tensions with Azerbaijan. During a phone call held on May 13, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would appeal to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in light of Azerbaijan failing to withdraw its troops from Armenian territory. On the same day, Pashinyan instructed Armenian Foreign and Defense Ministers to address the organisation and invoke Article 2 of the Collective Security Treaty, which requires member states to immediately launch a “mechanism of joint consultations” when a member state is facing “menace” to its territorial integrity. Armenia has been a member of the CSTO since its foundation in 1992, however, this is the first time the Armenian authorities have decided to appeal to the organisation for help. Azerbaijan denies Armenia’s accusations, claiming that its troops are on the Azerbaijani side of the border, and alleging that Armenia’s provocative statements are political tools used in the context of next month’s parliamentary elections.

Georgian opposition party leader freed after EU posts bail. Nika Melia, leader of United National Movement, Georgia’s largest opposition party, was freed on 10 May, after having spent three months in Tbilisi’s Rustavi prison charged with inciting political violence in 2019. After having initially refused offers of bail in protest over what he described as a politically motivated arrest, Melia finally accepted the offer of the European Union to pay what amounted to around $11,000 in bail. Melia’s imprisonment became a point of constant disagreement between government and opposition in the political crisis that has hung in the air since last year’s parliamentary elections, with many opposition MPs still refusing to re-enter parliament. In an interview with RFE/RL, Melia said that he will not take the decision to return to parliament lightly, given “Vladimir Putin’s huge influence on our geopolitical context”, while also arguing that former President Mikheil Saakashvili should be allowed to return to Georgia from exile.

In Central Asia…

Uzbek anti-corruption blogger sentenced to 6,5 years in prison. On 10 May, Uzbek blogger Otabek Sattoriy received a 6,5-year prison sentence on charges of libel and extortion. Sattoriy, who is known for his coverage of local corruption in Uzbekistan on his Telegram and YouTube channels, denied the accusations and claimed that the charges were “based on lies.” Sattoriy’s conviction drew sharp criticism from international human rights organisations, with Human Rights Watch calling the conviction “a miscarriage of justice and a blow to freedom of speech in Uzbekistan.” In a statement on Twitter, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs responded: “We join those in Uzbekistan [and] the international community to express our concern about recent cases involving bloggers and urge authorities to respect media freedom.”.

Turkmen president offers amnesty to prison inmates and Jehovah Witnesses. After the Night of Revelation between May 8-9, a special event occurring toward the end of Ramadan, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov pardoned a total of 1,053 prison inmates this year. While the release of prisoners is a tradition dating back to the President’s predecessor, the decision to release a group of 16 Jehovah Witnesses has come as a surprise for a country known for its lack of religious freedom. A recent US government report places Turkmenistan among the countries of most particular concern worldwide, highlighting the problems faced by the country’s Jehovah Witnesses’ community, whose young men systematically refuse to do Turkmenistan’s mandatory 2-year military service. Individuals refusing to serve in the military are usually assigned instead to labour camps. 

In Central Europe…

Another Czech minister accused of hiding income – Petr Arenberger is the fourth minister of health in Andrej Babiš’s government and is also the fourth to hold the unstable post during the pandemic. A bigger problem than his low popularity is the accusation that Arenberger is hiding millions in revenue on his tax returns. The minister had worked as a hospital director and ran clinical studies for pharmaceutical drugs for over a decade before he became minister of health. As a public figure, he is required to disclose his income, but according to Seznam Zprávy, he conducted the mentioned services on a trade license, claiming they were for cosmetic services. He also claimed that his studies have been unprofitable, but according to Seznam Zpravy, contracting authorities have donated to the research and the providing firm gained financial rewards. After the publication of the investigative reports, Arenberger published a tax declaration detailing a secondary income of around 30 million crowns and 65 properties.  

Poland’s Supreme Audit Office (NIK) slams last year’s election debacle – Last Thursday, NIK published a damning report on wasted voting ballots printed ahead of last year’s presidential election without the parliament’s approval. Back then, in a push to hold the election in May, the Polish government had ordered the Polish Security Printing Works (PWPW) to print the ballots while the discussions on the final date of the election were still ongoing. The date was finally set for June and the ballots, which had cost around 16.7 million euros, went to waste. The head of NIK Marian Banaś stated that the government and the heads of PWPW and the Polish Post had had no legal basis for printing the ballots. Banaś, despite having been nominated for his current post by the ruling Law and Justice party, has been involved in a bitter feud with the authorities and is speculated to use the report’s conclusions as leverage against them. 

V4 foreign ministers discuss a Central European travel bubble – On May 14, the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Group (V4) met for the seventh time under Poland’s presidency at the Herbst Palace in Łódź, Poland. The discussion revolved around the priorities of Poland’s presidency and the common agenda of security cooperation with NATO, consultations with countries of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership, joint economic cooperation, and climate policy. The ministers also discussed travel possibilities in the upcoming season, as the countries accelerated vaccination programs and started easing the lockdown. Vaccinated Czechs and Hungarians can currently visit each other’s countries. A day before the V4 met, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó attended a meeting with his counterparts from Austria, Czechia, Slovakia, and Slovenia, where easing travel restrictions was one of the key themes of discussion.

In Eastern Europe…

Kremlin-linked Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk charged with high treason. The Prosecutor General of the Kyiv Pechersk court formally charged the pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk with high treason on Tuesday, after months of legal moves against him. Medvedchuk, who is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is the de-facto leader of the main pro-Russian political party “For Life-Opposition Platform”, and one of Ukraine’s richest oligarchs. Ukrainian security forces (SBU) reportedly raided his Kyiv residence and office early Tuesday, while Medvedchuk himself was placed under house arrest, despite prosecutors initially requesting he be arrested or post a 300 million hryvnia bail (roughly 10 million USD). The oligarch is rumoured to have financial ties to Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas, as well as financial interests in Russian-occupied Crimea, with the Kyiv Post labelling him as “the undisputed leader of Russia’s fifth column in Ukraine.” The high treason charges come after months of moves against pro-Russian individuals in Ukraine, including the forced closure of three pro-Russian Ukrainian television channels believed to be owned by Medvedchuk. The oligarch denies all of the accusations, calling the charges “political repression”.

Bulgarian interim government upholds veto on North Macedonian EU accession. Bulgaria’s interim government declared that it would stick to Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks with the European Union, Reuters reports. Following criticism from several EU member states, Bulgaria’s ambassador to the EU Dimitar Tzantchev has sought to justify Sofia’s stance by arguing that North Macedonia should not be allowed to join the European Union “without giving up its communist-era state-building ideology”. Bulgaria also wants North Macedonia to end its ‘anti-Bulgarian rhetoric and to acknowledge the two countries’ shared historical and linguistic roots. Commentators have warned that Sofia’s veto may call the credibility of the European enlargement process into question. Following earlier disputes (and, eventually, agreements) with Greece and Bulgaria itself, Sofia’s current veto amounts to the third instance of North Macedonia’s European path being stopped in its tracks.

In Russia…

Kadyrov again oversteps in foreign policy. In response to clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has demanded an apology from Israel’s leaders. This is only the latest of many instances where Kadyrov has provided his own foreign policy beyond the scope granted to him by the Kremlin to liaise with states with Muslim majorities, primarily the Gulf States and Egypt. However, Kadyrov has repeatedly gone rogue over the past year. In July 2020, he demanded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky apologize for a 2014 video that featured the head of Chechnya crying. Zelensky had previously apologized in October 2014, but Kadyrov wanted confirmation. More prominently, Kadyrov criticized the French authorities for their response to the Samuel Paty murder. The Chechen leader, already running an essentially autonomous state, seems to be desiring even more freedom from Moscow, now in the foreign policy sphere.

Russia threatens imminent withdrawal from OST. On 11 May, Vladimir Putin officially submitted the bill that – if approved by the Duma – could withdraw Russia from the Open Skies Treaty (OST), which, since 2002, allows member states to carry unarmed surveillance flights over participants’ territories in order to build mutual trust between the members involved. Leonid Slutsky, chairman of Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, stated that all procedures to exit the pact are to be concluded by the end of May. According to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, this decision originates from the threat posed to Russia’s security by the withdrawal of the United States from the pact in 2020 – itself over alleged Russian failures to comply with the treaty – who could still retrieve strategic information on Russia through their NATO allies in the treaty. The Biden administration had the chance to prevent the US from withdrawing in November, but, as the possibility of the US return to the treaty faded, Russia’s reciprocal exit from OST was all but certain.

Thank you to this week’s contributors:  Karolína Šugarová, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Mina Medjedovic, Naser Bislimi, Megan McCullough, Roxana Chiriac, Qianrui Hu,  Vira Kompaniiets, Charles Fourmi, Boris Kowalski, Harold Chambers,  Rachele Colombo, and Tijs van de Vijver
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