Lossi 36 Weekly #18: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia9 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 24 May 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This Week’s Special
Belarus forcibly lands passenger airplane to arrest opposition journalist, European leaders in outrage. On 23 May, a Ryanair passenger flight was forcibly landed by Belarusian authorities as it flew from Athens to Vilnius. Onboard the flight was Raman Pratasevich, Belarusian opposition activist and founder of NEXTA.tv, the country’s primary anti-regime outlet, now functioning on Telegram. In an extraordinary turn of events, the plane was notified by Belarusian traffic control of a potential security threat on board, and promptly escorted to land at Minsk airport by a Mig-29 fighter. As revealed by Belarus’ own state media, president Alexander Lukashenko personally gave the order to send the fighter and divert the plane. Six passengers did not board the onward flight to Vilnius: Pratasevich, his girlfriend, and four Russian citizens, leading analysts to suggest that the four were Russian secret service officers. In November of last year, Pratasevich was placed on a list of extremist individuals, and potentially faces the death penalty having now been detained. Harsh reactions from EU leaders and states came almost immediately, with Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis arguing that the incident deems Belarusian airspace “completely unsafe for any commercial flight”. The European Commission is set to hold an emergency meeting on the incident tomorrow.
In the Balkans…
Serbian President Vučić will not sign the law on Same-Sex unions. After months of work, when it seemed that approving the law on same-sex unions in Serbia was just a matter of time, Serbian President Vučić confirmed that he has no intention of signing the bill. Vučić justified his position by referring to the national constitution, which defines marriage as “a legally regulated union of a man and a woman.” He added that he has nothing against the LGTBQ community, having appointed Ana Brnabić as prime minister, but he is not an “ardent advocate.” Even though the Serbian Church has always openly been against same-sex unions, Vučić’s stance comes unexpected, since he had not clearly expressed his opinion on the matter until now. However, being a member of the Council of Europe, Serbia has to adopt such legislation sooner or later. The law is still under final examination by the National Assembly, hence it remains to be seen what Vučić’s stance means in practice.
Kosovo’s ruling party Vetevendosje flip-flops on Israel-Gaza fighting. After unwavering support from the former Trump administration, Kosovo formally established diplomatic relations with Israel in February, and even decided to open its embassy in Jerusalem. As a direct consequence of mutual recognition, Kosovo’s ruling party Vetevendosje has radically changed its foreign policy position regarding Israel-Gaza fighting. Back in 2014, during the previous Gaza war, Albin Kurti’s opposition party firmly condemned the massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israelis. But yesterday’s opponents have now come to power, given that Kosovo’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted the following on Twitter on May 16: “As every state Israel has the right and the obligation to defend its people against 2000+ rockets fired at civilians only by Hamas, who is holding Palestinian civilians hostage in its war.” Yet, a Kosovar march for Palestine was organized in Pristina to condemn what they consider ethnic cleansing by the State of Israel.
In the Caucasus…
Russia suggests joint commission to demarcate Armenia-Azerbaijan border. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed the creation of a joint commission to delineate the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Russia acting as a possible mediator. The proposal follows Armenian PM Pashinyan’s turn to the CSTO last week, where he hoped to address recent border disputes in Armenia’s southern Syunik and Gegharkunik provinces. Russia’s involvement in the skirmishes follows the negotiations of a peace plan following the end of the 2020 war, making it the main peacekeeping actor in Nagorno-Karabakh. US National Security advisor Jake Sullivan has also expressed concern over the matter, inviting the two parties to resolve the issue peacefully and demarcate the borders through diplomatic channels.
Armenian PM Pashinyan confirms negotiations with Azerbaijan. Mikael Minasyan, former ambassador to the Vatican, son-in-law of Armenian ex-President Serzh Sargsyan, and fierce opponent of Pashinyan, published parts of a ‘secret document,’ thereby accusing the PM of negotiating without the knowledge of the broad public and other state institutions. According to Minasyan, the document rules the handover of several border villages in the Tavush region. Later, these allegations were confirmed by Pashinyan himself, who stated that the document will “100% correspond to Armenia’s interests and if Azerbaijan implements these arrangements, I will sign this document”. However, taking the ongoing negotiations into consideration, Pashinyan refuses to publish the document. Opposition politicians like Edmon Marukyan, leader of “Enlightened Armenia,” as well as Armenia’s Human Right Defender Arman Tatoyan demanded Pashinyan to publish the proposed text of the document or at least part of it.
In Central Asia…
Demolition of dragon mosaic upsets Almaty residents. The demolition of the cliché yet iconic façade of a Thai restaurant in the center of Almaty has not gone unnoticed. Residents of the city came to treasure the colorful dragon mosaic which was put together in the early 2000s’ by Vladimir Tverdokhlebov. When the Thai restaurant was rented by business owner Ruslan Abishev, Almaty residents started a petition to try and save the mosaic. However, the mosaic was regardless demolished, which has since reheated the (still ongoing) debate of what the state should do to preserve these pieces.
Fifth annual rave festival Stihiya held in Karakalpakstan town of Muynak. Established in 2017, Stihiya music festival is a unique cultural event of Central Asia with musicians from Russia, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan coming to the town of Muynak situated next to the Aral sea in the Karakalpakstan region of Uzbekistan. While it is not well-known outside of Central Asia yet, Stihiya is a creation that demonstrates the individuality of the rave culture of the region. The festival is non-profit and it lasted for two days on May 14-15. During these two days, volunteers who attended Stihiya planted more than five thousand shrubs and fruit trees to help stop the expansion of the pesticide-poisoned Aralkum desert and help the local ecosystem.
In Central Europe…
Hungary refuses to back EU joint statements on Israeli-Palestinian crisis. While 26 of the EU Member States agreed on the necessity to achieve a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, Hungary vetoed the statement to be addressed to the UN Security Council. Attempts to find a strong EU unanimous position on the issue have been unsuccessful over the past week, causing a lack of targeted action to encourage an urgent ceasefire. Hungary was the only member not to back the initiative to release a common statement on the question during an informal EU foreign ministers’ video-conference on 18 April. According to Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Péter Szijjártó, European joint statements on the crisis “are not of much help, especially in the current circumstances, when the tensions are so high”. Such an urge for crisis settlement and humanitarian aid in the region requires a firm consensus shared by all EU-27.
In Eastern Europe…
Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine officially create “Associated Trio” for EU integration. During a meeting in Kyiv on 17 May, the foreign ministers of the three post-Soviet countries formalised their joint intention to accelerate the process of integration with the EU. According to Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, the Associated Trio “is our message that there is no alternative to European integration for our three partner countries, and there is no alternative also for Europe.” This comes after intentions to deepen EU integration were met with lukewarm enthusiasm from EU officials, who are wary of creating tensions with the other three countries part of the EU Eastern Neighbourhood initiative. These countries, Armenia, Belarus and Azerbaijan have instead sought to keep a more balanced position between the EU and regional powers Russia and Turkey. Countries from the Eastern Partnership seem now to be moving towards EU integration at two different speeds.
Independent news outlet Tut.by raided by Belarusian authorities. On the morning of 18 May, Belarusian police raided the offices of the country’s main independent news outlet Tut.by in Minsk and five other cities. The raids did not stop there: law enforcement also searched the homes of more than five staff members, seizing electronics, documents, and money; at least fifteen employees were detained. One of the news media founders, Kirill Voloshin, confirmed on his Facebook page that Tut.by’s website had been blocked. The State Control Committee of Belarus said a criminal case against Tut.by had begun over “large-scale tax evasion”, while the Ministry of Information accused the news outlet of publishing materials of the unregistered Belarus Solidarity Foundation. Launched on the 5th of October 2000 Tut.by remained the most popular news web portal in the country in 2019 with 62.58% of readers among all Belarusian Internet users. Responding to the raids, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addressed the international community to react at such “a clear attempt to destroy the remains of independent media in Belarus” and invited everyone to participate in the Global Picket of Solidarity with Belarus on 29th. The Delegation of the European Union to Belarus called Belarusian authorities to stop the harassment of journalists and released them together with all political prisoners.
Said-Muhammad Dzhumaev’s trial begins. On 17 May, the trial of Chechen opposition activist Said-Muhammad Dzhumaev began in Moscow, with his attempt to dismiss the criminal case against him failing. He was arrested while escaping to the Baltics. Of thousands arrested in Russia’s 23 January protests, Dzhumaev’s case stands out. Firstly, as he was filmed a viral video seen fighting back against OMON riot police, he has become a symbol of resistance, and thus will likely lead to a lengthy sentence; he currently faces five years. However, other powers may intercede: Dzhumaev is an ethnic Chechen, meaning he is de facto subject to Ramzan Kadyrov. The 23 January protests fell flat in the North Caucasus, so Dzhumaev’s brawl contrasted greatly. In this context, his actions remind the Kremlin of the historic Caucasian resistance, while warning of what might happen if the mountainous region’s current level of repression is lessened.
Nord Stream 2 off the hook, for now. Last week, the Biden administration waived sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, responsible for constructing the controversial gas pipeline, and on its CEO Matthias Warnig, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a report delivered to US Congress, the US Department of State reportedly concluded that despite Nord Stream 2 AG engaging in “sanctionable activity”, it was “in the US national interest” to waive the sanctions. At the same time, new sanctions were imposed on several Russian ships involved in the construction. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that while these decisions were “consistent with the President’s pledge to rebuild relationships with [US] allies”, the administration’s opposition to Nord Stream 2 remained “unwavering”. Both Russian and German officials welcomed the waiving of the sanctions, however, with German Greens strongly opposed to the pipeline, the future of the project remains dependent on the results of September’s federal elections.