Lossi 36 Weekly #19: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 31 May 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This Week’s Special
Armenia-Azerbaijan border tension escalates further as prisoners taken by Azerbaijan. More than six months after the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the situation remains extremely tense between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On 25 May, an Armenian sergeant was fatally shot by Azerbaijani gunfire near the village of Verin Shorzha in the Gegharkunik region. Two days later, on the morning of 27 May, Armenia’s Defense Ministry announced the capture of six Armenian soldiers by Azerbaijani forces in the same region, described as “kidnapping” by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. Azeri authorities responded saying the six soldiers were arrested for “acts of sabotage“. The day after, the Azeri authorities accused the Armenian side of shelling their positions in Nakhichevan, with the claim labelled a “blatant lie” by the ministry of Defense of Armenia. On 26 May, Mr. Pashinyan had expressed his dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of the CSTO and had raised the possibility of addressing the United Nations Security Council. These events take place in a chaotic political context in Armenia, less than one month before the parliamentary elections, with the announcement by the authorities of negotiations for a new agreement with Azerbaijan, which could lead to the handover of five villages in the Tavush region and one in the Ararat region to Azerbaijan.
In the Balkans…
Radovan Karadzic sent to UK for remainder of life sentence. Former Bosian Serb leader and convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic was transferred on 26 May to Great Britain to serve the remainder of his life sentence. Karadzic had been held at the UN Detention Unit in Scheveningen, The Hague, after the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in the Dutch city upheld his sentence in March 2019, for the genocide of Bosniaks in Srebrenica in 1995, as well as numerous other war crimes. Karadzic’s lawyers protested unsuccessfully against the decision to send him to Britain, saying that their client would be vulnerable to attacks from “Muslim extremists” in prison. The lawyers cited the case of Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic, who was attacked by three Muslim prisoners in Britain’s Wakefield prison in 2010.
EU reacts to latest opposition vote boycott in Montenegro. The opposition in Montenegro has once again boycotted a vote in parliament, this time on amending the Law on the Judiciary and Public Prosecutor’s office. When the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) declared their intention not to participate in the work of the Assembly, European Commission Spokesperson Ana Pisonero Hernendez responded that a boycott is not a sustainable solution. She emphasized that inter-party dialogue, including dialogue on key appointments in the judiciary, is necessary to break the deadlock. Tonino Picula, the European Parliament’s special spokesperson for Montenegro, noted that Montenegro’s peaceful transition of power has not yet consolidated in constructive dialogue and cooperation. He added that it is paramount that the Assembly functions as a central place of democratic political activity and in accordance with the Constitution.
In the Caucasus…
Iranian Foreign Minister visits Armenia, seeking to ease Armenian-Azerbaijani border tensions. Concerned by the recent escalations on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Azerbaijan and Armenia respectively on two consecutive days. Having finished his visit in Baku, Zarif came to Yerevan on 26 May and held talks with both Armenian acting prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and acting Foreign Minister Ara Aivazian. During the talks, the Iranian foreign minister emphatically called for a peaceful solution to the recent escalations and stated that Iran is ready to offer assistance in resolving the tensions. Additionally, Pashinyan and Zarif also discussed bilateral economic ties, including the establishment of a free trade zone in Syunik, the southernmost province of Armenia. Experts deem Zarif’s visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan as a response to concern over the tensions in Syunik, which is geopolitically and economically significant for Iran, and the countering of Turkish influence in the region.
Protests against Namakhvani Hydro Plant take over the Capital. This week, Tbilisi saw significant disruptions as a result of a protest against the controversial dam that is planned to be built in the western part of the country. The non-governmental sector, civil society, and residents of the large area that will be affected by the dam’s construction have long been protesting, demanding the dam construction plans be canceled. Although residents have been protesting for more than 200 days and have had various talks with the government and the company, the stance on both sides has remained unchanged. The social and environmental impact is expected to be high, but the argument for energy independence seems to be winning on both sides of the political spectrum particularly given the country’s current reliance on energy imported from Russia.
In Central Asia…
Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border confusion settled after 20 years. The villages of Bagys and Khiyobon were officially integrated into Kazakhstan on 25 May, thus settling a border issue dating back to the early 2000s. At the time, due to unclear country status of their settlements, the villagers threatened to create a small separate republic if they were to be left in the administrative limbo. This prompted the state authorities to seriously engage in negotiating the demarcation of the borders. In 2003, it was agreed that the villages would become part of Kazakhstan, however, they were not included on the country’s official map. Consequently, the villagers continued to face administrative problems, which led to new protests in March 2021. An official decree was subsequently signed and released last week by the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan, Askar Mamin, temporarily resolving the issue, without any comments from the Uzbek side so far. As a result, both villages will become part of Kazakhstan’s southernmost and most populated Turkistan region, where Uzbeks constitute 18% of the population.
Kyrgyz government seizes Kumtor gold mine. On 14 May, the Kyrgyz government signed into law the takeover of the Kumtor gold mine, which contributes 5-7% of the country’s GDP. The Canadian company Centerra Gold owns Kumtor through its subsidiary Kumtor Gold Company and the UK based Blackrock Investment Management holds a 10.6% share. Canada and the UK issued a joint statement warning that the government takeover would have “far-reaching implications for foreign direct investment in Kyrgyzstan.” On 15 May the offices of Kumtor Gold Company were searched, and the Kyrgyz government claimed the mine owed $1 billion in unpaid taxes. Tengiz Bolturuk, the director of Centerra, quit on 17 May, and two days later was appointed by the Kyrgyz government as the external manager of the mine. A Kyrgyz court fined the Kumtor Gold Company $3.1 billion for dumping mining waste on a glacier. Asylbek Ayupov, a Kyrgyz economist, argues that the takeover is the government’s short-term strategy to pay off external debt, as the mine’s gold reserves are due to run out in 2024.
In Central Europe…
Czech president Miloš Zeman stops responding to selected media, cites “fight against disinformation”. The President’s office announced on 28 May that it would not respond to questions from several named journals and investigative television reports. On the blacklist are independent media outlets such as the weekly Respekt, Seznam Zprávy or Deník N, which create space for freelance journalists and reporters in the Czech Republic. They are under constant pressure from Zeman and his office, publicly labelled “disinformers” or “authors of fake news”. Zeman has been addressing journalists indiscriminately for a long time – recently, during the appointment of Minister of Health Petr Arenberger when the president referred to waiting reporters, saying “Let’s invite hyenas.” Miloš Zeman is often used by Russian state propaganda to spread its misinformation. Pro-Kremlin media continue to double down on their propaganda against the Czech Republic, and the president’s proclamations are only helping them. The Czech Association of journalists commented on the statement, calling it “an attack on independent media” and requiring the assessment of a court.
Hungarian PM Orbán meets Spain’s VOX party Leader and UK PM Johnson. On 27 May, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as leader of the Fidesz party, received a visit from the Spanish VOX party leader, Santiago Abascal, in Budapest. The two party leaders highlighted the promotion of freedom and European traditions, which include national sovereignty, border protection against illegal migration, family policy, and cultural preservation. Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, announced the expansion of bilateral investment between Hungarian and Spanish private sectors, as well as the inauguration of Ferenc Puskás street in Madrid and the new Hungarian consulate in Málaga. The following day, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed Orbán at his office in London, marking the 100th anniversary of Hungary-UK bilateral relations. The discussion revolved around climate change, as well as military and energy cooperations. Johnson was criticized for inviting the “far-right leader”, who is accused of challenging European values. In response to the criticism, Downing Street stated that PM Johnson also expressed his concerns over human rights, gender equality, LGBT rights, and media freedom in Hungary.
In Eastern Europe…
Snap elections in Bulgaria as parties fail to form government. Political parties in the newly elected 45th Bulgarian National Assembly have failed to form a government. The short-lived legislature did, however, manage to pass amendments to the Electoral Code, including lifting restrictions for opening electoral sections in non-EU countries and introducing compulsory machine vote. Following the Parliament’s failure to form a governing majority, President Rumen Radev appointed a caretaker government and called snap elections for July 11. The new government — led by General Stefan Yanev, President Radev’s security and defence advisor — hastened to replace several high-ranking state officials, including the head of the national security agency.
Backlash against Belarus continues over forced airplane landing. In the days following the forced grounding of Ryanair flight 4798 in Minsk and the subsequent arrest of NEXTA founder Raman Protasevich, the European community has reacted with harsh sanctions on Belarusian air travel. As hundreds of European flights began avoiding Belarusian airspace, EU leaders voted to ban the state airline Belavia from EU airspace, as well as to place further sanctions on individuals involved in the operation. Meanwhile, on 24 May, a video was released showing Protasevich, clearly having been beaten, “confessing” to planning riots, and claiming that he is being treated fairly by Belarusian security services. Both the EU and US now claim to be drawing up further economic sanctions against what many leaders have described an act of “state terrorism”.
Meduza to fight “foreign agent” label in court. During pre-trial preparations on 20 May, Meduza uncovered documents linking its designation as a “foreign agent” to a complaint filed to the Russian Federal censorship bureau, Roskomnadzor, by Alexander Ionov, a “security business dealer” with ties to the FSB. Ionov, the founder of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (ADR), and the subject of several investigations by the media outlet, was reportedly angered by Meduza’s “pro-Western bent.” Since Meduza’s designation in April, several oppositional news outlets, including VTimes (the Russian language version of The Moscow Times), as well as individual journalists, have been labeled by the Kremlin as “foreign agents” in a move to tighten curbs on the media and limit free speech.
Putin and Biden’s first presidential meeting to take place in Geneva. 16 June was set as the date of the first meeting between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden since the American president took office in January 2021, and it is going to be the first meeting between an American and a Russian president since July 2018. The summit will be an occasion to review current Russia-US relations, and discuss issues such as the situation on Russian-Ukrainian border, the redirection of Ryanair flight by Belarus, and control over nuclear weapons. Relations between Putin and Biden have become particularly tense since the latter confirmed in March that he thought the Russian President was “a killer” and Russia subsequently recalled its ambassador from the US. Even though, according to The New York Times, this summit comes at the worst point in Russia-US relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Geneva might be a good omen for the improvement of bilateral relations, having been the site of the 1985 Gorbachev and Reagan’s meeting, during which they discussed controls over nuclear arms.
Duma bans Navalny associates and supporters from standing in elections. On 26 May, the Russian State Duma approved a bill that prevents members and supporters of “extremist organisations” from running in elections for public office for a period of three to five years. The bill directly affects those involved with Alexey Navalny’s now-dissolved Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which was added by Russian authorities to the list of “extremist and terrorist” organisations in April this year, after Navalny himself was arrested in January. The bill will become law if passed by Russia’s upper house of parliament – the Federation Council – and signed by President Vladimir Putin. Amnesty International in Moscow criticised the move as an effort to “fully purge vocal critics from the civic space.” Russia will hold State Duma elections in September 2021, as polls by the independent Levada Centre show record-low levels of support for the ruling United Russia party.