Lossi 36 Weekly #20: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 7 June 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This Week’s Special
Arrested journalist gives tearful interview on Belarusian state TV. On the evening of 3 June, Belarusian state ONT TV channel broadcast a 90-minute interview with detained journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested on 23 May after Belarusian authorities diverted his Vilnius-bound flight, forcing it to land in Minsk instead. During the interview, the former editor-in-chief of the opposition Nexta outlet pleaded guilty to organising “unauthorized” mass protests in Belarus following last year’s presidential elections. He also confessed that his political involvement had made him realise that criticisms towards Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had in fact been a form of “pressure” against the country’s leader who, as Protasevich now recognises, has often demonstrated that he had “steel balls”. Protasevich declared absolute respect towards the President, criticised the protesting opposition, and broke down crying, stating that he did not wish to return to his political activity ever again, instead only wanting to live a calm family life. While the interview was allegedly given voluntarily, Protasevich’s parents and numerous commentators dismissed the journalist’s confessions, pointing to the visible deep marks on his wrists and suggesting that he had been subject to physical and psychological torture.
In the Balkans…
Serbia begins mass production of Sputnik V. On 4 June, together with Argentina, the Republic of Serbia officially launched the production of the Russian Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine. In an online televised ceremony, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally gave the word to Vera Stojkovic, a worker at the Torlak Institute of Virology and Vaccines in Belgrade to push the start button. Serbia is the second country after Belarus to manufacture the vaccine, which has not received approval from the European Union but has nonetheless been approved independently by Hungary and Slovakia. Speaking at the ceremony, Serbian president Alexander Vucic compared Sputnik V to the Kalashnikov rifle, saying that the Torlak Institute would “do its best to reproduce the quality and reliability of the great Russian weapon”. Serbia intends to first use the manufactured doses to speed up the vaccination of its local population, and then look to export abroad.
Authorities unearth mass grave in Dobro Polje. The BiH Prosecutor’s Office and the Bosnia and Herzegovina Research and Protection Agency (SIPA) have discovered a mass grave in Dobro Polje, a village near Kalinovik in Republika Srpska. The grave was found during an exhumation process, with the remains of at least three bodies unearthed so far. While it is yet to be confirmed, the authorities believe that the grave dates back to the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Officials from SIPA and the Prosecutor’s Office will remain at the site as the exhumation continues. According to the Blinken Open Society Archives, well over 500 mass graves have been discovered in the country since the end of the conflict.
In the Caucasus…
Is Gakharia’s For Georgia really for Georgia? On 29 May, Giorgi Gakharia, the former Prime Minister, officially launched his new political party, For Georgia. Gakharia’s new party is attempting to appeal to citizens of all ethnicities who are tired of the status quo maintained during both rules of the United National Movement (UNM) and of Georgian Dream. Gakharia resigned as Prime Minister in February due to Georgian Dream’s manner of handling the opposition, following the arrest of UNM leader Nika Melia. While Gakharia’s middle-ground approach of a Georgia for all, at face value, seems like it would gain traction—particularly given the recent brawls between ethnic Georgians and Azerbaijanis and continued tensions between the two main political parties—the ex-PM is still haunted by the violent dispersal of protestors on 20-21 June 2019. Whether Gakharia’s For Georgia can gain traction in parliament and whether he can end the elite infighting to truly be a representative for Georgia is yet to be seen.
Armenian parties get ready for snap parliamentary elections on 20 June. Armenia’s political parties and personalities have outlined their programs and policies for the upcoming snap parliamentary elections. A record number of 26 political forces will run for the elections, among them parties and blocs led by the three former presidents of Armenia (Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan, Serzh Sargsyan) and the current PM Nikol Pashinyan. The main topics of the elections will be the handling of the Karabakh question and the current security crisis along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border that has been unfolding during and after the 2nd Karabakh War. While opposition forces, among them the former presidents of Armenia, accuse the current government of failing to guarantee Armenia’s national security, Pashinyan is counting on his support within the Armenian population to “get back to solving our security, economic, educational and social problems”.
In Central Asia…
Former school principal kidnapped in Bishkek. Orhan İnandı, founder of a school network in Kyrgyzstan, was last seen on Monday, 31 May. The Turkish-born former principal is feared to have been kidnapped by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization because of his alleged affiliation with the Gülen movement. Turkey considers that movement a terrorist organization since its alleged involvement in the 2016 failed Turkish coup attempt. Ever since the country has undertaken similar actions against alleged other members of the movement. İnandı’s wife, who believes İnandı is held in the Turkish embassy in Bishkek, now fears for his life.
Two Kazakhstani feminist activists detained in Shymkent. Zhanar Sekerbayeva and Gulzada Serzhan, two prominent Kazakhstani feminist activists and founders of Feminist Initiative ‘Feminita,’ were arrested during their trip to Shymkent. On May 29, a group of men disrupted Serzhan and Sekerbayeva’s event on the rights of LGBTQ+ women. Captured on numerous videos, the men verbally abused the activists, hitting Sekerbayeva. Shortly after, Sekerbayeva and Serzhan were detained with excessive use of force, only to be released several hours later. The men who attacked the activists claim that they stand up for “traditional values” and strongly oppose feminist or human rights events. Police representatives announced that the activists were detained to protect them, without commenting on the violence used against both.
In Central Europe…
Protests on Polish-Belarusian and Polish-Lithuanian border posts. On 5 June, exiled Belarusians gathered in protests near Polish and Lithuanian border posts with Belarus. The protestors called on Alexander Lukashenka to release prisoners and open the borders and demanded the EU enact stronger and more effective sanctions against Lukashenka. Fearing Brussels’ reluctance to take “real steps,” the protest movement threatened to block the road should Brussels fail to do so. The recent protests at the border follow the gathering in support of Syarhei Tsikhanouski that was held in Vilnius on May 29, exactly a year since his arrest, while Lithuania expelled two Belarusian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover on the day before.
EU Court of Justice dismisses Hungary’s attempt to invalidate European Parliament rule-of-law resolution. On 3 June, the CJEU officially rejected the appeal advanced by Hungary to annul the outcome of a voting process that, in 2018, led to initiate Article 7 procedures against Budapest. In September 2018, the European Parliament had approved, with a two-third voting majority, a resolution regarding evident risks of serious breaches in EU fundamental values by Hungary. This resulted in so-called Article 7 measures against the Member State, threatening the potential withdrawal of the country’s voting rights in the Council of the European Union. Budapest’s complaints to the EU’s top court regarded the voting procedure and the lack of counting of the 48 abstentions, making the result invalid in the opinion of the Hungarian government.
In Eastern Europe…
Zelensky submits de-oligarchisation bill to Verkhovna Rada. On 2 June, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky submitted his long-expected bill to the Verkhovna Rada after launching a de-oligarchisation campaign in early 2021. The text of the bill has appeared on the website of the Verkhovna Rada, which provides detailed criteria and restrictions for oligarchs’ political activity. Notably, the bill also introduces a requirement for top government officials to declare their contacts and meetings with oligarchs. On 3 June, the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Dmytro Razumkov announced that because there are conflicts of interest in the president’s bill, a special board will be needed to work on the list of oligarchs. Igor Kolomoisky claimed that he is prepared to be included in the list, while the “European Solidarity” party led by the former president Petro Poroshenko considered this bill as a personal attack to Poroshenko. Additionally, the effectiveness of this bill to battle with oligarchs without the rule of law and functioning institutions is also questioned.
US sanctions top Bulgarians for corruption. On 2 June, the United States Treasury Department applied anti-graft sanctions against three Bulgarian individuals and their network comprising 64 entities. The move was made under the United States’ Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which is destined to fight against corruption and human rights violations all around the world. The sanctions target prominent Bulgarian businessman and oligarch Vassil Kroumov Bojkov, former Member of Parliament Delyan Slavchev Peevski, and former Deputy Chief of the Bulgarian State Agency for Technical Operations Ilko Dimitrov Zhelyazkov, as well as the companies owned or controlled by the perpetrators listed above. In response, the European Union signalled its approval of the sanctions, choosing not to invoke a blocking statute to counter such measures. The Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the same day that “fighting against corruption is the country’s priority” and that “it remains ready for dialogue with Washington”. Bulgaria is ranked 69th in the world on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, equal worst among EU member states.
Judicial crackdown on Navalny’s organisations commences. 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 organisation could face up to ten years in prison. Prosecutors argued that ‘under the guise of liberal slogans, these organisations are shaping conditions for a destabilisation 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.