Lossi 36 Weekly #21: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 14 June 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This week’s special
Outrage in Hungary over Fudan University’s Budapest Campus. The conflict between Hungarian Government’s plan for Fudan University’s Hungary campus and Budapest Municipality’s plan for student housings led to a massive protest on 5 June in Budapest. The project, worth $1.8bn, is criticized for its financing structure. The majority of the budget will be financed by a Chinese loan, in a similar fashion to the Budapest-Belgrade high-speed railway project. Among major concerns is the fear of Chinese influence in Europe and the unfair treatment of local universities, many of which were recently privatized. Public tension is also fueled by anger over academic freedom, highlighted by the government’s capture of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ board of directors, and the eviction of Central European University from Budapest three years ago.
In response, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared that the investment plan on Fudan University’s local campus will be postponed until December 2022, and a referendum will be held.
Prior to the protest, Budapest mayor and left-liberal opposition figure Gergely Karácsony proposed to change the street names around the construction area in District 9, provoking an outraged response from Beijing. In March, Karácsony announced a bid to become a prime minister candidate for the opposition primary. He is expected to challenge the right-wing Orbán’s Fidesz party in the general election next year.
In the Balkans…
Naming of Bosnia’s new High Representative sparks political tensions. Christian Schmidt of Germany has been approved by the Peace Implementation Council to officially take over the Office of High Representative (OHR) from the outgoing HR, Valentin Inzko. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) tri-presidency, voiced opposition to the appointment, having long called for the abolition of the OHR. Russia answered Dodik’s call by objecting to Schmidt’s appointment. Russian support for Republika Srpska’s nationalist politics in exchange for political loyalty and leverage over Bosnia’s NATO candidacy is a well-documented soft-power tactic in the region, and while Russia has no legal means of preventing the appointment, it can potentially block the continuation of EUFOR’s mission in BiH. The purpose of the High Representative and the OHR is to oversee the civilian implementation of the Dayton agreement. However, its inaction in recent years has contributed to a political stalemate in the country.
Albanian MPs impeach President Ilir Meta for violating constitution. Upon request of the ruling Socialist Party, an extraordinary parliamentary session was organized on 9 June to vote on the President’s impeachment. ‘Meta has betrayed the mission of the President of the Republic of Albania’, Prime Minister Edi Rama told the assembly last Wednesday. An inquiry commission, which investigated the Socialist Party’s claims against the President, including breaking electoral silence, inciting hatred and violence, intimidating public institutions, and harming the image and reputation of the country, found that Meta’s declarations before and during the last parliamentary election violated 16 articles of the constitution. Albanian MPs adopted the report of the commission with 104 out of 140 MPs in favour. In response, Meta described the impeachment investigation as illegal and refused to appear before the investigative committee. The Constitutional Court now has three months to rule on whether Meta should be removed from office.
International Court of Justice confirms verdict in Mladić trial. The ICJ in The Hague confirmed its final verdict regarding the former commander of the Army of Republika Srpska, Ratko Mladić, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the first instance for genocide and crimes against humanity against non-Serbs during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Appeals Chamber of The Hague Tribunal upheld the first-instance verdict finding Mladić guilty on ten counts – participation in the Srebrenica genocide, persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, forcible transfer of the population, terrorising the population, illegal attacks on civilians and taking hostages. Many politicians all over the world welcomed the decision, including U.S president Joe Biden and EU High Representative Josep Borell. On the other hand, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pointed out several problematic aspects of the trial and said that the verdict against Mladić testified to the bias of The Hague tribunal.
In the Caucasus…
Three killed near Nagorno-Karabakh in landmine explosion. On 4 June, in Kalbajar district, west of Nagorno-Karabakh, the blast of an anti-tank mine killed two Azeri journalists and a local official, with four other people injured. The explosion occurred on a territory that was vacated by Armenian forces last November after the peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan reestablished Baku’s control over the area. According to the Azerbaijani government, Armenia was repeatedly asked to provide Azerbaijan with a map of the mines but has not fulfilled the request. Even though demining activities have been undertaken by the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action and Russian forces, eighteen people have died over the last seven months due to mine explosions. Against this backdrop, Azerbaijan’s foreign minister blamed Armenia for the blast, and turned to human rights organizations, accusing Yerevan of violating the Geneva Conventions. The incident comes amid growing tensions between the two countries, with both sides accusing each other of border incursions. On 12 June, the landmine maps of Agdam region were swapped with 15 Armenian prisoners of war, in a deal mediated by Georgia, the US, and the EU.
Threats against Azerbaijani dissident intensify after media interview. Famous Azerbaijani dissident and vlogger Mahammad Mirzali claims that he has been receiving new death threats after his interview with Armenian news agency CivilNet on 31 May, in which he appealed for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and commented on the achievements of Armenia’s democracy-building, as compared to the situation in Azerbaijan. Mirzali, who has a popular YouTube channel aiming at revealing the corruption of the Aliyev family, relocated to France in 2016 due to increasing pressure from the regime. Since then, Mirzali has survived several attacks, including being shot, stabbed, and severely beaten. In response to the latest threats, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders vowed it would hold Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev personally responsible if anything were to happen to Mirzali. This is the second recent incident involving an Azerbaijani dissident – on 2 May, opposition activist Bayram Mammadov was found dead in Istanbul, with some Azerbaijani activists suspecting foul play.
In Central Asia…
Protest in Bishkek as Japarov visits Turkey on first foreign visit. On 9 June, Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov arrived in Ankara for a three-day visit to Turkey. The trip is Japarov’s first official foreign visit since becoming president in January this year. He is expected to meet with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the chairman of the Turkish parliament, among others. The visit was accompanied by protests at the Turkish embassy in Bishkek over the disappearance of Orhan Inandi, the founder of a school network in Kyrgyzstan linked to Fethullah Gulen – a key political adversary of President Erdogan. In a statement, Human Rights Watch claimed that Inandi– a dual Kyrgyz-Turkish citizen– is likely being held at the Turkish embassy in Bishkek and may be forcibly deported to Turkey where he could face “mistreatment and torture”. It is unclear if Inandi’s situation will be on the agenda during the meeting between Japarov and Erdoğan.
Kazakhstan stays faithful to Nazarbaev-era ‘multivector’ foreign policy as sanctions on Russia and Belarus mount. Though sanctions from the West are rapidly piling up against Minsk and Moscow, long-time strategic partner and fellow EAEU member Kazakhstan has rebuffed overtures to engage in countering them. Considering an Eurasian Union-wide response to be “politically motivated” and an “anti-Western” statement, a joint sanction-tackling initiative proposed by Russia and Belarus was met with cold refusal by Nur-Sultan. The reply was based on the idea that not all Eurasian Union countries are currently facing these sanctions in the first place. Kazakhstan instead showed how it values its foreign relations with the European Union, Kazakhstan’s top export destination (Italy, Netherlands, France, Spain…). It likewise remains faithful to the decade-long ‘multivector’ foreign policy that defines Kazakhstan acting as a friendly and pragmatic country.
In Central Europe…
Czechia’s youngest and first black MP, resigns after sexual abuse allegations. Dominik Feri is one of the most famous Czech politicians, having over a million followers on Instagram. His popularity rose over his understandable information to citizens about the government’s anti-COVID measures. At the end of May, Deník N and Alarm published dozens of allegations of Feri’s sexual misconduct between 2015 and 2020. Feri immediately resigned and announced that he would not run for October’s general elections. Feri rejected rape allegations but admitted that his behavior might have been inappropriate at times, for which he apologized. Feri’s affair may endanger the three-party Together coalition for the autumn election.
Slovakia in trouble for disregarding travelers’ rights. The European Commission announced that it would refer Slovakia to the Court of Justice of the European Union due to the country’s persistent violation of the EU law on package travel rights. EU directive 2015/2302 stipulates that travelers are entitled to a refund within fourteen days if their package travel contract is terminated due to unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances, which was the case for numerous trips cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in May 2020, Slovakia adopted a law which forces travelers to either accept a modified offer from the organizer of the package or wait for a refund until after August 31, 2021. In July 2020, the Commission responded by launching an infringement procedure against Slovakia, as a result of which Slovakia committed to amending its legislation by May 2021. However, Slovakia has until now failed to do so, which prompted the Commission to seek a resolution in court.
In Eastern Europe…
UEFA demands Ukraine remove ‘political slogan’ from EURO-2020 jersey. Last week, the Ukrainian national football team unveiled their UEFA’s EURO 2020 jerseys featuring a map of Ukraine including Crimea and Donbas, as well as the slogans “glory to Ukraine” and “glory to the heroes.” Originally, Russia expressed its outrage over the jersey for showing Crimea as part of Ukraine and not as part of Russia. Russia’s military invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 has not been recognized by most of the international community, including all of Europe. Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov called the jersey a ‘provocation’ and called the two slogans, popular in Ukraine since the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2014, ‘nationalistic’ and ‘Nazi rallying cries.’ UEFA reaffirmed the legality of the map of Ukraine on the jersey, but revoked its approval of the slogan ‘glory to the heroes,’ calling it ‘political in nature,’ and asking the team to remove it.
Belarus accused of organizing migrant flows into the EU. Border guards have already received over 300 refugees entering Lithuania from Belarus this year alone, which is already three times higher than in all of 2020. Lithuania has now accused Belarus of deliberately smuggling Iraqi and Syrian refugees into the European Union. Government-controlled travel agency Tsentrkurort and Iraqi Airways would facilitate four to six flights between Baghdad and Minsk per week, after which some Iraqis would be taken to the border where Belarusian border guards would assist their crossing into Lithuania – a service that would cost the Iraqis some $3000 to $6000. The Lithuanian accusations follow Lukashenka’s threats to send drugs and illegal migrants into the EU as retaliation for European sanctions after the downing of Ryanair Flight 4978.
Makhachkala protests continue to call for journalist’s freedom. On 7 June, a series of individual picketers staged a protest in support of Abdulmumin Gadzhiev, a journalist for the independent Dagestani outlet Chernovik. He was arrested in June 2019 and charged with financing terrorism. This protest, a weekly occurrence, follows one of the prosecution’s witnesses testifying in support of Gadzhiev. The picket highlights Makhachkala’s centrality to protests in the North Caucasus: despite severe limitations on the capability to protest in the region, people have repeatedly turned up for the generally unrecognized events in Dagestan’s capital this year, including for the 23 January and 21 April protests organized by Team Navalny. With several looming socio-economic and ecological crises in Dagestan, the likelihood of future protests is high. It should also be noted that charges of financing terrorism are frequently used to target journalists and opposition members of civil society in the North Caucasus, inflating the number of terrorism-related charges in the region.
Russian Court outlaws Alexei Navalny’s organisation. On 9 June, the Moscow City Court outlawed Alexei Navalny’s nationwide political organisation, declaring it as “extremist”. After the political organisation’s activities were suspended by Russian prosecutors in April, this move will prevent Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) from operating and forbid his allies to run in elections. Just days earlier, Vladimir Putin signed legislation confirming the ban on running for election for those formerly associated with extremist organisations. Following the court’s decision, Alexei Navalny’s organisation will be included to Russia’s list of ”extremist organisations”, which currently includes ISIL, al-Qaeda and Jehovah’s Witnesses among others. Navalny’s top aide Lyubov Sobol called the process “one of the most shameful acts in years of Putin’s rule”, while the FBK itself responded that they “will continue fighting corruption.” The EU, the UK and the USA condemned the decision of the Moscow court calling it “a pattern of restricting fundamental rights in Russia.” Just before the Court’s decision, on the 8th of June, Alexei Navalny received the Courage Award at the 2021 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.
Kremlin critic arrested on Warsaw-bound plane. On Monday, 31 May, Kremlin critic and ex-director of the Open Russia movement Andrei Pivovarov was arrested for violating Russia’s law on ‘undesirable organizations,’ in spite of Open Russia disbanding itself in order to prevent its members from criminal prosecution of this new law last week. Polish airline LOT explained that their flight was taxiing at Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport when air traffic control ordered the plane to return to its parking position. LOT pilots were forced to comply as they were still under Russian jurisdiction. The EU responded by calling on Russian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release Mr Pivovarov.” They also urged Russia once again to “repeal the legislation on undesirable organizations.” The Krasnodar branch of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation accused Pivovarov of trying to flee from investigators, while Pivovarov said he was going on holiday. On Wednesday, June 2, a Russian court announced that Pivovarov would be held in pre-trial detention for two months. Pivovarov’s Twitter account wrote that “these situations show that they are afraid of us, and we are the majority.”