Lossi 36 Weekly #22: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
This edition of Lossi 36 Weekly was originally sent by email on 21 June 2021. Subscribe to Lossi 36 Weekly here.
This week’s special
Biden and Putin break the ice in Geneva
The presidents of Russia and the United States met for talks last week, at a time when the relations between the two countries are said to be “at rock bottom”. It was their first meeting since Joe Biden was elected US President and it concluded Biden’s first foreign trip, which also included the G7, NATO, and EU-US summits. Topics covered included strategic stability, cybersecurity, regional conflicts (including in the Donbas), trade, and cooperation in the Arctic. Issues such as human rights, Russia’s recent crackdown on domestic opposition, and the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny were also discussed, albeit not in-depth. Both leaders expressed their satisfaction with the constructive nature of the talks – a short common statement released following the meeting stressed the need to avoid nuclear war at all cost and announced the launch of an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue. In addition, the presidents have agreed to return their respective ambassadors to their posts – the Russian ambassador was recalled to Moscow “for consultations” in March, after the US accused Russia of meddling in the 2020 presidential election, with the US ambassador following suit in April.
In the Balkans…
Albanian parliament impeaches President Ilir Meta. On 16 June, the Albanian parliament voted 104-7 to discharge President Ilir Meta and remove him from office. It is the first time such an impeachment has occurred since the country’s democratic transition. Meta is accused of having violated the constitution, in particular when he took sides during the parliamentary elections of last April. Now, Albania’s Constitutional Court has three months to deliberate and decide the fate of Meta, who would have ended his mandate in July 2022. During the last national election, Meta himself stated that he would have removed himself from office if Edi Rama’s Socialist Party would win again, but eventually refused to follow through. These events are the culmination of years of periodic clashes between Albania’s President and PM.
Vucic and Kurti meet for the first time, disagreement ensues. Serbian President Alexander Vucic met for the first time with his newly-elected counterpart from Kosovo, Prime Minister Albin Kurti, on 15 June in Brussels. The talks, mediated by top EU diplomat Josep Borrell, were, as Serbia-Kosovo talks tend to be, inconclusive, as both sides blamed the other for lacking the will to cooperate and presenting unacceptable terms. Vucic claimed that Kurti came to the meeting with the intention “not to agree” and immediately demanded the full recognition of Kosovo, something the Serb leader said he would “never” give. Meanwhile, Kurti claims to have put forward a set of concrete proposals to normalise relations with Serbia, including the reciprocal creation of a National Council for minorities, a joint non-aggression agreement, and the creation of a Western Balkans-wide free trade area.
In the Caucasus…
Early counting shows victory for Pashinyan in tense post-war Armenian elections. Though the result was far from certain going into the 20 June parliamentary vote, the early results of Armenia’s snap elections point towards an overwhelming victory for incumbent prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party. As of 01:00 am Yerevan time and with 165,643 votes counted, Civil Contract was in the lead with 59% of the vote, with former president Robert Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance a distant second place at 18%, and no other party breaking double digits. Many analysts and opinion polls expected Kocharyan to mount a serious challenge to Pashinyan, under whom military defeat to Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh led to the protracted domestic political crisis that culminated in these snap elections. In a campaign marked by its deep pessimism, hatred of the previous regimes, including Kocharyan’s, has likely proved to be stronger than blame on Pashinyan for losing the war. Late on election night, Kocharyan announced his refusal to accept the result, with some fearing more political unrest in Armenia on the horizon.
Turkey and Azerbaijan sign formal alliance in “Shusha Declaration”. On 15 June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip visited the newly-captured city of Shusha (Armenian: Shushi) in Nagorno-Karabakh upon the invitation of his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev. There, the two leaders signed an official declaration of alliance, known as the “Shusha Declaration”, formalising the close political and cultural relationship between their countries. The document, signed on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Treaty of Kars, which set the modern borders between Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, commits both countries to strengthening military, political, and economic ties- the latter of which include the opening of the so-called “Zangezur corridor” to connect the two countries through Armenia’s Syunik province. Shusha, often regarded as the “cultural capital” of Azerbaijan, was captured from Armenia at the end of last year’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In Central Asia…
Kazakhstani president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signs dubious new human rights decree. Some of the human rights outlined in the decree include the elimination of discrimination against women, protection of freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom to life and public order. Local human rights experts are alarmed by the vagueness of the decree and its lack of connection to everyday life. Meanwhile, Tokayev also signed amendments regulating the activities of lawyers and legal consultants in the country that have been protested by professionals who say the law impedes their activities and deprives them of independence. In addition, several days later, Kazakh Interior Minister Yerlan Turgumbayev said that the “kettling” tactic that has been widely used by the special forces to keep peaceful demonstrators in one place for several hours is not torture and does not go against protesters’ rights. While some express cautious hope that the new decree can be a tool for positive change, many activists and experts remain doubtful given the lack of concrete measures and definitions in the decree’s text.
Turkmenistan repays debt to China. On 11 June, Turkmenistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Shakhym Abdrakhmanov announced that Turkmenistan had fully repaid its credit to China. Turkmenistan took out a loan from China to finance the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline. The exact amount that needed to be reimbursed is unclear, but experts estimated that it was between 8 and 10 billion dollars. Despite Turkmenistan’s ability to repay its debt to China, the country’s economy remains unstable, as it is almost fully dependent on gas exports and the sale of diverse commodities to China.
In Central Europe…
New Hungarian legislation bans LGBTQ content in minors’ TV. In a new law, passed by the parliament by 157 votes, LGBT-friendly content was banned from under 18s television broadcasting. The Hungarian government justifies the law as an attempt to impede the “detrimental effect” – as defined by a government’s spokesperson – potentially exercised by homosexual and transexual content on children and adolescents. This law applies to LGBT-supporting advertisement campaigns by large companies and relates to issues concerning sexual education and paedophilia, as well. Despite a strong popular resentment towards homophobic measures and the boycott enacted by several opposition parties, Fidesz successfully introduced the legislation, triggering strong concerns among human rights advocates, both nationally and at the supranational level, since, as in the words of Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union aims at embracing diversity.
Fatal bear attack in Slovakia leaves man dead. Concerns over the growing bear population of Slovakia are mounting after what is being described as the first fatal bear attack in the country in over a century. On 15 June, the body of a 57-year-old man was found near the village of Liptovska Luzna in the Low Tatra mountains. An autopsy later revealed that the man had died from wounds sustained in a bear attack. Last year, there were five recorded bear attacks on humans in Slovakia, though none of them fatal. Slovakia’s population of Eurasian brown bears has tripled to 2,760 this century, and the attack has raised concern over the potential for more deadly run-ins between humans and bears in the future. While the Slovak environment ministry says that such an attack is unique, the country’s Forestry Association has called for hunting to be allowed to control populations, showing that for many Slovaks, a further increase in population may be difficult to bear.
In Eastern Europe…
Imprisoned Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich makes public appearances under state pressure. The co-founder of independent media outlet Nexta showed up unexpectedly at a press briefing organized by Belarus Ministry of Internal Affairs on 14 June. In May, Protasevich was arrested while flying from Athens to Vilnius, after the plane was forcibly diverted to Minsk by Belarusian authorities. During the briefing, he claimed to be “feeling great” and that he was willingly collaborating with the authorities because he “realized what damage [he] had caused to the government”. BBC journalists left the room in protest at the fact that the claims were clearly made under duress. Earlier this month, Protasevich was interviewed on public TV, where, amongst other things, he affirmed to respect Belarus president Lukashenko for his “balls of steel”. The journalist’s ability to make such claims freely are in doubt, considering the widespread use of torture in Belarusian prisons since the beginning of mass protests in August 2020.
NATO Summit leaves mixed outcomes for Ukraine. While NATO leaders agreed on the NATO 2030 agenda and raised the questions on China and Russia at their annual summit on 14 June, the situation on Ukraine’s membership in Alliance wasn’t omitted. In the lead-up to the G7 and NATO summits, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had made it clear he expected a concrete answer “yes” or “no” on Ukraine’s path to NATO, but was not given either. US President Joe Biden stated that “it remains to be seen” whether Ukraine will be admitted to NATO, as the country still doesn’t meet all the criteria. According to the Brussels Summit Communiqué (para 69), the NATO Allies reiterate the decision of the 2008 Bucharest Summit on Ukraine becoming the member with the Membership Action Plan, while the country should continue introducing the reforms fighting corruption, strengthening its resilience to hybrid threats and mainstreaming respect for human rights, minorities, and the rule of law. Zelenskyy assured that all the necessary reforms will be introduced while underlying that the decision lacks “specific time frames for the next steps” in the country’s rapprochement with NATO. One of the main obstacles for Ukraine’s membership remains Russia’s influence, as the idea of Ukraine joining the Alliance is considered a “red line” by the Russian government.
Russia to unify regions? On 12 June, Ura.ru reported, from a government source on the project “Frontline strategy of the country’s development,” that Russia will be moving ahead with a plan to unify some federal subjects. The first round will see the joining of Moscow and Moscow Oblast, St. Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, Marii El and Tatarstan, and Adygea and Krasnodar. However, Ura had reported only the previous day that the Duma had criticized Khusnullin’s plan, making it seem as if the idea would not move forward. Regional unification has been pushed many times before, notably by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but has a particular history supporting the absorption of Adygea by Krasnodar. It is crucial to note that Krasnodar is historic Circassian land, from which almost all Circassians, who survived Russia’s invasion of the Caucasus, were expelled. Unsurprisingly, Circassian organizations were quickly up-in-arms about the alleged plan, which has the potential to ferment conflict in the future.