Lossi 36 Weekly #23: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
Originally published on 28.06.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: Armenian political crisis begins with snap elections held; Bulgarian veto on Skopje EU talks now dragging Tirana back; crypto craze leaves the lights out in Abkhazia; Europe paints itself rainbow in protest against Hungarian anti-LGBT law; Protasevich transferred to house arrest; Afghan conflict felt close as Tajikstan as soldiers seek refuge from Taliban; Russia accuses itself of firing warning shots at British ship, and much more in the last newsletter of this academic year!
⭐️ This week’s special
Armenia moves on from post-war crisis after thumping Pashinyan victory.
Over seven months after an angry mob stormed parliament in Yerevan upon news of final defeat to Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, snap parliamentary elections were finally held in Armenia. In what was expected to be a much closer race, incumbent prime minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party gained an outright majority in parliament with 54% of the vote, with former president Robert Kocharyan’s party Armenia Alliance a distant second with 20%. The result projects 71 out of a total of 107 seats in Armenia’s National Assembly for Civil Contract, with Armenia Alliance picking up 29 and previous president Serzh Sargsyan’s “I’m Honoured” bloc rounding out the final seven seats. The OSCE’s election observation mission’s preliminary report described an election that was conducted in a competitive and transparent manner, but with high levels of “polarisation and inflammatory rhetoric”. While some expected further political unrest upon a Pashinyan victory, the situation has remained peaceful, though Kocharyan stopped short of officially recognising the result.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Bulgaria refuses to budge on North Macedonia EU accession talks, Albania also affected. On 22 June, ministers met in Luxembourg at the occasion of the General Affairs Council to discuss the opening of accession negotiations with both Albania and North Macedonia. But whereas all member states agreed on the fulfillment of formal criteria by Tirana, Bulgaria vetoed the launch of talks with Skopje, thereby blocking both countries’ progress. Being in the middle of the election process, the Bulgarian ruling party, Gerb, has chosen to stick to the rigged line as regards its North-Macedonian neighbour. The response from EU leaders to the stubborn veto is increasingly critical: “Let bilateral issues be handled bilaterally, without blocking the entire EU from moving forward”, declared the German Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth.
European Parliament adopts resolution on Bosnia and Herzegovina. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on Bosnia and Herzegovina on 24 June, reaffirming European positions on numerous ongoing issues in the country. The resolution does not mention the rights of the constituent peoples, after the EP rejected the EPP’s amendments, voted for by Croatian MPs regardless of party, which would include the rights of the constituent peoples in the text of the resolution. The report was adopted in the form of a Resolution, and was prepared and recently adopted by the Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was emphasized that the European Union strongly supports the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatian lawmakers condemned the violation of statehood and the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and called on domestic politicians to adopt a Constitution that will be in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Georgian Dream risks returning to political crisis. The ruling Georgian Dream government is moving ahead with the parliamentary appointments of judges to the Supreme Court. This action has been labeled a direct violation of the 19 April agreement, which ended Georgia’s months of political turmoil. While Georgian Dream claims what they are doing is not in violation of the agreement, this is neither the opinion of the Shame Movement, Georgia’s largest people-driven opposition movement, nor Kelly Degnan, the United States’ ambassador to Georgia. The U.S.’ quick condemnation of these events is a warning to Georgian Dream, a warning they seem to be missing or ignoring. This is a dangerous game for the ruling party to be playing, as they are simultaneously facing a slew of other accusations by opposition groups of being derelict of duty. These accusations include aiding Russia’s crackdown on their independent opposition and ignoring the abuses against their own citizens by Russia’s occupying forces.
Abkhaz opposition demands government’s resignation over energy crisis. The opposition in Abkhazia is demanding the voluntary resignation of the government due to a continuous energy crisis that has been ongoing since autumn last year, when the Abkhazian government decided to legalise cryptocurrency mining. In the united statement sent to the general prosecutor’s office, the opposition requires a thorough investigation on the damage caused by crypto mining on the meagre electricity supplies of the population, the infrastructure of the company Chernomorenergo, and the debts to Russia for its energy supplies to Abkhazia. The energy crisis had already emerged before the legalisation of crypto mining in September, with the ban being reintroduced in December as the country faced an increasingly dire energy situation. However, illegal crypto mining has not ceased, and ordinary people are suffering the burden of frequent blackouts of electricity.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Death of Czech Romani man in custody draws parallel with George Floyd. On Saturday, June 19, a Czech Romani man passed away in police custody in the city Teplice, North Bohemia. Amateur footage of his arrest, showing a police officer kneeling on the man’s neck for several minutes, sparked outrage among activists. The man later passed away in the ambulance. Activists quickly pointed to the ‘obvious parallels’ between the incident and George Floyd’s death last year. However, the autopsy found that his death was caused by a possible drug overdose and was unrelated to the police intervention. Czech Interior minister Jan Hamacek has expressed his full support to the police officers on Twitter, while Roma activists are still questioning the official version of events.
Hungary’s New Anti-LGBT Law Slammed EU-wide. On 15 June, Hungarian parliament passed the legislation prohibiting content promoting homosexuality and gender diversity in school, movies, as well as public TV programs and advertisement for minors despite a massive protest in Budapest a day before. The ruling party claimed that the aim is to protect children from pedophilia while drawing unnecessary relation to the LGBTQ+ community. Many criticized it as a Hungarian version of the Russian law on banning “LGBTQ+ propaganda”. On 24 June, the bill was ratified by Hungarian President János Adér. Controversy over the law triggered an international backlash. In response to the new discriminatory law, a petition for UEFA to illuminate Munich’s stadium in rainbow colors on the Germany-Hungary match day was launched. Despite rejection from UEFA, many stadiums in Germany joined force to support the movement. The issue of rule of law in Hungary was raised at the EU summit in Brussels on 24 June. Prior to the summit, 17 EU leaders signed an open letter to EU chiefs, vowing to fight discrimination of LGBTQ+ people. Many EU chief executives expressed personal concerns. EC President, Ursula von der Leyen, called out the law as “a shame”. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who is also a part of LGBTQ+ community, said that the law is “not acceptable”. Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, even confronted Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to consider leaving the EU if Hungary does not share common EU values.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Chained freedom: Roman Protasevich transferred to house arrest. On 25 June, Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich and his Russian girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were transferred to house arrest after being taken off the forcibly grounded Ryanair flight by Belarusian authorities on 23 May and kept in jail. The couple was charged with “incitement of mass riots”, “gross violation of public order”, and “incitement of social hatred” against public officials and law enforcement agents and face up to 15 years in prison. The Belarusian opposition leader, Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, called this move “good news”; however, it is still too early to celebrate, as both Protasevich and Sapega remain constantly being watched, followed, and aren’t allowed to talk to their relatives. The couple is understood to have suffered physical and psychological pressure: Protasevich, visibly bruised, despite thick makeup, has been paraded in recordings and at news conferences in which he tacitly praised president Lukashenko in a dull voice: at one interview, he even burst into tears. Since last year, the EU has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarusian individuals, including Alexander Lukashenko. On 21 June, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell confirmed new sanctions that would further increase pressure on the regime.
Dmytro Firtash, other assorted businessmen sanctioned by Zelensky over Russia ties. On 24 June, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree authorising a swathe of sanctions against Ukrainian businesses and their leaders for ties to or illegal transactions with Russia’s defense sector. The most high-profile individual to be sanctioned was oligarch Dmytro Firtash, whose holding company Group DF was hit with an asset freeze, ban on capital withdrawal, revocation of licenses, restriction of resource transit, and other restrictions. Firtash’s titanium company was accused of providing titanium alloy products to Russia. Commenting on the sanctions, Verkhovna Rada Speaker Dmytro Razumkov called upon Ukraine to request the extradition to Ukraine of Firtash, who is currently in Vienna facing extradition to the US.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Afghan troops flee into Tajikistan following clashes with the Taliban. After fierce fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban at the Shir Khan Bandar border crossing on 22 June, 134 Afghan troops were forced to flee into Tajikistan. Shir Khan Bandar is connected to Tajikistan by a US-funded bridge built in 2007 to increase trade between the neighbouring countries. The dry port is capable of handling up to 1000 vehicles a day and 150 loaded trucks were waiting to cross into Tajikistan when it became the centre of the fighting. Several districts in the Afghan regions of Takhar and Kunduz, both of which border Tajikistan, have fallen under Taliban control. Yodgor Faizov, the governor of the autonomous region of Nagorno-Badakhshan, remarked that the Tajik border guards were in a state of permanent readiness and that Tajikistan was willing to accept more than 10,000 Afghan refugees. On 23 June, Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov affirmed Russia’s support for Tajikistan stating “Tajikistan is a state that is very close to us […] Indeed, the emergence of a new hotbed of tension, of threat is something that concerns us.”
Early summer heatwave hits Central Asia. Across Central Asian capitals temperatures were reaching well over 40 degrees celsius last week, breaking centuries-old records. The heat has already affected water reserves, with very low water levels at the Toktogul Hydro Power Plant indicating that not only the upstream Kyrgyz lands will be impacted, but also downstream countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which rely on the water flowing from the Toktogul reservoir. The drought could also generate a food crisis that would further destabilise the political and economic situation in the region which is still suffering from the consequences of the COVID pandemic. Food prices have been rising, while remittances have decreased for Central Asian migrant families. Despite generally good dialogue among the Central Asian countries, this situation could further exacerbate the kind of nationalistic feelings that led to an escalation of border issues between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in May of this year.
🌲 In Russia…
Russian ambassador to the US returns to Washington amid threats of new sanctions. Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov and his US counterpart Ambassador John Sullivan have returned to their posts after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries – a direct result of the Biden-Putin summit that took place in Geneva on June 16. Ambassador Antonov stated that he was “optimistic” about the future of US-Russia relations and that “one of our main tasks is to implement the joint statement of the two presidents on strategic stability as soon as possible.” However, in a statement published on the Russian embassy’s official Facebook page, Antonov reacted to the news that the US was preparing new sanctions against Russia, stating “I think it is impossible to stabilize relations through sanctions.” Antonov’s return to Washington comes after he was re-called to Moscow in mid-March after Biden described Putin as “a killer in an on-air interview.
Tensions between Russia and the UK in the Black Sea. According to Russian Defense Ministry, on 23 June, a British warship violated Russia’s borders near Crimea peninsula, in the Black Sea. Russia claims to have fired “warning” shots and to have dropped four bombs in the path of the warship in order to prevent the British HMS Defender from further approaching Cape Fiolent, situated close to a major Russian naval base in Sevastopol. London has denied the reports, stating that, even though the HMS Defender detected over twenty Russian military aircrafts nearby, no bombs were dropped. Moreover, the British authorities maintain that the vessel, which had left from Odessa and was headed towards Georgia, was crossing Ukrainian territorial waters, not Russian, as the 2014 annexation of Crimea is not recognised by the majority of Western countries. It was on this very vessel that, a few days before the incident, Ukraine and Britain had signed an agreement which provides for British help to Ukraine in the creation of a new naval base in the Black Sea and the construction of eight new fast missile warships.