Lossi 36 Weekly #25: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
Originally published on 13.09.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: Maria Kalesnikava and Maxim Znak convicted in Belarus; Afghan refugees make their way to Albania; prisoner exchange between Azerbaijan and Armenia; Pope Francis travels to Central Europe; DNR and LNR prepare for Russian Duma elections; Kazakh activists call upon ancient spirits; Kadyrovite assassinated in Istanbul, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Belarusian court sentences Maria Kalesnikava and Maxim Znak to 11 and 10 years in prison.
On September 6, a Belarusian Court charged the two opposition figures with extremism, an attempt to seize power illegally, and damaging state security. Both defendants rejected any wrongdoing. Unlike Tsikhanouskaya, Kalesnikava stayed in Belarus after the massive crackdown on dissent in 2020. A year ago, she resisted forced deportation to Ukraine by ripping up her passport at border controls. During the court hearing, a handcuffed Maria didn’t miss the chance to smile and display a heart sign with her hands, a symbol of the 2020 protests. Queuing in front of the Minsk Regional Court, numerous Belarusians showed their support. Foreign diplomats were not allowed to enter the courtroom. Following the verdict, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, forced out of Belarus last year, promptly demanded the “immediate release” of Kalesnikava and Znak. The European Union issued a statement expressing disapproval for the “blatant disrespect” of human rights by the Belarusian regime. Two days later, a street-art image of Kalesnikava appeared in St. Petersburg, captioning“for our and your freedom.” It only lasted a few hours before the Russian authorities covered it.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Srecko Acimovic, Former Bosnian Serb Army commander, convicted of involvement in Srebrenica genocide. According to a statement of the Bosnian state court, Acimovic has been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the imprisonment and the killing of Bosniak men in the village of Rocevic on July 15, 1995. At the time, Acimovic headed the Zvornik Brigade’s Second Battalion. The court added that Acimovic was present during the massacre of 1,040 men. It is worth noting that Acimovic’s trial only started in 2015, after the State’s Prosecutor Office filed a judicial complaint against the former officer. According to the complaint, Acimovic had always denied his involvement in the genocide, claiming he had refused to comply with the orders of his superior officers to participate in the massacre.
First Afghan refugees make their way to Albania. In August, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama agreed to an American request to temporarily host hundreds of Afghan refugees for at least one year. Since, approximately 4000 refugees have arrived thus far. So far, most of the asylum seekers have been placed in the student’s dormitories in Tirana, forcing students to leave their rooms. The situation has created a public debate related to the actual capacity of the Albanian government to handle the issue. After all, the country is also dealing with economic difficulties, high unemployment and political corruption. However, Rama has often stressed the importance of showing solidarity, as “we were the Afghans 30 years ago,” underling the relation with the migration past of the Albanians.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Turkey and Azerbaijan hold joint military exercises in the Lachin region. Joint tactical military exercises have been organized by Turkey and Azerbaijan in the Lachin region, acquired by Azerbaijan following the “44-Day War” against Armenia. The Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense noted in its statement that the exercises aimed at improving the “skills of using modern military equipment and other military means in difficult terrain”. The land exercises, organized under the Agreement on Military Cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey, follow the joint military exercises of the Turkish and Azerbaijani naval and air forces conducted in early September. The military training is taking place against the backdrop of an ongoing “border crisis” between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a week after a firefight in Yeraskh, southern Armenia, in which an Armenian soldier was killed.
Exchange of prisoners between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On Wednesday, 8 September, two Armenian prisoners arrived in Yerevan, following their exchange for one Azerbaijani prisoner. It is reported that the Armenian soldiers had been detained on 14 July near Lake Sev, directly on the border with Azerbaijan. The soldier from Azerbaijan had been arrested at the end of August in the town of Martakert, where he had entered a family house. Azerbaijani officials stated that he had sought refuge in the house after leaving a psychiatric ward of one of the hospitals in the Azerbaijani city of Ganja. The two Armenian soldiers do not belong to the group of Armenian prisoners of war (POW) who are still held in captivity in Azerbaijan since last November. Recently, a report about those POWs was published by the Armenian Ombudsman, highlighting the inhuman treatment and torture of Armenian soldiers in Azerbaijani prisons.
Abkhazia’s ongoing struggle to ensure transparency and fight corruption. On 29 August, a picture of an armored Lexus LX570, with an estimated price of 20 million rubles (230,000 euros), leaked on Telegram. The message suggested that the vehicle belonged to Abkhaz President Aslan Bzhania, and might have been bought with public funds. Despite state press services announcing that none of the presidential service cars had been purchased at public expense, the information sparked indignation among Abkhaz citizens, particularly in light of Abkhazia’s financial struggle to face the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the news broke a few months after activists had deplored the government’s inertia regarding the adoption of solid legislation on corruption and accountability of state officials. Bzhania himself presented a draft law on income declarations in front of the Abkhazian parliament in 2019, when he was an MP. The law was adopted, but never enforced. Both of Bzhania’s predecessors were toppled following public protests over corruption and misrule affairs.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Eco-activists call upon Kazakh spirits to protest construction in Nur-Sultan. On September 7, diggers and trucks going about new construction works in the Kazakh capital’s Small Tadykol Lake were confronted by activists in shamanic costume invoking traditional Kazakh spirits. Performance artists Ashkhat Akhmedyarov and Aigerim Ospan, associated with the SOS.Tadykol campaign, performed a Baqsy Saryny ceremony amidst the construction equipment, translated as an “incantation of the healer”, to protest the redevelopment of the lake into a high-rise residential area and landscaped park. Small Tadykol Lake is a unique micro-ecosystem of grassland and wetland often described as the “lungs of the city”, populated and visited by dozens of bird species. Multiple petitions and appeals have been made about the issue to Kazakh president Kassym-Jommart Tokayev, but all have so far fallen on deaf ears.
Kyrgyz activist detained for criticism of President Japarov. Orozayym Narmatova, a member of the Butun Kyrgyzstan political party, was arrested by Kyrgyz police officer on the airport of Osh on September 10. Formerly a close political ally of Japarov, Narmatova has become an outspoken critic of the Kyrgyz President. Narmatova’s criticism of Japarov, which she voiced mainly during assemblies with Kyrgyz labor migrants in Russia, amounts to accusations of inaction and nepotism. According to the Interior Ministry, Narmatova’s criticism amounts to calls for a “violent seizure of power,” which is punishable by two and a half years in a Kyrgyz prison.
🚃 In Central Europe…
European Commission makes a case for financial penalties against Poland. On 7 September, the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to proceed with financial sanctions in order to pressure Poland to fully enforce the requirements and interim measures set by the Court in its judgments announced on 14 and 15 July. The measures, resulting from an infringement procedure, which was launched in December 2019, called for the suspension of the activities of the Polish Disciplinary Chamber, which is considered to be threatening judicial independence and is regarded as Poland’s attempt to undermine the primacy of EU law over member states’ national legislations. Poland’s actions to comply with ECJ’s ruling were limited and delayed, adding this issue to a number of ongoing controversies between Warsaw and Brussels. “We need to ensure that the ECJ rulings are fully respected”, Commission’s Vice President Věra Jourová told Politico while commenting on the events.
Populism-defiant Pope travels to Central Europe. Pope Francis has started his tour in Hungary, with a brief visit to Budapest on Sunday. Slovakia, his main focus, is where he will be until Wednesday this week. Organizers remain skeptical and unsure if the audience will be as high as expected. People who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 were eventually included among those who could participate, on condition that they take a COVID test prior to the events — a measure aiming to boost attendance. It is feared that the pandemic may have discouraged many Slovaks from participating altogether. It has also been suggested that Pope Francis may not be particularly popular among Slovak Catholics. This group, which represents over 60% of the population, tends to be politically closer to populist politicians, while Pope Francis has clearly distanced himself from populist rhetoric, for example by speaking in favor of solidarity with refugees. He also seems to have a good relationship with the more liberal Slovak President, Zuzana Čaputová, who visited the Vatican in late 2020.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Donetsk and Luhansk separatist republics prepare for Russian Duma elections. On 17-19 September, the two self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, located in Eastern Ukraine, will be able to vote in Russian parliamentary elections. Since their declarations of independence, many of their citizens have been receiving Russian passports, a process made easier by a special presidential law introduced in 2019. Currently, around 600,000 people have already received Russian citizenship, prompting the question of how to allow them to vote in Russian national elections. During the controversial 2020 constitutional referendum, special buses were organized to shuttle voters to the neighboring Rostov region in Russia. This time, the process will be much easier: votes will be taken online, through dedicated computers and with the support of special “consultants” in 255 public spaces across the two republics.
Third time’s the charm in Bulgarian politics? After months of political deadlock, Bulgarian President Radev this week announced the third Bulgarian parliamentary elections of 2021. The snap elections will be held on November 14, on the same day as the first round of a presidential election in which Radev hopes to secure reelection. The parliamentary elections held in April and July resulted in a fragmented political landscape, so that no party has been able to form a government thus far. Considering that pollsters anticipate another badly fragmented parliament, it remains to be seen whether new elections will lead to a workable parliament the third time around.
🌲 In Russia…
Kadyrovite assassinated, opposition claims hollow victory. The day before the 30th anniversary of the declaration of Chechen independence, a former ally of Ramzan Kadyrov was assassinated in Istanbul. The man, currently only known as “Abdurakhman,” was known to have served fifteen years in the Akhmat Kadyrov police regiment before moving to Turkey. The regiment has a history of extrajudicial executions and, like all security services in Chechnya, operates in close proximity to Ramzan. Turkey has been a hotspot for Chechen assassinations, but the victims have primarily been Chechens aligned with the old opposition, either the Ichkerian government or the Caucasus Emirate. Current opposition groups are hailing this moment as “a tiny part of what awaits the Kadyrovite enemies of Allah,” and declaring that “Turkey is no longer a safe place for Putin-Kadyrovite agents.” In reality, neither claim is likely to come true in the near future.
Belarus-Russia Union State programs. On September 9, Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin discussed the Zapad-2021 joint military exercises and a further integration of the two countries. The 28 programs seeking to deepen the economic integration of the two states, as provided for by the Union State Treaty of 1999, topped the agenda. A unification of the Belarus-Russia energy markets, based on Belarus’ the comfortable gas prices that are lower compared to all CIS countries and the EU, became one of the more prominent programs. Considering the further-going military and economic integration, and considering the primary goal of the 1999 Union State Treaty – the unification of both countries – Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Snopkov felt the need to assure that Belarus would remain independent. It is worth noting that independent pollster The Levada Center recently found that 82% of Russians express a positive attitude towards Belarus.