Lossi 36 Weekly #26: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
Originally published on 20.09.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: Parliamentary elections in Russia; poor air quality in The Balkans; state security documents leaked in Georgia; CSTO-CSO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Hungary‘s first-ever opposition primaries; Bulgarian drug kingpin caught in Ukraine; a joint military exercise by Belarus and Russia; and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Russia’s parliamentary election weekend. Tijs van de Vijver
The result of Russia’s parliamentary elections, held over the past weekend, is unlikely to yield surprises: United Russia will become the biggest party once again, the main question is by what margin. There are, however, a few disturbing trends to highlight. Firstly, the Russian authorities have recently stepped up their battle against ‘Smart Voting,’ Navalny’s electoral strategy of identifying the candidates most likely to beat United Russia. Federal censorship bureau Roskomnadzor blocked the Smart Voting website, demanded Google and Apple delete the Navalny app from their application stores, and required search engines Yandex and Google to remove anything related to Smart Voting from its search results, so that many opposition voters would not know who they are supposed to vote for. Secondly, the Russian authorities have employed several other tools in their bid to control the outcome of the elections, such as a three-day election window, online voting, foreign agent legislation against certain candidates, and a general decline in political competition.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Western Balkans countries fail to meet the Large Combustion Plants Directive. The European Large Combustion Plants Directive (LCPD) requires operators of large combustion plants to significantly reduce the emissions of air pollutants. Despite being contractors to the Energy Community and therefore bound to comply with the directive by January 2018, the countries of the Western Balkans are lagging behind, finds the annual report from the Comply or Close initiative, which causes disastrous air quality in the Balkans. In both 2018 and 2019, the countries’ coal plants emitted six times more sulfur dioxide and 1.6 times more dust pollution than allowed, which resulted in 3700 estimated deaths. The report has been made public in a context of strong civic mobilization against the Rio Tinto mining project in Serbia. The lithium mine, to be opened near Loznica in Western Serbia, would threaten local air, soil, and water quality, and could turn the country into “a dumpsite for dirty technologies.”
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Latvia’s support for Georgian EU integration. On September 8, Georgian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Teimuraz Janjalia, met with Latvian Secretary of State, Andris Pelšs. The main topics discussed were the relations between the European Union and Georgia, and Georgia’s progress in its integration with NATO. During the consultations, Mr Pelšs confirmed his country’s unwavering support towards Georgia’s rapprochement with the EU, while underlining the need for Georgia to move forward with reforms of its justice and electoral systems. Pelšs also stressed the importance of promoting a successful political dialogue between Georgia and Latvia, as well as prosperous economic activities between the two countries. On his side, Mr Janjalia presented the current state of Georgia-Russia relations with regards to the situation in Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, highlighting the importance of keeping the subject high on the international agenda. The consultations were concluded with a donation of 83,070 doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Georgia.
Alleged state security secret file leak stirs up controversy in Georgia. Last week, a dozen secret surveillance files, allegedly created by the state security forces, were published online by a “whistleblower”, opening up old wounds. Secret surveillance is not a novel strategy in Georgia, although the ruling Georgian Dream party has claimed to have terminated it when it first came into power in 2012. Unlawful spying is a criminal offence, however, authenticating the files will be a challenge. The leaked materials contain a sea of information on the country’s Orthodox clergy, who enjoy great political influence and, as the files show, have been at the centre of state security’s attention for quite some time. The scandal has prompted an angry reaction from Georgian society, and it remains to be seen how it will impact the upcoming elections. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has claimed that the leak was the opposition’s attack on the Church, Christianity and Georgian values.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Tajik unease over President Biden’s comments. Sirojiddin Muhriddin, Tajikistan’s foreign minister, issued a verbal note of protest over a comment made by American President Biden. On September 11, while talking about Afghanistan, the US president stated that “if we were in Tajikistan […] and we’re going to let, you know, anybody who was involved with being sympathetic to us to get on the plane, you’d have people hanging in the wheel as well.” Tajik officials took offense, because the statement implies that both Afghanistan and Tajikistan are in an identical crisis, thereby disregarding the political and cultural differences between the two countries. US ambassador to Tajikistan, John Pommersheim, is expected to meet with Tajik officials to clarify and ease the situation.
CSTO-SCO summit kicks off in Dushanbe. On the 16th and 17th of September, Tajikistan hosted the summits of both the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Dushanbe. Central Asian security issues were high on the agenda, considering the current situation in Afghanistan. The CSTO, consisting exclusively of post-Soviet states, touched upon a list of measures to combat the potential threats of terrorism, drug trafficking, and illegal migration, such as special military exercises and anti-drug operations on the Tajik-Afghan border. Stanislav Zas, the CSTO’s Secretary-General, assured that the CSTO will provide “necessary assistance” to Tajikistan, which shares a 1300 kilometers long border with Afghanistan. The day after, the SCO members, consisting of a broader group of Eurasian states, urged foreign governments and financial institutions to unfreeze Afghan monetary assets and provide greater financial aid to Afghanistan to prevent it from descending into a humanitarian crisis.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Lithuania, under diplomatic fire from China, receives support from EU/US allies. Lithuania continues to suffer the consequences of its agreement with Taiwan on a reciprocal opening of representative offices. The step prompted China’s retaliation: in August, Lithuania’s ambassador to China was recalled (or expelled), while China withdrew its own ambassador to Vilnius. Since then, China has been hampering its trade flows with the defiant Baltic country. Last week, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, whose country is currently holding the presidency of the Council of the EU, urged all EU heads of state and government to support Lithuania and to stand up to China. The topic will likely be discussed during EU leaders’ informal dinner on October 5. Lithuania also received the support from the United States. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “reiterated ironclad U.S. support for Lithuania in the face of attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China” in a meeting with his Lithuanian counterpart Gabrielius Landsbergis.
Nordic, Baltic and V4 foreign ministers meet in Finland. On September 14, the foreign ministers of the Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8) and Visegrád Group (V4) had an in-person meeting in Hämeenlinna, Finland. Finland, this year’s NB8 coordinator, and Hungary, V4 president, co-hosted the event. Issues such as economic recovery, the Three Seas Initiative, climate diplomacy, migration, and human rights concerns in Europe’s neighborhood were discussed. This October, the group is holding an Arria-formula meeting with a special address to Belarus at the UN Security Council. Regarding border protection, the group stresses the importance of the EU’s investment in external border infrastructure and agencies such as Frontex. As for support to the Afghans, the group has no solid measure of its own.
Hungary’s first-ever opposition primary. Hungary’s Democratic Coalition, Jobbik, Hungary’s Green Party, Momentum Movement, Hungarian Socialist Party, and Dialogue for Hungary have agreed to hold opposition primaries this autumn. After the winner-take-all voting system in 2012, these elections are the opposition’s strategy to present a single candidate to defeat ruling party Fidesz in the general election next year. Budapest liberal mayor Gergely Karácsony is among the favorites of the five contenders for the prime ministerial post. The first round of the election was supposed to start on September 19, but as a result of a system crash, it will be held from September 20 to September 26. The second round will take place between October 4 and 10. Voting can be done both online and in person at 775 polling places around the country. In response to the primary elections, Fidesz launched an anti-opposition petition, “Stop Gyurcsány! Stop Karácsony!,” claiming that the former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány is behind the left-wing Socialist parties.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Fugitive Bulgarian cocaine trafficking kingpin detained in Ukraine. Evelin “Brendo” Banev, 56, was arrested in Kyiv on 7 September. In 2013, the former wrestler was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail in Bulgaria for masterminding an organized crime group laundering drug-dealing profits. He managed to flee the country and has since been on Interpol’s Red Notice list. He was also wanted in Romania, where he was sentenced in absentia to ten and a half years for drug trafficking and setting up of an organized crime group. In late 2017, Banev was also sentenced to twenty years in jail in Italy for participating in a large-scale international scheme which trafficked as much as 40 tonnes of cocaine from Latin America to Europe between 2004 and 2007, supplying the ‘Ndrangheta mafia.
Belarus suspends investigation into the murder of an anti-government activist. On 17 September, the Belarusian Prosecutor-General’s Office announced that it had suspended the investigation into the killing of anti-government protester Raman Bandarenka. The activist’s murder in November 2020 escalated the protests demanding the resignation of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, with Bandarenka’s last known written message “I am going out” becoming a slogan of the protest movement. The Prosecutor-General’s Office has justified its decision by a lack of suspects in the case, adding that the probe would be resumed if new evidence emerged. The move has shocked Raman Bandarenka’s family, which was not informed about the decision beforehand. In an interview with Radio Svoboda, Bandarenka’s sister said that the case had been dragging on for three months until a criminal case had finally been initiated. Moreover, a lot of key evidence, for example surveillance footage, was reportedly not used in the probe.
🌲 In Russia…
Russia and Belarus conduct Zapad 2021 military exercises. Throughout last week, Russia, Belarus and smaller contingents from India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Armenia participated in Zapad 2021 military exercises, believed to be the largest organized by Russia in Europe since the Cold War. According to the Russian defense ministry, Zapad 2021 involved 200,000 personnel, 80 planes and helicopters, and nearly 300 tanks, however, experts believe the number of troops to be closer to 50,000-100,000. The exercises are designed to test the ability of a joint Russian-Belarusian military force to defend itself against hypothetical enemies coming from the west. The official scenario of Zapad 2021 imagines a clash between a fictitious “Polar Republic” (the aggressor) and the “Central Federation” (Russia and Belarus). The scenario also covers the Arctic, with Russia’s northern fleet and air force repelling a hypothetical attack near the Norwegian border. Moreover, this year’s exercises were the first ones in which remote-controlled Platform-M combat robots armed with grenade launchers and machine guns were used. Several NATO members, including Poland and Lithuania, have voiced concerns about Zapad 2021, especially in light of an ongoing migration crisis on their borders with Belarus.
Ramzan Kadyrov set to win a fourth term in Chechnya. Kadyrov, who has been Head of the Chechen Republic since 2007, will most likely be re-elected for a fourth term following yesterday’s ballot. His opponents, Isa Khadzhimuradov and Khalid Nakayev, were never expected to pose a real danger to the incumbent. Despite that, 1ADAT, an underground opposition movement in Chechnya, endorsed Khadzhimuradov — former mayor of Grozny — ahead of the elections. This move by the anti-Kadyrov group is surprising, not least because of Khadzhimuradov’s longtime ties to the Kadyrov family. This odd event highlights the disorganization and desperation among the opposition in Chechnya, which is swinging wildly in an attempt to land a punch on Kadyrov. However, 1ADAT now seems to be on the verge of a grand tactical change, possibly returning to fighting outside the political system.