Lossi 36 Weekly #27: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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Originally published on 27.09.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.

In this week’s newsletter 📮: The aftermath of the elections in Russia’s regions; a license plate row between Kosovo and Serbia; heated discussions between Azerbaijan and Iran; a meeting between Kyrgyz and Taliban officials in Kabul; ECJ ruling against Poland’s TurĂłw coal mine; pride in Kyiv; the International Energy Agency calls on Russia to deliver gas; and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Russia’s elections: lessons from the regions. Harold Chambers

With most media covering the delayed results of the electronic voting in Moscow that swept United Russia to a come-from-behind victory in the capital, the strategic advantages of electronic voting are more evident in the region’s further from the capital. In eleven regions (including Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia-Alania, Tuva, and Khabarovsk) the incumbent governors were re-elected. These specific regions have proved troublesome for Moscow in the past few years. Karachay-Cherkessia has dealt with corruption, economic stagnation, and has failed to solve the “Circassian question.” North Ossetia is facing social unrest from environmental problems and the pandemic, with the previous leader being forced to retire. Tuva has been sliding beyond the Kremlin’s reach, as socio-economic crises persist and ethnic Russians flee, problems for which the governor of fourteen years was dismissed. Khabarovsk drew international attention to their sustained protests against the replacement of their previous governor, who had shockingly defeated the Kremlin’s candidate in 2018. The political manipulations in the lead up to and during the September elections indicate the importance of the governors in the Kremlin’s regional strategy, an assessment that will likely be further supported in Dagestan’s upcoming election, where Putin has found a controllable counterweight to Ramzan Kadyrov on the Chechnya-Dagestan border.

🌺 In the Balkans…

License plates row threatens dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Tensions have been rising in Kosovo over the past week, after authorities imposed the removal of Serbian license plates from cars arriving in the country. PriĹĄtina justified the move by arguing that it was a reciprocity measure previewed in an agreement mediated by the EU. The terms of the agreement stipulate that drivers going from Kosovo into Serbia are required to remove their license plates and pay 5 euros for temporary plates issued by Serbian authorities. Kosovo’s reciprocal measures angered both Belgrade, which threatened to suspend further negotiations with PriĹĄtina, and Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs, who blocked the border for three days in protest. As the authorities urged the protesters to move, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić released a statement, detailing four conditions required to resume dialogue. These range from not allowing Kosovo police to deploy in the north of the country without NATO-led Kosovo Force’s permission, to annulling a prison sentence for one of Kosovo’s Serb MPs, Ivan Todosijević.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

New developments on the Goris-Kapan road: heated discussions between Iran and Azerbaijan. On September 13, Azerbaijani checkpoints appeared on the Goris-Kapan road, located in Armenia, but with some parts crossing into Azerbaijan after the 44-Day War in 2020. Following the establishment of the checkpoints, the Azerbaijani police had started to charge Iranian truck drivers a tax of $130. The Azerbaijani authorities had previously complained about the “illegal” passage of foreign vehicles on this trade route, through which many Iranian trucks passed. On September 15, two Iranian truck drivers were arrested by the Azerbaijani police, provoking Tehran’s displeasure, leading to meetings between the Iranian ambassador in Baku Abbas Mousavi and the President Aliyev’s assistant Hajiyev. Despite the communicated constructive nature of the meeting, tensions between the two countries have, on the rise since mid-2020, remain, especially with the Iranian trucks affair in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moreover, an unverified video showing the movement of Iranian troops and military equipment on the border between Iran and Azerbaijan, was broadcast on September 20, accompanied by the description. The video of these Iranian military exercises at the border has yet to be verified, as nothing official has been announced in this regard.

🛤 In Central Asia…

High-ranking Kyrgyz government officials meet with the Taliban in Kabul. In what can be seen as a move towards recognition and diplomatic relations with Afghanistan’s new Islamist government, two top Kyrgyz officials travelled to Kabul on September 23 to hold talks with the Taliban leadership. The deputy chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Council, Taalatbek Masadykov, and the head of the Foreign Policy Department of the Kyrgyz presidential administration, Jeenbek Kulubaev, met with the Taliban government’s acting foreign minister Amir Muttaqi. Although the Kyrgyz government did not comment on the meeting, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid tweeted that the talks were about “continued cooperation and the establishment of bilateral relations.” The meeting comes a week after Shanghai Cooperation Organisation leaders called for the unblocking of assets and aid flows to Afghanistan as part of an effort to normalize the region’s new status quo.

Son of Tajik President goes on an official visit to Kazakhstan. On September 23, Rustam Emomali — son of President Emomali Rahmon, and the elected chairman of Tajikistan’s National Assembly (Majlisi Mili) — visited Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, along with other high-ranking members of parliament. The following day, he was received by the Kazakh President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. According to local press reports, the President commended the bilateral cooperation in areas of trade, security and infrastructure, which he credited to the agreements signed between the two governments in May of this year. Emomali and Tokayev also discussed and noted the need for more Tajik-Kazakh cooperation in the region, in order to weather the current security threats posed by the situation in Afghanistan. Rustam Emomali was officially made the second-in-line to the Tajik presidency when he was elected chair of the National Assembly in April 2020. Even prior to that, many regional watchers believed that he would be the eventual heir to his father’s post.

🚃 In Central Europe…

ECJ ruling against Turów site renews tense Czech-Polish talks. Seven months ago, the Czech Republic sued Poland in front of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), accusing Poland’s state-controlled power company PGE of illegal mining activities at Turów coal mine, with the mining reportedly damaging local water supplies across the Czech border. In May, the ECJ ordered the mining to be stopped immediately, despite Turów producing 5-7% of Polish energy. Initial talks conducted over the summer failed to produce an agreement. Having continued the plant’s operations, Warsaw was ordered by the ECJ last Tuesday to pay the European Commission 500,000 euros each day of the plant’s activity. Although the amount is ten times less than the initial demands made by the Czech Republic, it was sufficient to trigger renewed attention from the Polish authorities, who are still not considering closing the plant. Prague remains open to amicable settlements, as long as certain technical conditions are met, such as those affecting the local population on the Czech side.

Budapest Demographic Summit conclusions. On 23 and 24 September, a number of leading conservative politicians from Central and South-Eastern Europe took part in the fourth Budapest Demographic Summit. Among the speakers were Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Slovenian PM Janez Janša, Czech PM Andrej Babiš, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina Milorad Dodik and Mike Pence, US vice-president during Donald Trump’s presidency. The Summit was attended by around 500 participants from religious, scientific and governmental spheres, with discussions revolving around the concerning demographic decline and fertility rates in the region. The participants highlighted the need to adopt pro-family stances and policies, collectively discarding the idea of using immigration as a means of compensating for population decline. A focus was put on the need to safeguard family values, Christianity, traditions and culture as a response to Western criticism of conservative anti-LGBTQ policies enacted in the region.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Thousands march for Kyiv Pride 2021 despite opposition. On September 19, the annual Kyiv parade for LGBTQ+ rights was held with a turnout of more than seven thousand people, making it the biggest LGBTQ+ event in Eastern Europe, ever. Notably, the parade was joined by soldiers, the ambassadors of Sweden and Britain, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, and a deputy of the Kyiv City Council. Compared to other events of a similar vein elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the march in Kyiv was considered a success, as there were no incidents of violence recorded during the event, albeit with police protection. However, a few hundred anti-gay protesters from far-right and nationalists groups gathered around. Although homophobia is still widespread in Ukraine, the Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community is becoming more and more visible and more politically active: legislation regulating the procedures for crimes motivated by homophobia, transphobia and other forms of intolerance is currently on the table.

Five migrants die of hypothermia and exhaustion on the Polish-Belarusian border. On Friday, September 24, Polish authorities found another migrant dead in the area bordering Belarus, adding to the other three deaths of the past week. Meanwhile, the Belarusian border service communicated that, “a woman of non-Slavic appearance” was found lifeless on its side of the border. The Belarusian authorities have accused Poland of planting the body on Belarusian soil – a claim rejected by Polish border guards. Polish human rights NGOs, however, have denounced Poland’s migrant pushbacks and the dramatic conditions in the countries’ border area, from which Warsaw has now banned the press and NGOs. The European Commissioner for migration, Ylva Johansson, has called for an investigation into the deaths, urging Poland to allow Frontex to access the area, as neighboring Lithuania already has. While still restricting IOM and the UN Refugee Agency from entering the area, the Polish Interior Ministry said that it would deploy 500 additional soldiers to protect its frontiers.

🌲 In Russia…

IEA urges Russia to increase gas supply to Europe. The International Energy Agency has called on Russia to send more gas to Europe to help alleviate the looming energy crisis. According to the IEA, Russia is fulfilling its long-term contracts with European counterparts – but its exports to Europe are down from their 2019 levels. The IEA believes that “Russia could do more to increase gas availability to Europe and ensure storage is filled to adequate levels in preparation for the coming winter heating season,” and, if not, there is a high chance of gas shortages in some parts of Europe. Gazprom’s chief executive Alexei Miller ensured that the company is ready to increase production if needed, but he warned that prices could rise further in the winter. It seems that this behavior is linked to NordStream 2, where Russia restricted sales in an attempt to accelerate the decision-making process. Gazprom denies any accusations of this kind.

Google and Apple block Navalny’s app on the eve of Russian Duma elections. On September 17, as elections for the lower chamber of the Russian parliament started, the app “Smart Voting,” created by Aleksey Navalny and his team, disappeared from Google and Apple stores. Smart Voting is an electoral strategy to reduce the electoral turnout for “United Russia” as much as possible. On the same day, Telegram blocked a chatbot on Navalny’s channel with a similar function, and YouTube removed a video with Smart Voting recommendations. Although Google and Apple did not comment on their decisions, Russia reportedly raised the possibility of criminal charges against the tech giants’ local employees. Telegram’s CEO Pavel Durov commented that they had to delete the chatbot because they depend on Google and Apple, but that, “the app block by Apple and Google creates a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of expression in Russia and the whole world.”

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Charles Fourmi, Myriam Marino, Caterina Barbi, Adriano Rodari, Qianrui Hu, Zadig Tisserand, Francis Farrell, Vira Kompaniiets, Martina Bergamaschi, Harold Chambers, and Chaharika Uppal 💘
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