Lossi 36 Weekly #28: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
Originally published on 04.10.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: Mikheil Saakashvili back in Georgia; a border standoff between Kosovo and Serbia; Karabakh marks one year since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war started; a revival of Kazakhstan‘s wild tiger population; Poland‘s Supreme Audit Office brings the Ministry of Justice to the books; tensions between Ukraine and Hungary over Russian gas; The Insider’s Dobrokhotov added to Russia’s wanted list; and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Saakashvili arrested upon return to Georgia Tatia Vakhtangadze
On Monday, September 27, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili posted a Facebook video announcing that he had booked a Kyiv-Tbilisi flight, and that he would be back in Georgia by the night of the local elections taking place on October 2, after nearly eight years since he fled the country. Saakashvili, sentenced in absentia to six years in prison by the Georgian court for several cases of abuse of power, had pledged to come back a few times right before the previous elections as well, but he never delivered on his promises. This time, however, Saakashvili played ‘va banque:’ on Friday, October 1, he published another Facebook video, stating that he had secretly returned to Batumi, Georgia, where he asked the supporters to vote for the opposition. The ruling Georgian Dream party leaders claimed that this video was fake, and that Saakashvili had crossed neither the Georgian nor Ukrainian borders: Saakashvili would have shot his video at the Rixos Hotel in Truskavets, Ukraine. Later that same day, the Georgian authorities reported Saakashvili’s arrest in Tbilisi and released a video of his arrest. It is still unknown how Saakashvili entered the country without being noticed by border guards, but the government claims that their public allegations about Saakashvili being in Ukraine was a part of a special operation which needed to be kept secret.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Serbia-Kosovo border standoff continues following weeks of growing tensions. Following Kosovo’s decision to remove Serbian license plates from vehicles entering the country earlier this month, the standoff at the Serbia-Kosovo border has escalated further. More recently, Kosovo has deployed specialist police forces across its Serb-majority northern regions. In response, Serbia has deployed armored vehicles on its side of the border, while the NATO peacekeeping-force in Kosovo, KFOR, has stepped up patrols across the area. The broader international community has called for de-escalation and a new round of talks to be held between the two nations to lower regional tensions. The military escalation comes as the EU prepares its latest Western Balkans summit in early October, coinciding with reports that its member states can no longer fully align on whether EU integration remains a possibility for the remaining Western Balkan states, whose accession discussions have either slowed dramatically, or have been blocked in recent years.
Dodik demands that Republika Srpska gets its own army. During his last press conference in Banja Luka, Bosnian-Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Milorad Dodik declared that he will request the abolition of the 2005 Law on the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Back in 2005, the law provided for the establishment of a joint federal army to be formed out of the remainders of the different Bosnian armed forces after the war. Dodik insisted that Republika Srpska could withdraw from the agreement that transferred competencies from the Serb entity to the central command, as the Bosnian Constitution does not prohibit it. In line with Dodik’s earlier strategies, his statements have been welcomed with a mix of weariness and indignation by non-Serb representatives in Sarajevo. For example, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zeljko Komsic, called it a criminal act of rebellion.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Nagorno-Karabakh: one year later. Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the start of the Second Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which ended with what Azerbaijan deems a “historic” victory. One year on, the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh continue to suffer from the fallout of the conflict: water shortages, ceasefire violations, their heritage under threat. Following allegations of discrimination against the Armenians living on the disputed territory, the Armenian government filed a lawsuit against Azerbaijan in the International Court of Justice (ICJ); Azerbaijan counter sued with near-identical accusations. The ICJ lawsuits represent the countries’ efforts to find new international engagement in the settling of their decades-long dispute. As Azerbaijan’s relationship with Russia has taken a turn for the worse, even the OSCE Minsk Group has re-entered the scene as a mediator, having made no real impact during the war. However, these latest moves are unlikely to lead to any breakthroughs in the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Kazakhstan to revive wild tiger population… with Putin’s help. At the 17th Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum, held on September 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a helping hand to Kazakhstan’s efforts to resurrect the country’s native tiger population, after almost a century of extinction. The joint announcement was made along with his Kazakh counterpart, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Having once inhabited the steppes of Central Asia, the so-called Turanian or Caspian tiger subspecies were last spotted in Kazakhstan in the 1930s. They were declared extinct in the 1970s by the World Wildlife Fund due to excessive poaching, depletion of their prey population because of uncontrolled hunting, and habitat loss caused by Soviet agricultural projects. Putin further offered the help of Russian specialists and their experience in reintroducing the Siberian tiger (which is likely to provide the genetic basis for the new Turanian tiger population) in its former range.
Kyrgyzstan tries to mitigate an electricity crisis. Kyrgyzstan was forced to take drastic measures to halt the country’s looming electricity crisis. To ensure that the population will have access to electricity through fall and winter, officials have introduced restrictions on the lighting of secondary streets, advertising boards, shopfronts, and cafés. These new measures are expected to affect the local economy, as customers won’t be as willing to leave their houses after it gets dark. Kyrgyzstan’s electricity crisis is caused by an abnormally low water level in Toktogul, the hydraulic station that produces 40% of the country’s energy. Apart from the usage restrictions on electricity, officials have also finalized agreements with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, both of which will be lending electricity to Kyrgyzstan.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Poland’s Supreme Audit Office takes on the Ministry of Justice. In its new report, the Office concluded that the financial management of the country’s Justice Fund “violated the overarching principles of public funding,” which resulted in up to 61 million euros being misspent. The Justice Fund is administered by the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, and it is meant to provide support to victims of crimes and post-release assistance to former prisoners. According to the report, legislative changes adopted in 2017 and a subsequent regulation on the Fund’s management issued by Ziobro permitted the usage of the Fund’s resources to finance activities only vaguely related to its true purpose, thus “enabling the creation of corruption-generating mechanisms.” Undersecretary of State at the Ministry, Marcin Romanowski, denied any misspending and accused the head of the Supreme Audit Office, Marian Banaś, of using his position as a political tool and protection from corruption investigations which he himself is a subject of.
Pro-EU MEP Klára Dobrev leads in the first round of Hungary’s opposition primary. Klára Dobrev, Vice President of the European Parliament, has won the first round of Hungary’s first opposition primary election with 35% of the vote, ahead of both Gergely Karácsony, the liberal mayor of Budapest (28%) from Dialogue for Hungary, and Péter Márki-Zay, the conservative mayor of Hódmezővásárhely (20%). Bulgaria-born Klára Dobrev represents the Democratic Coalition (DK), and is married to Ferenc Gyurcsány, former Hungarian PM. As no candidate has won more than 50% vote, the second round of the primary is set to be held between October 4 and 10.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Gazprom gas supply deal reignites tensions between Ukraine and Hungary. On September 27, Gazprom Export and MVM CEEnergy Ltd. signed two long-term gas supply contracts between Russia and Hungary, which has angered officials in Kyiv. Both contracts, which will last for fifteen years, aim to supply around 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Hungary via the southern TurkStream gas pipeline. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, which believes the deal to be a “purely political, economically unreasonable decision” that was taken “to the detriment of Ukraine’s national interests and Ukrainian-Hungarian relations,” has expressed disappointment over the deal, as the gas transport route bypasses Ukraine. Hungarian Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjarto responded to Ukraine’s criticism, claiming that such statements violate the sovereignty of Hungary, and that the country will not tolerate any meddling in its internal affairs. While Ukrainian-Hungarian relations have been tense since 2017, because of a law restricting the use of minority languages, including Hungarian in education, the Russo-Hungarian gas deal seems to have weakened bilateral ties further.
Mass arrests in Belarus for commenting on shoot-out on social media. Following a statement on social media by the Minsk-based human rights group Viasna96 about a shooting that took place last week, dozens of citizens have been detained by the Belarusian authorities after posting comments. The shooting incident being referred to happened on September 28, when both an IT worker and a KGB officer died. The IT worker, identified as the 31-year-old Andrey Zeltsar, was declared a “terrorist” in a statement made by the Belarusian KGB. A heavily edited video has been released by state media outlets, which document Andrey Zeltsar’s flat, which is where the incident took place, being raided. However, doubts have been raised regarding the accuracy and authenticity of the video, with many wondering if it was purposefully staged. The detainees have been arrested for their critiques of this video and were charged for insulting a government official and for inciting social hatred.
🌲 In Russia…
The Insider’s editor-in-chief Roman Dobrokhotov added to Russia’s wanted list. Dobrokhotov was placed on Russia’s wanted list on 30 September, his lawyer said. The Insider – a Russian independent online magazine, known for cooperating with Bellingcat in the investigation of Sergey Skripal’s poisoning in 2018, and Alexei Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 – was declared “foreign agent” by Russia’s Ministry of Justice on 23 July. One week later, the Russian police conducted raids on The Insider’s main office and Dobrokhotov’s house, during which the journalist’s passport was confiscated. In the early morning of 30 September, Dobrokhotov’s parents’ house was also searched, and his father and wife were taken away for questioning, according to The Insider. The journalist is now on Russia’s wanted list and is accused of “illegally” crossing the border between Russia and Ukraine on the night of 1 August.
Will Russian communists move towards ‘non-systemic’ opposition? Despite last month’s parliamentary elections being widely regarded as fraudulent, the ‘smart voting’ system developed by Alexei Navalny’s team to beat candidates from the increasingly unpopular United Russia party seems to have had some impact. In many districts, the candidates promoted by ‘smart voting’ were from the Communist party (KPRF). The party ended up winning around 19% of the votes, an unexpectedly high result. KPRF is popular mostly among people aged 50+ and characterized by nostalgia for the Soviet Union. It is widely regarded as part of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’, existing solely to create an illusion of a functioning democracy. The Communists are now in a difficult position — as political insiders, they cannot oppose the regime too openly. However, having racked up protest votes through the smart voting system, they may be forced into actual opposition. The protest against voter fraud, which they organized last week, may be the first step in this direction.
New criminal case against Navalny. Russia’s Investigative Committee opened a new case against Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and three of his close associates. Navalny himself has been in a Russian prison colony since March. Out of the remaining defendants, Ivan Zhdanov and Leonid Volkov have both been living in exile for months, while Lyubov Sobol, who was working as a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), is presumably staying in Turkey at the moment. They are accused of founding an extremist group and organizing, between 2014 and 2021, protests which propagated “violent regime change.” The FBK was labelled as extremist in June, and has therefore been banned since then. The new case makes Navalny and his associates face prison sentences of two to ten years. It is part of an offensive by the Kremlin to defuse all opposition against the Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin seems to be particularly disturbed by Navalny and his team’s video Putin’s Palace, which has gathered almost 120 million views on YouTube.