Lossi 36 Weekly #29: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read
Originally published on 11.10.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: Constitutional Tribunal rejects primacy of EU law in Poland; the first-ever North Macedonian state visit to Greece; Azerbaijani airplane in Armenian airspace; the riches of the unofficial third wife of Kazakhstan‘s first president; Slovenian PM accused of press freedom breaches after EU summit; the offshore assets of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy; NATO expels eight Russian intelligence officers; and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Polish Constitutional Tribunal rejects primacy of EU law.
In a move anticipated to set off a major confrontation with Brussels, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal has ruled to reject a recent decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), stating that the country’s constitution retains primacy over EU law. The 7 October ruling said that the ECJ decision “violates … the rules that give priority to the constitution and rules that respect sovereignty amid the process of European integration.” Back in March this year, the ECJ had ruled that the EU had the ability to override aspects of national law, including constitutional law. Since then, the ECJ has taken issue with changes to the way Polish judges are selected and dismissed, declaring some cases as having been in violation of EU law. This escalation in confrontation comes after years of simmering enmity between Brussels and Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS), as the latter is widely seen to have been undermining the independence of the country’s judicial system. While PiS members cheered the decision, pro-EU opposition politicians have argued that the move could come with serious ramifications for Poland’s place in the EU that could even end in a “Polexit.” In a statement calling Poles to protest on the coming weekend, opposition leader and former European Council President Donald Tusk said “the operation to lead Poland out of Europe, planned by [PiS leader] Jarosław Kaczyński, has started at full speed. If we stay idle, nothing will stop him.”
🌺 In the Balkans…
Pandora Papers in the Balkans: the Tirana-Podgorica power line. Among the three terabytes of the data the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published, the Pandora Papers revealed that from 2013 to 2019, Bosnian engineering giant Energoinvest paid over 3,6 million euros to the AL Energy Transmission of Vasil Kallupi, an Albanian businessman with past connections to Edi Rama. In 2014, Energoinvest won the contract to finish the 400-KV power line that today connects Albania to Kosovo. AL Energy Transmission acted as a consultant on the design and construction of the Tirana-Podgorica travel line, which indicates that there might be a risk of collusion. While there is nothing inherently illegal about the payments, it is noteworthy that they were done through offshore jurisdictions and that a sum was withdrawn by Kallupi’s wife and nephew.
North Macedonia’s first-ever state visit to Greece. Last Tuesday, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski went to Athens for North Macedonia’s first-ever state visit to Greece. Pendarovski met his Greek counterpart Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Pendarovski’s visit reflects the openness of the Greek government to Skopje’s accession to the EU. More than two years ago, both countries concluded the so-called Prespes agreement related to the use of the name “Macedonia,” thereby formally ending a three-decade-old dispute. During the visit, President Sakellaropoulou underlined the essential role of this agreement for the enhancement of the economic and political bilateral relations, while still acknowledging the presence of some unresolved issues to be addressed in the future.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Azerbaijani civilian aircraft uses Armenian airspace for the first time in 7 years. On the night of October 6, a civilian aircraft of Azerbaijan’s national airline AZAL, carrying passengers between Nakhichevan and Baku, used Armenian airspace for the first time since 2014. This event caused a lot of commotion on social media and in Armenian society. Many in Armenia and Azerbaijan have criticized the move as a ‘unilateral concession’ to Baku, seeing it as another step towards opening a corridor between the enclave of Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan. However, as political scientist Movses Harutyunyan has pointed out, Armenian airspace had never actually been closed to Azerbaijani civilian flights and vice versa. Legally, by virtue of its membership of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, Armenia could not have closed its airspace to Azerbaijani civilian flights.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Nazarbayev’s unofficial third wife enriched through offshore dealings. Materials obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, known as the Pandora Papers, suggest that one of the financial beneficiaries of offshore deals between Kazakhstan’s top oligarchs was the unofficial third wife of the country’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Assel Kurmanbayeva has been rumored to be in a relationship with Nazarbayev since her 1999 win of the Miss Kazakhstan beauty pageant, at age 18. Kurmanbayeva, now 40, is the artistic director of two state dance institutes and runs several organizations in the field of performing arts. However, the Pandora Papers reveal that her wealth runs much deeper, with her having reportedly received a 30 million dollar payment following transfers of shares of six offshore companies. The payout involved two Kazakh oligarchs, Vladimir Ni and Vladimir Kim, long-time confidantes of Nazarbayev, who amassed wealth in Kazakhstan’s natural resources sector.
Taliban rearms Tajik militants and relocates Uyghur fighters. In an anonymous report obtained by RFE/RL, both Tajik authorities and representatives of Afghanistan’s former government confirmed that members of the terrorist organization Ansarullah (also known as the “Tajik Taliban”) had been actively using weapons, equipment, and military vehicles left behind in Afghanistan following the US and NATO’s departure. The militants, who had previously been using Kalashnikovs and old pickup trucks, are thought to have taken the new equipment from the Afghan National Army, during the Taliban’s lightning offensive towards Kabul. The sources for the RFE/RL report also confirmed that the Taliban had relocated members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Turkestan Islamic Movement away from Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province to other regions in the country, including the Nangarhar Province in the east. Intelligence from the area contradicts the Taliban’s announcement that Uyghur fighters had left the country after telling other militant groups that they could not use Afghanistan as a base to target other countries.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Slovenian PM accused of press freedom breaches after EU summit. Slovenia, currently holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, hosted the EU summit on October 6. Discussions revolved mostly around the strategic role of the EU in the Western Balkans. The state of media freedom in Slovenia itself, however, became a subject of discussion during the closing press conference of the summit. Local journalists manifested support for the cause of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA), which has not received its government funding for over 250 days. Journalists pointed out that several EU member states and the country holding the presidency hinder press freedom, despite the EU’s demands for candidate states to strictly comply with rule of law and democratic principles. While the right-wing Slovenian PM Janez Janša responded to the allegations by defending his government, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed the relevance of press freedom regarding the STA controversy. Already in 2020, the Slovenian PM had oftentimes referred harshly to public media outlets.
Another COVID wave hits Poland and Slovakia. In Poland and Slovakia, the number of Covid cases is rising to levels equal to Spring, when both countries faced strict lockdown measures. Polish health minister Waldemar Kraska declared that “the fourth wave has become a reality” just last week: on Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases unpredictably rose to over 2000 in Poland, up by 70% compared to last week. Meanwhile, Slovakia reported close to 2000 cases as well, a country seven times less the population of Poland. Slovak hospitals are planning for a possible surge, as they already stopped planning surgeries. Both Poland and Slovakia have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the EU, which mainly explains why the surge occurs. Amidst a feeling of returning to normal, optimism from previous weeks that the pandemic might have been over, especially as students were allowed to return to classrooms and dorms, could instead quickly vanish, although the authorities assured that a new lockdown is currently not on the table.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Belarusian Version of Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda blocked. According to a statement by the Belarusian Information Ministry, access to the website of the Belarusian version of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s largest and allegedly Vladimir Putin’s favorite tabloid, has been blocked. According to the announcement made by the media organization on its Telegram channel, the publication was not informed of the decision to close its website in advance. Its print version has already been banned in Belarus since 2020. The reason to block this publication indefinitely, as stated by the Belarusian ministry, was that the materials of this media “could produce threats to national security, including through the artificial irritation of tensions and conflicts in society.” Notably, the move came after Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article containing comments from an acquaintance of Andrey Zeltsar, who had been killed in his home during a raid being carried out by the Belarusian KGB. On October 1, the journalist who wrote this article was detained in Moscow, and later ended up in a Belarusian prison.
Zelenskyy’s links to offshore firms revealed by Pandora Papers. It was discovered that the Ukrainian President, among other top officials, has concealed assets abroad, sparking criticism at home. Zelenskyy came to power thanks to his role as a teacher outraged by Ukraine’s corruption who is eventually elected as president in the TV-show ‘Servant of the People.’ This positive image crashed last week when the team at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed that Zelenskyy has more in common with his predecessors than he would like to let on. Together with his partner in comedy production, the president owned a network of offshore companies based in the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, and Belize. The assets held via these offshore companies include real estate in London and even show connections to Russia. Experts believe that the Pandora Papers will lower the President’s ratings and chances to get a second term, though they are not expected to let the opposition call for early elections.
Transnistria’s FC Sheriff Tiraspol beats Real Madrid. In its second match at the Champions League group stage, the football team from the de facto state of Transnistria, Moldova, beat Real Madrid at the Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid on September 29. This is the first time the team of the small breakaway region, which became de facto independent of Moldova in the early 1990s through a short civil war, has qualified for the prestigious tournament. The estimated value of the entire Sheriff squad is 12 million euros, about the same as the annual salary of Madrid defender David Alaba. FC Sheriff belongs to a holding of the same name which effectively runs most of the businesses in the region. The company is owned by a former Soviet police officer, Viktor Gushan, who controls several businesses in Transnistria, ranging from a cognac distillery and a caviar farm to supermarket and gas station chains.
🌲 In Russia…
Kadyrov calls for abolition of police checkpoints. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov recently took to Instagram to criticize the continued existence of police checkpoints between the different North Caucasus republics, pointing out that there were no internal border posts outside the region. The posts were originally established as part of counter terror (CT) operations, which have since been declared over. There are two ways to interpret Kadyrov’s statements. First, it could be a genuinely constructive policy, aimed at increasing and easing regional interconnectivity, similar to Kadyrov’s years-long campaign to reconstruct the Argun road connecting Chechnya and Georgia. Second, it could be an effort to further remove federal forces from the region. In 2015, Kadyrov famously called for security forces to be shot if found operating in Chechnya without the republic’s permission, and with the CT operations over, there is theoretically no further need for the checkpoints. It is worth noting that Chechen operatives have themselves ignored border distinctions before, for example ahead of the Ingush land swap.
Russia’s pipeline to Europe begins to fill up. Nord Stream 2 (NS 2) began to fill up last Monday, with its eventual transit capacity estimated at 55 billion cubic meters of gas per annum. The opening of the pipeline is good news for Germany, which imports 40% of its gas from Russia, and is hoping to receive more in light of skyrocketing gas prices in Europe, and to transition away from coal and nuclear energy. However, NS 2 is viewed by some as highly controversial, as it bypasses Ukraine, which will lose 1 billion euros in transit fees from Russia annually. On Tuesday, German energy regulators announced that NS 2 needed to prove it would not break competition rules by limiting which suppliers would use it. Gazprom AG, which owns the pipeline, responded by saying “Nord Stream 2 will continue to undertake all necessary efforts to ensure compliance with all applicable rules and regulations.”
Eight intelligence officers expelled from Russian mission to NATO. Last Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the organization had withdrawn the accreditation of eight Russian officials, who were “undeclared intelligence officers”. The Alliance also decreased the number of accredited positions available to Russia from 20 to 10. The Secretary-General insisted that the decision was not linked to any particular event, however, there had been a general increase in Russian malign activity and actions were needed. The last time NATO acted in such a manner was following the Salisbury nerve agent attack in 2018, when seven Russian diplomats were expelled, and the Russian mission’s size was decreased from 30 people to 20. The spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, called the move “surprising, but not unexpected”, and claimed that NATO had begun a disinformation campaign against Russia. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that NATO’s actions “practically completely undermined” any possibilities for normalization of Russia-NATO relations.