Lossi 36 Weekly #30: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

 In News

Originally published on 18.10.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.

In this week’s newsletter 📮: The results of local elections in Georgia; Police clashes in Mitrovica, KosovoAbkhazia’s Bzhania travels to MoscowTajikistan’s Rahmon hosted in the Élysée, ParisMárki-Zay victorious in opposition primaries in Hungary; an escalation of the gas conflict between Ukraine and RussiaNobel Peace Prize for Novaya Gazeta’s Muratov; and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

The Outcome of Georgia’s Local Elections.Tatia Vakhtangadze

The Georgian municipal elections, held two weeks ago, have resulted in a victory of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, receiving 46.8% of the votes, followed by biggest opposition party United National Movement (UNM) with 30.7% of the votes. GD won mayoral contests in 44 cities, but unlike previous local elections, the five biggest self-governing cities including Tbilisi, as well as 15 other municipalities will need runoffs for mayor. All the votes have been counted, but the results might change if the Georgian Central Electoral Committee will recount the votes according to the 1702 complaints, received from various precinct and district election commissions across the country. The OSCE observation mission stated that although candidates were able to campaign freely, the elections were “marred by wide-spread and consistent allegations of intimidation, vote-buying, and pressure on candidates and voters.” Moreover, the pre-election environment was characterized by a mobilization of administrative resources by the ruling GD party, as well as “forced dismissal or coercion to resign, and ineffective investigations of such cases by relevant state agencies.” However, unlike the 2020 parliamentary elections, when opposition candidates boycotted parliament, opposition candidates are going to participate in the second rounds scheduled for October 30, the results of which can lay the foundation for coalition governance in Georgia.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Police clash with Serbian protesters in Mitrovica over anti-smuggling operation. Tensions in northern Kosovo’s Serbian-majority city of Mitrovica broke into violence on October 13 as a hostile crowd attacked police during a raid on suspected smuggling operations. Six Kosovo police officers (including one ethnic Serb) as well as one protester were reported to have been injured in the clashes, according to police. The raids were part of a nationwide operation targeting illegal goods smuggling, with raids in Priština, Peja, and both sides of ethnically-divided Mitrovica. The raids went smoothly in other areas, but were met with resistance in North Mitrovica as locals blocked roads and began to attack police with various explosive devices. Speaking at a press conference in Priština, Interior Minister Xelal Svecla commented that the raids “were not directed against any nationality”, pointing out that most of those arrested were Albanians. The attack on police was condemned by the British Embassy and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrel, while Serbian President Alexander Vucic pledged Belgrade’s support to the protesters.

Bulgaria continues to make demands on North Macedonia. At the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Brdo, Slovenia on 6 October, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev met twice within the span of a few hours. Radev and Zaev first attended a meeting together with representatives from the European Commission and then spoke in the company of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. President Radev listed three demands from the Bulgarian side before Sofia would withdraw its objection to EU membership talks for Skopje. These demands were – the inclusion of Bulgarians as a nationality in the Macedonian Constitution; the enumeration of Macedonian Bulgarians “adequately reflected as a nationality and as a number” in the upcoming Macedonian census; and recognition of “the historical truth in relation with Bulgaria” by North Macedonia. Skopje has repeated that it cannot compromise on sensitive issues such as national identity. In 2020, Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia’s EU accession talks, citing disputes over language and history.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Abkhazia’s Bzhania seeks aid from Moscow amidst crisis. Abkhazia’s leader Aslan Bzhania attended several high-profile meetings in Moscow last week, including one with the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin and Aleksandr Neradko, the Head of the Federal Agency for Air Transport. In his meeting with Khusnullin, Bzhania sought to capitalize on Moscow’s new regional development policies. This is normal, considering Abkhazia’s financial dependence on Russia. More significantly, the meeting with Neradko focused on potentially rebuilding the Sukhumi airport, which was destroyed thirty years ago. This is part of a concerted push by Bzhania to fix Abkhazia’s infrastructure, reconnecting it with the world. Russia was previously asked to pay for rail connections, with Chinese funding sought after for roads, as Abkhazia tries to boost tourism. This all takes place while Bzhania’s government is besieged domestically.

Thousands gather in support of Saakashvili. Since 1 October, former Georgian President Saakashvili has been in a Georgian prison. Protesting his imprisonment, he has been on a hunger strike ever since. His supporters came out onto the streets of Tbilisi in peaceful protest, demanding his release and that fair elections be held. At the rally, Saakashvili’s lawyer read out a letter, penned down by the former president in prison, affirming Saakashvili’s commitment to the fight against corruption and to Georgia’s path towards European democracy. While the second round of Georgia’s local elections is coming, Saakashvili’s health is deteriorating

🛤 In Central Asia…

Freedom of press undermined in Kazakhstan. Freedom of the press in Kazakhstan (or the lack thereof) is once again in the spotlight after Kazakh news website Hola News was shut down. The shutdown came after the portal published an article, revealing information about former president Nazarbayev’s unaccounted wealth covered in the recent Pandora Papers leak. Additional revelations about the president’s alleged extra-marital relationship and children were also included. The Minister of Information and Communication officially denied having anything to do with the shutdown, which ended after ten days, on October 14. The website’s shutdown caused an uproar in the country, especially as a controversial social media censorship law is currently being debated upon in the parliament.

French President hosts Tajik counterpart for talks on Afghanistan. Last week’s encounter between President Emmanuel Macron and President Emomali Rahmon focused on the topic of Afghanistan, which shares a 1350 kilometers long border with Tajikistan, and which is home to a substantial Tajik minority. Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Dushanbe has become one of the key actors in the region, with tensions running high between the two countries. During their meeting in Paris, Macron offered France’s help to stabilize the situation in the region. He also commended Rahmon for his efforts to preserve stability and to resist any compromise-seeking regarding terrorist groups and “the values we defend, in particular the dignity of women” (though when it comes to the latter, Tajikistan itself does not have the best record). The meeting marks the second time Rahmon, who has been in power since 1992, has been invited to the Élysée Palace by Macron, and only the third time he has been hosted for talks by any French president since 2002.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Polish miners getting ready to protest in Luxembourg over Turów coal mine dispute. The National Secretariat of Mining and Energy, which is part of Poland’s Solidarność workers’ union, is organizing a protest in front of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on 22 October. The move follows the ECJ’s decision to impose a penalty of 500,000 euro per day on Poland if it continues to mine lignite at the Turów coal mine in the southwestern town of Bogatynia. Due to the mining activities, drinking water in parts of neighboring Czechia is getting polluted. Moreover, the ECJ ruled that Warsaw had not clarified well enough what harm the mine would cause to the environment, therefore violating EU rules concerning environmental damage. The ruling followed a complaint from Prague, which initially demanded a penalty of five million euro per day. However, the Polish government refuses to close the mine, or pay the penalty. Moreover, earlier this month the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the Polish constitution had primacy over EU law, which might further complicate the case.

Márki-Zay victorious in Hungarian opposition primary runoff. The second round of Hungarian opposition’s primary elections, aimed at tactically nominating a joint prime ministerial candidate, was held between 10 and 16 October. Late night of 17 October, as the vote counting was still going on, Dobrev officially conceded to Márki-Zay. Márki-Zay will become the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate and challenge Viktor Orbán in the general election next year. Earlier this month, Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd party), withdrew his candidacy and endorsed Hődmezővásárhely’s mayor, Péter Márki-Zay (MMM), who is running against Klára Dobrev (DK) – currently one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament. The TV debate between the two candidates, which took place on 13 October, became one of the most-watched ever in Hungary. Despite heated exchanges, both parties are on the same page regarding ousting the ruling Fidesz party, restoring the rule of law, as well as supporting the EU and the adoption of the euro.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

New accusations escalate Russia-Ukraine gas conflict. Gazprom has gradually reduced natural gas transit through the Ukrainian gas transmission system. According to Sergiy Makogon, CEO of the Gas Transmission System Operator of Ukraine, it is the third time since January 2021 that the amount of gas received has decreased, from 186 million cubic meters to 86 million cubic meters as per October 2021. Russian President Vladimir Putin explained that it is impossible to increase the gas transit through Ukraine as the wear of its gas transit system is above 80% and that it can ‘burst’ at any time. However, independent research conducted by GSTOU confirmed that the investment program was sufficient to guarantee safe and reliable transit for the next decade. It is worth mentioning that the agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the supply and transit of gas, signed in 2019, expires in 2024. Russia promises to continue to fulfil its contractual obligations to supply gas through Ukraine to the EU.

Belarus labels Tsikhanouskaya’s Telegram channel as ‘extremist.’ On October 15, the Belarusian Tsentralny district court labelled the official Telegram channel of exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the platform Golos as “extremist.” The Telegram channel of Tsikhanouskaya is one of the most popular Belarusian channels with more than a hundred thousand subscribers, whereas Golos, mainly functioning as a platform for disclosing information about election fraud, owns more than ninety thousand followers. The designation of these two channels as “extremist” followed a warning issued by Belarus’s Internal Police on October 13, stating subscribing to the “extremist” Telegram channels should be considered as criminal offense that may lead to a criminal prosecution up to seven years for those subscribers. According to current Belarusian law, the distribution (including in private communication), production, storage and transfer of materials with calls for extremist activities are all taken into account for legal responsibilities. The decision to take Telegram channels as “extremist groups” hence paves the way for the theoretical prosecution of thousands of Belarusians, if not a million. The major Belarusian Telegram channels, mainly consisting of independent media, have witnessed a significant loss of subscribers since then. 

🌲 In Russia…

Nobel Prize for Novaya Gazeta, ‘foreign agent’ listing for others. Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitri A. Muratov of Russia. Muratov is the head editor of one of Russia’s main opposition newspapers, Novaya Gazeta. He dedicated the prize to the whole staff of the newspaper, including six of its journalists who have been murdered or have died under mysterious circumstances since Novaya Gazeta’s founding in 1993. However, he also noted that he thought the prize should have been awarded to imprisoned Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny. Muratov is adamant about supporting organizations branded as ‘foreign agents’ under new Russian laws, and has stated that he will use the prize money to help them. A few days after the Nobel Prize was announced, more media outlets and journalists were put on the ‘foreign agents’ list. Despite international pressure, repression of free and independent media in Russia continues.

Sergey Melikov elected new President of Republic of Dagestan. On 14 October, the People’s Assembly of Dagestan elected its new President, confirming Sergey Melikov as its head, with 82 votes in favor out of 87. Melikov has been Dagestan’s acting President since 5 October 2020, when the previous President of the Republic – Vladimir Vasilev – was chosen by Russian President Vladimir Putin to be his advisor. Before becoming President, Sergey Melikov worked for the Ministry of Internal Affairs as Colonel General, and he was in charge of the Northern Caucasus Joint counter-terrorism force. Subsequently, he was the presidential envoy for the Northern Caucasus Federal District, later becoming the First Deputy Director of Rosgvardiya. During a speech following his election, the new head of Dagestan Republic addressed the major problems afflicting the region and quoted President Putin, affirming that “the time for waiting has ended, now the time has come to act.”

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Tatia Vakhtangadze, Harold Chambers, Agnieszka Widłaszeswka, Francis Farrell, Sophie Gueudet, Ana Robakidze, Sam Appels, Bart Alting, Evguenia Roussel, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Bojidar Kolov, Vira Kompaniiets, Qianrui Hu, & Rachele Colombo 💘
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