Lossi 36 Weekly #31: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read
Originally published on 25.10.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: The latest EU Enlargement Package discussing EU membership candidacy in the Balkans, local elections in Armenia, increased pressure on the gay community of Turkmenistan, Orbán wants to renovate Catholic Churches in Slovakia, energy emergency in Moldova, Russia suspending its NATO mission, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
China prepares for new era in war on terror.Marie Mach
Recent reporting by Reid Standish from RadioFreeEurope has revealed a fully operating Chinese military base near Tajikistan’s Wakhan Corridor, indicating that China’s ambitions in Central Asia are adjusting to both its now strained ties with the Tajik government, as well as to its burgeoning relationship with Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. While the exact details regarding the ownership and funding of the base are not clear, locals have described witnessing drones and surveillance equipment, pointing to “a growing monitoring role at the facilities.” Locals who had visited the facilities reported that they were composed of Afghan, Chinese, and Tajik personnel; however, since the fall of the Afghan government on 15 August, only Chinese and Tajik troops had been present at the base. Standish considers this unofficial site to be a component of China’s wide-reaching strategy of exerting influence in Central and South Asia, as well as a means for it to potentially cooperate with the Taliban on counterterrorism. Standish’s analysis confirms earlier reporting from The Washington Post and Anahita Dodikhudo of Iran International, a Saudi Arabian-backed TV station based in London. Dodikhudo described the base’s location as being intended to forestall Uyghur militants from crossing into Western China from Afghanistan.
🌺 In the Balkans…
European Commission publishes annual Enlargement Package. The publication includes a “Communication on EU Enlargement Policy” and seven annual reports presenting the state of play and reform progress in five EU candidate countries (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey) and two potential EU candidates (Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo). While the Commission outlined areas in which the different countries needed to increase their efforts, it also reproached EU Member States, notably for not acting upon its proposal to lift visa requirements for Kosovo, and failing to officially launch accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The latter is mainly due to Bulgaria blocking the negotiations with North Macedonia, citing the two countries’ disputes over history, language and identity. The enlargement package was published a few weeks after the publication of POLITICO’s scoop on European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi’s alleged push to downplay the importance of achieving progress in terms of rule of law and human rights in the case of Serbia’s EU candidacy.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Local elections in Armenia show mixed results for Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party. On October 17, local elections took place in 9 Armenian municipalities. The Civil Contract Party didn’t only lose in Armenia’s second-biggest town Gyumri, where the Balasanyan bloc won the vote with 36%, but also in Goris and Meghri. In Goris, the Arush Arushanyan bloc, fierce opponents of the Pashinyan government, won more than 60% of the votes. In Meghri, the Republic Party from the opposition (not to be confused with the former governing Republican Party of Armenia) around Aram Sargsyan, received 43% while the Civil Contract Party won only 33%. However, the Civil Contract Party won the elections in Dilijan, receiving 58%. Check out summaries of the election results here by EVN and CivilNet.
Azerbaijan accuses Armenia of ethnic cleansing in The Hague. On October 18, Azerbaijan submitted a complaint against Armenia to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, with foreign minister Elnur Mammadov accusing the latter of an “ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing and incitement of violence against Azerbaijanis.” The complaint refers first and foremost to the alleged continuation in planting landmines in the remaining Armenian-held territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the refusal to hand over maps of previously-laid minefields. The issue of landmines has been a thorny one in the peace process since the ceasefire in November last year. Armenia had handed over some, but not all, landmine maps in exchange for prisoners of war held by Baku. The Azerbaijani complaint comes only days after Armenia launched its own case in the ICJ against alleged “systematic” and state-sponsored incitement of ethnic hatred against Armenians. Both complaints have been denied by the respective accused parties.
Saakashvili, convicted of illegal border crossing, receives support from MEPs. The former Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, was charged for crossing the national border illegally on October 20, in addition to other charges and a six-year prison sentence for one of them. He was arrested on October 1 and went on hunger strike, which led to a deterioration in his health. As a result, he agreed on October 21 to be temporarily released from his cell and taken to a clinic. Georgia has seen numerous demonstrations against the former president’s arrest. In addition, a letter of support, signed by 72 MEPs and former presidents, has been published. Calling for Saakashvili’s release, the letter denounces the state of the judiciary (accused of not being independent) and of Georgian democracy. The document is likely to strain relations between the European Union and Georgia, which have already been damaged by the cancellation of EU financial aid due to a lack of reforms in the judiciary.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Uzbekistan’s silent presidential campaign. The Uzbek presidential election campaign seems to have almost come and gone without much actual campaigning going on. As citizens gear up for the vote on 24 October, the lack of political rigour among the candidates is apparent, with the incumbent, Shavkat Mirziyoyev of the Uzbekistan Liberal Democratic Party, expected to win by a landslide. The OSCE international monitoring mission stated in its interim report that there had been “no direct and meaningful engagement between the contestants.” A presidential debate, held on 19 October, also eschewed the regular format, with special representatives of each of the five candidates taking part instead of the actual contenders. They mostly touched upon socio-economic issues, such as poverty reduction and ecological concerns. Moreover, allegations of parties being denied registration, misuse of state media and intimidation of journalists and activists are widespread, with RFE/RL Uzbek service recently receiving death threats online by anonymous accounts allegedly tied to the government.
Turkmenistan ramps up pressure on gay community. According to reporting by Mediazona Central Asia, in August and September of this year Turkmen police have begun rounding up gay men, as well as men suspected of being gay simply on the basis of them socialising with other men. Persecution has increased in the past year, with the police arresting a famous hairstylist from Turkmenabat, who provided services to members of Turkmenistan’s entertainment industry. As of 13 October, he had been in solitary confinement, along with at least 30 other men. The recent wave of arrests has taken place in light of this year’s decision by the Turkmen government to consider decriminalizing same-sex relations between men. However, any decisive steps towards decriminalizing homosexuality are very unlikely in the near future.
🚃 In Central Europe…
President’s severe medical conditions shake up Czech elections. On October 10, the day following the national parliamentary elections, the President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, was hospitalized. According to local sources, Zeman suffers from hepatic encephalopathy, a consequence of liver disease. Due to Zeman’s severe health conditions, the Senate is contemplating relying on Article 66 of the Czech Constitution, thereby transferring the powers of the president to the Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, and to the Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies, currently ANO member Radek Vondráček. This complicates the appointment of the new government after an election that resulted in a defeat for Babiš and the ANO movement, and a success for the center-right SPOLU coalition. Furthermore, the Czech Police launched an investigation on October 19, focusing on close advisers of the president, for hiding Zeman’s conditions and committing crimes against the republic. As a consequence, PM Babiš pressured the Head of the Presidential Office, Vratislav Mynář, to resign.
Hungary to renovate Churches in Slovakia without Bratislava’s consent. Activating another cultural program worth €4 million to renovate 101 religious buildings, mainly Catholic churches in Southern Slovakian municipalities where Hungarians are a majority, Viktor Orbán is determined to continue using his soft power in the region. The Slovak Catholic Church, which received Pope Francis’ just last month, has instantly welcomed the move, despite Slovak authorities considering it inappropriate. After consulting with Slovak authorities earlier in October, Budapest was already forced to withdraw an agricultural program to buy arable land in Slovakia. Orbán deploys a regional cultural policy towards Hungarians in neighboring states worth €73 million, an instrument that is judged nationalistic and aggressive by many in the countries in question, such as Ukraine and Romania. The latest example of Orbán’s policies in Slovakia could escalate tensions between the two countries, evidently so, before it brings more faithfuls to attend services.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Worsening epidemiological situation in Ukraine. The country has undergone a week-long, record-high numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Ukraine, which has one of the lowest vaccine rates in Europe, had to shut schools in coronavirus hotspots and declared two oblasts as red zones. While requesting that from next week onwards only vaccinated or tested people can access public buildings and transports in Kyiv, the government struggles to cope with fake certificates. In a meeting last week, President Zelenskyy discussed tackling certificate forgery and accelerating vaccination drives. Health minister, Viktor Lyashko highlighted that 95% of the hospitalised are unvaccinated. Fortunately, a more encouraging record was hit on October 22, as almost 290 thousand people received a dose of the vaccine. Authorities say that the soaring infection rate has altered sceptical attitudes in many Ukrainians.
Poland increases military presence at the border with Belarus to stop migrants. After Lithuania, Poland is the new target of Belarusian president Lukashenka’s new hybrid warfare weapon – illegal migrants. On October 19, Poland doubled its military presence at the border and started building a wall to prevent migrants from entering the country. Germany, the final destination for many of them, offered military support. About 4,500 migrants, mostly from Syria and Iraq, have arrived in Germany since August. President Lukahsenka has been accused of facilitating this flow of migration, in response to the sanctions imposed by Brussels. Migrants are being subjected to violence and harsh conditions. Over 10,000 are detained in Germany, Lithuania, and Poland, and 6 have died, trying to cross the border with Poland.
Moldova declares an energy emergency over gas shortage. According to Moldpres, the Moldovan state news agency, Moldova has declared a 30-day state of emergency on October 22 due to gas shortages, after the government failed to renew its deal with Russia’s Gazprom, Europe’s largest natural gas provider. Hence, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita noted that the supply of natural gas has been decreased by Russia, by a third and thus, emphasized that “we are facing a critical situation.” The establishment of the state of emergency, in her words, is to “allow the purchase of the necessary volume of natural gas from alternative sources.” The gas crisis in Moldova is a reflection of a global crisis of soaring energy prices. However, some experts believe that Moscow has deliberately increased the price as a reprisal against Moldova, for the election of a pro-western president last year. The gas shortage in Moldova will also inevitably threaten the gas supply to Transnistria, a region highly dependent on Russia’s support.
🌲 In Russia…
Ingush threaten new protests. Relatives of Malsag Uzhakhov, one of the imprisoned leaders of the 2018-2019 protests in Magas, have called for renewed protests if the political prisoners are not treated fairly in court. The Magas protests were organised in response to the disproportionate land swap with Chechnya, agreed to behind closed doors by the then President of Ingushetia Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Yevkurov was forced by Moscow to retire for his failure to control his subjects. Now, the new Ingush leader Makhmud-Ali Kalimatov faces the same fate. For North Caucasus governors, there are two red lines: contain the insurgency and control the public. Kalimatov’s ability to do the first is under question, as 2020 saw an uptick in militant activity. If mass protests happen on his watch, he will likely be retired in the next gubernatoropad (“fall of governors”), or sooner.
Russia suspends its mission to NATO. After NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg decided to withdraw the accreditation of eight members of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, and reduce the overall maximum number of its personnel to 10 people, the Foreign Ministry of Russia finally gave its answer. According to the Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, from 1 November “the functioning of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, including its chief military representative, shall be suspended.” Moreover, the NATO Military Liaison Mission Moscow will also be suspended, and the NATO Information Office in Moscow will need to close down. The NATO-Russia relations thus seem to have reached a new low, with NATO’s spokeswoman Oana Lungescu saying that the Alliance “regrets such steps,” as “NATO’s policy towards Russia remains consistent.” Moreover, Russia is still concerned about Ukraine’s desire to become an official NATO member, and has recently warned the Alliance that any move towards Ukraine’s membership “will have consequences.”
No recognition for the Taliban during Moscow meeting. Last week’s talks with the Taliban in Moscow were attended by ten countries, including the Central Asian states, China, and Pakistan. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that one of the aims of the meeting was to consolidate the “efforts of the international community to prevent a humanitarian crisis” following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. During the talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the Taliban: “We note their efforts to stabilise the military and political situation and set up work of the state apparatus.” However, it was made clear that the Kremlin was withholding official recognition from the Taliban while waiting for the group to fulfil the promises made when they took power, including the political and ethnic inclusivity of the new government. Last week, Putin had warned that thousands of ISIS members were waiting at Afghanistan’s northern border, ready to move into Central Asia disguised as refugees, and eventually make their way to Russia.