Lossi 36 Weekly #34: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read
Originally published on 15.11.2021. Subscribe to our Weekly here.
In this week’s newsletter 📮: Political crisis in North Macedonia continues, anniversary of Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, power shortages in Uzbekistan, Hungarian opposition convene in Brussels, Kyiv Post shut down in Ukraine, Russia‘s federal censorship bureau Roskomnadzor to ban ‘sexual deviations’ on TV, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
The crisis at the Belarus-Poland border intensifies.Qianrui Hu
Lukashenka’s hybrid attack on the European Union has continued over the past week: the number of migrants at the Belarusian-Polish border has reportedly increased from several hundreds to several thousands. In response, 20,000 Polish border guards and soldiers are now deployed near the border. Facing a strong defence from the Polish side, migrants have tried to break down border fences, forcing Polish border guards to use tear gas to push back people. In this context, European leaders fear that the major confrontation on the Belarusian-Polish border may “morph into a military crisis.” The EU has adopted multiple measures to tackle the crisis, such as an expansion of the sanctions against Belarus and mediation with airlines to curb transporting migrants to Minsk. However, there are calls for more actions to be taken, such as allowing international organisations to step in should the humanitarian crisis worsen.
Aside from the conflict between migrants and border guards, and aside from the international political aspect, many humanitarian catastrophes have unravelled. For example, having their phones destroyed by Belarusian officials and having been expelled illegally by border guards without a chance of lodging an asylum application, migrants have spent their nights in the freezing weather without food, water, or medical care. Additionally, the access of NGOs and journalists to the border zone is extremely limited.
🌺 In the Balkans…
North Macedonian political drama continues amidst PM’s delayed resignation. Following severe losses in last month’s local elections, most notably the loss of the Skopje mayoral position, Prime Minister and leader of the governing centre-left SDSM party, Zoran Zaev, promised to resign from both positions shortly thereafter. However, last week Zaev announced that he would temporarily postpone his resignation until the political situation in the country had stabilised. The move has led to the right-wing opposition attempting to organise a vote of no confidence in parliament last Thursday, which it ultimately did not manage to hold due to one opposition MP not showing up. Although Zaev’s administration was able to begin the process of creating stronger relations with regional neighbours (namely Greece & Bulgaria) through international agreements, and played an important part in bringing the small nation into NATO, structural reforms of the nation’s corrupt political system have been slow and constant delays in EU membership talks have continued to weaken the public’s approval of the government.
Leader of Women of Srebrenica passed away in Sarajevo. Since the disappearance of her son in Srebrenica, Hajra Ćatić has campaigned for public awareness on the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. Most notably, together with her association Women (or Mothers) of Srebrenica, she filed a lawsuit against The Netherlands at the European Court of Human Rights, accusing the Dutch peacekeepers present in Srebrenica in 1995 of failing to protect the local Bosniak population. Ćatić led the association in the northeastern town of Tuzla, where she fled after the massacre. Every 11th day of every month, she organised a protest to seek truth and trial of those responsible for the death of her son Nihad and thousands of others. Nihad Ćatić was a Srebrenica-based journalist, whose last dispatch — “Srebrenica is turning into a vast slaughterhouse” — was broadcast around the world, and became a symbol of international inaction ahead of the upcoming massacre.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Saakashvili transferred, drawing international ire. Georgia’s revolutionary ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, on hunger strike since 1 October, was transferred by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) from Rustavi prison to the Gldani prison hospital. Civil society organizations, the Biden administration, the European Court of Human Rights, and various European Union representatives have all condemned the move, as well as the broader denial of Saakashvili’s rights. Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, derided the transfer, but also assumed responsibility for preventing any protests outside a civilian hospital, should Saakashvili be moved to one. Perhaps more alarming is the GD’s falling–out with Ukraine, where Saakashvili was in exile, but which is also one of Georgia’s most important strategic partners. Georgia’s weakened standing, both from democratic and security perspectives, means it could be deprioritised as the West weighs the worth of different partners in the region—with Azerbaijan lobbying for greater ties—and contemplates how to adjust its defence posture post-Afghanistan, which has shifted focus away from the Black Sea.
Anniversary of Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement. On November 8, Azerbaijan celebrated its first “Victory Day,” one year after President Ilham Aliyev announced the capture of Shusha (called Shushi by Armenians) in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a Russia-mediated ceasefire agreement. The celebration started in Shusha, where the President visited various reconstruction projects and the final panel of VIII Baku Global Conference was held. The celebration then continued with a march of soldiers in Baku. Meanwhile in Armenia, a demonstration took place, demanding the sentencing of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and rejecting the November 9 ceasefire agreement. The protesters wrote a letter, which they submitted to Armenia’s Prosecutor General’s Office, stating that by signing the ceasefire agreement, the PM had violated the constitutional order. Although the anniversary marks the day of the official ceasefire, in reality the fighting ended only formally, with numerous cases of shooting being subsequently reported, including last week.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Uzbekistan finally speaks out about its power shortages. After the initial silence over the reasons for Tashkent’s electricity shortages this autumn, the Ministry of Energy has released a statement on 9 November that “the volume of output of electric power at the country’s hydroelectric stations has fallen by almost 23 percent in connection with this year’s water shortage, which affects power supplies to consumers.” As a result of climate change, all Central Asian states end up consuming more water during the summer (due to the higher temperatures), while there is a decrease in snowfall during the winters. Central Asia’s water shortage has implications on the relationships between upstream and downstream countries in the region. Upstream, Kyrgyzstan’s Toktogul reservoir, which provides around 40% of the country’s electricity, has been at its lowest level in over a decade. Consequently, Bishkek warned its neighbours to “expect less water next year.”
Kyrgyzstan’s first parliamentary elections since the 2020 mass protests. On 28 November, 21 parties will compete for fifty-five seats through a proportional system, while 321 candidates will run in 36 single-mandate districts. These will be the first parliamentary elections taking place since the October 2020 election results were cancelled by the Central Election Commission due to mass protests. The past year has seen a number of reforms, including the adoption of a new Constitution and extensive electoral reforms. The political space is being increasingly controlled by Sadyr Japarov, who, since the mass protests, has served as Prime Minister, acting President, and, finally, has been elected the president of Kyrgyzstan in January 2021. While Japarov’s party Mekenchil is not officially participating in the elections, a number of its members and sympathizers are running on behalf of several other parties, notably the newly-formed Ishenim (Trust) and Yntymak (Harmony).
🚃 In Central Europe…
Márki-Zay showed up in Brussels for EU support. Péter Márki-Zay, the Hungarian joint oppositions’ prime ministerial candidate, appeared in Brussels on a two-day tour on 10 November to meet Klára Dobrev, his previous opponent in the opposition primaries, along with fellow Hungarians and several EU politicians. They discussed subjects such as taxation policies, the current state of democracy in Hungary, and migration. Introducing a new constitution to “restore rule of law,” strengthening relations with the EU and NATO, as well as joining the Eurozone and European Public Prosecutor’s Office are some of the ambitious goals that Márki-Zay aims to achieve if he comes to power in 2022. Márki-Zay is challenging the incumbent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, in the Hungarian general election next year.
Andrej Babiš and his government formally resign. On 11 November, former Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš sent his resignation letter to President Miloš Zeman. It is standard procedure mandated by the Constitution to transfer power, following the results of last month’s parliamentary elections in which Babiš was defeated. Head of state Zeman is expected to ask Babiš to stay in office until a new government is appointed. The five-party coalition – made up of parties ranging from the liberal-conservative Civic Democrats to the progressive Pirate Party – is now negotiating the composition of the next government. The ‘Together’ bloc won the election with 27.8% of the vote, and will occupy the majority of ministries and the post of prime minister in the new administration. ‘Together’ teamed up with the centre-left liberal coalition of the Pirate Party and Mayors & Independents, which will hold 108 seats in the 200-seat lower house of parliament.
EU parliament condemns Polish abortion law. Mass protests against the near-total ban on abortions are still happening across Poland, after the tragic death of a pregnant woman with a stillborn in Silesian Pszczyna. Polish President Andrzej Duda expressed his regret over the incident, saying that people are paying too little attention to the “dead child.” A recent survey shows that more and more Poles want the abortion restrictions to be loosened. Taking public opinion into consideration, on 11 November, the European Parliament voted 373-124 with 55 abstentions to express their solidarity with Polish women and criticize the Polish government. However, the EP’s resolution has no legal effect on its member states.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Bulgaria activates EU Civil Protection Mechanism over worsening health crisis. Due to “the sharp increase in cases of infection and death resulting from Covid-19,” Sofia requested Brussels for a considerable number of ventilators, oxygen devices, and other medical equipment on 10 November. The Bulgarian Health Ministry announced that for the time being, “our medics cope with the epidemic wave,” and that “the purpose of activating the mechanism is to ensure that, in the event of a rapid deterioration in the pandemic situation, the necessary equipment can be delivered immediately.” Over 25 thousand people have died from Covid-19 in Bulgaria, and only about 23% of the population is fully vaccinated.
Kyiv Post shut down after 26 years of independent journalism. In the 26th year of its existence, independent English-language newspaper Kyiv Post was shut down by its owner Adnan Kivan, an Odesa-based construction tycoon who had acquired the Kyiv Post in 2018. On 8 November, 50 staff were fired without explanation. The official reason was the Kyiv Post’s potential “re-branding,” while the fired staff believes it was an attempt to get rid “of inconvenient, fair and honest journalists.” On 8 and 10 November, the staff asked Kivan to sell the paper or pass the Kyiv Post trademark to the newsroom, but he declined. Newly-appointed Chief Luc Chénier attempted to convince the staff to work under new management, but the fired staff, wanting to preserve their values and independence, are now looking to start a new publication. The international community has already condemned the closure of Kyiv Post and has called Ukraine to defend free and independent media on multiple fronts.
Read a former intern’s reconstruction of the Kyiv Post’s shutdown on our website.
🌲 In Russia…
Russia weighs in on migrant crisis at Poland-Belarus border. Russia has shown its support for Belarus during the migrant crisis by carrying out patrols along the border with bomber planes capable of holding nuclear weapons. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated that “this attack which Lukashenko is conducting has its mastermind in Moscow, the mastermind is President Putin.” Morawiecki continued by accusing the Russian and Belarusian leaders of trying to destabilise the EU by allowing migrants to travel through Belarus to enter the Union. Kremlin spokesperson Peskov hit back at Morawiecki, saying that “it is apparent that a humanitarian catastrophe is looming against the background of Europeans’ reluctance to demonstrate commitment to their European values.” In a call with Putin on Wednesday, German Chancellor Merkel urged the Russian president to influence Lukashenko to end the humanitarian crisis. Russia also rejected the claim that their flag carrier, Aeroflot, was involved in transporting migrants to Belarus after it was revealed that the European Commission was considering sanctioning the state-controlled airline for participating in human trafficking.
Roskomnadzor to ban content with ‘non-traditional sexual relations.’ Federal censorship bureau Roskomnadzor is discussing a ban on ‘sexual deviations’ in films and TV. The new regulations would cover exhibitionism, sadism, masochism, and other non-traditional sex acts. Streaming service ‘Megogo’ has already experienced Roskomnadzor’s new rules, ironically enough for showing the 2006 film ‘Nobody knows about sex.’ Earlier, films and series showing homosexual relations and trans people fell victim to Rosskomnadzor: in Russian screenings of Elton John’s ‘Rocketman,’ all gay sex scenes were cut. The new ban would suit Russia’s increasing self-portrayal as a defender of ‘traditional values,’ both to a domestic and an international audience. For example, during the annual Valdai Discussion Forum, Putin expressed his concerns that children in the West are being told they could easily change their gender if they wanted to.
CIA Director meets with head of Russian security in Moscow. William Burns – newly appointed director of CIA and former American ambassador to Moscow – met with Russian security chiefs on 2 and 3 November. On the first day, Burns met Nikolai Patrushev, former FSB director and now Russia’s Security Council Secretary, the day after the CIA director held talks with Sergei Naryshkin, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head. According to a source close to the FSB, the issue of Russian cyberattacks against the US, in which Burns provided the evidence of Russian hackers’ involvement, was among the main talking points. Another key topic that was discussed was the Russian build up of troops near the Ukrainian border, a situation that appears to worry the American administration. These meetings show the interest of the US and Russia in keeping a communication channel open despite (or because) their bilateral relations have been particularly strained over the last years.