Lossi 36 Weekly #35: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Graffiti war in Serbia, political tensions on the rise in Georgia, social media-based radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan, ECJ speaks out against Hungarian legislation, this year’s third parliamentary election in Bulgaria, Sword of Damocles hanging over Memorial‘s head in Russia, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Heaviest fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan since last year’s 44-Day War.Zadig Tisserand
On 16 November, both Azerbaijan and Armenia reported an outbreak of fighting near their shared border. The countries disagreed, however, on who started the outbreak of violence and on where the fighting took place: Azerbaijan claimed that the fighting was taking place in the Kelbajar and Lachin regions, held under Azerbaijan’s control since the end of the 44-Day War, while the Armenians located the fighting near the Armenian lake Sev Lich. Reportedly, Azerbaijani soldiers have been stationed near the Armenian lake since making an incursion in May 2021. Armenia has called on Russia to respect the 1997 bilateral treaty, which commits Russia to protecting Armenian territorial integrity. While some sources claim that the Russian military base in Gyumri has been put in a “full combat position,” Russian forces did not get involved in the fighting. The fighting stopped at 18:30 that the same day after Russian mediation, but the toll was uncertain: Azerbaijan claimed that 7 soldiers had been killed and 10 wounded, while Armenia claimed that 6 soldiers had been killed, 13 had been taken captive, and 24 had disappeared. According to satellite images and testimonies of local residents, the fighting on 16 November took place on Armenian territory, north of the town of Sisian. According to experts, Azerbaijan’s attack has put pressure on Armenia to open the corridor between Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan and the rest of the territory.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Democratic Party crisis deepens in Albania. The tension in Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party between current leader Lulzim Basha and former Prime Minister Sali Berisha has broken down into open confrontation over the party’s leadership and its future. The current escalation occurred on 15 November, when Basha announced that the next party convention would be held on 18 December. Meanwhile, Berisha, who co-founded the party in 1990 as a challenge to Albania’s communist regime, announced that he has enough support within the party to hold a legitimate rival convention a week earlier. The current crisis began in spring this year, when Basha and the party leadership loyal to him complied with US requests to expel Berisha from the party structure due to a history of “significant corruption” and “misappropriation of public funds.” Berisha, however, is still seen as the party’s patriarch, and continues to command great loyalty among both official structures and the grassroots support base,
Mural of convicted war criminal sparks “graffiti war” between Serbian human rights activists and ultranationalists. A mural glorifying Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladic has been repeatedly defaced over the last several weeks, causing social unrest in Belgrade’s Vračar district, and resulting in the arrest of two local civic activists. Human rights NGOs accuse the Belgrade police of protecting both the mural and members of the various far-right groups responsible for its continued restoration, some of whom have been accused of harassing reporters attempting to cover the story. The mural, part of a renewed wave of the glorification of war criminals following The Hague’s final decision to uphold a guilty verdict against the general in June, has become the unlikely symbol of a struggle between Serbia’s ultranationalist politics made mainstream with the election of President Aleksandar Vučić and the country’s long-suppressed democratic civil society. In the 1990s, Serbia’s civil society was internationally recognized for the crucial role it played in bringing about democratic changes in the immediate post-war period.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Tensions on the rise in politically divided Georgia. Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili has agreed to end his 50-day hunger strike after the Georgian authorities offered to move him from a prison hospital to a military one. Earlier this month, Saakashvili declared that he would end the hunger strike if he was transferred to a civilian clinic. Since the former president’s transfer to Gldani prison in early November, the government has decided to discontinue his medical concilium, arguing that Saakashvili is in the best care possible, which his associates and supporters consider highly questionable. On 10 November, the European Court of Human Rights ordered certain interim measures to be implemented in relation to the case. It is set to come back to this matter on 24 November, however, the implementation of its rulings is not given, particularly in light of what a number of signatories of a statement published by Transparency International Georgia called “the ruling party’s attacks on Western partners,” which “assume the form of an alarming trend.”
🛤 In Central Asia…
Turkmenistan flagged for religious freedom. On 17 November, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a press statement which designated Turkmenistan as “a country of particular concern for having engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom’”, under the International Religious Freedom Act. The 2021 USCIRF annual report described Turkmenistan’s record as “abysmal”, despite the country being officially secular. The report highlights increased control of the government over the appointments of Islamic religious leaders and the dissemination of religious content (much of which is made to praise the President), along with persecution and imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refrain from joining military service on the grounds of conscientious objections. Early this year, the government gave amnesty to “conscientious objectors”, however, Muslims who were imprisoned for exercising religious freedom were not released, nor did the government present a genuine alternative to mandatory military service.
Radicalisation through social media in Kyrgyzstan. This week, Kyrgyzstan-based media outlet Kloop published an analysis outlining how violent Islamic extremist rhetoric spreads online in Central Asia. Based on the report “Radicalism Online: An Analysis of the Meanings, Ideas, and Values of Violent Extremism in Central Asia,” published by the Research Centre for Religious Studies of Kyrgyzstan, Kloop’s reporting details how religious extremists radicalise social media users on networks such as YouTube, Odnoklassniki, WhatsApp, and Facebook. Those most vulnerable to radicalisation are aged 18 to 21, accounting for 11% of Kyrgyzstan’s population. Within this group, those suffering from financial problems, mental health issues, or low self-esteem are most susceptible to radicalisation. Ikbalzhan Mirsaiitov, an expert on religion and security, told Kloop that further rise in religious extremism would depend on the Kyrgyz government’s reaction to the situation in Afghanistan, as well as the socio-economic situation in the country during the pandemic. Mirsaiitov stressed that the government should actively work to keep the Taliban’s ideology from taking root in Kyrgyzstan.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Escalation at Polish-Belarusian border urges for severe action against Minsk. On 16 November, a violent clash occurred between refugees and Polish forces at the border between Belarus and Poland at the closed Kuznica Bialostocka crossing point. The situation, already critical, escalated as a group of migrants stuck in Belarusian camps on the EU’s eastern border, living in terrible conditions and freezing temperatures, gathered and began to throw stones and sticks, attempting to disrupt the fence to cross into the EU. Polish border guards responded to the attacks by resorting to water cannons, flash grenades, and tear gas. According to Polish authorities, weapons such as flash-bang grenades were provided to migrants by Belarusian authorities. While the Belarusian government is widely held responsible for the crisis, President Lukashenko for his part continues to deny Minsk’s intentional manoeuvring of the refugees.
‘Stop-Soros’ refugee law is illegal, European Court of Justice says. The law passed by Hungary in 2018 not only demonized the Hungarian-born billionaire and holocaust survivor with an anti-Semitic campaign, it also criminalized the legal assistance toward asylum seekers and refugees with possible jail terms. Considering the Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Hungarian government, it is still likely that the ruling may be sabotaged until the ECJ resorts to fines. According to ShengenVisa.info, the Hungarian Justice minister Judit Varga stated that the ECJ ruling basically meant that Hungary is now supposed to “support human trafficking.” Human Rights organizations like Amnesty International welcomed the ruling, although they had hoped it would oblige Hungary to retract and make the law a complete violation of the Hungarian constitution. The ruling from ECJ, ultimately more symbolic than legal, comes strategically at a time when the razor-wire barricade rise again with the situation at the Polish border being managed by yet another anti-immigration and anti-EU bloc.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Tough coalition negotiations awaited after third Bulgarian general elections this year. After two deeply fragmented parliamentary elections in April and July, Bulgarian voters came to the polls again, on 14 November, to vote for a new parliament and president in the hopes of electing a candidate who would tackle the soaring energy prices and the health crisis caused by COVID-19. Additionally, as the poorest member of the European Union, Bulgaria is still suffering from endemic corruption and media censorship. According to the data from the Central Election Commission, the centrist party ‘We Continue the Change,’ led by two Harvard-educated businessmen, received more than 25% of the vote, a big surprise to the election observers. A year ago, thousands of Bulgarians had gathered together, over a couple of months, to take down the oligarchical system in the country, and the victory of a centrist party has made citizens hopeful of the revitalisation of democracy in Bulgaria.
Ukraine and Belarus see military build-up at their borders. Belarus’ ally Russia sent 250 paratroopers to Belarus in order to show support as the EU has adopted new sanctions against Belarus on 15 November, while the Belarusian Defence Ministry has accused Poland of an“unprecedented” rise in military presence at the border as the migrant crisis worsens. Sanctions will target “everyone involved” in Lukashenka’s government that facilitated the illegal crossing of thousands of migrants into the EU. At the same time, Russia continues its military build-up at Ukraine’s eastern border since the past two weeks. Videos show weaponry being transported towards Ukraine, while Russian and Ukrainian Foreign Ministries accuse each other of being responsible for the rising tensions. On Thursday, President Putin also blamed the West for an escalation of the situation by supplying weapons to Kyiv. The militarization of the area is worrying, especially for Baltic countries, while NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that NATO is closely monitoring “the military build-up by Russia.”
Minsk calls Berlin and Moscow. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a second phone call on Wednesday, November 17, to discuss the migrant crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border. Belarusian state press service stated that the two sides had agreed to hold direct talks at an EU level. Many have criticised Merkel’s choice to open a communication channel, as it would give the legitimacy and recognition that the Belarusian dictator has hoped for in the past months. Estonia, particularly, has been vocal about this point. On Monday, Chairman of the Estonian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson claimed that the phone call was “disappointing.” After talking to Berlin, Minsk looked eastwards. On Friday morning, in a phone call with Putin, Lukashenko said that he had de-escalated a months-long migrant crisis on the Polish border. Polish authorities disagree, and have decided to block freight traffic at the Kuznica railway checkpoint, from Sunday onwards, unless the situation at the border stabilizes.
🌲 In Russia…
Memorial under threat. Lawsuits filed in Russia’s Supreme Court and Moscow City Court are attempting to dissolve both the human rights and historical sides of the organisation (known, respectively, as Memorial Human Rights Centre (HRC) and Memorial International). The prosecution claims that the HRC’s materials, including its list of political prisoners, aim at justifying terrorist and extremist actions, while Memorial International is accused of neglecting to notify readers of its “foreign agent” status. Memorial has addressed the topic of political repressions, both contemporary and historical, since the late 1980s, with the HRC opened in 1992. It has worked throughout the former Soviet Union, organising protests against human rights violations, monitoring conflicts, and even helping to draft laws recognising Soviet repressions. Memorial’s employees and their work have long been targeted by the authorities, particularly in the North Caucasus: Natalya Estemirova was murdered in Grozny and Oleg Orlov was abducted in Ingushetia. Local and international supporters have decried Moscow’s attempt to shutter the historic organisation.
Russia warns the West about “crossing red lines.” Last Thursday, during a televised foreign policy speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West and its allies not to cross Russia’s “red lines,” by which he meant NATO’s expansion of its military infrastructure in neighbouring Ukraine (Russia itself concentrated around 90,000 of its own troops near its frontier with Ukraine at the beginning of November). Moreover, it is believed that the US-Russia tensions revolve around the US warships sailing into the Black Sea, which Russia treats as a potential threat to its border. When it comes to its own military, Russia is not only conducting exercises near Belarusian and Ukrainian borders, but also acts in space: recent examples include an anti-satellite missile test conducted on 15 November, which led to the destruction of a Russian satellite ‘Tselina-D’. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, during his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last Friday, called upon Russia to “show transparency about this military build-up, de-escalate and reduce tensions.”