Lossi 36 Weekly #36: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Green coalition to participate in Serbian elections, Abkhazia to open an embassy in Nicaragua, Kazakhstan to mitigate crypto-induced energy shortages, Estonian reservists to build border fence, thwarted coup attempt in Ukraine, Putin to host Aliyev and Pashinyan in Sochi, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Tensions between China and Lithuania grow amidst diplomatic spat over Taiwan.Thapanee Tubnonghee
Last week, China officially downgraded its diplomatic relations with Vilnius, which entails the suspension of consular services, and which is expected to lead to a slowdown of bilateral trade and investment volume. Beijing’s decision follows Lithuania’s membership withdrawal from the 17+1 cooperation forum between China and CEE states in the spring, Lithuania’s cybersecurity issue with Huawei by the end of summer, and the summoning of ambassadors on both sides over the past year. China’s last straw was the inauguration of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius on 18 November, which replaced the “Taipei Trade Office.” Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis commented that Lithuania is on its way to being less economically dependent on China, but enraged by Lithuania’s disrespect of the so-called “One China policy,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded that China would take all necessary measures to protect its national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and core interests on 24 November. A delegation of parliamentarians from the Baltic States, six of which are Lithuanians, is set to visit Taiwan next week. The delegation will meet several high level officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen. Earlier, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša called out EU leaders to support Lithuania against the Chinese pressure.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Green coalition preparing for legislative and municipal elections in Serbia. Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta is one of the initiators of the mobilisation against projects of mini-hydroelectric power plants in Serbia and one of the leaders of the Ecological Uprising, which opposes metro construction in Belgrade’s Makiš district, claiming that it will endanger the city’s drinking water supply system. The green activist has declared that he will go into politics to challenge President Aleksandar Vučić’s authoritarianism. He has just signed an agreement with the citizens’ platform “Action for joint participation” ahead of the legislative and municipal elections taking place in the spring of 2022. The “Let’s not drown Belgrade” movement is also likely to join the coalition. Three other opposition parties have also announced that they will join forces next year. Jovanović Ćuta has welcomed the decision, saying that both alliances will have to work together in order to prevent electoral fraud and remove the current regime from power.
Kosovo announces end to free energy scheme for Serb-dominated municipalities. Kosovo’s national energy network operator KOSSTT has announced that it will soon stop supplying four of its northern Serb-majority municipalities with free electricity. The decision, affecting the areas of Mitrovica North, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavić, is expected to enter into force at the end of the month, as the previous government-funded scheme is set to expire. KOSSTT stated that the decision was made due to financial pressure brought about by the previous deal. Residents in the four affected municipalities have not had to pay for electricity since 1999, with some combination of government and private funding always stepping in to provide a steady supply. In 2015, an EU-brokered deal stipulated that a Serbian company would supply the Serb-majority areas with power. However, Serbia later backed out of any such arrangement, as registering its company with Kosovo’s authorities would be close to a de-facto recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Kosovo.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Abkhazia to open Nicaragua embassy. De-facto president of Abkhazia Aslan Bzhania signed a decree laying out plans to open an embassy for the disputed republic in Nicaragua, following through on a plan initially commenced by his predecessor, Raul Khadjimba. While the Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs lists almost twenty international representatives of the breakaway state, its embassies currently exist only in Russia, Syria, and Venezuela. More countries and de-facto states have recognised Abkhazia, with Tuvalu having since been successfully convinced by Georgia to retract its recognition. This event further highlights the emerging confrontations between competing systems of sovereignty recognition, one based on the liberal international order, the other on a Russian– and Chinese-led pay-to-play network aimed at justifying their violations of the former system. The move also comes at a time of domestic “political siege” for Bzhania, and just four days after he appointed Inal Ardzinba as the new Foreign Minister — Ardzinba has notably served on Russian youth delegations to G8, G20 and BRICS summits.
Rose Revolution anniversary celebrated in Tbilisi. On 23 November, hundreds of residents of the Georgian capital formed a human chain from the Rose Square to the Freedom Square to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the Rose Revolution. The rally was organised by the supporters of the United National Movement (UNM), the opposition party whose then leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, was one of the organisers of the peaceful removal of Georgia’s second president Eduard Shevardnadze from power in November 2003 for rigging the elections. The UNM then won snap parliamentary elections in 2004 and remained in power until 2012, with Saakashvili going on to serve as Georgia’s third president. The participants of last week’s human chain held banners describing the reforms and successful results of the Rose Revolution. They also demanded the release of Saakashvili, who was recently taken to Gori Military Hospital after a 50-day hunger strike. On the occasion of the anniversary, the former president released an open letter from the hospital, promising that Georgia would take back its glory.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Kazakhstan considers investing in nuclear energy in a crypto-driven energy shortage. The Central Asian country became the second-largest cryptocurrency miner in the world, after the mass migration of Chinese cryptocurrency miners to Kazakhstan. China banned the virtual currency because of its heavy strain on the energy grid within its territory. Kazakhstan experienced the consequences of crypto-mining in mid-October, when two major power plants experienced emergency shutdowns because of excessive load. Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev told bankers in Almaty on 19 November that the country has no other choice than to pursue nuclear energy at some point in the near future. There is widespread fear against nuclear energy among the Kazakh population as a result of the country’s dark past as a testing ground for the Soviet’s atomic weapons programme. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is the largest uranium producer in the world and therefore, Tokayev’s solution to the problem for the future, is plausible.
High-level EU delegation travels to Central Asia for talks. Last Monday, the European Union’s Vice-President Josep Borrell and the EU Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen met with Foreign Ministers of Central Asian countries in Tajikistan, to discuss the EU’s engagement in the region. Despite Human Rights Watch urging the EU to bring up Central Asia’s poor human rights record during the talks, Borrell and Urpilainen prioritised other topics. The EU officials highlighted the role of Central Asian governments in managing the humanitarian consequences of the situation in Afghanistan and, presented their Afghan support package, which included funds for countries impacted by the crisis. Borrell also raised the issue regarding the situation on the Polish-Belarusian border and lobbied for support, to prevent migrants from being transported to Belarus. Other topics included cooperation to fight climate change, managing the COVID-19 pandemic, and the EU’s Global Gateway scheme, a potential competitor to China’s Belt and Road initiative.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Estonia calls upon nearly 1700 reservists to build a barrier on the border with Russia. Following in Poland’s footsteps, Estonia has begun building a temporary razor wire fence along its eastern border with Russia. Construction of the fence is taking place using soldiers who are part of an annual snap military exercise. The fence itself is a longer term project, first suggested after the Russian abduction of an Estonian official close to the south-eastern border in 2014. However, the process has now been accelerated as a result of the EU-Belarus border crisis, and the new fence is meant to be replaced by a more permanent solution at a later time. Prime minister Kaja Kallas has said that while Estonia’s borders are not threatened at the moment, the fence will act as evidence that Estonia is protecting both its own and EU and NATO’s borders. Meanwhile, residents in the southeast have expressed concern about wildlife and the actual usefulness of the project, as well as the effect on cross-border family, economic and cultural ties.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Zelensky claims to have thwarted a potential coup d’etat in Ukraine. During an hours-long press conference on Friday, 26 November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky informed the public about a potential coup d’etat planned against his government at the beginning of December. He stated that intelligence services uncovered a plot involving a group of Russians and Ukrainians having the support of Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov. The oligarch denied his involvement with the alleged plotters, claiming Mr Zelensky’s words as “an absolute lie” and that he would always support “an independent, democratic, and united Ukraine with Crimea and his home region, Donbas.” At the same time, Moscow also denied any role in any coup plot, while accusing Ukraine of its desire to recapture separatist-controlled territory by force. The Ukrainian President could not provide irrefutable evidence to support his claim, but Zelensky’s claims come at an alarming moment: Russia has more than 92,000 troops massed near Ukraine’s borders, with a potential to attack by the end of January or beginning of February.
Groups of Iraqi migrants repatriated from Belarus. According to an Iraqi News Agency, the spokesperson of Iraqi Foreign Ministry Ahmad al-Sahaf said on 25 November that 617 Iraqis were being voluntarily repatriated on two Iraqi Airways flights from Minsk after they were stranded for weeks near the Belarusian-EU border. Moreover, on the next day, the spokesperson promised that there will be more repatriation flights taking Iraqi migrants home. One of the migrants, Ghazi, claimed that his family sold their property in Kurdistan and paid thousands of dollars to traffickers in Belarus in a hope for a new life in Europe, but was brutally beaten by Lithuanian border guards and then subsequently stuck in the no-man’s land between Poland and Belarus, denied entry by both sides. The family once again had to pay up to be taken back to Belarus. They returned to Iraqi Kurdistan by one of the repatriation flights, now finding themselves in a precarious position with no housing and no job.
🌲 In Russia…
Putin hosts Pashinyan and Aliyev in Sochi. On 26 November, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev were brought together – for the first time since January. Russian President Vladimir Putin invited the leaders to the Black Sea to ease tensions and resolve remaining conflicts after last year’s war. Earlier this month, a new escalation in confrontations occurred along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, recorded as the deadliest clashes on both sides since the six-week war in 2020 ended with a Russia-mediated ceasefire. According to a three-way communiqué published as a result of this last meeting, Aliyev and Pashinyan agreed on the organization of a commission for the delimitation and demarcation of the borders between the countries, and expressed their willingness to work together in order to promote stability and security in the area under the guidance of Russian Federation.
CIA Director warns Russia of ‘consequences’ if behind Havana Syndrome. At a meeting in Moscow earlier this month, CIA Director William J. Burns warned Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) that they would face consequences if found responsible for the mysterious health issues, like brain damage and other long term illnesses, known as Havana Syndrome being faced by U.S. officials. Burns told his Russian counterparts that this was unacceptable behaviour from a professional intelligence service. On Thursday, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, said the issue had not been discussed during the CIA director’s trip or with President Putin. “Here we can only firmly deny any hints, suggestions or statements about the supposed involvement of the Russian side in these cases,” said Peskov. “We don’t have anything to do with this.” The Havana Syndrome, marked by headaches, nausea, hearing and memory loss, first occurred in Cuba, in 2016.
Putin fires head of Federal Penitentiary Service. It seems the position of Aleksandr Kalashnikov, who headed the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) since 2019, has become untenable: he was relieved of his duties by President Putin on 25 November. Although the FSIN has never enjoyed a good name, its reputation was further damaged by videos and images published by Russian NGO gulagu.net. These videos proved what many had already assumed: torture of prisoners is both widespread and systematic in Russian prisons. Kalashnikov’s place will be taken by the Vice-head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Arkadij Gostev. Reforming the prison system, which was built under the Soviet Union, has proven to be notoriously difficult despite multiple attempts. The appointment of Gostev probably does not indicate forthcoming reforms of the penal system. However, it does indicate that the government is paying attention to the functioning of FSIN and is reacting to public outrage instead of ignoring it.