Lossi 36 Weekly #37: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Media freedom under pressure in the Balkans, Azerbaijan and Iran sign a gas deal in Turkmenistan, discrepancies in Kyrgyzstan’s elections, inflation in Lithuania, new Prime Minister in Romania, QR codes in Russia’s regionsand much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Ukraine dominates political debate during a turbulent week.Agnieszka Widłaszewska 

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, NATO Foreign Ministers convened in Riga to discuss Russia’s military build-up on the border with Ukraine, where an estimated 94,000 troops are currently deployed. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that any Russian aggression would come “at a high price,” such as “economic sanctions, financial sanctions, [and] political restrictions.” Asked about Ukraine’s membership perspective, Stoltenberg declared: “Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbours.” Also on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would be seeking “concrete agreements that would rule out any further eastward expansion of NATO and the deployment of weapons systems posing a threat to [Russia] in close proximity to Russia’s territory.” On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed Putin’s call at an OSCE Ministerial Council meeting, accusing NATO of deploying military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian borders. “The nightmarish scenario of military confrontation is looming again,” Lavrov declared. On Friday, US intelligence officials announced that they had found evidence of a large-scale Russian attack on Ukraine being planned for early 2022 – more on that below. During the weekend, it was announced that Biden and Putin would have a video call coming Tuesday to discuss the situation.

🌺 In the Balkans…

‘Media Freedom Rapid Response’ critical of Western Balkans. According to MFRR, nationalist politics is eroding media freedom in the Western Balkans, and has fuelled a recent series of attacks on local journalists. In Serbia, right-wing groups harassed N1 reporters covering the controversy over a mural of Ratko Mladić, while in Croatia, a columnist received death threats over a recent article challenging the nationalist cult surrounding the town of Vukovar. While such acts are mostly perpetrated by individuals and members of radical organizations, government media outlets and government officials are contributing to the problem in some cases. MFFR’s latest report found that press freedom in Slovenia is deteriorating under the Janša government. Due in part to the worsening situation in media freedom in Southeast and Central Europe, the European Commission announced its Media Freedom Act aimed at preventing political influence and ensuring pluralism in the media of EU member states and candidate countries just last week.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Saakashvili takes the stand. To defend himself in the ongoing trials that charged him with abuse of power during a protest in 2007, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili took the stand on 29 November. Speaking of his experiences in prison, he claimed that he was a victim of torture and that he was Putin’s political prisoner. He apologized for the “mistakes” he had made in the past and said that, although he had made a few, he’d still built the country from scratch, adding that it is a shame that he is in jail now. Additionally, he has been charged with corruption regarding the state money he spent on personal clothing, to finance his son’s education abroad, and to cover medical procedures for him and the first lady. Saakashvili dismissed these prosecutions as politically motivated. The whole experience further deepened the societal divisions in the country; however, neither the government nor the former president seem to be interested in de-escalation.

Trilateral gas transportation agreement between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. On 28 November, an agreement was signed in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, between the presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan, Ebrahim Raisi and Ilham Aliyev, for the transportation of Turkmen gas. The officials’ speeches, calling upon the “brotherhood” of the Azerbaijani and Iranian people and the need to enhance cooperation, stands in sharp contrast to the threats made two months earlier during the violent diplomatic crisis between the two countries, after Iranian truckers were arrested by Azerbaijani border police. The agreement includes the annual transport of 1.5 to 2 billion cubic metres of gas, from Turkmenistan to Iran, followed by Iran sending the same amount of gas to Azerbaijan. Both the agreement and Raisi’s declaration of support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity demonstrate a reconciliation of sorts between the two countries. However, the impending signing of a permanent free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union also shows that Iran is maintaining its traditional partnerships with Russia and Armenia.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Navalny’s investigation uncovers Tokayev property in Moscow. According to Mediazona Central Asia, an investigation led by Alexey Navalny’s team revealed that the family of Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, possesses luxury property in Moscow. This information was uncovered through the database Rosreestr, which recently began to classify information on properties belonging to Russian bureaucrats and members of the Federal Security Service. The investigation found that a 196-square-meter flat located in Moscow’s Khamovniki’s District was registered under the name of Timur Tokayev, the president’s son. The Navalny team also revealed that the president’s ex-wife, Nadezhda Davydova, owns a 167-square-meter flat in Moscow’s Meshchansky District. “The only formal explanation for this,” Navalny’s team sarcastically noted in their report, “is that president Tokayev is a serving member of Russia’s special services.”

Vote discrepancies in Kyrgyz elections. Parliamentary elections took place in the Central Asian nation on 28 November, but as the polls closed on Sunday night, a lot did not add up (literally). The first set of results flashed by the Central Election Commission showed that 9 parties, including opposition parties such as the Social Democrats and Ata-Meken, had secured a place in the Jogorku Kenesh (Kyrgyz Parliament). However, once the votes were tallied, the total percentage of ballots cast reached around 150%. After a supposed server crash, the results showed that only 6 parties had made it into the parliament, most of which support Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov. Opposition parties refused to recognize the results during a press conference held after the elections, on the grounds of vote fraud, invalid ballots, and technical issues with the electronic voting systems. Election officials have claimed that the discrepancy in the results was caused by a large number of spoiled votes — around 9.6% of all votes cast.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Hungarian lawmakers approve anti-LGBTQ+ referendum. Hungarians will vote on four questions regarding the availability of LGBTQ+-related topics for minors. Conservative lawmakers from Fidesz-KDNP, the political majority, perceive LGBTQ+ issues as an attack on Christian values, and, as stated by minister Balász Orbán, “propaganda to say No to.” The opposition, led by Péter Ungár, boycotted the vote and declared the idea a “referendum of hate.” More criticism came from independent parliamentarian János Bencsik, who called it a “hypocritical and very expensive political tool in the hands of the government in the election campaign.” According to the site hvg.hu, the referendum may cost the significant sum of HUF 12.6 billion. After the constitutional amendments passed just earlier this month, the government plans to put the referendum questions in the Spring 2022 parliamentary elections’ ballot, to save money. The last Hungarian referendum took place in 2016 over the question of migrants, yet another highly divisive topic.

Lithuania’s record-breaking inflation rate. At 9.3 percent over November, Lithuania reported the highest inflation rate of the eurozone, with the region’s average amounting to 4.9 percent. Across the eurozone, the high inflation rates – the highest since the introduction of the euro – have been induced by the euro losing value in comparison to the dollar. In Lithuania, this has led to an increase in gas and electricity prices by approximately 30 percent, while the price of food products have gone up by similar rates. However, wage growth has not been able to keep up, increasing at approximately 11 percent. Economists expect the soaring inflation to continue well into 2022, and speculate on how Lithuanians will cope with the emerging economic scenario: switch to cheaper products, or go on a shopping spree, across the border.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

New Romanian Prime Minister sworn in, political stalemate declared to be over. On November 25, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis has sworn in Nicholae Ciuta, a retired general, as the new prime minister of a government consisting of a three-party coalition, marking the end of the two-month political stalemate since September. There are still great challenges awaiting the newly formed government, such as the fourth wave of COVID and a looming economic crisis amid soaring energy prices, for which the former prime minister Florin Citu was ousted by a no-confidence vote in parliament. Being one of the poorest countries in the EU, Romania has also one of the lowest vaccination rates. A member of the parliament serves as the most influential anti-vaxxer in the country, often appearing in hospitals and vaccination sites to block people from getting their jabs.

Lukashenko recognizes Crimea as Russian, pledges to support Russia in case of war with Ukraine. On 30 November, Belarusian president Lukashenko announced that he would visit Crimea, which would imply the official recognition of the peninsula as a de facto and de jure part of Russia. On 1 December, he also declared that, should Russia wage a full-wedge war with Ukraine, Belarus would “go to war” on Russia’s side. Lukashenko previously took a more neutral stance towards the situation in Crimea and Donbas. Lukashenko’s comments come at a time when an escalation of the war in Eastern Ukraine seems likely, coinciding with Belarus’ increased tensions due to the ongoing migration crisis on its Western border with Poland. Russia and Belarus also announced joint military exercises on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, feeding an increasingly strained security situation in the region. 

Washington and Kyiv accuse Russia of planning an invasion. According to a U.S. intelligence report published in the Washington Post on Friday, Russia is planning a massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops. U.S. President Biden confirmed that he was putting together “the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do,” adding that he “won’t accept anybody’s red line.” The White House and the Kremlin confirmed that Biden and Putin are due to hold a video call this Tuesday to discuss the rising tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border. On Friday, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Ukraine refuses to give up its aim to join NATO, or to give any “security guarantee” to Russia. He called on the United States and its North Atlantic allies to reject Moscow’s demands to out-rule Ukraine’s NATO membership to ease tensions along Russia’s western border with Ukraine.

🌲 In Russia…

QR codes rattle Russian provinces. Across Southern Russia, the implementation of QR codes to access public spaces has proven to be a political sticking point, derailing normal political processes. From Volgograd to Dagestan, public backlash to these restrictions has proved to be a new mobilising grievance, the first widespread one since the #FreeNavalny protests. In Krasnodar, the anti-QR movement has become a public rallying point and an opportunity for opposition politicians. In North Ossetia, a law implementing the QR code regime took two attempts to clear the republic’s parliament, passing only with federal pressure. These two hotspots against restrictions are of particular concern to the Kremlin. Authorities are facing continued fallout in Krasnodar from Team Navalny’s “Putin’s Palace” report. North Ossetia’s populace has been vocally against restrictions throughout the pandemic; the earlier protests were partially responsible for the previous governor being forcibly retired. While still somewhat irregular, social movements are increasingly frequent, posing a new threat to the regional authorities, who are still unsure how to respond.

Russia deploys coastal missile system on disputed island chain near Japan. On Thursday, 2 December, Russia deployed its third Bastion coastal defence missile system on the Kuril Islands, a Pacific area which is an object of a territorial dispute with Japan. The Bastion missile systems were moved to Matua, a volcanic island in the middle of the island chain, whose four southernmost islands Japan considers to be its own territory. The dispute over the islands goes back to World War II, when they were seized by the Soviet Union in the final days of the war. The Russian Navy had already deployed both Bastion and Bal coastal defence missile systems on the Kuril’s Iturup and Kunashir islands back in 2016, causing concern among the Japanese authorities. Russia continues to refuse to negotiate on the sovereignty of the islands. The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, highlighted on Thursday that “Russia has every right to deploy in its territory any facilities it deems right and there where it finds appropriate.”

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Xhorxina Molla, Zadig Tisserand, Ana Robakidze, Chaharika Uppal, Marie Mach, Tijs van de Vijver, Charles Fourmi, Adriano Rodari, Martina Bergamaschi, Qianrui Hu, Vira Kompaniiets, Harold Chambers, & Agnieszka Widłaszewska 💘
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