Lossi 36 Weekly #38: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia9 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: The Biden-Putin phone call, mass protests in Serbia, Russia‘s “3+3” consultative platform on the Southern Caucasus, Kyrgyzstan’s Japarov to cut MPs’ benefits, Deputy Justice Minister resigns over bribery accusations in Hungary, coalition negotiations in Bulgaria, Gazprom Media to take over VKontakte, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Putin and Biden hold online meeting over escalating tensions in Ukraine.Rachele Colombo
On 7 December, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden held their second bilateral meeting – the first was held in Geneva earlier this year – over Western fears of invasion of Ukraine. This time, the call follows the build up of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Russia-Ukraine border over the last weeks. During the meeting, President Biden – besides confirming his support to Ukraine – warned Putin that if Russia were to invade Ukraine, it would face “strong economic and other measures,” among which is supposed to be the suspension of the North Stream 2 pipeline. As a response, Putin rejected any accusation of Russia’s intention to attack, underlying that its deployment of troops along its southern border is purely defensive. Putin also demanded for legally binding guarantees proving that NATO has no intention of expanding eastward, since it was approaching what he called a “red line,” thus threatening Russia. As it stands, the leaders’ call does not seem to have solved the crisis: Russia is unlikely to remove its troops from the Ukrainian border, while Biden did not to provide any guarantee concerning NATO expansion plans to the east.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Serbian government backs down in face of nationwide protests. Serbia’s government has withdrawn proposed amendments to laws on the organisation of local and national referenda put forth by public initiatives. The move came after mass protests, some of the largest and most widespread Serbia had seen in years, blocked major highways and roads for two weekends in a row, with threats of further action, should the government push forward with its plans. The now-withdrawn amendments would have radically limited the ability of civil society to initiate and organise referenda. Some suggested that the amendments were being pushed through parliament with little public consultation in a bid to hasten the confirmation and construction of what will be Europe’s largest lithium mine, which has been a source of strong environmental concerns. The protests, together with the ensuing U-turn by President Aleksandar Vučić’s government, could be seen as the start of a potential major challenge to the government in the lead up to general and presidential elections next spring.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Russia launches new “3+3” platform for the Southern Caucasus. Last Friday, Russia hosted the first meeting of the consultative regional platform “3+3”. The discussion was organised at the level of deputy foreign ministers and included representatives of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia and Turkey, with Georgia refusing to participate. Proposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, and announced by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in early October, the platform aims to bring together the three countries of the South Caucasus and their three “big” neighbours to create “a mechanism for consultations and approving decisions for the accelerated development” in the region. The initiative is also meant to facilitate the implementation of the trilateral declaration signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia to end last year’s war between the former two nations. Ironically enough, the first meeting of the platform comes during a time when multiple violations of the ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan are reported, with two soldiers reportedly wounded and one killed on the respective sides.
Georgia’s friendships grow strained. Georgian Dream’s (GD) democratic backsliding has caused increasingly tense relationships with Georgia’s most main allies over the past year. Top GD officials, including the party’s chairman, are clashing with current and former US ambassadors, to the point of questioning the current ambassador’s credentials. This is a sign of how far the relationship between the administrations has deteriorated. Maintaining US support is crucial, as the door to NATO membership remains all but closed. NATO’s special representative has expressed concern over GD’s withdrawal from the April 19th agreement and its impact on the accession process. What should be further concerning to GD, is that while their partnerships have floundered, Abkhazia’s friendships have strengthened. At the end of November, Abkhazia’s leader Aslan Bzhania laid out plans for a new embassy in Nicaragua. On 6 December, the Abkhazian and Chinese ambassadors to Syria met in Damascus to discuss foreign policy. Abkhazia has an honorary consul in Beijing, despite the lack of recognition.
Read an analysis of Georgia’s increasingly complicated relationship with Ukraine on our website.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Japarov slashes MPs’ benefits to totally minimise expenses. President of Kyrgyzstan Sadyr Japarov has moved to cut most benefits of the members of parliament, in a move to save money for the maintenance of the parliament. The state will no longer provide ministers of parliament with apartments and vehicles, along with many other benefits. Speaking to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Current Time service, Evgeniya Strokova explained that in addition to an already meagre MP’s salary of $300 per month, they were previously meant to receive an allowance of $470 for stationery, ink, and business trips, which has now been completely cut. However, Strokova says that in practice hardly any of these benefits were being delivered to members of parliament beforehand anyway, and called the move “populist”.
🚃 In Central Europe…
China temporarily removes Lithuania from customs amid Taiwan-related tensions. Following a severing in ties between Lithuania and China, Lithuanian goods were not admitted in Chinese ports during the first days of December following a sudden removal of Lithuania from China’s customs declaration systems. As of 7 December, however, Lithuania reappeared in China’s customs registries, although without a confirmation of the temporary ban from Chinese authorities. However, it is reported that China warned multinational companies to interrupt relations with Lithuania. Overall, these occurrences are interpreted as an attempt by Beijing to penalize the Baltic country, along with a downgrading of diplomatic relations, as a response to the opening of a representative office of Taiwan in Vilnius. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister Landsbergis asked for support from the European Commission in a letter, urging for a firm EU-level response “in order to send a signal to China that politically motivated economic pressure is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Hungarian Deputy Minister of Justice Völner resigns over bribery accusations. On 7 December, Pál Völner, a deputy justice minister and a Fidesz MP was accused of corruption by Hungary’s chief prosecutor Péter Polt, who also demanded Völner’s parliamentary immunity to be revoked. Völner is suspected of agreeing to take up specific cases in return for bribes amounting to 2-5 million HUF from the Chamber of the Judicial Officer’s President, where he also serves as a commissioner. Despite having denied the accusation, Völner resigned from his position in the justice ministry. An opposition party called for Justice Minister Judit Varga’s resignation for allowing the corruption to happen. Völner’s name was mentioned in the Pegasus spyware scandal, which was neither denied nor confirmed by Minister Varga.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Is Bulgaria’s election marathon about to end? In Bulgaria’s third parliamentary election this year, yet another new political force managed to win the most seats in the National Assembly. After the surprising win of “There is Such a People” in July, the newly formed “We Continue the Change”, led by two businessmen and Harvard graduates, Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev, shook the country’s party system once again on 14 November. Petkov and Vassilev were both ministers in the caretaker government of Rumen Radev, who got re-elected as the country’s president last month. A coalition government is currently being negotiated between “We Continue the Change”, “There is Such a People”, the Bulgarian Socialist Party and “Yes, Bulgaria”.
UK and Ukraine hold Strategic Dialogue meeting. On 8 December, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in London in the framework of the UK-Ukraine Strategic Dialogue. Topics discussed included defence and security, trade, conflict and stabilization, climate change and energy security, and culture and people-to-people contacts. As a result of the meeting, Truss and Kuleba signed a joint communiqué and designed ways to strengthen UK-Ukraine cooperation at all levels in 2022 and beyond. Both sides agreed on a common position regarding North Stream 2, which they consider to be a “geopolitical project” undermining the energy security of Europe and Ukraine. Moreover, the UK reaffirmed its readiness to help the Ukrainian Interior Ministry fortify Ukraine’s borders and combat illegal migration (discussed in relation to the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border). It also called on Russia to de-escalate the situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border, abide by its international commitments, and contribute fully to the Normandy format.
🌲 In Russia…
Gazprom Media takes over ‘VKontakte,’ Russia’s biggest social network. Gazprom Media, a company strongly affiliated with Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom, has bought out the owners of popular social network VKontakte. VK’s management has already changed: the son of top government official Sergei Kiriyenko will head the company. The name Kiriyenko might ring a bell, as it was Kiriyenko Sr. who masterminded the controversial ‘foreign agent’ bill. VKontakte, founded by Pavel Durov who later went on to found Telegram, currently has over 100 million users. Durov had cited ‘pressure from the FSB’ as a reason for selling stakes in the company, while the recent VKontakte takeover is characteristic of the Russian state’s desire to control the internet in Russia. Russian companies such as Yandex or Telegram have been taken over by state actors, while foreign companies such as Google and Facebook are forced to pay fines.
Torture in penal colonies draws Putin’s attention. During a meeting of the Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights on 9 December, President Vladimir Putin spoke about instances of torture that have taken place in Russian penal colonies, seemingly raising the need of introducing “systemic measures that would change the situation.” Putin also noted that the Federation Council are already working on legislation to combat torture in prisons. Putin’s comments follow the series of videos showing horrific instances of physical and sexual abuse in penal colonies and pre-trial detention centres in the Irkutsk, Vladimir, and Saratov regions published by human rights group gulagu.net in October. These videos were taken by former inmate Sergei Savelyev, a Belarusian national who smuggled the videos in a USB stick and is currently seeking asylum in France. On 25 November, Putin sacked Alexander Kalashnikov, the head of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, a move seen as a response to the torture videos which were met with unanimous condemnation.