Lossi 36 Weekly #39: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia8 min read

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In this year’s last regular newsletter 📮: Arrests over wartime mass killings in Bosnia, “national reconciliation” in Georgia, Uzbekistan calls to support Afghanistan, “Lex TVN” adopted in Poland, Zelensky on the Eastern Partnership Summit, Russia‘s red lines, and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Potash import scandal nearly takes down Lithuanian government.Charles Fourmi 

As freight trains from the Lithuanian Railway Company reached the port of Klaipėda on 8 December, two ministers handed over their resignations to PM Simonyte. The trains, filled with potash coming from Belarus, showed that the EU’s economic blockade against the regime in Minsk failed to tackle one of Lithuania’s most symbolic exchange sources, one that the US had already sanctioned back in August. After the two ministers saw their resignations brushed aside by Lithuania’s PM, the Lithuanian Railway Company’s CEO resigned as a consequence of the firm accepting advance payments from Belaruskali for services through December and January, thereby compromising the immediate possibility to halt the Belarusian potash firm. The scandal, however, revealed that Lithuania wanted the company, held to be a cash cow for Lukashenka’s regime, to be exempt from European sanctions back when the EU decided on them. Several sources reported that Lithuania had no incentive to agree with US sanctions, since the potash trade was a source of profit for the Lithuanian Railway Company.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Bosnia arrests eight for wartime mass killings. On Thursday, 16 December, Bosnian State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) police arrested eight former Bosnian Serb soldiers and reserve policemen, including one active member of the Bosnian Armed Forces, for suspected involvement in the 1992 mass killing of nearly 100 Bosniak civilians near Nevesinje. The victims, according to state prosecution, included mostly women, the elderly and children, including some as young as fifteen days old. The remains of forty-nine victims have been found in numerous mass graves throughout the Herzegovinian karst, while the others are still missing. According to researcher and activist Senad Omerika, around ten percent of the Bosniak population of Nevesinje was killed during the war, second only to Srebrenica. Nevesinje, which is in the south of Bosnia, in the historic region of eastern Herzegovina, is currently part of the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Zourabichvili initiates national reconciliation in Georgia. As the trial of ex-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili continues, current president Salome Zourabichvili has initiated a reconciliation between the country’s opposing political forces. Indeed, tensions have been rising in the politically divided Georgia and this effort, if genuine, could help to improve the general political environment. However, the ruling Georgian Dream party, which supports the current president, does not seem to be too impressed by Zourabishvili’s initiative, and does not intend to enter into dialogue and reconciliation with “the evil disguised as generous.” On the other hand, the move was positively received by some of the Members of the European Parliament. It remains to be seen if the President’s proposal will be a non-starter, or if it will indeed bear some fruit for the deeply divided country.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Youth activists commemorate Zheltoksan and Zhanaozen protests in Almaty. On December 16, the Kazakhstani youth movement Oyan Qazaqstan! held a mostly peaceful gathering in Almaty to commemorate the bloody 1986 youth protests, now known as the Zhektoksan protests, as well as the 2011 shooting of striking oil workers in the city of Zhanaozen. Participants wore white jumpsuits covered in red paint in order to symbolize the victims of these two bloody events in Kazakhstan’s recent history. Despite the overall peaceful character of the gathering, at least three participants were detained by the police before the meeting started, although they were released soon after. On the group’s Instagram page, organizers from Oyan Qazaqstan! stated that “this action repeats the 35-year-old event, when the blood of young students was spilled on the square. In both cases – in Zhanaozen and in Zheltoksan – our fellow citizens went onto the public square in order to express their civic position, to defend their freedom and ours.”

Uzbekistan calls on the international community to support Afghanistan. While other Central Asian countries remain hesitant to pursue trade relations with the new government in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan seems to be ready to talk business with the Taliban-led administration. It has offered humanitarian agencies, use of the country’s territory as a base in order to deliver humanitarian aid into Afghanistan. Uzbekistan’s willingness to help, however, isn’t just a sign of goodwill. The regional governor of Surxondaryo, a region on the border with Afghanistan, articulated the Uzbek government’s interest in accessing South Asian markets, Pakistan especially, through Afghanistan. This was also indicated by a virtual meeting between India, Iran, and Uzbekistan held on 14 December, where the joint use of Iran’s Chabahar Port, developed by New Delhi in Iran to directly access Central Asia and Afghanistan, was put forward as a means to increase regional connectivity and trade.

🚃 In Central Europe…

PiS’ Christmas “gift” to Poland’s independent media. During the last parliamentary session before the Christmas holidays, the so-called “lex TVN” proposal was suddenly brought back onto the agenda by the ruling Law and Justice (PIS) party, and passed by absolute majority, with the opposition questioning the legality of the proceedings. The vote overruled the Polish Senate, which rejected the bill in early September. “Lex TVN” stipulates that only companies which are majority-owned by entities from the European Economic Area can hold broadcast licences in Poland. The opposition considers it to be directed specifically against Poland’s biggest independent broadcaster, and one of PIS’ fiercest critics – TVN, which is owned by U.S.-based Discovery. Friday’s vote has been criticised on both sides of the Atlantic, including by acting US ambassador to Poland Bix Aliu, and Vice-President of the European Commission Věra Jourová. “Lex TVN” still needs to be signed by President Andrzej Duda, who indicated some doubts regarding the bill back in August, though he is unlikely to veto it.

Constitutional law experts deem Hungarian anti-LGBTQI law incompatible with human rights standards. On 13 December, The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, a body comprised of experts on constitutional law, released an Opinion Article declaring the incompatibility of Hungary’s amendments to its ‘Child Protection and Family Protection Acts’ to ban sexual content for children under 18 with international human rights standards. According to the assessment of the Venice Commission, the Hungarian law encourages discriminatory tendencies towards the LGBTQI community, restricts freedom of expression and information, and builds a “threatening environment” for LGBTQI minors. Since June, the amendments introduced by Viktor Orbán’s government have sparked high international concern. Additionally, on 2 December, the European Commission continued its infringement procedure against Hungary launched in July 2021 after the same amendments, and urged the country to make necessary changes within two months. In case Hungary does not address the issue, the Commission could refer the case to the EU Court of Justice.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Zelensky seeks support for Ukraine at the EU’s Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels. During the summit, involving the European Union’s leaders and their counterparts from Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, President Zelensky urged the EU to impose pre-emptive sanctions on Russia to deter a potential military attack against Ukraine. While the idea of anticipating escalation, rather than waiting and punishing Moscow after more hostile actions, might appear strategically sound, it did not resonate with European leaders. Even though European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated the EU’s readiness to adopt “unprecedented measures with serious consequences for Russia” in case of an attack against Ukraine, the possibility of pre-emptive sanctions seems to lack legal basis. Besides, according to senior diplomats cited by Bloomberg, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain are pushing for more dialogue with Russia before moving ahead with sanctions. Away from the spotlight, President Zelensky held meetings with French President Macron and Germany’s newly-elected chancellor Scholz at the summit to gather support for Ukraine.

🌲 In Russia…

Putin spars with his human rights council. During a meeting of the Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights on 9 December, director Aleksandr Sokurov issued a scathing rebuke of Putin’s foreign and domestic policies around southern Russia. Sokurov criticized Russia’s focus on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which he says has caused neglect of its own federal regions, pointing to the emergence of private armies and even a “padishah” (Ancient Persian ruler), in the North Caucasus. Both were clearly referencing Ramzan Kadyrov’s governance of Chechnya. Sokurov called for Russia to let go of those who no longer wanted to be one state, implicitly meaning Chechnya. Responding to these comments, Putin warned Sokurov not to meddle in the North Caucasus. Kadyrov labelled Sokurov a separatism-fomenting extremist. Sokurov also called for the leaders of the “Ingush case” to be released, not long after they were given lengthy prison sentences.

Russia publishes “red lines” security demands for NATO and US. On 17 December, Russian authorities published documents demanding  that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries, as well as to roll back the deployment of armed forces, armaments and nuclear weapons in Central and Eastern Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov informed later that US-Russia relations have reached a “dangerous point,” and the fact that NATO is sending troops to Ukrainian borders is considered as “casus belli” by Russia. As an answer to Russia’s demands, the US said that it is open to negotiations, but its concerns would be also put on the table and no decision will be made without the involvement of European allies and partners. The North Atlantic Council reassured that NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is only a matter  for Ukraine, and that the 30 NATO Allies and NATO countries will not block future membership for any Eastern European countries either.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Xhorxina Molla, Ana Robakidze, Harold Chambers, Vira Kompaniiets, Adriano Rodari, Myriam Marino, Charles Fourmi, Chaharika Uppal, Marie Mach, & Agnieszka Widłaszewska💘
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