This Winter’s Highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia8 min read

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📮 We’ll be back with a new run of Lossi 36 Weekly on Monday, 10 January. To get a sense of what happened over the past weeks, we bring you this Winter Special, in which we discuss: the Christmas Breakthrough in North Macedonia‘s political stalemate; the violent unrest in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan; a Presidential Veto to “LexTVN” in Poland; the charges of treason against Petro Poroshenko; the shutdown of Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected NGOs.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Late Christmas gift makes its way to North Macedonian political stalemate. Cameron MacBride

Shortly after Christmas day, North Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski provided new Socialist party (SDSM) leader Dimitar Kovacevski with a mandate to form a government, a move which may finally bring to a close the current political crisis which has rocked the country’s fragile political state for months. The nation’s most-recent crisis began back in October with then prime minister Zoran Zaev promising to resign following heavy losses by SDSM in local elections, before pushing back his resignation until calm was restored in the country. This U-turn prompted mass opposition outrage, with calls for snap elections, and a vote of no-confidence, which at the last minute turned in the government’s favour due to the suspicious no-show of an opposition MP, whose crucial missing vote would have ousted the government. 

The socialist government led by Zaev, which has ruled the country since 2017, has brought about major changes in a short time frame, including changing the official title of the country through the signing of the Prespa agreement with Greece in 2018, shortly followed by the nation’s accession to NATO that same year. But public confidence in the government has waned in the face of a lack of progress of the Balkan nation’s accession to the European Union, which continues to be blocked by Bulgaria due to disagreements over perceived outstanding historical and cultural issues between the two nations. 

Many however, are approaching the incoming government with cautious optimism as the country looks towards what could be a make or break year for public confidence in the government as it seeks to finally begin EU accession negotiations, whilst also balancing the nation’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing effects of the growing energy crisis across the continent.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Violent unrest in Gorno-Badakhshan.  Kirsty Dick 

Gorno-Badakhshan is an ethnically and linguistically distinct autonomous region in eastern Tajikistan. It has been a place of opposition against President Rahmon’s rule since the civil war, in which most people from the region fought on the side of the rebels. 

Protests, which sometimes turned into riots, took place in Khorog between 25 and 28 November. On the first day of the protests, the body of Gulbidin Ziyobekov was brought to the main square with protesters demanding an investigation into his death. According to prosecutors, Ziyobekov put up armed resistance and was ‘injured’ during his arrest. He was wanted for allegedly beating and kidnapping a prosecutor last year. Another man was reportedly injured during the operation and later died in a hospital. Some protestors attempted to seize the regional administrative building using ‘firearms, stones, and sharp objects,’ wounding four members of the security forces and a staff member of the prosecutor’s office. In response, security forces fired on protesters, killing at least one person, and wounding several others.

The protests have their roots in a February 2020 incident where a group of men, including Ziyobekov, confronted and assaulted a deputy prosecutor who they claimed had harassed a young woman, forcing him to issue an apology on camera. The investigation into this assault was halted by the then-Gorno-Badakhshan governor Yodgor Faizov. Faizov was removed from his post in early November which triggered a renewed effort to arrest Ziyobekov. On 28 November, after hours of tough negotiations, the authorities pledged not to launch criminal probes against the protesters, promised to open an investigation into the death of Ziyobekov, to remove checkpoints around the city and to restore internet access. These concessions were enough to remove the protestors and restore peace to the region for the time being.   

🚃 In Central Europe…

Will presidential veto bring an end to “lexTVN” legislative rollercoaster? Agnieszka Widłaszewska 

Following Poland’s lawmaking has become quite the challenge in recent years, with “lexTVN” serving as a great example. This legislative proposal aims to amend Poland’s Broadcasting Act. One of the suggested changes stipulates that broadcasting licences can be issued only to entities based within the European Economic Area (EEA), and which are not dependent on any entity based outside it. The provision would impact one of Poland’s biggest independent broadcasters – TVN – owned by American Discovery, and operated through a Netherlands-based holding company.

The lower house of the parliament (Sejm) passed “lexTVN” on 11 August. With PiS’ shaky ruling majority, every vote mattered. In a rather chaotic chain of events, the opposition won a vote postponing the entire session to September, with PiS subsequently demanding and being granted a recount, as some MPs claimed they had made a mistake while voting. The debate was reopened and the bill passed, only to be promptly rejected by the Senate, narrowly controlled by the opposition. 

It was unclear when the Sejm would debate the proposal again, with an absolute majority required to overturn the Senate’s rejection. Suddenly, on 17 December, PiS brought “lexTVN” back onto the agenda and passed it. Members of the culture and media committee, whose opinion was required prior to the final vote, were reportedly informed about their meeting some 25 minutes before it started (instead of the required three days). In a final twist, President Andrzej Duda, supported by PiS, vetoed the bill on 27 December, questioning its compatibility with a number of legal provisions. Presidential veto could only be overturned by the Sejm with a three-fifths majority, which PiS does not currently have. 

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Ukraine’s former President Poroshenko charged with treason. Chaharika Uppal

Another round of accusations has been raised against Petro Poroshenko in late December. Their gravity seems to have increased, as Poroshenko is now being investigated for committing high treason. According to the statement released by the Ukrainian State Investigation Bureau, the former president has been accused of helping separatists in the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and of selling coal to the government during his presidency. Both Poroshenko and his party members have denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the charges as “politically motivated”. Previously, Poroshenko had been accused of corruption and abuse of power during his time in office. While the validity of these charges can only be proven in a court of law, the timing seems unfortunate, especially due to the tense relations between Russia and Ukraine as the former continues to increase its military presence on Ukraine’s eastern borders. 

The recent allegations against a supposedly pro-European former leader do play into the Kremlin’s narrative of “Ukraine as an unstable and corrupt democracy,” an excuse used before to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. Furthermore, the allegations come soon after President Zelenskyy was linked to a network of offshore entities in the Pandora Paper’s leak and only a few months after the passing of his anti-oligarchic bill. The bill has been criticized for its ambiguity and primarily for the excessive influence of the National Security and Defense Council, an advisory body appointed by the President itself. Zelenskyy has already been accused of using the legislation to target political opponents. 

In order to maintain its credibility and to stand ground against Moscow, Kyiv will have to hold fair and transparent judicial proceedings against Poroshenko, a concern expressed by Western allies as well.

🌲 In Russia…

Continued crackdown on civil society on 2021’s last days: Memorial shut down. Tijs van de Vijver

After years of legal struggle, Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most respected civil rights groups, was shut down by Russia’s Supreme court on 28 December 2021. Set up in the late 1980s, and initially led by Andrei Sakharov, Memorial  endeavoured to uncover the true scale of the repression which took place during Soviet times, but particularly under Stalin’s rule. Memorial’s historical branch maintains a massive archive of Soviet-era state crimes, questioned official narratives that had glossed over horrors committed under Stalin’s regime, and strived to keep the memory of victims of Communist repression alive. Memorial’s contemporary branch agitates against recent human rights violations as well – the organization keeps track of political prisoners in Russia, but it also shows concern for legal cases against Russian mercenaries in Syria.

The shutdown of Memorial, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. Back in 2014, it was one of the first organizations to be labelled as a “foreign agent.” Moscow Mayor Sobyanin has attempted to move the organization’s annual commemorative event to the outskirts of Russia’s capital, and Yuri Dmitriev, head of the organization’s Karelia branch, was recently sentenced to fifteen years in prison, on fabricated charges. Officially, the pretext for targeting the group was its failure to earmark its publications with disclaimers to show that the materials were being disseminated by a “foreign agent.” 

In reality, however, the accusations against Memorial have always amounted to “a formal excuse to close down an organisation voicing uncomfortable truths.”

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Chaharika Uppal, Kirsty Dick, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, and Tijs van de Vijver 💘
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