Lossi 36 Weekly #01: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia9 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: The mass protests in Kazakhstan, Serbia‘s ban on nuclear energy under pressure, Armenian soldiers in Kazakhstan, clash between Taliban and Turkmenistan‘s border guards, Fidesz‘ new nominee for the Hungarian Presidency, Josep Borrell vists Luhansk, Russian troops in Kazakhstan, and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Mass protests force Kazakh government to step down.Chaharika Uppal 

On 5 January, after 3 days of nationwide protests against the sudden rise in LPG prices in the new year, the Kazakh government finally resigned and a state of emergency was imposed across the country. However, the mass resignation failed to quell demonstrations, which showed chronic resentment against corruption and low quality of life. It was soon announced that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev would be assuming the post of chairman of the Kazakh Security Council, which would give him more control over the nation’s security forces. The role had previously been occupied by former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose name was not mentioned in the presidential address released on the night of 5 January. Videos from Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, show protesters toppling over Nazarbayev’s statue, as well as the force being used against angry crowds of demonstrators that attempted to storm administrative buildings, including the president’s residence and the city hall. Tokayev called upon the CSTO to aid the Kazakh government in its fight against what he claims are “foreign-trained terrorists.” Reports from the interior ministry suggest that 18 soldiers have also died in the clashes so far, along with many protesters. On Thursday, around 4000 CSTO troops had started arriving in Kazakhstan, the majority of which were Russian [ed.: read more on that below].

🌺 In the Balkans…

Serbian energy minister moots lifting nuclear power ban. A 36-year ban on nuclear energy in Serbia could soon come to an end. On 3 January, energy minister Zorana Mihajlovic commented that Belgrade is “considering all options” for replacing many of the country’s coal-fired power plants, and that “renewable energy and hydropower isn’t enough” on its own. The existing Yugoslav-era moratorium on nuclear energy has been in place since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, but in the words of Mihajlovic, since then “all that has changed.” In November last year, President Alexander Vučić had already raised the possibility of building a nuclear power plant in Serbia in conjunction with Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom. While financing remains a concern, Mihajlovic noted the possibility of constructing smaller, modular reactors, which have recently been successfully employed in Bulgaria and Romania in recent years.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

New Year brings chaos to South Ossetia, Abkhazia. The Parliament of South Ossetia is contemplating the impeachment of President Anatoly Bibilov, despite upcoming elections in April. Ahead of Christmas, Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhania faced mass protests in Sukhumi. In both regions, the opposition is seizing on long-standing dissatisfaction with socioeconomic conditions and state violence. South Ossetia has remained relatively stable throughout its autonomy, but Bibilov is now seeing built-up grievances. While Abkhazia is used to political turbulence, the current level of opposition is unprecedented. Bzhania has been desperate for any type of win, with limited success, however. Russia has played on Abkhazia’s troubles to win major concessions that Bzhania had been holding out on, but it is unclear what the benefit will be in South Ossetia, considering the territory wants to unite with Russia. Regardless of what is decided about the political strife, the new year does not bode well for either region.

One hundred Armenian soldiers sent to Kazakhstan to assist in dealing with protests. The Armenian authorities have announced the dispatch of one hundred Armenian soldiers to Kazakhstan as part of the peacekeeping force of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). These soldiers will be tasked with protecting sites of “strategic importance.” Holding the presidency of the organisation since autumn 2021, Nikol Pashinyan’s Armenia has been quick to organise this intervention to “normalise the situation,” claiming, without proof, that the massive demonstrations across Kazakhstan are the result of external intervention. Many observers in Armenia were shocked by the Prime Minister’s decision, accusing the CSTO of failing to intervene in May and November 2021 to help Armenia when Azerbaijan was carrying out offensives on Armenian territory. Some have also commented on the inconsistency of the Pashinyan’s statements, as he himself became head of state following a popular movement, similar to the one in Kazakhstan.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Outbreak of violence between Taliban and Turkmen border guards. On Monday, 3 January, TASS reported an armed clash between Taliban militants and Turkmen border guards in the Hamyab border region in Afghanistan’s Jowzjan province. Helal Balkhi, acting head of the Taliban Information and Culture Department in Jowzjan Province, told Hasht-e-Subh that “Turkmen border guards had killed one civilian and beaten another.” Helal Balkhi said that the armed dispute took place when civilians affiliated with the Taliban approached Turkmenistan’s border, after which Turkmen border guards killed one member of the group and injured another. A Taliban-led investigation is ongoing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan did not initially report the incident, and the embassy of Turkmenistan in Kabul stated that “There are no problems between us and our neighbour Turkmenistan, and we want to have diplomatic and friendly relations with friendly countries and all countries of the world.”

🚃 In Central Europe…

Fidesz Nominates Katalin Novák for Hungarian President. As the second term of the incumbent János Áder is ending in May 2022, a presidential election is scheduled to be held in the spring. Hungarian Prime Minister and Fidesz president Viktor Orbán amazed the country  by announcing the party’s nomination of Katalin Novák, minister for family affairs, for the presidency back in late December. Novák stated on her official Facebook fan page that she accepted the nomination. Following her recent resignation from the role of vice-president of Fidesz party, she also wrote later that she would resign as a minister on 31 December 2021. Former Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi vouched for her candidacy, defending the opposition’s PM candidate Péter Márki-Zay criticism for Novák’s link with Fidesz and lack of power counterbalance. Hungary has not had a female head of state yet, while women make up only a small share of politicians, so that Fidesz’s nomination of Novák for presidency made an impactful move on an international stage which is worth keeping an eye on. In the meantime, the opposition alliance has not nominated any candidate yet.

Facebook page of Polish far-right party banned for Covid-19 disinformation and hate speech. The Facebook page of a Polish far-right party, Confederation (Konfederacja), was removed from the social network on 5 January. According to a spokesperson from Meta, the decision to ban the page with 670,000 followers was attributable to content violations of Facebook’s community standard guidelines, due to disinformation on masks and vaccines aimed at containing the spread of Covid-19, as well as through hate speech and discriminatory content. Despite the party’s low presence within the Polish parliament with only 11 members, the banned page of Confederation was the most followed Facebook page belonging to a political party in Poland. Adam Andruszkiewicz and  Janusz Cieszynski, respectively Secretaries of State for digitization and for cybersecurity, condemned the event as undermining freedom of speech, urging Meta to reverse the ban on the page, particularly in view of the October 2022 elections.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Borrell visits Eastern Ukraine while situation remains unstable. On 4 January, The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, visited the Luhansk region, one of the two regions afflicted by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In a conversation with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Borrell reaffirmed the “EU’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and to support sustained reform efforts that are key for resilience” in the context of the Russian military build-up. This is the first time an EU high representative has visited the area since the conflict began in 2014. Moscow will hold urgent talks with Ukraine, Germany and France this Thursday under the Normandy format. Last December, the number of registered ceasefire violations was five times higher than in December 2020. Meanwhile, former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko will return to Ukraine on 17 January for a court appearance, to respond to charges of high treason levied against him, the  result of which could lead to further instability.

Belarusian citizen detained for praising protesters in Kazakhstan. On Friday, a pro-Lukashenko Telegram channel reported the detention of a Belarusian citizen for posting a comment which applauded the protesters in Kazakhstan. In the comment, the detainee wrote, “It’s great, well done Kazakhs, we need them here [in Belarus]”. Later, in a confession video forcefully filmed by the Belarusian police, the detainee said that he had posted on a Telegram channel listed as “extremist” by the Belarusian authorities. The detainee said in the comment that he wanted Kazakhs to come to Belarus and set a positive example for protesting. At the same time, in response to Kazakh president Kasym-Jomart Tokayev’s appeal to send “peacekeeping forces” to Kazakhstan, Belarus has sent the 103rd separate airborne brigade of Vitebsk to Kazakhstan, which has been put in charge of the protection of some crucial military facilities like military airfields, so that some Kazakh security forces could be relocated to Almaty to crack down on the protests. 

🌲 In Russia…

Russia sends troops to Kazakhstan as part of CSTO intervention. Last Wednesday, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), asking it for help in regaining control over the protests in Kazakhstan. Collective troops from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan were sent to Kazakhstan already on the following day, under Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty (case of aggression against any Member State). It is believed that 3,000 Russian paratroopers have arrived in the country as part of the peacekeeping forces, and will remain there “for as long as the president of Kazakhstan believes it necessary”, according to Russian MP Leonid Kalashnikov. The swift arrival of the Russian troops could be perceived as the Kremlin’s willingness to preserve its influence in the ex-Soviet Union countries by force, with the protests declared as “a foreign-inspired attempt to undermine the state’s security and integrity”. Furthermore, Russia is keen on increasing its military presence in Kazakhstan to protect valuable strategic assets, such as gas pipelines, Russian military bases and the Russian spaceport in Baikonur.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Chaharika Uppal, Francis Farrell, Harold Chambers, Zadig Tisserand, Kirsty Dick, Thapanee Tubnonghee; Myriam Marino, Martina Bergamaschi, Qianrui Hu, Vira Kompaniiets, Tijs van de Vijver, & Sam Appels 💘
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