Lossi 36 Weekly #03: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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In this week’s newsletter¬†ūüďģ: Anti-dissident war in Chechnya,¬†$2.4 billion lithium mine project cancelled in¬†Serbia, social workers go on strike in¬†Georgia,¬†Nazarbayev‚Äôs corruption saga,¬†Slovenia‚Äôs growing ties with¬†Taiwan, Antony Blinken in Ukraine, Biden’s threats to Russia,¬†and much more!

‚≠źÔłŹ¬†This week’s special

Kadyrov’s escalating war with Chechen dissidents.Harold Chambers 

Towards the end of December, several major Chechen dissidents accused Chechnya‚Äôs leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his forces (‚Äėthe kadyrovtsy‚Äô) of carrying out¬†mass kidnappings¬†of their relatives. The targets included family members of Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a famous vlogger who¬†fended off¬†his would-be assassin while filming; Abubakar Yangulbaev, a lawyer working for the Committee Against Torture, who himself was briefly¬†arrested¬†in Pyatigorsk last December; Khasan Khalitov, a blogger partially responsible for Kadyrov’s¬†souring relationship¬†with Turkey; and Mansur Sadulaev, founder of the VAYFOND human rights organisation which¬†exposes Kadyrov’s agents in Europe. The kidnappings were the first move escalating the Chechen leader’s war against the opposition. While the month-long standoff appeared to be subsiding with the release of Abdurakhmanov’s relatives, last week‚Äôs¬†abduction of Yangulbaev’s mother in Nizhny Novgorod indicates otherwise. Moscow denied the kidnapping had taken place, while Grozny crowed about its victory, with Kadyrov warning Yangulbaev that his whole family would be imprisoned or killed. The reason for the overall escalation is the increasing¬†public dissatisfaction with the Chechen regime. The current fixation on Yangulbaev is caused by several factors ‚Äď he still resides near Chechnya, his family has not disowned him, and the recent elimination of NGO Memorial was perceived as a green light to eliminate whatever final human rights advocacy existed in the notorious North Caucasian republic. It is difficult to predict what will happen next, but it is likely that the situation in Chechnya will only get uglier from here‚Ķ

ūüĆļ In the Balkans…

Serbia cancels $2.4 billion lithium mine project after months of protest.¬†Serbia has scrapped¬†a $2.4 billion lithium mine project headed by Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto over environmental concerns. In an announcement on 20 January, Prime Minister Ana Brnabińá declared that ‚Äėwe have fulfilled all the demands from the environmental protests and have put an end to¬†Rio Tinto in the Republic of Serbia.‚Äô Rio Tinto had initially discovered lithium in the Jadar valley in Serbia‚Äôs Loznica region in 2004, and in July last year announced what would have become the largest lithium mine project in Europe. In the following months, the project sparked sustained, large-scale protests¬†across the country, with much of the anger directed straight at president Aleksandar Vuńćińá. With Serbia going to the polls in both presidential and parliamentary elections this year, and the president under increasing scrutiny for authoritarian backsliding, many see the U-turn on the Rio Tinto mine as a strategic move to alleviate a further slide in Vuńćińá‚Äôs popularity.

‚õįÔłŹ In the Caucasus…

Turkish and Armenian representatives discuss a normalisation of relations.¬†‚ÄėSpecial representatives‚Äô of Turkey and Armenia, Mr Serdar Kilic and Mr Ruben Rubinyan respectively, met¬†for the first time on 14 January in Moscow as part of a desired ‚Äėnormalisation of relations‚Äô between the two countries. Although the meeting was not recorded, the Armenian and Turkish authorities issued optimistic statements. Istanbul-Yerevan¬†flights¬†will start on 2 February and, if the negotiations are successful, the land border between the two countries could soon reopen, 30 years after it was closed by Turkey. While the Turkish population seems to view the re-establishment of diplomatic relations¬†favourably, many Armenians have expressed¬†concerns¬†that Turkey has set the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan and the abandonment of claims related to the 1915 Armenian Genocide as precondition. In addition, concerns have been expressed about the diplomatic inexperience of the Armenian representative and the denialist positions of the Turkish representative, a former Turkish ambassador to the United States.

Georgian social workers go on strike.¬†Close to four hundred Georgian Social Service Agency workers are¬†on strike, demanding pay increases and better working conditions. Led by the independent ‚ÄėSolidarity Network‚Äô union, the workers first went on strike on 17 January under the slogan ‚ÄėWe won‚Äôt be putting up with salaries from 2007 in 2022.‚Äô While low pay is the movement‚Äôs main focus, the strikers also complain about the personal safety risks they face while on duty and the long travel distances to the households they work with. Around 630,000 Georgians ‚ÄĒ or¬†17 percent¬†of the population ‚ÄĒ currently rely on social assistance, with the noticeable irony that those responsible for providing social benefits are themselves seeking aid. Though Georgia reached¬†record inflation rates¬†in 2021, wages have stagnated in many sectors, leading to an increase in labour protests, some more¬†successful than others. As the strike continues, there have been reports¬†of disruptions and closures of offices across the country, which are likely to increase if the Georgian government is unable to come to a satisfactory compromise.

ūüõ§ In Central Asia…

Kyrgyz opposition politician interrogated over land agreement with Tajikistan.¬†Adakhan Madumarov, an opposition politician in Kyrgyzstan, has recently been¬†interrogated¬†by the General Prosecutor‚Äôs Office. The investigation is connected to the agreement he made with Tajikistan for Kyrgyzstan to take out a 49-year lease on border land for the purpose of facilitating a Tajik road reconstruction project. This agreement, made by Madumarov in 2009 while he was secretary of the security council, is contentious: the lease implies that a long-disputed piece of land belongs to Tajikistan. The poorly demarcated Kyrgyz-Tajik border has caused multiple local conflicts, most recently when Kyrgyz and Tajik soldiers got involved in a cross-border conflict in April 2021, ending in 55 fatalities. President Japarov first mentioned the 2009 agreement at a¬†press conference¬†in October, when he stated that the lease agreement was a hindrance to ongoing negotiations with Tajikistan on delimitation. On 17 January,¬†Japarov¬†declared that ‚Äėno one gave [Madumarov] the right to sign on issues of delimitation and demarcation‚Äô when asked about Madumarov‚Äôs interrogation.

Nazarbayev’s corruption saga continues to unravel. While the former president of Kazakhstan remains elusive as demonstrations took over the country, his vast assets did not. A recent investigation by the OCCRP has revealed the immense wealth Nazarbayev accumulated through various charitable organizations over his nearly three-decade long reign. Four charitable foundations, all similarly named and opaque in their functions, act as a front for this corruption. One of the foundations was set up to reform the Kazakh education system, and created the Nazarbayev University and a set of other institutions, and it received around 5 billion dollars in the form of government grants. The fate of the funding and the institutions’ links to Nazarbayev’s foundation, however, remain hidden behind a network of complicated corporate structures, which have then been used to acquire other entities, like a Kazakh banks, luxury hotels in Nur-Sultan and Anatalya and even media organizations.

ūüöÉ In Central Europe…

Slovenia‚Äôs growing ties with Taiwan trigger a Chinese response. On 17 January, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez JanŇ°a¬†announced¬†a shared plan to ‚Äėexchange representatives‚Äô with Taiwan in the context of an¬†interview¬†with an Indian broadcaster. JanŇ°a specified that the representatives‚Äô exchange would occur below the level of embassies. Moreover, PM JanŇ°a manifested his support towards the Taiwanese people in their quest for independence and expressed criticism regarding China‚Äôs response to the opening of a Taipei representative office in Vilnius, Lithuania. The remarks were immediately¬†criticised and described as ‚Äėdangerous‚Äô by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, once again by stressing the inseparability of Taiwan from the territory of mainland China. In addition, while being strongly appreciated by the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry, JanŇ°a‚Äôs statements raised concern¬†among a number of Slovenian business circles and among two opposition parties, worried about potential repercussions on Slovenia-China political and economic relations.

New Czech Government Strengthens the Rules Governing Conflict of Interest. One of the first steps of the new Czech government, which gained a confidence vote a week ago, is to strengthen the rules on conflict of interest. Critics say that the current law on conflict of interest is too easy to get around, which the amendment supported by the government should remedy. Specifically, the amendment should make it impossible for politicians to own any media outlets or to transfer such properties to families or into trusts. The law is problematic for ex-PM Andrej BabiŇ°, who is currently the opposition leader. He has been heavily criticised for conflict of interests by other politicians and EU institutions. The amendment now has to go through parliament, where the government parties hold a majority.

ūüŹĘ In Eastern Europe…

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Ukraine.¬†On Wednesday, 19 January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken¬†met¬†President Zelenskyy and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kyiv. The reason for this meeting,¬†according to Blinken, was to ‚Äėreaffirm the United States‚Äôs unwavering support for Ukraine‚Äô at a time of the unprecedented challenges posed by Russia. With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops at Ukraine‚Äôs border and the Russian authorities‚Äô desire to influence NATO‚Äôs presence and the possible membership of Eastern European countries, the only way for Russia to de-escalate the situation is¬†to find¬†a diplomatic resolution. While the Biden administration¬†announced¬†an additional $200 million in military aid for Ukraine, there was no clear understanding of what the next US steps. One of the ringing bells coming from Secretary Blinken was that¬†he would not provide a written response to Russia‚Äôs demands on Eastern European security at the Geneva meeting on Friday, 21 January, as the Kremlin expected. No exact answer on a proposed SWIFT ban¬†was given¬†either.

Lukashenka proposes a referendum and further consolidates his power.¬†In a statement on 20 January, the Belarusian presidential office¬†announced¬†the date for the referendum on the constitutional amendments¬†proposed¬†by Alexandr Lukashenko. The amendments in question would further consolidate Lukashenko‚Äôs power and would theoretically allow him to stay in power until 2035. More concretely, the amendments would¬†grant¬†Lukashenko immunity from prosecution, would entitle him to two five-year presidential terms, would weaken the role of the parliament, while strengthening the All-Belarus People‚Äôs Assembly, a gathering of state loyalists. Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has¬†called on fellow Belarusians to participate in the referendum voting. In what she calls as a choice between ‚ÄėLukashenko and Lukashenko,‚Äô she urges Belarusian citizens to cross out all the suggested options in the ballot papers to make them invalid, and this action should be registered on the ‚ÄėGolos‚Äô platform.

ūüĆ≤ In Russia…

Biden threatens to cut Russia off from dollars in case of Ukraine invasion.¬†US president Joe Biden¬†threatened¬†Russia with a dollar ban during a press conference marking his first year in office. ‚ÄėYou will see that there‚Äôll be severe economic consequences. For example, anything that involves dollar denominations. If they invade, they‚Äôre going to pay. Their banks will not be able to deal in dollars,‚Äô the US president said last Wednesday. Despite Russia‚Äôs move to reduce its reliance on the American dollar following US sanctions imposed after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the country‚Äôs trade is still denominated in dollars. Maria Shagina, a sanctions expert,¬†said¬†that Biden‚Äôs statement might be an interpretation of proposals that have already been outlined, and not necessarily a new initiative.

Navalny‚Äôs team publishes new material on ‚ÄėPutin‚Äôs Palace.‚Äô¬†On 20 January, the team of Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny published a¬†new video¬†showing real pictures of the luxurious, 17.691m¬≤ palace in the south of Russia, allegedly owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin. One year ago, the team published its¬†initial investigation¬†on the lavish residence, showing aerial pictures and 3D reconstructions of its interiors. ‚ÄėPutin‚Äôs Palace‚Äô became the most watched video on Russian YouTube in 2021 and ignited mass protests in the whole country. This new follow-up shows real pictures received from an anonymous source, which match Navalny‚Äôs team‚Äôs reconstructions. Navalny has been detained in Russia for a year now and has recently given an¬†extensive interview¬†to TIME, where, among other things, he urged American president Joe Biden ‚Äėnot to fall into Putin‚Äôs trap,‚Äô and not to respond to Russia‚Äôs provocations regarding the situation in Ukraine.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Harold Chambers, Francis Farrell, Xandie Kuenning, Zadig Tisserand, Chaharika Uppal, Kirsty Dick, Myriam Marino, Zuzana Krulichova, Vira Kompaniiets, Qianrui Hu, Sam Appels, & Martina Bergamaschi ūüíė
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