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

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Anti-dissident war in Chechnya, $2.4 billion lithium mine project cancelled in Serbia, social workers go on strike in GeorgiaNazarbayev’s corruption saga, Slovenia’s growing ties with Taiwan, Antony Blinken in Ukraine, Biden’s threats to Russiaand much more!

 This week’s special

Kadyrov’s escalating war with Chechen dissidents.Harold Chambers 

Towards the end of December, several major Chechen dissidents accused Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his forces (‘the kadyrovtsy’) 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’s 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 – 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…

🌺 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 Brnabić declared that ‘we have fulfilled all the demands from the environmental protests and have put an end to Rio Tinto in the Republic of Serbia.’ Rio Tinto had initially discovered lithium in the Jadar valley in Serbia’s 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 Vučić. 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 Vučić’s popularity.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Turkish and Armenian representatives discuss a normalisation of relations. ‘Special representatives’ 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 ‘normalisation of relations’ 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 ‘Solidarity Network’ union, the workers first went on strike on 17 January under the slogan ‘We won’t be putting up with salaries from 2007 in 2022.’ While low pay is the movement’s 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 — or 17 percent of the population — 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.

🛤 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’s 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 ‘no one gave [Madumarov] the right to sign on issues of delimitation and demarcation’ when asked about Madumarov’s 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.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Slovenia’s growing ties with Taiwan trigger a Chinese response. On 17 January, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša announced a shared plan to ‘exchange representatives’ with Taiwan in the context of an interview with an Indian broadcaster. Janša specified that the representatives’ exchange would occur below the level of embassies. Moreover, PM Janša manifested his support towards the Taiwanese people in their quest for independence and expressed criticism regarding China’s response to the opening of a Taipei representative office in Vilnius, Lithuania. The remarks were immediately criticised and described as ‘dangerous’ 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, Janša’s 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 Babiš, 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.

🏢 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 ‘reaffirm the United States’s unwavering support for Ukraine’ at a time of the unprecedented challenges posed by Russia. With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops at Ukraine’s border and the Russian authorities’ desire to influence NATO’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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 ‘Lukashenko and Lukashenko,’ 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 ‘Golos’ platform.

🌲 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. ‘You will see that there’ll be severe economic consequences. For example, anything that involves dollar denominations. If they invade, they’re going to pay. Their banks will not be able to deal in dollars,’ the US president said last Wednesday. Despite Russia’s move to reduce its reliance on the American dollar following US sanctions imposed after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the country’s trade is still denominated in dollars. Maria Shagina, a sanctions expert, said that Biden’s statement might be an interpretation of proposals that have already been outlined, and not necessarily a new initiative.

Navalny’s team publishes new material on ‘Putin’s Palace.’ On 20 January, the team of Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny published a new video showing real pictures of the luxurious, 17.691m² 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. ‘Putin’s Palace’ 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’s team’s 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 ‘not to fall into Putin’s trap,’ and not to respond to Russia’s 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 💘
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