Lossi 36 Weekly #04: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Presidential resignation in ArmeniaSkopjeSofia meetings, police officers arrested in Georgia, bitcoin blackouts in Central Asia, Orbán headed for Moscow, cyberattacks against Belarus‘ national railways, Kadyrov’s intensifying anti-dissident campaign, and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Armenian president resigns amid inquiry into dual citizenship.Xandie Kuenning

Armenia’s fourth President, Armen Sarkissian, elected president in 2018, announced his resignation on 23 January. Until a new president is elected by the parliament, the president of Armenia’s national assembly — Alen Simonyan — will be acting president. In his official statement, Sarkissian criticised the limited powers of the presidential office as enshrined in Armenia’s Constitution. ‘We live in a peculiar reality where the President cannot influence issues related to war and peace,’ he wrote, claiming that ‘the President does not have the necessary tools to influence the radical processes of domestic and foreign policy in these difficult times for the country and the nation.’ Sarkissian had previously called for Pashinyan’s resignation as Prime Minister and the creation of a new government following Armenia’s defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War.

According to the Armenian investigative outlet Hetq, however, Sarkissian was not eligible for the presidential office in the first place, due to holding citizenship in Saint Kitts and Nevis, a noted tax haven in the Caribbean. According to Article 24 of Armenia’s constitution, a presidential candidate must have held only Armenian citizenship in the six years prior to assuming office. Sarkissian previously held dual Armenian-British citizenship, but renounced the latter in 2011. Sarkissian was not in Armenia at the time of his resignation, having gone on holiday due to health concerns. While the Armenian President’s office has dismissed these claims, Armenia’s National Security Service has launched an inquiry into the issue. If he returns to Armenia, Sarkissian risks prosecution for forging official documents.

🌺 In the Balkans…

A recent increase in the prosecution of wartime sexual assault highlights Bosnia’s long march to justice. Despite facing deepening political instability and a pervasive social stigma regarding the reporting of rape and sexual assault, Bosnia’s state courts have persisted in holding perpetrators accountable for wartime sexual abuses almost thirty years after the end of the Bosnian War. On January 12, two Bosnian Serb ex-soldiers pleaded not guilty to unlawful detention, torture, rape, and sexual abuse of Bosniak civilians at the Uzamnica prison camp near Višegrad between May 1992 and September 1993. In late December 2021, a Bosnian army ex-military policeman who served in the country’s first Muslim army brigade was sentenced to seven years in prison for raping a pregnant woman in the Zvornik area during the war. This uptick in prosecutions comes on the heels of recent investigations into the link between wartime sexual violence and human trafficking in Bosnia.

Positive visit between the new Balkan Prime Ministers brings hope for the future. The second meeting between the newly inaugurated prime ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria has been met with positive reactions across the region in the hope that the political deadlock between the two, which has blocked North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations, will finally come to an end. Following a successful introduction last week in Skopje between Bulgarian prime minister Petkov and his North Macedonian counterpart Kovačevski, a follow up visit was held in Sofia. With the creation of new joint working groups aimed at enhancing trade, transport, and infrastructure links, many within both countries are now more optimistic of a positive resolution to the remaining disputes at some point this year. This would then lead to the Bulgarian government finally removing their veto on the start of accession negotiations to the EU for North Macedonia, which has frustrated its EU allies in recent years.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Two police officers arrested for assaulting disabled teenager in Georgia. On 24 January, a video appeared online showing two police officers assaulting a deaf teenager in Tbilisi’s Isani metro station. The seventeen-year-old suffered injuries to his head and face as a result of the attack. The video has provoked outrage and spurred a protest rally made up of political opposition and civil activists outside the ruling Georgian Dream party headquarters and the Interior Ministry building. Protesters call for the resignation of the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and accuse the government of slowing down reforms in the department. The Social Justice Centre, a Tbilisi-based watchdog, stated on January 24 that the attack ‘cannot be an isolated incident.’ The day after the video was released, the State Inspector’s Service announced that they had arrested the two police officers in question. Last Thursday, Tbilisi City Court denied them bail. Prosecutor Aleksandre Chkheidze said the detainees refused to admit to the charge and added that there was a risk of flight or attempts to influence witnesses, if released on bail. The next trial date is scheduled for March 15.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Blackouts in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan attributed to bitcoin mining. On 25 January, millions across southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan were left without power due to a technical failure in the Soviet-era power grid connecting all three countries. Urban life throughout the region halted for several hours, causing traffic jams, darkness in apartment complexes and shopping centres, and stopping metro systems. Power was only restored after several hours. Representatives of Kazakhstan’s state electricity provider, KEGOC, announced that it would no longer provide cryptominers with electricity, not-so-subtly accusing them of being responsible for the power failure. As Almaz Kumenov notes in Eurasianet, mining for cryptocurrency involves ‘high-intensity computer processing,’ requiring high levels of electricity; however, cryptocurrency miners in Kazakhstan have denied that they played a role in the region’s power outage.

Nazarbayev publishes video statement on recent unrest. On 18 January, Nursultan Nazarbayev – former Kazakh President – released a video statement commenting, for the first time, on the unrest that shook the country at the beginning of the year. The ex-leader, who had been absent during the unrest, described the riots as ‘an assault on Kazakhstan,’ aimed at destroying the integrity of the country. He then affirmed his support for the country’s current President Tokayev and his economic reforms. This statement comes after rumours of a ruptured relationship between him and Tokayev, as well as conjecture about him fleeing the country with his family during the riots. Even though Nazarbayev defined himself as a ‘pensioner,’ he was still the head of the Security Council until 5 January – when President Tokayev took over this role – and leader of the country’s main party – Nur Otan – another role which Tokayev is supposed to take over shortly.

🚃 In Central Europe…

A second Polish woman dies of fetus-related complications. According to various media sources, the death of a 37-year-old Polish woman occurred because the hospital hanged on for seven days to remove a deadly fetus. The family blames the hospital for the death of the mother who was also carrying twins before passing away, last Tuesday. While under normal abortion regulations, the fetus could have been removed immediately, while the hospital now had to consider how not to harm vital functions of the second fetus as a result of Poland’s anti-abortion measures. Since the anti-abortion law was adopted, no other domestic issue has been a stronger source of opposition against the far-right government. Demonstrations usually involve thousands of people in the city’s main squares. Ruling party PiS seeks to merge its politics with the moral obligations of the Catholic Church, while tackling a demographic crisis. However, the policy has had the opposite effect, as more women are scared of deteriorating pregnancy health and turn towards contraception instead.

Orbán headed for Moscow. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is set to travel to Moscow on 1 February. An additional Russian natural gas purchase negotiation, on top of the agreement made in September which angered Ukraine, will be discussed. The Hungarian government defends its decision by declaring the need for an energy price cap, ahead of the general election in April. In response to the EU’s reiteration to Hungary that it must present a common European stance and American diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the Russian-Ukrainian tensions with the help of their Hungarian counterpart, Foreign Minister Szijjártó remarked that no one can ask Hungary, as a sovereign state, to stop bilateral dialogues, and that the country merely wants a normal relationship with Russia based on mutual respect. Similarly, Orbán recently represented his party at another gathering of European right-wing and conservative leaders in Madrid, which aimed at discussing subjects like demographic decline and energy sovereignty. A similar get-together is said to take place in Hungary before the April elections.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Cyber partisans attack Belarusian Railway system. While it became extremely dangerous to protest openly in Belarus, the so-called cyber partisans group has infiltrated computer networks operated by the government-run Belarusian Railway (BR) on 24 January. The Belarusian hacker group announced in a Twitter post that they ‘have encrypted some of BR’s servers, databases and workstations to disrupt its operations.’ The demand of the cyber partisans is as clear as day: to release 50 political prisoners struggling for critical medical care and to barre the Russian military personnel from Belarus. According to one of the hacker group members, the presence of Russian troops in Belarus creates nothing more than a danger of occupation and a potential war with Ukraine that is meaningless. The cyber partisans are believed to consist of fifteen IT experts and other activists who have performed a series of hacks against the Belarusian authorities, including access to passport databases, secret documents of Belarusian KGB spies and security officials, since their creation after the protests of 2020.

Zelensky calls not to spread panic. On 28 January, in a press conference held for foreign reporters, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called not to spread panic regarding the threat of a Russian war in Ukraine, because this may hurt the prospects of Ukrainian economy. In his words, Zelensky doesn’t see today’s situation is any more critical than the same scenario early last year: ‘yes, the number of troops increased, but I also said this already in early 2021, when it was the peak of a Russian military exercise.’ Notably, there are sources saying Biden and Zelensky were debating how serious the current Russian threats are in an earlier phone call. On another note, Russia announced its withdrawal of a part of the troops, but the military exercise will still go on. 

🌲 In Russia…

Violence against women takes centre stage in Chechnya. As Ramzan Kadyrov’s war against dissidents continues, the diasporic opposition is focusing on the regime’s violence against women. Lawyers, including her son Abubakar Yangulbayev, cannot gain access to Zarema Musaeva, who was violently abducted from Nizhny Novgorod on 20 January. Musaeva’s daughter fled Russia two days later, along with her father, due to the threat of violence against women by the Chechen regime. Having already garnered some international attention, the abduction of Musaeva was discussed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on 27 January. Khasima Khalitova, sister of exiled blogger Khasan Khalitov, was also abducted and humiliated. Khalitov accuses Chechen Speaker of Parliament Magomed ‘Lord’ Daudov of orchestrating this operation. Daudov has also been implicated in multiple cases of torture, in an open letter from a Chechen refugee, recently published by ‘VAYFOND’ Chechen human rights association. To better highlight this crucial issue, the Chechen diaspora in Norway is holding a rally to end violence against women on 28 January.

CNN/HBO documentary about Alexey Navalny premieres at Sundance film festival. Directed by Daniel Roher and simply titled ‘Navalny,’ the film follows the Russian opposition figure during the months he spent in Germany, following his poisoning in Russia in August 2020 up until the moment when he returned to Moscow on 17 January 2021. ‘Navalny’ features interviews with the oppositionist himself, his wife Yulia, and some of his associates. It also includes Roher’s team’s original recording of the moment when Navalny called one of his alleged would-be assassins and got him to spill the beans about the poisoning by pretending to be a high-ranking security services official. The film’s appearance at the Sundance festival had been kept a secret up until the day before its premiere on 25 January. It is expected to be broadcast by CNN, with HBO Max and CNN+ holding streaming rights. The official public release date is not yet known.

Vice speaker of Duma calls for the delivery of weapons to Eastern Ukraine. Vice speaker of the Duma and Chairman of United Russia Andrej Turchak calls on Putin to send armaments to Russia-backed breakaway regions in Ukraine. According to Turchak, it is a necessary measure to combat ‘Ukrainian aggression’ towards the so-called ‘people’s republics.’ This statement comes at a time when Russia is massing troops near the Ukrainian border regions. As tensions between Russia and NATO over Ukraine continue to escalate, this move further puts the situation on edge. As fears of a possible invasion continue to rise, Russian media are trying to portray Ukraine as the aggressor, claiming that the government in Kyiv wants to reclaim the areas in the Donbas that it lost to Russian-backed actors in 2014. Although calling the conflict in the South East ‘frozen’ is a misnomer as daily shootings have occurred since the Minsk accords in 2015, extra armaments from the Russian Federation might further escalate the situation in an already destabilized region.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Cameron MacBride, Megan McCullough, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, Rachele Colombo, Marie Mach, Charles Adrien Fourmi, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Qianrui Hu, Vira Kompaniiets, Bart Alting, & Harold Chambers 💘
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