Lossi 36 Weekly #06: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia13 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Electoral reform in Bosnia, opposition MPs suspended in Georgia, investigative journalist framed in drug raid in Kyrgyzstan, Baltic Council of Ministers convene in Riga, ‘Golden Passport Scheme’ under attack in Bulgaria, Macron and Truss visit Russia, and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Bosnia’s electoral reform negotiations fail, again. Megan McCullough

International mediators from the US and the EU met with political leaders from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) in early February, with the aim of eliminating voter and candidacy discrimination against citizens based on ethnicity or place of residence. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in five different judgments that BiH citizens are discriminated against in elections if they are members of national minorities, do not declare themselves ethnically, or live in an entity from which they cannot run for BiH presidency or the State House of Peoples. The Managing Director for Europe at the European External Action Service, Angelina Eichhorst, said that ‘a better understanding of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights is needed, which requires limited constitutional changes.’ Such constitutional changes would require an amendment to the Dayton Accords – the 1995 peace agreement that ended the Bosnian War and was subsequently codified as its constitution – which could create further instability within the country. 

Political parties from Republika Srpska did not participate in the negotiations. Nermin Nikšić, leader of the Federation’s Social Democratic Party (SDP), criticised this absence, stating that the ‘mediators accepted Bosnian Serb Presidency member Milorad Dodik’s bullying approach.’ Azra Zornić, who in 2014 won her case for electoral discrimination against BiH, likewise criticised the talks, appealing to the US Special Envoy for Election Reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Matthew Palmer, to stop ‘negotiating and making dirty deals with ethno-nationalist leaders that have been ruling this country for the last 25 years without any progress – only regression, and instead talk to ordinary citizens who got their verdicts from the ECtHR.’ 

🌺 In the Balkans…

Croatian Euro coin design scrapped after plagiarism controversy. The winning proposal of Croatia’s recent competition for their Euro coins design, most likely to be released in 2024 when the country looks set to adopt the currency, has been hastily scrapped after claims of plagiarism were revealed. The winning design by Stjepan Pranjković, featuring a pine marten perched on a tree branch, bears a striking resemblance to a photo taken by British photographer Iain H. Leach. The now deselected winning entry beat out rival designs featuring famous inventor Nikola Tesla, the outline of the territory of Croatia, as well as a design featuring the Glagolitic script, the oldest known Slavic alphabet. The current national currency, the Croatian Kuna (named after the pine marten), looks set to be replaced in the coming years once all prerequisites have been met, with a majority of the population in favour of the adoption of the Euro within the country. The Croatian National Bank has now announced that they shall be reopening the design competition, and will select a new winner at a later date.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgian parliamentary committee votes to suspend three opposition MPs. The Procedural Issues Committee approved the suspension of Elene Khoshtaria, Shalva Natelashvili, and Badri Japaridze on 7 February. The committee’s decision will be voted on by the parliament on Tuesday. For Khoshtaria and Natelashvili, the termination of their MP status was approved due to their boycott of all autumn sessions of the legislative body. Japaridze’s termination is on the grounds of his conviction of fraud in a case dating back to 2008. His sentence was waived due to the statute of limitations. Ana Tsitlidze, an opposition MP, stated that when MPs previously surrendered their mandates, the ruling Georgian Dream party refused to confirm their decision, but since the opposition wanted to investigate further into Saakashvili’s ‘humiliation,’ the GD changed their decision. On 10 February, Transparency International Georgia and the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy called upon legislative bodies to resolve the issue and called the possible dismissal as a ‘weakening of democracy.’

Aliyev approves controversial new media law. Azerbaijan’s new media law was signed into force on 8 February by President Ilham Aliyev, bringing wide restrictions on the press freedom. Among the new provisions is the creation of an official journalist registry, which would exclude anyone with a criminal record. This will affect the numerous opposition reporters who have been imprisoned over the years, often on a political basis. The law further requires that the owners of any media organisations operating in the country must live in Azerbaijan and publishers must be both citizens and full-time residents of Azerbaijan, restricting the role of opposition outlets based outside the country. The legislation was previously approved by parliament on 30 December, after three rounds of hearings. During the parliamentary discussions, a small group of journalists organised a protest in front of the National Assembly in Baku, which was dispersed by force. Azerbaijan currently ranks 167 out of 180 countries in press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. 

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kyrgyz investigative journalist Bolot Temirov framed in drug raid. On January 22, police raided investigative journalist Bolot Temirov’s office in Bishkek, where they planted and subsequently ‘found’ drugs in his pocket. Temirov was then detained for the illegal manufacturing of drugs. While being led away by members of the Kyrgyz drug control service, he yelled at the group of journalists and activists that had gathered outside his office that the drugs had been planted on him. Founder of YouTube channel Temirov Live, Bolot Temirov is most widely known for his investigative work surrounding politics and government figures. Before the incident, Temirov and his team had already been closely monitored by unknown figures who, in addition to parking outside his place of work, had hidden a camera and microphone in his flat. If found guilty of drug possession, Temirov could face up to five years in prison.

Tokayev’s first talks with Vladimir Putin since January unrest. On 10 February, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev paid his first visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow after the January protests. During the meeting, Tokayev said that investigations of the unrest are underway, but he confirmed the hypothesis that the events were part of an operation prepared by ‘international terrorists’ and ‘bandits’ to carry out a coup. Tokayev then thanked Putin for his help during the unrest, and for the key role played by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – and particularly Russia – in keeping the situation under control. The meeting also led to the signing of an agreement that provides for the training of Kazakh nuclear power engineers by Rosatom, in the view of Kazakhstan’s plans to build its first nuclear plant. The cooperation between the two countries as independent states will mark 30 years next Fall, and – for this occasion – Vladimir Putin announced that several important events are planned to celebrate the anniversary.

🚃 In Central Europe…

EU to cash in Poland’s fine despite settlement reached with the Czech Republic. Just over a week ago, the Turów mine saga found its resolution when Warsaw and Prague suddenly announced a deal addressing their cross-border environmental issues. The 45 million euros settlement subsequently led Czech Republic to withdraw its complaint to the European Court of Justice, whose ruling on Turów in October 2021 imposed a 500,000 euro daily fine on Poland. Despite the settlement, the EU announced that it would collect the accumulated fine – 15 million euros – by deducting it from EU funds designated for Poland. The Polish government promised that it would deploy ‘all possible legal means to appeal against this.’ The European Commission’s spokesman commented that the EU would collect the money because ‘the European Commission is fulfilling its legal obligation to collect financial penalties imposed by the court.’ The decision might again exacerbate sovereignism in Poland, especially since Warsaw is simultaneously being fined one million euro per day for rule of law breaches.

Baltic PMs discuss regional security and Covid measures. On 4 February, the Prime Ministers of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia participated in a meeting of the Baltic Council of Ministers in Riga. The main issues discussed were the regional security situation, progress of regional infrastructure projects, joint Baltic position on the European Green Deal, and harmonisation of Covid restrictions. Regarding the Russian-Ukrainian tensions, the leaders agreed that it was important for the EU, and especially the Baltics, to support Ukraine. During a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on 10 February, they called for increasing Germany’s role in NATO security arrangements in their region. Regarding pandemic restrictions, the Baltic States seek to find a joint approach. Since 5 February, Lithuanians no longer need to present Covid certificates to access indoor public spaces. Latvia is considering extending the validity of the certificates and easing some national restrictions before the state of emergency ends this month. Meanwhile, outdoor events in Estonia will not require Covid certificates from 14 February.

Strongmen leaders’ meetings. On 1 February, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor OrbĂĄn had a 5-hour in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. OrbĂĄn claimed that this ‘peace mission’ to Moscow was their 12th meeting over 13 years, and called for finding a rational compromise between Russia and NATO. The parties also discussed Hungary’s energy security, including additional gas purchases and Paks nuclear plant expansion. A few days later, another high-level meeting took place between Polish President Andrzej Duda and Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Xi noted that he regarded Chinese-Polish relations as ‘gentlemen’s friendship that honours commitment,’ as Duda was the only elected EU leader to attend the Games amid a diplomatic boycott. The two leaders intend to cooperate closely through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and the China-Central and Eastern European Countries framework. The meeting also touched upon the European security situation, with Duda using Poland’s chairmanship of the OSCE to share a ‘different European perspective,’ following Xi and Putin’s meeting on 4 February.  

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Bulgaria to put an end to its golden passport scheme. On 2 February, the Bulgarian Parliament’s legal committee adopted at first reading a draft bill that removes the possibility of granting Bulgarian citizenship in exchange for investments. The so-called ‘golden passport’ scheme was met with several warnings from the European Commission and the European Parliament. Since 2014, the Bulgarian Investment Agency has certified investments of a total of 981 persons from non-EU countries who were later granted permanent residence in Bulgaria and Bulgarian citizenship, the local office of Deutsche Welle reports. Most of Bulgaria’s newest ‘golden passport’ holders come from China and Russia.

Russian-Belarusian military drills near Belarus’ border with Ukraine. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation announced the Russian-Belarusian joint operational exercise Union Courage-2022 to be held between 10 and 20 February in Belarus. It is believed that up to 30,000 Russian troops, as well as almost the entire Belarusian armed forces, are taking part in the military drills, a surplus to the Russian forces already gathered at the Russian-Ukrainian border and in the annexed Crimean Peninsula. While the Russian Ministry of Defence claims the operation as a defensive one, aiming to ‘counter[…] terrorism and protecting the interests of the Union State,’ the US and the EU describe such exercises as ‘escalatory,’ undermining security in Europe. Although Russia promised to leave Belarus after the exercises from 20 February onwards, the drills could be a cover for the deployment of the Russian forces around Ukraine prepared for the short-notice attack on its neighbour, according to Western officials.

Multiple countries calling citizens to leave Ukraine immediately in fear of a Russian attack. On 11 February, the US issued new warnings of a looming Russian attack on Ukraine, denoting that the attack could happen within the next few days. Even though the Biden administration acknowledged that it does not know whether Putin has made the final decision, it believes that Russia has all the needed conditions to launch its invasion quickly. Following the American warnings, some countries, including the UK, Japan, and some European countries, have advised their citizens to leave Ukraine while commercial means are still available. US citizens in Ukraine have been receiving calls from the embassy asking them to leave. Additionally, KLM, a Dutch airline, announced the cut-off of its flight to and from Kyiv. Amid all this turmoil, the Ukrainian president Zelensky still calls on Western media not to spread panic. 

🌲 In Russia…

Russian teenager faces imprisonment for blowing up FSB office in Minecraft. A teenager from the Siberian city of Kansk has been accused of planning terrorist acts and being a member of an anarchist terrorist cell. Nikita Uvarov, together with his friends, first posted leaflets on the local FSB headquarters in support of Azat Miftakhov, who is currently in jail for allegedly throwing a smoke grenade through a window of a United Russia party office in Moscow. The main piece of evidence against the now 16-year-old boy comes from the popular computer game Minecraft. Uvarov allegedly built the FSB headquarters in the game, and blew it up. Other evidence in the case remains flimsy; Uvarov stated in court that the FSB forced his friends to plead guilty. What the court decides is yet to be revealed, but if any other cases of the FSB against alleged terrorist groups serve as an example, it is likely that Uvarov will go to prison.

Macron and Truss visit Moscow, only one of them leaves satisfied. The Russian capital continues to attract high-level visits as Western diplomats and decision-makers seek a peaceful solution to current tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Last Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron was in town to meet with his counterpart Vladimir Putin. Although separated by the infamously long table, the two leaders seemed to have gotten on quite well. During a joint press conference, they reaffirmed their support for the Minsk agreements and the Normandy format, a message which Macron planned to deliver to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the following day. On Thursday, an entirely different atmosphere loomed over the meeting of UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss with Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, with the latter likening their conversation to ‘a deaf person talking to someone who is mute.’ Their joint press conference turned into a diplomatic spat, with only a few questions from the press actually receiving an answer.

Russian opposition petitions for Kadyrov’s retirement. A Change.org petition, calling for President Putin to remove Chechen head of state Ramzan Kadyrov from his post, has already secured more than 150,000 signatures globally over the course of a couple of days. The petition, created by opposition figure Ilya Yashin, was triggered by the recent targeting of dissidents’ relatives. However, it also focuses on longer standing issues, some of which did not even take place under Ramzan’s rule. Kadyrov’s private army was created in the mid-1990s, when the Russian legislative structures were non-existent and lawlessness prevailed. Kadyrov’s ultimatum to siloviki was made in 2015. Threats against critics – hardly unique to the Chechen administration – have been made since the 2000s. Yashin’s endeavour comes across as performative, creating a pretence of fighting back in light of the opposition’s impotence against Putin. Yashin will give the petition to the Kremlin on the anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s assassination (27 February), which has been attributed to Kadyrov.

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