Lossi 36 Weekly #08: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Russia invades UkraineSerbia struggles to respond; Southern Caucasus de facto states applaud Donbas recognition; mixed reactions from Central Asia; solidarity from Central & Eastern EuropeLukashenko‘s bid to host peace negotiations; Russia hit with sanctions; and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Russia invades UkraineVira Kompaniiets – Kyiv

On Thursday, 24 February 2022 at 5:00 a.m., the world was shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an unprecedented action in modern history. The armed forces of the Russian Federation launched an intensive shelling of Ukrainian units in the east, delivered missile and bomb strikes on airfields in Boryspil, Ozerne, Kulbakino, Chuhuiv, Kramatorsk, and Chornobaivka, as well as on military infrastructure of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin decided to push a so-called ‘peacekeeping mission’ to ‘defend the Russian people’ and to ‘eliminate Nazism’ in Ukraine following his recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics on 22 February. Russian troops soon seized Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant, and launched massive attacks in the Kherson and Donbas regions, as well as in Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and other major cities. The attacks intensified on 25 February: when the northeastern city of Konotop was seized and Ostriv Zmiinyi (Snake Island) in the Black Sea south of Odesa was taken, the Russian forces entered in Kyiv’s northwestern suburbs. While the Ukrainian army, President, and people are fighting on the field, and while the international community is fighting for the sake of democracy, the Russian ‘peacekeeping mission’ goes on still.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo deny sending mercenaries to fight for Ukraine. In a statement to Russian news agency TASS on 18 February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that ‘Kosovo and some other parts of the Western Balkans are becoming a hotbed of crime. There are terrorists, drug dealers. Mercenaries are recruited there…to knock Russia out of balance and send them to places including Donbass.’ Officials from the three countries named have rejected the claims made by Lavrov. Blerim Vela, chief of staff to the President of Kosovo, dismissed the comments as ‘fake news alert,’ part of a campaign of disinformation ‘that seeks to justify military aggression against Ukraine,’ while Bosnia’s Security Ministry stated that no citizen of Bosnia had gone to fight alongside Ukrainian forces. Lavrov’s statement rings hypocritical, as Russia has been training mercenaries from Serbia and Republika Srpska to fight alongside Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine for close to a decade.

European Union Force (EUFOR) announces deployment of additional 500 troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a precautionary measure. In the wake of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, EUFOR cautioned that ‘the deterioration of the security situation internationally has the potential to spread instability to Bosnia and Herzegovina,’ and that additional forces are needed to ‘strengthen stability in BiH by positioning sufficient, capable forces in-country to support the BiH Government efforts to maintain a safe and secure environment.’ There are 600 troops currently in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of EUFOR’s ALTHEA mission. The reinforcements are linked not only to the crisis in Ukraine, but also, according to EUFOR command, to Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans – specifically Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, as well as Montenegro and Serbia. Russia’s soft-power foreign policy in the region has long been a hindrance to post-conflict reintegration in Bosnia by exploiting nationalist-driven political divides for its own diplomatic gains.

Serbia struggles to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Serbia’s government has been accused of failing to adequately condemn the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, with President Vučić having only made a handful of brief comments on the issue over the past week. Aside from brief statements on how Putin’s decision to recognise the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine ‘completely changes the world order’ and how Serbia wishes to remain neutral within the conflict in the hope of ‘not abandon(ing) our traditional friendships,’ Belgrade long failed to release an official response to the ongoing hostilities. The silence from Belgrade has been further compounded by pro-government news outlets in Serbia praising the Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory. On Friday evening, the Serbian leadership finally provided a fuller-bodied response to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, but, as was expected, Vučić reiterated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but posed that ‘this is not the time for imposing sanctions on Russia.’ 

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgia’s ex-president begins second hunger strike. Georgia’s jailed ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili announced to a Tbilisi court on 21 February that he would be starting a new hunger strike to protest the government’s refusal to provide him with adequate health care and ‘the way the authorities treat me and our people.’ Saakashvili had previously been on hunger strike for 50 days to protest his arrest for abuse of power, which he believes is politically motivated. He called off his first hunger strike after he was placed in a military hospital in a critical condition. In December, an independent council of doctors which examined Saakashvili in custody said he had developed serious neurological diseases ‘as a result of torture, ill-treatment, inadequate medical care, and a prolonged hunger strike.’ During the court hearing last Monday, Saakashvili read aloud a letter from his doctor, forbidding the former president to go on a hunger strike again, stating it could cause ‘irreversible and lethal consequences.’

Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia celebrate Donbas recognition. Following Russia’s recognition of the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR, LPR) as independent states on 21 February, the presidents of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia all hailed the decision. Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhania called Moscow’s decision ‘fair’ and ‘contribut[ing] to the formation of a more just and balanced world order, where the rights of small peoples are reliably protected.’ Close to one hundred refugees from the DPR and LPR have already been accepted by Abkhazia. Similarly, South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov congratulated the heads of the republics, saying that their recognition ‘indicated open and firm support for the just struggle of Donbass for the right to freedom, national and human dignity and peaceful labour in their native land.’ Finally, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Arayik Harutyunyan compared the situation in the Donbas to that of Nagorno-Karabakh, stating his hopes that the latter had also ‘earned international recognition as a sovereign state.’

Relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan get complicated, again. On 18 February, Nagorno-Karabakh’s parliament unanimously approved ‘The Law on the Occupied Territories of the Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] Republic.’ The bill recognises all territories controlled by Azerbaijan since the 2020 war as ‘occupied,’ banning entry, movement, or activity within them without the Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities’ permission. The move puts the normalisation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan at risk. Three days after the bill passed, two Azerbaijani MPs arrived in Yerevan for the first time since 2012 as participants in the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. Their presence, however, was met by a series of protests. Moreover, on 22 February, the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan signed a pact on diplomatic and military cooperation. The new commitments will likely cause a series of balancing acts between Baku, Moscow, Yerevan, and Ankara, with whom Azerbaijan signed a similar agreement last year. These events exemplify Armenia and Azerbaijan’s persisting tendency to act unilaterally, putting resolving their differences on the back burner.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Demonstrations in support of Ukraine take place in Almaty and Bishkek. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, groups of demonstrators in Almaty and Bishkek gathered outside the Russian consulates, in protest against the burgeoning war. About ten demonstrators, several of whom were representatives of the Oyan Qazaqstan movement, picketed in Almaty, where they held signs that said ‘Hands off Ukraine’ and ‘Glory to Ukraine.’ The demonstrators were later detained by police, who, according to witnesses, injured one of the protestors. Similarly, another demonstration in support of Ukraine occurred in Bishkek, where demonstrators gathered outside the Russian consulate. One of the meeting’s participants, Ulan Usoyun, stated that Russian military aggression would negatively affect the lives of Kyrgyz migrants in Ukraine, as well as impact Kyrgyzstan’s economy.

Central Asia caught up in a Russian storm. Last week’s events have received mixed reactions from Central Asian countries. While governments indicate cautious support for Russian actions or shy away from open declarations altogether, many citizens express their solidarity with Ukraine, mainly on social media, but also through small-scale protests across the region. The restraint is likely motivated by close economic and military ties between Russia and its Central Asian partners. Last week, top Russian officials held a series of meetings with their counterparts from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to discuss common reactions to Western sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Central Asian countries are among those expected to suffer the biggest collateral damage from the sanctions – national currencies in the region were plummeting last week and the economies are bound to suffer, as they significantly rely on remittances sent home by labour migrants working in Russia.

🚃 In Central Europe…

CEE stands united with Ukraine (with some obstacles). Last week, Central and Eastern European nations unanimously supported Ukraine following its invasion by Russia. A special session of the Bucharest Nine, comprised of the easternmost NATO member states, was held in Warsaw on 25 February. The meeting contributed to member countries closing their airspace to Russia, as well as supporting defence, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. CEE countries also supported and welcomed the EU’s latest sanctions. However, external pressure among member states was evident before the restrictive measures were adopted. Although Hungary offered to hold negotiation talks between Ukraine and Russia in Budapest, it was at first reluctant to support cutting Russia off from the SWIFT system. By Saturday, however, it had dropped its objections. In terms of migration, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria have relaxed their immigration procedures and accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. At individual level, volunteer activities on the Ukrainian borders and large-scale protests against the Russian government have been observed.

Czech anti-vax groups use popularity to support Russia over Ukraine. According to several Czech sources, the anti-vax movement, including the most popular anti-vax group ‘Open Czech-Chcípl PES,’ could transform COVID-19 disinformation campaign by shifting to pro-war Russian propaganda. Last week, Jiří Janeček, one of Chcípl PES’ leading representatives, posted on Facebook that ‘if genocide is occurring in the separatist republics, [Putin] will eventually have no choice but to intervene.’ Another anti-vax leading figure, Patrik Tušl, who verbally attacked doctors prescribing COVID-19 vaccinations, posted ‘I’m standing on the side of Russia’ on his website, and subsequently organised a pro-Russian demonstration in Prague. According to the anti-disinformation initiative Czech Elves, this represents ‘a shift of some of the Covid protest groups to other themes […] with the pandemic receding.’ The anti-vax movement is expected to gain more momentum barely one month after the death of anti-vaccine singer Hana Horka, who voluntarily caught the virus to obtain a COVID certificate.

Slovakia and Lithuania declare state of emergency. NATO moves its troops. On 25 and 26 February, a state of emergency was imposed in Lithuania and Slovakia respectively to prepare for the reception of refugees from Ukraine. Meanwhile, the state of emergency declared in Slovakia earlier, in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, is still in effect, although restrictive measures are expected to be lifted in March. Regarding border defence, Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď announced that Slovakia would send weapons and fuel to Ukraine. Moreover, NATO will send around 1,000 troops to Slovakia from Germany, together with an air protection missile system to support deployment on its eastern border. Currently, Slovakia does not have foreign soldiers stationed on its territory.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine to be held on Belarus-Ukraine border. According to an announcement of Zelenskyy’s office, Ukrainian and Russian delegations will meet for talks at a venue near the Belarusian-Ukrainian border near the Pripyat river on Monday, 28 February. This came after a phone call between Zelenskyy and Belarusian president Lukashenko. Zelenskyy noted that Lukashenko takes the responsibility for ensuring that all planes, helicopters, and missiles stationed on Belarusian territory will remain on the ground during the travel, negotiation process, and return of the Ukrainian delegation. Prior to this, Belarus was believed to join Russia’s so-called ‘military operation’ in Ukraine, while Lukashenko stated that he would wait for the end of the constitutional referendum that was held on 27 February. Moreover, Lukashenko also confirmed that missiles were launched from Belarus to target Ukraine and added that it was a forced stop, not pointing out how or who has made him to do that.

🌲 In Russia…

Another southern migration. The North Caucasus is the predominant growing region in Russia, with in-migration concentrated in Krasnodar. Now it faces yet another influx, this time of evacuees from eastern Ukraine. For those who have thus far crossed into Russia from the occupied territories of the Donbas – if they do not have connections to stay in Rostov or Voronezh – find no welcome committee waiting for them. The growing presence of political and business elites is only serving to exacerbate regional inter-class tensions, as the wealthy demand the working class bear the brunt of financing aid for these refugees. Activists quickly responded, calling for the sale of ‘Putin’s Palace’ in Gelendzhik. This dispute, while currently loudest in Krasnodar, where at least forty anti-war protesters were arrested on 24 February, will undoubtedly be echoed along the length of the mountain range, as all of the other regions face similarly antagonistic socioeconomic circumstances.

Russian banks, companies sanctioned, but oil and gas sector still not hit hard. In response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, western countries have started sanctioning Russian banks such as Promsvyasbank and VTB. Big oil and gas companies, the main one being Gazprom, have not yet been hit by European sanctions. With oil and gas being Russia’s cash cows, this has created the absurd situation of European countries financing Russia’s war. With EU countries being deeply dependent on Russian gas, this seems to be the sector in which sanctions would be most effective. However, it is also the sector which might hurt EU countries the most if affected. Germany has already shelved the continuation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline owned by Gazprom. Meanwhile, Russian news media are talking about sanctioning the West by shutting down gas deliveries. The more divided the EU remains over sanctions, the stronger Putin’s Russia will be.

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