Lossi 36 Weekly #09: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Ukrainian refugees in Poland; Serbia as ‘the only free country in Europe;’ Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine apply for EU membership; Kazakhstan distances itself from Russia; nuclear danger in Ukraine; another attack on independent media in Russia; and much more.
⭐️ This week’s special
Ukrainians seek refuge in Poland.Myriam Marino
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Poland has responded swiftly to refugees entering the country, with Poland currently representing the biggest destination of Ukrainian refugees. By 4 March, around 750,000 people had fled from Ukraine to the bordering country and approximately another 2 million are estimated to arrive in Poland in case of a further escalation of the conflict in the coming weeks. Recent polls show that 64% of Poles would personally help Ukrainians, as demonstrated by public and private initiatives of support, including goods collection and donations, accommodations offers, and free legal and medical services. The Polish government also announced the intention to adapt measures to facilitate the legal employment of Ukrainian refugees. This would allow employed Ukrainians to have access to Polish child benefit programmes. Moreover, in view of the number of children arriving, the Polish Minister of Education informed his Ukrainian counterpart that Polish schools are ready to welcome Ukrainian pupils through specifically tailored educational solutions.
Meanwhile, in the past week, information spread over alleged mistreatment and discriminatory stances towards non-white people moving from Ukraine to Poland. The Polish government denounced it as ‘fake news,’ and noted that similar occurrences took place on the other side of the border, in Ukraine, before their arrival. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba acknowledged the problems non-white people encounter at the border, and opened an emergency hotline for those wishing to leave Ukraine.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Kosovo’s swift response to Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kosovo, alongside North Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, have joined Western-led sanctions against Russia in response to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The response includes closing their airspaces to Russian aircraft, an immediate freezing of the assets of hundreds of individuals, and the banning of certain Russian TV channels. However, Kosovo has called for even stronger actions, asking the United States to establish a permanent military base on its soil, alongside allowing for a speedier integration of the country into NATO. Kosovo is also being urged by some to apply for membership of the Council of Europe. The response comes as Serbia continues to pursue a policy of dogged neutrality regarding the Russian invasion, stating that it shall not partake in any economic or political sanctions. Belgrade has, however, declared its readiness to help with relocating Ukrainian refugees and providing humanitarian aid.
Minister claims that Serbia ‘proves to be the only free country in Europe.’ The declaration by the Serbian Minister of Interior, Aleksandar Vulin, was reportedly made in the context of international reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On 3 March, Vulin stated that ‘Serbia will not succumb to the collective anti-Russian hysteria,’ emphasising that his country would not obey NATO orders or impose sanctions on the Russian Federation. Moreover, he argued that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić was ‘the last free leader’ who cares more about his historical legacy than his own life. Nevertheless, despite being Russia’s traditional ally, Serbia voted in favour of a UN resolution condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Nemanja Stevanović, Serbia’s UN permanent representative, said that Belgrade was ‘committed to observing the principles of territorial integrity and political independence of states.’
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Vahagn Khachatryan elected President of the Republic of Armenia. After the resignation of the former President, Armen Sarkissian, on 23 January, the candidacy of Khachatryan was announced by the ruling Civil Contract party in February. The first round of the presidential election, held on 3 March, was inconclusive. Indeed, Armenia’s constitution stipulates that three-quarters (81 votes) of the Armenian Parliament must support the same candidate for him or her to be elected. However, with the opposition boycotting the election, Khachatryan received only 71 votes. A second round of voting was therefore necessary to confirm his election, which then required only three-fifths of the parliamentary votes. As soon as he was elected President of the Republic, the economist and former minister of high-tech industry thanked the deputies for their confidence. On the eve of the election, Khachatryan stated that he wished to become ‘the president of all the citizens of Armenia.’
Georgia applies for EU membership amid protests over Ukraine. Following in Ukraine’s footsteps, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili signed his country’s application for EU Membership last Thursday. ‘Georgia knows that it belongs to Europe. Now Europe should make conclusions. It is essential for Georgia to get established within Europe, while the western nations need to admit Georgia into their family,’ Garibashvili said in a statement, quoting Mikheil Muskhelishvili, author of the European federal constitution. The move comes after a week of protests caused by the ruling Georgian Dream party’s lack of response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and represents a U-turn for the government, which had previously insisted that it would not apply for EU membership before 2024. In addition to local protests, this passivity led Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to recall Ukraine’s ambassador to Georgia on Tuesday, citing the Georgian government’s ‘immoral position’ on sanctions as well as the blocking of a charter flight that was intended to bring Georgian volunteer fighters to Ukraine.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Kazakhstan distances itself from Russia’s war in Ukraine as economy takes a hit. Kazakhstan denied Russia’s request for its troops to join the war in Ukraine. Instead, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for a common solution to the conflict, citing ‘the need to ensure the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of [the Kazakh] state.’ Kazakhstan is also sending humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. A surprising development from the Central Asian country with close economic ties to Russia, it comes at a time when remittance-dependent households in the region are taking a hit, following the unprecedented Western sanctions against Russia. In 2021, remittances accounted for 28% of Kazakhstan’s GDP. Last week, to ease the pressure of the tenge’s rapid loss of value, Kazakhstan’s National Bank injected $176 million from its currency reserve into the domestic market. The consequences of the war will surely be felt in the country, however, as experts have warned that the National Bank cannot support its currency for long.
Alisher Usmanov sanctioned, super yacht trapped in Germany. Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov has been sanctioned by the EU. On Thursday, he was added to the UK’s list of sanctioned oligarchs with close ties to Putin. In 2021, Forbes magazine estimated his fortune to be worth $14.1 billion. The EU sanctions list claims that Usmanov ‘fronted for President Putin and solved his business problems.’ Usmanov’s $600m super yacht Dilbar, named after his mother and thought to be the largest in the world by gross tonnage, was reported on Wednesday night, to have been seized by German authorities from a Hamburg shipyard. On Thursday, however, the Economics and Innovation Office of Hamburg stated that ‘not a single yacht in the port of Hamburg was confiscated.’ Despite not being officially confiscated, it is unlikely that the super yacht will ever be able to leave the port as it will not be granted customs clearance due to Usmanov’s sanctioned status.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Eight Central and East European Presidents support Ukraine’s EU application. In an open letter, the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria signed an open letter supporting Ukrainian membership of the bloc. The letter is a plea to all the member states to support the application submitted by Zelensky earlier this week, in which he asked for the immediate candidate status for Ukraine. Ukrainian membership was also supported by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. However, the accession procedure is usually lengthy and complicated, and it requires the unanimous support of all the members. Thus, according to many experts, this support is not likely to materialise in the near future.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Moldova applies for EU membership. On 3 March, Moldova finally submitted its formal application to become a member of the European Union, along with Georgia. This move comes after Ukraine too signed an application to become a candidate for EU membership, late last month. A few days before this announcement, Lukashenko, Belarusian dictator and primary supporter of the current Russian war against Ukraine, accidentally seemed to reveal plans to invade Moldova during a national security council meeting broadcast on live state television. It seems clear that Moldova’s application to the EU is mostly symbolic and that I will probably not stave off Russian aggression. As explained by Euractiv & Kyiv Independent, the candidature process can easily take up to a decade to complete due to its rigorous screening and requires complete unanimity amongst members. Moreover, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia are behind current candidate nations like Turkey and Serbia, who have been waiting to get admitted for over a decade.
Nuclear danger arises as Russia targets Chernobyl and Enerhodar. With the Russian invasion in Ukraine from 24 February onwards, a new nuclear danger has arisen as never before – the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was captured by Russian forces on the first day of the war, and all its staff are kept as hostages as of now. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the radiation level slightly elevated, potentially because of tank movement on radiated soil, but overall measurements remain low. On 4 March, a new potential catastrophe, which could be six times bigger than Chernobyl, had chances to appear with Russians shooting at Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant in Enerhodar. One shell hit the plant’s first production unit, which was under maintenance, and the training building outside the plant was severely damaged. Despite no significant changes to radiation levels detected for now, the Russian shelling of Enerhodar has already been named ‘nuclear terrorism.’
🌲 In Russia…
A tale of two Ossetias. The hypothetical future reunification of North and South Ossetia is a much-hyped topic in local nationalist discourse. This narrative glosses over the political differences between the populations, which have not been clearer than on the issue of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Ossetians in Tskhinvali have been demonstrating in support of their fellow breakaway region en masse. Displays of support to the north, in Vladikavkaz, have been more reserved. And it is not all support. The ‘Mothers of Beslan’ – an influential organisation of the mothers of children who died in the 2004 Beslan school crisis – has spoken out against the invasion. The reason for this opposition is that the group considers Putin and the Russian military equally guilty as the terrorist hostage-takers, due to the reckless storming of the school with tanks and flamethrowers. This difference is representative of the rift between the two communities’ national memories, which would complicate a theoretical merger.
Independent Russian news outlets and social media platforms blocked. On 3 March, several Russian independent news channels were either blocked or decided to stop operations. During Thursday’s evening news, the anchor of the TV channel ‘Dozhd’ communicated that it will stop broadcasting indefinitely. ‘Ekho Moskvy,’ a historic independent radio station, was liquidated last Tuesday. The online news outlet ‘Meduza’ is now blocked for many users in Russia, while Moscow-based ‘The Village’ moved operations to Poland. For many, these decisions were due to the pressure on them by the Russian government, which did not allow them to cover the war in Ukraine freely. Reportedly, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were also blocked, starting the night of 3 March. While many countries closed their airspace to Russians and while countless multinationals withdrew from Russia, another early result of the war for Russians is creeping isolation.
Russia bans ‘fake news’ about its army. Last Friday, the Russian parliament passed a legislative proposal which imposes prison sentences of up to fifteen years for spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian military and its actions, with the bill promptly signed by President Vladimir Putin. As the authorities insist that the country’s forces are currently part of a ‘special military operation’ launched to stop a ‘genocide’ against the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Ukraine’s Donbas region, any reporting of what is in fact a Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to be punished with fines and jail terms of varying length. The passing of the bill has caused the BBC to temporarily suspend its journalists’ work in Russia, with BBC News in Russian set to continue being produced from outside the country. Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent media outlets, has in turn announced that it would remove its war-related content to protect its journalists from prosecution.