Lossi 36 Weekly #10: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia13 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: New Mladić plaque in Bosnia; Russians flock to Georgia en masse; pressure on independent media’s war coverage in UzbekistanSalvini in Poland; Ukraine‘s EU membership discussed in Versailles; continuation of anti-Putin and anti-war protests in Russiaand much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Tracking the Russian military. Harold Chambers

Keeping track of the war in Ukraine through live information and analyses has turned out to be quite easy, even compared to other heavily documented wars like Syria. That does, however, make it more difficult to figure out what information is accurate and reliable. Here I discuss some of the channels I have been using to track developments. Overall, Twitter is best for direct access to analysts, and Telegram is best for live information. For general military affairs, Rob Lee is perhaps the most knowledgeable public source, tracking and verifying primary data. ‘Oryx’ is tracking Russian equipment losses, while the ‘Conflict Intelligence Team’ has revealed some of the most important facts on the ground through a combination of open-source and human intelligence. 

Keeping track of casualties is best done by monitoring localized, independent media. For the latest news and updates from Ukraine, I use The Kyiv Independent. For developments around the North Caucasus, I use Caucasian KnotFortanga (Ingushetia), and Zori Tabasaran (Tabasaran district, Dagestan). There are many videos and pictures constantly being released from the front lines, from civilians, journalists, and soldiers. Since Russian troops are banned from using social media while active, Chechen sources, such as Ramzan Kadyrov’s personal Telegram channel, are better for this perspective. On the other side, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion (a Chechen volunteer unit active in Ukraine since 2014) has now joined social media.

🌺 In the Balkans…

New plaque honouring General Ratko Mladić defies ban on glorifying war criminals. The Bosnian-Serb veterans’ organisation charged with installing the replacement plaque in East Sarajevo denies that it specifically honours the convicted war criminal, stating that it commemorates the establishment of two battalions at a ceremony attended by their former military chief. However, according to genocide studies expert, Dr. David Pettigrew, the plaque represents ‘nothing less than a continuation of the genocide that was perpetrated from 1992-1995.’ The placement of the plaque is equally significant, as Vraca Hill was used by the Bosnian-Serb army as a strategic high-ground from which snipers could terrorise the citizens of Sarajevo. In July of last year, outgoing High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, used his Bonn Powers to outlaw genocide denial in Bosnia. The controversial move by Inzko has been accused of triggering yet another political crisis in the already embattled country.

Mysterious Soviet-era drone crashes near Zagreb. Last Thursday, local residents of the Croatian capital’s south-western Jarun district were woken up by the crash of a Soviet-built Tu-141 reconnaissance drone. While the drone entered Croatia via Hungary and Romania, it remains unknown where it originated from. Officially, only the Ukrainian army still uses this type of drone, but Ukraine’s former ambassador to Zagreb insisted that the aircraft was not Ukrainian, as his country’s army used different markings. When visiting the crash site, Prime Minister Plenković expressed his amazement that no one had been severely injured – one man had fallen off his bike due to the impact, while some forty cars had been damaged. Considering that the drone managed to fly over three NATO member states seemingly unnoticed, Plenković expressed the need for intensified NATO airspace coordination – after all, the drone ‘could have [fallen on] Budapest or Ljubljana,’ or even ‘the nuclear power plant in Hungary.’

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgians fear an influx of Russians. In Georgia, reports of an unprecedented influx of Russians arriving in their country, fleeing sanctions, and increasing repression at home have surged. Alarms were raised on Telegram, where Russians were discussing plans to move to Georgia and inquiring about real estate and business opportunities. At least three separate online petitions have been launched, calling on the government to introduce visa requirements for Russian citizens. Opposition party Lelo for Georgia claimed that ‘a stark rise of the number of visitors from Russia can bring the situation out of control and pose serious challenges to the security of our country.’ In response, the state security service declared that ‘citizens of the Russian Federation, Belarus, and other foreign countries entering the country have no tendency to carry out activities that pose a risk to the country’s security.’ On Wednesday, Vakhtang Gomelauri, the Interior Minister of Georgia, commented that since 24 February, 20,000 Russians had entered Georgia, compared to 40,000 during the same period, in 2019.

Nagorno-Karabakh without heating after pipeline damaged. In the early hours of 8 March, the main pipeline supplying natural gas to Nagorno-Karabakh was reportedly damaged, leaving the majority of the area’s population without heating. The pipeline is located in Azerbaijani-controlled territory, which must be demined before repairs can begin. The damage comes at a time when tensions on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border have been on the rise, including several ceasefire violations. As repairs continue, the Nagorno-Karabakh National Security Service has stated that it is ‘taking measures’ to find out the cause of the disruption, even considering actions by the Azerbaijani military as a possibility.

Women’s Rights March Allowed to Proceed in Azerbaijan. On International Women’s Day (8 March), the Azerbaijani Feminist Movement organised a demonstration in downtown Baku. Protestors targeted domestic abuse and the failure of the police to properly investigate such cases, and called for Azerbaijan to adopt the Istanbul Convention, a Europe-wide agreement against violence against women and domestic violence. While a large number of police forces were present, they did not interfere with the demonstration. This is in contrast to previous years, when events were violently dispersed and protestors were detained en masse. This was the fourth year that Azerbaijani women’s rights activists organised a demonstration on this day. 

🛤 In Central Asia…

Uzbek independent media pressured over coverage of Russia-Ukraine war. Independent journalists and bloggers in Uzbekistan have received warnings by the authorities regarding their coverage of the war in Ukraine. The security service has incited independent media to be ‘neutral’ and to exercise ‘restraint’ when covering the events, in line with the state media’s cautious reporting that has referred to the conflict as a ‘military operation.’ Several journalists have been summoned by the State Security Service for a so-called ‘conversation,’ while others were forced to delete their work. These warnings follow Uzbekistan’s lack of condemnation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Calls to protect journalists in Uzbekistan from Russian propaganda, such as by closing pro-Russia TV channels in the country, have also been left unheard. This recent effort to control oppositional voices sets itself in the context of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Uzbekistan, where harassment and persecution remains widespread for journalists and bloggers.

Georgia yesterday, Ukraine today, Kazakhstan tomorrow? In addition to the economic impact that has reverberated across Central Asia since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, worries that Russia could seek military action in Kazakhstan have risen to the fore in public discourse. In Almaty, local officials allowed activists to conduct a demonstration on 6 March against the invasion. One protester, the ethnic Russian artist Alexandra Rychkova, carried a sign that said ‘Yesterday Georgia, Ukraine Today, Kazakhstan Tomorrow?’ ‘If Putin went to rescue the Russians of Ukraine, we don’t know when he might come and rescue the Russians here. This scares me. I’m a Russian citizen of Kazakhstan, I was born here, this is my country.’ Other activists in Kazakhstan are protesting the war through charity. Togzhan Kozhalievaya, a member of the civic group NAQ, has been collecting humanitarian aid from across Kazakhstan in collaboration with the Ukrainian embassy. As with the 6 March demonstrations, government interference in Kozhalievaya’s operations has been scant, signalling Kazakhstan’s neutrality.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Salvini visits Ukrainian refugees in Poland. The leader of the Italian ‘League’ party, known for his pro-Putin stance, created controversy when he travelled to Poland to show solidarity with Ukrainian refugees. During a press conference in Przemyśl, located close to the Ukrainian border, the town’s Mayor Wojciech Bakun held up the T-shirt which Salvini wore when posting pro-Putin selfies in Strasbourg and Moscow, then invited him to a refugee camp to ‘see what his friend Putin has done.’ The scene went viral on social media. Centrist Italian politician and Salvini’s opponent Matteo Renzi wrote on Facebook ‘I told Salvini in every way that at this stage we need politics, not antics.’ However, Salvini’s real objective seems to be to defend his party’s stance on immigration while consolidating European far-right alliances based on a post-pro-Putin agenda. League party colleague, Paolo Grimoldi, was also quoted praising Poland for ‘receiving real refugees that flee from war and not those, for instance, from Bangladesh.’

UK PM Johnson meets V4 leaders. On 8 March, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Group in London. Asserting that Putin must fail, PM Johnson reiterated the UK’s six-point plan to his Central European counterparts. All five of them condemned the Russian government’s military attack on Ukraine, while agreeing to strengthen the eastern border and supply humanitarian aid to refugees from Ukraine. The UK and V4 will jointly strengthen their collective cybersecurity in line with the Hungarian V4 Presidency’s policy priorities. However, while the other three Visegrád countries work as logistic hubs to transfer military equipment to Ukraine, Hungary will not send troops or weapons to Ukraine, nor will it allow transportation of lethal aid through its territory. Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán stressed the importance of the nation’s energy supply security. Hungary is among the EU member states who oppose the bloc’s lowering of Russian crude oil and natural gas imports, although it supports the economic sanctions on Russia.

Top US politicians in the Baltics and Poland. The Baltics and Poland were included in the eventful Eastern European reassurance trip of US State Secretary Antony Blinken last week. In Lithuania, Blinken promised that the US is committed to helping fellow NATO members. He stated that NATO is considering permanently deploying more troops in the Baltics, in line with Latvia’s request. Meanwhile, Estonia pleaded for stronger Western action against Russia. Despite American and Polish attempts to supply extra military aid to Ukraine, the Pentagon rejected Warsaw’s plan to transfer its MiG-29 fighter jets through a US-NATO air base in Rammstein, Germany, in exchange for newer American-made aircraft in the future. It prompted a last-minute negotiation trip to Warsaw with US Vice President Kamala Harris. The Washington-Warsaw warplane wrangle disappointed Ukraine. Both the Baltics and Poland show strong support for Ukraine’s EU membership and securing the safety of humanitarian aid for Ukraine through the UN mechanism.

Katalin Novák becomes Hungary’s first female and youngest President. On 10 March, the Hungarian National Assembly elected the new head of state, as President János Áder is ending his second five-year term on 9 May. Katalin Novák, a presidential nominee from the ruling parties Fidesz-KDNP received 137 votes from MPs, ahead of the opposition’s candidate, economist, and Oxford professor Péter Róna, with 51 votes. Apart from being a former Fidesz’s Vice President until late last year, Novák served as a state secretary for Family and Youth affairs from 2014 to 2020, an MP since 2018, and a minister without portfolio for family affairs from 2020 to late 2021. Her appointment comes less than a month before Hungary’s general election on 3 April.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Belarus may send troops to join Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On March 11, Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenk discussed economic cooperation amid the harsh sanctions on their countries. The situation in Ukraine was on the agenda as well. During the meeting, Putin informed Lukashenko of the ‘positive changes’ in Russia’s negotiations with Ukraine. Later that day, however, Ukraine’s Armed Forces Air Force Command announced Russian planes fired on the settlement of Kopani (Belarus) from Ukrainian territory, considered a pure provocation with the goal to drag Belarus’ Armed Forces into the war by Ukrainian border protection. Although Belarus’ Ministry of Defence subsequently claimed that the information about the missile strike on the Belarusian village is outright delusional, the tension around the Belarusian-Ukrainian borders soars. Ukraine’s intelligence believes Belarus may attack Ukraine soon, and in response Ukrainian Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Aleksey Danilov warned Belarusians to stay at home, otherwise Ukraine is ready for combating with Belarusians as well.

Question of Ukraine’s accession to the EU at the Versailles summit. On 10 March, a summit of EU leaders was held in Versailles, where the crucial discussions on strengthening European defence, reducing dependence on Russian gas, oil, and coal took place. EU leaders condemned Russia for ‘unprovoked and unjustified military aggression,’ and pledged their readiness to support Ukraine and the refugees fleeing the war. The question on the application of Ukraine for EU membership, signed and submitted by President Volodymyr Zelensky on 28 February, however, remained open. Despite numerous calls for a fast-tracked procedure for Ukraine’s accession to the bloc, this option is highly doubted among the EU leaders as it simply ‘does not exist,’ following Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. On the other hand, the European Council ‘acknowledged the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine,’ stating that ‘Ukraine belongs to the European family.’ Even without a concrete answer around Ukraine’s EU membership, Ukraine stands firmly in its willingness to enter the united European family, as the Versailles meeting marked the beginning of Ukraine’s official accession to the EU.

🌲 In Russia…

Young Educated Russians leave the country. Life in Russia is not getting any better for the young and educated middle class: sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine, ever-growing authoritarianism, and now a broken economy to boot. For young, educated workers in the country’s growing tech sector, it is becoming less and less attractive to stay in Russia. The cosmopolitan lifestyle they are used to is becoming harder to follow, as many brands have left the country. Hence, many are leaving the country to try their luck somewhere else, which in turn, could hurt Russia’s economy even more. Although tensions with the West did exist prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, life then could mainly go on as normal. The sentiment seems to be that this time, Putin has gone too far. Some, however, are staying in Russia and trying to change the system from within. In any case, the current war seems to have caused young middle class Russians to reflect on their relation to the country.

Anti-war and anti-Putin protests continue in Russia. As the Russian war campaign continues in Ukraine, many people in Russia decided to take to the streets to express their dissent against the Russian government’s decisions. On Sunday, 6 March, anti-war and anti-Putin demonstrations were held in several Russian cities, including Moscow and Saint Petersburg. During the protests, according to independent media, over 4,300 people were detained by the police, even though the number of arrests does not coincide with the figures reported by the Russian Interior Ministry, which are significantly lower. Over these last days, new laws designed to make ‘public actions aimed at discrediting’ Russian armed forces illegal were introduced, with punishments ranging from a simple fine to five years’ detention. Nevertheless, it is still not clear whether these anti-war protests will fall under this new law. Public demonstrations have been going on in Russia since the very beginning of the war on 24 February. Even if they were not allowed by public administration, protests on 6 March involved a significant number of people also thanks to Alexey Navaly and his supporters’ call for action.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Tijs van de Vijver, Marie Mach, Charles Adrien Fourmi, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Bart Alting, Rachele Colombo, Lucie Tafforin, Qianrui Hu, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘
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