Lossi 36 Weekly #11: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: The Night Wolves‘ support for Russia’s aggression; fears of new escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh; new President in Turkmenistan; Central European Prime Ministers visit KyivBulgaria‘s ex-PM Borissov arrested; the question of Syrians in Ukraineand much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Serbian flight loophole for Russians in jeopardy after repeated bomb threats. Cameron MacBride

One of the last major flight connections between Russia and Europe has come under increasing pressure in recent days due to consistent reportings of bombs threats onboard flights. The Belgrade to Moscow connection, on which AirSerbia had just doubled its flights, alongside selling out its initial available tickets for the month of March, has now been de-facto grounded after a sharp increase in the number of alerts about bombs allegedly planted onboard flights, with a third flight having now been affected by the threats. The alerts are being seen as politically-motivated. They appear to be a response to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, seeking to punish Serbia for its neutral stance on the conflict, although the police are still searching for suspects. AirSerbia has now announced that it will be downscaling its flight operations to Moscow back to the once per day schedule it operated before the invasion. Moreover, there has been sporadic reporting on social media platforms throughout the last couple of days that AirSerbia may shortly announce a full halt of the route until the situation has calmed down, although this is unconfirmed at the time of writing.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Night Wolves bicycle gang hold protest in Banja Luka in support of Russia’s war. The Bosnian Serb branch of the notorious pro-Kremlin international motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves, held a protest in support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska, on 13 February. Along with nationalist Serbian and Russian flags, the infamous ‘Z’ symbol was also observed – the letter with which Russian equipment was emblazoned before it crossed the Ukrainian border has now become a widespread symbol of support for the invasion. Speaking to Euronews, Zdravko Močević, one of the participants of the rally, said ‘Russia is not at war with Ukraine, it is at war with the dark Euro-Atlantic forces that want to dominate the world and destroy it.’ The Western Balkans countries have been divided by the war; in Bosnia in particular, where a pro-Ukrainian protest was held in Tuzla on the same day.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgian Dream at odds with Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili. Speaking in Parliament on 14 March, Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili claimed that the ruling Georgian Dream government had refused to allow official visits to Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and Warsaw on 26 February to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She explained that this forced her to turn the planned visits into ‘personal meetings,’ which Georgian Dream says violates the Constitution. The party’s political council released a three-page letter on 15 March stating that ‘the government of Georgia is forced to appeal to the Constitutional Court in the near future and demand confirmation of the violation of the constitution by the president.’ This would be the first time in Georgia that an incumbent president was sued for violating the constitution. Not only is this dividing the ruling partnership, but even Georgian Dream seems split on the issue — on 16 March, Tbilisi Mayor and Secretary General of Georgian Dream, Kakha Kaladze, told journalists that ‘nobody is suing.’

Fears of a new Azerbaijani military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Recent weeks have been marked by increasing tension in Nagorno-Karabakh. On March 8, the main pipeline supplying gas to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is located in Azerbaijan-controlled territory, was allegedly sabotaged, leaving a potential humanitarian catastrophe in the region. There are some Azerbaijani telegram channels spreading information about a special operation that Azerbaijani Armed Forces is conducting in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani military is calling on the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh to leave their homes in order to ‘save their own lives, otherwise they will be destroyed.’ Meanwhile, there are also reports on Azerbaijani social media claiming Russian peacekeepers in the region have been sent to Ukraine. The validity of this information is not confirmed. However, the disseminated information by the Azerbaijan side is denied by the Nagorno-Karabakh authority and it is regarded as yet another attempt to cause panic among the residents in the region.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Renewed clashes at the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. A Tajik border guard was reportedly killed on 10 March in an exchange of gunfire near a disputed segment of the border between the two Central Asian countries. The incident occurred after Tajik border guards entered the disputed area and requested that the Kyrgyz guards leave. This third death this year has led to new talks between officials on both sides of the contested area, during which both parties agreed to investigate the matter separately and continue to exchange information in order to prevent the conflict from escalating. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, border disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have taken place on multiple occasions, as half of the almost 1000-kilometre border has yet to be demarcated. Unresolved issues include distribution of water and illegal border crossings. Most recently, in spring 2021, 50 people died in a border clash.

Tokayev to move Kazakhstan away from ‘super presidential’ system. During a joint session of the houses of parliament on March 16, President Tokayev announced his intention to turn Kazakhstan’s political system from ‘super presidential’ rule to a presidential republic with a strong parliament. He pledged to reform the constitution, limit the powers of his office, make it easier for new political parties to register, distance the ruling party from government and reduce the number of parliament deputies directly or indirectly appointed by the president. He also vowed to not allow any of his family members to hold important political roles. These changes come in the aftermath of the violent unrest that took place in January, and led to ex-President Nazarbayev giving up his remaining powers as the head of the security council and leader of the ruling party. President Tokayev, elected in 2019, has recently been cracking down on the Nazarbayev family. Just three days before his parliamentary address, Nazarbayev’s nephew, Kairat Satybaldy, was detained on embezzlement charges.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov wins Turkmen presidential election. Unsurprisingly, the son of the current president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, was declared the winner of the presidential election held on 15 March. With eight other ‘opposition’ candidates, Berdymukhammedov secured around 73% of the vote. The results were released three days after the vote was held, which is unusual when compared to previous elections, when results were revealed the day after ballots were closed. This month’s election, much like the previous ones, has faced accusations of vote rigging and was treated as a formality. Given the unexpectedness of the snap election and Berdymukhammedov Jr.’s rather meagre result compared his father’s, who’d secured around 98% in the last election, it could be inferred that the incumbent is not exactly being replaced by his son, but that the vote will instead pave the way for an eventual succession and allow the new president to focus on the administrative aspect of governance, something his father has not been interested in over his past three terms. 

🚃 In Central Europe…

Czech, Polish, and Slovenian PMs visit Zelenskiy. On 15 March, Czech PM Fiala, Polish PM Morawiecki, and Slovenian PM Janša travelled to Kyiv by train to show support for Ukraine. They discussed sanctions, weapons, humanitarian needs and diplomacy. The European Commission and European Council were consulted prior to the visit, and the three PMs acted as EU Council representatives. The journey was considered a security risk, as the PMs reportedly had no security guarantees from the Russian side. Security concerns were also the reason why the PM of Slovakia did not join the delegation. Since then, he admitted that it was a mistake, and he should have travelled with them. Although this was a gesture of support, it was condemned by some. The visit was a security risk for Zelenskiy too, a burden for police and trains carrying humanitarian aid. Furthermore, the heads of government of Poland and Slovenia are both controversial political figures.

Polish deserter found dead in Minsk. Emil Czeczko, a 25-year-old former soldier of the eleventh Masurian Artillery Regiment, was found hanging in his flat, in Minsk. The Investigative Committee of Belarus has launched an investigation into his death, reportedly not excluding foul play. Czeczko deserted and asked for asylum in Belarus in mid-December 2021, amidst the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, where thousands of migrants, mostly from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, were trying to cross from Belarus into the European Union. The crisis was widely regarded as having been orchestrated by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, however, it also caused controversy in Poland and the EU because of the way the migrants were being treated by border forces on both sides. Following his desertion, Czeczko accused Polish forces of killing 240 migrants and burying them in mass graves. His claims were forcefully denied by Polish authorities and were not proven by any other sources. 

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Constitutional amendments adopted in Belarus. As Belarus celebrated its 28th Constitution Day on 15 March, a series of amendments to the Constitution officially came into force. The changes were adopted following a referendum that took place on 27 February in the shadow of the invasion in Ukraine. Belarusians abroad were not allowed to vote. Many other significant violations of national and international electoral rules were reported during the referendum. According to Belarus’ official figures, 82.86% voted in favour of the changes. The amendments allow Lukashenko to stay in power until 2035 and provide him with immunity from prosecution. Moreover, the reforms give power to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, which was created by Lukashenko and consists of his loyalists. The Assembly will determine Belarus’ priorities for the next five years and amendments to the constitution. Furthermore, these changes ended Belarus’ ‘nuclear-free status,’ which HR/VP Josep Borrell called ‘another worrying element.’ He stressed that those who collaborate with Russian military aggression will be targeted.

Implications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the world food system. While the world is following the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine, the question of food supplies arises slowly but firmly. The United Nations has warned that Russia’s invasion can trigger global famine, with Moscow’s Black Sea blockade delaying crucial grain exports, the displacement of agriculture workers, core infrastructure being bombed and destroyed, prices going extremely high. More than 100 ships are reportedly stranded in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, calling Russia to open ‘a blue corridor’ to allow their safe passage. Ukraine is the European Union’s fourth largest external food supplier, providing 52% of the maize imports, 19% of the soft wheat, and 23% of the vegetable oils – stated Janusz Wojciechowski, EU Commissioner for Agriculture, on Ukraine’s impact on pigmeat production on the 10 March. The Russian invasion of Ukraine mainly affects the world food system in terms of soaring food prices, fears of famine, rising protectionism, green goals dashed, and sunflower shutdown. 

Bulgaria’s ex-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov arrested. On 17 March, Borissov was detained amid police investigations into 120 cases of fraud initiated by the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). EPPO, led by Romania’s former anti-corruption chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi, focuses on criminal misuse of EU funds. Kovesi’s two-day visit to Sofia ended hours before Borissov’s arrest. According to the interior ministry, former Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov, former chair of the parliamentary budgetary commission Menda Stoyanova, and Borissov’s media adviser Sevdalina Arnaudova were also detained.

🌲 In Russia…

North Caucasus under strain. In addition to the influx of refugees from Russian-occupied Eastern Ukraine, the North Caucasus is now facing skyrocketing prices of everyday necessities and significant casualty numbers among residents serving in Putin’s invasion. These drastic price rises exacerbate regional socioeconomic conditions, which are among the worst in Russia. Regional and local authorities are struggling to pacify the situation. This sets the scene for political upheaval and resurgent violence. High casualty rates amongst locals — leaning towards younger generations — is unlikely to make them favourable toward Moscow, particularly with diasporic opposition members and local independent media promoting the view that this is not their war. These dilemmas combine neatly into a single argument – that Moscow is costing the region its future. How new sanctions will affect the region is debated upon, but socioeconomic concerns have led to mass mobilisation in even the most oppressive North Caucasus republics.

Syrians to Ukraine? Russia is attempting to recruit Syrian mercenaries for its invasion of Ukraine. This is due to rapidly mounting casualties among its forces and the unpopularity of using conscripts. Russia’s success is currently unknown, but the main question is, can Assad spare troops while still fighting two enemies? For Ukraine, there are a decent number of anti-Assad fighters who wish to punish Russia for propping up the despotic regime. Even more fervent are the Chechens who wish to relocate from the Idlib area to Ukraine. The most prominent of these is Abdul Hakim Shishani, the leader of Ajnad al-Kavkaz, the largest independent unit of North Caucasian militants. Abdul Hakim’s desired participation also piques interest concerning the potential involvement of veteran commander Muslim Shishani and the former fighters of Junud al-Sham, who are currently hunted by most actors in Syria. The logistic viability of relocating to Ukraine for these fighters is questionable.

Russian rapper Oxxxymiron speaks out against the war in Ukraine on stage in Istanbul. Last Tuesday, one of Russia’s biggest rappers performed at a charity concert, in opposition to his country’s war in Ukraine. There were some 400 Russians – many of whom fled to Turkey following the invasion – in the basement of the club where Oxxxymiron performed in front of the words ‘Russians against war.’ Initially, the Russian rapper announced on his Instagram account that he could not entertain his fans while there were Russian missiles falling on Ukraine. However, soon after, Oxxxymiron let his followers know that he would perform a series of charity concerts in cities where a large number of Russians have fled to since the start of the invasion in February. One of the visitors, 31 year old Kostya, said that ‘even if we didn’t like him, we still would have come to this concert, because it looks like we’re seeing an important message and an important movement being born right now.’

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Francis Farrell, Chaharika Uppal, Zuzana Krulichova, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Bozho Kolov, Merijn Hermens, Sam Appels, Lucie Tafforin, Qianrui Hu, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘
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