Lossi 36 Weekly #12: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Three summits in Brussels; NATO and BosniaNagorno-Karabakh in the cold; pressure on civil society in Kyrgyzstan; teacher strike in Hungary; Ukrainian diplomats expelled from BelarusAlexey Navalny sentenced to another nine years in prison; and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Three summits and their consequences for Ukraine.Vira Kompaniiets

On 24 and 25 March 2022, NATO, EU and G7 summits were held in Brussels. Volodymyr Zelenskyy called upon NATO to give Ukraine ‘one percent of all its aircraft, one percent of all its tanks, means of air defence, and one hundred percent security,’ as a NATO ‘no-fly zone’ seems increasingly unlikely. In response to Russia’s actions and Ukraine’s calls for help, NATO will establish four additional multinational battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. NATO Allies will also step up support to Ukraine, including through cybersecurity assistance, as well with chemical and nuclear defence units. Meanwhile, the EU ‘reaffirms the Versailles Declaration, acknowledging the European aspirations and the European choice of Ukraine,’ but a concrete answer for Ukraine’s accession to the EU is yet to come. As an immediate response to citizens’ needs, the European Council agreed on the development of the Ukraine Solidarity Trust Fund to raise funding, in which the EU and its international partners can participate. The question of the EU’s energy dependency on Russia continues to cause tensions among the EU members, but a step further was made – the US announced to supply Europe with an additional 15 billion cubic metres of liquefied natural gas this year. Last but not least, the summits addressed Russia and China’s friendly relationship, as the latter has not condemned Moscow for starting the war yet, while fears that it could support Russia materially remain.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Russia threatens Bosnia and Herzegovina over NATO. In response to NATO’s recent and unprecedented show of support for Bosnia, Russian ambassador to BiH, Igor Kalabukhov, warned that the country could face the same military aggression as Ukraine if it chooses to join the alliance. Speaking to Bosnia’s Radio Television of the Federation (FTV), Kalabukhov stated that ‘if (Bosnia and Herzegovina) decides to be a member of any alliance, that is an internal matter. Our (Russia’s) response is a different matter. Ukraine’s example shows what we expect. Should there be any threat, we will respond.’ Kalabukhov later tried to clarify that his response was not meant as a threat, but rather a ‘warning.’ That it was the West, not Russia, who is posing a threat to Bosnia’s security by stirring up fears over possible Russian aggression. Bosnia’s Defence Minister, Sifet Podzic, called for Kalabukhov’s expulsion from the country over his statements.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Nagorno-Karabakh cut off from vital gas pipeline. Nagorno-Karabakh has had its gas cut off for the second time in two weeks during an unusually cold March, where temperatures have dropped to -5 °C and the snow lies up to one metre. The de-facto state is supplied gas from Armenia, but in some places, the pipeline passes through the territory under the control of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. Gas supplies were first cut off on 8 March, Baku explained that the gas flow had been interrupted due to pipeline damage. The gas was restored 11 days later, following negotiations with Russian peace-keeping forces stationed in the region. Unfortunately, gas was cut off for a second time on 21 March. Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh blamed Azerbaijan: ‘we have sufficient grounds to assume that during the gas pipeline repairs, the Azerbaijani side installed a valve that stopped the gas supply.’ There has been no comment from the Azerbaijani authorities, however the Russian peacekeeping contingent is currently discussing the issue with them.

Georgia’s far-right paradox. In sharp contrast with the rise in anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the far-right, pro-Russia group ‘Alt-Info’ has seen significant expansion. This has caused nationwide protests against the group, with cases of violent retaliation by its members. On 18 March, a journalist from the opposition TV channel Mtavari reported that she and her camera operator were attacked while reporting outside Alt-Info’s office in Zugdidi. More recently, police reportedly arrested roughly 10 supporters of Alt-Info after they attacked protestors in Kobuleti. Alt-Info was founded in 2019, but rose to particular prominence in summer 2021, when it was one of the key organizers of the anti-queer violent protests in Tbilisi. The group launched a new political party called ‘Conservative Movement’ in November, opening around 60 offices in the regions in under six months. The party’s sources of funding are still unknown.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Pressure on activists and media intensifies in Kyrgyzstan. In the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war, Kyrgyzstan continues to crack down on the freedoms of association, speech, and the media. Just last week, three human rights activists were fined after publicly protesting the invasion of Ukraine in front of the Russian embassy in Bishkek. They were charged with disobedience to police and released from custody hours later. Their lawyer was sentenced to five days of imprisonment for contempt of court. On 24 March, the Bishkek city court also refused to end the pre-trial detention of Next TV’s director, who has been detained since 3 March over the airing of a controversial report on Kyrgyzstan’s involvement in the Russian war. This crackdown on oppositional voices raises concern regarding President Sadyr Japarov’s stated support for fundamental freedoms and democracy in the country.

Kazakhstan’s ruble neutrality. statement from the Kazakh Prime Minister’s Office, published on 18 March, declared that due to sanctions imposed on Russia, Kazakhstan and other members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) would have to distribute and credit import duties and custom fees to Russia and Belarus in rubles, instead of dollars. The statement comes after the Russian Minister for Economic Development spoke about turning the EEU into a ‘common ruble space’ and moving towards carrying out multilateral payments in rubles. However, Kazakhstan’s transactions with other members of the EEU will continue in dollars. This once again reveals the justified apprehensions of Central Asian nations when it comes to supporting Russia through the war, as even the switch to rubles is more a necessity than an active choice. In fact, the Kazakh government has been providing Ukraine with humanitarian aid, while on 6 March, a big demonstration against the war was held in Almaty, with apparently no restrictions from the police.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Amidst elections, Hungarian teachers’ strike to improve working conditions continues. Led by the Teachers’ Union (PSZ) and leaders of Public Sector Workers Union (MKKSZ), schools and child care facilities have started an indefinite period of strike last week. This follows failed negotiations with the government to increase wage and decrease working hours. As a result, some but not all classes have been cancelled. During a demonstration held in Budapest on 19 March, the union chairman said ‘the miserable salary situation cannot be remedied with allowances scattered like crumbs.’ Opposition leaders of the Democratic Coalition supported them by saying that ‘they will raise wages by 50 percent in the sector.’ The government has downplayed the situation by insisting that a strong majority of teachers are opposed to the strike. So far, the government has refused to negotiate until after the parliamentary elections, on 3 April.

NATO-supplied defence system sent to Slovakia triggers Russian reaction. On 20 March, NATO partners began the deployment of the MIM-104 Patriot missile defence systems to Slovakia, to be operated by German and Dutch soldiers. The system, aimed at complementing the current Slovakian S-300 defence system, will be stationed in the central region of the country, to intensify defence capabilities at NATO eastern borders, in view of the war in Ukraine. Further agreements were discussed over the provision of the S-300 defence system by Slovakia to Ukraine, against Russia. Slovakia agreed to renounce the old Soviet S-300 system only in exchange for a suitable replacement system. To this, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented that sending the S-300 system would represent a violation of a 1990 agreement between the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and warned about possible consequences. Slovakia, thus, clarified that it will not send the S-300 system to Ukraine if Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine.

Biden visits Poland as Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its second month. US President Joe Biden had an eventful reassurance trip to Poland last week. After he participated in NATO, G7, and EU leaders’ emergency summits in Brussels, his schedule was delayed due to technical problems with Polish President Andrzej Duda’s plane from Warsaw. Biden’s first stop was in Rzeszów, to meet the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, where he observed the Polish humanitarian aid for refugees from Ukraine and emphasised the grave situation as ‘a fight between democracies and (Russian) oligarchs.’ On 26 March, he met with Duda in Warsaw and assured Poland that NATO is committed to helping fellow members if Russia attacks them. While meeting with Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, Biden acknowledged that other NATO members will share the immigration burden with Poland. As an immediate neighbour of Ukraine, Poland has officially welcomed more than 2 million refugees out of 3.5 to 4 million Ukranians who have fled since the Russian invasion.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Belarus expels twelve Ukrainian diplomats and closes the consulate in Brest. On 23 March, the press secretary of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Oleg Nikolenko announced on a post on Facebook that Belarus unilaterally took the decision to reduce the number of Ukrainian diplomats in Belarus. This decision follows Belarusian accusations that several employees of the Ukrainian embassy in Minsk were involved in espionage. Previously, on Tuesday 22 March, the KGB of Belarus had claimed that they had the intention of ‘liquidating residency’ in the Ukrainian embassy as most of the staff working there were actually personnel of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine and of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine. In his statement, Nikolenko also added that ‘Ukraine will not leave Belarus’ actions without a proper response, and we will inform you about this in due course.’ The Ukrainian embassy in Minsk will have to operate with a reduced staff, headed by Ambassador Ihor Kizim.

🌲 In Russia…

Ingush governor on the out. Mahmud-Ali Kalimatov is reportedly ‘retiring’ after the active phase of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. In 2019, Kalimatov succeeded Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (now deputy Defence Minister) after the latter had lost all public support due to his secret land exchange with Chechnya. Kalimatov has failed to achieve almost every federal policy objective. Moscow even seized the republic’s free-falling finances. The current economic strains are particularly felt in the region. This caused Kalimatov to ignore an important national security meeting with federal officials and other regional heads. Kalimatov’s replacement will likely either be someone else with ties to Ingushetia’s security structures or a complete outsider. Either choice lacks promise in the eyes of Moscow and the Ingush public. This is because Moscow will not change regional policy to respect the Ingush public’s wishes.

Russia demands hydrocarbons to be paid in rubles. Extreme measures have been put into place by the Russian government to contain the currency crisis resulting from sanctions. As Russia’s economy runs mainly on the export of oil and gas, Putin has looked towards this sector once again to bail out the failing economy. By presidential decree, countries that buy oil and gas from Russia now have to pay in rubles. Countries like Austria, which gets around 80% of its gas from Russia, are facing a dilemma. Buying in rubles means supporting the Russian economy, something that goes directly against the imposed sanctions. On the other hand, being so dependent on Russian gas means they have a bad bargaining position if the Russian government starts threatening to shut off the gas. This is not the first time Russia has used its ‘energy weapon’ against the EU, and it will likely not be the last. 

Alexey Navalny found guilty again, handed nine-year sentence. On 22 March, the Lefortovo District Court of Moscow delivered its verdict and found Alexey Navalny – Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s main opponent – guilty of embezzlement, sentencing him to nine more years of imprisonment in a strict regime penal colony. Prosecutors accused him of stealing and spending part of the money collected from donations to his organisation and his anti-corruption foundation for his personal interests. In addition, Navalny was also found guilty of contempt of court. The Kremlin opponent is currently already serving two and a half years for parole violation, which occurred when he was recovering in Germany from a nerve agent poisoning in summer 2020, an attack that he later blamed on the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Putin himself. After this near-fatal poisoning, Navalny’s allies now fear for his life once more, as, according to this latest sentence, he is to be detained in a remote colony characterised by particularly harsh conditions.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Chaharika Uppal, Charles Adrien Fourmi, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Myriam Marino, Adriano Rodari, Bart Alting, Rachele Colombo, Lucie Tafforin, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘
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