Lossi 36 Weekly #13: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Elections in Serbia; President Bibilov intends to have South Ossetia join Russia; Kazakhstan‘s oil exports in jeopardy; V4 row amid Hungary‘s stance on Russia; Ukraine and Russia in Turkey; new details about Nemtsov‘s assassination; and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Russia’s Central Asian labour migrants and the war in Ukraine. Lucie Tafforin

The sanctions imposed on Russia are affecting remittance-dependent countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as well: more than 7.8 million labour migrants were registered in Russia in 2021. In the context of sanctions, many Russian businesses have been forced to downsize, leaving thousands unemployed and labour migrants particularly vulnerable. Many will be forced to take any job available, which will most likely be low-pay physical work. Despite this crisis, the majority of Central Asian migrants are expected to stay in Russia as there are no better alternatives in their home countries. 

There are also concerning reports that migrants are being ‘offered’ Russian citizenship, under skewed legislation, in return for contractual services in the Russian military. Citizenship is a prized possession for labour migrants, as it offers protection against discrimination and other frictions Central Asians endure in Russia. It is reported that the contracts are being offered on employment listing websites, such as UzMigrants, although it is unsure whether these are Russian government efforts or opportunist scammers. Central Asian governments, moreover, condemn their citizens serving abroad, with those found guilty of mercenary activity punished by up to five years in prison in Uzbekistan and up to 20 years in Tajikistan. Nevertheless, the economic incentives to join that war effort have already cost the lives of at least three men from Kyrgyz and Tajik origins.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Census reveals steep drop in North Macedonian population. The recently released census results from North Macedonia have revealed a long expected drop in the nation’s population, mainly as a result of an exodus of Macedonians moving abroad in search of better economic conditions, with the overall population having fallen by almost 10%. The census, the first in 20 years, also highlighted how badly the country has been hit by its younger generations choosing to seek out better livelihoods abroad, with the average age of North Macedonia now slightly over forty. Of those that do remain in the country, more and more are choosing to live in larger settlement areas, with a further 207 settlements, mainly villages in the countryside, also being registered as empty of any human life. The census results, however, did not reveal a stark shift in the ethnic composition of the country as some had expected, with roughly 58% of respondents identifying as Macedonian, 24% as Albanian, with smaller minorities of Turks, Roma, and Serbs, amongst others.

Future on the line as Serbia holds elections marred by imbalances. On 3 April, on the same day as its northern neighbour Hungary, Serbia held its presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections that will define the future trajectory of the country. Unlike Hungary, however, where the election has been judged to be relatively tight, Serbia’s incumbent president Aleksandar Vucic and his conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) command a huge lead in opinion polls and preliminary results. Serbia’s elections come during a challenging time for the Vucic regime, specifically in the area of foreign policy. While Vucic, who has been accused of significant authoritarian backsliding during his tenure, has cultivated close ties with Russia and China at the expense of progress in EU integration, Russia’s war against Ukraine has put this balancing act under pressure. In the past weeks, EU leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have pressed Belgrade to follow suit and replicate EU sanctions against Russia, but Vucic has remained very reluctant. 

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Ossetian reunification? In an address on 30 March, South Ossetian President Anatoly Bibilov vowed to take legal steps towards joining the Russian Federation. He went on to insist that the Ossetian people, largely divided between South Ossetia and the Russian Republic of North Ossetia, should not ‘miss the opportunity’ to unite, pointing to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea as a successful example. North Ossetia’s governor supports the reunification effort. According to Russian legislation, a referendum must formally be held before foreign states or parts of other states are admitted as subjects of the Russian Federation. Russian politicians have said that a referendum in South Ossetia could be arranged in as little as a month if they decide to proceed. Abkhazian officials welcomed Bibilov’s statement, but made it clear that Abkhazia would not choose similarly. Bibilov is up for re-election on 10 April.

ArmHighTech 2022 exhibition highlights defence equipment, including drones. The third edition of ArmHighTech 2022 defence technology exhibition was held between 31 March and 2 April in Yerevan at Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concert Complex. On this occasion, about 70 companies from all over the world presented their military equipment. For example, the Armenian company DAVARO presented the mini-BTR Torg (armoured transporter), and the Armenian company UAVLab presented, for the first time, a model of reconnaissance and strike drone UL-450. Since the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, when drones were used intensively, the military world’s attention has focused more on this technology. The director of DAVARO, a company also involved in drone technology, said that Israeli-made drones shot down during the war were subsequently studied by his company.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kazakh oil exports in jeopardy after pipeline damage in Russia. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which operates a pipeline transporting two thirds of Kazakhstan’s oil exports, will be unusable for up to two months because of infrastructure damage caused by a recent storm at two of three tanker loading facilities at the Russian port of Novorossiysk. The CPC has said it will struggle to find spare components for the damaged tanker loading facilities because of the international sanctions imposed against Russia. Western partners of the CPC including Chevron and Exxon, who own 15 percent and 7 percent stakes, respectively, have been unable to carry out their own inspections at Novorossiysk. Bolat Akchulakov, Kazakhstan’s energy minister, has stated oil could be rerouted from the CPC to the port of Aktau, through an alternative pipeline that runs through Samara, and a small volume could be transferred in the direction of China. However, the pipeline damage still means shipments in March and April will fall fivefold and GDP in Kazakhstan will be reduced as the pipeline transports 1.2% of the world’s oil supply.

🚃 In Central Europe…

V4 meeting called off due to Hungary’s divergent stance on Russia. A meeting of the Visegrád Four (V4), scheduled to take place on 30 and 31 March, was cancelled and postponed to a later date due to the divergent opinions on Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. On 25 March, the Minister of Defence of the Czech Republic, Jana Černochová, refused to attend the planned V4 meeting. Three days later, the Polish Defence Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, manifested the intention to follow the steps of his Czech counterpart. A statement from the Hungarian Minister of Defence confirmed the consequent postponement of the summit. Both Czechia and Poland chose not to attend the meeting due to Budapest’s hesitancy in imposing harsher sanctions on Russia – particularly on oil and gas – and in supporting Ukraine with military equipment. Hungary’s more neutral stance was criticised as well by the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a speech to the European Union on 24 March.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

KGB detains railway employees in ongoing ‘Rail War’ in Belarus. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a ‘Rail War’ broke out in Belarus. While Lukashenko openly supports Moscow, Belarusian railway workers have been sabotaging the movement of Russian military equipment into Ukraine by disrupting the railway network. The extent of the damage remains unclear. The Belarusian security force, the KGB, imprisoned more than 30 employees over the past week, as the state considers their actions as acts of terrorism. A large number of workers thereafter, featured in so-called ‘repentant videos’ on pro-government Telegram channels, urged others not to subscribe to the railway association’s Telegram channel. Franak Viačorka, senior advisor to Sviatlana Tsihanouskaya, responded to the events by stating that ‘Belarus is a land of partisans. Our heroes stop Russian trains, damage Russian equipment, hand out leaflets to prevent Belarus troops from entering Ukraine. Ukraine will prevail, Belarus will be liberated as well.’

Ukraine-Russia peace talks with a twist. On 29 March, the most significant of the series of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia took place in Istanbul, Turkey. The proposals from the Ukrainian side were to refrain from joining any foreign military-political alliances, drafting a new international treaty similar to NATO’s Article 5, and holding bilateral negotiations on the status of Crimea and Sevastopol (separately) within the next 15 years. The immediate request to Russia was to drastically reduce operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv. Despite Russia’s promises at the talks to pull back its troops, it continued to shell parts of Kyiv and Chernihiv the next day. It is believed Russian troops were doubling down on their efforts to take cities situated farther away from Kyiv and regrouping to focus on the east. Thus, Russia’s withdrawal of some forces around Kyiv may be a tactical pause before trying to achieve the real goal – the ‘liberation’ of Donbas.

🌲 In Russia…

Chechen officials oppose peace. On 30 March, Ramzan Kadyrov criticised Russia’s lead negotiator with Ukraine, calling him ‘too accommodating.’ The previous day, he and Speaker of Parliament, Magomed Daudov spoke out against the Istanbul peace talks (different from the subject of his 30 March condemnation) and Russia’s plans to scale back on its invasion of Ukraine. They claim, baselessly, that the war must continue as long as there are ‘Nazis and banderovtsy’ in Ukraine. Kadyrov has placed a sizable wager on the invasion, committing substantial financial and military resources. His gamble is already paying off, with political turmoil amongst the Russian elite only strengthening his already close relationship with Putin. This return on his investment is probably the reason why he does not want the war to stop. However, Kadyrov’s gains may not last long, as he is weakening his security services and Chechnya’s socioeconomic conditions continue to decline rapidly.

Moscow plays down South Ossetia’s request to join the Russian Federation. Last Thursday, Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the Russian Federation has not taken any action regarding the South Ossetian’s president Anatoly Bibilov’s suggestion to join Russia, stating that this would be the prerogative of the people of South Ossetia. Biblov said on Wednesday that he believes that ‘unification with Russia is our strategic goal.’ North Ossetia – a republic of the Russian Federation, supported South Ossetia’s proposal. South Ossetia, a small region with around 50,000 inhabitants, which is considered part of Georgia by most states, achieved de facto independence after a bloody war in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 2008, Moscow recognized its independence after its war with Georgia in the same year, but it never accepted South Ossetia’s attempts to join Russia. 

Investigation reveals new facts surrounding Boris Nemtsov’s murder. The BBC, Bellingcat and The Insider have found evidence that, prior to Boris Nemtsov’s death in 2015, the Kremlin critic was being been followed by FSB agents, some of whom have been linked to other assassination attempts on Russian oppositionists like Alexey Navalny. The evidence indicates that during his official trips between May 2014 and February 2015, at least three agents were following Nemtsov – Alexey Krivoshchekov, Dmitry Sukhinin and Valery Sukharev. The latter has reportedly been involved in tracking three other Kremlin opponents: Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr, Dmitry Bykov, and Alexey Navalny, all of whom subsequently suffered from suspected or confirmed poisonings. Not long after the last instance of Nemtsov being tailed was he shot dead right outside the Kremlin walls. An official investigation resulted in five men being found guilty. However, the mastermind behind the shocking crime is yet to be found.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Francis Farrell, Zadig Tisserand, Myriam Marino, Merijn Hermens, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Lucie Tafforin, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘

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