Lossi 36 Weekly #14: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia14 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Expulsions of diplomats over Bucha Massacre; convicted Serb terrorist banned from BosniaPashinyan and Aliyev meet in Brussels; Russian migrants adapt to life in Central AsiaCzech Republic sends tanks to Ukraine; American fighter jets in Bulgaria; death of LDPR leader Zhirinovsky; and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

European Union countries expel over two hundred Russian diplomats in two days.Rachele Colombo

Following the discovery of the massacre of civilians in Bucha – west of Kyiv – where Ukrainian officials reported to have recovered 410 bodies in the territories from which Russian troops had just withdrawn, European leaders responded promptly. As numerous leaders defined this massacre as a war crime, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, and several other European countries expelled over two hundred Russian diplomats over national security concerns, bringing the overall number of expelled Russian diplomats to 325 since the beginning of the war. Russia has rejected accusations of war crimes in Bucha, suggesting that the images reported of the massacre were fake, or that the deaths occurred after Russian withdrawal. Dmitry Peskov – the Kremlin spokesman – said that the expulsion of Russian diplomats move was ‘short-sighted,’ since, in a period of such a crisis, keeping a dialogue open is crucial to finding a solution. Moreover, both Peskov and Dmitry Medvedev, the Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council, added that this decision may lead to Russian retaliations.

Read more about the international response to the Bucha massacre down below.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Bosnia bans entry to convicted Serb terrorist and ex-police commander; Serbia retaliates. Bratislav Dikić, a former commander of Serbia’s elite police unit, the Gendarmerie, was prevented from entering Bosnia and Herzegovina last week on security grounds. Dikić was tried and sentenced for the 2016 attempted coup to overthrow the then pro-Western Montenegrin government and prevent the country from joining NATO. Twelve others, including two Russian intelligence officers and several individuals with ties to right-wing organisations, were convicted of terrorism. After an appeals court overthrew the verdict in 2021, Dikić was released from detention and has since travelled to Bosnia’s Serb-held Republika Srpska several times, including on 9 January to celebrate the contentious Day of Republika Srpska. In a retaliatory move, Serbia has banned Sanin Musa, a former hardline Islamist and now political party leader of Bosnia’s Faith People State group, which holds an anti-LGBTQ position.

Serbia divided between the EU and Russia. After his re-election last Sunday, the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić found himself more pressured to choose between his two main partners: Russia and the EU. On the one side, he confirmed his intention to pursue a European path, while on the other side, he affirmed his willingness to maintain friendly relations with Putin’s Russia. Despite being an EU candidate country and having condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Serbia did not join the sanctions against Russia as most of the European countries did, which caused a lot of criticism against its government. The pressure to pick a side no longer leaves space for the previous ‘balance’ pursued by the Serbian president, as EU leaders expect him to take concrete actions against Putin. Last Thursday, during the United Nations General Assembly, Serbia finally voted in favour of suspending Russia’s membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Anti-LGBT protesters sentenced for attacking journalists during Tbilisi Pride Week. Twenty people received prison terms by a court in Tbilisi on 4 April for attacking journalists who were covering the pride march in the Georgian capital, last year. Six of those detained were given five-year sentences for assaulting Pirveli TV cameraman Lekso Lashkarava, who died after the attack. Georgia’s first pride parade had been planned for 5 July 2021. However, the event quickly spiralled out of control when thousands of far-right counterprotesters attacked journalists and civil society groups. At least 53 media representatives were injured that day. Despite this, the court did not find any of the suspects guilty of participating in the organised violence. Nika Simonishvili, the lawyer representing Lashkarava’s family, said he hoped that the convictions would pressure the authorities to investigate the attack’s organisers as well as public officials who didn’t stop the violence.

Armenian, Azerbaijani heads meet in Brussels. Continuing their trilateral meetings, President of the European Council Charles Michel hosted Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh and the development of EU relations with both countries. At the meeting on 6 April, the two leaders stated their desire to move towards a peace agreement rapidly, primarily by instructing their Ministers of Foreign Affairs to work towards preparing a peace treaty. The two also agreed to establish a Joint Border Commission by the end of April for the delimitation of national borders and to ensure a stable security situation. The meeting came during a shift in official rhetoric by Armenia regarding the status and future of Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as after continued accusations of aggression by Azerbaijani forces. Additionally, on the eve of the summit, several thousand opposition supporters rallied in Yerevan to denounce the government’s Nagorno-Karabakh policy.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kazakhstan continues to walk a delicate line between the West and Russia. Amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Kazakh authorities have reaffirmed their in-between position on the conflict, stating that the country respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and that they do not recognise the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent. However, they will not join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. Simultaneously, officials have emphasised that Kazakhstan would not be a ‘tool to circumvent the sanctions’ for Russia. Despite maintaining relations and trade ties with its northern neighbour, the country claims it will try, ‘to control the sanctioned goods.’ As a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which simplifies the transit of trade with Russia, the enforcement of sanctions and even to respect them, Kazakhstan would need to make several changes in legislation.

Russian emigrants adapt to life in Central Asia. Russian citizens, overwhelmingly disagreeing with the Kremlin’s politics, the war in Ukraine, and fearing further repression from the government, have left the country in droves, heading primarily to Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. According to the Russian travel service OneTwoTrip, several countries in Central Asia have ranked among the top ten destinations for those fleeing Russia. Earlier this month, Mediazona Central Asia interviewed several Russian citizens who have, since the war, resettled in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. One interviewee noted that she hadn’t encountered any Russophobia in Tashkent, and was surprised by peoples’ hospitality and open mindedness. Another interviewee, who had recently moved to Almaty, was reassured by the absence of a language barrier in Kazakhstan’s largest city, and compared Almaty to other large Russian cities. While most interviewees expressed satisfaction with their newfound lives, they also hoped to return to Russia one day, provided there is a change in government and an end to the war. 

Retrial of MMA fighter from Gorno-Badakhshan. On 29 March, a Tajik court tried MMA fighter Chorsanbe Chorshanbiev, who had been deported from Russia and detained late last year. The charges of inciting violence stemmed from a video statement he had made after a local resident of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region had been killed by security services. This had led to massive unrest within the region. In the statement, Chorshanbiev identified himself as Pamiri, not Tajik, and called upon the people of Tajikistan to hold the security forces responsible for their actions. However, in the recent trial, a Russian linguistic studies expert claimed that the statement did not contain any ‘psychosocial or linguistic elements of calls for violence, including disruption of the foundations of the society and state.’ Therefore, the video statement has been sent for further linguistic examination. If the charges against Chorshanbiev prove to have any merit, he will face a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Czech Republic becomes first country to send tanks to Ukraine. The five tanks and five fighting vehicles it sent were photographed, wrapped on trains leaving for Ukraine, though this information regarding the infantry vehicles’ destination was later confirmed by the government, and only indirectly so. The government cited security concerns as a reason for their discretion, while Defence Minister Jana Černochová said that ‘we are sending vital military material to our Ukrainian friends, and we will continue to do so.’ This support comes at a strategic time for Ukraine, as reports emerge about the Russian military’s war crimes in northern Ukraine near Kyiv. As neighbouring Slovakia sent its air defence system last week to Ukraine, the Czech Republic’s bigger complex seems open to making more of the Soviet-era tanks available now, thereby helping to revive its military industry. With some 45 million dollars worth of military aid provided to Ukraine, Czechia now emerges as an unconditional ally.

Poland, the Baltics go the extra mile to isolate Russia economically. Before the EU’s 5th round of sanctions on RussiaPoland and Lithuania announced that they would stop importing Russian oil and gas and focus on renewable energy. Lithuania will rely more on wind energy from the Baltic Sea, and LNG from the US, Norway, and Qatar. Neighbouring Baltic States followed suit. Estonia will create a joint LNG terminal with Finland and Latvia. Moreover, the Baltics ordered 10 Russian embassy staff members to leave, while Poland expelled 45 Russian diplomats. In reaction to this, the Russian MFA stated that 45 Polish and 10 Baltic diplomats will be announced as ‘personae non grata.’ On the local level, Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius proposed to change the street name where the Russian embassy is located to Ukraine’s Heroes (Ukrainos Didvyrių). Protesting against the Russia-led crimes in Ukraine, Lithuanian Olympic gold medalist Rūta Meilutytė swam in a pond dyed red near the embassy. 

Orbán IV kick-starts right after Hungary’s general elections. Ruling parties Fidesz-KDNP secured a two-thirds supermajority in the parliament and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s 4th consecutive term. His victory speech on 3 April included calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy one of his ‘opponents’ during the election campaigns, along with the Hungarian leftists and EU bureaucrats. Many European top politicians congratulated him, while some encouraged Hungary to support stronger sanctions on Russia. On 6 April, Orbán held an international post-election press conference. His speech included suggestions of an immediate ceasefire and holding peace negotiations in Budapest to Vladimir Putin and the willingness to pay for Russian gas in rubles, as Hungary wants to continue buying Russian energy. Although he dismissed the Budapest-Brussels rule of law conflict, the EU started the conditionality mechanism against Hungary following the ECJ’s verdict in February. Meanwhile, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó summoned the Ukrainian ambassador Ljubov Nepop, asking Ukraine to stop insulting Hungary.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

The US approves sale of fighter jets to Bulgaria. According to the announcement of the US State Defence Department, the US might sell up to eight F-16 fighter jets to Bulgaria, aiming to improve the country’s ability to ‘meet current and future threats by enabling the Bulgarian Air Force to deploy modern fighter aircraft routinely in the Black Sea region.’ The announcement followed speculation that a NATO ally could provide Ukraine with Soviet-built MiG-29 fighter jets to tackle Russia’s continuing attacks. Bulgaria, Poland, and Slovakia are the only three NATO members which have MiG-29 jets, and Ukrainian pilots are capable of flying this type of fighter jet. However, both the US and Bulgaria denied the link between the sales and the potential provision of fighter jets to Ukraine. Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov claimed ‘being so close to the conflict, I have to say that currently we will not be able to send military assistance to Ukraine,’ and added that assistance would have to be approved by the Bulgarian parliament.

​​Russian soldiers coming back from Ukraine sell looted goods in Belarus and send them to Russia. Ukraine’s Defence Ministry Intelligence Directorate reported that Russian troops set up an open-air marketplace in Naroulia, in southern Belarus, where they are selling goods like jewellery, washing machines, cosmetic currency and even children’s toys. RFE/RL also reported that even before the beginning of the war, Russian soldiers deployed in the Belarusian region of Homel, regularly sought to sell diesel fuel to locals. During the first weeks of April, footage of Russian soldiers sending large packages by post to Russia through CDEK, a Russian express delivery company, from their office in the Belarusian town of Mazyr emerged. Journalists believe the packages contain items the soldiers stole in Ukraine, as more reports of robbery and looting done by Russian troops emerge from Ukraine. 

Bucha massacre pushed further sanctions against Russia. The Bucha massacre, where more than 320 civilians were brutally killed by Russian soldiers, sparked great global outrage. Russia denies responsibility for war crimes in Bucha, instead blaming Ukraine for falsification of evidence. European Commission President Von der Leyen visited Bucha with Josep Borrell and commemorated all innocent deaths. On 6 April, the US imposed full blocking sanctions on several major Russian state-owned banks, enterprises, elites, and their family members, as well as a ban on new investment in Russia and a ban on Russia from making debt payments with funds subject to U.S. jurisdiction. The EU’s answered with a fifth round of sanctions concentrated on coal, financial measures, road transport, access to EU ports, targeted export and extending import bans excluding Russia from public contracts and European money. Meanwhile, Russia continues to deny its war crimes – this time, the Kramatorsk station tragedy.

🌲 In Russia…

Fifteen years of Ramzan Kadyrov. On 5 April, the Chechen leader celebrated the 15th anniversary of his first election. His rule has been characterised by administrative autonomy and personalist loyalty to Putin. Kadyrov’s penchant for thuggery has resulted in widespread crimes against the residents of Chechnya, while alienating him from federal support. His regime has constructed an apparatus of violence for the sake of cracking down on dissidentsbuilding Kadyrov’s personal fortune, and preying on the innocent both at home and abroad. Other than Putin, Kadyrov’s support in the Kremlin among politicians and the siloviki has been exhausted. Chechnya survives off of federal subsidies, the fate of which has yet to be determined under the new sanctions. Additionally, Kadyrov’s financial investment in the invasion of Ukraine ignores domestic troubles. Chechen socioeconomic conditions, always poor, now appear to be deteriorating more rapidly. So far, the public’s economic concerns have proven the only mobiliser for protests.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky dies (this time for real). With a political career spanning over three decades, Vladimir Zhirinovksy was an eccentric, prominent, clownish, and nationalist figure in Russian politics. Since its founding in 1992, Zhirinovksy led the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which is in fact neither liberal nor democratic. His speaking style, often deliberately offensive, riled some to his cause. During the Putin years, the LDPR has been part of the ‘controlled opposition,’ which exists to mimic the workings of an actual democracy but never actually opposes the ruling party. Zhirinovsky became seriously ill with COVID-19 in December 2021, and rumours of his death have been circulating since March. Interestingly, in one of his last public appearances, he predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying that 2022 ‘will not be a peaceful year’. It is not yet clear what his death means for the future of the LDPR.

Russia’s UNHRC membership suspended. On 7 April, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for Russia to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The resolution received a two-thirds majority of those voting, minus abstentions, in the 193-member Assembly, with 93 nations voting in favour and 24 against. The decision was taken in reaction to Russian war crimes in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha (‘Bucha massacre’), Irpin, and Mariupol, which shocked the world. Despite all proven records and photos of the tragedy in Bucha, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, blamed Ukraine for a ‘well-staged insinuation’ and reassured that ‘those dead bodies were not victims of Russian military personnel.’ Among countries that opposed the expulsion of Russia from the UNHRC were China – which abstained from criticising the Russian invasion of Ukraine – Iran, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Syria, Belarus and Russia itself. After the resolution had been passed, Russia declared early termination of its membership in the UNHRC.

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

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