Lossi 36 Weekly #15: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: North Macedonia‘s former PM Gruevski convicted over an illegal property scheme; controversy over Pashinyan’s comments in Armenia; Islamic State Khorasan claims attack on Uzbekistan; Former PM Fico charged with organised crime offences in SlovakiaDonbas offensive; Shoigu resurfaces; and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Serbia and Kosovo accusations in UN Security Council about political agendas.Ariadna Mañé

During the last session of the UN Security Council, held in New York on 21 April discussing the UN Mission in Kosovo, Serbia and Kosovo denounced each other’s ‘political agendas’ for affecting stability in the Balkans in the context of the war in Ukraine. Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selaković labelled Kosovo’s agenda as ‘malign nationalism,’ accusing the government of ‘ignoring the political representatives of Serbs’ and ‘making decisions without their participation.’ Selaković also accused Kosovo of targeting Serbian citizens and other non-Albanians, pushing them out of its territory in order to eliminate ‘cultural and national diversity.’ On the other hand, Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz pointed at Serbia as a destabilizing force in the region. ‘Our people made their choice a long time ago, we are part of the West, while Serbia, our northern neighbour, remains Russia’s satellite,’ expressed Gervalla-Schwarz. With the ongoing war in Ukraine, Serbia has voted in favour of condemning Russia’s war, but rejects joining international sanctions, which has led to further tensions in the Balkans.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Skopje’s former Prime Minister handed a seven-year prison sentence over property scheme. The former Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, was sentenced to seven years in prison over an illegal property scheme, through which he illegally acquired over 1.3 million euros in ‘donations’ through donations to his VMRO-DPMNE party between 2006 and 2012. He was also found guilty of creating a money laundering scheme through the purchasing of property to cover any evidence of the crime. Gruevski, in absentia due to him fleeing the country three years ago to Hungary under the guise of political asylum, was sentenced alongside five other associates, who each received prison terms as well. The former Prime Minister’s representatives stated they would challenge the sentence and continue to deny any wrongdoing by the former leader. Gruevski has already been sentenced to an 18-month stint in prison over his role in orchestrating political violence in 2013, and is currently facing three further cases against him relating to alleged corruption, election irregularities, and abuses of office.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Controversy over Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan’s remarks in the National Assembly. On 13 April, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan presented a report on the government’s 2021 program to the Armenian National Assembly. Speaking about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Pashinyan referred to the pressure exerted by the international community on Armenia to reduce the demands on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, adding that the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh was not about territories, but about rights. These statements were perceived by the public as a half-hearted recognition of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and led to strong reactions from the opposition in Armenia, including the leader of the opposition faction ‘I have Honour’ Artur Vanetsyan, but also from experts, NGOs, and the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Arayik Harutunyan called an urgent meeting following the statements. On 18 April, Vanetsyan said that ‘the government of Nikol Pashinyan has already begun to say and propagandize that Artsakh can be part of Azerbaijan. If now there is no protest within Armenia, if we do not try to overthrow the Pashinyan government, then this process will definitely take place.’

Azerbaijan reports end of construction of Lachin corridor alternative. The Azerbaijani State Agency for Highways has reported on the progress of the construction of a new highway linking Armenia and part of Karabakh, functioning as an alternative route to the current Lachin corridor. Notably, the highway under construction will bypass all major towns in the region and will be protected by Russian peacekeepers. One of the articles signed in the Tripartite Statement in November 2020 as the result of the Nagorno-Karabakh war states that a planned construction of a new traffic route will be determined, albeit not clarifying who is to build the route. Azerbaijan has showed its particular interest in this and put the concept of Zangezur corridor forward multiple times, which would give Azerbaijan unimpeded access to its enclave Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic. Armenia has expressed its opposition to this concept and accused Azerbaijan of distorting the article. Due to various geopolitical and practical interests, Azerbaijan has pushed forward the construction of this corridor and threatened Armenia of resorting to forces if Armenia not acceding.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Islamic State Khorasan claims attack on Uzbekistan. A regional affiliate of Islamic State claimed on 18 April that they had fired ten rockets from Afghanistan into neighbouring Uzbekistan, hitting a military base in the border town of Termez. Reports of the statement made by IS Khorasan came from Site Intelligence, which tracks terrorist propaganda. The missiles were reportedly fired from Hairatan, a border town in the northern Afghan province of Balkh. The terror group also released photos and videos of the projectiles to back up its claims. The Islamic State and its affiliates are sworn enemies of the Taliban, and the instability in Afghanistan has allowed for them to carry out deadly terrorist attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. On Tuesday, Uzbek presidential spokesman Sherzod Asadov denied IS Khorasan’s claim, stating that ‘the information distributed by some Telegram channels about a so-called rocket attack from the territory of Afghanistan at units of Uzbekistan’s armed forces near the town of Termez absolutely does not correspond with reality.’

Moscow’s hold over Kazakhstan weakens. As the effects of international sanctions begin to hit Russian financial institutions, subsidiaries of Russian banks, such as Alfa Bank Kazakhstan, are being acquired by local banking institutions, in this case by CentralCredit. The move comes after Western sanctions against such affiliated banks were announced, causing panic among customers. However, the Kazakh government itself went even further – citing the geopolitical turmoil, it cancelled its agreement with Sberbank, which was supposed to aid the government in the digitization of state bodies’ interfaces and service platforms. Moreover, the government has decided against holding a military parade in order to mark Victory Day this year. The official justification for this decision includes budgetary restrictions, as well as the need to ‘maintain the required level of combat readiness and mobility of the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan, to fulfil the tasks of ensuring security and defence of state and military facilities.’

🚃 In Central Europe…

Germany to spend almost 3 billion euros on floating LNG terminals. The decision was announced by the German Ministry of Finance on 15 April, with the money set to be spent over the coming ten years. The acquisition of the liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals is part of Germany’s effort to end its dependency on Russian gas and to substitute these imports with LNG, mainly imported from the United States, Australia and Qatar. The announcement came the day after the German Minister of Economy and Climate Robert Habeck had called for the German people to drastically cut their gas usage because that, in his words, ‘annoys Putin.’ These developments also come after repeated calls for action from the Baltic States, with Lithuania becoming the first EU country to fully stop its imports of Russian gas in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Former Slovak PM Fico charged with organised crime offences. On 19 April, a former Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, was charged with establishing and leading a criminal group. His former Minister of the Interior, Róbert Kaliňák, was charged with the same offences. Nevertheless, while the police arrested Kaliňák, the arrest of the former PM needs to be authorised by the legislature, since Fico is still a Member of the Parliament as part of the Smer – SD (Direction – Social Democracy) party, and he is also a member of the Slovak National Council. Both Fico and Kaliňák risk up to 12 years in jail. The accusations are based on events which occurred between 2012 and 2018, when both men served in the government. Fico denied the accusations, denouncing the charges as an invented story used as an instrument for ‘political revenge.’ Nonetheless, the ruling coalition presses for Fico’s parliamentary immunity to be waived in order to proceed with the arrest.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Russia launches Donbas offensive. On Monday, 18 April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that the battle of Donbas had begun. The Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv and the surrounding northern territories at the end of March, when they started to regroup. With Victory Day approaching, the focus has shifted onto the assault of Donbas. Serhii Haidai, the head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, confirmed that ‘the second phase of the war has begun,’ but also stated that it is not yet, ‘a complete and total invasion.’ As of 20 April, Russian troops control 80% of Luhansk and the territory is constantly being shelled. While fighting in the Donbas continues, Putin has ordered Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to cancel plans to storm the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and blockade it instead. Although thousands of Ukrainian fighters remain in Azovstal, Putin congratulated Shoigu over successfully ‘liberating’ Mariupol. The Russian president has claimed victory over the city.

Russia’s next potential target? Moldova has expressed its concern and declared comments made by Russian General Rustam Minnekayev on 21 April at a military event in the Sverdlovsk region as ‘unacceptable.’ Gen. Minnekayev, deputy commander of Russia’s central military district, said that seeking ‘control over the south of Ukraine is another way out to Transnistria, where there are also facts of oppression of the Russian-speaking population.’ This narrative of ‘language oppression scenario’ is similar to the one Russia implemented with Ukraine before launching the invasion in 2014 and invasion on 24 February. Since the attack on Ukraine, fears have grown in Moldova that the country could be next in Russia’s line of fire. Being heavily dependent on Russian military forces, Moscow’s gas and electricity subsidies, as well as pensions, makes Transnistria and Moldova vulnerable to its influence. It is worth noting that Kremlin officials have already threatened Moldova over its decision to ban Russian symbols of the invasion in Ukraine.

🌲 In Russia…

Romania to extradite Chechen refugee. Amina Gerikhanova was detained fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 13 March with her son, from whom she has been separated during the proceedings. The arrest was done at Russia’s request, a common tactic used against Chechens. Romania continues to work towards deporting her to Russia, despite the Office of the President of Ukraine assuring human rights activists that Gerikhanova will be welcomed back. Were she to be sent back, she would immediately be sent to Chechnya. This is just the latest in a lasting pattern of Europe engaging in human rights violations when it comes to Chechen refugees. The deportation announcement, with no date yet determined, comes shortly after news of Daud Muradov’s death. Muradov was deported from France, the worst offender of violations against Chechen refugees.

Shoigu resurfaces after a supposed heart attack, looking better than his boss. Speculations regarding Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s whereabouts have been mounting since early March, when one of the key figures in charge of the Russian invasion of Ukraine had suddenly disappeared from public domain. Theories concerning Shoigu’s absence have ranged from a heart attack to detention, to death, while the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the Minister simply did not have time for media activity in the midst of what Russian authorities refer to as a ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. Shoigu’s brief reappearance in late March during a teleconference with Russian President Vladimir Putin only added to the speculation, as the Minister was still largely absent from public view. Last week, he finally seemed to have resurfaced for good, including during a longer meeting with Putin, during which, ironically enough, he was not the one whose state of health was being questioned.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Ariadna Mane, Zadig Tisserand, Chaharika Uppal, Myriam Marino, Jordi Beckers, Merijn Hermens, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Qianrui Hu, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘

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