Lossi 36 Weekly #16: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: EU triggers rule of law mechanism against Hungary; continuation of Skopje-Sofia stalemate; ‘elections’ in South Ossetia; local Kremlin propagandists flame about supposed Russophobia in Kazakhstan; mining accidents in Silesia, Poland; Guterres visits Ukraine, Kyiv bombed; Ponomarenko arrested in Russia; and much more.
⭐️ This week’s special
EU triggers rule of law mechanism against Hungary.Thapanee Tubnonghee
On 27 April, the European Commission (EC) officially notified the Hungarian government that the EU’s rule of law conditionality mechanism was activated in the EU budgetary procedure, asking Budapest to respond within two months (a summary of the letter sent by the Commission can be found here). Following the European Court of Justice’s ruling in February, the EC got the green light to withhold EU budget allocations for Hungary and Poland over alleged breaches of the EU’s core values, including suspected corruption in public procurements and abuse of EU funds. Although top EU politicians criticized Hungary’s newest child protection law for violating LGBTQ+’s rights, the letter did not mention the controversial legislation. In the next 6-9 months, if a qualified majority (15 out of 27 member states) in the European Council votes in favour of the EC agenda, Hungary could lose the €7.2 billion EU Covid fund grant awaiting approval from EC and other future EU funding. In reaction to the Commission’s letter, the Hungarian Supreme Court stated that judiciary appointment procedures were not a rule-of-law issue, Fidesz MEP Andor Deli declared the move as “penalising a conservative European nation,” while Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office Gergely Gulyás said that the government does not consider the EU’s action justified.
🌺 In the Balkans…
U.S. embassy in Sarajevo releases rare statement calling Bosnia and Herzegovina’s House of Peoples’ session a ‘collective failure.’ The statement came after the Bosnian-Croat nationalist party (HDZ), with support from the Bosnian-Serb party (SNSD), led by Milorad Dodik, inappropriately used an emergency parliamentary procedure to submit ‘take it or leave it’ electoral reform proposals that had previously been rejected as contradicting EU legal and human rights standards. These included political party ownership of electoral mandates and a two-list model for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) Presidency, which would constitute further ethnic divisions. Izetbegović’s Bosniak nationalist party (SDA) responded by abusing the House of Peoples quorum requirement to block further discussion of the issue, which resulted in a political stalemate. The European Court of Human Rights has previously ruled in five different judgments that BiH citizens are discriminated against in elections, and electoral reform negotiations are seen as a key prerequisite for Bosnia’s EU accession.
EU Commissioner urges Bulgaria to lift its veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks. Last week, Olivér Várhelyi, the EU’s Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, called on Sofia to lift its veto against North Macedonia’s accession negotiations by June, especially given the ongoing war in Ukraine. The EU itself is ready to start membership talks with both Albania and North Macedonia as soon as the latter gets the green light. The Bulgarian government has halted the talks until Skopje decides to constitutionally acknowledge the existence of a Bulgarian minority on its territory, even though Bulgaria itself does not recognise the presence of a Macedonian minority on its own territory. The dispute between the two countries risks becoming a ‘frozen conflict’ if the situation is not dealt with soon. The recent EU applications submitted by Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have inevitably added more urgency to solving the matter.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Bibilov and Gagloev to face off in presidential election. South Ossetia, a Russian-occupied breakaway region of Georgia, will soon vote to decide their next president. Russia, Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru are the only countries that recognise South Ossetia as an independent state. The first round of elections took place on 10 April with the opposition candidate, Alan Gagloev, receiving 36.9% while the incumbent President Anatoly Bibilov garnered 33.5%. The United States, the EU and Georgia called the vote illegitimate and said that they wouldn’t recognise the results. As no candidate received more than 50% of the vote, a run-off was due to take place on 28 April. However, a top court in Tskhinvali ruled that conducting the election on that date was against the law. This was announced after the runoff date was called into question by three residents of Russia’s North Ossetia – Radislav Utarov, Azamat Tanduev, and Georgi Gagkuev. The run-off election has now been rescheduled for 8 May.
Putin and Pashinyan sign cooperation agreements. During a meeting in Moscow on 19 April, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded an agreement on a number of critical issues, including ‘the security of Nagorno-Karabakh, the unblocking of regional infrastructure, and delimitation and demarcation processes of the Armenian-Azerbaijan border.’ Both leaders stressed the need for ‘a quick solution to urgent humanitarian issues,’ agreeing to increase the level of trilateral cooperation between Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan in order to normalise relations within the region. In addition to discussing Nagorno-Karabakh, Putin and Pashinyan signed several bilateral agreements concerning ‘cooperation’ in the energy, culture, and education sectors, while the heads of the Armenian and Russian security councils also signed an agreement concerning information security.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Kyrgyzstan moves forward with ‘Eco-city’ project. President Sadyr Japorov has signed a contract with three French companies to start building an ecological city, called Asman, on the iconic Lake Issyk-Kul in northern Kyrgyzstan. Designed to relieve Bishkek and promote tourism within the country, the project presented last July has received much criticism from environmental experts, who believe that the construction would harm the environment and disrupt the second-largest mountain lake’s ecosystem. Activists launched a protest movement in January to urge the government to abandon the project and to raise awareness about the ecological situation at Issyk-Kul, which has deteriorated in recent years because of climate change and unregulated construction. Fears around the project also include displacing local residents who will not be able to afford to live in the new city.
Kremlin fans flames of supposed Russophobia in Kazakhstan. Writing for Eurasianet, Almaty-based journalist Almaz Kumenov reported on the efforts of prominent Russian propagandist Tigran Keosayan to accuse Kazakhstan of ‘treachery’ against Russia. The basis of these accusations was Kazakhstan’s cancellation of the 9 May Victory Day parade due to financial reasons. In a video uploaded to his YouTube channel, Keosayan claimed that such actions amounted to ingratitude, remarking that ‘…if you think that you can get away with trying to be so cunning, and imagine that nothing will happen to you, you are mistaken. The world has changed, everything has changed.’ Keosayan is not alone in making veiled threats towards Kazakhstan, however. The Kremlin has recently taken to claiming that Russophobia is pervasive in Kazakhstan. Similarly, Sergei Savostyanov, a deputy at the Moscow City Duma stated that Russia should include Kazakhstan in its ‘denazification’ efforts. So far, the Kazakh government has not commented on Russian rhetoric regarding Kazakhstan in its efforts to toe the line of neutrality.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Almost twenty dead in Silesia following two mining accidents. The tragic incidents took place in the Pniówek and Borynia-Zofiówka mines, on 20 and 23 April, respectively. The two sites near the Czech border are only six kilometres apart. After the first accident, at least nine died and over twenty were hospitalised, most with life-threatening injuries, including some rescuers who were hurt by a repeated methane blast. Seven miners are still missing. The second accident killed ten people. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said it was a ‘dark week’ for the nation’s coal industry, which employs almost 80,000 miners and is a very significant source of energy in Poland. An investigation has been opened to determine if anyone is responsible for allowing miners to work in an area where methane is found. Albeit less frequent than in the past, these accidents further highlight the negative impact of coal mining, though many Polish workers and locals still regard it positively, namely as an economic benefit.
The Baltics declare Russian actions in Ukraine a ‘genocide.’ Poland joins forces in requesting extra NATO presence and international support. In mid-April, MPs in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia voted in favour of statements declaring the Russian army’s atrocities in Ukraine an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, following US President Joe Biden’s statement after the Bucha crimes. At the regional level, the Baltic prime ministers agreed on joint efforts towards strengthening their defence cooperation and energy security, as well as providing more support to Ukraine. Moreover, at the foreign ministers’ meeting on 29 April in Riga, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau met with his counterparts and agreed on the need for additional NATO troop deployments to the alliance’s Eastern flank. The ministers also called on the international community to help supply Ukraine with more heavy weapons.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
UN Secretary-General visit to Kyiv amid new Russian air strikes. On Tuesday, 26 April, UN Secretary-General António Guterres paid a visit to Russia to negotiate aid and evacuation corridors in Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Guterres travelled to Kyiv on the 28th, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. At the joint press conference, Guterres admitted that the Security Council had failed to prevent or end the war in Ukraine , but reaffirmed that UN staff are doing its best to provide Ukraine with support and humanitarian aid. Guterres also visited Irpin, Borodyanka, and Bucha, where he condemned the ‘evil’ acts committed against civilians and urged criminal accountability. Barely an hour after a press conference, five rockets stroke Kyiv – one person died, and ten were injured. Not only Kyiv was bombed: Polonne, Chernihiv, Fastiv, and Odesa were reported with explosions. Thankfully, Mr Guterres and his team were safe, but President Zelensky commented: ‘this says a lot about Russia’s true attitude to global institutions,’ and called for a strong response to Russia’s attacks.
Belarusian Parliament adopts bill expanding death penalty for attempted terrorist acts. On Wednesday, 27 April, the lower house of parliament in Belarus approved changes to the criminal code to react to previous attempts of sabotage of parts of the railway network to make it harder for Russia to deploy forces into Ukraine. Before coming into force, the amendments need backing from the Belarusian upper house and president Alexander Lukashenko. Lawyers believe that the change in legislation will allow authorities to bring more political cases under the article providing for the death penalty, as the concept of terrorism is broadly and arbitrarily interpreted by the Belarusian state. The spokesperson for the European External Action Service, Peter Stano, also commented that ‘this amendment to the Criminal Code opens up opportunities for further serious abuses.’ Belarus is the only country in Europe where the death penalty continues to be applied.
Various attacks in Transnistria intensify tensions and spread fear of a spill-over of the war from Ukraine. Last week, Moldova’s Russia-sponsored breakaway region Transnistria went through a series of alleged attacks on its civilian and military infrastructure. On 25 April, its Ministry of State Security claimed that its Tiraspol building, the region’s biggest city, was hit by explosions. The next day, two blasts hit two radio relays and one military unit. Another fire was recorded on 27 April, which aimed at the village of Cobasna near the Ukrainian border, with the largest munitions depots in East Europe. All these purported attacks came after the comments of the acting commander of Russia’s Central Military District, Rustam Minnekayev, saying the current aim of Russian armies’ operation in Ukraine is to take full control of southern Ukraine, so that a land corridor to Transnistria could be opened. Ukraine accused the FSB of provoking these attacks, while Moldova’s president Maia Sandu called on her fellow citizens to remain calm, but also saying the government is in preparation of all possible scenarios, including negative ones.
🌲 In Russia…
New transport routes debated in North Caucasus. A Turkish delegation visited North Ossetia on 25 April. Their mission: to discover the current problems on the Georgian Military Highway (GMH), the Caucasus’s only north-south logistics route, and assist. While massive traffic jams are typical on the GMH, the current ones are sparking geopolitical contentions. While North Ossetia struggles to solve their side of the problem, Chechen authorities are using the dilemma to promote an alternative route from Shatili to Gudermes via Itum-Kale. This has been an on-and-off proposal of theirs for some time, but Georgia has been unreceptive. Georgia and Russia had planned to additionally develop Ossetian and Abkhazian transport routes. However, the fate of the Roki tunnel is now certainly tied to South Ossetian unification. Abkhazia is attempting to rebuild its rail connection to Turkey, but whether financing will materialise is questionable. For now, regional economic actors must resign themselves to the GMH.
Journalist Maria Ponomarenko arrested for spreading ‘fake news’ on Russia’s war with Ukraine. On 24 April, Russian journalist Maria Ponomarenko was arrested in St. Petersburg for a post published on a Telegram channel, reporting that Russian forces were responsible for bombing Mariupol Drama Theatre in Ukraine, where hundreds of civilians were sheltered. The Russian Ministry of Defence denied its participation in the strike, and blamed Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ for the bombing. According to the new law implemented on 4 March by president Vladimir Putin, RusNews journalist Maria Ponomarenko is now charged for spreading ‘fake news’ concerning the war in Ukraine. She will be detained in pre-trial until 22 June, during which – if found guilty – she might face up to 10 years in prison. During the investigation, her teenage daughter was questioned by the police, and she is believed to be testifying against her mother.
Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Xhorxhina Molla, Marie Mach, Charles Adrien Fourmi, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Adriano Rodari, Rachele Colombo, Lucie Tafforin, Xandie Kuenning, Qianrui Hu, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘