Lossi 36 Weekly #17: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Bosnia‘s sanctions avoidance; protests in Yerevan; ​​Turkmenistan further cracks down on women’s rights; Poland’s Orlen wants to replace Russian oil; EU Defence support for MoldovaLavrov accuses Jews of anti-Semitism; and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Kazakhstan is preparing for a constitutional referendum. Kirsty Dick

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has announced that on 5 June a referendum will be held on 56 amendments to the constitution, which have been proposed in the wake of the deadly protests that swept Kazakhstan in January. ‘The universal vote of citizens on the draft constitutional amendments will demonstrate our firm commitment to democratic principles. The upcoming referendum will allow every citizen to take a direct part in the historical event that will determine the future of Kazakhstan,’ Tokayev said. The working group currently drafting the amended constitution is looking to remove former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s name from the document and strip him of lifetime immunities. Nazarbayev’s family has suffered since the January events, his sons-in-law were fired from their top jobs at state energy companies, his daughter announced she was giving up her parliamentary seat and his nephew, Kairat Satybaldy, was detained in March on embezzlement charges. Although there are many proposed changes at national level, including strengthening the power of parliament and re-establishing the constitutional court, at local level, governors of the regions will continue to be appointed by the president. Yevgeny Zhovtis, a veteran human rights activist, and political observer, sees the reforms as more of a tactical political move ‘to demonstrate that there has been departure from super-presidential authority, from the Nazarbayev era.’

🌺 In the Balkans…

Why is Bosnia and Herzegovina avoiding sanctions against Russia? It has been more than two months since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the EU, together with countries like Albania or North Macedonia, have imposed a range of sanctions on Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina still refuses to join them. The reasons behind it are the internal divisions between the country’s political leaders. On one side are those willing to sanction Russia: Bosniak Šefik Džaferović and Bosnian Croat Željko Komšić. On the other side, led by Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik, are those who support Russia and do not want to sever ties with it. The latter group is openly aligned with Serbia, who still refuses to fully distance itself from Russia, and, given the complex Bosnian governmental system, this group has the ability to block the sanctions. While Džaferović and Komšić argue that Bosnia is obligated by the 2010 Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU to join the sanctions, Dodik claims that every case has to be debated individually.

Croatian President vows to block Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO. President Zoran Milanović once again reiterated his recent threats to block the expected admission of both Finland and Sweden to NATO this summer. Milanović continues to stress, however, that such a move would not be done to spite the two Nordic nations, but instead to force the international community to pay greater attention to the ever worsening constitutional crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Milanović has continued to push for stronger electoral rights for ethnic Croats. Although the President has no true formal power to entirely veto NATO accession, Milanović would be able to cause significant disruption to the process if he decided to follow through on his threat at the upcoming NATO summit in Madrid this June. Milanović, who has become increasingly nationalistic and outspoken on foreign affairs in recent months, has received criticism from across the Croatian Parliament and from fellow NATO allies as a result of his divisive comments.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Protests in Yerevan call for Pashinyan’s removal. Thousands of people took to Yerevan’s streets in a series of protests beginning 1 May, claiming Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan conceded during negotiations with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. The protestors called for Pashinyan’s removal and asked the general population to engage in civil disobedience and a general strike, moves reminiscent of Pashinyan’s own rise to power in the 2018 Velvet Revolution. Hundreds of protestors have been arrested, with reports that police have used inappropriate amounts of force. Opposition politicians have also shown their support of the protests; opposition MPs marched out of parliament on 4 May as Pashinyan was speaking. Additionally two former presidents of Armenia — Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan — have attended the protests, adding to the political pressure.

South Ossetian Troops Returned from Ukraine and Complain about Faulty Equipment. Contractors from the Russian military base in South Ossetia, who were sent to the frontline in Ukraine, came back home at the end of March. Russian media Mediazona recently published a transcript of the recording of a conversation between the returnees and South Ossetian president Anatoliy Bibilov, in which soldiers expressed their discontent with the management and military equipment in the battlefield. According to them, ‘99% of the equipment does not work,’ ‘we had to walk ten kilometres without directions,’ ‘the doctors in Donetsk hospital only asked for money but did not provide proper treatment to wounded soldiers.’ When being asked about their faith in victory, someone answered ‘we believe we will lose,’ and the crowd started to talk vociferously. Mediazona reports there are around 300 South Ossetian soldiers who refused to fight in Ukraine and came back to Tskhinvali, and thereafter their contracts were immediately terminated.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Turkmenistan further cracks down on women’s rights. Ashgabat has introduced a ban on beauty services in the country, with Turkmen women no longer allowed to dye their hair or use false nails and eyelashes. The ban further targets cosmetic surgery. It is reported that dozens of women have recently been fined and fired from their jobs for having lip fillers or breast implants. Aimed at countering foreign influences, the ban also prohibits tight clothes, such as jeans, and only traditional dresses are now permitted. These ‘beauty’ restrictions are accompanied by a ban on women’s ability to travel, as they can no longer sit in the front seat of a car and drivers are not allowed to pick up women they are not related to. These new restrictions, while fitting into Turkmenistan’s attempt at ‘re-traditionalisation’ since the country’s independence in 1991 and the revival of Turkmen traditional values known as Türkmençilik, also signal the continued crackdown on women’s rights since the arrival of the new President, Sedar Berdimuhamedov, in March 2022.

Troubles on Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. On 6 May, Kyrgyz authorities announced that 3 Kyrgyz nationals had been fatally shot by the Uzbek border guards on the border in the Jalal-Abad region. The Border Security service of Uzbekistan stated that those who were shot were allegedly involved in a smuggling operation, from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, and had allegedly resisted the border guards and tried to take their weapons from them. The security services of both countries have had a series of meetings, along with internal investigations, to get to the bottom of the issue. Last year, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border dispute was resolved, according to Kyrgyz authorities, who claimed that all territorial claims had been sorted out through delimitation and demarcation of the land. Border clashes are not unheard of in the region, with a massive clash on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border in spring of 2021 leading to the death of more than 40 civilians.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Robert Fico avoids police custody as the parliament narrowly votes not to lift his immunity. Robert Fico, Slovak Prime Minister from 2012 to 2018, is being investigated for organised crime charges. The parliament voted on the motion to lift his immunity in order for a court to decide whether he would be investigated under police custody, to avoid influencing witnesses. Even though the current government has a two-third majority, it did not manage to unite the parliament and the motion was only rejected because it was short of two votes. Fico will be further prosecuted along with Robert Kaliňák, interior minister from his government, who has been in police custody since last week. They are both charged with creating and running a criminal group organised involving the use of high-level police officials to attack political opponents.

Justice Minister Varga proposes 10th amendment to Hungarian parliament. On Tuesday, the minister announced on her Facebook page that the amendment to Hungary’s Fundamental Laws is necessary in order to ensure ‘an effective and rapid national response’ to the ‘humanitarian situation’ and ‘economic outlook in Europe’ as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Currently, the state of emergency can only be declared due to natural or industrial disasters, ‘endangering life and property.’ The new amendment adds ‘armed conflict in a neighbouring country’ to the constitutional article. This means that, if accepted by parliament, the 10th amendment would provide legal grounds for prolonging the state of danger because of the war in Ukraine. On Monday, re-elected speaker of parliament Laszlo Korver already spoke of the necessity to expand the government’s capabilities in the face of the new geopolitical challenges. Just as was the case with the pandemic, he reasoned that it would be in the national interest’ for the government to be able to respond quickly and decisively, without interference of parliament.

Polish energy giant to replace oil supply in CEE region. The Polish state-owned PKN Orlen energy supplier committed to becoming its neighbouring region’s main provider in case an embargo on Russian oil supplies is introduced. This came in response to the European Commission’s President’s proposal to ban Russian oil, gas and coal imports by the end of 2022. Spokespeople of the energy enterprise stated that ‘Orlen will maintain stable oil supplies not only to Poland, but to the whole of Central and Eastern Europe.’ The company has long sought independence from Russian oil, being on the lookout for other suppliers. Since the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has exclusively relied on alternative sources of oil. Moreover, on 5 May, the Gas Interconnection Poland-Lithuania (GIPL) between Poland and Lithuania was inaugurated, once again reaffirming Poland’s commitment to attain independence from Russian Gazprom’s supplies.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

The EU promises Moldova more defence support. After last week’s series of attacks on civilian and military infrastructure in Transnistria, fear and unrest started growing in and outside Moldova: could they be dragged into the war in Ukraine? In response to the growing threat, European Council President Charles Michel promised to boost military support to Moldova during a press conference in Chișinău on 4 May. Michel also guaranteed support against cyberattacks and disinformation. How much the EU will spend on defence support is not stated. The EU already granted Moldova 13 million for humanitarian assistance, 15 million for migration management, and another 15 million to strengthen border control. Maia Sandu, the Moldovan president, expressed her gratitude towards the EU, saying that the EU is a ’true friend.’ At the same time, she emphasised the need for and importance of closer integration between the EU and Moldova.

First stage of Azovstal evacuation campaign completed. On Saturday, 7 May, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Veheshchuk confirmed that ‘all women, children and the elderly have been evacuated from the besieged Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol,’ as a result of the evacuation campaign, brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that more than 300 civilians had been rescued from the Azovstal plant, although the Russian counterpart named a much lower number. The rescue of civilians was only the first stage of the evacuation campaign, as Ukrainian fighters remain in Azovstal defending Mariupol against Russian occupation. As the assault on the Azovstal steelworks continues, Ukrainian society calls on the United Nations, and in particular the Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres to facilitate the evacuation of not only civilians, but all wounded, the bodies of the fallen, and Ukrainian servicemen.

🌲 In Russia…

Divided. The North Caucasus’ enormous contribution to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being felt in equal enormity at home. Over two months in, the strain of constantly supplying soldiers to the front is reaching new levels. The women of the North Caucasus are expressing increasing levels of dissatisfaction with the war. They have been targeted by the authorities in Karachay-CherkessiaNorth Ossetia, and Ingushetia. While for some, their grievances are rooted in opposition to the invasion, others are more concerned about the significant number of casualties. While the region’s women turn against the war, the men continue to fight for the state. Another 400 volunteers from Ossetia were deployed on 4 May. These volunteers join the hundreds from Chechnya, although those departing from the Russian Spetsnaz University in Gudermes are different. Those training in Chechnya are not all Chechens, but hail from all across Russia. This shows how authorities are struggling to gather reinforcements, especially in Chechnya.

Train services between annexed Crimea and Russia through Southern Ukraine restored. On Thursday, Crimean officials stated that train services to Russia through Ukrainian territories, which were blocked by Kyiv for years, will be restored. Oleg Kryuchkov, a Russian Crimean official, told NIA Novosti that ‘the transportation blockade of Crimea imposed by Ukrainian nationalists eight years ago is a thing of the past.’ After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Ukrainian authorities blocked transport from Crimea to Ukraine. The military invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February allowed Russia to gain control over some parts of southern Ukraine, thereby creating a land corridor to Crimea. New local governments have been installed in these cities in southern Ukraine that have been seized from Kyiv. Attempts are being made to integrate those former Ukrainian territories into Russia. 

Lavrov accuses Jews of anti-Semitism, talks about Hitler’s supposed Jewish roots. Russian diplomacy took a surprising turn last week, when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Ministry itself infuriated Israel with their comments which linked Jews to (neo-)Nazism. First, during an interview with an Italian broadcaster Mediaset, when questioned about Russia’s claims regarding the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine, particularly in connection with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish origins, Lavrov claimed that Adolf Hitler also had ‘Jewish blood.’ The Minister also suggested that ‘the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews.’ This caused outrage among senior Israeli officials, with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid calling Lavrov’s comments ‘the lowest level of racism.’ Russian MFA then escalated the situation by tweeting about Lapid’s ‘anti-historical statements,’ which ‘largely explain the current Israeli government’s orientation towards supporting the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv.’ However, on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly apologised for Lavrov’s remarks. 

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Ariadna Mane, Chaharika Uppal, Myriam Marino, Zuzana Krulichova, Jordi Beckers, Merijn Hermens, Sam Appels, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Lucie Tafforin, Xandie Kuenning, Qianrui Hu, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘

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