Lossi 36 Weekly #18: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Elections in South OssetiaNATO exercise in North Macedonia; reports of forced military drafting in TajikistanCzechia in the UN Human Rights Council; Ukrainian Defence Minster Reznikov looks ahead; Putin‘s 9 May Speech; and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Opposition leader succeeds in South Ossetian presidential election. Xandie Kuenning

On 8 May, Alan Gagloyev, chair of the opposition Nykhas party, defeated incumbent President Anatoly Bibilov in South Ossetia’s second round of presidential elections. Nykhas, which Gagloyev has led since 2020, currently holds only four out of 35 seats in the South Ossetian Parliament. With 97 percent of the votes tabulated, Gagloyev received 54 percent to Bibilov’s 43 percent. Recognising early this year that he would face a difficult re-election battle, Bibilov focused on currying favour with Moscow, backing the unpopular deployment of South Ossetian soldiers to fight for Russia in Ukraine and proposing a referendum for the incorporation of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation. Throughout the campaign, Gagloyev appeared sceptical of the plan, accusing Bibilov of abusing the issue of reunification. Though Bibilov conceded defeat in the presidential election, he emphasised that the referendum would still be held. On 13 May, he followed through on his promise, signing a decree scheduling the referendum for 17 July. Gagloyev has since then stated that he would work with Russia in holding consultations and observing international legal rules throughout the referendum. Gagloyev is likely to be inaugurated on 24 May. Georgia has condemned the elections, declaring them a violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

🌺 In the Balkans…

North Macedonia hosts NATO exercise. Against the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Macedonia hosted some 4600 soldiers from 8 NATO countries, including neighbouring Greece and Albania, as well as North Macedonia itself, on Thursday, 12 May, for a military exercise in the country’s biggest military training range (‘Krivolak’). The exercise is part of NATO’s transnational ‘Swift 22’ exercise, held in the Arctic, the Balkans, and the Baltics. According to the Defence Ministry’s official press release, the exercise proves that North Macedonia, NATO’s newest member state, is ready and capable ‘to contribute to the collective defence, safety, and security’ of the alliance. North Macedonia’s Defence Minister Slavjanka Petrovska was happy with the exercise, for it showed that ‘that no one is alone in NATO.’

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgian Dream supports its former leader against alleged international conspiracy. Bidzina Ivanishvili, former Prime Minister of Georgia and founder of the ruling political party Georgian Dream, recently won a lawsuit against Credit Suisse, where he had accused the bank of delaying in disbursement of his funds due to the ‘geopolitical environment in Eastern Europe.’ Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Georgian Dream Chair Irakli Kobakhidze speculated that the delay could be due to a coordinated international effort to involve Georgia in the war in Ukraine. Kobakhidze cited the recall of the Ukrainian ambassador to Georgia and the release of an audiotape of Ivanishvili speaking with the sanctioned Russian businessperson, Vladimir Yevtushenkov to support his theory. Petre Tsiskarishvili, General Secretary of UNM, stated that Ivanishvili should not be allowed to threaten the West with ‘turning Georgia into a Russian province’ if his financial interests are not protected. Badri Japaridze, a member of the opposition party Lelo, called the Georgian Dream statements an extension of Russian propaganda efforts.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Dushanbe denies Islamic State attacks at Tajik-Afghan border. On 7 May, the Islamic State Khurasan Province, or ISKP, claimed to have launched seven rockets at Tajikistan, with the aim of targeting the country’s armed forces. However, the Tajik government denied ISKP’s, version of events, insisting instead that only several bullets had landed on Tajik territory. However, as Mumin Akhmadi notes on Radio Ozodi, the Tajik government also announced after the incident that its border guards had been ‘brought to a state of full combat readiness,’ indicating that the security situation surrounding the Tajik-Afghan border may be more serious than Dushanbe is willing to admit. Kosimshokh Bekmuhammad, an analyst working primarily on Central Asian affairs, considers this attack to be the work of the Taliban in collaboration with ISKP, seeking to increase pressure on the countries of Central Asia, noting that with Russia waging war in Ukraine, it may be more advantageous for the Taliban at this current moment to conduct attacks on its neighbouring countries.

Tajikistan reportedly orders universities to draft students into the army. Amid the spring military call-up in the country, there are reports of forced conscription of students. While studying, men between the ages of 18 and 27 are largely exempt from conscription. However, the Tajik authorities appear to be resorting to forced enlistment to counter the low numbers of volunteers. Six universities have reportedly been ordered to draft around 900 students into military service. In recent years, most young men prefer to leave Tajikistan during the call-up seasons, mostly to Russia as labour migrants, to escape drafting. The reluctance to join the army’s ranks is partially due to reports of widespread bullying and poor conditions for soldiers during the one-year service. Conscription continues, however, to be justified by many in Tajikistan, citing Afghanistan and military conflict on the Kyrgyz border as serious threats to the country’s security.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Czech Republic replaces Russia at the UN Human Rights Council. The United Nations Human Rights council voted Czechia as its official replacement for the Russian Federation with a clear majority. Czechia submitted its application over two weeks ago, a few days after Russia withdrew before a motion that aimed to suspend its membership was adopted. During the UN’s special session on Ukraine, held on Thursday, 12 May, the Czech diplomats voted in favour of an important resolution resulting in an international investigation of Russia’s war crimes. Prague has shown strong support for Ukraine, sending in military equipment to resist the invasion in previous weeks, and this week its Senate qualifying Russia’s crimes as genocide. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavskýo also mentioned that their Council mandate ‘will focus strongly on issues related to media freedom,’ which is deteriorating in Central and Eastern Europe. The term will last until the end of next year.

Central Europe’s response delays the EU’s Russian oil embargo. Due to their heavy dependency on Russian energy imports, Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia, and Bulgaria oppose the EU’s ambitious proposal to phase out importing Russian crude and refined fuels by ships and pipelines this year. The three landlocked V4 countries are allowed to import Russian oil until 2024. Bulgaria, being suspended from Russian gas in late April, demanded a similar concession and requested an exemption from excise duties on electricity and natural gas from the EU. To secure a unanimous vote on the deal, EC President Von der Leyen visited Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán in Budapest on 9 May, which resulted in no tangible agreement. Hungary is not supporting the boycott due to its negative economic impact, asking for a 5-year transition period. Slovakia also needs a longer transition period until 2025. Although some EU diplomats were worried that the negotiations might persist until the end of May, others are reported to have high hopes for the EU foreign ministers’ meeting on 16 May.

Lithuanian parliament declares Russia a ‘terrorist state,’ Latvian parliament allows for ‘de-Sovietization.’ On 10 May, the Lithuanian parliament unanimously recognized that Russia deliberately committed terrorism and committed a genocide against the Ukrainian people, referring to the crimes in Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, and others. Moreover, Lithuania called for a special international court to probe into alleged Russian atrocities in Ukraine, and urged international organizations such as NATO, the EU, and other countries to follow suit. The UNHCR responded with approval to the investigation on 12 May. Meanwhile, on 12 May, the Latvian parliament amended the 1944 Russia-Latvia agreement on the social protection of Russian military pensioners and the maintenance of memorials in Latvia. This means that from 16 May onwards, Soviet memorials in Latvia are no longer legally protected, unless Russia stops attacking Ukraine. This legislation gave Riga City Council a green light to order the demolition of the controversial Soviet Red Army monuments in the Victory Park of Riga on 13 May. However, some opposition party members criticized that the decision was not sufficiently discussed, especially regarding the high expenditure.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Ukrainian defence minister predicts long war ahead. On 13 May, the Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov informed that Ukraine is ‘entering a new, long phase of the war,’ as the main battles with Russia are still going on. Although the Institute for the Study of War suggested Ukraine ‘has won the Battle of Kharkiv,’ Russia is still bombarding villages north of the city. The Kremlin’s attempt to gain the territory of Donbas with the main focus on Severodonetsk, the easternmost town held by Ukrainian forces, was without progress, while the Luhansk region is suffering constant attacks from the Russian army. The tough question on evacuation of Mariupol remains crucial: hundreds of Ukrainian defenders are still holding out at the Azovstal steelwork under constant bombings, without proper medical treatment, food, or water supplies. Meanwhile, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, predicts a turning point of the war by mid-August and its possible resolution by the end of the year.

Baltic FMs’s surprise visit to Ukraine. On 6 May, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, and Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets made an unannounced trip to Kyiv. The last time all of them were in Ukraine together was on 23 February, before the Russian invasion interrupted their trip. The Baltic FMs met with many top Ukrainian politicians, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and their Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, to discuss the Baltics’ political, military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. Zelenskyy stated that the Baltics are Ukraine’s ‘closest and most reliable friends’ because they were the first to support Ukraine from the very beginning of the war. This high-level visit to the Baltics aimed to show solidarity with Ukraine and support Ukraine’s EU candidate status.

Lukashenka explains a potential invasion to Putin and is ridiculed online. In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has played a facilitating role: it has allowed the Russian army to move over its territory and to shell Ukraine from Belarusian lands, but its own army has not participated in the invasion directly. Now that the tide of the war has turned somewhat to Ukraine’s favour, Putin is expecting more support from Belarus, for instance, in the form of troops. Lukashenka made a televised performance explaining why the troops were needed in Belarus itself, somewhat awkwardly pointing a stick at a map and showing where Ukraine would invade. This was immediately picked up by Russian language internet users all over the post soviet space. Memes show Lukashenka on Putin’s lap, in a train carriage next to Mr Bean, and other things. With internet culture, and memes especially, playing a large role in Russian information warfare in the past few years, it is interesting to see how a counter-narrative is formed online. 

🌲 In Russia…

Kadyrovtsy lies in Ukraine. Igor Strelkov, the ex-Donetsk separatist leader better known as ‘Girkin,’ recently asserted that Kadyrovite claims of taking Popasna, Luhansk, as false. Strelkov insisted that the kadyrovtsy only provided media participation in the battles. This latest claim matches previous reports of the kadyrovtsy’s battlefield absences from local soldiers in Rubezhnoe and Mariupol. In the latter case, the separatist commander had to apologise to Chechen parliamentarian and Ramzan Kadyrov’s right-hand man Adam Delimkhanov. The seizures of Popasna and Mariupol have reinforced the Chechen governmental hierarchy, as they were led by Daniil Martynov (Kadyrov’s security advisor) and Delimkhanov, respectively. The Rubezhnoe assault, on the other hand, was coordinated by Apti Alaudinov, a formerly disgraced official. This was seemingly used to shame the Kyiv-front commanders, other than Martynov, who failed to take the Ukrainian capital and assassinate Zelenskiy. Strelkov is a weightier voice internationally, so his declaration is sure to infuriate the Chechen authorities.

Putin defends Russia’s war on Ukraine during 9 May speech. On May 9 – during Victory Day celebrations and parade – President Vladimir Putin held his traditional speech, but, this time, it was more focused on the present, rather than the past. Indeed, the Russian president started by briefly remembering the historical meaning of this celebration, and then quickly switched to present time and the war in Ukraine. He confirmed his accusations towards NATO, stating that Russia tried to engage the West in an honest dialogue in order to find a compromise last December, but it was ‘all in vain.’ In his opinion, Russia’s intervention was a necessary pre-emptive action, as the approaching of NATO eastwards represented a threat to Russia’s national integrity. US media, in particular CNN, had reported that president Putin could formally declare war on Ukraine during the speech, but, on the contrary, no such a declaration was made. Moreover, Putin gave no hint of the possible future development of the war.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Tijs van de Vijver, Marie Mach, Charles Adrien Fourmi, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Bart Alting, Rachele Colombo, Lucie Tafforin, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘

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