Lossi 36 Weekly #19: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: CSTO summit in Moscow; the end of Montenegro‘s golden passports; anti-government protests in Azerbaijan; clashes in Gorno-Badakhsan; the impact of war on Slovakia‘s economy; Zelensky calls for diplomacy; Russia’s Higher School of Economics in decline, and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Central Asian leaders meet Putin in Moscow. Chaharika Uppal

On 16 May, Vladimir Putin organised the CSTO summit in Moscow, to celebrate the organisation’s twentieth anniversary. Heads of states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan were present, along with Armenia and Belarus. While Putin and Lukashenka raised claims about ‘neo-Nazis’ in Ukraine and urged the alliance to form a ‘united front’ to defend the post-Soviet space from Western pressure. Central Asian leaders did not make any public statements about that war and the issue was apparently discussed at great length ‘behind closed doors’ according to CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas. Even the final statement at the end of the conference did not refer to Ukraine, explicitly. The subject of CSTO troop deployment was also not broached, a smart decision considering Kazakhstan’s previous statements that it would not send troops to Ukraine and its refusal to help Russia evade sanctions. Other than Sadyr Japarov’s speech about the pressure of Western sanctions, Central Asia’s silence could symbolise its tacit disapproval for the war and an attempt to distance itself from the Kremlin’s ideology, leaving both Belarus and Russia in an echo–chamber of their own making. 

🌺 In the Balkans…

Croatia to make final preparations for Euro adoption. As the Balkan nation looks set to transition to the Euro at the start of next year, its political institutions have begun to make the final changes required for the adoption of the common currency. In a vote of 117 in favour of adoption, to 13 against, the national parliament of Croatia paved the way for the country to start using the Euro as its currency from 1st January 2023. In a recent speech made by the Governor of the Croatian National Bank, Boris Vujčić, he stated his belief that rising inflation and the current cost of living crisis affecting Europe would not impact the country’s transition. The last remaining step in the transition shall be gaining the formal approval from the EU Council, with a vote expected to take place in July. Following this, the minting of Croatian Euro coins and printing of banknotes shall commence, double pricing will begin to appear across the country, and any final changes made across the broader political and economic sectors shall be finished.

Montenegro promises to put an end to economic passport programme. During the first official visit of the new Montenegrin PM Dritan Abazović to Brussels, he promised to put an end to the citizenship by investment passport programme by the end of 2022. ‘The government understands the negative comments of the European Commission when it comes to the programme of economic citizenship. I think it is clear that the problem will be solved on December 31, when the programme will be terminated,’ Abazović said. This scheme has also been called the ‘Golden Passport’ or ‘Golden Visa,’ because it is a fast way of obtaining foreign citizenship, requiring a donation of €200.000 and a property investment of between €250.000 and €450.000 in exchange. The Montenegrin citizenship includes the perspective of possibly becoming an EU citizen, since the country has been in accession talks since 2012. The European Commission, however, already warned Montenegro in 2021 about risks relating to money laundering and the war in Ukraine, considering that Russians are one of the most prominent nationalities partaking in the programme.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Abkhazian authorities close one of the programs of international NGO ‘Action Against Hunger.’ On 13 May, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the de facto Republic of Abkhazia announced in a statement the closure of one of the programs of the international NGO, Action Against Hunger, as a result of the intercultural dialogue between Abkhaz and Georgian youth promoted by the organisation. This part of the program organised sessions and seminars, bringing together youth representatives from Abkhazia and Georgia in Moldova, Austria, and Armenia. The statement denounced the program, saying that it was ‘of an exclusively political nature and serves the goals set by the Georgian government.’ Since Inal Ardzinba became foreign minister, the authorities’ control over international organisations in Abkhazia has tightened. Another example of this was the advancement of a law, modelled on the one in Russia, on foreign agents, as a part of the ‘Action Plan for the Formation of a Common Socio-Economic Space between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia.’

Anti-government demonstration allowed to proceed in Azerbaijan. Civil activists gathered in central Baku on 14 May to demonstrate against state-sponsored violence against critics of the regime. While there was a visible police presence throughout the protest — and 26 of the protest’s organisers were detained until later that evening — the authorities did not try to stop the demonstration from occurring. Police escorted their march to the Interior Ministry, after which the organisers read out a statement, listing examples of violence against journalists — such as Avaz Hafizli and Ayten Mammadova — and pro-democracy activists, including Tofig Yagublu and Bakhtiyar Hajiyev. The US, UK, and EU embassies in Azerbaijan all issued statements in support of the right to assemble freely, which led one Azerbaijani MP to respond in Parliament that the UK should “pay attention” to their own police violence.

Protests follow after opposition TV head Nika Gvaramia incarcerated in Georgia. Thousands of Georgian media workers, activists, and citizens demonstrated on 18 May in Tbilisi, in support of the pro-opposition TV station Mtavari Arkhi and against the imprisonment of its director, Nika Gvaramia. Smaller protests were organised in Batumi and Zugdidi. On 16 May, Tbilisi City Court sentenced Gvaramia to three-and-a-half years in prison, claiming he abused his management position at another TV company — Rustavi 2 — in 2019. He was also found guilty of embezzlement, though acquitted on charges of money laundering, bribery, and forgery. Gvaramia was one of the lawyers representing former President Mikheil Saakashvili in court, also having previously held a number of senior government positions under him. In addition to local protests, there has been strong Western condemnation.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kazakhstan deepens its military ties with Turkey. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s visit to Ankara on May 10-11 resulted in the signing of 15 commercial agreements worth almost $1.1 billion. This was Tokayev’s first visit to Turkey since his ascension to power in 2019. Several military agreements were signed between the two countries, the most significant being that Kazakhstan will be the first country outside of Turkey to produce ‘Anka’ drones. The collaboration will include technology transfer, maintenance, and repairs. Turkey has been criticised by Russia in the past for ‘destabilising the region’ by selling the same drones to Ukraine. Kazakhstan has declined to side with Russia over the war in Ukraine , but has also stopped short of outright criticism. There was no mention of Ukraine in the Kazakh reports from the meeting, however Erdoğan’s office reported that the two presidents ‘discussed the regional and global effects of the situation in Ukraine.’

Clashes in the autonomous region of Tajikistan kill over 20 people. The renewed unrest in Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region located in the Pamir mountains, comes after Dushanbe authorities rejected a list of protesters demands, notably the request to investigate the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody, and the resignation of the region’s governor. On May 16, demonstrations intensified when a protester was killed by the police in Khorugh, Gorno-Badakhshan’s capital. In response to the unrest, the Tajik authorities have launched an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ and have cut off local internet access. The autonomous region, which holds only 3% of the country’s population in 45% of its territory, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war and clashes between local residents and law enforcement officials continue to occur regularly as mutual mistrust remains widespread.

🚃 In Central Europe…

European Commission sues Czechia over failed implementation of video content laws. The Commission filed a lawsuit against the Czech Republic for not enforcing EU rules on video content. On 19 May, the lawsuit was filed against Czechia and four other countries (Slovakia, Ireland, Romania, and Spain). The new rules on audiovisual content were introduced in 2018, in order to enhance child audience protection, promote cultural diversity, and set a new definition for harmful and illegal content. The lawsuit was filed after two previous warnings were issued in 2020 and 2021.

Poland introduces new voluntary military service. This weekend, the Polish army started to recruit new potential soldiers for the Territorial Defence Forces, part of the army’s active reserve forces. The new recruits will be paid 4500 Zloty (around 980 euros) as compensation for their partaking in the country’s efforts to double the size of its army to 300,000 troops. These developments are part of a broader attempt of the Polish government to increase its military capability, among other efforts like increasing its number of troops and investing in military technology. A draft of the Homeland Defence Act, the legislation of which these reforms are part, was already adopted by the Polish Council of Ministers, weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a reaction to the increasing Russian aggression towards Ukraine. The act eventually passed in March and now seeks to increase Poland’s military budget to 3% of the country’s GDP.

Economic impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Slovakia. The conflict ongoing in Ukraine is affecting EU countries’ economies, most notably the CEE region. Data suggests that among the current 27 EU Member States, Slovakia was impacted most intensely by the economic effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The latest Spring 2022 Economic Forecast released by the European Commission reports a growth of 2.3% of the Slovakian GDP for the year 2022. Additionally, Slovakia is negotiating an exemption from the EU Russian oil embargo, currently under discussion, due to its almost exclusive dependence on Russian oil and gas. On the other hand, Slovakia will be the recipient of €39 million, along with Hungary and the Czech Republic, from the European Commission, as compensation for helping Ukrainian refugees.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

FIBA suspends Belarus from participating in upcoming competitions. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) announced on 18 May that both Belarus and Russia are to be withdrawn from 8 major basketball competitions, including the World Cup of 2022 and the World Cup Qualifiers of 2022 and 2023. In addition, they stated that it is not allowed to hold any FIBA Official Basketball Competitions in Russia or Belarus until further notice. The FIBA is hereby responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is supported by Belarus. The basketball federation ‘strongly condemns violence and hopes peace will urgently prevail.’ Several other basketball matches that were supposed to take place in the past few months were already postponed or pulled. The FIBA is not the only one taking action; the International Olympic Committee already advised on 28 February to ban Russia and Belarus from international sports competitions ‘in order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants.’

President Zelenskyy urges a diplomatic resolution of the war. While the last negotiations between Ukraine and Russia that happened nearly a month ago, on 22 April, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed the war could be only resolved through diplomacy. He expressed confidence that the talks will eventually take place, however, the format and the time remain unclear, as well as the purpose, considering that Russia continues to attack Ukrainian cities, targeting infrastructure, military, and civilian objects. On the other side, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, accused Ukraine of not wanting to continue talks to end the fighting, constantly finding excuses to postpone them. As of now, Ukraine cannot accept the offer of ceasefire until Russia is ready to liberate occupied Ukrainian territories, nor is it interested in a new ‘Minsk’ and a renewal of the war in a few years – confirmed adviser to the head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhailo Podoliak. The negotiations have proven to be difficult as the two sides do not want to give up anything at any stake.

🌲 In Russia…

Russia’s Higher School of Economics University in decline amidst the war in Ukraine. Nikita Anisimov, HSE’s rector, signed an open letter, which was published on 4 March, in which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supported. ‘It is very important at this time to support our country, our army… [and] our president,’ is one of the main points written in the statement. Several employees of HSE have decided to leave the institute because of its pro-war stance. HSE has also previously terminated contracts of critical voices within the faculty, as well as flagged students for participating in anti-government protests. Last year, HSE was ranked among the best 25 universities in the world by the Times Higher Education Emerging Economies. However, it is unclear if HSE can maintain this high profile in the context of its new loyalty to the Kremlin – and its war in Ukraine.

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

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