Lossi 36 Weekly #20: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Orbán‘s state of emergency, Macedonia‘s Orthodoxy autocephaly, Armenia and Azerbaijan meet at their shared border, extortion practices in Turkmenistan, Sejm approves dissolution of EU-condemned judicial disciplinary chamber in Poland, former President Dodon placed under house arrest in MoldovaRussia to profit from global food insecurity, and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Introduction of the fifth Orbán government and state of emergency extension. Thapanee Tubnonghee

On 24 May, 14 Hungarian ministers were sworn into power. The new cabinet is set to focus on economic development, with the new ministers supervising the expansion of the Paks II nuclear power plant and the utilisation of EU funds. The latter task will likely pose some challenges due to an ongoing Brussels-Budapest conflict, which includes the European Commission recently activating a conditionality mechanism to continue withholding Hungary’s coronavirus recovery funds. Moreover, Hungary continues to maintain a firm stance against Russian oil import ban, demanding a five-year transition period and extra financial support to support its energy transition, which results in the EU struggling to finalise the deal on Russian oil before the extraordinary European Council Summit on 30-31 May. Among other changes in the fifth government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, while higher education remains under the Ministry of Culture and Innovation, public education and healthcare are now under the Ministry of Interior. In non-cabinet-related news, Hungarian teachers’ recent request for wage increases has still not been approved, and new legislation prohibiting teachers’ strikes is underway. Moreover, last week, Orbán declared a state of emergency due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, after the parliament approved a constitutional amendment which allows the introduction of special legal order in the case of danger in neighbouring countries. Consequently, the existing state of emergency introduced due to the pandemic, which was set to end on 1 June, will be extended until further notice.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Serbian Orthodox church recognises call for independence of its Macedonian brethren. The announcement made by Serbian Patriarch Porfirije in Skopje during the celebration of Saints Cyril and Methodius ends a six-decades-long struggle over the autocephaly of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. This follows the decision made by Constantinople in early May to end the schism with the North Macedonian Church. The Macedonian Orthodox Church broke away from the Serbian Church in the 1960s, but its ecclesiastical independence has never been recognised due to objections by Belgrade. Unlike Catholicism, authority in the Orthodox world lies in the hands of a series of Patriarchs who oversee de-facto national churches. And while the Patriarch of Constantinople holds theoretical primacy, real ecclesiastical power lies with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. The autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow in 2019 contributed to growing tensions between the two countries leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

De facto state ministers meet in South Ossetia. From 23 to 25 May, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Davit Babayan, paid a working visit to the Republic of South Ossetia, to participate in the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected President Alan Gagloyev. During the visit, Babayan was received by both Gagloyev and acting Foreign Minister Dmitry Medoyev to discuss ‘Artsakh-South Ossetia relations.’ The parties discussed a whole  range of issues related to bilateral cooperation — including problems regarding regional security and stability in the South Caucasus — and expressed a need to make efforts to expand and increase cooperation based on mutual interest and trust. During his trip, Babayan also met with the Foreign Ministers of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic to discuss cooperation between the foreign ministries, bilateral relations, and recent regional and global geopolitical developments.

Armenian and Azerbaijani officials meet at border to discuss demarcation. A meeting between EU President Charles Michel, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on 22 May has led to a significant breakthrough in peace negotiations. Aliyev and Pashinyan agreed to create a bilateral border commission to begin demarcating their shared border. The commission’s work hopes to end the 30-year-long dispute over the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. During the meeting in Brussels, an agreement was reached to open the Zangezur corridor, allowing Azerbaijan access to its Nakhchivan exclave. On Tuesday, Armenian deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan and his Azerbaijani counterpart Shahin Mustafayev, met at an undisclosed location along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border where they, ‘reiterated their readiness to work on delimitation and other relevant issues, including border security issues within the commissions.’ Since then, Pashinyan has been accused by  the opposition for making unacceptable concessions, followed by several protests.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Extortion practices in Turkmen schools end after media reports. Ashgabat’s law enforcement have reportedly launched an investigation into the claims of illegal money collection across schools in Turkmenistan. These notorious allegations include the practice of forcing families to pay for school renovations at least once a year. After RFE/RL Turkmen service’s report, rumours of officials’ surprise visits to schools spread and directors stopped raising funds. They are also threatening any student giving information to the independent media. This corrupt scheme is widespread in Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries, putting a strain on low income families. Parents report that if they cannot pay, teachers give their children lower grades. Moreover, families with multiple children in the system reportedly often have to cut back on food, in order to be able to pay for school projects.

​​Central Asia’s defence ministers (among others) meet in Dushanbe to discuss Afghanistan. On 27  May, the Ministers of Defence of Russia, India, Kazakhstan, Iran, China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan met in Dushanbe to discuss development in Afghanistan as well as regional threats with roots in the territory. Iran’s defence minister, Ali Shamkhani, noted that Tehran had proof that several countries in Central Asia have played a role in the recruitment and training of members of terrorist groups, active in Afghanistan, although he refrained from naming any specific countries. At the summit, Gizat Nurdauletov, Kazakhstan’s minister of defence, highlighted the importance of overcoming Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and bolstering the region’s transportation connectivity, which would further increase the region’s economic security. Russia’s defence secretary, Nikolai Patrushev stated that it would be necessary for all regional members to maintain a dialogue regarding the security threats in Afghanistan, especially in light of fears that members of the Taliban or other terrorist groups could conduct operations aimed specifically at Central Asia.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Latvian Soviet monuments face costly destruction. Despite calls not to visit Soviet ‘victory’ monuments on 9 May, Latvia’s Russian minority gathered at the so-called Victory Memorial in Riga once again this year for Victory Day celebration. Controversies emerged after flowers brought there were thrown away by the authorities on the following day, while a few days later, Riga City Council decided to dismantle the monument altogether. Latvia’s Interior Minister subsequently resigned, having been held responsible by the ‘National Alliance’ coalition partners for mishandling the situation. Riga’s Vice-Mayor announced that destroying the monument might cost up to two million euros, far more than the €264 000 already collected by residents for that purpose. Some of the monument’s remains are expected to be placed inside the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, while Artists’ Union of Latvia also offered to preserve them at their house, where, once separated from their ideological symbolism, the artwork could serve as scholarly artistic reference. The Riga monument is only the beginning of Latvia’s larger campaign to demolish all Soviet-era monuments, excluding those belonging to burial sites and cemeteries.

Polish parliament approves dissolution of EU-condemned judicial disciplinary chamber. On 26 May, the lower house of Polish parliament approved legislation to liquidate the controversial disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court and replace it with a ‘chamber of professional responsibility.’ The next steps require approval from the upper house and the President. However, opposition parties argue that the decision would simply result in the recreation of the disciplinary chamber under a different name. The Polish government has high hopes for addressing the EU’s concerns regarding its rule of law violations, terminating the daily one-million-euro fine for not suspending the disciplinary chamber, and finally unblocking its share of the Coronavirus Recovery Fund withheld by Brussels. In this regard, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is set to visit Warsaw on 2 June to follow up with the Polish government’s progress on the restoration of the rule of law.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Former Moldovan president placed under house arrest on corruption charges. Igor Dodon, the head of the pro-Russian opposition Party of Socialists and president of the Republic of Moldova from 2016 to 2020, was detained after Anti-Corruption Police searched his house in Chisinau. Anti-corruption prosecutor Elena Cazakov confirmed that the investigation was focusing on suspected acts of ‘illicit enrichment, passive corruption, illegal party financing and (treason), which have taken place since 2014.’ Dodon has declared his innocence and accused the current pro-Western President Maia Sandu of attempting to distract the Moldovan people from the country’s economic misery. The Russian government was quick to react, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko saying that Moscow would closely monitor the case to make sure that Dodon’s rights are respected in line with international standards. Moldovan Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu said that the arrest of Dodon was ‘unrelated to geopolitical events’ and was part of the fight against corruption led by the current government.

Ukraine at the World Economic Forum. The annual meeting of global political and financial elites at the Davos World Economic Forum was filled with gloomy invocations of the past and deep thoughts on how to improve the current situation in Ukraine and the world. The global food crisis was at the top of the agenda: despite Russia’s willingness to deblockade Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea, there are doubts it could guarantee safe passage for food shipments. The Forum demonstrated full solidarity with Ukraine, but this comes at a high cost, with predictions ranging from a mild dose of stagflation to worldwide depression as Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps using energy and food as economic weapons. During his speech at Davos, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed the necessity of ‘maximum’ sanctions and urged emergency support for rebuilding Ukraine. He also made it clear that despite certain calls for ‘giving up’ Ukrainian territories to make peace with Russia, Ukraine will not surrender its people and land for an ‘illusion of peace.’

🌲 In Russia…

Russia profiting from global food insecurity. The effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine are not limited to Europe only. As both Russia and Ukraine are large global grain producers, the staple food for many African countries, food security for around 50 million people is under threat. As Russia has control over many of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports which are normally used for grain export, getting wheat out of the country has become almost impossible. For Russia, however, the situation is better. Ukraine was its main competitor for food exports in the world’s markets, mainly Turkey, China, and the Middle East. While many countries sanctioned Russian products, very few have extended these sanctions to agricultural exports. With its main competitor gone and a spell of good weather, Russia is expected to reap a record harvest. Consequently, it seems that Russia is profiting from a food crisis of its own creation.

Russia cancels upper age limit to join military service. On 28 May, Vladimir Putin signed a new law that removes the upper age limit for those wanting to enlist in Russian military service. The previous law allowed citizens between the  ages of 18 to 40 to join the armed forces, and foreigners up to the age of 30. The reason behind the new law – according to the head of the Duma’s Defence Committee, Andrey Kartapolov – is that 40-50 year old soldiers, specialised in the use of high precision weapons, have precious experience and a degree of professionalism  that could still be tapped into by the army. While, on the other hand, analysts are suggesting that the implementation of this new law may be due to a shortage of manpower among Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, and that it actually aims to prevent the need for a mass mobilisation. Currently, 400,000 soldiers are in force in the Russian Army.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Marie Mach, Charles Adrien Fourmi, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Adriano Rodari, Bart Alting, Rachele Colombo, Lucie Tafforin, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, & Vira Kompaniiets 💘

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