Lossi 36 Weekly #21: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: ​​Ukraine’s human rights commissioner fired, Albania elects new PresidentLGBTQ+ rights under pressure in Georgia, protesters killed in Gorno-Badakhshan (GBAO), Orbán’s sanctions exemptions requests accommodated, Macron‘s suggestions, Yandex founder and CEO resigns after EU sanctions, and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Denisova, fired. Merijn Hermens

Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s top human rights official, got fired on 31 May, after a majority in the Ukrainian parliament supported a vote of no-confidence. The main reason for her dismissal is inadequate performance for protection of human rights since the Russian invasion. She allegedly failed to sufficiently organize humanitarian corridors and did not do enough to help victims of sexual abuse or Ukrainian POWs. She is also accused of spending too much time abroad and focusing too much on the media. Additionally, she received criticism from NGOs and media organizations because of how she divulged sensitive information. These organizations voiced their opinions in an appeal directed towards Denisova; they stated that they are ‘concerned and sometimes outraged’ by the rhetoric around sexual crime reports that appear on Denisova’s social media, in which she shares a lot of personal details. ‘Sexual crimes are family tragedies, a difficult and traumatic topic, and not a topic for publication,’ as these organizations expressedAccording to Denisova, it was Zelenskyy himself who made the manoeuvre to get her fired. Her dismissal, however, is officially not legal, but lawmakers used the martial law, which permits the removal of all appointees. It is unknown who will succeed her.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Albania elects new president. On 4 June, The Albanian parliament consisting of 140 members voted into presidential power, top military general Bajram Begaj, with 78 in favour and 4 against. However, opposition members of the Democratic Party boycotted the vote, accusing prime minister Edi Rama and his party members of cherry-picking candidates that would be more pliable. Democratic Party head, Enkelejd Alibeag made the statement that, ‘the new president will be an extension of Rama.’ The lack of transparency around the presidential vote has also been brought up by opposition members, as the Socialists had made no indications about whom the possible candidates could’ve been before the vote, leaving even pro-government media channels clueless. Begaj had occupied the position of chief of staff since 2020.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

South Ossetia cancels referendum on joining Russia. On Monday, 30 May, South Ossetia’s newly elected de facto president Alan Gagloev declared the cancellation of a planned referendum on joining Russia. The referendum, set for 17 June, had been scheduled on 13 May through a decree by the former de facto president of South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov. Gagloev denounced ‘the inadmissibility of a unilateral decision of a referendum on issues affecting the legitimate rights and interests of the Russian Federation.’ Moscow, for its part, welcomed Gagloev’s decision, having expressed the wish, as soon as he was elected, to see him ‘preserve the continuity of ties’ with Russia. Nevertheless, Gagloev also appointed members of a commission responsible for ‘carrying out consultations with the Russian side on an entire complex of issues connected with the further integration of the Republic of South Ossetia and the Russian Federation.’

LGBTQ+ rights under pressure in Georgia. Tbilisi Pride announced on 31 May that there would be no attempt by the group to organise a public march this year due to the government’s refusal to protect public LGBTQ+ demonstrations from violence. ‘This year, there is no space for us to hold a March for Dignity,’ the group said in a statement. ‘We are still the only group that is denied the freedom of assembly and to demonstrate.’ Instead, the group plans to host three events — a film screening, a regional conference, and a Pride Festival — during the Pride Week scheduled for 28 June—2 July. Shortly after Tbilisi Pride’s announcement, the leader of the Georgian extremist group Alt Info — which was in large part responsible for last year’s brutal attacks on journalists and protestors — threatened the events planned for the Pride Week, pledging to ‘mobilise’ against Tbilisi Pride once again. The threats come amid a series of attacks on transgender women in Tbilisi.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kyrgyzstan’s Minister of Health arrested on corruption charges. The Health Minister of Kyrgyzstan, Alymkadyr Beishenaliev, was detained on Thursday for corruption in buying Covid-19 vaccines. According to the authorities, the damage is estimated at 1.5 billion soms (€17.5 million). Seven criminal cases in total have been brought against Beishenaliev: one on corruption, two on extortion of a bribe, and four on abuse of an official position and signing an unprofitable contract. Three other officials from the ministry of health were also detained. Despite Kyrgyzstan receiving most of their vaccines for free, prosecutors stated that in 2021, 2,460,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines were unjustifiably received from foreign companies and the money used to buy them was ‘transferred to offshore companies.’ Beishenaliev is a controversial figure in Kyrgyzstan, having promoted a homemade liquid solution based on the poisonous root of wolfsbane to cure coronavirus and other diseases. In May, many of his deputies called for his resignation amid accusations of bullying and sexual harassment.

Croatia arrests Pussy Riot activist at Turkmenistan’s request. On 31 May, Aisoltan Niyazova, a member of the Russian punk band and a citizen of Turkmenistan, was detained by authorities in Bregana, Croatia, while the group was on its European tour to protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ashgabat originally filed an order against Niyazova through Interpol in 2003, on charges of embezzling $40 million from Turkmenistan’s Central Bank. The activist has rejected the accusation as politically motivated, arguing that the case was fabricated after her father had joined the political opposition and was arrested in 2002. A Croatian court must now decide on the possibility of Niyazova’s extradition to Turkmenistan. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have called on Zagreb to release the activist as she faces a “great risk of serious abuse (…) should she be extradited”. Reports of torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances of prisoners continue to tarnish Turkmenistan’s human rights record.

Deaths mount in Gorno-Badakhshan. After recent tensions in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region (GBAO) in eastern Tajikistan, which led to a complete internet blackout in the area, information regarding deaths of protesters has been scarce, often coming from government-owned news outlets only. The authorities announced that five were killed (in addition to deaths recorded after demonstrations on 16 May) in the Rushan district on 31 May. While Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry claims that those killed were allegedly armed terrorists, local residents and family members have said that they were simply peaceful protesters. Due to the lack of independent news reports, this information is difficult to verify, but it is understood that the death toll is much higher than the one officially announced. Outlets like Asia-Plus are currently refraining from reporting on the region due to threats of closure by the authorities. International organisations, like Human Rights Watch, and certain Western nations have already released statements warning the Tajik government not to use force against the Pamiri minority during protests. 

🚃 In Central Europe…

Warsaw court rules pushbacks of refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border illegal. The court gave its verdict last week, after a Polish NGO called Association for Legal Intervention (SIP) filed a case on behalf of a group of Iraqi and Yemeni refugees who were sent back to Belarus from the Polish border in November last year. The court based its decision on the finding that the group of refugees had not been questioned by the Polish authorities and thus had not been asked whether they wanted to apply for international protection in Poland. The court also noted that the human rights of refugees are often violated in Belarus, thereby basing its verdict on the non-refoulement principle. The verdict came after Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights recently reported that the humanitarian crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border was still ongoing. The practice of pushbacks is ‘incompatible with Polish law and international standards,’ since many refugees are forced across the border by Belarusian security services.

Orbán’s requests accommodated to proceed with EU Russian oil ban. A partial ban on Russian oil was finally achieved by EU leaders last week, with Viktor Orbán’s key demands satisfied. The Hungarian Prime Minister manifested resistance to the ban since the beginning of discussions over the measure, referring to his country’s high reliance on Russian oil delivered via pipelines. In the last phases of the negotiations on the deal, Orbán attempted to obstruct the initiative further by opposing sanctions targeting the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, leading to the removal of the religious leader from the sanctions lists. The ban was finally approved on 2 June, allowing a ‘temporary exemption’ – albeit without specifications on its duration – for Hungary and thus falling short of a full ban. Apart from Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic will also be able to continue to receive Russian crude oil via pipelines, particularly through the Druzhba pipeline.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Export of Ukrainian grain through Belarus. With Russia attacking Ukraine on the 24 February and blocking Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, tens of millions of people around the world are threatened with starvation. Vladimir Putin is ready to allow grain ships to leave the port of Odesa only in case the EU lifts the sanctions imposed after he invaded Ukraine three months ago. Thus, European leaders are seeking the best possible routes to bring Ukrainian grain into global markets through Poland, Romania or Belarus to Baltic seaports. Belarus seems to be the best solution logistically, but a difficult political choice – a so-called ‘deal with the devil,’ as it is predicted that Alexander Lukashenka can ask for Western sanctions on Belarus, to be lifted. As expected, on 3 June, the Belarusian president agreed to the transit, but only if Baltic ports would be opened for Belarusian goods as well.

Macron suggests not to humiliate Russia. In one of his recent interviews, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed that Russia must not be humiliated in Ukraine in order to allow an improvement in diplomatic relations between the West and Moscow, whenever the war comes to an end. France is currently playing ‘a mediator role’ in Russia’s war in Ukraine, with over 100 hours spent in the negotiations with the Russian President, however, no positive results can be seen so far. Emmanuel Macron believes that Vladimir Putin has isolated himself and ‘taking refuge in isolation is one thing, but finding a way out is a difficult thing.’ As for Ukraine, ‘calls to avoid the humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it’ – Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, said, insisting on effective measures to bring the end to the war as ‘Russia humiliates itself.’

🌲 In Russia…

Fear of sanctions among participants of Russia’s prestigious economic forum. As the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, one of Russia’s biggest international events, prepares for its 25th edition, taking place from 15 to 18 June, some of its participants are reportedly fearing that their presence at the event could make them targets of Western sanctions. As a result, companies and their speakers will be able to opt for not showing their names on the official participants’ lists. Some would also be removing information about their businesses from conference badges. Certain companies reportedly are going as far as not paying for their participation directly, but through intermediaries. One could wonder why they decide to go to such lengths instead of not participating in the forum altogether, especially considering the rather costly nature of the event, with participation fees this year, reaching 960 000 roubles (around 14 000 euros).

Yandex founder and CEO resigns after EU sanctions. Arkady Volozh, the founder of Yandex, resigned because of the last package of sanctions from the EU imposed on Russia, on 3 June. The EU claims that Yandex is ‘promoting state media and narratives in its search results’ and removes ‘content related to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.’ The sanctions are directed at Volozh individually and, therefore, do not affect ‘Russia’s Google.’ Yandex is the biggest Russian search engine and has its headquarters located in The Netherlands. According to Volozh’s statement, the sanctions against Yandex are misguided and counterproductive. Nevertheless, Yandex’s shares began to drop after the EU’s announcement.

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

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