Lossi 36 Weekly #24: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: ​​The diverging EU paths of the ‘Associated Trio,’ Serb nationalist organization convicted of ethnic hatred in Bosnia, opposition protests fade out in Armenia, constitutional reforms in UzbekistanKyiv Pride and Warsaw Pride merge in Poland, another government crisis in Bulgaria, another Russia-Lithuania diplomatic spat, and much more.

⭐️ This week’s special

Ukraine and Moldova receive EU candidates statuses.Vira Kompaniiets

On Thursday 23 June, a historic moment happened in the European Union: Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate status, while Georgia’s European perspective was recognized. Ukraine, which has been seeking EU membership since the 2004 Orange revolution, even more emphatically since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, and crucially since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine from 24 February 2022, received support from all 27 EU member states, despite the scepticism of some European governments over the past months. The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen assured that the accession process would remain ‘merit-based’ and ‘by the book,’ and that formal negotiations would not begin until conditional reforms under Copenhagen criteria are carried out. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his address to the participants of the EU Summit, thanked each head of the government of 27 EU member states for their constant support and readiness to stand with Ukraine toward the European future. Despite the happiness of Ukraine and Moldova in obtaining a candidate status, having six Balkans countries with no progress on their bids to the EU as a negative experience, the requirement of unanimity extremely hard to obtain in practice, and the general lack of a real EU enlargement strategy, it could be a very long way to the EU membership for these two countries and for Georgia in the future.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Bosnia convicts members of Serb nationalist organisation of inciting ethnic hatred. Three members of the Ravne Gora Chetnik Movement were sentenced to five months in prison each for inciting hatred at their annual rally in the eastern Bosnian town of Višegrad in 2019. Wearing black military-style uniforms and singing ethnically provocative songs with lyrics claiming that ‘there will be hellish scenes and blood on the river Drina,’ the group intimidated the local Bosniak population. It is estimated that around 3,000 Bosniaks were killed in Višegrad during the Bosnian War, their bodies dumped into the Drina River. Sanctioned by the United States in 2005 as a terrorist organisation, the Ravne Gora Chetniks have ties to both war criminals and to Serb mercenaries fighting for Russia in Ukraine. The movement has its origins in WWII, when Serb nationalists collaborated with Nazi Axis forces against the Yugoslav partisans with the goal of creating a ‘Greater Serbia.’

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgia officially denied EU candidacy status. On 23 June, Charles Michel, the President of the EU Council, officially announced that the EU was recognizing Georgia’s ‘European perspective.’ While candidacy status was awarded to Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia still needs to fulfil certain criteria regarding political polarisation, the proper functioning of all-state institutions and the need for ‘de-oligarchisation.’ There has been a political crisis in Georgia since the election in October 2020, which the opposition claims were rigged. This polarisation in the political sphere was exacerbated after the arrest of former President Mikheil Saakashvili and the refusal of the ruling party Georgian Dream to enact electoral and judicial reforms. It is argued that the offer of ‘European perspective’ is a polite way of turning down Georgia’s bid for candidacy. Despite its geographical distance from Europe, EU membership is a popular aspiration for many Georgians, as demonstrated on 20 June, when 120,000 people turned up in Tbilisi, in support of EU membership.

Armenian opposition phases out protests, shifts focus to impeaching Pashinyan. Large-scale protests broke out in early April after there were emerging signs from the Armenian government that it would make significant compromises to Azerbaijan, including regarding the control of Nagorno-Karabakh. In response to these signals, people have been gathering in the streets in Yerevan to express their discontent, resulting in increased conflicts with police and many arrests. However, the self-proclaimed ‘Resistance Movement,’ which is led by two opposition blocs in the Armenian Parliament, has failed to gain more participation in the protests, and the protests are beginning to phase out. The organisers have announced the dismantlement of a tent camp which was set up six weeks ago for sustained protesting, and concurrently claimed that the focus now would move to the impeachment of Pashinyan. However, these opposition MPs are threatened with being stripped of their mandates, as they have missed many parliamentary sessions since April.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Uzbek President opens the way to third term with constitutional reforms. On 20 June, President Shavkat Mirziyoev outlined amendments to the Constitution that he argues would strengthen democratisation in the country. Among other issues, such as reforms of the criminal justice system and the anti-corruption agency, the proposed changes include the possibility of ‘resetting’ Mirziyoev’s previous presidential terms. The current electoral laws limit a president’s time in office to two, five-year terms. Mirziyoev was re-elected in October 2021 after coming to power in 2016, following the death of his authoritarian predecessor Islam Karimov. The constitutional amendments would be put up to a referendum, as in Kazakhstan recently. Despite a consensus that Mirziyoev‘s regime has been positive in regard to economic openness to foreign investments and improved relations with neighbours, his successes in the political sphere remain extremely contested.

Russian propagandist Tigran Keosyan banned from entering Kazakhstan. On 24 June, the Kazakh publication KazTag reported that Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs added the Russian television host and propagandist Tigran Keosyan to a list of individuals forbidden from entering Kazakhstan. In comments to the publication Radio Azzatyk, Aibek Smadiyarov, the press secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted that although he was unaware of who he is, the list comprises a wide range of individuals, including terrorists. The decision to add him was made in April after Keosyan had published a video on his YouTube channel in which he lobbed thinly veiled threats at Kazakhstan after the government had cancelled the May 9 Victory Day celebrations, which he viewed as an insult to the Russian state. In the same video, he warned that Kazakhstan could end up in the same situation as Ukraine.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Warsaw hosts a joint Pride event with Kyiv. Warsaw’s annual Pride parade was held on 25 June in rather special circumstances, as the event was merged with the official Kyiv Pride event, which had officially moved to Warsaw in 2022 due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The usual march for freedom from discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community was in many ways overshadowed by the war, evidenced by the many signs calling for peace, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. While Russia’s Draconian laws against so-called ‘gay propaganda’ served to unite the two causes amongst the thousands of Poles and Ukrainians present, there is also a strong awareness of the high level of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination present in their own home countries. Politicians from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party routinely demonise the LGBTQ+ community, with some regions declaring themselves ‘LGBT-free,’ while prejudice in Ukraine is equally systemic, as evidenced by popular presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych’s recent claims that LGBTQ+ individuals were ‘people with disabilities.’

Jarosław Kaczyński steps down as deputy PM to focus on next year’s election. On 21 June, Jarosław Kaczyński announced that he resigned from his post as a deputy prime minister and head of the Polish government’s national security and defence affairs committee, which he held since October 2020. He will now be replaced by Mariusz Błaszczak, current Minister of National Defence. Kaczyński, who was Polish PM between 2006-2007, is widely acknowledged as the most powerful politician in the Polish right-wing United Right (Zjednoczona Prawica) ruling coalition. As the chairman of the coalition’s main nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) since 2003, Kaczyński aims to focus on next year’s parliamentary elections, as PiS strives to win the third successive term since 2015. So far, according to the polls, the party is still the most popular one in Poland, followed by the opposition Civic Coalition (KO) led by Donald Tusk, also a former Polish PM and former President of the European Council. 

Three Seas Initiative accepts Ukraine as ‘participating partner.’ The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) Summit and Business Forum, which took place in Riga on 20-21 June, has resulted in several achievements. Among those, 3SI leaders have agreed to further strengthen their support to Ukraine under a new form of cooperation – a ‘participatory partnership’ – distinguishing it from the existing ‘strategic partnerships’ with the USA, the UK, and the European Commission. The leaders also proposed that Bosnia and Herzegovina could be granted the same status, and called for a swift accession to the EU of both Ukraine and the Western Balkans candidate countries. Under its participatory status, Ukraine will be able to develop transport and energy infrastructure projects with the 3SI member states, such as the link to the Via Carpathia transnational highway network and the integration to the European railway network. As the host of next year’s summit, Romania will continue to help Ukraine facilitate the transit of grain and food exports.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Bulgarian government in crisis — again. The Bulgarian Parliament voted for a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Kiril Petkov on 22 June, sending the government into crisis only six months after it came into power. The vote — 123 in favour to 166 against — comes after the ruling coalition lost its majority on 8 June due to controversy over whether Bulgaria should continue to block North Macedonia’s EU accession and discord over budget spending. While Petkov’s centrist party “We Continue the Change” will have a second chance to form a government, there is a strong possibility Bulgaria will see another round of elections, which would be its fourth general election since April 2021.

Bulgaria allows raising veto against North Macedonia’s EU accession. The Bulgarian parliament adopted a declaration on Friday 24 June, allowing the government to raise its veto against the beginning of accession talks of neighbouring North Macedonia to the EU. However, the declaration, which was approved by 170 out of 240 MPs, also outlines several preconditions that are considered necessary to lift the veto: that North Macedonia’s ‘good neighbourliness’ becomes a ‘horizontal criterion’ in its integration in the EU, and that the European Commission informs the Council on this topic before every intergovernmental conference; and also requires a draft of the framework for the talks ‘to more clearly reflect the position that nothing in the process of accession of North Macedonia to the EU can be interpreted as Bulgarian recognition of the existence of a ‘Macedonian’ language.’ The membership talks have been blocked since 2020 over this topic of dispute between the countries, with Bulgaria insisting that the Macedonian identity is of Bulgarian origin and that with the Bulgarian ethnicity allegedly being repressed in the country, it needs to be protected in the Macedonian constitution as a state-founding community.

🌲 In Russia…

Russia and Lithuania clash over Kaliningrad. The Russian Federation and Lithuania have clashed recently over a railway blockade of certain goods coming from mainland Russia to Kaliningrad. The WWII leftover exclave of Russia, surrounded by EU countries, is heavily reliant on goods such as coke and steel coming from the mainland by train. Vilnius is blocking these transports as a result of EU sanctions against Russia. Unsurprisingly, Russia has summoned the EU ambassador and threatened to retaliate with ‘serious consequences’ if the blockade continues. As Russian President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly unpredictable in the past years, the EU is searching for a solution to the dispute. Kaliningrad officials have proposed to modify the sanctions; with the exclave surrounded by NATO members Poland and Lithuania, the situation will remain tense until a workable solution is found.

Russia’s recruitment of essential workers for occupied Ukraine. Four months into its second invasion of Ukraine, Russia seems to prepare for a long-term occupation of Ukraine’s south and east. Another of those signals: a campaign to recruit essential workers for the ‘reconstruction’ of lands occupied by Russia has been launched by the occupier’s authorities. Following job postings on Avito.ru, the Moscow Times concludes that Russia is calling up on its poorest and most patriotic citizens to play a role in the recovery of these regions from the devastation of Russia’s four-month offensive. The authorities aim to compel Russians to join the initiative by offering a slew of benefits, such as coverage of all meals and housing, as well as salaries that can amount to two or three times higher than average salaries in Russia’s regions. These financial and other benefits are meant to compensate for the low demand for the vacancies, which can be explained by both moral objections and safety concerns.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Ariadna Mane, Qianrui Hu, Marie Mach, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Francis Farrell, Bart Alting, Tijs van de Vijver, Lucie Tafforin, Xandie Kuenning, Kirsty Dick, & Vira Kompaniiets 💘

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