Lossi 36 Weekly #26: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: ​​Cyberattacks in Montenegro; a controversial new law on conscription in Armenia; a new council chairman in Karakalpakstan; Hungary braces for winter with energy security plan; bomb threats in Moldova; Intra-Chechen conflict intensifies in Russia; and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

A summer of bomb threats for Moldova. Adriano Rodari

Since July, Moldova has received more than 60 bomb threats targeting diverse locations, from Chisinau’s city hall to the airport, the supreme court, shopping malls, and even hospitals. All these threats share two key characteristics: they often arrive via mail, and they have all turned out to be false. Nobody has yet been charged for the false bomb threats, though authorities managed to trace computer addresses to Russia and Belarus. Moldovan experts blame Russia’s disinformation war for the disruption. The bomb threats have allegedly being used as a way to destabilise Moldova, which has been supporting Ukraine throughout the war. The recurrent threats put additional pressure on the limited capacity of the tiny land-locked country, which has received more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other country.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Montenegro points at Russia after cyberattack on state server. Last Friday, the Montenegrin Agency for National Security (ANB) pointed at Russia as the organiser of several cyberattacks to state and government servers that have happened since 22 August. Dusan Polovic, a government official, stated ‘with certainty that this attack that Montenegro is experiencing these days comes directly from Russia.’ Montenegro is ‘under a hybrid war at the moment,’ claimed the ANB officials, pointing that the attacks ‘have been prepared for a long period of time.’ Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic described the cyberattacks as dangerous and politically motivated, considering the first one took place after parliament backed a vote of no-confidence called by the party of President Milo Djukanovic and smaller parties in the ruling coalition. Political tensions have been going on in Montenegro for weeks after the government signed a controversial new agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), which would ensure the properties stay in the hands of the SPC after the last government tried to turn hundreds of monasteries into state property.

Fears of violent protests mount as talks fail between Serbia and Kosovo over licence plate row. On 1 September, Priština is slated to start imposing new regulations regarding licence plates and state issued identification cards in a continuation of a decade-long struggle with Belgrade over Serbia’s failure to recognize its former province as an independent state. The dispute over licence plates, which began in 2016, escalated in June when the Kosovo government announced that drivers of all vehicles with plates issued by Serbia from 10 June 1999 until 21 April 2022 would have until 30 September 2022 to get Kosovar plates. Additionally, anyone seeking to cross the state border using personal IDs issued by the Serbian authorities will now be issued temporary declaration forms in their stead valid for 90 days, a decision that mirrors Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo-issued IDs. EU foreign policy chief Borrell stressed that current tensions are a symptom of broader unresolved issues and that the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR) is ready to intervene if ‘stability is jeopardised.’

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

UNM member sentenced to 11 days in prison for shooting at a policeman’s car. On Thursday, the Akhalkalaki District Court sentenced Artur Mkoyan, a member of the United National Movement to eleven days of administrative detention for disobeying law enforcement authorities. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, on Tuesday, the politician opened fire on a police car and fled the scene. The police searched Mkoyan’s house, and he was detained on charges of illegal acquisition and storage of firearms. Mkoyan’s family members claim that no weapons were found during the search of the house, which is why he was charged for violating the administrative code. The UNM party denounced Mkoyan’s arrest as ‘political persecution […] the main creator of which is the Akhalkalaki police chief, Shalva Lomsadze.’ The Georgian Interior Ministry rejected the allegations, stating that ‘the search operation was conducted in full accordance with the law. No intimidation or threats were made towards the suspect or his family, as the opposition party had claimed.’

New draft law on conscription stirs up controversy in Armenia. Recently, a new draft law on conscription has been published on the website of the Armenian Ministry of Defence. One of its provisions, stating that a conscript will have the possibility to opt out after four and half months of basic training as long as a payment of 24 million drams (equivalent to 60 thousand US dollars) can be met to the state budget, has prompted many discussions. This is in accordance with the aim of creating a legal framework for gradually reducing the amount of compulsory training and transitioning to a more professional army. However, it has been largely seen as an unfair provision for those soldiers who cannot pay the sum. Additionally, it is believed that the proposed law would further weaken the combat capabilities of the Armenian army by turning it into a ‘mercenary corps’ and is potentially against the constitution. 

🛤 In Central Asia…

Karakalpakstan appoints new council chairman. During his recent visit to the Karakalpak capital, Nukus, in the aftermath of mass unrest in the region two months ago, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev approved the appointment of Amanbai Orynbayev as the chairman of Karakalpakstan’s Supreme Council. Orynbayev will be replacing Murat Kamalov, whose administration was criticised by the President for failing to serve its citizens and for the lack of progress on reforms. The new leadership will focus, inter alia, on the development of infrastructure, agriculture and education. The move is perceived by some as a ploy by the authorities to exercise control over the region following the protests which broke out on 1 July, driven by dismal socio-economic conditions as well as the government’s efforts to dilute the Karakalpak autonomous status through constitutional amendments.

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Reprimands Ukrainian Diplomat. Kazakhstan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ermukhambet Konuspaev, met this week with Ukrainian diplomat Pyotr Vrublevskiy regarding controversial statements the latter had made during a 21 August interview with Kazakh blogger Dias Kuzair. During the interview, which took place at a concert dedicated to 30 years of Kazakh, Polish, and Ukrainian friendship, Vrublevskiy, while replying to one of Kuzair’s questions, stated ‘…we’ll try to kill as many of them [Russians] as possible. The more Russians we kill now, the less they’ll be able to kill our children,’ to which Kuzair replied ‘understood.’ Konuspaev expressed Kazakhstan’s view that such statements were incompatible with the role of a foreign ambassador, and that such actions should not damage the friendly relations between the two states. In response fo Vrublevskiy’s words, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee instructed investigators to assess the involvement of the individuals taking part in the interview in crimes being committed against Russian military personnel.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Poland and Slovakia inaugurate key gas connection. On 26 August, the two countries officially launched a 165 kilometre-long gas interconnector running between the Polish Strachocina and Slovak Veľké Kapušany gas hubs. 40% of the project, i.e. around 100 million euros, was financed by the European Union, which considers the connection to be a significant improvement in security of gas supply in Europe. The pipeline will enable the transport of 5.7 billion m3 of gas per year towards Poland and 4.7 billion m3 towards Slovakia. It will also provide Poland with access to additional sources of gas from LNG terminals in Southern Europe. The interconnector constitutes a key element of the North-South gas infrastructure corridor between the Baltic Sea, the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, and was hailed by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki as a ‘pipeline of peace,’ which ‘creates a community of security based on the strategic Three Seas Initiative.’

Hungary braces for winter with energy security plan, tightens small business tax law. In mid-July, the Hungarian government declared a state of emergency due to an energy crisis and announced a 7-point action plan. Among the measures is seeking additional natural gas resources, leading to the procurement of 700 million additional m3 of gas from Gazprom. Concerns over ever-rising inflation intensified as the utility cost reduction program was halted. Fears of energy shortage in Hungary still persists, considering the interrupted fuel supply for gas stations nationwide, and the stricter fuel price cap. Moreover, the new KATA law regulating freelancers and small business owners, will be effective from 1 September onwards, triggering street protests in major cities for many days. In a nutshell, around 400,000 KATA taxpayers will be restricted to only invoicing private clients and paying the unified contribution despite the number of official working hours, otherwise, they have to switch to a more expensive flat-rate taxation.

Baltic States spearhead potential visa ban on Russians. Several EU members, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Finland, all of which share borders with Russia and are springboards for Russians’ to other EU countries, have joined forces in blocking Russian entries. First, Latvia suspended visa issuances and residence permit renewals for Russian citizens. Lithuania extended the ban to Belarusians and supported a regional ban. Estonia banned Russian visa holders with Estonian Schengen visas from entry. Finland and Poland have significantly reduced tourist visa issuances. However, the idea of collective responsibility triggered a division among EU member states. Portugal and Germany may not back this move, stating that the EU should target the Russian government, not Russian people, especially not those who fled Russia on humanitarian grounds. This issue will be discussed in detail at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers on 30 August, in Prague.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Bulgarian government initiates return to Gazprom. On 26 August, Acting Energy Minister Rosen Hristov announced that the caretaker government had sent a notice to Gazprom, saying it is ready to resume negotiations. While he clarified there will be no talks about renewing the contract, the move is seen as a further sign that the caretaker government is reversing the policies of its elected predecessor, and forcing Bulgaria onto a path of dependence on Russian gas supplies. Notably, the caretaker government recently took steps to block the gas interconnector between Greece and Bulgaria, which was expected to be a way to diversify the energy mix via gas supplies from Azerbaijan. In Sofia, the third in a series of ‘#ГАZwithme’ protests coincided with the peaceful March for Freedom and Independence, organised by Ukrainians in Bulgaria, on 24 August. Bulgaria is set for early parliamentary elections on 2 October, where energy will play a key issue.

🌲 In Russia…

Intra-Chechen conflict intensifies. On 19 August, Ramzan Kadyrov announced blood feuds against those in Ukraine fighting in the name of Ichkeria, a.k.a., independent Chechnya in the 1990s. The Chechen warlord’s declaration is the latest move in what is clearly a gradual progression toward renewed conflict in Chechnya. The year started with a violent crackdown on dissidents’ families. It has also recently been revealed that earlier this year Kadyrov was seeking to assassinate Anzor Maskhadov, son of Ichkeria’s last president. Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine brought the kadyrovtsy back into conflict with their Chechen enemies. In mid-July came the most drastic escalations yet. First, the Sheikh Mansur Battalion of Chechen volunteer fighters outlined their general strategy for the Third Chechen War. A few days later, the heretofore unknown ‘Sons of Ichkeria’ released a video, purportedly filmed inside Chechnya, declaring jihad on the Kadyrov regime. Despite these events, a new war in Chechnya is unlikely for now.

Evgeny Roizman arrested. The high-profile opposition politician and former mayor of Yekaterinburg was detained by police on 24 August. A court has banned him from visiting public places, attending events, or using the internet until 29 September—in other words, he is under house arrest. He is facing charges under the wartime law against “discrediting” Russia’s armed forces. Roizman has voiced his opposition to the 24 February invasion of Ukraine since the beginning, labelling those who organised it ‘traitors of Russia and … their people.’ Prior to his arrest, Roizman was considered the last free opposition member inside Russia. The renewed war has forced many of Putin’s opponents to flee, while other prominent figures (i.e. Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza) have been arrested. This pushes responsibility for oppositional actions onto the general populace. Yekaterinburg’s residents have proven amenable to this situation, recently clashing with Moscow on key issues such as the ongoing invasion and the Orthodox Church.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Ariadna Mañé, Kirsty Dick, Qianrui Hu, Marie Mach, Chaharika Uppal, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Adriano Rodari, Xandie Kuenning, & Harold Chambers 💘

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