Lossi 36 Weekly #29: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Cyberattack across The Balkans; clashes on the Armenia–Azerbaijan border; Xi and Pope Francis visit Kazakhstan; European Parliament classifies Hungary as ‘electoral autocracy’; Ukraine‘s counteroffensive; the question of mobilisation in Russia; and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Renewed conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.Lucie Tafforin
On 14 September, fresh clashes erupted between Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards, leaving at least 30 dead and over 80 injured. Security officials from both sides accuse each other of starting the violence along the disputed border. This comes one day after Kyrgyzstan showed off its new Turkish-made drones, which Bishkek may have demonstrated as its advantage in the case of future confrontations with its neighbour. According to RFE/RL, the two sides opened negotiations to resolve the dispute, but two truces are already reported to have collapsed. These latest skirmishes occurred one day before Kyrgyz President Japorov and Tajik President Rakhmon were set to meet at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. As the conflict intensified in the Batken region, over 140,000 residents were evacuated. This is the worst eruption of violence since August 2021, when two dozen people were killed and over 150 were injured on both sides.
These long-standing tensions stem from the Soviet borders that artificially divided ethnic groups, as well as from the competition for access to water in the fertile Ferghana Valley. As climate change intensifies across the globe, so does the competition for water among Central Asian states for agriculture, electricity generation, and drinking. Almost half of the 970 kilometres-border remains to be demarcated, leading to frequent tensions and sporadic clashes since both countries gained independence in 1991.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Controversial Bosnia-Russia friendly football match to go ahead. European football association UEFA has said it will not ban a friendly match between Bosnia & Herzegovina and Russia in Saint Petersburg in November, stating it would not break any of the organisation’s rules even though Russia’s membership of the association has been banned since the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. Two of Bosnia’s most high profile players, Edin Džeko and Miralem Pjanić, have both come out against plans for the match, with both citing the ongoing Russian invasion as the main reasoning behind it. They are similarly joined by the Mayor of Sarajevo, who also spoke out against the organisation of the match. On an international scale, the outcry follows similar moves by the men’s national teams of Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, who all said they would not face the Russian national team in the UEFA World Cup qualifiers following the start of the invasion in February. The match would mark the first time that a European national men’s football team had met their Russian opponents on the pitch since Russia’s national team was barred from international competition earlier this year.
Numerous cyberattacks take place throughout the Balkans. Kosovo is the latest Balkan country to face a series of cyberattacks, leading the government to approve a draft law on cybersecurity, which will include the formation of a state agency. Kosovo Telecom was the latest target, with internet services on mobile and landline phones interrupted on 13 September, while cyberattacks on government services caused disruptions throughout the week. A number of neighbouring countries have also seen breaches in security, including North Macedonia, who saw its education ministry’s website hacked on 10 September. In August, the government’s site for public services was forced offline for two days. In Montenegro, the country’s administration has continued to function offline since 26 August, following a series of ransomware attacks on government servers which have since been blamed on Russian services. Earlier this month, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama froze diplomatic ties with Iran following a major cyberattack in July on the Albanian government’s online servers.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes: around 200 killed along border. Between September 12 and 15, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have had conflicting positions over the Karabakh region for nearly three decades, took up arms again, this time kilometres away from the conflict zone: along the internationally recognized interstate border. As a result of the military escalation, which the Azerbaijani side called a ‘response to Armenian provocation,’ it was recorded that several objects inside Armenia were targeted by artillery and drone strikes. Total casualties on both sides are believed to be more than 200. Escalation was unequivocally condemned by many states – including the USA, France, and Russia – and even a special meeting of the UN Security Council was convened. Even though Yerevan has confirmed that it has lost control over a number of heights in the southern regions, it is still unclear what the political consequences of the military escalation will be: several protests with different objectives are ongoing in Yerevan, with some displaying their anger with Azerbaijan or Armenia’s Pashinyan government, while others decry the lack of CSTO response while welcoming US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Kazakhstan visited by Xi Jinping and Pope Francis. Kazakhstan has had a busy week, hosting both Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The pope was in Kazakhstan to attend the seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which discusses the role of religion in the development of humanity in the modern world. Pope Francis said he hoped to meet Patriarch Kirill at the interreligious summit, but last week Kirill’s spokesman said the patriarch would not attend the event. Pope Francis was asked if he would meet with Xi Jinping while in Kazakhstan, to which he replied ‘I don’t have any news about this. But I am always ready to go to China.’ Xi arrived on Wednesday, marking Kazakhstan as the first country visited by the president since the start of the pandemic. At a meeting with Tokayev, Xi said that ‘going forward we will also resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defence of its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.’ Given that the biggest threat to Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity might emanate from its northern neighbour Russia, Xi’s words sound like a warning to Putin to not meddle in Central Asia.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Latvian parliament (Saeima) supports Rail Baltica Bill. The bill was proposed and accepted by the Saeima, in order to ‘remove obstacles’ that would obstruct the ‘timely completion’ of Rail Baltica. Rail Baltica will be a railway that runs from Warsaw to Helsinki, linking the Baltic States with the European railway network. The railway project is therefore framed on its website as ‘a symbolic turn of the Baltic States to Europe.’ Even though costs of the project in the Baltic States will be up to 5.8 billion euros, Krišjānis Feldmans, chairman of the committee responsible for passing the bill through the Saeima, argued that the project is ‘a geopolitically important object of national interest’ and ‘an essential transport logistics and infrastructure solution to connect the Baltic States with the rest of the European Union.’ The Baltic States are still using the broad gauge railway track that they inherited from the Soviet Union instead of the standard gauge, the norm in most of Europe which will be used for the Rail Baltica.
European Parliament classifies Hungary as an ‘electoral autocracy.’ On 15 September, the European Parliament passed an interim report which condemned Hungary as a ‘hybrid regime of electoral autocracy.’ The motion obtained 433 votes in favour, 123 against, and 28 abstentions. The report aims to emphasize the areas where democratic standards have deteriorated in the Hungarian society. These include the constitutional and electoral system, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, LGBTQI rights, and refugee rights. In the text, the European Parliament identified anti-democratic trends in Hungary as a ‘systemic threat to the values of Article 2 TEU,’ in an attempt to ‘undermine the founding values of the Union.’ The document urged the Council to once again take measures in regard to the issue. Despite a lack of concrete action against Hungary’s breaches of rule-of-law, the European Commission is expected to soon formally recommend a cut in EU funds allocated to Orbán’s country to the Council of the EU.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive. In early September, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive to gain back temporarily occupied territories in the Kharkiv region. This was not met with much resistance from the Russian army, which was expecting a counteroffensive near the southern city of Kherson, so that the Ukrainian army could secure its control of the Kharkiv Oblast on Tuesday 13 September. According to President Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian army now holds 6000 sq km that was previously occupied by the Russians. Over 300 cities and towns are now liberated, such as Izium, Balakliia and Kupiansk. Maksym Strelnikov, a local city council member, stated that at least 1000 residents have been killed in Izium since the Russian occupation started. Zelenskyy visited Izium on 14 September, and shared that a mass burial site containing 440 graves was found. In spite of the successes, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned that the counterattack ‘is effective but likely does not signal the war’s end.’ Stoltenberg stressed that ‘we need to be prepared for the long haul.’
Belarusian journalist sentenced for treason. On 14 September, the Belarusian journalist Dzyanis Ivashyn was sentenced to 13 years and one month of jailtime by the Belarusian authorities on a high treason charge. The regional court of Hrodna ruled that the journalist must pay a 4,800-ruble ($1,900) fine and an 18,000-ruble compensation ($7,120) to nine victims who were unspecified. Ivashyn’s arrest is one of many after Minsk’s crackdown on journalists, activists, and oppositionists after the mass protests in August 2020 against the result of the elections. Several Belarusian human rights organizations have recognized as a political prisoner. The European Union and United States have so far refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the elections of 2020 and several rounds of sanctions have been imposed on him and his regime.
🌲 In Russia…
The North Caucasus votes. The results, generally speaking, were not surprising: United Russia won and ‘A Just Russia’ (AJR) was allowed some gains at the expense of the Communists (KPRF). In North Ossetia, outside competitors were banned, meaning only the internal composition of parliament was changed. The commander of the ‘Alania’ volunteer battalion also conducted a smear campaign against the ‘traitors’ in AJR. Ossetia’s senator from AJR has now been ousted. Adygea’s incumbent governor had no alternatives, and accordingly was re-elected by the republic’s parliament. Karachay-Cherkessia saw an abnormally high turnout, which likely had more to do with the intra-elite battle over the Cherkessk city Duma. Widespread violations occurred in Krasnodar, leading the regional KPRF branch — which is aligned with true opposition — to refuse to recognize the election results. Finally, municipal elections in Dagestan demonstrated that it is still possible to challenge United Russia at such a local level.
As Ukraine regains territories, will Russia announce full mobilisation? Ukraine’s earlier mentioned spectacular advances in the Kharkiv region sent ripples across the Russian establishment. Fearing an even bigger embarrassment on the battlefield, politicians and pundits alike started calling for a new approach to the ‘special military operation.’ Mentions of a mobilisation, in some shape or form, have become increasingly noticeable. As the Russian Duma gathered for its first session after summer recess, the leader of the Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov called for a ‘full mobilisation of forces and resources’ to respond to what has become a ‘fully-fledged war’ in Ukraine. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov for his part called for regional governors to organise ‘self-mobilisation’ of at least 1000 fighters per region. The Kremlin reacted by saying that full mobilisation was not on the agenda at the moment. Since the beginning of the invasion, the topic was mostly avoided as the authorities (rightly) fear that it would meet strong opposition from the public.
Pressure on Russia over Ukraine grows. At a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed their concerns over the conflict in Ukraine to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While Putin thanked China for ‘the balanced position in connection with the Ukrainian crisis,’ Xi’s response was focused on bringing stability and positivity to a world in disarray. India’s Prime Minister, in his return, highlighted that ‘today’s era is not an era of war,’ and that democracy, diplomacy, and dialogue should keep the world together. Putin responded with the desire to end the special military operation as soon as possible, despite Ukraine’s unwillingness to hold a negotiation process at this stage. Russia, hit hard by the Western sanctions and isolation, has been relying on continuous trade with India and China, especially in sales of oil and natural gas. The criticism received from its major strategical partners only proves that pressure on Russia will not wane as long as Putin continues the war.
Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Shujaat Ahmadzada, Lucie Tafforin, Myriam Marino, Jordi Beckers, Merijn Hermens, Sam Appels, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Vira Kompaniiets, Kirsty Dick, Xandie Kuenning, & Harold Chambers 💘