Lossi 36 Weekly #31: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Spy hunt in Montenegro; Armenia to boost military budget; torture investigations in Kazakhstan; national consultation on sanctions in Hungary; LGBTQ+ events in Kharkiv; Russia to ‘annex’ more Ukrainian land; and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Latvia’s Russophone minority and the Latvian parliamentary elections. Myriam Marino
On Saturday, 1 October, parliamentary elections took place in Latvia. The Saeima elections had long worried the Russian-speaking community in Latvia, since the polls showed that the ruling coalition with anti-Russia views currently maintained its electoral support. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the government in power, led by Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, introduced restrictions on Russian language use and teaching, commemorative public gatherings of the Russian-speaking minority, and Russian TV broadcasting in Latvia. The Prime Minister’s plan, now that it seems that he will be re-elected, is to encourage Latvian language learning among the youth of the Russian-speaking minority. Kariņš’ highly supported right-wing National Alliance party (9.3% according to preliminary results) and the centre-right New Unity party (19%) have presented the firmest stances against the current position of the Russian language and culture in the country. As the results were counted, it increasingly seemed that all parties aimed at attracting votes from Russophones – Social Democratic ‘Harmony’ and the more controversial ‘Latvian Russian Union’ – would fall below the electoral threshold of 5%.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Bosnia prepares for nationwide elections. Polling stations across the country opened early Sunday morning as the nation elected its 3 new members for the presidency, along with hundreds of positions across federal and local parliaments. The fairly timid election campaign suddenly took a sharp turn after the notorious Serb-member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik, voiced his support not only for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but also for the illegitimate sham referendums that were held across four Ukrainian regions last week. To more concern, Dodik hinted at how the ‘referendum format’ could also be used in the Serb-dominated region of Republika Srpska, a move which he has advocated for some time. Dodik’s politically-inciting moves were made following his recent infamous trip to Moscow to visit Putin, who endorsed Dodik’s campaign.
Montenegro hunting down spies. Last week, the country’s Special State Prosecution announced that it had launched an investigation into an unspecified number of people suspected of espionage and conspiring to set up a criminal organisation. Local media reported that six Russian diplomats, 30 Russian citizens with temporary residence permits, and two Montenegrins had been detained, however, the Special State Prosecutor spokesperson stressed that the police were conducting searches of different premises, and no arrests had been made so far. Montenegrin PM Dritan Abazović called the investigation an ‘international operation,’ involving foreign partners and aimed at protecting the national interests of Montenegro. The country’s relations with Russia have been growing increasingly sour over the past years. In 2016, Montenegro accused Russia of being behind an attempted coup, which was meant to install a pro-Russian government in the country. In 2017, Montenegro joined NATO, and it continues to pursue the path of EU accession, further angering Moscow.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
Armenia boosts military spending. The Armenian government has declared that it has doubled its military budget and that it has purchased additional weaponry, at a time when the situation on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains tense. Reportedly, Indian military companies would provide Armenia with Pinaka multiple launch rocket systems, which have a shooting range of up to 60 kilometres, along with anti-tank guided missile systems and artillery ammunitions, part of the agreement reached between Armenia and India. This is not India’s first military sale to Armenia: in 2020, Swathi artillery radars were delivered to Yerevan. In other news, Armenia set its 2023 military spending at US $1.2 billion. This represents around a 50% increase compared to the current military budget ($754 million), making Armenia one of the nations with the highest percentage of GDP dedicated to military spending. On the other hand, Baku vowed to take ‘appropriate actions’ to stop the sale of weapons to Armenia and stated that it opposed Armenia’s ambitions to arm itself.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Kyrgyz jazz musician returns to Kazakhstan to assist in torture investigation. Vikram Ruzakhunov, who was forced to go on Kazakh TV during the January 2022 uprising to admit that someone had paid him $200 to participate in the protests, returned to Kazakhstan last week to assist with an investigation into his arrest and detainment. His TV appearance sparked protests in his home country of Kyrgyzstan, as the bruises on his face led many people to correctly assume that he had been forced to make the statement. Ruzakhunov was released from Kazakh custody three days later, after pressure from the Kyrgyz government. On Monday, Ruzakhunov revisited the crime scene where he was tortured. ‘A lot of work has been done through the joint efforts of the Anti-Corruption Service and human rights activists with my personal participation,’ Ruzakhunov said, stating that out of 348 people, he identified more than 10 police officers who were involved in his arrest and detainment.
Humanitarian efforts in Kyrgyzstan. In light of the Kyrgyz-Tajik clashes that took place last month, several humanitarian aid organisations (local and foreign) have been mobilised to help the victims. As a form of mutual aid after the January uprising in Kazakhstan, Kazakh civil society actors have been helping to provide food and shelter, and raise funds. During the recent clashes, the Sports Palace in Bishkek became a nexus for aid distribution. Volunteers and activists from organisations like the Centre for Youth have been at the forefront of this mass mobilisation of support. This sturdy civil society framework has been put in place to fill the vacuum left by the government, whom the people seem to have very little faith in. Aijan Sharshenova, an analyst based in Bishkek, mentioned how during times of crisis, people had to be ‘resilient’ and ‘self-reliant.’ This lack of administrative support was also seen during the pandemic; the Kyrgyz government’s lack of transparency has only made matters worse.
Fleeing Russians put pressure on Kazakhstan’s infrastructure and society. Since the announcement of partial mobilisation by Moscow on 21 September, tens of thousands of Russian citizens have fled their country for Kazakhstan. Russian men eligible for mobilisation – sometimes together with their families – have been crossing the second-longest land border in the world to avoid military service in Ukraine. Their choice is in many cases motivated by the fact that Russian citizens do not need a visa or even an international passport to enter Kazakhstan. The influx of already more than 100,000 Russians has led to a rise of rents, while hotels and hostels are full. Nevertheless, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has urged patience and tolerance. ‘We must take care of them and ensure their safety. This is a political and humanitarian matter,’ he said.
🚃 In Central Europe…
Orbán announces national consultation on sanctions against Russia. Orbán has stated that Hungary should prepare for a prolonged war in Ukraine, because of which sanctions should be lifted in order to combat inflation and avoid a recession. He argued that the sanctions ‘backfired,’ as they were meant to bring an end to the war, when in reality ‘every European citizen is paying a sanction surcharge for energy.’ The national consultation will poll Hungary’s populace’s stance towards the sanctions on energy. The outcomes of similar polls have in the past been used by the Hungarian government to justify its policies on gay rights and immigration, or as Orbán put it himself: ‘a shared basis for crisis management.’ Orbán’s statements this week have marked the first time the Hungarian prime minister called for complete lifting of the European sanctions, after over the course of the war he repeatedly argued for their ineffectiveness.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Bulgaria-Greece pipeline obtains final operational permits. The Bulgaria-Greece natural gas pipeline (IGB) has received its final permits for use in both countries, in time for its expected commissioning on 1 October. The pipeline will allow for additional gas imports to Bulgaria from Azerbaijan as well as the flow of liquified natural gas (LNG) from Greek and Turkish terminals, thereby playing a crucial role in Bulgaria’s fight for energy independence. The pipeline is also expected to aid Romania in supplying natural gas to Ukraine and Moldova, as well as assist Serbia in transitioning away from a total reliance on Russian gas supplies.
LGBTQ+ Events held in Kharkiv. Approximately 30 people gathered in the metro for the Kharkiv Pride March on Sunday 25 September. This is in sharp contrast with last year’s Pride, when around 3000 people participated. However, due to the war, the organisation decided to keep the gathering modest and, above all, safe. The March marked the end of Pride Week, which saw all kinds of events dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community in the Kharkiv region and throughout Ukraine. According to Ruslana Hnatchenko, a member of Sphere, a feminist lesbian organization that coordinates KharkivPride, some LGBTQ+ people have encountered additional obstacles because of the war. Since same-sex marriage is not allowed in Ukraine, it is impossible for partners of LGBTQ+ people who serve at the front and are injured, to prove their relationship. Therefore, they cannot request information about their partner. If an LGBTQ+ person dies at the front, the partner left behind is not granted compensation from the state. Marriage equality became an even more important issue for the LGBTQ+ community since the war began, says Hnatchenko. A petition asking President Zelenskyy to legalize same-sex marriage was signed 25,800 times this summer. In the official response to the petition, Zelensky said that the Ukrainian constitution could not be changed during wartime, but he asked the prime minister to look into marriage equality and into the possibility of introducing civil partnerships.
🌲 In Russia…
Russia ‘incorporating’ four Ukrainian regions. On 30 September, at 3pm Moscow time, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a public ceremony to officially proclaim the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian occupied territories – the self-declared republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. According to the Kremlin and so-called referenda (or rather sham referenda), 93% of voters in Zaporizhzhia, 87% in Kherson, 98% in Luhansk, and 99% in Donetsk were in favour of being incorporated into Russia. To affirm his military intentions, Putin claimed that any attack on the ‘newly gained territories’ would be considered an attack on the territorial integrity of Russia, and Moscow ‘will respond with all means available to it’ because the inhabitants of these regions are ‘citizens of Russia…forever.’ Just several hours later, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that Ukraine had applied for NATO accession under an accelerated procedure. The international community strongly condemned Russia’s illegal annexation claims and a nuclear attack threat, and proceeded with further sanctions. The detention of the director of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Ihor Murashov, by Russian patrols on 30 September has further added to the tensions.
The North Caucasus deploys. The mobilisation order from Moscow reignited resistance in several North Caucasian republics, particularly in Dagestan. With the risk of protests continuing, those mobilised have now left for Ukraine. In September’s closing days, conscripts from Dagestan, Ossetia, and Karachay-Cherkessia all deployed. Those from Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria deployed together—remember that their Rosgvardia units operated jointly around Enerhodar in March—but only after a man died on the tarmac. Conscripts from Kabardino-Balkaria have reported that many of the mobilised have ailments that should have precluded them from fighting. The level of incompetence displayed during the mobilisation, e.g., disobeying orders pertaining to who should be taken to the frontline, is equalled after the conscription as well. The region’s conscripts have been instructed to buy their own uniforms, equipment, and medical supplies. It is apparent that the new, untrained men arriving in Ukraine will indeed be cannon fodder or, as the Dagestani opposition phrases it, ‘sheep who do not mind that they would cook khinkal from them.’
Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Agnieszka Widlaszewska, Zadig Tisserand, Chaharika Uppal, Kirsty Dick, Myriam Marino, Jordi Beckers, Merijn Hermens, Xandie Kuenning, Vira Kompaniiets, Sam Appels, & Harold Chambers 💘