Lossi 36 Weekly #35: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: ​​Serbia drops numerous visa-free regimes, protests in Baku, Kazakhstan knows its candidates for the presidency, Polish Senate recognises Russia as a ‘terrorist regime,’ Croatia and Bulgaria tie in their Schengen fate, constitutional changes in Dagestanand much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Russia throws Black Sea Grain Initiative in the bin. Tijs van de Vijver

In the spring, Russia’s maritime blockade of Ukraine caused a complete halt to Ukraine’s export of agricultural produce by sea. To remedy soaring food prices and a food crisis across the globe, Turkey and the United Nations finally brokered a ‘Black Sea Grain Initiative’ in late July, which provided the conditions for a resumption of Ukrainian commercial naval activity. The initiative came into effect on 1 August, thus far allowing for the safe passage of over 450 ships and nearly 9.5 million tonnes of foodstuffs and fertilisers, with the bulk of the former made up of corn (43%) and wheat (29%). 

Russia has long attempted to discredit the deal with disinformation campaigns, while also seeking to obstruct it: Moscow often delayed its inspections of Ukrainian ships, which recently caused the creation of a 170-ship queue. As a result, Ukraine and its Western partners long suspected that Russia might not extend the deal past its upcoming expiration date of 19 November. Ultimately, it did not even get to that point: on 29 October, Russia announced the suspension of the deal, citing Ukrainian drone strikes more than 200 kilometres away in Crimea’s Bay of Sevastopol as its justification, which the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and many others consider a “false pretext.” To Ukraine and its partners, Russia has once again shown itself as an unreliable party when it comes to upholding its international commitments: “negotiations with [Russia] are a waste of time,” commented Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Serbia ends visa-free regimes with a number of third countries. Following weeks of pressure from the EU, Serbia has finally decided to end its ongoing visa-free deals with Tunisia and Burundi. The EU has recently complained about an increasing flow of illegal immigrants, with many nationals travelling to Serbia, taking advantage of a number of recent (and historical) visa-free agreements in place, before attempting to enter the EU from there. Some of the deals were agreed upon back in the days of Yugoslavia, however, more recent ones were granted due to the involved countries’ refusal to recognise the independence of Kosovo from Serbia. In many of the recent cases of attempted illegal migration into the EU, migrants first enter Serbia visa-free through nations such as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, India, and Burundi. The move shall take effect for passport holders from Burundi and Tunisia from 20 November onwards.

Cultural club wars between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Ongoing tensions between the two countries, caused by disputes over history, language, and the treatment of their respective minorities, have come to fruition in a number of controversial cultural clubs opening in both countries recently. In April, a Bulgarian club named after Ivan Mihailov, a nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator, opened in the North Macedonian town of Bitola, followed by a club named after King Boris III of Bulgaria, opening in Ohrid earlier this month. Both figures are negatively perceived in North Macedonia and the openings of the clubs, attended by high-level Bulgarian representatives, faced protests organised by angry locals. Just last Sunday, however, an equally controversial Macedonian cultural club opened in the Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad, bearing the name of Nikola Vaptsarov, a poet claimed by both sides as their own. The municipality called the move “a provocation,” with the choice of the name also being criticised by the poet’s surviving family members, who consider themselves Bulgarian.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Dozens arrested following protest in Baku. Around 100 people were detained on 24 October in an opposition protest organised by the Popular Front Party. Organised in front of the capital’s Executive Authority, the demonstrators called for the right to freedom of assembly, the release of political prisoners, the reopening of Azerbaijan’s land borders, free elections, and an end to the ‘family rule’ of the Aliyevs. According to local media reports and Popular Front members, police began detaining Popular Front members and possible protest attendees hours ahead of the scheduled rally. Azerbaijan’s land borders have been closed since April 2020.

Armenia bans Russian public figures. A member of Russian parliament, Konstantin Zatulin, has been banned from entering Armenia. Just few hours after the news broke about Zatulin, it was reported that Kremlin’s chief propagandist Margarita Simonyan – who is of Armenian origin – has also banned from Armenia. These surprising travel bans targeted Zatulin and Simonyan after they made critical comments towards the government of Armenia. But the timing is more significant, as these bans came out just after the intensification of the war of words between Yerevan and Moscow: on 24 October, Russian President Putin criticised Armenia’s authorities for choosing what he called the “Washington proposals” for the peace deal to be signed between Yerevan and Baku, which would lead to the full sovereignty of Azerbaijan over the Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Candidates for Kazakhstan’s upcoming election announced. On 21 October, registration ended for candidates wishing to run in Kazakhstan’s upcoming snap presidential election. On 20 November, current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will run alongside five other candidates: Meiram Kazhyken, Zhiguli Dairabayev, Karakat Abden, Saltanat Tursynbekova and Nurlan Auesbaev. For the first time in the country’s history, the elections will see two women participating. The candidates were required to collect signatures from at least 1 percent of the country’s registered voters, i.e. 118,273 people. Despite the current frosty relations between Astana and Moscow, the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) already announced that it had sent an election observation mission to Kazakhstan. These long-term observers include representatives from the CIS Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Russia-Belarus union state, diplomats accredited in Astana, and employees of the CIS executive committee. More observers from the CIS will arrive in mid-November to monitor the election itself, while the OSCE has also announced its own monitoring mission.

Upheaval in Kyrgyzstan, again. The Kyrgyz government’s decision to transfer the Kempirabad water reservoir to Uzbekistan in exchange for disputed land along the two nations’ shared border, has faced strong opposition. On 23 October, the authorities detained around 20 opposition leaders and human rights activists following a protest in Bishkek. Even locals from bordering regions have held gatherings to protest against the transfer. The Kyrgyz president, Sadyr Japarov, has claimed that the protestors were “paid” for their participation. The Interior Ministry is currently interrogating the detainees under the suspicion of “planning to organise mass unrest”, while a court in Bishkek has ruled that they should remain in detention for two months, in a trial which was apparently filled with violations, such as the defendants not knowing the charges pressed against them. On 27 October, the local branch of Radio Free Europe, Radio Azattyk, which had been reporting on the controversial land deal, had its website taken down by the authorities.

🚃 In Central Europe…

Czechia prolonged strengthened border controls at the Slovakian border. The measures introduced at the end of summer to increase border monitoring at the border with Slovakia were extended for a second time by the Czech government. According to Prime Minister Petr Fiala, the increase in irregular migration made it necessary to adopt tighter measures. These were introduced, for the first time, in September, and later extended until 28 October. Moreover, the number of border guards was increased by 320 units. Official data report that  more than 5,400 illegal immigrants were detected at the border since September. It was, nevertheless, pointed out how the influx concerns mostly Syrians and how Czechia is only a transit country to reach Germany for most. Already in September, the Czech Minister of Interior manifested his country’s desire to “find a Europe-wide solution” to the issue.

Polish Senate recognizes the Russian regime as a “terrorist regime.” On Wednesday, the senate adopted this resolution with 85 senators voting in favour. Poland is the fourth country in Europe, following the Baltic States, to adopt such a resolution after the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s behaviour in temporarily occupied regions: the resolution refers to the Russian aggression towards the Ukrainian people, such as the bombing of civilians and mistreatment of prisoners of war, as being committed by “bandits in Russian uniform.” It further drew parallels between the actions of the Russian regime and the actions of the Stalinist and Nazi regimes, and stated that the war in Ukraine broke the dream of never having to experience war and genocide on the European continent again. The resolution then also called upon the international community for the Russian regime to be held accountable for its crimes at the International Criminal Court.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Croatia and Bulgaria tie in their Schengen fate. Iliana Iotova, Vice President of Bulgaria, met with Croatian PM Zoran Milanović in Zagreb on 26 October. The meeting largely focused on accession into the Schengen zone. Plenković said that “it is the ambition of Croatia and Bulgaria to enter the Schengen area together,” and assured Iotova that Croatia will support both Bulgaria’s and Romania’s bid for membership. Croatia just began the Schengen entry process, but MEPs have called for Bulgaria and Romania to be admitted into Schengen several times already. The European Parliament recently adopted a resolution supporting the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen zone. However, the Council of the EU decides on accession unanimously, and The Netherlands is the only country that remains opposed. The Dutch Parliament passed a resolution on Thursday 20 October stating that The Netherlands should block the accession of Romania and Bulgaria when the Council votes on the matter in December.

Russia continues to target Ukrainian infrastructure. Since 10 October, 40% of Ukrainian energy infrastructure has been damaged, with 90% of wind generation and 50% of solar power capacity decommissioned – said the country’s energy minister German Galushchenko. Rolling electricity blackouts for more than four hours are hitting not only Kyiv but also central regions of Ukraine, including the city of Dnipro. On 28 October, Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said the city’s energy was operating in an emergency mode, and it can take more than three weeks to eliminate an electricity deficit ranging between 20% and 50%. Russia’s latest warfare tactics of terrorizing Ukrainian civilians and trying to get their morale low can be considered a war crime, as well as part of a genocide against the people of Ukraine. Behind the Russian attacks on Ukrainian critical infrastructure, more than 300 Iranian drones are targeting only Kyiv, namely Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6 sophisticated low-cost models. Despite Ukraine’s demands on Iran to stop providing weapons to Russia and requests to its Western allies to sanction the Iranian regime, Tehran and Moscow continue to deny any partnership and accountability for harming civilians.

🌲 In Russia…

Dagestan advances constitutional amendments. Governor Sergei Melikov attempts to change the republic’s constitution, destabilising the region for the sake of federal integration. He secretly initiated the amendment process back in June, but only commenced the required public discussions on 22 October. The entire process has been met with public opposition, focused on an amendment transferring responsibility for Dagestan’s territorial integrity from Melikov to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Melikov’s regional status has recently grown, but he will always fundamentally be a counterweight to Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov, specifically on the issue of Kadyrov’s attempts to annex his neighbours. Many Dagestanis expect such an annexation, as their republic’s border with Chechnya remains un-demarcated. Melikov’s actions are considered by some to match those preceding Kadyrov’s 2018 land grab in Ingushetia. Additionally, activists in Karachay-Cherkessia now fear that similar amendments were secretly adopted by their own parliament on 20 October, as their borders are also not fully delimited.

LGBT Propaganda’ legislation expanded by Russian lawmakers’ vote. Last Thursday, Russian lawmakers unanimously voted in favour of a bill that is designed to prevent the spread of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” towards minors and adults. With the new bill, not only minors but also adults will be “protected” against “gay propaganda.” According to activists, the bill will illegalise any mention or display of LGTB relationships on the Russian public platforms. In 2013, the Kremlin outlawed the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” towards minors, which was then seen as part of Moscow’s more assertive conservative agenda. In the Russian Federation, homosexuality was a criminal offense until 1993, and was classified as a mental illness until 1999. 

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Shujaat Ahmadzada, Xandie Kuenning, Chaharika Uppal, Kirsty Dick, Myriam Marino, Jordi Beckers, Merijn Hermens, Vira Kompaniiets, Sam Appels, & Harold Chambers 💘

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