Lossi 36 Weekly #41: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Chinese police offices in Croatia and Serbia, joint Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises, Uzbekistan to reject energy union with RussiaLatvia bans exiled Russian TV channel DozhdRomania started exporting gas to Moldova, the imminent fractures in the Chechen oppositionand much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Croatia into Schengen, Bulgaria and Romania rejected.Merijn Hermens

On Thursday 8 December, the interior ministers of the EU’s member states voted on the Schengen fate of Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Croatia was the only candidate to receive the green light: for the first time in 11 years, a new country has been granted entry into the Schengen zone. Bulgaria and Romania, on the other hand, were not so lucky. Bulgaria and Romania faced Austrian opposition because Vienna says it is concerned about the increasing influx of migrants, arriving into the Schengen area through the two countries. The Netherlands is also objecting, but only to the Bulgarian case. The Hague claims that ‘insufficient constitutional reforms have been made,’ because of which it blocked Sofia’s accession. Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for home affairs, regrets the vetoes, and said that ‘the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania deserve to be fully part of the Schengen area.’ Bulgarian and Romanian politicians have expressed their disappointment, with some calling for ‘retaliatory measures’ against Austria and The Netherlands.

🌺 In the Balkans…

The role of Chinese police in Croatia and Serbia under scrutiny for forced repatriations. In the last four years, Serbia and Croatia have passed joint-patrol agreements with China to serve overseas Chinese travellers whenever needed, and enhance their security in the country, a project also called “Safe Tourist Destination.” Far from resembling a touristic enhancement for NGOs, Safeguard’s report, later relayed by mainstream media CNN, linked the policy as “Patrol to Persuade” Chinese dissidents to return back to China. These come together with blaming the two Balkan states for consenting to have opened “de facto police stations.” The Serbian interior minister commented that the Sino-Serbian “police patrols had not used any coercive measures” and that these “allegations were meant to hurt bilateral relations.” The Croatian minister echoed this, acknowledging only the role of “facilitating communication with Chinese tourists.” Serbia and China have developed close ties in the past years. Croatia, via its migration policies, has likewise not played the role of facilitator for foreigners who are fleeing dangerous governments.

Barricades erected across Kosovo by ethnic Serbs. A tense situation erupted overnight in Kosovo after ethnic Serbs erected barricades across the northern regions of the country, blocking major roads in the area. Explosions and gunfire were also reported. The demonstrators claimed that the protests were in response to the recent arrest of a former ethnic Serb police officer, who was arrested on suspicion of being involved in recent attacks on Kosovan officers. Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, reacted to the clashes by sending a request to NATO to allow Serb troops to be placed within parts of Kosovo to help calm tensions. The move was seen as highly unrealistic in actuality and more realistically as another way for Serbia to seek to reclaim control over certain districts of Kosovo. The Kosovan government has also decided to delay upcoming local elections in four municipalities till next year in response to the violence. The increasing tensions overshadowed the announcement by the Kosovan government of their plans to formally submit an application for EU candidacy by the end of the year.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Rallies in Tbilisi for the release of Saakashvili. On 3 December, several thousands of supporters of the former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now in prison under corruption allegations, gathered in the centre of Tbilisi to demand for his release from prison. The rallies were organised by the United National movement, currently in the opposition and founded by Saakashvili, who demanded he be transferred abroad to receive treatment after reports of his seriously deteriorating health. Saakashvili, who came to power after the bloodless Rose revolution of 2003, has been reported to be suffering from fever, anorexia, cachexia, muscle spasms and even displayed symptoms of heavy metal poisoning. Despite multiple warnings from anti-torture watchdog, Empathy and several members of Saakashvili’s team and family of his life-threatening situation, the country´s current ruling party, Georgian Dream has stated that Saakashvili´s condition is the result of two self-proclaimed hunger strikes and refuses to let him receive treatment outside of Georgia.

Azerbaijan and Turkey hold war games against Iran. Azerbaijan announced on 5 December that it has been conducting joint military drills on its border with Iran, with the participation of the Turkish Armed Forces. Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers practised offensive strikes, military operations behind “enemy” lines, and river crossing tactics during the military drills. These war games take place at a time when ties between Baku and Tehran are becoming more strained. A few weeks ago, Iran carried out extensive military drills along the Azerbaijani border, simulating actions like crossing the Aras River. Many commentators characterised these exercises as Iran’s support for Armenia, despite the fact that Iran claims they are a guarantee of its security.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kyrgyzstan proposes changing Soviet-era names. Soviet legacy gets challenged in yet another former republic, as Kyrgyz parliament speaker Nurlanbek Shakiev spoke of changing the names of states and districts having “foreign names” i.e. Russian ones. This is part of an ongoing trend to revive the national language in a country where most households are Russian-speaking. The Kremlin, unsurprisingly, did not take the news too well. First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on International Affairs, Dmitry Novikov, called the move, “a blow to historical memory.” Such attempts to de-Russify one’s national identity have previously been seen in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics, thus explaining Moscow’s volatile reaction. Certain lawmakers even suggested that Putin should discuss the matter with his counterpart, Sadyr Japarov. In fact, a meeting between the two presidents, which took place a few months ago, encouraged the use of the Russian language within educational institutes. 

Uzbekistan rejects Russia’s energy union despite deepening energy deficit. With a fast-growing population reaching 35 million, and an increasing industrial production, Uzbekistan is experiencing a chronic energy deficit. Last month, the state company responsible for street lighting in Tashkent explained that the illuminations would be restricted from 16 November, and on 8 December officials said they would ban government bodies from using cars that run on natural gas – as opposed to petrol – until 1 March of next year. In late November, Russia suggested a tripartite gas union with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, ​​​​​which sparked speculation that it might use the arrangement to provide a form of political leverage over the two countries, both of which have been uneasy at Moscow’s actions since the invasion of Ukraine. On 7 December, Uzbek Energy Minister Zhurabek Mirzamakhmudov poured cold water on the idea of the union, stating that Tashkent would only negotiate “on the basis of a commercial contract, sale and purchase, not by handing over our energy networks.”

🚃 In Central Europe…

Hungary blocks EU macro-financial aid to Ukraine. On 6 December, Viktor Orbán’s government officially opposed the provision of financial assistance worth €18 billion to Ukraine. These macro-financial loans would be aimed at supporting Kyiv’s government with its budget deficit. Already in November, Hungary had expressed its unwillingness to pass the proposal. Since unanimity is required for similar proposals to be approved, the initiative will not be implemented. An alternative solution which has been taken into consideration to provide the funds to Ukraine in spite of Budapest’s veto is the so-called “enhanced cooperation” procedure which allows a minimum of 9 Member States “to set up advanced integration or cooperation in a particular field within the EU, when it has become clear that the EU as a whole cannot achieve the goals of such cooperation within a reasonable period”. For his part, in response to an EU-wide backlash following the veto, Orbán stated that his government would support Ukraine financially “on a bilateral basis.”

Latvia revokes licence of exiled Russian TV channel Dozhd. Last Tuesday, the Latvian government decided to withdraw the broadcast licence of one of the last independent Russian television channels – Dozhd – causing anger and frustration among the outlet’s journalists and other Russian journalists in exile. According to the Latvian media watchdog, Dozhd posed “threats to national security and social order.” The decision to ban the channel was taken following a series of fines issued over the media outlet’s coverage of the war in Ukraine, which included the journalists calling the Russian Armed Forces “our army” and displaying a map in which the annexed Crimea was depicted as a part of the Russian Federation. The last of such incidents came when one of Dozhd’s anchors, Alexey Korostelev, while talking about the channel’s information hotline stated that “we [Dozhd] hope that we can help many [Russian] service members […] with equipment and basic amenities at the front.” Dozhd’s leadership promptly apologised for Korostelev’s words and assured viewers that it had never provided equipment to the Russian army. However, the damage had already been done.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Romania started exporting gas to Moldova. Since 3 December, Romania has started supplying gas to Moldova via the Iași-Ungheni pipeline. It is the first time since this line, completed in 2013, with an extension to Chișinău since 2019, has been used, according to the Transgaz company. The measure alleviates the energy crisis in Moldova by diminishing the risk of blackouts and countering the dependence on Russia, but Moldova needs more energy resources, especially electricity. This has prompted a new deal between Chișinău and Transnistria. The Moldovan gas company, Moldovagaz, will transfer 5.7 million cubic metres of gas if Transnistria ensures the supply of electricity through the power plant of Kuciurgan, located in the region and controlled by a Russian state-owned company.

Stoltenberg: further escalation of the war is possible. In an interview for Norwegian broadcaster NRK, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed his worries that the war in Ukraine could become a war between Russia and NATO. The Kremlin authorities repeatedly accused NATO allies of meddling in Russia’s plans, providing Ukraine with weapons, training its troops and feeding military intelligence to attack Russian forces. The US also warned that Russia and Iran’s relationship has warmed to a ‘fully-fledged defence partnership,’ as Iran continues to remain Russia’s top military backer by sending kamikaze drones, targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. Only on Saturday, 10 December, the Ukrainian army confirmed it shot down ten Russian drones, but another five hit energy facilities, leaving approximately 1.5 million people without power. The Ministry of Defence of the UK expects Iranian backing for the Russian military “to grow in coming months” as Russia seeks to acquire more weapons.

🌲 In Russia…

Chechen opposition fractures loom again. Rumours of Chechen dissident Tumso Abdurakhmanov’s death were supposedly confirmed by other major opposition members. Different actors disputed these claims, predominantly along factional divisions. German officials now say Abdurakhmanov lives. Allies of self-appointed, prime minister-in-exile Akhmed Zakayev decided to slander their missing-and-presumed-dead comrade. They unsubstantially claimed that Abdurakhmanov “was sent to West [sic] to brainwash young Chechens and to collect information about the young generation [sic].” This is hardly the first time Zakayev’s faction has made such accusations. Chechen human rights organisation VAYFOND published claims of Zakayevtsy’s campaign against them. Earlier, tensions flared when rival Chechen diaspora conferences were held on 25-26 November in Strasbourg and on 27 November in Antwerp. The former was held by the anti-Zakayev faction, and the latter by Zakayev. Zakayev’s team, as the government-in-exile, opened criminal proceedings against the organisers of the Strasbourg conference. There is currently no path forward to healing these divisions.

‘Merchant of Death’ returns home. On 8 December, prolific arms dealer and gun-runner Viktor Bout was exchanged for American basketball player Brittney Griner. Bout, nicknamed the ‘Merchant of Death’, was arrested in Thailand in 2008 during a sting operation organised by American, Thai, and INTERPOL officials. He was imprisoned in the United States since 2009. The Kremlin’s efforts to co-opt and politically integrate Bout began instantly, as his first interview upon arriving home was with RT’s Maria Butina. Butina herself was included in the prisoner exchange with the U.S. in 2019, after being convicted of posing as an unregistered foreign agent. Bout’s exchange for Griner has proven contentious. Many American commentators have expressed fear that this exchange will further endanger American citizens abroad, as the unbalanced prisoner trade might encourage other authoritarian regimes. International tensions formed when the Saudi and Emirati leadership claimed responsibility for the trade, which the U.S. denies.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Charles Fourmi, Shujaat Ahmadzada, Jordi Beckers, Chaharika Upppal, Myriam Marino, Sam Appels, Merijn Hermens, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘

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