Lossi 36 Weekly #42: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: EU candidacy for Bosnia, blockade of Lachin Corridor, activism in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, vote of no confidence for the government in Slovakia, suspension of six TV channels in MoldovaIlya Yashin sentenced to 8,5 years, and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Blockade of the Lachin Corridor puts Nagorno-Karabakh at risk of a humanitarian crisis.Xandie Kuenning

Since 12 December, the road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor, has been blocked by a group of Azeri “eco-activists” allegedly protesting illegal mining in the region. Nagorno-Karabakh, heavily dependent on Armenia for food and medical supplies, has thus been put on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, furthered by the disconnection of gas supplies for several days. While the government officials of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh accuse Azerbaijan of organising the blockade, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has denied responsibility, stating that the protest by environmental activists still allows civilian vehicles to move freely and that the road has actually been blocked by Russian peacekeepers. Though Putin has held talks with both Aliyev and Pashinyan, little of the tension was diffused, and the blockade continues.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Kosovo ex-guerrilla commander receives 26 year long imprisonment over war crimes. Last Friday, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague Tribunal found Kosovo’s former guerrilla commander, Salih Mustafa, guilty of the war crimes of arbitrary detention, torture, and murder, sentencing him to a prison sentence of 26 years. The crimes for which Mustafa was found guilty took place in April 1999, at a compound in the village of Zllash/Zlaš, Kosovo, a base for the BIA Guerrilla unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), of which he was the commander. All victims and witnesses are ethnic Albanians, who were accused of collaborating with Serbs. This is the court’s first judgement dealing specifically with war crimes charges since it was set up in 2015 to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, commenced or committed in Kosovo between 1998 and 2000. However, many Kosovar Albanianas believe that the court is ethnically biassed, unjust, and that it denigrates the KLA’s just war against Serbian repression.

Bosnia and Herzegovina granted EU candidate country status via unanimous vote. The European Council’s decision marks a key milestone in Bosnia’s six-year long journey towards EU integration. In 2016, Bosnia formally submitted an application for EU membership, only to receive a list of 14 priority changes that the country needed to undertake before the Council could recommend EU candidacy. Progress towards meeting those goals remained frozen until mid-October this year, when the European Commission, recognizing the security threat to the region caused by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, extended an offer of candidacy to BiH. However, European leaders were clear that the accession talks with Bosnia will not be opened until the reforms are completed. This includes eight key reforms (from rule of law to freedom of the press, border control to human rights) plus the original 14 priorities issued by the Council in 2016.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Saakashvili calls off third hunger strike. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili cancelled a hunger strike on Wednesday just hours after announcing one to protest his imprisonment. Saakashvili explained that the strong call by Members of the European Parliament to stop the hunger strike and their pledge to monitor his basic rights on a permanent basis was the main reason for the cancellation. International pressure has mounted on Georgia to release Saakashvili to allow him to seek treatment abroad. The former president has endured two hunger strikes and on 5 December he claimed he had been “poisoned” in custody by heavy metals and was close to death. On Thursday, the Georgian government released footage of Saakashvili in hospital throwing objects around the room and at medical staff. Georgian Dream, the party in power, alleged the footage affirmed their belief that Saakashvili was faking the severity of his illness. Saakashvili was convicted in absentia on charges of abuse of office in 2018, however when he made a dramatic return to the country in October 2021 he was immediately arrested.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Protesters from activist movement “Oyan, Qazaqstan” arrested in AlmatyOn 16 December – Independence Day in Kazakhstan – several protesters were detained on their way to commemorate victims of violence in 1986, 2011, and Bloody January in 2022. Some activists were arrested en route to the rally, while others were detained before leaving their homes. Security forces did not initially give reasons for the arrests, but journalist Äsem Zhapisheva posted on social media that she was being taken away, and later added that she was charged with “violating the law on the procedure for organising and holding peaceful assemblies.” “Oyan, Qazaqstan” (“Wake up, Kazakhstan”) established their movement in 2019, calling for amendments to the Constitution and a political reform which would allow more freedom for citizens. Rallies in Kazakhstan around Independence Day have become a regular event, as many have taken to the streets in recent years to commemorate victims of government crackdowns on protests.

Jailed activists go on hunger strike in Kyrgyzstan over Uzbek border deal. Nineteen people are on hunger strike in Kyrgyzstan, protesting their arrest for challenging the controversial border deal with Uzbekistan back in October. The action was started on 14 December by four women wanting to “protest against mass political repression accompanied by fabricated criminal cases, injustice and lawlessness being conducted against a wide number of politicians, activists, journalists, and bloggers.” The detainees have called on President Japarov to release all those arrested in the case. The deal between the two Central Asian nations saw Kyrgyzstan hand over the contested Kempir-Abad reservoir, known in Uzbekistan as Adijon, to its neighbour. Located in the fertile Ferghana Valley, the reservoir is a crucial source of water for the region. Uzbekistan, whose population is five times bigger than that of Kyrgyzstan, uses most of the water from this area, however, challengers of the deal argue that Uzbekistan could have continued using the reservoir while the land should have remained in Kyrgyzstan.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Vote of no confidence for Slovakia’s minority government. On 8 December 2022, opposition groups in parliament passed a motion to hold a vote of no-confidence against Slovakia’s government, led by PM Eduard Heger. The vote which was set to take place on Tuesday, 13 December, has since been delayed until Thursday 15th, adding two more days for Heger to secure leadership in parliament. Heger’s ruling party “Ordinary People and Independent Personalities,” or OL’aNO, which took power in 2020, has recently come under fire with rapidly increasing energy costs. OL’aNO’s effective ruling majority was broken back on September 5, when the “Freedom and Solidarity Party” (SaS) quit the government, citing their disapproval of current Energy Minister Igor Matovič. This dispute over the energy ministry was made more difficult as Matovič is currently the party boss of OL’aNO and a former PM. An ouster of OL’aNO at this point could spell fresh elections and a government in turmoil, with mounting economic pressure and conflict in neighbouring Ukraine this will be a critical moment for Slovakia.

EU breaks deadlock on Ukraine aid and corporate tax reform with funding deal with Hungary and Poland backing down. On 13 December, at the Committee of Permanent Representatives’ (COREPER) meeting in Brussels, 27 ambassadors accredited to the EU preliminarily agreed on several crucial solutions. These include the conditional approval of the Hungarian plan for its share of the Recovery and Resilience Fund (RFF) for a grant of €5.8 billion, as well as the suspension of 55%, or roughly €6.3 billion, of Hungary’s EU cohesion funds (originally, it was 65%, or roughly €7.5 billion). The Hungarian government is still required to finish the 27 milestones in anti-corruption and judicial independence reforms outlined by the European Commission. In exchange for this agreement, Hungary lifted its objections to the 15% minimum global corporate tax rate and the €18 billion support package for Ukraine beginning in January. The ruling caused the Hungarian Forint to strengthen, yet it did not ensure the wage adjustment for educators. On the other hand, Poland had also been holding reservations on the Ukraine financial aid and the global minimum tax until 15 December. However, the deal with EU payments for Poland has not yet been made despite the approval of the Polish recovery plan in summer.

Latvia shuts Baltic International Bank. On 12 December, Latvia’s bank regulator, the Finance and Capital Market Commission (FKTK) ordered the Baltic International Bank (BIB) to halt its operations. FKTK stated that BIB had failed to restore profitability, improve its internal control system, and ensure a stable outlook, leading to possible financial difficulties. Police reportedly broke into the bank’s headquarters in Riga and conducted searches in the houses of BIB officials. With this decision, the bank’s clients will not be able to receive money, use payment cards, or access the internet banking system. In 2021, BIB was the tenth-largest bank in Latvia in terms of assets, but it has been facing growing losses this year. The bank is known for its involvement in the Belokon v. Kyrgyzstan and the Sergei Magnitsky cases. Therefore, in 2019, FKTK imposed a hefty fine on BIB for money laundering and terrorist financing.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

EP recognises Holodomor as genocide. The European Parliament recognised the Holodomor – the 1932-1933 artificial famine in Ukraine caused by a deliberate policy of the Soviet regime – as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. 507 EP lawmakers were in favour of the resolution, while 12 did not support it and 17 abstained. The resolution not only condemns the Soviet regime’s policy that led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians, but also accuses the current Russian regime of violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and creating a global food crisis through the looting and destruction of Ukrainian grain stores and preventing grain exports. The European Parliament also called on other countries and international organisations to take an official stance on the Holodomor. As of December 2022, Ukraine and 19 other countries recognised the Holodomor as an act of genocide against Ukrainians. The Russian Federation continues to deny the Soviet regime’s crimes, and it is also deliberately destroying the collective memory of the Holodomor, as demonstrated by the destruction of the Monument to the Victims of Holodomor in Mariupol.

Six Moldovan TV channels suspended because of propaganda. Moldova’s Commission for Exceptional Situations, established after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, decided to revoke the licences of RTR Moldova, First in Moldova, Accent TV, NTV Moldova, TV6, and Orhei TV. The suspensions were made after Moldova’s Audiovisual Council found a “lack of correct information in the coverage of national events, but also the war in Ukraine.” NTV Moldova, RTR Moldova, TV6 and First in Moldova were also banned by the European Council as part of a new package of sanctions against Russia. Not only did these channels spread Russian propaganda narratives, but some of them are also owned by people close to Ilan Shor – a fugitive Moldovan businessman/leader of the Russia-friendly Shor Party. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called Moldova’s move a “political censorship,” and qualified it as “a cynical infringement of the rights of national minorities.” The ban will start on 19 December and will last till the end of the state of emergency in the country, which is currently set to end in February 2023.

🌲 In Russia…

Mobilisation’s other half continues. While the period of conscription has ended, despite rumours that it was restarting imminently, the mobilisation of financial resources has proceeded. Russia’s regions, like during the pandemic, are footing the bill for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Since October, local budgets have been put under wartime strain they simply cannot handle monetarily. While local financing has only been tapped since Putin’s autumnal mobilisation order, some have been crowdfunding or otherwise, purchasing equipment to continue sustaining the war effort for longer. The outlier is Chechnya, which fully activated its financial institutions to support the invasion from 24 February. These expenditures are large draws on small budgets. They are unsustainable in the long run. It remains unsure as to how long the status quo can last and what will happen, both with respect to finances and society’s acquiescence to these conditions, when it ends.

Eldzharkiev murder investigation delayed. The completion of the investigation into the murder of Ibragim Eldzharkiev (the former head of Ingushetia’s Center for Countering Extremism) was announced on 12 December. Three days later, defence lawyers stated that the investigation had been delayed. Members of the Batal-Khadzhintsy Sufi brotherhood stand accused of organizing and carrying out the assassination on Ingushetia’s former top silovik. During the intervening days, Chechen governor Ramzan Kadyrov conducted a PR campaign for the brotherhood, which some analysts claimed was an attempted distraction from the recent arrests. The Batal-Khadzhintsy fled a repressive campaign against them in their home republic, seeking refuge in Chechnya, where they formed a volunteer battalion to deploy in Ukraine. The Eldzharkiev murder has been too high-profile to eternally hold off the investigation’s completion and trial, and it is doubtful that the Kremlin’s ongoing war in Ukraine will change this fact.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin is sentenced to prison for 8,5 years for spreading “disinformation” about the Russian army. A deputy from a Moscow district parliament, Ilya Yashin, was sentenced to 8,5 years in prison for allegedly spreading fake news about the Russian Army. During a YouTube stream, he urged viewers to look at international sources to learn about the war crimes the Russian army committed in Bucha. Yashin was one of the last opposition politicians left in Russia, and was active in Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district. He has been a vocal critic of the war since it began, already arrested in June this year. Although not formally a member of his organisations, Yashin worked closely with that other major opposition figure, Alexei Navalny. In his powerful last words in court, Yashin urged Putin to stop the war.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Ariadna Mane, Xandie Kuenning, Lucie Tafforin, Sarah Fairman, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Bart Alting, Nathan Alan-Lee, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘

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