Lossi 36 Weekly #1: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

 In News

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: North Macedonia assumes rotating OSCE chairmanship, air bridge to Artsakh requested, McDonald’s leaves KazakhstanPolish Prime Minister Morawiecki comments on the death penalty, no new government in Bulgaria, first Wagner prisoner-recruits to receive their pardons in Russiaand much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Croatia celebrates New Year with Eurozone and Schengen membership.Cameron MacBride

Croatia celebrated the start to 2023 with the removal of international borders between themselves and Schengen member states, alongside their entry into both the Eurozone currency club, replacing the national currency Kuna. The Adriatic nation joins fellow Western Balkan state Slovenia as Eurozone and Schengen members, and becomes the twentieth EU member state to adopt the Euro as its currency. From midnight, ATMs across the country began to disperse new Croatian Euros, and the country entered a two week phase of dual-usage with both the Euro and Kuna to allow for a seamless transition. 

Reactions within the country, however, have been mixed, as some worry that the shift will allow for companies to hike, or ‘round-up’ prices as a result of the conversion. The government has warned that any business attempting to take advantage of the changeover shall be named and shamed. The switchover is seen as the precursor to bringing in increased foreign trade to the country, whilst also making Croatia an even more attractive and accessible tourist destination. Zagreb, which only entered the EU in 2013 and was the most recent country to do so, is now almost fully integrated into the European political bloc and has made rapid successes in its political and social developments compared to other former Yugoslav nations.

🌺 In the Balkans…

North Macedonia takes over OSCE Chair to ‘support and empower people.’ North Macedonia foreign minister Bujar Osmani officially took up the OSCE chairmanship on 1 January. After Albania in 2019, this is the second time in four years that the Vienna-based Organization’s chair will go to a Balkan country. North Macedonia, the newest member of NATO (since March 2020), has been an ally of Ukraine, which hopes that the continued support of the North Macedonian presidency will do Ukrainians good. The OSCE has faced considerable challenges in recent years, and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has now put it into a state of agony. The chair has set addressing the political-military dimensions of conflict among its highest priorities. Osmani mentioned that “the unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine has undermined the European security architecture and threatens the peace and stability of the continent and beyond.” He listed other key issues in the priorities which will be discussed in more detail on January 12, during the meeting of the Permanent Council. Priorities include border management, women and peace, hybrid conflict, and cyber security. Additional priorities include climate change, energy, and food security.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Request for opening an air bridge to Artsakh. The State Minister of the Artsakh republic has called upon Azerbaijan to allow air traffic to Stepanakert airport, in order to circumvent the Lachin Corridor blockade, and bring humanitarian goods into the now closed-off republic. Since the start of the blockade on 12 December, Artsakh has been dealing with shortages of food and medicine. Air traffic to Stepanakert (the capital of Artsakh) is a sensitive topic, since Baku claims Yerevan uses the city’s airport to bring weapons into the disputed territory. The matter is complicated by the fact that Azerbaijan holds the formal control over the airspace of the region, since the International Civil Aviation Organization recognizes Azerbaijani control over the region. Despite Armenian efforts to pressure the Russian peacekeeping mission into intervening in the situation, Moscow has given very little response. This has sparked even more dissatisfaction over Russia’s involvement in the conflict, with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan commenting that Russia “is not fulfilling its obligation to control the Lachin corridor.”

🛤 In Central Asia…

Worsening condition of press freedom in Tajikistan. In late December, Reporters Without Borders released a statement calling for the release of four journalists who have been given lengthy sentences over their alleged links with ‘extremist organisations.’ These reporters had also previously been covering subjects which portrayed the national administration in a negative light, like Daler Imomali who had been reporting the demolition of local households in the Tajik capital by the government. The four mediapersons had been arrested in the summer of 2022. The detained have claimed that they were tortured in prison and forced to confess to the alleged crimes they had committed. Radio Ozodi even obtained video proof of Abdullo Gurbati, former employee of the independent news house Asia-Plus, being misled and manipulated into confession to charges of using violence against government officials and having ties to extremist groups, in exchange for a shorter sentence, which obviously didn’t come into fruition. RSF has expressed concern over the “disproportionate sentences” and the use of draconian tools by the Rakhmon government. Tajikistan currently is ranked 152the out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index.

McDonald’s exits Kazakhstan over supply shortages. On 5 January Food Solutions KZ announced that it was ceasing to operate under the McDonald’s brand in Kazakhstan due to supply restrictions. The American fast food franchise opened in Kazakhstan in 2016 and operated 24 restaurants. A source close to Food Solutions KZ told Reuters that the withdrawal of McDonald’s from Russia in May 2022 prompted the company to start looking for suppliers outside of Russia. In November it was announced that McDonald’s were temporarily suspending its operations in Kazakhstan due to the supply chain issues brought on by the war in Ukraine. On 12 December the head of Food Solutions KZ told the Kazakh government that all efforts were being made to source meat products locally. However an industry insider claimed that certificates and audits required by MacDonald’s were too expensive and lengthy for local producers to work with. Food Solutions KZ will now transform their 24 McDonald’s outlets into a new restaurant chain.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Czechs to elect a new president. Between 13 and 14 January presidential elections will be held in the Czech Republic. Incumbent president Miloš Zeman has retained the office for the past 10 years, reaching the limit of his term in office. Zeman leaves behind a controversial legacy marked by cordial relations with Putin’s regime, and increasingly far-right political leanings. In this year’s election three candidates have emerged as frontrunners for the office. Andrej Babiš, former Prime Minister, businessman, and leader of the ANO party, holds a slight lead in first round polls. Following Babiš are two candidates backed by the governing centre-right alliance SPOLU, Petr Pavel, a former military general, and Danuše Nerudová, an economist. Given the polls it is highly unlikely that a candidate will achieve the required majority during the first round of voting. The result of this contest will determine whether Babiš can bounce back from a close defeat in the 2021 Czech legislative elections.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki justifies death penalty. On Tuesday, 3 January, during a Q&A session with Facebook users, Morawiecki received an inquiry on his thoughts on capital punishment. “In my opinion, the death penalty should be admissible for the heaviest crimes,” Morawiecki expressed, “I do not agree on the matter with the teaching of the church, because I am a supporter of the death penalty.” This philosophy is in stark contrast to leaders of the remaining 26 EU member states, bringing Morawiecki criticism on his opposing views. Poland abolished the death penalty in 1997, and in 2013, Poland further endorsed a protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights concerning the complete termination of the death penalty. However, Morawiecki called its termination a “premature invention of the 1990s.”

Baltic States maintain highest inflation rates in Eurozone, despite lower inflation rates across the continent. In spite of a general decline in European countries’ inflation in the last month of 2022, the Baltic area, and particularly Latvia and Lithuania, registered the highest inflation rates. Compared to November 2022 and to the preceding months of the year, inflation across Europe has declined sharply. High inflation rates, particularly during the summer period, were caused, among several factors, by increased prices in energy and commodities following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Baltic States, however, still suffer from high inflation. After peaking in September 2022, inflation was recorded at 20.7 % in Latvia, at 20% in Lithuania, and at 17.5% in Estonia for December 2022. European policymakers point out how the experience of the Baltics represents a warning for all countries that the declining trend could reverse again.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Bulgaria heads to a third round to form a new government. This Friday, the political party ‘We Continue to Change’ (PP) gave up on its plans to form a government after failing to win parliament’s backing of its proposed policies. The PP will return the second unfulfilled mandate on Monday to President Rumen Radev. Since the extraordinary parliamentary elections of October last year, which had a turnout of only 39.40%, Bulgaria has been in a stalemate to form a new government. The centre-right GERB party formed by Boyko Borissov won the elections with only 24,4% of votes, but it failed to install its technocratic cabinet last month. With the failed attempt of PP, the prospects for early vote (in spring) are on the rise, with the country heading to a third and last round to form a government. Radev commented that he will announce his decision for the third term “if it comes to one, in due course”.

No Christmas ceasefire without fire. The new 2023 year greeted Ukraine with Russian missiles straight after midnight and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s new year message of hope: Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported that 45 Iranian-designed Shahed drones were successfully shut down, one of which had the message “Happy New Year” handwritten on its tailfin. Three people died from injuries. Just on New Year’s Eve, Russia launched more than 20 cruise missiles at targets in Ukraine with the day named “terror on New Year’s Eve.” That is why Ukrainians did not believe a word when Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, called for a 36-hour ceasefire in Ukraine to mark Orthodox Christmas. Indeed, the ceasefire by the Kremlin came into effect at midday on January 6 and had to last until midnight the following day. Nevertheless, exchanges of artillery fire were reported along the front lines of Ukraine’s city of Bakhmut, the town of Kreminna, and other locations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on Friday. The question of trusting Russia remains widely open.

🌲 In Russia…

Putin commissions his ministries to aid filmmakers shooting documentaries on Russia’s war in Ukraine. In a bid to shore up public support of the war, the Defence Ministry’s propaganda films are to highlight “participants who have shown courage, valour and heroism in the special military operation.” The Ministry of Culture is to make sure these documentaries are shown in Russian movie theatres, and it will organise a festival for such patriotic documentaries. Meanwhile, the ministries of Culture and Education are ordered to dedicate ample public spaces for actions honouring Russian servicemen, including works of art and school visits by veterans. Since the start of the war, the Kremlin has tightened its grip over Russian society in a continuous effort to secure the home front from dissident and anti-war voices. The latest directive comes days after possibly hundreds of Russian mobilised soldiers were killed by an Ukrainian strike in Makiivka. As the war drags on, with mounting casualties, military blunders, and bleak economic prospects, the Kremlin will be eager to stress that these men did not die in vain.

Russia ready to mobilise extra 500,000 people. According to Ukraine’s military intelligence, Russia is preparing to mobilise an extra 500,000 civilians in order to face new stages of the war. Indeed, Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy military intelligence chief, stated that Russia is likely to announce a new wave of mobilisation after the end of Orthodox Christmas holidays on 15 January, in order to put into action offensive plans in southern and eastern Ukraine during the Spring and Summer. This new mobilisation of 500,000 conscripts would add up to the one carried out in October, when 300,000 Russians joined the army. On their side, Russia had denied planning a new mobilisation in December, claiming that only half of the force mobilised in Fall was actually sent to Ukraine.

First Wagner prisoner-recruits receive pardons. Evgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner PMC, informed RIA-Novosti of the pardons on 5 January. The pardoned recruits are the first ex-prisoners to survive their six-month service in Ukraine. Wagner currently provides a significant proportion of Russia’s fighting force. In an attempt to maintain manpower, Prigozhin began touring Russia’s prisons in late July or early August 2022, offering pardons in exchange for service. This has created an influx of violent criminals into the occupying Russian forces. Wagner mercenaries have gradually ascended to the forefront of Russia’s informal security policy around the world. This includes providing Moscow a layer of separation during tense situations like clashes with U.S. soldiers in Syria. It is, of course, unclear to what degree Wagner can maintain its status after Russia is defeated.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Rachele Colombo, Daan Verkuil, Patricia Raposo, Myriam Marino, Autumn Mozeliak, Chaharika Uppal, Jordi Beckers, Cameron MacBride, Charles Fourmi, Nathan Alan-Lee, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘

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