Lossi 36 Weekly #3: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Bosnian-Serb commander sentenced for war crimes, South Caucasus at Davos, Gas Union in the making in Central Asia, snap elections in Slovakia, top officials die in a helicopter crash in UkraineTehran indicates boundaries for supporting Moscowand much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

New reform in Poland may solve the rule of law crisis, but challenges government unity.
Nathan Alan-Lee

On 13 January, Polish lawmakers in the lower house of parliament (Sejm) approved a judicial reform which could unblock over 30 billion euros in EU funds. These funds have been withheld, pending European Commission approval, over an unfolding rule of law crisis in Poland. However, passing the motion did not come without sacrifice. The more hardline members of the “United Right” coalition, led by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, broke ranks and voted against the bill. Despite this tension, minister Ziobro later confirmed that the coalition was still intact. The reform bill will now be passed to the opposition-controlled Senate, which is likely to ratify the Sejm’s decision. The final challenge to the reform will come from Andrzej Duda’s presidential ratification. In an earlier statement, Duda asserted that he would reject any regulation that questioned the legitimacy of judges, likely in reference to the controversial Constitutional Tribunal. Duda has also been put under pressure by minister Ziobro’s faction, which claims that the reform is “unconstitutional.” The President’s prerogative to veto or defer to the Supreme Court may prove decisive in Poland’s ongoing struggle over the rule of law.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Montenegrin court overturns wrongful conviction of investigative journalist. On 17 January, investigative journalist Jovo Martinović, after seven years of court proceedings, was declared innocent. The verdict overruling a 2020 drug trafficking conviction comes after an order for a second retrial by the Supreme Court. Martinović was arrested in 2015 in a joint Croatian-Montenegrin police operation and was additionally convicted for his alleged membership in a criminal organisation. The first retrial deemed Martinović guilty, even though the journalist claimed that he had had contact with two drug traffickers only in association with his investigative journalism work. The traffickers are believed to have stolen hundreds of millions of euros worth of jewellery. This particular case was mentioned by the European Commission regarding Montenegro’s potential membership in the EU, as concerns were raised about reporters’ ability to conduct their work without fear of legal repercussions.

Serbia’s government snaps at Russia due to Wagner’s recruitment attempt. A footage broadcast earlier this month by the Russian Television in Serbia showed its citizens training at a Russian military camp in Zaporizhzhia. The video was further advertised by the infamous Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. Serbian PM Aleksandar Vučić reacted angrily, saying: “Why do you, from Wagner, call anyone from Serbia when you know that it is against our regulations?” Despite open support from many Serbians for Russia’s war in Ukraine, only a few dozen Serbs have fought for Russia’s army since 2014. Earlier this week, Vučić gave an interview with Bloomberg, giving insights into the deteriorating relationship between Belgrade and Moscow. This is a rare occurrence of Serbia calling out Russia, as so far Belgrade has resisted adopting sanctions against Moscow and has maintained airline connection between the two countries. Serbia claims its position toward the war in Ukraine has been “neutral,” and is now at a crossroads between dependencies with Russia and its policy to join the European Union.

Former Bosnian-Serb commander sentenced for war crimes. Boban Indjić, a former Bosnian-Serb military commander, was convicted to 15 years in prison over his role in the committing of war crimes during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. The Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina found that Indjić had directly participated in a 1993 atrocity in which 20 non-Serb civilians were hauled off their train close to the Serbian border, tortured, and later executed. The case was part of a wider trial which includes an ongoing case in Belgrade, in which members of Indjić’s paramilitary group are set to be sentenced for similar crimes. Although nearly 30 years have passed since the Dayton Agreement brought the bloody conflict to a close, many victims still remain in pursuit of justice.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

South Caucasus at Davos viewed through Lachin corridor blockade. The annual World Economic Forum 2023 took place in Davos last week, to which Georgian PM Irakli Garibashvili and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev were invited. The region received attention as a crucial partner possibly supporting European energy security. Georgia and Azerbaijan’s role was emphasised in establishing a new economic corridor – ‘the Middle Corridor’ linking Central Asia and Europe, but avoiding Russia. The Georgian PM’s focus was on presenting Georgia as a “hub” for energy and transportation between Europe and Asia. President Aliyev’s agenda included numerous meetings with heads of international companies, with the main topic being related to expanding foreign investments in the field of green energy in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani bettering of foreign relations occurs at the time when Armenian politicians are given a voice in Canada and the US parliaments. They call for imposing personal sanctions on Azerbaijan, due to the ongoing Azeri blockade of Lachin corridor, which is the only road linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper.

Vakhtang Kikabidze died in Tbilisi at age 84. The actor, singer, and politician died on 15 January in a Tbilisi hospital. The cause of death has not been reported. Kikabidze was born in Tbilisi in 1938. Kikabidze played his last film role in 2000, but kept performing as a singer; singing primarily in Russian, as well as in Georgian. He had also been known for his political views and service in the Georgian parliament from 2020 up until his death. He criticised the Soviet government after the 1989 violent crackdown on protests in Tbilisi, and no longer wanted to perform in or travel to Russia after the 2008 war with Georgia. Despite his condemnation of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Kikabidze’s death could count on widespread sympathetic reactions throughout the former Soviet Union, with even president Lukashenka of Belarus expressing his condolences, signalling the high regards in which Kikabidze was held.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kazakhstan tightens visa rules for Russians. On 16 January, Kazakhstan’s government adopted a resolution that will limit citizens of Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia to a stay of 90 days within 180 days. This resolution will come into force on 27 January and will mostly affect the 2.9 million Russian nationals that entered Kazakhstan in 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent mobilisation in September. The Kazakh government is clamping down on a loophole that has allowed foreigners from the Eurasian Economic Union, a free trade bloc, to enter Kazakhstan without a passport and live in the country without registering with the migration authorities. Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia have cooled since February last year: Kazakhstan has been forging closer relations with Turkey, Iran, and China, and President Tokayev stated that Kazakhstan would not recognise the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk last June, during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in the presence of Putin. In November, the government announced that knowledge of the Kazakh language, the country’s history, and legislation would be mandatory for individuals seeking naturalisation.

Plans to forge a new Central Asian Gas Union. Electricity and gas shortages have been pervasive through Central Asia over the last few years, with a rising number of blackouts due to old Soviet infrastructure. However, from being an issue affecting the primarily provincial areas, it’s beginning to spread to capital cities, as was the case with Tashkent. Hence, last November Kazakh premier Tokayev suggested the creation of a trilateral gas union with Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, which allows the transportation of Russian gas through the territories of the latter two states. The creation of such an arrangement was quite intuitively made by Russia, which is most likely searching for substitutes for European markets, however the proposal still requires formalisation and resistance from the Uzbek side. While this has raised alarm bells within civil society, which sees it as another expansionist tool, the Uzbek energy minister made it apparent that this is simply going to be “a technical contract” with little influence over political or national agendas.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Snap elections likely to be held in Slovakia in September. Following an unsuccessful attempt to form a new government with Eduard Heger as interim Prime Minister, Slovakia wants to hold early elections in autumn 2023. However, this depends on the outcome of a referendum which is taking place on 21 January, and which concerns amending the Slovak constitution to allow for early elections (the regular elections are set to take place in February 2024). Following Heger’s coalition’s failure to obtain the necessary votes to form a new parliamentary majority, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová originally proposed to have the elections within the first half of the year, however, she later agreed on holding them in September at the latest. The public response to the planning of the snap elections emphasised the lack of political stability in Slovakia, showing, however, a shared desire for political change in the country.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Romania and the Republic of Moldova moving forward with digital transformation. The Romanian Ministry of Research, Innovation, and Digitization announced in a press release that the Electronic Governance Agency will be the entity in Moldova responsible to build a common digital space with Romania. This is the first step towards the implementation of the memorandum on digital transformation, signed on 11 February 2022 between the two countries, which aims to co-create, test, and jointly implement digital solutions in the public sector while boosting bilateral cooperation to develop a common digital space. The memorandum is advantageous for both countries, particularly the development of solutions compatible with the standards and regulations of the European Union. For the first stage of the implementation, several common priorities were identified, such as strengthening the digital infrastructure in the public sector, supporting the development processes of the digital society and the digital economy, and supporting joint efforts to implement new technologies.

Ukraine’s top officials died in a helicopter crash. On 18 January, at 08:30 local time (06:30 GMT), a helicopter fell beside a nursery in Brovary, an eastern suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine. Twenty-five people were injured, including eleven children, while fourteen people died, one child among them. The helicopter was carrying the leadership team of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry to the frontline area: Ukrainian National Police confirmed that Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky, First Deputy Minister Yevheniy Yenin, and State Secretary Yuriy Lubkovychis have been killed in the crash. Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, confirmed that the investigation of the exact cause of the tragedy could take several days, considering all the possible versions of the incident, which included sabotage, as well as a technical malfunction or breach of flight rules. The helicopter is believed to be Eurocopter EC225 “Super Puma,” previously provided by France. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ministry will be temporarily headed by the Head of the National Police of Ukraine, Ihor Klymenko. 

🌲 In Russia…

Tehran indicates boundaries for supporting Moscow. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated that his government will not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Donbas. Minister Amir-Abdollahian underlined that Iran recognizes borders demarcated in international law. Iran’s firm stance on this issue is partially influenced by current threats to its northwestern region, where the country’s Azeri minority reside. Azerbaijani officials are increasingly promoting separatism in the ethnic Azeri region, frequently referred to as ‘South Azerbaijan.’ Despite its international pariah status, Iran has resisted Moscow’s attempts to co-opt it into the ‘de facto state recognition network.’ Throughout Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran has drawn extensive international criticism for supplying drones to Russia so that they may be used to bomb Ukrainian civilians. While Iran has demonstrated an unwillingness to break with international law on this matter, it is unlikely to lessen its support for Moscow’s adventurism as long as it brings in revenue.

Victims of Russian missile attack on Dnipro, Ukraine, honoured across Russia. The missile, which struck an apartment complex on 14 January, killed at least forty-six civilians, including six children, and injured eighty more. One week after the attack, eleven people remain missing, with little hope for their survival under the rubble. Ad hoc memorials were created at already existing monuments and landmarks related to Ukraine. In Moscow, residents laid flowers, candles, and toys at the monument to the Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka, but local authorities were quick to remove these, detaining four people in the process. In spite of this threat, the mementos reappeared the next day. Similar offerings were made and removed in Krasnodar, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg. Protestors also laid apples, referring to a fruit bowl seen in one ruined kitchen in the destroyed residential building . The image of this particular kitchen, relatively unscathed except for one wall blasted away, soon became the latest symbol of wanton Russian aggression against Ukrainian citizens.

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

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