Lossi 36 Weekly #4: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia9 min read
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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Continued crackdown on illegal camera surveillance systems in Albania, attack on Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran, President Tokayev dissolves parliament in Kazakhstan, a new Czech President, Ukraine not happy with IOC communication, new American Ambassador to Moscow, and much more!
⭐️ This week’s special
Former NATO general Petr Pavel wins Czech presidential election. Thapanee Tubnonghee
This January, the Czech Republic held two-round presidential elections to elect its fourth president. In the first round of voting with eight candidates during 13-14 January, Petr Pavel, a 61-year-old first-time independent candidate, and Andrej Babiš, billionaire ex-prime minister representing the ANO 2011 party, ended equally close. The runoff vote during 27-28 January saw a record high 70.2% voter turnout, where Pavel secured 58.32% of the votes cast, compared to 41.68% for Babiš. Pavel received 76% of the vote in Prague, where his popularity was the highest.
He was the Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Army between 2012 and 2015, and the chairman of NATO military committee between 2015 and 2018. After retirement, he became a lecturer and consultant. In April 2020, he launched the “Spolu silnější” (Stronger Together) project to generate money for frontline workers during the pandemic. He campaigned with a socially liberal direction and represented a pro-EU, pro-NATO, and pro-Ukraine stance. The president-elect will replace Miloš Zeman, who will complete his second 5-year term in March. This presidential bid marked a dramatic contrast in political ideologies, between low-key pragmatism on the one hand, and technocratic, oligarchic populism on the other. This outcome is expected to improve the country’s political culture.
🌺 In the Balkans…
Bosnia finally forms state-level government, 115 days after elections. At an emergency session of the country’s House of Representatives, a new state-level government was formed after Borjana Kristo from the Croatian Democratic Union was elected the new chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina by a margin of one vote. The new coalition government is comprised of eight parties: the main Bosnian Serb party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, the HDZ, and six parties from the so-called “Osmorka” (“Eight”) – a group of Bosniak and civic parties. Noticeably missing is Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the main Bosniak party chaired by Bakir Izetbegović, the newly elected Bosniak representative of the country’s tri-presidency. In 2018, Bosnia took 14 months to form a new government. In October, Bosnia’s High Representative (OHR), Christian Schmidt, used his so-called ‘Bonn powers’ to impose changes to the country’s election law, that included setting deadlines for the formation of the governments.
Albania continues to dismantle illegal camera surveillance systems. During the past week, the Albanian State Police announced more results from the operation ‘Fijet’, dedicated to finding and dismantling camera surveillance systems that have appeared around the country, illegally set up by criminal groups in order to monitor police agents. As of Saturday, 38 cameras were removed in Shkodra, 16 in Vlora, another 39 were dismantled between Korça and Pogradec, 3 in Memaliaj, and 1 in Burrel. All of the disassembled cameras are suspected to be connected to mobile devices operated through the internet. The police have not yet been able to track down the perpetrators of the placement of these cameras, and the servers that store the video recordings have not been found either. However, the police have already announced the arrest of 13 people suspected to be connected to the illegal surveillance system.
⛰️ In the Caucasus…
EU approves new monitoring mission to Armenia. On 23 January, the European Union approved the deployment of a new, two-year civilian monitoring mission to Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan. The mission aims to “contribute to stability in the border areas of Armenia, building confidence on the ground, and ensuring an environment conducive to normalisation efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” Around 100 staff members are expected to take part in the mission. Russia released a statement on 26 January strongly criticising the new mission, and the CSTO has said it is continuing work on a proposal to send its own observer mission to Armenia. Azerbaijan has also condemned the announcement, warning that the mission must “duly [take] into account the legitimate interests of Azerbaijan.”
One dead after attack on Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. On 27 January, a man broke through the security post of Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran and killed a security chief named Orkhan Rizvan Oglu Askarov, and injured two others. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called the assault “an act of terrorism” and evacuated the embassy staff. Tehran’s police chief, General Hossein Rahimi, initially blamed the attack on “personal and family problems,” however, within hours Rahimi lost his position. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani condemned the attack and said that it was under investigation with “high priority and sensitivity.” Azerbaijan and Iran have a difficult relationship. Ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran are the largest minority group in the country. In November, President Aliyev sent a message to those people after the recent anti-government protests stating that he would do the best to protect Azerbaijani’s “secular lifestyle” worldwide. Iran and Azerbaijan’s deteriorating relationship also stems from Azerbaijan’s close ties to Israel, which Tehran views as its top regional enemy.
🛤 In Central Asia…
Kazakhstan’s President dissolves parliament, calls snap elections following constitutional reforms. On 19 January, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the dissolution of the Kazakh parliament, Majilis, and set the date for the snap elections on 19 March. The move was a planned decision taken following last year’s constitutional reforms, which included restraining the powers of the president, changing the number of seats and the rules on appointed seats in both houses of parliament, changing the electoral system from a full proportional one to majoritarian-proportional, and removing many of the privileges enjoyed by the former, longtime Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The reforms were supported by the Kazakh population through a referendum, which took place in June 2022 where 77% of voters approved of the proposed changes. While some criticised the reforms as rushed, Tokayev subsequently won the presidential elections in November, receiving over 80% of the votes, and thus getting a strong mandate to execute the constitutional reforms.
🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…
Remains of migrants found on Lithuanian border. According to several human rights groups, the forest at the Lithuanian-Belarusian border is allegedly ‘littered with bodies.’ Due to a blackout by Lithuanian authorities, journalists and humanitarian groups are unable to keep details of the missing migrant remains under observation, striking transparency concerns. “There’s this entire darkened invisible line that you’re not supposed to go past… No-one knows what’s happening inside,” reports a volunteer at Sienos Grupe, a Lithuanian humanitarian organisation that has collected information on 30 people that have gone missing on Europe’s Eastern border. Since 2020, Lithuania has accused Belarus of pushing their immigrants to the no-man’s land of the Lithuanian border as retaliation for putting sanctions on Minsk. However, on several occasions, Lithuanian border guards have also been accused of violently pushing migrants back into Belarus’ borders, without medical care or even proper Winter clothes. Like Poland, Lithuania changed their asylum laws in recent years to make it more challenging for refugees to enter, in addition to violating human rights with immigrant pushbacks.
🏢 In Eastern Europe…
Unsolved dilemma at the Olympics 2024. On 28 of January, the Executive Board (EB) of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommended no participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials at the Olympics 2024 in Paris through an official statement. However, there is a possibility of Russian and Belarusian competitors to participate in the event with “no flag, anthem, colours, or any other identifications whatsoever of these countries being displayed at any sports event or meeting, including the entire venue.” As the IOC stands for the unifying and conciliative nature of sports events, and their contribution to peace, it cannot prevent the athletes from competing just because of their passports. Russia highly praised the decision of the IOC “that the Olympic Games cannot be staged without Russia,” while Ukrainian sports minister Vadym Guttsait stated that Ukraine could boycott the Olympics 2024 if Russian and Belarusian participants would stand together with all. To help the IOC take the right decision, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy invited its President Thomas Bach to visit the front-line city of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian soldiers are firmly fighting with Russian forces.
US envoy to OSCE warns Moscow is planning to wipe out the sovereignty of Ukraine and question Belarus’ existence. During the 26 January meeting of the OSCE permanent council in Vienna, ambassador Michael Carpenter delivered a speech stressing the US view on the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s view of its neighbours. According to the ambassador, not only is the Kremlin trying to deny Ukrainian sovereignty and existence, but it might also do the same with Belarus. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin had “made clear” that he thinks both those nations “belong” to Russia. In a bid to uphold the rights of the Ukrainian and Belarusian peoples, Carpenter said that the US strongly support the sovereignty and independence of both countries. While Belarus is increasingly isolated internationally by the Lukashenka regime, the issue of Belarusian sovereignty has been increasingly raised by diplomats since the start of the Russian aggression on Ukraine.
🌲 In Russia…
Will US–Russia relations snap? Overnight on 26 January, the new US ambassador to Russia arrived at her post in Moscow, having reportedly met with her Russian counterpart in Washington shortly before her departure. Ambassador Lynne Tracy’s arrival comes amidst perhaps the most significant few days for US–Russia relations since the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. The Treasury Department designated Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Mercenary Group a “significant transnational criminal organisation,” in coordination with additional sanctions from the State Department. Furthermore, lawmakers reintroduced legislation to label Wagner a “foreign terrorist organisation,” which would imply even stricter sanctions. These developments follow President Joe Biden’s announcement that the US would deliver thirty-one M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, significantly boosting Ukraine’s offensive capabilities as the war approaches the one-year mark. Additionally, Lockheed Martin is preparing to backfill any F-16 fighter jets that allies might transfer to Ukraine. This raises the question; in light of such developments, how long will the Kremlin allow Ambassador Tracy to stay?
Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Ariadna Mane, Xandie Kuenning, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Adriano Rodari, Autumn Mozeliak, Kirsty Dick, Vira Kompaniiets, & Harold Chambers 💘