Lossi 36 Weekly #6: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Corruption Perceptions Index does not bode well for the Western Balkans, oil pipeline from Azerbaijan into Türkiye closed over earthquake, ethnic Kazakh man reunites with relatives in Almaty after years in a labour camp in Xinjiang, Poland closes key Belarusian border crossing, Moldova nominates new Prime Minister, Russian ‘birth tourism’ to Argentinaand much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s European Tour. Vira Kompaniiets

The week of 6 of February can truly be named a historic one for Ukraine. On Wednesday, 8 of February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the UK, where he met with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, addressed the UK Parliament at Westminster Hall, and was granted an audience with King Charles III. President Zelenskyy thanked the UK for its continuous support, while asking to provide more advanced weapons (such as fighter jets or drones). Sunak confirmed that the UK will expand its special programme to Ukrainian marines and fighter jet pilots trained on NATO-standard aircraft, and will consider stepping in for fighter jets from the long-term perspective. Afterwards, President Zelenskyy visited France where he met French President Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, at the Élysée Palace. The next day, Brussels greeted the Ukrainian President, where he addressed the European Parliament during an extraordinary plenary session. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed the tenth package of sanctions against Russia, which includes export bans worth more than €10 billion, and highlighted that the EU would continue to support Ukraine. 

🌺 In the Balkans…

Perception of corruption worsened in the Western Balkans, says Transparency International. According to the latest Global Corruption Perceptions Index, CPI, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia received their worst corruption perception scores in 10 years. Albania also received a “thumbs down” from the Berlin-based international watchdog. Overall, the average CPI score for the Western Balkans was 38, which is less than the global average of 43, and far less than the EU average of 66. Bosnia and Herzegovina, ranked in 110th place (scoring 34 points) out of 180 countries, was the worst-ranked Western Balkan country. Lack of judicial independence and the myriad of problems surrounding the 2022 election – including a contentious electoral reform – were cited in the report. Serbia’s (101st place) historic low score was attributed mainly to “continued weakening of the rule of law and growing autocracy.” Bosnia’s poor performance does not bode well for its hopes of entering into the European Union, even though the country was recently granted EU candidate country status.

Kosovo accepts EU-backed Franco-German plan for normalisation of relations with Serbia. On 7 February, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti announced the acceptance of the so-called Franco-German plan for the normalisation of relations with Serbia. The plan is backed by the European Union and the United States, who celebrated Kurti’s decision. After a meeting with EU special representative Miroslav Lajçak, Kurti wrote that his government considers the plan “a good basis for further discussions, as well as a solid platform to move forward.” Lajçak also issued a message stating that if the Franco-German plan is accepted, despite the violence it caused last week at the Serbian Parliament, “both Kosovo and Serbia must implement all past agreements, including the Association of Serb Municipalities.” After the announcement, Kurti reiterated his rejection for this plan this week, stating that Serbia is pushing for it to create the equivalent of the Republic of Srpska in his country.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

BTC oil pipeline temporarily closed due to earthquake. Following two devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria, attention has turned to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (TBC) oil pipeline, which moves oil from Azerbaijan, through Georgia and Türkiye, to the Mediterranean. The BTC terminal at Ceyhan was closed last week as a small leak had been discovered, according to BP Azerbaijan. A force majeure was declared on 7 February, meaning that neither the companies exporting the crude oil to Ceyhan nor the terminal operators can be held responsible for any financial losses incurred by other companies, such as shippers waiting to collect crude oil from the terminal. Azerbaijan uses the Turkish port of Ceyhan as its main crude export hub, with a flow of about 650,000 barrels per day. Exports of crude oil and gas account for around 90 percent of Azerbaijan’s export revenues, funding around 60 percent of government expenditure. A short break in exports is unlikely to have any major impact on the Azeri economy, but a longer break would have consequences.

New government policies in Georgia show a worrying trend. On 7 February, a new parliamentary “code of conduct” for journalists, along with updated rules for parliamentary media accreditation, came into effect in Georgia. The changes — which include requiring journalists to stop their interview if an MP, member of staff, or guest does not consent to it — have been criticised by Georgia’s Charter of Journalistic Ethics, which warns that “against the background of it being nearly impossible for the media to obtain public information, and ruling party members giving interviews to the media selectively, regulations like these will make obtaining information and informing the public impossible.” Earlier this year, the government unveiled their new human rights strategy, which removed any mention of protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people. These new policy changes show a worrying trend on the part of the ruling Georgian Dream government in taking steps backwards, rather than forward, and provide little hope for further EU accession progress.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Shavkat Mirziyoyev orders a construction moratorium in Tashkent. On 9 February, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered a halt on construction of new buildings in Tashkent. According to Uzbek news outlet, UzDaily, he aims to ensure that current infrastructure can cope with new projects and allow for the introduction of green spaces in the city. Mirziyoyev intends to increase the amount of green space in Tashkent “to 28%” in 2023. International outlets, however, speculate that the moratorium could be a cautious move following the devastation in Türkiye and Syria caused by the earthquake on 6 February. Construction has been a controversial topic in Uzbekistan since its independence in 1991, with criticism over the destruction of historical monuments and forced evictions at sites of new developments. The president has also previously called for a “green belt” in Tashkent and stressed the importance of “preserving the architectural appearance of the capital.”

Ethnic Kazakh man reunites with his relatives in Almaty after years in a labour camp in Xinjiang. Sarsenbak Aqbar, an ethnic Kazakh man from China’s Xinjiang region, has reunited with his family in Almaty after he spent almost three years in a Chinese labour camp and two years under house arrest. According to his relatives, Aqbar was put in a labour camp for “political prisoners” between 2017 and 2022. After the Uyghurs, the Kazakhs are the largest Turkic-speaking native community in Xinjiang. According to the U.S. State Department, 2 million people of China’s Muslim minorities in its northwest have been detained. Kazakh officials have not yet commented on the arrival of Aqbar in Almaty and, in general, keep quiet regarding the treatment of their kin by China.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Hungarian government in deep water with EU for Chinese battery factory plan and Erasmus funding row. The previous week was another large challenge for the Hungarian government. Last year, it offered €800 million in subsidies, tax incentives, and infrastructural support to the €7.4 billion investment in the 100 GWh lithium-ion EV battery production plant in Debrecen by CATL. The project’s lack of transparency and environmental concerns are now motivating citywide protests, despite the assertion that increasing FDI will stimulate the local economy and create jobs. According to EU regulations, such construction must be subject to an investigation, for which negotiations have already begun between Brussels and Budapest. A compromise with the EC regarding the Erasmus and Horizon Europe budget deals has also progressed. Following inquiries into a potential conflict of interest, a few ministers resigned from the boards of the public trust foundations that oversee public universities, although many still remain. The law governing public interest trusts will also be amended.

Poland closes key crossing point on Belarusian border. On 10 February, Minsk condemned Poland’s decision, as now only two crossing points remain between the two nations. Minsk claims the decision was made to “further aggravate the situation at the border and limit citizens’ travel.” The decision comes a day after Minsk’s court decision to jail a Polish journalist for eight years under claims of “allegedly inciting hatred and publicly calling for actions threatening national security” in Belarus. The relationship between Warsaw and Minsk has soured increasingly over the past several years, particularly due to discrimination against ethnic Polish minorities. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki further expressed that closing even more crossings is a possibility. Tensions between the two nations are currently at a high due to Minsk’s threats of invading and attacking Poland, as well as over 10,000 Russian troops being stationed in Belarus.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Moldova’s pro-Western Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița resigns amid economic turmoil and tension with Russia. On Friday, 10 February, Gavrilița announced her resignation, citing that no one expected her government to contend with so many “crises caused by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.” Hours before the Prime minister’s resignation, two Russian cruise missiles flew over Moldova’s airspace before entering Ukraine, Moldovan authorities confirmed. Natalia Gavrilița, a 41-year-old economist, was appointed prime minister in August 2021. From day one, her premiership faced critical issues, including the energy crisis that dramatically hit Moldova, skyrocketing inflation, and one of the highest numbers per capita of refugees following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Following the resignation of Gavrilița, Moldovan President Maia Sandu nominated her defence adviser Dorin Recean to become the country’s Prime Minister. He has 15 days to form a new government.

🌲 In Russia…

Russian ‘Birth Tourism’ to Argentina. Six Russian tourists who were recently allowed to enter the South American country were detained in Buenos Aires on 10 February. They were allegedly part of the recent trend some have called ‘birth tourism.’ Like many South American states, Argentina grants citizenship to all those born on Argentinian soil. At this moment, when having a Russian passport closes more doors than it opens, an Argentinian passport for you or for your children is an enticing prospect. Before then invasion, wealthy Russians could easily get EU passports from EU countries such as Malta or Cyprus through so-called ‘Golden Passport Schemes.’ With these countries stopping these schemes, it is no surprise that other loopholes have been found. According to Argentinian authorities, over 5000 pregnant Russian women have arrived in Argentina in the past few months.

Ex-governor of Khabarovsk Oblast handed 22-year sentence. Last week, the Lyubertsy District Court in Moscow sentenced Sergei Furgal, former governor of the Khabarovsk region in Russia’s Far East, to 22 years in a high-security prison after he was found guilty on two charges of murder and one of attempted murder. The alleged offences took place in the early 2000s, when Furgal was a businessman. The case has been making headlines in Russia as it is widely considered to have been politically motivated – Furgal was elected governor in 2018, having unexpectedly won against the incumbent from the ruling United Russia party. Although he was a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is part of the so-called “systemic opposition” in Russia, he was not considered entirely loyal to the Kremlin. His popularity continued to grow and his arrest in July 2020 resulted in some of the biggest protests Russia has seen in recent years; last week’s sentence, however, did not draw similar numbers to the streets.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Bart Alting, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Vira Kompaniiets, Adriano Rodari, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Autumn Mozeliak, Sarah Fairman, Sam Appels, Kirsty Dick, Xandie Kuenning, Megan McCullough, & Ariadna Mane 💘

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