Lossi 36 Weekly #9: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter 📮: Serbia and Kosovo close to signing a major agreement, a tumultuous political week in Georgia, parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan and Estonia, tensions on the rise in Moldova, fighting comes to the Bryansk region in Russiaand much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Fight breaks out in Georgian parliament over “Foreign Agent Law.” Nate Ostiller

Chairs were tossed and punches were thrown in the Georgian parliament last week, as opposition intensified vis-a-vis the controversial “Foreign Agent” Law, which requires organisations to register as “Agents of Foreign Influence” if more than 20% of their income comes from a “foreign power”, which includes foreign governments, international organisations and non-Georgian people and legal entities. The fight, which also illustrates escalating tensions over the ruling Georgian Dream party’s stance toward Russia, is the latest demonstration of the gap between civil society and the government. The proposed law has been widely condemned across the political spectrum and abroad, with some observers claiming that it threatens to cause the “fall of Georgian democracy”. Georgian business associations have reported concerns that the proposed law would create potential stumbling blocks in Georgia’s aspirations to join the European Union, and would discourage economic investment. At the same time, Moscow has capitalised on the dispute, with the state-run news site Ria Novosti proclaiming that “Georgia is ready to break with the European Union.”

🌺 In the Balkans…

Serbia and Kosovo close to signing a major relations agreement. Following a meeting in Brussels last week between Serbian President, Alexsandar Vucic and his Kosovan counterpart, Albin Kurti, the two states edged closer to signing a comprehensive agreement to finally establish good relations between the two adversaries. The comprehensive deal, commonly referred to as the ‘Franco-German’ deal, was published publicly for the first time after months of speculation and leaks surrounding its contents. However, although all sides agreed to the overall nature of the agreement, the deal has yet to be formalised, with Vucic still holding out his signature – claiming that there is still “work to be done.” The final agreement could lead to Kosovo getting entry into international organisations, along with ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo being granted some form of political ‘association.’ Formal recognition of Kosovo by Serbia would not be included in the deal, however. For now, the parties will continue discussions and will meet again later in March, for the next round of talks.

400 bomb threats in Skopje reveal need for online security improvements. On 21 February, the North Macedonian government had to evacuate 30 locations in Skopje after receiving yet another set of false bomb threats via email. However, this is not the first time the nation is experiencing this act of terrorism. For four months, authorities received these bomb threats almost daily, prompting anti-terrorism searches in schools, malls, hotels and even the presidential residence. Police spokesman Toni Angelovski reported that the anti-terrorism teams have searched over 400 locations across North Macedonia. With over 60 schools having been affected, some schools are now considering returning to online learning due to the several threats and disruptions to classroom learning. Officials believe the threats are linked to the Russian war in Ukraine. Despite no actual explosive devices having been discovered during any of the hundreds of searches, the North Macedonian government has vowed to improve online security. However, no details on specific steps to make this change have been released to the public.

Checkmate in the Balkans wraps up a Russian era. Serbia is hosting the Men’s European Chess Championship from 3 March onwards, while Montenegro hosts the Women’s competition simultaneously. However, the presence of Russian players remains controversial. The International Chess Federation (FIDE) had agreed earlier this year to disallow Russian participation.The decision belonged to the European Chess Union (ECU), which claims the rights as the official event organiser. The championship will be the last for Russia, after a majority vote from the Asian Chess Federation (ACF) on Tuesday, allowing all Russian players to compete in their league, instead of Europe. FIDE president, Andrey Filatov, a Russian citizen, praised the move. He said, “for the first time, a chess federation […] has moved from one continent to another.” ECU was disappointed by the decision and blamed FIDE for being influenced by the Kremlin. Russian players have been somewhat dominant. Between 2009 and 2021, ten out of twelve winners were from Russia. In the women’s championship, Valentina Gunina has won three championships

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Nagorno Karabakh’s new state minister. Following the dismissal of Ruben Vardanyan, a Russian-Armenian billionaire and philanthropist who served as the State Minister of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and is believed to have been involved in Russian money laundering schemes, relations between Stepanakert and Baku were revived through a meeting discussing the Lachin blockade and scarcities in energy supply. Previously, Azerbaijan refused to engage in any dialogue with the representatives of Nagorno Karabakh until Vardanyan would be let go, as he had been openly critical of the Azerbaijani government. The new appointee to the position of State Minister is Gurgen Nersisyan, previously the Prosecutor General. So far, Baku’s reaction to the new appointment has been lukewarm. However, EU representatives find the revived engagement “encouraging”, as officials met for yet another meeting in Khojali (Ivanyan) to discuss reintegration and the so-called exploitation of natural resources.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Uzbek students’ TikTok parody sparks outrage from education authorities. Students from a school in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent drew the ire of the education authorities after posting a TikTok parody video of the singer Instasamka’s song ‘Yes for Money’. In the video, schoolgirls throw counterfeit dollars around the classroom while showing off so-called expensive gifts. The Main Department of Public Education (GUNO) of Tashkent told the girls and their parents that such behaviour was contrary to the rules of etiquette and did not correspond to the national traditions of Uzbekistan. This led to one of the parents apologising to the school on behalf of the other parents and students. Odiljon Tojiyev, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, wrote on Twitter; “I don’t know, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I didn’t see anything immoral in what these children did.” TikTok has long been viewed as a harmful influence by Uzbek officials. In the last couple of years, the government has banned the Chinese-owned social media app, only to then lift the block occasionally.

Journalist attacker apprehended by Kazakh government? On 28 February, the Kazakh police announced that they had found the person accused of a series of attacks on journalists. These attacks, which have been ongoing since September 2022, have included intimidation tactics such as a cameraman’s Roman Yegorov’s car being torched and the editor in chief of Ulysmedia.kz Samal Ibraeva being sent a parcel of raw meat with pictures of her children included. The Kazakh Interior Ministry believes these attacks were carried out by a group who is trying to discredit Kazakhstan’s president and his ongoing democratic reforms. On the day of the announcement, during his visit to Astana, Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, announced a $25 million funding package to diversify trade routes in the Central Asian region in hopes of forging stronger regional relations. However, $25 million is significantly less than the amount of trade the countries regularly conduct with Russia, especially since the American money might eventually call for greater adherence to Western sanctions against Russia. 

Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections see opposition candidates raise their voices. Also in Kazakhstan, last week saw the intensification of campaigning for the upcoming parliamentary elections on 19 March, in which 400 candidates are competing in single-member districts accounting for 29 seats in parliament. Claims that these elections are ‘more democratic’ and ‘pluralistic’ are blurred by administrative, financial and bureaucratic barriers put in place for opposition candidates, such as Lukpan Akhmedyarov, who suggested that candidates who are closer to the current political elite are benefiting from administrative resources. Opposition candidates, if they are lucky enough to overcome extreme barriers and get on the ballot, are unsure how their campaigns will unfold as the state tries to ‘reform’ the electoral system while minimising any real change.

Growing energy insecurity in Uzbekistan. Tashkent is currently struggling to adapt its pipeline infrastructure to handle imports of natural gas from Russia. These changes are underway as Uzbekistan experienced chronic energy shortages this past winter, which has stopped it from exporting its own energy supplies to China. In January, Tashkent and Moscow reached an agreement on reversing the flow in the Central Asia-Center pipeline to allow for gas deliveries to Uzbekistan, however, these have not started yet. Kazakhstan is facing a similar problem as gas consumption continues to grow quickly in the region. Astana is therefore also likely to start importing gas from Russia, although no specific plans have been announced yet.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Poland signs deal to boost domestic defence industry. On 24 February, Polish defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak announced an agreement to purchase 1,400 “Borsuk” infantry fighting vehicles in the latest expansion of Poland’s growing arsenal. Unlike other deals, this agreement, which is valued at roughly €10 billion and is the largest in 50 years, will benefit Poland’s own domestic arms industry, specifically the Huta Stalowa Wola Consortium. For years the Polish government has worked to foster a technological and industrial defence base in Poland, and since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year first the “Krab” howitzer and now the “Borsuk” vehicle have met with success. These developments play to Poland’s emerging role as a leader in the Central European region and as a new “centre of gravity” on NATO’s eastern flank.

Estonia votes in national elections. On Sunday, 5 March, Estonia held its national elections. The polls suggest that two parties are mostly favoured, namely the Reform party, led by the current Estonian Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, and the EKRE (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia), led by Martin Helm. On the one hand, Kallas’ centre-right liberal party, at 30% in the polls, firmly upholds its pro-Ukrainian and pro-European views. On the other hand, the far-right EKRE, at approximately 20%, supports anti-immigration and nationalist views. In the midst of the war in Ukraine, the latter political party appears to particularly appeal to the Russian-speaking minority in Estonia. While public support for the Reform PM seems high, over the past years EKRE has successfully built its popularity on the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent skyrocketing inflation rates in the country.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Tensions continue to rise in Moldova. Last Tuesday, the “Movement for the People,” which the pro-Russia ȘOR Party is also a member of, protested in yet another anti-government rally held in Chișinău after the announcement of the new Moldovan government. The protestors are asking for the executive to pay “the population’s bill,” and for the resignation of President Maia Sandu. Meanwhile, last Thursday, the Parliament approved a resolution condemning the brutality of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The document was voted on by 55 deputies from the ruling Party of Action and Solidarity, as members of the Communist, Socialist, and ȘOR parties either left or did not attend the session. Moscow already reacted, stating that those who voted stood in solidarity “with the most hateful statements of their Western manipulators.” Moreover, last week the Kremlin implied that Ukraine was planning a “provocation with radioactive substances” in Transnistria. Ukraine has denied the accusations while Moldova’s new Prime Minister Dorin Recean accused Russia of misinformation and declared that Moldova had sufficient capabilities to deal with a possible escalation.

Ten-year sentence for Ales Bialiatski. On 3 March, Belarusian Nobel Peace Prize-winning, pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 10 years in jail by a Minsk court. Moreover, his fellow human rights colleagues from the Viasna group, Valiantsin Stefanovic got a nine-year jail term and Uladzimir Labkovich got a seven-year sentence. Mr Bialiatski was arrested in 2021, following massive street protests over the widely disputed 2020 presidential elections and was accused of smuggling cash into Belarus to fund opposition activity. According to Franak Viacorka, senior adviser to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the 10-year sentence seems to be “a personal revenge of Lukashenko to Ales because Ales was very actively supporting Belarusian victims of repression […].” Following this fact, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, during a Geneva briefing reported that at the end of 2022, there were at least 1,446 people being held, having faced or still facing criminal proceedings, in Belarus.

🌲 In Russia…

Fighting comes to Bryansk. On 2 March, the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) posted a video of the armed group about 700 metres inside Russian territory. Ukrainian officials have playfully refused to admit any connection they might have had with the RDK’s operation, while Russian authorities immediately claimed it was a terrorist attack, with the FSB releasing an obviously edited video, supposedly of the attack’s aftermath. The RDK’s Bryansk excursion may be the first operation by anti-Putin Russian paramilitaries inside of Russia, but it is hardly unique. Ukrainian special forces units have operated inside of Russia, carrying out sabotage missions. There has also been an almost constant series of attacks by individual partisan fighters, including clashes between partisans and security services in the North Caucasus. Suffice to say, the contrast between the RDK’s sensationalism and real impact does not warrant the attention it is drawing.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Harold Chambers, Vira Kompaniiets, Patricia Raposo, Myriam Marino, Nathan Alan-Lee, Kirsty Dick, Nate Ostiller, Chaharika Uppal, Cameron MacBride, Autumn Mozeliak, Charles Fourmi, & Teresa Reilly 💘

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