Lossi 36 Weekly #10: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter: Dodik to block regional travel deal, Georgia drops its ‘foreign agents’ law, Kazakhstan reviews its oil exports, government spreads disinformation to explain decline in family units in Poland, continued political unrest in Moldova, Wagner Group opens recruitment centres across Russia and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Date set for Uzbekistan’s constitutional referendum. Agnieszka Widłaszewska

Last week, the lower chamber of the Uzbek parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of conducting a long-delayed constitutional referendum on 30 April. The decision will likely be confirmed by the country’s senate later this week. While the exact list of proposed changes to the constitution is not yet known, it is said that they will affect as much as 65 percent of the document. One of them is meant to modify the length of a presidential term, changing it from five to seven years, and it would reportedly allow the current Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, now in his second term, to reset his mandate clock and run for two more seven-year terms. The decision on the final date of the referendum comes after the first draft of the changes, published in June of last year, resulted in mass protests in the Uzbek autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, as it was revoking the republic’s right to call for a referendum on its independence. The unrest left at least 21 dead and hundreds injured, and led to the withdrawal of the controversial proposal and the postponement of the referendum, which was initially planned for December 2022.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Bosnian Serb leader blocks regional travel deal, sights plight of Kosovo’s Serb minority. Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, has vowed to block the German-led agreement that would allow visa-free travel for citizens of Bosnia and Kosovo. The freedom of movement agreement is part of the Berlin Process and is designed to facilitate regional cooperation between the six Western Balkans countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – known as the WB6. In November, prime ministers of the WB6 signed three new agreements, enabling their citizens to cross borders using only identity cards. Among them was Zoran Tegeltija, former chair of Bosnian Council of Ministers and a member of Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD. Following calls to unblock the ratification, Dodik responded on Twitter saying, “First the EU should allow the citizens of Kosovo and Metohija to travel freely within its borders, and then force others to do so.”

Further details of Hashim Thaçi’s charges at Hague Court published. more explicit version of the indictment of Kosovo’s former President Hashim Thaçi and three other Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) ex-officers, Kadri Veseli, Jakup Krasniqi, and Rexhep Selimi, have been published by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in the Hague. The most recent publication discloses the names of ethnic Albanian, Serb, and Roma victims, as well as details of alleged threats that Thaci and his former colleagues made to their political rivals. In the upcoming trial, set to commence on 3 April, the defendants will face charges for four counts of war crimes and six counts of crimes against humanity, to which they have all pleaded not guilty. The prosecution seeks to prove their alleged responsibility for crimes that “took place between at least March 1998 through September 1999” as part of a “joint criminal enterprise” to gain control over Kosovo by “unlawfully intimidating, mistreating, committing violence against, and removing those deemed to be opponents.”

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgia drops ‘foreign agents’ law. Last week, Georgia’s parliament announced it was withdrawing the controversial law after widespread protests and international damnation. The bill proposed to make all media outlets and NGOs receiving 20% or more of their funding from abroad register as ‘foreign agents,’ subjecting them to monitoring and possible sanctions. The legislation has been likened to a similar law passed in Russia in 2012. Protesters arrived in front of the Parliament on Tuesday, chanting ‘No to the Russian law’ and singing the Georgian, Ukrainian, and EU anthems. The protests grew even larger on Wednesday, with riot police responding with tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons. The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the law as “a very bad development for Georgia and its people,” and Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili announced that she would veto the bill. On Thursday, the Georgian Dream, Georgia’s ruling party, announced that they decided to withdraw the bill in order to stop spending energy on confrontation and instead invest in peace and the economic development of the country.

Deadly skirmish in the shadow of Lachin Corridor blockade. An official statement was released by the Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh authorities, detailing their version of the 5 March incident involving Nagorno-Karabakh police and Azerbaijani soldiers, which left several dead on both sides. According to the Armenian side, Azeri military personnel shot at an Armenian police vehicle in an unprovoked attack that Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan referred to as an “act of terrorism.” However, an official statement from the Azeri side claimed that the vehicle had been stopped as part of a routine check for weapons and mines, and the Armenians had opened fire first. The incident took place in the context of a larger dispute about the contested territory and recent episodes of violence. Azerbaijan’s contentious blockade of the Lachin Corridor, which provides access to the contested territory, has been justified by Baku in order to stop the flow of weapons, especially mines, to the Armenian side.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kazakhstan’s former Defence Minister jailed over January 2022. A bit over one year after the uprising in Kazakhstan, which saw at least 238 people killed, others injured, and many still tortured, the former defence minister Murat Bektanov has been sentenced to twelve years in prison last week. Bektanov had been arrested last year in February and charged with ‘failing to act’ when civil unrest shook Kazakhstan in January 2022; however, his charges were later changed to ‘abuse of office.’

Kazakhstan’s oil exports set to increase, but are still complicated by war in Ukraine. Kazakhstan’s oil exports set to increase, but are still complicated by war in Ukraine. Kazakhstan aims to increase its oil export to 72 million metric tons by 2025, which would amount to a growth of 38 percent over the next two years. However, four fifths of Kazakhstan’s oil exports are transported through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which runs through Russia. President Tokayev announced that Kazakhstan will work to find alternative routes to export their oil, presumably to avoid transporting through heavily sanctioned Russia. These moves to separate Kazakh oil from Russian-dependent infrastructure follow Kazakhstan’s rebranding of its oil from REBCO, Russia Export Blend Crude Oil, to KEBCO. KEBCO is trading at $20 USD more than REBCO, demonstrating that distancing Kazakh oil from Russia might be the way forward for Astana. 

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Polish government spreads disinformation to explain decline in family units. With a declining fertility rate dropping to 1.32 in 2021, government officials have resorted to distributing nonfactual information to the public to explain the societal change. This comes after an attempt to blame the drop of fertility rates in 2020 on COVID-19, and the more recent drop on the war in Ukraine. In reality, the nation struggles to maintain sufficient public services, as well as institutional day and senior care, thereby burdening families. This further adds to work and childcare for women and couples, resulting in many women staying out of the labour force and at home. In addition, there is severe degradation of healthcare and education services, as Poland’s funding for these institutions is among the lowest in the EU. Seniors are also taken care of mostly by family members, particularly by women. Due to the non-equalised retirement age, women enter the labour market both late and are encouraged to leave early to provide care at home. The importance of these institutional setbacks have been minimised and, instead, the Polish government has blamed the “perfect family unit’s” fall on external affairs, not domestic institutional ones.

Hungary delays discussions on Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bids, despite declared support. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland applied for NATO membership, which requires unanimous acceptance from all 30 NATO members. However, Turkey and Hungary’s approvals are still pending. In early March, President Katalin Novák reiterated Hungary’s support for the accession of both, and urged the parliament to make a decision soon. The governing Fidesz party also confirmed the endorsement, despite both countries’ criticism of the condition of democracy and rule of law in Hungary. Last week, a Hungarian delegation led by Csaba Hende, Deputy Speaker and a former Defence Minister, visited the Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Stockholm and Helsinki. Nevertheless, the meetings were unable to confirm the finalisation of the ratification process, which had been stalled since July, citing that the legislative decision-making procedure usually takes weeks. According to Gergely Gulyás, Minister of the PM’s Office, the parliament is set to vote on the Swedish-Finnish NATO entry in late March.

Estonia’s Reform Party starts coalition government talks. Estonia held parliamentary elections on 5 March to elect all 101 members of the Riigikogu. Throughout the campaign, the national economy and security were the most often mentioned concerns. Voter turnout was 63.7%, of which more than half were cast online. Six parties reached the 5% threshold required for parliamentary representation, including the newcomer liberal-centrist Eesti 200 party. Estonia’s centre-right Reform Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, received 31.4% of the vote and gained 37 seats. The far-right populist EKRE party and the former coalition ally Center Party had received 16.1% and 15% of the vote, respectively, and 17 and 16 seats. Due to ideological disagreements, Kallas has ruled out joining a government with EKRE. Last week, to secure a stable majority coalition, the Reform Party began negotiations with Eesti 200 and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) about forming a new liberal-minded coalition government. However, no agreement has been reached on the national budget balance or tax measures. It is expected that Estonia will remain pro-EU, pro-NATO, and strongly supportive of Ukraine.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya sentenced to 15 years. Tsikhanouskaya herself was not present at the court in Minsk when the verdict was given. The opposition leader has been in exile since the massive protests in her support broke out, following the fraudulent Belarussian elections of August 2020, when she fled the country out of fear of the safety of her and her children. The trial started in January this year, with Tsikhanouskaya being prosecuted on allegations of “plotting to seize power in an unconstitutional way,” “creating an extremist formation,” and “inciting social hatred.” The court decided that Tsikhanouskaya and four other convicted (in absentia) opposition figures who were involved with the 2020 protests, would spend their sentences in one of the country’s penal colonies. Tsikhanouskaya has dubbed the trial a “farce” and sent out a tweet in which she stated that she would continue to work for the release of the “thousands of innocents, detained and sentenced to real prison terms.”

Political unrest in Moldova continues. On 12 March, 54 protesters, including 21 minors, were arrested in Moldova. The public authorities claim they have foiled a plot by groups of Russia-backed actors who were specially trained to cause mass unrest during a protest against the country’s new pro-Western government. It is believed that the U.S. intelligence officials knew in advance about the possible plans of Russian backers to stage protests in hopes of toppling the Moldovan government and weakening Moldova’s pro-European support. This protest, unfortunately, is a continuation of a chain of protests, organised by a group calling itself Movement for the People and supported by members of Moldova’s Russia-friendly Shor Party. Moldovan president, Maia Sandu, keeps insisting that these are Kremlin’s plans to stage a coup d’état in the country, and that the EU must stand with Moldova by speeding up EU accession negotiations.

🌲 In Russia…

Russian billionaires Sell Alfa Bank Shares in a bid to avoid sanctions. One of the first things the EU did when Russia invaded Ukraine was drawing up extensive sanction lists, which included multiple oligarchs. Member states froze assets of oligarchs such as Potanin (minerals), Sechin (oil and gas), and Fridman (banking). A year after the initial sanctions, some oligarchs are now trying to get unsanctioned. Petr Aven and Mikhail Fridman of Alfa bank have allegedly even enlisted the help of Navalny staff member Leonid Volkov to get them off the list. A main argument from oligarchs is that they built their businesses independent of the regime. These claims have little to no truth in them, as in an authoritarian regime such as Russia it is next to impossible to build a business empire with no connection to the state.

Wagner Group opens recruitment centres across Russia.On Friday, 10 March, the head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that Wagner would open recruitment centres in dozens of cities across Russia. “Recruitment centres for PMC Wagner have opened in 42 Russian cities,” Prigozhin said in a statement. The head of Wagner also referred to the tensions with the Russian Defense Ministry, saying that “despite the spanner that they are throwing in the works at every turn, we will overcome this together.” The Wagner Group is currently spearheading offensives in the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. The battle of Bakhmut has become the longest and most bloody battle of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine have suffered significant losses of soldiers around Bakhmut.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Ariadna Mañé, Kirsty Dick, Nate Ostiller, Teresa Reilly, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Autumn Mozeliak, Vira Kompaniiets, Jordi Beckers, Bart Alting, & Sam Appels 

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