Lossi 36 Weekly #11: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

 In News

In this week’s newsletter: Serbia inches closer towards sanctions on RussiaFar-Right Group protests and burns EU Flag in front of Georgian ParliamentCentral Asian migrants forced to work in Russian-occupied Ukraine, new documentary casts doubt on legacy of Pope John Paul IIRomania takes new steps in the energy sector, ICC issues arrest warrant for Putin, and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Iran-Azerbaijan tensions on the rise.Oskar Król

Last week, it was reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps moved its troops towards the Iranian-Azerbaijani border and set them to full combat readiness. On the other side of the border, the Defence Ministry of Azerbaijan followed suit and checked up on the combat readiness of its army. These events fit into the wider story of worsening and ever-complicated relations between Tehran and Baku. After all, Iranian military aircraft were seen to fly above to Azerbaijani border for over 40 minutes on 11 March, which caused Azerbaijani officials to summon the Iranian ambassador and send protest notes to Iran to show its concerns over these actions. In January this year, Azerbaijan’s embassy in Tehran was attacked by a gunman, which resulted in one casualty. Iran accuses Azerbaijan of buying arms from Iran’s sworn enemy – Israel, and of allowing it to monitor Iran from Azeri territory. On the contrary, Azerbaijan accuses Iran of militarily supporting Armenia, with which Iran shares a land border.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Serbia inches closer towards sanctions on Russia, but holds off for now. The Serbian government, under pressure from both the US and EU alike, has sounded increasingly more willing in recent weeks to soon begin placing sanctions on Russia. Belgrade, which has for over a year now avoided making any significant shifts in its foreign policy as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, has seemingly realised that it can no longer take advantage of its flexible position between Brussels and Moscow, and will soon be forced to decide whether to maintain its current close economic and political partnership with Russia, or to attach itself fully to its pro-EU membership path. Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic also recently stated that he could not rule out eventually joining in on Western sanctions against Moscow, although he hoped that Belgrade would not have to make such a decision.

Montenegrin prosecution investigates forged signatures in presidential elections. With a new president in the midst, over 90 criminal complaints have been made by NGOs and citizens claiming there have been forged signatures written in support for more than one presidential candidate. Per Montenegrin law, each electoral candidate must bring forth 8,101 signatures. Upon requesting that individuals check if their personal data has been misused by any of these candidates, a multitude reported breaches. Goran Danilović, Draginja Vuksanović-Stanković, and Jovan Radulović Jodžir are among the candidates whose signatures are being reevaluated by the prosecution. All candidates have denied involvement. This incident is reminiscent of Montenegro’s last presidential campaign in 2018, where over 300 forged signatures were reported and investigated- although no indictments were resultant. The 2023 elections took place on Sunday, 19 March.

Bosnian Serbs protest against re-criminalising defamation. Last week, Transparency International raised the alert in Bosnia after several amendments to its defamation law were passed. TI fears that the criminalisation of defamation will become a political tool to sanction opponents. Activists followed up with protests this week in Banja Luka. They were seen outside the parliament with pieces of adhesive tape over their mouths and breaking pencils on the ground to show how the law attempts to silence and break their freedom of expression. The actively participating head of the journalists association stated that “news reporting will become mission impossible, investigative journalism will cease to exist, and ordinary citizens will face the threat of criminal prosecution for their speech, even for what they say in private gatherings.” The law is actively pursued by the President of the Serb territory in Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, who also threatened to list NGOs as “foreign agents,” a Russian-style law that was non-successfully pursued in Georgia this month.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Far-Right Group protests and burns EU Flag in front of Georgian Parliament. The group, known as Alt-Info, burned the flag, threw rocks at the building, and was also accused of attacking a journalist during the incident earlier this week. This counter protest came in the wake of last week’s large-scale protests against the government’s alleged Russian-inspired “foreign agent law,” which was withdrawn following the upheaval. Prior to the flag-burning, Alt-Info organised a march through Tbilisi, arguing that there should be a referendum on the ‘foreign agents law.’ It was the latest sign that although the proposed law had been retracted, tensions remained. Georgian PM Garibashvili referred to the anti-government protesters as ‘satanists,’ and Georgian Dream party chair Khobakhidze blamed the unrest on ‘extremist youth,’ At the same time, even some proponents of the law condemned Alt-Info’s aggressive actions. No stranger to controversy, Alt-Info previously made headlines for their role in attacking a LGBT pride festival, and allegedly assaulting other political opponents. The group is considered to be close to Moscow.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court takes on Nazarbayev’s brother. Bolat Nazarbayev, the younger brother of Kazakhstan’s former leader Nursultan Nazarbaev, is being forced to return a 32% stake in Almaty Heavy Machinery Factory (AZTM). AZTM used to be state-owned, but it went private in 1998. 31.9% of its shares were subsequently bought by a private company, Temir Kon, which then sold the shares to Bolat Nazarbaev. The deal passed on certain responsibilities to Nazarbayev, including maintaining the operations of the plant, increasing production volumes and allowing the Committee of State Property and Privatization to monitor the implementation of the conditions. Nazarbayev then sold his shares to another company, without passing on the abovementioned responsibilities, which have since been neglected. Consequently, the Supreme Court ruled that Nazarbayev had violated the conditions of his original ownership agreement and was therefore obliged to return the shares to the Committee. However, the current whereabouts of Nazarbayev are unknown, as he fled Kazakhstan following the civil unrest in January 2022.

Russian comedian performing in Tashkent censored during stand-up. Danila Poperechny was performing on stage in Tashkent when censors reportedly started muting his microphone during the ‘controversial’ parts of his performance. Whenever he spoke about Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia in general, or other political issues, censors cut his sound, with around 50 minutes of his performance ending up muted. This censorship is an example of the delicate line the Uzbek authorities have been walking since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Poperechny was allowed to perform, but his potentially controversial jokes were muted in an apparent attempt to remain as ‘neutral’ as possible.

Central Asian migrants forced to work in Russian-occupied Ukraine. RFERL has uncovered evidence of Central Asian migrants being hired by Russian companies to work in Russian-occupied Ukrainian cities, e.g. Mariupol. Male migrants are mostly forced to work in construction, digging trenches and collecting dead bodies, while females from the region work in military-owned hospitals, canteens and factories. While some Central Asians are willing to risk their lives for the higher wages of USD 1,200 a month, others have had their salaries delayed or deducted. One Kyrgyz citizen told RFERL that he had been stopped from entering Russia by border guards who said he was on a blacklist. Central Asian migrants, particularly Tajiks, have also been forced to enter the Russian army with a promise that they will be awarded Russian citizenship at the end of their service. Other migrants in Russia have been tricked into signing contracts for construction work in occupied Ukraine, only to then find themselves fighting on the front lines.

Kazakh parliamentary elections begin. On 19 March, the completion of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s transfer of power began with voting in parliamentary and local council elections. Previously, the Mazhilis (lower house of Parliament) was mostly dominated by parties voted for under former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s term. The current elections are different from the previous ones in that they allocate a portion of the lower house’s seats to candidates from single-mandate districts. However, that does not mean that independent parties have been allowed to register freely, and there have been cases of independent candidates’ names being removed from the ballots. It is suspected that the rebranded, ruling Amanat party will once again win, but by fewer votes than previously, with polls showing a possible drop by 28 percentage points. The new parliamentary system has been called by some “a sham”, given the independent candidates’ inability to secure platforms for campaigning. That being said, voter turnout has been decent, with 14% turnout being recorded just two hours after the polls opened.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Hungary’s Fidesz backs Finnish NATO membership but disregards Sweden. Hungary, together with Turkey, expressed its support for the Finnish membership to NATO, while Sweden is still put on hold by the two countries. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party will vote in favour of the ratification of Finland’s NATO accession on 27 March. Meanwhile, decisions on long-debated Swedish membership were again postponed. In November 2022, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had stressed his endorsement of both countries’ membership by emphasising how “the Swedes and the Finns have not lost a single minute of membership because of Hungary, and Hungary will certainly give them the support they need to join.” Nevertheless, in the months that followed, Orbán’ s government delayed its ratification of the two countries’ entry into NATO. Moreover, recent radio statements by the PM seem to suggest that Hungary has been unsure about Sweden and Finland’s membership due to their criticism concerning Hungarian rule of law. Analysts fear that delaying the ratifications could be a move to gain leverage to unblock Hungary’s EU funds.

New documentary casts doubt on Pope John Paul II’s legacy. On 4 March, Polish news channel TVN premiered a documentary revealing how Pope John Paul II protected paedophile priests while he was still Archbishop of Krakow. The accusation targets not only Poland’s most revered cleric but also the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has long been a staunch ally of the Polish Catholic Church. The PiS-led government has already taken steps to suppress the story, condemning the “shameful campaign conducted by the media.” In the run-up to parliamentary elections which should take place this fall, PiS is under pressure to take action and shore up support amongst its key rural Catholic constituency. This may also herald renewed tensions with foreign-owned media, such as the American-owned TVN Network, which have already been threatened with “repolonisation.”

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Romania takes new steps in the energy sector. TsLast Thursday, 16 March, the companies Transgaz, OMV, Petrom, and Romgaz signed a declaration for the natural gas transport contracts, ensuring the development of the Tuzla-Podișor pipeline, with an investment of 4 billion euros. This act symbolises the conclusion of the necessary technical aspects required for creating transport infrastructure, connecting the natural gas available on the shores of the Black Sea to the BRUA corridor, which would allow the exploitation of the natural gas deposits in the Neptun Deep perimeter and its subsequent distribution to every Romanian household, having access to the natural gas network. The project is crucial for Romanian energy security, and it is at the centre of the country’s 2030 strategy. On the other hand, it represents a new source of natural gas in the Trans-Balkan Corridor and the Vertical Corridor. During the signing ceremony, Romanian Prime Minister Ciucă highlighted its strategic importance while assuring the government’s support.

🌲 In Russia…

President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow. Coming week, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Moscow, offering a major diplomatic boost to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It will be the Chinese President’s first visit to Russia since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin announced that talks between the two countries would aim at developing partnerships and bilateral cooperation, following the “no limits” partnership in February 2022, which concluded right before the beginning of the war in Ukraine. While there’s no mention of Ukraine in the official statements regarding the upcoming meet, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, suggested that the talks could yield new approaches to the Ukrainian crisis. On 16 March, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang reached out to his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, to discuss a political solution to the ongoing armed conflict in Ukraine. It is worth mentioning that China’s overall trade with Russia hit a record high of $190bn in 2022. Their diplomatic and economic ties continue to deepen.

International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for President Putin, citing war crimes. The ICC accuses Putin to be personally responsible for the deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. These children were abducted from Russian-held territories and forcibly adopted into Russian families. The court seeks the arrest of Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova as well. While the warrants were welcomed by many Ukrainian, European, and American officials, chances that the court order will lead to arrests are slim: Russia, like China and the US, does not recognize the ICC’s authority, and will certainly not extradite neither Putin nor Lvova-Belova. The ICC has also never succeeded in convicting senior officials. Still, the warrant is a remarkable condemnation of Putin’s personal responsibility and is a strong signal to the 123 countries that do recognize the ICC. It is expected that these warrants will lead to further investigations into Russian war crimes.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Daan Verkuil, Rachele Colombo, Vira Kompaniiets, Patricia Raposo, Myriam Marino, Nathan Alan-Lee, Kirsty Dick, Teresa Reilly, Chaharika Uppal, Oskar Krol, Nate Ostiller, Cameron MacBride, Charles Fourmi, & Autumn Mozeliak

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