Lossi 36 Weekly #15: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

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In this week’s newsletter: Dodik threatens secession of Republika Srpska once more, scandal at weightlifting championships in YerevanAstana keeping a close eye on Petropavlovsk, Slovakia joins Polish-Hungarian ban on grain imports from Ukraine, European Parliament backs MoldovaLavrov tours Latin America and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza receives maximum sentence for treason.Romain le Dily

Longtime opposition figure Mr. Kara-Murza was found guilty of treason, dissemination of false information about the Russian Army, and the leadership of an undesired organisation. The charges previously announced will amount to 25 years of jail time, the maximum Russian citizen with a clear record can get from such allegations. As a consequence, the sentence is not only judged as harsh on the back of Kara-Murza’s irreproachable behaviour, but also because of the Russian-British citizen’s health. As a matter of fact, he was hospitalised several times due to a diagnosed polyneuropathy, a disease said to be the consequence of severe poisoning. This court case constitutes the first time the extended definition provided by Article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation on treason is used. Despite international and Russian support the Moscow-born opposition leader received, one can only fear Kara-Murza’s fate in the Russian regime colony given his status and his health condition.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Dodik threatens secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 14 April, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik expressed his strong consideration of officially declaring independence from Bosnia unless alterations to a national property law are made. Republika Srpska has tried multiple times to implement a law which would take Bosnian state property from the nation as a whole and transfer its ownership to Republika Srpska. However, the highest court in Bosnia has denied the proposal twice, deeming it unconstitutional. Republika Srpska argues that the law is to ensure that its authorities’ properties (such as public institutions and local governments) founded by Republika Srpska should be returned to them. Dodik has threatened to declare the region’s independence for over a decade, with all promises to leave the rest of Bosnia falling through. In December 2021, however, more serious measures began taking effect. The entity made plans in parliament to make provisions towards secession, but they were ultimately postponed for six months due to Bosnia’s close proximity to the Russian war in Ukraine. With the war still ongoing, Dodik’s threats over the property law disputes have been the latest reminder to the international community that Republika Srpska hasn’t given up its hope for independence yet.

Kosovo finally receives green-light on visa free Schengen travel. Fifteen years after declaring independence and after countless delays, citizens of Kosovo are finally able to travel across the Schengen Zone without a visa from 2024 onwards. On Tuesday, EU legislators gave the final green-light necessary for the removal of visas, with a signing ceremony taking place shortly after. The Balkan nation was the last country in the region that had yet to receive visa-free access to the European Union, finally completing a long overdue process, with the EU parliament officially supporting the accession of Kosovo to the visa-free zone since 2016. Belgrade, however, met the move with dismay, with Serbian representatives believing that the EU has unjustly rewarded Kosovo whilst punishing Serbia in the broader context of normalising relations between the two adversaries.

On a tragic day, Frontex deploys to North Macedonia. On 19 April, a North Macedonian police officer shot a 26 year old woman during a police intervention attempting to stop refugee smugglers on the country’s border with Greece. According to the authorities, the situation resulting in the death of the woman was the result of a struggle between smugglers and policemen. This event occurred on the same day that Frontex, the EU’s border agency, started its deployment of over a hundred guards supporting the local authorities with checks and surveillance after illegal smuggling activities increased last year, when pandemic related restrictions were removed. The interior minister stated that “Frontex operation will at first cover North Macedonia’s border with Greece. It will later expand to include the country’s borders with Albania and Serbia.” Frontex chief said “our mission is also about protecting lives and upholding the values that define us as a community.” The agreement between the EU and North Macedonia was reached last October and can be renewed after January 2024. Frontex is currently present in Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Scandal at weightlifting championships in Yerevan. Azerbaijan decided to remove its athletes from the international competition hosted by Armenia after an Armenian man set fire to an Azeri flag onstage during the opening ceremony of the games. The incident was caught on video that was then widely distributed. The perpetrator was quickly arrested by Armenian police, and was found not to have had any connection to the event or any official approval of his actions, yet no charges were brought against him. In a statement following the incident, the Ministry of Sports and Youth of Azerbaijan declared that Azeri athletes could not participate in an event with such an “atmosphere of hatred” and they would boycott the championships and return home. On the other side, the Armenian Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sports stated that the incident “was resolved very quickly” and that Armenia was committed to ensuring the safety of all participants.

Exchange of accusations over corruption in Georgian judiciary. In a parliamentary session last Thursday, Georgia’s ruling party’s MPs did not register in the voting system for the third time in a row in order not to reach the required quorum. The voting agenda included the creation of a parliamentary investigative commission, proposed by the opposition, which would evaluate supposed cases of corruption in the judiciary. In early April, four high-ranking Georgian judges were accused of corruption and sanctioned by the U.S. State Department. The leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, rejected the American accusations, regarding them as unjustified, and stated that without clear evidence no investigation would begin. In addition, the Georgian government accuses the opposition of working against the judiciary reforms which form part of Georgia’s twelve-point plan required to obtain EU candidate status. At the same time, Georgian NGOs point out that the actions of the Georgian Dream hamper effective functioning of the anti-corruption laws and institutions.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Early voting begins in Uzbek referendum. From 19 April, early voting began for Uzbek citizens unable to attend the referendum on 30 April, set to introduce new constitutional changes that would allow the current president to remain in power until 2040. The proposed amendments include nullifying President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s previous and current terms once the latter ends in 2026, allowing him to effectively run for president twice more, while also increasing the presidential term from five to seven years. This new constitution is a second draft. The original version planned to downgrade the legal status of the Republic of Karakalpakstan; Mirziyoyev scrapped those amendments after they sparked an uprising followed by a violent government response which left 21 people dead. The referendum is seen by many as a vote of confidence in Mirziyoyev’s rule, which is now in its seventh year. The President’s popularity is at a tipping point, as many Uzbeks have become frustrated that the pace of economic and social reforms has slowed down.

Astana keeps a close eye on Petropavlovsk. At the end of March, a video circulated in which a group of 20 residents from the city of Petropavlovsk declared the foundation of the People’s Council of the Workers of Petropavlovsk of the North Kazakhstan Region. Three people are currently in custody under suspicion of separatism. The authorities are still investigating their effective declaration of “autonomy and independence” from the Republic of Kazakhstan. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Kazakhstan has been looking with concern at its northern neighbour and has not tolerated the slightest signs of separatism. Moreover, the event in Petropavlovsk took place only a week after a document leaked by investigative journalists revealed the working methods of Russian intelligence services to destabilise countries from within. The declaration of autonomy in northern Kazakhstan might be hard to take seriously, yet the current state of affairs has resulted in extra caution taken by Kazakhstan’s government to protect the country’s sovereignty.

Russia halts imports of dairy from Kyrgyzstan after push towards Latin alphabet. Last week, the chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s National Commission for the State Language and Language Policies, Kanybek Osmonaliev, announced that the country was ready to transition from a Cyrillic-based script to a Latin-based one. Two days later, on 21 April, Russia’s food and dairy regulator, Rosselkhoznadzor, announced that a recent inspection of milk and dairy farms in Kyrgyzstan revealed ‘inefficiency’ in product control. A blanket ban of dairy products from Kyrgyzstan to Russia was promptly issued. Although Osmonaliev was sharply reprimanded for his suggestion of the alphabet switch by the Kyrgyz president, Sadyr Japarov, the issue has been a clear point of contention with Moscow. Russia has used Rosselkhoznadzor bans in the past when bilateral relations with partners were getting sour. However, the script debate has been an ongoing source of tension for some time, with the Turkic-speaking Central Asian countries slowly transitioning away from the Cyrillic and towards Latin script.

Death of “eminence grise” of Turkmen politics. Alexander Zhadan, a powerful figure in Turkmen politics, died on 22 March at age 86, but the news of his death only broke this week. Zhadan had managed to enter the inner circle of the first Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, after the collapse of the USSR. Amazingly, he managed to retain his position as Deputy Administrator of the Office of the President and the Cabinet of Ministers as power passed from Niyazov to his successor Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, both of whom were dictatorial rulers. There is speculation that Zhadan acted as a ‘shadowy money-man’ for the dictators he served, in addition to more official duties. He remained in this influential position until mid-2019.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

CJEU halves fine on Poland to € 500,000. On 21 April, a statement by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) proceeded to halve the daily fine previously imposed on Poland due to the country’s breach of judicial independence. The original fine imposed on the Visegrad country amounted to a daily € 1 million, starting from 3 November 2021. The measure had been launched to sanction Poland for the establishment of a judicial body called “disciplinary chamber” and the refusal to suspend the related judicial reform. In November 2022 and in March 2023, Poland had argued that it had successfully implemented the measures requested by the Court. Nevertheless, in the latest statement, the Vice President of the CJEU stresses that “measures adopted by Poland are not sufficient to ensure the execution of all the provisional measures” and to therefore, suspend the daily fine in its totality.

Slovakia joins Poland and Hungary in restricting grain imports from Ukraine. On 17 April 2023, Slovakia followed the lead of Poland and Hungary in issuing a ban on grain and other food products from Ukraine. The glut of bans, even by staunch allies such as Poland, hints at some of the economic and social tension emerging from the war. In each country, the bans come as a response to grain prices being undercut by cheap imports from Ukraine, which has impacted farmers and the rural communities the most. After Poland broke the ice by initially banning imports, Hungary quickly followed suit. When Slovakia joined the movement, it justified its unilateral actions after discovering traces of unapproved pesticides in Ukrainian wheat. The actions taken by these three countries have been described as “unacceptable” by EU leadership, since the EU is responsible for managing trade within the common market. It is likely that a compromise will be reached shortly.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

European Parliament adopts resolution on the challenges faced by Moldova. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on Wednesday, 19 April, reaffirming its support for Chișinău, and requesting the extension of the scope of the EU’s global human rights sanctions regime to include acts of corruption that undermine a country’s security, stability, constitutional order, and democratic institutions. The parliamentarians request that the persons involved in the attempts to destabilise the internal political situation of Moldova be sanctioned immediately. Consequently, they urge the EU to sanction fugitive Moldovan oligarchs Ilan Șor and Vladimir Plahotniuc and, if appropriate, their businesses and political organisations. They demand that they both be extradited to Moldova, to face trial. The country’s accession to the European Union was also discussed. The MEPs requested that accession negotiations begin by the end of 2023 if all the nine conditions submitted by the European Commission for the opening of negotiations are fulfilled.

🌲 In Russia…

Russian airforce bombs Belgorod by accident, injuring three people. A Russian bomber lost its payload above a residential area of the Russian city, some 30 kilometres from the international border with Ukraine. According to reports on Telegram, the explosion damaged housing and cars passing a busy road, leaving one car hurled on top of a building and a 20-metre crater. It remains unclear how this accident happened, as well as why the armed Su-34 bomber flew over Belgorod at all. The Russian ministry of Defence soon released a brief statement on the accident, claiming responsibility and announcing an investigation. Still, reactions in the Russian media were chaotic with anchors unsure on how to frame this accident, reporting that this was an accurate strike on Ukrainian units. Russian military bloggers on the other hand, often highly critical of military mistakes, praised the MoD for taking responsibility for their mistake.

Lavrov tours Latin America. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a trip to several Latin American nations in an apparent attempt to mobilise their support for Russia on the international stage, or at least ensure their continued neutrality when it comes to Western sanctions imposed following the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Lavrov’s trip started with a visit to Brazil, where he met his counterpart, Mauro Vieira, and the recently elected president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has lately made a number of controversial comments about Ukraine, including suggesting that Kyiv should officially cede Crimea to Russia. Lavrov subsequently went to Venezuela, where he and his counterpart Yván Gil found plenty of common ground as both of their countries are currently under extensive Western sanctions. Following a brief stop in Nicaragua, Lavrov concluded his trip in Cuba, another country affected by sanctions, where he and top Cuban officials discussed a wide range of sectors in which Moscow and Havana could strengthen their cooperation.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Daan Verkuil, Romain le Dily, Agnieszka Widłaszewska, Patricia Raposo, Myriam Marino, Nathan Alan-Lee, Kirsty Dick, Teresa Reilly, Helena Arntz, Oskar Król, Nate Ostiller, Cameron MacBride, Charles Fourmi, & Autumn Mozeliak 💌

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