Lossi 36 Weekly #16: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia12 min read

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In this week’s newsletter: election boycotts in Northern KosovoGeorgian PM to speak at international right-wing conference in BudapestRadio Free Europe/Radio Liberty ban upheld in KyrgyzstanPope Francis in Hungary, a critical reinforcement of MoldovaPeskov’s son in the trenches, and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Critical reinforcement of Moldova.Vira Kompaniiets

On 24 April, the Council of the EU established the EU Partnership Mission in the Republic of Moldova, also known as EUPM Moldova, under the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The objective of this civilian mission is to enhance the resilience of the security sector of the country in the areas of crisis management and hybrid threats, including cybersecurity, as well as countering foreign information manipulation and interference. EUPM Moldova will have an initial mandate of two years and its Operational Headquarters will be based in Moldova. Meanwhile, on 28 April, the country started its path towards joining the EU Civil Protection Mechanism – a European solidarity initiative designed to support countries in times of crisis and disaster. The EU is now deploying its rescEU energy reserve to send 36 power generators to Moldova. The generators will be distributed between 30 hospitals across the country. In addition, over €10 million in humanitarian funding from the EU has now been allocated to support Ukrainian refugees and their host families in Moldova.

🌺 In the Balkans…

Serb entity votes to quit Bosnia’s Constitutional Court. The parliament of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s semi-autonomous Serb dominated entity, adopted the measure on 26 April to withdraw its participation from the country’s Constitutional Court in an ongoing dispute over property rights. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has tried several times to separate the entity’s military, police, and tax administration from the central Bosnian government. Such a move would violate the Dayton Accords, and as such is a direct challenge to both the Constitutional Court and the role of the High Representative, Christian Schmidt. Under Dayton, Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has nine members: four elected from the Bosniak-Croat Federation, two from Republika Srpska and the other three are elected by the president of the European Court for Human Rights and cannot be Bosnian nationals. Dodik has repeatedly called the presence of foreign judges as “anti-constitutional” and a threat to self-determination—a move supported by Russia.

Albanian nationalist parties win elections in north Kosovo following boycott by ethnic Serbs. The two largest Albanian nationalist parties won the municipal elections in northern Kosovo held on April 23. Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (LLV), prime minister Albin Kurti’s party, won in North Mitrovica and Leposavic, while the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) won in Zubin Potok and Zvecan. Both parties have won the elections in the Serb-majority municipalities in the north of the country following the boycott called by Belgrade and after Lista Srpska – the largest Serb party in the country – also refused to participate in the electoral race. Turnout at the voting polls was low, with an estimated 1,567 people, 3.47% of voters, reported by the Central Election Commission. However, as there is no required minimum participation, the results are considered legal and validMilan Radoicic, vice president of Lista Srpska, declared that “those who think that with 1 or 2 percent of the vote, they can lead the municipalities in the north, I have to say that the Serbian people will never allow them to do that.”

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Georgian PM Irakli Garibashvili to speak at right-wing CPAC conference in Hungary. Last week, the organization behind the conference announced that Garibashvili would speak at an upcoming conference in Hungary, right after Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán. The event, typically held in the US, is a gathering of right-wing politicians and figures, and an opportunity for them to share a common platform. Alongside Garibashvili and Orbán, this year’s speakers include Eduardo Bolsonaro – a Brazilian politician and son of Jair Bolsonaro, former Czech PM Andrej Babiš, as well as Kari Lake, a former candidate for the Governor of Arizona who gained notoriety for her refusal to accept her election defeat. Garibashvili is expected to deliver an anti-LGBT speech, and emphasize that Georgia would be part of this far-right coalition seeking to ensure conservative Christian values. The news brought concern in Georgian civil society as it demonstrated a rejection of EU values and would “undermine [Georgia’s] candidacy for EU membership.”

Azerbaijan establishes checkpoint on the Lachin corridor. On 23 April, the army of Azerbaijan placed an official checkpoint on the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia. The Lachin corridor has been blocked since December by a group government-sponsored activists from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan justified the move by claiming that Armenians had been transporting military equipment on the road. Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said that the move was a “flagrant violation” of the 2020 ceasefire, in which Baku agreed to “guarantee safe movement of citizens, vehicles and cargo in both directions along the Lachin corridor.” Following the signing of the ceasefire agreement that ended the Second Karabakh War in 2020, a Russian peacekeeping contingent has been guaranteeing the security of the road. On 24 April, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement which did not mention the checkpoint directly or the peacekeepers’ actions. The statement suggested both sides were to blame, criticising “unagreed changes in the functioning regime of the Lachin corridor or attempts to use it for aims inconsistent with a peaceful agenda.”

🛤 In Central Asia…

US government official warns of ‘secondary sanctions’ in Kazakhstan. During a roundtable in Astana on 25 April, the Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes at the US Treasury stated that there was an increasing risk of ‘secondary sanctions’ being applied against Kazakh companies who aided Russians/Belarusians in circumventing existing sanctions. In response to these comments, Halyk Finance, a major Kazakh investment bank, announced that it would restrict its business activities with Russian and Belarusian clients. Although the chairwoman of Kazakhstan’s financial regulator has stated that Kazakh businesses are in compliance with the sanctions requirements, the market for helping Russian companies avoid export restrictions is estimated to be in the millions of dollars. Kazakhstan (along with Armenia) has been identified by US officials as an important ‘transshipment’ point for sanctioned goods. Halyk Finance’s decision to restrict services to Russian and Belarusian nationals is pre-emptive but demonstrates that current sanctions regulations might be further developed to target more diffuse economic and financial services.

Bishkek court upholds order to shut down Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. On 27 April, the Leninsky district court of Bishkek upheld the ruling that Radio Azattyk, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s local broadcasting service in Kyrgyzstan, had broken the law whilst covering the Tajik-Kyrgyz border conflict last year. The legal battle has been ongoing since late October 2022, when the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth filed a petition to end RFE/RL’s operations in Kyrgyzstan, citing a particular video report that Radio Azattyk had made on the border conflict, accusing the coverage of promoting ‘conflict, violence, and ethnic intolerance.’ RFE/RL’s President and CEO Jamie Fly stated that the organisation would appeal the court’s ‘outrageous’ decision. The ban of RFE/RL is seen as an increasing escalation of government repression of freedom of speech and press, enabled by the 2021 Law on Protection from False Information. There is speculation that Radio Azattyk has been specifically targeted by the government for its investigations of corrupt government officials.

Media investigation reveals powerful laundromat continues to thrive in Central Asia. In 2019, an investigation by OCCRP, RFE/RL and Kloop revealed the Abdukadyr family’s embroilment in a money-laundering scandal, wherein the family’s underground cargo company, in cahoots with a network of corrupt customs officials, smuggled large amounts of unaccounted for goods from China into Kyrgyzstan and then into other foreign markets. This contributed to mass protests in 2019Recent investigations reveal that the family has now channelled their funds, around 2 billion dollars, into legitimate institutions, such as Islamic educational centres, neighbourhoods and customs terminals. Concerningly, their illegal activities have been publicly known, yet political leaders, including the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, have allowed them to undertake investments within their countries by providing them with tax breaks and land grants. There is even evidence of Uzbek president’s own family entering into contracts with Abdukadyr’s companies. Kyrgyzstan’s presidential administration responded to these latest allegations by claiming that the country was open to all investors.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

China’s envoy’s remarks cause diplomatic fallout. China’s ambassador to France Lu Shaye recently questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet states in a French TV interview, claiming that they lacked “effective status under international law.” When asked if Crimea belongs to Ukraine, he responded ambiguously that “it depends on how you perceive the problem,” citing its historical attachment to Russia. The comments drew an angry response from the Baltic countries, which demanded an immediate retraction and clarification from the Chinese government. Officials from UkraineMoldovaFrance, and the EEAS also criticized Lu’s remarks, saying that they undermined China’s credibility as a potential mediator in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In an attempt to control the diplomatic damage, Beijing issued an official statement on the respect of sovereignty of countries and the status of the former Soviet Union. The incident occurred prior to a meeting of EU foreign ministers on the EU’s relations with China, and highlights Europe’s growing concerns over China’s increasing global influence.

Polish Government re-establishes the Ministry of Digitization as of 1 May. The Ministry was liquidated by the current Law and Justice government in 2020 and absorbed into the Prime Minister’s office as the Department of Digitization. Secretary of State and plenipotentiary for cybersecurity Janusz Cieszyński was promoted to minister. On the same day of bringing back the ministry, the government published a press release on an obligation for online operators to provide an easy-to-use filter that will allow limiting children’s access to pornographic content on the internet. The publication of the decision to re-establish the Minister of Digitization, in conjunction with the press release on the protection of children from pornographic content, is likely to be part of the election campaign strategy of the ruling PiS party, which is very keen on connecting any political matter to the protection of traditional family values.

Pope Francis calls for unity and inclusivity during visit to Hungary. Over the past weekend, Pope Francis was in Budapest for his 41st international visit, following his brief attendance to close the Eucharistic Congress in September 2021. His Apostolic Journey aimed to promote interfaith dialogue and to re-embrace Hungarian Christians, although some speculated that the visit had political motivations and rather benefitted the Hungarian government. Just a day before the pontiff’s arrival, the controversial pardon of a convicted far-right terrorist, György Budaházy, overshadowed the visit. The pardon sparked criticism, yet had no impact on the Pope’s schedule. On 28 April, His Holiness met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Katalin Novák, to discuss the Christian path, a united Europe, and the war in Ukraine. On 29 April, the Pope also prayed with Ukrainian refugees, met with Hungarian youth, and visited a children’s home in Budapest. On 30 April, the Pope celebrated Sunday Mass at Kossuth Square in Budapest, where he called for unity, peace, open doors, and inclusivity amid the war in Ukraine.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Ukraine is ready for its counteroffensive this spring. This was said on Friday by Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov. A large counteroffensive in Spring has long been anticipated for the whole of Winter, and in preparation Zelenskyy and his ministers have consistently made calls for the delivery of more heavy weaponry by the West to Ukraine. Despite the fact that Ukraine is now better equipped and better prepared for battle than it was a year ago, a significant part of the weapons delivered by the West have yet to make it to the frontlines. Zelenskyy also called for the delivery of more air defence material, in order “to ensure the security of our cities, our villages, both in the interior and on the front line.” This is in line with the Pentagon leaks of several weeks ago, which made public that Ukraine is struggling to keep up its air defence, since it is running low on ammunition.

🌲 In Russia…

The Kremlin reacts to Xi’s telephone conversation with Zelenskyy. Last week’s phone call concerned the current war in Ukraine and its possible end. The Chinese President mentioned a resolute and firm position of Beijing in seeking an early ceasefire, he also said that China would send a special representative to Ukraine to address the “crisis situation”. In an official statement released by Russia’s presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin stated it welcomed everything that could bring an end to the conflict in Ukraine, provided that it would meet Russia’s goals. If those strategic and military goals remain unchanged, a problem already arises, as Russian ambitions in Ukraine encompass, among other things, territorial gains, while the Ukrainian President, following the aforementioned telephone conversation, reminded the world that no peace would be achieved through a territorial compromise. Consequently, it appears that the Chinese ambitions to be a peacemaker in the war will be rather difficult to fulfil, to say the least.

Peskov’s son’s alleged deployment to Wagner could backfire for the Kremlin. Last Saturday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner group, announced that Nikolai Peskov, a son of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, had been “knee-deep in mud and s**t” on the battlefield in Ukraine alongside his mercenaries for almost six months. His father confirmed this to Russian media days later, but without providing further details. The Russian regime sending ordinary Russians to the battlefield whilst protecting the children of the Kremlin’s elite has been the source of grievances among the Russian population. However, independent researchers have voiced their doubts about Peskov Jr. truly fighting on the frontline. Should the story prove to be false, the dissatisfaction that might stem from this might backfire for the Kremlin.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Megan McCullough, Romain le Dily, Sam Appels, Jordi Beckers, Vira Kompaniiets, Adriano Rodari, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Chaharika Uppal, Teresa Reilly, Kirsty Dick, Nate Ostiller, & Ariadna Mañé 💌

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