Lossi 36 Weekly #21: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia10 min read

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In this week’s newsletter: Kosovo Serbs clash with NATO peacekeepers; anti-government protests in Abkhazia; methane leaks in Turkmenistan; European ontroversy around Hungarian Presidency endures; Lukashenko extends invitation to join alliance; Navalny celebrates his birthday; and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

Concerns over Poland’s new Russian influence commission.Tijs van de Vijver

Last week, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed legislation creating a committee tasked with uncovering Russian influence in Poland between 2007 and 2022. Specifically, the committee would have the power to prosecute, judge and impose penalties, such as banning officials from holding a security clearance or a role with responsibility over public funds. At home, the opposition has criticised the law for being “anti-constitutional,” “quasi-judicial,” and “vaguely defined,” fearing that the committee could target opposition politicians in the run-up to the country’s general election later this year. Internationally, Brussels and Washington were quick to express their concerns as well: the European Commission and Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders stated that they were “very concerned,” with the U.S. State Department uttering similar concerns. On Friday, 2 June, Duda seemed to retract: in response to the domestic and international criticism, he said he would propose to the Polish parliament some substantial changes to the legislation. This, however, did not prevent the version he originally signed from entering into force last week.

🌺 In the Balkans…

US Air Force bombers fly over Sarajevo in show of support. Two US B-1B Lancer bombers flew low over Sarajevo and several other Bosnian cities this week in a show of support for the country’s political and territorial integrity, amid continued threats of secession by Republika Srpska leader, Milorad Dodik. The aircraft also participated in a joint military event in the north-eastern town of Tuzla, with the Bosnian army and US Special Forces. The US ambassador to the country, Michael Murphy, said the flights were a demonstration of “a rock-solid commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Dodik himself, however, did not view the intervention in a friendly manner, stating that “American aircraft in Republika Srpska’s airspace, without approval or consent from the authorities, that is not an act of partnership or friendship but quite the contrary.”

Ethnic Serbs throw Molotov cocktails at NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo. On 29 May, during a protest against the installation of ethnic Albanian mayorsat least 30 NATO soldiers were injured in an attack by ethnic Serbs in Leposavić. Serb protesters reportedly threw tear gas and stun grenades at the NATO soldiers, in addition to rocks and Molotov cocktails. Five people have reportedly been arrested for the attack. The protests began back in April, when Kosovo Serbs boycotted local elections which gave ethnic Albanians the power over local councils. Meanwhile, Serbian president Alexander Vučić declared at least 50 Serbs were injured and further accused Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti of creating the tensions. He further moved troops close to the Serbia-Kosovo border in response to the violent demonstrations.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

Anti-government protests in Abkhazia. On 30 May, anti-government protests took place in Sukhumi, Abkhazia. The night before the protests, government buildings were encircled with barbed wire, metal barricades and buses, and officers of the Abkhaz Ministry of Internal Affairs detained activists. The protesters did not demand for President Aslan Bzhaniya to resign, but instead urged him to dismiss his cabinet of ministers who the protesters felt were not making any promised reforms, including reducing state bureaucracy and tackling corruption. Some of the protesters’ demands included cancelling the liberalisation of trade with Georgia, withdrawing from an agreement to transfer Pitsunda estate to Russia, stopping an increase in electricity tariffs, and rejecting a parliamentary bill which would allow foreigners, mostly Russians, to own hotels and holiday flats in Abkhazia.

Georgian PM draws ire over suggestion that NATO expansion triggered Ukraine war. In his comments at the GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava, Georgian PM Irakli Garibashvili stated that “one of the main reasons [for the war in Ukraine] was NATO, NATO enlargement.” When pressed by the interviewer, he doubled down on his statement. The Georgian Dream party, of which Garibashvili is a member, has been criticised for being too close to Russia, and it was noted that the PM only directly called Russia an aggressor for the first time in his speech on Independence Day (26 May), 16 months into the war. Garibashvili was widely criticised for his comments in Bratislava, with many Central and Eastern European leaders arguing that he was simply repeating talking points common in Russian propaganda. An overwhelming majority of Georgians support the nation joining NATO, a position that has remained relatively stable throughout different governments and after Russia’s 2008 military aggression against Georgia.

Pashinyan and Aliyev meet in Chișinău for peace talks. The Armenian PM and the Azerbaijani President met for the third time in three weeks on 1 June in the Moldovan capital, joined by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. During the meeting, they discussed various issues, including “connectivity, security and rights, the border delimitation, and the peace treaty.” Also present were German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron. While the Armenian PM considered the talks “useful,” a spokesperson from Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, Aykhan Hajizada, claimed that Macron’s statement following the meeting “distorts the positions of the parties.” It is unclear which elements of the French president’s testimony Hajizada finds inaccurate, and both Baku and Yerevan have released few details relating to the events in Chișinău. The countries’ foreign ministers are expected to meet on 12 June before the leaders’ next summit on 21 July in Brussels.

🛤 In Central Asia…

Plugging Turkmenistan’s methane leaks. The United States is in discussion with Turkmenistan over stopping the methane gas leaks across over one thousand sites in the country, which pose a huge environmental threat by raising global heating and temperatures. It was hoped that after the COP26 conference in November last year, there would be reforms in Turkmenistan’s energy sectors after the Global Methane Commitment, in order to make it more environmentally friendly. On 30 May, John Kerry, the Special Presidential envoy for climate, had a phone call with President Berdimuhamedov to discuss the issue. The Foreign Ministry of Turkmenistan claimed that “systematic” work would be carried out in order to implement the green economy. A piece by Bloomberg suggests that the United States may offer financial assistance and technical advice in order to do so. Ashbhagat also plans to open a Regional Climate Technology Center under the ambit of the UN to mitigate the issues.

Changing attitudes towards the famine on the Kazakh steppe. On 31 May, Kazakhstan commemorated the “Victims of Political Repression and Famine,” referring to the victims of the political repression during the Soviet Union and the famine on the Kazakh steppe in 1931-1933. Honouring this day, the book of historian Sarah Cameron “the Hungry Steppe” was published in Kazakh. Former President Nazarbayev introduced an annual commemoration in 1997, then called “Day of the Victims of Political Repression.” Until recently, there was little attention for the famine that killed an estimated 1 to 1.5 million people, which made an end to the nomadic civilization on the Kazakh steppe. One of the first people that raised attention to the famine was Zanbolat Mamay, a well-known opposition figure in Kazakhstan, with a documentary in 2018. Although the famine is commemorated, the Kazakhstani authorities have not referred to the famine as a genocide. Supposedly, the authorities did not want to offend Russia. The war in Ukraine could just change the attitude of Kazakh people towards the commemoration of this period in Kazakh history.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

MEPs’ resolution questions Hungary’s EU presidency. A non-binding resolution expressing doubts over Hungary’s ability to take over the presidency of the Council of the EU was approved on Thursday by the European Parliament. Budapest will take over the six-month rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2024, after Spain and Belgium. The measure was passed by the European Parliament with 442 votes in favour, 144 against and 33 abstentions. Through this resolution, the European Parliament has put into question Hungary’s ability to fulfil the role in a credible way, “given its lack of compliance with EU law and values, and the principle of sincere cooperation.” Furthermore, the Parliament calls for the Council to “find a proper solution” to the matter. For her part, Hungary’s Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, called the measure a “damaging” initiative.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Lukashenko invites others to join Russian Alliance. On Sunday, 28 May, President Lukashenko invited other countries to join the Union of Belarus and Russia during an interview with the state-run Russia 1 channel. He further claimed that “no one is against Kazakhstan and other countries having the same close relations that we have with Russian Federation,” and for those countries that wanted to join the Union there could be “nuclear weapons for everyone.” The comment follows the statement of Kazakh President Tokayev at the EES session regarding the nuclear weapons “shared” by Belarus and Russia and the confirmation of the transfer of tactical nuclear weapons from Moscow to Minsk – the Kremlin’s first deployment of such warheads since the fall of the Soviet Union. Tokayev replied, calling Lukashenko’s proposal “a joke” that does not resonate with the country, and expressed his country’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Partial Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.

🌲 In Russia…

A voluminous Tax Code amendment of the Russian Federation was presented to the State Duma. After the withdrawal of the amendment in April 2023, the Russian government decided to submit a rather long and detailed bill to the current Tax code. The changes are due to be implemented by 2024 for the common legal system, and in 2025 for peculiar cases. One of the many reforms included encompasses an increasingly hot topic, which is the case of workers attached to Russian companies and working abroad. Their condition is dealt with higher rates and expanded responsibility in case of non-compliance. As a whole, these reforms intend to automate and expand the activities of the Russia Tax authorities by diminishing the one of the judicial courts. While Russia has seen its military budget escalate since the beginning of its war against Ukraine, it appears as natural for its administrators to search for any new streams of income, reducing at the same time its shadow economy which has one of the highest rates among the G20.

Punctuated by marches all over the world, Navalny celebrated his 47th birthday in jail. On 4 June, more than 120 cities around the world saw their streets occupied by supporters and defenders of Russian activist and opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Sentenced on 2 February 2021, Navalny has since seen his status and sentence respectively hardened and prolonged. Currently jailed in the Vladimir Region Prison, he will soon be judged for another case involving criminal charges of “extremism.” This celebration also involved cities in Russia. According to NGO’s, more than one hundred people would have been detained today in Russia, with a higher figure in Moscow naturally. Keeping a “positive mindset” despite the situation, Navalny may be subject to another level of political repression, being currently charged with a 35 years jail sentence, in what seems to be a long-term solution for the Kremlin.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Cameron MacBride, Sarah Fairman, Chaharika Uppal, Helena Arntz, Myriam Marino, Tijs van de Vijver, Patricia Raposo, Kirsty Dick, Nate Ostiller, Autumn Mozeliak, & Romain le Dily 💌

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