Lossi 36 Weekly #24: news highlights from Central Europe to Central Asia11 min read

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In this week’s newsletter: police raid on Iranian dissidents in AlbaniaPresident Zourabishvili pardons jailed journalist in GeorgiaTokayev on the phone with Putin, Estonia legalises same-sex marriage, Ukrainians destroy bridge connecting Crimea with Kherson regionPrigozhin’s “March of Justice”and much more!

⭐️ This week’s special

After Wagner Group’s threats to wage civil war, the Kremlin yields to Prigozhin’s demands.Romain le Dily

On Friday, June 23, a Russian shelling allegedly targeted a Wagner camp, destroying facilities and killing fighters. As a consequence, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin accused the Ministry of Defence of hitting his PMC’s positions, and said that 25,000 people were going to march for revenge and justice. On Saturday, June 24, the Wagner group took control of the city of Rostov on Don and its military command station, while Prigozhin announced his company would block the city until Gerasimov and Shoigu, respectively Russian Chief of General staff and Russian Ministry of Defence, would be handed to the mercenaries. In the meantime, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed Russia on national TV, referring to the current events as an armed rebellion and a stab in the country’s back.Among Russia’s partners, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Belarus referred to these events as Russian internal affair and expressed support for the re-establishment of the rule of law. However serious the tensions got, an agreement has yet been found, with a crucial role played by Lukashenko, President of Belarus. As a conclusion, Wagner’s column is coming back to its military stations nearby the Ukrainian front after reaching Lipetsk Region, and Gerasimov and Shoigu’s fates are still unclear. Prigozhin was promised pardon after being prosecuted for armed mutiny by the Kremlin and is expected to come back to its former role in the Russian “Special Military Operation.” If no breakthrough was registered from the Ukrainian counteroffensive during this internal crisis, it must be said that the Kremlin’s strength and posture within its own frontiers was deeply shaken by Wagner’s rebellion, in a way that only time will depict.

🌺 In the Balkans…

EU holds separate talks with Kurti, Vučić amid threats of invasion from Serbia and violent clashes. On 22 June, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, held separate talks with Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Borrel sought to de-escalate the violence in northern Kosovo and the border with Serbia in the aftermath of the election of Albanian mayors in Serb-majority municipalities. The EU’s top diplomat announced an agreement was reached on holding new elections in the four municipalities, although details still need to be clarified. Meanwhile, tensions persist, and on June 23, Serbia repeated its threat of a military invasion if NATO peacekeepers do not protect the Serb population after violent clashes between the two left dozens injured in late May. Serbia has put its troops on the border with Kosovo on the highest state of alert, and has not released the three Kosovan policemen captured on June 15, who are being investigated for unauthorised production, possession, carrying, and trafficking of weapons and explosive substances.

Albanian police raid on Iranian dissident group turns deadly. A group of between 2,500 and 3,000 members of the Iranian Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) group, which had struggled both against the Shah and the clerical regime during the seventies and eighties, have been living in a compound about 20 miles from Tirana. The group had fled to Iraq to later find refuge in Albania. According to Albania’s Interior ministry, violation of an agreement containing secret clauses prompted authorities to raid the camp on Tuesday last week, and to seize about 150 computer devices. Sources report many injuries on both sides. One senior MEK member’s death sparked controversy as authorities denied it was caused by the police forces, while MEK stated the death was caused by pepper spray. An Albanian court later registered criminal charges against the group, including provocation of war, illegal interception of computer data, and interference with computer data. Amidst Western rapprochement towards Iran to sign a new nuclear deal, the events could likely lead to renewal of Iranian-Albanian relations as well, which have been strained since an Iranian cyberattack on Albania last year.

⛰️ In the Caucasus…

President Zourabishvili Pardons Jailed Journalist. In a move announced on 22 June, Georgian President Zourabishvili pardoned the opposition journalist Nika Gvarami, who had been held in custody since May 2022, on allegations of abuse of power in his position as a broadcaster. Gvarami, who had previously served under former PM Saakashvili, founded opposition news channel Mtvari Arkhi in 2019, which gained attention for its sustained criticism of the ruling Georgian Dream party. The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Gvarami was widely criticised both from inside Georgia and abroad, including by the US Embassy in Georgia, which stated that they feared the case was “politically motivated,” and “puts Georgian European future at risk.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Gvarami was the only jailed journalist in Georgia since they started tracking such data in 1992. After Georgia was denied candidate status to the EU in 2022, one of the cited lack of progress on reforms was weak protection of press freedoms.

Prime minister Pashinyan testifies in front of the 2020 Artsakh War inquiry. The Armenian prime minister testified that he signed the ceasefire treaty with Azerbaijan, out of fear that Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital Stepanakert was on the verge of being taken by Azerbaijani troops. Pashinyan states that on the day he decided to sign the treaty, there were reports of Azerbaijani drones over Stepanakert, and the nearby town of Shushi was already under Azerbaijani control. He also states that the final document he signed on behalf of Armenia was worse than the initial draft versions, but he was left with no other options due to the aforementioned military situation. The Nagorno-Karabakh treaty is considered to be a failure by many Armenians, due to the significant losses faced. Hence, an inquiry commission was set up by the Armenian National Assembly to investigate the circumstances. Major protests followed the war, demanding Pashinyan’s resignation for his role in the outcome of the conflict.

🛤 In Central Asia…

In the midst of Wagner’s ‘march on Moscow,’ Tokayev and Putin talk. Following Prigozhin’s ‘march of justice,’ Kazakh President Tokayev called Russian President Putin to discuss the unfolding events. On the night of 23 June, the whole world watched Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private military organisation Wagner announce a ‘civil war’ and head from Ukraine to Moscow, seemingly in order to confront Putin’s regime. The next morning, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called President Vladimir Putin, noting that the events taking place are an ‘internal affair of Russia.’ President Putin reportedly thanked Kazakhstan for understanding the ongoing situation in Russia. Since the coup attempt began, the Kazakh government has asked Kazakhstani citizens to avoid travelling in Southern Russia. Since President Tokayev has referred to the ongoing situation in Russia as an internal affair, it makes military support through the CSTO or from Kazakhstan unlikely. President Tokayev has benefited from CSTO troops before, during his own ‘internal affair’ in January 2022 when protestors were attacked for protesting against the Kazakhstani government.

Kazakhstan and Russia take it to the stage. Last week, the government of the Almaty region decided to cancel the concert of Russian singer Grigory Leps. During the Saint-Petersburg Economic Forum, the singer promised to reward 1 million Roubles to anyone destroying Leopard tanks in Ukraine. The Kazakhstani social media demanded Leps’ concert, which was supposed to take place at a resort at the Lake Balkhash in Southern Kazakhstan, to be cancelled. People on Kazakhstani social media said they do not want their money to be spent on concert tickets to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is not the first time Russian artists’ concerts are cancelled as a result of social media outcries in Kazakhstan over their support of the war. Concerts of Polina Gagarina were also cancelled in Kazakhstan last year for similar reasons. Russia, on the other hand, has cancelled concerts of Kazakhstani Rapper Jah Khalib because of social media posts in support of Ukraine. Seems like in some cases the show must not go on.

🚃 In Central Europe & the Baltics…

Slovak president Zuzana Čaputová announces no plans to run in next election. Čaputová, Slovakia’s first ever female president, is the country’s most trusted politician, with a 42% confidence rating. However, not only has Slovakia faced staggering challenges with its government during her time in power, but Čaputová and her family have also been victims of several death threats. She has been most criticised for her liberal ideologies by opposition leader and former PM, Robert Fico, who accused her of being a “U.S. agent” and representing the interests of George Soros. “I tried to help democracy and justice in Slovakia before my presidential mandate, during it, and I will do so after,” Čaputová said. Meanwhile, the nation is preparing for snap parliamentary elections in September, since PM Eduard Heger’s government was voted out through a no-confidence vote.

Kaczyński returns as Deputy Prime Minister ahead of high-stakes elections. Jarosław Kaczyński, the influential head of Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, returned to the cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister, a position he had resigned from just a year ago. His comeback aims to strengthen the party’s campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections. All four current Deputy Prime Ministers stepped down from their positions while retaining their other ministerial responsibilities – Jacek Sasin as the Minister for State Assets, Mariusz Błaszcak as the Defence Minister, Piotr Gliński as the Culture Minister, and Henryk Kowalczyk as a minister without portfolio. On 21 June, President Andrzej Duda formally swore Kaczyński into office, acknowledging the challenging times and imminent elections. Kaczyński’s role as the sole Deputy Prime Minister will involve coordinating all government work. Preceding these developments, the main Polish political parties organised a series of political rallies and campaign activities on 24 June, dubbed “Super Saturday.” Opposition parties criticised Kaczyński’s return as a desperate move by PiS ahead of the election campaign.

Estonia makes historic leap as first Baltic state to legalise same-sex marriage. On 20 June, with 55 votes in favour and 34 votes against, the Estonian government successfully passed amendments to the Family Law Act, granting equal marriage rights to same-sex couples starting from 1 January 2024. The amendments redefine marriage as a union between any two natural persons of legal age, regardless of gender. Among 85 amendments, adoption rights and parental recognition for same-sex couples are clarified. The move follows the introduction of same-sex registered partnerships in 2016, but now same-sex couples will enjoy full benefits, rights, and obligations of marriage. The legislation, supported by the new government under PM Kaja Kallas, including the Reform Party, Social Democrats, and Estonia 200, faced opposition from conservative groups, who claimed it threatened traditional family values. The decision demonstrates the evolving acceptance of marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights in Estonia, highlighting remarkable progress in fostering inclusivity and reflecting a shifting societal outlook.

🏢 In Eastern Europe…

Russian-occupied bridge hit by Ukraine. Last Thursday, a Russian-held bridge in Kherson Oblast that connects Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula with the mainland of Ukraine was hit by Ukrainian armed forces. According to Vladimir Saldo, the Moscow-installed governor of the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, the bridge sustained more damage than initially thought and will not be in use for around 20 days. Moreover, the Russian official claimed that it was British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles that had hit the bridge. According to Saldo, the bridge is unusable for movement at this point. Fights between Ukrainian and Russian forces have intensified with the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive aiming to retake Russia-occupied lands, and this includes strikes far behind enemy lines.

🌲 In Russia…

Akhmat special forces return to the frontline in Ukraine after deployment in Russia. The paramilitary organisation controlled by the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov was sent back to Russia last weekend following the taking over of Rostov-on-Don and Voronezh by the Wagner Group and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin during his “march for justice.” As Wagner troops were swiftly moving through Russia towards Moscow throughout Saturday, Kadyrov called Prigozhin’s actions a “treason,” declared his firm support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and stated that his troops would “do everything to preserve the unity of Russia.” Akhmat forces recently signed a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defence, which is trying to increase its control over the many non-army units participating in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Prigozhin refused to sign a similar contract on behalf of the Wagner Group, and the issue added to his growing list of grievances against the Russian military. Following Prigozhin’s decision to halt his mutiny, the Chechen forces are returning to their positions on the Ukrainian frontlines.

Thank you to this week’s contributors: Ariadna Mane, Charles Fourmi, Nate Ostiller, Teresa Reilly, Helena Arntz, Thapanee Tubnonghee, Autumn Mozeliak, Sam Appels, Romain le Dily, & Agnieszka Widłaszewska 💌

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