Demonstrators carry historical white-red-white flags of Belarus in a rally to reject the presidential election results in Minsk on 13 December 2020. Photo from Globe Media/Reuters.

Plus, soccer unrest across the region, Azerbaijan accuses Iran of invasion, and more. 

The Big Story: Subscribers to Banned Social Media Channels in Belarus Labeled as ‘Extremist’

What happened: Belarusian authorities are mulling prison sentences of up to seven years for subscribers to social media channels deemed “extremist,” Reuters reports. The Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime said in a statement published on Tuesday that “subscribers to extremist Telegram channels and chats will be held criminally liable … as members of an extremist group.”

More context: Channels on Telegram, as well as other social media apps, were instrumental in the unrest that followed the Belarusian presidential election in August 2020, the results of which are still contested by the opposition. Nexta, the largest “extremist” Belarusian media outlet with 1 million Telegram subscribers, dismissed the news about the criminal sentences as “rubbish,” The Moscow Times reports. “’Thank you’ to everyone who helped the junta intimidate people and reduce the number of those who read independent Telegram channels,” Nexta said.

Worth noting: Cyber activists in Belarus claimed they used a drone to drop 10 liters of “an incendiary mixture” on a building associated with the riot police in Minsk last month, Euronews reports. A spokesperson from the Busly Latsyats (Flying Storks) group, founded last November, did not reveal the extent of the resulting damage or whether anyone was injured. 

News from the Regions

Central Europe and the Baltics

  • Hungary will receive the technology needed to produce the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine this year, Reuters reports. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said today during a visit to Moscow that Budapest “has an economic interest in taking part in the production” given the huge worldwide demand for the Russian vaccine. Szijjarto added that Hungary and Russia had signed a “political agreement” about the production of Sputnik in Hungary. The EU member state has been using the Russian shot in its coronavirus vaccination campaign even though the European Medicines Agency hasn’t approved it for use. 
  • In other news from Hungary, fans of the national soccer team clashed with British police during a World Cup qualifier, AP reports. The unrest came during a 1-1 draw against England at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday. According to a statement from the Metropolitan Police, “officers entered the stand to arrest a spectator for a racially aggravated public order offense following comments made towards a steward.” During another soccer game on the same day, Poland’s players walked off the field after fans in Albania hurled bottles at them. Polish striker Karol Swiderski was hit by a bottle after scoring for Poland, after which the game was suspended for around 20 minutes. 

Southeastern Europe

  • A shipwreck off the northern Black Sea coast is drawing attention to systemic problems in Bulgaria, Euronews reports. The partially-afloat Vera SU cargo vessel, registered in Panama, became stranded on the rocks near the Yaylata nature reserve on 20 September and is now considered a sunken ship. Caretaker Environment Minister Asen Lichev said last month that the risk of an oil spill has been prevented by the drainage of the ship’s fuel, but environmentalists are concerned that 3,300 tons of nitrogen fertilizer in the ship’s cargo will leak out and cause pollution that could affect marine life in the area. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said that the country was not prepared to deal with such an incident; he said earlier this week that he blamed the matter on Bulgaria’s years-long “vicious and wasteful model of governance.”
  • A wealthy businessman and local official in the Romanian capital allegedly used offshore companies to hijack public funds, according to corporate data and prosecution files from the Pandora Papers which were obtained by OCCRP. Six companies in the British Virgin Islands owned by Bucharest’s third-district Mayor Robert Negoita and his brother Ionut were involved in the transfer of millions of euros into Romanian property firms linked to the brothers. A confidential prosecutor’s report suggests that more than 83 million euros of building maintenance funds in Bucharest were disbursed between 2012 and 2014, and that more than half ended up in companies affiliated with the Negoita brothers. 

Eastern Europe and Russia 

  • Russia denied intentionally withholding supplies in order to cause a surge in gas prices across Europe, the BBC reports. Russian President Vladimir Putin said such claims were “complete rubbish … and politically motivated tittle-tattle.” Speaking yesterday at a Moscow energy forum, Putin said that Europe was to blame for the current energy crisis which has resulted from insufficient amounts of gas in storage facilities after last winter. Putin said that Gazprom was sending gas to Europe at maximum levels under existing contracts, and could even increase the supplies if requested. The Russian leader added that it was “very important” to “suggest a long-term mechanism to stabilize the energy market.”
  • The Moldovan government yesterday amended a law on the transparency of company ownership, BIRN reports. The amendments to the Law on State Registration of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs require the beneficiaries of all companies that were founded in non-transparent jurisdictions to be made public. “We want to publicly display the actual beneficiaries of Moldovan companies founded by offshore companies,” the chairman of the parliament’s Committee on Economy, Budget and Finance, Dumitru Alaiba, told BIRN. Similar laws adopted in North Macedonia and Bulgaria failed to yield tangible results in the fight against corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion.

The Caucasus

  • Amid the deteriorating relationship between Baku and Tehran, Azerbaijan accused Iran of invading its territory during an incident last year, Eurasianet reports. Azerbaijani officials claimed that Iran’s armed forces briefly invaded Azerbaijan’s southern territory last year during a resurgence of the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh; they also accused Iranian clerics of masterminding a network of secret agents in Azerbaijan, and Iranian financial institutions of laundering billions of dollars through Nagorno-Karabakh. The allegations come in a report published last weekend by the website Caliber.az, which is affiliated with the Azerbaijani government. The report says the diplomatic crisis provoked by the Iranian invasion was kept secret at the time. 

Central Asia

  • At Turkmenistan’s request, YouTube blocked a channel affiliated with the U.S.-based website Eurasianet, RFE/RL reports. The takedown followed a complaint filed with YouTube by Watan Habarlary, the official television channel of Turkmenistan’s State Committee on Television, Radio Broadcasting, and Cinematography, according to Eurasianet. David Trilling, Eurasianet’s managing editor, said his organization has been looking for someone at YouTube in order to appeal the decision, and added that not only is their website and YouTube channel cut off in Turkmenistan, but so is YouTube itself. “It’s ironic given that [YouTube] is blocked in Turkmenistan … just like every other social-media company,” he told RFE/RL.