A man holds a Lithuanian flag next to a tank during the January 1991 Soviet crackdown in Vilnius. Photo from the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defense website.

Plus, Serbian media and Premier League soccer, Navalny allies labeled extremists, and more. 

The Big Story: Lithuanians Take Gorbachev to Court Over 1991 Upheaval

What happened: Six Lithuanians have filed a civil lawsuit against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in connection to a 1991 episode of bloody repression against the pro-independence movement in Lithuania, AFP reports. The lawsuit states that Gorbachev had control of the Soviet military and yet he failed to stop the “international crime” against Lithuanians. 

More context: In March 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence from Moscow. In response, the Soviets conducted a deadly crackdown on the Baltic state’s pro-independence movement in 1991. Dozens of former Soviet military officials were prosecuted in 2019 by Lithuanian courts for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the events; prosecutors said Soviet soldiers killed 14 civilians in January 1991, all but one of them during the storming of the Lithuanian state television headquarters and TV tower by paratroopers. 

Worth noting: “It is clear that the actions of the military forces would not have been possible without coordination with Gorbachev,” said Robertas Povilaitis, whose father died during the 1991 upheaval. Povilaitis believes the trial is “very important” and says “justice is not complete” until Gorbachev is held responsible.

News from the Regions 

Central Europe and the Baltics 

  • The number of deaths greatly exceeded births last year in Hungary, causing the steepest population decline since 1876, bne IntelliNews reports. Mortality figures reached 150,000 last year while births numbered around 93,000, translating into an overall population decline of nearly 60,000 people. The death toll from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic in 2020 reached 40,000, which makes Hungary the fourth worst in the world in terms of death per capita from the pandemic, according to data aggregator Worldometer. Hungarian opposition parties say these figures show that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s measures to contain the pandemic have failed. 

Southeastern Europe 

  • After Malta, Slovenia and Croatia are the top EU countries in terms of the number of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, BIRN reports. A SLAPP is a lawsuit designed to punish a defendant for speaking out on matters of public interest. The Coalition Against SLAPPS in Europe, CASE, published a report yesterday that shows Malta had the highest rate of SLAPP cases per capita last year, at 3 per 100,000 people, while Slovenia ranks second with 1.9, followed by Croatia with 0.6. The Croatian Journalists’ Association recorded 905 active court cases against journalists and media outlets in 2020, and at least 924 cases in 2021. The CASE report notes that even when a SLAPP is unsuccessful, it “has an impact on society and democracy as a whole, in what has been defined as a ‘modern wave of censorship-by-litigation.’”
  • In other news from Slovenia, Ljubljana announced plans to quit using coal in power stations by 2033, Bloomberg reports. According to documents made public yesterday, the Slovenian government said it will stop using coal for electricity as part of a “fair transition” of its coal regions. The announcement comes a week after the Czech Republic said it also planned to phase out coal by 2033, according to Greenpeace. Also, Czech utility giant CEZ said that by 2030 it will drastically cut coal from its power and heating operations, which would lead to a decrease in the amount of electricity it produces from coal from 39% to 12.5%.
  • Last week’s purchase of the Southampton soccer team by Serbian media magnate Dragan Solak has possible ramifications for local media, RFE/RL reports. Solak’s decision to acquire an 80% stake worth $135 million in the English Premier League team might be connected to an event last July, when Solak’s telecoms and media giant, United Group, lost a bidding war for the league’s Balkan broadcasting rights. The winner was state-backed Telekom Serbia, whose huge bid of over 100 million euros per season from 2022-2028 is seven times more than what was paid in the 2019-22 period. Telekom Serbia’s move was seen as political; Solak’s media outlets are among the few that criticize President Aleksandar Vucic’s government. Now, by owning one of the clubs, Solak “will play a role in shaping the criteria for awarding broadcast contracts,” said Simon Chadwick of the Emlyon Business School in Paris.

Eastern Europe and Russia 

  • The U.S. dismissed Russian threats about a possible deployment of its military to Cuba or Venezuela if the United States or its allies don’t curtail their moves in the regions near Russia, AP reports. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said yesterday he could “neither confirm nor exclude” the possibility of Russia sending military assets to Latin America in response to U.S. actions. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan called the statements “bluster in the public commentary.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week’s talks in Geneva between the two countries produced “some positive elements and nuances,” but he characterized them as unsuccessful overall.
  • Russia added two aides of imprisoned opposition figure Alexei Navalny to a list of “terrorists and extremists” today, The Moscow Times reports. Putting Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov on the Federal Financial Monitoring Service list indicates that Russian authorities suspect them of involvement in activities that support terrorist or extremist organizations. Zhdanov is the former head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which disbanded last year, while Volkov headed Navalny’s regional campaign offices and was in charge of his electoral campaigns for Moscow mayor in 2013 and for the Russian presidency in 2018. 

The Caucasus 

  • Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that talks with Turkey, which began today in Moscow, are expected to lead to a normalization of ties as well as an opening of their mutual border, RFE/RL reports. Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Ankara and Yerevan would appoint special envoys tasked with reestablishing relations. Although Turkey and Armenia signed a landmark peace accord in 2009 designed to settle their diplomatic rifts and solve the border issue, the deal was never ratified. “In our opinion, the Turkish government also shares the approach of starting a dialogue without preconditions,” Vahan Hunanian, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, said yesterday. The Russian-hosted meeting will begin with a round of exploratory talks, Hunanian said.

Borderlands 

  • Mongolia’s female peacekeepers offer a salient case study about the UN’s commitment to gender parity among its troops, according to an analysis in The Diplomat. As of last year, more than 900 Mongolian women had taken part in UN peacekeeping operations and NATO coalition forces, serving as military observers, staff officers, and military contingent members. The number of women in senior roles and decision-making posts remains low, however. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations deployed its first All-Female Police Unit in 2007, and the analysis notes that a greater role for all-female contingents in global missions, and their integration into mixed-gender environments, would have a momentous impact. Increasing the presence of women would “bring about substantive changes in the peacekeeping environment,” The Diplomat says.