Pope Francis with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary on 12 September 2021. Photo by Vatican Media via Globe Media/Reuters.

Plus, “The Witcher” boosts Poland’s brand, Tallinn going even more green, and more. 

The Big Story: Loaded Words and Loaded Gift During Pope’s Visit to Hungary

What happened: In Budapest for a short visit yesterday, Pope Francis appeared to use his remarks after closing Mass to counter the nationalist government’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. “The cross, planted in the ground, not only invites us to be well-rooted, it also raises and extends its arms towards everyone,” he said, according to Reuters. “My wish is that you be like that: grounded and open, rooted, and considerate.”  

More context: Prime Minister Viktor Orban has built close ties with both the Catholic and Protestant faiths, portraying himself as a defender of Christian civilization. Yet the Pope chose to spend only seven hours in Hungary before departing for a multi-day visit to neighboring Slovakia. “The lopsided itinerary suggested that Francis wanted to avoid giving Orban – the type of populist nationalist he frequently criticizes – the political boost that comes with hosting a pope for a proper state visit ahead of elections in Hungary next spring,” AP reports

Worth noting: Prime Minister Viktor Orban gave the Pope a copy of a 13th-century letter from Hungarian King Bela IV to Pope Innocent IV requesting assistance in repelling the Mongol invasion of Europe. The gift “appeared to underline [Orban’s] nationalist and anti-immigrant stance,” CNN writes, also citing Balazs Orban, the prime minister’s chief policy director, who said “there are many similarities between the situation at that time and today … we should learn from history.”

News from the Regions 

Central Europe and the Baltics 

  • Czech police arrested a Russian citizen on Sunday for his role in the 2014 takeover of Crimea, RFE/RL reports. Aleksandr Franchetti was detained at Prague’s airport based on an international warrant issued by Ukraine. Shortly before Russia’s military occupation, he created and then led a small paramilitary group in Crimea called North Wind. A 2019 investigation by Czech public radio reported that Franchetti had held long-term residency in the Czech Republic since 2000, working as a fitness instructor. He told Czech Radio that he had traveled to Crimea on his own to defend Russian citizens from extremists. In an earlier interview with a Russian journalist, he said his group was preventing the infiltration of groups into Sevastopol and monitored power and gas lines, cooperating with the Russian military. Ukraine is seeking Franchetti’s extradition.  

  • “The Witcher” phenomenon continues to surge and might already be Poland’s most successful international brand, Emerging Europe writes. From humble beginnings (travelling fur salesman Andrzej Sapkowski wrote the first of the fantasy stories in the 1980s), the franchise has spawned books, video games, a Netflix series starring Henry Cavill, and an anime adaptation. While the books had a cult following in Central and Eastern Europe, the first English translation didn’t appear until 2007, the same year the first Witcher-based video game launched. Witcher games have now sold over 30 million copies, making the Polish company CD Projekt the most valuable video game creator in Europe with a market valuation of more than $8 billion as of last year, writes VGC, an industry monitor

Southeastern Europe 

  • Frustrated over endemic pollution, several thousand protestors took to the streets of Belgrade to call attention to a slew of environmental problems in Serbia, AP reports. High on the list of targets was the Rio Tinto mining company, an Anglo-Australian multinational that has set aside $2.4 billion to mine lithium in the western part of the country. More than 100,000 people have signed a petition against the project. Around 30 environmental groups organized the demonstration, which prompted Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy Zorana Mihajlovic to accuse some protest leaders of grandstanding to advance their political careers, RFE/RL writes. She did say, however, that the government would call a referendum on the construction of mines and factories.

Eastern Europe and Russia 

  • The Estonian capital of Tallinn became the first Eastern European city to win a European Green City award, the European Commission announced Friday. Launched in 2011 to encourage cities to become greener and cleaner, the award comes with a 600,000-euro prize to improve environmental sustainability in the leadup to the city’s role as European Green Capital 2023. Forbes cited the city’s “strong climate-neutral roadmap” as the reason for the award, pointing to plans for a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050. “While the status is sure to drive investment interest in Estonia’s green solutions, it could also have an added benefit of putting Tallinn on the radar of eco-conscious travelers looking to support green destinations,” added Forbes.

  • Moldova and Ukraine seem destined for a long-term struggle over water rights. As Balkan Insight notes, Kyiv’s planned expansion of the Novodnestrovsk hydropower complex on the Dniester River near the Moldovan border has sparked fears of lower flows into Moldova, which depends on the Dniester as its main source of water. Preliminary findings in a report commissioned by UNDP Moldova concluded that the construction of the complex had “impacted both the quality of the water in the Republic of Moldova and the natural habitat of the flora and fauna and reduced the number of species.” The next round of talks will take place in October. 

Central Asia

  • With Tajikistan marking its independence from the Soviet Union last week, The Calvert Journal is looking back at some of the country’s seminal cultural works of the past three decades. The review encompasses art, films, music, and one book, highlighting performers such as Abduvali Abdurashido, “credited with bringing new vitality to the performance of maqom (a fusion of vocal and instrumental music, melodic rhythms, and poetry), and classical or court music.” The Calvert Journal stresses the ties of modern artists with the ancient Persian Samanid dynasty, while a recent article from Voices on Central Asia discussed the role of “naivety in the visual arts of Tajikistan as a form of self-expression by artists with a high level of artistic education.” 

Borderlands

  • Several thousand people gathered in Istanbul on Saturday to protest coronavirus restrictions, Reuters reports, describing the rally as Turkey’s largest to date. In the face of new measures, including last week’s requirement of vaccination or a negative test to take intercity transportation, the crowd railed against alleged infringements of their individual rights. Medical personnel have administered more than 100 million jabs throughout the country and around 64% of Turks are double-vaccinated. But given the recent numbers of more than 20,000 new cases daily, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has spoken of “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Reuters writes.