Plus, Lithuanian rethinks Chinese airport-security tech, Mongolia gets a new leader, and more. 

The Big Story: Rallies for the Release of Opposition Figure Continue Across Russia

What happened: More than 5,000 people were detained in a second weekend of protests across Russia, according to OVD-Info, a monitoring group cited by the Associated Press. Moscow police tried to discourage protesters by closing subway stations and restricting pedestrian areas in the city center to no avail, AP reports

More context: Initial protests erupted last weekend, when, despite the bitter cold and warnings from Russian authorities, tens of thousands of people rallied in about 100 cities and towns across Russia. The protests followed the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny upon his return from Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning attempt last August that he blamed on Russian security services. 

Worth noting: U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has condemned the “persistent use of harsh tactics” by Russian authorities. Blinker also said last week that he found it “striking” how “concerned, and maybe even scared, the Russian government seems to be of one man, Mr. Navalny,” CNBC writes. Before the U.S. presidential election, then-candidate Joe Biden condemned the previous administration’s silence on Navalny’s poisoning, which he called “the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent.”

News from the Regions:

Central Europe and the Baltics

  • Hungary has become the first EU country to approve the Chinese-made Sinopharm coronavirus vaccine, officials said on Friday, according to Deutsche Welle. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he will take the Chinese vaccine. “The Chinese have known this virus for the longest time, hence probably they know most about it, so I will wait for my turn and when I choose I will want the Chinese vaccine,” Orban said. Last week, Hungary also issued a provisional license to the Russian Sputnik V vaccine
  • The Lithuanian government announced Friday that it will block a Chinese state-owned maker of security-screening equipment from supplying equipment to the country’s three international airports, AP reports. Although Nuctech won a bid last year to install baggage scanners at airports in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Palanga, no deal has been signed. A parliamentary panel concluded last week that Nuctech’s screening equipment could raise national security concerns because it could collect data on passengers and luggage, which it could be ordered to hand over to the Chinese authorities.

Southeastern Europe

  • Concerned by the state of disrepair of an architectural jewel, a group of young Romanian volunteers has stepped in for its preservation, the BBC writes. The Austro-Hungarian-era Baile Herculane (Hercules’ Baths) in southwestern Romania is a thermal spa complex that has been left to crumble since the fall of communism. Architects Oana Chirila and Cristina Apostol set up the Herculane Project, which so far has raised 75,000 euros ($91,000) for restoration works. 
  • Montenegro’s new foreign minister, Dorde Radulovic, has vowed his country will be a “corona-safe” travel destination by summer, Euronews writes. Montenegro relies heavily on tourism, which took a nosedive last year. The country went from having no registered coronavirus cases in May to being the second-worst hit country in Europe in November. It has not yet received any coronavirus vaccines. 

Eastern Europe and Russia

  • Russia has been supplying Sputnik V vaccines to rebel-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine, Reuters reports. “A couple of thousand doses were supplied. Such deliveries will come on a regular basis,” Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk republic, said, as cited by Reuters. Last week, the Ukrainian parliament banned the approval of coronavirus vaccines made in Russia, just as it moved to speed up approval of other vaccines. 
  • Russia’s population shrank last year for the first time in 15 years, the country’s statistics agency said, according to Al Jazeera, and now stands at 146.2 million. Last year’s decrease of a half-million people can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as brain drain and a low birth rate. A similar decline happened in Poland, which last year suffered its highest mortality rate since World War II. 

The Caucasus 

Image courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
  • Armenia’s plans for a rail link to Russia could breathe new life into a Soviet-era railway running through the Azerbaijani exclave of Naxcivan, Radio Free Europe writes. Naxcivan is nestled between Armenia and Iran, separated from the rest of Azerbaijan, and trains would pass through it, then Armenia and Azerbaijan in a kind of U-turn, en route from Yerevan to Moscow. While the restoration of the railway would offer an economic boost to the region, residents of the Armenian village of Yeraskh, located on the border with Naxcivan, fear that it would also re-ignite ethnic tensions. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of hot and cold war over another exclave, Nagorno-Karabakh, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ostensibly in sympathy with ally Azerbaijan, Turkey has severed relations with Armenia, but with the addition of a small spur, the rail could also be extended into that country.

Borderlands

Mongolia’s new prime minister, Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai. Photo by Tsetsegbadamp/Wikimedia Commons.
  • A new, Western-educated prime minister might signal a change in Mongolian politics, The Diplomat writes. The Mongolian parliament confirmed Oyun-Erdene Luvsannamsrai as prime minister last week, after the resignation of Khurelsukh Ukhnaa. Among the measures Luvsannamsrai announced was a speeding-up of coronavirus vaccinations, which would allow the economy to reopen, renegotiations with Rio Tinto over the Oyu Tolgoi mine, and the establishment of a digital development ministry.