Plus, Romania gets bigger beaches, Russia takes Ukraine to court, and more. 

The Big Story: Poland, Ukraine decry security and political implications of pipeline deal

What happened: The Polish and Ukrainian governments are unhappy about a deal between the United States and Germany to allow Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to proceed to completion, Euronews reports. A joint statement issued yesterday by the Ukrainian and Polish foreign ministers said the agreement deepens a “security, credibility, and political crisis in Europe” created by the 2015 decision to build the pipeline. 

More context: The Nord Stream 2 pipeline will carry Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing an existing land pipeline through Ukraine. As a result, Ukraine will lose transit fees, which the BBC reports add up to $3 billion annually. The new pipeline also makes Ukraine more vulnerable to gas shutoffs by Russia, since turning off the spigot overland will not necessarily mean shutting off service to EU customers downstream from Ukraine. Berlin and Washington have outlined a $1 billion fund, to which Germany will kick in first, to help Ukraine diversify its energy sources, in addition to an agreement by Germany to reimburse Ukraine for lost transit fees at least until 2024. Germany will also contribute to an effort “to boost energy security among countries bordering the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic seas,” which would include Poland.

Worth noting: Kyiv has told U.S. politicians that the West’s embrace of a project antithetical to Ukraine’s interests helps Russia discredit the United States and EU in the eyes of Ukrainians. The foreign ministers’ statement said the mitigating provisions in the agreement “cannot be considered sufficient to effectively limit the threats created by NS2.”

News from the Regions 

Central Europe and the Baltics 

  • An exhibition in Riga is exploring sexuality, internet identities, and the so-called “dating supermarkets that have now become a multi-billion industry,” Vice magazine reports. “To Fall in Love, Click Here” features four Latvian artists and is curated by Tīna Petersone, winner of a national competition for emerging curators run by the Riga Photography Biennial. Elizabete Ezergaile, one of the artists on display, says that while “the younger generations here have a healthy relationship with sexuality,” cultural legacies (and censorship) live on. “I did think about my parents, while making photos, who are Soviet generation and don’t come from an art background,” adding that she didn’t show them the exhibition “because I knew that they wouldn’t be at peace with how I portrayed sexuality.”
  • Serbia has the worst housing affordability in Europe, followed by the Czech Republic, Czech news site Expats.cz reports, citing a study by the consulting company Deloitte. Buyers in Serbia needed an average of 15.2 gross annual salaries in 2020 for a “standardized” dwelling. The Balkan country overtook the Czech Republic, which ranked as the least-affordable country from 2017 to 2019, and where a new flat cost 12.2 average gross annual salaries last year. Slovakia – tied with Austria – ranked third, with 10 annual gross salaries. At the lower end, buyers in Bulgaria needed 4.8 annual gross salaries. The study saw no relief in sight for priced-out buyers. 

Southeastern Europe 

The Valbona Valley is in Albania’s remote north. Photo by Pasztilla aka Attila Terbócs/Wikimedia Commons.
  • Albanian environmentalists welcomed a court decision to halt the construction of two hydroelectric power plants in the Valbona Valley National Park, a protected natural area in the Albanian Alps, The Associated Press reports. Catherine Bohne of the Toka (Earth) organization, which filed the lawsuit against the Energy Ministry in 2017, told AP that the reactions to the ruling, “the excitement and positivity, with everybody happy about this, all these give a clear message to the government that the law is upheld.” The Albanian government granted an Albanian company the concession to build the power stations in 2009, and in 2018 the company defied a court order to suspend work, Bohne said. 
  • Tourists are unhappy with the results of an initiative to widen the beaches of Romanian Black Sea resorts, Romanian daily Adevarul reports. People have been complaining on social media that they now must walk farther to reach the water and that the sand on the extended beaches, hard and full of seashells, is uncomfortable to walk on. The beaches were extended using EU funds, at a cost of 63 million euros ($74 million), Adevarul reports in another article. Paul Cononov, the head of the Dobrogea-Black Sea Coast Water Administration, said the work was necessary given the rapid erosion of beaches, which in the past vanished at a rate of 1.5 meters a year. The wide beaches, Cononov added, should be fine for the next 50 years. 

Eastern Europe and Russia 

  • Moscow is taking Kyiv to the European Court of Human Rights over a litany of issues, in Russia’s first interstate complaint with the ECHR, The Moscow Times reports. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office issued yesterday a 10-point list of complaints against Ukraine, which include deaths during the 2014 Maidan anti-government protests in Kyiv, the water shutoff to Crimea after Russia’s annexation, and the downing of flight MH17 in 2014. Although an independent inquiry said a Russian-made missile brought down the plane, Russia argues that Ukraine is culpable for not closing airspace above its conflict zone. The Ukrainian justice minister, Denys Malyuska, said the list is a collection of Russian propaganda myths and that Moscow faces “inevitable defeat” in the case. He said Moscow had confused the Strasbourg-based court with a Russian talk show.
  • International organizations have condemned the Belarusian government’s moves to close down the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAZh) for “repeated violations of the law,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports. The European Federation of Journalists accused Lukashenka of using the moves as a “pretext” to dismantle “the only professional organization defending ethical, free, and independent journalism in Belarus.” Last week, Belarusian authorities froze the BAZh’s bank accounts after the police raided its offices. EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregard called the developments “an ambush” and said a “real trap is closing in on BAJ.” The largest media association in Belarus, BAZh was founded 25 years ago and has 1,300 members. 

The Caucasus 

  • The tense Armenia-Azerbaijan border is calm following fighting on the evening of 19 July along Armenia’s Yeraskh section of the border with Azerbaijan’s Naxcivan exclave, RFE/RL reports. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said a lieutenant was wounded after Armenian forces opened fire and that its troops fired in retaliation. The Armenian Ministry of Defense said Azerbaijani forces were the ones to open fire. Both sides said the border was calm on 20 July. 

Borderlands 

  • Mongolian democracy might be under threat following last month’s presidential election, election consultant and security analyst Munkhnaran Bayarlkhagva writes for Al Jazeera. The results gave 68 percent of votes to former Prime Minister Ukhnaa Khurelsukh of the Mongolian People’s Party in a contest where popular would-be contenders had been kept from running. His token rivals in the race “only legitimized the election by providing a performative veneer of a competitive electoral race.” The concentration of power could furthermore “make the country even more vulnerable to Beijing’s coercive tactics” and increase its dependence on China, which receives almost all of Mongolia’s exports, Bayarlkhagva notes.