Plus, Albania’s political feud rolls on, Navalny defender arrested, and more.

The Big Story: Blinken Heads to Ukraine

What happened: U.S. military assistance to Ukraine will be on the agenda during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s two-day visit starting 5 May. The U.S. Congress has earmarked about $400 million in “security assistance” for Ukraine this year, Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip T. Reeker said at a briefing, according to Interfax-Ukraine. Russia’s deployment of an estimated 150,000 troops recently near the Ukrainian border and in Crimea sparked fears of renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine. Russia began pulling the troops back last week, a development Blinken on Sunday said Washington was watching closely.

More context: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is angling for U.S. and EU support after the Kremlin shot down his proposed summit meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Zelenskiy must face the reality that, according to the Financial Times, “the Russian president may not, for now, want peace in Donbas where 14,000 combatants and civilians have been killed – unless Kyiv agrees to terms politically unacceptable to any Ukrainian leader.”

Worth noting: Russia has granted citizenship to 527,000 people in separatist-controlled parts of Ukraine in the past two years. Viktor Vodolatsky, deputy chairman of a State Duma foreign-relations committee, said up to 1 million new passports could be issued to Ukrainians by the end of the year, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.

Central Europe & the Baltics

  • An undersea tunnel twice the length of the Channel Tunnel could link Tallinn and Helsinki within a few years. Estonia’s Economy Minister Taavi Aas and Finnish Transport Minister Timo Harakka signed a memorandum of understanding on joint transport projects last week, including the possibility of a 103-kilometer (64-mile) rail tunnel, public broadcaster ERR reports. The 15- to 20 billion euro project, largely funded by Chinese investors, would dramatically cut commute times for the 10,000 Estonians who daily take ferries to jobs in Helsinki.
  • Unemployment in Poland and the Czech Republic remained the lowest in the EU in March, according to data from the EU statistics agency, Eurostat. Poland recorded 3.1 percent unemployment, one point lower than Czechia, with the Netherlands next at 3.5 percent, Poland’s First News reports. The average for the entire bloc was 7.3 percent, up from 6.4 percent in March 2020. Thanks largely to generous job-retention schemes, the EU economy has shed only 2.6 million workers since the coronavirus pandemic began, compared to the U.S. figure of 9.6 million lost jobs, a Pew Research Center study found.

Southeastern Europe

  • Accusing President Ilir Meta of violating the constitution during the recent election campaign, members of Albania’s ruling Socialist Party have started an impeachment process against him, the Associated Press reports. Meta, a longtime foe of Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama, accused Rama of running a “kleptocratic regime” and concentrating power in his hands. The Socialists won 74 of 140 seats in elections on 25 April, allowing them to govern without forming a coalition. Rama has been prime minister since 2013.
  • The Kosovo government’s campaign to build modern replicas of traditional stone tower houses to boost patriotic spirit has its critics, Balkan Insight reports. Kulla houses were built for defense in Albanian-speaking areas during the late Ottoman period, but unlike the originals, the publicly funded new houses in Kosovo are built of brick faced with decorative stone.“It’s unprofessional and mediocre,” heritage expert Sali Shoshi said. Although they feature on tourist itineraries, many surviving original kullas in northern Albania stand badly in need of repair, Exit News notes.

Eastern Europe and Russia

  • Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who has defended clients accused of treason and revealing state secrets, was arrested in Moscow 30 April. Pavlov heads Team 29, a group of lawyers some of whom are representing jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organization, Meduza reports. Police also searched Team 29’s office in St. Petersburg, the apartment of Pavlov’s wife, and his dacha, RFE/RL reports. Pavlov is accused of illegally disclosing confidential pretrial investigative information in an unnamed case. Among the treason defendants Team 29 has represented is former journalist Ivan Safronov
A saker falcon eats a mouse at a falconry center in the U.K. Photo by Anguskirk/flickr.
  • Siberian scientists have started tattooing saker falcons in a bid to prevent the endangered birds being smuggled out of the country. As the Siberian Times reports, ornithologists tattooed “SOS” on the beaks of 12 birds and the number 22 above their claws. Poaching has contributed to the Russian population of saker falcons falling by half in the past 20 years, to 1,200 breeding pairs, scientists believe. Falcons caught illegally in Siberia, Central Asia, and South Asia are often smuggled to the Middle East, where prize birds can sell for more than $100,000.

Central Asia

  • At least seven journalists were attacked or threatened in Tajikistan last year as the climate for freedom of expression and information in the authoritarian country further deteriorated, according to the International Partnership for Human Rights in Brussels. Journalists can no longer cover issues deemed sensitive by the authorities “without endangering their safety or that of their relatives,” the group said. “Several dozen” Tajik journalists have received asylum in Germany and other European countries after fleeing repression at home, and the authorities were exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to tighten the screws even more, journalist Marat Mamadshoev told Deutsche Welle last June.

Borderlands

  • Turkish media on Sunday reported the arrest of a high-ranking Islamic State figure in Istanbul, Agence France Presse reports, saying the man, known as “Basim,” was a close ally of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before he was killed by U.S. special forces in 2019. “Basim” was reportedly in charge of the ISIS “so-called military wing,” Turkish broadcaster NTV said. The DHA news agency said he was detained 28 April after arriving in Istanbul with forged documents.