Our regional roundup: another Russian hacking scandal in Britain; outrage over coronavirus spending in Azerbaijan; border guards in Romania; Islam in Uzbekistan; and a Siberian woolly mammoth.

Russian Hackers Allegedly Stole British Trade Documents Ahead of 2019 Elections

Two unnamed sources told Reuters that classified U.S.-UK trade documents that were leaked ahead of the 2019 British elections came from the email account of former Trade Minister Liam Fox, to which Russians hackers allegedly gained access. An anonymous internet user posted the documents online ahead of last year’s vote, and Britain’s opposition Labour Party then used them as a trump card during the election campaign. The party pointed to alleged government plans to sell the National Health Service to the United States, an accusation British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refuted. Last month, Russian Ambassador to UK Andrei Kelin denied any Russian interference in British politics, despite media reports of hacking attacks linked to Russian intelligence. However, a report released at the end of July by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee revealed that the British government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes” at the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum, The Guardian writes. Russian officials have accused the United Kingdom of taking a “leading role in Russophobia.”

Azeris Accuse Government of Misspending Coronavirus Relief Funds

Azeri citizens have been venting their anger on social media after data published on the government’s website showed that the contributions to the national coronavirus relief fund were spent on newly established companies to fund religious events, OCCRP writes. The State Committee on Religious Association spent half a million U.S. dollars on tenders for five new companies to put on religious events that are at odds with the country’s strict public health measures. “As you know, no meetings or conferences have been held in the country for six months, as they are banned due to the quarantine,” journalist Hebib Muntezir wrote in a Facebook post cited by OCCRP, adding that, for instance, more than $110,000 had been earmarked for the writing contest “Heydar Aliev and our national and moral values.” Muntezir concluded: “This is how they plunder the wealth of the people in the name of Heydar Aliev’s national moral values.” Eurasianet has reported that at least some of the contributions, expected from both government officials and normal citizens, have apparently been forced. Baku has been rolling back the lifting of restrictions imposed in April because of the pandemic, which brought a second wave of infections in the Caucasus country. Mask-wearing has been mandatory as of 3 June in public places, including public transport. Additionally, the strict quarantine regime, which includes restrictions on movement, is to remain in place until the end of August, authorities announced yesterday.

Romania to Bring to Justice Communist-Era Border Guards

Border guards that shot Romanians trying to leave the country before the fall of the communist regime are to face trial, the Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (IICCMER) announced, Balkan Insight (BI) reports. “We don’t have exact statistics, but we are certainly talking about thousands of people who lost their lives, shot by border officers while trying to leave for the West,” Alexandra Toader, the president of the IICCMER, told Romanian news channel Digi24 yesterday, as cited by BI. “Those guilty are not only the border officers who resorted to violence, but also those who gave the orders,” explained Toader. As Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso notes, legally leaving Romania was not possible in communist times, when travel abroad was restricted. Some exceptions were made for ethnic Germans and Jews, on the basis of deals with the Federal Republic of Germany and Israel, which were paying Bucharest for each individual who was allowed to leave. For other people, the only option was to cross the borders illegally, either on foot or swimming, and risk being shot by guards, or drowning in the Danube River, which flowed along the border between Romania and Yugoslavia.

Uzbekistan Lifts De Facto Ban on Minors Attending Muslim Prayers

As Uzbekistan lifts its coronavirus-related restrictions on religious worship, the country’s Interior Ministry announced that an unrelated, de facto ban on minors attending mosques has been removed as well, Al Jazeera reports. According to a video posted on the ministry’s Telegram channel, no laws banning minors from attending mosques were in place to being with; however, a de facto ban was enforced under former ruler Islam Karimov, and persisted after his death four years ago. The recent announcement also stressed that minors will be able to attend mosques “accompanied by fathers, brothers, and close relatives.” The Central Asian country lies at the crossroads of several major religions, namely Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam, The New York Times notes. However, Uzbekistan has remained strictly secular after gaining its independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago. Last year, authorities launched an unofficial crackdown on clothes or physical appearance traits they deemed too islamic, such as long beards or head scarves, Radio Free Europe writes.  

Baby woolly mammoth found in the Yamal peninsula, Siberia. Image by James St. John/Flickr.

Well-Preserved Mammoth Skeleton Excavated in Siberia

The excavations work to bring to the surface the remains of a Pleistocene-era mammoth are 90 percent complete, and the finds are looking remarkable, The Siberian Times reports. The skeleton, which was recovered from Lake Pechenelava-To, is the third- ever mammoth found on the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia, and the first adult. The archaeologists were also pleased to find fossilized mammoth feces, or coprolite, along with the skeleton. “The coprolite was definitely left by this very mammoth, it is a very good find, as it can contain a lot of information about the mammoth’s diet as well as pollen of ancient plants, and a lot more,” Dmitry Frolov, head of the Arctic Research Centre, said, as cited by The Siberian Times. “We plan to study it thoroughly,” Frolov said. The hunt for mammoth tusks has grown into a bona-fide trade in Siberia, given that mammoth ivory has the reputation of being an “ethical” alternative to poached ivory from elephants and other animals. The trade is legal and has grown massively in recent years. However, the increased digging can create ecological problems. Digging deep into the permafrost that preserved the mammoth skeletons with high-pressure hoses sweeps earth into rivers and results in rising silt levels.

Compiled by Ioana Caloianu