- Montenegrin Government Nears Collapse
Plus, Ukraine wants clarity on its NATO prospects, mysterious swimmers shadow a Crimean official, and more.
The Big Story: Legacy of Srebrenica Threatens Montenegro’s Fragile Government
What happened: The largest bloc in Montenegro’s government has announced a boycott of parliament after accusing Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic of betraying voters and cooperating with the opposition Democratic Party of Socialists, BIRN reports. The Democratic Front, which dominates Krivokapic’s government, is a motley collection of generally right-leaning, pro-Serbia, anti-corruption, and populist parties.
More context: Now in opposition, the Socialists have ruled Montenegro for almost the entire post-Yugoslav period, until disparate parties united last year to boot them out of office. But some members of the ruling coalition joined with them to vote to dismiss Justice Minister Vladimir Leposavic, who had questioned a Balkans war-crimes tribunal ruling that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre constituted a genocide, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports. The atrocity was committed by ethnic Serb forces against Bosnian Muslims.
Worth noting: Lawmakers also voted yesterday for a resolution condemning the Srebrenica genocide and outlawing denial of it, again over the objections of the pro-Serbia Democratic Front.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Despite the pandemic and recently passed anti-LGBT Hungarian legislation, organizers of the Budapest Pride said they will go ahead with planned events, including a march through the city on 24 July, the Guardian reports. Earlier this week, Hungary’s parliament passed legislation that makes it illegal to share information with minors deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change. “We thought it was really important to show LGBT people that they are not alone; that they are not abandoned; that there are a lot of people who stand up for them,” Viktoria Radvanyi of Budapest Pride said.
- Estonia’s acclaimed digital leadership would not have been possible without making cybersecurity a policy priority, CNN reports. In addition to digitizing sooner than other countries, Estonia “recognized that it needs to be a secure country in order for citizens to want to use online systems and for businesses to want to do business there,” Esther Naylor, an international security research analyst at Chatham House, said. A recent European Union report obtained by CNN showed that serious cyberattacks against critical targets in Europe doubled in 2020.
- Reed destruction on the banks of Lake Ohrid is threatening the biodiversity of the North Macedonian water body, which also stretches into Albania, BIRN reports. In addition to filtering lake water and ensuring biodiversity, reeds are important to the lake’s microorganisms; environmentalists call reed belts “the heart of the lake.” A UNESCO report published earlier this month found that the number of water birds along the North Macedonian shoreline of Lake Ohrid plunged from around 79,000 in 1989 to 10,000 in 2010, primarily due to the destruction and fragmentation of reed belts under pressure of tourism.
- A group of Croatian architects is changing the look of the country’s Adriatic Sea coast, The Calvert Journal reports. The architectural partnership 3LHD in Zagreb has built “pedestrian bridges and sports halls in Rijeka [and] a redesigned waterfront promenade in Split, but are particularly celebrated for their work on astounding new hotels,” according to the journal. 3LHD is now designing a new campus – to include a factory, offices, an artificial lake, and even a sheep pen – outside Zagreb for electric-vehicle entrepreneur Mate Rimac.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Ukraine’s NATO membership would be a “red line” for Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, RFE/RL reports. Peskov’s remarks came after a Wednesday meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Peskov said the summit was a meeting “with a plus sign.” Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he wanted a clear “yes” or “no” from Biden that Kyiv may one day be granted a Membership Action Plan, the first step toward NATO membership.
- A puzzling scene in flooded Crimea got the internet in a twist, The Moscow Times reports. A video posted by local television showed de facto Governor Sergei Aksyonov traveling by boat through the flooded city of Kerch, with three men swimming behind. Emergency-response officials said the men were civilians who decided to go for a swim. But Aksenov identified them as security officers accompanying the governor during his inspection. “To the employees of the Emergency Situations Ministry I want to say words of gratitude, there is no doubt they accompany everyone, without exception,” Aksyonov said after his tour.
- Former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan is planning a comeback in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Eurasianet reports. His party, the Reviving Armenia alliance, is pledging to resuscitate the economy and win back territories that ethnic Armenians lost in a conflict last fall with Azerbaijan, Kocharyan said. While a recent poll from MPG/Gallup showed Kocharyan with a slight lead over incumbent prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and his Civil Contract party, many voters are still undecided, Eurasianet notes.
- Taiyrbek Sarpashev, a former deputy prime minister of Kyrgyzstan, was detained yesterday on corruption charges, RFE/RL reports. Sarpashev’s arrest came on the heels of an investigation into the development of the Kumtor gold mine project. The State Committee for National Security said Sarpashev faces allegations of lobbying in the interests of the Canadian firm Centerra Gold, whose local subsidiary, Kumtor Gold Company, is Kyrgyzstan’s biggest taxpayer. Sarpashev allegedly helped the company secure legislation allowing it to work at higher elevations of the mountains where the mine is located, which resulted in environmental damage on two glaciers, officials said.
- Poland’s Ruling Party Tosses on the Waves
If the health crisis drags on beyond the summer, it could undercut the Polish government and exacerbate tensions within the ruling camp.
Poland appeared to pass through the first phase of the pandemic crisis in the spring and summer of 2020 relatively mildly, experiencing low rates of virus-related deaths compared to other European countries. The Polish government – led since 2015 by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – introduced some of Europe’s earliest and most radical lockdown restrictions in March (even denying Poles access to the forests) but then started to relax those measures quickly. During the summer, the government’s primary concern switched to the broader socioeconomic impact of its restrictions, as it attempted to open up the economy and society and move on from the pandemic issue as much as possible before the holiday season got underway.
Moreover, with a crucial, delayed presidential election being held over two rounds in June and July – won, in the event, by Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda – the ruling party was keen to give the impression that it had dealt with the pandemic crisis successfully. As the presidential campaign moved into full swing, Law and Justice tried to demonstrate that it was on top of the crisis and that life in Poland was returning to some kind of normality. In particular, in what was an extremely closely fought race, Law and Justice wanted to encourage older voters – who comprised a core element of its base, but felt especially vulnerable to the virus – that it was safe for them to come out and vote for Duda. That approach was exemplified by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s claim at a July campaign rally that the virus was “in retreat” and Poles no longer had to fear it.
Indeed, even in the early autumn ministers were reassuring Poles that they had the crisis fully under control. However, in October both the government and Polish public were taken aback by the ferocity of the country’s “second wave” of the pandemic (and then, after a brief lull at the beginning of 2021, a “third wave” in February) with sharp increases in the number of positive test results, hospitalizations, and deaths linked to the virus (Poland’s levels were among the highest in the EU).
The issue moved back to the top of the political agenda and Law and Justice came under increasing pressure following widespread media reports that Poland’s underfunded health service was not coping effectively with the crisis. The government increased the number of hospital beds and respirators for coronavirus patients and built temporary medical facilities, including converting the national stadium in Warsaw into a field hospital. However, its critics argued that the biggest problem was not hospital capacity but shortages of trained staff and that medical equipment was not in the right places.
Support for Law and Justice Slumps
Last spring, Law and Justice benefited from what political scientists call the “rally effect”: an inevitable psychological tendency for worried citizens to unite around their political leaders and institutions as the embodiment of national unity when they feel that they face a dramatic external threat. However, while the government gained politically from being judged to have handled the first phase of the crisis reasonably well – or, at least, no worse than any other country – there was a feeling that its response to the second and third phases was chaotic both in terms of decision-making and public messaging.
For example, the CBOS polling agency found that the number of respondents who approved of the government’s handling of the crisis fell from 70 percent in May-June 2020 (25 percent disapproved) to 49 percent in the first half of October (43 percent disapproved) and only 38 percent in the second half of that month (45 percent disapproved). The number of Poles who felt that the government’s restrictions were too harsh increased from 14 percent in July 2020 to 43 percent in February 2021 while those who felt they were not strict enough fell from 27 percent to only 7 percent over the same period. The numbers who felt that government support for firms and workers affected negatively by the crisis was sufficient also fell from 42 percent in September 2020 to only 30 percent in the second half of October. Many Poles felt misled by the government’s earlier optimistic statements, and Law and Justice’s reputation for competence – which it had been working extremely hard to try and establish over the previous five years to counter opposition claims that it was obsessively pursuing a narrow ideological agenda – was severely undermined as the administration often appeared rudderless in the face of an escalating crisis.
Several opinion polls recorded sharp falls in support for Law and Justice in the second half of 2020. This coincided with the revival of the pandemic as one of the main political issues in Poland and concomitant loss of public confidence in the government’s ability to tackle it effectively.
It is difficult to know, however, to what extent Law and Justice’s autumn slump was due to the pandemic crisis issue per se or to other political developments taking place in Poland at that time. Another important contributory factor here was the increasingly bitter internal conflict and lack of trust between the various competing factions within the governing camp, which raised serious questions about the cohesion – indeed, very survival – of the Law and Justice government.
Law and Justice’s junior partners in the United Right (ZP) governing coalition – the right-wing conservative Solidarity Poland (SP) and more liberal-conservative Agreement (Porozumiene) groupings, both have enough deputies to deprive the government of its slim parliamentary majority. They continually and openly contested key elements of the administration’s program, leaving many Poles feeling that the ruling party was increasingly self-absorbed at a time when it should have been focusing on the pandemic crisis.
The revival of the pandemic issue also coincided with a bitter political dispute over the Polish constitutional tribunal’s hugely controversial October 2020 ruling that abortions as a result of fetal defects were unconstitutional. Given that the vast majority of legal abortions carried out in Poland were in such cases, the ruling effectively meant a near total ban. Although it is a socially conservative party that draws inspiration from Catholic moral teaching, Law and Justice’s electorate includes many Poles with more liberal views on moral-cultural issues – in Polish terms at least, though compared with the West European, liberal-left cultural mainstream they are still quite conservative. They support the party largely as a result of its socioeconomic policies, and were strongly opposed to the tribunal ruling.
The government’s opponents argued that the tribunal was under the ruling party’s control and its decision was influenced by political calculations. Consequently, the less socially conservative elements of Law and Justice’s electorate may have interpreted the abortion ruling as giving credence to opposition claims that “religious right” ideological extremists were increasingly dominating the governing party. That this controversial ruling coincided with last autumn’s slump in support for Law and Justice also makes it difficult to clearly pinpoint the precise causal effects of the pandemic crisis on shifts in public opinion compared with other factors and issues.
Focusing on the Post-Pandemic Recovery
It is obviously extremely difficult to predict how the pandemic crisis will play out over the next few months. However, since April the epidemiological situation in Poland has improved significantly with falls in positive test rates, hospitalizations, and (although more slowly) virus-linked deaths. As Poland’s vaccine rollout has accelerated, the government has steadily lifted restrictions and opened up more spheres of economic and social life. If the crisis continues to subside and there is a rapid and sustainable further easing – and, ultimately removal – of remaining restrictions, then the Polish economy could bounce back quickly and decisively. This will both significantly improve the public mood and, as most Poles are likely to want to move on from the crisis as quickly as possible, make them less inclined to dwell on any misgivings that they have about the government’s earlier handling of the pandemic. Most Poles also know that Poland was not the only country to struggle with the virus, and many also feel that the opposition failed to put forward a credible alternative approach to tackling it.
Moreover, although Law and Justice has a clear run, with an overall parliamentary majority and control of the presidency, and with the next legislative elections not scheduled until autumn 2023, the all-enveloping nature of the pandemic has meant that the government has been in crisis management mode for most of the last year, forcing it to put many of its planned reforms and policy initiatives on hold. The ruling party is now hoping that its flagship “Polish Deal” stimulus program for post-pandemic recovery, which was formally launched in May after a postponement due to the “third wave,” will help it to win back support by providing the government with a renewed sense of purpose and momentum for the remainder of the current parliamentary term. The Polish Deal includes ambitious plans to cut taxes for Law and Justice’s less well-off core electorate; significantly boost spending on the health service and support for house-buyers, young families, and pensioners; and expand investment in infrastructure and development projects, especially in sectors of the economy that the pandemic crisis has weakened. These spending plans will be partly financed by the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, which earmarks 58 billion euros in grants and loans for Poland. Interestingly, following the launch of the Polish Deal, the poll-aggregator site Ewybory showed Law and Justice’s average poll support ticking back up to around 34 percent at the end of May.
A “Fourth Wave”?
However, there are also much less optimistic scenarios for the government that involve the pandemic crisis dragging on if there is a problem with vaccine rollout or effectiveness (the main issue in Poland now appears to be one of take-up as much as supply), and a “fourth wave” once again putting the Polish health service under severe pressure. This could mean the government maintaining, or reintroducing further, restrictions – prompting both societal frustration and a slowdown, or even reversal, of economic recovery.
If the crisis drags on beyond the summer this could also undercut the government’s ambitious Polish Deal and further exacerbate underlying tensions and instability within the ruling camp. Indeed, whatever the progress of the pandemic crisis, and even in an optimistic scenario where any fourth wave is manageable, the government will struggle to move on from it decisively while there is still a deeply rooted lack of trust between the governing camp’s various component parts. Much depends on whether Law and Justice’s junior partners continue to assert their autonomy and openly contest key elements of its program.
Aleks Szczerbiak is professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex. He can be followed on Twitter at @AleksSzczerbiak. Reprinted with permission from The Polish Politics Blog.
- The Spirit of Geneva
The Biden-Putin summit is open to many interpretations. One of the more plausible is that the U.S. has given up on changing Russia’s behavior.
Pundits anticipated Wednesday’s summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin with keen relish. Biden had called Putin a “killer” back in March and had a long and growing list of complaints about Russian behavior, from human rights to cyber-hacking.
Putin retaliated in kind. Last month, Russia issued a list of foreign countries that had engaged in “unfriendly actions” toward it, and blocked their embassies from hiring local staff. There were only two countries on the list: the United States and the Czech Republic (the latter had accused Russia of being behind an explosion at an arms depot in 2014).
However, the Geneva meeting went off without incident – no fireworks, no drama. Arguably, it was the triumph of style over substance.
Each man got what he wanted: a photo opportunity to demonstrate to the world that his country “is back.”
On the other hand, it could be that this marks a turning point, and that from here on U.S.-Russia relations will slowly improve.
British defense analyst Julian Cooper told me, “I think Russia’s constructive engagement in the summit process and Putin’s public expression of a positive view of Biden may well be expressions of not only his own view, but one of the wider ruling elite around him that the time has come to move to better relations with the West.”
Biden was upbeat in his subsequent press conference. He said there is “no substitute” for face-to-face dialogue between leaders, and there is a “genuine prospect to significantly improve relations between our two countries.” He said Putin “is prepared to, quote, ‘help’ on Afghanistan and on Iran,” while warning that “this is not about trust, it is about self-interest” and “we are not old friends, this is pure business.”
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins’s question “Why are you so confident [Putin] will change his behavior?” triggered a testy response, with the president replying, “I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior.”
In his presser, Putin said “both of us showed a willingness to understand one another” and “the talks were quite constructive.” He went on to confidently rebut American criticism of Russian behavior in a classic display of what Russia-watchers call “whataboutism” – deflecting such questions by condemning the alleged deficiencies of the other side.
The two men agreed to return ambassadors and start a dialogue about nuclear weapons and cyberattacks. That was it. There was no detailed discussion of other points of contention. No plan to deal with the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia had massed 100,000 troops on the border in April. Both Biden and Putin said they remained committed to the Minsk agreement for resolving the conflict – something that the Ukrainian government has effectively abandoned, because it does not want to grant autonomy to Donbas or hold elections there until Russia gives back control of the border to Kyiv.
Disappointed with the anodyne results, some analysts resorted to trying to read the body language of the two leaders as they sat for a photo op before the three-hour talks began – Putin looking bored, manspreading in his chair, and drumming his fingers on the armrest.
Some hawks were determined to find a silver lining of confrontation in the cloud of mutual respect. Edward Luce’s column in the Financial Times ran under the headline “Biden politely reads riot act to Putin.” But it did not come across that way at all to this observer. On the contrary, the meeting seems to signal that the United States has given up on Russia – that is, given up on trying to change its behavior.
It is widely believed that Putin “is playing a weak hand well”: that Russia is in economic trouble, oil exporters have no future, and Putin will have to beg the West to lift its sanctions. Otherwise, why would he be so fearful of the domestic opposition? But the reality is that the Russian economy is stable – and working very well for its ultra-wealthy elite.
The meeting had been Biden’s idea. After the chaos and confusion of the Trump years, he wanted to restart the clock, to give Putin a sense of his goals. But Biden did not have any concrete proposals – no carrots or sticks to incentivize Putin to change his behavior.
“I made it clear to President Putin that we’ll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights because that’s what we are, that’s who we are,” Biden told the press.
That reminded me of the Russian fable about the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river, and assures the worried amphibian that he will not sting him – because then he would drown. So they set off, and in the middle of the river the scorpion stings the frog in an act of murder-suicide. “I am what I am,” the scorpion explains.
The point being: the two sides are talking to each other, which is good. But are they listening?
Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
- Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Anger Gives Me Strength
An interview with the exiled Belarusian opposition leader about her ambitions, European politicians, and their weak spots. From Respekt.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the main candidate for the opposition in the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. Many in Belarus and abroad find the announced landslide win for longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka to be implausible and believe Tsikhanouskaya won the most votes. She is now living in Lithuania and conducting a campaign for new, free elections and the release of all political prisoners.
Ondrej Kundra and Tomas Brolik: Several days ago you met with the parents of Roman Protasevich in Warsaw. What did they tell you?
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya: Above all, they are both proud of their son. They are proud he is fighting the Lukashenka regime. However, as parents, they are naturally afraid for him. It’s clear to all of us what kind of situation he’s in right now. His jailers are certain to be humiliating him, morally and physically, to be torturing him. What his parents have to do now, though, is not sink into their grief, but work for their son. They have to give interviews, be heard whenever possible. That’s important on the international scene, and it’s important for the release of Roman himself and the other political prisoners.
Did his parents ask you for anything specific? Even with the limited opportunities that you have to act from exile?
I fear that for Roman, there is nothing definite that can be done. What we are after is the release of all our political prisoners. After all, it’s not possible for one to be released and the rest left behind. So we are speaking out, we are raising this issue wherever it’s even a little bit possible. That is the only thing we can do, and it is what we are doing.
Are you in contact with his lawyer? Do you know anything about where he is and what his condition is?
His lawyer has not been allowed to contact him for 10 days. Nothing has changed, his imprisonment is illegal, it’s against the law. I myself have no information because they’re not allowing anybody to visit him. We are in constant touch with his parents and if any new information were to surface, we would know about it.
When you saw the 90-minute interview on Belarusian state television where Protasevich admitted to have committed sedition against his homeland, where he praised Lukashenka’s policy and called him by his first name, what went through your mind?
When I heard him say such things, it was difficult for me to imagine what they could have done to him, how they had managed to terrify and torment him so he would do that. The aim of the regime is to divide those fighting against it to the greatest possible extent. They believe somebody will help convict him of treason.
Does that happen among Belarusians? Has somebody already done that, turned their back on Protasevich?
No. Absolutely not. Everybody knows he is the victim. Nobody believes he was sincere when he said what he said.
Did it remind you of your own experience from last summer, when you appeared to have won won the presidential elections, defeating Lukashenka, and the regime immediately arrested you, and you then left for Lithuania after spending several hours in a building of the secret police?
The KGB, the secret police, always take aim at our most vulnerable spot. They know our weak spots, they know how to apply pressure, how to force one to do what it is that they need done. Most of the time, that’s how it goes. I thank God that I have never had an experience like the one Roman is having. I have never experienced anything that horrible. I do know their methods, though.
What were your hours with the KGB like? Did they threaten you with death, or with the death of your children or your husband?
Her children are the weak spot of any woman. They are the most precious thing of all to her. That’s all I will say.
You’ve never described exactly what they said to you or how they pressured you. Do you still not want to discuss that?
No, there’s no need. Whatever I say about that will change nothing. I am not important now. Roman is important, the other political prisoners are important, we must discuss them.
We aren’t really asking about you specifically. We’re asking so we can better imagine what people in Belarus experience at the hands of the secret police.
They never beat me. Apparently they did hit Roman.
Before Lukashenka sent a military fighter jet to escort the airplane on which Protasevich was flying and forced it to land in Minsk, had it ever occurred to you that taking a flight across Belarusian territory could be risky? That it could even be foolhardy?
No, that was a shock to me too. One week before his arrest, I took that same flight to Greece, where I spoke at an economic forum and met with politicians. It never even occurred to me that if we were to fly over Belarus, the authorities would abduct us. It never occurred to me that it could be possible to fly from one country in the European Union to another only to end up in a Minsk prison halfway through the trip. So, now it’s clear the regime is taking advantage of all opportunities to abduct people, and for that reason we will be taking many more precautions with our travel.
Didn’t it surprise you, after the fact, that they had let your plane fly to its destination?
Originally, we were supposed to fly one day earlier, but I needed to shorten the trip, so we rebooked the plane at the last minute. It may have been that the Belarusian authorities did not then have the exact information about our movements. That might have been the reason why what you’re asking about did not happen.
Isn’t it more likely that at the time they didn’t dare try such a thing with you? After all, you’re quite well known, many politicians around the world are standing up for you, they would have immediately shouted their support for you. Isn’t what happened to Protasevich a certain warning that you could be next?
That could be, but why would they threaten me? What I mean is – what do they imagine I would do? Stop all of this? I will never stop. At this point, we have no way of knowing who the next person will be. There are many activists, journalists, and politicians both in Belarus and in exile who are on the side of the opposition, this could happen to any of them. There is no doubt that we have to be more cautious, not just me, but all of us. We have to know what to do if we believe we are being followed, how to react, whom to call, how to draw attention to an abduction attempt. I think we have to run some kind of program, some kind of training for everybody who might face this.
That Will Never Happen
Right now you are going around Europe again, just like you did in the autumn, when you met with the German chancellor and the French president. You are meeting with EU politicians again too – how have these meetings changed now that half a year has passed?
We have their absolute solidarity, their full support, that has not changed. However, after this abduction case, we’re hoping the EU reaction will be even braver, more forceful, because the regime no longer poses a danger just to Belarusians, but to EU citizens as well. Most of the people on the airplane carrying Protasevich when it was forced to land were Europeans. Closing the airspace, i.e., keeping EU airplanes from flying across Belarus and banning Belarusian flights into the EU, is one thing – and it is a good thing – but forcing down an airplane is nothing unusual, it’s part of what the regime has long been doing. So, maybe the democratic countries are realizing how dangerous the regime is. They will respond properly.
What did you discuss with Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and President Milos Zeman [in Prague last week]? Did you ask them for something specific?
Our tactics are based on three pillars: Isolation of the regime, pressure on the regime, and justice. From the very beginning the Czech Republic has consistently helped a great deal with those first two pillars. This isn’t just about political positions, but also practical assistance, helping people who have been injured, some of them were brought here to your country for medical treatment. You are also helping students who are able to complete their educations in your country after being expelled for political reasons in Belarus. We’ve discussed opening a Belarusian Center in Prague, where Belarusian civil society could have a base.
What about that third subject, justice?
The Czech Republic is interesting for us there too. In the past, your courts have dealt with several cases of universal jurisdiction. I have asked whether it would be possible to investigate this option a little more closely. We might be able to achieve justice for crimes committed in Belarus through your courts, or at least accumulate evidence of those crimes. In Belarus right now we will never achieve justice.
Did local politicians promise you to look into this and that a Belarusian Center will be created?
The center was your president’s proposal. I believe it will.
You are going all over the world, you are asking for harsher sanctions, and sometimes you are succeeding, sometimes not – but sanctions in and of themselves will never overthrow the regime. They do not have that kind of force and there is not much else that can be done. Don’t you sometimes lose hope of defeating the dictatorial regime from here in Europe?
I’d never say that the regime can’t be changed. It’s not possible to lead a country for long where most of the people want you to resign, where you don’t have the support of civil society. If the sanctions haven’t changed anything yet, then maybe they haven’t been tough enough. It always makes sense to look for new tools that will work.
A couple of months ago you admitted in an interview that you’ve lost the streets. In Belarus, the demonstrations now are not as big as they were last summer. It’s true, people are no longer gathering in such massive numbers outdoors …
… hang on, I never said we “lost the streets.” That was a misunderstanding, or a mistake in translation. You’re right that the regime has managed to suppress the big demonstrations through force and torture. Nevertheless, people continue to protest in smaller groups. To “lose the streets” would mean that people’s ambitions for change had been lost, and that will never happen. We have just a slightly-open window of opportunity, but the people are taking advantage of every centimeter of that opportunity – they’re organizing, they’re debating, we will be building on all of that in the future. We have an aim in sight and we’re pursuing it. Violence only works to a limited extent, you can’t beat down people’s inner lives. It’s a question of time, and the truth is that the more international pressure and support there will be, then the fewer Belarusian victims there will be.
What exactly is the international pressure and support you speak of? Are there any steps to take that would have an effect on the regime, that would destabilize it? Isn’t that an illusion?
No, no, I don’t believe that’s an illusion. It’s happened before when, under the threat of specific steps by the international community, Lukashenka released political prisoners.
Today’s Lukashenka is more brutal than before, though. What exactly has been happening in Belarus during the last few months? Why are people being isolated, imprisoned, and tortured en masse?
His aim has always been for people to shut up. That’s why he’s destroyed the media, that’s why he imprisons and silences bloggers and journalists just for discussing us, those who are in exile, for reporting specific, free, independent information. Since last September, through the whole winter, the West never instituted any new sanctions. No conferences, no meetings about Belarus, Belarus was forgotten. That gave Lukashenka self-confidence and a feeling of immunity. That was the result.
Video messages are your main channel of communication with your fellow citizens. So far in these messages, you’ve offered mainly your bravery and encouragement. Will you be changing your messaging at all? Do you have any ideas about what to add, what to emphasize more now?
I believe in the nonviolent transfer of power. I don’t want more people to suffer, there has already been enough suffering. In my messages, I say what I feel. I do not want to deprive people of the opportunity to find their own ways to fight – I can’t do that in any event. People are different, they see different solutions. It’s up to each of us. I could be more tactical and think through what I say, but I’m going to keep saying exactly what I’m feeling at the time.
When do you think you will return to Belarus?
As soon as it is clear that after I cross the border they won’t pack me into a police van and take me to prison.
How Would I Feel in Their Place?
You’re in a political role that you never sought. The presidential candidate of the opposition was your husband, the well-known blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Lukashenka had him arrested ahead of last year’s elections, so you announced your candidacy as an act of resistance. Your husband is still in prison. Can the two of you converse somehow?
Not in person. We’ve been writing each other letters. I know he’s able to watch television, he has information about what is happening beyond the prison walls. He’s also following my appearances, my trips abroad. In his letters he’s sometimes called on me to be even braver, even stronger.
You’re living with your children in Vilnius, without your husband. Have you gotten more accustomed to the city?
I am grateful for how Lithuania has received me and my colleagues. Vilnius is the center from which I work and I also spend my free time there. When I arrived there after the elections, I had the kind of usual feeling that anybody in Belarus experiences day in and day out: In any person whom you don’t know, who is a little on the unusual side, you immediately see an agent of the secret service. The longer I live in freedom, though, the better I feel. Although, as I said, after the abduction of Roman Protasevich the security measures around me have been tightened.
Do you have enough time for your children?
I know we could be going to the playground and playing together but I don’t feel like I have any right to such joys. I am doing my best to spend time with them, but I have to work for the people in Belarus and be with them.
What gives you the strength to carry on? Don’t you sometimes feel exhausted, resigned to your fate?
Sure, I’m tired. Sometimes it seems I have no energy left. However, in those moments, I always force myself to recall the people sitting in prison. How would I feel in their place? Being somewhere with no room, no light, not much food but a lot of humiliation. What can they do? Nothing. All they can do is place their hopes in the rest of Belarus, her men and women. I’m one of them. Suddenly I’m no longer thinking about myself and my tiredness, because it’s just not possible. Those people have sacrificed their freedom, some have even sacrificed their lives, so that we are able to continue with our struggle. I feel anger toward the regime, and that gives me strength, too.
Ondrej Kundra is deputy editor in chief and Tomas Brolik is an editor with the Czech weekly Respekt, where this interview originally appeared. Republished by permission.
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.
- Little Headway After Putin-Biden Summit
Plus, Germany recalls misbehaving soldiers from Lithuania, Ukrainian cops mount ransomware raids, and more.
The Big Story: U.S., Russia Leaders Have an Understanding but Remain Far Apart
What happened: Russian President Vladimir Putin said his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, was an experienced statesman and the two “spoke the same language,” following a meeting yesterday in Geneva, the BBC reports. Except for an agreement to begin a dialogue on nuclear arms control, the talks led to few concrete measures.
More context: Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said there’s “still no reason” to remove the United States from a list of “unfriendly countries” the Kremlin drew up last month, The Moscow Times reports. Still, Moscow and Washington agreed to return their ambassadors to their posts after a spat over last year’s U.S. presidential election led to a mutual withdrawal this spring.
Worth noting: Meanwhile, the EU should prepare for a “further downturn of our relations with Russia, which are right now at the lowest level,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said yesterday, according to the Guardian. Borrell said the EU was “quite reluctant” to use economic sanctions because “they affect ordinary people who are not responsible” for the actions of their governments.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Around 30 German soldiers have returned from Lithuania following allegations of racist and antisemitic remarks, and accusations of sexual violence, Deutsche Welle reports. The soldiers are part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission offering protection to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia by deterring Russia. “The misconduct of some soldiers in Lithuania is a slap in the face of all those who serve the security of our country day after day in the #Bundeswehr [armed forces]” German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer tweeted.
- Estonia said yesterday that Russian planes had violated its airspace for the fourth time this year, The Associated Press reports. A statement from the Estonian military said two Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters entered Estonian airspace without permission near its Baltic Sea island of Hiiumaa and spent less than one minute there Tuesday morning. The Russian Embassy’s charge d’affaires was summoned to the Estonian Foreign Ministry about the intrusion and handed a note. Moscow said it was a routine flight over the international waters of the Baltic Sea.
- A Bosnian woman who fought to save a river has won a “Green Nobel” award, Reuters reports. “I lost my job, I lost my friends, my daughter was bullied in school,” Maida Bilal said of her successful crusade against a planned mini hydropower plant on the Kruscica River. “I would lie if I said it was easy, but then I did it in spite of everything. I have a daughter and don’t want her as a grown up to face the same problem as her mother.” Bilal is the European winner of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental pioneers from six regions around the world.
- Croatia has indicted a former Serbian paramilitary fighter on charges of committing a war crime in a settlement near Vukovar, BIRN reports. The unnamed former member of the Petrova Gora paramilitary unit faces accusations of “acting contrary to the rules of customary international law of war and humanitarian law on the protection of civilians.” The Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries besieged and shelled Vukovar from late August to mid-November 1991, when its defenders surrendered and its non-Serb population was expelled.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- EU ambassadors have agreed to impose new sanctions on Belarus over the diversion of a plane last month and the subsequent arrest of a journalist on board, Deutsche Welle reports. EU foreign ministers still need to approve the sanctions next week. Last month, the EU imposed flight sanctions on Minsk following the detention of Roman Protasevich, a critical journalist who had left Belarus in 2019 and was on the plane. Belarusian planes are banned from EU airspace and EU carriers are not flying over Belarusian airspace.
- Ukrainian police announced they had carried out raids on alleged associates of a Russian-speaking ransomware gang, AP reports. According to a Ukrainian police statement, computer equipment and about 5 million hryvnya ($185,000) in cash were seized in 21 raids on the homes of suspects affiliated with the Clop ransomware syndicate. Six defendants face charges of carrying out attacks on U.S. and Korean companies, which can lead to up to eight years in prison for violating computer crime and money-laundering laws, the statement said. The investigation is ongoing.
- Armenia’s acting prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, faces criticism over a prisoner release deal that followed the handover of Armenian land mine maps to Azerbaijan, Eurasianet reports. Last week, Azerbaijan released 15 Armenians who were captured following fighting last fall in the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said the men were swapped for maps of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laid by Armenia in part of the territory that Azerbaijan reclaimed. Some skeptics question why the deal happened right before the 20 June elections, considering that the men had been in custody for months. Critics also say Armenia gave away too much, since it would have gotten the men back anyway or could have won the release of more detainees.
- Uzbekistan is trying to create jobs for women outside its cities by shipping 50 cargo containers converted into beauty salons around the country, Eurasianet reports. The salons have hairdressing equipment, furniture, and air conditioning, and can employ up to seven hairdressers and beauticians, who are selected from among the unemployed and low-income families. The initiative follows a governmental conference in February, when President Shavkat Mirziyoyev asked trade unions to come up with ways to create employment for women in rural communities.
- New Trial in Slovak Journalist Murder Case
Plus, Prague wants to fine Warsaw over a mine, Moscow mandates vaccines for some, and more.
The Big Story: Slovak Court Overturns Acquittals in Kuciak Murder Case
What happened: The Supreme Court in Slovakia has overturned the acquittals of multimillionaire Marian Kocner and his alleged accomplice, Alena Zsuzsova, on charges of murdering journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, Agence France-Presse reports.
More context: A lower court acquitted Kocner last year, citing lack of evidence. “The court found that the specialized criminal court made several mistakes in the course of the trial, therefore it returns the case to the lower court,” judge Peter Paluda said, as quoted by AFP. The case rocked Slovakia and helped topple the previous government.
Worth noting: In January, Kocner was sentenced to 19 years in prison in a separate case. An appeals court in the Central European country upheld an earlier conviction for forgery. Kocner was charged alongside former Economy Minister Pavol Rusko, who received the same sentence. The Supreme Court this week also upheld the earlier conviction of another man, Tomas Szabo, in the killings, Reuters reports.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- The European Court of Justice said yesterday the Czech Republic has asked it to fine Poland 5 million euros ($6 million) for each day Poland operates a lignite mine that the court ordered shut temporarily in May, The Associated Press reports. Polish and Czech officials are in talks to solve a long-standing dispute over the Turow mine near the borders with Czechia and Germany. The Czechs say it is draining groundwater from the area, while the Poles say it is key to feeding an adjacent power plant.
- Belarus is making good on its threat to stop blocking unauthorized migrants from crossing its border into the EU, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said yesterday, Euractiv reports. The move is retaliation for EU sanctions, which in turn were a response to Belarus’ forcing down a Ryanair jet in May and detaining a journalist who was aboard. In just the last 12 days, Lithuania has detained 198 migrants at its border with Belarus, compared with no more than 90 in each of the previous four years.
- Talks between Kosovo and Serbia in Brussels yesterday failed to make headway, Deutsche Welle reports. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti described the talks as “constructive,” though he said the Serbians “talked about old proposals.” For his part, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Kurti had “demanded” that Serbia recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty and had refused to discuss a 2013 deal to create 10 Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo. “I’ve never attended this kind of a meeting in my life. Complete lack of responsibility,” Vucic said. “The man [Kurti] came to ask me: When are you going to recognize independent Kosovo? I told him: ‘Never.’ And he exploded.” An EU official guiding the talks said another round would happen “before the end of July.”
- A new book by historian and researcher Nicolas Moll looks at the contribution and legacy of International Workers Aid, a now-disbanded group that delivered humanitarian supplies to Bosnia and helped refugees during and after the 1992-1995 war, BIRN reports. Solidarity is More Than a Slogan spotlights the IWA as an exception to widespread European passivity about the war. In addition, one local woman who worked with the IWA said it was unique among aid groups in wanting to help working-class people as well during the war.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Moscow will begin requiring service workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, as the city’s infection rate matches last year’s peaks, The Moscow Times reports. Businesses in the hospitality, education, health care, and entertainment industries will be required to have at least 60 percent of their workforces vaccinated, according to a decree signed by Moscow’s chief sanitary doctor. So far, Russia has inoculated around 13 percent of its population. In late May President Vladimir Putin called mandatory vaccination “impractical and impossible.”
- Entrepreneurs are turning a shuttered factory in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, into a growing urban space featuring a green micro farm, a contemporary art gallery, offices, and a children’s education club, Reuters reports. The factory, which once produced gas meters and other appliances in the western city, got a new lease on life thanks to founders of the Promprylad.Renovation project, who have raised more than $8.5 million from local investors – and pointedly not from oligarchs – for the work. Last year, the local edition of Forbes magazine named Ivano-Frankivsk the best city for doing business in Ukraine.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become the first foreign high-ranking leader to visit Nagorno-Karabakh since its recapture by Azerbaijani forces following a violent flare-up in the conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory last fall, bne IntelliNews reports. Erdogan visited Shusha, a city with cultural and strategic military value for both Azerbaijan and Armenia. During the visit, Erdogan reportedly said, “Karabakh has returned to its owners,” in congratulating Baku for last year’s victory. “Turkish companies are expected to play a major role in postwar reconstruction efforts,” bne IntelliNews reports.
- As of last week, Turkmenistan has repaid the Chinese credit it took out to build its segment of a Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline and to develop a gas field, Eurasianet reports. While the official debt figures were not made public, state media estimated these and related projects cost $8 billion, while some scholars put the amount at closer to $10 billion. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov said retiring the debt was a show of the country’s economic strength, but such claims are difficult to verify. For example, due to a lack of reliable data, the World Bank does not include Turkmenistan in its flagship, biannual Global Economic Prospects survey.
- Marriage By Necessity
Why do young unmarried couples who want to live together risk becoming homeless in Azerbaijan? From Meydan TV.
Asli and Nurlan Gahramanli got married a year ago. They have a six-month-old son and a cat. The couple lives in a rented two-room apartment in Baku, and, like most young parents, they seem happy.
The couple admits, however, that they just wanted to live together at first without getting married, but in Azerbaijan that turned out to be not so simple.
“We really didn’t want to get married at first,” says Asli, “but in practice it turned out that without a marriage certificate no one would rent us an apartment.”
Nurlan says that they decided to live together partly to save money.
“Even before we got married, we already spent most of our time together. But we were spending more on rent since we lived separately. So, we decided to move in together. That’s when we encountered this problem,” he explained.
“Decent People Don’t Live Like That”
Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable in Azerbaijani society for a young unmarried couple to live together. Now more and more such couples want to move in together, but they have trouble finding a place to rent. In Azerbaijan, it’s standard practice to require a marriage certificate when leasing an apartment, something that nearly every couple that wants to move in together has encountered.
“You’ve probably seen apartment rental ads that say they’ll only be leased to married couples,” says Mardan Tukanov, a real estate agent, adding that personally, he understands the landlords. “Not a single decent Azerbaijani family would allow their son or daughter — especially their daughter — to live with someone without a marriage certificate. And generally speaking, decent people wouldn’t live that way and rent an apartment for it. They’re usually from bad families.”
Nurlan considers official marriage an empty formality, but landlords think that by interfering in his private life, they’re defending public decency.
“The Azerbaijani mentality categorically prohibits pre-marital sexual relations. That’s why people don’t understand how an unmarried couple could live together. And real estate agents and landlords won’t rent apartments to such couples,” complains Nurlan. “And even if I rent an apartment in my name but the owner somehow finds a girl there, then there’s a scandal. That already happened to me once. Asli came over one afternoon. We were sitting, drinking tea. We weren’t doing anything like that, or even thinking about it (laughs). Suddenly the landlady showed up with her husband and they started causing a commotion. They said, ‘We’re a decent family and here you brought a girl home, what the hell is this?’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, what exactly is the matter?! We’re drinking tea, but even if we were doing something else, what business is it of yours? The apartment’s paid for.’ We had an argument and I moved out. I lost the deposit.”
“No Certificate? Show Us Wedding Photos”
If young couples don’t have a civil marriage certificate, landlords might ask them to produce a certificate for a nikah — a traditional Muslim wedding ceremony. A nikah is performed by a mullah, but a nikah certificate has no legal force in Azerbaijan. To prevent polygamy, which is illegal in Azerbaijan, mullahs are advised to perform a nikah only if the couple can produce a civil marriage certificate. But since this is only a recommendation for which there is no punishment for ignoring, practically anyone who wants a nikah certificate can get one.
In addition, Mardan Tukanov told Meydan TV that, in the absence of civil marriage or nikah certificates, wedding photos can help. Landlords want to be sure that the public believes the couple to be married. The only way to do that is to have a wedding.
“A few times in my experience clients showed us photos from their wedding ceremony,” says Mardan Tukanov. “But we needed the parents of the bride or the groom to confirm the wedding for us, and only after that did we lease them the apartment. Sometimes they delayed getting a civil marriage certificate for some reason and they promised us that they would make their marriage official within a couple of months, but we still needed confirmation from the parents.”
“Forced Into a Paradigm”
“We thought, if there’s no other option, let’s get married. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll get a divorce,” says Asli, describing the story of her marriage. “But, as you know, marriages are registered a month after you apply. In that time, our parents managed to find out about our application and even threw a wedding for us, which we weren’t even contemplating. After that we showed the landlords our wedding photos and swore that we would have the marriage certificate within a month. Only then did they agree to rent us the apartment.”
In 2019, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Justice registered 62,484 marriages and 14,857 divorces. Of the 26,312 marriages registered in January–September 2020, more than 11,000 ended. According to Asli, divorces usually happen because the couples didn’t have the opportunity to live together and get to know each other better before the wedding.
“Even if a couple has been dating or engaged for a long time, once they start to live under the same roof there might very well be some unpleasant surprises in store. For example, a person who is always very neat in public might turn out to be a slob at home. Or something else along those lines. But here — not just in provincial areas, but in big cities, too — young people very often marry people that their parents have chosen for them. They get married, and then they get divorced. And it’s all because the people didn’t know each other. It would be better if they lived together first, and then got married.”
Asli also believes that the requirement of a marriage certificate when leasing an apartment forces them into a paradigm that they don’t want to live in.
“We got married. We decided, it’s all right, we’ll get to know each other better, and we can always get a divorce. But it doesn’t work that way. This certificate is a strange thing. It’s as if it imposes certain responsibilities on you after marriage. You already feel responsible for your husband or wife. Now, after marriage, people start to interfere more in your relationship. They ask when you’re planning to have kids,” she says.
No Hotel Stay Without a Marriage Certificate
Renting an apartment isn’t the only problem encountered by unmarried couples in Azerbaijan. They aren’t allowed to stay in hotels, either. Inara Jamal and her husband once found themselves in just such a situation:
“We were already married. Sure, we hadn’t had a wedding, but we’d already officially registered our marriage. And one time we wanted to spend the night in a hotel in Baku, but at the reception desk they demanded to see our marriage certificate. We were shocked — it’s not like an ID that you carry around all the time. The receptionist said that they’re required to demand a marriage certificate from couples who come to the hotel, especially if they’re young and they don’t have any children with them. Well, we had a photo of the certificate on our phones, so we ended up showing that.”
Inara Jamal is a lawyer who helps people resolve problems in the legislative arena. But she says that this problem, which she encountered herself, is one of social norms.
“I can’t find any other explanation. But I don’t think it’s right. In Europe and even in Turkey I never encountered this. I think it’s absurd, because there is no legislative basis for it. It’s just an order given to hotels by who knows who. But I don’t think that there’s any public disapproval. Moreover, a large part of the public approves of and supports it. An acquaintance of mine (he and his family are conservative) heard about it and was sincerely surprised that I disagreed. ‘What’s the matter? That’s how it should be, ‘ he said.
I asked why he thinks that, and he answered, ‘And why should people who aren’t officially married stay in a hotel together?!’ Let’s say they’re just on vacation. I don’t see any problem in that and I think it’s totally fine. But for some reason the public views it negatively, and until people change the way they feel about it, this ‘unwritten law’ won’t change, either.”
In August 2020, Laman Mammadova and Elchin Hamidli were planning a vacation in the village of Gunashli in the Lerik region, and they booked a place to stay online in advance. But their vacation was ruined because they didn’t have a marriage certificate.
“We wanted to take a vacation somewhere in the mountains but we knew that hotels won’t take unmarried couples,” says Laman. “So we decided to read reviews online and try to find out what private homes [foreign] tourists usually stayed in. In theory, the owners of those homes ought to be more modern and shouldn’t ask for a marriage certificate. We found a nice house and read all the information about it. There was nothing there about a marriage certificate, but when we arrived the owner wouldn’t take us because we weren’t married. He didn’t refund our money, either. He said that he didn’t want people in an illicit relationship staying in his home. He certainly wouldn’t have said anything like that to [foreign] tourists, but when it’s locals, Azerbaijanis immediately want to interfere.”
“A Girl Should Think About Her Reputation”
Meydan TV contacted the owner of that house in the village of Gunashli, and he confirmed that he doesn’t demand a marriage certificate from foreign tourists, but he doesn’t want to rent out his home to unmarried couples from Baku. And the reason he gave was Azerbaijani traditions.
“Sometimes a couple comes and says that they’re engaged. I say if that’s the case, then wait for your wedding, and then no one will bother you. Everything in its own time. A girl should think about her reputation. And if she doesn’t care about it, then I have to. I can’t allow that kind of obscenity in my home. Let [foreign] tourists do what they want, but we Muslims must protect our honor”, he explained.
Nurlan thinks that if two people love each other and are happy together, they shouldn’t have to inform the public or the state, or get some kind of document, saying, “When two people are in love – and not necessarily a guy and a girl, it could be an LGBT couple – if living together makes them happy, why should they feel required to get a piece of paper from the government? It’s absurd and illogical.”
This article was originally published on Meydan TV, and produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange. Reprinted with permission.
- Hungary Bans LGBT Content in Schools
Plus, North Macedonia calls foul on an Austrian footballer, Erdogan beams after his meeting with Biden, and more.
The Big Story: Hungarian Lawmakers Pass Anti-LGBT Content Bill
What happened: The Hungarian parliament has passed legislation that makes it illegal to share information with minors deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change, the Guardian reports.
More context: The new law allows only individuals and organizations listed in an official register to carry out sex education classes in schools, a measure targeting “organizations with dubious professional background … often established for the representation of specific sexual orientations,” according to a government spokesperson. The ban, enacted via amendments to various existing laws, also applies to companies and large organizations running advertisements in solidarity with gay people, if the ads target people under 18.
Worth noting: Before the vote, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, described the amendments as an “affront against the rights and identities of LGBTI persons” that curtailed freedom of expression and education of all Hungarians. She said it was “misleading and false to claim that they are being introduced to protect children.”
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- The Polish opposition is hailing a win in local elections in the southeastern city of Rzeszow, Euronews reports. Konrad Fijolek, the candidate of a united opposition, won a landslide victory in the mayoral race with 56 percent of votes, while the candidate from the conservative ruling Law and Justice party, Ewa Leniart, received nearly 24 percent of votes in the typically conservative region. Cezary Tomczyk, a lawmaker with the centrist opposition party Civic Platform, told Polish media the result was the most important victory for the opposition since the socially liberal politician Rafal Trzaskowsk won the mayoral race in Warsaw in 2018.
- Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told CNBC that Russia’s growing influence in Belarus could be later used “as a weapon … for foreign aggressive activities toward NATO allies.” NATO member Lithuania shares a border with Belarus and its leaders have been vocal about Russia’s persistent push for hegemony in neighboring countries. Nauseda also said his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, “should understand that any malign activities, any military aggression against the neighbors, against the alliance of NATO should be very costly – and costs will be political, economic.” NATO leaders met in Brussels Monday for the first time since the U.S. President Joe Biden took office, ahead of Biden’s meeting with Putin this week.
- North Macedonia is asking the governing body of European football to sanction Austria striker Marko Arnautovic for a nationalist outburst during a recent game, The Associated Press reports. UEFA said Arnautovic, whose father is Serbian and mother is Austrian, directed the outburst at Ezgjan Alioski, who is of Albanian origin, during a football (soccer) game between North Macedonia and Austria Sunday. The federation has appointed “a disciplinary inspector” to investigate the incident, which could carry a 10-match suspension. Arnautovic later acknowledged “heated words” during the match but apologized on Instagram, “especially to my friends from North Macedonia and Albania. I would like to say one thing very clearly: I AM NOT A RACIST!”
- Montenegro has denied a Reuters report quoting senior officials saying the country was preparing for asset sales. In the initial report, an EU official told Reuters that Montenegro was looking to raise cheap EU credit in a bid to reduce its financial reliance on Chinese debt. Montenegro is paying off $944 million it borrowed from China in 2014 to fund a stretch of highway. “The loan sent total government debt skyrocketing and it now equals 103 percent of economic output,” Reuters notes. An unnamed official from the Montenegrin Finance Ministry told a local newspaper Sunday that Podgorica does not plan on selling state property to repay Chinese debt, “nor is there any need for that. This government has ensured that Montenegro has the money to finance all obligations, including those to Chinese creditors.”
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The Belarusian opposition is calling Roman Protasevich a “hostage” of the regime, after the jailed Belarusian journalist appeared at a news conference alongside four officials yesterday in Minsk, Al Jazeera reports. Protasevich, who was detained last month after Belarusian authorities diverted the flight he was on, said that he was fine and had not been beaten. “No matter what he says, let’s not forget: He is a hostage. And the regime is using him as a trophy,” said Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to exiled Belarusian opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Earlier this month, Protasevich’s family said his televised admission that he had tried to topple President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was made under duress.
- An anti-Kremlin performance artist will be held in custody for two months while facing charges of hooliganism following a Red Square performance, Reuters reports. According to one of his friends, Pavel Krisevich was detained Friday after firing blanks into the air and then at his head, in a performance meant to draw attention to “unacceptable state repression,” Reuters writes. Krisevich was detained for 15 days in 2020 following a protest performance where he simulated crucifying himself near the Moscow headquarters of the Federal Security Service, Reuters reports.
- After only a few months in the state residence, Kyrgyzstan’s newish first lady seems to be taking on a larger role than most of her predecessors did, Eurasianet writes. President Sadyr Japarov’s wife, Aigul Japarova, appears to have some say in the fate of a longtime supporter of her husband who now sits in jail on extortion charges, which he denies. In messages purportedly intercepted from WhatsApp, Japarova tells the man’s brother that the jailed man had gotten greedy and publicity-hungry, and that he could be freed “if he returns those funds.” Japarova’s office has not commented on the report.
- U.S. President Joe Biden and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan were upbeat after their first meeting since Biden took office, on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels, Al Jazeera reports. Relations between the NATO allies have been strained by Biden’s description of the Ottoman-era massacres and deportations of ethnic Armenians as a genocide and his description of Erdogan as an autocrat. In addition, Turkey is buying missile defense systems from Russia that Washington says are a threat to NATO. Still, Erdogan told reporters, “There is no problem that cannot be resolved in Turkey-U.S. relations.” Biden called it a “very good meeting” and said the leaders “had detailed discussions about how to proceed on a number of issues,” without going into further detail.
- Central Europe’s Radical Right and EU Foreign Policy
When the far right gets into government, it might take less-extreme positions – or shove mainstream parties rightward. From the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Radical right parties – nativist and authoritarian – have become stable features on the political scene in Central Europe. In the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia (the Visegrad countries), eight such parties, ranging from extremists to transformed mainstream rightists, gained representation in their countries’ latest parliamentary elections.
Additionally, in 2019 elections the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), Jobbik and Fidesz of Hungary, Law and Justice (PiS) of Poland, and the Kotlebists – People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS) also secured seats in the European Parliament.
As of mid-2021, three parties – Fidesz in Hungary and PiS and We Are Family (SR) in Poland –also hold governing positions. Two more Polish parties, the National Movement (RN) and KORWiN, are represented in parliament but are not part of the government.
With greater representation on the European level – in the European Parliament as well as in theEuropean Council – members of this typically euroskeptic party family can influence EU policymaking. Migration and its external dimensions have taken central stage on the EU agenda. These are core concerns of the radical right. How do the Central European members of the radical right take advantage of this opportunity? Can they act in a concerted fashion and exert influence?
A Potpourri of Skeptical Views
A review of the eight parties’ foreign policy programs and the activities of those represented in the European Parliament since 2019 illustrates that operating in the same region is no guarantee of uniform policy positions. The parties hold hard as well as soft euroskeptic positions: Some want their countries to leave the EU while others – like most of their Western European counterparts recently – wish to put the brakes on integration and seek to reform the EU from within. Their positions also diverge on their countries’ NATO membership. Some support the alliance, while SPD, L’SNS, and Poland’s National Movement wish to leave it.
Nevertheless, all eight parties believe that some form of regional cooperation, especially with other Visegrad countries, would be beneficial. They typically prioritize economic diplomacy in foreign policy but differ on their threat perceptions, especially when it comes to Russia. In this regard, the Polish PiS stands alone in viewing Moscow as a threat, while other radical right parties in the region hold Russia in neutral if not outright positive regard. Attitudes toward China are like-minded, though not identical. The parties tend to view that country as a potential market and a source of investment and not as a threat.
Overall, differences among Central Europe’s radical right parties suggest that as a political family they are not likely to pull in the same direction on some key items on the EU’s agenda. And their opportunities to influence EU policymaking are unequal, depending on their representation in EU institutions and their membership in European party families and their respective European Parliament groups. Five of the eight parties have some level of direct access to EU policymaking in the European Parliament, but Fidesz and PiS have the widest and most straightforward potential to influence all areas of EU foreign policymaking because they are represented in the Foreign Affairs Council as well.
The parties’ activities in the European Parliament since the 2019 elections show that PiS is the most active in committees with direct relevance for EU foreign policy and engages there with a broad range of issues concerning the EU’s external agenda, while Fidesz representatives, for example, have been engaged with a more limited set of issues, which concerned rather only Hungary’s neighborhood. The departure of Fidesz from the European People’s Party in March is a significant hit to its influence in the European Parliament. Unless it joins another political group, it has lost all the benefits that come with membership in a political group as well as its committee positions.
How the Far Right Can Shift the Political Discourse
Central Europe’s soft euroskeptic radical right parties, with more access to and influence on policymaking than the hardline parties, do not want to undermine the European Commission’s foreign policy agenda in its entirety. An exception is their opposition to the proposed transition to qualified majority voting in foreign affairs from the current unanimity, which they all fundamentally oppose. Instead, they predominantly seek to shift policies to the right by pushing their priorities on given issues, which in turn could radicalize the positions of mainstream parties. Such rightward shifts can already be observed in the discourse and policymaking on migration. The radical right also is pushing an agenda of framing all issues that can in any way be connected to migration – such as development policy or relations with Africa or the Middle East – in terms of security. And the disregard for democratic principles, especially by those in government, undermines the EU’s credibility in pursuing a value-based global order. They are likely to disregard values and principles in the EU’s enlargement policy, and they mostly also dismiss such issues in relations with China or Russia. The most apparent example has been Fidesz, which by vetoing intended common positions, especially on matters concerning China, has repeatedly undermined the Union’s ability to speak with one voice internationally.
While the influence of Central Europe’s radical right parties on the making of EU foreign policy is most significant when they are in government, they also can influence the discourse and positions of mainstream parties in opposition, if the mainstream parties see them as competition. This can lead to a shift of mainstream parties to the right – or, as the example of PiS and Fidesz shows, even to their transformation. This is especially the case when the radical right can – or, if given the chance could, as the mainstream fears – politicize the issues it cares about and thus set the agenda. For this reason, keeping an eye on radical right forces and their positions even when they are in opposition is important. Their relative power can be indicative of their potential influence on policymaking.
It follows that limiting the impact of the radical right necessitates commitment of mainstream forces to resist the temptation to shift their own stance and co-opt the positions of radical right competitors. Such strategies undermine the trust of moderate voters in mainstream parties while legitimizing illiberal positions and thus eroding democratic values and principles as the cornerstones of the EU’s political system. Mainstream parties as well as EU institutions must develop and effectively communicate rational and well-substantiated policy solutions with fundamental democratic values and principles at their core.
Zsuzsanna Vegh is a research fellow and lecturer at the European University Viadrina in Germany and associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
This analysis is based on a German Marshall Fund of the United States policy paper, “Central Europe’s Radical Right and EU Foreign Policy.” Republished by permission of the German Marshall Fund.
- Czech Barbora Krejcikova Wins French Open
Plus, an EU prosecutor reaches out to Bulgarians, Azerbaijan releases Armenian soldiers, and more.
The Big Story: Czech Tennis Champion Claims French Open Title
What happened: After beating Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Czech Barbora Krejcikova claimed her first French Open title, BBC Sport reports. While celebrating her victory, Krejcikova paid tribute to former Wimbledon champion and coach Jana Novotna, who died from ovarian cancer in 2017 at age 49.
More context: Czechia has a deep talent pool of top female players, Agence France-Presse reports. Petra Kvitova reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2012 and last year, and Karolina Pliskova in 2017; additionally, Lucie Safarova lost the 2015 final and Marketa Vondrousova finished runner-up in 2019. Ten players in the Women’s Tennis Association top 100 are Czechs.
Worth noting: After winning the final on Sunday, Serbian tennis sensation Novak Djokovic claimed his second French Open title, which is also his 19th Grand Slam title, the Guardian reports.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Hungary announced today a tender for a 35-year contract to manage about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) of motorways and public roads, Reuters reports. The concession entails the planning, renovation, construction, control, operation, and financing of the road network for an annual fee. Amid stepped-up infrastructure development, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been criticized for favoring allies when awarding public tenders. Lorinc Meszaros, for instance, is a childhood friend of Orban’s and a former pipefitter who won a construction contract to expand a rail line from Belgrade to Budapest. He has amassed an estimated net worth of more than 1 billion euros, making him the richest Hungarian.
- Polish experts are wary of optimistic estimates about the progress of the coronavirus vaccination campaign, Politico reports. While around 40 percent of the population had received at least one dose as of 9 June, a survey of 19 countries published in Nature found that only 56 percent of Poles were willing to take a vaccine if proved effective. Jakub Zielinski of the University of Warsaw’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Mathematical and Computational Modeling, warned that “only around half of the people aged 80 or more have been vaccinated thus far.” In a bid to expand the reach of the inoculation drive, Poland has opened up vaccinations to children ages 12 to 15.
- The European Union’s chief prosecutor is urging Bulgarians to report tips and information about corruption to a new anti-graft office, Reuters reports. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which opened on 1 June, focuses on major fraud related to the misuse of EU funds. “Everyone is equal in front of the law and we will make no distinction in who we will investigate. … We are here for you. We want to earn your trust for our work,” Laura Codruta Kovesi, who will lead the office in Brussels, told Bulgarians at a news conference in Sofia. Each EU country is expected to send prosecutors to the new agency.
- Croatia is likely to be ahead of schedule in meeting criteria to adopt the euro, central bank governor Boris Vujcic told Bloomberg. The country received unexpected help when the EU temporarily suspended its rule against excessive deficits during the coronavirus pandemic. EU countries seeking entry into the eurozone must meet convergence criteria, which include price and exchange-rate stability and sound public finances. Zagreb plans to adopt the euro in January 2023.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Allies of Alexei Navalny say that the original records from the Omsk hospital where he was treated last summer indicated that the jailed Russian opposition figure was poisoned, The Moscow Times reports. Navalny’s unredacted medical records, which his team says it duped the Omsk hospital archive into sharing in November, showed signs of a “cholinesterase inhibitor” – an indication of nerve agent poisoning – while the official set of documents, which were later released, did not. “The crooks in Omsk simply threw it away, hid it from us as if it never existed,” Navalny’s senior investigator, Maria Pevchikh, said.
- Moldovan President Maia Sandu announced last week the creation of an “anti-corruption independent consultative committee,” Euronews reports. Partially funded by the United States and the EU, the six-member panel is co-chaired by U.S. diplomat James Wasserstrom and includes economists, jurists, and journalists. “Unfortunately, the state institutions that prevent and fight corruption are moving very slowly, much slower than the corrupt groups stealing (from) this country,” Sandu said in a statement. In March, she said corruption had hobbled Moldova’s response to the pandemic.
- Azerbaijan has released 15 Armenians who were detained following fighting last fall in the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Eurasianet reports. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry said the men were swapped for maps of 97,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laid by Armenia in part of the territory that Azerbaijan reclaimed. Armenia’s acting prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan confirmed the deal, but he told a rally, “We did not exchange the detainees for the land mine maps, but responded to Azerbaijan’s step with [our own] constructive step.” “Armenian officials had been suggesting unofficially that the mine maps that Azerbaijan has long been demanding did not exist, while dodging the question publicly,” Eurasianet reports.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Washington can rely on his country amid its pullout of troops from Afghanistan, AFP reports. “America is preparing to leave Afghanistan soon and from the moment they leave, the only reliable country to maintain the process over there is obviously Turkey,” Erdogan said yesterday before leaving for a NATO summit in Brussels. Ankara has also said it was prepared to keep troops in Afghanistan to protect the Kabul airport, which is the main exit route for diplomats and humanitarian workers.
- Letter from Uzhhorod: Masaryk’s Time Capsule
The westernmost city in Ukraine preserves the lively energy of the Czechoslovakia of a century ago. From Respekt.
[Transitions note: Ukraine’s far western region of Subcarpathian Ruthenia was part of Czechoslovakia from 1918 until Hungary occupied part of it in 1938 and its final annexation by the Soviet Union during World War II. Under Czechoslovak rule, many civil servants, police, and administrators there were drawn from the ranks of the Czechoslovak Legion, a large volunteer force that fought on the side of the Allies during World War I and against Bolshevik forces afterward.]
Czech Radio is playing in my headphones, the train is pleasantly bumping along, and the mobile phone signal is stable. After a night spent in a clean sleeping car, a smiling attendant brings me tea and quite a lot of sugar. “Good morning,” she says. At that moment it seems to me that Ukrainian Railways is flawless.
I soon realize that the news coming into my ears from the Czech Republic is becoming confused with what I see blinking past the train window: “The Czech Legionnaires are celebrating their 100th anniversary …” I hear, just as we glide past an Art Deco train station and the typical buildings of a Czechoslovak First Republic school. The towns have hills with castles on top! Compared to the central, completely flat landscape of Ukraine, the change is a drastic one. When I disembark in Uzhhorod, the feeling of déjà vu becomes total: The Masaryk Bridge, the gorgeous avenue planted with linden trees on the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia, the Masaryk School. I head into the town center, going down Korzo, the main street, and across a little square I see a building with four stories, functionalist style, imposing, with the distinctive panoramic arch of a glass-enclosed first floor: The House of the Legionnaires, a multi-functional building commissioned by the Cooperative of the Legionnaires of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. It, too, will celebrate its 100th anniversary soon. The apartment units for the Legionnaires were on the top floors – and the view across the roofs of the center of Uzhhorod is really worth it to this day! “Automobiles, motorcycles, recreational vehicles, the masters at Rehak can fix them all,” announces an advertisement for the transport company headquartered on the ground floor of the building. A little further along, Czech-language signs from the Czechoslovak First Republic era have been restored on the walls: “Roasted coffee, tea, butter.” The panoramic plate glass window is full of the round, small tables of the famous Café Purma.
This building became a symbol of the Legionnaires’ work in this new part of the republic, Subcarpathian Ruthenia, of which Uzhhorod became the administrative center and main seat. From 1918 to 1939, more than 2,500 Legionnaires worked here in the state services, most of whom also brought their families here. In 1922, each local Legionnaire society joined the Cooperative of the Legionnaires of Ruthenia and embarked on developing retail trade. The Legionnaires opened grocery stores selling affordable goods and began to offer basic services even in smaller towns – hairstyling, shoemaking, tailoring. In just three years the cooperative had earned 6 million crowns and by 1929 was in a position to commission the design for its central office in Uzhhorod from the prominent Czech architect Frantisek Krupka.
Bohumil Purma is the businessman, confectioner, and Czech Legionnaire who imbued the House of the Legionnaires with its particular spirit. His cafe offered an exceptional range of Czech pastries: “Fruit ices of the best quality at Purma’s Sweetshop. Druget Square 14. Telephone no. 10.” He paid for local language versions of that simple advertisement (in Ukrainian, Hungarian, Russian, Rusyn, German, and Czech) to run in all the local newspapers. Purma had competition – there was another confectioner’s in a similar multi-purpose building belonging to the Bata shoe company located on the banks of the River Uzh. Two other entrepreneurs opened pastry shops right in the center of town, near the Korzo. Purma thus determined that he would build not just a shop, but a legend: His main clientele became Legionnaires with young families – and local artists. Liqueurs were consumed with gusto here by the painters of the Ruthenian School: Josef Boksay, Fedor Manajlo, and Adalbert Erdeli, who was strongly influenced by Cézanne. Czech and Ukrainian intellectual life intertwined perfectly here. The painters gave courses in drawing at the “Public School of Painting” in the cafe. Artists organized exhibitions and parties at the Purma. They imprinted the inspiration of the creative process and intellectual discussion onto this locale and, in their artworks, a new aesthetic conception of the local landscape.
To this day there are still many good cafes in town. I head to one and its perfect strudel with ice cream leaves me in no doubt that a top-notch pastry tradition continues here unabated. The walls of the cafe are covered with original framed landscapes. I find similar paintings hanging in other businesses. “What is this you have hanging here?” I ask. “That one is from the Purma,” is the answer, more than once. More than 100 years have passed since then.
Czechoslovakia’s first president, T. G. Masaryk, visited Uzhhorod just once, and they say he left behind a time capsule buried beneath a linden tree in the avenue on the embankment, some sort of secret scroll, or a machine for moving from one epoch to the next. This absurdity – or we can call it a “legend” – is reflected in the faith of the locals in Czechoslovakia’s “Father Masaryk,” who sees and understands all. In Uzhhorod, however, it occurs to me that the time capsule might just be the town itself: Its atmosphere would transport any Czechoslovak back 100 years into the lively bustle of Male Galago – the administrative center of Czechoslovak Uzhhorod – with its central rondo-cubist structure called the Rafanda, named after a short story by Karel Capek, by the way. In short, if you want to take a trip back in time to the foundations of the Czechoslovak First Republic, all you have to do is get off a train in the morning in the Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod.
Radka Rubilina is a Russian Studies scholar. This essay originally appeared in Respekt. Reprinted by permission.
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.
- Albanian Lawmakers Vote to Dismiss President
Plus, Polish citizens sue their government over climate change, Belarus risks becoming the “North Korea of Europe,” and more.
The Big Story: Albanian President Faces Impeachment
What happened: The Albanian parliament voted Wednesday to impeach and dismiss President Ilir Meta, Al Jazeera reports. The final decision on Meta’s fate will come from Albania’s Constitutional Court within three months.
More context: A report of a parliamentary investigation said Meta had violated the constitution by urging voters not to support the ruling Socialist Party during the April electoral campaign. The report also said Meta violated 16 articles and incited violence, according to Al Jazeera. Meta has been an outspoken foe of the Socialists, but Albania’s constitution requires the president to represent “the unity of the Albanian people” and to belong to no political party.
Worth noting: Meta vowed he would not recognize “any unconstitutional and illegal decision or activity” of the parliament or any other “puppet institution of this kleptocratic regime,” BIRN reports. He argues that the lame-duck parliament lacks the authority to dismiss him. The new legislature based on April’s election will be seated in September.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Poland is facing its first citizen lawsuits over the effects of climate change, Reuters reports. The plaintiffs in five cases argue that the government is “doing nothing” to protect them from the ravages of climate change. “I can see climate change. …There are three ponds on my farm – all three are practically dry already,” Piotr Romanowski, a farmer from Poland’s northeast and one of the five litigants, said. The group, which includes an ecotourism business owner, parents from different families, and a young climate campaigner, wants the courts to rule that Poland must commit to a 61 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, and climate neutrality by 2043.
- The Latvian parliament voted yesterday to lift the immunity of a lawmaker facing allegations of spying for Russia, Reuters reports. Janis Adamsons, from the left-leaning, pro-Russia Harmony Party, told parliament he had not been informed of the prosecutor’s suspicions before the vote. “Honestly, I don’t feel I have sinned,” he said. The chairman of the National Security Committee, Maris Kucinskis, told Reuters, “The prosecutors presented serious grounds to launch the investigation,” while the General Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment.
- Hoping to bring back to life its empty buildings, a depopulated Croatian town has put them up for sale for the symbolic price of 1 kuna ($0.16), Reuters reports. So far, 17 of the 19 houses on offer in Legrad, near the border with Hungary, have found new owners. The buyers must be financially solvent, under the age of 40, and committed to staying in Legrad for at least 15 years. “After some media reports about our action we got enquiries about houses from very distant places like Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Argentina, or Colombia,” Mayor Ivan Sabolic said.
- Reporters Without Borders says Serbian and Montenegrin authorities are undermining judicial independence in cases involving two investigative journalists. In Serbia, the Prosecutor General removed prosecutor Predrag Milovanovic from a case in which he won convictions against those who attacked the home of journalist Milan Jovanovic with a Molotov cocktail. A powerful member of the president’s political party was implicated in the attack. In Montenegro, prosecutor general Ivica Stankovic “has directly helped to perpetuate the baseless criminal proceedings” against freelance journalist Jovo Martinovic, “who has done a great deal of investigative reporting on criminal elements within the state” and who spent 15 months in jail with no conviction, the reporters’ group complains.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office decision at the end of May to label three German civil society groups “undesirable organizations” was a message for Berlin, a leader of one of the groups told Deutsche Welle. “This is also aimed at the German government because it has financed our previous cooperation projects with Russian partners,” Ralf Fucks, co-founder of the Center for Liberal Modernity think tank in Berlin, said. This decision was “also part of an overall hardening of German-Russian relations” following German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “demonstratively taking the side of Alexei Navalny after he was poisoned,” Fucks said.
- The situation in Belarus deserves a “comprehensive and unwavering” response from the United States and its partners, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 9 June, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Tsikhanouskaya warned that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was turning Belarus into “a North Korea of Europe,” and urged the United States to expand sanctions targeting people and enterprises who finance Lukashenka’s regime.
- The European Union’s influence in Georgia could be eclipsing that of the United States, Eurasianet reports. For example, during a political deadlock that followed elections in the autumn, European Council President Charles Michel traveled twice to Georgia to mediate. By contrast, envoys from the United States, senators Jeanne Shaheen and Rob Portman, did not visit until June, with calls for political reconciliation and democratic reforms that came after the crisis was over. The EU has also become Georgia’s largest trading partner, “outpacing each of the country’s immediate neighbors,” Eurasianet writes.
- A local legislator and two others from southern Kyrgyzstan have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in major drug trafficking, RFE/RL reports. The State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said the suspects were sending “50 kilograms of an unnamed illegal drug to neighboring Uzbekistan and had $250,000 in cash at the moment of their arrest.” The agency said “investigators later found 37 kilograms of marijuana, 9 kilograms of raw opium, four kilograms of hashish, an illegal firearm, and cash at the premises and in vehicles belonging to the lawmaker and his relative,” according to RFE/RL. The lawmaker and others are suspected of trafficking illegal drugs from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan via Kyrgyzstan. UKMK did not disclose the identities of the three arrested.
- Europe, Get Ready for 2030
More than money, a change of attitude is needed in order to modernize the continent’s defense strategy.
The sounds of cannon and machine gunfire crackled through a valley in the Libava military training area near the Moravian city of Olomouc in late May. The firing was a demonstration of the capabilities of three different models of infantry fighting vehicles that the Czech army is now trialing for the heavy brigade it is building as part of its NATO commitments.
There was excitement that Thursday seen even in the usually poker-faced expressions of Czech generals. The three vehicles are being put through six weeks of testing to select the modern fighting vehicle that Czech soldiers desperately need as part of an ambitious program of modernization.
“No matter which one will be selected, any of them would mean a huge step forward,” Col. Ctirad Gazda told journalists who were watching and filming the tests in Libava.
Col. Gazda heads the Defense Ministry team that will make the final choice. It’s a big responsibility – this single procurement is the most expensive shopping spree the Czech army has ever made: 210 vehicles for 51.6 billion crowns ($2.5 billion). And that is causing complications.
First, the procurement process has dragged on for too long and even though ministry officials are optimistic, it is hard to believe the deal could be done before parliamentary elections in October. And the elections could delay the decision yet again.
The second problem is where to find the money. The state has to cover enormous costs related to the pandemic, and the budget deficit is rising. For some time, the Communist Party, which supports the minority government, has been grumbling about the defense budget, and the next budget, now being drafted, is expected to bring further cuts. But the army desperately needs modern equipment to replace its outdated, Soviet-designed machines. The current BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles are a very visible example of that.
It is a question of commitment to allies no less than offering the perspective to Czech professional soldiers that they will have equipment suitable for 21st century warfare. With the pandemic stretching Central European budgets to the limit, it is harder than ever before for voters and politicians in the region to grasp the profound changes in Europe’s defense architecture. The United States will concentrate more and more on strategic competition with China, and Washington will be calling on the Europeans to hold up their side of the bargain. That will definitely be the message Joe Biden will convey to European allies at the NATO summit next week, albeit in more civilized fashion than his predecessor.
“All European democracies struggle to balance security, strategy, defense capability and capacity, and affordability at the best of times,” is the key sentence for Europeans in a new book by two former high-ranking U.S. generals and a British strategist, Future War and the Defence of Europe. The book presents two scenarios of possible war between NATO and Russia in the year 2030: either Russia wins, or NATO wins. The difference in outcome is determined by investment in strategic priorities such as AI-based new technologies, cybersecurity, and military transport infrastructure, including high-speed railroads. The Czech procurement deal aside, what is needed most is not just pure military spending.
“Deterrence is based on speed” – speed of recognition of what’s happening, speedy decision-making, taking quick action – says retired U.S. Gen. Ben Hodges, one of the book’s authors and a former commander of U.S. forces in Europe, now an analyst at the Washington-based think tank CEPA. We recently held a long talk about the book and the future of defense in Europe for Hospodarske noviny, the Czech business paper where I work.
If nothing changes, then a Russian victory is the much more likely scenario, Hodges told me, but it doesn’t have to be that way. “The second scenario is entirely possible, and it does not require a chain of miracles to happen but it does require our elected officials to be honest about how to confront the threat and do what’s necessary to prevent conflict ever happening. That’s deterrence.”
For a long time, Europeans have taken it as a given that the United States is the guarantor of their security. Central Europeans, in particular, see U.S. involvement as crucial because of their old habit of relying on others. This is also the reason Poland is buying super-modern American F-35s and the Patriot missile defense system and why its leaders are pushing for a permanent U.S. military base on Polish soil – to get the Americans entangled as much as possible.
But global geopolitics is changing and Europe – not least because of its widespread and long-term complacency – is becoming a lower priority for the Americans.
Europeans must do their homework. Although the planned purchase of new Czech infantry fighting vehicles looks like a big deal, it is only one of many tasks on a long list. The first and main point on that list is to realize that times are changing and we must change with them if we want to preserve European freedom and prosperity.
Martin Ehl is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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