- Friday, 23 October
Regional headlines: Poland’s highest court bans most abortions; Albania to host anti-Semitism conference.
Poland Curtails Almost All Abortions
Poland’s constitutional court effectively banned abortion with a ruling yesterday, the BBC reports. By deciding that abortion of fetuses with congenital defects runs counter to the constitution, the judges left untouched only abortions in cases of rape or incest or if the mother’s health is endangered. Although public opinion polls have shown most Poles oppose stricter measures, Catholic religious leaders have leaned on the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) to challenge the 1993 law that allowed abortions in the case of fetal disability, which account for 98 percent of the country’s current abortions, writes the BBC. In explaining its decision, the court said “there can be no protection of the dignity of an individual without the protection of life,” according to the Associated Press. Demonstrations against the ban turned violent outside the Warsaw home of PiS chief Jaroslaw Kaczynski Thursday night, CNN reported. In April, legislators tried to pass a bill enforcing similar restrictions, only to face accusations of using the pandemic as cover to prevent the massive demonstrations seen in 2006, when around 100,000 people came out to protest. Anti-abortion lawmakers eventually turned instead to the high court, many of whose judges were nominated by PiS.
Albania Takes Landmark Decision on Anti-Semitism
Albania has officially supported a working definition of anti-Semitism agreed upon by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), The Jerusalem Post reports. The parliamentary resolution yesterday made Albania only the second Muslim-majority country – after Kosovo – to endorse the definition, the Associated Press reports, and was an important statement ahead of a conference next week, when Albania’s parliament will host other Balkan countries in a “forum against anti-Semitism.” The New York-based Combat Anti-Semitism Movement called Albania’s act a “landmark decision, ” AP notes. With 34 member countries, the IHRA is the only intergovernmental organization mandated to focus solely on Holocaust-related issues. Although Nazi German forces occupied Albania from September 1943 until November 1944, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, as cited by AFP, says that “almost all Jews living within Albanian borders during the German occupation … were saved, except members of a single family.” A museum in the city of Berat has been documenting the bravery of ordinary Albanians during World War II to protect the Jewish population.
- A Sad Fall From Grace
The Czech Republic went from being a leader in the fight against COVID-19 to a disaster in less than six months. What happened? From Novinky.cz.
How did the Czech Republic become such a sick country? There are a number of reasons, and almost all of them are somehow related to politics and the low quality of the state administration.
As for politics, on the face of it the situation was relatively stable for a few years before the current crisis. The country’s economy grew comfortably, with wages and social benefits rising. Yes, Prime Minister Andrej Babis was frequently accused of conflicts of interest because of the hundreds of companies he owns throughout the country. But the opposition was weak, so Babis could easily sweep aside even striking problems such as that and the various unfulfilled government promises, calling such accusations made-to-order “campaigns” out to get him.
When the first wave of the COVID-19 epidemic arrived, the government responded with tough, blanket measures. The Czech Republic was one of the few countries whose borders were closed in both directions – inward and outward. Society, with many who had lived a good part of their lives before the changes of 1989, did not have a major problem with widespread restrictions, closed borders, and heavy-handed government in a state of emergency, and a wave of mutual solidarity also rose up.
With a view toward warning of the arrival of a second wave in the autumn, the government could have used that state of mind in society to keep some preventive restrictions in place – not so much as to suffocate the economy – even in the summer. The vision of the upcoming local elections, however, was evidently stronger. Also triumphant was the desire to show the world that we are number one – those who know how to do things right. The “flying by the seat of our pants” approach won out, and restrictions were lifted wholesale.
It does not make sense to count now all the moments when it was still possible to apply the emergency brake. Nor to describe the accumulation of various chaotic measures and the summertime invention of new institutions that failed to communicate with each other.
What is certain is that standing in the way of timely, rational action was the prime minister himself, who took on the role of chief epidemiologist in the summer and explained things to the public that we have heard from other infamous populists such as U.S. President Donald Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. As soon as Babis set out on this journey, it was, unfortunately, clear that it could not turn out much better in the Czech Republic than in those countries.
Part of our problem, indeed, is a weak state and the weak state administration in general. The government rightly made the strategic decision to build a system of smart quarantine and contact tracing, it soon became clear that a generally weak Czech state manages blanket restrictions much better than it could a “clever,” diversified approach.
In September 2012 the man-made catastrophe of methanol-spiked bootleg alcohol broke, killing dozens of people and making hundreds sick, I published an article arguing that the state we had after 23 years of freedom was completely toothless. Not only is it unable to set the rules of the game in many areas, but once it sets them, it enforces them essentially at random. The problem is not, as the Czech right has argued for years, that the state gets involved in a number of things unnecessarily, but that it gets involved unsystematically only when a crisis explodes. The dominance of money and behind-the-scenes interests over the state and democracy plays an important role in this arbitrariness.
Many people in our country believed that Babis, who entered politics under the banner of the fight against corruption and traditional parties – with the slogan “We’ll simply take care of it” – would somehow fix this. He did not take care of anything. He just privatized the state even more into his own hands. This remained hidden from many during the economic boom, or they didn’t care. Now that the monumental crisis has come, we will all pay brutally for it.
Jiri Pehe is a Czech political analyst and writer, focusing mainly on events in Central and Eastern Europe. For two years he was the chief political adviser to President Vaclav Havel. He is currently director of New York University’s Prague campus. This commentary was originally published in Novinky.cz. Reprinted with permission. Translated by Jeremy Druker.
- What Bulgaria Expects from the Next U.S. President
Whether it’s Trump or Biden in the White House will determine if the approach to countries in the region will revolve around security issues or democratic engagement. From the German Marshall Fund.
There are two good jokes about U.S. President Donald Trump in Bulgaria. The first is that the United States had its first Balkan president elected in 2016. The second is that the U.S. president can learn about populism from Boyko Borisov, the country’s controversial prime minister who has been facing anti-government protests for months. Both jokes point to the strongman type of politician that Bulgarians have known for years. The Bulgarian Trump Society probably takes umbrage at these jokes. Intellectuals and politicians in this circle – figures with pro-Russian views – argue that the Trump doctrine has forged a new world order: one with a more balanced relationship with Russia.
Bulgarians are not overly enthusiastic about the upcoming U.S. election, though there are hopes that the next administration will deal with major issues such as visa liberalization, a new F-16 fighter jet deal, and the future of key energy projects. Borisov’s message when he met with Trump in November 2019 in the White House was: “The Bulgarians like you so much, and they expect you to solve the visa problem.” Borisov took the chance to raise this long-standing matter with the U.S. president, hoping that Bulgarians will soon be able to travel to the United States visa-free. But the issue is still unresolved and is likely to remain so for a while, regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins the election. Ultimately, Bulgaria’s aspiration to join the visa-waiver program depends on how the current political crisis in the country evolves and what effects coronavirus restrictions will have on U.S. entry policies in coming years.
If there is a second Trump term, it is likely that Bulgaria will be encouraged to sign a new deal for F-16 fighter jets, one element in the modernization plans for its military. At the 2019 meeting with Borisov, Trump noted Bulgaria’s recent purchase of eight F-16 aircraft and praised the NATO member’s decision to increase defense spending to 3.1 percent of GDP. Having a new deal sooner rather than later would benefit Trump’s desire to show that he is doing something for U.S. industry. The already purchased F-16s are expected in Bulgaria in 2023, which may be another occasion for Trump, if elected, to emphasize the economic and military cooperation with Bulgaria.
For the United States, it is important that Bulgaria and the region diversify their energy sources, so as not to be entirely dependent on Russia. On this ground, the Trump administration has opposed the construction of the Belene nuclear power plant and the extension of Russia’s TurkStream pipeline to Bulgaria. The U.S. sanctions against TurkStream that were adopted in July threaten its future. Meanwhile, the United States encourages the construction of the gas connection between Bulgaria and Greece, because it wants to export liquefied natural gas to the region.
Strategically, Bulgaria holds a key geographical position. Turkey’s proximity is a strong geopolitical factor that interests the United States. Meanwhile Russia has a solid influence in Bulgaria due to historical, cultural, and political links. Trump has not pushed Bulgaria to distance itself from Russia. This is likely to change if Joe Biden is elected.
The difference in the approach of the next U.S. administration toward Bulgaria and countries in the region will be one between security issues and democratic engagement. If Trump remains in power, attention to media freedom, judicial reforms, and human rights are less likely to be a top priority, although under his administration the U.S. embassy in Sofia has declared itself against corruption, in support of the anti-government protests, and for judicial reform. But new military deals seem to mean more. In addition, the renewed interest of the United States in the Balkans – such as the Kosovo-Serbia talks – is seen as an attempt by Trump to boost his foreign policy record. This approach may be used further in a second term. Bulgaria can also benefit from this interest as the country that has put the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans on its agenda.
If 2021 brings a new U.S. administration, it is likely that Washington’s focus on the region will remain in light of geopolitical competition with China and Russia. With a Biden administration Bulgaria can expect more attention paid to corruption, lack of transparency, and rule of law and media freedom. In recent years, the country has been ranked by Reporters Without Borders 111th in the world when it comes to press freedom. It is also ranked among the most corrupt countries in the EU by 2019 Corruption Perception Index. A Biden administration would focus more on the country’s systemic problems that have remained unsolved since it joined the EU.
Populists and nationalists in Bulgaria, and more generally in all of Southeastern Europe, see Trump as an ideological ally, especially when it comes to issues such as migration and human rights. If Trump loses, there will be a void in the political leadership of the global right. The far-right groups that have felt empowered by racist, homophobic, and anti-globalist narratives in recent years may start losing popularity if a fresh wind blows from the United States.
Asya Metodieva is a researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague. She is a doctoral candidate at Central European University (CEU), Vienna. Her research focuses on radical movements, polarization, and information warfare with a focus on the Balkans and Southeast Europe. This article is reprinted with the permission of the German Marshall Fund, where it originally appeared.
- Meet the New Meta-Boss
Bulgarians are starting to realize that life in a magic-realist bubble has its downsides.
Bulgarians believe in political miracles. It was they who astonished the world in 2001 by putting their former tsar, Simeon II, on the ballot as a party leader, then installing him as prime minister, and finally making him a coalition partner of a socialist party.
Bulgarians also believed in the miracle known as the European Union. When the country entered the union in 2007 (with the ex-Tsar Simeon still in power as a junior partner), many expected a golden rain of EU money to solve all their problems – sheer magic.
Maybe this was the reason why the EU and its institutions enjoyed Bulgarians’ highest esteem. A French, let alone British person, seeing the record ratings of the European Commission, Council, and Parliament in Bulgarian opinion polls, would react with stunned silence. Where else could a European commissioner become a star, or one of the faceless bureaucrats at the head of a Commission department be interviewed on national television?
In the core countries it is more or less the opposite. There, Brussels serves as the usual culprit and scapegoat for various misfortunes. National politicians often blame “Euro bureaucrats” for everything they cannot or do not want to achieve. In Bulgaria, the union aroused reverence and provided hope, sometimes the only hope.
Bulgarians perceived “Europe” as a kind of meta-boss, the boss of bosses. Its institutions embodied the sole authority empowered to punish local bosses – the Bulgarian political establishment – if they misbehaved.
Take, for example, the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The socialists abandoned their old communist ways and followed the path of modern social democracy thanks to the carrot and the stick of PES, the European Socialist faction at the European Parliament. And today the PES president is the former Bulgarian premier, Sergei Stanishev, who led the 2007 coalition and presided over Bulgaria’s entry into the EU.
Yet Stanishev could testify not only to the honey but also to the sting of the EU’s influence over Bulgarian hearts and minds. Eleven years ago, his tripartite government was accused of corruption. Brussels gave an ear. Some EU funds earmarked for Bulgaria were put on hold – and Stanishev & Co. lost the 2009 election in dramatic fashion. The scandal paved the way for the protracted dominance of the incumbent prime minister, Boyko Borisov, and his center-right GERB. The party’s name has a double meaning: “coat of arms,” hinting at Borissov’s police career, and an acronym for “Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria.”
History, the master of irony, has reversed the roles nowadays. Borisov and his coalition partners are those accused of corruption, while European parliamentarians Stanishev and his former life partner Elena Yoncheva rally Europe against them by way of a European Parliament resolution criticizing the rule-of-law deficit in Bulgaria. PES’s center-right counterweight, the European People’s Party, could not mobilize enough parliamentary deputies to defend its member party GERB, and the votes of Socialists, Leftists, Greens, and Liberals passed the resolution through the parliament.
One could easily smell the “meta-boss” here. Although the resolution may have no more than a symbolic meaning, its Bulgarian initiators planned to inflict a lethal blow to the government amid scandals and street protests. You exposed our own dirty laundry to foreigners and wanted them to do our job for us, those in power retorted.
The arguments for and against the resolution are both wrongheaded because they look outdated. A European Parliament resolution cannot topple Borisov. And the EU is not a foreign entity anymore. 2007 was a long time ago.
Thirteen years were enough for Bulgarians to accommodate to the EU fairly well. Hundreds of thousands of them live and work in other member countries. Most of us can now distinguish details such as the hypocrisy of European political families, the peculiarities of Brussels bureaucracy, and the intricacies of EU institutions. The point of view of the ordinary Bulgarian is much closer to the French or Danish than before. It succumbs rather to conspiracy theories about the EU than to the previous affection. The meta-boss is on his way to disappearing.
And this is normal. Miracles have a major bug: they tend to turn into disappointments. Simeon, Stanishev, and Borisov today can testify to that. Is the EU the final miracle? Is this the end of the magic? Bulgarians will soon have a national election – very soon, if protesters get their way – and that will tell us.
Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
- Thursday, 22 October
Regional headlines: cluster bombs in Karabakh; Pole gets asylum in Norway; Ukrainian elections; EU and Kosovo at cross purposes; and a gold strike in Siberia.
Israel Refuses to Confirm Cluster Bomb Sales to Azerbaijan
In today’s edition of the Israeli paper Haaretz, reporter Yossi Melman says the Israeli Defense Ministry, the army, and the Foreign Ministry replied “no comment” when asked to confirm whether Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with cluster bombs, a devastating anti-personnel weapon that is banned in many countries, although not by any of the three countries concerned. Azerbaijan has been the biggest buyer of Israeli cluster bombs, Haaretz says. The country has been accused of using cluster bombs on civilian targets in Nagorno-Karabakh, and The Guardian wrote two weeks ago that “Media and human rights organizations have confirmed the use of Israel-made M095 cluster munitions” on residential areas of Stepanakert, the administrative center of the disputed region. Azerbaijan is a major purchaser of Israeli arms, and representatives of an Israeli drone manufacturer have even been accused of targeting Armenian positions in a sales pitch to Azerbaijan’s military. Azerbaijan claims Armenia is also using the munitions, but Baku has yet to provide evidence for that assertion, Amnesty International writes in a briefing published Tuesday. More than 1,000 troops and civilians have died since fierce fighting broke out in late September.
Norway Gives Asylum to Controversial Polish Activist
Poland is sometimes accused of discriminating against migrants trying to enter the country and thus gain access to EU legal protections for asylum seekers. In a twist on this tale, a Polish citizen has fled the country to seek redress for what he calls official persecution. Rafal Gawel, founder of an anti-racism group in the city of Bialystok, has been granted temporary political asylum in Norway, along with his wife and small daughter, RFE/RL reports. His group, the Monitoring Center on Racist and Xenophobic Behavior, has had several run-ins with the law. When police raided the center’s Warsaw office in 2017, Gawel accused the authorities of trying to shield right-wing groups with ties to prosecutors and other officials in Bialystok. His claim for protection in Norway cites a fraud conviction dating to 2013. He fled the country just before being sentenced to prison for two years in that case, The New York Times reports. He claims the charges against him were an effort by Poland’s government to rein him in and that the trial was rigged, although he offered no evidence of this, the Times writes. Gawel also has critics from within the activist community: according to the Times, a group funded by George Soros accuses him of mismanaging funds it allocated to the racism monitoring center. Speaking to RFE/RL from Oslo, Gawel said, “ … At the moment in Poland most of the courts have been taken over by politically empowered persons. Therefore, we cannot say that there is an independent judiciary in Poland, independent of executive-branch and government influence.”
Uncertain Mood in Ukraine Ahead of Local Elections
Pro-Russian candidates could do well in Sunday’s Ukrainian local elections, reversing several years of setbacks, Ukrainian journalist Mykola Vorobiov writes in a blog post on the Atlantic Council website. “Prior to the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, pro-Kremlin parties routinely secured up to half of all votes in Ukrainian elections and were repeatedly able to secure parliamentary majorities,” he writes, but Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in the Donbas region cost those parties many voters. The astonishing electoral victory of upstart Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his Servant of the People party, propelling Zelenskiy to the presidency, seemed to mark the nadir for political allies of Russia. Since then, though, frustration over the perceived failure of corruption-fighting efforts and economic reforms has grown, with the additional strain of the coronavirus pandemic contributing to the growing disaffection. Voters Sunday will chose candidates in local races and also take part in a nonbinding poll devised by Zelenskiy himself. They will answer five questions on corruption, a proposed free economic zone in the Donbas, reducing the size of parliament, legalizing medical cannabis, and security policy. Servant of the People will finance the poll but no party symbols or campaign slogans will appear, MENAFN reports, citing UkrInform.
Concern in Brussels as Kosovo Disbands Corruption Task Force
Kosovo Prime Minister Advullah Hoti has abolished a corruption-fighting body the international community has praised as a “key player.” Hoti’s decision to abolish the Anti-Corruption Task Force “raises concerns about [the government’s] commitment to the fight against corruption,” European Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero tweeted yesterday, Exit News reports. Hoti said the decision would “strengthen the separation of powers” because the task force was a unit of the police, reducing its effectiveness when investigating government corruption. He also said this function should be carried out by the judiciary, according to Exit. The EU and other international bodies regularly warn Kosovo over the perceived level of official corruption. In a report released this month, the EU legal mission in the country, EULEX, had recommended that the government strengthen the Anti-Corruption Task Force, calling it “a key player in the area of anti-corruption detection and investigations.” Hoti’s cabinet was divided over the decision. Justice Minister Selim Selimi did not vote to abolish the task force. “I think we need [a] better plan,” he wrote on Twitter. “… There will also be a risk of damaging the high profile corruption cases.”
Thar’s Gold in That Thar Taiga
Russia’s largest gold producer, Polyus PJSC, says it is sitting on the world’s biggest gold deposit, some 40 million ounces of gold at the Sukhoi Log mine in Siberia. That would mean that the field accounts for more than a quarter of Russian gold reserves, Bloomberg writes. The huge find makes Polyus the world’s second-biggest gold miner by attributable reserves, company chief executive Pavel Grachev said in a statement cited by Reuters. Polyus doesn’t plan on exploiting the field soon. Earlier this year it announced a plan to focus on smaller projects and reduce its debt ratio in coming years before tackling Sukhoi Log, Bloomberg says. Polyus and its then-partner bought the rights to the field in the Irkutsk region from the Russian state in 2017. Not content with sitting on some of the world’s biggest gold fields, Russia has also been on a gold-buying spree in recent years, partly to offset sales of U.S. government bonds. In 2018, the Russian central bank bought almost 275 metric tons of gold, the largest amount ever purchased in a single year, GoldHub reported.
Compiled by Ky Krauthamer
- Wednesday, 21 October
Regional headlines: Estonia faces fallout over homophobic remarks; Belgrade to welcome Russian military; EU vs. Poland, TBD; Holocaust play opens in Bucharest; and Chernobyl goes virtual reality.
Estonian Government Roiled by Minister’s Homophobic Remarks
The Estonian government is in a dilemma over a cabinet minister’s comments, according to EER News. In an interview with Deutsche Welle’s Russian service last week, Interior Minister Mart Helme responded to a question on next year’s planned referendum on same-sex marriage, saying that gay people should emigrate abroad. “They can run to Sweden. They’ll have everything there, and they’ll be looked upon more politely by everyone,” he said. He also acknowledged viewing gay people “in an unfriendly manner.” Helme represents the far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), which joined a coalition of the Center and Fatherland parties last year and brought a far-right party to power in Estonia for the first time. Prime Minister Juri Ratas and other politicians, both from the government and opposition, condemned the remarks. President Kersti Kaljulaid called them “humanly simply revolting” and said Helme was not fit for government. Although Estonia is the only Baltic country to recognize same-sex unions, the coalition agreement includes a clause that mandates a referendum in the fall of 2021 to decide whether the constitution should be amended to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, bne IntelliNews reports. An August opinion poll found 55 percent in favor of defining marriage in that way.
Russian Military to Open Liaison Office in Serbia
Serbia seems poised to continue its balancing act between East and West with Russia’s Defense Ministry preparing to open an office in Belgrade to deal with Russian-Serbian military cooperation, Reuters reports. The director of the office would be permitted to pay announced visits to Serbian military bases that house Russian weapons and military equipment. The Serbian Defense Ministry confirmed yesterday that legal requirements for such an agreement were in the works, and, according to the Associated Press, said the deal would bolster military collaboration between the two countries. Apart from the symbolic weight of the decision, such an office would have practical implications as Serbia’s military, Reuters explains, relies on ex-Soviet weapons technology including fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and tanks purchased in the recent past. While Serbia is pursuing membership in the European Union, the country is not seeking to join NATO and was planning last month to participate in military exercises with Russia in Belarus until backing out after Brussels allegedly applied pressure. Pro-government media applauded the stepped-up military cooperation, AP says, quoting a headline from the Informer daily: “Americans will go crazy.”
Looming Row Between EU and Poland Postponed
A potential new confrontation between Poland and the European Commission has been put on hold after the Polish Constitutional Court postponed a crucial ruling over the Human Right’s Commissioners Office, the AP writes. The office is one of the last state bodies to have retained its independence from a government which has clashed repeatedly over rule-of-law issues with Brussels, AP says. The five-year term of the office’s head, ombudsman Adam Bodnar, a respected human rights lawyer, ran out last month, but he remains in post. The lower house, controlled by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) coalition, refuses to consider the only proposed candidate, a colleague of Bodnar who has wide support among the human rights and NGO community. Any PiS candidate would also have trouble gaining appointment because the Senate, where the opposition controls a majority, must also give its stamp of approval. In the meantime, AP says, PiS lawmakers have turned to the constitutional court to get rid of the law that allows Bodnar, a past critic of government policies on human rights grounds, to stay in office.
Play Based on Holocaust Diary Debuts in Romania
With an all-female cast, Bucharest’s Jewish State Theater premiered a play last week by a woman whose work has been compared with Anne Frank for its depiction of the Holocaust through a young girl’s eyes, the Associated Press reports. “The Beautiful Days of My Youth” is based on the diary kept by Ana Novac, who was deported from her hometown in Transylvania to a Nazi concentration camp, but escaped the deadly fate that an estimated 280,000 Jews in Romania met at the hands of the Nazis and their Romanian allies. First published in Hungary in 1966, her account of life at the Auschwitz and Plaszow concentration camps was published in Romania only in 2004. In an interview with AP, Maia Morgenstern, head of the Jewish State Theater, described the play as an “all-female project,” adding “Each one of us is a facet of Ana Novac’s soul and memory.” Novac died in Paris at the age of 80 in 2010. Due to pandemic regulations, the play took place in front of a limited audience and was broadcast online.
Digital Chernobyl Exhibition Up Now
A Spanish new media festival has launched a digital exhibition dedicated to the Chernobyl disaster, The Calvert Journal reports. Part of Spain’s MADATAC XI festival, “ARTEFACT: CHOrnobyl” features the top 14 new-media and virtual-reality installations from an exhibition dedicated to the 33rd anniversary of the nuclear disaster, held in Kyiv and the Chernobyl exclusion zone a year ago. Beyond attracting attention to the original tragedy, the exhibition draws comparisons between the Soviet authorities’ refusal to release news of the accident and today’s crisis of disinformation. According to the exhibition’s website, “ARTEFACT is an answer of art to [the] continuous problem of digitalization and general overload of [the] information space, the dominance of fake news, and the low level of media literacy of the population.” The selected works will be online until 6 November and feature plenty of virtual reality and 3D models.
Compiled by Jeremy Druker
- In Belarus, Tech Workers Fear for Their Industry’s Future
Longtime Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka boasts that he has created a “paradise” for Belarusian IT. So why are young tech workers protesting against him – or even moving their businesses overseas?
The spotlight of international media may have moved elsewhere, but Belarus’ political crisis drags on. After months of street protests after a dubious presidential election, longtime ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a surprise inauguration ceremony on 23 September. He is determined to prolong his 26-year rule of Belarus at any cost – and the costs could be substantial.
There are now fears that the political situation in Belarus could quash one of the country’s most successful businesses. In mid-August, over 500 representatives of the country’s booming tech sector signed an open letter casting doubt on official election results and demanding the release of political prisoners and an end to violence and detentions of protesters. They have been irritated by the authorities’ internet blackouts aimed at preventing protesters organizing over social media. Some threatened to relocate to neighboring Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, or Lithuania. The results of that, observers say, could be very worrying, as IT is a growing sector of the Belarusian economy.
One could call the IT community a new “nobility” in the Belarusian reality. But that would be inaccurate: even though nobles often rebelled against the monarch to defend their privileges, they were still his servants. A more accurate comparison is with bourgeois democratic revolutions, with the middle classes at the forefront. In Belarus today, IT specialists are classic representatives of the middle class.
There are software engineers in almost every country in the world. But in developed countries, a software engineer is an ordinary profession that is only paid above average. Not all young people dream of writing code or looking for bugs. They might want to become lawyers or doctors or start a business instead.
But in Belarus, the IT sector is seen by many as the main if not the only means of social advancement. It contributes around 5 percent of the national GDP. Here there are IT companies where the average salary is from five to 10 times higher than in other sectors of the economy. Even if a Belarusian becomes a cabinet minister or director of a large state-owned enterprise after 20 years of service, they would probably still earn less on average than a senior figure in a tech company – an achievement they could reach more quickly. For example, the net salary of a senior software engineer in Belarus is around $3,000 a month, compared to the average Belarusian salary of $500 (the median is around $350).
This state of affairs didn’t appear right away. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Belarus inherited an education system with a strong engineering sector. But unlike other post-Soviet and post-socialist states, there was no mass privatization in Belarus. Large enterprises continued to be administered by the state, in order to avoid unpopular economic reforms. This model was possible partly due to generous subsidies provided by Russia, in recognition of Belarus preserving close ties to Moscow. Thanks to a good price on international markets for hydrocarbons, this allowed the Belarusian economy to grow at a rate of 7 to 8 percent annually. But when the Belarusian currency collapsed in 2011, relations with Russia began to deteriorate. The country’s economy has been growing at a slower rate than the international average ever since.
In the mid-1990s, enterprising engineers realized that it was possible to sell the work of a Belarusian software engineer for a substantial price abroad. The industry grew steadily; Belarusians were a highly educated people who were cheaper to hire than tech workers in Western Europe or North America. By 2005, the tech sector was small but prominent; the authorities in Minsk even created the Belarus High Tech Park, a tax-free zone, to aid its growth. Thus the relationship between the state and the IT community was built on the principle of non-interference.
A friend’s story provides a good example of tech’s appeal. In 2008 Aleksei, a computer sciences student in his third year of studies, took a course at a private IT company. The 20-year-old was astounded by its fantastically beautiful office and the friendly employees. His starting salary was $500 a month. It was more than his mother earned as a software developer at a state scientific institute. Two years later, in his fifth year of study, he was earning $2,000 a month, more than his mother and father combined – and his father was a top manager at a state enterprise.
Belarus has since become a rather tech-savvy society, like other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Today, the internet penetration rate in the country stands at more than 80 percent. In 2010, that figure was around 30 percent.
In fact, by 2020 the tech sector had become so prominent that Valery Tsepkala, one of the key figures behind the Belarus High Tech Park, ran as an opposition candidate in the 9 August presidential election. However, the Central Electoral Commission invalidated Tsepkala’s candidacy, and the businessman and his sons fled to neighboring Russia on 24 July, citing political pressure.
Tensions came to a head when the authorities, attempting to quash demonstrations against Lukashenka, cracked down on the conduit of their “networked protest” – the internet, in particular social media pages and Telegram channels. For IT workers, this violated the aforementioned principle of non-interference between the tech sector and the state.
In any case, the young middle-class representatives of the tech sector were not Lukashenka’s obvious constituency. Many of them were liberally minded and resented heavy-handed rule. They put their skills to use, launching platforms such as Golos, an attempt at alternative vote-counting by collating photographs of ballot papers. The work of Golos was important in proving the falsification of the final election results. The platform was created by Pavel Liber, the top manager of EPAM, the country’s oldest and largest tech company.
Another example is the ByChange project, which helps state officials and police officers quit their jobs and learn programming skills by pairing them with volunteer IT specialists. Soon after Mikita Mikado, founder of the PandaDoc project, launched a monetary compensation program for police officers who resigned during the protests, four employees from Mikado’s Minsk office were arrested, officially for non-payment of taxes.
Then there are the “cyberpartisans.” Nobody knows for sure who they are, but they have launched cyberattacks on several government websites and inserted videos of the police beating peaceful protesters into the online streams of state TV channels. On 11 September, they hacked the official website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and put Lukashenka’s profile into its “most wanted” section.
According to the Viasna human rights center, more than 14,000 people have been detained since the presidential election. IT specialists can be found at all the protests and in the detention cells. They do not fear losing their jobs; their labor is widely in demand and they are not under the thumb of a government appointee, as in state-owned concerns. Their companies support them, providing them when necessary with lawyers, compensation, and relocation.
As a common joke in Belarus now goes: “You can create a successful startup in jail, because there are developers and entrepreneurs in every cell. And they have plenty of time to discuss their ideas.” Inspiration does not come easily when social media channels are full of news about daily protests and detentions. This is exactly why many companies and specialists are now thinking seriously about relocation. The open letter from mid-August was not an empty threat. The governments of Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine have all made detailed relocation assistance programs available to the Belarusian tech sector.
Today there are probably 60,000-80,000 IT workers in Belarus; including their families this means that around 200,000 people depend on the tech sector out of a population of nearly 10 million. It is unlikely that all of them will emigrate, but if this instability continues in the long term, there is every chance that the trickle of emigrating tech workers could become a steady flow.
For now, the state has not yet opted for direct pressure on the IT sector. Its approach has been to demonstratively punish dissidents in the hope that the rest of society falls into line. Bad publicity is not an obstacle to this strategy – it is at its very core.
Nevertheless, Lukashenka expressed his irritation with tech workers specifically in a September speech: “Tell me, what do IT specialists want? We’ll figure it out. Again, what do they want? I have already created a paradise for them. But no, it seems they’re missing something.” His words reflect a sincere lack of understanding about the IT community’s motivations for participating in this struggle.
It is a misunderstanding shared across all levels of the state apparatus, from Lukashenka to ordinary policemen. During the mass arrests in Minsk, one riot policeman asked detainees: “You have a good salary, a great job and life. Why do you need all this?”
This question crystallizes the state of Belarusian society in 2020. Whoever asks it exists in an entirely different system of values, for whom no answer will be sufficient. And whoever understands the answer would never ask it in the first place.
Sergei Lavrinenko is an IT expert from Minsk, Belarus. He is the CEO of the Salary2.me startup and author of t.me/necodernotes, a Telegram blog about the country’s tech industry.
This article is made possible through a partnership with Global Voices, an international, primarily volunteer community of writers, translators, academics, and human rights activists.
- Tuesday, 20 October
Regional headlines: Slovakia to test entire nation for coronavirus; Kyrgyz ex-official charged; Kazakhstan abolishes death penalty; a Balkan cultural spat; and Turkmenistan’s food crisis.
Former Top Kyrgyz Customs Official Charged in Big Graft Probe
The new government in Kyrgyzstan, as has become the norm after regime change in Eurasia, is trying to claim the moral high ground by sweeping away suspicious figures from previous administrations. The first to fall afoul of the new boys in Bishkek, Raiymbek Matraimov, is now accused of stealing vast sums from the state budget while working as deputy chairman of the customs service, OCCRP reports. The State Committee for National Security said in a statement over the weekend that authorities have identified about 40 others suspected of involvement in the illegal operation. A joint investigation by OCCRP, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, and the Kyrgyz news site Kloop “implicated Matraimov in a corruption scheme involving money transferred out of the country by Chinese-born Uyghur businessman Aierken Saimaiti, who was assassinated in Istanbul in November last year,” RFE writes. Matraimov was sacked from the customs service in 2017 and has long been suspected of gaining huge wealth through corrupt schemes. He was taken into custody by the security committee today, RFE writes.
Turkmenistan’s Food Deficit is Growing, Consumers Say
More anecdotal evidence of a deep economic crisis in Turkmenistan is emerging from the tightly controlled nation. Several anonymous members of the public told RFE/RL that state food shops, which sell staples at regulated prices, are requiring shoppers to buy products they don’t want along with such necessities as flour and oil. The prices for staple foods are up to six times higher at private shops, RFE says. Outlets like RFE and Eurasianet regularly report on food shortages and rising costs despite a dearth of official information. The retail price of flour has risen by 50 percent and cooking oil by 130 percent in the past year, RFE says. Last month Human Rights Watch warned that the government’s refusal to acknowledge even the existence of poverty in the country “has drastically exacerbated Turkmenistan’s pre-existing food crisis” during the pandemic. “Shortages of subsidized food, accelerating since 2016, have worsened, with people waiting hours in line to try to buy more affordable food products, often being turned away empty-handed,” HRW wrote. Turkmenistan must import more than half of its food, mostly from Iran. Low energy prices and a series of poor harvests have exacerbated the food shortages, HRW says.
Slovakia Gets Ready for Nationwide COVID Testing
Slovakia is gearing for “the biggest logistical operation” in the country’s modern history, Prime Minister Igor Matovic says, by becoming the first European country to test the entire population for COVID-19. Up to 50,000 people will be needed to conduct the tests, including 8,000 soldiers, Aktualne.cz cites Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad as saying after the cabinet agreed to the move yesterday. The testing will probably be carried out over two weekends at the turn of October and November at around 5,000 sites identified by the Defense Ministry, according to The Slovak Spectator. The details of the massive exercise in the country of 5 million are still being hashed out. Testing “in all probability” will be voluntary, Matovic told a press conference today, the daily Sme reports. Those who do not undergo testing will have to self-isolate for 10 days, he said. At the testing sites, people will first fill out legally mandated forms, then be given a nasal swab, with the results known in 15 to 30 minutes, according to The Spectator. Pilot testing in several of the worst-affected areas will take place 23-25 October, The Spectator cites a Defense Ministry spokeswoman as saying.
Skopje, Sofia Make Little Headway in Heritage Talks
Two days of what a North Macedonian delegate called “intense and hard discussions” over shared – and contested – cultural and historical heritage with Bulgaria ended with little more than an agreement to meet again later this year. A joint historical committee comprising representatives of both countries met in Skopje on 15-16 October to discuss such matters as history textbooks, the status of the Macedonian language, and how to commemorate past heroes. The legacy of one past figure was a stumbling block, bne Intellinews writes: early-20th-century revolutionary leader Goce Delcev is claimed by Bulgarian historians as a ethnic Bulgarian, a position the Macedonian side rejects. The talks are much more than academic for Skopje, because Bulgaria could use them as a pretext to hold up North Macedonia’s European Union accession negotiations, Balkan Insight says. The two sides have been trying to resolve debates on their linguistic and cultural links for more than two decades. “Bulgaria says that Macedonia is a very new nation that (unduly) split from Bulgaria after World War II. The present elite of the Republic of Macedonia bets it all on the premise that The Difference has been here forever,” Transitions columnist Boyko Vassilev wrote in 2017. The joint talks last took place more than a year ago, during which time Bulgaria’s tone and its hints of blocking Skopje’s EU talks have sharpened, Balkan Insight writes.
Kazakhstan Abolishes Death Penalty
Kazakhstan has formally agreed to stop applying the death penalty, Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi told a recent high-level conference on the 10th anniversary of an international commission dedicated to abolishing capital punishment. He also “stressed Kazakhstan’s commitment to upholding the fundamental right to life and human dignity,” The Astana Times reports. On 23 September, President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev announced that the country had signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which commits signatory nations to abolish the death penalty, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). That leaves Russia and Belarus as the only countries on the European continent with the death penalty still on the books. Russia, like Kazakhstan, has long observed a moratorium on capital punishment, but Belarus regularly executes prisoners. One inmate was on Kazakhstan’s death row at the start of this year, according to DPIC, while Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country not to have signed the Second Optional Protocol.
Compiled by Ky Krauthamer
- Nagorno-Karabakh: A Muddled Picture
On-the-ground opinion surveys might surprise those assuming residents of the disputed territory definitively favor unification with Armenia. From The Conversation.
Nagorno-Karabakh is engulfed in the flames of war. Half of its population has fled, while the remaining families cower in basements as artillery and drones destroy their houses and cultural institutions. A ceasefire on 10 October, agreed after 10 hours of negotiations in Moscow between the warring sides of Armenia and Azerbaijan, has not stopped the killing and destruction. (Ed. note: a humanitarian ceasefire due to take effect this past Saturday was almost immediately violated).
Since 1994, this contested territory has been an unrecognized Armenian statelet, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh). Officially part of Azerbaijan, the authorities in Baku have had no control over the territory since a destructive war in the early 1990s.
Though the role of other countries, including Turkey and Russia, is central to both escalation and resolution in this conflict, at the heart of the struggle are the people who still live in the contested territory. We conducted face-to-face public opinion surveys in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2011, 2013, and most recently, in February 2020. As the future hangs in the balance, what do the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh think about the political status of their territory, and the world around them?
Mixed Feelings on Unity with Armenia
The conflict emerged in the waning days of the Soviet Union as a struggle for self-determination. But as in many such struggles, disagreement remains about what political outcome people want – a tension that can be an obstacle to resolving conflict.
We have conducted three separate surveys based on representative samples of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population. The surveys in 2011 (of 800 people) and 2013 (of 1,000 people) were fielded by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. Our February 2020 survey of 820 people was carried out by the Caucasus Research Resource Center.
Our surveys reveal enduring splits among the Karabakh Armenians as to whether they want independence or unification with Armenia. In 2011, 41 percent of those we interviewed wanted unity with Armenia and 51 percent favored independence. Two years later, 52 percent were in favor of unity, while 38 percent were for independence.
Armenia’s leaders have always provided military protection to Nagorno-Karabakh, but until 2019 they had made no explicit call for unification. In August 2019, Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, visited the territory and in an unprecedented move declared that “Artsakh is Armenia, full stop.”
Analysis of our most recent survey in February 2020 found that 33 percent supported his call for unification, while 55 percent did not. While there is near unanimous agreement that Nagorno-Karabakh should not return to Azerbaijan, our respondents still hold diverging views about the alternatives.
Our survey also revealed very different views on what people see as the best political system for Nagorno-Karabakh. As the graph below shows, around a third of respondents asked in February 2020 saw the “Soviet system” as a model, particularly among older generations. An almost equal share preferred “the current political system in Nagorno-Karabakh” and “democratic political systems as in the West.”
Although only 9 percent favored “the current Russian political system,” when asked where they would place Nagorno-Karabakh on a 10-point scale between “the West” and “Russia,” the majority of respondents oriented towards Russia, as the graph below shows.
Legacies of War
Conflict and its legacies are central to people’s lives in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many have experienced violence, and many more will have done so since the recent escalation in fighting, with worrying reports of civilian casualties. In our survey in February, 44 percent of respondents reported that since 1991, they or their family members have been a victim of warfare and violence resulting in forced displacement, injury, or death.
When asked an open-ended question about the three most important problems facing Nagorno-Karabakh, economic problems dominated, but about one in three identified a “lack of peace” and “unresolved territorial conflict” as main problems.
People want peace, but years of unresolved conflict have done little to foster attitudes of compromise on either side in the struggle. This has not been helped by propaganda painting the other side as “the enemy.” Our previous surveys showed that the population in Nagorno-Karabakh was worried about renewed fighting, was unwilling to forgive past violence, and strongly distrusted others. Our recent survey paints a similar picture, with 83 percent of respondents expressing distrust in others.
We also asked an open-ended question about which country people see as the main friend of Nagorno-Karabakh. Unsurprisingly, 82 percent said Armenia. Next up was Russia, at 5 percent, although more respondents (nearly 7 percent) indicated that Nagorno-Karabakh “has no friends.” In response to an open-ended question about which country they see as Nagorno-Karabakh’s enemy, the vast majority – 88 percent – said Azerbaijan, followed by Turkey, at about 7 percent.
Nagorno-Karabakh was internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union dissolved. More than 500,000 Azerbaijani residents who used to live in the territory and surrounding provinces were forcefully displaced by war. Their attitudes and views must be heard too. Government restrictions, however, makes independent research in Azerbaijan currently impossible; we have tried, unsuccessfully.
War and forced displacement has returned with vengeance to Nagorno-Karabakh. Missiles fly, soldiers die, and hate narratives flare across the media. The path to peace in this coveted region of the Caucasus is, unfortunately, more elusive than ever.
Kristin M Bakke is a professor in political science and international relations at University College London; Gerard Toal is a professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech; and John O’Loughlin is a professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. Reprinted with permission from The Conversation.
- Monday, 19 October
Regional headlines: Hooligans march in Prague and Bratislava; another ceasefire fails in Karabakh; a rare moment of concord on Serbia-Kosovo border; Belarusians rally for 10th straight week; and a new home for an Uzbek journalist.
Czech Extremists Battle Police in Prague
Czech police made 144 arrests at yesterday’s demonstration in Prague against new restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Lidove noviny reports. In clashes after the rally on Prague’s historic Old Town Square, where an estimated 2,000 people gathered, 25 police were injured as demonstrators hurled objects including trash receptacles and fireworks, a police spokeswoman said. Police responded with tear gas, a water cannon, and flash grenades. The rally was organized by a loose coalition of football and hockey fans and right-wing groups. Prague authorities had asked the organizers to call off the event, as large gatherings are banned under new restrictions that took effect last week to try and stem a worrying rise in infections and deaths from COVID-19. A similar, though smaller, demonstration took place in Bratislava Saturday, despite a ban on public assemblies of more than six people that took effect on 13 October, the Slovak Spectator reports. Supporters of extremist politician Marian Kotleba’s party also attended the rally. Kotleba was sentenced earlier this month to four years and four months in prison for hate speech, the Czech Press Agency (CTK) reported, in connection with a publicity stunt he organized in 2017. At the time, as governor of the Banska Bystrice region, he handed out checks to several families in the amount of 1,488 euros, a figure the court said holds a symbolic meaning for neo-Nazis. His party holds 14 seats in the Slovak Parliament and two seats in the European Parliament.
Karabakh Death Toll Climbs Above 1,000 Amid Continued Heavy Fighting
New clashes broke out between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces yesterday, just minutes after a humanitarian ceasefire was due to take effect. Each side accuses the other of breaking the ceasefire first, the BBC reports. Today, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said Armenian forces shelled its positions overnight and this morning, Reuters writes. The ceasefire, brokered by Russia, was planned to begin at midnight Saturday. Earlier that day, Azerbaijan said 13 civilians were killed in Armenian missile strikes on the country’s second-biggest city, Ganja, Al Jazeera reported. Armenia denied the claim and said Azerbaijan was continuing to attack civilian targets in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, including its major city, Stepanakert. More than 1,000 people have been killed, according to Reuters, since the festering Karabakh conflict exploded on 27 September into the worst fighting since a 1994 ceasefire. On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the United States, Russia, and France of supplying arms to Armenia, the Hurriyet Daily News reports. Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s most vocal backer throughout the 30-year conflict.
Joint Serbia-Kosovo Border Crossing Opens
The U.S. special envoy to Serbia and Kosovo, Richard Grenell, says Donald Trump should get the credit for persuading the two sides to open a joint border post. “Big move. Thanks to President Donald Trump, Serbia makes Merdare border crossing operational,” Grenell tweeted on 13 October, Kosovo’s Express notes. The two sides agreed nine years ago on a joint border management regime, even though Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Serbia had refused to use the official, EU-financed border post at Merdare, “with the Serbian police and customs still working in temporary facilities,” Express says, until last month’s White House meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, who agreed to work on restoring air and rail links, among other sensitive issues. However, Balkan Insight writes, “Kosovo politicians remain divided on the separate agreements that the two countries signed with the U.S.,” and opposition leader Albin Kurti has called the agreements impossible to implement.
Belarusians Rally Against Lukashenka for 10th Week Running
At least two lawyers in Belarus have been disbarred over what they say is their work on behalf of people arrested during anti-government demonstrations, and several others have been detained at the protests since early August, RFE/RL writes. One lawyer, Lyudmila Kazak, said she was grabbed off a Minsk street on 24 September and charged with failing to obey police at an opposition rally at which she was not even present. Kazak has defended Maryya Kalesnikava, a former campaign manager for jailed presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka and also an aide to Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled opposition leader, RFE says. Alyaksandr Pylchenka, who has done legal work for both Babaryka and Kalesnikava, lost his license to practice law on 15 October, apparently because of remarks in August when he called on the chief prosecutor to take legal action against police suspected of beating and abusing demonstrators. Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in Minsk yesterday for the 10th straight Sunday of protests against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s disputed re-election, Deutsche Welle reports. Tsikhanouskaya has threatened to call a nationwide general strike unless Lukashenka resigns by 25 October.
Uzbek President Gives a Home to Critical Journalist
Uzbekistan’s president has reportedly given a furnished apartment to an Uzbek journalist who was recently extradited from Kyrgyzstan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev wrote about his gift to Bobomurod Abdullaev on Facebook, Kyrgyzstan’s Aki Press agency reports. Abdullaev was extradited to Uzbekistan in August over what analyst Adam Hug called his criticism of Mirziyoyev on social media. Since coming to power four years ago, Mirziyoyev has eased many of the restrictive policies that made Uzbekistan a byword for repressive rule, but, writes Hug, director of the UK-based Foreign Policy Center think tank, journalists and bloggers must still tread a fine line when criticizing the government. “At least six” social media activists have been detained in the past year, including Miraziz Bazarov, who accused authorities of misusing funds earmarked for COVID-19 measures, Hug writes. In 2017, Adbullaev was detained on charges of “conspiracy to overthrow the constitutional regime,” and other journalists were also called in for questioning. He was given a suspended sentence of one and a half years in May 2018 and later went to Germany before relocating to Kyrgyzstan, Aki Press says. Abdullaev said he moved into his new apartment on 5 October.
Compiled by Ky Krauthamer
- Who Will Watch the Watchmen on Europe’s Borders?
EU members in Central and Southeastern Europe have plenty of reasons to resist the Commission’s proposed new migration pact. From Reporting Democracy.
While pro- and anti-migration governments and groups gear up for tough negotiations over the European Commission’s new migration and asylum plan released in September, buried in the proposals and largely overlooked in the first analysis are provisions for member states to implement an independent border monitoring mechanism. With Brussels considering linking the rule of law to EU funds, this monitoring mechanism could end up being a highly contentious issue for the governments of Central and Southeast Europe.
The European Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, designed to solve the vexed issue of migration that has riven the bloc since the migrant crisis began in 2015, received mixed reviews that depended on which side of the debate each party sits.
The main aim of the pact, according to the European Commission, is to streamline the migration and asylum process for “irregular arrivals” via faster screening, security checks, health checks, and a decision on which country would be responsible for each application.
“In search of consensus, the Commission has bowed to anti-migration governments in its migration and asylum pact,” Oxfam tweeted, assessing that the proposals will merely perpetuate the current situation “instead of abolishing a failed system.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who together with the other leaders of the Visegrad Four (V4) – Czechia, Poland, and Slovakia – has steadfastly resisted the idea of migrant quotas whereby arrivals would be distributed to countries around the bloc, described the tone of the pact as better, “but there is no breakthrough.”
Although the notion of mandatory migrant quotas has been shelved, replaced with the idea that countries reticent about receiving migrants and asylum seekers should help out in other ways, Zoltan Kovacs, spokesman for Orban, pointed out on Twitter: “Though it appears under a different name in the European Commission’s new package of proposals on migration and asylum, the migrant quota is still there, and Hungary opposes it, along with Poland and the Czech Republic.”
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis tweeted following a meeting between the V4 and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that, “the protection of Europe’s border and the cessation of illegal migration” must be the main components of the new migration pact.
The negative reception by the V4 to the new pact was seen by many as positioning prior to the upcoming negotiations. As Catherine Woollard, director of the pro-migration Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles think tank, pointed out, the new pact “consolidates the strategy of preventing arrivals rather than aiming to make asylum work in Europe. Given this, the unhappiness of the anti-migration populists, including the V4, is hard to fathom. The Pact is kind of what they wanted, but still it is not enough.”
Included in the pact are provisions for member states to develop and implement an independent border monitoring mechanism, “to ensure full respect of [migrant] rights from beginning to end of the process.” This, some believe, could represent the biggest sticking point for the V4 countries.
“We will propose a new independent monitoring mechanism for all Member States to implement in guidance with the European Agency for Fundamental Rights to make sure that there are no push backs at the borders,” European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said in a speech on 23 September as she unveiled the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
While it is still not entirely clear how this new mechanism will be built and made viable, establishing structures with a mandate to monitor border procedures and investigate allegations of violations in border procedures could be a significant development.
“It is a positive recognition of the need for independent oversight over reception and border control operations,” the Greek ombudsman, Andreas Pottakis, told BIRN. “With many of my colleagues, we have stressed this has been necessary for a long time. We have to see how member states will respond to this proposal.”
Over the past few years, several member states on Europe’s periphery have taken steps to reduce any existing oversight over their border control tactics and ignored calls to investigate related allegations.
For example, following an anonymous complaint in March 2019 by a police officer working at a Croatian border police station, the country’s ombudswoman informed the State Attorney General, who failed to act. She then brought the complaint before the relevant parliamentary committees in June 2019, in accordance with her mandate. Parliament failed to act as well, leaving the ombudswoman with the only remaining option of directly informing the public herself.
And previously, in 2017, a tripartite border monitoring agreement between the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), and the Hungarian police, to support the right to access to territory and to the asylum procedure in practice, was terminated by Budapest after 10 years. In 2018, the Hungarian government introduced the “Stop Soros” law, which “criminalizes activities in support of asylum applications and further restricts the right to request asylum,” the EU charged in a lawsuit against Hungary filed in 2019 with the Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg.
Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the HCC, told BIRN, “Besides intimidating [Hungarian] civil society, these measures were intended to block information about abuses and ill-treatment from coming to the surface. Monitoring has an important role in preventing inhuman treatment and human rights abuses, and outlawing independent monitoring allows violations to remain unnoticed.”
“Although states have a right to control borders, they also have a duty to protect human rights at border situations. But, in practice, there is an inherent tension between law enforcement at the border and the presence of independent monitors. It is hard to see how member states that have moved against the latter will easily accept the Commission’s proposal,” she said.
Since 2015, allegations of violations of EU and international law on the external borders of Europe have mounted. Accusations of violent beatings and torture followed by pushbacks involving authorities from Croatia, Czech police in North Macedonia, and lately Romania have been regularly reported.
However, the Commission has been reluctant to confront member states over this issue, often claiming that it does not have the mandate to investigate allegations.
Internal monitoring tools of the European Border and Coast Guard agency (Frontex), which was set up by the European Commission to coordinate border control and forced returns operations among member states, have also failed to deliver oversight over alleged violations during operations. Lack of internal reports has occasionally been presented by top EU and Frontex officials as evidence of lack of evidence.
Last year, a new regulation mandated Frontex to increase personnel that monitor the operations that it coordinates and participates in, but this would still remain an internal control mechanism, not independent oversight.
“This brings again to the forefront the issue of an existing deficit of independent oversight on operations in which the EU is increasingly involved, which under the current arrangement remains unaddressed,” said Pottakis, the Greek ombudsman.
Annual Migration Report
Members of the V4, as well as EU states on the external borders of the EU – Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania – have good reasons to kill the idea of independent monitoring either during the negotiations or the implementation phase of the new pact.
These countries were, to varying degrees, slated by the European Commission in its first annual Rule of Law Report, released on 30 September, for flouting various democratic norms. Together with the proposed annual Migration Management Report, these two documents could play a considerable role in the attempts to introduce conditionality to allocations from the EU budget and the 750-billion-euro recovery fund – a move favored by some Western European states but one which is being fought bitterly by the V4.
Woollard of ECRE warns that the wording of the proposal as released by the European Commission will limit its impact and thus itseffectiveness. ECRE plans to propose potential amendments to make it as useful as possible. “These will cover issues like the necessary independence and resources of the bodies managing the mechanism in each member state and the widening of the scope of the mechanism to cover all actions at the border,” she told BIRN.
The call for the creation of an independent monitoring mechanism could also affect the pending reforms of EU legislation on forced returns. An amendment asking member states to ensure that “independent forced-return monitors, adequately trained on fundamental rights, duly monitor all forced-return operations” will be considered during October.
In October, the Consultative Forum – a Frontex advisory body made up of other EU agencies, UN migration and refugee agencies, and major international NGOs – issued recommendations for the improvement of the agency’s monitoring capacity, calling on Frontex “to strengthen the effectiveness and independence of the pool of forced return monitors.”
This article was originally published by Balkan Insight’s Reporting Democracy project. Reprinted with permission.
- Friday, 16 October
Regional headlines: Coronavirus in Central Europe; Apple in Belarus; EU climate debate; Greece’s anti-migrant fence; and Central Asia’s economic woes.
Central Europe Reels as COVID Strikes Again
The worrying spike in COVID-19 cases across Central Europe could paradoxically be a consequence of the region’s success in limiting the first wave of the pandemic. The New York Times cites Czech infectious disease institute chief Petr Smejkal saying that the population may have less resistance to the virus now because fewer people became infected when the first wave hit last spring. The Czech Republic recorded the highest infection rate in Europe over a recent 14-day period, and Slovakia and Poland are also experiencing much faster growth in infections than at any time since the pandemic began, Balkan Insight writes. Low testing rates and complacency may explain some of the surge, along with constant changes of policy and contradictory official statements, which has left the public unsure what to believe, Balkan Insight suggests. Structural problems are also a factor, the Times writes, noting Poland’s low number of physicians per capita, the regionwide exodus of doctors and nurses to Western Europe, and a paucity of infectious disease specialists. “The early lockdowns in many of these countries had a distinctly militarized feel. It worked, but at a cost,” the Times writes, quoting Smejkal as saying “What it did was made the public a passive player in the game.”
Telegram Founder Blasts Apple in Belarus Doxing Row
The founder of the Russia-based Telegram messaging app has accused Apple of trying to stifle Belarusian activists’ digital freedoms. Apple, which offers Telegram on its app store, asked that Telegram delete specific posts that disclose personal information on Belarusian security agents and police, app founder Pavel Durov posted on Telegram last Friday. Apple’s “sly wording” obscures that “channels like @karatelibelarusi and @belarusassholes consist entirely of personal information of violent oppressors and those who helped rig the elections – because that is why those channels exist,” wrote Durov, who in the past has faced off Kremlin efforts to limit the use of Telegram. When Apple unveiled its new iPhone 12 on Tuesday, “Belarusian activists spammed Twitter and social media” to chastise the tech giant for trying to censor Telegram channels used by anti-government demonstrators, Newsweek reports. Activists have used Telegram and other social media to engage in “doxing,” or revealing the names and personal information about police and security forces. The manager of one Telegram channel, speaking anonymously, told Newsweek that security officers are trying to hide their identities by wearing regular face masks. Thousands of people have been arrested, and many have accused police of abuse and torture during two months of street protests against the disputed re-election of hard-line President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Poland Engineers Delay in EU Decision on Greenhouse Emissions
The tussle between the west and east of the European Union over climate change policy broke out anew at this week’s summit of EU leaders in Brussels, where a decision was reached to delay a final vote on more stringent climate targets until later this year. “Ambitious climate goals are backed by big EU powers including France and Germany, as well as many major businesses, but face resistance from eastern member states still dependent on coal for energy,” Euractiv writes. A strong bloc of mostly western members issued a joint statement urging an increase from the current standard of 40 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030 to “at least” 55 percent. Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted to raise the bar even higher, to 60 percent, the Guardian writes. Leaders agreed to meet again in December to give member countries more time to ponder the national impact of the tighter guidelines. The delay marks a short-term victory for Poland, the bloc’s most coal-dependent member, Euractiv says. The 11 signatories to the statement include Estonia and Latvia, which are among the EU leaders in renewable energy.
Greece Building New Fence on Turkish Border
Greece has begun strengthening its land border with Turkey, as work starts on a new 27-kilometer border fence near the town of Feres in northeastern Greece, Ekathimerini.com reported yesterday. Greece has been bolstering its land border with Turkey since the migration wave in the late 2010s. In March, Greece blocked thousands of migrants from entering its territory after Ankara announced it would do nothing to stop them, Turkey’s Ahval news site writes. In May, Greek authorities said they would expand the border fence so as not to be caught off-guard by Turkey again, VOA reported. Officials said more than 400 officers, including riot police, would be sent to the Turkish border, with 800 more planned to follow. In addition to the new fence, the existing fence will be raised and reinforced, Ekathimerini says.
Central Asia in First Recession Since Fall of USSR
Five Central Asian foreign ministers and their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, yesterday released a joint statement confirming the need to cooperate to protect the populace during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ministers stressed the coordinating role of the World Health Organization in slowing the pandemic, Russia’s TASS news agency notes. The economic impact of the virus crisis is brutal, Kazakhstan’s government-friendly Astana Times writes, saying the contraction is like nothing seen since the post-Soviet recession in the early 1990s. In Kazakhstan, retail and recreation activity is down by a third from January levels and retail trade is down 12 percent, the site says, citing a Google mobility report. Workplace mobility in Tajikistan has fallen 24 percent, according to the report. Unlike the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when China’s economy was still in a growth cycle, this year China will likely experience a slight economic contraction, further stifling recovery in its Central Asian trading partners, the Astana Times says.
Compiled by Ky Krauthamer
- Thursday, 15 October
Regional headlines: Kyrgyz leader resigns; discriminating against COVID; protecting Polish farm animals; Austria’s Bosnians; and the new Borat movie.
Kyrgyz President Steps Down as Turmoil Continues
Kyrgyzstani President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned today, urging competing political factions that have been tussling since his disputed election to withdraw their supporters from the streets of Bishkek. In an address to the public, Jeenbekov said he had yesterday signed a decree to approve parliament’s nomination of a new prime minister. “But this did not ease the tension,” 24.kg quotes him as saying. The turmoil broke out when opposition parties denounced Jeenbekov’s re-election last month as flawed, saying vote-buying and other irregularities tarnished the voting. He was unable to reconcile the competing political forces, in effect handing power to parliament. Lawmakers nominated Sadyr Japarov, a supporter of former President Kurmanbek Bakiev, to the premiership, even though he was serving a prison sentence for organizing a kidnapping during protests against management of the Kumtor gold mine, Kyrgyzstan’s major source of foreign investment. He is seen as a nationalist who backs nationalization of the mines and redistribution of their profits to the people, Al Jazeera writes. His supporters are suspected of threatening other politicians and stoking violence at rallies. “I think nobody can tell really how it’s possible that Japarov jumped from a place of detention immediately to the highest echelons of power. Nobody can answer this question currently, and it’s puzzling all of us,” Kyrgyz academic Asel Doolotkeldieva told Al Jazeera.
Roma Crackdowns in the Name of Public Health
Human rights activists in Bulgaria have charged officials there, and in other countries with large Roma populations, with stepping up repressive measures in the name of combating the COVID-19 pandemic. “In Bulgaria, Roma communities were sprayed with disinfectant from crop dusters this spring as coronavirus cases surged in the country,” Associated Press reports. “In Slovakia, their villages were the only ones where the army conducted testing.” In March, Bulgarian authorities cordoned off Roma areas in several cities and sometimes blocked the roads leading to them, Reuters wrote. Spraying disinfectant on Roma settlements “was clearly racist, because it was only done in Roma neighborhoods,” Radoslav Stoyanov of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee told the AP. “The broader message that was sent to the non-Roma population was that the Roma are dangerous.” A recent report by the Slovak human rights ombudsman concluded that quarantines in three Roma communities unfairly infringed their right to free movement. Officials in Moldova, Ukraine and France have also suggested that Roma areas were hotspots for the coronavirus, although there is little evidence for this, AP says.
Fur Flies in Poland Over Animal-Rights Bill
Thousands of farmers demonstrated in Warsaw, Tuesday, in the latest protest against a bill to ban fur farms and the export of kosher and halal meat. The bill, proposed by the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), has alienated farmers who, until now have been “devoted supporters” of the government, Associated Press writes. Critics say the bill would hurt a significant export sector of the economy. The bill, backed by PiS’s cat-loving leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has opened a rift between the until-now bulletproof Kaczynski and others on the party’s right wing, Transitions columnist Martin Ehl says. Backpedaling, the government proposed to offer compensation to closed farms and to delay the bill. Poland’s Senate yesterday adopted its version of the bill, pushing its start date back three years to 2025, The Times of Israel reports. The bill will still allow ritual kosher and halal slaughter but bans the export of these products, a trade which now generates some $1.8 billion a year. President Andrej Duda has suggested he might refuse to sign the bill, the AP says.
Bosnians Seek Recognition in Austria
Bosnia’s foreign minister has asked Austrian authorities to consider allowing dual citizenship for Bosnians. Bisera Turkovic raised the issue at a meeting late last month in Vienna with Austrian Justice Minister Alma Zadic, Sarajevo Times reported. Turkovic said about half the 170,000 Austrian citizens of Bosnian origin had to give up their Bosnian citizenships when obtaining Austrian citizenship. Some Austrian Bosnians hope to maintain cultural identity through another legal avenue, that of being recognized as a national minority. Bosnian ties to Austria date back to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Balkan Insight notes, although many Bosnians arrived during the turmoil of the 1990s Yugoslav wars, and more came during the migration wave of the past five years. However, under current Austrian law, only communities long present on Austria soil can achieve national minority recognition and the special legal status the comes with it. These include Carinthian Slovenes, Burgenland Croats, Roma, and Sinti. Tina Kordic, a pianist who came to Austria from besieged Sarajevo in 1994, said nationality had always been “foreign” to her, although she sees the advantages it could bring to Austria’s Bosnians. “To be recognized as a national minority means, above all, to receive a kind of award, confirmation for your outstanding contribution to the cultural, historical and political life of the country of Austria,” Kordic told Balkan Insight.
Kazakhstan Braces for Borat Sequel
Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 Borat movie divided critics, earned a ton of money, and infuriated many in Kazakhstan, the supposed home country of its raunchy, hopelessly doltish main character. The sequel – coming 23 October on Amazon Prime – is, if anything, in worse taste, as it follows Borat’s trip from Kazakhstan to America during the COVID-19 pandemic, where he tries to introduce his daughter to Vice President Mike Pence (whom he claims impregnated her). The film is already garnering good/bad publicity. Its creators of “are being sued by the estate of a late Holocaust survivor who reportedly appeared in the sequel because she thought she was being interviewed for a serious documentary,” The Independent writes, citing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In keeping with Baron Cohen’s penchant for obfuscation, the film’s full title is a mystery. Rolling Stone gives it as “Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” while the Associated Press version runs “Borat: Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premiere Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan.”
Compiled by Ky Krauthamer
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