- Russian Troops Arrive in Belarus for Joint Military Drills
Plus, Djokovic back in Serbia, Poroshenko on trial, and more.
The Big Story: Russia and Belarus Prepare for Military Drills Next Month
What happened: Belarusian authorities announced yesterday that Russian military forces and hardware began arriving on its territory for upcoming military drills, Reuters reports. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said that the “Allied Resolve” exercises will be held near Belarus’ borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
More context: Tensions have been running high between Russia and the West amid concerns of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last week, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Russia, which has moved tens of thousands of troops to the Ukrainian border, was “laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for an invasion,” AFP reports. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said there is “information that indicates Russia has already prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine.”
Worth noting: Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said today that recent shipments of British weapons to Ukraine was “extremely dangerous” and “not conducive to reducing tensions,” The Moscow Times reports. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said yesterday that the materials being sent “are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia,” describing them as “light, anti-armor, defensive weapon systems.”
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Slovakia blames European Commission rules for the low amount of money it is accessing to support its food industry, Euractiv reports. According to its draft strategic plan, the Ministry of Agriculture plans to only spend 75 million euros, out of a total of 4.3 billion euros in subsidies available for 2023-2027 from the EU Common Agriculture Policy, to support Slovakia’s food industry. “The Commission assumes that we have completed building the foundations and we can now focus on making the process ecological,” the ministry said. “The reality in Slovakia is that the money invested in the food industry was not spent effectively, or disappeared in corruption schemes.” The ministry also said Slovakia cannot “rely on EU funds forever” and that it plans to set up a program of state-backed loans to support the industry.
- International cybersecurity experts testified yesterday in front of a Polish Senate commission investigating whether Polish authorities spied on opposition figures, AP reports. John Scott-Railton and Bill Marczak, senior researchers with the Citizen Lab, a research group based at the University of Toronto, testified to the committee that data was stolen from the phone of Krzysztof Brejza, a member of parliament from the Civic Platform party. This supports Brejza’s claim last month that his smartphone had been hacked 33 times in 2019. During that time, as the campaigns for the 2010 elections were underway, Polish public broadcaster TVP used text messages that were stolen from Brejza’s phone — and then doctored — in a smear campaign against him.
- The head of Bulgaria’s anti-corruption agency is resigning after being cut off from intelligence data, Reuters reports. The National Security Service revoked Sotir Tsatsarov’s access to classified information, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said on Friday; Petkov told private BTV television that he had a “strongly negative” assessment of the agency’s work. “The lack of really serious corruption cases against high level officials shows absolutely clearly that the agency has not done the job that all Bulgarians had hoped to be done,” Petkov said. Tsatsarov announced plans to step down on 1 March, and said the revocation of his classified access was the result of government pressure on the secret services.
- Novak Djokovic was greeted by crowds of fans yesterday upon landing in Belgrade, one day after losing a court case against deportation from Australia, CNN reports. The Serbian tennis player had his visa to enter Australia revoked after an outcry over his exemption to coronavirus vaccine requirements. The Serbian Olympic Committee said it was “very disappointed” over Australia’s “scandalous decision” to deport Djokovic, calling it a “huge injustice.” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic also condemned the visa cancellation, saying “I think it has shown how the rule of law functions in some other countries, i.e. how it doesn’t function.”
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appeared in court yesterday to face treason charges that he says are politically motivated, The Guardian reports. Last month, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation said that Poroshenko is suspected of giving aid to the self-proclaimed republics in the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk – which have been under the control of Russian separatists since 2014 – by purchasing coal from the republics in 2014-2015. Ukrainian prosecutors asked him to post 1 billion hryvnia in bail (31 million euros) or be remanded in custody for two months pending investigation and trial. Poroshenko, whose assets have been frozen pending investigation, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
- Cryptomining fever has taken hold of Georgia’s mountain region of Svaneti and is causing severe power outages, Eurasient reports. The energy company Energo Pro said that the situation was “untenable,” adding “No infrastructure can handle the kind of stress that we are seeing there.” Georgia was an early adopter of blockchain, the distributed data technology that underlies bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and the country’s cheap energy and low regulation made it highly attractive to cryptocurrency miners. Even members of the Orthodox Church were involved in the practice, a leak last year from security services files revealed. “Since 2017, Bishop of Vani-Baghdati Diocese Anton Gulukhia owns up to 50 units of cryptocurrency production hardware,” one leaked file said, as cited by Georgian media.
- The deadly unrest earlier this month in Kazakhstan placed a spotlight on President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s connections to his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbaev, RFE/RL reports. A joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Russian Service along with Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, showed multiple financial connections between the two men. Also, the report found that Tokayev, his former wife Nadezhda Tokayeva, and his son Timur own real estate in Russia and Switzerland. Noting that Nazarbaev’s daughter Dinara also owns a massive villa in Switzerland, on the outskirts of Geneva, the Kazakh website Kz.expert wrote: “This city…has become a ‘home’ for both the family of first President Nursultan Nazarbaev and for the family of second President [Tokayev].”
- A court in Turkey ruled yesterday that jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala should remain behind bars, AP reports. Kavala faces several charges, including financing nationwide anti-government protests in 2013, attempting to overthrow the government through his involvement in a coup attempt in 2016, and espionage. If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole. Although the European Court of Human Rights ordered his release in 2019 after ruling that Kavala’s rights had been violated, Ankara has refused to do so. Last year, Ankara summoned the ambassadors of 10 countries, including Germany and the United States, after they called for the release of Kavala.
- Turkey Bets on Green Card
Several cities are combating low public interest in recycling with a cash for trash scheme.
Muratpasa, a district of Antalya on Turkey’s southern coast, aims to attract consumers to better environmental practices by fattening their wallet. If they recycle their waste, they receive points that earn them money.
Muratpasa’s Green Neighbor Card got its start in 2014 as a campaign pledge by then-candidate, now mayor, Umit Uysal. Uysal, a lawyer by training, wrote the initial project, and in 2016 it was ready to launch, says environmental engineer Ercan Turan, the program’s coordinator.
Muratpasa contracted out the recycling program to a local company. Residents deliver their recyclable waste to company trucks in their neighborhoods or to collection sites. In return, points are loaded onto Green Neighbor Cards provided by the vendor. Card balances can be used in shops to pay for goods; get discounts at businesses ranging from Burger King to IKEA; or withdrawn as cash from ATMs.
The district’s program grew steadily. In April 2016, the first month, residents turned in 8,753 kilograms of waste. By December of that year it reached 78,000 kilograms, according to the 2016 district annual report. By 2020, average monthly collection had risen to 200,000 kilograms, for an annual total of 2,400 tons of recyclable waste.
Recycling has taken off in Turkey in the past decade, but the numbers remain low – at least in part because it started practically from zero. In 2019 the country had a 12% rate of municipal waste recycling and composting, still one of the lowest among European nations, according to the European Environment Agency.
A law passed in 2004 and revised in 2011 kickstarted the country’s focus on the recycling issue. It requires recycling facilities to accept more kinds of packaging and mandates reductions in the amount of packaging. The number of waste processing and recycling facilities rose from 28 in 2003 to 521 collection and separation plants and 676 recycling facilities in 2015 (the most recent published data).
The pandemic has slowed recycling campaigns, but the idea of money for recyclables is catching on. Muratpasa’s initiative has spurred other local governments in Turkey to try similar projects. In Istanbul’s Sisli district, for example, people not only shop with their card but can access social support payments.
And the need is evident: As much as 90 percent of municipal waste in Turkey goes to landfills, according to data from the OECD. The biggest hurdle to more effective waste collection and recycling is lack of sufficient infrastructure, according to the European Environmental Agency.
Others Get on Board
Sisli launched its effort in 2020. The local government contracted out the work to a recycling company, in which it holds 51 percent of the shares. Sisli since has expanded its project to include hospitals and businesses, says district communications adviser Gonen Orhan.
In the western city of Tekirdag, the Suleymanpasa district worked with Muratpasa in implementing its recycling card system in 2019. About 200,000 residents participate, says Eda Erdur, an environmental engineer and part of the district administration. As in Muratpasa, local authorities contract out the work to the private sector.
Because Sisli and Suleymanpasa both had to suspend their recycling projects during the COVID-19 pandemic, they lack data about their level of success.
Muratpasa residents can deliver their recyclables to any of 14 staffed locations around the city every Sunday, or they can wait for collection trucks to come to them. From Monday to Saturday, trucks operated by Cevmak, a private waste-separation company, visit neighborhoods on a prearranged schedule. They broadcast announcements to encourage residents to bring out their trash. When they do, workers weigh it with a hand scale and enter the amounts into a mobile application, then add the corresponding number of points to the residents’ cards.
The amount added to the card depends on the kind of waste. Glass, paper, and metal, for example, yield fractions of a U.S. cent per kilogram; 4 to 5 kilos of paper pays for a loaf of bread. The rates are slightly higher if the waste is delivered to a staffed pickup point.
In the program’s first five years, the district distributed more than 94,000 cards, according to the 2020 annual report, although less than half were activated. At that time, the cards could be used to make purchases only in participating shops. The system was expanded in 2021, and the card now is accepted at any shop with an electronic payment terminal. In the first four months of 2021, almost 12,000 new cards were handed out to Muratpasa residents, and 8,472 were activated.
According to the district, as of last April, residents had earned 5.3 million liras since the program began (worth almost $400,000 at the current exchange rate, although some $1.5 million in 2016).
Along with plastic, metal, paper, and glass, workers collect clothes, shoes, vegetable oil, and electronic equipment. The waste is separated at Cevmak’s collection and separation facility, processed, and sold to Turkish recycling companies.
A big plus for Muratpasa, Turan says, is that Cevmak covers all costs of the recycling card project, including the financial incentives.
Making a Difference, Not Just Money
Marine biologist Sedat Gundogdu of Cukurova University, who studies the effects of microplastics on sea life, sees the Green Neighbor Card as a mixed bag. On one hand, the program raises public awareness, he says. “The fact that other municipalities have replicated it shows that it was successful. Another plus is the gradual increase in the amount of waste that was collected over the years.”
But the project’s financial compensation aspect may have unforeseen consequences, Gundogdu says. “I believe they should have taken the route of presenting recycling as a civic duty. … I think it’s possible to accomplish waste separation at the source by cities raising awareness through public activities and a penalty system instead of leaving it up to voluntary participation.”
Havva Karakus, a resident of Muratpasa’s Meltem neighborhood, says once-a-week collection is not optimal. Many people would rather not save their waste for a whole week and don’t have space in their homes to store it, Karakus says.
Women, especially homemakers, make up the largest single group of card users, according to a study by Akdeniz University sociologist Hasan Huseyin Aygul and Derya Yildiz, a graduate student in the Akdeniz University Mediterranean Civilizations Research Institute. Women made up 69 percent of the 400 Muratpasa card users they surveyed, 43 percent of them homemakers.
“Working residents aren’t at home at collection times during the day, and they are hesitant to go to collection points during the week, maybe because they live far away from one,” says Yildiz. She echoes Karakus’ view that people complain about not having enough space. “These are some of the reasons that make me doubt the project’s sustainability.”
Responding to this criticism, Turan says the district recently raised the amounts for recyclables delivered to the staffed collection points on Sundays, to encourage working residents to participate.
The cash-for-waste idea has both positive and negative outcomes, Yildiz said. It provides extra income for lower-income residents, and she has even seen residents of her own neighborhood hire themselves out to collect their neighbors’ waste. But the financial reward system diverts participants’ attention from increasing awareness about recycling and turns the project into a form of making money, Yildiz said.
On the positive side, she says, the project has helped raise awareness about waste management, especially among stay-at-home wives and mothers with no prior experience of recycling.
To give recycling an added boost, more containers should be placed in already-aware, higher-income neighborhoods which don’t currently have recycling infrastructure, Yildiz suggests.
But recycling might be more common than statistics indicate, because of the small army of informal waste pickers who sort through trash containers for material they can sell to private recyclers. This provides a meager living for tens of thousands of people, many from marginalized communities, while making it difficult to calculate exactly how much waste is recycled.
Integrating these unlicensed collectors into the official system could bring improvements, says Sisli district communications adviser Orhan. District officials discussed potential collaboration in a recent meeting.
Antalya-based freelance journalist Sevilay Nur Saraclar has written about topics such as women’s issues and the environment for outlets including Brandday, Journo, and Inside Turkey. https://twitter.com/Sevilaysaraclar.
Photos by the author.
- Kosovo Serbs Banned From Voting on Serbian Referendum
Plus, new PM in North Macedonia, Navalny reflects on year in prison, and more.
The Big Story: Serbs Vote in Favor of Judiciary Changes
What happened: Kosovo lawmakers voted Saturday to ban ethnic Serbs in Kosovo from voting within the country on a referendum in Serbia, Reuters reports. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that establishing polling stations for ethnic Serbs would be at odds with Kosovo’s sovereignty. “Kosovo is an independent and sovereign state and should be treated as such,” Kurti said. The previous day, the United States, the EU, and several western European countries urged Kosovo to let its ethnic Serbs cast their ballots in the Serbian referendum.
More context: According to preliminary results of the Serbian referendum cited by RFE/RL, the constitutional changes passed with 60% support, amid a turnout of only around 30%. The amendments, which were backed by the government of President Aleksandar Vucic as well as the United States and European countries, relate to the election of judges and prosecutors; the changes are intended to reduce political influence on the judiciary and give it greater independence.
Worth noting: Several opposition parties urged voters to reject the referendum on the grounds that, due to the absence of opposition parties at the time, the parliament lacked legitimacy when the amendments were adopted, BIRN reports. The opponents to the changes also say there is still a real possibility of political influence on the judiciary.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- More than a thousand Hungarians marched in Budapest yesterday protesting against the coronavirus vaccine, Reuters reports. Organized by the far-right Our Homeland Movement, the rally featured slogans such as “We don’t tolerate blackmail,” “I am unvaccinated, not a criminal,” and “Enough of COVID dictatorship.” The movement is planning to run in general elections scheduled for this April; however, a poll conducted last month by Zavecz Research showed Our Homeland was supported by just 3% of respondents, less than the required 5% threshold to enter parliament. The same poll indicated that the ruling Fidesz party was supported by 38%, slightly less than the opposition alliance, which received 39% support.
- Polish border guards have detained a group of migrant smugglers accused of illegally transporting people over the Belarusian border, Euronews reports. The migrants allegedly paid 3,000 euros each to the smugglers. Anna Michalska, spokeswoman for the Polish Border Guard, said 90% of the border crossers use Poland as a transit point on their way to Western Europe, where they apply for asylum. Meanwhile, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said yesterday that Iraq has repatriated almost 4,000 Iraqis who had been stuck at Belarus’ borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, RFE/RL reports. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf said that the number of Iraqis still stuck in the border areas cannot be determined due to “the difficult weather and the complex environment.”
- The parliament in North Macedonia voted yesterday to endorse Dimitar Kovacevski as new prime minister, BIRN reports. Kovacevski said that ongoing energy problems and the health crisis would be his government’s priority, along with increasing the average monthly wage. Kovacevski’s cabinet is composed of Social Democrats, and some allied smaller parties, with 12 posts; the junior ruling Democratic Union for Integration with six posts; and the Alternative party, which joined the ruling coalition late last year, with three. In November, then Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced that he was stepping down following the defeat of his ruling SDSM party.
- A recent documentary about the Balkan Beats music style “is as much about music and immigration as it is about courage to reinvent oneself personally in order to coexist with a changed world,” The Calvert Journal reports. Called Here We Move Here We Groove, the 2021 documentary focuses on the story of Bosnian musician Robert Soko. An emigrant to Berlin in the 1990s who worked as a taxi driver by day, Soko made a name for himself as a DJ for refugees from the Balkan wars and later for war refugees and artists from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In his manifesto, Soko describes his sound as “traditional Balkan sounds, mixed with modern electronic beats, hitting the party crowd like a lightning bolt, rough and full of emotion, weeping and laughing at the same time.”
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Moscow denied Kyiv’s accusations of being behind last Friday’s massive cyber attack targeting governmental websites, AFP reports. “All the evidence points to Russia being behind the cyber attack,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation said in a statement on Sunday, adding “Moscow is continuing to wage a hybrid war.” The ministry also assured the Ukrainian public that their personal information was secure. The Kremlin maintained that there was no evidence that Russia was involved in the hack. “Russia has nothing to do with these cyber-attacks,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov. “Ukrainians are blaming everything on Russia, even their bad weather in their country.”
- On the one-year anniversary of the start of his incarceration, imprisoned Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny said he has no regrets, RFE/RL reports. “Having served my first year in prison, I want to tell everyone exactly what I shouted to those gathered outside the court when a convoy led me to a police van: Don’t be afraid of anything,” Navalny wrote today on Instagram. He is currently serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for parole violations. Amnesty International called on the international community to demand Navalny’s release, and urged Russia to end the “unprecedented campaign of repression and reprisals” against his supporters. An Amnesty petition for Navalny’s release has received more than 360,000 signatures.
- Both Turkey and Armenia praised the talks on normalizing mutual relations that the two countries held on Friday in Moscow, AFP reports. Armenian envoy Ruben Rubinyan and his Turkish counterpart Serdar Kilic met “in a positive and constructive atmosphere,” according to identical statements from their foreign ministries; the talks did not result in any concrete measures. Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Ankara and Yerevan would appoint the special envoys tasked with reestablishing relations. Although Turkey and Armenia signed a landmark peace accord in 2009 designed to settle their diplomatic rifts and solve border issues, the deal was never ratified.
- Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are keeping a watchful eye on Afghanistan while also making energy deals with the Taliban, Eurasianet reports. In 2019, Uzbekistan signed a deal with the Afghan state-owned power company Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) to supply the country with 6 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually for the following decade. Last month, DABS chief executive Hafiz Mohammad Amin finalized a $69 million agreement for Tajikistan to supply Afghanistan with 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity this year. These deals could translate into leverage over Kabul, as shown by a recent power outage reportedly due to a technical issue in Uzbekistan. On their part, Afghanistan has been asking Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to return military aircraft flown out of the country during the Taliban takeover of Kabul last August.
- Taking Stock
Moldovan President Maia Sandu, one of the leading liberal, pro-Western voices in Eastern Europe, just finished up her first year in office. From Ziarul de Garda.
After studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and working for the World Bank and the UN Development Program, Maia Sandu was Moldova’s education minister between 2012 and 2015. She went on to narrowly lose the 2016 presidential elections before becoming prime minister in 2019, heading a short-lived government soon toppled in a power struggle. Those disappointments finally ended with her landslide victory in the November 2020 presidential elections, when she defeated the incumbent Igor Dodon after obtaining the highest number of votes ever given to a politician or political party in the history of elections in Moldova. A year after her inauguration, Ziarul de Garda, a leading newspaper in Moldova, sat down with Sandu to discuss the achievements and failures of her first year in office, as well as the most pressing issues on the country’s agenda. The questions came from various members of the newsroom.
ZdG: Looking back at your first year of presidency, are you satisfied with what you have accomplished?
Sandu: I am proud of what the people of Moldova have accomplished, and I believe that the most important thing we have accomplished together is that we have ousted several corrupt politicians from power. I contributed by helping to create conditions for the citizens to drive corruption out of the government. From now on we have a lot of work to do. So we can’t be satisfied. As for the institution I run, I think we have managed some things externally, because we have managed to resume good relations with many countries; we have managed to improve the presence of Moldova at several international forums, and thus made ourselves heard. Of course, this leads to more projects, more assistance for citizens in different fields. I think these are the most important achievements.
ZdG: Are you sure that the parliamentary majority, which is now made up of deputies of the Action and Solidarity Party, will remain until the next regular parliamentary elections?
Sandu: I am confident that they are well-meaning people and that they will continue to be a strong team, so that we can deliver on commitments we have made to our citizens. Things don’t happen overnight. Some things work out faster; some take time. The opportunity created is important, to start building a state that works for citizens, to provide conditions for economic growth, to create more jobs, to increase budget revenues, and accordingly, to be able to pay higher salaries, to be able to develop the infrastructure. The needs are enormous. It also takes effort to get the team to work together.
ZdG: What do you think is your biggest setback in your first year in office?
Sandu: In my opinion, one thing we didn’t do well was to bring in more professionals to the governing team willing to take responsibility for running our institution. The problem of human resources is the main problem and I think that this problem is everywhere, including in the private … sector. Many citizens left the country, many dislike the idea of moving to [work for] the state because of lower wages and the legacy we have. It is not easy to come and take responsibility for running an institution when it is completely unfeasible.
Over the last 10 years, the quality of public service has deteriorated substantially. Plahotniuc’s regime bears the greatest responsibility for this [Ed. note: Oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc was the country’s leading power broker before fleeing the country in June 2019]. It is very difficult to rebuild these institutions and bring in a critical number of people who can move things forward. This government has many good ideas, but not all of them are being implemented, because there is not enough capacity, especially at the management level. We have not been able to fill all the positions, including in the presidency staff, where there are some key positions, such as adviser in the field of justice, or security, and I, unfortunately, failed to convince very good professionals to take on this responsibility.
ZdG: Ms. Sandu, the citizens associate your work as president with the work of the government. It’s kind of inevitable. In recent months, however, the government has pursued, at times, an inept personnel policy, and promoted to important positions people with reasonable doubts about their integrity. What happened to the filters of the Action and Solidarity Party you talked about earlier?
Sandu: The personnel policy that I pursue in the presidency and the personnel policy of the government or the parliament are different things. The most important thing we can see today is that the government’s intention is to appoint the right people, without integrity problems and good professionals. And this is the big difference between today’s government and the previous governments. Then, they knowingly promoted people who were key elements in all sorts of schemes or people who turned a blind eye to the corruption schemes coordinated by those in charge of the country.
Today, we have a government that aims to appoint honest people with managerial and professional skills. It doesn’t always work out because we’ve all lived in a toxic system for the last 30 years and it’s very difficult to choose from more options. Everyone has been in this system. Some have committed abuses; others have been in this system and have tried their best not to get caught up in these actions. Sometimes, only after a person is appointed it may turn out he or she is not the most appropriate person. I don’t think the issue is as dramatic as they [critics] try to exuberantly present it. It is important that we correct these errors and move on. I reached out to people who seemed suitable for a particular position and who told me “I’d rather stay away, keep working, and pay taxes” or “I don’t want the press to write about me.” Such constraints exist, but one’s intention is what matters most, and the intention of the government is to promote honest people to office. If they make a mistake, they’ll correct it.
ZdG: Is there such a shortage of people that it is necessary to bring to important positions people who were previously part of the system (including the Plahotniuc period) and did not achieve anything notable?
Sandu: What do we mean by Plahotniuc’s system? All state institutions were subdued when Plahotniuc’s regime was in power. Does this mean that all officials in this or that institution were part of this regime? I do not believe that. In no country do civil servants change depending on who comes to power. There are people who committed abuses and should be given no chances to work in positions of responsibility and there are people who suffered because of this regime. Some left because they could not bear it; others stayed because they had nowhere to go. The difference should be made between those who participated in the abuse and those who were in the system.
ZdG: Do you believe that the current team at the General Prosecutor’s Office is properly handling high-profile cases, including those against [businessman and politician Veaceslav] Platon, [fugitive oligarch Ilan] Shor, or Plahotniuc, and that the offenders will be convicted?
Sandu: I do not have this certainty and no one, except the leadership of the Prosecutor’s Office, can be totally sure of what is happening there. I know they are working seriously, especially on big corruption investigations; they are also working on the relationship with external partners. What the Prosecutor’s Office is doing is very important, but the question is what will happen in court. A good investigation in the Prosecutor’s Office is not enough. The question is whether we manage to reform the judiciary before these cases reach the courts. There are some risks and a lot of attention on these big corruption cases. We also have the support of our external partners. All these, I hope, will lead to the right results.
ZdG: If the judges of the Constitutional Court earn about 3,000 euros per month, how much should the president of the state earn, so that he or she cannot be corrupted?
Sandu: I believe that the members of the Constitutional Court should get a salary in accordance with the responsibilities assigned to them. We can compare the wages of the Constitutional Court members with the average wages in the economy, and then compare this ratio with countries in the region. We should have good salaries, but they are not enough to guarantee that there is no corruption. There should also be sanctions. Ten years ago, when the judges’ salaries were increased, it did not lead to a reduction of corruption among prosecutors and judges because there were no sanctions provided [along with] salary increases. Hence, both elements must be ensured.
In this particular case, the request for a salary increase came from employees of the Constitutional Court, who receive a net salary of 7,000 to 8,000 lei ($390-$445). It is too low a salary to bring very good lawyers to the Constitutional Court, to prepare the decisions well. We have to admit that it is a problem; however, the solution was too hasty. We don’t have to be populists. We have low-income citizens, it is important, however, that we do not go to the other extreme. Wages should be increased, and we will be able to increase them when we start the economic development that will generate these revenues for the budget. Everyone is waiting for these increases. Many people deserve these increases. It is important to say that we need to give better wages to those who work. There must be enough flexibility in the legal framework for those who sit in offices and wait for their working day to pass, so that such people are no longer found in state institutions. Good wages only for those who work.
ZdG: What about doctors or teachers? They also have low salaries and work in areas sensitive to corruption. Why make such a big difference between a judge and a doctor or a teacher?
Sandu: Everyone deserves high salaries, and I am confident that by the end of this term the government will be able to allocate resources to significantly increase the salaries of teachers and doctors. The economy must be jump-started, because we need millions of lei for these increases. For example, the increase of the minimum pension approved in autumn means almost 3 billion lei for 2022. The increase of salaries for education employees entails many billions of lei, which should come from savings. Someone has to generate this revenue from the state budget. The economy must be jump started today so that it develops and generates more revenue. Education must become the national project of this country. Fighting corruption is a very important process that we intend to complete; the country’s strategy, however, must focus on education, starting from how we train teachers, who becomes a teacher, how we motivate teachers.
ZdG: Related to what is currently going on in the judiciary, in your opinion, is it a fight against corruption or is it settling accounts between people inside the system?
Sandu: As I said, I think there are many cases of fighting corruption. People who are most likely corrupt are being investigated, and you’ve seen that in your investigations. To some extent, there may also be settlements of accounts … It’s hard to say because I do not investigate things there. We will understand it when we move on to the next stage and when this extraordinary external evaluation will be carried out. We will see then who will remain in the system following this stage, and we will already have more confidence that things are done right. But even today, I see enough activity on the part of the prosecutor’s office, which demonstrates a real intention to move forward on cases of high corruption.
ZdG: Is a European prosecutor general or external head of the National Anticorruption Center a solution for the current government or will they continue to rely on people from Moldova who may have worked in the system?
Sandu: I think it is good to try to widen the circle of potential candidates for these positions. Of course, the decision belongs to the Superior Council of Prosecutors or, in the case of the National Anticorruption Center, to parliament, but I think it is good to widen this circle and to be able to appoint people from outside the system to these functions. As far as I know, there is such an intention in parliament and let’s see how they put it into practice.
ZdG: Outside the country or just outside the system?
Sandu: I think from outside the system also means from outside the country.
ZdG: During the election campaign, both you and the Action and Solidarity Party promised to confiscate the assets of officials who could not justify the source of the money. This requires an amendment of the constitution, and the Action and Solidarity Party does not have enough votes. How do you comply with the law and keep your promise to the voters?
Sandu: Together with my colleagues from the presidency, we are working on a bill and we will present it in the next few days. It refers to a change in the legal framework for confiscation, which would simplify confiscation procedures, taking into account this constraint that is in the constitution. However, adjustments can be made to make this process much easier.
ZdG: Why don’t people want to get vaccinated and why can’t the authorities find solutions to convince the population?
Sandu: Unfortunately, I think there are fewer and fewer people who believe in education and who believe in science. This is really serious. I think it is one of the reasons why so many people don’t want to get vaccinated. In addition, there have been misinformation campaigns. Some were even run by institutions that call themselves media institutions; others were run on social networks by anti-vaccine groups. It is quite difficult to convince people under such conditions. The government may have to propose other measures, because if we do not increase the vaccination rate, then we will all pay very high costs: both the cost of human lives and the resources spent on the system. These resources could go to treating people with cancer or other diseases. A lot of health money goes to fighting the pandemic, the economic costs, because whether we like it or not, certain restrictive measures are required anyway. So we should understand that there are some very, very high costs that we all pay. Honestly speaking, we have reached such a high level of mistrust in science that it scares me. And that means we need to get back to education.
ZdG: You have said many times that you dream of building Europe at home. What stage are we at?
Sandu: We are still a long way off, even if we have more democracy and more freedom, and, I far as I know, people do not feel harassed or blackmailed, as they did a few years ago; the business community no longer worries that Plahotniuc or someone like him will come and take over their business, the teachers know that no one will come to force them into a political party, the mayors know that no one will use the National Integrity Authority and the prosecutor’s office to force them to switch from one party to another. So, here we have achieved some things, but we need to strengthen these democratic processes, we need to strengthen democratic institutions, and we still have a lot to build on the quality of institutions; we have a lot to build on improving living standards.
We are on the right track, but there is a long way to go and we must be honest with ourselves. We shouldn’t think that things will change overnight, but they do change, and this is important, and it’s important to regain confidence. Once again, it is not just about trust in the state or its authorities. It is very important to restore trust among us, to have the patience to know each other, to understand each other and to rebuild this trust in society. A society is strong and can succeed only if it is united and if people want to and can trust each other.
- Lithuanians File Lawsuit Against Gorbachev
Plus, Serbian media and Premier League soccer, Navalny allies labeled extremists, and more.
The Big Story: Lithuanians Take Gorbachev to Court Over 1991 Upheaval
What happened: Six Lithuanians have filed a civil lawsuit against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in connection to a 1991 episode of bloody repression against the pro-independence movement in Lithuania, AFP reports. The lawsuit states that Gorbachev had control of the Soviet military and yet he failed to stop the “international crime” against Lithuanians.
More context: In March 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence from Moscow. In response, the Soviets conducted a deadly crackdown on the Baltic state’s pro-independence movement in 1991. Dozens of former Soviet military officials were prosecuted in 2019 by Lithuanian courts for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the events; prosecutors said Soviet soldiers killed 14 civilians in January 1991, all but one of them during the storming of the Lithuanian state television headquarters and TV tower by paratroopers.
Worth noting: “It is clear that the actions of the military forces would not have been possible without coordination with Gorbachev,” said Robertas Povilaitis, whose father died during the 1991 upheaval. Povilaitis believes the trial is “very important” and says “justice is not complete” until Gorbachev is held responsible.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- The number of deaths greatly exceeded births last year in Hungary, causing the steepest population decline since 1876, bne IntelliNews reports. Mortality figures reached 150,000 last year while births numbered around 93,000, translating into an overall population decline of nearly 60,000 people. The death toll from the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic in 2020 reached 40,000, which makes Hungary the fourth worst in the world in terms of death per capita from the pandemic, according to data aggregator Worldometer. Hungarian opposition parties say these figures show that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s measures to contain the pandemic have failed.
- After Malta, Slovenia and Croatia are the top EU countries in terms of the number of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, BIRN reports. A SLAPP is a lawsuit designed to punish a defendant for speaking out on matters of public interest. The Coalition Against SLAPPS in Europe, CASE, published a report yesterday that shows Malta had the highest rate of SLAPP cases per capita last year, at 3 per 100,000 people, while Slovenia ranks second with 1.9, followed by Croatia with 0.6. The Croatian Journalists’ Association recorded 905 active court cases against journalists and media outlets in 2020, and at least 924 cases in 2021. The CASE report notes that even when a SLAPP is unsuccessful, it “has an impact on society and democracy as a whole, in what has been defined as a ‘modern wave of censorship-by-litigation.’”
- In other news from Slovenia, Ljubljana announced plans to quit using coal in power stations by 2033, Bloomberg reports. According to documents made public yesterday, the Slovenian government said it will stop using coal for electricity as part of a “fair transition” of its coal regions. The announcement comes a week after the Czech Republic said it also planned to phase out coal by 2033, according to Greenpeace. Also, Czech utility giant CEZ said that by 2030 it will drastically cut coal from its power and heating operations, which would lead to a decrease in the amount of electricity it produces from coal from 39% to 12.5%.
- Last week’s purchase of the Southampton soccer team by Serbian media magnate Dragan Solak has possible ramifications for local media, RFE/RL reports. Solak’s decision to acquire an 80% stake worth $135 million in the English Premier League team might be connected to an event last July, when Solak’s telecoms and media giant, United Group, lost a bidding war for the league’s Balkan broadcasting rights. The winner was state-backed Telekom Serbia, whose huge bid of over 100 million euros per season from 2022-2028 is seven times more than what was paid in the 2019-22 period. Telekom Serbia’s move was seen as political; Solak’s media outlets are among the few that criticize President Aleksandar Vucic’s government. Now, by owning one of the clubs, Solak “will play a role in shaping the criteria for awarding broadcast contracts,” said Simon Chadwick of the Emlyon Business School in Paris.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The U.S. dismissed Russian threats about a possible deployment of its military to Cuba or Venezuela if the United States or its allies don’t curtail their moves in the regions near Russia, AP reports. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said yesterday he could “neither confirm nor exclude” the possibility of Russia sending military assets to Latin America in response to U.S. actions. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan called the statements “bluster in the public commentary.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week’s talks in Geneva between the two countries produced “some positive elements and nuances,” but he characterized them as unsuccessful overall.
- Russia added two aides of imprisoned opposition figure Alexei Navalny to a list of “terrorists and extremists” today, The Moscow Times reports. Putting Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov on the Federal Financial Monitoring Service list indicates that Russian authorities suspect them of involvement in activities that support terrorist or extremist organizations. Zhdanov is the former head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which disbanded last year, while Volkov headed Navalny’s regional campaign offices and was in charge of his electoral campaigns for Moscow mayor in 2013 and for the Russian presidency in 2018.
- Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that talks with Turkey, which began today in Moscow, are expected to lead to a normalization of ties as well as an opening of their mutual border, RFE/RL reports. Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Ankara and Yerevan would appoint special envoys tasked with reestablishing relations. Although Turkey and Armenia signed a landmark peace accord in 2009 designed to settle their diplomatic rifts and solve the border issue, the deal was never ratified. “In our opinion, the Turkish government also shares the approach of starting a dialogue without preconditions,” Vahan Hunanian, a spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, said yesterday. The Russian-hosted meeting will begin with a round of exploratory talks, Hunanian said.
- Mongolia’s female peacekeepers offer a salient case study about the UN’s commitment to gender parity among its troops, according to an analysis in The Diplomat. As of last year, more than 900 Mongolian women had taken part in UN peacekeeping operations and NATO coalition forces, serving as military observers, staff officers, and military contingent members. The number of women in senior roles and decision-making posts remains low, however. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations deployed its first All-Female Police Unit in 2007, and the analysis notes that a greater role for all-female contingents in global missions, and their integration into mixed-gender environments, would have a momentous impact. Increasing the presence of women would “bring about substantive changes in the peacekeeping environment,” The Diplomat says.
- Slovakia’s Top Prosecutor Visits Russia, Slams U.S. Defense Pact
Critics say Maros Zilinka’s visit to Moscow endorses the brutal methods of Russian law enforcement. From Dennik N.
Transitions editor’s note: This commentary from the Slovak news site Dennik N has been updated to reflect Zilinka’s visit to Moscow and other events since it was published on 5 January.
Just a few days after criticizing Slovakia’s proposed defense agreement with the United States, Slovakia’s Prosecutor General Maros Zilinka was due to attend the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the establishment of the Russian prosecution service.
Prior to the trip, scheduled for 11-13 January, Zilinka’s office said it had been planned for a long time. Representatives of 34 countries and international organizations such as the Council of Europe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the International Association of Prosecutors were expected to attend.
Defense Committee Head: Zilinka Behaves Like Russians
Last week, the chairman of the Slovak parliament’s defense and security committee compared Zilinka’s methods to those of Russian prosecutors. In a Facebook post, Juraj Krupa of the co-governing OlaNO party said Zilinka’s comments on the proposed U.S. defense agreement reminded him of “how Russian prosecutors also influence public debate.”
“I do not wish to speculate but it is possible that such statements will help the Prosecutor General look more interesting” during the celebration in Moscow, Krupa said.
Juraj Seliga, a deputy for the opposition For the People party, called on Zilinka not to travel to Moscow. “If you appreciate democracy and human rights, if you support the rule of law, you cannot attend this celebration in Russia,” he wrote, going on to say that Russia limits personal liberties and persecutes political opponents, while its secret service assassinates Russians abroad and the prosecutor’s office does not disavow the Stalinist period.
Zilinka previously met with Krasnov on a visit to Moscow in July, when he spoke of his interest in strengthening cooperation.
[At a meeting with Zilinka today, Krasnov said they would soon sign a two-year agreement on cooperation between their agencies, Krasnov’s office announced. Krasnov also met with Slovenia’s chief prosecutor Drago Sketa today. Belgium’s Frederic Van Leeuw also was present at the ceremonies, according to a Kremlin press release.]
EU: Krasnov Is a Rights Violator
According to Grigorij Meseznikov, director of Slovakia’s Institute for Public Affairs think tank, the Russian prosecutor general’s agency is part of a repressive mechanism that violates human rights. “Obviously, this is no independent body working to protect constitutionality, but rather a tool for imposing politically motivated steps aimed at maintaining power in the hands of the current governing corporation composed of former officers of the KGB and the FSB [the Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies],” the political scientist said. According to Meseznikov, this precludes the chief prosecutor of Slovakia, or any other EU member, from acting in any way as a partner organization of their Russian counterpart.
Meseznikov said the very commemoration of the Russian prosecution service’s 300th anniversary is a relatively shady affair. “You can probably imagine the type of institution that was the prosecutor’s office established by Czar Peter I in 1722. Even though formally this was an introduction of structural elements common to Western countries at the time, Peter I’s regime was violent and despotic.” Peter the Great is often seen as a “westernizer” of Russian society, but he was really a tyrant who had his political opponents decapitated, Meseznikov said.
“The fact that a representative of the prosecutor general’s office of an EU member state would appear at this celebration is, I think, a terrible faux pas, and not just historically,” he said, adding that Russia behaves as an enemy state towards both NATO and the EU. “What would the people who are now serving time as Russia’s political prisoners say about this? Estimates suggest there are some 1,000 of them, plus you have those who are persecuted in other ways. People are being called foreign agents, NGOs are being shut down.”
Last March, Krasnov was included on the EU’s sanctions list, alongside Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin, National Guard commander Viktor Zolotov, and Federal Prison Service head Alexander Kalashnikov. They were listed “over their roles in the arbitrary arrest, prosecution and sentencing of Alexei Navalny, as well as the repression of peaceful protests in connection with his unlawful treatment.”
A European Council press release said the Russian officials were responsible for “serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions, as well as widespread and systematic repression of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and freedom of opinion and expression in Russia.”
Zilinka: U.S. Agreement Would Limit Our Sovereignty
On 4 January, Zilinka criticized the proposed defense agreement with the United States, announcing that his office had “submitted 35 fundamental objections, meaning it rejects the draft agreement as a whole.” Such “defense cooperation agreements” have already been signed by most NATO countries.
“The draft agreement steps outside the legal framework of the NATO [accession process], because it also regulates a number of situations under which it is proposed that the Slovak Republic give up the prerogative to perform its sovereign state power in its own (sovereign) territory,” his office commented.
The prosecutor’s objections also enter the territory of international politics, claiming, for example, that the agreement is unbalanced. “The commitment of the two contractual parties to common defense according to their needs is not emphasized, which seems to be in stark contrast with the benefits of the other party,” Zilinka’s office objects.
Pavel Macko, the former deputy commander of the Slovak General Staff, suggests that Zilinka should instead try to ensure that the agreement with Russia, allowing the presence of Russian officers at Slovakia’s airbase in Sliac, also prohibits Russia from bringing Novichok to Slovakia.
Macko, who is currently leader of the small Civic Democrats of Slovakia party, also emphasizes that the draft agreement with the United States is public and can be commented on, whereas the agreement with Russia is not publicly available.
Until just recently, it looked as if the only people opposed to the U.S. defense agreement would be elements of the opposition, as well as a number of pro-Kremlin actors. They have already signed online petitions against the draft agreement and submitted a number of objections. Former Prime Minister Robert Fico, the leader of the [opposition, populist] Smer party, is particularly critical.
[The government approved the defense agreement with the United States on 12 January. It must now be signed by President Zuzana Caputova and then ratified by Slovak lawmakers.]
Milo Kern writes for Dennik N mainly on politics and public finances. He is a former Czech Press Agency correspondent in Slovakia and Austria.
Vladimir Snidl was a founding editor of Dennik N in 2015. His reporting focuses on military procurement, transport issues, and the spread of disinformation.
Translated by Matus Nemeth.
- Bulgarian Anti-Vaxxers Try to Storm Parliament in Sofia
Plus, Taipei offers $1 billion credit fund to Vilnius, energy watchdog blames Russia for European gas crisis, and more.
The Big Story: Anti-Vaxxer Party Supporters Try to Take Bulgarian Parliament
What happened: Around 500 people tried to storm the parliament building in the Bulgarian capital yesterday, Euractiv reports. The protests were organized by the Vazrazhdane (Revival) party, a pro-Russian political formation that entered parliament for the first time after the November elections.
More context: Revival has an anti-vaccination platform and its members consider coronavirus-related restrictions to be useless. However, Euractiv notes that a recent investigation by the TV channel bTV revealed that most Revival party lawmakers are in fact vaccinated against Covid-19. Bulgaria has the lowest vaccination rate in the EU – just 28% – and last month authorities announced the incentive of cash rewards of 75 leva (35.8 euros) to pensioners who get fully vaccinated or take a booster.
Worth noting: In other news from Bulgaria, lawmakers voted yesterday to scrap a plan to offer permanent residency in exchange for large investments, Euronews reports. Last year, the EU asked Bulgarian authorities to abolish the proposal, dubbed the “golden passport,” which allowed foreigners investing the minimum sum of one million leva (€500,000) to obtain a permanent resident certificate.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Bratislava announced the approval of a defense agreement with the United States yesterday that paves the way for American forces to use Slovak air bases, Reuters reports. The treaty, which would not allow deployment of U.S. troops in Slovakia without prior approval, still needs to be signed by President Zuzana Caputova and then ratified by Slovak lawmakers. The agreement would allow U.S. access to two Slovak airports, Sliac and Malacky, and would make Slovakia eligible for $100 million in U.S. funds. According to Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok, “This is an important sign that the government is acting responsibly in foreign, security, and defense policies.”
- Taiwan has pledged an additional $1 billion in credit funds for Lithuania, which is facing a Chinese economic blockade due to its support of Taipei, Politico reports. The serious diplomatic rift with China escalated last month when Lithuania allowed the Taiwanese Representative Office to open in Vilnius; China does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country and most countries avoid official relations with Taipei so as to not anger Beijing. Taiwan’s Minister for National Development Kung Ming-hsin said the new credit fund, coming days after Taipei previously pledged $200 million for investment in Lithuanian microchip manufacturing, will focus on semiconductor talent, semiconductor development, biotechnology, satellites, finance, and scientific research.
- Serbia’s Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin denied allegations yesterday that he had informed the Kremlin about a meeting of Russian opposition members in Belgrade last May, BIRN reports. Russian journalist and opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza accused Vulin of giving Russian intelligence chief Nikolai Patrushev transcripts from secret recordings of the May 2021 meeting in Belgrade. Andrei Pivovarov, Kara-Murza’s colleague and fellow Kremlin critic, was arrested in Russia shortly after the meeting. According to the Serbian Interior Ministry, Vulin intends to sue Kara-Murza over the accusation. Vulin said in a statement that Kara-Murza “is a liar who will have to justify his lies before both Serbian and Russian courts.”
- Albanian authorities announced earlier this week that a U.S. company will help Tirana boost its cyber security defenses following a major data breach last year, AP reports. Prime Minister Edi Rama said he had signed a memorandum of understanding with Jones Group International “on strengthening security of the digital systems.” Last month, the Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation of a major data leak after a list was made public on social media that reportedly contained personal information on monthly salaries, job positions, employer names, and identification numbers of some 630,000 Albanians in both the public and private sectors.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The head of the International Energy Agency has concluded that Russia is to blame for Europe’s natural gas crisis, AP reports. Executive Director Fatih Birol said yesterday that Russia could send up to a third more gas through existing pipelines, which would amount to some 10% of European daily consumption, and according to industry officials, would prevent a severe shortage in the event of extremely cold weather. “In terms of European gas … we believe there are strong elements of the tightness in European gas markets due to Russia’s behavior,” Birol told reporters. Birol also noted that “today’s low Russian gas flows to Europe coincide with heightened geopolitical tensions over Ukraine,” a “coincidence” he felt the need to highlight.
- Former heavyweight boxer and current Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko told CNN that Ukrainians were ready to defend themselves against a potential Russian invasion. “If escalation goes up … We have to be ready to defend our independence and integrity of our country — and civil defense [agencies] also have to be prepared,” Klitschko said yesterday. Meanwhile, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said yesterday that, despite two rounds of talks this week, Russia refused to commit to de-escalation. Sherman said it was “hard to understand” how Russia could feel threatened by Ukraine, given that Moscow has the largest conventional military in Europe.
- Turkmen authorities are tightening the screws on dissent following violent protests in neighboring Kazakhstan, RFE/RL reports. An unannounced nighttime curfew was enacted last week in the city of Mary, the capital of the southern province of the same name. Meanwhile, police patrols are dispersing groups of people, ostensibly to prevent the spread of coronavirus, although Turkmenistan has been insistent about its Covid-19-free status. Also, according to one source in Mary, “the employees of government agencies have been warned that they would be immediately fired if their children or relatives make any anti-government statement online.”
- The approval rate for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has nosedived amid a steep economic decline, bne IntelliNews reports. According to a Metropoll Research survey published this week, Erdogan’s approval rating stood at just 38.6%. While around 38% of respondents told Metropoll that they admired Erdogan, this is much less than the number of people who professed admiration for Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas (60%) and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu (51%), both members of the main opposition Republic People’s Party. The Inflation Research Group, headed by Istanbul academics, says that inflation in Turkey has hit 83% and could soon reach three digits.
- U.S. Asks Bosnia to Investigate Banned Celebrations
Plus, Bulgaria at odds with European surveillance rules, UK denying entry to Romanians, and more.
The Big Story: U.S. Calls for Investigation of Nationalist Celebrations in Republika Srpska
What happened: Washington asked Bosnian authorities yesterday to look into reports that recent celebrations in Republika Srpska glorified war criminals, Reuters reports. “We urge competent authorities to investigate these incidents without delay and to hold the responsible individuals accountable,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
More context: Despite a ban on public commemorations of the day in 1992 when the autonomous Republika Srpska declared its independence – leading to a bloody war in the region – Bosnian Serbs celebrated on 9 January anyway. The date is also a religious holiday for Orthodox Christian Serbs that Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has also declared illegal to celebrate, on the grounds that it discriminates against the region’s Muslim Bosniak and Catholic Croat communities.
Worth noting: “The United States is deeply concerned over reports of hate speech, glorification of war criminals and provocative incidents targeting returnees in the Republika Srpska entity over the weekend,” the statement said, according to the news website N1.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Poland passed the milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths yesterday, AP reports. Almost a quarter of them have occurred since the highly infectious Omicron virus strain began to circulate last October. Health Minister Adam Niedzielski said that 493 people with COVID-19 died yesterday, which pushed the overall pandemic death toll to 100,254 people. Over 18,000 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized, making this “the most difficult situation compared to other waves,” Niedzielski said. One contributing factor in the high death toll is that Poland is the EU nation with the lowest number of working doctors in proportion to its population, 2.4 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, compared to 4.5 in Germany. Also, unvaccinated people accounted for 83% of deaths, a percentage rising to 90% for unvaccinated people under age 44.
- A new mural in the northern Czech Republic is said to be the largest piece of illegal street art in the country and is possible to see on Google Earth, the TV Nova website reports. The mural, entitled “Prayer” and depicting a naked woman, recently appeared on the rooftop of an abandoned building near the village of Maxov. The mural’s creators, known as Unlimited Freedom Ritchie and JW Mind Strike, wrote on social media that it covers almost 500 square meters and required 60 kilograms of paint as well as two days of work, according to Expats.cz. The mural’s environmentally-friendly paint is reportedly able to remove dirt from the atmosphere and serve a function similar to a comparable area of forest.
- The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bulgaria’s legislation on secret surveillance breaches the European human rights convention, AP reports. In a statement yesterday, the ECHR wrote that the “legislation governing secret surveillance did not meet the quality-of-law requirement” in the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Bulgarian government “was unable to keep surveillance to only that which was necessary.” Two human rights groups and two Bulgarian lawyers, Mihail Ekemdzhiev and Alexander Kashamov, originally brought the case to the ECHR in 2012; the case has been updated with new evidence from the last ten years. The ECHR also said that Bulgarian laws regulating wiretapping and surveillance are of poor quality and cannot guarantee that the right to privacy is up to the standard of a democratic society.
- Romanians make up the largest group of EU nationals denied entry into the UK last year, the London business newspaper City A.M. reports. According to data from the UK law firm Bates Wells, the number of European nationals stopped at the border in the third quarter of last year increased to 5,266 people, compared to 3,955 the previous quarter. Out of that total, Romanians represented 56%, followed by Bulgarians at 10%, and Poles at 7%. The Home Office has stepped up its border checks since the UK left the EU; 12,515 EU nationals have been stopped at the UK border since Brexit, compared to only 1,150 in 2020. Chetal Patel of Bates Wells said “the fact that Romanians and other Eastern European nationalities continue to be disproportionately impacted, does indicate that some profiling may be taking place.”
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Two Belarusian cross-country skiers said they were prohibited from taking part in competitions due to accusations of supporting the Belarusian opposition, RFE/RL reports. Svyatlana Andryyuk and Darya Dalidovich said yesterday that the Belarus Ski Union annulled their individual athlete registrations in December. As a result, they can no longer take part in official competitions organized by the International Ski Federation such as the upcoming qualifications for the Olympic Games in Beijing. The two skiers said that the head of the Belarus Cross-Country Skiing Federation, Alyaksandr Darakhovich, ordered officials in November to ban them from competing. Both athletes also said that they do not publicly express political views.
- Russian authorities are sounding alarm bells over a surge in coronavirus cases due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, The Moscow Times reports. Russian President Vladimir Putin said today that the country has just a “few weeks” to prepare for a new wave of infections. Anna Popova, head of Russia’s consumer health regulator Rospotrebnadzor that manages pandemic measures, said that Omicron infections tripled during the country’s extended New Year holidays, and that infections could pass 100,000 per day in an “unfavorable scenario.” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said yesterday that Omicron has a “significant” presence in the Russian capital, and foresaw a major increase in infections within 10 days, adding that “it is quite possible that we will face a worse situation than in previous waves.”
- Armenia announced that three of its soldiers were killed in recent clashes with Azerbaijan as tensions increase along their mutual border, RFE/RL reports. The body of the third dead soldier was found in the area of a recent battle with Azerbaijani forces, the Armenian Defense Ministry said today. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said that the soldier was killed “as a result of an Armenian provocation in the direction of Azerbaijan’s Kalbacar district.” Yerevan and Baku have been trading accusations over the recent escalation on their mutual border, with Baku saying “the entire responsibility for the latest tensions lies with the military-political leadership of Armenia.” Observers fear the recent developments could lead to another full-scale war, like the autumn 2021 conflict that left 6,500 dead.
- Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced sweeping reforms yesterday in the wake of deadly unrest last week, Eurasianet reports. In a speech to members of parliament, Tokayev referred to an upcoming government program that would increase incomes and reduce unemployment. While conceding that the unrest was fueled by concerns over the quality of life, Tokayev also criticized the National Security Committee, Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency. “The National Security Committee … could and did not want to give an accurate assessment of this insurrectionary work,” he said. “It did not see critical threats to national security.” An overhaul of the country’s security apparatus might also be in the making, Eurasianet notes. Former National Security Committee chief Karim Masimov was arrested last week on treason charges after the protests.
- What Does Putin Want and How Does He Plan to Get It?
The Russian president has given himself an array of options to achieve a neutral or an incapacitated Ukraine. From the German Marshall Fund.
Vladimir Putin sees the current security architecture as both unacceptable and dangerous to Russia. It is unacceptable because it manifests a series of tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West, and Putin sees the West as fundamentally hostile to Russia. The current setup is dangerous, in Putin’s eyes, not so much because of what these relationships amount to in the winter of 2021–2022, but because of what they have the potential to become, which is a combined force capable either of countering Russian interests in its neighborhood or of destabilizing Russia itself by modeling a different kind of regime. Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO symbolizes the security dilemma Putin perceives on his Western border, but the dilemma itself runs much deeper than the unlikely prospects of NATO membership for Ukraine.
What Putin wants is to unwind the tightening military, political, and economic relationships between Ukraine and the West. He realizes that this aim cannot be accomplished through persuasion alone. Russia has little non-coercive leverage over the West, and NATO will not change its open-door policy. The West sees Ukraine as a model for change in the region (including in Russia). Bereft of non-coercive options (in his view) to halt Ukraine’s path of integration into Western institutions, Putin has begun exploring coercive options beyond the annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas, neither of which has given him what he wants.
Putin may not be able to achieve precisely what he wants—a neutral Ukraine or a Ukraine under Russian sovereignty. He may settle, then, for trying to block outcomes he does not want, alternating between the use of military force and threat of military force to compel the West to minimize its commitment to Ukraine and/or to eliminate the Ukrainian state’s capacity to obstruct Russia’s regional interests.
The current environment is perceived as compelling as well as conducive by Moscow. Nonetheless, the urgency and hastiness of Russia’s demands is surprising. After all, complaints about the West exploiting Moscow’s weakness had been Russian talking points for many years. Now, though, the matter is seen as exigent. In the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “legally binding guarantees” are necessary now “within a reasonable time,” otherwise “Russia will be forced … to eliminate unacceptable threats to our security.” (According to the Russian president, Moscow has “nowhere further to retreat to.”)
Different factors contribute to the sense of urgency as well as opportunity in Moscow.
Internationally, Russia has strengthened its position in the neighborhood in Belarus, Armenia, and now also in Kazakhstan. Domestically, the Russian president secured himself the constitutional right to re-run in 2024, followed by a wave of repression, with no domestic opposition to his course expected. Some Russian commentators view it as part of his personal legacy to “solve” Ukraine and re-order European security before re-election in 2024 (in an article from July 2021, the Russian president argued that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”).
At the same time, Moscow became frustrated with the Minsk process, as it hoped for far-reaching concessions from newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Ukraine’s increased military cooperation with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Turkey is depicted as equally threatening to Russia as formal NATO membership, “transforming Ukraine into a military foothold,” in the words of Lavrov. In Moscow, an intervention now could be perceived as less costly than an intervention later.
Across the Atlantic, the establishment of a long overdue, strategic stability dialogue in June 2021 meant, for Moscow, that the United States was finally listening to some of Russia’s grievances. The Russian leadership took this as an opportunity for an all-or-nothing strategy with its package of not-to-be-untied demands, which could be used as a pretext for war in case of refusal. Moscow is well aware that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, and that the priority of Biden’s presidency was meant to be China.
At the same time, Europe is in the midst of leadership changes, with a new government in Berlin and presidential elections in France. Russia’s refusal to increase gas flows to Europe was a demonstration of Europe’s vulnerability. This adds up to a likely perception in Moscow that it is the right time to pursue a course of military threats and ultimatums to achieve its goals – and that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.
But there is another thought to keep in mind regarding Moscow’s sudden urgency: we simply might not know nor anticipate why certain decisions are taken at the top level. Political leaders do not necessarily follow the “rational actor model” (to use the term of political scientist Graham Allison) but can instead be driven by internal decision-making processes impenetrable to the outside observer. This is a useful reminder of blind spots: unimaginable options for one side might present themselves as rational to the other.
What’s the Strategy to Achieve These Aims?
Putin has given himself an array of options to achieve a neutral or an incapacitated Ukraine. The foundation of his approach is Russia’s military power and as backup economic statecraft and espionage/cyber interference. In the short term (the next few weeks), Putin will threaten the use of such power to secure European and U.S. acquiescence to his preferred terms of settlement, which may be less maximalist than his rhetoric often suggests.
He will ascertain whether there is any room for a reversal of the trends that have led him to take such radical action. This phase of diplomacy is also important to Putin in preparing Russian public opinion for the possibility of a major war between Russia and Ukraine. Perhaps war is the course Putin has already chosen. If so, it cannot be a minor war. A minimal objective would be to topple the Ukrainian government – not necessarily through overt military force – and to install a puppet leader.
A more ambitious objective would be to divide the country in two, with the line between Russia and a rump Ukrainian state one of Putin’s choosing. The most expansive goal would be to conquer Ukraine entirely and then either to occupy it or to demand that its independence be negotiated on Putin’s terms. A fourth option, mirroring some of Russia’s strategy in Syria, would be to make a failed state of Ukraine through military intervention and internal subversion, precipitating a migrant crisis that would become Europe’s headache.
Putin, reviewing his options, need not succeed at nation building or at colonialism in Ukraine. He is focused on getting Ukraine in its current contours – with its Western-leaning, pro-American, pro-NATO government – to fail and may construe the possibility of such failure as the foundation for the success of Russian policy.
What Are Moscow’s Calculations Vis-à-Vis Europe and the United States?
Europe and the United States have already provided the answer to Moscow’s most important calculation: the West will not fight and die for Ukraine. With 100,000 troops amassed at the Ukrainian border, this gives Russia the upper hand in negotiations, as the West relies much more on a diplomatic outcome of the situation than Russia does.
Russia also expects that Europe and the United States will not risk the “military-technical” response threatened by Putin. Although the West’s response will be limited to economic sanctions, support for Ukraine, and reassurance for eastern NATO member states, the threat of far-reaching sanctions has made enough of an impression on Moscow that it has threatened “a complete breakdown in Russia-U.S. relations” if the sanctions threat is implemented.
Moscow might hope to be able to withstand the impact of sanctions, as it has done since 2014 with much softer sanctions. It will also certainly cooperate more closely with China in economic and financial areas, knowing this makes Washington nervous.
But there will be wider geopolitical repercussions in Europe, and the first signs are that Finland and Sweden are rushing to underline their independent choice of alliance, and eastern member states are demanding reassurance measures by NATO. If the larger goal is to weaken European and transatlantic cohesion, a short-term tactical win in Ukraine can become a long-term strategic loss to Moscow.
Even if Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West: the post-Cold War European order and the alliance with the United States does matter to Europe, and vice versa.
Liana Fix is a resident fellow in GMF’s Washington office while on sabbatical leave from the International Affairs department of the Koerber Foundation in Berlin. She is a historian and political scientist, and her work focuses on Russia and Eastern Europe, European security, arms control, and German foreign policy.
Michael Kimmage is a visiting fellow at in GMF’s Washington office and a professor of history at the Catholic University of America. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the secretary’s policy planning staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio. This article originally appeared on the German Marshall Fund’s website. Reprinted with permission.
- No Breakthrough in Talks With Russia, Washington Says
Plus, Polish MP sues Kaczynski, Russian troops to withdraw from Kazakhstan, and more.
The Big Story: Geneva Talks Between Russia and United States Yield No Concrete Results
What happened: U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman praised the “frank and forthright” meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov yesterday, CNN reports. However, Sherman said that she didn’t have any answers to questions related to the situation in Ukraine and the buildup of Russian troops by the Russian-Ukrainian border.
More context: “We will see whether in fact Russia understands that the best way to pursue diplomacy is for them to reduce those tensions and to de-escalate,” Sherman said. Ryabkov, on the other hand, claimed that Moscow had no intention of aggression toward Ukraine. “We explained to our colleagues that we have no plans to attack,” he said. “All the combat training of troops is carried out within our national territory, and there is no reason to fear any escalation scenario in this regard.”
Worth noting: Sherman also said that the U.S. had rejected Russian proposals that were “non-starters” for the U.S. government, such as Russia’s demand that NATO commit to never include Ukraine in the alliance, the BBC reports. “We will not allow anyone to slam closed NATO’s open-door policy, which has always been central to the NATO alliance,” she said.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- A member of the Polish parliament is suing Poland’s ruling party leader for slander after Jaroslaw Kaczynski suggested he was placed under surveillance due to wrongdoing, AP reports. Krzysztof Brejza, a member of parliament from the Civic Platform party, said last month that his smartphone had been hacked 33 times in 2019; the hacking has been confirmed by independent organizations. During that time, as the campaigns for the 2010 elections were underway, Polish public broadcaster TVP used text messages that were stolen from Brejza’s phone — and then doctored — in a smear campaign against him. After news of the lawsuit became public yesterday, Polish prosecutors told Brejza’s father, a city mayor, that he was a suspect in a theft case and needed to appear for questioning. Both Brejza and his father denied any wrongdoing and said the accusations were politically motivated.
- Greenpeace is planning to sue the Hungarian government for a controversial development project threatening a lake on the Hungarian-Austrian border, Euronews reports. Last December, Sopron-Ferto Tourism Development Nonprofit Ltd. withdrew an original tender to build a yacht port and hotels at lake Ferto; later that month, the Hungarian government put out a call for an even larger development project. Katalin Rodics from Greenpeace says they will file a lawsuit because the areas tendered for in the public procurement “are larger areas than in the original environmental permit that we (Greenpeace) were challenging, and plus there are new elements such as a 26-apartment building for which there is no environmental or building permit at all.” Lake Ferto, known as Neusiedl in Austria, is the largest terminal lake – meaning a lake in a basin that retains water and has no outflow – in Central Europe.
- A report released yesterday by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) concluded that the EU financial aid for tackling corruption in the Western Balkans didn’t pay off, AP reports. “EU support for the rule of law in Western Balkans has clearly not been successful in bringing about wholesale change,” said Juhan Parts, the ECA report author. The report found that countries in the region lacked the commitment to tackle issues ranging from pervasive corruption to state interference, despite 700 million euros in EU aid for institutional change from 2014 to 2020. “The EU has too rarely exploited the possibility of suspending assistance if a beneficiary fails to observe the basic principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights,” the ECA said in a statement.
- Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev said yesterday that Sofia wants “real results” from Skopje toward the conditions of a 2017 treaty on good relations before dropping its opposition to North Macedonia’s EU membership talks, RFE/RL reports. Radev added that all the members of Bulgaria’s National Security Advisory Council agreed that the start of Skopje’s EU accession talks should be contingent on achieving the conditions set out in the 2017 Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighborliness. The announcement suggests that all elements of the political establishment in Sofia are on the same page about lifting the veto on the EU talks. A main hurdle to lifting the veto is Sofia’s claim that Bulgarians in North Macedonia are not being treated equally in comparison to other constitutionally recognized groups in the country.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- Russian businesses with significant offshore ownership will no longer receive government support from Moscow, The Moscow Times reports. The Ministry of Finance said yesterday that, starting on 1 January 2023, businesses where offshore entities have a stake of 25% or more will no longer be eligible for programs such as emergency coronavirus relief or low-interest government-backed loans. Some of the locations that the government officially defined as offshore are Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, and Switzerland, as well as the U.S. states of Wyoming and Delaware. Companies that could feel the heat of the new legislation include metals giants NLMK and Nornickel, the digital bank Tinkoff, and the country’s largest alcohol retailer, Mercury Retail Group.
- Despite EU sanctions, trade between the EU and Belarus almost doubled in 2021, RFE/RL reports. A case in point is Lithuania, which continued to buy potash from a large state-run company in Belarus, Belaruskali, even though a Lithuanian government commission said last month that a 2018 agreement between the state-run railway and Belarus to transport potash is at odds with national security interests. “I don’t believe we will see any stronger economic sanctions, unless Lukashenka steps over certain red lines,” said Pavel Slunkin, a policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations, adding that countries like Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Belgium are against stronger economic sanctions due to their own economic interests.
- Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said today that Russian troops would leave the country within 10 days, FT reports. Russian paratroopers were deployed to Kazakhstan last week amid massive protests in the country. The arrival of the alleged peacekeeping mission came after Tokayev reached out for assistance to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which comprises Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Tokayev also said the situation in Almaty, the country’s largest city and the scene of the epicenter of the unrest, was stabilizing. In another development last week, Kazakhstan’s former strongman President Nursultan Nazarbaev resigned from his influential position as head of the Security Council.
- Dozens of Kyrgyz nationals were wrongfully accused of fomenting last week’s protests in neighboring Kazakhstan, The Moscow Times reports. One notable example was jazz pianist Vikram Ruzakhunov, who was detained in Kazakhstan and then appeared in a video confession, broadcast on Kazakh state television, with bruises on his swollen face, saying he had been promised $200 for taking part in the protests in Almaty. He returned to Kyrgyzstan on Monday and said he had falsely confessed so he would be released. Kairat Primberdiyev, who organized rallies outside the Kazakh Embassy in Bishkek demanding Ruzakhunov’s release, said “The world community needs to know that other Kyrgyz nationals have been detained in Kazakhstan, where authorities seem to want to blame Kyrgyz citizens for every terrorist crime.”
- Why Is Poland’s Ruling Party Wooing Friends of the Kremlin?
Radical euroskeptics met in Warsaw, but the turnout disappointed the Polish hosts.
Poland’s right-wing governing party appears to believe that the EU political establishment is becoming irredeemably hostile to it and that it needs to seek out allies that share its view of the European integration project. But there may be short-term political costs to building links with radical euroskeptic parties that have pro-Russian sympathies and are less influential within the EU institutions.
Euroskeptics Meet in Warsaw
Early in December, Law and Justice (PiS), Poland’s ruling party since 2015, hosted the so-called Warsaw Summit, a high-profile meeting of conservative and right-wing euroskeptic parties. These parties are currently split between two main factions in the European Parliament (EP). Law and Justice is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists, the sixth largest EP grouping, which also includes the Brothers of Italy, Spain’s Vox party and the Czech Civic Democrats.
The Conservatives and Reformists formed in 2009 as a platform to promote policies associated with the European conservative political tradition distinct from the more centrist and federalist European People’s Party, which has its origins in Christian Democracy, and, after its formation in 2019,the radical right Identity and Democracy group. Since the 2019 EP elections, Law and Justice has been the dominant force in the Conservatives and Reformists with 24 of its 63 deputies.
The Warsaw Summit was part of a broader effort to consolidate different sections of the European right by building stronger ties between Law and Justice and some of the member parties of Identity and Democracy. Some commentators see this as a precursor to the creation of a strong new pan-European party family. In addition to Law and Justice leader and Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the most prominent politicians present at the summit were Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – whose Fidesz party is Law and Justice’s closest European ally, and has been looking for a new EP home since it left the European People’s Party in March – and French National Rally leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. The summit followed an earlier, well-publicized October meeting between Le Pen and Law and Justice Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Brussels, her first with an EU state leader. Morawiecki also hosted a dinner for Le Pen immediately prior to the Warsaw Summit.
Taking Risks to Find Allies
This rapprochement between Law and Justice and Le Pen’s party marks a change of heart by Poland’s ruling party and follows years of antagonism between the two, despite them agreeing on issues such as national sovereignty and multiculturalism. Law and Justice previously avoided cooperation with the National Rally – and, indeed, other parties in Identity and Democracy – because of major disagreements over their respective approaches to relations with Russia. The Polish ruling party has been at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to what it sees as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist destabilization of Central and Eastern Europe; specifically to ensure that EU sanctions on Moscow are maintained and extended. Indeed, Law and Justice sees Poland as playing the role of regional leader at the head of a broad coalition of post-communist states to counter Russian expansionism. Le Pen, on the other hand, has been much more accommodating towards Putin and in the past her party has received financial support from Russian banks. Le Pen’s pro-Kremlin views provoked further controversy when, in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper immediately prior to the Warsaw Summit, she suggested that it was the EU that had played a destabilizing role in Ukraine because this was part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
As a consequence, Polish opposition parties strongly criticized Law and Justice for developing cooperation with Le Pen’s and other radical right parties with strong ties to Moscow. Law and Justice countered by arguing that it did not share Le Pen’s views on relations with Putin, but that in terms of practical policy preferences she was no more pro-Moscow than many European center-right and center-left parties with whom the Polish opposition was closely allied. Their leaders, Law and Justice said, had business interests in, and close economic ties with, Moscow, citing a number of politicians from these parties who had taken jobs with Russian firms. Indeed, Law and Justice argued that the most pro-Moscow project currently underway in Europe was the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline supported by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Law and Justice is hoping that little of this opposition criticism will actually cut through to ordinary Poles. Moreover, it is clearly prepared to risk some potential domestic political blowback because the party feels that it needs allies to advance its project of fundamentally reforming the EU. Law and Justice wants the EU to return to what it sees as its original role as a looser alliance of economically cooperating sovereign states with a more consensual decision-making process. The departure of the British Conservatives from the EU means that Law and Justice lacks allies on the mainstream center-right for such a project and hence needs to build closer ties with radical right euroskeptics in spite of their pro-Moscow sympathies.
Is the Twin-Track Strategy Viable?
Law and Justice also appears to believe increasingly that the EU political establishment has become irredeemably hostile to it. Although Law and Justice has often been labeled as euroskeptic, until now the dominant view within the party was that it could achieve its objectives by pursuing a “twin-track” approach to EU relations. On the one hand, it accepted that there will be disagreements with the EU political establishment on moral-cultural issues where Law and Justice’s attachment to traditional morality and national identity stands in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European cultural and political elites. It felt that policy clashes with the major EU powers were inevitable because Poland often had interests that conflicted with the dominant Franco-German axis, and Law and Justice was, the party claims, pursuing a more robust and assertive approach than its predecessors. The party also recognized that the EU political establishment largely agreed with the Polish opposition and legal establishment’s argument that Law and Justice’s judicial reform program undermined democracy and the rule of law; a claim that it strongly contests. At the same time, however, Law and Justice has tried to present Poland as a positive and constructive member of the Union, and to decouple disagreements over issues such as rule of law compliance from attempts to develop closer economic ties and normal pragmatic working relations between Warsaw and the EU political establishment on bread-and-butter policy issues.
The EU political establishment’s recent moves to link the disbursement and management of Union funds to rule of law compliance, however, represent a major challenge to Law and Justice’s “twin-track” strategy. For example, the European Commission has delayed approval of Poland’s draft national recovery plan, without which it cannot access the first tranche of billions of euros that it is due from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, until Warsaw complies with a July EU Court of Justice ruling calling for the suspension of a newly created disciplinary chamber of the Polish Supreme Court. The Commission also appears to be planning to trigger a new EU conditionality regulation that allows it to withhold payments from both the coronavirus fund and the Union’s regular 2021-2027 budget, from which Poland is set to be one of the largest beneficiaries, if perceived rule of law breaches can be shown to have directly endangered the proper use of these funds. The regulation’s implementation has been delayed pending a challenge to its legality in the EU Court of Justice by Poland (and Hungary), with a ruling expected early this year.
Law and Justice argues that rule of law conditionality is a political instrument based on vague and arbitrary criteria and lacks a legal basis in the EU treaties. It says that it could be used by the EU political establishment to curb national sovereignty and interfere in almost every sphere of public life by, for example, exerting pressure on Law and Justice to abandon its radical systemic reforms and accept liberal-left moral-cultural norms. The party thus appears to be coming to the view that the EU cultural liberal-left consensus is hegemonic and powerfully entrenched. Consequently, it feels that the EU political establishment will continue to use the rule of law compliance dispute and the Union’s legal framework, specifically European Court rulings, to further advance European political integration and federalism by stealth, and marginalize and undermine right-wing conservative groupings committed to traditional values and national identity such as Law and Justice.
Missing Leaders and No New EP Faction
Major question marks still hang over future plans for a new pan-European right-wing euroskeptic group. First of all, the significance of the Warsaw Summit was undermined when not all of the party leaders that Law and Justice hoped would join such a new initiative were present. Among notable absentees were the leaders of the two large Italian radical right parties, Matteo Salvini of the League (Lega) – a signatory to an earlier July declaration by 16 right-wing parties and movements, including Law and Justice, apparently laying the ground for a new euroskeptic EP group – and Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni. Czech Civic Democrat leader and Prime Minister Petr Fiala – the only other politician from among these parties apart from Morawiecki and Orban to head up an EU government – also failed to attend. Moreover, although the summit discussed closer cooperation between the respective parties within the EP, including aligning votes on sovereignty and immigration issues, and they agreed to meet every two months to continue talks on the project, there was no mention of forming a new pan-European political group.
At the same time, Law and Justice does not itself appear sure how exactly it wishes to proceed with this project, and particularly how it relates to the extant European Conservatives and Reformists group. On the one hand, trying to carve out a distinctive, ideologically pure conservative EP grouping may come across as an indulgence when the most important issue facing the Polish ruling party seems to be finding as many allies as possible with a shared vision of the future of the European integration project. Indeed, if all the parties involved in the putative new European right-wing party family were to combine their forces, this could, according to various reports, make them the third- or even second-largest EP group after the European People’s Party.
On the other hand, Law and Justice remains hesitant about abandoning the European Conservatives and Reformists for a potential new group because its de facto leadership of the former provides it with practical advantages and short-term pay-offs within the EP. Law and Justice would have to compete for leadership of the new EP group on more equal terms with large parties such as the French National Rally and Italy’s League. Moreover, Identity and Democracy and its member parties have been largely isolated in the EP and its committees by parliamentary leaders who do not want their views filtering into legislation and reports. At the same time, the (apparently less politically toxic) European Conservatives and Reformists remains attractive as a potential EP ally for mainstream groups such as the European People’s Party. Whatever the longer-term strategic considerations, a formal linkup with more radical pro-Moscow parties, therefore, not only risks domestic political costs but could actually lose Law and Justice influence within the EP in the short run.
Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex. He can be followed on Twitter at @AleksSzczerbiak. Reprinted with permission from his Polish Politics Blog.
- Bosnian Serbs Defy Ban on Nationalist Celebrations
Plus, Lithuania pays damages to Guantanamo inmate, a ruling in Djokovic’s Australian saga, and more.
The Big Story: Republika Srpska Holds Illegal ‘National Day’ Parade Amid Dodik Sanctions
What happened: Despite a ban on public commemorations of the day in 1992 when the autonomous Republika Srpska declared its independence – leading to a bloody war in the region – Bosnian Serbs celebrated yesterday anyway, Al Jazeera reports. The same date, 9 January, is a religious holiday for Orthodox Christian Serbs that Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has also declared illegal to celebrate, on the grounds that it discriminates against the region’s Muslim Bosniak and Catholic Croat communities.
More context: The celebrations took place in Banja Luka, the capital city of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two entities, and consisted of a parade by the entity’s police force and emergency workers as well as representatives of public institutions, sports organizations, and other groups, RFE/RL reports. The parade had 2,700 participants and featured the pro-Kremlin “Night Wolves” motorcycle club from Russia.
Worth noting: Last week, Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik was slapped with new U.S. sanctions for alleged corruption, AP reports. He denied the accusations of amassing vast wealth for himself, his relatives, and associates, calling the charges “monstrous lies” and adding that the days when the United States and other Western democracies “modeled Bosnia to their taste” are long gone. “The U.S. is a great power, but they are also big liars,” Dodik said.
News from the Regions
Central Europe and the Baltics
- Lithuania has paid more 110,000 euros in compensation to Abu Zubaydah, a current Guantanamo Bay detainee who was previously held captive and tortured in a secret CIA prison outside Vilnius, The Guardian reports. Both Lithuania and Romania hosted the so-called CIA “black sites” in the early 2000s, the European Court of Human Rights determined in 2018, when it ordered Lithuania to pay the compensation. Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan months after the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 and was later transferred to the CIA prison in Lithuania; for the past two decades he has been held in the Guantanamo Bay detention center without charges. His lawyers say that Lithuanian authorities likely received approval from Washington to pay the compensation.
- Migrants who work as care workers in Austria are overworked and underpaid, and they mostly come from Central and Eastern Europe, according to an Amnesty International report. “Care workers told Amnesty International that unfair wages, lack of sick pay, and inadequate breaks were a daily reality even before the pandemic, but Covid-19 made working conditions unbearable,” the report noted. Statistics show that around 60,000 people in Austria – 92% are women, and 98% are migrants mainly from Romania and Slovakia – work as providers of live-in care for older people. Despite the minimum wage for care workers in Austria being 17,484 euros per year, Slovak care workers in Austria are paid on average 10,080 euros per year, and in some cases are also required to do housework in addition to caring for the elderly around the clock.
- Tirana police clashed with protesters who stormed into the headquarters of Albania’s opposition Democratic Party on Saturday amid a political power struggle, Reuters reports. The protesters were supporters of the former president and prime minister, Sali Berisha, who was expelled by Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha from the party’s parliamentary group last year following the United States declaring Berisha persona non grata over corruption allegations. At least one protester and one police officer were injured as police forces fired tear gas and water cannons; dozens were arrested. Berisha is the most prominent politician of Albania’s post-communist history, and last month he called a party assembly where he announced himself as the leader.
- Australian Judge Anthony Kelly ordered that Novak Djokovic should be freed from the detention that came about due to the cancellation of his visa, the BBC reports. The Serbian tennis player had his visa to enter Australia revoked after an outcry over his exemption to coronavirus vaccine requirements. His lawyer Nick Wood said that Djokovic had been granted the exemption from Australian visa rules by two separate medical boards following Djokovic’s recent coronavirus infection. “He had done absolutely everything. He had engaged with everything that was required of him by Tennis Australia,” Wood said. The Australian government also acknowledged that Djokovic was not given enough time to respond to a notification about his visa cancellation.
Eastern Europe and Russia
- The United States started talks in Geneva today with Russia, RFE/RL reports. The topics on the agenda include the Russian military buildup near the border with Ukraine, and also the general security situation in Europe. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. delegation, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov yesterday for a working dinner ahead of today’s main talks, the U.S. State Department said. The State Department said only certain bilateral security issues would be the focus of the meeting in Geneva, and the United States “will not discuss European security without our European Allies and partners,” a possible reference to Russia’s request for security guarantees from the United States and NATO.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory today for defending the Kazakh city of Almaty from an alleged foreign-backed uprising, Reuters reports, after Russia sent paratroopers to the country last week. Almaty had almost returned to normal today following a week of unrest that led to the deaths of 164 people, according to Russian media. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said last week that “20,000 bandits” had attacked Almaty, Kazakhstan’s biggest city and its economic capital; he blamed foreign-trained “terrorists” for the unrest that has engulfed the nation after a fuel price hike. The attackers included “individuals who have military combat zone experience in the ranks of radical Islamist groups,” the Kazakh Foreign Ministry claimed, without further details.
- Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has reportedly ordered the closure of a burning pit known as the “Gates of Hell,” CNN reports. Officially named the Darvaza Crater after a nearby town, the giant crater dates back to the early 1970s when a Soviet gas drilling expedition caused a huge sinkhole to form and then set it on fire in order to prevent the spread of natural gas; the ongoing inferno has since become a tourist attraction. Local media said Turkmenistan’s deputy prime minister “was instructed to gather scientists, and if necessary, to attract foreign consultants and find a solution for extinguishing the fire.” Authorities cited the environmental damage resulting from the pit, and its negative consequences on the health of people living nearby, as reasons for the decision.
- Anger against Ankara is growing in the Turkish part of Cyprus, The Observer reports. Lack of political freedom is one issue, says Izzet Izcan, who heads the United Cyprus party. “Elections are no longer representative of the real will of ordinary Turkish Cypriots. They’re like a game planned and played by Turkey,” Izcan said. Other issues include the economic situation in connection to the ailing Turkish economy. Located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the island has been split between a Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north since a 1974 coup backed by Athens, which wanted Cyprus to unite with Greece. Ankara retaliated in a military operation that resulted in its seizure of the north.
- Ashamed to Be a Victim
The authorities, the public, and journalists themselves are part of a conspiracy of silence about police torture in Abkhazia. From JAMnews.
Police torture of prisoners is a problem in many countries, not least in the former Soviet Union. In Abkhazia, while it is no secret that the security forces torture people, the conditions are not right to mount a large-scale challenge to this phenomenon.
‘How Are They Different From Me?’
“They know that I know them. And I know that I know them. But we see each other on the street and pretend that everything is fine. Sometimes we can even say hello to each other,” my childhood acquaintance tells me after I swear never to reveal his name. Let’s call him Ruslan. He is not even 30 years old, he has no steady job, no family, and no memories of a happy childhood.
They say people like him “grew up on the street.” The street was different back in his day. Ruslan and his friends robbed “a little” – but said it was “only small things.” He used drugs a little – but only the light ones. He caused a few accidents – but always without casualties. Accordingly, he and his friends were well known in the local police station.
Most often, young people like these are detained for refusing to take a drug test. The law provides that if you are detained, you go for an examination, and if it shows that your blood contains narcotic substances, then you get 15 days in prison and are registered at a narcotics dispensary. And if you refuse, then you only get the 15 days – nobody wants to get registered as a drug user.
Not all police are the same, Ruslan says. “Some will not touch you for no reason, but others may break loose if you act rude. You have to understand, they don’t find us in the conservatory. Naturally, we shout something insulting to them in the process of detention and after. Should we get beaten for this? I don’t know. Maybe if I were an officer, I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself either. On the other hand, this is exactly why I am not an officer, but how are they different from me?” Ruslan asks.
He describes a typical beating in the police station:
“Basically, they hit you so there are no marks on the face. They have their own methods and techniques. That is, it is physically painful, but bruises are not visible. They don’t beat up guys like us a lot but I know that many go through real hell there.”
It is difficult for Ruslan to think about how to change this situation.
“I don’t believe that even if we put an officer in prison, anything will change,” he says. “In the first place, most likely they will be released early, and the conditions of their imprisonment are going to be very comfortable. Also, they will probably return to their duties and be even angrier.
“I wouldn’t get involved with them at all. They mind their own business, I mind my own.”
The Wrong Mentality to Fight Against Torture
Inga Gabilaya, a well-known criminal lawyer, confirms that torture by the security forces does happen in Abkhazia. She calls this a big and serious problem.
“There were cases when I arrived for an interrogation and saw that my client had been beaten. There are rarely traces of physical impact on the face, usually traces of beating on the body. In general, my clients categorically refuse to undergo a medical examination. I associate this with the mentality of our people. Not that my clients adhered to some so-called “thieves’ ideology” but the point is that it is shameful to be a victim,” Gabilaya says.
If the fact of violence is established, then, according to the law, the injured party is considered a victim. And, according to the unspoken “street rules,” well known to almost everyone in Abkhazia, this is not good for a man.
Gabilaya says she has represented clients who, even though they adhered to the “thieves’ code,” after undergoing severe physical and moral humiliation, agreed to be examined by doctors and write a formal complaint.
“I had one egregious case when my client specifically named the officers who tortured him, there is no other name for it. And at the trial, he said who tortured him and even described who exactly did what. He was covered in bruises – legs, hips, everything was purple-red. He was also humiliated morally, stripped in front of the officers.
“Despite all this, the officers were acquitted, I don’t know for what reasons. These people are in the system today, they work, some have even climbed the career ladder,” Gabilaya says.
The most high-profile case of alleged torture in recent years concerned Anzor Tarba, who in July 2019 was found dead in the Interior Ministry in Sukhumi days after being arrested. His body bore many signs of physical force. The forensic medical examination ruled that Tarba died from hemorrhagic shock.
In its initial version of events, the Interior Ministry stated that Tarba died while trying to escape. An investigator from the prosecutor’s office on duty that night, who visited the scene, reported this version. The investigators said technical problems prevented them from viewing footage from the CCTV cameras on the third floor of the ministry building, where Tarba’s body was found in an office.
The ambulance doctors, talking about the events of that night, mentioned that being called to the Interior Ministry is by now a “routine” thing with them.
Four officers of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Interior Ministry were acquitted of Tarba’s murder in November 2020. In the spring of 2021, the Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the verdict to the appeal board of the Supreme Court, which overturned the acquittals and sent the case to the Prosecutor General for further investigation.
Security forces in Abkhazia use electric shocks on prisoners, according to sources in the investigative agencies. Waterboarding, where the prisoner is forced to lie down and water is poured over their mouth and nose, is also common. Sources also described beatings on the legs and the soles of prisoners’ feet, rape with a truncheon, and piercing a detainee’s tongue.
According to our information, no one has ever been punished for such incidents.
On 7 July 2016, 25-year-old K.V. was arrested and put in an isolation cell in the Gal district police department. A day later he was sent to a hospital with severe head injuries that resulted in a coma.
When Human Rights Commissioner, or ombudsman, Asida Shakryl was made aware of the case, K.V. was already in a psychiatric hospital on the order of a Gal district court judge, who ruled that his state of health necessitated long-term psychiatric treatment.
After studying the case materials, the ombudsman’s office established that K.V. had received bodily injuries on the night of 7-8 July while held in the isolation cell of the Gal police station.
“It can be assumed that the police officers, using physical violence, tried to get a confession from the suspect K.V. The presence of bodily injuries was recorded in K.V.’s medical documentation and other documents contained in the case materials. According to expert opinion, K.V. suffers from a mental disorder […] which occurred as a result of specific consequences of a severe traumatic brain injury,” the ombudsman’s report stated.
The report concludes that by their actions the Gal district police officers violated the constitutional right of K.V. to freedom from torture, and also violated the fundamental principles of criminal proceedings.
K.V. himself said that he refused the police officers’ demand to confess to a robbery. They then began beating him, banged his head against the wall, and hit him with a firearm.
The ombudsman’s office, arguing that the actions of the police may have amounted to a crime, sent letters to the responsible official bodies. All replied in more or less the same words: there was no crime.
Afraid to Talk About Torture
Psychologist Elana Kortua agrees with Inga Gabilaya’s thesis that being labeled as a victim is shameful in Abkhazia. Kortua observes that in addition to such national character traits as rebelliousness, pride, and others, the peculiarities of the local way of thinking are reflected in the many notions adopted from criminal circles into Abkhaz everyday speech.
“In the context of these ‘concepts,’ a person who is subjected to pressure, humiliation, torture, etc., must proudly keep silent, so as not to lose self-esteem and respect in the eyes of other people,” Kortua says.
“Law enforcement officers are exposed to long-term stress factors, which can lead to professional and personal deformations, emotional burnout, and professional inefficiency,” she continues.
Materials for this article were assembled thanks to investigative authorities, lawyers, the Human Rights Commissioner’s office, open court hearings, and conversations with victims and their relatives.
Several readers described episodes to me that I will not be able to publish for a long time out of fear for my own safety. This only proves that there is a problem, and it is too early to talk about its solution in circumstances where journalists are afraid to speak openly about the problem itself.
Eleonora Giloyan contributed this article to the Caucasus news site JAMnews. It was produced and reprinted with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange. Transitions has shortened and edited the text for clarity.
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