• 2021 Russian Fires Worst in Its History, Greenpeace Says

    Plus, an assassination attempt in Kyiv, a spying scandal in Georgia, and more. 

    The Big Story: Fire Season in Russia Releases Record Amounts of CO2 Into Atmosphere

    What happened: This year’s fire season was the worst in Russia’s modern history, according to a Greenpeace analysis of recent data from the Russian Forestry Agency, The Guardian reports. Fires have destroyed more than 18.16 million hectares of Russian forest so far in 2021, breaking a previous record set in 2012 when fires destroyed 18.11 million hectares. The destruction is likely to be even greater since the statistics do not record other types of fires taking place outside Russia’s forests, according to Grigory Kuksin, the head of Greenpeace Russia’s firefighting project.

    More context: Fires in the taiga forests of Siberia between June and August released 970 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than all the forests in the rest of the world combined. A major contributor has been the ongoing fires in Yakutia fueled by unusually high temperatures and lower than normal soil moisture which led to a lengthening of the fire season and its expansion further north. 

    Worth noting: A new draft report by the Russian Environment Ministry published earlier this month showed that Russia’s 2020 temperatures were 3.22 degrees Celsius above the historical average, The Moscow Times reports. This was the first time since measurements began in 1936 that temperatures were over ​​3 degrees higher than the norm.

    News from the Regions

    Central Europe and the Baltics

    • The broadcasting regulator in Poland yesterday extended an operating license for the U.S.-owned news channel TVN24, Reuters reports. The decision does not spell an end to the standoff between Warsaw and the independent news channel, whose license expired this month; the regulator questioned whether TVN24 had the right to continue operating and asked the Polish government for legal clarity in the matter. While noting that the resolution is non-binding, spokesperson Jan Grabiec from Poland’s leading opposition group Civic Platform called it “a signal to [ruling party] Law and Justice’s core electorate that they won’t give up in trying to take over the independent press.”
    • Romania, Latvia and Hungary have the fewest number of registered cars per 1,000 inhabitants in the EU, according to data published by the EU statistics agency Eurostat and cited by Latvian public broadcasting. While the number of cars for 1,000 inhabitants stands at 357 in Romania, at the other end of the spectrum is Luxembourg with 681 followed by Poland with 642. Latvia also has some of the oldest cars in the EU; out of a total of around 727,000 cars registered in the Baltic country, the majority are between 10 and 20 years old and more than 20% of Latvian cars are more than 20 years old. Poland led the list of EU countries with the highest percentage of cars that are 20 years or older, with 37.9%, followed by Estonia at 31.5% and Lithuania at 22.6%. 

    Southeastern Europe

    • Slovenia’s health-policy goal of early detection of Alzheimer’s disease is largely unattained, in large part due to financial constraints, a Slovenian news agency reports as part of an Euractiv investigation. Statistics are lacking about people affected by Alzheimer’s, a disease responsible for 60% of all dementia cases, because a dementia registry does not yet exist even though it is part of the national dementia management strategy. Stefanija Lukic Zlobec, the head of the Alzheimer’s awareness association Spomincica, puts the number of dementia patients in Slovenia at around 34,000, while also noting that three-quarters of those with early signs of the disease are undiagnosed and that the people affected by it do not receive proper support or treatment.
    • Kosovo extended an olive branch to Serbia amid a standoff over temporary car license plates that has led to blocked traffic between the Balkan neighbors since Monday, RFE/RL reports. Earlier this week, authorities in Serb-majority northern Kosovo deployed police units after hundreds of people blocked roads to protest a decision requiring them to use Kosovo plates instead of Serbian ones. Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said yesterday that his country and Serbia should start recognizing each other’s license plates to allow free movement of people and goods. “Our offer is very practical, let’s lift the temporary plates, in Serbia and in Kosovo,” Kurti said at a government meeting. He also called on Serbs to move their vehicles away “because they are blocking themselves.” 

    Eastern Europe and Russia 

    • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy promised a strong response after an assassination attempt on one of his top aides, the BBC reports. The car of Serhiy Shefir was struck by bullets as he was leaving his home outside Kyiv yesterday morning, wounding his driver. Shefir said the attack might have been an attempt to intimidate the “highest echelon of power” but that attempt was likely doomed to fail. “One has to understand that our president is very strong-willed, he has a spine and cannot be intimidated,” he added. Zelenskiy said: “Saying ‘hello’ to me by shooting out of the forest at my friend’s car is weak. The response will be strong.” The Ukrainian parliament is scheduled to discuss a bill from Zelenskiy within the next few days designed to limit the power of oligarchs
    • The Russian navy held military exercises this week near the annexed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea at the same time that Ukraine and the U.S. are also holding military drills nearby, Reuters reports. On the Russian side, the Black Sea Fleet practiced detecting and destroying sea targets using Bastion, an advanced mobile anti-ship and surface-to-surface defense system, a statement from the Defense Ministry noted. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Bastion system can hit sea targets at a distance of 350 km (219 miles) and land targets at a distance of 450 km (281 miles). The joint military drills in Ukraine involving U.S. and other NATO troops are scheduled to end on 1 October. 

    The Caucasus

    • The EU has summoned Georgia’s envoy to Brussels, Vakhtang Makharoblishvili, after a leak of thousands of files sparked a spying scandal involving Georgia’s security agency, RFE/RL reports. The scandal broke out last week when Georgian media reported that thousands of leaked files released by a whistleblower showed the State Security Service eavesdropped on EU Ambassador to Georgia Carl Hartzell, as well as on U.S. diplomats, Israel’s ambassador, and other diplomatic missions in Tbilisi. Hartzell called Georgia “a close friend and partner” but said the leaked information raised serious questions about compliance with diplomatic norms and about the relationship between Tbilisi and Brussels.

    Central Asia

    • In a bid to increase the popularity of the Kazakh language in the field of education, the government in Nur-Sultan funded the translation of 100 modern classics into Kazakh, Eurasianet reports. The titles range from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy and E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art to textbooks on economics and social science. The project, which came with a price tag of $9 million, will also fund the printing of 10,000 copies of each book to be sent to educational institutions nationwide. Russian remains the lingua franca for advanced textbooks in Kazakhstan, followed by English, according to Eurasianet.
  • Ukraine’s Trans-Border Transplant Quandary

    Most Ukrainians who need a lifesaving organ transplant must travel abroad. That is improving, but systemic change is needed to help more people. From Zaborona.

    Since becoming independent, Ukraine has been unable to create its own system for organ transplants. For decades, those in need have been forced to go abroad for life-saving organs. Since the mid-2010s, Belarus has become a sort of organ transplant hub. As a result of the current political situation in Belarus today, however, bilateral relations with Ukraine have seriously deteriorated. Diplomatic relations are tense, and air traffic between the two has been suspended. It’s practically impossible for Ukrainians to receive an organ there. Zaborona journalist Hanna Belovolchenko explains what people do when they need a transplant, why you can’t simply go to another country for a new heart or liver, and how a regional hospital has begun building a transplant system in Ukraine to the enthusiasm of a group doctors.

    ‘There Might Not Be a Next Time’

    In March 2017, the lives of couple Olha Kredenets and Vasiliy Vyspyanskiy changed dramatically. Vasiliy, 42, had no vices, was athletic, and had a steady job in the transport industry – but then he suddenly found himself on dialysis, regularly undergoing a procedure to clean his blood after he was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a disease that causes the kidneys to shrink and stop working.

    “It’s probably the consequence of a sore throat that he experienced and worked through in 2007,” Olha told Zaborona. “The disease is very insidious and develops slowly, and we, who rarely in our lives went to the doctor, didn’t even suspect that something like this could happen.”

    Over the years, Vasiliy’s health worsened. He started losing weight. It got to the point where he would feel nauseous just from drinking water.

    “For a long time, the hospital couldn’t figure out what the problem was. And when they diagnosed him, they said that we needed to find a donor. Without explanation [about how]. And we had no idea how to do that. Are you supposed to go out with a banner in Lviv, or what?” Olha recalls tearfully.

    The couple lived in agony for the next six months. They traveled to Krakow in Poland for a second opinion in hopes that the diagnosis wouldn’t be confirmed. But alas, it was. Relations with the Lviv medical university, Olha recalls, were basically cold and apathetic: it was hard to talk to the doctors there, and explanations or practical advice were hard to come by. They only learned about a national health program to treat Ukrainians abroad from a fellow patient. The state budget will pay for operations in another country, once the patient assembles a thick file of documents. But where to go?

    “I had to choose among a lot of options: Poland, Austria, India, Belarus, Turkey,” Olha explains. “In Poland they said we would never get to the head of their line, so they’d give us an organ only as a fifth choice. First their own citizens, then EU citizens, then those who have residency there, [or] a Polish Card [for non-citizens belonging to “the Polish Nation.”] Foreigners get it last, and it’s not guaranteed that the donor and recipient data will match.” 

    Considering the cost of treatment in faraway countries, the only option remaining was Belarus. Olha chose a hospital in Brest, because this city is the closest to Lviv. She spoke to doctors there herself. The clinic submitted a ready-made package of documents to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health. They confirmed that her husband could undergo the procedure, and set out some typical requirements: full prepayment in the amount of around 55,000 euros ($64,500). The funds were transferred in just a couple of days.

    A transplant operation under way at the Lviv Transplant Center. Image from a video on UATV English Facebook page.

    “We didn’t have any problems crossing the border. After the elections [in 2020], Belarus began to check very thoroughly, but never forbade transit. We had a great relationship with the hospital. You didn’t have to run around for doctors, like here, everything was clean and sterile – there was a feeling that you were in Austria somewhere,” Olha says.

    Vasiliy joined the waiting list for kidney transplants in 2018. Every three months, he had to cross the border for his blood serum to be collected. These procedures, costing around 250 euros each time, were paid for out of pocket. But there was no way around it. The serum data provides a basis to say whether the donor matches or not. The serum itself is kept frozen. If a single serum collection appointment is skipped, the patient is removed from the transplant list.

    “When we went to Belarus in May of this year, the border guards asked us more questions, demanded that we show them our marriage certificate – which we didn’t have on us. But we were let through in the end. I asked if I needed to bring along the certificate next time. I was told there may not be a next time – without any sort of explanation,” Olha says.

    Organ Tourism

    Going abroad for organs is a common story in Ukraine. If you need bone marrow, transplant lists in Turkey, Israel, Spain, and Germany are open. Need a heart, a liver, kidneys, or lungs? Then you have a straight road to Belarus or India. The cost of an organ transplant isn’t cheap. For example, for a kidney in Belarus today, you’ll have to pay over 62,000 euros, and for a heart, nearly 94,000 euros. In 1992, the Ukrainian government created a program to provide ordinary citizens with assistance in traveling abroad for transplant surgery. According to data collected by the Center for Social and Economic Research Ukraine (CASE), from 2010 to 2014, the state paid for the treatment of between 14 and 40 people a year. In 2015, 84 patients were treated, while in 2021 the government has earmarked expenditures for the treatment of 450 people, with the average cost of a treatment being set at about 75,000 euros. But this isn’t enough.

    There are no official counts of how many Ukrainians need transplants, explains Yuriy Andreev, the chairman of the National Movement for Transplants NGO. Based on estimates by doctors around the country, the figure is likely to be around 5,000 operations a year.

    India stopped providing transplants to Ukrainians in 2018 after a change of government. According to Andreev, when nationalists came to power there, Indians were given priority for transplants.

    “When India stopped conducting these operations, there were 19 Ukrainians on their waiting lists. Eight of them were waiting in India itself. Over three years, six zinc coffins have returned to Ukraine instead of living people. They simply didn’t get their organs in time. Ukraine didn’t get its money back either,” Andreev says.

    As a result, for Ukrainians who hope for help from the state to pay for organ transplants, neighboring Belarus has remained almost the only option. Organs can’t wait for a patient forever. For example, a heart needs to be transplanted within four hours – otherwise, the heart will simply be nonviable. That’s why when recipient and donor data match, automated systems give the organ to whichever recipient is closest. It’s realistic for Ukrainians to reach Belarus by car or by plane in this time frame. 

    As of June, 342 Ukrainians were on Belarusian waiting lists. Ukraine has paid the medical expenses of 18 of those patients. However, Ukrainian authorities halted air travel between the two countries on 26 May, after Belarus forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk, where police arrested opposition journalist Raman Pratasevich. Ukraine was following the EU’s lead, in order to “ensure the safety of flights” and to put pressure on the Lukashenka regime. However, the decision has had its consequences: those who have already left for organ transplants are stuck in Belarus.

    Patients are often in a critical condition after a transplant, and their lives can be threatened by even the smallest infections. That’s why travel by land-based transport is risky. In order to get home after a liver transplant. Kharkiv resident Anna Kurylova had to turn to specialists in transporting critically ill people because she couldn’t handle the 20-hour bus ride home. She had to look for help from the Kharkiv regional government and local council members. The Ukrainian embassy in Belarus says that every situation is unique, which is why they only consult and help those who go to them directly, when these people can.

    An organ transplant on the grounds of a Kovel hospital in 2021. Photo by A.A. Shalimov National Institute of Surgery and Transplantology, via Facebook.

    Ukrainians on the waiting lists still have to travel to Belarus every three months for tests – otherwise they’ll be removed from the lists, Andreev explains. But it’s an open question whether these people will be allowed across the border.

    “The Ukrainian government needs to talk to the Belarusian authorities and receive guarantees that people on the waiting list can definitely have their operations, so as to avoid what happened in India,” Andreev says. “If there are no such guarantees, then it will become necessary to raise the question of bringing the people and the money back to Ukraine. You know, we don’t even know what sort of quota Belarus has for foreigners. They first provide organs to their citizens, and then everyone else. And there are people like Russians and Kazakhs getting treatment there. How do we know when it’ll be a Ukrainian’s turn?”

    The Ukrainian Ministry of Health insists that the money will be returned if the operation isn’t performed or if the person receives an organ in a different country. But Andreev thinks Ukraine should have long ago stopped financing transplants in foreign countries, and should focus on building its own organ transplant system. Such an opportunity arose after 2019.

    Help From the Provinces

    Olha and Vasiliy had their hopes pinned on Belarus for a long time. But that situation changed two years ago.

    On 25 December 2019, a difficult conversation took place in a small regional hospital in the Volyn region, in the town of Kovel. Not long before, a man with a severe, traumatic brain injury was brought in. It wasn’t possible to save him; medical personnel declared him brain dead. Now, the mercy of relatives and the carefully chosen words of doctors would decide whether the deceased man’s organs would be able to save the lives of others. In Ukraine, when it comes to organ donors, there’s a presumption that consent is not given. By default, a person is assumed to have not agreed to be an organ donor. Only relatives have the right to change that situation. And on Christmas Day in Kovel, they did that. Only four hours after the documents had been signed, the donor’s body lay on an operating table, and three patients received his organs: two received kidneys, one a heart. It was the first heart transplant conducted in Ukraine in 15 years.

    This sensational, multiple organ transplant was only possible thanks to the dedication of local doctors. Throughout Ukraine’s history as an independent nation, organ transplants have been something of a fantasy, even though there is no law forbidding them.

    “The problem lay in the fact that in the law [adopted in 1999] there was no procedure for transplants,” explains the head of the Transplant Center at Lviv Clinical Emergency Care Hospital, Maksym Ovechko. “As a result, any mistake in the patient’s medical history could be interpreted as a violation of this law. This threatened doctors with criminal responsibility, which is why they were scared to do this.” [Ed. note: Old patient records in Ukraine are often incomplete, poorly filled out and might contain false information. If a doctor uses a faulty medical record in a transplant surgery and something goes wrong, they could face jail time – even if the doctor had nothing to do with the original records].  

    Yet this team of Kovel medical professionals “were seized with the idea to do something global in a regional hospital.” They wanted to do it – and did, Ovechko says.

    And the moment they transplanted that first kidney from an unrelated donor, it got easier. In the following five months, the team carried out nine kidney transplants and two heart transplants. And in 2020, it got easier still, when on 29 December 2019, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed into law amendments clarifying the rules for organ transplants.

    Most of the medical professionals from that Kovel team now work in Lviv. The city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, invited them to open a transplant center on the grounds of the emergency hospital. There, Vasiliy got his new kidney. He was first on the waiting list the moment Ukraine started performing organ transplants. After a year and a half, he had his operation.

    “I was amazed at the level of the doctors, their communication skills, their manner,” Olha says. “Maksym Ovechko called us on 31 May 2021, at 8:20 p.m. And within an hour we were in an ambulance, and my husband had his operation at one in the morning. The team answered all our questions, they were always smiling – we couldn’t even believe we were in a Ukrainian clinic.” 

    Today, Vasiliy is undergoing rehabilitation. He’s still required to take a host of medications so that his body does not reject the donated organ. But thanks to Ukrainian doctors, he’ll live.

    Death and Consent

    The law adopted in 2019 prescribes the procedure for organ transplants. First, doctors have to establish that brain death has occurred with the help of specialized equipment, if the hospital has access to it. Then they check the Unified State Information System for Organ and Tissue Transplantation to see if the person had agreed to be an organ donor. If they did, then the transplantation procedure can be carried out on a suitable patient. If not, the doctor can ask for consent from the deceased’s relatives, though the doctor isn’t obliged to. And it’s those two factors – ascertaining brain death and obtaining the family’s consent – that specialists see as potential brakes on the development of Ukraine’s organ transplant system.

    “Eighty percent of hospitals simply do not have access to the equipment that can help confirm brain death. They would need to buy it using local budgetary funds,” Andreev explains, noting that this is often out of reach. The necessary equipment costs anywhere from $7,500 to $11,000.

    As for getting a relative’s consent for the transplant, according to Ovechko, it’s easier for a doctor to conduct 10 operations than to speak once to the family of the deceased. The law states that consent has to be agreed through a transplant coordinator – a medical specialist who not only has to talk to the relatives of the potential donor, but oversee the whole process as well.

    “These specialists don’t exist in 90% of hospitals. And in those that do have them, the transplant coordinator often cannot explain all the nuances of the case,” Ovechko says. “Then doctors from different specialties join the conversation, in order to explain from a scientific point of view what brain death is and why it’s equivalent to biological death. But people are suffering from a grave loss in those minutes. And it’s hard to explain to them that a big gesture can be made – to save two or three other patients. Many just refuse, [while] some react aggressively and almost accuse us of selling organs. Our society is not quite ready for organ donation.”

    This all adds up to a colossal deficit in organs from posthumous donors, Ovechko continues. The current demand for kidneys is 1,500 a year, but in the first six months of 2021, Ukraine conducted only 120 kidney transplants. There was a need for 500 livers, but only 20 were transplanted. At least 400 hearts were needed, but only a few dozen transplants have been done.

    Ukraine could be transplant-independent in five years, Ovechko believes, based on the increasing rate at which hospitals are performing transplants, the growth of specialists in this field, and technological progress.

    Lviv’s young transplant center became No. 2 in Ukraine in terms of the number of operations performed in the first half of this year: they transplanted 26 kidneys, three hearts, and a single liver. Thirty hospitals in Ukraine have now been licensed to transplant organs, but in reality, only a dozen actually perform the procedures. By comparison, 30 clinics in Germany specialize just in kidney transplants.

    The European Union is working on a system of unified transplant lists, and some European countries already cooperate on exchanging donor information. Andreev believes that Ukraine could sign a similar agreement with its neighbors. However, there are still barriers to overcome.

    “In Moldova, they conduct kidney transplants, but they don’t have any heart or lung specialists. They also travel to Belarus for bone marrow. Russia also doesn’t conduct all the operations and doesn’t cover its own needs,” Andreev says.

    Under these conditions, Ukraine has little choice other than to develop its own organ transplant system. And this can be done if there are trained doctors, a system of organ donation, good financing, and political will.

    “For some reason, we found billions of hryvnias for roads [in a national COVID relief program for 2021], but we didn’t find money for equipment to confirm brain death. Meanwhile, thousands of people wait for their operations,” Andreev says. “Organ transplantation is a chance you have to wait for. But not everyone has the time.”

    Hanna Belovolchenko writes for the Ukrainian news site Zaborona, where this article originally appeared. Transitions has edited the text for length and style.

    Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange.

  • Turkey’s Eurasianism

    What motivates Ankara to establish increasingly close relations with Russia? From the German Marshall Fund. 

    While closer relations bring several benefits with little cost to Russia, it is difficult to say the same for Turkey, particularly when it comes to the cost of these relations. One could make a long list of benefits that Russia gains from engagement or cooperation. Meanwhile Turkey has accrued some benefits, for example by disrupting the plans of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in northwestern Syria, but this has come at a high price. Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile systems from Russia has led to its removal from the United States’ F-35 program and sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. In broader terms, its closer relations with Russia have generated heated discussions in the West regarding Turkey’s place.

    What motivates Turkey to establish increasingly close relations with Russia is an important question—one with several answers that are not mutually exclusive. Explanations include the rising tide of authoritarianism at home, which strains relations with the West, Turkey’s adjustment to a regional and international environment in which the United States has downsized its geopolitical footprint, the growing geopolitical decoupling and discontent between the United States and Turkey, and the personal agency of Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in keeping relations close and on track. There is also the argument that the strengthening of relations is best explained by ideology—in this case Eurasianism. The rationales for the first four explanations are relatively straightforward. However, the idea that Turkish Eurasianism serves as the ideological glue in this relationship is nebulous at best. 

    Turkish Eurasianism and its Different Manifestations

    The tendency to account for improving ties between Turkey and Russia through the lens of Eurasianism begets two interrelated questions: What does Turkish Eurasianism denote? And what does it mean for Turkish foreign policy? Though the discussion has always been around in one form or another during the republican era, Turkish Eurasianism has meant different things over time. Further complicating matters is the distinction between geopolitical and ideological Eurasianism. Different combinations of two criteria have led to three different manifestations of Turkish Eurasianism since the end of the Cold War. The first is whether a Eurasianist vision includes or excludes Russia. The second is whether Eurasianism is projected to be in cooperation or competition with the West.

    The first manifestation of Turkish Eurasianism in the early 1990s was anti-Russian and pro-Western. The second, which can be associated with former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem (1997–2002), represented Turkey’s search for a role in the post-Cold War geopolitical reality. The third and current manifestation also has its roots in the early 2000s and carries strong elements of anti-Western ideological posturing. Whereas the first two manifestations of Eurasianism can be regarded as geopolitical, the third can be denoted as ideological. 

    Geopolitical Eurasianism

    With the demise of the Soviet Union, Turkey saw the emergence of a potential area of influence for itself in Central Asia. Supported by the West, its Eurasianism in this period meant Turkey could play a leading role in the affairs of the newly independent Central Asian and Caucasus states. Hence it was also premised on a competitive agenda with Russia. However, despite its early eagerness to take advantage of this epochal development, Turkey failed to cultivate a leading role in Central Asia.

    In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eurasianism was discussed largely in relation to the foreign policy vision of the social-democratic Cem, during whose term Turkish-Russian relations improved significantly. He believed the end of the Cold War had given birth to an emerging Eurasian order in which Turkey would play a central role. However, Cem set Turkey’s Eurasian vision neither as an alternative to the West nor against Russia. Rather, he believed that the artificial divides between Western Europe and Asia would end, and that global, technological, and economic processes would facilitate the integration of these two regions. Thus, in his view, the Eurasian order was neither anti-West nor anti-Russia. Moreover, Cem believed that Turkey’s Eurasian policy, despite not being driven by an anti-Russia agenda, was in conformity with Western interests.

    Ideological Eurasianism

    Unlike the more geopolitically informed early forms of its Eurasianism in the post-Cold War era, Turkey’s recent turn to Eurasia, driven partially by its deepening discontent with the West, seeks to build closer relations with Russia and China. This latest form, present earlier among some military officers and marginal political groups in the early 2000s, carries a strong suspicion of the West as the constitutive ingredient of its political identity. Thus, the current Eurasianism is essentially an ideological disposition rather than a coherent geopolitical vision. Its most recent manifestation can be seen through the imprecise, nebulous, and unofficial Blue Homeland geopolitical concept.

    The Blue Homeland concept effectively means three things. First, it represents an expanded vision and understanding of Turkey’s maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. Second, it is the navy’s call to reimagine and reposition the country as a maritime power. Third, the ideological concept—as exemplified by the narrative of its creators who believe that Turkish geopolitical interests are better served through realignment with Russia and China—signifies a reimagining of the country’s place in the world. 

    The government and the Eurasianist-neonationalist supporters of the Blue Homeland concept agree on the first two elements. On the third, they are not on the same page. In contrast to the Eurasianist-neonationalist group’s aspiration to reorient Turkey toward Russia and China, the government appears to be conscious of the limitations of Turkish-Russian relations. Again, even though this concept comes across as a geopolitical doctrine, it is essentially informed by ideological motivations at the core of which lies the discontent of its architects with the West.

    In contrast, for Russia the role of ideology in its foreign policy has been minimal if not nonexistent, putting aside its suspicion and grievances toward the West. The fact that Russia can speak to almost all poles and actors in the Middle East is a testament to this. For it, Eurasianism appears to represent a geopolitical and regional-integration vision (for instance, with the Eurasian Economic Union), which partially fills the void created by the disappearance of ideology in its foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Thus, not only has Eurasianism acquired different meanings in Turkey in different periods, it also currently denotes different things for Turkey and Russia. As such, it does not provide a strong analytical framework for their relations, particularly within the context of the Middle East. 

    The currently prevailing ideological mode of Eurasianism in Turkey capitalizes on the growing anti-Western, particularly anti-U.S. sentiments at the governmental and societal levels in order to reach a wider audience. But it is important to bear in mind that anti-Westernism does not automatically translate into a Eurasianist geopolitical disposition in Turkey. Most of the time, anti-Westernism gives birth to the quest for a more independence or non-aligned status in international affairs. However, the ideological Eurasianists benefit from the anti-Western climate in advancing their cause.

    The Idea of a Turkic World

    Azerbaijan’s victory in the recent Second Nagorno-Karabakh War (arguably largely thanks to direct Turkish support) might embolden Ankara to seek a larger role for itself in the Caucasus and Central Asia. If realized, Turkey’s quest for a role in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal might also lead to a desire to play a larger role in the region. Ankara is therefore likely to seek ways to form even closer relations with Turkic peoples there, which may revitalize the idea of a Turkic (or Turkish) world as one of the intellectual, ideological, and political drivers of its foreign policy. 

    This would bring the competitive, if not adversarial, nature of Turkish-Russian relations to the fore. In the end, a vast part of the Turkic world is also part of the post-Soviet space, an area that Russia regards as its geopolitical sphere and is fiercely hostile about any perceived encroachment on it. In other words, the search for a role in this region is likely to rekindle the geopolitical Eurasianism in Turkish foreign policy, which bodes ill for ideological Eurasianism and relations with Russia. Thus, Turkey’s turn to Eurasia, if implemented in earnest geopolitically, would put it on a collision course with Russia, the reverberation of which will be felt in different regions and contexts.

    Yusuf Akcura, a Russia-born ideologue of Turkish nationalism, envisioned this scenario more than a century ago. In his famous 1904 essay, “Three Types of Policy: Ottomanism, (pan)Islamism and (pan)Turkism,” he reflected upon the three main political, ideological, and intellectual currents shaping the political and ideational imagination of elites during the late Ottoman period about which path to follow in order to save the crumbling empire. 

    Akcura argued that the Ottoman elite should focus on Turkish nationalism and pan-Turkism in order to reverse the fortune of the empire. When contemplating the feasibility of such a Turkic-world policy within the confines of an imperial world order, he argued that Russia would be the major obstacle and opponent, while the West would probably support this policy on the ground that it would weaken the Russian empire, which presided over a vast Turkic population. What was true back then is still true today. If geopolitical Eurasianism and the idea of Turkic world rise in Ankara’s foreign policy, the first victim will inevitably be the ideological Eurasianism that tries to bring Turkey closer to Russia and China in an anti-Western fashion.

    Galip Dalay is an associate research fellow at the French Institute of International Relation’s Turkey and Middle East Program. He works as a research director at Al Sharq Forum and non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution, Doha Centre. He is a regular contributor to German Marshall Fund’s “On Turkey” policy brief series.

    This article originally appeared on the website of the German Marshall Fund. Reprinted with permission.

  • Russian City Mourns Victims of University Shooting

    Plus, Chinese phones in Lithuania, Turkey singled out in Freedom House report, and more. 

    The Big Story: Perm Students in Shock After 6 Killed, Dozens Wounded at Local University

    What happened: Students at the Perm State National Research University are in mourning after a shooting rampage on Monday left six of their peers dead and dozens more wounded, AFP reports. The deans of all the universities in the city of Perm, located near the Ural Mountains, laid flowers at the gates of the campus to express their solidarity. “We feel support from the whole of Russia and that really helps,” politics lecturer Ksenia Punina said.

    More context: Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin said Russia should tighten gun ownership rules after nine people died, including seven eighth-grade students, in a school shooting that took place in May in the city of Kazan. A bill that Putin subsequently signed into law in June created new restrictions on owning weapons and also raised the minimum age for buying hunting rifles and long-barreled guns from 18 to 21, RFE/RL notes

    Worth noting: Every September, Russia marks the anniversary of the 2004 Beslan school siege when terrorists took 1,100 people hostage. The incident left 334 people dead, over half of them children, making it the deadliest school siege in history, The Moscow Times reports

    News from the Regions

    Central Europe and the Baltics

    • A forensic analysis of the phones of a Budapest-based photojournalist who documents the lavish lives of Hungary’s elites revealed traces of spyware, The Guardian reports. Daniel Nemeth had his phones analyzed by experts at Amnesty Tech, the security lab of Amnesty International. The findings come after a collaborative investigation published in July headed by French media nonprofit Forbidden Stories alleged that Budapest used military-grade spyware from the Israeli tech firm NSO Group to infiltrate the digital devices of a range of targets that included at least 10 lawyers, one opposition politician, and at least five journalists. 
    • Lithuania is advising people to get rid of their Chinese phones which the government says have built-in censorship features that can be activated remotely, Politico reports. “Our recommendation is to not buy new Chinese phones, and to get rid of those already purchased as fast as reasonably possible,” Lithuanian Defense Deputy Minister Margiris Abukevicius said. According to a report from the Lithuanian Defense Ministry’s National Cyber Security Center, phones sold across Europe by the Chinese electronics company Xiaomi have built-in capabilities to discover and censor phrases in Chinese characters such as “Free Tibet,” “long live Taiwan independence,” and “democracy movement.”

    Southeastern Europe

    • Belgrade will rename a road in honor of late British actor John Challis to mark his impact on the Serbian public, the BBC reports. Challis starred in the long-running BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses which became a smashing success throughout former Yugoslavia; his legacy endured even after the country’s disintegration. One of the reasons for the show’s popularity might have to do with the architectural similarities between the Balkans and the London suburb of Peckham, physiotherapist Zeljko Djekic says. Belgrade Deputy Mayor Goran Vesic said that renaming the road “is the only way to repay a man who loved our country and loved our city.”
    • The Croatian police are still trying to establish the identity of a woman with memory loss found on a Croatian island, AP reports. The woman, who was discovered earlier this month on the island of Krk in a remote area inhabited by bears, spoke fluent English and had no recollection of how she got there. According to Croatian rescue services, she had spent the night by the seashore and was found “exhausted and with light injuries and disoriented.” Croatian police told AP that “a number of tips received from citizens in Croatia and from abroad about the identity of the person are being checked and investigated.” 

    Eastern Europe and Russia 

    • The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Russia was responsible for the death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, the BBC reports. Litvinenko died in 2006 when he drank poisoned tea containing radioactive polonium at a bar in central London. A UK inquiry from 2016 concluded that the Russian dissident who became a British citizen was killed by two Russian agents, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, probably at the behest of the Russian FSB secret service. “The court found in particular that there was a strong prima facie case that, in poisoning Mr. Litvinenko, Mr. Lugovoi and Mr. Kovtun had been acting as agents of the Russian state,” the ECHR ruled.
    • The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday announced sanctions against a cryptocurrency exchange allegedly facilitating illegal payments from ransomware attacks, RFE/RL reports. U.S. officials say the sanctions against SUEX are the first leveled against a cryptocurrency exchange laundering money for cybercriminals. Although it is registered in the Czech Republic, SUEX has no physical presence there and instead operates from Russia. According to U.S. officials, 40% of SUEX’s known transaction history is associated with illicit transactions. The sanctions include blocking access to all U.S. property and prohibiting U.S. citizens from transacting with SUEX. 

    Central Asia

    • Turkmenistan has been reaching out to regional allies and the policy seems to be paying off in the energy sector, Eurasianet reports. Last week, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov attended a summit in Tajikistan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a defense alliance dominated by China and Russia, and met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. The meeting with Raisi could be a sign of an attempt to mend business ties and also to resume gas supplies which ground to a halt in 2017 due to payment issues. China remains the main buyer of Turkmen gas, paying a higher price per cubic meter than it pays for gas from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, or Russia, according to data extrapolated by Moscow-based business news website Finmarket.ru. 

    Borderlands 

    • Turkey is one of the countries that found themselves at odds with tech companies in its bid to restrict Internet users’ rights, according to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report released yesterday. “This report shows us that the space of freedom is declining not only in Turkey but also around the world,” Gurkan Ozturan of the European Center for Press and Media Freedom, one of the authors of the report, told BIRN. Besides Turkey, which the report lists as “not free,” there are also problems with online freedom in Serbia and Hungary, although both were labelled “free”; for example, pro-government commentators manipulate online discussions in all three countries.
  • How Roma Resistance Protests Spread Across Europe

    The death of a Roma man in the Czech Republic ignites a fire in young activists. 

    When Jelena Reljic was growing up in Serbia, she knew she had to be better than the best. As she saw it, her teachers graded her lower than she deserved. She was ignored by her schoolmates and had few friends. Teachers and students alike openly made fun of Romani people in front of her, a young Roma girl.

    “Coming home and being with my sisters, brothers, and family was the only time I felt good,” says Reljic, now 23. “People who saw me as equal.” 

    Feeling that she did not belong, she wanted to understand: What was the difference between being Roma and non-Roma? “Understanding the mechanisms of society cannot fix those differences because they are systematic, but they’re also rooted in each individual, in their emotions, in how they think, and that cannot be changed overnight,” she says. “And that’s why I am an activist.” 

    This past summer, Reljic played a leading role in mobilizing Romani communities across Serbia to come together and protest in front of the Czech Embassy in Belgrade after a 46-year-old Romani man, Stanislav Tomas, died after being detained by police in Teplice, in the northern part of the Czech Republic.

    A video of the incident – which was first shared by Romea, a Czech news site for Romani people – appears to show a police officer kneeling on Tomas’s neck for almost six minutes. According to an official police statement, a court-ordered autopsy ruled police intervention was not responsible for his death and that Tomas was suspected of having ingested a “foreign substance such as amphetamines.” The Czech interior minister, Jan Hamacek, expressed support for the findings of the autopsy and the actions of the police, despite calls for an independent investigation into Tomas’s death.

    The video swiftly circulated around the network of Roma NGOs in Europe, sparking outrage. Within a week, there was talk of organizing protests, and Roma communities worked across borders to decide on a unified message. They spoke about seeking justice for Tomas and called for an investigation into his death, in addition to broader demands such as the establishment of an independent overseer of police practices in Roma communities across Europe and more stringent anti-racist training in the police force.

    “Today, it happened to Stanislav Tomas; tomorrow, it could happen to any one of us,” says Selvije Mustafi, a 26-year-old activist from North Macedonia. “That’s what connected us.” Mustafi helped organize protests in Skopje. She says she has not seen such a united approach across the European Roma community in her 10 years of activist work.

    Selvije Mustafi, one of a growing number of young, female activists at the forefront of the Roma resistance movement, speaks at a 3 July protest in Skopje, North Macedonia. Photo by Vanco Dzambaski.

    Benjamin Ignac, a fellow at the Open Society Foundations’ Roma Initiatives Office in Berlin, took part in organizing protests in that city and in his home country of Croatia. The rallies included not only large organizations but also smaller, local factions. 

    “Roma in every country in Europe experience forms of police violence, including death and killing,” Ignac says. “It’s not the first time that this has happened; it’s not even the first time it has happened in the Czech Republic.” 

    Emil Metodiev, who works in digital marketing with the Roma Standing Conference in Bulgaria, a union of Roma activists and organizations, also coordinated his plans with factions around Europe, before mobilizing smaller organizations and individual activists within Bulgaria. He was in contact with 86 activists across the country and ended up with 450 people attending the protest he put together, he says.

    “In many countries, it was the first time something like this was organized, and it made us closer to each other, more empathetic, and [made us] know that we can organize ourselves,” says Mustafi. “In many countries, the context is different, but the problems of Roma are the same.”

    Fuel for Fire

    The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) based in Brussels, an organization representing the rights of Roma people in Europe, has filed a criminal complaint against the police over their treatment of Tomas. Nearly half the cases the organization takes on are about police brutality. 

    “Everyone faces police misconduct,” says Jonathan Lee, ERRC’s advocacy and communications manager. “Everyone has either been profiled or harassed by police officers, [and] you normally know someone who’s been beaten at some point.” 

    Lee has begun collecting data on Roma, Sinti, and traveler communities affected by police misconduct in Europe. So far, he has recorded 38 deaths resulting from police action; 67 instances of brutality or excessive force; and 18 instances of police harassment since 1993.

    A child lays a flower in front of the Czech embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by Emil Metodiev.

    On top of over-policing of Roma neighborhoods, random raids, forced evictions, and ethnic profiling and harassment at the hands of the police, Romani people suffer limited access to justice, Lee says. There’s a lack of legal aid, and cases against the police are rarely investigated independently. Roma fear further violence, or even threats of having their children taken by social services, if they instigate action against a public authority.

    When they do pursue cases, the system works against them, some cases taking a decade to be resolved. “If you’re waiting that long, justice is effectively denied,” says Lee. “There’s no remedy anymore when it takes 10 years. It should be something that is concerning for everyone in society, not just Roma, that the entire judicial system is failing to deliver justice.”

    A Match Is Lit

    The Roma resistance movement began to grow markedly in 2019, when the first national movements were established. Avaja in Macedonia was the first official one, then movements followed in other countries: Opre Roma in Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovakia; the Roma Standing Conference in Bulgaria; Aresel in Romania; Kethane in Italy; Camelamos in Spain; and First Roma Initiative in Hungary.

    Reljic remembers the first major protests at which she spoke, in 2018, when she was 19. They led to the formation of Opre Roma Serbia a year later. Thousands had gathered in front of the Italian Embassy in Belgrade to protest against Matteo Salvini, then deputy prime minister of Italy, and his overtly anti-Roma agenda. 

    Salvini implemented a policy of terrorizing Romani camps by sending in troops and evicting people. In 2018, he ordered a census of the nearly 200,000-strong Roma population as part of a plan to deport non-Italian Roma people.

    “The people engaged in that protest really felt pain, not just for the community of Serbia, but for the larger community,” says Reljic. But it was only during the protests of the summer of 2021 that the Roma community saw a transnational movement on a scale big enough to feel hopeful, she says.

    The Fire Spreads

    In Croatia, Ignac blasted all his social media sources – including 3,000 Facebook friends – to encourage people to come to the protest he organized in Zagreb. “Every person has hundreds of friends on Facebook, if not thousands, so it increases your platform and your range of audience. It has this domino effect,” he says.

    Social media spread slowly in Roma communities because of a lack of access to technology, he says, but now it dominates activism circles and plays a vital part in coordinating activity across borders.

    All the activists interviewed for this article agree that the circulation of the Tomas video was pivotal in sparking protests at a transnational scale. “It’s very rare that we have someone who was killed by police and caught on camera,” says Lee. While there have been incidents filmed before, they have rarely been circulated at such a level, or the people involved delete the videos before they are seen, afraid of inciting further hatred, he says.

    “A lot of people realize that they can take control of their own rights by using a phone in their pocket,” says Lee. “That does give them more power; they can film things that are happening and put it on the internet.”

    Sebi Fejzula, a prominent activist with Spanish group Kale Amenge, has found that social media have given Roma people a platform to raise their voice and speak up about their issues. “Traditional media has a role in perpetuating racism against Roma, so of course social media gave us a platform to tell our history.”  

    Fejzula is one of numerous female activists who have risen to the forefront of the Roma resistance. Much of this summer’s success is attributed to the presence of women leading the marches or speaking at the protests. “Including more women is including more potential,” says Reljic. Women have not traditionally played a major role in political actions, but they are at the center of the Romani community and cannot be left out of the movement, she stresses. 

    The greater presence of women added something different, something unexpected, notes Mustafi. “The protests led by women are always historically more remembered.” She pauses to laugh. “I don’t want to brag, but that’s true.”

    Mustafi does believe that this summer’s events were significant but for there to be momentum, activists will need to put in double the effort. “This is just the beginning, and the best results are yet to come.” The Roma population is young, with an average age of 25 across Europe, and deeply committed to their cause. She thinks that even if no major changes have occurred yet, the community has been moved and is more politically aware.

    The main goal of the movement is to be seen as equal and a political subject that can play a role in implementing policy and legislation, says Metodiev. The Roma Standing Conference sent an open letter to the EU in June, echoing the demands of the protestors. The letter called for the body to act against police brutality, condemn biased media coverage against Roma people, and take a clear stance against racism.

    The EU has not responded to this summer’s demands although it has previously implemented actions in regard to the Roma community. In October 2020, the European Commission published an updated Roma equality, inclusion, and participation framework, to build on one from 2011. The earlier framework had focused mostly on socio-economic inclusion, through access to housing, education, employment, and healthcare. The second framework introduces targets to reduce discrimination and social exclusion and to promote the participation of Roma people in national and political groups.

    But the framework does not directly address the issue of police conduct and sets timid targets, says Lee. It merely strives to halve the proportion of Roma children attending segregated schools by 2030, and for less than 30 percent of the general population to feel uncomfortable having Roma neighbors.

    The momentum from the summer’s protests endures. There is talk among the activists of further demonstrations in Brussels that will bring all the groups together in one location to directly address the lack of action at the European level.

    Reljic wants to see the trans-European union continue to empower the Roma community. 

    “Roma people learned to be silent,” says Reljic. “At events [like the summer protests], we can prove to the community but also to the government that Roma do have a voice. And that voice can be really loud.” 

    Beatrice Tridimas is a London-based freelance writer and graduate of City, University of London Journalism School. 

  • Warsaw Refuses to Close Coal Mine Despite Hefty Fine

    Plus, Hungary to pay back taxpayers, Iran at odds with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and more. 

    The Big Story: European Court Fines Poland for Refusal to Shut Down Mine on Border

    What happened: Polish authorities vowed to keep the Turow coal mine operating despite a 500,000-euro daily fine for its operation that the European Court of Justice announced yesterday, The Guardian reports. A Polish government spokesperson called the fine “disproportionate to the situation” and “not justified by facts,” adding “it undermines the ongoing process of reaching an amicable settlement.”

    More context: Polish and Czech officials held talks earlier this year to solve a long-standing dispute over the mine near the borders of Czechia and Germany. The Czechs say it is an environmental hazard that drains groundwater from the area, while the Poles say the coal is needed for an adjacent power plant.

    Worth noting: In June, the European Court of Justice said the Czechia requested Poland be fined 5 million euros ($6 million) for each day it operates the lignite mine, which the court ordered shut temporarily in May.  

    News from the Regions

    Central Europe and the Baltics

    • Polish officials announced yesterday that three people have died after crossing into Poland from Belarus, Reuters reports. Another person was found dead on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland, identified by the Belarusian border service as “a woman of non-Slavic appearance.” Polish border guard chief Tomasz Praga said there are many cases of people suffering from hypothermia or exhaustion after arriving from Belarus. Earlier this month, Polish lawmakers approved a state of emergency declared by President Andrzej Duda over the migrant standoff with Belarus. 
    • Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced a generous fiscal package ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections in Hungary, Reuters reports, including refunds of income tax totaling $2 billion to families in early 2022 and a large increase in the minimum wage. Speaking at the opening session of parliament on Monday, Orban said the sharp economic rebound from the coronavirus pandemic offered enough room in the budget for such measures. He also said the economy was forecast to grow more than 5.5% this year and that there was already a shortage of labor.

    Southeastern Europe

    • Two journalists and an environmental activist working on a documentary about illegal deforestation in Romania were attacked last week, Romania-Insider.com reports. The incident took place in a forest located in Suceava county in the northeast. According to Greenpeace, director and journalist Mihai Dragolea, his colleague Radu Constantin Mocanu, and environmental activist Tiberiu Bosutar were taken to the hospital after the attack. Dragolea told Romanian media they had been attacked by a group of around 20 “extremely aggressive” people who destroyed their equipment and recordings, and threatened to kill them. Some of the attackers were later apprehended by Romanian police. 
    • Authorities in Serb-majority northern Kosovo deployed police units yesterday after hundreds of people blocked roads to protest a decision requiring them to use Kosovo vehicle license plates instead of Serbian ones, BIRN reports. Pristina’s decision is a reciprocal measure; for two decades people driving cars with Kosovo plates have been forced to remove them when entering Serbia and replace them with temporary Serbian ones. Kosovo also imposed an insurance fee at the border yesterday in another reciprocal move. 

    Eastern Europe and Russia 

    • Prominent members of the Russian opposition cried foul yesterday after final results in the election held last week for the lower house of parliament showed a clear victory for United Russia, The Moscow Times reports. Candidates endorsed by the ruling party won in all of Moscow’s 15 districts, and online voting played a decisive role in the final result in the Russian capital, where 2 million votes were cast online. The party won almost 50% of votes nationwide, followed by the Communist Party with almost 19%. Although their share of votes was their largest in the past two decades, the communists disputed the results, which Communist candidate Mikhail Lobanov called “totally implausible.” 
    • The worsening coronavirus situation has led to an extension of the state of emergency in Ukraine until the end of the year, RFE/RL reports. Authorities in Kyiv yesterday announced the introduction of a so-called “yellow” epidemic level, starting Wednesday, which limits the number of people who can be at public venues or attend mass events and also mandates mask-wearing and social distancing. The number of confirmed new cases of COVID-19 increased by 68% last week while hospitalizations rose by 51%. Health Minister Viktor Lyashko said that, while the medical system is ready to face a new wave of the pandemic, “the best way to save your life and health is to get vaccinated at the first opportunity available.”

    The Caucasus

    • Military games conducted by Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan — the self-styled “three brothers” — sparked indignation in Tehran, bne IntelliNews reports. In response, Iran reportedly moved infantry divisions and rocket artillery to its border with Azerbaijan in the northwest. The relationship between Baku and Tehran has been tense since Azerbaijan imposed a $130 road “tax” on Iranian truckers transporting goods such as oil and gasoline to ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory claimed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Iranian authorities were also riled by Turkey’s participation last week alongside Azerbaijani forces in submarine and defense-group military exercises in the Caspian Sea.  

    Central Asia

    • Political parties in Kyrgyzstan are getting ready for parliamentary elections at the end of November, Eurasianet reports. The next legislature will be trimmed down to 90 seats instead of the current 120, with 54 lawmakers taken from the lists of parties that are able to cross the 5% vote threshold, while the rest will go to candidates competing in single-member districts. Despite an appearance of political pluralism, the outgoing parliament “is an imitation of a parliament, cowed now by three successive presidents, whom it backed comprehensively for as long as they wielded power,” Eurasianet notes. The next one might be similar; lawmaker Dastan Bekeshev said that some of his colleagues were seeking presidential permission to join parties.
  • Ruling United Russia Party Claims Victory in Parliamentary Elections

    Plus, primaries in Hungary, the thriving Mongolian Stock Exchange, and more. 

    The Big Story: Putin’s Party Likely Set for Another Electoral Victory

    What happened: The ruling United Russia party is on track to gain a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, Reuters reports. Partial results made public by the Electoral Commission after 50% of votes were counted show that United Russia received 46.11% of the vote, followed by the Communist party with 21.4%, with a turnout of about 47%. In the last parliamentary election held in 2016, United Russia won more than 54% of the vote. 

    More context: Polling stations opened across Russia on Thursday for the three-day elections. At stake are all 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, as well as seats in dozens of regions including regional assemblies and gubernatorial elections. The three-day voting along with limits on independent election observers may have paved the way for electoral violations, AFP reports. The independent election monitor Golos announced last evening that it had tracked over 4,600 reports of voting violations.

    Worth noting: The allies of imprisoned Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny said the results showed that their “Smart Voting” campaign, which guided voters away from Kremlin-allied candidates, was working. “The aim of Smart Voting was to destroy United Russia’s monopoly and that is what is happening,” Navalny aide Lyubov Sobol said during a live stream on YouTube, according to AFP.

    News from the Regions

    Central Europe and the Baltics

    • The lack of special incentives for tech giants in Estonia has helped the local start-up scene to thrive, President Kersti Kaljulaid told CNBC. Kaljulaid said that companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple, which have their headquarters in Ireland where the corporate tax is 12.5%, don’t have a significant presence in Estonia where the corporate tax stands at 20%. “Estonia is a country that has never offered special deals or special treatment to any kind of company,” Kaljulaid said. She added that she was often asked about “special conditions” as an adviser to the prime minister two decades ago, and always replied that there were none. “This probably, might be, one of the reasons why Estonia has so many home-bred start-ups from which you now see unicorns coming out more often,” the Estonian leader added. 
    • Voting in Hungary’s first-ever primary elections started off on the wrong foot on Saturday when it had to be suspended due to a suspected cyberattack, AFP reports, citing organizers. “In addition to the masses of voters seeking change, someone else was interested in the primary: a mass load of currently unknown origin hit the background system of the primary election,” the national primary election committee said in a statement. Green LMP party candidate Antal Csardi called the primary elections “an innovation that was forced on us” by an election system that handed the ruling Fidesz party significant parliamentary supermajorities in 2014 and 2018, even though the party won less than half of the vote.

    Southeastern Europe

    • A newly-established political faction in Bulgaria will test its mettle in polls held this November, Reuters reports. Its founders Kiril Petkov and Assen Vassilev say that their party, named “We Are Continuing the Change,” aims to build “a coalition of the honest” in the next parliament. Sofia already held two rounds of parliamentary polls this year in April and July, but political quarrels plus the lack of a clear parliamentary majority prevented the creation of a government. “We are continuing the change. In the past four months we have started the change with clear goals – to stop the corruption and the theft,” Petkov told reporters, adding that his party is open to collaborate with either left or right-wing parties as long as they are “honest people.”
    • The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) said Friday that the payouts awarded by the Belgrade Court of Appeals to families of victims killed in Vukovar were too low, BIRN reports. “In the three lawsuits to date, the national courts have awarded amounts ranging from 700,000 to 900,000 dinars [about 5,900 to 7,600 euros] for each plaintiff individually,” HLC said in a statement. The NGO, which documents human rights violations across the former Yugoslavia, added that the compensations “do not comply with the standards of the European Court of Human Rights.” The siege of the Croatian town of Vukovar took place from August to November 1991, with intensive shelling of the town by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries leading to the death of more than 3,000 soldiers and civilians during the siege and its aftermath. 

    Eastern Europe and Russia 

    • Around 7,000 people took to the streets of Kyiv yesterday in a show of support for Ukraine’s LGBTQ community, Deutsche Welle reports. The Pride parade took place without incidents, despite a few hundred far-right protesters staging a counter demonstration nearby. This year’s March for Equality “is already the 10th Pride, it was successful, it went off calmly,” said Leni Emson, director of the KyivPride NGO. Organizers had to cancel last year’s march due to the coronavirus pandemic. Attendance this year was slightly smaller than in the 2019 march, which had the biggest turnout since the event was first organized. Homophobia is still widespread in Ukraine, as shown by a survey by the sociological group “Rating” published in August which indicated that 47% of respondents had a negative view of the LGBTQ community.

    The Caucasus

    • A Georgian who became a chess legend during the Soviet era is suing streaming giant Netflix over how she was portrayed in its hit show “The Queen’s Gambit,” RFE/RL reports. Nona Gaprindashvili has launched a $5 million lawsuit against Netflix for “brazenly and deliberately” lying about her in the final episode of the television series. The show features a dialogue where Gaprindashvili is described as “the female world champion” and as a player who “has never faced men.” The lawsuit says that such allegations are “manifestly false, as well as being grossly sexist and belittling,” and that by 1968, when the episode takes place, Gaprindashvili had competed against at least 59 male chess players including at least 10 grandmasters at the time.

    Central Asia

    • Security services in Kyrgyzstan launched a criminal investigation last week into the management of Canadian firm Centerra Gold, whose local subsidiary Kumtor Gold Company is Kyrgyzstan’s biggest taxpayer, Eurasianet reports. A number of Centerra Gold executives, including former CEO Ian Atkinson, are suspected of embezzling $200 million in 2013, according to a statement by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security on 17 September. Centerra has a long-running dispute with Bishkek over the Kumtor mining project. In May, Kyrgyzstan’s parliament approved legislation allowing national authorities to temporarily take over the mine in the event of environmental and safety violations. In August, Centerra expressed concern over how the mine was being run and said a large amount of water had accumulated at the bottom of the mine pit.

    Borderlands 

    • Mongolia had the best-performing stock market of all the primary equity indexes tracked by Bloomberg in 2021, Bloomberg reports. The MSE Top 20 Index, which tracks the major companies in Mongolia, has gained almost 130% in 2021. Mongolia’s economy grew 6.3% in the first half of the year, mainly driven by an export surge of commodities such as coal and copper, most of which went to China. Increased consumption among Mongolia’s growing middle class also fueled the economic bonanza. The biggest company listed on the Mongolian Stock Exchange is Apu Company Ltd., which produces vodka, beer and other beverages; it has a market value of $517 million and has recorded returns of almost 130% in 2021.
  • Will the Third Time Be a Charm?

    Bulgaria girds for yet another parliamentary election, in hopes that this one sticks. 

    The saying “third time’s a charm” comes to mind as Bulgarians prepare to hold their third parliamentary election in just eight months. 

    On 4 April they voted and produced the 45th National Assembly. Yet that parliament failed to construct a government, was dissolved, and a new ballot called for 11 July. That effort, too, failed, for the same reason, and yet another election was set. That ballot, on 14 November, will be two in one – for both parliament and president, with incumbent Roumen Radev seeking reelection.

    No one enjoys such blunders. The GERB party, which has governed for more than 10 of the last 12 years, finished first in April and a narrow second in July, but far short of a majority. Others neither wanted to align with GERB, nor found agreement among themselves. Even those that opposed and protested against GERB’s embattled leader, former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, emerged divided. Only two parties in the 240-member parliament did not quarrel with each other openly, one with 34 seats and one with 13. For the public, it was reminiscent of a free-for-all shootout in a Wild West bar scene. 

    At first glance, Radev, a staunch opponent of Borissov and a former air force general, is winning the skirmish. With the support of the majority of the parties and the population, his prospects for a second term seem good. The constitution gave him powers to appoint a caretaker government to fill the interregnum, which he did, with wide approval. Two of the ministers, Kiril Petkov, minister of the economy, and Assen Vassilev, of finance, were so well-received that they announced on 19 September a joint political “project” (as they call it) named “We Continue With Change” and will run in the November elections.  

    But success might put the president in a tricky situation. The Bulgarian Socialist Party, which brought him to power, suddenly might have to compete with his popular ministers. Not surprisingly, Socialist leader Cornelia Ninova is furious. Urban liberals from the Democratic Bulgaria (DB) coalition have a similar problem. They have sided with the president in the battle against GERB but would, reluctantly, split their voters between DB and Petkov/Vassilev. 

    Finally, Radev has led the executive branch through two caretaker governments. Constituents tend to value the power that time at the helm connotes, but power also means responsibility. And that could prove to be a double-edged sword at the start of winter, with higher electricity and heating costs, growing inflation, and most likely another COVID-19 wave. Bulgaria has the lowest vaccination and the highest mortality rate in the EU.

    Yet the extraordinary situation has an extraordinary hero: Slavi Trifonov, a showman, singer, producer, and TV presenter. His party, There is Such a People, which finished a surprising second in April and – even more surprisingly – first in July, has made some interesting moves. 

    In April, they rejected the mandate to form a government because they did not want to do business with “the forces of the status quo,” while the others did not constitute a majority. In July, Trifonov announced a government the morning after election day. He was not bothered by the fact that his party had just 65 MPs. Take it or leave it, was the option. 

    A storm ensued, and three days later Trifonov retracted his proposal. But then he announced another one, again without negotiating with the others in the real sense of the word. (They just had some talks, which the would-be partners called “presentations.”)  The others refused, and the attempt failed. There is Such a People put the blame on those who refused, predominantly on DB and on the other, much smaller coalition created from the 2020 protest. The forces who opposed GERB and Borissov looked quarrelsome and embarrassed. The second parliament crumbled. 

    Why did Trifonov do that? In his only TV interview, on 27 August, he told me an agreement was impossible because of the vote of the “sovereign” (as he calls the people or the electorate). What was his ultimate aim? “To do the work,” he answered. He expressed hope that in the next parliament, parties will show “wisdom and humility” – and will “form a government at any cost.” 

    Is this for real? In any case, it is what the “sovereign” wants. According to Trend, a polling agency, 60% in April and 80% in July wanted a regular cabinet. The new grouping, formed by Petkov and Vassilev, could provide a solution. But there are grimmer possibilities. Bulgarians may get fed up with the election drama and either undermine the system with low turnout or break it altogether and seek a radical change.

    In Bulgarian, the expression “third time’s a charm” has a negative variant: “third time jug for water.” If you go to a well to fill a jug with water while drunk, you might manage to complete the task – but only once or twice. The third time, the jug may break. You cannot be endlessly lucky. 

    Notorious skeptics, Bulgarians don’t have high expectations. They will be happy if the jug doesn’t break.

    Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

  • Blowing Bubbles

    An economic gathering and a papal visit send radically contrasting messages about politics and society.

    “What we saw in Kabul recently was a victory of people of spirit over the people of technology,” Polish sociologist and conservative politician Zdzislaw Krasnodebski said. He was speaking at a discussion about the spirit of European conservatism at the 30th edition of the Economic Forum, the traditional big Polish conference held in the first week of September, where economic and political elites meet. This year, the forum was moved from its usual venue in the eastern town of Krynica to Karpacz in the west.

    The event was once dubbed the “Eastern Davos” after the annual gathering of global liberal movers and shakers in Switzerland, but in recent years with the conservative Polish government controlling the big state companies that subsidize such events, it’s taken an illiberal turn in an apparent attempt to please the government and secure funding. As a result there were many discussions like “Nation and Europe – A State of Mind,” where Krasnodebski and four other hardline conservatives spoke against liberal abortion laws and murmured about value-based conflicts being a (positive) driving force of Europeanism.

    The remark about the Taliban victory could be interpreted as a kind of nostalgic sigh of a conservative politician who in his day job as a European Parliament deputy is constantly debating his colleagues. The discussion on this panel resembled a Twitter or Facebook bubble of self-reinforcing adherents to the same opinion.

    I was not able to attend more than about 10 panels in three days, but the mood was similar – less discussion, more embrace of conservative and nationalist policies. The once liberal or pluralistic spirit of the Economic Forum was lost. Hopefully, not completely and not forever. Look at the visit of Pope Francis to Central Europe, for example.

    Central European conservatism has many faces and one of them, that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was disappointed that the pope chose to spend just seven hours in his country. The pope was clear: Hungary can preserve its Christian roots while opening up to the needy. That was the message delivered to Orban, who – rhetorically – has anointed himself defender-in-chief of Christian civilization in Europe. Migrants are not welcomed in Hungary, whose Balkan border has been well-fenced since the migration crisis in 2015.

    Pope Francis, meeting with heads of Catholic and Jewish communities in Budapest, also warned against anti-Semitism. This is another blow to the governing Hungarian party, which tolerates anti-Semitism among its supporters and sympathetic journalists.

    The pope then moved on to Slovakia for a longer stay of almost four days. Unlike in Hungary, there are clear mutual sympathies between Francis and Slovak President Zuzana Caputova. Still, many Slovak Catholics and conservatives look askance at the “too liberal” ideas the pope offers. They do not fit into the old-fashioned, conservative/nationalistic picture that has been under construction for many years in Central Europe while the rest of the world is moving elsewhere.

    “I want you to shape people toward freedom, not toward rigid religiosity,” Francis told Catholic clergy and bishops in Bratislava on the second day of his visit. Blow bubbles among the people but do not blow them up, he seemed to be saying.

    The Economic Forum and the pope’s trip stand as strong reminders from different sides of how politics in Central Europe is “bubbling,” that there is less and less understanding and discussion across the spectrum of opinions. In a more and more connected world, this may seem a paradox. But, as European Council of Foreign Relations director Mark Leonard writes in his newish book The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict, connections that were supposed to bring people closer to each other, are more and more becoming weaponized. Instead of being a tool for better understanding, they are a tool for political or economic struggles that contribute to the polarization of society.

    The panels in Karpacz on one hand, and the message Pope Francis delivered in Slovakia on the other, clearly show how easily opinion bubbles can form and how hard – or easy in the pope’s case – it can be to keep them from drifting dangerously far apart.

    Martin Ehl is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily. 

  • Russia Heads to the Polls

    Plus, Slovaks fleeing nursing, Bulgarians chided as the “idiots of Europe,” and more. 

    The Big Story: Russia Votes While Google and Apple Get Embroiled

    What’s Happening: Polling stations opened across Russia for three-day parliamentary elections. All 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, are at stake, as well as those in dozens of regions, including regional assemblies and gubernatorial elections, RFE/RL reports. The first results should start flowing in on Sunday evening. Despite anger over the economy, the government’s handling of the pandemic, and a stifling of dissent, the ruling United Russia party is probably heading for a landslide, the Guardian writes

    More context: Disgust with United Russia has translated into near-historic lows in opinion polls and rising support for the Communist Party, but a lack of independent monitors at many polling stations and online voting leave a window wide open for ballot-stuffing. Foreign Policy also notes an apparent effort by the Kremlin to discourage voting among non-loyal parts of the electorate, writing that “signs of the coming election are so scant the authorities seem to be doing their utmost to ensure it passes unnoticed.”

    Worth noting: Right before polling began, Apple and Google appeared to have caved in to Russian demands to remove from their online stores an app created by allies of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, AP reports. The Smart Voting app singles out candidates who are more likely to beat those aligned with the Kremlin, even if they aren’t connected to Navalny. “This is, of course, a tremendous act of censorship,” tweeted Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, as cited by RFE/RL. “It’s a pity that at the moment of standoff between honest people and the corrupt regime, these companies played into the latter’s hands.”  

    News from the Regions 

    Central Europe and the Baltics

    • Poland is again on the hot seat over the ruling conservative government’s policies concerning media independence, the rule of law, and women’s rights, Reuters reports. The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly yesterday to endorse a resolution that expressed worries about the state of media freedom, specifically pointing to a draft law that clearly targets the popular news channel TVN which has not shied away from criticizing the Law and Justice (PiS)-led government. The resolution also called on Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to cancel a legal case in which he asked the Polish constitutional court to rule whether EU law takes precedence over the Polish Constitution, AP writes. In addition, the Council of Europe, the continent’s top rights watchdog, issued a report yesterday that highlighted promising initiatives in Poland against domestic violence but urged greater steps to stop sexual violence, rape, and sexual harassment, including changing the definition of rape itself to one covering all non-consensual sexual acts.

    • The flow of Slovak nurses leaving their jobs has accelerated over the past year, contributing to an already dire shortage, The Slovak Spectator reports. Nearly 800 nurses and birthing assistants have quit Slovak healthcare since the beginning of the year, a 20% increase over 2020, according to the Slovak Chamber of Nurses and Midwives (SKSaPA). The Spectator cites an EU average of 8.4 nurses per 1,000 people, but says Slovakia has only 5.7, representing a shortage of around 15,000 nurses. The pandemic and an aging workforce is not the only reason for the trend, as SKSaPA also blames bad working conditions and low wages. A Kafakadesk analysis of Slovakia’s healthcare system last year pointed to chronic underfunding, and reported that the sector has been “arguably one of the most impacted” by emigration of qualified workers, especially to countries such as neighboring Austria where they can double or triple their normal wages. 

    Southeastern Europe 

    • Although Bulgaria’s vaccination rate is the lowest in Europe, the country has been donating or selling hundreds of thousands of doses due to people’s lack of interest, EURACTIV reports. Bulgaria has the highest overall mortality rates in the world, but only around 18% have been fully vaccinated. On Wednesday, the country donated 320,000 doses, with approaching expiration dates, to Bangladesh and Bosnia, and has also sold 100,000 doses to Norway. “If we continue to behave like the idiots of Europe, we will deal a terrible blow to our economy and tourism,” said Chief Health Inspector Angel Kunchev, as quoted by EURACTIV.  The country’s caretaker government did institute more strict measures two weeks ago, but has not gone as far as the measures Kunchev recommends, such as mandatory vaccination of medical staff.
    • The art installation “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped” will officially open this weekend in Paris, with the iconic French landmark covered in recyclable silver-blue fabric according to the vision of the late, Bulgarian-born Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude. “This is the achievement of a 60-year-old dream, a crazy dream come true,” French President Emmanuel Macron said today, reports Balkan Insight. As Transitions columnist Boyko Vassilev recounted last year, soon after the artist’s death: “Few outside Bulgaria knew that his real name was Hristo Vladimirov Javacheff; that he was Bulgarian; that Communists confiscated his father’s factory in the town of Gabrovo; that he studied at the Sofia Academy of Fine Arts – and that at the age of 21 he decided to escape because he was not allowed to create the kind of art he wanted.”

    Eastern Europe and Russia 

    • Human Rights Watch called on the Belarusian authorities today to immediately release human rights defenders who have been imprisoned on what HRW called “bogus, politically motivated charges.” Together with 22 other human rights groups, HRW launched the #FreeViasna campaign to free seven imprisoned members of Viasna, a leading Belarusian human rights group, and publicize the plight of other political prisoners. The International Federation of Human Rights has catalogued 28 cases of human rights defenders arrested or charged with crimes, four of whom have received prison sentences so far, as well as 23 lawyers disbarred for defending activists and political opposition leaders. Earlier this month, a U.N. envoy said that the crackdown on Viasna was inhibiting the ability of the United Nations to document further abuses, Reuters reported at the time. 

    The Caucasus

    • Georgia continues to be roiled by a massive leak earlier this week of alleged secret service surveillance files about members of the powerful Orthodox Church of Georgia, AFP reports. Thousands of files were released to several media Monday evening, and the documents included information on the clerics’ Russian links, business connections, and private lives, according to the Pirveli TV independent station, cited by AFP. The surveillance seems to have been intended, at least partially, to collect compromising information on sexual relations for later use in the future. One of the latest revelations is that the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, planned to resign in 2020 for unknown reasons, OC Media reports.

    • Armenia yesterday instituted proceedings against Azerbaijan before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, for decades-long rights abuses against Armenian citizens and ethnic Armenians, RFE/RL reports. An ICJ statement said that Armenia had cited alleged violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, contending that, “[a]s a result of this State-sponsored policy of Armenian hatred, Armenians have been subjected to systemic discrimination, mass killings, torture, and other abuse.” In response, Azerbaijan said it would initiate its own filing, with Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Elnur Mammadov tweeting that “Thirty years of human rights abuses against Azerbaijanis during occupation will not be tolerated,” AFP reports.
  • Kramatorsk’s Rebellious Gene

    A new kind of museum exhibit reflects the metamorphosis of a once-sleepy Ukrainian town into a regional capital – and not only that.

    Imagine what it is like for a sleepy post-Soviet town that’s suffered a drop in population from 238,000 to 153,000 in a mere 20 years, to wake up one day as a capital of a war-torn region. Such is the story of the Kramatorsk. In 2014, administration of the Donetsk region was moved here when the city of Donetsk was occupied during the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

    The unexpected change in status, along with the uncertainties of a war zone, created challenges for many towns. But Kramatorsk faced the most difficult transformation. It wasn’t just about finding offices for various regional agencies. The large-scale Stalinist architecture that dominates the region provided enough space to house them. A trickier task for Kramatorsk and its citizens was accepting the role of being a capital, with the accompanying social, cultural, and political baggage. A city that had been used to simmering in its own, local problems, be it brain drain, crumbling infrastructure, or shrinking industry, suddenly became responsible for constructing a new image of the Donetsk region for all of Ukraine and Europe.

    Already in 2014 when the city was returned to Ukraine after a three-month Russian occupation, things started to change. In place of a humble pizzeria, formerly the highlight of local nightlife, fancy restaurants appeared, catering to the appetites of foreign humanitarian missions and EU delegates. Soviet-era Pioneer palaces and murky 1990s nightclubs witnessed competition from new spaces designed by and for local activists and creatives. Vilna Hata (“Free Hut”) in the city center is an example of the new aesthetic; there lectures and poetry readings are held in a gray-and-white interior with raw brick walls. International street artists were invited to decorate constructivist facades.

    A controversial work of street art in Kramatorsk.

    Not all of the innovations were eagerly accepted. A bold installation of truck shipping containers had to be pushed back into the depths of a park after people were scandalized over its proximity to a golden-domed church. But change continues, and the divide between champions of past vs present, and Soviet vs Ukrainian seems to be shrinking. In 2014, a statue of Lenin was removed from a central square. Today, opinions about art seem independent of political camps.

    The capital’s transformations have touched local museums, traditional outposts of conservatism in Ukraine. The most dramatic changes were encountered by the Donetsk Museum of Local History. The museum had to move to Kramatorsk in 2016, leaving more than 120,000 exhibits in Donetsk. Losing all but its title and part of its staff, the museum administration had to reconsider its development strategies, just as Kramatorsk did.

    The past four years have brought a number of painful changes. Property losses prompted the institution to become more adaptive. A new space was found in the building of a former Soviet grocery store. The search for exhibits encouraged active cooperation with local ethnographers and universities. Archaeological findings came straight from the sites. Along with their findings, museum workers could say exactly where and how each exhibit was found. This showed that the backstory of the artifacts could be as interesting as the objects themselves.

    The museum’s newest exhibition, “Rebellious Gene,” is one example of individual storytelling making a difference. Funded by a Ukrainian Cultural Foundation grant (won by competition rather than awarded by the authorities, a new concept for state institutions in itself), the exhibition examines resistance movements active in the Donetsk region in the 20th century. It makes extensive use of memoirs and personal belongings, telling stories never shared before.

    “Rebellious Gene” opened in November 2020, in the midst of the pandemic when the mention of “gene” in the title resonated well with the global agenda. The title sounds quite provocative in other senses too, indicating the museum’s wish to trigger curiosity on the national level, not only locally, because not many Ukrainians associate Donetsk with anti-establishment sentiment. (The region has been seen as a stronghold of many generations of Soviet and post-Soviet politicians, including the infamous former president, Viktor Yanukovych). By studying the region’s rebellious past, museum curators take responsibility for writing a new historical narrative, by filling in the blanks of the narratives of October Revolution or the Great Patriotic War.

    The three exhibition rooms include surprising, sometimes startling discoveries. An obvious example is a diagram of a kryivka, a hut of Ukrainian rebel army (UPA) fighters active on the banks of the River Donets during World War II. Kryivkas are often seen as an element of western Ukrainian lore, associated with the infamous banderivtsi (followers of Stepan Bandera), so the fact that the movement existed in the east can comes as a surprise. In Soviet times eastern Ukrainians were threatened with the image of the unruly “Westerners” (banderivtsi). Evidence that the rebel movement was present throughout the country questions the habitual narrative of “us versus them,” making kryivkas part of a shared history.

    Striking discoveries aside, “Rebellious Gene” is first and foremost a set of personal stories and confrontations of individuals against the system – from the editor of the literary magazine Zaboj, Vasyl Gaivoronsky, (who faced both Stalin’s and Hitler’s repressions, hid out in the mountains of the Caucasus, and ended up spending his last years in the United States) to a local college student who made notes of Soviet propaganda lectures on the back of Nazi maps of Kramatorsk.

    The exhibition’s central idea is revealed at the entrance, when a guide explains that Donbas is in itself a questionable name. Short for Donetsk coal basin, Donbas reflects the resource-based attitude the Soviet system used both toward places and people. Originated in the Russian empire, the term Donbas continues the colonial narrative and attitude to the place as a resource base rather than a home for people. When you don’t see anything but ends, it becomes easier to not think of the means. What can be more important than coal? What will be left when it’s exhausted? The exhibition challenges the “Donbas” narrative by saying, “This land is about people and their stories rather than coal or machines.”

    Telling personal tales wasn’t common for Soviet museums (beyond mythological figures of Soviet chiefs or war heroes). Even now Ukrainian museums live with the aesthetic legacy of the grand narrative, with main halls dedicated to epic battle reconstructions or large-scale panoramas. There are always maps, where “the (human) masses” are shown as red arrows.

    A diorama showing the construction of the vast NKMZ (New Kramatorsk Machine-building Factory) in the company museum.

    Personal items are often exhibited in these museums too. But whose are they? What happened to their owners? How did this gun or that compass appear in the museum? Who wore the traditional dresses displayed in folklore halls? In traditional Soviet museums, small stories were mostly overlooked. Not many workers at contemporary Ukrainian museums realize that by continuing to use large-scale arrangements they continue to think in a colonial way, perpetuating the myths of a country that is no longer there. Painted in abstract brush strokes, colonial history avoided looking too closely at personal biographies that could reveal uncomfortable inconsistencies.

    The power of detail is an important tool of re-evaluation and fact-checking. Contemporary European museums make generous use of this technique. A visitor to Berlin’s Wall Museum can pick up a headset and listen to the memories of people who escaped to West Germany. In the Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam one can take an audio guide and listen to attendants talk about the paintings they observed for decades.

    Detail creates a sense of place and belonging. Paradoxically, it is not commonalities but unique experiences that stimulate interest and empathy.

    “Rebellious Gene” is filled with personal objects: a psychiatric hospital bed where writer Vasyl Borovsky spent his detainment; a traditional Ukrainian dress stamped by the Soviet secret police. Every event has a face. Every name has a story with it. From poet Vasyl Stus to civil rights activist Oleksa Tyhyi, individual narratives allow people to become visible through the fog of the Donetsk coal basin.

    One criticism that could be directed at “Rebellious Gene” is that it tells a plethora of rebel stories while omitting some of the more well-known legends of the partisan movement. By not mentioning, for example, the “Young Guard of Krasnodon” (or its myth), the exhibition shies away from dialogue with the Soviet narrative. That said, Soviet history still might be too visible in Kramatorsk, its surroundings, and its infoscape. So rather than negate, perhaps it is a better strategy to supplement the old lore with stories heretofore untold.

    Acupuncture rather than surgery performed on history: Such an approach replaces the grand narrative with the personal, destroying the image of a uniform Soviet society.In this way the idea of grand and polished linear history gets derailed by the multiplicity of private stories. The past is thus shown in its complexity, filled with contradictions, giving a chance for a healthier, more tolerant attitude to national memory to take root.

    One might recall what Orwell wrote of the Spanish Civil War:

    I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories. … I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various “party lines.”

    The contradictions of many stories can be a way to escape a solid “party line.” No party stands behind, say, one of the exhibition’s contributors, Mykola Panasovich Serov, who filmed both a bottle factory jubilee in the nearby town of Kostyantynivka and the first protests for Ukrainian independence in the town in 1989. Or a hero of the exhibition, famous Ukrainian poet and Donetsk local Vasyl Stus, who was both an avowed socialist and an adversary of the Soviet regime.By showing contradictory faces of the Donetsk region, ones not mentioned before, the complexity of local cultural identity comes through. To provide these multiple perspectives, of people who were never a majority but were still a part of the local cultural landscape, means to change the narrative. As Jacques Derrida writes in Parergon, all interesting things always happen in the footnotes. Words in brackets often change the entire text. Sidenotes overpower the grand text.

    “Rebellious Gene” presents Kramatorsk with such a postcolonial sidenote. A different look at the history of a local cultural space also provides a different look at its current war. The search for stories rather than for a story might help nurture acceptance of Ukraine’s east in its diversity on the national and international levels, showing that in Kramatorsk, like everywhere, there have been different, conflicted tales throughout history. That is something to which many parts of Europe can relate.

    An Afterword

    The exhibition is not a static thing; it is transforming along with the world and with its authors. Nine months after the opening of “Rebellious Gene,” many things have changed. In late summer of this year, curator Dmytro Bilko traveled to nearby Pokrovsk to take part in a research residency. He is writing an essay on restrictive practices and the culture of post-Soviet parks. He is also working on a new display at the historical museum in Pokrovsk. Since November, large-scale funding has come to the Donetsk regional museum and to Kramatorsk in connection with the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, bringing the kind of murky bureaucracy that ousted Bilko and his partner-in-enthusiasm, museum director Katria Filonova from the museum.

    But the story doesn’t end there. The cultural system itself has changed irreversibly. Bilko continues to work on the museum exhibition. It has been made permanent, Dmytro confirmed, a continuing research project of memory. Bilko has become a cultural free agent, concentrating on project work. To the surprise of many old-time museum directors, one doesn’t have to be part of the institution in order to write its history. It might be a promising transition from the Soviet system that tied museum employees to their positions indefinitely with not much space to change their profile. This kind of freedom comes with uncertainty and concern about the future, yet it also brings opportunities. A chance to focus on project-based work in various regional museums, on research or even a long-awaited manuscript about local hero Oleksa Tyhyi that might one day see the light of day. In the end, Ukraine, Kramatorsk, and Dmytro Bilko have chosen freedom over the Soviet past, and all three are learning to deal with their new roles.

    Viktoria Grivina is a researcher at the Center for Urban History in Lviv, Ukraine. She is assembling a visual history of industrial Donbas for the (Un)archiving (Post)industry project.

    Photos by the author.

  • Former Kosovo Guerrilla On Trial for War Crimes

    Plus, EU could delay payments to Hungary and Poland, Tajikistan rejects the Taliban, and more.

    The Big Story: Special Kosovo Court Begins Work in The Hague

    What happened: Former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighter Salih Mustafa has been charged with arbitrary detention, cruelty, torture and murder at a special court in The Hague set up to try ethnic Albanian Kosovars for crimes committed during the 1998-1999 war with Serbia. In opening statements, prosecutors said Mustafa and his men “brutalized and tortured” fellow Kosovars, RFE/RL reports. The alleged victims, detained in a compound in Zllash, Kosovo in April 1999, were accused by the KLA of collaborating with Serbs or not supporting the KLA, Al Jazeera reports. The victims’ only crime “was to have political views that differed from the [KLA] and its senior leaders,” senior prosecutor Jack Smith said. 

    More context: A 2010 report by the Council of Europe alleging widespread abuse of fellow Kosovars and Serbs by leading KLA figures led to the establishment of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers court in 2015, despite bitter resistance from Kosovo lawmakers and former President Hashim Thaci, among others. Thaci was indicted last year for war crimes and is now in custody awaiting trial by the court.

    Worth noting: The Kosovo Specialist Chambers gives formal representation to war crime victims. In its opening statement at Mustafa’s trial, the Victims’ Participation Office said “Eleven thousand victims [of the Kosovo war] were civilians, some of these were victims of KLA members,” Prishtina Insight reports. The Kosovo Memory Book project estimated that 10,812 Albanians, 2,197 Serbs, and about 500 Roma and others died in the 1998-1999 conflict. The OSCE estimated that 90% of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians were displaced during the fighting, most being temporarily forced out of the country by Serb forces.

    News From the Regions

    Central Europe and the Baltics

    • Hungary sold 1 billion euros in bonds Wednesday, and plans to sell more, to raise money in case special EU pandemic funding is delayed. The EU could freeze the funding unless it resolves a dispute with Hungary over issues including gay rights and media independence, Reuters says. The EU has yet to approve pandemic recovery funding for Hungary and also Poland, which has similar disputes with Brussels, Deutsche Welle reports, noting the European Commission has so far greenlighted 18 national spending plans. The 27 nations of the bloc are due to receive a total of $886 billion to mitigate the effects of the health crisis.
    • A Czech woman who won the right to claim compensation from Amazon for a work-related injury and was later dismissed is one of several current or former employees going public about working conditions at Amazon’s Czech distribution center. At issue is Amazon’s productivity system, ADAPT, which uses a proprietary algorithm to monitor employee performance, Balkan Insight writes. As workers use ADAPT-linked scanners in stocking or shipping products, the system issues warnings and tips to workers who fail to meet performance targets; three such warnings can result in unilateral dismissal, according to workers and court documents cited by Balkan Insight. This could be illegal under Polish labor law, trade union lawyer Michal Sobol said. Amazon’s Czech and Polish distribution centers serve the German market.

    Southeastern Europe

    • German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered words of hope and a veiled warning to Balkan leaders during her farewell visit to the region this week. Merkel, who will step down later this month, said mutual cooperation was the best way for the six non-EU Western Balkan countries to move toward EU membership. The EU should not “always come up with new conditions again and again,” she said Tuesday in Tirana, adding that she understood why this has led to disappointment, Deutsche Welle reports. In Belgrade Monday, she reassured the six countries of German support for their EU accession but said they had a “long way” to go. “If the conditions for accession or for the start of accession talks are met, then the EU must keep its word,” RFE/RL quotes her as saying.
    • Zoltan Soos, the mayor of Targu Mures in Romania’s ethnically mixed Transylvania region, is a rare local example of the broader regional phenomenon where progressive mayors are garnering support from both the rising urban middle class and less affluent voters, Deutsche Welle writes. Elected a year ago as the first ethnic Hungarian mayor of Targu Mures in more than 20 years, Soos ran “a bilingual, bi-ethnic campaign,” DW says. His administration won support by ditching a dodgy garbage collection company and has begun to digitize city services and revamp the aging public transport system. City Hall is also trimming its own ranks, bloated even by Romanian standards with hundreds of staff getting paid for ill-defined work. “We have now started sacking people and, in the long run, we aim to at least halve the number of staff,” Soos said.

    Eastern Europe and Russia

    • Authorities in Ukraine’s separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” will add hundreds of buses and dozens of trains to transport residents across the border into Russia to vote in this weekend’s State Duma elections, Meduza writes. As of July, about 611,000 people in the Russian-backed separatist regions of eastern Ukraine had received Russian passports. Residents of these regions are also eligible to cast ballots online, Russia’s Central Election Commission said in July. At a rally for Russia’s ruling United Russia party in the Donetsk region, one woman said she would vote for the party in hopes it would incorporate the region into Russia, Reuters reports.

    • Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, called for an urgent meeting of the General Assembly today to discuss what he called a “clearly discriminatory” mandatory COVID vaccination order ahead of the annual UN summit next week. New York city officials say the order applies to all visitors to the summit, including world leaders. Only vaccines with World Health Organization approval are permitted, a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said, AP reports. Russia’s Sputnik vaccine is under review by the WHO. In related news, Sputnik (the news agency) reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who went into self-isolation Tuesday, said today that “several dozen” of his acquaintances have contracted COVID. Putin is “perfectly healthy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. One reader commented, “But if these are members of President Putin’s inner circle they must all surely have been vaccinated by now?”

    Central Asia

    • Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country taking a strong anti-Taliban line so far, reflecting their difficult relationship in recent decades, analysts write. Tajikistan “has not been afraid to act unflatteringly toward the Taliban despite the possibility of falling victim militarily and politically to the group,” Umida Hashimova writes in The Diplomat, adding that Dushanbe strongly opposes a Taliban-only government in Afghanistan. This contrasts with Uzbekistan’s willingness to negotiate with the new Afghan leadership. Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon’s opposition to the Taliban dates to the 1990s when Tashkent aided the Northern Alliance, which included many ethnic Tajiks in its ranks, the National Interest writes. In retaliation, the Taliban supported an Islamist insurgency in Tajikistan, which Rahmon and his allies eventually put down. “Hundreds” of ethnic Tajiks in southern Tajikistan have volunteered to join anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, according to a report in the National Interest from 8 September.

    Borderlands

    • Germany and other EU countries should assist Afghanistan’s neighbors to cope with rising numbers of migrants in the wake of the Taliban takeover, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told his German counterpart. In a telephone call on Tuesday with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Erdogan said Turkey does not have the capacity to handle a possible new refugee wave from Afghanistan, Ekathimerini reports. Anti-immigrant sentiment is rising in Turkey, which already hosts the world’s largest refugee population. Erdogan last month said there were already nearly 300,000 Afghan refugees in Turkey, believed to be the second-largest group of refugees in the country after the approximately 3.7 million Syrians. Turkey will more than double the length of a border fence on its frontier with Iran to almost 500 kilometers, Xinhua cites Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu as saying yesterday.
  • Ukrainian Judges on Trial

    Plus, Jaroslaw Kaczynski nixes ‘Polexit’ talk, big tobacco eyes Belarus exit, and more.

    The Big Story: Kyiv’s Shaky Judicial Reform Under Scrutiny 

    What happened: Judicial reform is one of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s main achievements, a legal watchdog says, but now he and other officials need to persuade the International Monetary Fund of that, RFE/RL reports. The IMF this week will start evaluating Ukraine’s progress on judicial reform, anti-corruption legislation, and other conditions it has set for disbursing the second tranche of a $5 billion loan program. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Council of Judges is seeking to overturn the judicial reforms in the Constitutional Court, saying the inclusion of foreign expert advisers compromises the nation’s sovereignty, according to RFE/RL.

    More context: In June, Ukraine’s parliament approved several judicial reform and anti-corruption laws. Lawmakers reworked the judiciary bill to give international experts key staffing and oversight roles on a reestablished judicial commission empowered to vet prospective judges.

    Worth noting: Zelenskiy will convene a high-level meeting tomorrow “in a bid to prevent his flagship judicial reform drive from being sabotaged,” Ukrainian judicial expert Halyna Chyzhyk writes for the Atlantic Council. Zelenskiy was apparently angered this week when the Council of Judges failed to nominate judges to the country’s Ethics Council, a watchdog for the entire legal system. Polls show that 79% of Ukrainians do not trust courts and judges, Reuters reported in June.

    News From the Regions

    Central Europe and the Baltics

    • Czech President Milos Zeman was admitted to Prague’s Central Military Hospital yesterday and will probably remain there for several days, Lidove noviny reports. Zeman’s office has so far released no explanation for the unannounced hospitalization. Zeman was examined last Friday by hospital director Miroslav Zavoral, who recommended that he be under constant care, the news site Aktualne reports. Zeman, 76, who has grown noticeably frail in recent years, suffers from diabetes and is usually seen in a wheelchair. A previous stay in the same hospital was described as a “conditioning stay,” Aktualne says. Former President Vaclav Klaus was also admitted to the military hospital yesterday with complications from high blood pressure.

    • Polish ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski dismissed talk of “Polexit” in an interview with the state news agency PAP cited by Bloomberg today. “We want to be in the EU,” he said, “but at the same time, we want to remain a sovereign state.” Poland’s conservative government and the EU have clashed over issues from media freedom and LGBT rights to judicial independence, the latter dispute leading the European Commission to seek financial penalties against Warsaw. Judicial affairs “remain solely within the competence of states and cannot be subject to the kind of interference that is taking place at the moment,” Kaczynski said today, according to Poland In.

    Southeastern Europe

    • Albania’s decision to accept several thousand refugees from Afghanistan appears to be popular. It was the “right and natural thing to do,” Prime Minister Edi Rama told The New York Times. The nearly 700 people who have arrived so far, including 250 children, are being housed in Adriatic beach resorts, “a practice based on an emergency-response approach that Albania developed after a devastating earthquake in 2019,” the Times writes. Albania will grant protection to the Afghans who fled their country in the wake of the Taliban takeover, Exit News reports. Rama earlier said 2,000 to 3,000 refugees could be accommodated “temporarily.

    • Croatia’s target of adopting the euro in January 2023 got the green light from eurozone officials this week, along with a hint not to cut financial corners despite the challenges of the post-pandemic economy, Euronews reports. Croatia has met the condition for reducing public debt, but pandemic-related expenses pushed the deficit this year to 3.8% of GDP, above the long-term target of 3% for eurozone countries, Finance Minister Zdravko Maric told SeeNews on 6 September. Croatia would become the 20th eurozone country, and the first to join since Lithuania in 2015. Kosovo and Montenegro have also unilaterally adopted the EU currency.

    Eastern Europe and Russia

    • British American Tobacco (BAT) has suspended manufacturing its brands in Belarus following the U.S. Treasury’s move to impose sanctions on the state-owned factory it contracts with, the UK’s inews reports. The Grodno Tobacco Factory Neman manufactures BAT brands like Rothmans, Lucky Strike and Pall Mall for the local market. The factory also is “a major source of illicit cigarettes in the EU” and its brands “are among the most common cigarettes smuggled into the EU as part of the lucrative contraband tobacco trade,” a Treasury statement said. BAT, Rolls Royce, and other UK companies indicated they were willing to reconsider doing business in Belarus after a Lithuania-bound airliner with a Belarusian dissident aboard was forced to land in Belarus, the Guardian reported in May.

    • One opposition candidate in Russia’s upcoming parliamentary elections is running his campaign from a jail cell. Andrei Pivovarov is facing charges related to his Facebook post in 2019 voicing support for a local candidate supported by exiled Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, AFP writes. Pivovarov heads Khodorkovsky’s banned Open Russia movement and last year announced his candidacy for a State Duma seat. Then, in May, he was hauled off a flight in St. Petersburg and detained after being questioned for allegedly violating Russia’s legislation on “undesirable organizations,” Al Jazeera reported. Originally planning to run in a Moscow district, after his arrest the liberal Yabloko party included him on their electoral list in the southern city of Krasnodar, where he is jailed, in what the party called a humanitarian gesture.

    Central Asia

    • Five men were sentenced to prison yesterday in Kyrgyzstan for their role in a notorious bride kidnapping that ended in murder and suicide. The men received terms of 6.5 to seven years, RFE/RL reports. Aizada Kanatbekova, 26, was abducted by a group of men on 5 April and found dead two days later. One of the kidnappers had strangled her with a T-shirt and then killed himself, RFE/RL says. After that incident, many Kyrgyzstanis expressed dismay that the authorities failed to crack down on bride kidnapping after the murder of a 19-year-old woman by her abductor in 2018, 24.kg wrote in July. A Russian journalist who made a documentary on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan cited estimates that from half to two-thirds of Kyrgyz women are forced to marry against their will, 24.kg said.

    Borderlands

    • While adventure travel agencies advertise cycling trips in the steppes and mountains of Mongolia, commuter cycling has never really taken off in this country of long winters and less than perfect roads. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and now cycling is booming as a way of avoiding public transit, the provincial traffic police coordinator Munkhchuluun Otgonbold tells Global Press Journal. The capital city of Ulaanbaatar plans to build 160 kilometers of bike lanes over the next five years along with 70 bike parking areas outfitted with security cameras, and other parts of the country have similar plans, according to Khan-Uul Dorjgotov, a senior urban planning specialist at the Department of Urban Development. Cycling also used to be rare in the northern province of Orkhon, but now its Department of Physical Culture and Sports is discussing building bike lanes there in the next year or two, department specialist Odgerel Demberelsuren said.

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