A preview of Slovenia’s EU presidency: Emerging Europe this week

Janez Janša
Central Europe

In a preview of the priorities of Slovenia’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the EU, which begins on July 1, Prime Minister Janez Janša on Wednesday advocated for a return to the aggressive enlargement of the European Union that ushered his own country into the club in 2004, with a focus on admitting all countries of the Western Balkans. “As regards the enlargement of the EU, this is a strategic answer to a lot of current challenges,” Janša said at a news conference. He suggested that absorbing all of the Western Balkans into the EU could help solve numerous problems, including with migration and with malign interference by unnamed geopolitical rivals, presumably Russia, Turkey and China.

Łódź in central Poland was this week named as the most business-friendly city in emerging Europe as part of the Future of Emerging Europe awards programme for 2021. It is the first non-capital city to take the award since its inception in 2019. The city topped the Business-Friendly Perception Index having been chosen by a jury of more than 100 global FDI experts, site selection advisers and location analysts. Last year’s winner Budapest dropped to fourth place, while Prague held on to second spot with Ljubljana climbing to third. The Ukrainian capital Kyiv completes the top five.

Czechia on Tuesday lost its fourth health minister since the coronavirus pandemic began last year. Petr Arenberger, who has been in the job less than two months, resigned over alleged irregularities in his tax returns. He declared he owned more assets and had a higher income after he became a government minister than in the preceding years. It also emerged that he was renting one of his undeclared properties to the university hospital. That deal was signed before he was appointed its director. “I do not think that it is necessary for my family, friends, colleagues and patients to be exposed to this escalating unpleasant pressure during my work for public health,” Arenberger said.

Slovakia on Wednesday became the second European Union country to authorise use of the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, which has not yet been approved by the bloc’s drug regulator. The Slovak government asked Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky — who has expressed reservations about the Russian COVID-19 vaccine — to make it available by June 7. Slovakia has 200,000 doses of Sputnik V in stock but had not allowed its use until now. Hungary is the only other EU nation to use Sputnik V, which has not been authorized by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Leaders of Poland and neighbouring Czechia held intensive talks this week in an attempt to solve a years-long dispute that resurfaced recently over a Polish coal mine. The Czech government says the brown coal Turów mine, located in southwestern Poland, near the Czech and German borders, is draining groundwater from communities and causing other environmental harm to Czech citizens. It took the case to the top European Union court, which last week issued a temporary injunction ordering Poland to immediately halt coal extraction at the site pending the court’s full ruling. But Polish authorities have so far defied the order.

Hungary this week joined Ireland and the UK in warning that their countries will not accept the global minimum corporate tax sought under the OECD’s Pillar 2 talks. Hungarian Finance Ministry state secretary András Tállai, in comments published May 25, reiterated that Hungary considers a global minimum tax an infringement of sovereignty. He said that the global minimum tax is being pushed by several high-tax economic powers that are being disadvantaged by tax competition. He added that while Hungary seeks a good relationship with the US, Hungary will not put another country’s interest before its own.

A gas pipeline between Greece and Bulgaria aimed at helping Sofia wean off Russian gas has hit another delay and will not become operational until June 2022, the head of the Bulgarian energy regulator said on Wednesday. The coronavirus pandemic and need for additional environmental assessment for a crossing under a dam in the Bulgarian stretch had delayed the construction of the pipeline, the ICGB company, which runs the project, has said. The 240 million euros Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) pipeline was planned to have been ready by the end of 2020, when Sofia’s 25-year deal with Azeri gas company SOCAR to import 1 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year kicked off.

Eastern Europe

Polish Prosecutor General and Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro on Monday ordered an investigation into the forced landing of a Polish-registered airplane by the Belarusian authorities and the subsequent removal of an opposition activist living in the EU. Poland is on the frontline of the EU’s diplomatic war with Belarus and its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who together with scores of Belarusian officials are under EU sanctions, including travel bans and assets freezes, imposed following the disputed August 2020 election and subsequent crackdown on protestors. In response to the forced landing, EU airlines have been told to avoid Belarusian airspace while the national carrier of Belarus, Belavia, has been barred from accessing the bloc’s airports.

Azerbaijani forces this week captured six Armenian servicemen amid growing border tensions between the two South Caucasus neighbors after last year’s war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said the Armenian soldiers were seized in Azerbaijan’s Kalbacar district early on May 27 while they were laying mines on a road leading to Azerbaijani Army positions on the border. However, the Armenian Defense Ministry said that its six soldiers were captured while carrying out engineering work in the border area of Armenia’s Gegharkunik region.

Moldova’s Foreign Ministry this week asked the Central Electoral Commission, CEC, to increase the number of polling stations abroad for a snap parliamentary election scheduled for July 11. Acting Prime Minister Aureliu Ciocoi said that the number of polling stations could not be lower than in the 2020 presidential elections. “There were voting stations where more than 5,000 people voted and where ballots ran out,” he said. In presidential elections in November 2020, Moldovan citizens formed huge queues to vote across all the major cities in Europe. About one million Moldovans live abroad.

A 29-year-old man has been arrested in Ukraine in the suspected murder this month of a prominent Holocaust and Jewish history researcher there. Police in Nikolayev, near Odesa, made the arrest on Tuesday in the May 14 slaying of Vladimir Shchukin, 67, who had worked at the State Archive of the Nikolaev Region. The suspect was not named in the media and police have not indicated whether they believe the motive was connected to Shchukin’s writings on the Holocaust, the Strana news site reported. Shchukin, who was not Jewish, was found dead in his apartment.

North East Europe

Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljulaid, has urged the UK to take action to stop anti-democratic regimes such as Belarus siphoning corrupt money through London’s financial centre. Her plea comes after the EU announced new economic sanctions against Belarus, and punitive measures against its national airline, in response to the hijacking of a Ryanair flight that led to the controversial arrest of the dissident blogger Roman Pratasevich earlier this week. Kaljulaid said the sanctions were targeting the “arteries of money” that allowed the Belarusian regime to operate.

Ice hockey’s global governing body on Tuesday protested against Latvia’s decision to put up the Belarusian opposition’s flag at this year’s world championship in Riga, stressing that it was an apolitical sports organisation. Latvian officials had swapped out the Belarus national flag for the white-red-white flag of the opposition in a show of solidarity with journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested Sunday after Belarus forced the Ryanair flight he was on to land in Minsk. The flag replacement led Belarus to expel the entire staff of Latvia’s embassy, including the ambassador. Latvia then responded with the reciprocal expulsion of Belarusian diplomats.

A bill that would have allowed civil unions for same-sex couples in Lithuania failed to clear its first parliamentary hurdle on Tuesday. The bill, dubbed the Partnership Law, needed 65 votes to move forward. In a narrow defeat, 63 MPs voted in favour, 58 against and seven abstained. “I am disappointed with yesterday’s decision. Nevertheless, [the] good news is that we have received the support of 63 MPs and we lacked only two votes to pass the Partnership Law at the first hearing,” Tomas Raskevičius, an openly gay MP who sponsored the bill, told Euronews.

South East Europe

Missing persons officials from Serbia and Kosovo on Wednesday announced the completion of exhumation work at the former Kizevak open-cast mine, near the town of Raska, where victims’ bodies from the Kosovo war have been found. The Kosovo government said on Wednesday that two of the victims have been already been identified through DNA analysis. Ibrahim Makolli, the representative for missing persons on Kosovo’s negotiating team at the EU-mediated talks with Serbia, said that the two victims who were identified were killed in a massacre in the Kosovo village of Rrezalle/Rezala in 1999. Makolli expressed hope that more war victims’ bodies can be found buried in Serbia.

North Macedonia has received support in its bid to begin European Union membership talks from Austria, Czechia, and Slovenia, a day after Bulgaria said it planned to continue to exercise its veto to block the small Western Balkan nation. The foreign ministers of the three countries on May 22 voiced support for North Macedonia, along with small neighbor Albania, to start talks with the EU, saying that separate bilateral issues should not block enlargement into the region. Bulgaria on May 21 said it did not plan to lift its veto on long-delayed accession talks between North Macedonia and the EU over a language and history dispute with its neighbour.

China is willing to talk with Montenegro about extending the grace period on the repayment of an 809 million euros Chinese bank loan for the construction of a motorway, Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović’s office said this week. Đukanović and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by phone on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. They also addressed the loan Montenegro received from Exim bank in 2014 to build the first of three sections of a motorway from the coastal town of Bar to the Serbian border.

The Albanian Development Fund (ADF) said this week that it is seeking a consulting firm to support a project for upgrading the country’s tourism information management system and statistics that aims to foster tourism development. Expressions of interest must be delivered in writing by June 15 and the assignment must be completed within six months, ADF said in a procurement notice on Tuesday. The assignment is part of a project for integrated development of urban infrastructure and tourism activities focused on Albania’s south and financed with the proceeds of a 58 million euros loan from the World Bank.

Central Asia

Turkmen authorities must immediately end the practice of harassing exiled journalists’ family members and allow all Turkmen journalists based abroad to return to the country and report in safety, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said this week. On a number of occasions between March and May this year, officers of the Ministry of National Security harassed and threatened the relatives of Rozybai Jumamuradov, a reporter working with the independent Vienna-based news site Khronika Turkmenistana, and Devlet Bayhan, a journalist who also collaborates with the same outlet, according to reports by Khronika Turkmenistana, a joint statement by four local and international human rights organisations, and Jumamuradov and Bayhan, who spoke to CPJ.

Authorities at Kyrgyzstan’s main international airport this week barred dozens of Tajik citizens flying from neighbouring Tajikistan from entering the country in an incident likely to further sour relations between the two Central Asian neighbors whose disputed border witnessed last month its worst fighting in the past three decades. The flight, operated by Tajikistan’s carrier Somon Air, flew back to the capital, Dushanbe, early on May 26 with the 177 Tajik nationals who had been denied entry by the Kyrgyz Border Service at Bishkek’s Manas airport due to a temporary closure of the border for citizens of Tajikistan.

Amazon, the world’s largest online trading platform, has begun providing access to sellers in Central Asia, although the presence of other internet marketplaces suggests the US giant may be a little late to the game in the region. As of May 24, traders and manufacturers based in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have been able to register directly with Amazon, joining a list of many dozens of other countries. Some local traders in Kazakhstan had, though, previously managed to circumvent restrictions to sell items of clear Kazakh provenance. Shoppers on Amazon have long been able to buy souvenirs, jewellery, and even Kazakhstan-branded dark milk chocolate produced by Almaty-based confectioner Rakhat.

Photo: Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša arrives at a meeting of the European Council in Brussels on May 25. (European Council Newsroom).

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