Emerging Europe This Week

As Ukraine’s civilian death toll rises, Zelensky accuses allies of ‘turning a blind eye’

Catch up quickly with the stories from Central and Eastern Europe that matter, this week led by the Ukrainian president’s plea for more air defence as the civilian death toll rises.

Russia’s war on Ukraine

President Volodymyr Zelensky scolded Ukraine’s western partners and pleaded for more air defences after a Russian air attack early on Thursday targeted critical infrastructure in five regions.

Zelensky said Russia attacked energy infrastructure in Kharkiv city and the Kharkiv region, as well as the Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia, Lviv and Odesa regions. A major power plant near Kyiv was completely destroyed by Russian strikes. The plant was the largest provider of electricity for three regions, including Kyiv.

“All of our European neighbours and other partners see Ukraine’s critical need for air defence systems,” Zelensky said in an early morning statement. “We need air defence systems and other defence assistance, not just turning a blind eye and having lengthy discussions.” 

At least 604 Ukrainian civilians were killed or injured in March, a 20 per cent increase from the previous month, the UN’s human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine said in a report released on Tuesday.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the UN said that at least 10,810 civilians have been killed and at least 20,556 injured.

The increase in March was due to Russia’s increasing usage of missiles and loitering munitions across Ukraine, as well as intensified aerial bombardments of population centers by the front line, the UN said.

At least 57 children were killed or injured in March, which the UN said was particularly the result of Russia’s usage of guided and unguided aerial bombs.

Earlier in the week, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that Ukraine’s recent attacks on Russian oil refineries risk impacting global energy markets and urged the country to focus on military targets instead.

As Ukraine’s battlefield situation has steadily deteriorated in recent weeks, the country has increasingly turned to strikes deep within Russian territory, including infrastructure. The strikes are part of a bid to reduce fuel supplies to the Russian military, as well as to cut revenues from exports that Moscow uses to fund the war.

“Those attacks could have a knock-on effect in terms of the global energy situation,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services committee Tuesday. “Ukraine is better served in going after tactical and operational targets that can directly influence the current fight.”

Ukrainian lawmakers sparked anger this week by scrapping a clause in a draft law that would have given soldiers who have spent long periods fighting on the frontlines a chance to return home.

With Ukraine’s army outnumbered by Russia on the battlefield, “the offensive continues along the entire frontline. And currently it is impossible to weaken the defence forces”, Dmytro Lazutkin, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s defence ministry, said on Wednesday on state TV.

“We cannot make hasty decisions now,” he added, explaining the military’s opposition to the provision.

Military leaders have put pressure on politicians to ditch a draft amendment that would have given soldiers serving for more than 36 months the possibility to be discharged.

Other news from the region

Populist Peter Pellegrini was last Saturday elected president of Slovakia, succeeding the liberal Zuzana Čaputová. Pellegrini, 48, defeated the pro-Western Ivan Korčok, a former diplomat, with 53 per cent of the vote. A former prime minister, Pellegrini is an ally of Prime Minister Robert Fico, and shares the PM’s dovish attitude towards Russia. Fico and his allies now control Slovakia’s parliament, government, and soon the president’s office. On Sunday Pellegrini vowed “to ensure that Slovakia remains on the side of peace and not on the side of war”.

Poland’s ruling coalition scored a narrow win in local elections last weekend, short of the landslide that Prime Minister Donald Tusk had hoped would scupper the chances for a right-wing opposition comeback. Parties in Tusk’s coalition won a combined 51.2 per cent of votes the elections, according to official results published late Monday. But the Law and Justice party (PiS) of Jarosław Kaczyński got 34.3 per cent of the vote, which means it remains Poland’s largest party. In Warsaw, mayor Rafał Trzaskowski from Tusk’s Civic Platform was re-elected with 57 per cent of votes.

On Thursday, Poland’s parliament opened a long-awaited debate on liberalising abortion laws in the majority Catholic country, with splits in the ruling coalition suggesting an uncertain outcome. Women’s rights were rolled back during the eight-year rule of PiS, with the tightening of already strict abortion laws sparking mass rallies nationwide. Tusk’s party Civic Coalition and the Left have pledged to legalise abortion, but the other coalition members are divided. Even if parliament approves the reforms, they would still need to be signed into law by President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally.

Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev appointed a caretaker government on Tuesday led by Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev, and set June 9 as the date for snap elections. The parliamentary vote is set to coincide with elections for Bulgaria’s members of the European Parliament. “We must be a guarantor of stability, we cannot allow our country to be involved in a constitutional crisis, (and) … be hostage to party ambitions and desires,” Glavchev said during the government handover ceremony. The vote will be the country’s sixth parliamentary election in three years.

Georgia’s ruling party on Monday submitted to parliament a draft law calling for media and non-commercial organisations to register as being under foreign influence if they receive more than 20% of their budget from abroad. The measure is nearly identical to a proposal that the governing Georgian Dream party was pressured to withdraw a year ago after large street protests. Opponents of the measure denounce it as “the Russian law” because it is similar to a law that Russia uses to stigmatise independent news media and organisations seen as being at odds with the Kremlin.

Major firefights broke out along the tense frontier between Azerbaijan and Armenia last Saturday, with heavy shooting reported by both sides amid Western efforts to bring peace to the war-torn South Caucasus. In a statement, the Armenian Foreign Ministry reported clashes “in many parts of the border” along with “the movement of dozens of military vehicles,” alleging that the neighbouring country “has clearly pursued a provocative goal.” Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought several bloody wars in recent years, with Azerbaijan emerging as the victor in each of them.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Budapest last Saturday for the third mass demonstration in less than a month called by Peter Magyar, a challenger to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing nationalist government. Magyar, who broke publicly with Orbán’s Fidesz party in February, used the rally to announce the creation of a political umbrella organisation aimed at uniting both conservative and liberal Hungarians disillusioned with Orban’s administration and the fragmented political opposition. “Step by step, brick by brick, we are taking back our homeland,” said Magyar

Even as the countries of Central Europe prepare to celebrate 20 years as members of the EU, a report published on Monday by the European Democracy Consulting found “a dramatic worsening of the representation of citizens from Central and Eastern Europe” at the expense of the increasing dominance of Western Europe. “Western Europe received 73 per cent of new appointments in 2023, and 60 per cent from 2021-2023,” the Geographical Representation in EU Leadership Observatory 2024 report said. “Not a single citizen from Central and from Eastern Europe was appointed to a leadership position in 2023.”

Photo: Volodymyr Zelensky official Facebook page.

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