Croatians get visa-free access to the US: Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

The US government said on Tuesday that Croatia would soon join the list of countries whose people can visit without a visa in a sign of closer economic and security ties. The State Department and Department of Homeland Security said in a joint statement that the country would join the visa waiver programme no later than December 1. As a result, Croatians will be able to travel to the US for up to 90 days for tourism or business without a visa. Croatia’s admission leaves Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania as the only EU states not part of the US visa waiver programme. Countries in the programme must meet requirements related to counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, document security, and border management.

Poland carried out an unlawful pushback of a group of migrants camped out on its border with Belarus in late August, an analysis of satellite imagery and other photos and videos by NGO Amnesty International published on Thursday said. Amnesty said that using satellite imagery from Aug. 18 it was able to detect the movement of these migrants from Polish territory back into Belarusian territory, shedding new light on their case, which has been difficult for NGOs and media to cover amid an ongoing state of emergency along the border. “Forcing people back who are trying to claim asylum without an individual assessment of their protection needs is against European and international law,” said Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office. Poland and fellow European Union states Lithuania and Latvia have reported sharp increases in migrants from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq trying to cross their borders from Belarus, in what Warsaw and Brussels say is a form of hybrid warfare designed to put pressure on the EU over sanctions it imposed on Minsk.

A diplomatic conflict between Hungary and Ukraine deepened on Tuesday when the two countries summoned each others’ ambassadors over Budapest’s decision to sign a long-term contract to purchase Russian gas, something Ukraine considers a blow to its economic and national security interests. The 15-year agreement between Hungary and Russian gas company Gazprom was finalised on Monday, and involves the import of an annual 4.5 billion cubic metres of Russian gas to Hungary through lines that bypass Ukraine, depriving it of lucrative transit fees. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Monday saying Kyiv was “surprised and disappointed” by Hungary’s deal with Russia, calling the move “a purely political, economically unreasonable decision taken in favour of the Kremlin.” The ministry added it would bring the deal, set to go into effect on October 1, to the European Union’s executive commission to assess its compliance with EU energy regulations.

France is set to sell 52 Caesar artillery guns to Czechia in a deal worth 257 million euros as Paris pushes for greater European defence autonomy, an Armed Forces Ministry official said on Wednesday. President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that Europe needed to stop being naive when it comes to defending its interests and must build its own military capacity after sealing a three billion euros frigate deal with Greece and penning a cooperation agreement. Paris was plunged into a dispute with the United States, Australia and Britain earlier this month over a trilateral nuclear security deal which sank a multi-billion dollar French-designed submarine contract with Canberra. Most of the guns will be assembled in Czechia.

The US Army meanwhile is investing 130 million US dollars in air bases and other facilities in Romania and Bulgaria to bolster regional security along NATO’s southeast flank. It is part of a broader effort to enhance the US deterrence posture in the region and beef up security in the face of unpredictable Russian maneuvers. “Romania and Bulgaria are key NATO allies and we’re excited to be able to design and build projects to benefit US, Romanian, Bulgarian and other NATO forces through the European Deterrence Initiative,” said Europe District Commander Col. Patrick Dagon.

The Romanian government has committed the country to phasing-out hard coal and lignite power production by 2032 in its National Resilience and Recovery Plan endorsed on Tuesday by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. This plan sees coal capacity cut by more than three quarters by 2025. According to the Europe Beyond Coal campaign, this means that a Paris climate agreement-aligned pre-2030 coal exit is now firmly within reach for Romania. “Romania is the 19th country in Europe to announce it will phase-out coal, and if the experience of countries like Portugal and Greece tell us anything, it’s that once the commitment to exit coal has been made, the actual phase-out comes far faster than first planned,” said Kathrin Gutmann, a campaigner Europe Beyond Coal. The plan means that Romania joins Germany and Montenegro as the only European countries with coal phase-outs that are incompatible with the UN Paris Climate Agreement.

The same Romanian government however is currently on the verge of collapse. Already reeling from the resignation last month of ministers belonging to the erstwhile ruling coalition’s junior partner, USR-Plus, Prime Minister Florin Cîțu – who on September 25 won his Liberal party’s leadership contest – now faces two motions of no-confidence, one put forward by USR-Plus, the other by the PSD, the largest party in Romania’s parliament. A vote on at least one of the motions – which had been held up for three weeks due to the need for Romania’s Constitutional Court to rule on their legality – is likely to take place as soon as next Tuesday. The vote comes amid an alarming rise in Covid-19 cases and deaths, which reached record highs this week, leaving the country’s health system struggling to cope.

Belgium says it will provide financial support to women in Poland unable to get an abortion. Earlier this year, Poland introduced a near-total ban on terminations with the only exceptions cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s health is in danger. Doctors who carry out abortions face up to three years in prison. The decision led to weeks of protest in the country, and warnings from the European Union that Poland must respect fundamental rights. On Tuesday, which the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights has declared as International Safe Abortion Day, the Belgian health minister and equality minister announced 10,000 euros of funding to the group Abortion Without Borders, which helps people who are unable to access an abortion in Poland.

Eastern Europe

Belarusian security forces shot dead a 31-year-old man, identified by the pro-democracy opposition as an IT worker with US company EPAM Systems, during a raid on Tuesday at an apartment block in the capital Minsk. The man had opened fire against the security forces, one of whom also died, the KGB security service said in a statement. It also said his wife had been arrested. The Investigative Committee of Belarus, which investigates major crimes, said the man was “liquidated with return fire” after resisting law enforcement officers. Local media and a senior adviser to exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya identified the man killed as Andrei Zeltser, an IT worker with EPAM. Zeltser is also reportedly a US citizen.

Ukraine on Wednesday marked the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, one of the most infamous mass slaughters of World War II. Babi Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, is where nearly 34,000 Jews were killed within 48 hours in 1941 when the city was under Nazi occupation. The killing was carried out by SS troops along with local collaborators. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky laid flowers at the monument the the victims of the massacre on Wednesday. “Babi Yar. Two short words that sounds like two short gun shots, but carry long and horrid memories for several generations. Because they know and remember that not two gun shots sounded in Babi Yar, but hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands times more,” Zelensky said. All Ukrainian schools on Wednesday held a lesson dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the tragedy.

People in Azerbaijan and Armenia on Monday marked the first anniversary of the start of the six-week war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in which more than 6,600 people died and which ended with Azerbaijan regaining control of large swaths of territory. Soldiers carrying photographs of comrades killed in the war marched through the centre of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. In Yerevan, the Armenian capital, thousands of people, including Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, went to the Yerablur military cemetery to pay respects to soldiers buried there. Nagorno-Karabakh is within Azerbaijan but had been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since the end of a separatist war in 1994. Last year’s war ended when Pashinyan signed a Russia-brokered cease-fire that granted Azerbaijan control of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as adjacent territories occupied by Armenians.

Sheriff Tiraspol produced one of the greatest upsets in Champions League history on Tuesday, defeating 13-time winner Real Madrid in its own back yard. The Moldovan minnow, only founded in 1997 and made up of an eclectic group of players, clinched a famous 2-1 win at the Bernabéu thanks to Sebastien Thill’s last-minute stunner. Uzbek midfielder Jasurbek Yakhshiboev opened the scoring in the first half with his first Champions League goal, before Karim Benzema drew Real level from the penalty spot just after the hour mark. Sheriff’s Greek goalkeeper Giorgos Athanasiadis produced the game of his life, coming up with no less than 10 saves as Real Madrid time and again failed to get the better of him from open play. With the clock ticking down and the match heading for a draw – which in itself would have been a historic result – Thill produced a stunning half-volley from outside of the area to send shockwaves around Europe.

North East Europe

Estonia has pushed back the deadline for its section of the Rail Baltica line connecting the three Baltic countries to the end of the decade. Rail Baltica Estonia had to push back the original deadline of 2026 due to finance, planning, and engineering issues, the country’s public broadcaster ERR News and BNS reported on Monday. “Rising construction prices are affecting us, especially the construction of wildlife crossings and viaducts. We also know that we must not overheat the construction market,” Tõnu Grünberg, board chair at Rail Baltic Estonia, told the country’s daily Postimees.

A pipeline designed to connect the gas grids of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Finland to continental Europe will begin operating in the second half of 2022 after a delay of almost a year, the Lithuanian energy minister has told Reuters. Construction of the pipeline linking Lithuania and Poland will be completed by the end of 2021 as previously forecast, but licensing it will take several more months, Dainius Kreivys said in an interview. The four countries, which are currently supplied by a pipeline gas from Russia’s Gazprom and from liquefied natural gas (LNG) from a terminal in the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda, will get access to the Central European gas grid once the pipeline to Poland starts operating.

South East Europe

Serbia and Kosovo have reached an agreement to end their standoff at the border, European Union envoy Miroslav Lajčák said after talks in Brussels between the two sides on Thursday. “We have a deal! After two days of intense negotiations, an agreement on de-escalation and the way forward has just been reached,” Lajčák wrote on Twitter on September 30, including a picture of the agreement. Two border crossings between Serbia and Kosovo have been blocked by local Serbs since Kosovar authorities on September 20 required all drivers from Serbia entering Kosovo to use temporary printed license plates that are valid for 60 days. As part of the deal, from October 4, a sticker will replace the removal of the licence plates of cars registered in Kosovo and Serbia as a temporary measure until a permanent solution is identified

Alleged abuses perpetrated by some Western Balkan states, as well as Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, have prompted some European Union members to raise the possibility of canceling the visa-free travel regime to the bloc, according to an internal EU document. Among the abuses cited are unlawful residency and unfounded asylum claims. The document, dated September 27, comes as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tours the Western Balkans. The EU visa regime for Montenegro, Serbia, and North Macedonia was abolished in December 2009, followed by Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2010, Moldova in 2014, and Georgia and Ukraine in 2017. Visa-free travel for up to 90 days to the EU has been considered an important step ahead in the 27-member bloc’s relations with the Western Balkans and the former Soviet states under its Eastern Partnership policy.

Montenegro this week announced plans to introduce a progressive corporate income tax as part of a broad tax reform that aims to support economic growth and reduce the share of grey economy, finance and social minister Milojko Spajic said. “We will introduce a progressive tax on the income of legal entities, as some companies with profits worth millions of euros pay a proportional instead of progressive tax,” Spajic said in a video file posted on the YouTube channel of Montenegro’s finance ministry on Tuesday. Currently, corporate and personal income tax in Montenegro are both set at nine per cent. The government also intends to introduce a progressive tax on personal income and to increase the non-taxable part of gross wages to 700 euros, opening space for the increase of salaries, Spajic said.

Hospitals across Bosnia and Herzegovina are again filling with Covid-19 patients gasping for air, and the country’s pandemic death toll is rising. Yet vaccination sites are mostly empty and unused coronavirus vaccines are fast approaching their expiration dates. When the European Union launched its mass vaccination campaign, non-member Bosnia and Herzegovina struggled along with most other Balkan nations to get supplies. By late spring, however, hundreds of thousands of doses started pouring into the country. But after an initial rush of people clamoring to get jabbed, demand for shots quickly slowed. It is now down to a trickle even though Bosnia and Herzegovina has Europe’s highest coronavirus mortality rate at 4.5 per cent, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Central Asia

Chevron Corporation-operated CVX Tengizchevroil will postpone parts of its 45.2 billion US dollars expansion project in Kazakhstan by three-to-seven months due to coronavirus-led disruptions. The move was announced last Friday by the country’s energy minister. The venture is run by Kazakhstan’s biggest oil producer Tengizchevroil, which is 50 per cent owned by Chevron, while the rest is held by Exxon Mobil Corporation XOM, Kazakhstan’s state energy firm KazMunayGas and Russia’s Lukoil. With 87 per cent of the overall project now being completed, personnel remobilisation on schedule, and the company’s vaccination drive moving forward, the project is hitting significant milestones. While this will elevate expenses, prior savings will likely keep the entire project within the allocated budget. Tengiz’s Future Growth Project, which is expected to extend the Tengiz field’s annual oil output by 12 million tons, will be finished in November 2023 rather than April 2023.

Hungary’s OTP Bank plans to take over Uzbekistan’s state-owned Ipoteka Bank (Mortgage Bank), according to a memorandum signed by OTP and the Tashkent government on Wednesday. The Uzbek authorities had previously said they planned to sell off a 75 per cent stake in Ipoteka Bank, but the parties gave no details such as the size or price of the planned deal when they signed the agreement at a conference in Tashkent. OTP can take a majority stake in Ipoteka Bank, and the final terms of the contract are expected to be signed this year, OTP said in a statement.

A man in eastern Tajikistan has been subjected to a public shaming campaign and described by local authorities as a “traitor to the nation” after he made a mild criticism of preparations for a planned official visit from the president. Officials in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, or GBAO, have also requested that police take action against Maksud Gayesov. Gayesov, a resident of the GBAO capital, Khorog, made the offending remarks on his Facebook account on September 22. In the post, he expressed irritation over the fact that students and women in Khorog were being forced to rehearse for parades to be held in honor of President Emomali Rahmon, who has since embarked on his tour of the Pamiri regions of the country. “What kind of man allows his wife to take part in this kind of disgrace, not to speak about brothers and fathers letting their sisters and daughters [take part],” Gayesov wrote. “I am so sorry for you women that your men will not come to your defence.”

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