Poland’s government targets independent news channel TVN24: Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Proposed legislative changes that would ban non-European ownership of Polish media have angered critics who say they target the US company Discovery Inc., owner of the TVN broadcaster that’s openly critical of the right-wing government. The changes were published on Poland’s parliament website late Wednesday and were proposed by lawmakers from the governing Law and Justice party that has been taking steps to control the media ever since winning power in 2015. Critics say the party has turned state TVP broadcaster into its mouthpiece and wants to limit media ownership by foreign investors. The TVN broadcaster’s all-news TVN24 channel that exposes alleged irregularities and scandals within the government has long irritated the Law and Justice party.

Polish media billionaire Zygmunt Solorz meanwhile is considering becoming an investor in a nuclear project in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, testing his country’s resolve to cut energy ties with its resource-rich eastern neighbour. Solorz is betting that his plan – which includes constructing a power link between the two countries – would allow Poland to import cheaper electricity and at least partly offset the surging costs of burning coal. The Polish government, which hasn’t commented on the proposal, has for years systematically cut its dependence on Russian energy by finding alternative supplies of crude oil and natural gas. Solorz has been investing in solar and wind energy in Poland after his ZE PAK unit said it would close its lignite-fired plants this decade. Solorz, who owns the country’s largest media and telecommunications company Cyfrowy Polsat, has also set his sights on nuclear power. One of the options under consideration is buying a stake in Rosatom’s Kaliningrad project.

EU pressure on Hungary has intensified over a new law banning the depiction or promotion of homosexuality for the under-18s. MEPs approved a resolution on Thursday urging the EU to speed up legal action over Hungary’s law. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the law was “a disgrace” which contradicted “basic EU values”. Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán hit back, saying school policy was a matter for Hungary, not “Brussels bureaucrats”. “Whatever they do, we will not allow [LGBT+] activists into our children’s kindergartens and schools,” he said. The EU has the power to reduce budget allocations to a member state seen to have breached the EU’s rule-of-law standards.

Bulgaria’s new anti-establishment party There Is Such a People (ITN) remains closely tied in popularity with the centre-right GERB, which has been in power for most of the past decade, ahead of a July 11 snap election, an opinion poll showed on Thursday. Anger at graft-prone political elites, which many blame for ensuring Bulgaria remains the European Union’s poorest and most corrupt member state, has boosted support for ITN, founded by TV talk-show host Slavi Trifonov. Thursday’s poll by Sofia-based Alpha Research showed support for ITN has risen to 21.8 per cent from the 17.7 per cent it won in an April general election, when it was the second largest party. GERB, led by long-serving former prime minister Boyko Borissov has mobilised its supporters in the run-up to the Sunday vote and was just 0.3 per cent behind ITN, but was still below the 26.2 per cent it won in April.

Slovakia’s top court ruled on Wednesday that a nationwide referendum cannot be held on whether to call an early parliamentary election. President Zuzana Čaputová had asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the matter after over 585,000 Slovak citizens signed petitions calling for the snap vote, which the political opposition proposed over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The court ruled that the proposed vote would not conform with the constitution because it would “violate the character of Slovakia as a democratic state with the rule of law,” chief judge Ivan Fiacan said. Parliament would have to amend the constitution to specifically allow such a referendum, the court said. Slovakia’s next regular general election is scheduled for 2024.

Softbank will invest 500 million złoty (111 million euros) in the Polish online shoe shop eobuwie ahead of its planned initial public offering (IPO), its majority shareholder retailer CCC said on Saturday. “The deal will ensure the appropriate level of financing of’s business plan, allowing its expansion to be speeded up the company’s fundamentals to be strengthened,” CCC said. It will also bolster the ownership structure of, preceding its IPO, which is planned within the next 12-24 months, CCC added. SoftBank Vision Fund 2, part of Softbank group, will buy eobuwie bonds, convertible into shares.

Romania’s economy performed strongly in the first quarter of 2021, with real GDP increasing by 2.8 per cent quarter-on-quarter, supported mainly by private consumption and investment. The country is now expected to enjoy the European Union’s highest growth rate for the full year, of 7.4 per cent, according to the European Commission’s summer forecast, published on Wednesday. The country’s impressive recovery is nevertheless threatened by its low Covid-19 vaccination rate: fewer than 25 per cent of the population have received jabs. On Tuesday, the country closed 117 vaccination centres and reduced hours of operation at 371 others.

Scientists investigating the impact of drug pollution in freshwater streams in Czechia found they could get trout addicted to methamphetamine. Meth users excrete the drug into wastewater, but treatment plants designed to handle urine and faeces aren’t able to clean the water of the drug, and so it flows into rivers. In some of the country’s streams concentrations of methamphetamine have been found to be as high as hundreds of nanograms per litre, but until now it hasn’t been clear what impact that pollution could be having on marine life. Czechia has been tackling methamphetamine use since the days of Communist rule, and today more than 50 per cent of all drug arrests in the country are related to the stimulant.

Eastern Europe

More than 50 journalists were beaten and some were hospitalised on Monday while covering a protest against a gay rights rally in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. Protesters, who gathered in opposition at the Tbilisi March for Dignity, blocked off a main street in the city and accused media of being propagandists for the LGBT+ movement. Passersby and tourists were caught up in the violence, and one was stabbed. The Polish foreign ministry confirmed that a tourist from Poland was being treated in the hospital after a knife attack. A suspect has been arrested. Several buildings, including the Tbilisi Pride offices and buildings belonging to the opposition Girchi political party and a civil rights organisation, also were damaged. Tbilisi Pride, the organizers for the March for Dignity event, had earlier called off the rally, saying that authorities had failed to provide the necessary security.

Authorities in Belarus on Thursday blocked the website of one of the country’s most popular independent media outlets, Nasha Niva, and searched its journalists and their editorial offices. The Information Ministry announced restrictions on access to the website in the late morning. It cited an instruction from the Prosecutor-General’s Office concerning Article 38 of Belarus’s law on mass media, which Freedom House says requires no legal process and offers no avenue for appeal. Nasha Niva editor in chief Yahor Martsinovich was led away in handcuffs, while fellow editor Andrey Skurko was said to have been taken away for questioning after raids on both of their homes.

On Tuesday a former Belarusian presidential candidate has been sentenced to fourteen years in prison on corruption charges after a “sham” trial. Viktor Babariko – the former chief executive of a Russian-owned bank – had planned to challenge Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, in last year’s election. But he was arrested two months before the August 2020 vote, which drew thousands of protesters onto the streets. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court in Belarus convicted Babariko of bribery and money laundering, in a case that has been widely seen as politically motivated. The former candidate has remained in custody since his arrest and denies the corruption charges against him. He will not be able to appeal the verdict and 14-year sentence.

A final poll ahead of Moldova’s parliamentary election, set to take place on July 11, suggests that Moldovans are about to hand President Maia Sandu’s PAS party not just a majority, but a majority large enough to implement constitutional changes. The poll, carried out by CBS-Research, a local affiliate of the European Endowment for Democracy, puts support for PAS at 35 per cent, well ahead of the Socialists (who have formed an electoral pact with the Moldovan Communist party) on 21 per cent. Amongst those who say that they are certain to vote, support for PAS jumps to over 50 per cent. What’s more, besides PAS and the Socialists, no other party or electoral bloc would enter parliament, meaning that PAS would be redistributed enough to seats to claim a constitutional majority.

A cyber attack hit the websites of Ukraine’s president, security service and other institutions on Tuesday afternoon but they were working again by the evening, the state service for special communications said on Wednesday. It did not say who was behind the attack. Kyiv has previously accused Russia of orchestrating cyber attacks as part of a “hybrid war” against Ukraine. Russia denies this. Kyiv and Moscow have been at loggerheads since Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and backed separatists in a conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region which Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

Azerbaijan handed over 15 prisoners of Armenian origin to Armenia last Saturday in return for maps detailing the locations of 92,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry said. Ethnic Armenian and Azeri forces fought a bloody conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave last year that locked in territorial gains for Azerbaijan and was eventually brought to a halt by a Russian-brokered ceasefire. In a statement, Azerbaijan said that mediation by Moscow had helped it to obtain minefield maps from Armenia covering areas in the Fizuli and Zangilan regions in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence has defended its decision to train female soldiers to march in high heels, following an outcry from local lawmakers. Women from the Ukrainian armed forces will march in a parade to mark the 30th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union on August 24, according to a statement from Army Inform, the defence ministry’s official news agency, published Thursday. They have been training twice a day to master the steps and are progressing well, Major Eugene Balabushka told Army Inform. Balabushka confirmed the plan to wear high heels during the parade. However, the decision to march in high heels has angered a number of lawmakers after local media picked up images published by the defence ministry.

North East Europe

Shares in Estonian-founded fintech firm Wise ended 10 per cent up on their first day of trading on Wednesday in London’s largest ever tech listing. Wise shares opened at 800 pence – in line with an auction process in the preceding hours, which saw an indicated price range of 750-820 pence as the group completed the first direct listing on the London Stock Exchange (LSE). They closed at 880 pence, valuing the company at 8.75 billion UK pounds and becoming London’s biggest tech company by market capitalisation. Wise was founded as TransferWise by Estonians Kristo Kaarmann and Taavet Hinrikus in 2011 to offer cheap cross-border money transfers. The company rebranded as Wise in February to highlight a shift towards a broader product offering, including complex banking services such as multicurrency current accounts.

Lithuania has announced it will build a barrier on the border with Belarus and deploy troops to prevent migrants from illegally crossing into its territory. Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said more than 1,000 migrants had been held after crossing along the 679-kilometre border since June 1. Lithuania, an EU member, also accused Belarus of flying in foreign migrants and allowing them to go to the border. Bilateral ties have been strained since May’s arrest of a Belarusian dissident. Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega were flying from Greece to Lithuania when a fighter jet was scrambled over Belarus to escort their plane to Minsk airport over a bomb threat which turned out to be fake. They were detained as soon as the Ryanair plane landed.

Employers in Latvia will be allowed to fire workers who do not possess a digital Covid-19 certificate from September 15. Latvia’s government this week made vaccination against Covid-19 compulsory for workers in several key sectors, including health care, social care, and education.

South East Europe

The European Union should let Albania and North Macedonia move ahead with membership talks by October before a special Balkans summit organised by Slovenia, which holds the EU presidency, its prime minister said on Tuesday. Despite approval in March 2020 for both Balkan countries to proceed to formal talks, Bulgaria has blocked North Macedonia’s progress over a dispute about their shared language. Albania’s status is linked to North Macedonia by the EU. “We know that the European Union makes big steps forward once it focuses on something,” Prime Minister Janez Janša told a news conference. “If we move it up the agenda we will be able to take concrete steps forward. Albania and North Macedonia can move forward by the next summit in October if we all concentrate on that,” he said at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

The US embassy in Serbia on Thursday said that Washington “cannot and will not forget” the killings of Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi, three US citizens of Albanian origin, on July 9, 1999, and urged a full investigation. “Delivering justice for the Bytyqi brothers and their family and holding accountable those who committed and covered up their murders remains a priority in our bilateral relationship with Serbia,” the US embassy said in a statement. “The United States government again calls on Serbian authorities, who have promised to assist in this case over years, for a full investigation. This case, and many others, illustrate the urgent need for Serbia to resolve outstanding war crimes investigations and focus on strengthening the rule of law,” it added. The Bytyqi brothers went to fight for the Kosovo Liberation Army against Belgrade’s forces in 1999.

Montenegro is weeks away from securing a deal to either swap or refinance with European and US banks nearly one billion US dollars in debt owed to China, and hopes to reduce the interest rate on the debt to below one per cent, Economy Minister Jakov Milatović told Reuters this week. Montenegro borrowed 944 million US dollars from China in 2014 to fund a 41-kilometre stretch of road, which foes of then-Prime Minister Milo Đukanović dubbed the “Road to Nowhere”, saying it typified waste under his rule, an accusation he denied. Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić, who came to power in December, is seeking to reduce the cost of the Chinese debt which has a two per cent interest rate and reduce currency risk as the loan is denominated in US dollars, Milatović said.

Central Asia

Kyrgyz officials have denied claims they colluded with Turkish intelligence to abduct a Turkish-Kyrgyz educator who disappeared from Bishkek last month. Turkey’s latest extrajudicial rendition is causing blowback in Kyrgyzstan, where parliament grilled security officials and the government on July 7 about their complicity or incompetence in the case of Orhan Inandi. Inandi, the head of the Sapat educational network in Kyrgyzstan, went missing in the Kyrgyz capital late on May 31 under mysterious circumstances. His wife has suggested he was being held at the Turkish Embassy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 5 said agents from the MIT intelligence agency had abducted Inandi and brought him to Turkey, describing a “genuine and patient” operation.

Uzbekistan has adopted a new law on religion that affords some marginal concessions but mostly leaves restrictions in place, much to the dismay of faith advocacy groups. Among the more contentious areas covered in the legislation signed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on July 5 is that concerning the right to wear religious clothing. The new-look Religion Law discontinues a widely disregarded provision forbidding anybody not registered as a cleric from appearing in public wearing such clothes. State entities, which can include offices or universities, still retain the right to enforce a dress code, however. How this norm will be enforced with regard, for example, to women adopting Islamic headwear will be closely watched by a public increasingly alive to debates around this issue.

Over the last three years, Kazakhstan authorities have increased their misuse of vague and overbroad criminal charges relating to the crime of “extremism” to harass and prosecute government critics, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW said in a statement on July 7 that the crackdown violates the rights to freedom of expression and association. “It is not a crime to want to see political change in Kazakhstan, or to peacefully express sympathy or support for political opposition groups advocating those changes,” says Mihra Rittmann, senior Central Asia researcher at HRW. “Kazakh authorities have effectively criminalised the expression of nonviolent political views, and in doing so, blatantly violated fundamental human rights.”

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