Serbian president’s Twitter challenge: Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Romania has become the new route for Afghan migrants and refugees headed to Western Europe after Hungary and Croatia tightened their borders, Spanish publication El Confidencial reported. Many EU member states are nervous that developments in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover could trigger a replay of Europe’s 2015 migration crisis. The traditional route for undocumented migrants fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan fleeing oppression and war was Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Croatia, on their way to Western Europe. But as US troops prepared to pull out of Afghanistan and Hungary and Croatia beefed up border patrols, migrants have been opting for relatively permissive Romania as a stepping stone to Western Europe. Some migrants then try and cross the border hidden in trucks into Hungary, the publication said. In the first half of 2021, the European Border Agency (Frontex) said there were almost 3,200 attempts by Afghans to enter the EU from non-EU countries.

Czech President Miloš Zeman has said NATO had failed in Afghanistan and its legitimacy was in question, as he called for his country to focus to national defence rather than “wasting money” on the alliance. Zeman, known for his pro-Russia and pro-China stance, said that NATO’s main role was to fight global terrorism, but the alliance has failed at that task now. “The distrust towards NATO from a number of member countries will grow after this experience, because they will say – if you failed in Afghanistan, where is a guarantee that you won’t fail in any other critical situation?” Zeman said in an interview on Tuesday.

Poland will dismantle a judges’ disciplinary chamber as part of wider judiciary reforms in coming months, the government said on Tuesday after the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that the disciplinary mechanism undercuts EU law. The long-running dispute over Warsaw’s judicial reforms has heated up in recent months, with Brussels demanding that Poland implement an EU court ruling to dissolve the contested chamber for judges, which critics say is politicised, by August 16. “Poland will continue reforms of the judiciary, also in the area of judges’ answerability, aimed at improving the efficiency of this system,” the government said in a statement, adding that the scrapping of the chamber for judges would be part of the overhaul.

Poland is introducing fines of up 30,000 złoty (around 6,600 euros) for people who conceal information relating to Covid-19, such as whom they have had contact with. “The concealment of information” is one of the “greatest weaknesses” in fighting the epidemic, said the health minister today. The new fines are intended as “a kind of deterrent to discourage people from lying”, added Adam Niedzielski, speaking to the Polish Press Agency (PAP). Meanwhile, the minister also reiterated that, with coronavirus cases in Poland currently low, schools are set to resume with in-person teaching in September. But if infections rise, then regional restrictions will be put in place, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.

A bus traveling on a highway in Hungary crashed through a guardrail and tipped over early on Sunday, killing at least eight people and injuring dozens, police said. The crash occurred on Hungary’s M7 highway near the town of Szabadbattyan, between the capital, Budapest, and Lake Balaton, at just before 5am Sunday morning. The bus had Hungarian license plates and was in the lane traveling toward Budapest. Pal Gyorfi, a spokesman for the national ambulance service, told Hungarian news agency MTI that in addition to the eight deaths, another eight people sustained serious injuries and 40 had minor injuries.

Book distributors and publishers in Hungary have raised concerns that a decree restricting the sale of LGBTQ-themed books could lead to self-censorship and make such items harder to obtain in smaller towns. The government has ordered shops to sell sealed and wrapped all books aimed at under-18s that are viewed as promoting homosexuality or gender change, or containing “explicit” depictions of sexuality. It also bans the sale of all such books, whether intended for childen or adults, within 200 metres of a school or a church. Katalin Gal, head of the Association of Hungarian Book Publishers and Distributors, said more than 100 Hungarian bookshops were within 200 meters of a church or a school, many in small towns. “This is covertly pushing publishers towards self-censorship. If they make it very hard to sell these books, why would they print them at all?” she said on Friday.

Eastern Europe

The chief editor of one of Belarus‘ leading independent news organisations went missing after police searched her home on Tuesday night, the country’s reporters’ association said on Wednesday, as authorities pursue a crackdown on dissent. Online news agency BelaPAN had been unable to contact either editor-in-chief Irina Levshyna or one of its reporters, Zakhar Shcherbakov, the association said. Shcherbakov’s home and that of a third BelaPAN reporter were also searched, it said. The journalists association has said at least 30 Belarusian journalists are in jail and that police are conducting about 50 separate criminal investigations against members of the media.

The mayor of the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, who was a member of a pro-Russian opposition political party, was found dead in his house with a gunshot wound on Sunday. It was unclear whether Konstantin Pavlov’s death was a murder or suicide. The National Police of Ukraine said it was establishing the circumstances of the death and had opened a criminal case. Pavlov, 48, is a member of the Opposition Platform – For Life party. He was elected mayor of Kryvyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine which is also the hometown of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, last December.

Armenia says clashes along the border with Azerbaijan have left two of its troops dead as tensions continue to simmer between the two countries after last year’s war over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Armenian Defence Ministry said a skirmish that left one military officer dead took place on August 16, claiming Azerbaijani forces “provoked” the Armenians when they tried to advance their positions inside Armenian territory at the Yeraskh section of the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan’s Naxcivan exclave, which is sandwiched between Armenia and Iran. The ministry added that a day earlier its forces managed to repel Azerbaijani military units that allegedly also tried to enter Armenian territory at the Sevlich section of Armenia’s Syunik region, and that one Azerbaijani soldier was killed.

North East Europe

The Latvian government has announced a ten million euros subsidy programme for electric cars and plug-in hybrids. The purchase of new electric cars is to be subsidised with 4,500 euros from the beginning of 2022, and that of used electric cars and new plug-in hybrids with 2,250 euros. The duration of the programme is set for two years, i.e. until the end of 2023 – or until the funds are exhausted. If the old car is scrapped, the subsidy is increased by 1,000 euros, according to the Ministry of Environment and Regional Development (Varam). However, there are also factors that limit the subsidy: for example, it is a condition that the car is cheaper than 50,000 euros net – there is no gradual subsidy as in Germany. In addition, the minimum holding period of the vehicle is four years.

A dozen Belarusian officers in riot gear illegally crossed into Lithuanian territory on Tuesday while pushing a group of 35 Iraqi migrants over the border, Lithuania’s border guard service said. Lithuania, a member of the European Union, accuses Belarus of deliberately flying in Iraqi migrants to Minsk and then ferrying them over the border to claim asylum as retaliation for sanctions imposed by the EU on the former Soviet republic. “The officers left the territory after several minutes, after being told repeatedly by Lithuanian border guards they had violated the border,” said border guard service spokesperson Rokas Pukinskas. Lithuania says a total of 4,124 people have crossed into its territory illegally so far this year, mostly in July, though only 14 entered between August 5 and 16, as Lithuania began pushing back the migrants entering from Belarus.

South East Europe

Serbia’s autocratic leader Aleksandar Vučić challenged Twitter on Tuesday to close his account like it did with Donald Trump’s, after several media outlets under his control were labeled state-affiliated by the social media site. “I can’t wait for them (Twitter) to close my account so I become another Trump in the world,” Vučić said. Twitter in January deleted the account of the former US president because of the risk of further incitement of violence after his supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6 after he lost the presidential election. Twitter has defined state-affiliated media as “outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.”

Air Serbia has repaid its second and final loan to Etihad Airways Partners BV, a special purpose vehicle set up by Etihad Airways in September 2015 to raise funds for itself and its equity partners. Last year, the Serbian carrier repaid the first of the two loans, amounting 52.9 million US dollars, despite initially seeking to renegotiate the debt and defer the payments due to the financial strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic. After its request was denied and it faced a default on its debt, the airline made the payment independently in full. The second of the two loans matured this summer, with the Serbian carrier also making the full payment on time. The only other two parties to have successfully repaid their loan to the funding vehicle are Etihad Airways and Etihad Airport Services, while Air Seychelles, Alitalia and Air Belin have not done so.

Air Montenegro meanwhile handled 40.000 passengers during its first two months of commercial operations with a 70 per cent average cabin load factor. The airline recorded two million euros in income. “Overall, our load factor on inbound flights to Montenegro stood at 90 per cent, which is very impressive, both for our airline and for Montenegro as a destination as well. The Russian market remains closed for nonstop flights, hence, we were unable to launch operations to there. However, we continue to monitor development on the market and react depending on the situation”, the carrier’s CEO, Predrag Todorović, said. In addition to its scheduled network which includes Belgrade, Ljubljana, Banja Luka, Istanbul and Frankfurt, the airline also operated twenty charter flights from Yerevan, bringing Armenian tourists to Montenegro.

Albania is reported to be about to give refuge to some 250 Afghan civilians over the course of the next few days, North Macedonia is expecting to take in around 390 and Kosovo is also preparing to receive an unnamed number of people fleeing Afghanistan after it fell to the Taliban at the weekend. The three countries said the refugees, whose lives are potentially in danger if they remain in Afghanistan, will be accommodated temporarily until they are transferred to the US or into third countries. None of them has so far stated their overall capacity for accepting such refugees. Voice of America on Tuesday cited unnamed diplomatic sources as saying that some 250 civilians would be in the first group expected to arrive in Albania, primarily people who have worked with the Western alliance in Afghanistan, such as translators, cooks and other staff, along with their families.

Kosovo police have detained three people over an attack on a young Kosovo Serb in the northern part of the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica on Tuesday morning. Police said that one of the suspects who was arrested, identified only by the initials E.A., is a Kosovo Albanian who is on the wanted list to serve a prison sentence, news website KosSev reported. The attack on the Serb, who was identified only by the initials M.D., happened around 1am on Tuesday, when three people inflicted injuries to his arm and eye. Police said the victim was transferred to hospital, where he was diagnosed with “minor bodily injuries” but kept in for further observation. The Serbian government’s office for Kosovo said in a press release that “this attack, as well as a series of similar incidents to which Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija have been exposed since the beginning of the year, is a reflection of the irresponsible messages and actions of politicians from Pristina who encourage intolerance towards our people and draw a target on Serbs’ foreheads”.

Central Asia

China started a joint anti-terrorism exercise with Tajikistan on Wednesday, amid growing security concerns in the region following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. While both China and Tajikistan share borders with Afghanistan, the latter’s 1,344 kilometre border in particular has rendered it one of the most vulnerable to the rising instability next door after the insurgent group took power. The “Counterterrorism Collaboration 2021” exercises, led by China’s Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan would last two days, the Chinese ministry said on its website.

A fiery social media personality in Uzbekistan known for his sustained criticism of the government has reportedly been arrested for insulting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. News website reported that Valijon Kalonov, 52, was detained at his home on the morning of August 15 by anti-terrorism police in the Jizzakh region. In one recent post on Facebook, Kalonov, who lives in the Zarbdar district of the Jizzakh region, urged Mirziyoyev to refrain from running in elections scheduled for this year and suggested instead that he leave the country. One post carried an image pasted with numerous anti-government slogans, including “We are against fake and fraudulent elections!” “Boycott the election!” and “We will stay at home!” Kalonov’s brother, Alijon, claimed to Eltuz that police confiscated cash, a Visa card and two tablets owned by the activist.

Kyrgyz authorities have launched a probe into abduction of a Kyrgyz-Turkish educator who was illegally taken to Turkey, where he faces a lengthy prison term on terrorism charges which he and his supporters vehemently deny. The Prosecutor-General’s Office said on August 17 that an investigation was launched into “negligence” and the “violation of border-crossing regulations” by border guards who were on duty when Orhan Inandi was illegally taken out of the country after he was kidnapped in late May. The disappearance of Inandi, the head of the Sapat educational network in Kyrgyzstan, sparked numerous demonstrations in Bishkek, with protesters demanding the government locate him. In July, Turkish officials said agents from Turkish intelligence abducted Inandi and brought him to Turkey, describing Inandi as “a top Central Asian leader” of the movement led by US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a friend-turned-foe of Erdogan whom Ankara blames for a deadly 2016 coup attempt.

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