Emerging Europe This Week

The plot to assassinate Zelensky

Catch up quickly with the stories from Central and Eastern Europe that matter, this week led by news that the Ukrainian domestic intelligence service has uncovered a plot to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Russia’s war on Ukraine

Ukraine this week said it uncovered a network of Russian agents in the country who planned to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky, including two colonels who worked for the agency in charge of his security.

The Ukrainian domestic intelligence service (SBU) on Tuesday said the two were tasked by Moscow with finding people in Zelensky’s security detail who would take the president hostage and later kill him.

The agency they worked for, known as the State Protection Service, oversees security for Ukraine’s president as well as ministers and other top officials.

One of the colonels, the SBU said, had purchased weapons and drones for the operation and was recorded in conversation with his handlers at the FSB, the Russian spy agency.

The alleged conspiracy was the latest in a series of foiled Russian plots that Ukrainian authorities said were intended to kill or capture the president, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. It comes just weeks after Ukrainian and Polish authorities announced the arrest a Polish citizen accused of helping Russia’s military intelligence carry out such an assassination plot.

Russia carried out a “massive” missile attack on Ukrainian energy infrastructure overnight into Wednesday in the biggest aerial onslaught by Russian forces for weeks.

Russia used 76 air attack weapons in the assault, including 55 missiles and 21 drones launched from Russia and Russian controlled areas, according to Ukrainian Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk. At least 59 weapons were destroyed overnight, he added.

The attacks targeted power generation and transmission facilities in Ukraine’s Poltava, Kirovohrad, Zaporizhzhia, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Vinnytsia regions, the country’s Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko posted on Telegram.

“The enemy wants to deprive us of the ability to generate and transmit electricity in sufficient quantities. Saving electricity is a contribution of each of us to the victory,” Halushchenko said.

The EU this week reached a deal to seize profits from Russia’s frozen assets to fund weapons and aid for Ukraine within months.

EU senior diplomats meeting on Wednesday agreed a compromise on using the estimated 4.4 billion euros windfall profits to aid Ukraine, smoothing over a dispute about taxation and management costs in Belgium, the country where most of the frozen assets are held.

Euroclear, a clearing house in Brussels, holds 191 billion euros of the 260 billion euros of Russian Central Bank assets that were immobilised by western governments in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In February the clearing house reported 4.4 billion euros interest on the Russian funds and forecast that the Belgian government would reap 1.085 billion euros in taxes.

The final amount for Ukraine has yet to be confirmed, but should be available in July.

The EU—wary of the legal ramifications of seizing the entire cache of Russian assets—decided it could give the profits to Ukraine, after concluding Moscow had no legal right to these funds. 

Other news from the region

North Macedonia elected its first woman president Wednesday as the governing Social Democrats suffered historic losses in twin presidential and parliamentary elections. Conservative-backed Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a 70-year-old law professor, was declared the winner after receiving nearly 65 per cent support in a presidential runoff. In parliamentary elections, a coalition led by conservative VMRO-DPMNE won 43 per cent of the vote, while the Social Democrat-led coalition that has held power for the least seven years struggled to hold onto second place with 14.8 per cent.

Croatia’s ruling conservatives on Wednesday meanwhile agreed to form a coalition with an extreme party, which would push the country further to the right ahead of next month’s European parliamentary election. The governing Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ, and the far-right Homeland Movement reached the agreement weeks after an inconclusive parliamentary vote that has stirred political uncertainty. Croatia’s dominant HDZ won most votes at the election but not enough to stay in power on their own.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Budapest on Thursday, where he and Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán discussed trade, investment and signed a series of cooperation deals. Hungary is currently the only EU country participating in China’s Belt and Road infrastructure and investment initiative. Before arriving in Hungary, Xi visited Serbia where he and Serb President Aleksandar Vučić agreed to follow a “shared future”. Serbia will also become the first European country in years to enter into a free trade agreement with China when a deal signed last year comes into effect on July 1.

The European Union is poised to close the chapter on its long-running dispute with Poland over democratic backsliding under the previous nationalist government. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday the so-called Article 7 procedure, which was launched in 2017 and threatened to strip Warsaw of its voting rights, can be closed. Earlier this year, the commission decided to free up as much as 137 billion euros in blocked aid to Poland after Donald Tusk’s government presented a plan to restore judicial independence, the main point of contention with the EU.

Tensions around Georgia’s controversial draft “foreign agents” law could hit the country’s economy and investor confidence, the president of the EBRD Odile Renaud-Basso warned on Tuesday. The draft legislation would require organisations receiving more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents, a requirement opponents attack as authoritarian and Kremlin-inspired. The draft legislation has sparked protests across Georgia while Brussels and Washington have urged Tbilisi to drop it or risk harming its chances of European Union membership and a broader Euro-Atlantic future.

Armenia said on Wednesday that it has stopped making financial contributions to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) after effectively suspending its membership in the Russian-led military alliance. “Armenia will refrain from signing up to the November 23, 2023, decision on the CSTO budget for 2024 and, thereby, from participating in the financing of the organisation’s activities,” Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ani Badalian told several media outlets, including Armenia’s Public Television.

Police in Slovakia are trying to find out who sent more than 1,000 bomb threats to schools and other institutions on Tuesday. Police teams with sniffer dogs and bomb disposal experts were called out repeatedly across the country. The alerts prompted mass evacuations. Officials said they were treating the threats “as a particularly serious crime of terrorist attack”. Emails from an anonymous sender reportedly began arriving at 05:00, alleging that explosives were stored in hundreds of schools spanning the country’s eight regions.

Romania-based Early Game Ventures (EGV), a venture capital firm, on Thursday announced the launch of a new 60 millions euros fund—Early Game Ventures Fund II, to invest in early-stage start-ups in CEE. The fund received 30 million euros from the European Investment Fund’s Recovery Equity Fund, financed by the National Plan for Recovery and Resilience under the Next Generation EU. The new fund will invest in early-stage technology start-ups with a focus on areas such as cyber security, enterprise software, and AI applications. 

Photo: Volodymyr Zelensky official Facebook page.

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