Wizz Air boss slams Belarus flight ban: Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

The CEO of Hungarian airline Wizz Air criticised European governments on Wednesday for barring flights over Belarus in response to the forced landing of a passenger plane. József Váradi told Reuters: “I don’t think this is the right response. I don’t think aviation should be used as a means for political sanctions.” Authorities including the European Union Aviation Safety agency advised against overflying Belarus after the May 23 incident, in which a Ryanair Athens-Vilnius flight was diverted to Minsk and a travelling dissident journalist arrested. “Nothing has happened that would have jeopardised flight safety or security. I don’t think anyone was unsafe for a second,” Váradi said. “It’s a political measure. This is not a safety measure.”

Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony, has renamed four roads in the city to pay tribute to opponents of China’s authoritarian regime, including Free Hong Kong Road. The move, marked by an inauguration ceremony on Wednesday, was made in protest at the Hungarian government’s plans to build a new campus for Shanghai’s elite Fudan University in its capital. Two roads referenced regions where Beijing has been accused of trampling on rights and freedoms: Free Hong Kong and Uyghur Martyrs road. Two others were named after political dissidents — Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, and Bishop Xie Shiguang, a Catholic priest who ran China’s underground church.

Czech police have once again recommended that the country’s prime minister, Andrej Babiš, be charged with fraud. The recommendation follows the conclusion of a six-year criminal investigation into whether Babiš illegally acquired around two million euros in EU subsidies. The case revolves around EU subsidies paid to a farm and hotel complex that Babiš claims was owned by members of his family, and not by Agrofert, the firm he founded in 1993 and which has since grown to encompass some 230 companies ranging from agriculture to chemicals, as well as large parts of the Czech media sector.

The longest passive magnetic levitation test facility in Europe will be built in Poland, with construction to begin this summer. Magrail technology company Nevomo has signed an agreement with Polish firm Ciech Sarzyna to lease land and infrastructure. This will allow Nevomo to build a full-scale 750m test track. Magrail technology enables vehicles to reach speeds of 550kph on existing railway tracks. The advantage of the technology, which uses the hyperloop concept, is this ability to integrate with the existing railway infrastructure without the need to make changes to the rolling stock. Ciech Sarzyna will provide Nevomo with access to the area with the railway track and the adjacent infrastructure, along with an office building and warehouse, located in the Podkarpacie region of Poland.

Romania on Wednesday started administering Covid-19 vaccines to young teenagers aged 12 to 15, after the European Medicines Agency approved use of the Pfizer jab last week for that age group. National vaccination committee chief Valeriu Gheorghiţă said more than 2,100 appointments were made for children in the past 24 hours via the online national booking platform. Vaccination centers will also accept no-appointment walk-ins, he said, speaking at the inauguration of a children’s vaccination center in the capital, Bucharest. “By authorising the vaccination of those between 12 to 15 years old, we bring an important advantage especially for kids with chronic diseases or other conditions which make them vulnerable to serious illness,” Gheorghiţă said.

Bulgaria meanwhile plans to provide about 150,000 Covid-19 vaccines to its Balkan neighbours, Health Minister Stoicho Katsarov said on Thursday. Bulgaria has the lowest inoculation rates in the European Union, but Katsarov said the country has agreed about 13 million – 14 million doses under the EU supply scheme by the end of the year and can afford to help other countries. “The idea is to distribute up to 150,000 doses among our neighbouring western Balkan countries,” Katsarov told reporters, adding that Sofia has received requests from North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Our needs are fully covered so there is no danger whatsoever that Bulgaria can be left without vaccines,” he said.

Croatian car manufacturer Rimac Automobili has unveiled an all-electric supercar that will soon go into production in Croatia and become available for purchase for speed enthusiasts who can afford the two million euros price tag. Dubbed Nevera, after a type of storm common in the Adriatic Sea, the car is the production-ready version of the C_Two concept which was first revealed at the International Geneva Motor Show in 2018. Originally set to debut in 2020, the car’s launch was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Eastern Europe

Belarusian opposition politician Pavel Latushko said on Wednesday he would file a complaint with the Polish prosecutor’s office against President Alexander Lukashenko and other officials due to threats of physical violence against him. Belarusian dissidents abroad say they have faced a new wave of threats since Minsk provoked international outrage by scrambling a warplane to intercept a Ryanair aircraft and arrest a dissident journalist in May. “I want to tell prosecutors that crimes may be committed against me including kidnapping, unlawful deprivation of liberty and even killing me and other Belarusian opposition activists who emigrated,” Pavel Latushko said.

Belarus meanwhile has temporarily banned most of its citizens from leaving, including many foreign residency permit holders. There are some exceptions, such as for Belarusian civil servants on official trips and state transport staff. The State Border Committee’s tightening of the rules follows international outrage over Belarus’s recent diversion of a Ryanair flight and arrest of a top dissident and his girlfriend on board. Many dissidents have left Belarus since a disputed election last year.

The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea is almost complete with just 100 kilometres left to build, TASS news agency quoted Russian deputy prime minister Alexander Novak as saying on Thursday. “We hope that construction works on Nord Stream 2 will be completed by the end of this year,” Novak told reporters of progress on the pipeline, which will allow Russia to ship more gas to Western Europe, while bypassing Ukraine. The United States last month waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline to Germany, a move opposed by critics of the project in the US Congress, but welcomed by the Kremlin.

Moldova is set to receive an “unprecedented” 600 million euros economic recovery package from the European Union over a three-year period, the EU’s executive arm announced Wednesday. The European Commission said Moldova, which is not an EU member, will receive the funds between 2021 and 2024 to help the former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine recover economically from the coronavirus pandemic and to promote investment. The plan is conditional on judicial and anti-corruption reforms, the commission said.

Georgia’s largest opposition party United National Movement (UNM) said on Sunday it would return to the parliament after having boycotted it for seven months. “We have made a decision to end the boycott…This is a right decision, which will surely lead to a change of power,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted UNM leader Nika Melia as saying. Earlier in May, Melia was released from jail after spending more than two months in custody over accusations that he fomented violence during anti-government protests in 2019, charges he says are politically motivated.

Azerbaijan’s defence ministry on Wednesday said around 40 Armenian military personnel had crossed into Azeri territory the previous evening and were forced to retreat, allegations denied by the Armenian side. Both countries accused each other last month of sending troops across the border in separate incidents, highlighting the fragility of a Russian-brokered ceasefire that halted six weeks of fighting between ethnic Armenian forces and the Azeri army last year.

North East Europe

Estonia will become the first Baltic country to ban fur farming. This week, 55 out of 101 members of the country’s parliament voted in favour of a bill to prohibit the practice. The legislation will come into effect in January 2026. It follows a slew of European countries ditching fur in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a 2020 survey, 75 per cent of people living in Estonia oppose killing animals such as minks for fur. The country had already begun phasing out the controversial practice. In 2015, Estonia had 41 mink farms producing 150,000 mink skins. However, as of June 3, 2020, Estonia said it had not a single mink farm active and running.

Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš on Wednesday announced a major cabinet reshuffle, narrowing the ruling coalition to four instead of five political parties and replacing four ministers, including three from the populist Who Owns The State (KPV) party, which is being dropped from the coalition. Kariņš, of the centrist-liberal New Unity (JV) party, said he was replacing Minister of Interior Sandis Ģirģens (KPV) with Marija Golubeva of the For Development/For (APar) party alliance and nominating Gatis Eglītis of the New Conservative party (JKP) as minister of welfare. Jānis Vitenbergs of the centre-right National Alliance (NA) returns as minister of economics. The Minister of Education and Science Ilze Šuplinska (JKP) is being replaced by Anita Muižniece, another JKP member.

Lithuania’s top diplomat in China this week rejected claims that her country was taking sides against Beijing by quitting the China-led 17+1 mechanism, saying the withdrawal was prompted by less-than-expected trade benefits. Diana Mickeviciene, the Lithuanian ambassador to China, said the Chinese side had been told in February of the decision to pull out of the Beijing-led China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries cooperation mechanism, often referred to as 17+1. “It was pure calculation,” she told the South China Morning Post, dismissing a claim by Chinese nationalistic tabloid Global Times that Lithuania was picking an “anti-China” side by withdrawing.

South East Europe

The leaders of Serbia and Kosovo are to meet imminently to restart the EU-brokered dialogue that would normalise relations and put both nations on a path to European Union membership, EU envoy Miroslav Lajčák told Euronews this week. Lajčák, a former Slovak foreign minister, said that a date had been set for a meeting between Kosovo’s new prime minister, Albin Kurti, and Serbian President Aleksander Vučić. He added it would be announced shortly by the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

Albania’s parliament on Monday decided to hold an extraordinary session next week on the impeachment of the country’s president for allegedly violating the constitution. The session will be held June 9 following a report by an investigative committee, which last week concluded that President Ilir Meta violated 16 articles of the constitution before Albania’s April 25 general election and should be removed from office. Earlier this month, 49 governing Socialist lawmakers asked for the investigative committee to decide whether to impeach Meta for failing in his constitutional duty to guarantee national unity by siding with the opposition in the election. The governing Socialist Party ended up winning 74 of parliament’s 140 seats. A two-thirds majority is required to impeach Meta.

A Bosnian court on Monday sentenced the Balkan country’s former security minister to six months in prison for corruption. The Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina on Monday ruled that Sadik Ahmetovic abused his position for illegal financial gains at cost to the state budget. The case is related to project agreements for the ministry from 2011 and 2012 that were worth some 7,000 euros. Ahmetovic says he will appeal the verdict that he described as a political ploy against him.

Authorities in North Macedonia say they have arrested six people on suspicion of running a migrant-smuggling ring that illegally transferred people from Greece to wealthier European countries. The prosecutor’s office said on June 2 that the arrests were made during police raids in the capital, Skopje, and four other cities. Police said that the criminal ring had illegally taken at least 100 migrants from Greece in trucks to locations near Serbia’s border since last July. The migrants were charged by the traffickers up to 850 US dollars each. Authorities said they came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

The European Commission, on behalf of the EU, this week made further disbursements under its Covid-19 Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA) package to Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia. The disbursements of 50 million euros to Kosovo, 30 million euros to Montenegro and 80 million euros to North Macedonia are part of the three billion euros MFA package agreed in May 2020 to help ten enlargement and neighbourhood partners mitigate the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Central Asia

Dozens of people have rallied in front of the Kyrgyz parliament building in Bishkek, demanding the government find the leader of the Sapat education network after the Turkish native went missing in the Central Asian country. The protesters, many of whom believe that Orhan Inan was abducted by the Turkish secret services, demonstrated on June 3 following recent similar rallies in front of the Turkish Embassy in Bishkek and the government building. The demonstrators held placards saying: “Orhan is a Kyrgyz citizen. Find him!” Inan, who has lived in Kyrgyzstan since 1995 and holds Kyrgyz citizenship, disappeared late on May 31.

Tajikistan this week agreed to divert 315 million cubic metres of water from its Bahri Tojik reservoir to Kazakhstan, thereby supplying its neighbour to the north with crucial irrigation water in the hot months of summer. The water will be delivered via Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan’s Turkestan and Kyzylorda regions. The deal was reached after a meeting in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, between Kazakhstan’s Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources Minister Magzum Mirzagaliyev and the Tajik Energy and Water Resources Minister Daler Juma. “Kazakhstan, in turn, will provide Tajikistan with material and technical support in the event of negative consequences from the depletion of the Bahri Tojik reservoir,” Mirzagaliyev said.

Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry this week refused to prolong the accreditation of an independent Polish journalist who earlier this year accused one of the ministry’s officers of sexual harassment and of pressuring her to write positive articles about the country in exchange for remaining accredited. Ministry spokesman Yusuf Qobuljonov wrote on Telegram on June 2 that the decision not to extend the accreditation for Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, a correspondent for Al-Jazeera, was made due to “violations of legislation of the Republic of Uzbekistan.” The statement did not specify which laws the journalist violated or how.

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