News & Analysis

Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Dutch-registered PPF Group said on Tuesday it wrapped up the acquisition of media and entertainment group Central European Media Enterprises (CME) and now fully controls CME’s operations in Czechia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria. “We are looking forward to creating new business opportunities between media operations and telecommunication services,” PPF majority shareholder Petr Kellner, a Czech billionaire, said in a statement. PPF agreed to buy CME last year in a cash transaction valued at approximately 2.1 billion US dollars.

The Czech government this week announced that the country’s army would build a new, 500-bed field hospital to deal with the country’s soaring number of Covid-19 infections. The country currently has fastest rate of infections in Europe. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš said on Thursday that the numbers are “catastrophic”, while interior minister Jan Hamáček implored Czechs to “stay at home”. Earlier this week, the government shuttered bars, restaurants and clubs and shifted schools to distance learning as it imposed new measures to curb the spread of new infections, which have now reached more than 10,000 per day in the country of 10.7 million people.

Bulgaria’s government gave state-owned energy company Bulgarian Energy Holding (BEH) the green light on Wednesday to start talks with US companies regarding plans to build a new nuclear reactor at its Kozloduy power plant. Energy Minister Temenuzka Petkova said the Balkan country is looking to build a new reactor to boost energy security and move towards less polluting methods of electricity production in line with the European Union’s goal of climate neutrality by 2050. On Tuesday Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said the new reactor should be based on US technology, a statement which will come as a blow to Russia whose Rosatom had long been viewed as the most likely partner for the plant.

Croatia’s economy will shrink by eight per cent this year due to the the coronavirus pandemic and the related slump in tourism revenue, the country’s central bank said this week, revising its July forecast for a 9.7 per cent drop in GDP. The bank added that it expects the economy to grow 5.2 per cent next year, lower than its July forecast of a 6.2 per cent rise. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) affirmed its forecast for Croatia’s 2020 economic contraction at nine per cent, while upgrading next year’s growth projection to six per cent.

Marian Kotleba, leader of Slovakia’s far-right Our Slovakia party, which holds 14 seats in parliament, was sentenced to four years and four months jail on Monday for spreading hatred by holding a charity stunt that the court concluded had a Nazi theme. Kotleba, himself an MP and former regional governor, was accused of distributing cheques to poor families for 1,488 euros at an event marking the anniversary of the founding of Slovakia’s Nazi-era puppet state. The number 1488 is a symbol for white supremacists, referring to a 14-word racist slogan and the Nazi salute ‘Heil Hitler’, which begins with the eighth letter of the alphabet. The court accepted prosecutors’ argument that the racist references were intentional.

Russian-owned ride-sharing service Yandex Taxi this week said it is suspending its activity in Romania citing ‘rigid’ local regulations. “Legislation for passenger transport [in Romania] doesn’t allow us to efficiently develop our service,” the firm, which operated as Yango in Romania, said in a statement. Yandex Taxi was launched in 2011 by Russian technology group Yandex and currently operates in 16 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, including Estonia, Latvia and Serbia.

Locked into a 15-year lease agreement, Magyar Telekom is considering subletting some of its new headquarters, one of several options under review as the Covid-19 pandemic upends long-term plans for Hungary’s largest office building. The firm, one of Hungary’s biggest companies, had spent just over a year working in the state-of-the-art office complex on the outskirts of Budapest. However, of 5,500 employees normally working in the building, only 150-200 are currently on site.

The biggest World War II bomb ever found in Poland exploded underwater on Tuesday as navy divers attempted to defuse it. Fortunately, there were no reports of injuries. The Polish navy said the bomb was found last year during preparatory work to deepen a waterway leading to the port of Szczecin in the northwestern part of the country. The 5.4-ton bomb was dropped in April 1945 by Britain’s Royal Air Force during an attack on the Nazi German battleship Luetzow.

Eastern Europe

Armenia accused Turkey on Thursday of blocking flights carrying emergency aid from using its airspace, and new fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave threatened to pitch the region into a humanitarian crisis. Azerbaijan and Armenia have each accused one another of violating a ceasefire brokered by Russia less than a week ago, designed to enable the sides to swap detainees and the bodies of those killed in the clashes, which began on September 27. The flare-up is the deadliest since the 1990s, when 30,000 people were killed in a war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but populated and governed by ethnic Armenians.

The European Union this week condemned Russia’s forced military conscription of residents in the illegally-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. “This is part of continued efforts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, with further attempts to forcibly integrate the illegally-annexed Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia, and is a violation of international humanitarian law. The Russian Federation is bound by international law, and obliged to ensure the protection of human rights in the peninsula,” said Peter Stano, the EU’s lead spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy.

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday it was withdrawing from talks with the Netherlands and Australia over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, accusing both countries of not wanting to establish what really happened. MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels during fighting in eastern Ukraine, international investigators say. All 298 people on board were killed. After years of collecting evidence, a Dutch-led international Joint Investigation team (JIT) last year said the missile launcher used to hit the civilian airplane came from a Russian army base just across the border.

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovkaya said on Tuesday she will announce a country-wide strike unless President Alexander Lukashenko announces his resignation, halts violence and releases political prisoners by October 25. “If our demands are not met by [October 25], the whole country will be out on the streets, peacefully,” Tikhanovkaya, who is in exile in Vilnius, said in a statement. “On October 26, all enterprises will begin a strike, all roads will be blocked, state-owned stores will no longer have any sales,” she added. Belarus police will now be permitted to use combat weapons in the streets if needed, the country’s interior ministry said this week, as security forces again clashed with protesters who want Lukashenko – who proclaimed himself the winner of a rigged presidential election in August – to quit.

Georgia’s external trade turnover amounted to 8.12 billion US dollars in January-September 2020, a decrease of 14.9 per cent compared to the same period of last year, preliminary data from the National Statistics Office of Georgia (Geostat) showed this week. The value of Georgia’s exports decreased 12.1 per cent to reach 2.40 billion US dollars, while imports decreased 15.9 per cent, amounting to 5.71 billion US dollars, resulting in a trade deficit of for the first nine months of the year of 3.31 billion US dollars.

North East Europe

NOËP

Warner Music Group is to strengthen its operations in the Baltics with the opening of an office in Tallinn, Estonia. The move marks the first time that Warner Music Baltics, which operates as part of Warner Music Finland, has had a physical base in the region. The label is also building a local roster of artists for the first time. Warner Music Baltics’ first local signing is NOËP, one of Estonia’s best known artists, whose next single On My Way (feat. Chinchilla) will be released October 23. The label has also signed a deal with the Lithuanian band The Roop, the country’s most streamed artists.

Estonia has the second freest internet in the world, according to the Freedom House 2020 Freedom on the Net Index, published this week. Estonia scored 94 out of a hundred in this year’s index, maintaining its score from 2019. Iceland, where there are almost no restrictions on internet content and users’ privacy is well protected, scored 95 out of a hundred.

All visitors to Latvia must complete an electronic questionnaire at the website covidpass.lv before travelling to the country. The questionnaire, which is available in Latvian, English and Russian, must be submitted 48 hours before crossing the border into Latvia. The move is part of Latvia’s attempt to keep Covid-19 under control. Fines of up to 2,000 euros will be imposed on those who eneter the country without filling out the questoinnaire.

South East Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week cancelled the planned visit to Serbia, according to the Danas daily newspaper. The Kremlin has yet to disclose why Putin withdrew from the visit, scheduled for October 20, “but the Russians certainly don’t like the recent Serbian rapprochement with the United Nations”, said one source. “Putin will not come to Serbia, even if it has been announced for months. His arrival was scheduled for October 20, when Belgrade’s Liberation Day is celebrated. He was to participate in the consecration ceremony of Saint Sava Temple. However, he will almost certainly not be here”, said the source, allegedly from the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, this week launched a new operation in Montenegro to tackle cross-border crime at the country’s sea borders, including the smuggling of drugs and weapons, smuggling of migrants, trafficking in human beings and terrorism. Frontex will provide aerial support to help Montenegro patrol its sea borders, and deploy specialised officers from EU member states to the country. “Montenegro is an essential partner for the European Union and for Frontex in the region. This is why we decided to reinforce our presence in the country at the request of Montenegrin authorities and launch the second operation, this time at the country’s sea border,” said Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri.

North Macedonia’s central bank said on Wednesday it had decided to keep its policy rate unchanged at 1.5 per cent after cutting it three times since the beginning of 2020. The previous rate cuts, accompanied by a reduced offering of treasury bills, have contributed to an increase of the liquidity in the banking system and supported the flow of credit to the economy, the central bank said in a statement.

North Macedonia’s government meanwhile said this week that it approved legislative amendments that will pave the way for a partial or full privatisation of the country’s postal service operator. The potential privatisation of North Macedonia Post will help continue the process of liberalisation of postal services in the country, in line with EU regulations, the government noted. North Macedonia Post employs over 2,000 people.

Central Asia

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned on Thursday after 10 days of unrest following a disputed election, saying he wanted to prevent clashes between security forces and protesters who have demanded his removal from office. “I do not want to be known in the history of Kyrgyzstan as a bloody president who shot at his own citizens,” he said in a statement. Kyrgyzstan has been in turmoil since the October 4 parliamentary election, which the opposition rejected after Jeenbekov’s allies were declared the winners. Before resigning, Mr Jeenbekov accepted parliament’s choice of Sadyr Japarov, a nationalist whose supporters freed him from prison last week, to be prime minister. Japarov later on Thursday declared himself acting president.

Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has been reelected for a fifth term in office with nearly 91 per cent of the vote following a tightly controlled and largely ceremonial election. Turnout was over 85 per cent. Mr Rahmon was up against four little-known candidates, widely seen as government stooges who give the election at least the appearance of democratic competition. In power since 1992, Rahmon holds the dubious distinction of being the only post-Soviet autocrat in power longer than Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko.

In a first for the BBC in Uzbekistan, BBC News Uzbek TV programme, Dunyo (The World), has launched on Uzbekistan’s leading TV channel, Sevimli. Presented by BBC News Uzbek journalists Luiza Iskandariy and Ibrat Safo, Dunyo is a weekly 15-minute magazine programme which brings its audiences human-interest stories and features from around the world. “The launch of Dunyo is a milestone for our presence in Uzbekistan, allowing us to showcase the BBC’s global reporting to the viewers of a national TV channel. As the BBC News Uzbek digital reach is growing dynamically – especially on a visual platform such as YouTube – our presence on Sevimli will help bring BBC journalism to millions of homes in Uzbekistan.” said Khayrullo Fayz, BBC News Uzbek news editor.

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