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Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Poland’s top court on Thursday ruled that abortions in cases of foetal defects are unconstitutional. Poland’s abortion laws were already among the strictest in Europe but the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling will mean an almost total ban. Once the decision comes into effect, terminations will only be allowed in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother’s health is at risk. Rights groups had urged the government not to increase restrictions. The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatović said the ruling marked a “sad day for women’s rights”.

The Slovak parliament meanwhile on Tuesday narrowly rejected a motion by conservative lawmakers to tighten abortion rules, a proposal that was harshly criticised by women’s rights groups. The proposed amendment, defeated by a 59-58 margin, would have still allowed abortion on demand until 12 weeks into a pregnancy but would have doubled waiting periods to 96 hours, banned clinics from advertising services and made women declare their reasons for termination.

Bulgaria’s government said on Wednesday it would challenge in court parts of a major EU-wide reform agreed earlier this year aimed at improving road hauliers’ work conditions. The issue of road hauliers’ work conditions has pitted eastern countries — also including Poland, Latvia and Lithuania — against western states like France and Germany, who have backed the reform as a way to clamp down on so-called “social dumping” in the sector. The Bulgarian government said that it would challenge in particular rules that oblige long-haul drivers to return home with their vehicles at certain intervals as well as the ban on drivers taking their weekly rest periods in their trucks.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government has asked local health experts to look into the efficiency of Covid-19 vaccines developed by Russia and China for possible later purchases, Mr Orbán’s chief of staff said on Thursday. Gergely Gulyas told a press briefing that Hungary was ready to buy from the vaccines if they provide efficient protection against coronavirus. He said Hungary had also committed to buy 6.5 million vaccines from AstraZeneca at a cost of 13 billion forints (36.63 million euros) under a wider European Union agreement.

Croatia’s economy ministry has awarded three local companies exploration licenses for geothermal water deposits for electricity production, the country’s Hydrocarbon Agency (CHA) confirmed this week. The permits were granted for exploration works at four blocks located in the area of Slavonija, Podravina and Medjumurje in the Drava river valley, in the country’s northeast, CHA said in a statement. The three companies are Geo Power Energy Development, Ensolx and Buko Termal.

The turnover of the game development industry in Romania, which includes over 100 local studios, exceeded 200 million US dollars for the first time in 2019, according to an annual study carried out by RGDA (the Romanian Game Developers’ Association). The industry’s turnover rose by 14.7 per cent compared to 2018. The industry now employs more than 6,000 people, with well-known games created in Romania including Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint and EA’s FIFA 2020.

Eastern Europe

Belarus’s democratic opposition has been awarded the European Parliament’s 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. “It is an honor to announce that the women and men of the democratic opposition in Belarus are the 2020 Sakharov Prize laureates,” European Parliament President David Sassoli told European lawmakers. “I would like to congratulate the representatives of the Belarusian opposition for their courage, resilience, and determination that they have been showing every day in defense of the freedom of thought and expression. This is what the Sakharov Prize is awarded for,” Sassoli said. The award will go to several opposition figures, including presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, her campaign manager Maria Kalesnikova, as well as Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich and Tsikhanovskaya’s imprisoned husband Serghei Tikhanovsky.

Optimism that upcoming talks in Washington will quell fighting between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh appeared to dim this week as the two sides engaged in new battles and leaders in Baku and Yerevan hardened their positions. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said in an interview published on October 22 that the prospects for reaching a peace settlement were “very remote.” The day before, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that he could see no diplomatic solution to the long-running conflict at this stage.

Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz has welcomed new US sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which now targets services and funding to pipe-laying vessels. The US Department of State on Tuesday published expanded guidelines on sanctions under the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act (PEESA). The guidance now covers “foreign firms or persons who provide certain services or goods that are necessary or essential to the provision or operation of a vessel engaged in the process of pipe-laying for such projects.” The Ukrainian firm added it will continue working closely with partners in Washington, Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere “to ensure that Nord Stream 2 is never completed.”

Moldova’s government this week announced the creation of national working group to coordinate the implementation of cross-border and transnational cooperation programmes financed by the European Union. The group will be made up of representatives of key ministries, as well as of representatives of the country’s National Anticorruption Centre. The working group will contribute to ensuring that European Union funds are used effectively, as well as combatting fraud.

The European Parliament this week confirmed that it will not send an election observation mission to Georgia for the country’s parliamentary elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The European Parliament has paused several external activities due to the pandemic, including observation missions. Georgia had requested the presence of EaP observers in September, promising their safety would be ensured. The election is set to be held on October 31.

North East Europe

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has presented his vision for US relations with the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, putting emphasis on “sending a strong signal to Russia” to not “bully a NATO member”. Michael Carpenter, a senior director of the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania, shared a series of documents on his Twitter account, outlining the Biden campaign’s bids to a number of European countries, including Poland, Ukraine, and Greece. The document for the Baltic states points out that as vice president of the Barack Obama administration, Biden was the point-person on Baltic security.

The Riga Ghetto Museum, one of the Latvian capital’s three Holocaust museums, is facing possible closure after the city’s government decided to begin charging it around 10,000 euros in rent per month. The museum’s previous 10-year lease, which expired this year, did not charge any rent. The city has also reclaimed part of the land that the museum had been originally given, according to the head of the institution that runs the museum. “We cannot accept that in our country money is worth more than the memory of our ancestors,” Shamir Association head Rabbi Menachem Barkahan said in a statement on Wednesday. The Ghetto Museum, which opened in 2010, features a memorial wall that carries the names of over 70,000 Latvian Jews who fell victims to the Holocaust, and the names of a further 25,000 Jews from other European countries who were brought to Riga to be murdered.

Lithuania this week announced that it has granted more than 500 visas to Belarusian citizens fleeing the regime of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. “The figure is constantly changing and we are issuing permits to come to Lithuania every day,” Interior Minister Rita Tamašunienė said in a statement. “As protests show no signs of calming down, more and more people are deciding to leave Belarus.” The Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has herself been in exile in Lithuania since the beginning of the crisis, in August, following a rigged presidential election that Mr Lukashenko claims to have won.

South East Europe

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić this week announced that early parliamentary elections will be held in April 2022, even though a new government has still has not been formed following the previous elections in June. After a session of his ruling Serbian Progressive Party presidency, Vučić said the yet-to-be-formed new government will be of limited duration, adding that new elections will be held on April 3, 2022 at the latest, jointly with regular presidential elections. Local elections in the capital Belgrade will also be held that year, presumably at the same time as the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) and Erste Bank Novi Sad (EBS) have agreed a 30 million euros loan to enable the strong recovery of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and mid-caps in Serbia in response to the Covid-19-induced contraction. The loan will allow EBS to on-lend to companies severely affected by the pandemic, helping them retain jobs, preserve liquidity and ensure business continuity. This is the first operation in Serbia as part of the EIB’s 400 million euros financial programme earmarked for the private sector in the Western Balkans to ensure a fast response to and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, as announced at the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Zagreb in April 2020.

Albania and Greece say they have agreed to refer a dispute over maritime borders in the Ionian Sea to the International Court of Justice. The joint decision was announced by the two countries during a visit to Tirana by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. “We have agreed to pass on this case to international justice,” Dendias said after a meeting with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. Mr Rama added that taking the case to The Hague would “(join) the dots based on the (court’s) expertise and international maritime law”. Greece has recently increased efforts to delimitate its sea borders, amid high tensions with Turkey over offshore energy exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Bosnian prosecutors have charged the country´s secret service chief with abuse of power for allegedly using agency resources to spy on a man who filed a criminal complaint against him. The prosecutors’ office said in a statement on Thursday that Intelligence Security Agency head Osman Mehmedagic, together with the agency’s Cyber Security director Muhamed Pekic, allegedly sought to obtain information and photographs concerning the man. The two officials were also charged with violating the right to privacy of postal communication, the statement added. It provided no details on the man allegedly placed under surveillance, or on the nature of his complaint against Mehmedagic.

German Ambassador to Kosovo Jorn Rohde has criticised the Prishtina for disbanding its anti-corruption task force. “Sadly, the government’s decision to disband the anti-corruption task force raises concerns about the political will to tackle corruption issues effectively,” Mr Rohde wrote on Twitter. Disbanding the task force has also been criticised by Kosovo’s civil society, the EU and EULEX. Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti has said that the task force, which investigates high-level corruption, was disbanded because it was unconstitutional.

Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted on Thursday to delay an election to await a constitutional reform promoted by acting president Sadyr Japarov, a move that boosts his chances of staying on as full-time leader. The was rocked by protests this month against the results of a parliamentary election, which awarded most seats to two establishment parties. Protesters seized government buildings and forced the cabinet and president Sooronbai Jeenbekov to resign and the vote to annulled. They also released Mr Japarov from prison, allowing him first to be elected prime minister then to take over as acting president.

Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoev this week issued a decree to hasten the full transition of the Uzbek language from the Cyrillic to Latin alphabet. The decree outlines language policy for the 2020-30 period as the country continues an on-again, off-again attempt to reform the Uzbek language and widen its use. One pillar of the decree calls on the government to create a road map for a full transition to the Uzbek alphabet based on the Latin alphabet. Uzbek was written in an Arabic script until the late 1920s, then Latin, before the Soviet Union introduced Cyrillic in 1940.

Around 900,000 chickens, geese and ducks have died in Kazakhstan as the result of an outbreak of avian flu that has swept across the country this autumn. The die-off has reportedly caused a shortfall of poultry and eggs from markets in the capital, although there is no evidence of shortages anywhere else. The infections look to have arrived from Russia. On August 3, the Russian agricultural regulator, known as Rosselkhoznadzor, announced it had detected an outbreak of avian flu in the Chelyabinsk region, which borders Kazakhstan. The virus subtype H5N8 was found in the carcasses of a wild duck and four domestic ducks and geese, the regulator said.

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