News & Analysis

Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Czech car production rose 2.8 per cent year-on-year in October, the first monthly increase since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, although a second wave of infections poses new risks for the industry. Data from the Automotive Industry Association (AutoSAP) on Friday showed the country’s car factories produced 128,754 vehicles in October, up from 125,211 a year earlier and the first monthly increase since February.

The disciplinary chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court has revoked the immunity of a judge who has been an outspoken critic of the government’s judicial overhaul, amid a deepening clash between Warsaw and Brussels over the rule of law. The removal of Igor Tuleya’s immunity relates to his involvement in a contentious case three years ago and comes as Poland and Hungary threaten to veto the EU’s 1.8 trillion euros budget and pandemic recovery package. The countries’ objections centre on a mechanism that would link access to the funds to respect for rule of law principles, including judicial independence.

Slovenia’s PM meanwhile has said that the proposed EU mechanism linking funding for a member state to its adherence to the rule of law may hamper the bloc’s economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis. On Wednesday, Janez Janša said: “This is an attempt to establish a mechanism that is parallel to, and different from, the one provided for in the Treaty of Lisbon.” Slovenia did not veto the adoption of the 2021-27 EU budget and recovery fund on Monday, but suggested that extra time is needed to discuss the mechanism on the basis of the July agreement and avoid financing blockages.

Slovakia reopened theatres, cinemas and churches – at half capacity – on Monday and let fitness centres and pools operate with limited visitors as it starts easing coronavirus curbs. Slovakia’s ice hockey and soccer leagues are also set to restart, although without fans. The country is one of the first in Europe to ease the restrictions imposed to stop the spread of a second wave of coronavirus infections. The Slovak government has sought to control the pandemic using mass testing, which officials have called a success. Prime Minister Igor Matovič said widespread testing – using antigen tests that are faster but less accurate than standard PCR tests – had helped cut the proportion of infections by more than half.

Ten Covid-19 patients died in a fire at a Romanian hospital last weekend, sparking wider safety concerns in a country marked by crumbling infrastructure and a culture of makeshift repairs. Liviu Ungureanu, the head of the intensive care unit where the tragedy unfolded on Saturday, said it had been caused by a syringe pump that caught fire. The flames rapidly spread through the unit, where eight patients were on ventilators. For many Romanians the disaster has brought back memories of a fire five years ago in Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub, in which 64 people died.

Romania’s government this week approved 1.33 billion euros of aid to state-owned electricity producer Complexul Energetic Oltenia (CE Oltenia), to back the company’s 3.5 billion euros restructuring plan, the energy ministry said on Thursday. According to the ministry, the plan – which requires European Commission approval – envisages the construction of eight photovoltaic parks with a total installed capacity of about 700 MW, the rehabilitation and modernisation of a micro power plant with an installed capacity of 10 MW and the development of about 1300 MW of new natural gas capacities.

Eastern Europe

Officials in Belarus have been accused of meting out collective punishment after thousands of homes in a pro-opposition district were this week left without running water and central heating as temperatures plunged below freezing. The Novaya Borovaya area of Minsk has become a symbol of the protests that erupted in August after Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have secured a sixth successive term at elections that were almost certainly rigged. With a population of 10,000, the district is a stronghold of support for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled opposition leader who is widely believed to have won the election. Opposition flags hang from the windows of flats and residents have played an active role in the protests.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said it would be “suicidal” for the Armenian government to back out of a Russian-brokered ceasefire in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, as opposition forces in Yerevan protest against the truce and call for the resignation of the prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan. In a Russian state television interview about the deal aired on Tuesday evening, Putin was asked about a new government potentially coming to power reneging on the deal. “That would be a huge mistake,” he said. The deal, which gave Azerbaijan significant territorial concessions, is seen by many in Armenia as a capitulation and has sparked protests against Pashinyan’s government.

Representatives of the Georgian security and foreign policy community have requested the permanent presence of US forces in the country. In an open letter addressed to the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Georgia on Tuesday, 45 security experts and former officials claim that US military presence in Georgia would enjoy “overwhelming popular support, deter imminent threats and help Georgia move closer to NATO membership”. During a meeting with Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, Mr Pompeo reaffirmed “unwavering” US support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian occupation, but made no mention of troops, nor the letter.

A new synagogue is planned to open in Babyn Yar, the park in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv commemorating a ravine where the Nazis and their collaborators murdered more than 30,000 Jews during World War II. The new synagogue will open in 2021, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the killings. “It is our duty to care for people who visit Babyn Yar and need to honor their memory and pray for the death of their loved ones and all those who died in the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust,” said Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Ukraine.

North East Europe

Lithuania’s prime minister-designate, Ingrida Šimonytė, announced her cabinet lineup this week, selecting women for half of the ministerial posts. Šimonytė led the country’s main centre-right opposition party, the Homeland Union—Lithuanian Christian Democrats, to victory in general elections late last month, taking 50 of the 141 seats in the Seimas, the country’s parliament. She will form a coalition government with two other right-leaning parties, the Liberal Movement and the Freedom Party, both of which are also led by women.

Lockdown in Estonia is “inevitable”, at least to an extent, in the light of soaring Covid-19 infections, the chief doctor at a Tallinn hospital said this week. Dr Peep Talving, of the North Estonia Regional Hospital, told Estonian TV on Tuesday that “we have to think very hard about measures. There is no best option. There will need to be some lockdown of the country at some point, and I am aware that people will suffer and activities will be curtailed, but I think we have no other choice.”

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said this week that it had examined a detailed report into whether the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championships – due to be co-hosted by Latvia and Belarus – could go ahead, but needed more time before it could take a final decision. Latvia has objected to Belarus, whose government has for almost four months been brutally clamping down on pro-democracy protests, co-hosting the tournament, scheduled to begin in May.

South East Europe

Patriarch Irinej, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox church, died on Friday as a consequence of complications caused by Covid-19. Irinej tested positive for the novel coronavirus and was admitted to hospital in Belgrade on November 4. He was last seen in public on November 1 when he presided over the funeral service of Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, the church’s senior bishop in Montenegro, who also died of Covid-related complications.

Mike Michel, CEO of Telenor Serbia and president of the country’s Foreign Investors Council, said on Thursday that foreign investment in Serbia had fallen by 30 per cent in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. “The next year will see less foreign investment,” he added. “It is therefore important to focus on developing business through reforms to attract more foreign investors. We expect the next year to be difficult,” Michel told state TV station RTS. His comments came after Serbia’s Finance Minister Sinisa Mali said on Tuesday that in the first nine months of 2020, the inflow of foreign direct investment was 1.9 billion euros.

Bulgaria on Tuesday refused to approve the European Union’s membership negotiation framework for North Macedonia, effectively blocking the official start of accession talks with its neighbour. Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, said that her country was willing to open negotiations with Albania, but not with North Macedonia due to disputes over history and language. She added, however, that Bulgaria remained open to new talks. Bulgaria objects in particular to the EU referencing the Macedonian language, which Sofia is demanding be recognised as a variant of Bulgarian.

The Albanian government this week announced further Covid-19 restrictions in an attempt to beat the spread of the virus. Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu said on Wednesday that gatherings of more than 10 people are no longer allowed. This is in addition to the curfew that is currently in place, restricting movement between the hours of 10pm and 6am. Cases of the virus continue to rise with 694 infections confirmed on Thursday. The real number of infections is believed to be much higher, however, as Albania’s rate of testing is the lowest in Europe, and many who report symptoms are not being tested.

Bosnian police this week detained a Serb ex-policeman, accused of taking part in the killing of 51 civilians in the 1990s Balkans war. The suspect is accused of involvement in the killing of 44 Bosniak and Croat civilians, who were held prisoner at the Omarska camp in northwestern Bosnia. The 50-year-old man also faces charges for the murder of seven Bosniak civilians, who were intercepted and killed on their way to the western town of Bihac. The suspect was identified and arrested on Tuesday morning in Donji Dubovik, according to a statement from the prosecutor’s office.

Kosovo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Meliza Haradinaj–Stublla meanwhile has said that Serbia is deliberately concealing the truth of the genocide committed in Kosovo during the 1990s. In a statement, the minister expressed “her deepest indignation” towards the authorities in Serbia, “who continue to conceal the monstrous crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo in 1998-99 by not revealing the locations of the mortal remains of innocent civilians killed by Serbian paramilitary forces, deliberately hidden in mass graves throughout Serbia.”

Central Asia

In its latest bid to promote the cause of its state language, Uzbekistan is planning to require anybody aspiring to high-ranking state positions to produce a certificate of proficiency. Under the terms of draft legislation that is open for public review until November 28, the requirement would come into force from 2023. The bill, drafted by the State Testing Centre, the government’s exams-setting body, envisions creating tests designed to assess people’s familiarity with Uzbek literature, as well as a command of the Uzbek language.

People in a number of regions of Tajikistan have reported that they are only receiving electricity for a handful of hours each day. Residents of the Aini region, in the north of the country, say the power is turned off from 8am to 6pm and that at times, they go without electricity for days on end. Power utility Barki Tojik has denied it is implementing a rationing regime, saying only that power is disconnected intermittently because of ongoing repairs at the Soviet-built Nurek hydroelectric station, which provides much of the country’s electricity needs.

Kazakhstan’s economy contracted by about 2.8 per cent in the first nine months of 2020, due to declining activity in service sectors and oil production cuts under the OPEC+ agreement, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, the IMF also said that the agriculture, manufacturing, and construction sectors had maintained positive growth, helped by government support programmes. The IMF projects that GDP will contract overall by 2.7 per cent in 2020 and that growth will return to positive territory next year, although significant risks remain regarding the evolution of the pandemic, oil price volatility, and trade tensions involving major trading partners.

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