News & Analysis

Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Hungary and Poland lifted their veto of the European Union’s next multi-year budget and Covid-19 recovery package after reaching an agreement with the European Commission and other member states. Both countries had hitherto refused to accept a new mechanism linking funding to the rule of law.

Romania’s prime minister Ludovic Orban (pictured) resigned with immediate effect on Monday following a poorer than expected showing for the ruling Liberals in a parliamentary election on December 6. The election was won by the Social Democrats, who took 30 per cent of the vote, but it is the Liberals who are expected to form the next government, in coalition with the Save Romania Union and the Democratic Union of Hungarians. Nicolae Ciuca, a former general in the Romanian army, has taken over as head of government on a temporary basis until a new executive is formed.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has declared a three-way merger to create Hungary’s second-largest bank a transaction of national strategic interest, exempting the deal from competition scrutiny, a government decree taking effect on Thursday showed. State-owned Budapest Bank, MKB Bank and savings group Takarekbank (MTB) announced a tie-up in May to create Magyar Bankholding in a shake-up of the Hungarian banking system that has seen local players gain influence under Orbán. The government decree says the measure is needed to boost the competitiveness of the Hungarian banking sector.

Poland’s prosecutor general, Zbigniew Ziobro, who also serves as justice minister, this week moved to have the Polish Communist party (KPP) outlawed, saying that it advocates totalitarian methods in violation of the constitution. According to the Polish public prosecutor’s office, the KPP, which was founded in 2002, “has identical goals to other communist parties in the 20th century”. These aims include introduction of a system “modelled on Soviet Russia” with “totalitarian methods and practices”. The prosecutor’s office claims that the KPP openly “expresses admiration for the political system of the Soviet Union” and “questions the democratic order in Poland”. Its “members explicitly call for a revolution similar to the October Revolution in Russia, after which the Bolsheviks took power”.

Czechia’s top web search platform said on Thursday it has claimed 9.072 billion crowns (345 million euros) in damages from tech giant Google, saying it has restricted competition. Seznam said Google abused its dominant position on the Czech market with licensed operating systems and application stores for smart devices equipped with Android operating system. “Based on the European Commission’s decision back in 2018 which confirmed that Google was in breach with EU antitrust rules, we claim the compensation of damage that we have suffered while trying to distribute our applications and services via mobile devices with Android operation system,” said Seznam deputy chairman Pavel Zima.

Slovenia this week became the latest European country to label Hezbollah an international criminal and terrorist organisation. The government ruled that the activities of the Iran-backed group are intertwined with organised crime and terrorism at a global level, Slovenian news agency STA reported. The ruling follows similar moves by Germany in 2020 and the UK last year, amid a growing consensus that current policies to tackle illicit fund-raising and attack planning by the Lebanon-based group in Europe are not enough. The European Union put the armed wing of Hezbollah on a blacklist in 2013 in response to a deadly bus bombing in Bulgaria the previous year and the group’s involvement in the Syrian war.

Bulgarian boxer Kubrat Pulev was in bullish mood at a press conference on Wednesday ahead of a world title fight against Britain’s Anthony Joshua in London on December 12. “Right now I feel very dangerous,” the Bulgarian challenger said. Joshua is expected to retain his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles but Pulev grinned and emitted a low growl when asked to predict the outcome. “It means we are going to win,” he said of the growl. “It will not be an easy fight but we will win it. He is a very good fighter, that I respect, but I will show I am the better boxer. Two good fighters means it is a dangerous fight, and I like that.”

The restored flagship of former Yugoslav leader Josip Tito is being converted into a hotel and a museum devoted to its turbulent history, from banana boat to meeting place for world statesmen. Berthed in Croatia’s Adriatic port of Rijeka, the Galeb (Seagull) will open to the public in its new role next year. The ship was built in 1938 in Italy to transport bananas from Africa. During World War Two, it was used first by the Italian navy and then by the Germans and it was sunk by Allied planes at the end of the war. In socialist Yugoslavia, it was retrieved and converted into a yacht used by Tito for his many journeys across the globe.

Eastern Europe

A court in Minsk this week sentenced a dual Belarusian-Swiss citizen detained during a women’s march in September to two and a half years in prison. Natalia Hershe pulled off a balaclava from a riot police officer and scratched his face while resisting arrest, the authorities said. Hershe, who has lived in Switzerland for 12 years and decided to come to Minsk to support the protest movement, was ordered to pay 1,000 Belarusian rubles (323 euros) to the police officer. Swiss Ambassador to Belarus Claude Altermatt, who attended the trial, said Hershe would continue to receive consular support. “We regret this decision. It doesn’t matter to us that Natalia is a citizen of Belarus, we treat her as our citizen,” said Altermatt.

Thousands of protesters converged on the parliament building in Armenia’s capital Yerevan on Wednesday to push for the resignation of the country’s prime minister over his handling of the fighting with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. PM Nikol Pashinyan’s opponents are angry at a peace deal that ended six weeks of fighting over the separatist region but saw Azerbaijan take over wide areas that have been controlled by Armenian forces for more than a quarter-century. Armenia’s opposition parties gave Pashinyan an ultimatum to resign by Tuesday, but he has so far ignored the demand, defending the peace deal as a bitter but necessary move that prevented Azerbaijan from overrunning the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Azerbaijan meanwhile held a military parade to mark the country’s declared victory over Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a key ally in the conflict, presided over the parade devoted to what is officially described in Azerbaijan as the Victory in the Patriotic War, held at Baku’s central Azadliq (Liberty) Square, on December 10.

The European Union and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have launched a three-year joint project to support the protection of children’s rights in Georgia. The project aims to support the government in the implementation of its newly adopted Code on the Rights of the Child. “The EU has been supporting children’s rights in Georgia for many years, including our recent work with UNICEF contributing to the development of Georgia’s Child Rights Code. We are happy to announce our continued cooperation with UNICEF to further support the Georgian institutions to provide better services and care to children and families in vulnerable situations,” said Sigrid Brettel, head of cooperation at the EU Delegation to Georgia.

Five of the 10 soccer teams in the Moldovan league have been involved in match-fixing linked to organized crime this season and four arrests have been made, the Europol police agency said Tuesday. A crime syndicate suspected of earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from bets on about 20 games has been dismantled in the operation, Europol said in a statement. “Club executives, coaches, managers, football players and other intermediates are believed to be part of the network,” Europol said. Four arrests were made Monday and the offices of a club were searched by anti-corruption investigators in Moldova. The people arrested and the club were not identified by Europol.

North East Europe

Latvian airline AirBaltic this week cancelled all flights from Riga to Vilnius and Palanga. Latvia has now halted all commercial passenger connections with Lithuania, including flights and buses. Commercial connections from Latvia are only allowed to European countries where the cumulative Covid-19 incidence rate does not exceed twice the EU average, according to the country’s public broadcaster LSM. Earlier this week, Lithuania reported the third-highest two-week coronavirus infection count per 100,000 people, behind Croatia and Luxembourg, according to figures by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya this week called on European countries to follow Lithuania in investigating crimes committed by the Belarusian regime. “We welcome the decision of the Lithuanian prosecutor to start this criminal investigation,” said Tikhanovskaya, currently in exile in Vilnius. “We encourage all other countries to follow this initiative of the Lithuanian prosecutor and start investigating crimes against humanity of the regime,” she added. “Not a single case should be forgotten and every case should be investigated.”

A museum of forbidden literature has opened in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia; its aim is to present banned, burned or censored books to the general public from different parts of the world. “In the museum, books from different parts of the world will be exhibited to tell their stories and discuss issues related to the free expression of ideas,” the museum said in a statement. “In addition, the aim is to conduct initial research on the history of censorship in Estonia, focussing on the period of Soviet occupation. In the museum, visitors can read books, touch them, read them and buy most of them.”

South East Europe

Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, said this week that he expects to come under “increasing pressure” to recognise the independence of Kosovo. Vučić was responding to a new US ‘Plan for Kosovo’, currently under discussion in the US House of Representatives. “I think it is now clear how right I was when I said that the views of the Biden administration are not in Serbia’s favour,” said Vučić. Also this week, the European Parliament renewed calls for the five EU members which do not currently recognise Kosovo – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Spain, and Slovakia – to reverse their stance.

Police fired teargas at hundreds of protesters in the Albanian capital Tirana on Wednesday. The protesters were demonstrating against the alleged fatal police shooting of a 25-year-old man who had violated a coronavirus curfew. Chanting “We want justice!”, protesters set fire to a Christmas tree outside the interior ministry and tried to force their way into the ministry and the government complex. Klodian Rasha was killed early on Tuesday in what Albanian police described as an excessive use of force by an officer during an overnight curfew introduced to control the spread of Covid-19 cases.

North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, on Wednesday blasted Bulgaria’s vetoing of the start of his country’s membership talks with the European Union, saying the move shows “neither friendship nor brotherhood.” The EU itself this week warned Bulgaria that it risked undermining security in the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe if it continues blocking North Macedonia’s membership negotiations with the bloc. Bulgaria is insisting North Macedonia formally recognise that its language has Bulgarian roots and stamp out what it says is “anti-Bulgarian” rhetoric in the country before it will lift its objections to the country joining the European Union.

Construction has begun on a 66 MW wind farm in Bosnia and Herzegovina – a project worth an estimated 130 million marks (66.5 million euros), the energy ministry of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity said this week. This project will be the first wind farm in the Republika Srpska and one of the largest in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to the entity’s energy ministry. The wind farm will be built near the town of Nevesinje, and it is hoped that it will be connected to the national electricity grid by the end of 2022.

Central Asia

UK manufacturer of equipment for construction, agriculture, waste handling, and demolition JCB this week signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkmenistan for the supply of constructing machinery. The deal will potentially help the Turkmen government to effectively manage water use through the Karakum canal, one of the largest human-made canals in the world, and improve irrigation throughout the country. JCB has been active in Turkmenistan since 2009, playing key role in the development of the country’s construction industry.

Civil society groups are describing a wave of coordinated pressure from the government as Kazakhstan prepares for a parliamentary election next month. Between mid-October and late November at least 13 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) received notifications from the tax authorities alleging that they had violated reporting requirements on foreign funding. In some cases, the alleged violations date back two years. “Over the last few weeks a number of independent non-commercial civil society and human rights organizations were ‘attacked’ by the tax services, behind which, in our opinion, stand national security bodies,” said a joint statement issued by seven NGOs.

The United States has sanctioned a politically influential former Kyrgyz customs official who is alleged to have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers. The US Treasury Department announced on December 9 that it had added Rayimbek Matraimov to its specially designated nationals list under the authority of the Global Magnitsky Act, freezing any assets he has in the United States and complicating relations with Bishkek while he remains free. Claims that Matraimov, mockingly nicknamed “Rayim Million” for his reputed wealth, has been involved in sweeping levels of corruption have been levelled to date by several independent journalists and anti-graft activists.

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