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Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

ElectroMobility Poland (EMP), the company responsible for the Izera electric cars, said this week that an electric car factory will be built in Jaworzno in Poland’s Silesia region. However, the firm also confirmed that production would not begin until 2024. ElectroMobility revealed two prototypes of the Izera vehicles – an SUV and a hatchback – in July, claiming that the first cars will leave the production plant in the third quarter of 2023.

The Czech senate this week called on the government to exclude Russian and Chinese firms from taking part in a tender to supply the Dukovany nuclear power plant, citing national security concerns first raised at committee level. In a resolution, the upper house of parliament said it considers “undesirable that companies which are hostile to NATO countries or whose representatives are on EU sanctions lists to be involved in the strategic construction of the nuclear bloc”. In June, a senate committee called specifically for the Russian company Rosatom and CGN of China to be excluded from a planned tender process for the Dukovany extension.

Support for Hungary’s opposition has surpassed that of the ruling Fidesz party in three opinion polls, casting doubt on the perceived invincibility of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as he gears up to run for a fifth term. The economic slump triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and a string of scandals are hurting Fidesz’s popularity, while mainstream opposition parties are gaining after uniting for the first time before the next election in 2022, according to surveys published this month by Zavecz Research, Publicus and Median. “Support for the government and the opposition is flipping,” said Tibor Zavecz, head of Zavecz Research. “Fidesz is gradually dropping and this is mostly due to the virus’s economic impact and the perception that the government isn’t handling the crisis as well it should.”

Human rights and LGBTQ groups have meanwhile publicly criticised the Hungarian government for passing a new law that bans same-sex couples from adopting. The new law amended the country’s legal definition of families to favor strict Christian conservative viewpoints. Under the amendment, which was passed in parliament Wednesday, the definition of a family was strictly confined to only male and female parents. Hungary’s conservative ruling coalition specifically defined that the mother of a family should be a woman and the father a man. The amendment effectively excludes transgender and other LGBT individuals from being legally acknowledged as parents in a family unit.

Romania’s parliament this week passed a law that will punish “verbal or physical” actions against the large Roma community with prison sentences up 10 years. The law is considered a landmark in the EU member state where anti-Roma prejudice is rife. The law now needs to be signed off by President Klaus Iohannis before becoming legislation. Once this happens, those found guilty of “initiating or constituting an organization of anti-Gypsy character” are liable to face prison sentences between three months and 10 years. Officially, there are more than 500,000 Roma in Romania, although the population is believed to be much higher, as many don’t declare they are Roma due to discrimination.

Bulgaria will keep secondary schools, shopping malls, cafes, gyms and restaurants closed until the end of January to contain coronavirus infections that have strained the country’s poorly funded healthcare system, its health minister Kostadin Angelov said on Thursday. The restrictions, which were due to end on December 21, have helped curb a surge in infections but the country of 7 million people still has one of the highest per capita Covid-19 death rates in the European Union. Bulgaria reported 1,959 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total to 186,246 with 6,196 deaths. More than 7,000 people are in hospital.

Slovakia meanwhile will close most shops and limit people’s movement from Saturday morning to help stem a rise in Covid-19 cases, Health Minister Marek Krajci said on Wednesday. Non-essential movement will be banned with exceptions for essential shopping, work and nature outings. “The situation is more serious than ever,” Krajci told reporters. “The holiday is very dangerous from the point of spreading the virus.”

Croatian computer vision company Microblink has raised 60 million US dollars from US firm Silversmith Capital Partners, the first outside investment the seven-year-old start-up has ever accepted. The new funding will accelerate product development, go-to-market plans and team expansion. The Zagreb-based company builds computer vision products that help businesses digitise documents, automate processes and eliminate manual data entry. Some key applications are digital identity through ID scanning, payments through credit card scanning and purchase data collection through receipt scanning.

Eastern Europe

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the European Union to step up its support for embattled democracy protesters in her country, as she picked up the EU’s top human rights prize Wednesday on behalf of a group of opposition leaders. “Without a free Belarus, Europe is not fully free either. We ask Europe and the whole world to stand with Belarus,” Tikhanovskaya told lawmakers in Brussels as she collected the Sakharov Prize, which was awarded by the European Parliament to the Belarus opposition in October.

Authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh this week claimed dozens of ethnic Armenian soldiers have been captured in a raid by Azerbaijani forces in the breakaway region following last month’s cease-fire that ended six weeks of fighting. “Unfortunately, several dozen of our servicemen have been captured near Khtsaberd,” the leader of the separatist mountainous region, Arayik Harutiunian, said on Wednesday. The Nagorno-Karabakh military said 73 of its soldiers had gone missing around the villages of Khtsaberd (Caylaqqala in Azeri) and Hin Tagher (Kohne Taglar).

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia would ramp up its support for Ukraine’s rebel-controlled eastern Donbass region where conflict broke out in 2014 between pro-Moscow rebels and government forces. Putin told his annual news conference that Russia would help the region upgrade its factories, infrastructure and help it meet the social needs of local people whom he said faced challenges.

The European Investment Bank (EIB), the lending arm of the European Union, will invest 25 million euros to expand a credit line for Georgian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and mid-caps available at the Bank of Georgia, helping to accelerate the recovery of the national economy from the Covid-19 pandemic. The credit line can be disbursed in multiple currencies, including in lari, Georgia’s national currency. The EIB loan will inject fresh capital into the national economy at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is burdening SMEs with liquidity issues and restricting their ability to access finance and maintain daily operations or fund expansion plans.

North East Europe

The European Commission on Wednesday gave the all clear to a proposed 10-year extension of Estonia’s renewable energy support scheme that is due to expire at end the of 2020. The modified support scheme, targeting renewables and co-generation capacity, has a budget of 450 billion euros. Post 2020, the programme will continue to offer premium payments to renewable energy generators on top of the electricity market price. The amount of the premium will be defined through competitive bidding, with its level being no higher than the difference between the average production cost for each renewable technology and the wholesale power price.

Latvia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, Ambassador Andrejs Pildegovičs, has been appointed to act as co-chair of the United Nations Science, Technology and Innovation Forum in 2021, to be held on May 4-5 in New York, the Latvian ministry of foreign affairs confirmed December 16. “The forum ensures the sharing of opinions on science, technology and innovations for the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The appointment of a representative of Latvia to act as a co-chair of the STI Forum can be attributed to Latvia’s commendable performance in contributing to the work of the UN Economic and Social Affairs Council (ECOSOC),” the ministry said in a statement.

A carefully coordinated cyberattack on Lithuania that occurred last week has been described by the republic’s defence minister as one of the “most complex” security incidents ever to target the Baltic state. On the night of December 9, cyber-criminals breached multiple content management systems to gain access to 22 different websites operated by Lithuania’s public sector. The attackers then published articles containing misinformation on the sites. In a statement published on Wednesday, Lithuania’s defence minister, Arvydas Anušauskas, described the digital assault as one of the “biggest and most complex” cyberattacks to hit the republic in recent years. “This shows huge gaps in cybersecurity of the public sector,” said Mr Anušauskas.

South East Europe

North Macedonia’s foreign minister on Tuesday called on Bulgaria to end its “blackmail” as it continues to block the start of EU accession talks. North Macedonia changed its name last year to end a long dispute with Greece – which had been blocking its EU ambitions – but now it faces fresh opposition from Bulgaria over interpretation of common history. “The European process should not entail the blackmail of any country of Europe or the Western Balkans,” Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said at an online press conference from Prague. “Our efforts at good relations with neighbours have not been rewarded,” Osmani added, saying that the spat with Bulgaria would have a negative impact on the entire Balkans region. Bulgaria blocked discussions among EU ministers on North Macedonia’s bid to start negotiations to join the bloc in November. The veto also prevented Albania from starting accession talks, as in terms of EU enlargement, the EU treats Skopje and Tirana as a package.

A top European human rights envoy on Wednesday said Albanian authorities should have shown restraint and avoided the use of excessive force in policing recent demonstrations over a man’s fatal shooting by police enforcing a coronavirus curfew. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, in a statement criticised the Albanian police’s “disproportionate use of force” over several days of protests in the capital Tirana and other cities. Albanians defied a coronavirus ban on public gatherings after Klodian Rasha was killed in Tirana on December 8. Police say he ignored calls to stop, and ran away. A policeman has been arrested and is being investigated for “homicide in excess of necessary self-defence.” Prime Minister Edi Rama apologized for the shooting, and his interior minister resigned.

British-Australian mining group Rio Tinto plans to invest a total of 450 million US dollars in the development of the Jadar lithium borate exploration and processing project in Serbia, the government in Belgrade said this week. Rio Tinto intends to create 2,100 jobs during the first phase of the development, which includes the construction of an underground mine and an ore processing facility, the Serbian government said in a press release. Jadar, discovered by Rio Tinto geologists in 2004 near the city of Loznica in western Serbia, will be capable of delivering approximately 55,000 tonnes of battery-grade lithium carbonate, as well as 160,000 tonnes of boric acid and 255,000 tonnes of sodium sulfate as by-products per annum.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the new Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić to NATO Headquarters on Tuesday, where he thanked Montenegro for its commitment to security and stability in the Western Balkans and its contributions to NATO missions and operations. The two leaders discussed NATO solidarity in combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, current security challenges, and how NATO 2030 will further strengthen the Alliance. “NATO remains committed to the Western Balkans: it is key for the stability of Europe,” said Mr Stoltenberg.

Central Asia

The government of Kazakhstan has ended a long-standing disagreement with the shareholders of a major oil and gas project with a settlement that is netting it 1.3 billion US dollars and that should assure larger returns in future. The energy ministry said on December 14 that that the revised production-sharing agreement coordinated with Karachaganak Petroleum Operating, or KPO, will see it earn an additional 600 million US dollars by 2037 at an assumed oil price of 40-50 US dollars per barrel.

Uzbekistan will cut natural gas exports because of domestic energy shortages, the country’s minster of energy, Alisher Sutlonov said this week. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered some export shipments to be diverted to domestic consumers late on Wednesday, and his office said the decision would add seven-eight million cubic metres a day to domestic supply. Many Uzbek households have reported gas and power shortages over the past few weeks. According to some sources, Uzbekistan plans to produce 51 billion cubic metres of natural gas this year and usually exports 13-15 billion cubic metres annually.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a 50 million US dollars policy-based grant to support the government of Tajikistan in accelerating private sector growth by creating a stable financial system, increasing access to financial services, and improving fiscal management. “Tajikistan has the potential to achieve economic growth that is more sustainable, broad-based, and inclusive,” said ADB Public Management Specialist for Central and West Asia Yuji Miyaki. “This programme, prepared in close coordination with key development partners, supports government-led reforms to increase private sector confidence in and strengthen the financial sector.”

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