News & Analysis

Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

Budvar, the Czech brewer that has been in a long legal dispute with US giant Anheuser-Busch over use of the Budweiser brand, increased output to record levels last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic saw people drink less in bars and more at home. Budejovicky Budvar, a 125-year-old state-owned brewery, said on Thursday that its output rose three per cent to 1.73 million hectoliters in 2020. The brewer’s exports were up almost 3.5 per cent last year, according to director Petr Dvorak.

Human rights groups have condemned new laws in Poland which effectively outlaws all access to abortion, even in the case of severe and irreversible foetal defects or incurable illnesses that threaten the foetus’ life. Approval of the law by the country’s constitutional court in October last year led to weeks of protests, which were the largest that Poland had seen in decades. Spooked by the scale of the demonstrations, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) delayed implementation until late on January 27. Soon after the law came into effect, new demonstrations broke out across the country. In the capital Warsaw, thousands of people gathered outside the constitutional court building, responding to calls for new protests by women’s groups who masterminded the weeks of demonstrations last year.

The European Union’s executive body meanwhile warned the Polish government on Wednesday that it has a month to address long-standing concerns about laws that Brussels fears undermine the independence of Supreme Court judges or Poland faces possible legal action. The European Commission considers Poland in violation of EU law for allowing the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court to make decisions which have a direct impact on judges and the way they do their jobs. It says the chamber’s independence and impartiality are not guaranteed. The Commission warned that it “may refer the case” to the European Court of Justice, Europe’s top court, unless Poland takes action to fix the problem and replies to Brussels´ concerns in time.

Frontex, the European Union agency responsible for monitoring the bloc’s external borders, announced on Wednesday that it was suspending operations in Hungary, which has ignored a court order to bring its asylum practices in line with European Union law. In December 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union determined that the Hungarian practice of denying asylum seekers protection and removing them to Serbia violated EU law. But Hungary has refused to end its policy, known as pushback, and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group based in Budapest, estimates that nearly 4,500 people have since been expelled from the country.

The former Aston Villa and Celtic manager Jozef Vengloš died this week at the age of 84. A Slovak, Vengloš made history as the first manager from outside the UK and Republic of Ireland to take charge of a club in the English First Division when he was appointed Aston Villa boss in 1990. He spent just one season in charge and went on to manage Celtic during the 1998-99 campaign. His best years however came with the Czechoslovak national team: he was the assistant coach when Czechoslovakia won the European Championship in 1976, and later coached them to the third place at the 1980 European Championship and reached the quarter finals at the 1990 World Cup.

Romanian doctors have had to issue a warning against taking an anti-parasite drug Ivermectin – meant for dogs – as a treatment for Covid-19 amidst widespread reports that have touted it as a cure. Some Romanians have rushed to buy it from veterinary pharmacies despite medics’ warnings. Veterinary pharmacies in the southern county of Teleorman say they ran out of Ivermectin stocks after the first reports that it could treat Covid-19 emerged. Alexandru Rafila, Romania’s World Health Organisation representative said: “The idea that people should be encouraged to consume this product is totally wrong.”

Eastern Europe

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has called on the European Union and the United States to be “braver and stronger” in their actions to help end the disputed rule of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who has run the country since 1994. Speaking at an online event with several EU foreign ministers on January 27, Tikhanovskaya called on the 27-nation bloc to speed up approval of its fourth package of sanctions on Lukashenko and his allies, and called for an international investigation into human rights abuses and to designate those responsible as terrorists. “The international response is still too modest,” Tikhanovskaya said.

Ukraine reopened schools, restaurants and gyms on Monday, ending a tough lockdown introduced on January 8 to prevent a new wave of coronavirus infections. The number of new cases of coronavirus infection in Ukraine has significantly decreased from as many as 9,000 cases a day at the beginning of January to 2,516 new cases on January 25, the fewest since early September. “Such statistics, which indicate the stabilisation of the situation, the improvement of the situation could be obtained only thanks to you, Ukrainians,” health minister Maksym Stepanov told a televised briefing. “We believe that this [lockdown] has significantly improved the situation now and in the future,” he added.

Moldova’s president Maia Sandu this week named former finance minister Natalia Gavriliță as prime-minister designate and tasked her with the formation of a new government. “She is a person I trust, an ethical and responsible professional,” Sandu said in press conference on Wednesday. Gavriliță served as finance minister in Sandu’s cabinet in 2019. However, Sandu, a former leader of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), has also said that the party will not back Gavriliță’s cabinet, in a move designed to trigger early elections. Earlier this month, Moldova’s constitutional court said that parliament cannot dissolve itself and ruled that Sandu must nominate a prime minister.

Azerbaijan this week began vaccinating citizens against Covid-19, using a batch of four million doses of China’s Sinovac jab. “Medical workers will be vaccinated first, and then over-65s from February 1,” said presidential aide Shahmar Movsumov. A further two million vaccine doses from various producers are expected to reach Azerbaijan via the World Health Organisation’s COVAX programme, the main global scheme to vaccinate people in poor and middle income countries around the world against the coronavirus. The Baku government also this week said it would extend most coronavirus lockdown restrictions until April but allow cafes and restaurants to open their doors to customers from February 1.

North East Europe

Kaja Kallas of the centre-right Reform party became Estonia’s first female prime minister on Monday after parliament approved her nomination following predecessor Juri Ratas’ resignation over an inquiry into a property development. The investiture of her cabinet marks the end of the far-right EKRE party’s spell in the governing coalition. Kallas, who had ruled out taking over the government with EKRE still in it, said that dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic would be the government’s first task. “Our goal is to keep Estonia as open as possible so that people can go to work, children to school and economic activities to continue.” She also made a public pledge to bar any further investment in the fossil fuel industry.

Lithuania has pushed back the roll out of its e-residency system to next month, the country’s migration department said this week. Lithuania had been due to roll out the scheme, similar to Estonia’s,  in January, but the online platform for foreign nationals will not now be operational until February. The e-residency scheme, which will allow foreigners to open bank accounts, set up companies and declare taxes online, is facing delays due to technical issues. “State agencies must adapt their systems, and private businesses must prepare to service e-residents,” said Evelina Gudzinskaitė, head of the migration department.

South East Europe

Serbia plans to spend about 2.5 billion euros in loans and subsidies to businesses and payments to pensioners and other citizens to help them cope with the economic impact of the coronavirus, President Aleksandar Vučić said on Tuesday. The package envisions an array of measures including payments amounting to 50 per cent of the minimum wage to employees of micro and small enterprises and state guarantees for borrowing in commercial banks. “We want to tremendously…bolster the private sector,” Vučić told state-run RTS TV. The state also plans to distribute 30 euros to every adult Serbian citizen or about 5 million people in May and November, and an additional 50 euros to every pensioner, Vučić said.

Former Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti has been barred from running in the country’s parliamentary elections next month. Kosovo’s election authorities said that Kurti was ineligible as he had been convicted of a crime within the past three years. A number of other candidates from various parties have also been barred for the same reason. In 2018, Kurti and other MPs were convicted for using tear gas and other violent acts to disrupt Kosovo’s parliamentary proceedings. Kurti was prime minister from February to June last year but he left office in the summer after his governing coalition collapsed. A new government was formed under the leadership of former finance minister Avdullah Hoti. But the vote to confirm Mr Hoti’s coalition was later declared invalid because one of the MPs who had voted in favour of it had been convicted of fraud.

Albanian PM Edi Rama said this week that there is “no evidence whatsoever” to prove that those arrested as part of ‘Ndrangheta mafia group in Italy have ever benefited from public money or construction permits in Albania. Live on national TV, Rama read an excerpt from the published parts of the investigation, in which Italian prosecutors state that those arrested were not able to invest in Albania. “After more than one year of travels to Tirana and talking with each other about investments they would make in Albania, they completely failed,” he read. The outspoken Rama went on to attack journalists for misinforming the public. “There is a scary lack of patriotism in the way you see facts,” he told one journalist.

Montenegro’s new government aims to become a ‘corona-safe’ travel destination in time for the 2021 tourist season, according to the country’s new foreign minister, Đorđe Radulović. Montenegro shut its borders to tourists in March 2020 after its first case of Covid-19 was discovered, dealing a heavy blow to its economy. In May, Montenegro had zero registered cases but by November it was the second-worst hit country in Europe with more than 30,000. Speaking to Euronews, Radulović said that last year’s measures were too drastic, and decimated the tourist industry, which makes up 25 per cent of Montenegro’s GDP. “[They] shut the whole country. Nobody was able to get in or out. It demolished our economy.” Radulović said that with an active vaccination campaign in the coming weeks, Montenegro could be “corona-safe” before the start of the summer season.

Central Asia

Uzbekistan’s GDP grew by 1.6 per cent in 2020, the Uzbek State Committee on Statistics said on Wednesday. However, the nation’s GDP per capita in current prices amounted to 1,685 US dollars in 2020, a decrease of 0.3 per cent on the previous year. Last year, the country saw a 0.7 per cent increase in industrial growth, while the agriculture, forestry and fishery sectors registered three per cent growth and the construction sector grew by 9.2 per cent. Additionally, the trade and services industry posted 0.1 per cent growth, according to the committee.

Kazakhstan’s government has begun allowing some citizens to access their state-run pension funds early for buying property or making other capital investments. Under rules unveiled this week by the Industry and Infrastructure Development Ministry, money withdrawn from the fund will only be available for certain types of expenditures, however. These include the partial or whole payment of property and land purchases and funding household renovations. However, only people with an excess in their savings pot – around 6,000 US dollars for the over-30s and 10,600 US dollars for the over-50s – will benefit from the concession.

Turkmenistan’s autocratic leader has established a national holiday to honour the local dog breed, media reports said Tuesday. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov ordered the holiday praising the Alabai, the Central Asian shepherd dog, to be celebrated on the last Sunday of April when the ex-Soviet nation also marks the day of the local horse breed, according to the daily Neutral Turkmenistan. The country prides itself in horses and dogs, honouring its centuries-old herding traditions. Last year, Berdymukhamedov inaugurated a 15-metre-tall gilded statue honouring the dog in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.

A court in Germany has sentenced an asylum seeker from Tajikistan to seven years in prison for membership in the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and plotting attacks in Albania and Germany. Prosecutors accused Ravshan B., whose last name has not been disclosed in line with German privacy laws, of being the ringleader of a group of Tajik nationals suspected of forming a terror cell. The 31-year-old man made a partial confession and apologised to the court before the January 26 verdict was handed down, saying he was “terribly sorry for everything.” Together with a group of other men from Tajikistan, the 31-year-old went to Albania at the behest of a Russian to carry out a contract murder for 40,000 US dollars in order to fund the IS terror cell. After the operation in Albania fell apart they returned to Germany.

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