News & Analysis

Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

The presidents of Poland, Hungary , Czechia and Slovakia on Wednesday discussed mass vaccination as a means to bring their economies out of the coronavirus pandemic and backed nuclear energy as a way to curb climate change amid rising demand for energy. The leaders were in northern Poland’s Hel Peninsula for a two-day summit marking the 30th anniversary of the Visegrad Group, an informal body of political and economic cooperation in the region. Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová said they debated “various strategies and approaches to the crisis” caused by the coronavirus, including the role vaccines will play in ending the pandemic but also the “weaknesses in the health and education system in our countries, which are also slowing down our economies.” On the issue of climate change, Hungarian President János Áder said all four nations want to develop nuclear energy. The “use of coal should be reduced or fully given up” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but reliable sources are needed to “meet the needs of the economy and the energy sector, and for that purpose we need nuclear energy,” he said.

Poland’s biggest power group PGE and Denmark’s Orsted clinched a final deal on Wednesday to jointly develop two offshore wind projects in the Baltic Sea, with a combined capacity of 2.5 gigawatts (GW), the firms said. PGE, which currently generates most of its electricity from coal, has been discussing the project with Orsted, the world’s biggest developer of offshore wind, since the end of 2019. Under the terms of the deal, Orsted will buy a 50 per cent stake in each of the units developing the projects for 657 million zlotys (146.5 million euros). PGE and Orsted will form a 50/50 joint venture to develop and build the facilities. The two projects could provide electricity to four million households, PGE said.

Czechia this week played down reports that it was set to follow Hungary in approving the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. Last weekend, Hungary became the first European Union member to approve the Sputnik vaccine for general use, and confirmed an order for two million doses. However, the Czech minister of health, Jan Blatný, said on Wednesday that the country would not use the Russian vaccine “as long as I am in office”, adding: “I am not in favour of using any vaccine that has not been approved by the European Medicines Agency.” Reports that Czechia was set to approve the Russian jab appeared after Prime Minister Andrej Babiš visited Budapest on February 5 to consult with the Hungarian authorities on their experiences with the Sputnik vaccine.

A Hungarian opposition radio station lost an appeal against the removal of its licence on Tuesday, cutting by one the already dwindling ranks of media outlets critical of the country’s nationalist government. The media authority said in September it would not renew Klubradio’s licence due to what it called a string of regulatory offences by the station during a seven-year licence term. Klubradio, broadcasting for 19 years and whose political and talk show guests often criticise government policies, will therefore be forced off the air on February 14 when the license expires. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s growing control over Hungary’s media is one of several issues behind strong criticism from the European Union over what it considers the erosion of democratic standards within the country, criticism that his government rejects.

Romanian exports plunged by 9.9 per cent in 2020 as the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the economy. Imports were also down but less so than exports, widening Romania’s trade deficit to 18.3 billion euros, about one billion euros more than in 2019. Exports amounted to 62.2 billion euros last year while imports totaled 80 billion euros, according to figures released on Tuesday by the National Statistics Institute. However, while the economy slumped for the first nine months of last year during the first wave of the pandemic, there was a 1.3 per cent year-on-year growth for exports in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Two Polish historians were ordered by a Warsaw court on Tuesday to apologise to the niece of a World War II-era Polish mayor whom they reported in their book was complicit in the killing of Jews. The ruling has been seen as a litmus test of whether independent Holocaust research is possible under Poland’s nationalist government. The researchers, Professor Barbara Engelking, chair of Poland’s International Auschwitz Council, and Professor Jan Grabowski from the University of Ottawa, co-edited a 1,600-page book called Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland. The work, published in Polish, documented cases of complicity of Catholic Poles during the Holocaust. The case against the authors was brought by the niece of Edward Malinowski, who was mayor of the village of Malinowo in northeast Poland during the war. The woman’s lawyers had demanded the authors pay 100,000 zlotys (22,000 euros). However, the court rejected this, and ruled the authors submit a written apology for “providing inaccurate information.” The authors have said they will appeal against the decision.

The Champions League round of 16 first leg match between Atletico Madrid and Chelsea will be played at the Arena Națională in Bucharest, Romania, ruling body UEFA confirmed on Wednesday. The venue change has been brought about by the strict entry restrictions in Spain for people coming from high-risk countries such as Britain: no exception is made for elite-level sports teams. The date of the match, February 23, remains the same. The Atletico-Chelsea tie is the third Champions League match involving an English team to be affected by coronavirus restrictions. The first legs of RB Leipzig against Liverpool, and Borussia Moenchengladbach against Manchester City will take place in Budapest, Hungary, instead of Germany.

Eastern Europe

Two Belarusians who sought refuge in the Swedish embassy in Minsk in September are still there five months later, Sweden’s foreign ministry has announced, in a case turning into a diplomatic headache. A father and son, Vitaly and Vladislav Kuznechiki, entered the Swedish embassy in the capital of Belarus on September 11 to seek asylum in the midst of widespread protests disputing the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko. “The two individuals are still on the premises of the embassy,” a spokesperson for the Swedish foreign ministry told the AFP this week. Mr Luksashenko meanwhile on Thursday presided over a so-called “people’s assembly” to unveil political reforms he is hoping will end the protests. He said that the demonstrations against him had been organised “abroad” by “very powerful forces”.

Azerbaijan has filed a lawsuit against Armenia with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), accusing Yerevan of human rights violations during its almost 30-year occupation of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts, and during the 44-day conflict over the disputed region in 2020. A member of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary committee on legislation policies, Kamal Cafarov, said on February 8 that Baku also accused Yerevan of not undertaking measures to find out the fates of some 3,800 Azerbaijani nationals who went missing during the initial war over the breakaway region in the 1990s. In addition, in its lawsuit Azerbaijan raised the issue of Armenia’s alleged use of ballistic missiles, white phosphorus munitions, and cluster munitions during shelling of Azerbaijani towns and villages located far from the conflict zone last year. According to Baku, such shelling resulted in the deaths of 93 civilians, including 12 children and 28 women, while 423 civilians were injured and 264 apartment blocks and 9,294 private houses were destroyed.

Armenia’s ruling party meanwhile has walked back on plans to hold snap elections, implausibly claiming that there is “no public demand” for an early vote. At the end of December, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he would be open to early elections some time in 2021. Now, though, he appears to have changed his mind. Following a February 7 meeting between Pashinyan and his ruling My Step alliance in parliament, the bloc released a statement on Facebook: “The prime minister’s proposal to hold snap parliamentary elections did not receive a positive response from the parliamentary opposition. There was no demand for early elections among the general public, either.”

NATO’s doors are open for Ukraine but the country still needs to implement reforms, the military alliance’s secretary-general said on Tuesday. “The more successful Ukraine is in implementing reforms, the closer Ukraine hopes to meet NATO standards, and the closer you can come to the NATO membership,” Jens Stoltenberg said at joint press conference following his meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. Stoltenberg stressed that “NATO’s door remains open,” adding that NATO leaders would discuss the military alliance’s enlargement policy during their meeting in Brussels. He also announced that NATO had increased its presence over the Black Sea by three US naval ships and boosted air policing because “we recognised its great strategic importance for the allies and Ukraine.”

North East Europe

Estonia is taking a leading in global efforts to develop digital vaccine passports. The small, tech-savvy Baltic state is working on a pilot project with the World Health Organisation on how globally recognised electronic vaccine certificates might work. Marten Kaevats, an adviser to the Estonian government on technology, said this week that the primary issue for the project so far is to ensure that anyone checking the certificate can “trust the source”. “Both the architecture and the solution should work both in Eritrea and Singapore,” Kaevats said. While Estonia already has its own system of electronic health records with vaccine information, most countries in the world do not and there is no mutual recognition across borders.

European Union member states could take AstraZeneca to court for a breach of supply contracts if the company does not honour the Covid-19 vaccine delivery schedule, Latvian foreign affairs minister Edgars Rinkevics said on Tuesday. “The possibility should be evaluated, and it should be coordinated among the EU countries,” the minister told news agency Reuters, via his spokesman. Each EU member state has a separate supply contract with the company. AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU last week that it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March.

The Lithuania-based GET Baltic gas exchange saw an all-time high in trade transactions in January, boosted by regional gas integration in the Baltic region, with total transactions reaching 2,482, it said on February 10. GET Baltic said the volume traded last month rose by 77 per cent year on year to 991 GWh – or almost 0.1 Bcm. The increased trading comes on the back of a record year in 2020 when GET Baltic recorded a total trade volume of 7.2 TWh. “The year 2021 started with increased activity in trading and a record number of concluded transactions,” it said. GET Baltic – which was launched in 2012 – expanded its operations to include Finland from 2020 in a bid to create a “one-stop shop” for gas trading in the Baltic region. Since the beginning of 2020, the markets of Estonia and Latvia also formed a common balancing zone, and while Finland remains a separate balancing area, it is part of the common entry tariff area with Estonia and Latvia.

South East Europe

Serbia expects to take one of the leading positions in Europe when it comes to the rate of vaccination against the new coronavirus, the country’s president said on Tuesday. Aleksandar Vučić announced the arrival of an additional 500,000 doses of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines, in addition to 100,000 doses of Russian-developed Sputnik V and 88,000 of U.S.-German Pfizer-BioNTech shots. An initial shipment in mid-January of a million Chinese vaccines has given Serbia a jumpstart in the vaccination rollout in the Balkans and beyond. So far, Serbia, a country of seven million people, has vaccinated almost 10 per cent of its population with the first dose – more than double the European Union average of 4.13 per cent – and has started giving out the second. Both the Chinese and Russian vaccines have yet to be approved by the European Medicines Agency.

North Macedonia will launch a tender for the planned construction of a 68-kilometre natural gas pipeline by the end of the year, transport minister Blagoj Bochvarski said this week. The government expects to receive a building permit for the pipeline by the middle of 2021, Bochvarski said. The pipeline will run from the city of Gevgelija, on the border with Greece, to the city of Negotino where it will connect to the Shtip – Negotino pipeline. The interconnection will allow North Macedonia to connect to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) through Greece.

A Montenegrin court has scrapped the guilty verdicts handed down in relation to a plot to overthrow the government in 2016. The Appeals Court on February 5 annulled the first-instance verdicts issued against 13 defendants in the so-called “plot coup” trial, citing “significant violations of criminal procedure,” and asked the High Court to retry the case. In May 2019, members of the group were convicted on terrorism charges and creating a criminal organization as part of an October 2016 attempt to overthrow the government and undermine the country’s NATO membership bid.

UN human rights experts this week urged Bosnia and Herzegovina to halt the extradition of Musaed Al Masailim to Kuwait, where he faces 87 years’ imprisonment and risks irreparable harm upon return. “We urge authorities to safeguard the rights of Mr Al Masailim and not to expel, return or extradite him to a country where he is in danger of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment as well as arbitrary detention,” they said. Al Masailim was first arrested in Kuwait in 2015 and charged with publicly disrespecting the Kuwaiti Emir through tweets. He was acquitted on those charges in 2016 but faced ill-treatment while in detention. Since relocating to Sarajevo in 2017, he has been charged on three separate occasions for his tweets and was sentenced in absentia.

Central Asia

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev this week signed into law a bill approved by parliament that brings forward the country’s presidential election to October. According to the new law, presidential, parliamentary, and general elections will be held on the first Sunday during the last 10 days of October, which this year falls on October 24. Previously, elections were held on the first Sunday to fall during the last 10 days of December. Last month, lawmakers proposed the change, saying that holding presidential polls in December had “led to delays in postelection political activities, including the adoption of a state programme and other reforms.” Some critics in Uzbekistan say the true reason for the proposal was because December is when the government usually comes under harsh criticism over its continual poor handling of meeting heating needs as winter clamps down on the country.

Kyrgyzstan’s top Muslim cleric, Grand Mufti Maksatbek Hajji Toktomushev, was detained this week by police amid a corruption scandal. Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (UKMK) said late on February 10 that Toktomushev is suspected of being involved in the alleged misuse of funds raised by worshippers for a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca later this year. Dozens of Toktomushev’s supporters rallied in front of the UKMK headquarters in Bishkek on February 11 to demand his release. Earlier on February 10, Toktomushev, who in his capacity was also head of Kyrgyzstan’s Religious Directorate – the state agency in charge of Islamic affairs – had handed in his resignation. The UKMK announced on February 10 that the directorate’s chief accountant, whose identity was not disclosed, had been arrested on suspicion of misusing the equivalent of almost two million US dollars million raised by worshippers.

Young men in Tajikistan who wish to forgo the dreaded experience of military service may now do so by paying a fee to the government. This opt-out provision came into effect on February 4 under changes to legislation regulating conscription. A representative at the defence ministry told Eurasianet that the size of the fee is not yet known and will later be calculated by the government. In Tajikistan, military service is nominally compulsory for every male citizen aged between 18 and 27. Only people with physical or cognitive disabilities are exempted. Many manage to evade service by paying bribes or through connections, however. Enrolling at university is another method of reprieve, as studies typically include a military-preparedness course that qualifies as exemption. Others will leave the country for anywhere up to 10 years to avoid call-up.

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