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Emerging Europe this week

russia sputnik V vaccine
Central Europe

Doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine that triggered a political crisis and the resignation of the prime minister in Slovakia should not be administered yet because of incomplete or inaccurate information from the manufacturer, the country’s national medicines agency said this week. The Dennik N news site quoted the agency as saying it could not properly assess the shots, which it said were different from the vaccine whose favourable peer-reviewed late-stage trial results were published in The Lancet medical journal in February. The Slovakian president, Zuzana Čaputová, last week named Eduard Heger as prime minister after his predecessor, Igor Matovič resigned over his secret purchase of the Russian vaccines.

The European Court of Human Rights on April 8 ruled against Czech families who had complained about compulsory vaccinations for their children. The cases were brought by families who were fined or whose children were refused entry to pre-schools because they had not been vaccinated. Although the ruling does not deal directly with Covid-19 vaccines – the cases pre-date the pandemic – experts believe it could have positive implications for the vaccination drive against the virus, especially for those who have so far stated a refusal to accept the jab.

Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borissov, said on Wednesday that he will look to form a coalition government after GERB party came first in Sunday’s parliamentary election, but admitted that he was “unlikely” to succeed. Official results this week confirmed GERB as the largest party, but having taken 26.2 per cent of the vote it is well short of a majority. Mr Borissov suggested that he will offer a role in his government to the populist There Is Such A People party, which came in second, although its leader, musician and TV host Slavi Trifanov has repeatedly said he will not work with Borissov.

Poland’s ruling coalition won’t finish its full term in power unless its three factions all agree to approve the European Union’s stimulus plan, the head of the ruling party said this week. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice (PiS) is at odds with one of his partners over the EU’s 750 billion euros Covid-19 relief package. Junior coalition member United Poland opposes the EU package because its leader, Zbigniew Ziobro, says it allows the bloc to issue its own debt and that it is not in Poland’s interest to co-sign liabilities for countries with weaker economies.

Hungary’s government plans to contract a Chinese construction giant to build Shanghai-based Fudan University’s new campus in Budapest, according to official government documents obtained by Direkt36, an independent investigative journalism centre. It would will be one of the largest investments into the country’s higher education system in recent decades. According to a draft proposal by two ministers, the construction, estimated by the government at 1.5 billion euros, would utilise largely Chinese building materials, Chinese labour, and would mostly be financed through a Chinese loan, which Hungary would pay for.

The oldest DNA ever found in human remains belongs to a woman who lived in Czechia more than 45,000 years ago, a study has found. New analysis of her skull, first discovered in a cave near Prague in 1950, reveals she was among the first batch of Homo sapiens to live in Eurasia after our species migrated out of Africa. It is believed the woman, dubbed Zlatý kůň, may have had Neanderthal ancestors as little as six or fewer generations in her past.

Poland is set to become the site of the first facility in the European Union for recycling both car batteries and other waste containing metals, in response to the rapid rise of electric vehicles. The facility, developed by Elemental Holding with help from 25 million euros in financing from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), will be one of the first in the world to treat spent lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other waste containing metals that are critical for e-mobility.

Eastern Europe

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky travelled to the country’s eastern frontline on Thursday, after an alarming rise in the number of clashes between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. Fighting has intensified in recent weeks, raising fears of a major escalation in the long-running conflict over the Donbas region. The Ukrainian military on Thursday announced that another of its soldiers had been killed, bringing to 25 the number of troops killed since the start of the year, compared with 50 in all of 2020. Ukraine has also accused Russia of massing thousands of military personnel on its northern and eastern borders as well as on the Crimean peninsula.

Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, has asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for help in releasing dozens of prisoners of war captured by Azerbaijan during last year’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia claims that Azerbaijan is still holding as many as 240 POWs. Baku in return claims that those it is holding were captured after the Russia-brokered ceasefire ending the fighting, and that it does not consider them POWs. Speaking on Wednesday during a trip to Moscow, Pashinyan also said Armenia was interested in acquiring more Russian-made Sputnik-V vaccines.

Four people drowned in the Inguri River in Georgia this week after trying to cross the border separating the breakaway Abkhazia region from Tbilisi-controlled territory. The four, identified as residents of Abkhazia’s Gali district, drowned as they tried to cross into the Zugdidi region, authorities said on Wednesday. Georgia’s State Security Service said the deaths “once again demonstrate the inhuman and criminal nature of the occupation [of Abkhazia], for which the Russian Federation bears full responsibility.”

North East Europe

The Estonian Ministry of Interior this week announced that all applicants for its ground-breaking e-Residency programme are now required to provide additional information when applying for the digital identity card. “It is important to check the background of future e-residents even more thoroughly in order to get certainty whether each e-resident is who they claims to be, whether their activities are legal and in accordance with the interests of the Estonian state,” said Ministry of the Interior Ruth Annus. Launched in 2014, the e-Residency programme allows digital entrepreneurs to manage business from anywhere, entirely online. There are currently more than 70,000 e-residents.

Lithuania’s parliament this week approved the nomination of Gediminas Šimkus as the next governor of the Bank of Lithuania. Gitanas Nausėda, the president of Lithuania, submitted Šimkus’s name late in March. As the governor of a eurozone central bank, Šimkus will also become a member of the governing council of the European Central Bank.

Latvia is forecast to have the fastest economic growth of all three Baltic States this year, according to International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) spring forecasts, published on Tuesday. In its latest World Economic Outlook report, the IMF forecasts that the Latvian economy will grow by 3.9 per cent this year, and 5.2 per cent in 2022. Growth for Estonia in 2021 is forecast at 3.4 per cent, and Lithuania 3.2 per cent.

South East Europe

Kosovo’s new president Vjosa Osmani officially took office on Tuesday, becoming – at 38 – the country’s youngest ever head of state and one of the youngest in the world. She is the second woman to hold the position in Kosovo’s short history as an independent country, following in the steps of Atifete Jahjaga who served a term as president between 2011 and 2015. Ms Osmani herself has been the country’s acting president since November 2020, when she replaced Hashim Thaçi, the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader who resigned after being indicted for war crimes by am international tribunal in The Hague.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is seeing a rise in coronavirus infections among migrants and refugees living in its camps, as it struggles to cope with one of the Balkans’ highest Covid-19 death and infection rates among the general population. More than 6,000 migrants are stuck in country trying to reach neighbouring Croatia, a European Union member. Over the past two weeks, 147 infections have been recorded in just one camp — more than half the total 265 infections recorded among migrants since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Freelancers and online workers have once again been protesting outside the Serbian parliament in Belgrade against proposed changes to the country’s tax code. The revised code would require self-employed workers earning more than the equivalent of 270 euros per month to pay income tax. The freelancers – who first protested in January – object both to the tax and what they see as unfair treatment: freelancers do not have the same legal rights as ordinary workers, such as limits on overtime, a set minimum wage, and the option of forming unions.

About two dozen Albanian air traffic controllers have been questioned by police on suspicion of abuse of post following their strike over a pay dispute which blocked the country’s only international airport, a lawyer and the prosecutor’s office said on Thursday. Albania’s government had earlier sent police to clear striking controllers out of the flight tower. The controllers’ union says their pay has been cut by 62 per cent over the past year due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the same period, Albania’s air traffic has fallen by 57 per cent. Albania’s transport minister, Belinda Balluku, said that air traffic controllers are paid 2,490 US dollars a month – almost five times the country’s annual salary.

Discount retail chain Lidl, part of Germany’s Schwarz Group, intends to open several stores and build a logistics centre in North Macedonia, the government in Skopje said on Wednesday. The company’s first investment project in North Macedonia will be the construction of a logistics centre which will serve as a supply hub for the supermarket chain, the government of North Macedonia said in a statement. Lidl plans to open supermarkets in cities “with sustainable demographic and economic power”, the government said, without disclosing any details of the stores’ locations. Lidl has already registered a subsidiary in North Macedonia, the government added.

Central Asia

Hundreds of people rallied in front of Kyrgyzstan’s interior ministry on Thursday to demand the resignation of its leadership for what they called police inaction over the murder of a kidnapped woman. Aizada Kanatbekova, 27, was kidnapped on April 5 and found strangled in a car in a rural area two days later, together with her suspected murderer who had died from knife wounds, apparently self-inflicted. His suspected accomplice has been detained. However, the fact that police had failed to find the suspect even though the kidnapping had been caught on camera with the car model and number plates clearly visible has prompted public outrage.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said this week that economic cooperation with Kazakhstan was “of great importance” for Iran. Speaking during a visit to the Kazakh capital Nursultan, Zarif told Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev that “Iran is one of the key partners of Kazakhstan in the Middle East. We have had an excellent relationship in bad and good times.” According to the Astana Times, Zarif and Tokayev discussed ways to boost trade, including the use of the opportunities provided by the Uzen (Kazakhstan), Bereket (Turkmenistan) and İnceburun (Iran) railway. In 2020, trade turnover between the two countries amounted to 237 million US dollars, a 37.2 per cent decrease on 2019.

Meanwhile, a court in Kazakhstan this week took the unusual step of reversing a fine over purported tax violations that were handed down earlier this year to several NGOs known for their vocal criticism of the authorities. The ruling means that the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, or KIBHR, and independent election-monitoring group Echo will be able to resume operating and are no longer liable to pay the fines issued in January. One day earlier, another group, the International Legal Initiative, won the same reprieve. The charges had been levied at the NGOs over claims they had violated financial reporting rules that rights advocates argue were primarily instituted to complicate the life of independent activists.

Uzbekistan’s Erk (Freedom) Party, which was banned in the 1990s and its leader forced out of the country and his associates jailed, said this week that it plans to try to field a candidate for president in an election scheduled for October. According to a statement on April 5, two members of the party, Salovat Umrzoqov and Jahongir Otajonov, have officially expressed their intentions to try to become the party’s candidate for the vote. The party last fielded a candidate, the poet Muhammad Solih, in 1991. Solih was defeated by Islam Karimov in what is widely believed to have been a rigged presidential election – the first following independence from the Soviet Union. Solih was forced into exile in 1993.

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