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The end of Bulgaria’s Borissov? Emerging Europe this week

Boyko Borissov
Central Europe

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said on Wednesday that he will not seek to lead the next government after his centre-right GERB party won the most votes in last week’s parliamentary elections but fell well short of a majority. Borissov has governed the country for 11 years, but the election left GERB without any allies in parliament. Borissov said that “another candidate with a clear European and NATO orientation” should be named prime minister.

Czechia’s foreign minister was dismissed on Monday after losing a bid to lead his own party. President Miloš Zeman “terminated the duties of Tomáš Petříček in accordance with the Constitution,” his office said in a statement. Petříček had clashed with his rival, Interior Minister Jan Hamacek, over control of the Czech Social Democratic Party. The former minister had suggested breaking ties with the populist ANO party, led by Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, ahead of a parliamentary election later this year.

Romania’s health minister, Vlad Voiculescu, was fired on Wednesday following criticism of his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sacking threatens the stability of Romania’s government, given that USR-Plus, which backed Voiculescu, has since said that it no longer has confidence in the prime minister, Florin Cîțu. Cîțu’s Liberals have governed in a coalition with USR-Plus and the Hungarian UDMR party since parliamentary elections in December 2020.

US tech giant Google on Wednesday launched a new cloud data hub in Poland – its first in Central and Eastern Europe – with an investment of 1.7 billion euros. The facility will reduce latency for users of Google services across Poland and neighbouring countries and deliver more efficient connectivity to Google partners and their customers. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the new Warsaw hub would ensure “better service from private and public entities” and strengthen security as the data would be stored in Poland. Among Google customers in Poland already using its cloud services are PKO Bank Polski, retailer LPP, appointments scheduling platform Booksy, travel booking company eSky and digital learning firm Brainly.

Hungary’s OTP is in talks to buy Slovenian bank Nova KBM from private equity group Apollo in a deal worth roughly one billion euros, Reuters reported this week. OTP has sought to expand its footprint in the Balkans in recent years, buying large banks in Croatia, Serbia and several other countries. It already owns a small bank in Slovenia, and the purchase of Nova KBM could make it the country’s biggest lender.

Russia has called on Slovakia to return hundreds of thousands of doses of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, citing contract violations, in an escalating row between the two countries after a Slovak watchdog raised doubts about the shot. Slovakia’s SUKL drug agency said last week that the batches of Sputnik V vaccines it had received differed from those reviewed by international scientists and by the European Union regulator. Slovakia imported 200,000 doses of Sputnik V last month, the second European Union nation to do so after Hungary, despite a lack of EU regulatory approval.

Poland will reopen kindergartens and allow open-air sports from April 19, but other restrictions will be extended by a week, the health minister said on Wednesday, after a spike in Covid-19 cases. Poland’s health service has been stretched to its limits by the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and Wednesday saw the second-highest number of deaths – 803 – since the pandemic began. Poland implemented nationwide restrictions in mid-March, closing theatres, shopping malls, hotels and cinemas, with even harsher restrictions – closing kindergartens and hair salons – put in place later that month.

Croatia Airlines this week sent an open letter to the operator of Zagreb airport, demanding fee reductions and incentives on par with or exceeding those granted to Ryanair, which is set to open a base in the Croatian capital in September. “Passengers and the Croatian public have the right to competitive prices and complete and objective information. It is unacceptable for the national airline to finance the entry of new competitors into the Croatian market,” Croatia Airlines stated in the letter.

European football’s governing body UEFA on Wednesday banned Slavia Prague’s Czech defender Ondřej Kúdela for 10 matches for racist behaviour directed against Rangers’ Glen Kamara in a Europa League match. Kamara, a Finn, has been suspended for three matches for his role in the incident which took place on March 18. Slavia, who won the match 2-0 to advance to the Europa League quarter-finals 3-1 on aggregate, have denied the claims, and said earlier this month they would file a criminal complaint against Kamara for allegedly attacking Kudela in the tunnel after the game.

Eastern Europe

More than 100,000 Russian troops in assault vehicles painted with “invasion stripes” were headed to Ukraine’s border Wednesday, intensifying fears of war between the two countries. The advancing force includes 1,300 battle tanks, 3,700 drones, 1,300 artillery and mortar units and 380 multiple launch rocket systems, according to documents leaked to UK newspaper The Daily Mirror. The appearance of painted stripes on Russian armored vehicles headed to the frontlines reminded military experts of similar stripes on tanks used by the Soviet Army during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, The Mirror reports. The stripes are used as a deterrent to friendly fire.

Belarusian authorities have stopped Euronews from broadcasting inside the country amid a campaign to muzzle independent media and journalists as part of the government’s crackdown on dissent following a disputed presidential election that returned dictator Alexander Lukashenko to power. The Belarusian Information Ministry said in a statement on Monday that the right given to Euronews — a 24-hour television channel covering world news in 12 language editions, including Russian — to distribute its programmes in Belarus had expired.

Armenia on Tuesday accused Azerbaijan of fomenting ethnic hatred by displaying helmets of Armenian soldiers killed during the war between the neighbouring countries last year. A decades-long conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region erupted into all-out war in September, killing more than 6,000 people. On Monday, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited a “park of trophies” showcasing military equipment seized from Armenian troops during the war. “Everyone who visits the park of military trophies will see the strength of our army, will see our willpower, and how hard it was to achieve victory,” Aliyev said in a video address published on his website.

Ongoing protests against the construction of the Namakhvani hydropower plant in western Georgia continued this week as demonstrators gathered near the village of Gumati and later decamped to the regional capital, Kutaisi. Protesters – who have been demonstrating for more than six months – fear the possible negative environmental impact of the plant, which is being built by a Turkish firm, and say that it is not in the interests of Georgia.

North East Europe

Estonia is investigating the possibility of building nuclear power plants, having established a government level working group that will present its conclusions by late 2022, World Nuclear News reported this week. The announcement is in line earlier statements from Fermi Energia, an Estonian energy start-up, which said in February that it would develop Europe’s first nuclear plant based on small modular reactors by 2035.

The foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania visited Ukraine on Thursday in a show of support for the country. “The visit aims to demonstrate the solidarity of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Ukraine against the background of the destabilising actions of the Russian Federation, including the dangerous military build-up on Ukraine’s borders,” the three ministers said in a joint statement.

Lithuania on Wednesday agreed to roll out national digital Covid-19 immunity certificates by early May to allow some people to bypass restrictions on certain activities including dining indoors, attending sporting events and holding large parties. A QR code called Freedom ID will be available to those who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus as well as those who have previously contracted the virus and recovered. Those who test negative for the virus also will be eligible.

South East Europe

Serbia has ordered China’s Zijin Mining Group to halt work at a shaft at the country’s only copper mine and to complete a waste water treatment plant after it failed to comply with environmental standards. Zijin is Serbia’s strategic partner in the RTB Bor copper complex – which includes the Jama mine – having pledged to invest 1.26 billion US dollars in return for a 63 per cent stake. Energy Minister Zorana Mihajlović said that Zijin has until April 30 to eliminate all irregularities.

An online session of the United Nation Security Council on April 14 – held to explore possible ways in which relations between Serbia and Kosovo could normalised – was overshadowed by the objections of the Russian representative to a Kosovo flag. Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky took issue with the flag, displayed behind Kosovan Foreign Minister Donika Gërvalla, pointing out that eight of the fifteen members of the Security Council do not recognise Kosovo’s independence and that Ms Gërvalla should not have displayed it. Following a 45-minute delay, Russia was forced to cave in and the meeting was resumed with Ms Gërvalla’s background still displaying the blue and yellow flag.

Montenegro this week said it needs help from the European Union to pay off a Chinese loan worth one billion US dollars for a controversial road project that has left the country in a dire financial situation. However, EU spokeswoman Ana Pisonero told news agency Radio Free Europe that the bloc “does not repay loans from third parties,” though she added that Brussels did have concerns over “the socioeconomic and financial effects some of China’s investments can have,” as well as the risks of economic imbalances and “debt dependency.” She also said that the EU was willing to offer support through its 10 billion US dollars Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans.

North Macedonian opposition leader Hristijan Mickoski demanded the resignation of Zoran Zaev’s government this week following accusations of corruption against Dragi Rashtovski, general secretary of the prime minister’s office. Rashtovski resigned on Tuesday, following the launch of an investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission into a tender for software. “This entire criminal government should resign, not just Rashkovski,” said Mickoski, who leads the nationalist VMRO party.

LGBT rights groups have filed a discrimination complaint against a taxi company in Albania that they say refused to carry a transgender passenger. The groups said that they have audio recordings of operators at the taxi firm, Green Taxi, openly refusing to provide services to members of the trans community. When Green Taxi was questioned it reportedly said: “None of the drivers will take them. They cannot conceive to put a transvestite in their car.”

Central Asia

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have broken ground on a giant trade and economic-cooperation hub, the largest of its kind in Central Asia, along the border of the two countries. “This unique project in the Central Asian region will be profitable for the two nations and contribute to the development of trade and economic ties in the region as a whole,” the Uzbek government said in a statement. The Kazakh prime minister’s press service said the new hub will cover a territory of 400 hectares and allow some 35,000 people and up to 5,000 trucks to cross the border from both sides each day after it becomes fully operational.

A group of more than 100 defendants in Tajikistan has been sentenced to between five and 23 years in prison on charges of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood organisation. Dushanbe-based newspaper Asia Plus reported on April 12, citing sources at the Supreme Court, that all but two of the 119 people on trial were given prison sentences. The ruling was handed down on April 9, ending a trial that began in July 2020. The Muslim Brotherhood, a politically engaged and conservative Islamic group founded in Egypt in the 1920s, was banned in Tajikistan in 2006.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is calling on Kyrgyz authorities to investigate the harassment of journalists working for independent outlets while they were covering the country’s nationwide constitutional referendum on April 11. Police detained at least four journalists covering voting in the southern city of Osh and in the capital, Bishkek, while election onlookers attacked at least one reporter in Osh, the New York-based media freedom watchdog said in a statement on April 13.

Photo: © European Union

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