News & Analysis

Poland says Russia behind recent cyberattack: Emerging Europe this week

Central Europe

A far-reaching cyberattack in Poland this month hit over 100 email accounts used by current and former government officials, Polish counter-intelligence said on Tuesday, adding evidence showed links between the hackers and Russia’s secret services. A spokesperson for Poland’s counter-intelligence services said the attack was carried out by hackers known as UNC1151, adding the group’s actions are part of a campaign known as Ghostwriter aimed at destabilising the countries of central Europe. “The secret services have reliable information at their disposal which links this group with the activities of the Russian secret services,” the spokesperson said in a statement. Earlier in June Poland’s de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński said the cyber attack had hit top Polish government officials and was conducted from Russian territory.

Romania has the cheapest food and drink in the European Union, Prime Minister Florin Cîțu said on Wednesday. Eurostat, the European statistical agency, published figures for the cost of living across the 27-member bloc on Tuesday. According to Eurostat’s data, Romanians pay about 45 per cent less than the EU average for food. Cîțu, who published the figures on his Facebook page, said that they debunked “fake news” about “an explosion of prices” as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Eurostat’s statistics also show that Romania has the lowest prices in the EU for postal services and internet. Of those countries in emerging Europe which are EU members, Slovenia has the highest food prices, at 98.4 per cent of the EU average.

Human rights organisations are leading calls for an urgent investigation into the death of a Czech man who died after being restrained by police, after footage of the incident went viral on social media. The neck restraint technique used during the arrest of a Romany man was “reckless, unnecessary and disproportionate, and therefore unlawful”, according to Amnesty International. The man, named locally as Stanislav Tomáš, died in an ambulance shortly after being arrested on 19 June. Footage of the arrest shows police officers pinning Tomáš to the ground, with one officer kneeling at various times on the man’s neck and back.

The European Commission will begin legal proceedings against Hungary over a controversial law curtailing LGBT+ content, in the latest spat between Brussels and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government. “The Hungarian bill is a shame,” Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “I will use all the powers of the commission to ensure that the rights of all EU citizens are guaranteed, whoever you are and wherever you live.” Hungary’s parliament approved last week legislation outlawing content for children that can be deemed to “promote homosexuality.” The bill, which pairs homosexuality with pedophilia, builds on previous legislation adopted in Hungary last year, including putting an effective ban on adoption by same-sex partners.

Property prices in Slovakia are currently rising at an annual rate of 15.5 per cent, the fastest rate of increase in the emerging Europe region and the fourth fastest rate of any country in the world. Residential property prices in the Slovak capital Bratislava jumped during the Covid-19 pandemic, driven up by strong demand, low supply of residential real estate at reasonable prices, and cheap mortgages. However, in the first quarter of 2021 the biggest growth wasn’t in the capital, according to data from nehnutelnosti.sk, a property listings platform. In Banská Bystrica prices were up five per cent, in Trenčín 4.8 per cent, and in Žilina 4.1 per cent. In the capital, asking prices increased by 4.4 per cent. The largest increase was in Košice, where prices rose 10.5 per cent.

Of the seven teams from emerging Europe which qualified for the finals of the European football championships, currently taking place across the continent, just three have made it through to the second round: Croatia, Czechia and Ukraine. The four others, Hungary, North Macedonia, Poland and Slovakia crashed out this week, although in the case of Hungary not without a fight. The Hungarian side gave Germany a fright in Munich on Wednesday, twice taking the lead but eventually drawing 2-2 in a game that they needed to win to stay in the competition. In the second round, Czechia play The Netherlands on June 27 in Budapest, Croatia face Spain in Copenhagen on June 28, and Ukraine will meet Sweden at Hampden Park, Glasgow, on June 29.

Eastern Europe

For the first time since a disputed presidential election in August 2020, which Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko claims to have won with an implausible 80 per cent of the vote, the European Union this week agreed on sanctions targeting the country’s economy. EU foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg on Monday, agreed on sanctions that will hit Belarus’s key export industries, including oil, tobacco and potash, a potassium-rich salt used in fertiliser, all major sources of foreign currency for the Lukashenko regime. EU banks will also be banned from offering loans or investment services, while 86 people and entities will be added to the bloc’s current sanctions list. The latest sanctions come in direct response to the hijacking of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius and the subsequent arrest of the journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who were detained after being hauled off the downed plane.

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has meanwhile condemned the trial of six people, including her husband, that began on Thursday behind closed doors. Sergei Tikhanovsky, a blogger and former presidential candidate, was detained in March 2020. He and five other opposition figures are accused of disorder and inciting hatred against officials. Ms Tikhanovskaya said it was not a proper court but “personal revenge” by a leader who violently seized power. After her husband was taken into custody, she took on Lukashenko as a candidate herself. Despite winning the election (by any objective measure) she was forced into exile with her children shortly afterwards.

Britain was unexpectedly embroiled in a diplomatic and military dispute with Russia on Wednesday after Royal Navy destroyer HMS Defender briefly sailed through territorial waters off the coast of the disputed territory of Crimea. The warship sailed for about an hour in the morning within the 12-mile limit off Cape Fiolent on a direct route between the Ukrainian port of Odesa and Georgia, prompting Russian complaints and a disagreement about whether warning shots were fired. Russia’s defence ministry initially claimed warning shots had been fired at HMS Defender and that one of its war planes had dropped four bombs nearby to force the destroyer to leave the area. Britain’s Ministry of Defence denied both incidents took place.

Results released on Monday showed that the party of Armenia’s acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan won snap parliamentary elections which he called to ease anger over a peace deal he signed with Azerbaijan. With all precincts counted, Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party won 53.9 per cent of the vote. A bloc led by former President Robert Kocharyan was in a distant second place with about 21 per cent, the election commission said. Speaking at a rally of his supporters that drew about 10,000 on Monday night, Pashinyan declared that the political crisis in the country was over and called for reconciliation. “There was some aggressive rhetoric during the campaign,” he said. “I’m urging all participants in the political process in Armenia to start from a simple thing — put an end to acrimony. We are opening a new page in the history of Armenia … and we must start from unification.”

An opinion poll published on Sunday suggests that Moldovans are about to hand President Maia Sandu’s party not just a parliamentary majority, but a majority large enough to implement constitutional changes. The poll puts support for PAS at 38.1 per cent, well ahead of former president Igor Dodon’s Socialists (who have formed an electoral pact with the Moldovan Communist party of another former president, Vladimir Voronin) on 21.4 per cent. Amongst those who say that they are certain to vote, support for PAS jumps to almost 50 per cent. What’s more, besides PAS and the Socialists, no other party or electoral alliance would enter parliament, meaning that PAS would be redistributed enough to seats to claim its constitutional majority. Moldova’s election is set to be held on July 11.


North East Europe

Estonian-founded financial technology company Wise confirmed on Thursday that it plans to list in early July, in a test for London’s main market as investor appetite for company floats starts to wane. The company, formerly known as TransferWise, plans to do a direct listing on the London Stock Exchange rather than sell shares at a set price in advance, with the opening price to be determined in an open auction on the date of admission to the exchange. The London-based payments app, founded in 2010 by two Estonian entrepreneurs, has not given an estimate for how much it expects to be valued at. Sources told Reuters in April it could be worth between six and seven billion US dollars, making it potentially one of the biggest floats this year.

Lithuania will donate 20,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine to Taiwan, its government said on Tuesday, after angering China in March by saying it would open a trade representative office on the island this year. China considers Taiwan its own territory. The vaccines were donated after a June 15 request for help from Taipei’s mission in neighbouring Latvia, the Lithuanian health ministry said in a submission to the government. They will be transferred by the end of September. “We’d like to do more, but we do what we can,” Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said during a government meeting that was broadcast in Lithuania.

South East Europe

Serbia this week denied claims by a Bulgarian journalist that it was responsible for shooting down a MiG-29 fighter of the Bulgarian air force on June 9. The MiG crashed during joint military exercises with Serbia in the Black Sea, killing the pilot. The cause of the crash has not yet been determined. The journalist, Grigor Lilov, wrote on Facebook that the “probability” of Serbia being responsible was being deliberately ignored by the Bulgarian authorities ahead of the country’s parliamentary election on July 11. The Serbian Ministry of Defence called Lilov’s suggestion “inaccurate and malicious speculation”.

According to major new nationwide opinion poll published by the International Republican Institute (IRI), Macedonians still overwhelmingly support European Union accession but are growing increasingly disillusioned with the slow pace of progress. Joining the EU enjoys broad backing in the Western Balkan country (79 per cent support EU membership) but tellingly, only 32 per cent think that North Macedonia is closer to joining the EU now than it was in 2005. This represents a significant drop over the past three years. In 2018, 57 per cent of those polled thought North Macedonia was closer to the EU than in 2005. Ilina Mangova, deputy director at the IRI, says the lengthy pre-accession process and recent political crises have negatively affected people’s belief that North Macedonia is getting close to EU membership.

Albania launched a tender on Monday for its first onshore wind power programme, trying to diversify its water-based energy production. Albania produces more than 99 per cent of its energy from hydropower, with the main plants located on northern Drini River. That has made the country vulnerable to seasonal changes in hydrology and dependent on expensive, emissions-intensive power imports. Infrastructure and Energy Minister Belinda Balluku said the Balkan country is trying to minimise its vulnerability to dry years. She invited private companies to offer projects with a capacity of between 10 to 75 MW. Successful bidders will be announced in two years.

An unnamed European financial institution is prepared to help refinance Montenegro’s one billion US dollars debt to China, which the country incurred over a controversial highway project. Montenegrin Finance Minister Milojko Spajić said the low-interest credit from the financial institution will allow the cash-strapped government make savings and cut interest rates. He also told a session of the parliamentary Finance and Budget Committee on June 17 that a nondisclosure agreement prevented him from revealing the lender, but that talks were “in the final phase”. A refinancing agreement could bring an end to the ongoing uncertainty over Montenegro’s debt with China and its relations with the EU.


Central Asia

Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, is the most expensive city in the world for foreign workers, according to the latest edition of consultancy firm Mercer’s annual cost-of-living survey. The Turkmen capital has taken top spot from Hong Kong, which falls to second place, ahead of Beirut in third. Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is the cheapest city included in the survey. The report ranks 209 cities on the basis of costs such as housing, transport, food and entertainment and is used to help companies and governments determine how much they should pay foreign employees.

Tajikistan’s security services have confirmed that more than 130 Afghan troops were forced to flee across the border in the face of an overwhelming Taliban onslaught, sparking fears that spiraling instability in Afghanistan is already putting pressure on neighbouring nations. The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, which includes the border service within its purview, said in a statement released late June 22 that the Taliban assault focused on the Shir Khan Bandar border crossing, which is linked to Tajikistan by a US-funded bridge. “As a result of the armed clash, which lasted until 9am. on June 22, 134 Afghan government troops unable to withstand the offensive were forced to retreat … into the territory of Tajikistan,” the GKNB said.

Uzbekistan has amended its policy of trying to achieve fossil fuel independence, after strong interest from international investors in solar and wind. Speaking from the capital, Tashkent, on Wednesday, Deputy Energy Minister Bekhzot Narmatov said the government is no longer focused on achieving long-term energy independence from the import of fuels such as natural gas and crude oil. The change in policy comes four years after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered sweeping reforms in the state-run oil and gas sector, instructing state producer Uzbekneftegaz to invest heavily in the exploration of new gas assets and the rehabilitation of depleted fields.


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