Regional Press Review (01-07 Apr)
Italy expels Russian officials as ‘extremely serious’ spy case escalates.
- Rome has ordered the deportation of two Russian officials in connection with an unfolding spying case between the NATO member state and Russia, which Italian FM described as a “highly serious event. The Kremlin has responded by expressing confidence that relations with Italy can be maintained amid the conflict. Italian police announced that they had detained an Italian Navy captain together with a Russian military official on suspicion of spying. (Radio Free Europe, March 31)
Merkel ally breaks ranks, calls for halt to Nord Stream 2.
- Germany’s transatlantic affairs coordinator has asked for a halt to work on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which the US has vigorously resisted. “The project is a serious obstacle for a new start in transatlantic relations. The Americans expect us not only to change our rhetoric, but also to let actions speak. I therefore plead for a construction moratorium on Nord Stream 2,” Beyer declared. (Radio Free Europe, March 31)
EU accuses Russia of launching ‘conscription campaign’ in Crimea.
- The European Union has accused Moscow of conducting a “conscription campaign” in the Russian-controlled Ukrainian territory of Crimea, which it claims violates international law. The EU’s strongly worded statement came as Ukraine accused Russia of massing troops near their shared border, an accusation rejected by the Kremlin. “Today, the Russian Federation has launched yet another conscription campaign in the illegally-annexed Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to draft residents of the peninsula in the Russian Federation Armed Forces,” the EU reported. (Radio Free Europe, April 1)
How Russia is trying to control social media as part of opposition crackdown.
- Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been jailed for weeks, and officials are trying to silence online posts calling for mass to protest his detention. So they’re taking social media companies to court and even threatening to block access to their platforms in Russia. Twitter, Google, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Telegram are all targeted for allegedly failing to delete posts urging young people to take part in illegal protests. Last month, Russia’s state internet regulator Roskomnadzor began disrupting Twitter services in the country, claiming that the platform had failed to comply with its requests to delete banned content. (Euronews, April 2)
Russia backs down from threat to ban Twitter, but will slow it until mid-May.
- Russia’s state communications regulator has backed down from banning Twitter amid a dispute over content on its platform. However, it said on April 5 that it will continue to slow the speed of the U.S. social network inside the country until the middle of May. Russia has been engaged in a fight with U.S. social media, including Twitter, over content it deems prohibited, such as calls to join political protests. Russian critics of the Kremlin use social networks, including Twitter and YouTube, to get around state control of the media and reach tens of millions of citizens with their anti-government messages. (Radio Free Europe, April 5)
Satellite images show huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic.
- Russia is amassing unprecedented military might in the Arctic and testing its newest weapons in a region freshly ice-free due to the climate emergency, in a bid to secure its northern coast and open up a key shipping route from Asia to Europe. Weapons experts and Western officials have expressed particular concern about one Russian ‘super-weapon,’ the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo. Development of the torpedo is moving fast with Russian President requesting an update on a “key stage” of the tests in February from his defense minister Shoigu, with further tests planned this year, according to multiple reports in state media. (CNN, April 5)
Russia: Vladimir Putin signs law allowing him to rule till 2036.
- President Putin signed legislation that could theoretically mean he stays in power till 2036, according to a copy of the bill posted on the government’s legal information portal. Under the previous constitution, Putin, 68, who has already been in power for more than two decades, would have been required to have stepped down after his second consecutive term ends in 2024. But amendments approved by Russians in a nationwide vote last year allow him to run for two more six-year presidential terms. The amendments were passed by the State Duma in late March. (Deutsche Welle, April 5)
Doctors demand to see Kremlin critic over health fears.
- A delegation of doctors has travelled to the high-security prison where hunger-striking Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is being held after reports that his health is rapidly deteriorating. Anastasia Vasilyeva, the leader of the Alliance of Doctors, arrived at prison colony IK-2 on Tuesday and demanded that Navalny gets qualified medical help from independent doctors. The 44-year-old has complained about pain in his leg and back and on Monday it was suggested that he had a fever. Navalny had previously said that a number of patients in the prison have tuberculosis. (Euronews, April 6)
Armenian parliament approves changes to electoral system.
- The Armenian parliament has approved amendments to the nation’s Electoral Law, which the opposition claims was intended to help PM Pashinian secure early elections in June. The reforms, declared at the end of March by PM’s party, which governs the National Assembly, would convert the Armenian electoral structure to a completely proportional one. (Radio Free Europe, April 1)
Moscow hopes for pre-election calm in Armenia.
- Russia hopes that political tensions in Armenia will not boil over in the run-up to the snap parliamentary elections in June. Deputy FM Rudenko declared that while Moscow “cannot stay indifferent to what is happening in a friendly country” as he called on “all political forces in the republic to show restraint and look for reasonable compromises to consolidate Armenian society.” President Putin and PM Pashinyan are scheduled to meet in Moscow on April 7, with the upcoming elections on the agenda. (Azatutyun April 2)
Armenian academics up in arms against “unconstitutional” bill.
- Armenia’s leading university and National Academy of Sciences condemned the Government on Monday for pushing through Parliament a bill that could give it direct control over all state universities via a controversial provision that empowers the Ministry of Education to appoint five of the nine members of the governing boards of the universities. The Ministry of Education has responded by stating that only the Constitutional Court can determine whether a particular law is unconstitutional, without commenting on the accusations. (Azatutyun April 5)
Azerbaijan, Turkey mull prospects of military cooperation.
- The Azerbaijani Defense Minister and the CTO of Turkish Baykar Company addressed the current situation and opportunities for the growth of Azerbaijani-Turkish military-technical cooperation, according to the Defence Ministry’s website. During the meeting with the visiting Turkish delegation, it was emphasized that Azerbaijani-Turkish strategic partnership is based on fraternal and friendly relations, and that it is effectively developing and strengthening. (Azer News, April 1)
Azerbaijan, World Bank mull bilateral cooperation.
- Azerbaijan’s Labor and Social Protection Minister Babayev, Economy Minister
Jabbarov, and World Bank representatives met to discuss the current partnership and possible areas of cooperation last week. The Employment Support Project in Azerbaijan of the World Bank plays an important role in expanding the self-employment program in the country, with the areas of activity already identified a project in which 22,000 unemployed people will be involved for 5 years to create small businesses. (Today.az April 2)
Bulgaria’s general election matters for Europeans.
- Bulgarians will vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday, despite a surge in coronavirus cases and months of anti-government demonstrations. Despite allegations of systemic corruption, the incumbent PM’s centre-right GERB party leads most opinion polls. According to Europe Elects’ national poll averages, the three-time premier will get 28.4 percent of the vote. According to the same source, the socialist opposition (BSP) was polling at 22,9 percent, despite the fact that a recent poll published this Wednesday put her party ahead of GERB. A number of smaller parties is also scheduled to make their first appearance in parliament. (Euronews, April 1)
PM Borissov set for tough coalition talks after splintered election.
- Bulgaria’s parliamentary election on April 4 saw three new parties enter Parliament. With 93% of ballots counted, PM Borissov’s center-right GERB party is leading with 26% of the vote—down from 33.5% at the 2017 election—,but has slim chances of staying in power with no obvious coalition partners to support them for another term. Populist party There is Such a People (ITN), led by TV entertainer Slavi Trifonov, and the Socialist Party (BSP) are fighting for second and third places with 15.2% and 17.6% of the vote. Liberal anti-corruption group Democratic Bulgaria received 10.4%, and “Stand up! Mafia out” is expected to enter Parliament with 4.8% of the vote. The ethnic Turkish MRF party garnered 11%. The VMRO nationalist party did not reach the 4% threshold to enter Parliament. (Euronews April 5; Intellinews April 5)
Department of State: Bulgaria must not destabilize the region.
- The Department of State’s annual Report on Human Rights Practices sharply criticized Bulgaria for police violence, corruption, and pressure on the media, and also noted that Sofia continues to oppress individuals and groups of Macedonian descent who only claim their right to freedom of expression and assembly. The report expressed concern that blocking North Macedonia’s EU accession might destabilize normal close relations between NATO allies. (IBNA April 2)
Russia defends corruption in Bulgaria from U.S. criticism.
- The Russian embassy in Sofia was the first institution to react to the hard-hitting report released by the U.S. Department of State regarding human rights in Bulgaria: “We understand the concerns of our U.S. partners about human rights abuses in a number of countries around the world, particularly in Russia and Bulgaria… the State Department is once again forced to state that not everyone is ready to live by the values and patterns imposed from the other side of the Ocean.” Bulgarian Deputy PM Donchev later commented that he agreed with some of the conclusions in the report, but criticized it “as a Bulgarian citizen” and assured that freedom of speech in Bulgaria is not broadly violated. (Euractiv April 2)
Georgian Dream chair suspects prominent activists being ‘’Russia’s agents’’.
- The chairperson of the ruling Georgian Dream party, stated that “reasonable suspicion” exists that Khoshtaria of the Droa political movement, as well as anti-occupation Shame Movement activists Dighmelashvili and Makarashvili, are “Russian agents.” MP Kobakhidze claimed that the allegations derive from the premise that the activists were among the first to receive information about Russian-American journalist’s visit to Tbilisi, who is well-known in Georgia for his incendiary comments about the country’s territorial integrity. (Civil.ge, April 1)
European PM warn suspending EU financial assistance to Georgia.
- Leading MEPs on EU-Georgia ties announced today that the European Parliament would call for “consequences in terms of EU financial assistance, including both a suspension of further disbursements of and an increase in conditionality linked to EU Macro-Financial Assistance and budget support programmes” to Georgia. The frank message from Brussels arrives after the Georgian Dream and opposition parties refused to find a consensus on the EU-proposed agreement text on the night of March 30-31. (Civil.ge, April 1)
President Iohannis: The virus won’t disappear through violence and extremism. Vaccination is the solution.
- Romanian President has stated that vaccination against COVID-19 is the solution that will help the country return to normal and that the virus won’t disappear through “violence and extremist manifestations”. He urged Romanians to trust the vaccine and to go and take the jab in order to stop the coronavirus pandemic. “We have the solution at hand to stop the pandemic and regain our normality that we are missing so much. It is called vaccine”, stated the head of state during a visit to Cantacuzino Institute. (Romanian Journal, April 1)
Romanian PM Cîțu not concerned with currency weakening.
- The recent depreciation of the local currency against the euro helps reduce pressure on the economy and is not a cause for concern, declared PM Citu. “It reduces the pressures on the economy and helps to avoid shocks on the labor market. It also helps us with the public debt,” Romanian PM declared in an interview with Bloomberg. He also stated that the Government is monitoring the foreign market to borrow through the sale of bonds. The Government’s plan envisages loans of about EUR 7-7.4 billion this year. (Romanian Insider, April 2)
Greece accuses Turkey of escorting migrant smuggling boats.
- Greece is reporting a series of brushes with Turkey’s coast guard in the narrow stretch of water between the eastern Greek island of Lesbos and the Turkish coast, at a time of generally testy relations between the two neighbors and NATO allies. The Greek coast guard reported that in six incidents between Thursday night and Friday morning, Turkish patrol vessels escorted dinghies filled with migrants attempting to enter Greek territorial waters. It declared that in another incident, a Turkish coast guard vessel harassed a Greek coast guard vessel. All occurred northeast of Lesbos, an island on the main migrant smuggling route from Turkey to Greece. (Associated Press, April 2)
Turkish court rules Government restricted media freedom.
- Turkey’s Council of State, the highest administrative legal authority in the country, ruled on Thursday that the stricter regulations on issuing press cards introduced in 2018 contravene the freedom of the media. Critics had claimed that the regulations allowed the Government to cancel the press cards of journalists seen as unfriendly to the authorities, with a large number of independent journalists having had their press cards cancelled or their applications for renewal denied since the regulations were introduced. (Balkan Insight April 2)
Turkey: State Department Report far from reality.
- The Turkish Presidency has criticized the report of the U.S. Department on human right violations in Turkey as being “far from reality,” assuring that “President Erdoğan has virtually been the only voice against human rights abuses in the region and around the world” and has achieved Turkey’s “greatest progress in human rights” under the current Government. The Foreign Ministry has also rejected the report as containing “unfounded” and “biased” allegations against the country. (IBNA April 2)
Turkey arrests retired admirals over shipping treaty declaration.
- Turkey on Monday arrested 10 retired admirals who had signed a statement asserting the importance of the 1936 Montreux Convention, designed to prevent the militarization of the Black Sea. Ankara saw the statement as a direct challenge from the military evocative of the 2016 coup attempt. The statement, signed by 104 former high-ranking navy officials, questions the Government’s commitment to the Montreux Convention, and was released after Turkey announced the construction of a “Canal Istanbul” project that will not be covered by the convention. (Deutsche Welle April 5)
Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary among states with highest number of ECHR cases.
- The Council of Europe reported that states across the continent last year continued to make “progress” on implementing judgments from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) despite the coronavirus pandemic. But it stressed that further efforts are needed to tackle issues such as ill-treatment or deaths caused by security forces and poor conditions of detention, as well as a “growing number of cases concerning abusive limitations on rights and freedoms.” States with the highest total number of new cases last year were Russia (218), Turkey (103), and Ukraine (84), followed by Romania (78) and Hungary (61). (Radio Free Europe, March 31)
Could Ukraine-Russia border tension escalate into a fresh conflict?
- Tensions are rising between Kyiv and Moscow over reports of Russian military maneuvers on the border with Ukraine. Unverified footage posted on social media appears to show Russian tanks being moved to areas that include annexed Crimea and territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. It comes after the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported hundreds of ceasefire violations in recent days – including 493 in the Donetsk region on March 26, mostly small-arms fire. (Euronews, April 2)
Ukraine assured of EU’s ‘unwavering’ support.
- EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell has assured the Ukrainian government of “unwavering EU support” in the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country. Borrell twitted on April 4 that he spoke by phone with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and added that he was “following with severe concern the Russian military activity surrounding Ukraine.” He reported that the matter would be further discussed at the next meeting of EU foreign ministers. (Radio Free Europe, April 5)
Ukraine says NATO path is only way to end war in eastern region.
- Ukrainian President declared on Tuesday that a path towards membership of NATO was the only way to end war in the eastern Donbass region after speaking to the transatlantic military alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by phone. He also called on NATO member states to strengthen their military presence in the Black Sea region to act as a “powerful deterrent” to Russia. (Reuters, April 6)
Czech state of emergency will end on April 11.
- According to PM Babiš, the Czech government will not seek further extension of the national state of emergency after April 11. The state of emergency has been valid since October 5 and has been prolonged several times. Most of the Czech Republic’s lockdown measures are tied to the state of emergency, as the limitation of people free movement depends on it. (Expats.cz April 4)
PM Babiš hopes his coalition government will survive until general elections.
- PM Babiš declared that he hopes his coalition government will survive until the October general elections, after the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) announced that it is considering withdrawing its support for the minority government due to its increasing dissatisfaction with its leadership and performance. Members of the KSČM Central Committee will vote on the sentence: “I agree with the termination of the agreement on tolerance to the Government” on April 6. Talks between the KSČM and ANO are to take place after Easter. (Radio Prague International April 4)
Poland, Hungary ruling parties to join Italy’s Lega in European Parliament.
- PM Morawiecki, PM Orbán, and leader of Italy’s Lega party Matteo Salvini agreed to strengthen ties between their three parties to potentially create the third-largest group of MEPs in the European Parliament, vowing to pursue a “European renaissance.” Salvini wants to unite his Identity and Democracy (I&D) faction with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group; introducing Orbán’s MEPs would create the third-largest group in the Parliament, with at least 146 members. (Emerging Europe April 1)
Five members of Polish minority in Belarus charged.
- The head of the Association of Poles in Belarus, three senior members and another Polish woman were charged as part of a criminal investigation into “inciting hatred” last week. Belarusian prosecutors viewed the group’s commemoration of Poland’s post-World War II anticommunist resistance fighters as the “rehabilitation of Nazism,” which carries a potential jail sentence of up to 12 years. The detentions of members of the Polish minority in Belarus have caused an outcry in Poland, which is seeking to build international pressure for their release. (Polskie Radio April 2)
Igor Matovič stepped down as Prime Minister.
- PM Matovič (OĽaNO) delivered his resignation to President Čaputová on March 30. Subsequently, the President assigned Finance Minister Heger (OĽaNO) to form a new Cabinet, in which most serving ministers are expected to return, including those who had resigned in the past few weeks. (Slovak Spectator March 30)
Slovak Parliament decides not to declare climate emergency.
- A Slovak petition calling for the Government to declare a state of climate emergency had been signed by more than 128,000 people, including President Čaputová. However, it was not backed by the Parliament, which only agreed on a non-binding statement advising the Government not to support fossil fuel-based projects. Climate emergencies have so far been declared in six European countries—Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, Austria and Malta—in an initiative supported by the European Parliament to bound governments to prepare national strategies and only accept measures that support achieving carbon neutrality by 2040. (Euractiv April 2)
Center-left parties launch new attempt to impeach Janša.
- Four center-left opposition parties have tabled a motion asking the National Assembly to impeach PM Janša before the Constitutional Court, accusing him of violating several articles of the Constitution as well as laws pertaining to healthcare, media, prosecution, and human and constitutional rights. Janša has called the move pathetic. (STA April 2)
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