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#Newsletter Exclusive / True Story Project

Regional Press Review (11 – 17 Mar)

RUSSIA

Russian Doctors Union to challenge foreign agent label. 

  • The Russian medical professional association Alliance of Doctors will file an appeal with regards to the March 3 decision of the Ministry of Justice to place it on the “foreign agent” list. The  organization, which fights for fair wages and working conditions for medical professionals, intends to resume activities and will appeal the notorious mark. The Alliance of Doctors is headed by ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva, who had treated Alexey Navalny in the past and was detained by police for several days in January as part of a sweep by authorities on the eve of unsanctioned mass rallies against Navalny’s arrest. (Radio Free Europe, March 10)

Russia slows Twitter over failure to remove content they say is illegal. 

  • Russia’s Twitter users suffered service delays on Wednesday after the media regulator declared a slowdown in the country’s social network pace. Internet monitor Roskomnadzor claims Twitter has consistently declined to censor prohibited content on drug use, suicide or child pornography. In recent weeks, Moscow has criticized western social networks for refusing to hold moderate posts in favor of Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny, whose arrest last month resulted in international criticism and national demonstrations. (Euronews, March 10)

Top Moscow police official rejects criticism over excessive use of force against Navalny’s supporters. 

  • Moscow’s top police officer denied charges that police forces used improper violence against supporters in rallying for detained opposition politician  Navalny in January and February. Talking at the Moscow City Council meeting on March 10, the  Deputy Head of the Interior Ministry’s main directorate in the Russian capital declared that “Moscow police acted in accordance with the current law.” (Radio Free Europe, March 10)

Moscow court refuses to remove domestic violence NGO from foreign agent registry

  • Moscow court has dismissed the withdrawal of Nasiliyu.net, a leading group concerned with domestic abuse and LGBT rights, from the “foreign agents” blacklist. The Ministry of Justice had appointed the organization to the list in December, alleging that the NGO had obtained international funds and had been involved in political activities. The NGO disputed that it is politically involved. (Radio Free Europe, March 11)

Moscow Police detain nearly 200 on “undesirable” charges. 

  • On March 13, police raided the first federal forum of municipal deputies in Moscow, detaining almost 200 attendees and charging them with the administrative offence of participation in activities of “undesirable organizations.” It marked the largest number of people hit with “undesirable” charges in a single day since the “undesirable organizations” law was adopted in 2015. The purpose of the forum was to exchange best practices and skills for running election campaigns and working with grassroot candidates. (Human Rights Watch March 15)

Russia “willing to pay” Georgian deportation victims via Council of Europe. 

  • During Council of Europe (CoEmeeting on March 9-11, Russian authorities confirmed that they would be willing to use the CoE as an intermediary to compensate for damages related to the mass deportation of Georgian nationals from Russia in 2006. The Council asked the Russian and Georgian authorities to move “forward quickly” to finalize and sign the Memoranda of Understanding to enable the process. (civil.ge March 14)

U.S. Senators condemn Russia’s “assault” on Radio Free Europe. 

  • A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has called on President Putin to halt Russia’s “state-sponsored assault on media freedom” through the targeting of Radio Free Europe. The Kremlin is using onerous ‘foreign agent’ laws as a pretext to silence Radio Free Europe in Russia, pursuing court cases and fines,” declared Senators Chris Coons, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, and Bob Menendez (Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) in a joint statement. Russia’s state media-monitoring agency Roskomnadzor has opened 260 cases against Radio Free Europe, which must pay the fines totaling over $1,000,000 and come into compliance with regulations or face the potential closure of its operations inside Russia. (Current Time March 15)

Russian software to be reportedly preinstalled on gadgets starting April 1. 

  • Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development and Communications stated that starting next month, customers with newly bought Apple gadgets will be able to choose from a number of applications approved by the Russian Government, with the option to not install certain apps. On Android smartphones, all Russian software and applications will be preinstalled. The preinstalled apps include Russia’s Mail.ru e-mail, the Kaspersky Lab antivirus program, the Odnoklassniki and VKontakte social networks, and the MIR payment system. The Russian law is expected to be updated to oblige international companies to preinstall Russian browsers as well on their electronic products. Russian officials have stated that the goal of the move is to support domestic technology. (Radio Free Europe March 16)

ARMENIA

Armenian army leaders again call on PM to resign after dismissal of general. 

  • Armenia’s armed forces have reiterated their call for PM Pashinyan to resign shortly after he announced that Chief of General Staff Gasparian had been relieved of his duties. Pashinyan’s announced that the dismissal automatically came into force after President Sarkisian failed to sign the dismissal decree and failed to appeal it at the Constitutional Court within the legal time frame. (Azatutyun March 10)

Protesters blockade Armenia’s Parliament as army chief dismissed. 

  • Protesters have erected tents in front of the Parliament building as the political crisis continues in Armenia, intending to stay there until PM Pashinyan is removed from office. The Homeland Salvation Movement stated that they had no intention of storming the building, but would stop MPs from entering Parliament as “they have nothing to do there.”  (OC Media March 10)

Armenia announces military drills to coincide with exercises by Azerbaijan. 

  • Armenia will hold military drills next week that will coincide with similar maneuvers by Azerbaijan. 7,500 troops, 200 missile and artillery units, some armored vehicles, 90 anti-aircraft units, and various aircraft will be involved in the Armenian exercises. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry announced plans for military maneuvers on March 15–18, including up to 10,000 troops, 100 tanks and other armored vehicles, 200 missile and artillery units, 30 aircraft units, and drones of different types. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova declared that the planned exercises do not pose a threat to the South Caucasus region. (Radio Free Europe March 12)

 AZERBAIJAN

EU “ready” for greater role in Karabakh peace efforts. 

  • The head of the EU Delegation in Armenia, Andrea Wiktorin, has stated that the EU is ready to step up its involvement in international efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflictWiktorin did not specify how the EU could assist in Karabakh peace efforts more than four months after a Russian-brokered ceasefire stopped the ArmenianAzerbaijani war. (Azatutyun March 9)

Law on Ensuring Gender Equality discussed in Baku. 

  • The State Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs has held a hearing on the implementation of the Law on Ensuring Gender Equality. The purpose of this law consists in ensuring gender equality by elimination of all forms of discrimination on sex, creation of equal opportunities for men and women in political, economic, social, cultural and other spheres of public life. (Today.az March 5)

BULGARIA

Proposals made to tackle “dire” press-freedom situation in Bulgaria. 

  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has published 10 recommendations to address the “dire” situation of press freedom in Bulgaria, seeking to stimulate a national debate in the run-up to elections next month. Drafted with the help of Bulgarian media experts, the recommendations target all political parties and the public in the EU member state after the Government’s “failure” to make press freedom a priority. “Press freedom has reached an impasse in Bulgaria and independent media are on the brink of disappearing,” RSF declared. (Radio Free Europe March 10)

Bulgarian President Radev continues work on the Three Seas Initiative with the EU. 

  • President Radev met on March 9 with Acting Head of the EC Representation in Bulgaria Kyulanov to discuss the Three Seas Initiative. Radev pointed out that, as the rotating chair of the initiative, Bulgaria will continue to work to synchronize the Three Seas projects with EU policies, and invited the EC representative to participate in the upcoming summit in Sofia. (Novinite March 10)

Bulgaria to host several multinational military drills, NATO members hone interoperability. 

  • Bulgaria is scheduled to partake in or host a series of multinational military exercises in 2021 to enhance its armed forces’ operational capabilities. Between March and mid-June, 26 NATO Member States will hone interoperability in simultaneous defense operations at 30 training areas in 14 countries during a series of interconnected exercises codenamed DEFENDER-Europe 21. From mid-May to mid-June, Bulgaria will host Exercise Saber Guardian, in which more than 13,000 service members from 16 countries will conduct live fire and air and missile defense operations, as well as a large-scale medical evacuation. (Novinite March 16)

GEORGIA

President Michel appoints envoy to mediate Georgia crisis talks

  • The President of the European Council, in collaboration with High Representative Borrell, mandated the European Commission Representative in Sweden to arbitrate the political crisis negotiations between the ruling Georgian Dream and opposition parties. Mr. Danielsson will arrive in Georgia to mediate the relaunched dialogue between the Government and the opposition, while “working closely” with EU Ambassador Hartzell. (Civil.ge, March 9)

Georgian Deputy FM decries Russian foreign intelligence statement. 

  • The Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia denounced the latest comment by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) claiming that the U.S. is weakening the Georgian Dream Party, stating that it “aims to incite destabilization” in the region. The Deputy FM accused Russia of actively using hybrid warfare measures to “interfere in Georgia’s sovereign choice in favor of democratic development and becoming a member of the European and Euro-Atlantic families.” (Civil.ge, March 11)

PM Garibashvili holds meetings in Brussels. 

  • PM Garibashvili is conducting an official visit to Brussels on March 15-17. PM Garibashvili shared the ruling Georgian Dream Party’s position on resolving the country’s crisis with European Council President Michel, assuring that they are “motivated to find a solution, but it will not be at the expense of the state interests in any case.” Garibashvili also met with Belgian PM De Croo to discuss COVID-19 vaccination challenges, Georgia’s 2024 EU membership application plan, as well as strengthening bilateral economic ties. PM Garibashvili will also participate in the Association Agreement Council, chaired by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. (civil.ge March 16)

Massive anti-Namakhvani HPP protest in Kutaisi demands Economy Minister resignation. 

  • Thousands gathered on March 14 in Kutaisi to protest the construction of the nearby Namakhvani Hydropower Plant in the Rioni River Gorge, also demanding the resignation of Economy Minister Turnava over the Government’s unsuccessful effort at communicating with the activists. The Save Rioni Gorge movement accused Economy Minister Turnava and Environment Minister Davitashvili of leaving the activists’ questions unanswered and “sneaking out of” the March 12 meeting. The protesters have been for three months calling for the investor to leave the Rioni Gorge. (civil.ge March 14)

EU mediation: Danielsson holds follow-up meetings. 

  • European Council President Michel’s envoy to mediate the Georgia crisis talks, Christian Danielsson, arrived in Tbilisi on March 12 and has held separate follow-up meetings with the ruling Georgian Dream and opposition parties. Georgian Dream representatives have refused to discuss the specific details of the meeting, and the opposition declared that it remains committed to its key demands for new elections and the release of alleged political prisoners. (civil.ge March 14)

MOLDOVA

Zhang Yinghong: When the Free Trade Agreement is signed, we will have more Moldovan products on Chinese market. 

  • China’s Ambassador to Moldova Zhang has stated that the signing of the Free Trade Agreement between the two states will increase the competitiveness of Moldovan products on the Chinese market. Underlining the friendly bilateral relations between the two countries, the Ambassador reminded that China has supported Moldova in the fight against COVID-19 and offered six lots of humanitarian aid to Moldova since the start of the pandemic. (IPN March 16)

Moldovan Supreme Security Council’s decision on overcoming pandemic crisis submitted to Government. 

  • The Presidency has submitted to the Government recommendations from the Supreme Security Council (CSS) for urgent measures in the fight against the pandemic. CSS suggests concrete measures of backing the residents and the business environment by compensating for the losses suffered by the employers, simplifying registration procedures for unemployment aid, establishing a moratorium on payments of rents and utilities and on fiscal controls, and working out the mechanisms of subsidization of economic agents. The CSS added that it is necessary to urgently block non-priority expenses such as large salaries in the public system. (Moldpres March 15)

Moldovan President meets Prosecutor General. 

  • President Sandu had a discussion with Prosecutor General Stoianoglo on March 15, where she reiterated her willingness to attract foreign resources to help Moldova investigate corruption and bank fraud. Sandu suggested that Stoianoglo accept the possibility of involving a European specialized institute for the recovery of assets lost to corruption schemes and embezzlement.(Moldpres March 15)

ROMANIA

Romanian Defense Minister Ciucă and his Turkish counterpart discuss NATO bilateral cooperation. 

  • Defense Minister Ciucă received Turkish Defense Minister Akar on Tuesday, during his official visit to Romania. The meeting included topics related to the security situation at international and regional levels, allied efforts to consolidate NATO’s deterrence and defense positions, as well as issues on the EUTurkey agenda. “This year we will have a substantial participation of Turkish land units in NATO exercises that will take place in Romania. So, for us, one decade after the signing of the Joint Declaration of the Strategic Partnership, the Turkish Army remains a key ally in the Black Sea region,” declared Minister Ciucă. (Actmedia March 10)

Alleged preferential vaccination sparks political scandal in Romania. 

  • Romania’s Social Democrats (PSD) claim that the center-right ruling coalition developed (or allowed) a parallel and preferential COVID-19 vaccination system, backed by public data revealed after a conflict over this issue between PM Cîțu (PNL) and Health Minister Voiculescu (USR-PLUS). Investigative publications reported that relatives of employees in the Army and Interior Ministry got the vaccine despite not being part of the categories that were supposed to be vaccinated in the first two stages. Of the 48 vaccination centers in the capital, only 11 are available for programming on the public vaccination platform, while the others are either closed-circuit or blocked by the Institute of Public Health. More than 60% of vaccinations were made outside the vaccination centers on the official platform. (Romania Insider March 11)

Three years on from landmark ruling, Romania continues to ignore rights of same-sex couples. 

  • Almost three years after the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that Romania must recognize a same-sex couple under EU freedom of movement legislation, its government is yet to implement the judgement. The couple has now taken the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to address the failure to implement the CJEU judgement and have their rights recognized. In June 2018, the CJEU ruled that EU countries must recognize the immigration rights of same-sex spouses under EU freedom of movement laws, regardless of whether same-sex marriage is legal in the respective EU country.  (Emerging Europe March 10)

TURKEY

Turkish journalist Levent Gültekin beaten by a mob. 

  • The Committee to Protect Journalists has called on Turkish authorities to investigate the mob assault on journalist Levent Gültekin and bring the perpetrators to justice. Gültekin, a columnist for online newspaper Diken and a commentator on Halk TV—both outlets critical of the Turkish Governmentwas attacked by a large group of people on March 8. The journalist’s fingers were broken in the attack. The journalist had been receiving threats on social media from members of a political party allied with the Government. (The Committee to Protect Journalists March 9)

Israel says ready to cooperate with Turkey on east Med gas. 

  • Israel’s Energy Minister Steinitz stated on March 9 that Tel Aviv is ready to cooperate with Turkey on natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Steinitz hopes that the the underwater Eastern Mediterranean Natural Gas Pipeline (EastMedwould be completed in five years. Israel had previously held talks about exporting gas to Turkey, and hopes that Ankara could join the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in the future. Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriot Administration and Israel has began negotiations to resolve the nine-year deadlock regarding the commercial use of the disputed gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. (Hurriyet Daily News March 9)

New Constitution needed, not drafted by the Military—Turkish Human Rights Commission

  • The Turkish Human Rights Commission has announced that preparations for a new Constitution and human rights action plan are under way, with the support of civil society and all political parties. Stressing that the Human Rights Action Plan includes major reforms that will be implemented within two years, the head of the Commission observed that Turkey cannot be governed by a military-drafted constitution, noting that the country has taken “bold and important steps” to improve human rights and democratization over the past 19 years. (IBNA March 10)

Egypt says Turkish “words not enough” to restore full ties. 

  • Egyptian FM Shoukry acknowledged on March 14 that diplomatic contact had been established with Turkey, but warned full ties would depend on “a real change in Turkish policy.”Ankara and Cairo had a dramatic falling out when Egyptian President al-Sisi ousted the Turkish-backed Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and the two regional powers have since sparred over a range of issues and found themselves on opposite sides of the war in Libya. “If we find a real change in Turkish (foreign) policy aligning with those of Egypt to stabilize the region… that could lay the groundwork to normalize relations,” declared FM Shoukry after Ankara announced that it had established its first diplomatic contacts with Cairo in over seven years. (Euractiv March 15)

Amnesty International: Failure to free Osman Kavala makes mockery of Erdoğan’s human rights action plan.

  • The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on the Turkish government to implement binding European Court of Human Rights judgments and release human rights defender Osman Kavala and politician Selahattin Demirtaş. Amnesty International has stated that “their continued detention makes a mockery of President Erdoğan’s Government’s attempts to whitewash systemic human rights abuses by unveiling a meaningless Human Rights Action Plan last week… the ongoing imprisonment of these two men, and scores of others, for simply exercising their rights shows that in Turkey, freedom of expression is ruthlessly punished.” (Amnesty International March 12)

Greece and Turkey hold talks over exploratory maritime operations. 

  • Exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey began on March 16 in Athens, with the discussions focusing on regional issues such as the demarcation of economic zones. Since previous talks in January, tensions have continued to rise over the division of the Aegean Sea; the situation further deteriorated when Greek fighter jets were deployed to intercept the Turkish seismographic vessel TCG Cesme, which Greece claimed was preparing the area for maritime drilling. (Foreign Brief March 16)

UKRAINE

UN: Russia has implemented no recommendations on human rights situation in Crimea. 

  • The Russian Federation has not adopted any of the proposals made in previous periodic and thematic studies by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) to improve the human rights situation in Crimea. “After our first review in September 2020, we concluded that the Government of Ukraine fully implemented 12 per cent of the Mission’s recommendations made in its previous periodic and thematic reports on Ukraine, and partially implemented 57 per cent, leaving 31 per cent unimplemented. This progress inspires optimism,” the HRMMU added in its assessment of the Ukrainian side. (Ukrinform, March 11)

Ukraine seeks to increase participation in NATO-led missions, operations–Stefanishyna

  • During a meeting with Lieutenant General Cloutier, Commander of the NATO Allied Land Command Joining NATODeputy PM for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Stefanishyna calleUkraine’s accession to NATO a matter of principle for Ukraine’s political leadership and assured that the President of Ukraine, the parliamentary majority and the Government are united in their desire to carry out all the necessary internal transformations on the road to Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Stefanishyna stated that the process will start by modernizing the security and defense sector in line with the Alliance’s standards and practices, and has already started by transforming the Security Service from a law enforcement agency into a special service. (Ukrinform, March 11)

Verkhovna Rada sends bill on amending Constitution on procedure for appointing, dismissing directors of NABU, SBI to Constitutional Court. 

  • The Verkhovna Rada has sent to the Constitutional Court a bill proposing amendments to the Constitution concerning the procedure for appointing and dismissing directors of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and the State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) based on the results of a competitive selection. The presidential envoy to the Constitutional Court has assured that the proposed amendments “will ensure the maximum independence of these anti-corruption institutions.” (Interfax March 16)

HUNGARY

EU lawmakers debate “worrying developments” for media freedom in Hungary, Poland, Slovenia. 

  • European Commission Vice President Jourova has warned of “worrying developments” for media freedom in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia, as lawmakers in Brussels debated the matter at a plenary session. Citing the cases of Hungary’s removal from the airwaves of a liberal-leaning radio station, Poland’s proposed advertising tax for nonstate outlets, and clashes between the Janša Government and the Slovenian national press agency and other journalists, Jourova assured that the EC has been in contact with the national authorities and continues to monitor the situation, and that it will “act when there are issues about the compliance of national laws or decisions with EU rules.” The lawmakers’ debate comes a day after the Civil Liberties Union for Europe warned that “authoritarians” in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia “abused the pandemic to continue eroding democratic standards.” (Radio Free Europe March 10)

Hungary, Poland refer controversial rule of law mechanism to court. 

  • Hungary and Poland have launched legal action at the European Court of Justice (EJC) against the regulation tying the disbursement of bloc funds to the rule of lawThe conditionality mechanism posed a major hurdle in the wider negotiations on the bloc’s historic €1.8 trillion budget at the end of last year, with a compromised was reached by having the European Commission promise not to activate the procedure until it had put guidelines in place governing its use, and having the ECJ rule on whether the mechanism falls foul of EU treaties. (Euractiv March 11)

POLAND

EU urged to protect independent journalism in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia. 

  • A group of 19 NGOs and associations advocating media and human rights has urged the EU to “take decisive action to protect independent journalism” in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. The group urges more powers for the European Commission to better protect pluralism and media independence, adding that the Commission should make sure EU Member States do not use post-pandemic EU recovery funds to further subjugate media. (The Slovenia Times March 10)

Poland expels Belarusian diplomat in tit-for-tat move. 

  • A diplomat from the Polish Consulate General in Brest was told to leave Belarus this week after taking part in an event to honor Poland’s post-World War II anticommunist resistance fighters. In response, a diplomat from the Belarusian embassy in Warsaw has been declared persona non grata and told to leave Poland. Deputy Foreign Minister Przydacz has criticized the “unfriendly and unjustified move by the Belarusian authorities.” (Polskie Radio March 11)

MEPs vote to declare EU a “freedom zone for LGBT people”. 

  • MEPs have symbolically voted to declare the whole of the EU a so-called freedom zone for LGBTQI people on Thursday, with 492 MEPs voting in favor, 141 against, and 46 abstainingThe move is in reaction to more than 100 municipalities in Poland declaring themselves zones free of LGBT people and ideology. MEPs aligned with the Polish government continue to defend their right to limit the freedoms of LGBT people. Six Polish cities had EU grants rejected over their anti-LGBT stance last year. (Euronews March 11)

SLOVAKIA

Police detained intelligence service head. 

  • The National Criminal Agency (NAKA) has detained Vladimír Pčolinskýthe director of the Slovak Information Service (SIS) intelligence agency, on suspicion of corruptionPčolinský was nominated by the coalition Sme Rodina party and appointed by President Čaputová in April 2020. President Čaputová is considering suspending Pčolinský, but will first have to learn more about the case, whereas Interior Minister Mikulec (OĽaNO) did not want to comment on the case. (Slovak Spectator March 11)

SLOVENIA

Slovenian PM urges national press agency director to quit. 

  • PM Janša has called on the director of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA) to step down, writing “it is time for the director as a political tool of the extreme left to step down and take responsibility for his unlawful actions. And allow the STA to work and develop normally” on Twitter. The STA turned to the Prime Minister’s Office for explanation about which unlawful actions Janša was referring to, but has not received a response. The Trade Union of Slovenian Journalists denounced Janša’s call as unlawful interference in the STA’s autonomy. (Euractiv March 10)

European Parliament report expresses concerns about Janša’s attacks on media. 

  • A European Parliament policy department service compiled an in-depth document on the situation in Slovenia in preparation for Friday’s session of the Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group. The document, which is for internal use only, also details PM Janša’s attacks on media and calls his behavior “uncommon for leaders of European democratic states.” (Total Slovenia News March 9)

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