Regional Press Review (14-20 Iulie)
Russian-based ransomware group’s websites offline.
- REvil, a Russian-based hacker group blamed for a massive ransomware attack earlier this month, went offline on July 13, with both its data-leak site and its ransom-negotiating portals unreachable. Evidence suggests REvil has suffered a planned, concurrent takedown of their infrastructure, either by the operators themselves or via industry or law enforcement action. (Radio Free Europe July 14)
Zelensky respondents to Putin’s article on Ukraine.
- Ukrainian President Zelensky stated he was “envious” that President Putin has enough free time on his hands to research the history of their peoples in response to Putin’s more than 5,000-word article contending that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. (Radio Free Europe July 13)
Russia holds military drills in Tajikistan amid Taliban offensive.
- Russia on Wednesday launched military exercises in Tajikistan as the Taliban continue their blistering offensive in neighboring Afghanistan. Moscow is closely watching the offensive, concerned about the security of countries in Central Asia where it maintains military bases. (The Moscow Times July 15)
Russian prosecutor seeks suspended sentences for U.S. investor Calvey, associates.
- A prosecutor has asked a Moscow court to hand prominent U.S. investor Michael Calvey a six-year suspended sentence in his high-profile embezzlement case, also requesting a five-year suspended prison term to Calvey’s associate, Philippe Delpal, and suspended prison terms between four and five years to the five other defendants in the case. The trial started on February 2, almost two years after the defendants’ arrest; Calvey is one of several Americans currently held in Russia on charges their supporters say are groundless. (Radio Free Europe July 15)
Merkel, Biden united on preventing Russia from using energy against neighbors.
- President Biden and Chancellor Merkel vowed to stand together in opposing Russia using energy as a “weapon” against its neighbors as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany nears completion. Biden had expressed his concerns about Nord Stream 2 to Merkel during their meeting at the White House on July 15. (Radio Free Europe July 16)
Putin orders government to help Belarus weather western sanctions.
- President Putin has ordered Russia’s government to help Belarus weather western sanctions imposed on Minsk, following a meeting with President Lukashenko on Tuesday. During the meeting, Lukashenko assured Putin that Belarus will meet its obligations to Russia “at any cost.” (Radio Free Europe July 13; Reuters July 15)
OPEC+ reaches agreement on oil output increase; Russia to boost production.
- Major oil-producing nations have reached an agreement on an increase in output, ending a dispute that sent prices to a six-year high earlier this month. Under the deal reached on July 18, the alliance of oil-producing nations known as OPEC+ will increase output each month by 400,000 barrels a day starting August. Russia will increase its output from 11 million barrels per day to 11.5 million by May 2022. (Radio Free Europe July 18)
Donald Trump slams “disgusting” report on Russian interference in 2016 election.
- President Putin allegedly personally authorized a secret spy agency operation to support a “mentally unstable” Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election during a closed session of Russia’s national security council, according to what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents. The Kremlin has called the allegations “a great pulp fiction” and Trump has dismissed the report as “disgusting” and “fiction.” (New York Post July 15)
Russia claims successful test launch of new hypersonic missile.
- Russia has conducted another successful test launch of a new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile on Monday. The missiles can be used on surface ships and submarines in the Russian fleet and are part of a range of weapons developed by Moscow that Russia says are unmatched anywhere else in the world. (Euronews July 19)
Constitutional Court ends hearings on election appeals.
- Judges of Armenia’s Constitutional Court have retired to the deliberations room for rulings on appeals by several opposition groups challenging the results of the June 20 snap parliamentary elections. During several days of public hearings that began on July 9, the Court heard arguments of the opposition groups, the CEC, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Police the Television and Radio Commission, and the Civil Contract Party. The Court is to issue its ruling on an election appeal within 15 days after it was lodged and accepted. (Azatutyun July 14)
Charles Michel backs international mediation to Armenia—Azerbaijan conflict.
- European Council President Michel visited Armenia and Azerbaijan over the weekend in an attempt to keep the region closer to the EU. Michel called on the Minsk Group “to assume its responsibilities and address different topics” of the post-conflict settlement, adding that the EU “is ready to play a constructive role as an honest broker with Azerbaijan and Armenia in addition to the Minsk group efforts.” (Euractiv July 19; Euractiv July 17)
Arrests of Armenian opposition mayors continue.
- Law-enforcement authorities arrested on Friday the elected heads of two more communities in the Syunik province affiliated with the Hayastan bloc. The arrested mayors were already charged with other crimes this winter; they were also among the heads of more than a dozen Syunik communities who had issued in December statements condemning PM Pashinyan’s handling of the war and demanding his resignation. (Azatutyun July 16)
Constitutional Court upholds election results.
- Armenia’s Constitutional Court on Saturday rejected opposition demands to overturn official results of the June 20 parliamentary elections which gave victory to PM Pashinyan’s party. (Azatutyun July 17)
Aliyev warns Armenia amid fresh border tensions.
- President Aliyev has warned Armenia “not to make another mistake” and get down to negotiations on a peace treaty amid a fresh incident at the border in an Armenian serviceman was killed and an Azeri soldier was wounded in a skirmish near Nakhichevan. Yerevan has condemned Aliyev’s rhetoric as amounting to territorial claims after he assured that “the Azerbaijani population will return to the lands of their ancestors. A tripartite statement of November 10 says that all refugees must return to their homeland. Our native land is Zangezur, our native land is Goycha (Sevan) and Irevan (Yerevan).” (Azatutyun July 14)
Azerbaijan suspected of spying on reporters, activists by using software to access phones.
- A new report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) alleges Azerbaijan has been spying on hundreds of local activists and journalists using Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware developed by Israeli cybersurveillance company NSO Group that gave the government access to their phones, recording phone calls, reading text messages, accessing photographs and passwords, tracking GPS data, and secretly making audio and video recordings. OCCRP identified potential NSO Group clients from more than 10 countries, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates. (Radio Free Europe July 18)
Azerbaijani, Armenian forces exchange fire along tense border section.
- Azerbaijani and Armenian forces exchanged fire for several hours along a section of their border as tensions continue to simmer between the two countries. The defense ministries of both countries accused the other side of provoking the flare-up on the evening of July 19 along Armenia’s Yeraskh section of the border with Azerbaijan’s Naxcivan exclave. (Radio Free Europe July 19)
Final results in Bulgarian vote confirm win for anti-elite party.
- The final results from Bulgaria’s snap parliamentary elections confirmed that TV entertainer Slavi Trifonov’s There Is Such a People (ITN) Party edged out former PM Borisov’s GERB-led coalition by 0.58%, winning 24.08% of the vote. (Radio Free Europe July 13)
Outrage over Trifonov’s “Facebook Republic”.
- ITN leader Trifonov’s announcement on Facebook and his cable television channel of his proposed government and its priorities was met with outrage from the other parties, not only for its content but for the choice of platform for the announcement. Borissov has derided Trifonov’s announcement as part of a scenario to keep the caretaker government in office, likening any party that would support it to “loose women.” The Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Democratic Coalition and the “Rise Up! Mobsters Out!” also criticized the proposal, suspecting of a backstage deal between ITN with the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. Trifonov later withdrew the candidacy of Nikolay Vasilev for PM and stated that he would soon nominate a new candidate and a revised composition of the plan of the Cabinet. (Sofia Globe July 13; IBNA July 15)
Bulgaria’s interim government accuses controversial prosecutor of wrongdoing.
- Bulgaria’s interim government has accused Prosecutor-General Geshev, who was the target of mass protests last year, of wrongdoing as it seeks to oust the controversial official. Interim Interior Minister Rashkov accused Geshev of illegally publishing transcripts of politicians’ phone conversations that were wiretapped, stating that the act “is considered a crime under the Criminal Code and stipulates years of imprisonment.” The July 11 elections have yet to produce a government, meaning the interim government could continue its work for weeks if not months. (Radio Free Europe July 18)
Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office: “No illegal eavesdropping on politicians.”
- The Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office has terminated the pre-trial proceedings it initiated in reaction to media reports about alleged illegal eavesdropping on politicians, stating that no evidence had been found and ruling there had been no breaches of the law by the State Agency for National Security, anti-organized crime directorate or the Internal Security Directorate at the Interior Ministry. (Sofia Globe July 19)
Four Georgian TV Stations suspend broadcasting for 24 hours, demand PM’s resignation.
- Four private television stations—Mtavari, TV Pirveli, Formula, and Kavkasia—suspended broadcasting for 24 hours on July 14, demanding PM Gharibashvili’s resignation over recent attacks against LGBT activists and journalists that left one person dead. (Radio Free Europe July 14)
EU says top court appointments in Georgia defy April 19 deal.
- EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Stano declared that the appointment of six Supreme Court judges on July 12 goes against the “key provisions of the April 19 Agreement” to pause all ongoing appointments, comply with Venice Commission recommendations, and increase judiciary independence and accountability in an inclusive process. Washington has also stated that it is “deeply troubled” with the approval of the judges, “in contravention of the April 19 agreement.” (civil.ge July 14; civil.ge July 16)
U.S. Department of State, EU consider consequences for journalist’s death, LGBT rights.
- The U.S. State Department has stated that it is considering sanctions among “a number of tools to hold accountable those responsible in some way for human rights abuses, for violence around the world” as it reminded Georgian leaders and the law enforcement bodies of their “responsibility to protect all of those exercising their constitutional rights.” The EU has also stated that it will take “all these developments” into account in its dialogue with Tbilisi. The Georgian Dream Party has responded that “unfortunately our international partners also make hasty statements sometimes” in reaction to the criticism. (civil.ge July 14; civil.ge July 13; civil.ge July 15)
Georgian government probes anti-Pride activists.
- Georgian authorities have questioned several homophobic campaigners suspected of organizing the July 5 attacks against journalists, queer activists, and their supporters, including Zurab Makharadze and Konstantine Morgoshia, of the far-right Alt Info, Guram Palavandishvili of the Society for Protection of Children’s Rights, and Levan Chachua of the Georgian Idea party. Georgian online outlet Publika published footage showing police officers not resisting and even appearing to cooperate with Alt Info as they raided the Shame Movement organization’s office. Law enforcement agencies have so far indicted 24 individuals over the attacks. (OC Media July 16)
President Michel says EU aid conditioned on court reform.
- European Council President Charles declared after holding meetings with Georgian officials in Batumi that the “fast-track” appointment of six Supreme Court justices “did not reflect the results of consultations with international and domestic stakeholders” and “was clearly a missed opportunity.” “Determined progress in consolidating the rule of law through political and judicial reforms is of particular importance,” stressed President Michel, reiterating that judicial reform is a condition for disbursement of EU’s macro-financial aid to Georgia. (civil.ge July 19)
Moldovan president presents her foreign policy priorities.
- President Sandu on July 16 presented her 2021–2020 foreign policy priorities, which will be carried out in five principal directions: overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic and improving the public health sector; backing economic recovery; combating corruption and promoting the rule of law state through cooperation with international partners; supporting regional security by maintaining good relations with Romania, Ukraine and other states; assuming a more active role globally to identify solutions to regional and global problems related to the environment, security, and development. (Moldpres July 16)
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova seek acceptance of their EU membership perspective.
- A summit between Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova in Batumi culminated on July 19 with the signature of a declaration calling for the EU to acknowledge the perspective of these countries to become full EU members one day, a further step in the emancipation of the three associated members of the Eastern Partnership from the members that they perceive as having different agendas: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. European Council President Michel saluted the Trio summit as “an important milestone.” (Euractiv July 20)
Moldovan electoral body confirms result of parliamentary elections, MP mandates.
- The Central Electoral Commission (CEC) has confirmed the results of the July 11 snap parliamentary elections as valid and submitted the decision to the Constitutional Court for validation. CEC also assigned the mandates given to the political formations and electoral blocs: 63 for the Action and Solidarity Party, 32 for the Electoral Bloc of Communists and Socialists, and six for the Shor Party. The Constitutional Court has five days to rule on the elections’ lawfulness. (Moldpres July 19)
Powerful former leader of Romanian Social Democrats released from prison.
- Liviu Dragnea, the former leader of Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) has been released from prison after serving part of a 3 1/2-year sentence for corruption on July 15 after a court ruled that his good behavior warranted early release. Dragnea is still being investigated in two more cases related to allegations of influence-peddling and embezzling EU funds. (Radio Free Europe July 15)
Turkey demands the extradition of 86 “Gulenists” from North Macedonia.
- Turkey expects from North Macedonia the extradition of 86 Turkish citizens whom it considers linked to the organization of self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish Ambassador to Skopje has criticized the authorities of North Macedonia of having done little to date in this direction. (IBNA July 14)
Turkey and Israel agree to work towards improving relations.
- Turkey and Israel have agreed to work towards improving their strained relations after a rare phone call between their presidents. Monday’s call came a month after Naftali Bennett became the Israeli prime minister, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Erdoğan had frequently traded barbs. (Hurriyet Daily News July 15)
Turkish ship fires warning shots at Cyprus coastguard.
- A Turkish coastguard vessel fired warning shots July 16 at a Cyprus police boat on patrol for undocumented migrants near its line of control. The incident came amid high tensions on the island as President Erdoğan prepares to visit the breakaway Turkish Cypriot North next week to mark the anniversary of Turkey’s 1974 invasion. Cyprus police declared that the coastguard cutter was inside Cypriot territorial waters when the incident took place. (Euractiv July 16)
Ukraine’s powerful interior minister tenders resignation.
- Interior Minister Avakov, one of the nation’s most powerful officials, has resigned after more than seven years in the job for undisclosed reasons amid growing speculation that President Zelensky intended to sack him for his perceived lack of loyalty and failure to back certain decisions before the National Security and Defense Council. Zelensky has nominated Denys Monastyrsky in his stead. (Radio Free Europe July 13; Interfax Ukraine July 14)
Supreme Court strikes down Zelensky’s attempt to block judge’s appointment.
- Ukraine’s Supreme Court has overturned President Zelensky’s decree annulling the appointment of Oleksandr Tupytsky to the Constitutional Court for what he called threatening “Ukraine’s independence and national security.” Zelensky’s move to oust Tupytsky and another judge who had been appointed by pro-Russian former President Yanukovych came after the Constitutional Court in October 2020 struck down anti-corruption legislation and curbed the powers of the National Anti-Corruption Agency (NAZK) in a decision that dealt a blow to reforms demanded by the West and threatened to impact lending from the International Monetary Fund. (Radio Free Europe July 14)
Retired Ukraine police attempt to storm parliament.
- Several hundred retired Ukrainian police officers attempted to storm the parliament building on Wednesday demanding an increase in their pensions. The former police broke through outer barriers and came close to the parliament, which was in session, before being pushed back by serving police. Later, they blocked a street and picketed a government building. (Reuters July 14)
Georgian President pardons Ukrainian sailors.
- President Zurabishvili has pardoned two Ukrainian sailors, Volodymyr Dyachenko and Yuriy Khomych, as well as Mykhailo Baturyn, a former member of ex-President Saakashvili’s security detail in Ukraine, ahead of President Zelenskyy’s visit to Georgia. The boat with the three people on board was detained on charges of illegally crossing Georgia’s territorial waters on November 28, 2020. President Zelensky had declared that he would not attend the Batumi International Conference unless they were pardoned, and left for Georgia only after Ukraine’s Embassy confirmed their release. (civil.ge July 19)
Czech PM publishes new book: “Share Before they Ban It”.
- PM Babiš has released a new book called “Share Before They Ban It,” which details his experience in Czech and international politics, his visit to the Trump White House, Covid commentary, and his stance on migrant quotas (“No! No! No!”). Babiš also explains why he believes the Pirates are traitors to the country and the greatest danger that currently threatens the Czech Republic. (Expats.cz July 16)
Russia blocks access to Radio Prague International website over Jan Palach article.
- The Russian office for the protection of consumer rights has blocked Radio Prague International’s Russian-language website over a 2001 article about Jan Palach, explaining that the article promotes suicide and that the Radio’s website does not allow the blocking of individual articles, but that of the entire website. Czech Radio has called the act an attack on freedom of speech, Palach was a Czech student who set himself on fire in Prague in 1969 after the Soviet-led military invasion of Czechoslovakia. (Radio Prague International July 19)
Brussels approves Czech National Recovery Plan.
- The European Commission on July 19 officially approved the Czech national recovery plan, allocating the country €7 billion from the EU emergency fund to revive its economy after the coronavirus crisis. EC President von der Leyen was in Prague on Monday to discuss the Czech investment strategy with PM Babiš. The Commission called on the country to improve transparency and prevent conflict of interests when distributing the funds, as well as improve protection of whistle-blowers, strengthen its judicial system, better collect and analyze data on corruption, and establish rules for lobbying. (Thomson Reuters Foundation News July 19)
Writers, bookstores brace for ban on LGBT content.
- Some bookstores in Hungary placed notices this week telling customers that they sell “non-traditional content” in response to a new law that prohibits “depicting or promoting” homosexuality and gender transitions in material accessible to children that took effect last week, without the government issueing official guidance on how or to whom it will be applied and enforced. “The word ‘depicts’ is so general that it could include anything. It could apply to Shakespeare’s sonnets or Sappho’s poems, because those depict homosexuality,” bookstore chain directors complained. (APNews July 16)
Politicians demand inquiry into alleged spying.
- Opposition lawmakers have demanded an inquiry into findings that Hungary’s government used malware developed by the Israel-based NSO Group to spy on critical journalists, politicians, and business figures. The parliamentary national security committee is due to question national security and intelligence agencies on the allegations, but the opposition is concerned that governing party lawmakers might boycott the session and block the inquiry, as they hold a majority of seats on the committee. (APNews July 19)
Orbán calls EU action on LGBT rights “legalized hooliganism”.
- PM Orbán accused the European Commission on July 16 of “legalized hooliganism” for launching an infringement action against Hungary. Orbán stated that the debate offered Hungarians a glimpse into “European life” and what “went on in schools in Germany,” reiterating that Hungary would not let LGBT activists “march up and down” in schools promoting what he called sexual propaganda. (Euractiv July 16)
U.S., Hungary sign implementation deals under defense cooperation agreement.
- epresentatives of the U.S. and Hungary signed the implementation agreements under the two countries’ Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) of 2019 concerning the air bases of Kecskemét and Pápa on Friday. (Hungary Today July 17)
Polish and EU courts clash as critics warn of legal “Polexit”.
- Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Wednesday that interim measures imposed on the Polish judicial system by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) are against the Polish constitution, intensifying the rule of law spat between Warsaw and Brussels. The EU’s top court issued another ruling on the disciplinary chamber on Thursday, while the Polish Court of Justice delivered another postponed verdict on the compatibility of EU treaties with the Polish constitution as requested by PM Morawiecki. (Euractiv July 15)
European Commission goes after Hungary, Poland over LGBTQI+ rights.
- The European executive launched three proceedings against Hungary and Poland over what it sees as violations of fundamental rights of LGBTIQ+ people on July 15, leaving Budapest and Warsaw two months to respond to its concerns. The Commission called Budapest’s new controversial anti-LGBT law a violation of a host of bloc laws, including the free movement of goods and services, audiovisual and e-Commerce, overall breaching Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. The action against Poland relates to “LGBT-ideology free zones” and the failure by authorities to respond to inquiries on the matter. (Euractiv July 15)
Germany loses OPAL gas pipeline appeal as court sides with Poland.
- Berlin lost its fight on July 15 to overturn a ruling limiting Gazprom’s access to the OPAL pipeline, which links the Russian gas producer’s Nord Stream line to the existing pipeline grid in middle and western Europe. Polish gas firms launched a case against Opal after losing some transit volumes and tariff incomes resulting from the opening of Nord Stream 1 in 2011. The Court of Justice rejected Germany’s arguments that “energy solidarity” was a political concept rather than a legal issue, ruling that the Commission was required to examine possible risks to security of gas supply to EU markets. (Euractiv July 16)
PM calls Polish bid to tighten media ownership rules “perfectly normal”.
- PM Morawiecki has called a new Polish bill aiming to tighten foreign ownership rules for media firms a “perfectly normal” legislative move, assuring that similar laws exist in other Western countries and that it is a European country’s right to not have investors coming from abroad without the consent of national regulators. The Law and Justice (PiS) party earlier this month submitted a bill saying that television and radio license holders cannot be directly or indirectly controlled by owners based outside the European Economic Area; voting on the draft bill is scheduled for later this week. (Polskie Radio July 19)
Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian troops in joint drills.
- LITPOLUKRBRIG, a joint Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade, started military drills in the western Ukrainian city of Yavoriv. Over 1,200 troops, and 200 vehicles from the three countries are taking part in the joint maneuvers, codenamed Three Swords 2021, which are to last until July 30. (Polskie Radio July 17)
Ousted Slovak PM visits EU Commission representation.
- Former Slovak PM Fico has paid a visit to the European Commission representation in Bratislava, hoping to discuss with Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Jourová the flaws in the Slovak rule of law and handling of the several ongoing corruption trials that may allegedly relate to him and his party’s former nominations at high level governing offices. (Euractiv July 14)
Slovenia: Progress slow in EU migration pact talks.
- Interior Minister Hojs came out of an informal meeting of EU home affairs ministers at Brdo pri Kranju stating that stances between EU members in talks on the EU pact on migration and asylum were still quite diverging, although the meeting made a step forward. (Euractiv July 16)
Survey: Janša’s Government extremely unpopular, Janša’s party still #1.
- The latest Vox Populi poll shows that the Janša Government’s rating has hit its lowest point so far, with nearly 72% disapproving of its work. The ruling Democrats (SDS) nevertheless remain in the lead, with 18.2% of respondents supporting it. The opposition Social Democrats (SD) are in second place with 12.7%, trailed by the Left in third at 10.1%—a three-point gai. Former NSi president and MEP Ljudmila Novak (EPP/NSi) remains the most popular Slovenian politician, followed by President Pahor and National Assembly Speaker Zorčič. (STA July 19)
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