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#Newsletter Exclusive / True Story Project

Regional Press Review (17 – 23 Dec)

RUSSIA

Russia’s Navalny claims he is ‘100% certain’ that President Putin directed the elite unit to locate him before he was poisoned. 

  • Russian opposition leader, Navalny told CNN that he was confident that Russian President knew about elite agents’ extensively shadowing operations before he was poisoned. “I am totally sure that Putin was aware,” Navalny said on Tuesday, during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.“The operation of such skill and for such a long time cannot exist without a ruling from the chief of (Russian Security Service) FSB, Mr. Bortnikov. And he would never dare it without the direct order of President Putin.” (CNNDecemebr 15)

Pompeo condemns Russia for Seedlings ‘chaos’ in the Mediterranean.

  • U.S. Secretary, Mike Pompeo has criticized Russian authorities for trying to “threaten Mediterranean stability” in states across the region and causing chaos, violence, and division”.  In a tweet, Pompeo replied to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian FM, who declared he has ”accused the U.S. of playing political games” in the region. Lavrov “again gets the facts wrong and attempts to rewrite history,” Pompeo declaredhighlighting Moscow’s actions in Libya, Syria, and other Mediterranean countries. (Radio Free Europe, December 15)

Russia’s launch of the COVID-19 vaccine offers a cautious, mixed reaction. 

  • While the Western-developed coronavirus vaccine was embraced with optimism and anticipation when it was launched, the Russian-made formulation earned a mixed reception, with news of deserted Moscow clinics selling the shot to health care staff and students, the first members of the public authorized to receive it. The Sputnik V vaccine was promoted by Kremlin officials and state-owned news outlets as a significant success after it was certified. Nevertheless, among Russians, the expectation that the shot will change the trajectory of the COVID-19 crisis has been intertwined with distrust and cynicism, illustrating questions over how it was hurried out to guarantee its efficacy and safety while still in its late-stage testing. (Associated Press, December 17)

President Putin rejects comments with regards to complicity in the opposition leader’s poisoning. 

  • President Putin denied a foreign media report alleging that his administration was involved in the poisoning of Alexey Navalny.  He argued that opposition politician Navalny acted in collaboration with the United States as part of a “trick” to weaken the reputation of Russia. “This is not an investigation, this is the legalization of American intelligence service material,” President Putin stated, referring to the incident. (Voice of America, December 17)

President Trump downplays cyberattack, questions Russian participation

  • In his first public remarks on the incident, the U.S. President downplayed the severity and effect of a global cyberattack and cast suspicion on whether Russia was responsible. “The Cyber Hack is far greater in the Fake News Media than in actuality,” Trump said on Twitter on December 19. “Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens because Lamestream is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of discussing the possibility that it may be China (it may!).” The suggestion by President Trump that China might be behind the hacking operation, which has so far infected more than half a dozen federal agencies, including the Departments of Commerce and Treasury, runs contrary to claims by State Secretary Pompeo and many lawmakers briefing on the issue.(Radio Free Europe, December 19)

The FSB officer unwittingly admits to Navalny’s assassination scheme. 

  • Bellingcat and its allies announced that on 20 August 2020, FSB had been involved in Navalny’s near-fatal nerve agent poisoning. The study described eight covert agents operating under the guise of the FSB’s Criminalistics Institute with medical and chemical/biological warfare skills who have tailed Alexey Navalny since 2017 on more than 30 occasions. Near the time of his poisonong, at least three of these agents were in the immediate proximity of Navalny. (Bellingcat, December 21)

The Biden administration promises penalties for cyberattacks. 

  • The incoming chief of staff, Joe Biden, indicated that, once in office, the US president-elect would take a far harder stance against Russia over its alleged cyberattacks, suggesting that the US reaction would go further than sanctions. “Those who are responsible are going to face consequences for it,” Ron Klain told US network CBS on Sunday. “It’s not just sanctions. It’s also steps and things we could do to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to repeat this sort of attack or, worse still, engage in even more dangerous attacks.” The Biden administration was considering multiple options to punish the Kremlin over its alleged role in the massive cyberattacks uncovered last week that have targeted half a dozen US government agencies. Among them are financial penalties and retaliatory hacks on Russian infrastructure. (Deutsche Welle, December 21)

A joint patrol of Russian and Chinese planes flies over the Pacific. 

  • In a demonstration of increasingly strong military relations between Moscow and Beijing, Russian and Chinese bombers operated on a joint patrol flight over the Western Pacific on Tuesday. A pair of its Tu-95 strategic bombers and four Chinese H-6K bombers were flying over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, the Russian military reported. “In a statement, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that the purpose of the joint mission was “to establish and deepen the comprehensive Russia-China relationship, to further increase the degree of collaboration between the two armed powers, to extend their potential for joint action and to improve strategic stability. (Associated Press, December 22)

ARMENIA

EUArmenian Partnership Council to meet. 

  • Armenian delegates attended the ArmeniaEU Partnership Council on December 17 to discuss the repercussions of the six-week Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Brussels urged investigations of possible war crimes committed during the conflictand  has resolved to provide substantial humanitarian aid to locations where the civilian population was affected. (Foreign Brief December 17)

Thousands protest as Armenian opposition presses for Pashinyan to resign. 

  • Thousands of people poured into Yerevan’s main square as the opposition continues its campaign to pressure PM Pashinyan to quit over last month’s cease-fire deal with Azerbaijan. Protesters chanted slogans such as “Nikol, traitor” in the square, group of demonstrators walked into a building that houses several ministries and scuffled with security forces, and a major highway was blocked by opposition supporters. The leaders of more than a dozen opposition parties have vowed to hold daily demonstrations until Pashinyan agrees to hand over power to an interim government and hold snap elections next year. (Radio Free Europe December 22)

 AZERBAIJAN

Azerbaijan: attack on church possible war crime. 

  • Human Rights Watch has found that Azerbaijani forces attacked the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi on October 8 in a deliberate targeting that was in violation of the laws of war. Human Rights Watch has called on the attacks on the church to be “impartially investigated and those responsible held to account.” (Human Rights Watch December 16)

Dozens of Armenian soldiers “captured” in Nagorno-Karabakh raid. 

  • The de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh claim that 73 ethnic Armenian soldiers have been captured around the villages of Khtsaberd (Caylaqqala) and Hin Tagher (Kohne Taglar). There has been no comment so far on the soldiers’ reported capture from Azerbaijani authorities. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry stated that it had launched an offensive against Armenian forces who had refused to leave the area in the Hadrut district, and that four Azerbaijani soldiers had been killed since the truce came into effect. (Radio Free Europe December 16)

Azerbaijani ambassador floats Southern Caucasus project inspired by EU history. 

  • Azerbaijan stated that it seeks EU-style reconciliation in the region based on economic projects. Leading MEP Kaljurand, however, declared that democratic reforms in the country should come first. For the past three years, Azerbaijan and the EU have been negotiating for an agreement to replace a 1996 accord, but progress has been slow. “Unfortunately, our trade partners in EU [are] thinking a little bit based on the metrics, very bureaucratic… not thinking strategically,” Azerbaijani Ambassador to the EU Isgandarov explained. (Euractiv December 18)

BULGARIA

Hearing of Bulgarian Ministers in EP Postponed till January

  • Foreign Minister Zaharieva and Justice Minister Ahladova’s hearing by the Democracy, Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law Monitoring Group of the European Parliament, which was initially scheduled for December 17, has been postponed until January due to conditions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Novinite December 16)

Bulgaria’s “oligarch in chief” taps Washington lobby firm following critical report. 

  • Media mogul Delyan Peevski has hired the BGR Groupa top Washington lobby firm specialized in dealings with U.S. and international law enforcement and intelligence agenciesto help him with “issues in the U.S.” Peevski’s lobbying effort comes on the heels of a critical report about his influence in Bulgaria and shortly before Biden comes into office in the U.S., promising to address democracy failings and corruption among allies. Washington lobbyist Marshall Harris describes Peevski as one of the “key architects of Bulgaria’s democratic decline and devolution into a criminal state.” (Radio Free Europe December 19)

GEORGIA

The EU is providing a EUR 55 million COVID-19 assistance package to Georgia for agricultural production in rural areas.  

  • A deal to start off the fourth stageof the European Neighbourhood Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD IV) worth EUR 55 million, was signed by the EU Ambassador to Georgia and the Georgian MFA. The scheme is aimed at increasing consumer protection, encouraging EU exports and enhancing the livelihoods of Georgia’s rural community. (Agenda.ge, December 17)

MOLDOVA

Romania reiterates concern on undemocratic and non-transparent decisions adopted in Moldovan Parliament. 

  • Romania expressed its concern about the “undemocratic and non-transparent decisions” adopted in the Moldovan Parliament. Romania’s MFA stated that “Moldova needs fair and efficient cooperation relations with international financial institutions, with the EU and with the neighboring states, based on mutual respect and predictability, in order to ensure the prosperity of all its citizens. Adoption in such a manner of laws such as the one on the functioning of spoken languages on the territory of the Republic of Moldova, the state budget law, the amendment and completion of the Audiovisual Media Services Code or the abrogation of the ‘billion law’ do not contribute to this desideratum.” (Actmedia December 18)

Companies spend from EUR 500 to 1.500 per annum/per employee for IT trainings. 

  • Școala Informală de IT (SIIT), one of the most prominent non-formal education companies in the IT market, plans to consolidate its division of courses for workers in companies in 2021, in the face of increasing demand for them, but also to consolidate its activities launched in the Republic of Moldova this year. (Business Review, December 21)

Moldova lurches toward snap elections after PM, Cabinet resign. 

  • PM Chicu and his Government have resigned in a move to push the country toward early parliamentary elections, following a meeting with outgoing President Dodon and Head of Parliament Greceanii. Earlier this month, 20,000 protesters took to the streets in Chisinau demanding early elections after lawmakers passed a bill transferring control of the country’s intelligence agency from the President to the Parliament. The Government’s resignation comes a day before the end of Dodon’s term as president; President-elect Sandu will be inaugurated on December 24. (Radio Free Europe December 23)

ROMANIA

Romania to punish Anti-Roma acts with up to 10 years in jail

  • The Romanian Parliament has adopted a law that will punish anti-Roma “verbal or physical” actionsDistributing anti-Roma material or content can send culprits to prison for up to five years, while “promoting anti-gypsist ideas, concepts or doctrines… in public” can be jailed for up to three years. The draft law defines anti-gypsyism as any “perception regarding the Roma [that is] expressed as hatred against them,” as well as “verbal or physical manifestations motivated by hatred against Roma” directed against members of this ethnic group, their property, their institutions and leaders or their traditions and culture. (Balkan Insight December 16)

The law that prohibited gender debates in education declared unconstitutional by the constitutional court of Romania

  • The RomaniaConstitutional Court (CCR) has ruled that the proposed law to prohibit education about sex, gender, and gender identity in Romania is unconstitutional. The decision was taken after the President Iohannis sent CCR a notification regarding its unconstitutionality, and was welcomed by student and pupil organizations, the academic world, as well as associations for women’s rights and for LGBTQ+ rights in Romania and Europe. (Accept Romania December 16)

Romanian prince to serve jail sentence in corruption case. 

  • Romania’s High Court (ICCJ) announced the final sentences in the “Royal Farm” corruption case on December 17, including a 40-month prison sentence for Prince Paul of Romania. Police went to his residence to take him into custody, but couldn’t find him; his wife informed that he was in Portugal. The High Court also ruled prison sentences for businessmen Beny Steinmetz and Remus Truica, former political consultant Tal Silberstein, journalist Dan Andronic, and lawyer Robert Rosu. (Romania Insider December 18)

Romania’s center-right coalition reaches agreement on the next Government. 

  • The National Liberal Party (PNL), the Save Romania Party and PLUS Alliance (USR-PLUS), and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) will form Romania’s center-right ruling coalition following the December 6 elections and have reached an agreement on the structure of the new Government. They will endorse Finance Minister Cîțu for the PM positionPNL Leader Orban for Chamber of Deputies Speaker, and a USR-PLUS member as Head of the Senate. The new Government will have two deputy prime ministers and 18 ministriesnine led by PNL, six by USR-PLUS, and three by UDMR. (Romania Insider December 18)

Szijjártó: “ties as good as possible with Romania in Hungary’s interest”. 

  • FM Szijjártó has congratulated the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) for becoming part of Romania’s next coalition Government, reiterating the importance of improving bilateral ties between Hungary and Romania. UDMR will oversee the Ministry of Development, Public Works and Administration; the Ministry of Environment, Waters and Forests; and the Ministry of Youth and Sports. (Hungary Today December 20)

New MPs and senators formally ratified. 

  • The Social Democrats (PSD), National Liberal Party (PNL), Save Romania Party (USR), the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) and the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) parties have finished distributing posts in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.  Ludovic Orban (PNL) was elected Speaker of Parliament and Anca Dragu (USR) was elected the first female president of the Senate. The AUR party attempted to suspend the meeting and some of its senior members left early, claiming that the other political parties colluded against them. (IBNA December 22)

TURKEY

Turkey’s Erdoğan, EU’s Michel discussed EU summit in call

  • President Erdoğan informed European Council President Michel that Turkey aimed to build its future with the EU, and that every positive step in TurkeyEU ties is a window of opportunity. Erdoğan reiterated that Turkey was ready to launch bilateral talks with Greece on their maritime claims, but accused Athens of “running from talks. The official repeated a call for a regional east Mediterranean conference. (Reuters December 16)

Turkish freight train arrives to China. 

  • The first Turkish export train travelling on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway has arrived in Xi’An. The BTK railway will see significant reduction in shipping times from the EU to China from an average of 25-45 days to 12 days. BTK’s faster and cheaper shipping options undercut existing Russian freight train shipping, placing Ankara in direct competition with Moscow for shipping Chinese exports to European markets. (Foreign Brief December 16)

ECHR demands Turkey free “politically” jailed Kurdish politician. 

  • The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that Turkey should immediately release Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), stating that his detention for more than four years has sent a “dangerous message” to Turkish people and was “merely a cover for an ulterior political purpose.” President Erdoğan has dismissed the ECHR ruling as “not binding for Turkey.” A dozen HDP deputies have been jailed on terrorism charges since 2016, and 59 of the 65 HDP mayors in Turkey have been suspended from office since 2019. (Balkan Insight December 23)

Can Dündar: Turkey sentences journalist to 27 years in jail. 

  • Turkish journalist Can Dündar has been sentenced to more than 27 years in prison for “obtaining state secrets for the purpose of political or military espionage” and “supporting an armed terrorist organization without being a member.” Currently in exile in Germany, the former editor-in-chief of Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet was tried in absentia and without a defense team, after his lawyers refused to attend the final hearing as “[they] do not want to be part of a practice to legitimize a previously decided, political verdict.” (Deutsche Welle December 23)

Turkey to continue exploration in east Mediterranean until June 15. 

  • Turkey has issued another navigational telex (Navtexstating that the Oruç Reis and two other vessels will conduct seismic research activities in the eastern Mediterranean until June 15, 2021. The Oruç Reis had returned to Turkey on November 29. Turkey reiterated its opposition to “Greece’s efforts to declare an exclusive economic zone based on small islands near Turkish shores” and restated that “energy resources near the island of Cyprus must be shared fairly between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Greek Cypriot administration of Southern Cyprus.” (Hurriyet Daily News December 23)

UKRAINE

Ukraine will continue to pursue EU and NATO integration.

  • According to President Zelensky, Ukraine has had an exceptionally good year in the sector of European and Euro-Atlantic partnership and will proceed its strategic path toward full membership in the European Union and NATO. This is what the head of state declared in his statement at a video conference with the leaders of international diplomatic missions in Ukraine, as stated by the Presidential Press Service. ‘’Our common choice is to be part of a democratic world and to establish high democratic standards in Ukraine. On the international stage, we have to be active promoters of democratic values and strengthen our position as a subject, not an object, of geopolitical relations,” President Zelensky stated. (Ukrinform, December 17)

Ukrainian President is shattered by the system he pledged to overthrow. 

  • President Zelenskiy  is facing a struggle with the persistently corrupt political structure he has been chosen to eliminate. President Zelenskiy is flailing a year and a half into his leadership, as hard-won changes have been unraveled following the 2014 ouster of the Kremlin-backed leader of the government. As well as exposing his inexperience the backsliding throws into question the future of a nation that’s for decades played an outsized role in geopolitics, repeatedly thrusting the West and Russia into a tug of war. (Bloomberg, December 17)

Ukraine to purchase Turkish vessels for war. 

  • As part of a broader framework deal to strengthen bilateral cooperation in military procurement, Turkey is selling four locally produced surveillance corvettes to its coastal Black Sea neighbor, Ukraine. The deal, signed December 15, also includes the transition to Ukraine of Turkish technologies and the co-production of Turkish-made armed drones. The agreement was signed by the Ukrainian Defense minister, Andriy Taran and Turkey’s top official for defense procurement, Ismail Demir. The warship agreement is estimated to be worth approximately $1 billion. (Defense News, December 21)

Ukraine would not remove the goal of NATO membership protected by the Constitution. 

  • President Zelensky claimed that Ukraine would not abandon the goal of NATO membership written into the Constitution, but that such priorities for the Donbas could be addressed. “There is nothing in the Minsk agreements about NATO membership, in the Normandy format there is nothing about NATO membership as well. Regarding the amendments to the Constitution in the sphere of decentralization, we say: this is in accordance with the Minsk agreements, we are ready for that. To change the Constitution in the way that we sometimes hear about in the media from the Russian Federation – here they know my position, I told Putin directly that I do not agree with that,” President Zelensky declared in an interview with The New York Times. (Ukrinform, December 21)

CZECH REPUBLIC

Czech Republic, Slovakia block EU conclusions on importance of Northern Macedonia–Bulgaria agreement. 

  • Slovakia and the Czech Republic have spoken out in support of North Macedonia as they raised objections to the recent conclusions of the European Council on EU enlargement. It is yet unclear whether the Czech Republic and Slovakia will block the process to demand that Bulgaria withdraws its clause on the history of North Macedonia as a requirement to continue talks of the country’s EU accession. (Novinite December 18)

HUNGARY

LGBT rights: Hungary passes law banning same-sex adoption

  • The Parliament has approved a draft law that would effectively ban same-sex adoption, while also tightening the definition of marriage and the family unit. The new law allows only married couples to adopt children, with single people needing special permission the state to do so. Until now, adoption by same-sex couples had been unofficially possible if one partner applied as a single person. The Parliament also backed a constitutional change defining a family as having a mother who is a woman and a father who is a man. (Deutsche Welle December 15)

EU Court: Hungary failing to fulfil obligation to protect asylum-seekers. 

  • The EU Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that Hungary has failed to fulfil its obligation under EU law to grant international protection to illegal migrants from third countries, and that its discouraging, detaining, and escorting migrants back to the borders infringed EU law. The European Commission had launched an infringement procedure against Hungary over the transit zones established along its southern border and its changes to refugee procedures in 2015.  (Hungary Today December 17)

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz falls behind unified opposition in polls. 

  • Recent polls have found that support for Fidesz has fallen behind a newly-formed alliance of six major opposition parties. PM Orbán will thus face his toughest election in 2022, as the coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects linger and opposition parties group together against him. (Reuters December 23)

POLAND

EU agrees on tougher climate goals for 2030. 

  • EU leaders have agreed on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. The increase from the 40% reduction target was proposed by the European Commission in September and was met with resistance by Poland and other coal-dependent countriesAs a result, member states agreed that the new target should be delivered collectively, and will take into account specific national situations when establishing measures.  (Deutsche Welle December 11)

SLOVAKIA

Freed in the Kuciak murder case, guilty of another murder. 

  • The Specialized Criminal Court has sentenced Alena Zsuzsová to 21 years in prison for ordering the murder of László BasternákHurbanovo mayor who was killed in 2010, as well as for preparing the murders of Daniel Lipšic, Prosecutor Šufliarsky, and General Prosecutor ŽilinkaRoman Ostružlík and Vladimír Mosnár were also sentenced to 21 years in maximum security prison for Basternák’s murderZsuzso was helping Ostružlík when he ran against Basternák in the 2010 municipal election. Zsuzsová was previously stripped of the charges of ordering the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak(Slovak Spectator December 4)

SLOVENIA

PM meets ambassadors of EU members in Slovenia

  • PM Janša met EU Member States Ambassadors to Slovenia on Tuesday to discuss the most recent EU summit and Slovenia’s EU Presidency in the second half of 2021. Janša presented two key priorities for Slovenia’s EU Presidencycyber security and a comprehensive strategy to fight pandemics in the future. Moreover, Slovenia will continue to advocate EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, also focusing on the southern Mediterranean. (The Slovenia Times December 16)

Počivalšek will cooperate with anti-graft watchdog, wants to clear his name

  • The Commission for the Prevention of Corruption has launched multiple probes into purchases of personal protective equipment in spring, with eight persons under investigation, including Economy Minister Počivalšek and his former state secretary. Počivalšek rejected the accusations, but stated that he would cooperate fairly with the commission. (The Slovenia Times December 16)

DeSUS quits coalition, wants Erjavec to replace Janša. 

  • The Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS) has left the ruling coalition over the policies pursued by PM Janša, and has backed DeSUS Party Leader Erjavec as a candidate for Prime Minister-designate. “We don’t want an ‘Orbanization‘ of Slovenia, Erjavec explained.  The exit is seen as a major step towards the formation of a center-left government, but the parties are well short of the majority. (STA December 17)

Erjavec promises vote of no confidence in Government by year’s end. 

  • Pensioners’ Party (DeSUS) President Erjavec has announced that a motion for a vote of no confidence in the Government would be filed next week. Erjavec will be proposed as a candidate for prime minister-designate by an informal coalition that was recently formed between the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ), Social Democrats (SD), the Left and the Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) following President Pahor’s call for the political situation in the country be resolved as soon as possible. (STA December 22)

Latest corona stimulus also ends Government support for Slovenia’s NGOs.

  • The most recent coronavirus crisis package envisages the abolishment of the only systemic source of state funding for NGOs in Slovenia, taking money from volunteer networks, Caritas, sports organizations, etc. and halting the development of NGOs and the drawing of EU funds. The Centre for Information, Cooperation and Development of NGOs (CNVOS) points out that it is the second time that the Democratic Party (SDS) tried to abolish the state fund for NGOs, and has successfully done so last Saturday by “slipping the abolishment” into the proposed package. (STA December 20)

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