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#Newsletter Exclusive / True Story Project

Regional Press Review (22-27 Apr)

RUSSIA

Putin’s annual State of the Nation AddressPutin gave his 17th annual State of the Nation Address

  • The first half was dedicated to domestic concerns such as economics, health, and social welfare, and the second part to reminding the world of Russia’s weaponry, drawing a parallel between the 2014 events in Ukraine and the ongoing political turmoil in Belarus, and threatening potential adversaries: “I hope that no one will think of crossing a red line with Russia.” (Radio Free Europe April 21)

Zelensky invites Putin to meet in the Donbas for peace talks. 

  • President Zelensky has invited President Putin to meet him in eastern Ukraine for talks on calming tensions between the two countries. (Radio Free Europe April 20)

Russia orders troops back to permanent bases after drills in annexed Crimea. 

  • Moscow has ordered its troops in southern Russia and around annexed Crimea to return to their permanent bases, calling the objectives of the snap inspection “fully achieved. The troops are due to fully return to their bases by May 1. (Radio Free Europe April 22)

In Moscow talks, Putin and Lukashenka praise progress on union state. 

  • President Lukashenka has met in Moscow with President Putin. There were no major announcements following the April 22 talks despite Lukashenka stating the day before that he was on the verge of making one of the most important decisions of his 26 years in power. Both leaders praised the progress being made toward unifying the two countries. (Radio Free Europe April 22)

Navalny expresses “pride and hope’ after protests as concerns about his health mount. 

  • Imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has expressed “pride and hope” after nationwide demonstrations calling for his release took place on April 21Fewer people participated compared to previous rallies organized by Navalny’s teamfaced with a heavy police presence, a roundup of his allies early in the day, threats of arrest, and the closure of key meeting spots. Russian police detained more than 1,900 people during the rallies, including at least 10 journalists. Navalny’s doctors urged him to end the hunger strike over concerns for his health. (Radio Free Europe April 22)

Russia expels 10 U.S. Embassy workers in Moscow. Russia has declared 10 employees at the U.S.

  • Embassy in Moscow to be personae non gratae in a “mirror” response to Washington’s earlier expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats and wide-ranging sanctions. (Radio Free Europe April 21)

American ambassador leaves Moscow for consultations in Washington. 

  • The U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, left Moscow on April 22 and is returning to Washington for consultations with the new White House Administration. (Meduza April 22)

German Foreign Minister rejects more sanctions on Russia over Navalny situation. 

  • German FM Maas has rejected additional EU sanctions against Russia over the situation of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, doubting that fresh sanctions would improve his situation. Maas stated that it was important to maintain dialogue with Russia and avoid an escalatory cycle of provocations from turning into serious confrontation. (Radio Free Europe April 25) 

Top Kremlin aide signals possible Biden–Putin summit in June. 

  • President Putin’s top foreign policy aide has stated that a final decision on the meeting had not been made, but that Putin may hold a summit with President Biden in June. The Kremlin stated that it views the summit— proposed by Biden earlier this month—in a positive light, and that initial discussions with Washington are under way. (Radio Free Europe April 25) 

Baltic states expel Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague. 

  • Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania will expel several Russian diplomats and embassy employees in solidarity with Prague. Lithuania will expel two Russian diplomats, whereas Latvia and Estonia will expel one each; all three countries claim that the expelled diplomats were involved in espionage. (Euractiv April 23) 

Russia orders Navalny’s groups to suspend activities. 

  • The Moscow City Prosecutor’s Office has suspended the activities of Alexei Navalny’s nationwide political organization ahead of a court ruling that is expected to outlaw the opposition movement as “extremist” and threaten supporters with long jail terms. The designation is part of a sweeping crackdown on Navalny’s activities, from sentencing the Kremlin critic to a two-and-a-half-year prison term to dozens of arrests of his top aides and regional staff.  “This is a huge blow to all of us,” Navalny’s team posted on Instagram, announcing that regional offices would stop operations immediately. Germany swiftly condemned the suspension, stating that “using the instruments of fighting terror against politically undesirable opinions is in no way compatible with the principles of the rule of law.” Amnesty International has condemned the ruling and the “unprecedented… audacity and scale of this cynical attack.” (The Moscow Times April 25) 

ARMENIA

Armenia condemns Aliyev’s threats to establish “corridor” in Armenia by force. 

  • President Aliyev has threatened to use force to establish the “Zangezur Corridor” through Armenia connecting Azerbaijan to the Autonomous Nakhchivan RepublicThe Armenian MFA was quick to condemn Aliyev’s remarks as a fresh threat to Armenia’s territorial integrity. The November 10 agreement commits Yerevan to opening rail and road links between Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan and Baku to open Azerbaijani territory as a transit route for cargo shipments to and from Russia and Iran. (OC Media April 21)

Pashinyan demands to punish protesters in Syunik Region of Armenia. 

  • At a rally, Syunik residents accused PM Pashinyan of intending to transfer the Megri corridor to Azerbaijan. “The atmosphere of impunity may not be allowed in Armenia,” Pashinyan noted as he instructed law enforcement to find and punish organizers of the protests, including the heads of large communities in Syunik. The PM’s Office described the protest organizers as being from “well-known circles.” (Caucasian Knot April 21)

Armenian PM steps down, sets stage for early parliamentary vote. 

  • PM Pashinyan has tendered his resignation, formally freeing the way for parliamentary elections to be held on June 20. Pashinyan plans to continue to fulfill his duties as prime minister until the vote and plans to take part in the elections. (Radio Free Europe April 25)

Biden recognizes WWI-era killings of Armenians as genocide.

  • President Biden has formally recognized the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide, in a declaration that has infuriated Turkey. “Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” Biden declared on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.  (Radio Free Europe April 24)

Armenia expects “actions, not words” from Turkey.

  • In a weekend letter to Istanbul’s Armenian Patriarch Sahak Mashalian, President Erdoğan expressed readiness to “develop” Turkish–Armenian relations “on the basis of the principles of good neighborliness and mutual respect.” FM Ayvazian responded that Armenia “attach[es] importance not only to words but also actions,” reminding that Turkish–Armenian protocols on the normalization of bilateral ties were signed in 2008, but that the Turkish government refused to implement them. (Azatutyun April 26)

AZERBAIJAN

Rights defenders are skeptical about Aliev’s decree on state support for NGOs. 

  • On April 19, President Aliev issued a decree on improving the state support for NGOs and ordered to set up an agency for state support for NGOs, which is to be governed by Supervisory Board with 11 members appointed by the President. Azeri human rights defenders have warned that the agency is an attempt to take their activities under Government control by selectively financing certain NGOs over others. (Caucasian Knot April 22)

Russian peacekeepers prepare for Victory Day parade in Karabakh, official Baku is silent. 

  • Russian peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh are preparing to hold a military parade on May 9 in the city of Khankendi (Stepanakert). The news has caused serious discontent amongst the Azerbaijani public, but government officials have not expressed their reaction to the event. (JAM News April 21)

Activity at recaptured church in Azerbaijan raises concern. 

  • The Twitter account for Caucasus Heritage Watch on April 19 shared satellite images of several vehicles next to the Vankasar Church in Azerbaijan’s Agdam district, which was recaptured from Armenian forces last year. The images  were widely shared on Twitter amid fears they may show a first step in the “erasure” of the ancient Christian monument. In March, a different church in the retaken Azerbaijani town of Jebrayil was demolished. (Radio Free Europe April 20)

Azerbaijani, Turkish leaders condemn Biden’s statement on 1915 events.

  • President Aliyev and President Erdoğan have condemned President Biden’s statement on the Armenian genocide. President Aliyev called the statement a “historic mistake” that seriously damaged emerging cooperation in the region, and assured that Azerbaijan stands by Turkey. (Today.az April 24)

BULGARIA

Mitov kicks off consultations with parties as he announces proposed Cabinet. 

  • Daniel Mitov, the GERB-SDS coalition’s candidate for Prime Minister, announced that he will ask for support from political groups and parties with which his party relates to on an ideological basis, noting that GERB would not seek support from the Socialist Party (BSP) and the minority MRF. (IBNA April 20)

Russia expels two Bulgarian diplomats in tit-for-tat move. 

  • Russia’s foreign ministry on April 20 expelled two Bulgarian diplomats in a tit-for-tat move for Bulgaria expelling two diplomats last month, after prosecutors arrested six people, including several defense ministry officials in the country, on suspicion of spying for Russia. (Euractiv April 20)

Data Shows alleged Russian agents in Bulgaria around time of arms-depot blasts. 

  • A new analysis by Radio Free Europe’s Bulgarian Service reinforces suspicions of a possible link between the Russian military intelligence agency (GRU) and a series of explosions that took place in Bulgaria in 2014–2015; Bulgarian prosecutors investigated the cause of the blasts, but charges were filed in only one and the four defendants were acquitted, with no public information available for the other investigations. Todor Tagarev, a former Bulgarian defense minister, said the Czech revelations and new data about GRU agents in Europe absolutely called for a new investigation into the cases(Radio Free Europe April 22)

Bulgaria’s new Parliament passes amendments to electoral code at first reading. 

  • The National Assembly on April 23 approved amendments to the Electoral Code tabled the There Is Such a People Party. The amendments include experimental electronic voting, video surveillance of vote-counting at polling stations, the replacement and downsizing of the current Central Election Commission, and scrapping the limit on polling stations in non-EU countries. (Novinite April 23)

Bulgaria’s anti-elite party says will not lead a government, snap election likely.

  • Last Friday, the GERB Party gave up on forming a government. The There Is Such A People (ITN) Party announced on April 26 that it would not try to form a government, as they lack lawmakers and allies and will not accept support from the traditional parties. Once ITN officially rejects the mandate, President Radev will ask another party of his choosing to try to form a government; a third failure would prompt him to appoint an interim government and call for snap elections within two months. (Euractiv April 26)

GEORGIA

EU’s Michel declares Georgia’s political crisis resolved, despite refusal of main opposition to join deal. 

  • Following his visit to Tbilisi on April 20, European Council President Michel declared Georgia’s political crisis “over.” The main opposition party refused to join an EU-mediated deal before United National Movement (UNM) chairman Nika Melia is released from pretrial detention. An amnesty law to release Melia is expected to be voted on next week. (Radio Free Europe April 21Euractiv April 22)

Calls for rallies threaten EU deal in Georgia. 

  • Opposition groups called for new protests on 15 May “against the persecution of political opponents and electoral fraud.” (Euractiv April 21)

2021 World Press Freedom Index: Georgia. 

  • Press freedom slightly worsened in Georgia, while the country’s position remained unchanged in the rankings released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) for 2020. Georgia is ranked 60th in the table of 180 countries with 28,64 points, marking Georgia’s media landscape as “pluralist but not yet independent.” Save for the Baltic countries (ranking 15th, 22nd, and 28th), Georgia is ahead of all other former Soviet Union countries, followed by Armenia on 63rd place. (civil.ge April 20)

Georgian rights defenders warn authorities against pardoning law enforcers. 

  • On April 19, some of the Georgian opposition parties and the ruling “Georgian Dream” Party came to an agreement to provide amnesty of political prisoners and the holding of parliamentary elections. The Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA) believes that the amnesty should not cover the law enforcers who used the tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protest actions on June 20–21, 2019, as their behavior and human rights violation renders amnesty “unacceptable.” The NGO “Human Rights Centre” has added that the amnesty of law enforcers might lead victims to be deprived of compensations, as only a few victims have forwarded their case to the ECHR. (Caucasian Knot April 23)

Georgian FM attends Trilateral Ministerial in Bucharest. 

  • Georgian FM Zalkaliani attended a trilateral ministerial between Romania, Poland and Turkey in Bucharest on April 22–24 and met with his counterparts from the three states, as well as from Ukraine. The Romanian, Polish, and Turkish FMs delivered a joint statement expressing concern over “the worrisome military activity in the Eastern neighborhood” and stressed the importance of reinforcing and supporting NATO’s Open-Door Policy. On April 23, FM Zalkaliani and Romanian FM Aurescu signed a 2021–2022 Action Plan between the two countries. (Civil.ge April 24)

Government announces a 9–12-month moratorium on construction of Namakhvani HPP Dam. 

  • Following continuous protests by the local population and environmental activists, a 9–12-month Moratorium has been placed on the construction of the Namakhvani HPP dam. The Ministry of Justice has been mandated to analyze the agreement with ENKA, the EU Energy Union will engage in the process of mediation with the nongovernmental sector, and an international expert will assess the environmental impact of the dam. (Georgia Today April 24)

MOLDOVA

Klaus Iohannis met Maia Sandu: Romania remains Moldova’s main partner. 

  • President Iohannis met on Tuesday in Bucharest with President Sandu to analyze the implementation of projects agreed upon during Iohannis’ visit on December 29, 2020. This year, Romania donated to Moldova medical equipment and protection against COVID-19 worth 2.3 million euros, as well as over 200,000 vaccines. In the next stage, 6,000 tons of diesel oil will be donated to Moldovan farmers. The two presidents agreed to continue the high-level bilateral dialogue, especially on projects of strategic importance in the fields of energy, transport, as well as education and health, to ensure Moldova’s sustainable development and connection to the European space. (Actmedia April 21)

Moldovans protest as socialist majority dismisses Constitutional Court president. 

  • On April 23, MPs from the Socialist, Shor and For Moldova Parties passed a no confidence vote in three Constitutional Court judges, declared the 2019 appointment of Constitutional Court Judge Domnica Manole invalid, and did not recognize the Court’s April 15 decision regarding the dissolution of Parliament. According to the Constitution, “Constitutional Court judges are irreplaceable throughout their term, independent and submit to the Constitution only.” (Balkan Insight April 23)

Maia Sandu: I ask citizens to get ready for defending our rights. 

  • President Sandu has called the Parliament’s dismissal of Judge Manole unconstitutional, and has requested the Prosecutor General’s Office to investigate it from the angle of usurpation of power in the state. EU Foreign Affairs Chief Borrell has called Friday’s votes and declarations by the Parliament a blatant attack on Moldova’s constitutional order and an attempt to undermine the rule of law. France, Germany, Romania, Ukraine, and the U.S. have also expressed concern. (IPN April 24; IPN April 24; IPN April 24 Moldpres April 25; Interfax Ukraine April 24)

Moldovan president thanked Russia for donation of vaccines Sputnik V.

  • Moldova received a batch of 142,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine on April 25. President Sandu thanked Russia for the donation, noting that it will accelerate of the vaccination process. Russian State Duma MPs who came to Chișinău withj the first batch of vaccines were met by Speaker Greceanii. Moldova is the first country in the region to benefit from vaccines produced in the Russian Federation.  (Moldpres April 25; Moldpres April 25) 

ROMANIA

Romania’s opposition asks commission to assess how Govt. tackled coronavirus crisis. 

  • Romania’s representative at the WHO, Social Democrat MP Alexandru Rafila, called on all members of the Parliament’s permanent bureaus to support and approve a commission of investigation to analyze how the authorities managed the pandemic crisis, and to investigate the issues unveiled by newly-dismissed Health Minister Voiculescu regarding inconsistencies in the reported number of deaths due to COVID-19. (Romania Insider April 21)

Preparatory conference in the books ahead of Romania–Turkey–Poland tripartite meeting. 

  • Α preparatory conference on “Security Challenges from the Baltic to the Black Sea Region. Vision of Romania, Poland and Turkey” was held on April 21 in Bucharest. In the conference, hosted on WEBEX by think tanks New Strategy Center (Romania), OSW (Poland) and SETA (Turkey), the Foreign Ministers of Romania, Poland, and Turkey discussed issues of common interest in the light of the security challenges arising in the East Wing of NATO and the pandemic. (IBNA April 22)

EC rejects some projects proposed by Romania under Relaunch and Resilience facility

  • The European Commission (EC) refuses to finance the EUR 3 billion irrigation project proposed by Romania under the Relaunch and Resilience Facility (RRF), and asked Romania to cut down the EUR 4.5 billion requested for motorway projects. The recommended date for submitting the final version of the plan (PNRR) to the EC is April 30. President Iohannis summoned a meeting with all relevant parties involved in drafting the national PNRR on April 26. (Romania Insider April 23)

Romania to expel Russian diplomat in solidarity with Prague. 

  • Romania announced on April 26 that it will expel a Russian diplomat, the latest European country to do so in solidarity with the Czech Republic over its spat with Moscow. The deputy military attaché at the Russian embassy in Bucharest, Alexei Grichayev, would be declared “persona non grata… in view of his activities and actions contrary to the Convention of Vienna on diplomatic relations.” FM Aurescu summoned Russian Ambassador Kuzmin to his offices on Monday. (Euractiv April 26)

Romania: concern about abusive legal action by former bishop against journalists and outlets. 

  • Civil society organizations are concerned about the legal action taken by a former bishop of the Orthodox Church against The Centre for Investigative Media, Dela0.ro and three other journalists in relation to their reporting on alleged sexual abuse. The organizations consider that the proceedings have many of the characteristics of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) and hope the courts will deal with them swiftly with due respect for European human rights law and standards. (Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe April 26)

TURKEY

AKP to propose establishment of TurkishEgypt friendship group. 

  • The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will propose the establishment of a parliamentary friendship group with Egypt. Turkey and Egypt recently released statements on bilateral relations, signaling the expected resumption of relations after more than seven years of political alienation, including establishing contacts and dialogue and the possibility of holding talks on demarcating their maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean. (IBNA April 20)

Prosecutor launches probe against CHP official for threatening Erdoğan. 

  • An Ankara prosecutor has launched a probe against Engin Altay, deputy parliamentary group chair of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), for claiming that President Erdoğan’s policies may trigger a military coup similar to the one that happened under former PM Menderes, who was executed by a military junta following the 1960 coup d’état. Erdoğan criticized Altay as an impudent person and assured that he is “never afraid of death.” (Hurriyet Daily News April 21)

Turkey’s Erdoğan slams Biden over Armenian Genocide statement. 

  • President Erdoğan on April 26 denounced President Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, claiming the move would have a “destructive impact” on relations between the two countries. Erdoğan told Biden to first “look in the mirror” before blaming the Turkish nation for committing genocide, pointing to the deaths of millions of Native Americans. (Radio Free Europe April 26) 

HDP’s statement on “genocide” sparks reactions. 

  • A statement issued by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that called on Turkey to face with its history and recognize the “Armenian genocide” has sparked strong reactions from the ruling party and government officials. AKP called the HDPs statement untrue and referred it to “face with the slaughters committed by the massacre gang, named the PKK” instead. (Hurriyet Daily News April 25)

No hope for federal solution—Turkish Cypriot leader. 

  • Turkish Cypriot leader Tatar has stated ahead of informal talks in Geneva next week on the future of negotiations that “there is no longer hope for an agreement on a federal basis in Cyprus.” The Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders will meet in Geneva between April 25–27 under the auspices of the U.N. to explore elusive “common ground” on the divided Mediterranean island. (Hurriyet Daily News April 25)

UKRAINE

Ukrainian asylum applications tick up in EU. 

  • Applications in the EU for asylum from Ukrainians have jumped in recent months. In February there were 971 applications, an increase of 72% compared to the month before, making Ukrainians one of the top 10 nationalities of applicants. More and more Ukrainians allegedly fear conscription and being thrown in an outright war. (Euractiv April 20)

Ukraine encourages Western allies to kick Russia out of SWIFT. 

  • Ukraine on April 21 urged Western allies to show they were prepared to punish Moscow with new sanctions, including kicking Russia out of the global SWIFT payments system, to deter the Kremlin from resorting to more military force against Ukraine. While Kyiv had no new information indicating that Russia had decided to take new military action against Ukraine, FM Kuleba stated that “it is important for the West to act now to prevent that happening.” (Euractiv April 22)

U.S. Senate committee advances bill to increase military support to Ukraine. 

  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee has unanimously advanced a bill to deliver military assistance to Ukraine, including lethal weapons, to help counter Russian aggression. The Ukraine Security Partnership Act would provide Ukraine with up to $300 million per year in military assistance until 2026, $150 million of which is subject to conditions. It needs to be passed by both the House and Senate and be signed by President Biden to become law. (Radio Free Europe April 22)

Ukraine, Romania ready to become strategic partners. 

  • Ukrainian and Romanian Foreign Ministers Kuleba and Aurescu have noted the readiness of the two states to start a strategic partnership, agreeing to hold consultations as soon as possible to remove obstacles to opening additional checkpoints on the Ukrainian–Romanian border and implementing joint infrastructure projects. The ministers also vouched to intensify the activities of the working group on cooperation in the energy sector and discussed preparations for the Crimean Platform summit. (Interfax Ukraine April 24)

YouTube takes down pro-Russian TV channels in Ukraine. 

  • YouTube channels ZiK, 112 Ukraine and NewsOne, owned by Taras Kozak, were blocked from broadcasting on YouTube on Saturday, following a Ukrainian government request to have them taken down. The Ukrainian government blocked the three channels from airing on Ukrainian television in February, accusing them of being instruments of Russian propaganda and partly financed by Russia. “We are pleased such an influential American company is willing to cooperate when it concerns issues of Ukrainian national security and Russian disinformation,” Ukraine’s embassy to Washington declared.  (Ukrainian Journal April 25)

Ukraine to expel Russian diplomat on principle of reciprocity. 

  • After the Russian Foreign Ministry declared an employee of the Ukrainian Embassy in Russia a persona non grata and demanded they leave the country by April 30, the Ukrainian MFA announced that it will soon expel a Russian diplomat from Ukraine’s territory on the principle of reciprocity. (Interfax Ukraine April 26)

CZECH REPUBLIC

Prague asks allies for “solidarity expulsions” in diplomatic dispute with Moscow. 

  • The Czech Republic has called on fellow EU and NATO members for “solidarity” action to support it amid a diplomatic spat between Prague and Moscow over Czech claims that Russian military agents were behind a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot. The Kremlin rejected Prague’s “baseless accusations” and called the Czech moves “unreasonable and harmful to bilateral relations.” The Czech government has already decided to eliminate Russia’s state-run corporation Rosatom from a multibillion-dollar tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant and to no longer consider buying the Sputnik V vaccine. (Radio Free Europe April 20)

Czechs round up suspects allegedly planning to join Russiabacked fighting in Ukraine. 

  • The Czech national unit to combat organized crime has detained at least five Czechs suspected of planning to travel to eastern Ukraine to fight alongside Russia-backed separatists against a backdrop of rising tensions between Prague and Moscow. Investigators from the state prosecutor’s office suspect the five of preparing to join a militant group that calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic. (Radio Free Europe April 21)

Moscow, Prague to keep equal number of staff at each other’s embassies. 

  • Newly-appointed FM Kulhanek has announced the equal number of diplomats that will be allowed by Prague and Moscow at their embassies: seven diplomats and 25 administrative and technical staff each, cutting the number of diplomats and personnel in Prague to match the staff at the Czech Embassy in Moscow63 Russian employees must leave the country before the end of May. (Radio Free Europe April 23)

President Zeman causes outrage as he questions Russian involvement in Vrbětice explosion. 

  • President Zeman has stated that there are two theories about what caused the 2014 arms depot blast: the first assumes the involvement of Russian intelligence, whereas the second blames mere inexpert handling of ammunition. The Czech government has rejected Zeman’s comments, reiterating that evidence of the link between Russia and the explosions is “very convincing.” (Radio Prague International April 26) 

President Zeman says he will block attempts to bring down government. 

  • President Zeman has indicated that he will prevent the opposition from bringing down the current government. Zeman indicated that he would allow the Babiš Government to continue to run the country in demise until October’s general elections should a no-confidence pass, and that he would not sanction a decision to dissolve the lower house. (Radio Prague International April 26) 

Final European Commission audit confirms that PM Babiš is in conflict of interest. 

  • A final audit report released by the European Commission on EU subsidies paid to Agrofert has confirmed that PM Babiš is in a conflict of interest, and that the subsidies received by Agrofert since 2017 are not justified. Babiš has denied having a conflict of interest, insisting that he does not control or manage Agrofert holdings, and criticized the “repeated lies of auditors’ mafia organized by informants from the Pirate Party.” The Czech Republic is not obliged to return any money to the EU over the matter.  (Expats.cz April 24; Radio Prague International April 26) 

HUNGARY

Hungary’s scrapping of NGO Law insufficient to protect civil society. 

  • Last week, a draft bill was submitted to Parliament to repeal a 2017 law that forces civil society organizations receiving more than 20.000 EUR per year in foreign funds to register as foreign-funded. The draft legislation designed to scrap “Lex NGO” instead requires the national State Audit Office to conduct annual financial inspections of CSOs that report more than 55.000 EUR, a measure that Human Rights Watch has called “a new method for authorities to continue demonizing and obstructing the work of civil society groups.” (Human Rights Watch April 23) 

Orbán blocks harsh V4 declaration on Russia, accepts softer version. 

  • The Visegrad Four countries approved an official statement on April 26 condemning the recently revealed Russian 2014 military covert operation in Czechia, rejecting an initial and harsher version of the statement—which also called for the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and voiced strong support for Ukraine and Belarus—after it was deemed unacceptable by PM Orbán. Hungary is also the only V4 country that has not expelled Russian diplomats from its embassy so far. (Euractiv April 27)

POLAND

OSCE head vows diplomatic effort to help Poles in Belarus. 

  • OSCE Secretary-General Schmid has promised that the OSCE will use all available diplomatic means to help Poles in Belarus, where several leaders of the Polish ethnic minority were detained last month. The European Commission last month called on the Belarusian authorities to free and drop all charges against several leaders of the Polish ethnic minority in that country.  (Polskie Radio April 21)

SLOVAKIA

2021 World Press Freedom Index: Press freedom in Slovakia has deteriorated. 

  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) placed Slovakia 35th out of 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index, two positions lower than last year. RSF commented on the acquittal of businessman Marian Kočner and then-PM Matovič’s dismissal of journalists as “superficial and often biased and arrogant” as some of the highlights of the year, adding that “due to the pandemic, the Government has postponed legislative plans for the protection of journalists and their sources, and the improvement of the editorial and financial independence of the public radio and TV broadcaster RTVS… The ruling coalition nonetheless took a step in the right direction when it initiated public hearings to choose the members of the Broadcasting and Retransmission Council.” RSF added that the independence of privately-owned media is threatened by the influence of the oligarchs who own them. (Slovak Spectator April 21)

Slovakia supports Czech Republic and expels Russian diplomats. 

  • Slovakia announced that it will expel three Russian diplomats from Slovakia as an “expression of solidarity with the Czech Republic” over the probable sabotage by Russian agents that caused the explosion of an ammunition warehouse in the Czech village of Vrbětice in 2014. It is expected that Russia will expel three Slovak diplomats from Slovak Embassy in Moscow. (Slovak Spectator April 22)

EU presidency priorities in focus as Janša visits Poland. 

  • PM Morawiecki met his Slovenian counterpart Janša in Warsaw to discuss bilateral relations, the priorities of Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU, and the future of Europe. Janša highlighted boosting the bloc’s resilience for health crises and cyber security as two key priorities of the presidency, adding that Slovenia would like the conference on the future of Europe to involve “a discussion free from value monopolies. (STA April 22)

SLOVENIA

EU Presidency preparations heading down the homestretch. 

  • Slovenia is scheduled to host 185 events as part of its upcoming EU presidency, including the EU leaders Summit, the annual Bled Strategic Forum, a summit to be held in October on the Western Balkans, as well as sessions of EU foreign ministers and defense ministers. The remaining 166 events will be held at sub-ministerial level. It is unclear whether these meetings will take place in person or online based on the epidemiological situation; it has already been decided that 35 events will be held online. (IBNA April 20)

2021 World Press Freedom Index: Slovenia goes down four spots. 

  • Slovenia has lost four spots, down to rank 36th among 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The report warns of the “dangerous path for press freedom” in Slovenia, finding problems for press freedom continue despite pressure from international NGOs for improvements. “Defamation is still criminalized and well-known politicians continue to subject media outlets to intimidatory lawsuits and often slanderous verbal attacks.” (The Slovenia Times April 21)

ZSSS unions say national recovery plan neglects social recovery. 

  • The trade unions associated in the ZSSS confederation believe the national recovery and resilience plan should promote social recovery and investment in human resources instead of just focusing on economic recovery, noting that “the plan must be balanced” to result in a system that would facilitate social security, decent health care and decent old age. The confederation also criticized the Government for preparing the plan in secret. (STA April 20)

Slovenia urged to nominate candidates for EU prosecutor’s office. 

  • European Chief Prosecutor Kövesi is concerned that give Slovenia has not yet proposed its two candidates to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which is to be launched on June 1. Justice Minister Kozlovič had put forward Matej Oštir and Tanja Frank Eler after they were proposed by the State Prosecution Council, but the Government has not yet formally gotten acquainted with the proposal despite the deadline being in December 2020. (STA April 26)

Government approval rating lowest yet. 

  • The Government approval rating has hit the lowest level since it took office in March 2020, the most recent Mediana poll showed. While 29.6% of the respondents supported the Government, 60.9% did not. Meanwhile, the National Assembly’s approval rating is even worse, with 19.7% of the respondents supporting the Parliament’s work and 66.9% not supporting it. The senior coalition Democrats (SDS) continue to top the party rankings with 17.6% approval. (STA April 26)

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