Regional Press Review (25 – 31 Mar)
NATO affirms unity in the face of “aggressive” Russia.
- NATO foreign ministers have vowed to continue to adapt in the face of “rising threats and systemic competition” and underlined that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security,” after U.S. Secretary of State Blinken called for “NATO to come together” against China’s “military rise” and Russia’s “attempts to destabilize the West.” The foreign ministers also committed to Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, under which an attack against one ally shall be considered an attack against them all. The Russian Foreign Affairs Committee called Blinken’s statement “yet another mantra to justify the alliance’s existence.” (Radio Free Europe March 23)
Lavrov pronounces Russia–EU relations as dead.
- Russian FM Lavrov declared on March 23 that there were no more relations between his country and the EU—only with individual EU nations—, blaming Brussels for “destroying mechanisms built over years.” He made the comments during a visit to China, marking further Russia–China rapprochement. (Euractiv March 24)
China ropes in Russia to push back against Western sanctions.
- China and Russia on Tuesday accused the U.S. of acting “in a destructive way” and creating a Cold War-like alliance and hit out against Western sanctions tied to human rights, rejecting them as political interference in their internal affairs. In a joint statement, Beijing and Moscow defended their right to choose their own development path as “all countries should firmly uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core, and an international order that is based on international law” as they called for a special summit of U.N. Security Council permanent members. (Nikkei Asia March 23)
U.S., EU top diplomats vow to cooperate on Russia’s “challenging” behavior.
- U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and EU High Representative For Foreign Affairs Borrell have agreed to coordinate their response to Moscow’s “challenging” behavior such as its “ongoing aggression” against Ukraine and Georgia, its “dwindling respect” for human rights and the rule of law and “the shrinking space in Russia for independent political voices, civil society, and media freedom,” and are determined to address Russia’s “hybrid threats, such as disinformation; interference in electoral processes; malicious cyber activities; and military posturing.” The two top diplomats also agreed to relaunch a bilateral dialogue on China, acknowledging that relations with Beijing comprise “elements of cooperation, competition, and systemic rivalry.” (Radio Free Europe March 24)
Canada sanctions nine Russian officials over Navalny jailing.
- Canada on Wednesday sanctioned nine Russian officials in response to “gross” rights violations and silencing of Kremlin critics. The sanctions target Federal Security Service (FSB) director Alexander Bortnikov; Igor Krasnov, the chief lawyer who prosecuted Navalny; head of prisons Alexander Kalashnikov; senior presidential and defense officials. PM Trudeau called President Putin responsible for “terrible things,” citing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, “significant cyber-attacks,” and “attempts to destabilize our democracies.” Russia denounced the sanctions and promised to respond in kind, mentioning that Putin had no plans on speaking with Trudeau. ” (The Moscow Times March 24)
Armenian lawmakers lift martial law ahead of June elections.
- Armenian lawmakers have voted to lift martial law, imposed at the beginning of last year’s war with Azerbaijan, as the country prepares for early parliamentary elections in June. The bill was initiated by the Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia factions and supported by the My Step bloc. (Radio Free Europe March 24)
Armenian PM calls for changes to electoral system ahead of snap polls.
- PM Pashinyan plans to switch the electoral system to a fully proportional one before the snap parliamentary elections take place in June. Pashinyan stated that the “simple changes” concern the mixed electoral system under which Parliament members are picked through party lists and individual races. The Prosperous Armenia and Bright Armenia parties do not favor changes to the electoral code before the June 20 elections, but have indicated that their parties would participate in the polls in any case. (Radio Free Europe March 24)
Armenian Prime Minister confirms he will step down to allow election.
- Armenia’s troubled PM declared on Sunday that he would step down in April but will remain in office on an interim basis until the June parliamentary elections. “I will resign in April — not to leave power, but to hold early parliamentary elections. I will continue to act as prime minister” PM Pashinyan declared in a meeting with residents of the village of Aragats. The PM did not give a specific date for stepping down. (Euronews, March 28)
Armenia gets first batch of AstraZeneca vaccines under COVAX scheme.
- As the world prepares for a third round of viral outbreaks, Armenia has obtained its first batch of 24,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from the UN-backed COVAX facility. (Radio Free Europe, March 29)
Azerbaijan protests Human Rights Watch’s report.
- Azerbaijan has denounced the Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s claims of Azerbaijan not treating POWs in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, insisting that the report “is biased and does not reflect reality” and accusing “such organizations” of “covering up Armenia’s crimes and spreading slanderous information about Azerbaijan, serving the interests of Armenians and trying to put pressure on our country.” (Today.az March 24)
Azerbaijani blogger living in France threatened after being stabbed.
- Reporters Without Borders is calling on French authorities to protect an exiled Azerbaijani video blogger who was stabbed in an attack in France 10 days ago and later received a threatening text message. “This is the last warning… We can kill you without any problem” said a text received on March 21 and signed “Andres Gragmel.” Mirzali is reported to be “often targeted” over his Government-critical YouTube channel. French police have not commented on their investigation. (Radio Free Europe March 24)
Russian language to get “official” status in Nagorno-Karabakh.
- The separatist “Parliament” of Nagorno-Karabakh has approved a proposal to make Russian the region’s second “official” language, along with Armenian. The bill meant to deepen Nagorno-Karabakh’s history of “cultural, military, and economic links” with Russia and facilitate communication with Russian soldiers and aid workers stationed in the region. President Aliyev has condemned the plans, insisting that “there can only be one official language in Azerbaijan — the Azerbaijani language.” The Kremlin described the matter as “an internal affair” of Azerbaijan and Armenia. (Radio Free Europe March 25)
Enlargement reports: MEPs fully support Western Balkans’ European future.
- MEPs adopted resolutions on Thursday calling on Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia to continue focusing on fundamental reforms across areas such as the rule of law and the effective functioning of democratic institutions, to step up the fight against corruption and organized crime, and to work on good neighborly relations and regional cooperation. MEPs regret that Bulgaria and North Macedonia have yet to come to an understanding on outstanding bilateral issues. An amendment accusing Bulgarian officials of making provocative statements regarding North Macedonia was rejected, whereas an amendment criticizing North Macedonia’s non-compliance with recommendations on non-discrimination of ethnic Bulgarians in the country was passed. (EU News March 25)
Bulgarian president meets with OSCE election observers.
- On March 23, President Radev received OSCE representatives part of an international mission to observe the general elections in Bulgaria on April 4. The purpose of the meetings is to take measures to ensure the health and voting rights of citizens, as well as the fairness, transparency and accessibility of the electoral process. (Novinite March 24)
Bulgaria adopts national migration strategy for 2021–2025.
- The Council of Ministers Wednesday adopted the National Migration Strategy of the Republic of Bulgaria for the 2021-2025 period. The strategic goals outlined by the Strategy include better management and implementation of migration and asylum policies, providing sustained legitimate options for regular migration in line with the EU’s legal framework to attract highly qualified third-country nationals, fair and effective asylum granting rules, and providing support for effective integration policies. The document also proposes a framework for the development of visa policies, curbing irregular migration and trafficking in human beings, providing care of unaccompanied minors, and handling migration in case of sudden migratory pressure and in an emergency. (Novinite March 25)
EU envoy heads back to Georgia to continue mediation.
- European Council President Michel’s personal envoy to Georgia will head back to Tbilisi this week in an effort to find a solution to the ongoing political crisis that EU officials say may jeopardize the South Caucasian country’s European aspirations. (Euractiv March 23)
Georgian Deputy Interior Minister resigns amid surveillance scandal.
- Deputy Interior Minister Sabanadze has resigned amid media reports claiming he ordered the intentional disruption of a gathering of opposition groups in 2019 and used illegal surveillance to keep track of some politicians. “The allegations must be studied and an unbiased and comprehensive investigation must be conducted to find the truth. Therefore, I am stepping down to secure a fair investigation,” Sabanadze declared. (Radio Free Europe March 23)
Venice Commission, ODIHR call on Georgia to reconsider bill stripping boycotting parties of funding.
- The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR called on the Georgian Parliament to reconsider a controversial legislative package that would deprive some parties of state funding and receiving free air time. The bill also proposes to terminate or suspend the election registration of a party if a person who participates in its campaign as a leader does not have the right to vote in Georgia. The Venice Commission and ODIHR criticized the proposed measures as “unduly invasive excessive and disproportionate,” “unconstitutional,” and “at odds with the Parliament’s Rule of Procedure.” (civil.ge March 24)
Early elections not an option, PM Garibashvili says.
- As part of his return visit to Tbilisi to mediate Georgia’s political crisis negotiations, European Council President’s Special Envoy met separately with President Zurabishvili, Georgian PM, and members of the ruling Georgian Dream party. During the meeting, President Zurabishvili highlighted the importance of defusing the ongoing political impasse, and also called for the EU’s active involvement in overcoming Georgia’s post-pandemic economic crisis afterward, the President’s press service reported. (Civil.ge, March 29)
Moldovan lawmakers again fail to endorse PM-Designate.
- Moldova’s Parliament has failed for a second time to approve the candidate nominated by President Sandu for PM, moving the country closer to snap elections. Igor Grosu on March 25 failed to receive the votes needed due to a lack of a quorum in Parliament after the Socialists and the For Moldova parliamentary bloc left the chamber. Under these constitutions, the president has the right to ask for the dissolution of Parliament and organize snap elections within 45 days. (Radio Free Europe March 25)
Moldovan president meets Russian envoy.
- President Sandu met with Russian Ambassador to Chișinău to discuss the epidemiological situation and developments in the country, as well as access to effective vaccines for Moldovan citizens. The Head of State also met with the Director General of the Russian Industrial-Financial Union and with Russia’s trade representative to Moldova to discuss boosting Russia–Moldova economic relations. (Moldpres March 25)
Romanian authorities intend to implement a number of projects in Moldova.
- The Romanian government intends to create a special fund for the Republic of Moldova. According to a proposed legislative, the fund would support Republic of Moldova mayor’s offices that are twinned with mayor’s offices in Romania. Localities in the Republic of Moldova will be able to build a favorable environment for a better life with this money, according to the senator elected in the electoral constituency for Romanians residing outside Romania and a member of the National Liberal Party, during a news conference at IPN. (IPN, March 27)
Moldovan head of state notifies Constitutional Court as to parliament’s dissolution.
- President Sandu, at a reported that she had submitted a notification to the Constitutional Court to find out the circumstances necessary for the parliament’s dissolution. „If the Constitutional Court ascertains these circumstances, then I will dissolve the parliament and we will resort to the people’s judgement,’’ the Moldovan President declared. According to the head of state, the parliament failed twice to elect a government and over three months have passed since the resignation of the Chicu Government. ‘’Just as the experts in constitutional law, I believe that the legal circumstances are met for the parliament’s dissolution,’’ the Moldovan president declared. (Moldpress, March 29)
Romanian lawmakers vote to abolish disputed special court.
- Romania’s lawmakers have voted to scrap a special court established in 2018 to investigate magistrates and prosecutors suspected of corruption that had been criticized both nationally and internationally as a means to intimidate judges. However, the bill is not without its criticism, with hundreds of Romanian judges and seven media freedom organizations warning that it could sabotage the fight against corruption by giving “super-immunity” to prosecutors and judges via a provision that requires the Superior Council of the Magistrature greenlight sending them to trial. (Radio Free Europe March 24)
Survey: Romanians have greatest confidence in Germany, the EU, NATO and the U.S.
- Romanians have a great deal of confidence in Germany (57.6%), the EU (51.7 %), NATO (49.4 %) and the U.S. (47.1%) and Chancellor Merkel (50.1%), according to an INSCOP poll. 16% of those surveyed said they have a great deal and quite a lot of confidence in Russia, and 19% expressed high confidence in China. (Actmedia March 25)
FM Aurescu and Polish FM Rau prepare for the Eastern Partnership Summit.
- FM Aurescu met on Tuesday with his Polish counterpart to discuss the preparation of their joint government session this year. The two officials elaborated on a new action plan for their bilateral strategic partnership, planned a celebration to mark a centennial of the Romanian–Polish defensive alliance, and agreed to tightly cooperate for to prepare for this year’s Eastern Partnership Summit. (Actmedia March 25)
Romania’s Environmental Guard to use drones to monitor air quality, pollution levels.
- Romania’s Environmental Guard plans to purchase approximately 50 drones outfitted with cutting-edge sensors to track air quality and pollution levels across the region, according to the institution’s president, who declared for Digi24. The data gathered by the drones would also be used to build risk-area charts. We need drones. We will buy drones with air quality sensors, gas sensors, thermal sensors […], and multispectral sensors,” Berceanu declared. (Romanian Insider, March 29)
Covid-19: Protests against restrictions held in several cities in Romania.
- Hundreds protested against the Covid-19 restrictions in Bucharest and several other large cities in the country on Monday, March 29, as the authorities introduced new measures in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. The new measures include different night curfew schedules and shorter shopping hours, depending on the Covid-19 incidence rate in every locality. In Bucharest, people gathered in Victoriei Square, chanting “Freedom!”, slogans against the authorities and the “medical dictatorship,” and setting protective face masks on fire. The leader of the nationalist party AUR, and MP Şoşoacă, recently excluded from AUR, were among the protesters in Bucharest (Romanian Insider, March 30)
Macron warns against Turkish “interference” in French presidential election.
- President Macron warned that Turkey would try to interfere in France’s 2022 presidential election, adding that “it is written, and the threats are not veiled.” President Erdogan has previously been accused of interfering in a German election in 2017, when he asked German–Turkish citizens to vote against chancellor Merkel’s party. Ankara on March 24 denounced the remarks as “unacceptable” and “against the friendship and alliance between our countries.” (Euronews March 24)
Çavuşoğlu meets with Blinken at NATO Meeting of Foreign Ministers.
- FM Çavuşoğlu and Secretary of State Blinken held their first in-person meeting on the sidelines of a NATO Foreign Ministers’ Summit in Brussels. The two ministers confirmed the importance of the allied relationship at the meeting, where Blinken thanked Turkey for hosting the Afghanistan summit before they exchanged views on developments in Syria, Libya, and eastern Mediterranean. The issues of PKK/YPG/FETÖ on the Turkish side and of the S-400 issue on the U.S. side were also raised. Blinken also expressed concern over Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and emphasized the importance of democratic institutions and respect for human rights (IBNAMarch 24)
EU dangles carrots for Turkey if “de-escalation sustained”.
- The European Council met on March 25–26 to discuss EU–Turkey relations, concluding the EU is ready “to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner to enhance cooperation in a number of areas of common interest” if “the current de-escalation is sustained and… Turkey engages constructively”. On the table is the prospect of meeting Turkish ambitions for top-level talks, preliminary moves to modernize a customs union and progress towards a potential liberalization of visa rules. Turkey, in the wake of the summit, dismissed the EU’s “narrow-minded” demands, but pledged to respond to gestures from Brussels with “positive steps.” (Euractiv March 26)
Feminist groups protest Turkey’s withdrawal from Istanbul Convention.
- Feminist organizations protested against Turkey’s withdrawal from the world’s first binding treaty to prevent and combat violence against women. The 2011 Istanbul Convention, signed by 45 countries and the European Union, requires governments to adopt legislation prosecuting domestic violence and similar abuse as well as marital rape and female genital mutilation. (Euronews, March 29)
EU tells Turkey to take back migrants from Greece.
- The EU home affairs commissioner declared that Turkey should stick to a 2016 deal that would see Ankara take back failed asylum seekers from Greek islands. EU officials are set to travel to Turkey for talks next week. “I call on Turkey to urgently resume the return of migrants from Greece,” reported EU Home Affairs Commissioner during a visit to the island of Lesbos, which hosts more than 8,000 asylum seekers. (Duetsche Welle, March 29)
Ukraine places sanctions on French MEPs and on dozens of Russian officials, entities.
- Ukraine has placed sanctions on 26 foreigners and 81 legal entities, blocking their assets and restricting travel or operations in the country. The sanctions also target Russian state-controlled media RT, TASS, Gazeta.ru, and Lenta.ru, restricting or terminating the use of their telecommunications services. Among the dozens of sanctions-hit Russian citizens are officials in the Interior Ministry, security service members, and lawmakers. The list also includes three French MEPs who visited Russian-annexed Crimea in 2020 without permission from Kyiv. (Radio Free Europe March 24)
Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova seek closer relations with EU.
- Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have come up with a joint initiative to start the format of enhanced dialogues “EU + 3 Associated Partners” within the Eastern Partnership to promote free trade and sectoral integration. PM Shmyhal hopes for deeper integration to be offered to the partner states based on the “more for more” approach in which the more progress countries make in implementing reforms, the more support they receive from the EU. (Ukrainian Journal March 20)
Ukraine welcomes Chinese with new visa-free regime.
- President Zelensky signed a decree lifting a visa requirement in order to develop friendly relations between Ukraine and China and intensify bilateral cooperation in the field of tourism on March 23, allowing Chinese citizens to stay in Ukraine visa-free for 30 days. China has become Ukraine’s largest trading partner since Kyiv’s relations with Moscow nosedived after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. (Radio Free Europe March 24)
Czech Republic: concern over independence of public service media.
- Media freedom organizations have expressed concern regarding the politicization of the Council of the Czech TV (CT). On March 18, the Electoral Committee shortlisted twelve candidates to the Council, four of whom are to be elected by Parliament. The organizations claim that political loyalties outweighed expertise and independence in shortlisting candidates, reminding criticism of the CT Council’s other recent “politically-motivated activities” such as the firing in November of every single member of its own supervisory board and pressure to dismiss CEO Petr Dvořák. (Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe March 23)
Czechs lead the charge against EU’s “do no harm” green criteria.
- EU environment ministers met on Thursday last week for negotiation of the European climate law. The environment ministers of Poland, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic have criticized the constraints imposed by the “do no significant harm” principle when it comes to EU funding, stating that it should respect regional specificities and available technologies. (Euractiv March 24)
COVID-19 vaccine: Hungary approves two more jabs not authorized by EU regulator.
- Hungary has issued initial approval to two more COVID-19 vaccines from outside the EU’s common procurement program. The Hungarian medicines regulator gave emergency approval to Chinese vaccine Convidecia and to India’s Covishield vaccine. (Euronews March 22)
Foreign Minister: Hungary “doesn’t want Cold War”.
- Hungary, a “committed and loyal” NATO member, “would not want another cold war or animosity between East and West”, FM Szijjártó declared, adding that illegal migration, fighting terrorism, and helping countries in North Africa and the Middle East develop their security capacities should be in NATO’s focus instead. Szijjártó also announced that Hungary would soon fulfill its 2014 commitment to raise its defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP, and that it had already reached its goal of increasing the proportion of development within defense spending to 20 percent. (Hungary Today March 24)
Fidesz MEP: CoE Commissioner “openly supporting violation of laws”.
- MEP Hidvéghi has accused the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe of “openly support[ing] a violation of laws” through remarks suggesting that civil organizations could help rescued migrants ashore in the Mediterranean even against a ban by the Member State concerned, and called on the European Commission to take a clear position on the “scandalous remarks.” Fidesz MEPs have also asked the EU Commissioner for Domestic Affairs for an opinion concerning “the activities of migrant ships operated by civil organizations deliberately violating the law.” (Hungary Today March 24)
MFRR condemns defamation lawsuit against Gazeta Wyborcza Editor-in-Chief by Justice Minister.
- Media freedom organizations have strongly condemned the civil defamation lawsuit launched by Justice Minister Ziobro against the editor-in-chief of Poland’s biggest daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. The organizations consider this to be an example of the Justice Ministry’s use of lawsuits as a tool for pressuring and financially draining the newspaper, one of the staunchest critics of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS). The lawsuit is the latest in a string of 60 civil and criminal cases brought against Gazeta Wyborcza over the last few years, many of which have been initiated by PiS politicians. (Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe March 24)
Warsaw calls for head of association of Poles in Belarus to be freed.
- The head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, the largest Polish organization in that country, was detained by Belarusian authorities for organizing a yearly traditional fair on March 7. The Polish Foreign Ministry urged the Belarusian authorities “to stop the arbitrary persecution” of members of the Polish minority in that country, and multiple Polish officials have expressed outrage over the detention. (Polskie Radio March 24)
Belarus detains Polish journalist as tensions with Warsaw rise.
- Another member of the Polish community in Belarus has been detained by police amid rising tensions between Warsaw and Minsk. Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist and a member of the Association of Poles in Belarus, was detained in Hrodna early on March 25, two days after its leader, Andzelika Borys, was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail. The Polish Prime Minister’s Office has declared that it will raise the issue of repression against Poles in Belarus through international forums and propose limitations on the movement of goods across the Belarusian-EU border. (Radio Free Europe March 25)
SaS withdraws from the coalition until Matovič quits.
- All ministers of the junior ruling coalition party have stepped down, after having threatened
to do so should PM Matovič not resign by March 24. Party leader Richard Sulík, who himself resigned as minister earlier this week, announced that the party was suspending its participation in the coalition until PM Matovič leaves. On Tuesday, President Čaputová joined the calls for Matovič’s resignation and for a new Cabinet to be formed by the same four parties to lead the country out of the health crisis. (Slovak Spectator March 24)
Parliament confirms five-year declaration on EU activities.
- The declaration on Slovenia’s activities in EU institutions in 2021–2024 was confirmed in the National Assembly. PM Janša stated the main topics include the priorities of Slovenia’s future Presidency of the Council of the EU: improving the resilience of the EU to crises, green transition, and the rule of law. The debate saw the opposition criticize the document for being too generalized and long-term, as the period covered by the document was extended to be tied to the terms of the Commission and Parliament. (The Slovenia Times March 24)
Slovenia summons Chinese ambassador over sanctions row.
- The Foreign Ministry summoned Chinese Ambassador Wang for talks in response to China’s retaliation to EU sanctions due to human rights violations against Uyghurs. In the talks, the Ministry described China’s measures as unacceptable and expressed concern about human rights violations in Xinjiang and about the legislative changes affecting Hong Kong’s autonomy. FM Logar stated that China’s actions contradicted the EU’s fundamental values and would not contribute to an EU–China partnership to boost investment cooperation. (STA March 24)
Slovenia’s rule of law report sent to Brussels.
- Slovenia has sent its contribution for the European Commission’s second report on the rule of law in EU member states to Brussels. A virtual visit to Slovenia to obtain more information and clarify potential issues is scheduled for mid-April. (STA March 25)
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