Regional Press Review (27 Apr-4 Mai)
Russia detains 200 in week after Navalny protests.
- Russian authorities have detained nearly 200 people in over two dozen cities in the week since protests in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny swept the country, after initially detaining 1,800 people in 100 Russian cities on the day of the rallies last Wednesday. Law enforcement authorities have opened 183 administrative cases on violating protest rules. At least two journalists were among those detained during the Moscow rallies, with six journalists detained or summoned for questioning after they covered or were seen by facial-recognition software in the vicinity of the protest route. (The Moscow Times April 28)
EU blasts “manipulation” of vaccine info by Russia, China.
- The EU declared that China and Russia have intensified “state-sponsored disinformation” campaigns denigrating Western-developed COVID-19 vaccines while promoting their own, explaining that the so-called “vaccine diplomacy” follows “a zero-sum game logic that seeks to undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, EU institutions, and Western/European vaccination strategies.” (Radio Free Europe April 28; Original Report on EUvsDisinfo April 28)
Russia puts U.S. top of “unfriendly countries” list.
- The U.S. has been placed on a list of countries Russia considers to be “unfriendly,” alongside
Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, the U.K., and Georgia. Kremlin spokesman Peskov declared that the list had not yet been finalized when it was leaked. The list appears to be mostly symbolic and the consequences of being included on it are limited to Russian citizens being banned from working in diplomatic missions on Russian soil, according to a law that entered into force last Friday. (Newsweek April 27)
Biden “not seeking escalation” with Russia, but “actions have consequences”.
- President Biden has declared in his address to Congress that he is not seeking to escalate tensions with Russia, but that “their actions have consequences.” “We can also cooperate when it’s in our mutual interests,” Biden assured, “as we did when we extended the New START Treaty on nuclear arms—and as we’re working to do on the climate crisis.” The U.S. hosted a two-day online climate summit last week, during which Putin called climate change a unifying issue, despite the numerous political conflicts between Russia and the West. (Radio Free Europe April 29)
European Parliament to vote on resolution condemning Russia.
- The European Parliament on April 29 will vote on a resolution threatening action against Russia over its treatment of jailed opposition leader Navalny, its military buildup on Ukraine’s border, and what lawmakers describe as “Russian attacks in the Czech Republic.” The nonbinding resolution calls on the EU to halt the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and on Russia to immediately release Navalny and pull its military forces back from the border with Ukraine, proposing to halt Russian oil and gas imports, exclude Russia
from the SWIFT payment system, and freeze the assets of oligarchs close to Russian authorities if Russian forces are used to invade Ukraine. (Radio Free Europe April 28)
EU summons Russian envoy over travel bans on Brussels officials.
- The EU summoned Russia’s ambassador to the bloc on Monday to condemn Moscow’s decision to bar eight officials from entering the country in retaliation for sanctions imposed on Russian citizens by the EU. The eight officials included European Commission Vice President For Values And Transparency Jourová, European Parliament President Sassoli, and Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly Member Maire. In the meeting with Ambassador Chizhov, the EU also recalled Russia’s expulsion of Czech diplomats and Russia’s executive order of so-called “unfriendly states.” Sweden has also summoned Russia’s ambassador to Stockholm to denounce the sanctions against Asa Scott, the head of a laboratory that helped confirm that Navalny was poisoned by the Novichok nerve toxin last year. (Euractiv May 4; Euractiv May 3)
G7 to discuss decisive action to counter threats like Russia and China.
- Britain on Tuesday urged G7 partners to agree on decisive action to protect democracies against “global threats” such as “those posed by China and Russia.” Ministers from Australia, India, South Africa and South Korea were also invited to the G7 summit this week. On Monday, having met with U.K. FM Raab, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken declared that there was a need to try to forge a global alliance of freedom loving countries. Tuesday’s discussion also covered the coup in Myanmar before turning to Russia, how to respond to a troop maneuvers on the border with Ukraine, and the imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. (Reuters May 4)
U.S. Embassy to cut staff, most visas for Russians as Moscow bans “unfriendly” hiring.
- The U.S. Embassy in Moscow will cut most visa services for Russians and eliminate non-emergency consular services for Americans starting next month, following Moscow’s hiring ban on “unfriendly” countries. President Putin last week capped the number of Russians allowed to work in “unfriendly” countries’ embassies or banned their employment entirely, with the U.S. at the top of the “unfriendly” list. U.S. citizens with expiring visas are urged to leave the country by June 15 or start the necessary paperwork at the Russian Interior Ministry to remain there legally. Last month, Moscow had become the only working U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia after the U.S. closed its other consulates in the country. (The Moscow Times April 30)
Ruling bloc criminalizes “election campaign obstruction”.
- The Parliament voted on Wednesday to criminalize obstruction of election campaigns as part a package of legal amendments aiming to prevent irregularities in the run-up to and during the June snap parliamentary elections. The amendments call for heavier fines and lengthier prison sentences for vote buying, election-related violence and disruption of the electoral process, and introduce criminal liability for attempts to impede pre-election activities of political parties or candidates, forcing people not to attend campaign rallies or agitate for a particular election contender. The opposition has criticized the bill, claiming that it could be used to penalize the opposition. (Azatutyun April 28)
Armenian Lawmakers reject Pashinyan’s candidacy as new PM.
- The Parliament has rejected the candidacy of acting PM Pashinian as the new head of government, in an agreed first step toward holding snap parliamentary elections. A second special parliamentary session is expected to take place on May 10, with the Parliament to be dissolved and early elections to be scheduled next month if Pashinyan fails to secure the support of lawmakers for a second time. (Radio Free Europe May 3)
Armenia slides in press freedom rankings.
- Armenia fell from 61st to 63rd place in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. It was 80th in the rankings when the current government took office after the 2018 “velvet revolution.” Reporters Without Borders noted that “media diversity has blossomed,” but also criticized the Government for failing to reduce the media’s polarization or achieve transparent media ownership and journalistic independence, which was further restricted during the state of emergency declared in September 2020. The Index also expressed concern about the volume of judicial proceedings against journalists, excesses in the fight against fake news, the involvement of the security services in combatting disinformation, and attempts to legislate without prior discussion with civil society and journalists. (Azatutyun May 3)
President Aliyev voices “last warning” for Armenia.
- On April 22, Azerbaijan reported about a shelling attack from the direction of Armenia on border guards by people who were in state of alcoholic intoxication, to which Russian border guards asked their Azeri colleagues not to respond. President Aliyev declared that the provocation “should be the last one,” and that the Azerbaijani army should “destroy the enemy on the spot” in case of new incidents. (Caucasian Knot April 27)
Bulgaria suspects six Russians in arms depot explosions.
- Bulgarian prosecutors have linked six Russian nationals to a series of explosions at ammunition and arms factories on its soil. The Prosecutor-General’s Office declared that the four incidents, dating as far back as a decade ago, may be linked to the attempted 2015 poisoning of Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev. (The Moscow Times April 28)
Bulgaria set for early elections after last attempt to form government fails.
- Bulgaria is heading for fresh elections after the Socialists became the third party to fail to form a government following parliamentary elections on April 4. The Socialists will return the mandate to form a government to President Radev on May 5. The most likely date for a new election is July 11. (Radio Free Europe May 1)
EU delegation welcomes opposition MPs entering Parliament, Rurua’s release.
he Delegation of the EU to Georgia on April 27 welcomed the signatory opposition MPs entering the legislature and President Zurabishvili pardoning Mtavari Arkhi TV shareholder Giorgi Rurua, in accordance with the EU-brokered April 19 deal. “These were difficult decisions, which required considerable political courage,” the EU Delegation noted, adding that it looks forward to the upcoming steps for implementing the deal “to advance Georgia’s democratic and rule of law agenda.” (civil.ge April 28)
Venice Commission & OSCE/ODIHR assess amendments to election code of Georgia.
- The Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR opined on draft amendments to the Election Code of Georgia that the proposed amendments include some positive changes, but raise new concerns to long-standing fundamental issues that remain unaddressed. The organizations underline the importance of the stability of electoral law, criticizing the practice of frequently amending the electoral legislation, especially less than one year before the next local elections. The positive changes noted in the draft amendments include those related to measures tackling misuse of administrative resources, as well as the strengthening of the processes to determine or dispute election results. However, concerns were raised about the proposed amendments concerning the composition of election commissions. (Georgia Today May 4)
U.S. Embassy: deeply disappointed by ruling party’s rushed decision.
- The U.S. Embassy in Georgia has criticized the Georgian Dream Party’s “rushed passage of amendments” for the recent amendments to Georgia’s Administrative Violations Code, questioning the “lack of meaningful consultation with opposition parties, civil society, and other stakeholders.” (Georgia Today April 29)
Moldovan President calls snap parliamentary elections.
- On April 28, President Sandu dissolved the Parliament and called for snap elections for July 11, shortly after the Constitutional Court cancelled a state of emergency that lawmakers had approved. (Radio Free Europe April 28)
U.S. calls vote to remove judge “blatant attack” on democratic norms.
- The U.S. State Department has called the dismissal of the head of the Constitutional Court a “blatant attack on Moldova’s democratic norms and its constitutional order,” urging Moldova’s leaders and representatives to “respect the rule of law, safeguard its democratic institutions, and work together to resolve the challenges facing the country.” The EU has voiced a similar response. (Radio Free Europe April 27)
Hungary–Romania mixed committee on minority issues relaunched.
- FM Szijjártó has stated that restarting the work of the Hungarian-Romanian mixed committee on minority issues will open a new chapter in bilateral ties and provide an opportunity to discuss and solve “problems that were earlier thought insurmountable” as he proposed a meeting as soon as possible. The Committee last met in 2011. (Hungary Today April 28)
World Bank lends Romania EUR 100 million to repair schools.
- The World Bank approved a EUR 100 million loan to be extended to Romania to upgrade 100 buildings across 55 schools in Romania to modern standards for safety, resilience, inclusion, sustainability, and digital access. Today, more than 1,000 schools around the country are at high risk of severe damage or collapse in an earthquake or do not meet modern fire codes, sanitation, or air quality requirements. (Romania Insider May 4)
No agreement with EC on key relaunch projects.
- Commenting on the ongoing negotiations with the European Commission on the National Relaunch and Resilience Program, Minister of Investments And European Projects Ghinea has stated that “we simply have different visions,” refraining from providing additional details. The ruling coalition on April 26 decided on a change of plans in response to the comments received from the Commission, including slashing the portfolio of projects from EUR 40 billion to EUR 29 billion. Minister Ghinea claimed that “everything is alright,” but admits that aside from the three key projects already rejected by the Commission (the gas distribution network, the irrigation system, and most of the motorway projects), the budget earmarked by the Government to the local administrations is also at risk. (Romania Insider May 4)
Turkey says it’s glad a woman leads EU’s executive branch.
- The Turkish government again rejected the accusation that it snubbed the head of the EU’s executive arm because she is a woman, insisting on Wednesday that internal EU squabbling was to blame for a protocol gaffe during a meeting with Turkey’s president. In an address to the European Parliament on Monday, von der Leyen had stated that she believed she was treated disrespectfully simply because of her gender. (AP News April 27)
U.N.’s Guterres says common ground elusive in Cyprus talks.
- The United Nations declared on Thursday that there was not enough common ground to resume negotiations on Cyprus, after a three-day summit attempting to break a four-year impasse in peace negotiations. Greek Cypriots is backing a federal system outlined in U.N. resolutions, whereas Turkish Cypriots are backing a two-state deal; both sides consider the other an unacceptable solution. (Reuters April 29)
IPI condemns police directive preventing audio-visual reporting on protests.
- The International Press Institute has condemned a directive sent on Tuesday by Turkey’s Security General Directorate to all police departments in the country requesting officers to prevent audio and visual recordings of protests and public demonstrations. The circulated note is seen as a clear move to prevent citizens and journalists from reporting on human rights violations. Some local media outlets that have built their work primarily on citizen journalism have raised concerns that their work will be heavily affected. (International Press Institute May 1)
Erdoğan avoids escalating genocide dispute with Biden.
- Though President Erdoğan has angrily condemned President Biden for calling the Ottoman massacre of Armenians a genocide, the official has taken no concrete retaliatory steps and has only addressed the issue once since Biden’s historic declaration. In the same televised speech in which he lashed out at Biden’s “baseless, unjust and untrue remarks,” Erdoğan stressed that the two leaders could forge a new start when they meet in June for the first time since Biden took office. (Azatutyun April 30)
Head Of Ukrainian energy giant Naftogaz replaced.
- Ukraine’s government has replaced the head of Naftogaz, the country’s largest oil and gas company, after it posted a loss of nearly $700 million last year. Andriy Kobolyev was dismissed from the post and acting Energy Minister Vitrenko will take over the state-owned giant, with Deputy Minister of Energy Boyko appointed as Acting Minister of Energy in Vitrenko’s stead. (Radio Free Europe April 28)
Ukrainian security service says it prevented cyberattack ordered by Moscow.
- Ukraine’s SBU security service has arrested a local resident suspected of planning a Russian-ordered cyberattack on Ukrainian state institutions. The special services of the Russian Federation allegedly acted through a resident of Zaporizhzhya. (Radio Free Europe April 27)
EU must be ready to react if Russia crosses red lines in relation to Ukraine—Borrell.
- EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Borrell believes that the EU should be ready to react if Russia crosses the “red lines” with regard to Ukraine. At the same time, Borrell expressed confidence that Ukraine should continue its reforms, because “there is nothing better in confronting Russia than to become a country with a democratic system, free from corruption, using our resources, which we are ready to provide in order to improve the quality of the country’s governance.” Borrell encouraged the EU to continue to convey a coordinated message of its continued support to Ukraine and take part in the Crimean platform Summit in August. (Interfax Ukraine April 28)
Half a million Russian passports issued in eastern Ukraine in last two years.
- More than 527,000 people in parts of eastern Ukraine have been granted Russian citizenship over the past two years despite around 40% of applications had been rejected, citing expulsions or restrictions on entry to Russia. Ukraine has condemned the Russian naturalization of Ukrainian citizens as part of a hybrid-warfare campaign being waged by Moscow and a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. (Radio Free Europe May 2)
EU, U.S. criticize sacking of Ukraine’s Naftogaz CEO.
- EU and U.S. representatives have raised deep concerns over the Ukrainian government’s unexpected decision to replace the head of state-owned oil and gas company Naftogaz over “unsatisfactory” results of the company’s operations last year. Brussels has called on Ukraine “to ensure that the management decisions at state-owned enterprises are taken in full accordance with basic tenets of recognized corporate governance standards,” and the U.S. claimed that the “calculated move” showed “disregard for fair and transparent corporate governance practices.” The move threatens to complicate talks to access a $5 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. (Radio Free Europe April 30)
Blinken to visit Ukraine amid Russia’s “ongoing aggression”.
- Secretary of State Blinken is scheduled to visit Ukraine on May 5-6 to meet with President Zelenskiy, FM Kuleba, as well as representatives of Ukrainian civil society “to reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression” and push for further reforms in the country. (Radio Free Europe April 30)
Czech senators could take legal action against Zeman over Vrbětice remarks.
- The senator groups of the opposition Mayors and Independents (STAN), ODS and TOP 09 are considering initiating a constitutional lawsuit against President Zeman over his comments on “no evidence” of Russian Intelligence involvement on the 2014 case of ammunition stores blast. The Million Moments for Democracy civic group have announced that they will organize nationwide demonstrations against Zeman’s pro-Russian bias on April 29. (Expats.cz April 28)
MEPs to debate EU response to Czech charge Russian spies caused deadly 2014 explosion.
- MEPs are due to debate on Wednesday whether and how the EU should further respond to Prague’s allegations that Moscow was behind a 2014 ammunition depot explosion. The European Parliament last week condemned “another attack by people affiliated to the Russian state on a sovereign territory in the EU” and called on all Member States and the European Council “to show their solidarity by adopting strong, common and concrete measures towards Russia in response to this attack.” (Radio Prague International April 28)
EC will investigate possible Czech breach of rule of law over conflict of interest.
- The European Commission will investigate whether the conflict-of-interest rules have been regularly violated in Czechia, triggered by the EC final report by the European auditors that definitively found PM Babiš to be in a conflict of interest. The EC may apply a new mechanism attached to the disbursement of the EU seven-year budget and recovery fund, conditioning it on respect for the rule of law. If the investigation finds that the PM´s conflict is part of a larger systemic problem in the country, Czechia might lose access to all EU Funds. (Intellinews April 28)
Thousands rally against Czech President over Russia stance.
- 10,000 people rallied in Prague on April 29, calling for President Zeman’s removal from office and condemning what opponents claim are his pro-Russia views. The protesters demanded the Senate bring treason charges against Zeman for contradicting the Government and claiming that are two theories about what caused the explosion of a munitions depot near Vrbetice in 2014. (Radio Free Europe April 29)
Eurobarometer: Czechs’ trust in their government lowest in EU.
- Czech people’s trust in their government is the lowest of all EU member states. The number of Czechs who trust their government has dropped from 40% to 19% and those who trust Parliament has taken a dive from 25 to 15%. Meanwhile, trust in EU institutions has gone up from 39% to 48%, the highest rating since 2013, and trust in the United Nations has grown from 45 to 57%. (Radio Prague International May 4)
Czech Republic improves its cybersecurity following spate of attacks.
- The Czech Republic has significantly improved its cybersecurity following a spate of attacks last year, according to the security consulting agency Czech Point. While the Czech Republic has moved 35 places up the ladder in cybersecurity by March 2021, neighboring Slovakia has slid 44 places down and is now more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. (Radio Prague International May 3)
Hungarian Parliament overhauls higher education amid outcry.
- Hungary’s parliament on Tuesday voted to transfer state assets into foundations that will control many of the country’s public universities and cultural institutions, a move opposition figures have decried as a theft of public funds. The foundations were granted endowments worth billions of dollars in public assets, including valuable real estate, a palace, a harbor, and shares of partially state-owned companies. (Euronews April 27)
Deutsche Welle launches Hungarian service.
- Deutsche Welle Magyar was launched last week, aimed primarily at users between the ages of 20 and 35. Commenting on the new service, Deutsche Welle Director Peter Limbourg stated that “Now is the time for Deutsche Welle Magyar. Many media in Central and Eastern Europe that have reported critically on their governments are facing various obstacles to their work or have had to give up.” (Emerging Europe April 30)
Freedom House accuses Hungary and Poland of spreading anti-democratic practices.
- The latest Freedom House Nations in Transit report found that the countries of Central and Southeast Europe are continuing to witness declines in democracy, media and election freedom, and respect for human rights, pointing to Poland and Hungary as “stand[ing] out for their unparalleled democratic deterioration over the past decade.” (Balkan Insight April 28)
Purge of editors begins despite court ruling suspending purchase of Polska Press.
- On April 29, a purge of editorial staff at daily newspapers owned by Polska Press began, with three editors-in-chief being sacked and replaced with figures friendly towards the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party despite previous assurances there would be no layoffs after state-controlled oil giant PKN Orlen acquired the media giant. (International Press Institute April 30)
Poland submits National Recovery Plan to European Commission.
- The Polish government on Monday submitted the country’s National Recovery Plan to the European Commission. PM Morawiecki declared that Poland planned to allocate EU funds for key goals including creating jobs and raising wages. Meanwhile, the Left grouping pushed for the EU funds to be allocated towards supporting regional hospitals, building cheap flats and aid for entrepreneurs hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Poland stands to receive more than EUR 23 billion in subsidies and over EUR 34 billion in loans from the recovery fund. (Polskie Radio May 3)
Poland’s government requests Czechia stop offering abortions to Polish women.
- The Polish embassy in Prague has requested the Czech Health Minister to intervene and block legislation being debated by the Czech Parliament that would clarify the terms under which foreigners can get abortions in the country. The diplomatically unusual intervention indicates that the Law and Justice-led (PiS) government is looking to prevent Polish women from seeking a termination abroad. (Balkan Insight May 3)
Russia expels 7 EU diplomats from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia.
- Moscow on Wednesday expelled seven EU diplomats—four from the Baltic states and three from Slovakia—after their countries ordered Russian diplomats to leave in solidarity with the Czech Republic. Russia accused the Baltic states of “continu[ing] to conduct an openly hostile course towards our country” and Slovakia of “damag[ing] the traditionally friendly Russian–Slovak relations and constructive bilateral cooperation.” (The Moscow Times April 28)
Anti-government protest held in Ljubljana.
- 10,000 protesters gathered in Ljubljana on Tuesday for an anti-government protest intended to “warn of the accelerated degradation of democracy” in the country, accusing PM Janša of using the pandemic to restrict freedoms and noting his moves to increase police powers, incite hostility towards civil society, and make personal attacks on journalists. The rally was organized by the same leftist activist groups that have staged weekly anti-government demonstrations since last spring, and was timed to coincide with Resistance Day. (Total Slovenia News April 28)
CoE platform concerned about media situation in Slovenia.
- The latest annual report by the Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists is critical of what it sees as the Slovenian government’s attempts at undermining independent media and stoking harassment of journalists, urging the Government to “cease all efforts to damage the independence and credibility of Slovenian public media.” The platform is particularly alarmed by the situation of RTV Slovenija and the STA. (STA April 28)
Government adopts national recovery and resilience plan.
- The Government adopted The National Recovery And Resilience Plan to send to the European Commission. The plan will serve as the basis to draw funds from the EUR 750 billion recovery fund following the coronavirus crisis, with Slovenia expecting EUR 2.47 billion in funds: EUR 1.8 billion in grants and some EUR 666 billion in loans. Member States must earmark 37% of funds available to them for green transition goals and another 20% for digital transition goals; Slovenia’s plan envisages 43.45% for green goals and 20.05% for digital goals. (STA April 28)
Jourova to visit Slovenia to discuss initiative on security of journalists.
- Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency Jourova announced on World Press Freedom Day a visit to Slovenia to “test the waters” and start a dialogue on an initiative promoting security of journalists that is planned for September. (STA May 3)
One in five Slovenians experienced discrimination, report shows.
- One in five residents in Slovenia thinks they have been discriminated against and two-thirds believe that discrimination is a major problem in the country, according to the 2020 annual report of the Advocate of the Principle of Equality. The report found that discrimination was the most frequent in the employment procedure and in access to goods. The circumstances due to which individuals in Slovenia are treated unequally are disability (14%), ethnicity and race (11%), age (6%), gender (5.5%), religion or belief (5%) and citizenship (5%). (STA April 30)
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