Each week we bring you the ten most important pieces of news from Eastern Europe.
Compiled by: Hristo Voynov and Eva Jovanova
1. The long awaited and long feared Zapad 2017 military drills have started today. They have sparked fear in NATO as being a tool that will be used for possible future Russian incursions into Poland or the Baltic States. Many have claimed that Russia will leave advanced military technology in the region that may later be used for offensive purposes, should the Russians decide to cross Belarus’ Western border. Others fear that this is the first step in preparing a strategy for an invasion, which isn’t out of the question considering the 2009 drills were focused on a mock invasion of Poland. Russia claims that they are complying with the Vienna Document, which states that military drills with over 13,000 soldiers must allow outside observers, by limiting the number of soldiers to 12,700. However, some in NATO fear the number is much higher, almost up to 100,000 troops. Though these drills are the only ones to gain massive media attention, both sides have had many drills in the area over the past few months. Russia is also soon starting joint naval drills with China, while the past few months have seen the Operative Group of Russian Troops hold exercises in Transnistria and in South Ossetia, Slavic Brotherhood 2017, its first ever drills with Vietnam, and a variety of other minor drills that were not annually held. Meanwhile NATO held Saber Junction 2017, Saber Strike 2017, Ample Strike 2017, Noble Jump 2017, Savage Wolf 2017, JCET-2017, Sea Breeze 2017, and one to help plan defense of the Suwalki gap. None have promoted as much fear on either side as Zapad 2017 does now.
2. European Commission’s President, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, gave his annual state of the Union speech on September 13. Two aspects of his speech touch upon very important topics for the Balkan countries – enlargement and the Schengen area. Mr. Juncker stated that Bulgaria and Romania should immediately become part of the Schengen zone, whereas Croatia still needs to fulfill the criteria to become a full Schengen member. Mr. Juncker repeated his inaugural promise – that there will be no enlargement in his term, however he stressed that the EU should keep the enlargement perspective for the Western Balkan countries and that the Union will be larger than 27 members in the next term. Lastly, Mr. Juncker chided Turkey, stressing its lack of media freedom and free speech.
3.The failure of the Visegrad Group’s legal challenge to the EU refugee quotas has only emboldened Poland and Hungary, who are doubling down after their case was rejected in the European Court of Justice. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s PM, said that Hungary must acknowledge the ruling but does not see a reason to comply with it and change Hungary’s policies. Czechia agrees. Meanwhile, Poland’s claim for WWII reparations from Germany was declared invalid within Germany because Poland signed a statement to relinquish such demands in the future. Poland’s parliament, however, disagrees and is considering its next course of action, while the Euro Commission is now pursuing legal action to stop Poland from logging in its ancient Białowieża forest. Poland’s PM said that a Polexit is out of the question, which begs the question, which side will compromise first? Perhaps the upcoming meeting between Poland and Germany’s presidents will help bring clarity to all sides in this multifaceted legal dispute.
4. In Republika Srpska, the predominantly ethnic Serbian state of the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the parliament faced an impasse. Over 30 MPs from the opposition blocked the parliamentary sessions for two days, as the ruling coalition tried to get an Audit report which uncovered debt of almost 95 million euros off the parliamentary agenda. In the meantime, the Bosnian authorities were urged by a report by Amnesty International to speed up the prosecution for wartime rape cases. Except for the acceleration of prosecutions, Amnesty International urges Bosnia to provide psychological help, as well as to establish a compensation fund for the rape victims.
5. Major developments have unfolded in the political dramas of Czechia and Ukraine. Andrej Babiš was stripped of his immunity for prosecution, which means that he can now be prosecuted for alleged corruption. The vote to strip him of his immunity was very strong, with 123 out of 134 deputies voting against him. Now we must wait to see what will come out of this and whether it will affect the upcoming elections. Meanwhile, ex-Georgian President and Ukrainian governor Mikheil Saakashvili managed to make it into Ukraine with the help of many supporters, including former PM Yulia Tymoshenko. The number of people that came out to support him made it impossible for Ukrainian border patrol to keep him out. Now, charges of illegal entry are being brought against him, while the legality of stripping him of his Ukrainian citizenship, leaving him stateless, is also being brought into question. His plans for government reform, his criticisms of the current government led by President Petro Poroshenko, along with the supporters he has built up, could lead to more political unrest within the already unstable country.
6. The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Serbia met at an informal meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, with their EU counterparts. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, was also present at the meeting. The main topic of the meeting were the issues of terrorism and violent extremism. Whereas Ms. Mogherini on one occasion stated that the Balkans is not a backyard, but it is Europe, at this meeting in Estonia, EU enlargement was not discussed.
7. Fears of minority prosecution for Hungarians living out of Hungary is growing. A Hungarian school was closed in Romania, prompting major protests. The bigger issue, however, is in Ukraine where a law which requires education past primary school to be taught only in Ukrainian. This law is similar to what prompted fears of Russian prosecution following the EuroMaidan protests of 2013, which explains why Russia is jumping on the issue. This is an attempt to promote the Ukrainian identity, as many Ukrainians use Russian over Ukrainian, but it will not work in Ukraine’s favor when trying to move closer to the EU, as it shows a lack of support for minority rights within the country.
8. On Monday, September 11, heavy rains hit the surrounding of the coastal town of Zadar in Croatia. The record rainfall, surpassing 340 liters per square meter, also affected the islands Ugljan, Pasman and Dugi Otok. The rainfall left the citizens without electricity. Most damaged by the rainfall was the city of Nin, a medieval town near Zadar, where two bridges from the 16th and 18th century have been destroyed. Luckily, there were no human casualties and the water started to ebb away.
9. Russia decided that US/Russian diplomatic capabilities will be equal for the two, making any further US diplomatic expulsions work in both sides. Russia also claimed that the US will plant fake information in the confiscated Russian property, building up a plausible denial should anything of interest be picked up once the buildings are in US control. It was also revealed that large amounts of money originating from Russia was invested in spreading fake ads on facebook in the US elections. Russia has denied the allegations, saying that the Kremlin has no connection to those ads. However, they present an interesting look at how Russia could have utilized open techniques to change the outcome in the US elections. Facebook has revolutionized how information spreads but because it is a global social media website, it has less regulations then conventional media.
10. The Belgrade Pride week began on September 11 and ends on September 17. The main organizer is Pride Parade Belgrade, which officially began operating in 2010, and additional 9 organizations are participating in the parade. At the end of August, the Pride Info Center was opened in Belgrade, marking a big step for the LGBT community in Serbia. The history of the Pride Parade in Belgrade was rather turbulent, as the scheduled marches for 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013 had to be cancelled as the authorities of Serbia did not offer protection from violence for the participants. However, since 2014, the annual marches were without any major incidents.