Germany and Russia caught in diplomatic spat over Berlin killing

In a press conference, German Chancellor Merkel defended the expulsion, stating that Germany "took these measures because we did not see Russia helping us to solve this murder."

The Capitals brings you the latest news from across Europe, through on-the-ground reporting by EURACTIV’s media network. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Before you start reading today’s edition of the Capitals, we invite you to have a read of Alexandra Brzozowski’s behind-the-scenes briefing from the NATO summit in London.

Read also: “Did Hungary turn to the Russian Duma against Ukraine“, as well as “CO2-tracking satellites crucial for climate efforts, say space experts“.

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BERLIN / LONDON

Berlin killing. On Wednesday (4 December) morning, Germany expelled two Russian embassy officials over the murder of a Chechen asylum-seeker in late August in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten, when a 49-year-old Russian national carried out a drive-by shooting on a bicycle, instantly killing Zelimkhan Khangoshvili.

Khangoshvili, a veteran from the Second Chechen War (1999-2009), and subsequent critic of Russian involvement in both Georgia and Ukraine fled to Berlin in 2016 after surviving multiple assassination attempts in Georgia. 

Since the murder, there was great suspicion that the attempt had been sanctioned by the Kremlin, although it had denied any involvement.

German prosecutors announced Wednesday that they have “sufficient evidence” to indicate it was carried out on behalf of Russia, with a potential connection to the poisoning of Sergey Skripal as it “follows a similar pattern”, officials said.

The statement of the German Federal Prosecutor’s Office on Khangoshvili read like a thriller with the twist that his assassin was discovered because photographs from Russia’s most-wanted-list of 2014 had been compared in the investigation of another murder conducted in 2013 on a businessman, revealing that it is very likely the same person.

Investigative journalism website Bellingcat, reported on Tuesday that Russia had issued an international search warrant for the then 49-year-old in 2014, only to silently withdraw the warrant and purge his records from state databases a year later.

This led to diplomatic retaliation by the German government.

The foreign ministry justified the expulsion with the fact that Russian authorities “in spite of repeated high-ranking and emphatic demands” were not sufficiently involved in the clarification of the act, which has thus become a heavy burden on the German-Russian relationship.

“If Russia continues to stonewall our efforts, then we need to consider further sanctions, such as expelling even more senior diplomats or putting talks about joint economic projects on hold,” Patrick Sensburg, MP from Merkel’s CDU party, told reporters.

“If Russia merely retaliates, we could easily end up in a situation we haven’t seen since the Cold War,” he added.

At the time of the announcement, NATO leaders were gathering for their meeting in London, where Merkel said she spoke bilaterally with other allies on the margins of the meeting about the German decision to expel the diplomats.

In a press conference, German Chancellor Merkel defended the expulsion, stating that Germany “took these measures because we did not see Russia helping us to solve this murder.”

Russia, meanwhile, announced plans to respond with appropriate steps. The expulsions are “rude and groundless,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, denying any Russian involvement.

“This is absolutely groundless speculation”, he told Russian reporters, adding that “this topic is being somehow whipped up by German media, but this does not mean that this is how things are”.

“We are forced to take a series of retaliatory measures,” and it won’t be long before a response is made, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

(Sarah Lawton | EURACTIV.de / Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)

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MADRID

Socialists and Catalan separatists move on “political solution”.Spain’s socialist party PSOE and Catalan separatists of ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) are moving closer in their complex negotiations to try to unlock the political stalemate in the country and seek to advance towards solving the “political conflict in Catalonia”, EURACTIV’s partner EFE reported on Wednesday.

It is the first time since the talks started last week that both parties acknowledged they have to reach an agreement on “a political path” to solve the “conflict” of “political nature” in the Catalan Spanish autonomous community, ERC sources stressed after they signed a joint press release.

ERC’s vote in favour – or its abstention – is essential to allow (likely right after the Christmas break or early January) the appointment of Sánchez and the formation of a “progressive” government coalition between the PSOE and leftist Unidas Podemos (United We Can). (EUROEFE.EURACTIV.es)

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BRUSSELS

Five scenarios. Socialist leader Paul Magnette (PS) gathered Wednesday night the potential six parties of a possible government coalition to discuss the budgetary framework of the future od the federal government. According to sources, there are five different scenarios, with the hardest being based on a return to a balanced budget like in 2024 and a saving effort of 13.4 billion euros and the mildest scenario based on a deficit of 2.4%. In the intermediate scenarios, the deficit would be reduced to 2% in 2024, 1.8% and 0.8%. (Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)

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ROME

‘Bella Ciao’ too progressive? Giorgia Meloni, leader of right-wing Fratelli d’Italia (ECR), criticised the leader of the socialist group in the EU Parliament (S&D), Iratxe Garcia Perez, as well as other socialist Commissioners, who chanted the world-famous anti-fascist song ‘Bella Ciao’ in a press conference after European Parliament’s vote on Ursula von der Leyen’s College of Commissioners. “Am I the only one that thinks this gig by highest European institutions is scandalous?” she wondered in a video, in which the EU was dubbed European Soviet Union.

An Italian MEP for centre-right party Forza Italia, Fulvio Martusciello, said it is no coincidence that Commissioners who sang were all socialists. “We in the European People’s Party (EPP) are serious and we’d have never done such a stupid thing,” he added. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

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ATHENS 

Commissioners to discuss migration in Athens. European Commissioner for Promoting the European Way of Life, Margaritas Schinas and Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ilva Johansson, are set to visit Athens on Thursday for talks on migration. Government sources told Euractiv.gr that the double visit of EU executives in Athens shows that Greece is pressing strongly for a solution to increased migration in the Eastern Mediterranean. The fact Schinas is Greek is a plus. Both Schinas and Johansson will meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and a series of ministers connected to the file. (Theodore Karaoulanis | EURACTIV.gr)

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WARSAW

Banaś soldiers on. Despite weeks of efforts by the right-wing ruling PiS party to oust Marian Banaś, head of the Supreme Audit Office (NIK), he announced that he will stick to his job. In the last few days, the issue grew in scope as a series of scandals involving Banaś surfaced and prompted media and the opposition to call for his resignation. As he became a burden for PiS, the party has tried to get rid of him, but, for now, to no avail.

As the head of the NIK, he cannot be ousted by Polish parliament unless he is found guilty of having committed a crime. PiS is ready to enact “plan B”, a change of constitution, to get rid of Banaś. But without help from opposition parties, that is impossible.

Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the largest opposition bloc, said that he does not intend to help. Without votes of PO and the Left, the change will be impossible, but according to pro-government media, two other parties in the parliament – centrist PSL and far-right Konfederacja – are said to consider one-time support for such legislation. (Łukasz Gadzała | EURACTIV.pl)

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BRATISLAVA 

Ambitious healthcare reform has not gained support. Health Minister Andrea Kalavská (nominee of Smer-SD) has offered her resignation after the government withdrew her far-reaching bill to reform the country’s hospitals from the agenda of the current session of the parliament. The Health Ministry has prepared the reform for three years, but the draft bill faced opposition within the Smer-SD party. “If someone is putting off the vote for several weeks and behaves disrespectfully towards me, I can live with that. But the fact that some are behaving in this way towards the nation is very sad to me,” Minister Kalavská said in an indirect reference to ex-PM Fico (Smer-SD), who has already withdrawn the draft law just minutes before being put to vote several weeks before. (Zuzana Gabrižová | EURACTIV.sk

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PRAGUE

Rough week. On Monday, the Czech Ministry for Regional Development confirmed that it has received final European Commission’s audit report on Czech PM’s Andrej Babiš possible conflict of interest but refused to publish it. On Tuesday, Czech media informed that the audit did not end up well for Babiš. On Wednesday, other unpleasant information appeared – Prosecutor General Pavel Zeman cancelled the former decision to halt the prosecution of Babiš over the Stork Nest case of a suspected EU subsidy fraud, thus, Babiš’s prosecution continues.

Still, Babiš refuses to resign from his post and deny any wrongdoing. He also said that despite the alleged conflict of interest, he will take part in negotiations about the EU’s 2021-2027 budget at EUCO summit next week because “the other members of European Council do not care about any conflict of interest”.

Meanwhile, Babiš said he is ready to block the objective of achieving a climate-neutral EU by 2050, the topic that should be also discussed in Brussels next week. On the other hand, according to the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny, media partner of EURACTIV.cz, he wrote a letter to Ursula von der Leyen claiming that he could change his mind in exchange for higher finance support from the EU and better conditions for nuclear energy development. Nuclear power plants are very expensive and state subsidies have to be approved by the European Commission. “Nuclear plants construction may require changes in the state aid rules,” wrote Babiš in his letter. (Aneta Zachová | EURACTIV.cz)

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SOFIA

Putin accuses Bulgaria of holding up Turkish Stream pipeline. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Bulgaria of deliberately delaying the implementation of Russia’s Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline on its territory and said that Moscow could find ways to bypass Bulgaria if needed. Putin was speaking in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi following talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov retorted from Sofia, saying the allegations were not true, and that Bulgaria builds “five kilometres a day” of the pipeline, but unlike Russia or Turkey, it “respects EU procedures”. (dnevnik.bg)

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BUDAPEST

If the shoe doesn’t fit, change the law Katalin Novák, the state secretary for family and youth announced on her Facebook page the appointment of 22-year-old law student Zsófia Rácz as the Deputy State Secretary for Youth and Empowerment. When journalists asked if Rácz has attained a master’s degree required by law to fill the position, the Ministry of Human Capacities replied that they will initiate the amendment of the law. Rácz has previously served as Hungary’s UN Youth Delegate. (Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com)

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Hungary will continue to block NATO-Ukraine Commission At the NATO summit in London Peter Szijjártó, Hungary’s foreign minister stated that the country will have the opportunity to lift its veto blocking the rapprochement between NATO and Ukraine if the Transcarpathian Hungarians regain exactly the rights they had before the so-called “language law.” Budapest claims that Ukraine’s “On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language” law adopted in September 2017 tramples on the right of the Transcarpathian ethnic minority to study in Hungarian. The statement follows a turbulent week in the bilateral relations between the two countries. After the Hungarian ambassador was handed a protest note on Monday (2 December) over an interview, the speaker of Russian Duma claimed that the Hungarian parliament asked to “join efforts” to fight for minority rights. The Hungarian parliament denied the claims. (read the full story) (Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com)

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ZAGREB        

12 presidential candidates. Yesterday was the deadline for submission of presidential bids, and there will be 12 candidates in the end. The incumbent President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović (HDZ, EPP) was among the last ones to submit over 200,000 signatures, while her main opponent Zoran Milanović (SDP, S&D) did that a week ago. Miroslav Škoro, the lead independent, could still qualify for the second round, which makes him one of the most interesting candidates of the campaign. Apart from the ‘big three’, there are several candidates that could a flip serious amount of votes: Mislav Kolakušić, Dalia Orešković, Nedjeljko Babić, Ivan Pernar, Dejan Kovač, Ante Đapić, Katarina Peović, Dario Juričan, and Slobodan Midžić. The first round of sixth presidential elections will be held on the 22nd of December, while the best two candidates will qualify for the second round in January. (Tea Trubić Macan | EURACTIV.hr)

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BELGRADE

Russia ready to support a possible compromise on Kosovo. Russian President Vladimir Putin stated after the meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in Sochi that Russia’s position regarding Kosovo remained unchanged, but that it was ready to support compromise solutions if they were in Belgrade’s favour. The foundation for regulating the problem must be Resolution 1244 of the U.N. Security Council,  the Russian president said. “In that sense, Russia is ready to support the possible compromise solutions to the Kosovo problem, if they are reached by Belgrade and Pristina. Naturally, we will support Serbia’s position unconditionally,” Putin said. (EURACTIV.rs)

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SARAJEVO 

Bosnia in control of its airspace. For the first time since the 1990s, Bosnia will control its airspace for the first time since the armed conflict. Initially, Bosnia took control over the airspace below 10,000 meters in 2014, as a result of a 10-year project, while Serbia and Croatia were in charge of their own airspace immediately after the war. The Bosnian Air Navigation Services Agency (BHANSA), expects a significant increase of controlled flights in the upper zone, up to 70 to 80 flights per hour. Currently, BHANSA is controlling only 200 planes per day. (Tea Trubić Macan | EURACTIV.hr)

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[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski, Daniel Eck]

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