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Newsline - November 9, 2005

POLL SAYS MAJORITY FAVOR LENIN BURIAL
A majority of Russians favor burying the embalmed body of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and less than 10 percent would protest such a move, RIA-Novosti reported on 8 November citing a poll by the government-supported All Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM). According to the poll, 52 percent favor burying Lenin and 37 percent are opposed. But just 9 percent said they would take to the streets to oppose such a move. The survey of 1,600 respondents in 153 towns and cities across Russia was conducted on 22-23 October and had a margin of error of 3.4 percent. The emotional issue of removing Lenin's body from its Red Square mausoleum has been raised recently by politicians close to President Vladimir Putin, suggesting that the Kremlin is considering such a move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September, 3, 6, 11 and 18 October 2005). BW

ITALY ISSUES ARREST WARRANTS IN DECADE-OLD RUSSIAN CORRUPTION CASE
Prosecutors in Trento, Italy have issued arrest warrants for eight Russian citizens suspected of kickbacks and money laundering, RIA-Novosti reported on 8 November. The case involves financial machinations surrounding the restoration of historic buildings in the Moscow Kremlin during the 1990s, Prosecutor Stefano Dragone said. Arrest warrants have been issued for ex-KGB General Yevgenii Ananev, the former head of the Russian arms export company Rosvooruzhenie, and Yekaterina Siletskaya, the daughter of former Kremlin property manager Pavel Borodin. Warrants have also been issued for Viktor and Radida Bondarenko, Viktor Machitskii, Andrei and Margarita Nerodenkov, and Milena Novotorzhina. "We launched a probe into the case about two years ago after the Russian national Beltsova received a large amount of money transferred into her account at Raiffeisen Bank in Vigo di Fasa," Dragone said. According to the prosecutor, the group laundered $62 million in kickbacks from a Swiss firm that was awarded contracts to refurbish the Kremlin in 1996. BW

UPDATE: On May 29, 2008, an Italian judge ruled that there were no grounds for proceeding against Ananev, Beltsova, Bondarenko, Machitskii, Nerodenkov, Novotorzhina, and Siletskaya. ​

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS EU TALKS WITH IRAN SHOULD RECOGNIZE RIGHT TO PEACEFUL NUKES...
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 8 November that further negotiations between Iran and the European Union (EU) should recognize Tehran's right to develop peaceful nuclear technology, Interfax reported the same day. "Iran has been speaking about it for a long time," Lavrov told journalists in Podgorica, Montenegro. The United States and the EU have warned Iran it will be referred to the Security Council unless it complies with a September resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) urging it to suspend all nuclear fuel work. Talks between Iran and the EU -- represented by Germany, France, and the United Kingdom -- seeking to freeze Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for economic and political concessions broke down in the summer. Iran said last week it wants to resume negotiations. BW

...AND CALLS FOR DIRECT TALKS BETWEEN SERBIA AND KOSOVA
Lavrov also said on 7 November that the final status of Kosova should be determined by direct talks between Belgrade and the province's leaders, not through international bodies, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "A final decision as to Kosova's status mustn't be imposed from the outside, but can only result from direct agreements between Belgrade and Prishtina. It is necessary, however, that Belgrade specify its approaches to solving the issue," Lavrov said at a press conference in Belgrade after talks with his Serbia and Montenegro counterpart, Vuk Draskovic. United Nations-sponsored talks on Kosova's final status are scheduled to begin later this month. Lavrov also said the UN needs to be more pro-active in securing security and freedom of movement in the province. BW

RUSSIAN NUCLEAR CHIEF SAYS BUSHEHR PLANT WON'T LEAD TO IRANIAN WEAPONS
Aleksandr Rumyantsev, the head of Rosenergoatom Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, said Moscow's assistance to Iran in building a nuclear power plant is in strict compliance with international law and will not result in a weapons program, ITAR-TASS reported on 9 November. Rumyantsev said the project to build a nuclear power plant in the southern Iranian province of Bushehr could be a model for Moscow's future assistance to other countries. Rumyantsev noted that according to the agreement, Iran has 0agreed to return all spent nuclear fuel to Russia. BW

FSB OFFICIAL SAYS BANKS, FIRMS, AND ISLAMIC ORGANIZATIONS FUNDING TERROR IN RUSSIA
An official with the Federal Security Service (FSB) said on 8 November that approximately 60 Islamic organizations, 100 firms, and 10 banking groups are financing terrorism in Russia, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "The FSB has information on approximately 200 foreign nationals involved in terrorist activities in Russia," FSB spokesman Nikolai Zakharov said at a conference on terrorism in Vienna. Zakharov added that the statistics were from the early 1990s and some of those on the list have since been killed or jailed. "Recent events graphically show that no nation, however strong it may be financially or socially, is immune to manifestations of terrorism on its territory," he said. BW

AGRARIAN COMMITTEE CHAIR IN UPPER HOUSE CALLS FOR MORE BIRD FLU FUNDS...
The chairman of the Federation Council's Agrarian Policy Committee called on the Russian government on 8 November to provide additional funds to combat bird flu, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "The government could draft a proposal to repay damages to people and enterprises for the elimination of poultry and livestock and to allocate money from the reserve fund," the Agrarian Policy Committee's Chairman Gennadii Gorbunov said. He noted that specific regions -- the Altai Krai and the Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tyumen, Kurgan, and Tula oblasts -- were specifically in need. Gorbunov added that Russia needs a federal target program to monitor dangerous diseases of animals and birds for 2006-2010. BW

...AND RUSSIA'S TOP EPIDEMOLOGIST SAYS FLU INOCULATIONS ARE A 'CIVIC DUTY'
Russia's chief epidemiologist Gennadii Onishchenko said it is citizens' "civic duty" to get flu inoculations and decried as "immoral" the rise in the cost of vaccines, ITAR-TASS reported on 8 November. "I have heard terrible news that the price of flu inoculation reached 1,200 rubles (about $40). This is immoral as the vaccine costs 60-80 rubles," Onishchenko said. Speaking at a bird flu conference in Geneva, Onishchenko said inoculation is especially important in light of the possible dangers of a bird flu mutation and a potential pandemic. "The most optimistic forecast for the development of a vaccine against a new flu type is six months after the appearance of the strain," he said. BW

RUSSIA DOWNPLAYS IRREGULARITIES IN AZERBAIJANI ELECTIONS
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on 8 November that violations in Azerbaijan's parliamentary elections were minor and should not call into question the vote's legitimacy, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "The elections on the whole were held in accordance with the acting Azerbaijani legislation. There were violations. There are always violations in elections. They were registered by Russian observers as well. However, the scale of the violations does not call for questioning the legitimacy of the election results," the ministry said in a statement quoted by Russian news agencies. On 7 November, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the 6 November elections failed to meet some international standards. The United States and European Union have also called the elections flawed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 November 2005). BW

RUSSIA PLANS AMNESTY IN 2006 FOR EX-SOVIET MIGRANT WORKERS
Russia's Federal Migration Service is planning to grant an amnesty next year for some citizens of ex-Soviet states working illegally in Russia, Russian news agencies reported on 9 November. "The experiment will be conducted in eight regions of Russia and it is expected that about 1 million citizens of CIS countries will be amnestied," Vyacheslav Postavnin, head of the Federal Migration Service's Foreign Labor Migration Directorate said, according to RIA-Novosti. "The beneficiaries of the amnesty will be those citizens of the member states of the CIS who are living and working in Russia illegally, thereby committing administrative offences, but who have no criminal record," he added. Postavnin said that no timetable has been set for the amnesty, and that the legislative details are being worked out. BW

UNIFIED RUSSIA ASSAILS NATIONALIST RALLY
The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party on 8 November sharply condemned a rally held by several nationalist organizations during last week's People's Unity Day holiday, ITAR-TASS reported on the same day. "We would like to draw the attention of the authorities of Moscow and other federation constituents to the fact that the action organizers flagrantly breached the Russian Law on Assemblies, Rallies, Marches, and Pickets by using hitherto undeclared slogans," a statement by Unified Russia said. "The law stipulates that this is a reason for the future denial of authorization of actions for the same organizers." The 4 November march by nationalists has also drawn criticism from State Duma Speaker and Unified Russia member Boris Gryzlov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2005). BW

SPOKESMAN DENIES PLANS FOR CHECHEN SECURITY FENCE
Fedor Shcherbak, spokesman for presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak, has denied that Kozak has discussed with Israeli leaders erecting a barrier along Chechnya's border comparable to Israel's security fence on the West Bank, kavkazweb.net reported on 9 November, citing kommersant.ru. Shcherbak said that Israel's experience in combating terrorism cannot under any circumstances be transposed to Russia. "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 8 November that Kozak met the previous day with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra to discuss the proposed security fence and other antiterrorism measures, and that he is also scheduled to meet with Mossad head Meir Dagan. In 1997, both Stavropol Krai and Daghestan considered digging trenches along their respective borders with Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 November 1997). North Ossetia has increased the number of border posts and patrols along its border with the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic to prevent the infiltration of militants, regnum.ru reported on 8 November. LF

CHECHEN FOREIGN MINISTRY PROTESTS EU STANCE ON ELECTIONS
Pro-Moscow Chechen Central Election Commission head Ismail Baikhanov told journalists in Grozny on 8 November that the European Union will send observers to Chechnya to monitor the 27 November parliamentary election there, regnum.ru reported. The Foreign Ministry of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) responded to that announcement by posting a statement the same day on the website chechenpress.org reminding the EU that the ChRI leadership has not scheduled elections or invited observers to monitor them. The Chechen statement further condemned what it termed statements by individual unnamed leaders of EU member states who seek to justify Russia's policy of "state terrorism" against the Chechen people. LF

ARMENIA'S KARABAKH WAR VETERANS FORM NEW ORGANIZATION
Several former dozen commanders of informal Armenian detachments that fought in the Karabakh war in the early 1990s announced on 8 November their intention to found a new union that will seek to alleviate the poverty in which many war veterans live, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. One of those former commanders, Manvel Yeghiazarian, told journalists on 8 November that the new union "will rally around the idea of patriotism and brotherhood." He denied any differences of opinion with the powerful Yerkrapah union of war veterans that was instrumental in the forced resignation in February 1998 of then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Yeghiazarian likewise denied any connection between the planned new organization and the referendum on proposed constitutional amendments scheduled for 27 November. LF

AZERBAIJANI AUTHORITIES SEEK TO AVERT PROTEST MARCH
Police detained an unspecified numbers of members and supporters of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) on the morning of 9 November, apparently in an attempt to prevent them attending a planned protest in Baku at 3 p.m. local time that day to demand the annulment of the 6 November parliamentary elections, Turan reported. Police also set up road blocks at approach roads and on four major regional highways leading to the capital. Leading members of the opposition Azadlyq election bloc, of which the AHCP is a member, predicted on 8 November that 50,000 people would attend the 9 November protest against the perceived falsification of the election, echo-az.com reported on 9 November. Azadlyq plans a further protest on 12 November. LF

ELECTION OUTCOME ANNULLED IN TWO AZERBAIJANI CONSTITUENCIES
The results of the 6 November parliamentary election have been annulled in two constituencies (Nos. 9 and 42), as have the results from six of a total of 28 polling stations in a third constituency (No. 31), Azerbaijan Central Election Commission (MSK) Chairman Mazahir Panahov told journalists on 8 November. The Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal investigation into violations in the former two constituencies. Opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan First Deputy Chairman Sardar Djalaloglu thus stands a chance of winning in constituency 9, AHCP candidate Flora Kerimova in constituency 42, and AHCP Chairman Ali Kerimli in constituency 31. Reported "serious shortcomings" in three further constituencies where prominent oppositionists were candidates are still being investigated, Panahov said. LF

AZERBAIJANI RULING PARTY DOMINATES NEW NAKHICHEVAN PARLIAMENT
Magerram Aliyev, chairman of the Central Election Commission (MSK) of Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic, said on 9 November that the 6 November elections to the exclave's new parliament were held "at a high level" and no complaints have been received, Turan reported. He said that the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party won 37 of the 45 seats, nonpartisan candidates six, and the AHCP two. The AHCP office in Nakhichevan announced even before the ballot that it would not recognize the outcome as fair and valid, zerkalo.az reported on 4 November. The AHCP alleged that the republic's MSK is formed exclusively from YAP members, and that opposition parties were not allowed to stage pre-election rallies. LF

ABKHAZ OFFICIALS WARN AGAINST REVIVAL OF GEORGIAN GUERRILLA FORMATION
Otar Khetsia, who is the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia's interior minister, warned on 9 November that Abkhaz police will take "appropriate measures" if Georgia's White Legion guerrillas resume their activities in the Abkhaz conflict zone, apsny.ru reported. White Legion commander Zurab Samushia has said he will mobilize his men to protect Georgians living in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion as the CIS peacekeepers deployed there are incapable of doing so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2005). Over a 12-year period, the White Legion and its companion force, the Forest Brothers, killed over 100 Russian peacekeepers and some 1,000 Abkhaz civilians, including more than 300 policemen. Meanwhile, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba accused the Georgian parliament, which on 8 November observed one minute's silence to honor a Georgian reportedly beaten to death for his refusal to serve in the Abkhaz army, of making a "martyr" of a common criminal, apsny.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 November 2005). LF

ABKHAZ PRESIDENT ACCEDES TO DEMAND FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
In response to a demand by the Aytayra political movement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 October 2005), Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh has decreed the creation of a commission, which he will chair, to draft amendments to the unrecognized republic's constitution and the government apparatus, apsny.ru reported on 8 November. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT TAKES FIRST STEP TOWARD EXPANDING ARMED FORCES
Parliament approved on 9 November in the first reading a draft bill that would increase the combined personnel of the Georgian armed forces, Caucasus Press reported. The draft sets the maximum number of personnel at 31,868 persons, of whom 26,000 are subordinate to the Defense Ministry, and 5,868 to the Georgian State Border Defense Department. According to the present law, the combined total strength of the Defense Ministry and State Border Department must not exceed 29,703. The Defense Ministry's troops currently number 21,468 men, according to Caucasus Press on 8 November. The Georgian armed forces were downsized in the early 1990s with the aim of creating a highly trained, highly mobile army of between 13,000-15,000 active duty personnel in line with NATO standards. However, those reductions have since been reversed (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 22 July 2005), fuelling suspicions that Tbilisi plans military action to restore its hegemony over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. LF

JORDANIAN KING MEETS WITH KAZAKH LEADER
King Abdullah II met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Almaty on 8 November to discuss bilateral relations, Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev stated that the two countries' views on international and regional politics coincide, but noted that bilateral trade needs to be improved. Bilateral trade in 2003 totaled $43 million, with Kazakh exports accounting for $42.7 million of the total, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. King Abdullah said, "In the political sphere, we have always had good, close ties. But for our two countries to grow closer for real, we need to develop cultural and economic ties." The meeting witnessed the signing of a cultural cooperation agreement and an agreement naming Astana and the Jordanian capital Amman as sister cities. DK

KAZAKH ANTIDRUG OPERATION NETS OVER 16 TONS
Kazakhstan's Poppy-2005 antidrug operation, which ran from 20 May to 20 October, resulted in the confiscation of 16.5 tons of various narcotics, Interfax-Kazakhstan and "Kazakhstan Today" reported on 8 November citing information from the Interior Ministry. The reports did not provide an exact breakdown of the confiscated drugs, but noted that total seizures for January-October came to 19 tons, including 130 kilograms of heroin. Poppy-2005 uncovered 4,607 drug-related crimes, as compared with 2,134 crimes recorded during last year's operation in the same time period, and resulted in the arrest of 3,803 people. DK

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT CONFIRMS PROSECUTOR-GENERAL, NIXES DEPUTY PREMIER
Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted on 8 November to confirm Kambaraly Kongantiev as prosecutor-general but rejected the candidacy of Daniyar Usenov for the post of deputy prime minister, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Fifty-nine of 75 deputies took part in the voting, with 57 casting votes in favor of Kongantiev and two opposed. Usenov garnered the support of only 17 deputies. The report noted that while Usenov continues to occupy the post of acting deputy prime minister, it is not known whether President Kurmanbek Bakiev will resubmit his candidacy for the deputy premiership. DK

KYRGYZ COURT CLEARS FORMER ELECTION COMMISSION HEAD
A court in Bishkek on 8 November acquitted Sulaiman Imanbaev, former head of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, on charges that he abused and exceeded his authority during his tenure from 1996 until earlier this year, akipress.org reported. The court found insufficient evidence of a crime. Galina Skripkina, a lawyer representing Imanbaev, added that the Pervomaiskii District prosecutor did not support the accusation. The charges stated that Imanbaev used his position to help Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former President Askar Akaev, gain a seat in parliament during the spring 2005 elections. DK

KYRGYZSTAN, U.S. AGREE TO RETHINK BASE AGREEMENT, PAYMENTS
Rear Admiral Robert T. Moeller, director of plans and policy at U.S. Central Command, met with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alibek Jekshenkulov in Bishkek on 8 November to discuss revisions to the agreement on the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Jekshenkulov noted that Kyrgyzstan wants the United States to pay a higher rent for the base. The first round of talks on the issue produced an agreement to review the technical and financial aspects of the current arrangement. Jekshenkulov told journalists: "As you know, in 2001 we made a very quick decision on opening this base [at Manas Airport near Bishkek], and we had no time to look carefully at the conditions of that agreement. That's why the conditions for using this base were very privileged. And now Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev has obliged us to reconsider that agreement and we just started working on it." DK

CANADIAN OIL FIRM RENEWS INTEREST IN TURKMEN SECTOR OF CASPIAN SEA
Roger Haynes, the head of Canada's Buried Hill Energy, met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 7 November, Turkmen state television reported. The two agreed to sign a production sharing agreement (PSA) for the development of energy resources in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea. Reports did not specify the resources involved or the timeframe for signing the PSA. Previous negotiations between Turkmenistan and Buried Hill Energy on the possible development of the disputed Serdar/Kyapaz field (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2005) -- which is claimed by both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan -- strained ties between the two littoral states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2005). Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien accompanied Haynes to Ashgabat on 7 November. DK

EUROPEAN UNION ISSUES STATEMENT ON UZBEK RIGHTS SITUATION
In a statement made public on 8 November by the United Kingdom, which currently holds the European Union presidency (www.eu2005.gov.uk), the EU expressed alarm over the human rights situation in Uzbekistan in the wake of violence in the eastern city of Andijon on 12-13 May. The EU asked the Uzbek authorities to allow an "independent assessment" of the condition of jailed opposition leader Sanjar Umarov, and voiced concern "at the circumstances of the arrest and detention of [rights activists] Mukhtabar Tojibaeva and Saidjahon Zainabitdinov." Urging adherence to international standards, the EU called on the Uzbek authorities to "protect freedom of expression by bringing to an end the harassment and detention of those including human rights defenders, journalists and others who exercise these fundamental rights." DK

TWO BELARUSIAN INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS EXCLUDED FROM STATE SUBSCRIPTION CATALOGUE
Belarus's state postal service, Belposhta, has not included the private newspapers "Narodnaya volya" and "Salidarnasts" in its list of periodicals that can be subscribed to in 2006, Belapan reported on 8 November. "Narodnaya volya" Editor in Chief Svyatlana Kalinkina said the move is the continuation of an official harassment campaign against her daily. "They have put forward absolutely absurd grounds [to justify the subscription stoppage]," Kalinkina said. " For instance, they charged that we failed to notify Belposhta that we had changed the printer. It is unclear how this concerned the distributor, as the schedule of publication did not change and the volume remained the same." In September, a court ordered "Narodnaya volya" to pay nearly $50,000 in libel damages, while a state printing plant and distributor refused to print the daily and distribute it through a state monopoly network of kiosks and newsstands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September and 6 October 2005). "An era of the Internet and samizdat has begun for the non-state media," "Salidarnasts" Editor in Chief Alyaksandr Starykevich said. JM

BELARUSIAN LAWMAKER DENIED U.S. VISA
Mikalay Charhinets, chairman of the Committee for International Affairs and National Security in the Council of the Republic, Belarus's upper house, has been denied a visa to travel to the United States to attend the current session of the UN General Assembly, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 8 November. Charhinets told journalists that the U.S. State Department explained through the U.S. Embassy in Minsk that he behaved improperly while staying in the United States in 2004. Charhinets said the U.S. State Department objected to his being an observer of the U.S. presidential election simultaneously with representing Belarus at the then UN General Assembly. He asserted that he had been invited to observe the election by the U.S. State Department as an official representative of the OSCE. According to Charhinets, the U.S. authorities denied him a visa because of his criticism of the U.S. electoral system. JM

BELARUSIAN TOURIST FIRMS PROPOSE EXCURSION TO LUKASHENKA-LINKED SITES
Several tourist firms in Orsha, Vitsebsk Oblast, are offering a tour of places connected with the life of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 8 November. In particular, the proposed tour route includes the town of Kopys where Lukashenka was born and the village of Aleksandryya where he spent his childhood. However, the offer does not include a prison in Orsha where Lukashenka had a short stint as a deputy warden. The cost of the tour depends on the size of a touring group but does not exceed $20 per head. JM

EUROPEAN COURT FINES UKRAINE OVER MURDERED JOURNALIST
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on 8 November ruled in favor of Myroslava Gongadze, the widow of Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze who was slain in 2000, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Myroslava Gongadze filed a suit in 2002, accusing the Ukrainian authorities of failing to protect her husband and subsequently to investigate the case in a coherent and effective manner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 April and 2 June 2005). The court ruled that the Ukrainian authorities failed to protect Heorhiy Gongadze's life, failed to investigate his death, treated Myroslava Gongadze in an inhuman and degrading manner, and in the absence of an effective criminal investigation, prevented her from receiving compensation. The court awarded Myroslava Gongadze, who fled to the United States after her husband's death, 100,000 euros ($118,000) in damages. Ukraine has three months to appeal the decision. "This is...a precedent for other people like myself, who have suffered from the Ukrainian authorities, to file such complaints. And this shows that we can win and this will teach the Ukrainian authorities to really respect their citizens," Myroslava Gongadze told RFE/RL. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SACKS TWO GOVERNORS
President Viktor Yushchenko on 8 November dismissed Zaporizhzhya Oblast Governor Yuriy Artemenko and Luhansk Oblast Governor Oleksiy Danilov, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Mr. Artemenko and Mr. Danilov will be offered other positions in the government," presidential spokeswoman Iryna Herashchenko commented on the dismissals. "The dismissals in Luhansk and Zaporizhzhya Oblasts should be viewed in the context of the [upcoming] parliamentary elections," opposition Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych said. "The governing party needs its own people in the regions, and if somebody fails to understand that, he has to leave." JM

EU HELPS UKRAINE FIGHT ILLEGAL MIGRATION
The European Union has allocated $3.8 million euros ($4.5 million) to help Kyiv fight illegal migration and create an efficient system of managing migratory movement through the country, Ukrainian media reported on 8 November, quoting Deputy Interior Minister Hennadiy Moskal. In particular, the money will be spent on the establishment of two detention centers for illegal migrants, one in Volyn Oblast and the other in Chernihiv Oblast. Moskal explained that Ukraine has no such centers at present, and detained migrants are kept jointly with vagrants and homeless persons, which is against international law. JM

KOSOVARS PREPARE FOR STATUS TALKS...
Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova said in a statement on 8 November that the negotiating team that will represent the ethnic Albanian majority in the upcoming status talks will accept nothing less than independence, and called on the Serb minority to support them, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 September and 2 November 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 May 2005). The statement noted that the committee "was authorized to start work immediately...[on] a political platform for an independent and sovereign Kosova." Rugova stressed that the "platform for the talks is independence and, as such, is not negotiable." The work of the negotiating team, which includes leaders from the four main political parties, has been held up by public feuding between some of the individuals involved. The talks are expected to begin soon under the mediation of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who is a veteran negotiator in Kosova and several other international trouble spots. PM

...AND REJECT HALF MEASURES...
Kosovar Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Prishtina on 8 November that Kosova must become fully independent as is the case with other countries in the region. He added that the upcoming talks will center on three crucial issues: the right of Kosova's citizens to have their own state, the functioning of the new state and its institutions, and the establishment of peace in the region. Several proposals, notably from within the EU, have called for "conditional independence" for Kosova, which would not enjoy full sovereignty until it joined the Brussels-based bloc and had adopted its rules and restrictions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 October 2005). PM

...AS U.S. DIPLOMATS MAKE SOME POINTS
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 8 November that "the Kosovo Albanians...have to prove to...the international community...that they can govern democratically, that they can govern effectively, and that they can design a future Kosovo that will protect the rights of the minority population," RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 7 October 2005). He said that NATO is prepared to use force to prevent any attempt to influence the status question through violence and warned Belgrade against urging the province's Serbian minority to boycott the talks. Former U.S. Balkan envoy Richard Holbrooke told the same hearing that the Kosovar Albanians must give the Serbs "iron-clad guarantees" regarding the protection of their rights and cultural sites. Holbrooke stressed that it is important for the United States to remain active in Kosova, saying that "we must finish the job. And if we don't, the subsequent costs will be even higher. War could resume, and what was done so far will have been wasted." PM

MONTENEGRIN LEADER OUTLINES REFERENDUM QUESTIONS
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said in Vienna on 8 November that the planned referendum on independence will consist of two questions: "Are you in favor of Montenegro becoming an independent and internationally recognized state?" and "Do you agree that Montenegro remains in a joint state with Serbia?" RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2005). He stressed that these formulations will enable the voters to express their will clearly. PM

FACTION LEAVES MOLDOVAN OPPOSITION TO FORM NEW PARTY
Former Moldovan Prime Minister Dumitru Braghis and seven lawmakers have formally left the Our Moldova (AMN) opposition alliance to form their own party, ITAR-TASS reported on 8 November. "The new party will advance European values, principles of a rule-of-law state and market economy, protection of human rights and liberties, and will aim to enhance the well being of Moldovan citizens," Braghis said the same day. The new party's organizing committee includes some 70 people. Braghis shared the leadership of AMN with former Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean. But in late October, Braghis and 30 others withdrew from the party's Central Political Council, accusing Urechean of "dictatorial" practices in running the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 October 2005). BW

AZERBAIJANI ELECTION CANDIDATES BENEFITED FROM INCREASED TV ACCESS
Among the improvements registered in the 2005 Azerbaijani parliamentary campaign in comparison to previous elections over the past decade, the International Election Observation Mission noted in its preliminary assessment the allocation to opposition candidates of more free airtime on state-controlled media. But that improved access to free airtime was not complemented either by increased objectivity on the part of the state-controlled media in their coverage of the opposition, or by a reduction in the enormous quantitative discrepancy between the coverage afforded to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party as compared to the opposition.

The revised election law stipulated that only parties or blocs that nominated more than 60 candidates could qualify for free airtime. Those that did were each to receive a total of 4 1/2 hours of free exposure -- parceled out into 90 minute allotments on state television, state radio, and the new Public Television channel, which began broadcasting in late August. Only four parties or blocs met that criteria: Yeni Azerbaycan, the Azadlyq and Yeni Siyaset (YeS) opposition election blocs, and the opposition Liberal Party. In line with a 10 September ruling by the Central Election Commission (MSK), each of the four parties/blocs was allowed a daily "slot" six times weekly, Mondays through Saturdays.

That commitment was, by and large, honored, although MSK secretary Vidadi Makhmudov claimed in late September that state television and Public Television were offering selected candidates additional unpaid airtime. The sole major infraction registered was the suspension by state television of live election broadcasting, both paid and unpaid, by Azadlyq on 17 October -- the evening of former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev's abortive attempt to return to Azerbaijan from exile to participate in the election as an Azadlyq candidate. That ban was lifted on 20 October after international organizations protested, according to zerkalo.az on 21 October.

In addition, all candidates were entitled to purchase airtime on state television, Public Television, or on private television channels. But the Central Election Commission (MSK) set limits on both the amount of free and paid airtime state television and Public Television could broadcast per week: 135 minutes per week free airtime and 270 minutes paid airtime, and not more than 45 minutes paid airtime on any given day. Each registered candidate was entitled to 1 million manats ($217.72) from the state budget to cover the costs of his/her media campaign, but just one minute of paid television advertising cost between $420-$850 on the private television station ANS, between $295-$590 on Azerbaijan TV, and between $420-$640 on the privately owned Space TV, according to zerkalo.az on 9 September, citing mediaforum.az. Public Television General Director Ismail Omarov announced on 5 September that his channel's rates were to be set lower than those on private channels, but he did not say what the tariff would be. The maximum a candidate could spend on campaign advertising was 412.5 million manats ($88,000), MSK spokesman Azer Saryev told echo-az.com of 26 August.

But paradoxically, in trying to treat all candidates equally, some television channels ended up inadvertently infringing on the legal limit on the maximum amount of election-related programming that could be aired each week, zerkalo.az reported on 27 October. The National Television and Radio Council had to caution state television that it was violating the election law by broadcasting between two and three hours of paid election-related programming per night. Such efforts to provide all eligible candidates with the maximum airtime to which they were entitled, and which they could afford, are laudable. But they may have had a possibly unintended negative effect: even the most politically engaged viewers are likely to lose interest after several weeks of election-related programming. That is not, however, to deny the importance of maximum coverage -- given that the electronic media, rather than newspapers, continue to be the primary source of information for most of Azerbaijan's population.

That public reliance on television for information renders all the more crucial the need for objectivity and balance. A Code of Conduct for media coverage of elections prepared by the Council of Europe and intended to promote those qualities was adopted in July, but monitoring of some 40-50 media outlets -- both electronic and print -- during the election campaign showed that, as in previous elections, several television channels continued to give disproportionately extensive and almost exclusively favorable coverage to candidates from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party, while their coverage of opposition parties tended to be cursory and largely negative. That monitoring identified Azerbaijan state television as the main offender, followed Lider and Space television, both of which are privately owned, reportedly by persons close to the ruling elite. Public Television proved to be less tendentious and more objective than either of those latter three channels, but was still far from entirely free of bias.

FORMER AFGHAN PRESIDENT TO CONTEST POST OF SPEAKER OF PARLIAMENT
Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Jami'at-e Islami (Islamic Society) party and president of Afghanistan in the 1990s, said he will run for the post of speaker of the Afghan National Assembly, Hindukosh News Agency reported on 8 November. Mohammad Shafi, head of Rabbani's office, told Hindukosh that the former president has begun discussing his strategy with members of his party. Former Education Minister and head of the New Afghanistan Party, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni; the leader of the Islamic Unity Party of the People of Afghanistan, Mohammad Mohaqeq; and Kabul representative Shokria Barakzai have also announced that they want to be the speaker. Rabbani won a seat in the National Assembly from Badakhshan Province in northeastern Afghanistan with 26,422 votes, while Mohaqeq (52,586 votes), Qanuni (31,225 votes) and Barakzai (2,021 votes) have all won seats from Kabul Province. AT

PAKISTAN ASKS AFGHAN REFUGEES TO LEAVE NORTH WAZIRISTAN
The political administrator of the North Waziristan tribal agency issued a 24-hour deadline on 7 November for those Afghan refugees still in the area to leave, the Islamabad daily "The News" reported on 8 November. Afghan refugees in North Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan, were asked in August to leave the area for other areas of Pakistan or return to their country. Sayyed Zahir al-Islam, a political agent for North Waziristan, told "The News" that Afghan refugees still "hiding" in the area were helping the Al-Qaeda-linked foreign militants in their attacks on Pakistani military installations. AT

KABUL'S FIRST FIVE-STAR HOTEL OPENS
The Kabul Serena Hotel has opened, AP reported on 8 November. The hotel project near the presidential palace is backed by Agha Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili branch of Islam. At the hotel's opening, which was attend by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other dignitaries, Agha Khan called Serena's opening an "important milestone in Afghanistan's reconstruction and its reengagement with the world community." The hotel, with rooms ranging from $250 to $1,200 per night, is obviously mainly for foreigners, as an Afghan government employee earns around $50 per month. AT

EU IDENTIFIES 'RED LINE' FOR TALKS WITH IRAN
Christina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, described the outcome of a 7 November EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels in an 8 November interview with Radio Farda. "The discussion had a very clear message: We warned Iran to play its full role in the international community of nations," Gallach said. "But the Iran we want to play a role in the international community of nations is one that respects the state of Israel, is one that negotiates on the question pertaining to [the uranium conversion facility at] Isfahan, and gives up all projects to have nuclear weapons, and we want an Iran which moves [toward] the path of democracy." Turning to Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani's request that the EU resume nuclear talks, Gallach said the EU's "red line" is that Iran suspend uranium enrichment activities, in line with the November 2004 Paris agreement. Asked about that in Tehran on 8 November, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi accused the Europeans of ignorance about world affairs, state television reported. He explained, "I thought that the first subject that the declaration would refer to would be the crimes committed in the Palestinian and occupied lands." BS

WASHINGTON DESCRIBES RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION IN IRAN
The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released its "International Religious Freedom Report 2005" on 8 November (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2005/51599.htm). The report highlights the difficulties in Iran for these minorities: Sunni and Sufi Muslims, Baha'is, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians. It describes their problems as: "reported imprisonment, harassment, intimidation, and discrimination based on their religious beliefs...a threatening atmosphere for some religious minorities, especially Baha'is, Jews, and evangelical Christians." BS

IRANIAN BANK DIRECTORS REPLACED
The managing directors of Iran's state-owned Keshavarzi, Mellat, Melli, Saderat, Sepah, and Tejarat banks were replaced in early November, "Iran" reported on 5 November. "Iran" provided only the surnames of the prospective directors -- Ansari at Melli Bank, Eskandari at Tejarat Bank, Borhani at Saderat Bank, and Divandarei at Mellat Bank. Nurbakhsh replaced Jalal Rasulof as the head of Keshavarzi Bank. BS

TEHRAN OBJECTS TO OPPOSITION GATHERING IN BRUSSELS
Iranian Ambassador Ali Ahani said in Brussels on 8 November that the EU stance on terrorism is not serious because it allows rallies of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MEK), an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq, to take place on its territory, IRNA reported. MEK supporters staged a demonstration the previous day as EU foreign ministers met in the Belgian capital. MEK is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, Canada, and the EU, but members still in Iraq were granted "protected status" under the Geneva Convention in July 2004. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, who ended a three-day visit to Tehran on 6 November, said that Iran has a "legitimate concern" regarding the MEK, the "Financial Times" reported on 7 November. "We should enforce the article in our constitution that Iraq should not be a transit point or base for destabilizing neighbors," Chalabi said. "We should deal with these issues humanely and fairly, but firmly." BS

IRANIAN INVOLVEMENT IN IRAQI AFFAIRS TAKES VARIOUS GUISES
The third conference and trade exhibition on reconstruction in Iraq began in Tehran on 8 November, Mehr News Agency reported. More than 280 companies are participating in the four-day event. Reconstruction is not Iran's sole interest in Iraq. Iraq's National Security Council learned on 30 October that Iran is backing a campaign to assassinate Iraqi pilots who flew in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, Baghdad's "Al-Zaman" newspaper reported on 31 October. Citing anonymous representatives in the Iraqi National Assembly, the daily noted allegations of an Iranian role in attacks on multinational forces in Iraq. BS

IRAQI GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN ON OPERATION STEEL CURTAIN
Laith Kubba told Al-Jazeera television in an 8 November interview that Operation Steel Curtain has dealt very strong blows to terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's network in Al-Qa'im. Kubba said the operation seeks to cut insurgent supply lines, and noted that the hardest part of the operation -- taking control of the city -- has been achieved. He said more than 160 foreign fighters were captured. Asked about al-Zarqawi's threat against the Iraqi government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2005), Kubba said: "I do not believe it can strike any governmental body, because the majority of its past operations targeted civilians.... Therefore, nobody pays attention to what this organization says because Iraqis see it as a group of criminals and mentally-ill people who come from outside to kill themselves in Iraq." KR

IRAQI COALITION ANNOUNCES PLATFORM
The National Forces Parliament announced its platform for the 15 December parliamentary elections on 8 November in Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Da'ud Hashim Da'ud, media spokesman for the coalition, told reporters that the parliament calls for opening dialogue with the "Iraqi resistance," rejecting sectarian and ethnic quotas in government, and abolishing decisions issued by previous governments that have negatively influenced Iraqi society. The parliament vowed to address the security situation and strengthen security services. KR

IRAQ'S AL-HAKIM COMMENTS ON DEFECTIONS FROM UIA
Ammar al-Hakim, spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told Al-Jazeera television in a 7 November interview that some groups left the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) ahead of elections because they wanted more seats in the future parliament. Parties such as Deputy Prime Minister Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress demanded more representation on the list, a demand the UIA could not meet while trying to accommodate similar demands from other parties to the list, al-Hakim said. Through negotiation, parties on coalition lists are given a certain number of ranked slots on the electoral lists. Parliamentary seats are then distributed according to the candidate names on the ranked list up to the number of actual seats awarded to the list, which is based on the percentage of votes that list garnered in the elections. Al-Hakim denied that there was any kind of political problem between Chalabi and the UIA. Chalabi has said he left the UIA because of its Islamic stance. The UIA includes some 16 prominent parties and dozens more independent candidates, al-Hakim said, adding: "The entry of [Muqtada] al-Sadr's followers lends significant weight to the UIA." KR

CAR BOMB DETONATES NORTH OF BAGHDAD
Seven policemen were killed and six wounded when a suicide car bomber targeted police patrols in Ba'qubah on 9 November, international media reported. Three civilians were also wounded in the attack. Meanwhile, Japanese Self-Defense Force troops stationed in Samawah, northwest of Al-Basrah, were attacked twice on 8 November, Al-Sharqiyah reported the same day. No Japanese troops were hurt in the attacks, which left an Iraqi policeman and a taxi driver wounded. Iraqi police in Babil Governorate arrested 11 suspected insurgents following a two-hour gun battle there on 8 November, the news channel reported. Four gunmen and three policemen were wounded in the fighting. KR

More News

Russian Officer Who Brandished Alleged Ukrainian Skull Dies Of Gunshot Wound

A video showing Mangushev holding the skull of what he said was a Ukrainian soldier circulated around the Internet and sparked an outcry in Ukraine.

Russian Army officer Igor Mangushev, who gained prominence last year for speaking on stage holding what he said was the skull of a Ukrainian soldier while calling for the death of "as many Ukrainian soldiers as necessary," has died in a hospital after sustaining a gunshot wound to his head.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

Mangushev's associate, Akim Apachev, said on February 8 that the anti-Ukraine propagandist had been in a coma since being shot on February 4 at a checkpoint near the town of Kadiyivka in a part of Ukraine's Luhansk region, which is controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

It remains unclear who shot Mangushev and why. Some media reports say he was shot at close proximity.

Last August, a video showing Mangushev holding the skull of what he said was a Ukrainian soldier at a concert circulated around the Internet and sparked an outcry in Ukraine.

Mangushev said in the video that the skull belonged to a Ukrainian soldier who had been killed during Russia's invasion of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. He added that Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February 2022, was fighting against "the idea of Ukraine as an anti-Russia state," adding that "all who support that idea must be eliminated."

It has not been independently verified whether the skull actually belonged to a Ukrainian soldier.

After the video appeared on the Internet, Kyiv turned to the United Nations, asking it to condemn the video.

Mangushev positioned himself as a Russian military officer, a political strategist, and an associate of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked founder and leader of the Wagner private mercenary group.

Media reports also said that Mangushev was a co-founder of another mercenary group called ENOT (United People's Communal Fellowships) that was involved in Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and military operations in Ukraine’s east and Syria.

With reporting by RIA Novosti and Kommersant

Fire Breaks Out At Russian Oil Refinery Near Ukrainian Border

A fire broke out on February 8 at an oil refinery in Russia's southern Rostov region near the border with Ukraine, state media reported. The fire was extinguished around an hour later, Interfax news agency reported, adding that the small refinery belonged to a company called Resource LLC. It cited the Emergency Service as saying that, according to preliminary information, the blaze was caused by a "violation of technological process." Novoshakhtinsk is about 9 kilometers from the Ukrainian border amid Russia's invasion of that country. Another refinery in Novoshakhtinsk was struck by two drones last June. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Security Forces Raid Hideout Of Pakistani Taliban; 12 Militants Reported Killed

The Pakistani Taliban has a strong presence in Lakki Marwat, where they have launched multiple attacks in recent months. (file photo)

Security forces acting on intelligence raided a hideout of Pakistani Taliban insurgents along the border with Afghanistan, triggering an intense shootout that left 12 militants dead, the country’s military said on February 8. The predawn raid came amid soaring tensions in Pakistan and in the aftermath of a mosque bombing last week that killed 101 people in Peshawar. Pakistani officials blamed the blast on the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which denied involvement. The Pakistani Taliban has a strong presence in Lakki Marwat, where they have launched multiple attacks in recent months. To read the original story from AP, click here.

Russia To Seek Arbitration With U.S. Over Visas For UN Diplomats

Moscow says it will pursue arbitration after accusing the United States of failing to issue visas to Russian delegates to the United Nations. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also accused Washington of restricting the movements of Russian diplomats in the United States. “The U.S. is raising doubts about the validity of its right to retain its status as host state for the UN headquarters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Pyotr Ilichyov told Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency. A U.S. State Department spokesperson in September responded to similar complaints by saying the United States takes its obligations seriously. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Updated

Ukraine's Zelenskiy Visits U.K. As London Expected To Announce New Military Aid

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during his visit to Kyiv on November 19.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has arrived in the United Kingdom for talks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, his second known trip abroad since Russia's unprovoked invasion of his country one year ago.

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Sunak’s office said Zelenskiy will visit Ukrainian troops training in Britain on February 8 and address the British Parliament. Additionally, Buckingham Palace said Zelenskiy would meet with King Charles.

Sunak will announce expanded training for the Ukrainian military, including training for fighter jet pilots and marines. The training for pilots would ensure they are able to fly NATO-standard fighters in the future, the statement said.

For months, Kyiv has been urging the West to increase its military support, including the possibility of providing fighter jets.

The United States, Britain, Germany, and other Western allies recently relented and approved sending hundreds of battle tanks, amored vehicles, and other heavy weaponry to Ukraine amid expectations that Russia is gearing up for a new major offensive, possibly as early as this month.

“President Zelenskiy’s visit to the U.K. is a testament to his country’s courage, determination, and fight, and a testament to the unbreakable friendship between our two countries,” Sunak was quoted as saying.

Britain will also announce additional sanctions targeting individuals and companies that “are profiting from the Kremlin’s war machine.”

The visit comes shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden, in his annual State of the Union address to Congress, pledged U.S. support for Ukraine’s war against invading Russia for “as long as it takes.”

In a post on Twitter, Zelenskiy thanked Biden for his “powerful words of support.”

“Our values are the same, our common goal is victory,” Zelenskiy wrote.

Zelenskiy’s visit to Britain will be his first since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. He visited the United States and addressed Congress in December.

On February 7, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark pledged to provide more than 100 Leopard 1 battle tanks. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said 20 to 25 of the tanks would arrive by summer, about 80 by the end of the year, and at least 100 more in 2024. The three countries also promised to provide necessary training and support for the tanks.

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, Ukrainian lawmaker Roman Kostenko, head of the parliament’s National Security Committee, said Russia was planning a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region and possibly in another “diversionary” area.

“The enemy is preparing an offensive,” Kostenko said. “Whether he will be able to attack or not remains to be seen.”

Russian forces carried out air strikes in the city of Kharkiv during the night, the head of the regional administration, Oleh Synyehubov, said. The strikes targeted an industrial area of the city and ignited a large fire. No casualties were reported.

With reporting by Reuters

Biden Calls Russia's 'Murderous Assault' Against Ukraine A 'Test For The Ages,' Says U.S. Will Stand With Kyiv

"Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world," U.S. President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress on February 7.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States is united in its support for Ukraine as it opposes the "murderous assault" of Russia's invasion and that Washington will stand with Ukraine "as long as it takes."

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Speaking during his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said his government united NATO, built a global coalition, and stood against the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"We stood with the Ukrainian people," he said, as Kyiv's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, looked on from the gallery.

"She represents not just her nation, but the courage of her people," Biden said.

The United States and other NATO allies have provided billions of dollars in military aid, including air-defense systems, to bolster Ukrainian forces. U.S. and European Union sanctions have also sought to impose a financial cost on Russia.

Biden noted that his address to lawmakers last year came days after Putin launched what Biden called a "brutal attack against Ukraine" and a test for the world.

"I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal attack against Ukraine -- a murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," Biden said. "Putin's invasion has been a test for the ages, a test for America, a test for the world."

"Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy?" Biden asked. "One year later, we know the answer: Yes, we would, and we did. We did."

WATCH: The Russian invasion of Ukraine evokes "images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II," U.S. President Joe Biden said.

Biden: U.S. To Stand With Ukraine 'As Long As It Takes'
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Biden called Putin's invasion a test for America that showed it would stand for the defense of democracy.

"Such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity," he said.

Some Republicans have been skeptical of military aid to Ukraine, but that was not the case when Republicans in the chamber, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, appeared to strongly support Biden's remarks.

"I have to say, I saw a lot more support coming from the Republican side of the aisle when he was speaking about Ukraine, particularly at the moment when he said, 'We are in it as long as it takes,'" Elizabeth Shackelford of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs told VOA.

"This is something that we have heard the Republican Party push back on specifically, saying that there wasn't a blank check for Ukraine," she added.

Late last year, Congress passed a spending bill that included $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies, which many House Republicans, including McCarthy, opposed.

Biden said the United States faces serious challenges around the world, but that in the past two years, democracies have become stronger while autocracies have grown weaker.

He did not mention Iran or Afghanistan in his remarks. Republicans have criticized his administration for trying to revive a nuclear deal with Tehran, as well as what they argued was a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Days after a Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across American airspace, leading to the cancellation of a high-profile trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden outlined where he sees the relationship with Beijing now.

The president said he remains open to working with China "where it can advance American interests and benefit the world."

"But make no mistake about it," he said. "As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country, and we did."

Some Republicans criticized Biden for not ordering the balloon shot down earlier as it traversed the country.

Biden argued that his administration had changed the narrative about how "the People's Republic of China is increasing its power and America was failing in the world."

"Not anymore," he said. "We made clear and I made clear in my personal conversations which have been many with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict."

With reporting by Cindy Saine of VOA

U.S. Charges Associate Of Russian Oligarch With Sanctions Evasion, Money Laundering

Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (file photo)

U.S. prosecutors have charged fugitive Russian citizen Vladimir Voronchenko with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme connected to the assets of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Voronchenko, who portrayed himself as a successful businessman, art dealer, and collector, and as a close friend of Vekselberg is accused of participating in the scheme in an indictment unsealed in federal court on February 7, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Washington imposed sanctions on Vekselberg in 2018 over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and again in 2022 over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Voronchenko, 70, was accused of participating in the scheme by making payments to maintain four U.S. properties that were owned by Vekselberg, the Justice Department’s statement said.

Voronchenko was also charged with contempt of court for failing to comply with a grand jury subpoena requiring his personal appearance and testimony, the Justice Department added.

Federal agents served the subpoena in May. About nine days later, Voronchenko took a flight from Miami, Florida, to Dubai, and then went to Moscow, prosecutors said.

Before he was designated for sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Vekselberg, a billionaire with ties to Russia’s mining industry, bought several properties in the United States through a series of shell companies.

The value of the four properties, including an apartment on Park Avenue in New York City and apartments on Fisher Island, Florida, is approximately $75 million. Federal agents searched the properties in September.

Voronchenko’s role in the scheme involved the hiring of an attorney in New York City in connection with the purchase of the properties, the Justice Department said. The attorney also managed the finances of the properties, including the payment of property taxes and other fees using U.S. dollar transactions from the attorney’s account.

U.S. prosecutors allege in the indictment that shell companies owned by Vekselberg sent approximately 90 wire transfers totaling approximately $18.5 million to the attorney’s account. At the direction of Voronchenko and his family member who lived in Russia, the attorney used the funds to make various U.S. dollar payments to maintain and service the properties.

After Vekselberg’s initial designation for sanctions in 2018, the source of the funds used to maintain and service the properties changed, and the attorney’s account began to receive wires from a bank account in the Bahamas held in the name of a shell company controlled by Voronchenko, Smile Holding, and from a Russian bank account held in the name of a Russian national related to Voronchenko.

Voronchenko is charged with conspiring to violate and evade U.S. sanctions, violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiring to commit international money laundering, and international money laundering. Each of the charges carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

In a related indictment unsealed on January 20, the U.S. government said it charged two businessmen -- one Russian and one Briton -- with facilitating a sanctions evasion and money-laundering scheme in relation to a superyacht belonging to Vekselberg.

Spanish police seized the yacht following a request from the United States, which alleged that the vessel violated U.S. bank fraud, money-laundering, and sanctions statutes.

With reporting by Reuters

U.S. Approves Sale Of HIMARS Rocket Launchers, Ammunition To Poland

The package includes 18 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers. (file photo)

The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of long-range missiles and rockets to Poland in a deal valued at up to $10 billion, the Pentagon said on February 7. The sale comes as Kyiv praised U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) rocket launchers for battlefield successes such as destroying Russian warehouses and command posts. The package includes 18 HIMARS launchers, 45 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles, and more than 1,000 Guided Multiple Rocket Launch System (GMLRS) rockets. Poland would not be able to transfer any of its ATACMS to Ukraine without approval from the United States. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russia Asks Pink Floyd's Roger Waters To Speak At UN On Arms Shipments To Ukraine

Former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters (file photo)

Russia has asked Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, to speak to the UN Security Council on February 8 at a meeting to discuss the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Waters was criticized by supporters of Ukraine when he published an open letter in September arguing against the Western supply of weapons to Kyiv. "Let's see what he will say. He has a position and you will hear it tomorrow," said Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia. The Security Council has met dozens of times since Russia invaded Ukraine but has been unable to take any action because Russia has veto power. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Fire Breaks Out At Drone-Making Factory In Latvia

Fire engines are seen at the site of a blaze that broke out at a drone factory on the outskirts of Latvia's capital, Riga, on February 7.

A fire broke out on February 7 at a drone factory in Latvia that has built drones for Ukraine's military and NATO allies. Two dozen police cars, nine fire engines, and five ambulances rushed to the scene of the fire at the factory run by the U.S. company Edge Autonomy on the outskirts of Riga. The cause of the blaze was not known and no injuries were reported. "A high-risk fire has occurred in the production building, sparking a lot of smoke," the fire department said on Twitter, urging local residents to keep their doors and windows closed.

Updated

Explosion In Residential Building Kills At Least Five In Russia

According to authorities, the explosion was caused by a gas leak and destroyed three levels of a five-story building.

An explosion in a residential building in Russia's western Tula region has killed at least five people. Emergency Department officials in the town of Yefremov said on February 7 that rescue teams continue to look for survivors or bodies at the site. According to the authorities, the explosion was caused by a gas leak and destroyed three levels of a five-story building. Gas explosions frequently occur across the former Soviet Union due to aging pipelines and infrastructure, as well as lax safety standards.

Ukraine 'Disappointed' With Georgian Court's Rejection Of Saakashvili's Release Request

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (file photo)

KYIV-- Ukraine has expressed concerns over a court decision in Tbilisi rejecting an appeal to release former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who holds Ukrainian citizenship, from prison on health grounds.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called on Georgian authorities in a statement on February 7 "to stop settling political scores with a Ukrainian citizen and ensure compliance with his rights and hand him over to Ukraine."

A day earlier, Judge Giorgi Arevadze rejected Saakashvili's request to suspend his sentence, a move Saakashvili called a "death sentence" handed to him by his political opponents.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it was "disappointed with the decision of the Tbilisi City Court."

"The court did not take into account the doctors' conclusions regarding the severity of Mikheil Saakashvili's illness," the statement said.

Saakashvili, who was Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.

Family members and his lawyers have warned for months that Saakashvili’s health condition has been deteriorating even as he receives treatment in a private clinic in Tbilisi.

His medical team says his health has worsened significantly since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes to protest his incarceration.

Saakashvili's legal team has also asserted that he was "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody.

During a hearing last week, he asked for “the opportunity for adequate treatment” by having his sentence suspended so he could be transferred abroad for more intensive care.

But Georgian officials have raised doubts about how critical his health situation is.

Saakashvili is currently on trial on separate charges of violently dispersing an anti-government rally in November 2007 and illegal border crossing.

Updated

Moscow Court Upholds Decision To Withdraw Novaya Gazeta Newspaper's License

Novaya gazeta suspended publication online and in print after Russia introduced strict new censorship laws. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- The Moscow City Court has upheld the decision of a lower court to withdraw the licenses of the Novaya gazeta newspaper and its Novaya rasskaz-gazeta magazine, two of the last independent media outlets in the country, amid a crackdown on the free press during the Kremlin's war against Ukraine.

The court ruled on February 7 that the decision to withdraw the media outlets’ licenses by the Basmanny district court in September was correct and cannot be changed.

In November, Russian authorities blocked access to Novaya gazeta's website. Previous to that, the newspaper in March was forced to suspend publication online and in print after Russia introduced strict new censorship laws.

Shortly after the Moscow City Court pronounced its decision, Kirill Martynov, the chief editor of Novaya gazeta's project in the EU, Novaya gazeta. Europe, condemned the ruling.

"The court in Moscow just destroyed Novaya gazeta, Russia's oldest independent media outlet. We always opposed to war, our six journalists were murdered and our editor-in-chief received the Nobel Peace Prize a few months before Putin invaded Ukraine. It will not end like this," Martynov wrote on Twitter.

Russian authorities have used courts to intensify pressure on the free press since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February last year.

Novaya gazeta was founded in part with money from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and had been one of the most respected publications in post-Soviet Russia since 1993. It suspended operations inside the country in March after being forced to remove material from its website on Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine.

Some members of the paper’s staff left Russia after it stopped publishing and launched the newspaper's new project Novaya gazeta. Europe from Latvia's capital, Riga. Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked that website inside Russia as well.

Novaya gazeta’s chief editor Dmitry Muratov, a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has remained in Russia despite his vocal opposition to the conflict in Ukraine.

Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moscow quickly adopted a law criminalizing the dissemination of “false” information that “discredits the armed forces.” The law has been central to a massive crackdown against dissent over the war in Russia.

Rights Watchdog Calls Iranian Government's Anniversary Celebrations 'Shameful,' Banners Burned

Months of unrest sparked have posed the greatest threat to Iran's leadership since the Islamic Revolution. (file photo)

Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as rights group Amnesty International chided the country's leaders for "decades of mass killings and cover-ups."

Months of unrest sparked by the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for allegedly not wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf properly, have posed the greatest threat to the Islamic leadership since the revolution.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Amnesty called the anniversary celebrations "shameful" amid decades of mass killings and cover-ups by authorities, including the current brutal treatment of protesters since Amini's death, as well as the 1988 prison massacre that saw thousands of Iranian political prisoners and others killed in mass executions across the country.

“The authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran have maintained an iron grip on power for decades through the commission of horror after horror with absolute impunity," Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement dated February 6.

"The anniversary arrives amid a horrific wave of bloodshed around the latest protests, as well as arbitrary executions and death sentences targeting protesters. This highlights the need for urgent global action from countries around the world to bring Iranian officials involved in crimes under international law to justice in fair trials,” she added.

Despite the crackdown, Iranians continue to push back as they call for increased freedoms and human rights.

In the evening on February 7, neighborhoods in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad witnessed the chanting of slogans -- a nightly occurrence -- by protestors along with the burning of propaganda banners of the government celebrations of the 1979 Islamic Revolution anniversary. Similar scenes were repeated in the cities of Arak, Kermanshah, and Kerman.

In the western Iranian city of Sanandaj, a group of protesters blocked the street leading to the central prison of Sanandaj by lighting a fire and chanting anti-government slogans, including "death to the dictator," a reference to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Videos published on social media also show that, in different areas of the Iranian capital of Tehran, people chanted anti-government slogans from the windows and rooftops of residential buildings and played the song “Baraye,” which won a Grammy award for social change on February 5 and has become an anthem for the ongoing protests in Iran.

The song Baraye, which roughly translates as "because of," is based on the outpouring of public anger following Amini's death. It is composed of tweets sent by Iranians in response to the tragedy. Many of the tweets blame the country's social, economic, and political ills on the clerical regime.

Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Ukraine's Parliament Amends 2023 Budget, Raises Spending

Roksolana Pidlasa, the head of the parliamentary budget committee (file photo)

Ukraine's parliament approved changes to the 2023 state budget that raise state spending to support small businesses and channel more funds into reconstruction and recovery projects following Russia's invasion. Roksolana Pidlasa, the head of the parliamentary budget committee, said spending was increased by 5.5 billion hryvnias ($150 million). The increase included funds to finance and modernize hospitals in Kyiv and Lviv and to rebuild bridges damaged in Russia's war on Ukraine. The amended budget also plans for 1.28 billion hryvnias in additional support for small businesses in the processing industry and state guarantees for loans in the agriculture sector. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Estonian Ambassador Leaves Russia As Deadline Expires In Tit-For-Tat Dispute

The Russian Embassy in Tallinn (file photo)

Estonian Ambassador Margus Laidre has left Moscow as requested by Russia's Foreign Ministry, Russian media reports said on February 7. Last month, Moscow demanded that Laidre leave Russia by February 7, saying the level of diplomatic representation in both countries will be reduced from ambassadors to charge d'affaires. The move came after Estonia told Russia to cut the number of diplomats it has in the Baltic nation to eight, equivalent to the number of Estonian diplomats in Moscow. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Estonia has expelled three Russian diplomats. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Iranian Clinic Shut After Doctor Defends Woman For Her Stance On Hijab

Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Authorities in the northeastern Iranian city of Kashmar have shut down a clinic after a confrontation between two women over wearing a head scarf, a topic that has been at the center of months of unrest since a young woman died while in police custody after being detained over how she was wearing hers.

A video that appeared on social media on February 4 shows a veiled woman warning another woman for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. A doctor at the clinic then defends the woman's right not to wear a hijab and says that her move is a symbol of protest.

"This is a criticism of the mullahs and I defend her," the doctor added in the video. The date of the recording of the video could not be independently verified.


The hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), quoted the prosecutor of Razavi Khorasan Province as saying the doctor was summoned and charged for "insulting a hijabi woman and insulting clerics," while his clinic was also sealed.

In recent weeks, numerous reports have been published about the sealing of businesses, restaurants, cafes, and in some cases even pharmacies for owners and managers failing to observe Islamic laws and mandatory hijab rules.

The wave of closings comes amid the months-long public anger that erupted after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in September while in custody after being detained by morality police in Tehran for "improperly" wearing a head scarf.

Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Germany Urges 'Immediate' End To Nagorno-Karabakh Blockade

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (file photo)

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on February 7 called for the reopening of a key corridor to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, after talks with her Armenian counterpart. Baerbock, whose country leads a European Union mission in the region, told reporters that the escalating humanitarian situation made it essential that the blockade by Azerbaijan "end immediately." "The supermarket shelves are almost empty, medication is lacking...family members are stuck in Armenia and can't get back to their loved ones, schoolchildren have to freeze in these icy temperatures because the energy supplies are cut off," Baerbock said. To read the original report by AFP, click here.

Swedish PM Says He's Ready To Restart NATO Talks With Turkey When Ankara Is

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (file photo)

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on February 7 that he's ready to restart stalled negotiations over Sweden's application to join NATO as soon as Turkey is. Finland and Sweden sought NATO membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and while most member states have ratified the applications, Turkey has yet to give its approval in what must be a unanimous process. The three nations last year reached an agreement on a way forward, but Ankara suspended talks last month following protests in Stockholm, where a far-right politician burned a copy of the Koran. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Updated

Nordic Countries 'Stand Firm' In Opposing Russian, Belarusian Athletes At Paris Olympics

Paris is due to host the Summer Olympics in July and August 2024. (file photo)

The Olympic committees of five Nordic countries have reiterated their opposition to allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The countries said in a statement on February 7 that the situation in Ukraine has not changed.

“Therefore, we stand firm in our position, not to open for Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international sports participation,” the statement said. “Now is not the right time to consider their return; that is our position.”

The Olympic Committees and Paralympic Committees representing Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the sports confederations of Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Aland issued the statement after meeting on February 3.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's ongoing invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

The statement said the committees also reaffirmed their steadfast support for the Ukrainian people and the demand for peace.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said last month that it was exploring a "pathway" to allow Russian and Belarusian competitors to take part in the Paris Olympics. Ukraine responded to that announcement by saying it would consider boycotting the Paris games.

Other European countries remain angered by the Olympic body’s statement, saying efforts to restore the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus, who were banned after Moscow launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine last February, were ill-timed given that the military conflict continues.

The three Baltic nations and Poland last week noted the possibility that Russian and Belarusian athletes could be allowed to participate under a neutral flag. They said this would "legitimize the political decisions and extensive propaganda of these countries" and allow them to use sport as a distraction from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also criticized it, saying it would be “a legitimization of the criminal aggression against Ukraine," adding on Twitter, "We won't allow sport to be used against humanity & for war propaganda!"

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said earlier on February 7 that she was opposed to Russians competing at the Olympics in her city if the war in Ukraine was still going on.

The statement from her office represents a change in position by Hidalgo, who said last month she believed Russians could take part "under a neutral flag" to avoid "depriving athletes of competition."

With reporting by AFP

Another Group Of Karakalpak Activists Goes On Trial In Uzbekistan Over 2022 Protests

Lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov was given 16 years in prison on charges of plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organizing mass unrest, embezzlement, and money laundering.

A court in Uzbekistan's southwestern city of Bukhara has started the trial of another 39 Karakalpak activists accused of taking part in unsanctioned anti-government protests in the Central Asian nation's Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan last year.

Uzbekistan's Supreme Court said on February 7 that 20 of the defendants are charged with organizing mass unrest, while seven are charged with distributing materials inciting social discord, seven others with inflicting serious bodily damage, four with the illegal use of firearms, and one person is charged with torture and blackmail.

The same court last week sentenced the first group of Karakalpak activists -- 22 individuals -- sending lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov to prison for 16 years on charges of plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organizing mass unrest, embezzlement, and money laundering.

Four defendants, including another journalist, Lolagul Qallykhanova, were handed parole-like sentences and immediately released from custody.


Another 17 defendants were sentenced to prison terms of between three years and 8 1/2 years. It remains unclear how the defendants pleaded.

Uzbekistan's Prosecutor-General’s Office said on February 6 that one of the activists convicted last week and handed a six-year prison term, Polat Shamshetov, had died over the weekend while in custody of "thromboembolism of the pulmonary artery and acute heart failure."

Self-exiled Karakalpak activists have expressed suspicions that the 45-year-old Shamshetov might have been tortured to death in custody and have demanded a thorough investigation of his death.

Uzbek authorities say 21 people died in Karakalpakstan during the protests, which were sparked by the announcement in early July 2022 of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the region's right to self-determination.

The violence in Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, forced President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.

Mirziyoev accused "foreign forces" of being behind the unrest, without further explanation, before backing away from the proposed changes.

Karakalpaks are a Central Asian Turkic-speaking people. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan before becoming autonomous within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930 and then part of Uzbekistan in 1936.

Karakalpakstan is home to fewer than 2 million people, out of a nation of 35 million, but it covers more than one-third of Uzbekistan's territory.

The European Union has called for an independent investigation into the violence.

Ukrainian Lawmakers Appoint New Security Service Chief, Interior Minister

Ihor Klymenko is Ukraine's new interior minister. (file photo)

Ukrainian lawmakers on February 7 appointed Vasyl Malyuk to the post of chief of the Security Service (SBU) and Ihor Klymenko to the post of interior minister. Malyuk had served as the SBU's acting chief since August 2022. Klymenko had been serving as acting interior minister after his predecessor, Denys Monastyrskiy, was killed in a helicopter crash in January. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Wikipedia Unblocked In Pakistan

(illustrative photo)

Wikipedia was accessible in Pakistan on February 7, days after the country’s media regulator had blocked the free online encyclopedia. Pakistan’s media regulator blocked Wikipedia services on February 3. A spokesperson told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the decision was taken after the site failed to remove purportedly blasphemous content. After an outcry, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif on February 6 ordered the site to be unblocked. Blasphemy is a sensitive subject and carries the death penalty in Pakistan, where even allegations of the offense are often enough to provoke mob violence. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, click here.

Russian Court Reduces Sentence Of Self-Exiled Activist Shevchenko

Anastasia Shevchenko (file photo)

A Russian court has cut the prison term handed down to the self-exiled former coordinator of the defunct Open Russia group, Anastasia Shevchenko, by one year, putting the sentence at two years.

Shevchenko, who fled Russia for Lithuania last summer, tweeted the court decision -- the second time that a year was cut from her original sentence -- on February 6. She gave no reason for the reduction of the sentence.

In December, a court in the southwestern city of Rostov-on-Don ruled in absentia to replace Shevchenko's suspended sentence with a real prison term at the Federal Penitentiary Service's request.

Shevchenko was initially handed a four-year suspended sentence in February 2021 for having links with the opposition group Open Russia. The sentence was later cut by one year.

Shevchenko was the first person in Russia charged with “repeatedly participating in the activities of an undesirable organization.” Previously, violations of this law were punished as a noncriminal offense.

Shevchenko's supporters have said the case was a politically motivated attempt to stop her activism and punish her for showing dissent publicly.

The “undesirable organization” law, adopted in May 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources.

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office declared Open Russia "undesirable” in 2017.

During her pretrial house arrest in January 2019, Shevchenkowas granted a furlough at the last minute to see her eldest daughter in the hospital shortly before she died of an unspecified illness.

Prosecutor Seeks Nine Years In Prison For Siberian Journalist Charged With 'Discrediting' Russian Armed Forces

Maria Ponomarenko

A prosecutor has asked a court in the Siberian city of Barnaul to convict and sentence journalist Maria Ponomarenko to nine years in prison on a charge of discrediting Russia’s armed forces with "fake" social media posts about the war in Ukraine. Ponomarenko's lawyer, Dmitry Shitov, said the prosecutor also requested the court to bar Ponomarenko from journalistic and online activities for five years. Ponomarenko was arrested in April 2022 for her online posts about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

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