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Biden, In Baghdad, Seeks Solution In Iraqi Election Dispute

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is the administration's point man on Iraq.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held talks with Iraqi officials in Baghdad today amid a row over a decision to bar scores of candidates from a March election over suspected links to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party.

The move by an independent panel has outraged Sunnis, who dominated Iraq for more than two decades under Saddam and who see it as an attempt to marginalize their community, casting doubt on the inclusiveness and legitimacy of the March 7 vote.

But a U.S. official travelling with Biden on his third visit to Iraq since U.S. troops pulled out of urban centers in June said he was confident the furor would be resolved by Iraqis.

"I would say, based on recent months especially, that what we've seen is a growing and significant ability of Iraqis to resolve their differences and disputes through the political process," said Biden's national security adviser, Antony Blinken.

"And so I don't think it's the place of the United States or any other outside country to resolve these kinds of problems for Iraqis, because they are demonstrating they are more than capable of resolving it for themselves," he said.

Blinken told reporters on January 22 that "the proof will be in the pudding," but that he had some confidence the issue would be resolved.

The sectarian violence between minority Sunnis and majority Shi'ites unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion has begun to fade.

But Iraq's security remains fragile, and is frequently put to the test by suicide bombings and killings carried out by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents such as Al-Qaeda, or attacks U.S. officials blame on Shi'ite militia supported by Iran.

The March election is a pivotal test of whether Iraq can sustain the growing peace and build a future of stability and prosperity on the back of multibillion-dollar deals the country has started to sign with global oil companies.

Fueling Resentment

Sunnis largely boycotted the last national elections in 2005, feeding resentment and fuelling the insurgency against U.S. troops and the Shi'ite-led government. That could happen again if Sunnis feel unfairly excluded from this election.

The list of 511 banned candidates actually included more Shi'ite politicians than Sunnis. It was weighted against secular groups expected to fare well in the election against the Shi'ite Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since the invasion.

More of the 6,500 candidates in total standing in the election are expected to be banned for other reasons, such as for having criminal records or using fake university degrees.

Biden's first meeting today was with Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He was then expected to meet with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

Talabani said a day earlier that there would be a meeting soon of Iraqi leaders to resolve the issue. His office has also asked a court to rule on the legal standing of the committee that drew up the list of candidates banned for their Ba’athist past.

Biden was asked by President Barack Obama to take the White House lead on Iraq policy.

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Georgia's Saakashvili Being Transferred To Intensive Care In Hospital, Associates Say

Mikheil Saakashvili appears at his trial via video link in December 2022.

TBILISI -- Jailed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is being treated in a private clinic in Tbilisi for health problems, is being transferred to an intensive-care unit, his associates say, a claim the hospital's personnel are denying.

Saakashvili's lawyer, Shalva Khachapuridze, along with opposition politician Giorgi Chaladze, said on January 31 that Saakashvili's state of health had worsened further, prompting his move to an intensive-care unit of the Vivamedi hospital.

However, hospital director Nino Nadiradze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the former leader remained in his hospital room and had not been moved.

Saakashvili's mother, Giuli Alasania, said earlier in the day that her son, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 several days ago, "again fell unconscious" overnight and that his body temperature had risen to 39 degrees Celsius.

Medical personnel have yet to confirm her statement.

On January 28, Vivamedi's chief physician, Zurab Chkhaidze, told journalists that Saakashvili had dramatically reduced his food consumption and was rejecting medical treatment.

Chkhaidze then called on Saakashvili's relatives to convince him to obey the doctors' recommendations.

The imprisoned ex-president has been treated at the Vivamedi facility since May 2022. Doctors said earlier this month that Saakashvili contracted a mild form of COVID and therefore did not need treatment in intensive care.

Saakashvili, who was 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.

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.

His lawyers have sought to have his sentence suspended so he can be transferred abroad for more intensive care.

In early December, Saakashvili's legal team distributed a medical report that said he had been "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody and risked dying without proper treatment.

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. He has rejected those charges as well, calling them trumped-up.

Britain Says It's Not Practical To Send Ukraine Fighter Jets

Ukrainian pilots walk by Su-27 fighter jets at an base in Ukraine. (file photo)

Britain does not believe it is practical to send its fighter jets to Ukraine, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on January 31, after Kyiv indicated it would push for such Western planes. "The U.K.'s...fighter jets are extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly. Given that, we believe it is not practical to send those jets into Ukraine," the spokesperson told reporters. "We will continue to discuss with our allies about what we think what is the right approach." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Lithuanian President Urges West To 'Cross Red Lines,' Consider Fighter Jets To Ukraine

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda (file photo)

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has urged the West to keep all options open to requests from Ukraine for weaponry, including fighter jets. Nauseda said in an interview with Lithuanian television on January 31 that fighter aircraft and long-range missiles were "essential military aid" and "at this crucial stage in the war, where the turning point is about to happen." "These red lines must be crossed," he added. The United States and Germany have so far ruled out such demands from Kyiv, though France says it is not against it in principle.

Russian Businessman Klyushin Goes On Trial In U.S. On Insider-Trading Charges

Vladislav Klyushin (undated photo)

Kremlin-linked Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin, who was extradited from Switzerland to the United States in December 2021, has gone on trial in Boston on charges of involvement in a global scheme to trade shares based on confidential information from hackers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank said as the trial started on January 30 that the 42-year-old businessman, along with his associates, had made about $90 million trading stocks based on information stolen by hackers concerning hundreds of publicly traded companies.

Klyushin was charged with conspiring to obtain unauthorized access to computers and to commit wire fraud and securities fraud.

He pleaded not guilty to all charges.

"The defendant had tomorrow's news, tomorrow's headlines, today," Frank said in his opening statement. "And he exploited it for tens of millions of dollars in profits."

Klyushin's lawyer, Maksim Nemtsev, rejected Frank's opening statement, saying there was "zero evidence" to back up the accusations.

Klyushin owns M-13, a Russian company that offers media monitoring and cybersecurity services. According to Russian opposition media, he is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin's first deputy chief of staff, Aleksei Gromov.

The judge in the case, however, has barred any references to Putin during the trial.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said two of Klyushin's co-defendants -- Ivan Yermakov and Nikolai Rumyantsev -- had been charged with "conspiring to obtain unauthorized access to computers, and to commit wire fraud and securities fraud and with obtaining unauthorized access to computers, wire fraud and securities fraud."

In 2018, U.S. courts charged Yermakov, a former officer in Russia's GRU military intelligence, for his alleged role in hacking and disinformation operations related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and for similar activity targeting international anti-doping agencies, sporting federations, and anti-doping officials, it said.

The two other suspects, Mikhail Irzak and Igor Sladkov, have been charged with "conspiracy to obtain unauthorized access to computers, and to commit wire fraud and securities fraud, and with securities fraud."

Only Klyushin has been taken into custody in the case. The other four suspects remain at large.

With reporting by Boston Globe and Reuters

Russian Gets 12 Years For Throwing Molotov Cocktails At Conscription Center

A Russian conscript leaves a military conscription office in Novosibirsk in April 2022.

A court in the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg has sentenced a man to 12 years in prison for throwing Molotov cocktails at a military conscription center in the Siberian autonomous district of Khanty-Mansi. The Central Military District Court identified the man as Vladislav Borisenko. It is the first time an arson attack against a military conscription center was classified as a terrorist act. There have been dozens of such attacks since Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

NATO, Japan Pledge To Strengthen Ties In Face Of 'Historic' Security Threat

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shake hands after holding a joint media briefing on January 31 in Tokyo.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have pledged to strengthen ties, saying Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its growing military cooperation with China had created the most tense security environment since World War II. The comments came in a statement issued during Stoltenberg's trip to Japan following a visit to South Korea on which he urged Seoul to increase military support to Ukraine and gave similar warnings. "The world is at a historical inflection point in the most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II," the two leaders said in the statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Uzbek Journalists, Other Karakalpak Activists Given Prison Sentences For Protests

Dauletmurat Tajimuratov is a lawyer for the El Khyzmetinde (At People's Service) newspaper, where he was previously the chief editor. (file photo)

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan -- A court in the southwestern Uzbek city of Bukhara has handed sentences to 22 people -- including lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov -- accused of undermining the constitutional order for taking part in unprecedented anti-government protests in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region last year.

The Bukhara regional court on January 31 sentenced Tajimuratov to 16 years in prison after finding him guilty of allegedly plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organizing mass unrest, embezzlement, and money laundering.

Tajimuratov is a lawyer for the El Khyzmetinde (At People's Service) newspaper, where he was previously the chief editor.

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

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

Uzbek authorities say 21 people died in Karakalpakstan during the protests, which were sparked by the announcement in early July last year of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the autonomous republic'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 down from the proposed changes.

The trial started in late November in Bukhara, around 600 kilometers from both Nukus and the capital, Tashkent.

Mirziyoev came to power in 2016 after the death of his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov.

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 in a country 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.

Russia Fines Amazon's Twitch $57,000 Over Ukraine Content

Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Russian court on January 31 fined the Twitch streaming service 4 million rubles ($57,000) for failing to remove what it said were "fakes" about Russia's military campaign in Ukraine, the Interfax news agency reported. Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Moscow has long objected to foreign tech platforms' distribution of content that falls foul of its restrictions, with Russian courts regularly imposing penalties. To see the original story by Reuters, click here.

Ukraine Criticizes Croatian President For Comments On Crimea

Croatian President Zoran Milanovic (file photo)

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry has called a statement by Croatian President Zoran Milanovic that Crimea will never return to Ukrainian control "unacceptable." Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko wrote on Facebook on January 31 that "we consider the statements of the president of Croatia, who actually questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine, as unacceptable." The post was in response to a comment by Milanovic a day earlier that it was "clear" Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, will "never again be part of Ukraine."


Russia Launches Fresh Strikes In Eastern Ukraine As Fighting For Vuhledar Rages On

Ukrainian soldiers ride on a MT-LB armored personnel carrier in the Donetsk region on January 30.

Russian troops launched a fresh wave of strikes on Ukrainian positions and civilian settlements, the military in Kyiv said early on January 31 as heavy fighting continued unabated in Ukraine's east, where President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says the situation remains "very tough."

British intelligence said Russia had launched a "more concerted" assault on Vuhledar, a coal-mining town in the Donetsk region that has become the latest focal point of the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.

However, in its daily bulletin on January 31, the British Defense Ministry said that Moscow lacked the numbers to press a notable advance in the area.

"There is a realistic possibility that Russia will continue to make local gains in the sector. However, it is unlikely that Russia has sufficient uncommitted troops in the area to achieve an operationally significant breakthrough," it said on Twitter.

Ukraine's General Staff reported three Russian air strikes and four missile strikes, as well as more than 60 salvos from rocket systems that targeted Ukrainian settlements.

"The enemy continues to conduct offensive actions in the Lyman and Bakhmut directions, suffering heavy losses," the General Staff said in its morning report.

"[The enemy] conducted unsuccessful offensive actions in the Avdiyivka and Novopavliyivka directions. In the direction of Kupyansk and Zaporizhzhya, the enemy is struggling to defend its positions," it said.

The Ukrainian military also rejected claims by Denis Pushilin, administrator of Russian-controlled parts of the Donetsk region, that Russians had made advances near Vuhledar, which is located about 50 kilometers southwest of the city of Donetsk.

"We did not lose our positions," said Yevhen Yerin, a Ukrainian military spokesman for the area.

Neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian claims could be verified independently.

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.

A Russian official said that Moscow has moved additional forces and equipment to the Kursk region on the border with Ukraine to protect the frontier and ensure security.

Regional governor Roman Starovoit told a meeting of the local administration that personnel from the armed forces, border guards, and law enforcement agencies had already been formed in Kursk.

Local authorities have claimed that the area has been subjected to Ukrainian shelling since Russia invaded Ukraine almost a year ago.

Ukraine has been calling on its Western allies to speed up deliveries of heavy weaponry promised in recent weeks as it tries to hold on to territory in the east, where Russia is piling up overwhelming force.

Zelenskiy has called the situation on the ground "very tough," with Russian forces making "constant attempts to break through our defenses."

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov is due in Paris on January 31, where he is scheduled to meet President Emmanuel Macron amid differences among Ukraine's allies over whether to provide fighter jets for its defense against Russia, after U.S. President Joe Biden ruled out giving F-16s.

France and Australia also announced a deal on January 30 to jointly produce 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine after a ministerial meeting in Paris.

The United States and Germany agreed last week to send Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, after Britain earlier in January said it would send Challenger 2 tanks. Germany also allowed other countries, such as Norway and Poland to send their German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

Poland said it will provide 60 more tanks to Ukraine in addition to the 14 Leopard 2 tanks it has already pledged.

Western Tanks, Russian Propaganda
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Ukrainian soldiers are currently in Britain to be trained on the advanced weaponry, the British Defense Ministry said on January 29, though the delivery of the promised equipment is not expected for several months.

"Russia wants the war to drag on and exhaust our forces," Zelenskiy said. "So we have to make time our weapon."

Russia has many more tanks than Ukraine, but the vast majority of them are Soviet-era models.

In a separate development, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko on January 31 called a statement by Croatian President Zoran Milanovic that Crimea will never return to Ukrainian control "unacceptable."

With reporting by Reuters

Watchdog's Corruption Score For Eurasia Sinks In 2022, Remains Well Below Global Average

The Eastern Europe and Central Asia average declined in 2022 one point to 35, with Georgia, (56), Armenia (46), and Montenegro (45) the only countries from the region to score above the global average of 43.

Corruption remains rampant in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) compiled by Transparency International, which called for leaders in the region to finally address the problem.

The annual CPI, released on January 31, shows that many countries' corruption score reached historic lows in 2022. It also showed that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was the "most violent result of unchecked corruption and kleptocracy" in all of 2022, said Altynai Myrzabekova, Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional adviser for Transparency International.

"It's time for a wake-up call for Eastern European and Central Asian leaders to finally commit to addressing pervasive corruption and support democracy, stability and basic freedoms for all people across the region," Myrzabekova said in a news release accompanying the report.

Years of inaction against corruption have allowed kleptocrats to take control, undermined democratic processes, restricted civic space, and weakened public institutions, fueling violence, conflict and instability in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the report concludes.

The CPI scores 180 countries and territories on perceptions of public-sector corruption using data from 13 external sources, including the World Bank, World Economic Forum, consulting companies, and think tanks.

The Eastern Europe and Central Asia average declined in 2022 one point to 35, with 100 the highest score possible. Georgia, (56), Armenia (46), and Montenegro (45) were the only countries from the region that scored above the global average of 43.

Turkmenistan (19), Azerbaijan (23), and Tajikistan (24), had the lowest scores in the Eurasia region. Turkey (36), Bosnia-Herzegovina (34), and Azerbaijan all scored historic lows for the year.

Serbia's score of 36 was also a low for the Balkan country, where Transparency International said politicians had significant influence over the judiciary, which has impaired a number of important organized-crime cases, including those with alleged involvement of high-level officials.

Kazakhstan's score of 36 was one point below its score last year, while three countries in the region – Armenia, Moldova (39), and Uzbekistan (31) -- have significantly improved their CPI scores.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a stark reminder of the threat that corruption and the absence of government accountability pose for global peace and security," Transparency International said.

Kleptocrats in Russia (28) have amassed great fortunes by pledging loyalty to President Vladimir Putin in exchange for profitable government contracts and protection of their economic interests, the organization said.

The absence of any checks on Putin's power allowed him to pursue his geopolitical ambitions with impunity and has destabilized the European continent, Transparency International said.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine (33) had a low score but was undertaking reforms and steadily improving, according to Transparency International. Even after fighting started, the country has continued to prioritize anti-corruption reforms and adopted a new National Anti-Corruption Strategy last June.

"However, wars disrupt normal processes and exacerbate risks, allowing corrupt actors to pocket funds meant for recovery, as was seen in mid-January when investigations exposed war profiteering by the defense and communities and territories development ministries," Transparency International said.

The scandal underscores the need for reforms to prevent such violations in the future, the organization said, noting that the country’s anti-corruption mechanisms are thus far holding public officials accountable.

The CPI global average remains unchanged at 43 for the 11th year in a row. Denmark (90) tops the index this year, with Finland and New Zealand following closely, each with a score of 87.

South Sudan (13), Syria (13), and Somalia (12), all of which are embroiled in conflict, remain at the bottom of the CPI.

The report also showed that 10 countries since 2017 have significantly declined on their CPI scores. These are Luxembourg (77), Canada (74), the United Kingdom (73), Austria (71), Malaysia (47), Mongolia (33), Pakistan (27), Honduras (23), Nicaragua (19), and Haiti (17).


Biden Says U.S. Will Not Send Fighter Jets To Ukraine; Macron Appears More Open To Idea

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about continued support for Ukraine at the White House in Washington on January 25.

U.S. President Joe Biden on January 30 said the United States will not send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, even as French President Emmanuel Macron said France didn't rule out sending them if certain conditions were met.

Biden replied "no" when asked by reporters at the White House if he was in favor of sending the jets, which are the latest weapons requested by Ukraine's leaders after they received promises last week that Germany, the United States, and other Western allies would send heavy tanks.

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.

Macron was asked on January 30 at a joint news conference in The Hague with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte if France was considering sending fighter jets.

"Nothing is excluded," but conditions would have to be met first, Macron said.

This includes ruling out that fighter jets would be used "to touch Russian soil" and that providing them would not weaken the French military, Macron said.

Ukraine would have to formally request the planes, said Macron, who is scheduled to meet Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov in Paris on January 31.

Rutte said Ukraine hadn't formally requested F-16 fighter jets from the Netherlands, and there currently was "no talk about delivering F-16s to Ukraine. No requests."

Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told lawmakers earlier this month that there were "no taboos" about sending the warplanes.

Rutte echoed Hoekstra's words, but said, "It would be a very big next step."

Meanwhile in Berlin, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany said Kyiv had not yet asked Germany to supply it with fighter jets but pointed out how important they would be.

Fighter jets are part of Ukraine's efforts to defend its airspace and defend against the missiles fired at Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, Oleksiy Makeyev told broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

His comments came after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated on January 29 that Germany will not send fighter jets to Ukraine.

Scholz last week agreed to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to allow other European countries to send theirs after weeks of intense debate and mounting pressure from allies.

"I can only advise against entering into a constant bidding war when it comes to weapons systems," Scholz said during a news conference in Santiago de Chile, adding that serious debate is necessary and not a “competition to outdo each other.”

But Makeyev continued to add pressure, saying, "Every day that we discuss and debate internally or negotiate the rules of engagement with partners, Ukrainian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians are dying."

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Outgoing Czech President Says Serbia Can Be Mediator In Ukraine Conflict

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (right) welcomes Czech President Milos Zeman (seated) to Belgrade on January 30.

Outgoing Czech President Milos Zeman has said Serbia's refusal to impose sanctions on Russia could be an advantage for the possible role of mediator in the war in Ukraine.

Speaking on January 30 in Belgrade, Zeman said that "the mediator must not clearly stand on one or the other side," making Serbia's position a potential advantage.

Zeman, speaking at a joint press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, said China and Turkey were other countries that could be mediators in the war.

Turkey has formally offered multiple times to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. There's been no indication that either side in the conflict is prepared to accept any mediation offers.

Vucic said that both he and Zeman condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, adding that Serbia was unique in Europe for not having imposed sanctions on Russia.

"We never hide that," Vucic said.

At the same time, he announced greater humanitarian aid and support for Ukraine.

"We will participate in the construction of certain cities and towns in Ukraine. We have already received an offer from their ambassador," Vucic said.

Vucic also said that "the people of Serbia will never forget" Zeman's apology for the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999.

"He showed courage that no one in Europe has. He showed how great and brave people can make history. What he said two years ago remains in the hearts of our citizens," Vucic said.

Zeman apologized in 2021 during a meeting with Vucic in Prague for the bombing for which he gave his consent on behalf of the government as then-prime minister of the Czech Republic.

NATO launched the bombing because of crimes committed by Serbian forces and the exodus of the Albanian population during the war in Kosovo.

The bombing lasted 78 days and ended with an agreement under which Serbian military and police forces withdrew from Kosovo.

"Two years ago, during [Vucic's] visit to Prague, I asked to be forgiven. I did that only once in my life," Zeman said on January 30.

Zeman, whose visit to Serbia is part of a farewell tour at the end of his five-year mandate, caused major divisions in the country with his actions, including advocating for closer ties with Beijing and, until Russia invaded Ukraine, with Moscow.

Zeman's successor, retired Czech Army General Petr Pavel, was elected on January 28 in a second round of voting. Pavel won after a campaign that featured strong support for NATO and the European Union and support for aid to Ukraine.

North Macedonia, Bulgaria Say No 'Incidents' Tolerated At Upcoming Event In Skopje

Interior Ministers Oliver Spasovski (left) of North Macedonia and Ivan Demerdziev of Bulgaria arrive for a meeting in Skopje on January 30.

The interior ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria have met to discuss tensions between their two countries and measures aimed at preventing violence during the upcoming celebration of the 151st anniversary of the birth of revolutionary Goce Delchev, who is claimed by both Skopje and Sofia as a hero.

Oliver Spasovski, interior minister of North Macedonia, and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Demerdziev, met on January 30 in Skopje to reduce tensions between the two countries, vowing that "no incident" will be tolerated during the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Delchev on February 4 in Skopje.

Delchev is claimed by both countries as a hero in the fight for the liberation of Macedonia from Turkey.

Tensions were heightened earlier this month after the beating of a man who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative.

The announcement that a larger number of Bulgarian citizens will attend the celebration of the Delchev's birth caused further concern.

Macedonian authorities have assessed the celebration as a high-risk event.

"We want to send a message that no incident will be allowed. The Macedonian police force is taking all necessary measures and will not allow incidents to ensure a befitting honoring of our great Goce Delchev," Spasovski said.

Demerdziev said that the Bulgarian side will also take appropriate measures.

"I will not allow provocations to be caused and unwanted events to occur. We have reached an agreement that everything will be in the best possible order, and not to allow some people to fan the flames between the two nations," Demerdziev said.

The two ministers also addressed the beating of Hristijan Pendikov, who was attacked in Ohrid on January 19.

The Bulgarian minister said that he and Spasovski reached an understanding that such incidents should not be allowed in North Macedonia and he was assured that the case will be investigated fully and objectively.

Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Skopje after the incident.

Relations between the Balkan neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic ties that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's negotiations to join the European Union.

Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year.

Belarus's Lukashenka In Zimbabwe On Trip Aimed At Increasing Cooperation With Russian Ally

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrives on January 30 in Harare.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrived on January 30 in Zimbabwe on a visit to cement economic and political ties between the two countries that are both close allies of Russia. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and hundreds of singing and cheering supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party welcomed Lukashenka at the airport in Harare. The visit, according to the Zimbabwean Foreign Ministry, is aimed at boosting "strong cooperation in political, economic, mining, agriculture, and disaster risk management." Belarus has provided Zimbabwe with farm equipment under a deal reached after Mnangagwa's visit to Minsk in 2019. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Pretrial Detention Of Former Chief Of Navalny's Team In Bashkortostan Extended

Lilia Chanysheva (right) appears at an event with Aleksei Navalny (center) in Ufa. (file photo)

A Moscow court has extended the pretrial detention of Lilia Chanysheva, the former chief of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's office in the city of Ufa in Bashkortostan.

The court ruled on January 30 that Chanysheva, whose pretrial detention expires on February 3, will remain in custody at least until April 3.

The 40-year-old activist was arrested in Ufa in November 2021 and later transferred to a detention center in Moscow.

Chanysheva headed the local unit of Navalny's network of regional campaign groups until his team disbanded them after a Moscow prosecutor went to court to have them branded "extremist."

The court accepted the prosecutor's request, effectively outlawing the group.

Chanysheva's defense team said at the time that her arrest was the first since the movement was banned. The charges appear to be retroactive, since the organization she worked for disbanded before it had been legally classified as extremist.

International and domestic human rights groups have urged Russian authorities to release Chanysheva, saying that the extremism charges are absurd and should be dropped.

Navalny himself has been in prison on charges he and his supporters call politically motivated since February 2021.

Several of his associates have been charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have left the country.

Several former activists who worked for Navalny's groups fled the country shortly before and after Chanysheva's arrest.

Iranian Pharmacist, Cleric Square Off Over Hijab, Authorities Close Her Shop

Following the argument, the pharmacy staff refused to provide services to the cleric. (illustrative photo)

Authorities in the northern Iranian city of Amol have shut down a pharmacy after the female owner and a local cleric got into a confrontation over wearing a head scarf, an issue that has sparked nationwide unrest in recent months.

A video that has gone viral on social media shows the owner of the pharmacy, identified as Dr. Forough Haghpanah, being confronted by a cleric who warned her to cover her hair in line with the law of the Islamic republic.

Following the argument, the pharmacy staff refused to provide services to the cleric, who started recording the scene with his mobile phone and describing the incident.

Mohammad Sadegh Akbari, the chief justice of Mazandaran Province, announced that the pharmacy had been shut down "for failing to comply with the hijab law and for not providing services to a customer."

Akbari also added that a legal case had been filed against the owner.

The news comes amid monthslong public anger that erupted after the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody after being detained by morality police in Tehran for "improperly" wearing a head scarf.

Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded 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.

The hijab first became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

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

Croatia's President Criticizes Tank Deliveries To Ukraine

Croatian President Zoran Milanovic (file photo)

Croatia's president has criticized Western governments for supplying Ukraine with heavy tanks and other weapons in its campaign against invading Russian forces, saying those arms deliveries will only prolong the war. Zoran Milanovic told reporters in the Croatian capital that it was "mad" to believe that Russia can be defeated in a conventional war. Milanovic won an election in Croatia in 2019 as a left-leaning liberal candidate, a counterpoint to the conservative government currently in power in the EU and NATO-member state. But he has since turned to populist nationalism and criticized Western policies toward Russia as well as the Balkans. To read the original story by AP, click here.

University Student In Siberia Jailed For Posting Anti-War Video

Kirill Martyushev protests against the war on February 24.

A 23-year-old university student in Siberia has been sentenced to three years in prison for posting a video on the Internet condemning Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. A court in the city of Tyumen pronounced Kirill Martyushev's sentence on January 30 after finding him guilty of extremism. Martyushev was arrested in March. The court ruled that each day served by the defendant in pretrial detention equals 1 1/2 days in prison and therefore his final prison term will be 18 months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Iran Clamps Down On Khoy Residents Angry Over Earthquake Relief

People gather around a fire after an earthquake in Khoy, Iran, on January 29.

Iranian security forces have clamped down on protests over the government's mismanagement of its response to a strong earthquake over the weekend that killed at least three people and injured hundreds in the northwestern city of Khoy.

Videos published on social media show security forces used a water cannon to disperse people who had gathered in front of the regional administration building in Khoy city, which was rocked by the 5.9 magnitude earthquake on January 28.

Panicked residents fled their homes during the tremor as buildings collapsed and cars were overturned. Hundreds have been forced to seek shelter from freezing winter conditions in evacuation centers as more than 20 aftershocks rocked the region.

The shallow quake hit the city of Khoy, with a population of around 200,000, in West Azerbaijan Province, according to the Seismological Center of the University of Tehran.

People were seen wrapped in blankets and huddling around fires in the snow-dusted region in images published by Iranian media, as state TV broadcast footage of major damage to residential buildings, including half-destroyed houses.

Local sources report that two days after the earthquake, people are still in need of basic relief equipment, including tents, heating devices, and food.

Many on social media, including Reza Pahlavi, the exiled former crown prince of Iran and an opposition leader, condemned the government for being quick to send riot police to the region instead of relief equipment.

On Twitter on January 29, while sympathizing with the bereaved families, Pahlavi said that the Islamic republic, "instead of providing quick and appropriate relief to the earthquake victims, has sent forces and tools of repression."

The earthquake comes as Iran finds itself engulfed in a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.

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

EU Urges Bosnia To End Visa-Free Regime For Russians

(illustrative photo)

The European Union has reiterated its request from candidate Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon its visa free-regime for Russian citizens. "Full compliance with the EU visa policy is expected from Bosnia-Herzegovina, which does not foresee a visa-free regime with Russia," the EU delegation to Bosnia told RFE/RL on January 30. The Balkan country was granted EU candidate status in December and is expected to align its sanctions and visa policies with the bloc as part of its drive to join. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Balkan Service, click here.

Ukrainians To Get Millions Of LED Light Bulbs To Ease Energy Shortfall

The goal is in the next few months to reduce by one-quarter the energy deficit caused by Russian strikes on power infrastructure. (illustrative photo)

Ukrainians were urged on January 30 to swap old light bulbs for free energy-efficient LED bulbs under a scheme intended to ease an energy shortfall caused by Russian attacks. Launching a program backed by the European Union and aimed at replacing 50 million light bulbs, Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko said all adults would be able to exchange five incandescent light bulbs for five LED bulbs at post offices. The goal is in the next few months to reduce by one-quarter the energy deficit caused by Russian strikes on power infrastructure. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Ryanair Hiring Ukraine Staff In Anticipation Of Return After War

Passengers get off a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS aircraft at the Boryspil International Airport near Kyiv in 2018.

Ryanair is hiring significant numbers of Ukrainian pilots and cabin crew so that it will be ready to return to the country when the war with Russia ends, Chief Executive Michael O'Leary said on January 30. "We are very committed to returning to Ukraine as soon as it is safe to do so," said O'Leary, who had said on the eve of the conflict that he was considering basing up to 20 aircraft in the country. Commercial flights are currently not operating in Ukraine due to fighting with Russia after Moscow ordered an invasion of its neighbor. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Tatar Sociologist Faces Hatred Charge Over Analysis Published By RFE/RL

Iskander Yasaveyev (file photo)

A sociologist in Russia's Tatarstan region, Iskander Yasaveyev, has been charged with inciting social hatred over his analysis of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine published on the website of RFE/RL's Idel.Realities project in June. Yasaveyev wrote on Facebook on January 30 that he was summoned to the Interior Ministry's anti-extremism directorate, where he was informed that the charge was filled against him. He added that some of his belongings that were confiscated during a search of his home two weeks earlier were returned to him while he was at the ministry. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Armenia Tells International Court Of Justice That Azerbaijan Blockade Is 'Ethnic Cleansing'

A view of the International Court of Justice in The Hague (file photo)

A representative of Armenia told judges at the International Court of Justice on January 30 that a blockade of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region by neighboring Azerbaijan was designed to allow "ethnic cleansing.” The Lachin Corridor is the only route whereby Armenia can provide food, fuel, and medical supplies to Nagorno-Karabakh. The corridor has been blocked since December 12, when protesters claiming to be environmental activists stopped traffic by setting up tents. Azerbaijan denies any blockade, saying the activists are staging a legitimate protest against illegal mining activity. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

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