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Cheney Begins Regional Tour In Azerbaijan

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney (center) and his wife, Lynne, are welcomed to Baku by Deputy Prime Minister Yagub Eiubov.

Visiting Vice President Dick Cheney has pledged the United States' "deep and abiding interest" in the security and welfare of Azerbaijan and its neighbors during the first leg of a tour to highlight support for several former Soviet states.

Cheney's visit began in Baku and will include stops in Tbilisi and Kyiv, affording him a firsthand view of Azerbaijani's prominent role as an energy supplier, Georgia's current crisis with Russia, and domestic political turmoil in Kyiv.

In a reference to Russia's military campaign to oust government forces from the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its quick support for their independence, Cheney echoed a previous statement by a senior U.S. administration official who described the region as lying in "the shadow of Russia's recent power play."

"We've met this evening in the shadow of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia," Cheney told reporters as he sat next to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. "President [George W.] Bush has sent me here with a clear and simple message for the people of Azerbaijan and the entire region: the United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security."

Cheney's stop in Tbilisi is seen as a sign of U.S. support for Georgia following the conflict over the pro-Moscow rebel region of South Ossetia. Ahead of his arrival, the U.S. administration announced an aid package of some $1 billion to help Georgia rebuild from the fighting. Reuters quoted a U.S. official as saying the assistance would stretch over several years.

"Georgia has a strong economic foundation and leaders with an impressive record of reform," President Bush said in a statement confirming the aid, according to AP. "Our additional economic assistance will help the people of Georgia recover from the assault on their country, and continue to build a prosperous and competitive economy."

As Bush was announcing the U.S. largesse, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it had agreed to lend Georgia another $750 million to be used toward economic recovery.


Energy Routes

In Baku, Cheney also said the United States believes it must work with Azerbaijan on additional energy export routes.

Azerbaijan pumps nearly 1 million barrels of crude oil a day through a BP-led pipeline that passes through Georgia and Turkey -- and bypasses Russia.

"I think [the Bush administration] does want to send [Russia] a message of firmness," Stanley Kober, a longtime analyst of Russia and the Soviet Union, told RFE/RL. "But my concern here is the rhetoric, at least, is becoming extreme."

Kober likened the current maneuvering to a game of chess: "You make a move, and then the other guy makes a move. And one of the problems is that I'm not seeing enough attention to 'Well, if we do this, what will be the response?'"

The U.S. vice president's trip comes as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev prepares to host the leaders of six former Soviet countries at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Moscow on September 5. Medvedev is expected to seek support from fellow CSTO signatories Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for Russia's military intervention in Georgia and subsequent recognition of the South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence.

In Baku, Cheney was meeting behind closed doors with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and other top officials in a country that is home to some of the region's largest oil and gas reserves and is part of a major energy pipeline corridor.

But there is much more behind the visit than just energy, according to Vefa Quluzade, who served as foreign-policy adviser to the late Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev, the current president's father.

'Vulnerability'

Quluzade said the vulnerability that Azerbaijan feels following Russia's incursion into Georgia would be on everyone's mind, in light of its role in the supply of oil and gas to the West, and predicted that "they will discuss how to save Azerbaijan from [potential] Russian attack."

Azerbaijan has diverted some of its crude through Russia, citing the conflict in Georgia as part of the reason.

The two Caucasus countries are also both important in plans for the Western-backed Nabucco pipeline, which would link Central Asia gas suppliers to Europe, bypassing Russia.

While Cheney was in Azerbaijan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked at a news conference with Belgian
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht in Moscow about demands by EU countries that Russia withdraw its troops from Georgian territory.

"We are interested in fulfilling the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan in the shortest term possible," Lavrov said of a French-brokered cease-fire to end the most intense fighting in Georgia. "It is written in black and white in that plan that until international mechanisms have been created, Russian troops will carry out additional security measures, and that is what Russian peacekeepers are doing in the security zone now."

Lavrov called calls for an immediate withdrawal "quite strange."

Russian Troops Remain

Outside the breakaway republics, Russia is maintaining a troop presence in swaths of Georgia in what Moscow has suggested is a sort of buffer zone, as well as checkpoints outside the Black Sea port of Poti.

Azerbaijan has long played a middle-man in its relations with the United States and Russia, but its strong and immediate support for Georgia in its crisis with Russia could be indicative of a change of course.

"I think that Azerbaijan had till now a balanced policy between Russia and the United States, but now it is the time to say openly, 'What is Azerbaijan's orientation?'" Quluzade told RFE/RL. "If we are orienting to the West, we must ask the West to support us strongly. And I think we are orienting to the West, and I think President Aliyev will ask Dick Cheney to provide security for Azerbaijan."

Adding to Baku's insecurity, he said, is that -- like the flashpoints of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- Azerbaijan has its own unsettled conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Cheney will head to Tbilisi on September 4 and from there to Kyiv, with talks with the Ukraine's leaders on September 5.

Russia has withdrawn some forces but others are still inside Georgian territory as part of what Moscow says is a peacekeeping mission but which Tbilisi has called an occupying force.

In Ukraine, Cheney was scheduled ahead of his trip to meet on September 5 with President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose ruling coalition collapsed on September 3.

After Kyiv, Cheney heads to Italy to attend an economic forum.

Analyst Kober said the best Cheney can hope to do during his trip is to express U.S. opposition to Russia's role in the Georgia crisis, U.S. support for Georgia's efforts to establish democratic reform, and not make any promises unless he's fully confident that this and subsequent American administrations can keep them.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report; with additional wire reporting

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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Patrick Turner To Lead NATO's Newly Created Representation In Ukraine 

Patrick Turner, who has been appointed to lead the NATO Representation in Ukraine (file photo)
Patrick Turner, who has been appointed to lead the NATO Representation in Ukraine (file photo)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced on July 17 that Patrick Turner has been appointed to lead the NATO Representation in Ukraine (NRU).

Stoltenberg outlined the NRU and its position for a civilian senior representative at the NATO summit last week in Washington.

Stoltenberg said in a NATO news release that Turner is a “committed public servant” with a “strong track record of delivering results.”

A strong supporter of Ukraine, Turner served in the British Defense Ministry before becoming NATO assistant secretary- general for defense policy and planning from 2018 to 2022.

Pro-Moscow, Former Gagauzia Leader To Run For Moldovan President

Irina Vlah announces her presidential candidacy in Chisinau on July 17.
Irina Vlah announces her presidential candidacy in Chisinau on July 17.

Irina Vlah, a pro-Moscow ex-governor of Moldova's autonomous Gagauz region, on July 17 announced her candidacy in Moldova's upcoming presidential election against pro-European incumbent Maia Sandu.

Vlah, 50, made the announcement in a statement in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, during which she criticized what she said were closer ties between Moldova and NATO and increased defense spending, while calling for the country's neutral status to be maintained and beefed up.

Vlah also called on her supporters to vote "No" in a referendum on Moldova's European integration that will take place simultaneously with the presidential election on October 20, when Sandu is seeking a second mandate.

Vlah was governor of Gagauzia from 2015 until 2023, when she was replaced by Evghenia Gutul, a close associate of Ilan Shor, a Russian-backed fugitive oligarch implicated in a $1 billion bank fraud and other illicit schemes who has organized months of anti-Sandu protests in Chisinau.

Gagauzia's 140,000 residents, mainly ethnic Turks who adhere to Orthodox Christianity, have had uneasy relations with the central authorities since Moldova declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The U.S.-educated Sandu, who handed the pro-Russian Igor Dodon an upset defeat in November 2020, has steered Moldova firmly toward the West and has sought to shake off Moscow's long-standing influence in the former Soviet republic.

Sandu's government has formally condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has joined the sanctions regime imposed by the West on Moscow, while hosting thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war.

Moldova last month opened membership negotiations with the European Union after receiving an invitation in June 2022.

Dodon, the leader of Moldova's Socialist Party, on July 8 announced that he would not run again for president, but will back former Prosecutor-General Alexandr Stoianoglo.

So far, three other politicians have declared as candidates -- Renato Usatii, a controversial businessman and chief of the Our Party politician bloc who is under investigation for corruption; ex-Prime Minister Ion Chicu; and former Foreign Minister Tudor Ulianovschi.

Sandu appears well placed to win the first round of elections, being credited in a recent poll by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute with 37 percent support, while Usatii and Chicu are projected to win some 5 percent. Vlah would win 4 percent, according to the poll.

Kyrgyz President's Relative Arrested For Fraud

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)

BISHKEK -- The Birinchi Mai district court in Bishkek told RFE/RL on July 17 that a relative of President Sadyr Japarov has been placed under arrest on fraud charges.

According to the court's press service, Ulan Japarov, who is a son of President Sadyr Japarov's cousin, Rakymjan Japarov, was sent to pretrial detention until at least August 19.

Media reports say Ulan Japarov is suspected of obtaining a significant amount of cash from a person in exchange for securing an official post for him, which in the end never happened.

Japarov was initially arrested in July 2023 on corruption charges.

Presidential spokesman Erbol Sultanbaev said at the time that Ulan Japarov was suspected of involvement in corrupt activities linked to the Customs Service.

In October 2023, the Birinchi Mai district court transferred Japarov to house arrest. An investigation into that case is also under way.

Also, on July 17, media reports in the Central Asian country said a brother-in-law of the chief of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK), Kamchybek Tashiev, was arrested on a fraud charge.

The reports gave the man's initials as A.T.O.

Sources close to the UKMK leadership confirmed to RFE/RL that a man with those initials was arrested but did not give any further details.

Kyrgyz authorities have yet to officially confirm the arrest. Tashiev has not commented on the reports.

The Birinchi Mai district court told RFE/RL that its judge on June 11 sent A.T.O. to pretrial detention for at least two months. The court neither elaborated on the case nor confirmed if the suspect was related to Tashiev.

A week earlier, the Birinchi Mai district court said the boyfriend of President Japarov's niece had been arrested on a charge of producing illegal drugs.

Aftandil Sabyrbekov, the boyfriend of Lazzat Nurgojoeva, who is a daughter of President Japarov's younger brother, Davletbek, was arrested days after a video showing him proposing to Nurgojoeva in a lavish ceremony circulated on the Internet, sparking a public outcry.

Germany To Provide 10 Million Euros For Reconstruction Of Kyiv Children's Hospital

Emergency workers clear the rubble at the destroyed building of Okhmatdyt Children's Hospital in Kyiv following a Russian missile strike on July 8.
Emergency workers clear the rubble at the destroyed building of Okhmatdyt Children's Hospital in Kyiv following a Russian missile strike on July 8.

Germany will provide Ukraine with 10 million euros ($10.9 million) for the reconstruction of Ukraine's largest children's hospital, the Okhmatdyt, largely destroyed in a Russian missile strike on Kyiv on July 8, Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Svenja Schulze said in an interview with the German newspaper Rheinische Post on July 17. The German funds and other financial donations will be used to make the hospital operational again by winter, Schulze said. "The destruction of the children's hospital shows how ruthlessly and inhumanely Russia is waging this aggressive war. Children suffer the most from this war," Schulze said. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Updated

Russia Says Prisoner Swap With Ukraine Involving 190 POWs Completed

Ukrainian POWs after a previous swap with Russia in June
Ukrainian POWs after a previous swap with Russia in June

Russia and Ukraine said they have completed another prisoner swap, with the latest exchange involving 190 prisoners of war mediated by the United Arab Emirates.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Russia's Defense Ministry said in a post on Telegram on July 17 that each side traded 95 people in the deal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also confirmed the prisoner swap on Telegram.

"The released [Russian] servicemen will be delivered to Moscow by military transport aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces for treatment and rehabilitation in medical institutions of the Russian Ministry of Defense," the post said.

Zelenskiy thanked the U.A.E. for its help in facilitating the exchange, one of several between Moscow and Kyiv in recent months.

"I am thankful to our team involved in prisoners' exchange and the United Arab Emirates for facilitating the release," Zelenskiy wrote.

"No matter how complicated it is, we are looking for everyone who may be in captivity. We must return everyone."

Zelenskiy added that those exchanged were soldiers of Ukraine's armed forces, servicemen of the National Guard, and border guards.

This marks the fifth time this year that the United Arab Emirates facilitated a prisoner swap, beginning on January 3 with the return of 230 Ukrainian nationals to Kyiv and 248 Russians freed by Ukraine.

On February 8, another exchange was conducted under a “100-for-100” formula with the United Arab Emirates involved again.

Last month, the Persian Gulf nation facilitated a prisoner exchange in which 90 prisoners from each side were returned to Ukraine and Russia.

Russian Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova said on July 17 that representatives of her office and their Ukrainian counterparts were present during the exchange and discussed "joint humanitarian efforts, including ones related to the reunification of families."

Ukrainian Ombudsman Dmytro Lubintes said earlier that similar talks between representatives of his and Moskalkova's offices were held at an exchange last month.

Kyiv has accused Moscow of having forcibly deported thousands of Ukrainian children from territories seized by occupying Russian armed forces since Moscow started its ongoing invasion in February 2022.

Moscow insists the Ukrainian children were moved for their own protection. Meanwhile, several of the children have been returned to Ukraine in recent months.

In March last year, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova for their role in the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, which is considered a war crime under international legislation.

Several children have been returned to Ukraine in recent months.

With reporting by TASS and Interfax

Russian Feminist In Exile Fined For 'LGBT Propaganda'

Dina Nurm (file photo)
Dina Nurm (file photo)

A court in Russia's Tatarstan region on July 16 fined feminist activist Dina Nurm and her partner, Anastasia Goncharenko, 100,000 rubles ($1,130) each for "propagating LGBT relations." The charge stemmed from the online photos they posted in which, the court said, they "hug, kiss, and touch each other." The co-founder of the FemKyzlar feminist group, Nurm called the court ruling politically motivated. Nurm and Goncharenko left Russia for Serbia in March. So-called "LGBT propaganda" has been banned in Russia since December 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Iran Denies Involvement In Plot To Assassinate U.S. Ex-President Trump

Donald Trump pumps his fist after a failed attempt on his life during a rally in Pennsylvania on July 13.
Donald Trump pumps his fist after a failed attempt on his life during a rally in Pennsylvania on July 13.

Iran has denied plotting to assassinate Donald Trump after reports emerged that U.S. authorities had obtained intelligence suggesting that Tehran was planning to kill the Republican presidential nominee.

News outlets CNN and Politico on July 16, citing unnamed sources, reported that U.S. authorities had been informed of an Iranian plot to kill Trump weeks ahead of a July 13 attempt on the former president's life.

They said, however, that the assassination attempt did not appear to be linked to the Iranian threat.

In a statement late on July 16, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani insisted that Tehran was not involved in the July 13 attempt and charged that claims that Iran was plotting to kill Trump were "politically motivated."

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to prosecute Trump for his direct role in the crime of assassinating General Qasem Soleimani," Kanani said.

Soleimani, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force, was assassinated in January 2020 in an air strike by U.S. forces at Trump's command. Iran has repeatedly vowed revenge for the high-profile killing.

Prior to Kanani's statement, Iran's mission to the United Nations said the claims against Tehran were "baseless and biased" and maintained that the Islamic republic "has chosen the legal route to hold Trump accountable."

Iranian authorities have long warned that senior U.S. figures they believe were involved in the killing of Soleimani will pay a price. Among those threatened are Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, and ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In August 2022, the Justice Department charged an Iranian operative it said was a member of the IRGC for allegedly plotting to kill Bolton.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government extended protection for Pompeo amid persistent threats from Iran.

Russia Adds 2 Journalists In Exile To Wanted List

Andrei Zakharov (file photo)
Andrei Zakharov (file photo)

The Russian Interior Ministry on July 17 added two journalists -- Andrei Zakharov and Dmitry Fomintsev -- to its wanted list on unspecified charges amid an ongoing crackdown on independent media. Media reports said Zakharov, who worked in his native St. Petersburg and Moscow, is suspected of evading the duties of a "foreign agent," while Fomintsev, who is from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, is accused of "insulting believers' feelings" by posting materials online criticizing an Orthodox priest. Both Zakharov and Fomintsev are currently living outside Russia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.

Belarus Opens Trial Of Opposition Activist In Absentia

The Vitsebsk regional court building (file photo)
The Vitsebsk regional court building (file photo)

Judge Halina Bondal of the Vitsebsk regional court in the northeastern Belarus on July 17 began the trial in absentia of activist Andrey Zuyeu, who was a member of a group supporting opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the August 2020 presidential election. Zuyeu, who is currently outside of Belarus, is charged with inciting hatred, mass unrest, creating an extremist group, and insulting an official. Zuyeu was sentenced several times to short sentences of administrative detention before he fled the country in 2021 amid a crackdown on dissent. Protesters say the election was rigged to hand victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Kazakh Investigation Opened Over Online Rant Insulting Kazakhs

The police department of Kazakhstan's Aqmola region, which surrounds the capital, Astana, said on July 17 it had launched a probe against a local resident over a videohe posted online insulting Kazakhs and their ethnicity. The statement did not specify what charges the man, whose identity was not disclosed, faces. The announcement comes days after a video of a man cursing Kazakhs in general, and more specifically Kazakhs who support Ukraine in its efforts to repel Russia's ongoing invasion, appeared on the Internet and sparked an outcry. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russia Says 'False Alarm' Behind Massive Power Outage In South

Rosenergoatom said a "protection mechanism was triggered" at the Rostov nuclear plant, without specifying what caused the activation of the protection mechanism.
Rosenergoatom said a "protection mechanism was triggered" at the Rostov nuclear plant, without specifying what caused the activation of the protection mechanism.

Russia's nuclear energy operator, Rosenergoatom, says a unit of the Rostov nuclear power plant whose disconnection left some 1 million people in southern Russia and parts of occupied Crimea without electricity was switched off due to "a false alarm."

Major power grid failures and sweeping power outages occurred in the south of Russia and Crimea on July 16 after the emergency shutdown of the unit, which Rosenergoatom said happened when a "protection mechanism was triggered."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The company did not specify what had caused the activation of the protection mechanism.

But in a statement on Telegram on July 17, Rosenergoatom said that Unit N1 had been shut down on July 16 "due to a false alarm."

The largest cities in southern Russia -- Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Taganrog, Elista, Anapa, Armavir, Gelendzhik, Novorossiisk, and Stavropol -- were among the areas affected, with Novaya gazeta reporting that some 1 million people were left without electricity simultaneously in several southern regions of Russia and parts of Ukraine's Crimea region.

Rosenergoatom did not elaborate on the causes of the the "false alarm."

The Rostov nuclear power plant, also known as the Volgodonsk nuclear power plant, has four units with a total capacity of more than 4,000 megawatts. The plant is located on the left bank of the Don River near the city of Volgodonsk, some 1,100 kilometers south of Moscow.

In recent months, Ukraine, whose energy infrastructure has been relentlessly pummeled by Russian strikes since the start of Moscow's unprovoked invasion, has in turn resorted to targeting Russian energy facilities, mainly oil refineries and those that work for the Russian military.

In Crimea, occupation authorities meanwhile blamed the rolling blackouts on a heat wave in the region.

In Sevastopol, Crimea's largest city, with a population on nearly 400,000 people, Russian-installed Governor Mikhail Razvozhayev on July 17 announced rolling blackouts every two hours in different neighborhoods of the city, blaming the restrictions on the disconnected unit of the Rostov nuclear power plant.

Trolleybuses, a main means of public transportation, have stopped working in the city as a result of the power blackouts.

Georgia Shaken By Light Earthquake

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

A 4.8-magnitude earthquake occurred in Georgia early on July 17, the Caucasus country's National Seismic Monitoring Center reported. The epicenter was some 5 kilometers west of the town of Dedoplis Tskaro, some 130 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tbilisi, it said. The U.S. Geological Survey reported a magnitude of 4.1 for the earthquake, adding that it occurred at a depth of some 29 kilometers.. The temblor, which occurred at 6 a.m. local time was also felt in Tbilisi. There was no immediate information about casualties or damage. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, click here.

Russia's Statistics Service Excludes Data From Annual Report To Hide War Deaths

News outlets have confirmed at least 58,000 Russian soldier deaths using obituaries, inheritance records, and social media posts. 
News outlets have confirmed at least 58,000 Russian soldier deaths using obituaries, inheritance records, and social media posts. 

Russia’s State Statistics Service has excluded the total number of deaths from external causes in its annual report, Meduza reported, citing demographic expert Aleksei Rashka. Russia has historically broken down annual deaths caused by illness from those caused by external factors like murder and suicide. Experts would have been able to use that data to extrapolate the number of Russians killed in the invasion of Ukraine, something the Kremlin has refused to disclose. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last month that at least 350,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the 29-month war. News outlets have confirmed at least 58,000 Russian soldier deaths using obituaries, inheritance records, and social media posts. To read the full story by RFE/RL's Russian service, click here.

U.S. Recently Informed About Iranian Plot To Kill Trump: CNN

Former U.S. President Donald Trump
Former U.S. President Donald Trump

An informant told U.S. authorities recently that Iran was plotting to assassinate Donald Trump, CNN reported, citing multiple people familiar with the matter. In response, the U.S. Secret Service boosted security around the former president, the network reported. Thomas Matthew Crooks, who tried to assassinate Trump on July 13, does not appear to be connected to the Iranian plot, CNN reported. Former Trump administration officials, including his national-security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had reportedly received threats from Iran. Qasem Soleimani, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force, was assassinated in January 2020 in an air strike by U.S. forces at Trump’s command. Iran had vowed revenge for the high-profile killing.

Russia Sentences Man To 26 Years For Setting Fire To Enlistment Offices

More than 500 people have been arrested in Russia since the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine for vandalizing enlistment offices, police stations, city administration premises, and other buildings representing state authority to protest the war.
More than 500 people have been arrested in Russia since the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine for vandalizing enlistment offices, police stations, city administration premises, and other buildings representing state authority to protest the war.

Russian-Ukrainian dual citizen Ivan Nedilsky was sentenced to 26 years in prison for treason, participation in a terrorist organization, and vandalism, Mediazona reported on July 16. The sentence was delivered in April by a Russian military court but had not previously been made public. Nedilsky was detained in October 2022 and accused of setting fire to two military enlistment offices and a cadastral service building. More than 500 people have been arrested in Russia since the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine for vandalizing enlistment offices, police stations, city administration premises, and other buildings representing state authority to protest the war. Most are charged with terrorism, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here

Romania Expects To Sign F-35 Purchase Contract With U.S. As Early As Autumn

Romania may sign a contract this autumn for latest-generation F-35 fighter jets.
Romania may sign a contract this autumn for latest-generation F-35 fighter jets.

Romania expects to sign an agreement with the United States to purchase latest-generation F-35 fighter jets as early as this fall, Defense Minister Angel Tilvar said on July 16. European countries have been ramping up defense spending amid concern about Russian aggression. Last September, Romania said it planned to buy 32 F-35s for $6.5 billion. The deal includes logistics and training services, flight simulators and ammunition, along with the jets. Tilvar has previously said the first planes would not be delivered before 2030. In the meantime, Bucharest has bought 32 secondhand F-16 fighter jets from Oslo, in addition to 17 acquired from Lisbon in 2016.

Serbian Government Restarts Rio Tinto's Contentious Lithium Mine Project

Demonstrators in Loznica, Serbia, a town near the planned mine complex, protest on June 28 against Rio Tinto's Jadar project.
Demonstrators in Loznica, Serbia, a town near the planned mine complex, protest on June 28 against Rio Tinto's Jadar project.

Serbia’s government has reinstated a spatial plan for a multibillion-dollar lithium mine and processing plant, days after the Balkan state's Constitutional Court said a previous government acted improperly to halt the project amid public protests.

Anglo-Australian metals and mining giant Rio Tinto's plans for a sprawling 250-hectare complex to exploit huge mineral deposits in a fertile western valley have pitted environmental and other local opponents of the so-called Jadar project against President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling allies for years.

But a government session on July 16 adopted a decree to restart the project immediately, based on the Constitutional Court's conclusion five days earlier that the government of then-Prime Minister Ana Brnabic had acted unconstitutionally when it withdrew permits for Rio Tinto.

The text of the Serbian government decree passed on July 16 restarting the Jadar project.
The text of the Serbian government decree passed on July 16 restarting the Jadar project.

"In order to implement the decision of the Constitutional Court…the government…undertakes measures to restore the legal order to the state that existed before the adoption of the regulation that was declared unconstitutional," the decree said.

The project is among the most divisive in recent memory in Serbia, where Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) have ruled since 2012.

Serbia and the Balkans suffer from some of the worst air pollution in Europe, and Rio Tinto faced criticism for failing to publish an environmental impact study even as it scooped up land and pledged to get the mine operational by 2026. Legislative and other moves seemingly easing the expropriation of land for development exacerbated fears.

Hundreds of thousands of Serbians signed onto an online effort to stop the Jadar project after it was announced nearly two decades after the discovery there in 2004 of lithium, boron, and jadarite, a new mineral.

But Vucic and other proponents point to the benefits of billions of euros from mined lithium, a soft, silvery metal used in batteries for electric vehicles, and around 1,000 long-term jobs.

Vucic and successive SNS governments have spent years trying to open up paths to greater foreign investment for the EU candidate country of around 7 million people.

"We believe that the mine won't endanger anyone or anything, but first we need to receive guarantees from Europe that the environment and the lives of ordinary citizens will be preserved and improved with new jobs and higher wages than today," Vucic said on July 15, four days after the court ruling set the stage for the resumption of the mining plans.

A sign saying "Access forbidden to unauthorized persons" in front of a house bought by Rio Tinto in Gornje Nedeljice to make way for the mine.
A sign saying "Access forbidden to unauthorized persons" in front of a house bought by Rio Tinto in Gornje Nedeljice to make way for the mine.

Rio Tinto reportedly welcomed last week’s Constitutional Court decision.

It has touted the Jadar lithium-borates project as "one of the largest greenfield projects for the exploitation of lithium in the world."

It said it has "the potential to be a world-class asset that could act as a catalyst for the development of other industries and tens of thousands of jobs for current and future generations in Serbia, while sustainably producing battery-grade lithium carbonate, a material critical to the energy transition."

Savo Manojlovic, campaign director of the Go-Change (Kreni-Promeni) movement that opposes the mine, said after the decision that the government had "trampled the constitution and occupied institutions."

"For two years, the government was not allowed to return to the Jadar project until two cycles of early elections were completed," Manojlovic said in a statement. "Instead of its own people, the government chose to serve a foreign company -- Rio Tinto."

His group called the Constitutional Court's decision "scandalous."

Brnabic, a Vucic ally who was prime minister when the government rescinded Rio Tinto's permits amid intense public opposition in 2022, said on July 16 that she was "obviously wrong" to have halted the project.

"You know how many laws there are that were adopted by the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, to which the Constitutional Court reacted and declared parts unconstitutional. It happens," Brnabic, who is now the speaker of the Serbian National Assembly, said. "I was obviously wrong."

One of the world's top three metals and mining companies, Rio Tinto has pledged to maintain local and EU environmental and industrial standards at Jadar.

Analysts have long cited democratic backsliding, state capture, corruption, and demographic decline among Serbia's biggest challenges.

The Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT), which launched a challenge to the mine in 2020, has noted that Rio Tinto is now just one step away from being able to get its permit to exploit the Jadar Valley’s mineral deposits.

A lawyer for the We’re Not Giving Away Jadar (Ne Damo Jadar) association, Sreten Djordjevic, said the government's latest decision to resume the project was hasty and illegal.

Djordjevic said the process should start again at the beginning with a strategic study of the mine's potential environmental impact, especially since the nearby Cer Mountain has since been declared a protected area.

Romanian Court Reimposes Travel Ban On Andrew Tate, Brother As They Await Trial 

Andrew Tate (left) and his brother Tristan (file photo)
Andrew Tate (left) and his brother Tristan (file photo)

Internet influencer Andrew Tate and his brother Tristan will no longer be allowed to leave Romania as they await trial on charges of human trafficking, rape, and forming a criminal gang to sexually exploit women, following a July 16 court ruling. The Tates “will fully comply with the Court’s decision as well as the obligations included in the judicial control,” said the brothers’ lawyer, Eugen Vidineac. The ruling overturned a July 5 decision that the brothers could leave Romania if they remained within the European Union. The brothers were arrested in December 2022 along with two Romanian women on suspicion of human trafficking. All four deny the charges.

Russia Launches Case Against Prominent Environmentalist Chirikova

Yevgenia Chirikova (file poto)
Yevgenia Chirikova (file poto)

Russia's Investigative Committee said on July 16 it had launched an investigation into environmentalist Yevgenia Chirikova on a charge of distributing false information about Russia's military.

According to the committee, the charge against Chirikova stems from a video she placed online, which "contained knowingly false information about the activities of the Russian Federation's armed forces against civilians in Ukraine."

The statement added that Chirikova is also suspected of facilitating terrorism.

Chirikova is a leading Russian environmentalist who fled Russia in April 2015.

She has been known for her environment activities since 2010, when she led a campaign to prevent a highway to St. Petersburg from being built through part of the Moscow region's Khimki Forest.

Chirikova helped create the Defenders of Khimki Forest group in 2010 to work against the highway project and initially had success halting the project as the government promised to do environmental-impact studies.

In January, the Russian Justice Ministry added Chirikova to its list of "foreign agents."

In late April, a court in Russia's Komi Republic issued arrests warrants for Chirikova and several other self-exiled opposition politicians, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, former Russian lawmaker Gennady Gudkov, and Ivan Tyutrin.

The four politicians are members of the Council of the Free Russia Forum established in Lithuania in 2016.

In February last year, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office recognized the Free Russia Forum as an "undesirable organization." The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, is a Kremlin-backed regulation on organizations that receive funding from foreign sources.

The label has been applied to more than 170 organizations -- including media outlets such as RFE/RL, religious organizations, and NGOs involved in political, cultural, and educational activities -- since Moscow began using the classification.

It effectively bans the organizations outright.

Chirikova was awarded the Woman of Courage Award in 2011 by then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco.

She was arrested several times for her activities while in Russia, while several Khimki activists and journalists were beaten and harassed for their efforts to stop development within the Khimki Forest.

Kaspersky To Shutter U.S. Operations After Its Software Is Banned By Commerce Department  

Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky on July 16 said it would shut down all of its operations in the United States after the Commerce Department banned the use of the company's software in the country. Kaspersky will “gradually wind down” its U.S. operations and eliminate positions based in the U.S. starting on July 20, according to a statement from the Moscow-based company. Last month, the Commerce Department announced a ban on sales of Kaspersky software, arguing the products can be exploited to identify sensitive data of U.S. citizens and make the data available to Russian government actors. Kaspersky has denied that it is a security threat.

'Overwhelming Sorrow': Imprisoned Iranian Nobel Laureate Marks 9 Years Since Seeing Her Children

Kiana (left) and Ali Rahmani accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of their imprisoned mother in December 2023.
Kiana (left) and Ali Rahmani accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of their imprisoned mother in December 2023.

Kiana and Ali Rahmani were only 8 years old when they left Iran to reunite with their father, Taqi Rahmani, who had fled the country as the Iranian authorities sought to arrest him.

Their mother, activist Narges Mohammadi, could only imagine the scene from her jail cell as her children would be taken from her for an "unknown" period of time and endure a "separation that would make me a stranger to my children and them unfamiliar to me."

“I haven’t seen my mom in nine years. I have become used to growing up without a mother,” Kiana, now 17, told Roya Maleki of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda as she marked another anniversary of separation from her mother on July 16.

“My father is a good dad; he has been both a father and a mother,” she added.

In a statement posted on her website on July 16, Mohammadi recalled staying awake through the night in her prison cell on July 16, 2015, knowing her children would be on a plane to France soon.

The separation, she said, “felt like vanishing into a misty void of lost connections, tearing a mother and her children apart, leaving us in an indescribable abyss of heartache and longing.”

"A separation that would turn me into an unfamiliar woman to my children, bearing the name ‘mother’ in a ‘misplaced’ manner," she added.

Mohammadi, 52, has been campaigning for human rights in Iran for decades and has been in and out of prison in the last 20 years. She has been convicted five times since March 2021 and is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence.

She is currently in jail for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic.

Kiana recalls that it was “difficult” going through adolescence as a young girl without her mother, forcing her to turn to her friends and other women for advice.

“I had to learn things that a mother should teach her daughter. I had to ask my friends or their mothers whenever I had a question because I did not have a mother,” she said.

Despite remaining behind bars for so long, Mohammadi has remained at the forefront of Iran's women's rights movement.

Her efforts were honored last October when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her children accepted the award on her behalf in December.

Kiana said the award raised her mother’s spirits but worsened her conditions in prison because it led to further restrictions, such as limited visiting privileges and phone calls.

Despite not seeing their mother for half of their lives, Ali said they had learned from their mother to “defend our brothers and sisters” from the Middle East.

“We come from a place where there is little freedom and war is constant,” he added.

In her statement, Mohammadi bemoaned that not seeing her children for so long would make her a “stranger” to them.

“I hope my children understand that I, like all imprisoned mothers…was a loving mother whose heart still aches with overwhelming sorrow for her children,” she wrote.

Written by Kian Sharifi based on an interview by Roya Maleki of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

EU Sends Aircraft To North Macedonia, Bulgaria To Help Fight Forest Fires

Serbia has sent helicopters to North Macedonia to help fight forest fires.
Serbia has sent helicopters to North Macedonia to help fight forest fires.

The European Commission has decided to help North Macedonia and Bulgaria fight forest fires, European Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari said on July 16. Ujvari said four helicopters and three firefighting planes were sent to North Macedonia, which has been in a state of crisis for 30 days. He said two firefighting helicopters were sent to Bulgaria from the Czech Republic. A complete ban on movement in the forests has been announced in North Macedonia due to the increased danger of forest fires, which have threatened hundreds of hectares of land. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic emphasized that the helicopters provided by Belgrade are meant to extinguish the fire, not as a sign of military dominance. To read the original stories by RFE/RL’s North Macedonia Service, click here and here.

Ukraine, Czech Gunmaker To Build Ammunition Factory

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal (center) is flanked by Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (left) and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (right) in Prague on July 16.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal (center) is flanked by Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (left) and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala (right) in Prague on July 16.

Ukrainian state company Ukroboronservice will work with Czech gunmaker Sellier & Bellot to build an ammunition factory in Ukraine, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on July 16. He also said Prague will facilitate the production of Colt CZ Group assault rifles in Ukraine. Both agreements were signed during Shmyhal’s visit to Prague, which Shymhal wrote would focus on “the supply of ammunition, integration into the EU and NATO, joint projects and production, infrastructure, and energy.” Prague has previously donated supplies to Kyiv, including ammunition. On July 13, Czech President Petr Pavel announced that Ukraine will receive 50,000 artillery shells by the end of the summer. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

Moscow Court Sentences Self-Exiled Kremlin Critic Mark Feigin To 11 Years In Prison

Mark Feigin in Kyiv in 2019
Mark Feigin in Kyiv in 2019

A Moscow court on July 16 sentenced self-exiled former lawyer Mark Feigin to 11 years in prison in absentia on a charge of distributing "false" information about Russia's military. Feigin is an outspoken Kremlin critic who has openly condemned Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine and talked about alleged atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians by occupying Russian armed forces. Feigin defended noted Russian and Ukrainian activists, politicians, and journalists until the Moscow Chamber of Attorneys disbarred him in 2018, citing alleged unethical behavior. Feigin now resides in a European Union member state. His Feygin Live YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Former UCK Commander Sentenced To 18 Years By Kosovar Tribunal

Former KLA commander Pjeter Shala attends his trial in The Hague on July 16.
Former KLA commander Pjeter Shala attends his trial in The Hague on July 16.

The Hague-based Kosovo tribunal has sentenced former Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) commander Pjeter Shala to 18 years in prison for war crimes committed during Kosovo's war of independence from Serbia.

The tribunal handed down the sentence on July 16 after Shala, who has Belgian citizenship, was convicted of the murder of one person and the illegal captivity and torture of nearly 20 others in June 1999 at a metal factory in Kukes, Albania.

"Shala participated in the transfer under guard of one of the detainees in the factory, participated in the interrogation and mistreatment of the detainees, together with other members of the [UCK]," Judge Mappie Veldt-Foglia said.

"Shala was the first to hit some detainees. One of the detainees said that Shala hit him with a baseball bat and accused him of being a spy," she said in outlining the treatment of the captives, noting testimony from the victims was "vivid, detailed and convincing."

Shala, arrested two years ago in Belgium, had pleaded not guilty at the EU-backed Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which is based in the Netherlands but is part of Kosovo's legal system.

The U.S. attorney who heads the prosecutor's office argued to the three-judge panel that there was sufficient evidence to convict Shala despite what he called a climate of witness intimidation in Kosovo.

The Kosovo Specialist Chambers was established to investigate allegations that members of the UCK committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1998-99 Kosovo War.

It operates under Kosovar law but is based in the Netherlands to shield witnesses from intimidation.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a war between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian forces, which ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign drove Serbian troops out and an international peacekeeping force moved in.

The conflict left more than 10,000 people dead -- most of them ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. More than 1,600 people remain unaccounted for.

Kosovo, which has a largely ethnic Albanian population, is recognized by many Western states but not Serbia or its allies Russia and China.

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