EU Frustrated By South Caucasus Divisions
But the EU finds much of its ambition thwarted by the rivalry and outright conflict between Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
A debate on April 7 at the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on a draft report advocating the need for a comprehensive EU strategy for the region underscored the frustration felt in Brussels.
The author of the report and the European Parliament's rapporteur for the South Caucasus, Evgeni Kirilov, a socialist deputy from Bulgaria, highlighted the importance of regional cooperation.
"I am absolutely convinced that regional cooperation is vitally needed in order not just to enhance economic development, but to create the necessary climate, stability, to activate people-to-people contacts and so on," Kirilov said.
Benefits Of Closer Ties
Elmar Brok, an influential German conservative, noted that the South Caucasus countries suffer from insufficient mutual relations. Economic development requires political stability, Brok said, and stability in turn requires good relations between neighbors. Brok said managing regional discord is a strategic EU interest, "or the countries will look to Russia."
Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian socialist, said governments in the region often complain that the EU is trying to force regional cooperation on them. Swoboda said the three countries need to be told there will be no improvement in their living standards without cooperation. Promoting regional cooperation, Swoboda said, should also be a determining factor in EU support.
The European Parliament has no direct role in formulating EU foreign policy. But its debate reflects broader concerns. Officials say every EU visit to the region provokes fierce infighting among Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku for primacy and privileged treatment.
The EU enlargement and neighborhood commissioner, Stefan Fule, who is in the South Caucasus this week, follows a painstakingly assembled itinerary, traveling first to Armenia, then Georgia, and finally to Azerbaijan -- as direct travel between Baku and Yerevan remains a diplomatic impossibility.
Brussels Can Do More
There was also criticism of the EU's own relative timidity during the debate. Kirilov said the EU only became involved in Georgia after the August 2008 war with Russia. The bloc now has a monitoring mission patrolling conflict zones on the Georgian side of its administrative borders with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Austrian Green deputy Ulrike Lunacek, who recently visited the EU mission, held it out as a possible blueprint for further EU involvement in the region.
"I was in Georgia last week with [a European Parliament] delegation and am still quite impressed by what I saw there going to the administrative border [with] South Ossetia, and talking with IDPs [internally displaced people], etc.," Lunacek said. "So, I think, the EU has there [an important role] -- and that's only for Georgia, but it applies to Azerbaijan and Armenia as well -- of really trying to break up frozen conflicts, or other conflicts where the situation is stuck."
Kirilov seconded the idea, arguing for a greater EU role in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, mediated by the OSCE, where the EU has no direct role. An EU presence there "could be accepted by all sides," Kirilov said.
But, Kirilov noted, the EU would only be in a position to make a significant difference in the case of an "initial breakthrough" in the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks.
"Then we'll have another climate, [one] which could really enhance a very vigorous cooperation," Kirilov said. "And here we can step in, of course, as a union and create a [very] different situation in this region."
Many deputies urged the EU to make bolder use of its new Lisbon Treaty, which is intended to give its foreign policy greater coherence and clout. They also underlined the fact that the bloc is vitally interested in the South Caucasus as an energy corridor linking it to Central Asia.
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Moldova Not Pursuing NATO Membership But Aims To Strengthen Cooperation With Alliance
Moldova is not aiming to become a member of NATO, Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu said on November 30, pointing out that its neutrality is enshrined in the country's constitution.
But Popescu, speaking to journalists on the sidelines of a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Romania's capital, Bucharest, added that Moldova's neutrality does not entail self-isolation, demilitarization, or indifference toward world affairs.
NATO ministers pledged during the two-day meeting to provide stronger "individualized support" for Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, countries that Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said are "facing pressure from Russia" amid Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has received hundreds of thousands of refugees in the wake of Russia's unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine and has also been affected by power shortages and blackouts caused by Moscow's strikes on Ukrainian energy infrastructure.
Popescu mentioned that Moldova's air space had been violated by Russian missiles targeting Ukraine and that a Russian missile even fell on Moldovan territory.
"We live in a difficult region, impacted by Russia's brutal aggression against Ukraine, a fact that has dramatic consequences for our country," Popescu said.
Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and NATO member Romania, last week warned its people to brace for a harsh winter as it was facing an "acute" energy crisis that risked stoking popular discontent.
Stoltenberg told a news conference at the end of the ministerial gathering that the alliance will step up its support for the three countries, without providing details on what shape that support would take.
"If there is one lesson from Ukraine it is that we need to support them now," Stoltenberg told a news conference.
"They are affected from Russian influence in different ways, but better to support them now rather than see developments that go absolutely in the wrong direction as we saw with the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year."
Fears of a spillover from the Ukraine conflict have persisted since the Russian invasion amid concerns that Moscow could attempt to create a land corridor through southern Ukraine to Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester.
Russia maintains some 1,500 soldiers in Transdniester who are said to be guarding a huge Soviet-era arms depot.
Besides the troops ostensibly guarding the depot, Russia has another 400-500 soldiers in Transdniester that have been labeled as peacekeepers since the end of a 1992 war between Moldova and Transdniester that ended in a tense cease-fire enforced by Russian troops.
With reporting by Reuters
Explosion Hits Ukrainian Embassy In Madrid, One Person Injured
One employee has been injured by a blast at the building of the Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid. Oleh Nykolenko, the embassy's representative, said on Facebook on November 30 that an envelope delivered by post exploded when it was being examined by the building's superintendent, who sustained non-life-threatening injuries. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has asked his Spanish counterpart to thoroughly investigate the situation and urged Ukrainian embassies abroad to boost security measures.
Arash Sadeghi's Family Calls On Other Countries To Pressure Iran Authorities To Release The Activist
Hossein Sadeghi, the father of imprisoned Iranian activist Arash Sadeghi, has again warned about his son's deteriorating state of health and called on countries around the world to press Tehran to release him.
Arash Sadeghi, who has been imprisoned several times, is suffering from bone cancer and his father says the prison authorities have prevented him from accessing medicine and treatment.
Sadeghi was arrested on October 12 during protests that are rocking the country over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into custody by morality police for allegedly improperly wearing her head scarf, or hijab.
Sadeghi's father has expressed concern several times about his son’s condition. In response, a campaign has been launched on social media in support of the activist. His name has been used more than 1.5 million times on Twitter since the beginning of November.
The activist has already undergone surgery due to chondrosarcoma cancer, and according to human rights groups, and the doctors who treated him say he should have been sent to the hospital every four months after surgery to undergo treatment courses.
Sadeghi was a student at Allameh Tabatabaei University in Tehran where he was expelled by the authorities due to his political activities.
In 2013 he was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges of propaganda against the government, defamation of the supreme leader, and threatening national security.
He has gone on hunger strike several times, including in 2016 to protest the arrest of his wife, who was detained on a charge of writing fiction that has not yet been published.
Sadeghi, who was diagnosed with cancer during his previous imprisonment, was released from prison a year and a half ago after enduring more than five years behind bars.
Many high-profile activists, rights advocates, and intellectuals have also been arrested in recent days because of the protests, including Fatemeh Sepehri and Majid Tavakoli.
At least 116 journalists and columnists are among those arrested, according to RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
They include Yalda Moayeri, Arash Ganji, and Niloufar Hamedi, who reported from the Tehran hospital where Amini died on September 16.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Toqaev, Macron 'Did Not Discuss' Exiled Opposition Politician Ablyazov
ASTANA -- Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vasilenko has rejected a report by Le Figaro newspaper, saying that the issue of fugitive Kazakh oligarch and opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov was not discussed at a meeting between President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
Ablyazov, an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government who received political asylum in France several years ago, is wanted in Kazakhstan and Russia on suspicion of embezzling some $5 billion. Ablyazov rejects the charge as politically motivated.
Vasilenko said on November 30 that Macron and Toqaev discussed "political, trade, and economic cooperation and education ties" when they met the day before in the French capital.
"As for Ablyazov, the issue related to him is an extraordinary issue related to law enforcement and the court system not only in Kazakhstan, but also in Europe and the United States. Those sorts of issues cannot be discussed on a political level," Vasilenko said.
Le Figaro had reported prior to the meeting that Ablyazov would most likely be discussed at the meeting.
Vasilenko added that trials related to Ablyazov will be held soon in the United States, Britain, and France with the participation of Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, the Almaty mayor's office, and BTA bank.
Ablyazov, a 59-year-old fugitive tycoon, established the opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) and regularly organizes unsanctioned anti-government rallies across Kazakhstan via the Internet.
DVK was labelled "extremist" and banned in Kazakhstan in March 2018.
Dozens of Kazakh activists have been jailed in Kazakhstan in recent years for their involvement in DVK activities, including taking part in the DVK-organized rallies.
Human rights groups have said Kazakhstan's law on public gatherings contradicts international standards, as it requires official permission in advance to hold rallies and envisions prosecution for organizing and participating in unsanctioned rallies even though the nation’s constitution guarantees its citizens the right of free assembly.
Latvia Says Ukraine Should Be Free To Strike Targets Inside Russia
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevics says Ukraine should be allowed to strike military sites inside Russia as it fends off attacks on its critical infrastructure. "We should allow Ukrainians to use weapons to target missile sites or airfields from where those operations are being launched," Rinkevics said on November 29 in an interview while attending the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest. NATO allies, including the United States, have held back on sending weapons that can strike Russia. To read the original story by Bloomberg, click here.
Ukraine's Odesa To Remove Monument To Russian Empress Catherine
Lawmakers in Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Odesa have decided to remove a monument of 18th-century Russian Empress Catherine the Great, often referred to as "the founder of Odesa," from the city center amid Moscow's ongoing invasion. The Odesa city council also voted on November 30 to remove a monument of 18th-century Russian military commander Aleksandr Suvorov from downtown Odesa. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
EU Executive Recommends Blocking Billions Of Euros In Funds To Hungary
The European Commission has proposed that billions of euros of European Union funds allocated to Hungary remain blocked over the failure of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to implement credible rule-of-law and anti-corruption reforms.
The commission said in September that the EU should freeze around 7.5 billion euros ($7.5 billion) in regular funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU money.
Budapest agreed on 17 anti-corruption measures, including the creation of an anti-corruption task force and changes to its public-procurement rules, but the commission believes it has not done enough to fix the problems.
"The commission finds that, notwithstanding steps taken, there is still a continued risk to the EU budget given that the remedial measures that still need to be fulfilled are of a structural and horizontal nature," the executive arm of the 27-member bloc said in a statement on November 30.
The money can be frozen under a recently adopted conditionality mechanism that permits the bloc to take measures to protect its budget.
The European Council, which represents the member states, has until December 19 to make a decision based on the commission's proposal.
"We are today giving our positive assessment to Hungary's comprehensive recovery and recovery plan. Regarding the rule of law, Hungary has committed to significant reforms. Only once these reforms are implemented in full will access to the EU's recovery fund be unlocked," European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference in Brussels.
Hungary's right-wing populist government has antagonized EU officials with its repeated criticism of the EU sanctions targeting Russia for its war in Ukraine.
Orban, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, continues to block crucial EU decisions such as the disbursement of 18 billion euros of financial aid to Ukraine and a global tax deal.
With reporting by Reuters
Japarov Signs Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border Laws, Including Deal On Disputed Water Reservoir
BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov has signed into law several documents on the delimitation of the border with Uzbekistan, including an agreement to jointly manage the Kempir-Abad water reservoir, a hot-button issue in the country.
The Kyrgyz presidential press service said Japarov signed the documents on November 29.
The two Central Asian countries' lawmakers approved the documents earlier this month. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has yet to sign the documents into law.
The Kempir-Abad reservoir, known in Uzbekistan as the Andijon reservoir, was built in 1983. It is located in the fertile Ferghana Valley and is a vital regional water source. Uzbekistan, whose population of 35 million is five times larger than that of Kyrgyzstan, uses most of the water from the area.
Many Kyrgyz civil activists, opposition politicians, and residents living close to the dam have opposed the deal, saying Uzbekistan should continue to be allowed to use the water, but the reservoir's land should remain within Kyrgyzstan.
Last month, more than 20 members of a group called the Kempir-Abad Defense Committee were arrested in Bishkek and detained for two months after they openly challenged the deal. They were charged with planning riots over the border deal, which is more than three decades in the making.
The former Kyrgyz ambassador to Malaysia, Azimbek Beknazarov, former lawmaker Asia Sasykbaeva, well-known politicians Kanat Isaev, Jenis Moldokmatov, and Ravshan Jeenbekov, and other noted public figures and human rights activists are among the committee members jailed.
Japarov and his allies claim the deal benefits Kyrgyzstan and that Kyrgyz farmers will still have access to the reservoir.
The two countries share a border more than 1,300 kilometers long.
Crimean Tatar Activist Gets 17 Years In Prison in Russia On Terrorism Charges
A court in the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don has sentenced Crimean Tatar activist Marlen Mustafayev to 17 years in prison on terrorism charges.
The Crimean Solidarity public group said the Southern Military District Court sentenced Mustafayev on November 30, with the first three years of his term to be spent in a prison cell and the remainder in a correctional colony. The court added that after his release, Mustafayev will remain under parole-like control for 18 months.
Mustafayev is known for actively supporting political prisoners and assisting their families. He was arrested, along with three other Crimean Tatar activists, in Russian-occupied Crimea in February after their homes were searched.
They all were accused of being members of Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic group that is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization but is legal in Ukraine.
All three say they are practicing Muslims and members of a group that is legal.
Since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russian authorities have prosecuted dozens of Crimean Tatars on various charges that rights organizations have called trumped-up.
In September, the de facto Supreme Court of Crimea sentenced a leader of the Crimean Tatar community, Nariman Dzhelyal, to 17 years in prison on a sabotage charge that he and his supporters call politically motivated.
Moscow's takeover of the peninsula was vocally opposed by many Crimean Tatars, who are a sizable minority in the region.
Exiled from their homeland to Central Asia by Soviet authorities under the dictatorship of Josef Stalin during World War II, many Crimean Tatars are very wary of Russia and Moscow's rule.
Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression by the Russian-imposed authorities in Crimea who are targeting members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Moscow's takeover of the peninsula.
Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries.
Russian, Chinese Bombers Fly Joint Patrols Over Pacific
Russian and Chinese strategic bombers on November 30 flew a joint patrol over the western Pacific in a show of increasingly close defense ties between the two countries. The Russian Defense Ministry said that the Tu-95 bombers of the Russian Air Force and the Chinese H-6K bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea during an eight-hour mission. As part of the drills, the Russian bombers for the first time landed in China and the Chinese bombers flew to an air base in Russia, the ministry said. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Russian Anti-Putin Shaman's Appeal Against Extention Of Forced Psychiatric Care Denied
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- The Primorye regional court in Russia's Far East has rejected an appeal filed against the extension of forced psychiatric treatment filed by a Yakut shaman who became known across Russia for his attempts to march to Moscow to drive President Vladimir Putin out of the Kremlin.
Aleksandr Gabyshev's lawyer, Aleksei Pryanishnikov, said that Judge Marina Sazhneva pronounced the ruling on November 30. Pryanishnikov added that his client's right to confidentiality was violated during the hearing, as the psychiatric clinic's nurse was always present with a rope in his hands when the lawyer talked to Gabyshev.
The decision to prolong Gabyshev's forced treatment in a psychiatric clinic was made by a lower court in October after the Primorye regional court had ruled in favor of Gabyshev's appeal against the extension of his forced treatment.
That court sent the case back to the Ussuriisk district court for a new hearing, citing inconsistences in medical conclusions regarding the case.
In early August, the Ussuriisk district court ruled that Gabyshev must continue being treated in a psychiatric clinic even though a team of psychiatrists had concluded that he could be transferred from a psychiatric clinic to a regular hospital because his "condition had improved."
However, several days later, a new medical commission concluded that the shaman's mental health "had worsened" and he must be transferred back to a psychiatric clinic.
Gabyshev, who has been stopped several times by the Russian authorities since 2019 when he tried to march from his native Siberian region of Yakutia to Moscow with the stated goal of driving Putin out of office, was sent to a psychiatric clinic against his will in July last year after a court found him "mentally unfit."
During the hearing, the court accused him of committing a "violent act against a police officer" when he was being forcibly removed from his home to be taken to a psychiatric clinic in late January.
The ruling was challenged by Gabyshev's lawyers and supporters, who say his detention is an attempt to silence dissent.
The Memorial Human Rights Center in Russia has recognized Gabyshev as a political prisoner and Amnesty International has launched a campaign calling for his release.
Von Der Leyen Proposes Plan To Confiscate Frozen Russian Assets, Russian War Crimes Tribunal
The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has proposed a plan to confiscate Russian assets that have been frozen in the wake of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and set up a Russian war crimes tribunal.
"We have blocked 300 billion euros ($310 billion) of the Russian Central Bank reserves and we have frozen 19 billion euros ($19.6 billion) of Russian oligarchs' money," commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement.
She said that the EU and its partners could manage the funds and invest them in the short term, with the proceeds going to Ukraine in order to compensate for damages caused by the Russian invasion.
"We will work on an international agreement with our partners to make this possible. And together, we can find legal ways to get to it," she said.
Von der Leyen also said that the EU was proposing the establishment of a specialized court, backed by the United Nations, "to investigate and prosecute Russia's crime of aggression."
"Russia's horrific crimes will not go unpunished," she said.
Sweden, Finland, And Turkey 'Make Progress' On NATO Membership
Sweden and Finland have made good progress toward an agreement with Turkey on the Nordic countries' admission to NATO, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said. "We had a very good bilateral yesterday between Sweden, Finland, and Turkey and I felt after this meeting that there is progress. We are moving forward," Billstrom told reporters on arrival for the second day of a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest on November 30. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
NATO Ministers Focus On Russia Regional Destabilization Concerns
NATO foreign ministers will on November 30 seek to reassure fragile countries in Russia's neighborhood that they fear could be destabilized by Russia as the conflict in Ukraine drags on, squeezing energy supplies and pushing up prices. Speaking on November 29, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the 30-member alliance would hold talks with Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, countries "facing pressure from Russia." To read the original story from Reuters, click here.
Ukrainian Forces Stave Off Multiple Attacks Amid Relentless Russian Shelling Of Energy Targets
Ukrainian forces have repelled more Russian military attacks in the east as Moscow pounded civilian settlements in central and southern Ukraine, targeting energy infrastructure, the military and regional officials said as millions of people faced power and heating shortages at the onset of winter.
Five people were killed In the eastern Donetsk region in shelling over the past day, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote on Telegram on November 30.
In the central Zaporizhzhya region, Russian rockets hit a gas distribution point, according to regional Governor Oleksandr Starukh.
"In one of the settlements of the Zaporizhzhya district, a gas distribution point was damaged as a result of a missile, resulting in a fire. It was quickly liquidated, but three streets remained without gas," Starukh wrote on Telegram.
No one was injured in the attack, he wrote.
Russia has launched numerous waves of attacks on Ukraine's electricity and heating infrastructure since October, an act that Kyiv and its allies say is a deliberate campaign to harm civilians and amounts to a war crime.
In Kyiv and its surroundings, millions of people struggled to heat their homes amid dropping temperatures and snowing.
A power company official wrote on Facebook that 985,500 people in Kyiv were without power, and another electricity provider said the city would have emergency power cuts on November 30.
A glimmer of hope was offered early on November 30 by Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko, who said the stability of electricity supply was "improving every day" as technicians work around the clock to repair the damage. But Halushchenko warned that further attacks could cause additional damage.
On the front line, the Ukrainian General Staff said on November 30 its forces had repelled six Russian attacks in the past 24 hours in Donetsk and the adjacent Luhansk region.
The military said Russian troops continue to attack in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka directions employing tank and artillery fire. Russian air strikes were carried out near Avdiyivka, it added.
Meanwhile, Russian forces relentlessly shelled the right bank of the Dnieper River and Kherson city further south.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address that Ukrainians were defending against attempted Russian advances in multiple regions, as NATO allies promised more arms for Ukraine and equipment to help restore power supplies cut by Russian strikes.
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev warned NATO against providing Ukraine with Patriot missile-defense systems, calling the 30-member alliance a "criminal entity" for delivering arms to what he called "Ukrainian fanatics."
WATCH: Ukrainian artillery crews make regular use of the Western-supplied M777 howitzer and say it has had a major impact against Russian forces.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, speaking in Romania, where foreign ministers from the alliance are holding a two-day gathering, said Russian President Vladimir Putin was "trying to use winter as a weapon of war" as Moscow's forces lose ground on the battlefield.
U.S. and European officials said NATO ministers would focus on providing nonlethal aid such as fuel, medical supplies, and winter equipment, as well as on military assistance, while Washington said it would provide $53 million to buy power-grid equipment.
U.S. President Joe Biden said providing more military aid for Kyiv was a priority, but Republicans, who take control of the House of Representatives in January, have talked about pausing the funding, which has surpassed $18 billion.
With reporting by Reuters and AP
U.S. OKs $1 Billion Arms Sale To Qatar During Key World Cup Match With Iran
The Biden administration approved a $1 billion arms sale to Qatar in a transaction unveiled on November 29 during halftime of the World Cup 2022 match between Iran and the United States. The State Department announced it had signed off on Qatar’s purchase of 10 defensive drone systems, 200 interceptors, and related equipment just as the second half of the U.S.-Iran game began. Qatar, along with other Gulf Arab states, faces threats from Iranian-backed proxies in the region. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Russian Diplomat Says Prisoner Swap With U.S. Remains Possible
Russia and the United States have been on the verge of agreement on a prisoner exchange, a senior Russian diplomat said on November 29. The Biden administration has been trying for months to negotiate the release of women’s basketball star Brittney Griner and another American. There have been a few occasions when it seemed that a decision in favor of a swap was about to be made, but it never happened, Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, told reporters. Ryabkov said a deal is still possible before the year's end. To read the original story from AP, click here.
Belgian Aid Worker's Family Concerned Over Son's Hunger Strike In Iranian Prison
The family of a Belgian aid worker says their son, who is jailed in Iran, has gone on a hunger strike to protest the "inhumane" conditions of his incarceration, which they say "amount to the equivalent of torture."
Olivier Vandecasteele, 41, was detained by Iranian authorities in February, apparently without charge.
His family said in the statement on November 29 that their last contact with him was at the start of September and that they feared that his detention in solitary confinement, along with his hunger strike that started about two weeks ago, are causing his health to fail.
They added that he finally was in contact with representatives of the Belgian Consulate in Iran.
Vandecasteele has been at the center of a controversy in Belgium over a fiercely criticized treaty allowing prisoner exchanges with Iran.
Tehran is reportedly seeking a prisoner exchange with Brussels to take back Iranian diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was last year sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with a plot to bomb a rally of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled opposition group, outside Paris in June 2018.
The Belgian opposition has alleged that the agreement with Tehran was tailor-made to permit Assadi's release, while Iranian exiles have also mounted a fierce campaign against the deal, leading a group of 11 human rights organizations to appeal to Brussels to cancel the agreement.
Western countries have repeatedly charged that Iran is trying to take advantage of foreign countries by taking dual and foreign nationals hostage and then using them in prisoner swaps.
During a current wave of unrest sparked by the death of a young woman while she was detained for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly, Iranian security forces have taken some 40 foreign nationals into custody.
Iranian cities continue to be the scene of anti-government protests, with videos published on social media showing protesters taking to the streets in different areas of Tehran and chanting slogans against the country's leaders amid an outcry that erupted in mid-September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood chanted the slogans for the release of rapper Toomaj Salehi from custody.
Salehi is one of 21 people who face the death penalty after being charged with what a UN official told Reuters on November 29 are "vague and broadly formulated criminal offenses."
Javaid Rehman, a UN-appointed independent expert on Iran, told Reuters in an interview that Salehi was indicted for "corruption on Earth for publication of lies on a large scale."
Meanwhile, Ali Karimi, a former player with Bayern Munich and once the captain of Iran’s national soccer team, said in an interview that due to frequent threats from Tehran authorities, he had to leave Dubai, the city where he lives.
In an interview published by Manoto TV, a London-based Persian-language television station, the Iranian soccer star said that after his support for the protests, he was sent a message through his close relatives that a death sentence had been issued against him and could be carried out at any moment.
Iran is known to have assassinated and abducted multiple exiled opposition figures in the past, including Iranian-German dual citizen Jamshid Sharmahd and journalist Ruhollah Zam.
Karimi is one of several high-profile Iranians to support the protests.
Several Iranian celebrities have been interrogated and had their passports confiscated after showing support for the anti-government protests that have occurred daily since Amini's death.
Voria Ghafouri, who has been an outspoken critic of the Iranian establishment and was surprisingly left out of this year's World Cup squad, was reportedly arrested on November 24, just days after expressing sympathy for Amini's family and calling for an end to the violent crackdown on protesters in his and Amini's native western Kurdistan region.
Iranian media reported that Ghafouri was released on bail on November 29.
Pressure has also been placed on an Iranian soccer legend, Ali Daei, who said he chose not to travel to Qatar for the World Cup due to the government's crackdown and said on social media on November 28 that he had received "numerous threats against myself and my family in recent months and days."
Several thousand people have also been arrested, including many protesters, journalists, lawyers, activists, digital-rights defenders, and others.
The activist HRANA news agency said that as of November 23, at least 445 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 61 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Jailed Belarusian Opposition Activist Kalesnikava Hospitalized In Intensive Care
Maryya Kalesnikava, a leading opposition activist in Belarus who was sentenced to 11 years in prison in September 2021, has been transferred to a hospital and is currently being treated for unspecified illness in an intensive care unit.
Viktar Babaryka, a would-be Belarusian presidential candidate in 2020, wrote on Telegram on November 29 that Kalesnikava was rushed to a hospital in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of the capital, Minsk, a day earlier.
Kalesnikava's father, Alyaksandr Kalesnikav, said she underwent surgery and was in serious but stable condition. Her doctors didn’t share her diagnosis or any other details with him about the surgery, he said.
Babaryka's press service also said that Kalesnikava had undergone surgery. It said last week that she had been put in solitary confinement for "impolite behavior."
Kalesnikava’s lawyer, Uladzimer Pylchanka, told RFE/RL that the hospital confirmed to him that his client is being treated in the facility, adding that he was not allowed to see Kalesnikava due to "the absence of the convict's request."
Pylchanka is waiting for the official response to his letter to the Prosecutor-General's Office demanding to see his client.
Kalesnikava, together with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala, formed a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.
Kalesnikava, 40, is the only one of the three still in the country and has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests for more than two years.
Tsikhanouskaya, who moved to Lithuania after Lukashenka claimed victory in the presidential election that many people in Belarus believe she won, said the news that Kalesnikava had been hospitalized was worrying.
"We need information about her condition & must assure that she gets proper help," she said on Twitter.
It remains unclear why Kalesnikava was transferred to a hospital and what she is being treated for. Before being rushed to the hospital, Kalesnikava was in punitive solitary confinement on unspecified charges.
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively, on September 6, 2021, after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group. Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.
Kalesnikava was a coordinator of Babaryka’s campaign before he was excluded from running. Babaryka, the former head of Belgazprombank, was arrested weeks before the presidential election. Kalesnikava then joined Tsikhanouskaya's support group and became a prominent leader of protests demanding the resignation of Lukashenka, who was officially announced the winner of the election.
Kalesnikava has been in custody since masked men snatched her and two male colleagues from the streets of Minsk on September 7, 2020. The three were driven early the next day to the border, where authorities told them to cross into Ukraine.
Security officers reportedly failed to deport Kalesnikava because she ripped her passport into pieces after they arrived in the no-man’s-land between Belarus and Ukraine. Her two associates entered Ukraine, but with no valid passport, Kalesnikava remained in the country and was subsequently arrested.
Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called her prosecution a "politically motivated conviction" on "bogus" charges.
Kalesnikava last year won the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded annually by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to honor "outstanding" civil society action in the defense of human rights.
With reporting by AP and AFP
McDonald's Restaurants In Kazakhstan Temporarily Close As Supplies Halted Amid Russia Sanctions
ASTANA -- The licensee of McDonald's in Kazakhstan has been forced to temporarily suspend operations because of supply chain issues sparked by Russia's war against Ukraine and not, government officials said, because of the arrest of a relative of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev who controls the company that operates the restaurants in the Central Asian nation.
Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Serik Zhumangharin said on November 29 that McDonald's had suspended their operations earlier this month to help restructure operations after imports of many items needed to run the franchises were halted.
"A large chunk of needed items, about 1,000 used by McDonald's in Kazakhstan, used to be imported. The process of restructuring is under way. I have asked the Committee of Technical Regulation to provide assistance [to McDonald's franchises] with certification," Zhumangharin said when asked by reporters about the situation surrounding the closure of the restaurants.
He added that the arrest in March of Qairat Boranbaev, the owner of Food Solutions, the company that operates the franchises in Kazakhstan, "had not significantly affected" the situation.
Boranbaev is the former father-in-law of the late Aisultan Nazarbaev, a grandson of Nazarbaev.
Zhumangharin did not give any additional details.
The company uses many supplies imported from foreign countries, mainly from Russia, which was hit with Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. McDonald's subsequently exited the Russian market in May, selling all its restaurants to a local licensee, leaving Kazakh restaurants scrambling for new suppliers.
Joe LaPaille, a spokesperson for McDonald's Corporation in the United States, told Reuters on November 29 that the "McDonald's licensee in Kazakhstan has temporarily closed all of its restaurants due to local supply issues. We are working together to resume operations as quickly as possible."
Since McDonald's started its operations in Kazakhstan in February 2016, it has become extremely popular across the country, with 24 outlets operating in Astana, Almaty, Atyrau, Aqtobe, Qaraghandy, and Qostanai. McDonald's has a staff of about 2,000 people in Kazakhstan.
A source close to Food Solutions told Reuters that the company started looking for new suppliers after it started running out of packaging materials imported from Russia. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to talk publicly about the situation.
With reporting by Tengrinews and Reuters
Kazakh Protester Sentenced To 17 Years After Convicted In Death Of Soldier
QYZYLORDA, Kazakhstan -- A court in the southern Kazakh city of Qyzylorda has sentenced a participant in the nationwide anti-government protests in January to 17 years in prison after finding him guilty of killing a soldier by running him over with a car during the dispersal of the protests.
Judge Duman Aliev sentenced 34-year-old Qazybek Qudaibergenov on November 29. Qudaibergenov had pleaded not guilty.
His wife, Inkarim Sultanova, said there were two autopsy reports on the soldier, who was among 26 people killed during the protests in Qyzylorda, adding that the two documents contradicted each other, which makes the case against her husband dubious.
Qudaibergenov was among thousands of people arrested during and after the protests, which left 238 people, including 19 law enforcement officers, dead across the country. The protests were violently dispersed by police and in some parts of the country turned into deadly mass disorders.
Many in Kazakhstan, including relatives of those killed during the unrest, have demanded an explanation from President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev on his decision to invite troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to disperse the protests, as well as his public "shoot to kill without warning" order.
The unrest occurred after a peaceful demonstration in the western region of Manghystau on January 2 over a fuel-price hike tapped into deep-seated resentment of the country's leadership.
Toqaev said at the time that the protests were caused by "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which the authorities have provided no evidence.
Human rights groups have provided evidence that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those killed by police and the military.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Aset Shyndaliev admitted in June that six people had been tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the protests. He said a number of security officers had been arrested in connection with the alleged torture.
In early November, Toqaev signed a decree granting amnesty to hundreds of people jailed in connection with the violence.
Rights activists say the mass amnesty was initiated to allow law enforcement officers who opened fire at unarmed demonstrators to escape responsibility for their actions.
Russia Declares Lithuanian Think Tank 'Undesirable'
Russia has declared Lithuanian think tank Riddle Russia an "undesirable" organization amid an ongoing crackdown on international and domestic NGOs, independent media, and civil society. The Prosecutor-General's Office explained the move on November 29 by saying that the think tank's activities "pose a danger to the Russian Federation's constitutional order and security." The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin that squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.
Trial Starts In Norway For Son Of Putin Ally Accused Of Flying Drone
The son of a Russian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin denied any wrongdoing as his trial started in northern Norway, where he is accused of violating a law that bars Russians from flying drones. Andrei Yakunin, who holds both Russian and British passports, was arrested on October 17 after he had sailed around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and along the coast of Norway. The 47-year-old had been filming with the drone while mountaineering, glacier walking, and sailing, according to his lawyer, John Christian Elden, who has said that Yakunin should be considered a British citizen, rather than Russian. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Iranian Teachers' Union Official Says He Was Chained To A Hospital Bed For 12 Days
The jailed spokesman of the Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council has published a letter saying that, after he was transferred from Tehran's infamous Evin prison to hospital due to illness, authorities chained him to the hospital bed for 12 days and denied him access to his lawyer and family.
The Iranian Teachers' Union's Coordination Council published the letter written by Jafar Ebrahimi on November 28, saying it shows the "disastrous behavior of prison officials toward a sick prisoner."
"They made the hospital a worse place for me than the prison," Ebrahimi said in the letter as he described being held incommunicado from his relatives and legal team.
The Evin prison has a long history of brutal behavior toward it inmates.
In March, the hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali, which claims to work inside Iran to expose the "true face of the regime," released video footage highlighting the inhumane conditions in the country's most-notorious prison.
Ebrahimi, along with Rasul Bodaghi, Ali Akbar Baghani, and Mohammad Habibi, all teachers' union activists, were arrested by security agents on April 30, just ahead of demonstrations held in several cities on May Day, which coincided with Teachers' Day in Iran.
They were also accused of coordinating the protests with French teachers' union official Cecile Kohler and her partner, Jacques Paris.
Iran has attempted to link the French nationals to the protesting Iranian teachers. The arrests were largely seen as an attempt to discredit the rallies and increase pressure on the Iranian teachers' union to stop the protests.
Iranian officials have accused the French couple of "entering the country to sow chaos and destabilize society."
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
Putin Proposes Creation Of 'Natural Gas Union' With Kazakhstan And Uzbekistan
Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed creating a "gas union" with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to establish a mechanism to ship natural gas between the three countries and to other nations, including China.
A day after Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said he had talks with Putin in Moscow on the issue, Russian Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed on November 29 that the proposal was being discussed between the three countries because there was a "need for synchronization" since they all sell natural gas.
The first stage of Putin's proposal envisages "the creation of a coordination mechanism" for the plan, Peskov said.
"The issue likely will have to be discussed with a legal entity to establish cooperation between the three nations and to secure the development of infrastructure for outer markets," Peskov said.
Toqaev's spokesman Ruslan Zheldibai wrote on Facebook on November 29 that the Kazakh and Russian presidents had discussed how "to coordinate joint actions for the transportation of Russian gas through the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan."
"Presidents Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev and Vladimir Putin said they think it is necessary to hold detailed talks with the participation of experts to find a rational solution to the issue that considers the interests of all involved sides," Zheldibai wrote.
Peskov noted that, since Kazakhstan's northern regions depend on natural gas transported from Siberia in Russia, it would be economically advantageous to increase Russian gas supplies instead of following through on a Kazakh government plan to build a new pipeline to secure Kazakh gas deliveries to the region. This, the Kremlin spokesman said, would save Astana "tens of billions of dollars."
Russia is known as a major natural gas exporter, while the amount of natural gas produced by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is barely enough for their own consumption.
The two major economies of the Central Asian region share a gas pipeline to Russia and a pipeline transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan to China.
Moscow has increased its natural gas deliveries to China since European nations began decreasing their dependence on Russian gas amid the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which started in late February.
With reporting by Interfax and TASS
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