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Georgia Gives Long Jail Term To Turkish Captain

The ship detained by Georgia at the port of Poti
KUTAISI, Georgia -- A court in the Georgian town of Kutaisi has sentenced the captain of a Turkish tanker to 24 years in jail for the "illegal crossing of the Georgian border and smuggling," RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported.

Mehmet Coskun Ozturk was captaining the "Buket" on its way last month from Turkey to the breakaway region of Abkhazia with gasoline aboard when it was impounded by Georgian authorities to the Black Sea port of Poti.

Judge Vakhtang Todia told RFE/RL that Ozturk was convicted of multiple illegal crossings into Georgian territorial waters and smuggling to Abkhazia.

Ozturk's vessel, reportedly laden with 2,000 tons of gasoline and 700 tons of diesel fuel, was bound for the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi.

Georgia has imposed an economic blockade on Abkhazia.

Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia, announced their independence from the Georgian state following an intense but brief conflict in August 2008 that saw Russian troops pour over the border into Abkhazia and outside disputed territory into central Georgia.

Tbilisi and Moscow have traded accusations of blame, but Georgia still officially regards Abkhazia and South Ossetia as Georgian territory.

Russia and Nicaragua are the only countries to have recognized those regions' independence.

Abkhazia calls the blockade an attempt by Georgia to suffocate the subtropical territory and threatens to respond in kind.

The tanker was operating under a Panamanian flag with a Turkish and Azerbaijani crew, all of whom aside from Ozturk have been released.

Reuters reports that the Turkish operator said the ship was in international waters and was detained at gunpoint, while Georgia said it was in Georgian territorial waters.

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Popular Russian Food Blogger's Property Seized Over Anti-War Posts

Veronika Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka, currently lives in France.

MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has impounded the property of a popular food blogger and magazine founder who is wanted in Russia over her online posts about Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The Basmanny district court ruled on June 24 to impound Veronika Belotserkovskaya's apartment and parking site, as well as an unspecified number of houses, an apartment, and land in the city of St. Petersburg.

The court said the seizures were necessary to ensure compensation for any possible fines she will be ordered to pay if convicted in a case launched against her on charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces.

Belotserkovskaya, who founded the St. Petersburg magazine and website Sobaka, currently lives in France.

Last month, Russian authorities added her to the wanted list and issued an arrest warrant for her.

In March, Russia's Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against the Ukrainian-born Belotserkovskaya, who blogs under the name Belonika, for allegedly spreading false news about the Russian military on her Instagram account, which has almost 950,000 subscribers.

She was accused of publishing several Instagram posts containing "deliberately false information about the armed forces of the Russian Federation's destruction of cities and civilians in Ukraine, including children, during a special military operation."

Some of the posts cited the coverage of the war by Western news agencies and media outlets.

Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has strictly limited access to information about the war in Ukraine launched by Russia on February 24 and directed media to describe events in Ukraine a "special military operation" and not a war or an invasion.

Following the opening of the criminal case against her in March, Belotserkovskaya transferred ownership of Sobaka to its employees.

Tens Of Thousands Resume Pro-EU, Anti-Government Rallies In Georgian Capital

Georgians rally in support of European integration in Tbilisi on June 24.

TBILISI -- Tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets again to rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi in favor of European Union membership and against the current government.

The rally on June 24 comes a day after EU leaders deferred Tbilisi's candidacy, recognizing it as a "perspective member" but insisting that candidate status could only be granted as soon as "set priorities are met" and widespread reforms are put in place.

While deferring on Georgia, the EU at the same time formally agreed to take the "historic" step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Moscow's bitter denunciations of the two countries' intentions.

In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliament building waving Georgian and EU flags and blocking traffic on the central Rustaveli Avenue.

There was no immediate estimate of the size of the crowd, but AFP on June 21 estimated 120,000 people had participated in a similar rally organized by the Shame civil rights group.

At that demonstration, Shota Digmelashvili of the Shame movement read out a manifesto and announced the launch of a new popular movement that will include opposition parties, civil society organizations, journalists, and labor unions to make demands on the government.

The manifesto asserted that the country's "main obstacle on its European path is Bidzina Ivanishvili," the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party who is widely believed to be the top decision-maker in the South Caucasus country even though he does not hold office.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling on the EU to impose sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgia's politics and economy. Ivanishvili insists he has retired from politics.

The EU's stated conditions for granting Georgia candidate status include the end of political polarization, progress on media freedom, judiciary and electoral reforms, and what was called "de-oligarchization."

The Georgian Dream party said on June 17 that it "regretted" that the country was not recommended for EU candidate status together with Ukraine and Moldova.

The party in a statement on June 24 defended its record and accused the opposition of having "plans to overthrow the authorities by organizing anti-government rallies."

With reporting by AFP

Former Daghestan PM's Son Gets 13 Years In Prison For Killing Girlfriend

A Moscow court has sentenced Murtuzali Medzhidov, a son of the former prime minister of Russia's North Caucasus region of Daghestan, to 13 years in prison for the killing of 21-year-old Tomiris Baisafa, his Kazakh girlfriend.

The Izmailovo district court sentenced Medzhidov on June 24 after a jury found him guilty in the high-profile case.

Baisafa's death in the Russian capital in April 2018 sparked a public outcry in Kazakhstan, with ombudswoman Elvira Azimova asking Russian counterpart Tatyana Moskalkova to take the case under her personal supervision.

Medzhidov, also a student, was arrested after a witness said he beat the girl and forced her out of a fourth-floor window in a building at the Moscow State University of International Relations.

However, in June 2021, Medzhidov was acquitted, sparking another wave of anger in Kazakhstan.

In late October, Medzhidov’s lawyer, Shamil Yandarbayev, said his client's acquittal had been annulled and that he would be retried.

Murtuzali Medzhidov's father, Mukhtar Medzhidov, led Daghestan's government from January to July 2013. Before that, he served as deputy prime minister and a lawmaker.

Based on reporting by KazTAG, Kazinform, and TASS

Iranian Teens Arrested For 'Violating Religious Norms' At Skateboarding Gathering

In recent years, Iranian adolescents have repeatedly challenged the regime's efforts to control various aspects of social life.

A viral video of male and female teenagers at a skateboarding day in the southern city of Shiraz has angered Iranian officials, who have arrested 10 participants for their role in the event.

The video, which was posted on social media on June 23, shows several teenagers of both sexes mixing freely on a boulevard in Shiraz to mark "Go Skateboarding Day."

The hijab became compulsory in Iran in public for females over the age of 9 following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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

Many have publicly criticized the restrictions and a large number of the females in the video were not wearing headscarves.

The Mehr news agency reported, quoting Shiraz Governor Lotfollah Sheibani, that "so far 10 people who organized the event have been arrested."

"The main organizer of the event has also been identified and action has been taken to arrest him based on judicial authorities," Sheibani said.

"The actions of the teenagers in this gathering are a violation of religious norms, and we strongly condemn these actions and deal with them judicially" he added.

In recent years, Iranian adolescents have repeatedly challenged the regime's efforts to control various aspects of social life.

Iranian media reported last weekend that police had arrested 120 people for alleged "criminal acts," including drinking alcohol, mixed-sex dancing, and not wearing a hijab at a party in a forest in the country's north.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

UN Chief Warns Of Global Food 'Catastrophe' Amid Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine, Other Crises

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (file photo)

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the world faces a "catastrophe" because of the global food shortage, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine only adding to an already difficult situation.

"There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022," Guterres said in a video message to officials from dozens of rich and developing countries meeting in Berlin on June 24.

"And 2023 could be even worse," added Guterres, who called mass hunger and starvation unacceptable in the 21st century.

Guterres told the gathering that "the war in Ukraine has compounded problems that have been brewing for years: climate disruption; the COVID-19 pandemic; the deeply unequal recovery."

He said it was crucial that Ukraine and Russia -- which together produce about 29 percent of global wheat exports -- find a way to resume normal trade.

Shipments from Ukrainian ports have been halted following Russia's unprovoked invasion of that country.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who hosted the Berlin gathering, called "completely untenable" Russia's assertions that Western sanctions imposed over the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that "the sanctions that we've imposed on Russia collectively and with many other countries exempt food, exempt food products, exempt fertilizers, exempt insurers, exempt shippers."

Guterres said UN negotiators were in talks with Russia to seek a deal to restore the flow of products to world markets.

He also said higher fertilizer and energy prices were hitting farmers in Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere, making it difficult for them to bring food products to market.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Ukraine's Zelenskiy Urges Glastonbury Festival Audience To Help End War

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks via video at the Glastonbury Festival in Worthy Farm, Somerset, England, on June 24.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has put in an appearance at the Glastonbury music festival, urging the crowd to step up pressure on politicians to try to end Russia's war against Ukraine.

Addressing festival goers in a recorded video message in English on June 24, Zelenskiy called Glastonbury "the greatest concentration of freedom" in the world.

“Greetings, Glastonbury. The festival resumes this year after a two-year break, the pandemic has put on hold lives of the millions of people around the world, but has not broken," he said to cheers.

"We in Ukraine would also like to live life as we used to and enjoy freedom and this wonderful summer," said Zelenskiy, wearing his now-trademark military green T-shirt, before adding, "Russia has stolen our peace."
He urged the crowds to "spread the truth about Russia's war" and help Ukrainian refugees.

"Put pressure on all the politicians you know to help restore peace in Ukraine. Time is priceless and every day is measured in human lives," he added.

Zelenskiy has made a series of video-link appearances around the world, including an address to the British Parliament, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Congress.

Based on reporting by dpa and The Guardian

Dozens Rally In Kygyzstan Against President's Move To Reopen Casinos

Protesters rally against legalizing casinos in Osh on May 30.

BISHKEK -- Dozens of people have gathered in Kyrgyzstan to protest against a move initiated by President Sadyr Japarov to reopen casinos that were banned a decade ago.

The protesters gathered in Bishkek's Gorky Park on June 24 to urge Japarov to veto a bill allowing casinos across the country for foreigners of at least 21 years of age only after it was approved by lawmakers two days earlier.

"We intend to turn to the Constitutional Court and demand it finds the bill against the constitution," Akjoltoi Tukunov, one of the protesters, said during the rally.

The protesters said the bill was approved without proper public discussion and therefore should be withdrawn.

They also raised concerns that even though casinos will be open to foreigners only, Kyrgyz citizens will end up being clients as well.

A similar protest was held in the country's second-largest city, Osh.

Lawmakers approved the bill on June 22 after voting was disrupted four times due to the refusal of many lawmakers to take part in the proceedings.

Casinos were officially banned in Kyrgyzstan in 2012. Since then, police have uncovered numerous underground casinos in Bishkek, Osh, and other towns and cities.

In April 2021, Japarov initiated the idea to legalize casinos to help tackle the economic hardships the Central Asian country has faced for decades.

Belarusian Blogger Handed Parole-Like Sentence

Mark Bernshteyn

MINSK -- A well-known Belarusian blogger and Wikipedia author, Mark Bernshteyn, has been handed a parole-like sentence after being found guilty of organizing and preparing activities that disrupt social order, a charge he has rejected.

A family member said on June 24 that they had been informed that a court in Minsk had sentenced Bernshteyn to three years of restricted freedom as the government continues to crack down following mass protests sparked by a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that handed victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Bernshteyn, who went on trial the day before, was arrested on March 11. He was initially sentenced to 15 days in jail on charge of "disobeying law enforcement."

Instead of releasing him after serving the term, officials kept Bernshteyn, listed among the 50 best authors of Wikipedia's Russian segment, in detention and charged him again.

It remains unclear what exactly Bernshteyn did to warrant the second charges.

State-controlled media has said that the charge he faced stemmed from an entry he wrote on Wikipedia about Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, adding later that investigators had found data on his mobile phone that led to the new charge.

Lukashenka, 67 and in power since 1994, has tightened his grip on the country since the 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people.

Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have been forced to flee the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader. Many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

With reporting by Mediazona

Popular Punk-Rave Group Leaves Russia Over War In Ukraine

Little Big was scheduled to represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2020.

The popular Russian punk-rave band Little Big says it has decided to leave the country over Moscow's ongoing, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The group issued an anti-war video clip called Generation Cancellation on June 24 to announce that it had rebased in Los Angeles, California.

"We condemn actions of the Russian government, and Russia's military propaganda is so disgusting for us that we decided to leave everything behind and flee the country," the group's leader, Ilya Prusikin, known under the nickname Ilyich, said in a statement.

The members of the group added in the statement that they "adore their country, but absolutely oppose the war in Ukraine."

Little Big was established in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, in 2013. The band was scheduled to represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2020.

However, because of the coronavirus pandemic the contest was cancelled. The group didn't take part in Eurovision in 2021, saying another artist should be given the chance to represent Russia.

With reporting by Meduza

Bulgarian Lawmakers Vote To Lift Veto On North Macedonia's EU Talks

Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's (front left) government was toppled on June 22, after his shaky coalition lost its majority in part over accusations that it was disregarding national interests in pushing to lift the veto.

Bulgarian lawmakers have conditionally approved dropping Sofia's opposition to North Macedonia opening accession talks with the European Union, raising the prospect of progress in the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership amid Russia's war in Ukraine.

The June 24 move allows for lifting the veto, which was imposed two years ago over a dispute about history and language, once tweaks are made in the government's negotiating framework text that guarantee the rights of Bulgarians in the country through constitutional changes and commit Skopje to maintaining good relations with Bulgaria.

The framework also cannot have any reference that may suggest that Bulgaria recognizes the Macedonian language.

The motion was approved with 170 votes in favor and 37 against in the 240-member parliament, deputy speaker Atanas Atanasov said, adding that 21 lawmakers abstained.

North Macedonia has held EU candidate status for 17 years and received a green light in 2020 to begin accession talks, although no date was set for the start of negotiations.

Sofia, which has been an EU member since 2007, had insisted that North Macedonia formally recognize its language had Bulgarian roots, acknowledge in its constitution a Bulgarian minority, and renounce what it said was "hate speech" against Bulgaria.

North Macedonia said that its identity and language weren't open for discussion.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov's government was toppled on June 22, after his shaky coalition lost its majority in part over accusations that it was disregarding national interests in pushing to lift the veto.

Bulgaria's dropping its opposition to North Macedonia's talks with the EU comes a day after the bloc granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and marks another step toward the 27-member bloc's enlargement.

However, the Bulgarian change of position will only bring Skopje a small step closer to EU accession, as Bulgarian lawmakers vowed on June 24 to be ready to impose new blockades if necessary.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and AP

Four People Killed In Russian Military Plane Crash Southeast Of Moscow

The IL-76 aircraft reportedly had a malfunctioning engine. (file photo)

Four people are dead after a Russian military cargo plane crashed when it was forced into an emergency landing in a field near the city of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow.

The Defense Ministry said the IL-76 aircraft suffered an engine malfunction, forcing it out of the sky. Ryazan is about 190 kilometers southeast of the capital.

A video posted by the Baza online news group shows what appears to be the plane engulfed in flames before it hits the ground.

This is the third military plane to crash in recent days in Russia.

Earlier this week, a Russian pilot died after his SU-25 military plane crashed in the Rostov region that borders Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, where Ukrainian armed forces have been fighting against Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion since February 24.

On June 17, a Russian pilot ejected from his SU-25 plane, which crashed in the Belgorod region that also borders Ukraine. The pilot survived.

Russian military officials said the two crashes were caused by "technical malfunctions."

With reporting by Baza and TASS

European Bank Lends Moldova 300 Million Euros To Boost Energy Security As Ukraine War Rages

Moldova -- An official walks near a pumping station during the inauguration ceremony of the Iasi-Ungheni Moldovan-Romanian gas pipeline, in Zagarancea village, Ungheni district, 124 kms North-West of Chisinau, August 27, 2014

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is lending Moldova 300 million euros ($316 million) to help it secure additional gas reserves that could offset possible supply disruptions caused by Russia's war against Ukraine.

Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, is almost completely dependent on Russian gas deliveries for its industry and heating needs.

Russian state-controlled energy giant Gazprom and Moldova have signed a gas delivery contract valid until 2026 following difficult negotiations over pricing.

"The loan will finance up to one-fifth of Moldova’s planned gas imports for 2022, which are vulnerable to potential interruption as a result of the war on Ukraine," EBRD said in a statement.

The loan to the pro-Western President Maia Sandu's government will be disbursed in two installments -- 200 million euros to avoid disruptions and a further 100 million euros to build up a strategic reserve in Ukraine or Romania.

"We are working in the summer so we have fewer worries in the winter," Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Spinu said in a post on Facebook.

The EBRD said its loan would finance up to 20 percent of Moldova's planned 2022 gas imports and would be provided to state-owned energy trader JSC Energocom to secure gas on EU hubs.

Moldova, sandwiched between EU and NATO member Romania and Ukraine, introduced a state of emergency shortly after Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The country has received hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war.

On June 23, it received, together with Ukraine, an invitation to start accession talks with the European Union.

With reporting by Reuters

Moscow-Imposed Official In Russian-Occupied Ukrainian City Killed By Car Bomb

The bomb attack took place in Russian-occupied Kherson (file photo)

A car bomb has killed a Moscow-imposed official in Ukraine's southeastern city of Kherson, which is occupied by Russian troops.

According to preliminary information, the official who died after his car exploded on June 24 was Dmytro Savluchenko, who led the Directorate for Family, Youth, and Sports for the city's so-called military and civilian administration established by the occupying forces.

Two cars were damaged in the blast, which also shattered windows in nearby apartment blocks. No other casualties were reported.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Representatives of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry and military intelligence have said that guerilla groups are operating in the country’s territories occupied by Russia.

There have also been assassination attempts against Russian-imposed officials in the Ukrainian cities of Melitopol and Enerhodar recently. No casualties were reported in those attacks.

Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

With reporting by UNIAN

Ukraine Urges U.S. To Provide 'Fire Parity' With Russia As Struggle In East Worsens

Ukrainian troops talk to each other in the industrial area of the city of Syevyerodonetsk on June 20.

Ukraine's top general has told his U.S. counterpart that his country desperately needs "fire parity" with Russia to "stabilize" the difficult situation in the east, where Kyiv's forces have suffered setbacks against Moscow's troops backed by powerful artillery bombardments.

"We discussed the operational situation and the delivery flow of international technical assistance," General Valeriy Zaluzhniy wrote in an online posting after holding a phone call on June 24 with General Mark Milley, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Kyiv has received billions of dollars in aid from its Western partners since Moscow's unprovoked invasion began on February 24.

But they say much more is needed as Russia, bolstered by an advantage in artillery power, continued its grinding advance focused on encircling Ukraine's last pocket of resistance in the eastern Luhansk region.

Hirske, a key district south of the city of Lysychansk, was "fully occupied" by Russian forces as of the morning on June 24, local officials said on television, as Ukrainian forces were also about to abandon their last positions in the city of Syevyerodonetsk.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"Unfortunately, as of today...the entire Hirske district is occupied," Hirske's municipal head, Oleksiy Babchenko, said on television. "There are some insignificant, local battles going on at the outskirts, but the enemy has entered."

The loss of Hirske and several other settlements around it leaves Lysychansk, some 35 kilometers to the north, in danger of being surrounded from three sides by advancing Russian forces.

A regional official said early on June 24 that Ukrainian forces were pulling out of Syevyerodonetsk in the face of Russia's continued onslaught, which would make Lysychansk, across the Siverskiy Donets River, the last major Ukrainian-controlled city in Luhansk.

Russia was on the verge of capturing Syevyerodonetsk following weeks of house-to-house battles against Ukrainian defenders, who were gradually dislodged by relentless heavy artillery fire that has turned the city into ruins.

"Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense," Serhiy Hayday, the head of the Luhansk region military administration, said on television.

He said troops had already received the order to move to new positions, but didn't indicate if they had already done so or where they were going.

Hayday also wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Russia had taken control of the village of Mykolayivka, located near a key highway to Lysychansk, where Ukrainian troops managed to repel a Russian attack on the southern outskirts of the city.

A U.S. military official told reporters in a briefing that, while Washington did not want to downplay Ukrainian losses in lives or property, recent gains by Russian forces appear to have been "limited."

"What [Ukrainian troops] are doing is putting themselves in a position where they can better defend themselves."

"The Russians are just eking out inch by inch of territory here. And I think it's important to reflect on the cost that Russia has paid for this very small, very incremental gain," the official added.

Four months after the start of Moscow's unprovoked invasion of its neighbor, the fierce fighting has stretched both sides' personnel and equipment resources to the limit, with Kyiv repeatedly pleading with the West for more heavy weapons and Russia facing increasing difficulties in bringing qualified personnel to the front line.

Britain's Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 24 that a Russian pilot captured earlier this month after his plane was shot down confessed to his Ukrainian captors that he was a retired Air Force major now working as a mercenary for the Vagner Group, a private Russian military company with ties to the Kremlin.

British intelligence suggested that the use of retired personnel and private contractors in air operations indicated a shortage of trained Russian aircrews.

That, the bulletin said, could be the consequence of a combination of Russia’s insufficient numbers of suitably trained personnel and its combat losses. Furthermore, the use of commercial GPS systems on Vagner's aircraft indicated a lack of up-to-date avionics equipment, it said.

The White House late on June 23 announced additional military aid for Kyiv, including four more HIMARS long-range multiple-rocket launchers, tens of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, and patrol boats. The value of the package was $450 million, White House spokesman John Kirby said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked the United States for the continued military support.

"We're grateful to [U.S. President Joe Biden] and the American people for the decision to provide another $450 million defense aid package to Ukraine," he wrote on Twitter on June 24.

"This support, including additional HIMARS, is now more important than ever. By joint efforts we will free Ukrainian land from the Russian aggressor!" he concluded.

However, two officials with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence assessments told CNN that Russian forces were slowly gaining an advantage in eastern Ukraine. The Russians have learnt from mistakes made earlier in the invasion, and are now better coordinating air and ground attacks and improving logistics and supply lines, the officials said.

One victory Kyiv celebrated on June 23 was the announcement by EU leaders meeting in Brussels that the bloc had formally agreed to take the “historic” step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership.

The move was hailed by the leaders of the two countries, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said there can be "no better sign of hope" for the citizens of the countries "in these troubled times."

"This is a victory," a smiling Zelenskiy said in a brief video posted to his Instagram channel, noting that Ukraine had waited 30 years for this moment.

"We can defeat the enemy, rebuild Ukraine, join the EU, and then we can rest," he added.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, CNN, and TASS

Balkan Leaders Frustrated Over Stalled EU Membership Bids As Bloc Moves To Grant Candidate Status To Ukraine, Moldova

European Union and Western Balkan leaders pose for a group photo during an EU summit in Brussels on June 23.

The leaders of six Balkan countries complained on June 23 about the lack of progress on their bids to join the European Union ahead of the bloc’s decision to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed the granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova but said they should have no illusions.

He pointed out that Albania and other Balkan countries have had candidate status for years -- North Macedonia since 2005 and Albania since 2014.

Rama and the leaders of the other five Balkan countries seeking EU membership -- Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia -- met with EU leaders for four hours ahead of the announcement granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.

They confirmed after the meeting that the war in Ukraine has put the enlargement process in the foreground, and this means a heightened priority for the process of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and progress in bilateral and regional disputes, including the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

Balkan countries are deeply frustrated about the deadlock in their bids to join. Especially frustrating for Albania and North Macedonia is EU member Bulgaria’s veto on the start of negotiations because of a dispute with Skopje relating to history and language.

Albania is being held back because the EU has linked its progress to that of North Macedonia.

"It's a disgrace that a NATO country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other NATO countries, namely, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of hot war in Europe's backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence," Rama said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the Bulgarian blockage was "really not fair" but insisted the region needed to push on and overcome difficulties.

"We cannot cry out because even if anyone will hear them or will hear us it will change nothing,” he said. “We need to work. We need to carry on changing ourselves."

Dimitar Kovacevski, the prime minister of North Macedonia, also expressed frustration.

"What has happened is a serious blow to the credibility (of) the European Union," Kovacevski said, referring to the lack of progress on Balkan EU membership bids. “We are wasting precious time, which we do not have at our disposal.”

Sefik Dzaferovic, chairman of the Bosnian presidency, said there was strong support at the summit for Bosnia-Herzegovina to also be granted candidate status.

The council “is ready to grant the status of candidate country to Bosnia,” it said in a statement after announcing candidacy status for Ukraine and Moldova.

The council also restated its promise to give the Balkan countries membership once they enacted economic, judicial, and political reforms.

“The European Union expresses its full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans and calls for the acceleration of the accession process,” the council said in the statement.

Among the reasons the EU enlargement process has stalled are fears of a repeat of the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of Eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU, leading to Brexit.

But officials in Brussels have also openly worried that the lack of progress for the Balkans could push the region closer to Russia and China.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Belarusian Philosopher Handed Five-Year Prison Term As Journalist, Blogger Go On Trial

Belarusian philosopher Uladzimer Matskevich (file photo)

MINSK -- Well-known Belarusian philosopher Uladzimer Matskevich has been sentenced to five years in prison over his active participation in public events questioning the official results of the August 2020 presidential poll that handed victory to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The Minsk regional court sentenced Matskevich on June 23 after finding him guilty of participating in unsanctioned events that disrupt social order, creating an extremist group, and insulting Lukashenka online.

Matskevich was arrested in August last year.

In February, the 66-year-old philosopher went on a two-week hunger strike, demanding a transfer to house arrest, but his demand was ignored by the authorities.

Also on June 23, a Belarusian journalist in the southeastern city of Homel. Iryna Slaunikava, went on trial on charges of leading an extremist group and organizing activities that disrupt social order.

The charges also stemmed from her taking part in mass protests that were sparked by the disputed presidential election.

Belarusian journalist Iryna Słaunikava
Belarusian journalist Iryna Słaunikava

Slaunikava was first arrested along with her husband Alyaksandr Loyka in late October. The couple was sentenced to 30 days in jail on charges of distributing extremist materials and minor hooliganism.

After serving their jail terms, Slaunikava was hit with the new charges for which she went on trial on June 23. If convicted, she may face up to seven years in prison. Loyka was not arrested a second time.

A separate court in Minsk on June 23 began the trial of well-known blogger and Wikipedia author Mark Bernshtein, who is charged with organizing and preparing events that disrupted social order. His supporters say the charge is politically motivated.

In power since 1994, Lukashenka, 67, has tightened his grip on the country since the 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- tens of thousands of people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have been forced to flee the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader. Many countries have imposed several rounds of sanctions against his regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

U.S. Sports Apparel Giant Nike Fully Leaving Russian Market Over War In Ukraine

People walk past a closed store of Nike in St. Petersburg on May 25.

U.S. sports apparel giant Nike says it is fully quitting the Russian market, three months after suspending its operations in the country.

Nike said in a statement on June 23 that it was joining other major Western brands in leaving the Russian market over Moscow's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

"Nike Inc. made a decision to leave the Russian market...The Nike stores were temporarily closed recently and will not reopen," the company said in a statement, adding that its Russian website and app will also be shut down.

Last month, Nike said it would not extend its franchise agreement with Russia's Inventive Retail Group (IRG), the largest retailer of Nike products in the country.

In early March, Nike suspended online sales in Russia and several days later temporarily closed all of its shops in the country, including those operating on franchise agreements. Nike was active on the Russian market for 28 years.

Dozens of major international companies from a broad range of sectors have exited Russia since it launched the war against Ukraine on February 24.

With reporting by Reuters

Germany Triggers Gas Alarm, Moves Closer To Rationing After Russia Cuts Supply

A gas-compressor station in Mallnow, Germany, on June 13.

Germany has triggered the second stage of its three-part emergency gas plan in response to Russia's reducing supplies and accused Moscow of an "economic attack."

The June 23 move, made under a plan meant to be activated when there is disruption or very high demand for gas, brought Europe's largest economy a step closer to rationing gas but stopped short of allowing utilities to pass rising energy prices to customers.

Germany and several other European countries are highly reliant on Russian energy imports to meet their needs.

"Gas is now a scarce commodity in Germany," Economy Minister Robert Habeck told reporters at a press conference.

The development reflected a "significant deterioration of the gas-supply situation," Habeck said.

Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom last week reduced supplies to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline by 60 percent due to what the company said was repair work.

But Germany rejected the technical justification for the move.

"Even if gas quantities can currently still be procured on the market and stored: The situation is serious and winter will come. We mustn't delude ourselves: Cutting gas supplies is an economic attack on us by Putin. It is clearly Putin's strategy to create insecurity, drive up prices, and divide us as a society," Habeck said.

Gas rationing would hopefully be avoided but cannot be ruled out, Habeck said.

The German government will provide 15 billion euros ($15.8 billion) in loans in an attempt to fill gas storage facilities.

It will also start to auction gas to industry to encourage big businesses to use less.

Gazprom has already stopped deliveries to a number of European countries, including Poland, Bulgaria, Finland, and the Netherlands.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and BBC

Union Warns Jailed Iranian Activist's Health Failing As Hunger Strike Continues

Shahabi, a member of the board of directors of the Tehran Bus Workers' Union, has been on a hunger strike since June 13 to protest against his continued detention.

The Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company Workers' Union has warned that the health condition of Reza Shahabi, a jailed labor activist on his 10th day of a hunger strike, is deteriorating.

The union said in a statement dated June 22 that authorities need to release Shahabi, claiming his "continued physical and psychological abuse" coupled with "further interrogations" will fail to yield results and "only lead to his death."

The union added that Shahabi "should be transferred immediately to a suitable hospital outside the prison and undergo the necessary medical examination and care."

Shahabi, a member of the board of directors of the Tehran Bus Workers' Union, has been on a hunger strike since June 13 to protest against his continued detention.

Shahabi was arrested at his home on May 10 by Intelligence Ministry officers shortly after publicly calling on the authorities to investigate death threats against him and his family.

On May 17, state television alleged Shahabi and other labor activists had met with two French nationals -- 37-year-old Cecile Kohler and her 69-year-old partner, Jacques Paris -- who were arrested the day after Shahabi and accused of seeking to foment unrest in Iran.

The allegations come as the country's security forces try to suppress antigovernment protests in cities across the country against skyrocketing inflation and the government's recent decision to cut some subsidies. Reports say at least five demonstrators have died in the protests.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

Soviet-Era Pop Star Yury Shatunov Of Boyband Laskovy Mai Dies At 48

At the age of 13, Yury Shatunov became the frontman for Laskovy Mai, a group of orphans brought together to form the band by Russian songwriter, composer, and musician Sergei Kuznetsov. (file photo)

Soviet-era pop icon Yury Shatunov, a member of the boyband Laskovy Mai (The Tender May), which was extremely popular across the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, has died at the age of 48 in the Moscow region.

Shatunov's press secretary Arkady Kudryashov said on June 23 that Shatunov died of a heart attack overnight as he was being transported to a hospital after complaining of severe chest pains.

Born in Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan in 1973, Shatunov lost his mother when he was 11 and was placed in an orphanage in the city of Orenburg.

At the age of 13, he became the frontman for Laskovy Mai, a group of orphans brought together to form the band by Russian songwriter, composer, and musician Sergei Kuznetsov.

The group's first album skyrocketed on the music charts across the Soviet Union. Their style was a mix of Western disco pop music and plain lyrics sung by teenagers with jazzy voices.

Their best-known hits included Belye Rozy (The White Roses) and Sedaya Noch (The Gray Night). The group broke up in 1992.

In 1991, amid an economic downfall before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Shatunov moved to Germany. He returned to Russia several years later and continued his solo career as a singer but never reached the same level of popularity he enjoyed as a teenager.

With reporting by RIA Novosti

Turkmen Nationals Residing In Turkey File Lawsuit Against Berdymukhammedov

Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey stage a protest in Istanbul on June 21 against human rights abuses by Turkmen authorities.

A group of Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey have filed a lawsuit against former Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and other top officials of the extremely isolated and tightly controlled Central Asian nation, accusing them of violating their human rights.

The group's legal representative, Turkish lawyer Gulden Sonmez, said in a video posted online that he filed the lawsuit with a court in Istanbul on June 21.

Along with Berdymukhammedov, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and Interior Minister Muhammet Hydyrov are named in the lawsuit.

Speaking in front of the courthouse, Sonmez said that his clients also are accusing Turkmen authorities of human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill treatment at penitentiaries.

"We added to the lawsuit numerous pictures, documents, names of Turkmen citizens who died in custody, the testimonies of Turkmen men and women who faced abuses from authorities, the testimonies of Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey who are unable to obtain documents such as passports, birth or marriage certificates from Turkmenistan's consulates in this country," Sonmez said.

Ten of Sonmez's clients rallied in front of the court's building, holding posters saying "The state should serve people," "Face the people," "Freedom of movement is our right," and "We have the right to have passports."

For many years, Turkmen citizens residing in Turkey have faced problems with renewing their passports and obtaining documents required by Turkish immigration authorities.

Turkmen nationals permanently residing in Turkey have also complained that they have been subjected to various pressure methods applied by Turkmen authorities in Turkey.

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist from 2006 until his 40-year-old son Serdar took over in March this year.

Last year, dozens of Turkmen activists residing abroad held protests in Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, to bring attention to the situation regarding human rights and civil freedoms in Turkmenistan.

Britain Slaps More Trade And Financial Sanctions On Russia Over War In Ukraine

A woman stands in a currency exchange office in St. Petersburg.

Britain has introduced a new set of trade and financial sanctions against Russia over its unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

A notice posted on the U.K. government website on June 23 outlined the new restrictions, which include export bans on a range of goods and technology, the export of jet fuel, and the export to or use in Russia of British pounds or euros.

The list of banned products includes goods and technology meant for internal repression, products and technology that can be used in chemical and biological weapons, maritime goods and technology, additional oil refining products and technology, and critical industry products and technology.

The notice bans the import, acquisition, or supply and delivery of goods originating in or being consigned from Russia that can generate revenue.

It also provides for further restrictions on the provision of technical assistance, financial services, funds, and brokering services relating to iron and steel imports.

It imposes prohibitions on the import, acquisition, or supply and delivery of revenue-generating goods that originate in or are consigned from Russia as well as related technical assistance, financial services, funds, and brokering services.

The notice also bans the provision of technical assistance and financial services, funds, and brokering services relating to iron and steel imports.

Some of the new restrictive measures apply both to Russia and Ukrainian territories under the control of Moscow-backed separatists.

Former Chief Of Kazakhstan's Border Guard Service Detained On Corruption Charges

The detentions were made as part of an investigation into possible abuse of office in relation to the flow of goods at outposts along the Kazakh-Chinese border. (file photo)

NUR-SULTAN -- The former chief of Kazakhstan's Border Guard Service, Lieutenant General Darkhan Dilmanov, and several of his former subordinates have been detained on corruption charges.

The Committee of National Security (KNB) said on June 22 that the moves were made as part of an investigation into possible abuse of office while supervising the flow of goods at outposts along the Kazakh-Chinese border.

Dilmanov, who was also the KNB's deputy chief, was sacked from his post in April, days before the Prosecutor-General's Office said a transportation company co-founded by the sister of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev was suspected of committing "numerous crimes" with regard to the transportation of goods via the Kazakh-Chinese border.

The Anti-Corruption Agency said at the time that it also fired Erbol Nazarbaev, one of the former president's nephews.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has been distancing himself from Nazarbaev and his clan after they left the tightly controlled oil-rich nation's political scene following unprecedented deadly antigovernment protests in January, after which the KNB chief and one of Nazarbaev's closest allies, Karim Masimov, and his three deputies were arrested on high treason charges.

Nazarbaev, 81, resigned as president in 2019, picking longtime ally Toqaev as his successor. But he retained sweeping powers as the head of the Security Council, enjoying almost limitless powers as elbasy -- the leader of the nation. Meanwhile, many of his relatives continued to hold important posts in the government, security agencies, and profitable energy groups.

On June 6, a Toqaev-initiated nationwide referendum changed the constitution, removing all mentions of Nazarbaev from it.

The January protests, which started over a fuel price hike, spread across Kazakhstan because of discontent over cronyism that had long plagued the country. Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of the Security Council role, taking it over himself.

Just days after the protests, Nazarbaev's two sons-in-law, Qairat Sharipbaev and Dimash Dosanov, were pushed out of top jobs at two major state companies, QazaqGaz and KazTransOil, respectively.

Timur Kulibaev, Nazarbaev's billionaire son-in-law, also resigned as chairman of the oil-rich nation's main business lobby group.

In a separate statement, on June 22, a KNB official said Nazarbaev’s nephew, Samat Abish, who was sacked from the post of KNB’s deputy chief after the January protests, is a person of interest in an unspecified criminal case.

A day earlier, Kazakh authorities said a criminal case on the illegal takeover of a private company may be launched against the former president’s fugitive younger brother, Bolat Nazarbaev.

Toqaev has said publicly he wants Nazarbaev's associates to share their wealth with the public by making regular donations to a new charity foundation.

Turkey, Britain Pledge Cooperation To Move Ukrainian Grain Amid Accusations Of Russian Theft

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (file photo)

Turkey has pledged to investigate allegations that Russia has been stealing grain from Ukraine during its invasion, with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss offering to help during an "urgent" global food crisis.

Truss said on June 23 after a meeting in Ankara with her Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, that the global grain crisis "needs to be solved within the next month otherwise we could see devastating consequences."

The international community has been appealing to Russia to allow exports of Ukrainian grain with Kyiv blaming Moscow blockading its Black Sea ports.

The two countries are among the world's biggest wheat exporters and play a key role in ensuring global food security. The disruption of grain deliveries due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has also led to sharp increases in global food prices.

"It's very clear that Ukrainian ports must be protected; there needs to be safe passage for commercial vessels. The United Kingdom is offering our expertise on all of those fronts to make sure that we have measures in place so that grain can safely leave, but it is going to require an international effort," Truss said.

Cavusoglu said Turkey would not allow grains stolen by Russia or any other country to be brought onto its territory.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

EU Leaders Make Ukraine, Moldova Official Candidates For Membership

European lawmakers and Ukrainian representatives unfurl a 30-meter-long Ukrainian flag outside the EU Parliament on June 23, the day Ukraine and Moldova were given official candidate status for the bloc.

BRUSSELS -- The European Union has formally agreed to take the “historic” step of making Ukraine and Moldova candidates for EU membership in the midst of the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s bitter denunciations of the two countries’ intentions.

European Council President Charles Michel announced the decision on June 23 at a summit in Brussels, calling it a historic moment.

"Today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU," Michel said. "Our future is together."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the decision one of the most important for Ukraine in its 30 years of independence.

"I believe that this decision is not only for Ukraine," Zelenskiy said in a video address to the Council. "This is the biggest step toward strengthening Europe that could be done right now in such difficult conditions, when the Russian war is testing our ability to preserve freedom and unity."

He said Ukraine is capable of becoming a full member of the European Union.

"I believe that the flag of the European Union will be in every Ukrainian city that we have yet to liberate from the occupation of the Russian Federation," he said. "The Ukrainian and European flags will be together even when we rebuild our state together after this war."

Pro-Western Moldovan President Maia Sandu said the country is "starting on the road to the EU, which will bring Moldovans more prosperity, more opportunities, and more order in their country.”

She acknowledged that Moldova has “a difficult road ahead," but said Moldovans are prepared to "walk, together, to ensure a better future for citizens."

Georgia, which also applied for EU membership earlier this year, was recognized as a "perspective" member, Michel said on Twitter. The EU is "ready to grant candidate status as soon as the set priorities are met," Michel said.

The step sets in motion the complex process of accession to EU membership, something that Ukraine has ardently sought since applying for it less than a week after Moscow invaded on February 24. The war added urgency to Ukraine's cause, prompting the unusually rapid decision to grant candidate status.

"There can be no better sign of hope for the citizens of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in these troubled times," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

"I am deeply convinced that our decision that we have taken today strengthens us all. It strengthens Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in the face of Russian aggression," she said, adding that it "shows once again to the world that the European Union is united and strong in the face of external threats."

EU candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova had been at the top of the agenda at the summit.

"The European Council recognizes the European perspective of Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova, and Georgia. The future of these countries and their citizens lies within the European Union," the latest draft of the final declaration of the summit, a copy of which RFE/RL has seen, says.

"The progress of each country towards the European Union will depend on its own merit in meeting the Copenhagen criteria, taking into consideration the EU’s capacity to absorb new members," it adds.

The unprecedented move by the European body comes as Kyiv fights a devastating war against Russia, which launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor in February that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused huge material destruction.

Michel had urged the bloc's leaders to take the "historic" decision to grant candidate status to war-torn Ukraine and its neighbor Moldova.

"This is a decisive moment for the European Union, this is also a geopolitical choice that we will make today. And I'm confident that today, we will grant the candidate status to Ukraine and to Moldova," he told journalists in Brussels ahead of the summit.

EU leaders will also aim to maintain pressure on Russia at the summit by committing to further work on sanctions, including a possible move to make gold among the assets that may be targeted by any future measures.

The final draft also reiterates the bloc's call for investigations into possible war crimes committed in Ukraine and says the bloc remains "strongly committed" to providing further military support for Ukraine and to "swiftly work" on increasing such support.

"International humanitarian law, including on the treatment of prisoners of war, must be respected. Ukrainians, notably children, who have been forcibly removed to Russia must be immediately allowed to return safely," the document says.

"Russia, Belarus, and all those responsible for war crimes and the other most serious crimes will be held to account for their actions, in accordance with international law."

Before the main summit began on the afternoon on June 23, EU officials held a summit with leaders from the Western Balkans where they affirmed their commitment to admitting countries from the region, and called "for the acceleration of the accession process."

EU and NATO member Bulgaria has been opposing Albania and North Macedonia's accession to the bloc because of historical, language, and cultural differences.

On June 23, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama described the stalled accession process for Albania and North Macedonia as a "disgrace."

"It is a shame that a NATO country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other NATO countries, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of a hot war in Europe's backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence," Rama said.

"It's a good thing to give [Ukraine] candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people will not make many illusions about it," Rama said.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

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