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Iran's Leader Helped Secure Backing For Government

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is said to have urged lawmakers to seriously reflect on the proposed ministers' "piety, morality...and their contribution to the revolution."
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran's supreme leader helped secure parliament's support for hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government ministers, a senior lawmaker has said in remarks carried by an Iranian news agency.

The assembly voted on September 3 in favor of 18 of Ahmadinejad's 21 proposed ministers in his new cabinet following his disputed reelection in June, despite criticism by deputies that some of them lacked enough experience for the posts.

The new ministers include the Islamic republic's first female minister, a relative novice as oil minister in the world's fifth-largest crude exporter, and as defense minister a man wanted by Argentina over a 1994 bombing attack.

Deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a conservative critic of the president, made clear that the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had influenced the outcome.

"After counting the votes [in parliament] we noticed that had it not been for the recommendations of the supreme leader at least eight or nine ministers would not have received votes of confidence," Bahonar was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.

He said Khamenei, who swiftly endorsed Ahmadinejad's election victory despite opposition charges of vote rigging, had urged lawmakers to seriously reflect on the proposed ministers' "piety, morality...and their contribution to the revolution."

Despite seeing three of his nominees rejected, the outcome signaled only a limited setback for Ahmadinejad, who had four of his first-choice ministers voted down four years ago.

The new government will hold its first meeting on September 6.

The presidential election, which was followed by huge opposition protests, plunged Iran into its deepest internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It exposed deepening establishment rifts and further strained ties with the West.

The moderate opposition says the election was rigged in Ahmadinejad's favor. The authorities deny this.

Baqer Moin, a London-based Iran analyst, told Reuters on September 3 he had heard that Khamenei's office had contacted legislators before the voting.

"His bigger fight is the nuclear issue and if he is seen as being weak internally he will have more problems with that as well. So he has put all his efforts into convincing the conservatives...that we need to show unity," Moin said.

The West suspects Iran of trying to build nuclear bombs while Iran says its program is for peaceful power generation.

U.S. President Barack Obama has given Iran until later in September to take up a six powers' offer of talks on trade if it shelves nuclear enrichment or face harsher penalties.

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EU Prolongs Economic Sanctions Over Russia's War In Ukraine Until July 31

The Council of the European Union on January 27 extended sanctions targeting specific sectors of Russia's economy by six months, until July 31. The sanctions, first introduced in 2014, were significantly expanded since the start of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the council said in a statement. They include restrictions on trade, finance, technology, industry, transport, and luxury goods; a ban on the import or transfer of seaborne crude oil and certain petroleum products from Russia to the EU; a de-SWIFTing of several Russian banks; and the suspension of Russian broadcasting activities.

EU Seeks Effective Justice For 'Horrific' Crimes In Ukraine War

An empty coffin is placed next to a grave after the exhumation of bodies in the mass graves dug during the Russian occupation in the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine.

The EU wants swift accountability for the "horrific" crimes in Ukraine, EU justice ministers said on January 26, even as they differed over the methods about how to bring prosecutions, seek evidence, or fund war-damage repairs. The bloc's 27 justice ministers met in Stockholm ahead of the February 24 anniversary of Russia's attack on Ukraine. "Nobody doing this kind of war crimes shall go free. It's very, very important that we will find a way to hold responsible people accountable," Swedish Justice Minister Gunnar Strommer said. "The question is, how can we deal with this in a practical and efficient way." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Moscow Blocks CIA, FBI Websites, Citing 'False' Information About Russian Armed Forces

Russia's media regulator blocked the websites of the CIA and the FBI after the CIA posted a message on Facebook asking Russians to contact FBI agents. (illustrative photo)

Russian media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked the websites of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the State Department's national security rewards program, according to the Roskomsvoboda project. There was no immediate comment from Washington, but earlier this month the intelligence service posted a message on Facebook saying Russia's military mobilization could radically change the lives of Russians and asked them to contact FBI agents as "it is in your power to change this." The FBI regularly launches advertising campaigns on social networks in different languages, including Russian. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Rogue Russian Priest Gets Additional Prison Term On Hatred Charge

Russia Rebel Monk

MOSCOW -- An ultraconservative, coronavirus-denying Russian priest who was stripped of his religious rank and sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in 2021 has been handed an additional sentence of 5 1/2 years in prison on charge of inciting hatred toward Catholics, Muslims, and Jews.

The Babushkin district court ruled on January 27 that it was combining the two sentences, meaning the general prison term for Nikolai Romanov, also known as Father Sergiy, will amount to seven years.

The additional charge against Romanov, who is already in prison after being convicted of vigilantism, violating the right to religious freedom, and encouraging suicide, stemmed from his six online posts about religions other than Orthodox Christianity.

His co-defendant Vsevolod Moguchev, who placed Father Sergiy's sermons on his YouTube channel, was also found guilty of inciting hatred and sentenced to five years in prison.

Father Sergiy was arrested in December 2020 after law enforcement raided his convent in the Sverdlovsk region. Parishioners and some clergy skirmished with the police during the arrest of the rogue priest, who was then sent to a detention center in Moscow.

The priest made headlines in June 2020 after he took over the Sredneuralsk Women's Monastery in the Urals by force with help from Cossack guards.

He was later stripped of his religious rank by the Diocesan Court in the Sverdlovsk region for what the court called disobedience toward Russian Orthodox Church authorities.

Father Sergiy is known for his public praising of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, calling the coronavirus pandemic a Western plot, and publicly condemning the Russian Orthodox Church's order in April 2020 to stop church services to prevent the spreading of the virus.

After forcibly taking over the convent, Father Sergiy issued political statements saying that constitutional amendments proposed by President Vladimir Putin "would legalize a slave-owning system."

The constitutional changes approved in 2020 allow Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister for more than 21 years, to stay in power until 2036 if he chooses to run again after his current term ends in 2024.

Armenian Officer Arrested For Negligence Over Fire That Killed 15 Soldiers

The scene of the blaze

An Armenian military officer has been arrested over a deadly fire last week that killed 15 soldiers and critically injured three others in the South Caucasus country. The Prosecutor-General's Office said on January 27 that Gor Aghabekian, the deputy commander of the military unit, who was responsible for fire-safety rules, was sent to pretrial detention for at least two months on a charge of negligence that led to the deaths. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

U.K. Court Says Russian Businessman Cannot Pause $850 Million Fraud Case Over Sanctions

Boris Mints and his sons Dmitry, Aleksandr, and Igor are being sued by National Bank Trust, which is 99 percent owned by Russia’s central bank, on behalf of Bank Otkritie, once Russia's largest private lender before its 2017 collapse. (file photo)

The High Court in London has ruled a prominent Russian businessman cannot pause an $850 million fraud lawsuit brought by two Russian banks because of British sanctions. Boris Mints and his sons Dmitry, Aleksandr, and Igor are being sued by National Bank Trust, which is 99 percent owned by Russia's central bank, on behalf of Bank Otkritie, once Russia's largest private lender before its 2017 collapse. Lawyers representing the Mints family -- who deny the fraud allegations -- say the lawsuit should be indefinitely put on hold because, if the banks win at trial, damages could not be paid, as Bank Otkritie is under British sanctions. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russian Police Officer Gets Eight Years In Prison In Absentia Over Posts About War In Ukraine

Oleg Kashintsev, a former Russian policeman, holds a placard reading "Free Navalny! Putin is a killer!" on Moscow's Red Square in 2021.

A Moscow court sentenced in absentia police officer Oleg Kashintsev to eight years in prison on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces by spreading "false" information about Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Kashintsev's lawyer said on January 27 the court also stripped Kashintsev's major rank and barred him from administering social networks and from serving in police ranks for four years. Kashintsev fled Russia several months ago. His case is the first about "fake" news on Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine that was tried in absentia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Journalist Ponomarenko, Charged With Discrediting Russian Army, Returned To Pretrial Detention

Siberian journalist Maria Ponomarenko was arrested in April last year and faces up to 10 years in prison for her online posts.

Siberian journalist Maria Ponomarenko, who was under house arrest on a charge of discrediting Russia’s armed forces with "fake" social media posts about the war in Ukraine, has been transferred to a pretrial detention center on January 27 after she quarreled with her ex-husband overnight. Ponomarenko was arrested in April last year and faces up to 10 years in prison for her online posts. Earlier in January, a court in Barnaul rejected her request to be transferred to pretrial detention to protest against the military mobilization by the Russian government. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Kyrgyz, Uzbek Presidents Sign Raft Of Documents, Including Border Delimitation

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov signed more than 20 bilateral documents on January 27.

More than 20 bilateral documents have been signed during talks between Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, in Bishkek. Among the documents signed on January 27, the last day of Mirziyoev’s two-day visit to Kyrgyzstan, was a protocol on the exchange of resolutions to ratify November agreements on delimitation of several disputed segments of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. More than 20 Kyrgyz politicians and activists were arrested in October after they protested the border deal. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Russia Shifting War Focus To 'NATO And The West,' Says EU Official

Stefano Sannino, secretary-general of the European Union’s European External Action Service, told reporters in Tokyo that Putin had "moved from a concept of special operation to a concept now of a war against NATO and the West." (file photo)

A senior EU official says Russia has taken its war against Ukraine to "a different stage" through indiscriminate attacks on civilians and nonmilitary targets, while criticizing Moscow for triggering recent moves by Germany and the United States to send advanced tanks to Ukraine. Stefano Sannino, secretary-general of the European Union’s European External Action Service, told reporters in Tokyo that Putin had "moved from a concept of special operation to a concept now of a war against NATO and the West." He said German and U.S. tank provisions are meant to help Ukrainians defend themselves rather than making them attackers. To read the original story by AP, click here.

One Person Shot Dead At Azerbaijan's Embassy In Iran; Baku Evacuates Staff

One person was killed and two others were wounded when an attacker opened fire on a guard post outside Azerbaijan's embassy in Tehran on January 27.

One security official has been shot dead and two guards wounded when an attacker armed with a Kalashnikov-style automatic rifle stormed Azerbaijan's embassy in Iran's capital, Tehran.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called the January 27 assault "an act of terrorism" and Baku quickly announced it was evacuating the embassy while blaming Iran for the incident.

"The attacker broke through the guard post, killing the head of security with a Kalashnikov assault rifle," Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said.

Iranian state TV quoted Tehran Police Chief Hossein Rahimi as saying the attacker was arrested and that he had "personal and family problems."

Rahimi said the attacker entered the embassy with two children. However, surveillance footage from inside the embassy released in Azerbaijan appeared to show the shooter entering the building alone. The footage bore a timestamp matching the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry's statement.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, said Tehran strongly condemned the attack, which was under investigation with "high priority and sensitivity."

Iran and Azerbaijan have a common border. Relations between the two countries have been tense amid the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

"I fiercely condemn the terrorist attack perpetrated against our embassy in Tehran today," Aliyev said on Twitter.

"We demand that this terrorist act be swiftly investigated and the terrorist be punished.... Terror against diplomatic missions is unacceptable!"

Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Ayxan Hacizada told local media that "all responsibility for the attack lies with Iran" as a recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign in Iranian media had "emboldened the attack."

"Unfortunately, the latest bloody terrorist act demonstrates the serious consequences of the failure to give the necessary attention to our constant appeals in this regard," Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Jury Convicts Uzbek New York Bike Attacker, Weighs Death Penalty

Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek national who moved to the United States in 2010, was convicted on all of the 28 counts he faced. 

A U.S. jury on January 26 convicted an Uzbek man who used a truck to kill eight people on a Manhattan bike path in 2017 on murder and terrorism charges in the first federal death-penalty trial of U.S. President Joe Biden's administration. After finding Sayfullo Saipov guilty of committing murder with the goal of joining the Islamic State militant group, the Manhattan jury will return on February 6 to consider whether the death penalty is appropriate punishment. Saipov, an Uzbek national who moved to the United States in 2010, was convicted on all of the 28 counts he faced. To read the full story by Reuters, click here.

Zelenskiy Hails 'Tank Coalition' As Fighting Rages In Eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian police inspect a cruise missile of the Russian Army shot down by Ukrainian air defense in the Kyiv region on January 26.

Russian forces pressed on with a multipronged offensive in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Ukraine's military said early on January 27, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy voiced his gratitude for the growing number of countries that have pledged advanced tanks to Kyiv while urging them to accelerate the delivery of the offensive assault vehicles.

Ukrainian troops repelled attacks in 11 locations in the two eastern regions over the past 24 hours, a day after Moscow unleashed another wave of missile strikes across Ukraine, killing at least 11 people and damaging energy infrastructure despite Kyiv's air defense destroying most of the incoming projectiles.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"The Defense Forces over the past day repelled the invaders' attacks in Ploshanka, Nevske, and Chervonpopyivka in Luhansk, and Verkhnyokamyanske, Paraskoviyivka, Bakhmut, Klishchiyivka, Vodyane, Nevelske, Maryinka, and Vuhledar in Donetsk," the General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its daily report, which RFE/RL could not independently verify.

The latest reports of heavy fighting in the east came after Ukraine's military said on January 26 that it had shot down 47 of 59 Russian missiles -- some fired from Tu-95 strategic bombers in the Russian Arctic.

Moscow also launched 37 air strikes, 17 of them using Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones. All drones were destroyed, the Ukrainian military said.

Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on January 26 that "there are already 12 countries in our tank coalition" to provide advanced Western battle tanks to help Ukraine's defense against Russia's 11-month Russian invasion.

He thanked "everyone in the world who is truly fighting against terror together with us" and re-emphasized the "speeding up" of the delivery of defense equipment to his country.

According to media reports, around 100 German-manufactured Leopard 2 tanks are being pledged by Germany and its allies initially, in addition to the U.S. contribution of 31 M1 Abrams tanks and Britain's earlier promise of 14 Challenger 2 tanks.

Canada was the latest country to declare its intention to give Ukraine tanks. Ottawa will send four Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, the Canadian defense minister said, after Germany this week allowed other countries to re-export the German-built tank.

Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain previously announced their readiness to transfer some of the Leopard 2 tanks in their stocks to Ukraine, something they can only do with manufacturer Germany's express permission.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Warsaw will give an extra 60 tanks to Ukraine in addition to the 14 German-made Leopards it has already promised.

Morawiecki, in an interview with Canadian CTV News television on January 26, said, "Right now, we are ready to send 60 of our modernized tanks, 30 of them [Polish-made] PT-91."

Training of Ukrainian crews and delivery of tanks will take at least about two months in the earliest cases, according to public statements.

According to two diplomatic sources quoted by Reuters, France and Italy are close to finalizing the technical details to supply an SAMP/T air-defense system to Ukraine.

Hours after the German and U.S. tank announcements, Zelenskiy said he'd spoken to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and was pressing for the Western supply of long-range missiles and aircraft to Ukraine -- a line that those governments have so far declined to cross.

Poland's Morawiecki was quoted by dpa as telling a French broadcaster on January 26 that his country would be willing to send fighter jets to Ukraine if Warsaw's NATO allies decided on such a move.

The Kremlin has reacted with fury to the latest gesture of Western solidarity with Ukraine, saying it saw the promised delivery of advanced tanks as evidence of escalating "direct involvement" of the United States and NATO in Russia's war of aggression, something both deny.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa and CTV

U.S. Envoy To OSCE Warns Russia Trying To 'Wipe Out' Ukrainian Sovereignty, Incorporate Belarus

Michael R. Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, said Russian President Vladimir Putin had "made clear" that he thinks both Ukraine and Belarus "belong" to Russia. 

The U.S. envoy to the OSCE warned at a meeting of the organization's Permanent Council on January 26 that Russia is trying "to wipe out the sovereignty of an entire, independent nation" in Ukraine.

Ambassador Michael Carpenter added that Russia was also seeking to do much the same thing with neighboring Belarus, following a historical pattern of denying the existence of sovereign nations and trying to "incorporate them into their empires."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin had "made clear" that he thinks both those nations "belong" to Russia.

"The United States flatly rejects Russia's efforts to dismiss and repress Ukraine’s distinct culture, history, and statehood," Carpenter said. "We also strongly support the sovereignty and independence of Belarus, which has a proud history and its own rich culture as well."

Putin's forces covertly occupied Crimea ahead of its annexation in 2014, when Russia-backed armed separatists also captured wide swaths of eastern Ukraine.

After massing Russian troops at the Ukrainian borders with Russia and Belarus in late 2021 and early 2022, Putin ordered tens of thousands of soldiers and armored vehicles to launch a full-scale invasion on February 24.

Ukrainian officials have chronicled what they say are tens or hundreds of thousands of atrocities and other abuses against civilians, and international war crimes investigators are documenting many allegations along with physical evidence in formerly occupied territory.

Carpenter said that "Putin’s language and view of Ukraine and its people is essential to understanding the brutal conduct of Russia’s forces in Ukraine."

The Kremlin leader has increased pressure on Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka since the latter declared himself the winner of sixth term in a flawed presidential election in 2020, a vote that sparked massive street protests and Western condemnation.

Lukashenka has been further isolated internationally since allowing Russian troops to stage their invasion from Belarusian soil.

"Russia's leadership has openly and repeatedly professed the belief that Ukrainian and Belarusian identity do not exist outside of Russian culture," Carpenter told the OSCE Permanent Council.

Tsikhanouskaya Calls On Croatia To Distinguish Lukashenka's Regime From Belarusians

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya started her two-day visit to Croatia on January 26. She was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and parliament speaker Gordan Jandrokovic. (file photo)

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus, has called on Croatia "to distinguish between" the Belarusian people and the regime of the authoritarian ruler of her country, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and to do the same between Belarus and Russia.

Tsikhanouskaya said after talks with Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic-Radman in Zagreb on January 26 that "dictator Lukashenka is fully responsible for taking part in [Russia's] war against Ukraine."

She said the vast majority of Belarusians oppose the war and support Ukraine.

"Another message: Belarus is not Russia," she said. "Belarus has always been part of the European community; we strive for that. And we see our future in friendship with Croatia."

She described Belarus as currently "under a creeping occupation."

Tsikhanouskaya expressed thanks to Grlic-Radman for "his active support to a democratic Belarus in the European Union, the European Council, and the OSCE,” as well as for Croatia's support of Ukraine.

"Today we discussed how to prevent involvement of Belarusian troops' participation in the war against Ukraine, how to help Belarusian guerillas and volunteers, to strengthen the isolation of Lukashenka on the international arena," Tsikhanouskaya said.

Tsikhanouskaya started her two-day visit to Croatia on January 26. She was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and parliament speaker Gordan Jandrokovic.

On January 26, Belarusian state-controlled Telegram channels said that Tsikhanouskaya's Office and the Coordination Council of Belarusian opposition were extremist organizations.

With reporting by BPN

Workers At Chinese-Serbian Copper Mine Block Roads To Press Wage Demands

Workers from the Chinese Zijin Copper company in Bor, Serbia, block the entrance to the factory demanding higher wages and working conditions.

Hundreds of workers at a joint Chinese-Serbian copper mine in Bor, in eastern Serbia, blocked access to the facility on January 26 to protest for higher wages and a new collective bargaining agreement with the mine's Chinese majority owners.

The demonstrators blocked four entrance gates to the mining and smelting complex.

"We are only blocking heavy trucks -- we let in the ambulance, firefighters, and police. Anyone can walk by foot and get to work," Dragan Elek, from the smelters trade union organization, told RFE/RL.

Chinese Zijin Copper bought around two-thirds of the Bor mining facility from the Serbian state in 2018 and employs some 6,200 people to exploit copper, gold, and other ore deposits in eastern Serbia.

A similar protest was staged earlier this month.

Workers are demanding the 14.3-percent pay rise that was proposed by the tripartite Socio-Economic Council representing labor, management, and the Serbian government. They also want a new collective agreement.

"Primarily, we want to preserve our budgets and our dignity," Miodrag Milic, one of the protesting workers, told RFE/RL.

The Zijin Copper company issued a statement pledging in 2023 to increase wages by 10 percent.

The Chinese Bor operations have already faced legal challenges based on accusations of noncompliance with environmental standards.

Russia's Path To 2024 Olympics Takes Shape; Ukraine Objects

Athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee attend a welcoming ceremony after returning from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Red Square in Moscow, on August 9, 2021.

Russia's path to sending a team to the Paris Olympics next year became clearer on January 26 amid fierce objections from Ukraine. The International Olympic Committee indicated on January 25 that it favors officially neutral teams from Russia and its ally Belarus at the 2024 Olympics despite a plea from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to exclude them entirely. A day later, Russia and Belarus were invited to compete at the Asian Games, a key Olympic qualifier. To see the original story by AP, click here.

Canada To Send Four Leopard 2 Tanks To Ukraine

A Leopard 2 tank (file photo)

Canada will send four Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said on January 26, after Germany this week allowed other countries to re-export the German-built tank. "This donation, combined with the contributions of allies and partners, will significantly help the armed forces of Ukraine" in their defense against the Russian invasion, Anand told reporters in Ottawa.

U.K. Aiming To Deliver Tanks To Ukraine By End Of March

Britain this month became the first Western ally to promise heavy assault vehicles for Ukraine with a plan to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks. (file photo)

Britain's government said on January 26 that it was aiming to send tanks to Ukraine at the end of March, with training starting next week. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters that "everything is going according to plan" after Britain this month became the first Western ally to promise heavy assault vehicles for Ukraine with a plan to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks. Germany and the United States swept aside longstanding misgivings and followed suit on January 25.

North Macedonia Says Bulgaria Recall 'Disproportionate' As Balkan Tensions Bubble Over

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov (left) and North Macedonia's foreign minister, Bujar Osmani, visited Hristijan Pendikov in the hospital on January 22 after he was attacked and beaten over the weekend in Ohrid, North Macedonia.

SKOPJE -- North Macedonia's foreign minister, Bujar Osmani, has described Bulgaria's decision to recall its ambassador to Skopje as "disproportionate" if it is a response to a weekend attack on a minority Bulgarian in the city of Ohrid.

Hristijan Pendikov, a Macedonian citizen who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative, was attacked and beaten last weekend in that Macedonian city.

Sofia announced the diplomatic withdrawal on January 25, with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov saying it would remain in effect until Sofia sees signs of change.

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

Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year but only after slightly reshaping the Macedonian EU accession framework.

The day after the attack on Pendikov, he was flown to Bulgaria on a Bulgarian government plane to undergo surgery for his injuries.

Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski called a meeting of the Security Council on January 23, after which he said he would ask the government to ban the entry into the country of several Bulgarian citizens he said were leading a campaign against North Macedonia and were connected to Russian intelligence services.

Osmani blamed the attack on Pendikov on individual perpetrators and said Macedonian officials had done all they could to respond to the attack.

"The state immediately identified the perpetrators, [and] one of them is in custody," Osmani told the Macedonian Desk of RFE/RL's Balkan Service on January 26. "There were condemnations by the president, the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs. I went to Sofia [and] we expressed what the state should show our citizens, so I don't see what the connection would be between one case and the reaction."

Milkov suggested on Bulgarian state television that Sofia would "review" joint projects with its North Macedonia and said "things cannot continue as they have been."

He added that "things have changed" between the neighbors.

Osmani rejected generalizations about a state's behavior based on a single incident.

He also said he thought the Bulgarian government's actions were related to elections there scheduled for early April -- the country's fifth in less than two years.

"The Republic of Bulgaria is entering the election process," Osmani said, adding that a political vacuum over the past two years has been an "aggravating circumstance" with respect to "sensitive issues."

He said "the season of provocateurs, thugs, and political profiteers is open and now everyone is in trouble."

The European Commission is currently reviewing all 33 of North Macedonia's accession chapters to determine what North Macedonia must achieve to prepare to become an EU member.

Any existing member state -- including Bulgaria -- can veto the opening and closing of such chapters in negotiations.

Bulgarian cultural clubs became a flashpoint for tensions between the countries as their numbers and visibility increased last year.

Other recent celebrations of historical figures have further stirred tensions.

A large contingent of Bulgarian nationals is expected to travel to North Macedonia to mark the 151st anniversary of the birth of revolutionary Goce Delcev on February 4.

Earlier this week, the Macedonian government instructed the Interior Ministry to take measures to keep the event safe.

U.S. Lists Russian Vagner Mercenary Group As 'Transnational Criminal Organization'

Vagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has been increasingly public in his efforts to take credit for battlefield gains. He has also been filmed recruiting Vagner fighters from Russian prisons, promising pardons in exchange for battlefield action.

The United States has designated the Vagner Group a "significant transnational criminal organization" and targeted individuals and entities within the Russian mercenary enterprise's global network in line with an executive order.

The U.S. Treasury said on January 26 that additional new sanctions in connection with the designation target six individuals and 12 entities, including a Chinese satellite-imagery provider and companies and people in the Central African Republic (CAR) where Vagner has active paid fighters, as well as in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.).

A Treasury statement described the listing by its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as part of an effort "to degrade the Russian Federation's capacity to wage war against Ukraine."

Thousands of Vagner troops are fighting in Ukraine, and Vagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has been increasingly public in his efforts to take credit for battlefield gains. He has also been filmed recruiting Vagner fighters from Russian prisons, promising pardons in exchange for battlefield action.

Ukrainian and Western officials have blamed Vagner troops for atrocities against civilians in Russia's invasion, which is now in its 12th month.

"As sanctions and export controls on Russia from our international coalition continue to bite, the Kremlin is desperately searching for arms and support -- including through the brutal [Vagner] Group -- to continue its unjust war against Ukraine," the statement quoted Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as saying.

The Treasury said Vagner personnel "have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali."

It noted that the OFAC in 2017 concluded that Vagner was complicit in actions that threatened Ukraine and was singled out in November by the State Department for its contribution to the now nearly year-old full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"As Russia’s military has struggled on the battlefield, Putin has resorted to relying on the [Vagner] Group to continue his war of choice," the Treasury said of the Ukrainian invasion effort.

The sanctions will also target the Joint Stock Company Terra Tech (Terra Tech) and China's Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute Co. LTD (Spacety China).

It also named an alleged Vagner front company called Officer’s Union for International Security (OUIS) and its director, along with a Russian Vagner employee it said was advising C.A.R.'s president, along with U.A.E.-based Kratol Aviation.

It said that "to further degrade Russia's war machine" it was sanctioning JSC Aviacon Zitotrans (Aviacon Zitotrans), unmanned aerial vehicle maker AO Ural Civil Aviation Factory (UCAF), and state-owned Joint Stock Company National Aviation Service Company (NASC), along with a handful of other entities.

Sakharov Center Says It's Being Evicted From Moscow Premises

A roundtable event at the Sakharov Center in Moscow in 2019

MOSCOW -- The Sakharov Center in Moscow, the human rights entity named after Nobel Prize-winning Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, says it is being evicted from its three premises in the Russian capital.

The Sakharov Center's staff said in a statement on January 26 that Moscow's Property Department had informed it two days earlier that it was canceling the group's lease agreements, including one to its main building, an exhibition hall, and one to Sakharov's former apartment.

The department explained the decision by saying that amendments to the controversial law on foreign agents, which took force on December 1, forbid organizations and individuals labeled as foreign agents from receiving any state support. All the premises were provided to the Sakharov Center free of charge.

"For a quarter of a century, the center has been a place that united thousands of Russian citizens who are not indifferent to the fate of the country, the values of freedom and human rights," the statement from the Sakharov Center said.

"This legal collision proves yet again that the state policy's idea is liquidation of the independent organizations that fight for social interests," it added.

The center was given its first premises by Moscow authorities in 1993.

The personal archive of Andrei Sakharov is currently kept in the center's apartment location on Moscow's Zemlyanoi Val Street.

Exhibits about the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, Polish journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, British cinema director Tom Stoppard, Lithuanian writer and dissident Tomas Venclova, and prominent Soviet and Russian dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky all were featured at one time or another.

The center was also a place where people bid last farewell to well-known Soviet dissidents and post-Soviet Kremlin critics such as Sergei Kovalyov, Boris Nemtsov, Yury Ryzhov, Valeria Novodvorskaya, and Yury Afanasyev.

The Sakharov Center "created the only historic exposition in the country that told the history of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime...to help society reevaluate the tragic pages of its history and realize that the repetition of political repressions, deportations, aggressive foreign policy is perilous for the country," the Sakharov Center statement said.

Death Sentence Protest Turns Violent Outside Iranian Prison As Security Agents Disperse Crowd

An undated photo of the Ghezel Hesar prison near the capital, Tehran

A gathering of the families of drug-related prisoners sentenced to death in Iran has turned violent as law enforcement and security officers tried to break up the demonstration in front of the Ghezel Hesar prison near the capital, Tehran.

The U.S.-based activist group HRANA reported that the families, holding placards with the slogan "No To Execution," demanded a reduction in the punishment of those accused of drug crimes and a halt to the carrying out of their death sentences. Many protest rallies have been held in Iran in recent years, but one opposing the death sentence is a rare act of defiance.

In videos of the January 25 protests posted on social media police officers can be seen dispersing the demonstrators, who identified themselves as relatives of those on death row, arresting some of them.

There were no details on whether anyone was injured or how many people were detained.

Iran has seen a sharp rise in the number of executions since September 2021 after Ebrahim Raisi, a former head of the judiciary, became president and former Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei took over the judiciary.

The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights Organization says the number of executions in Iran exceeded 500 last year, and officials have been pushing for harsh penalties, including the death sentence, for protesters at the center of unrest sweeping the country over the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for an alleged violation of the country's head scarf law.

On January 10, UN human rights chief Volker Turk accused Tehran of "weaponizing" the death penalty to quell dissent amid months of unrest over the death of Amini.

Four convicted protesters have already been executed, and others remain on death row after being handed death sentences.

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

France Demands Release Of Citizen In Iran As Health Worsens

Diplomats said Bernard Phelan, 64, a tourism consultant, recently ended a hunger strike that had hit his health, but he remains fragile.

France's Foreign Ministry demanded on January 26 the immediate release of Bernard Phelan, a Franco-Irish citizen detained in Iran whose health situation has worsened, with Paris saying he has been denied urgent medical care. Ties between France and Iran have deteriorated in recent months with Tehran detaining seven of its nationals in what Paris has said are arbitrary arrests that are equivalent to state hostage taking. Diplomats said Phelan, 64, a tourism consultant, recently ended a hunger strike that had hit his health, but he remains fragile. To read the original Reuters story, click here.

Britain Sounds Alarm On Russia-Based Hacking Group

(illustrative image)

A Russia-based hacking group named Cold River is behind an expansive and ongoing information-gathering campaign that has struck various targets in government, politics, academia, defense, journalism, and activism, Britain said. In an advisory, the National Cyber Security Center said Cold River impersonates people around its targets by using fake email addresses and social media profiles. "There is often some correspondence between attacker and target, sometimes over an extended period, as the attacker builds rapport," the advisory said. The advisory did not directly attribute the digital attacks to the Russian government. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

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