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Al-Maliki Calls For Parliament To Approve U.S.-Iraq Security Pact

Nuri al-Maliki
Nuri al-Maliki
(RFE/RL) -- Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has gone on national television to assure the Iraqi people that the terms of a newly signed security pact with the United States will not be changed under any circumstances.

The long-awaited accord was signed on November 17 by the Iraqi government and the United States. But it still needs to be approved by the parliament in Iraq.

Speaking on November 18, al-Maliki described the accord as an agreement that requires Washington to withdraw its forces from Iraq by the start of 2011, eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

"The pact stipulates that U.S. troops are to withdraw from cities and towns by June 30, 2009. And it is a deadline that will not be extended," he said in his first public remarks on the issue in weeks. "It also says that [U.S. troops] should withdraw from Iraqi land, water, and air space by January 1, 2011, which is a deadline that will not be extended."

He denounced domestic critics of the pact, saying opponents of the deal want the Americans to stay just so they can agitate against them.

No Surprises

Al-Maliki stressed that there are no surprises in the accord that would allow U.S. troops to be based permanently in Iraq or use Iraq as a launching point against neighboring countries like Iran or Syria.

"I assure you that there are no secret items or appendices in the pact," he said. "There will be no permanent military bases on Iraqi land, which will never be a passageway or a base for launching an assault against any country."

Al-Maliki also sought to assure Iraqis that the accord would prevent the United States from launching major counterinsurgency operations in Iraq unless the operations are coordinated with Baghdad.

"The pact also implies that there will be no military operations without the agreement of the Iraqi government and full coordination with it, and that there will be no arrests without an Iraqi arrest warrant and without coordination with the Iraqi government," he said.

In Washington, senior U.S. military officials say the Department of Defense is developing plans for the changes that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama wants in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Troops Out Quickly

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that includes plans to get troops quickly out of Iraq so that they can be transferred to Afghanistan to battle Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.

Mullen, once a critic of Obama's plan to pull combat forces from Iraq within 16 months, says the Pentagon has already identified and practiced travel routes out of Iraq along exit routes through Turkey and Jordan.

The governments in those two bordering countries are U.S. allies, and Mullen said they support the withdrawal planning effort.

Mullen acknowledges that troops in the northern city of Mosul are still in a tough fight. But he says commanders are confident they will be able to turn over control of the city Iraqi security forces by next June.

Mullen also says that giving control of Baghdad to Iraqi security forces will be challenging, but doable.

Violence has plunged in the capital city since surge operations were launched in Iraq last year. But there are still frequent, dramatic attacks that often target Iraqi citizens.

Mullen says he still must address logistical challenges in order to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq. He notes that there is a huge amount of equipment and infrastructure now under the U.S. flag in Iraq. He says military planners are looking at what would move and how soon it can be done.

with agency reports

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Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Missing For Three Days, Life 'At Risk,' Supporters Say

On December 8, Aleksei Navalny was not connected by video link to a court hearing, with prison officials citing technical problems. (file photo)
On December 8, Aleksei Navalny was not connected by video link to a court hearing, with prison officials citing technical problems. (file photo)

Supporters of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny say they have had no contact with him for three days.

Maria Pevchikh, chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on December 8 that "Navalny is missing for three days now."

"Navalny’s life is at great risk," she wrote. "He is in complete isolation now."

In a post on Instagram on December 8, Ruslan Shaveddinov, also with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, wrote that the last information about Navalny was that he had fallen ill in his cell after being subjected to harsh conditions, including limited food, a lack of ventilation, and minimal exercise time.

"Navalny's only protection is publicity," Shaveddinov wrote.

Navalny associate Kira Yarmysh wrote on X on December 8 that the opposition leader's lawyers had waited outside the prison all day without being granted permission to visit their client.

She said his allies had not received any letters from him for more than a week, which she said was unusual.

"Our letters to him also have not been delivered," she wrote.

On December 8, Navalny was not connected by video link to a court hearing, with prison officials citing technical problems.

On December 7, Navalny's supporters launched a campaign to oppose President Vladimir Putin's bid to secure a fifth presidential term in Russia's March 2024 election. Navalny has urged Russians to vote against Putin in the election. Putin announced on December 8 that he will seek another term.

Navalny is serving a 19-year prison term after being convicted of creating an "extremist" organization, charges that are widely believed to be retribution for his political activity. In September, he was transferred to a strict-regime cell after being deemed "incorrigible."

He has been placed in solitary confinement more than 20 times since he began his prison term in February 2021.

He has been recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and as a political prisoner by the Memorial human rights group.

Iran Blocks Amini's Family From Traveling To Accept EU Award

Mahsa Amini's father, Amjad, prepares for her funeral ceremony in September 2022.
Mahsa Amini's father, Amjad, prepares for her funeral ceremony in September 2022.

Authorities in Iran have prevented relatives of Mahsa Amini, whose September 2022 death in custody sparked nationwide anti-government protests, from leaving the country to accept the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize.

Amini's mother, father, and brother were told on December 8 at Tehran's Iman Khomeini Airport that they had been barred from travelling abroad.

Their passports were confiscated, a source who asked not to be identified told Radio Farda.

The family's lawyer, Saleh Nikhbakht, who was accompanying them, was apparently allowed to travel.

The European Parliament on October 19 awarded the 2023 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Amini and the Women, Life, Freedom movement that was sparked by her death.

"The European Parliament proudly stands with the brave and defiant who continue to fight for equality, dignity, and freedom in Iran," European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said at the time, adding that they award "remembers their struggle and continues to honor all those who have paid the ultimate price for liberty."

The prize, which was set up in 1980 to honor individuals and organizations promoting human rights and basic freedoms, includes a 50,000-euro ($54,000) prize. It will be presented in Strasbourg on December 13.

Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, died in custody on September 16, 2022, shortly after being detained by the so-called morality police for allegedly violating the country's strict Islamic dress code. Supporters say she was subjected to physical abuse while in custody.

The Iranian authorities launched a brutal crackdown against mass demonstrations that were sparked by Amini's death and which became one of the most daunting challenges faced by the Islamist government since Iran's 1979 revolution.

In October 2022, Amini's family reported receiving death threats aimed at preventing them from participating in the peaceful protests.

Ukrainian Parliament Approves Three Bills Seen As Key To Starting EU Accession Talks

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed all three bils into law after approval in the Verkhovna Rada. (file photo)
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed all three bils into law after approval in the Verkhovna Rada. (file photo)

The Ukrainian parliament on December 8 approved three bills necessary to start European Union accession talks. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed all three, describing them as key to Ukraine's application to join the 27-member bloc. "Today, the Ukrainian parliament passed the required legislation in accordance with the European Commission's recommendations on anti-corruption and national minorities," Zelenskiy said on X, formerly Twitter. "We anticipate that EU leaders will appropriately recognize Ukraine's efforts, and that the EU will follow through on its related promises." An EU summit next week is to consider whether to start membership negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.


Kyiv Expects Delivery Of F-16s 'Soon' As Further U.S. Aid Remains Stalled In Congress

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sit in a F-16 fighter jet in the hangar of the Skrydstrup Airbase in Vojens, northern Denmark, on August 20.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen sit in a F-16 fighter jet in the hangar of the Skrydstrup Airbase in Vojens, northern Denmark, on August 20.

Ukraine's defense minister has said his country expects to take delivery of advanced F-16 fighter jets "soon," as the Biden administration warned the U.S. Congress that failure to support Ukraine could mean the United States will have to pay a high price in "national treasure and in American blood" in the future.

In comments on December 8, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov stressed that preparations to receive the advanced U.S.-made fighters were well under way and that "we will receive them soon."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Kyiv has repeatedly urged its allies to provide the aircraft to counter Russia's air supremacy in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces.

"In the short term, we will receive the F-16s," Umerov said. "In the medium term, we have also made more orders for our defense forces. I mean the years 2027 to 2030."

In October, Denmark said it would provide its first batch of F-16s to Ukraine "in March or April" of 2024.

In Washington on December 8, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby urged Republican lawmakers to authorize additional military aid for Ukraine, saying the ongoing controversy over the issue was "a great gift" to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"If you think the cost of supporting Ukraine is high now, think high it's going to be in national treasure and in American blood if we have to start acting on our Article 5 commitments," he said, referring to the part of the NATO Charter that obligates allies to come to one another's defense.

"If [Putin] gets Ukraine, he gets right up against the doorstep of NATO," Kirby said. "Helping [Ukraine] win this war is very much in our national security interest and in the national security interest of all our allies in Europe."

Republican lawmakers in the United States have been refusing to proceed with some $60 billion in increased aid for Ukraine unless Democrats agree to increased immigration restrictions on the country's southern border.

Speaking in Berlin on December 9, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government will continue supporting Ukraine despite its current budget woes.

Putin "should not and must not" expect Germany to reduce aid to Ukraine, Scholz said.

Germany is the second-largest supplier of military aid to Kyiv, after the United States, providing main battle tanks, heavy artillery, and air-defense systems.

In an interview with the BBC on December 9, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska warned of the danger of "Ukraine fatigue," saying her country faced "mortal danger" if the West cut back on support.

"We really need the help," Zelenska said. "In simple words, we cannot get tired of this situation, because if we do, we die. And if the world gets tired, they will simply let us die."

In its daily briefing on December 9, the Ukrainian General Staff reported some 95 "combat clashes" along the front line over the previous 24 hours. In addition, officials said there had been 28 missile attacks and 27 air strikes.

Fighting was heaviest in the Donetsk region around Avdiyivka. Russian forces have been attempting for several weeks to encircle the industrial city, which has become the latest symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

With reporting by dpa

Bulgarian Parliament Approves Additional Surplus Military Aid To Ukraine

The vote was 147-55 with seven abstentions. (file photo)
The vote was 147-55 with seven abstentions. (file photo)

The Bulgarian parliament on December 8 voted overwhelmingly to provide surplus air-defense missiles to Ukraine. The vote was 147-55 with seven abstentions. A majority of lawmakers also rejected President Rumen Radev's veto of plans to send 100 surplus armored personnel carriers to Ukraine. Radev said on December 4 that lawmakers needed to assess if the vehicles were expendable and sent the plan back to parliament for a vote. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was grateful for the parliament's decisions, which "strengthen our Europe and the defense of freedom." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.

Former Kazakh President's Son-In-Law Resigns As Chairman of KazEnergy Association

Timur Kulibaev
Timur Kulibaev

Kazakhstan's KazEnergy group -- an association of almost 60 oil and gas companies -- said on December 8 that former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, has resigned as chairman of the group after leading it since it was established in 2005.

A KazEnergy statement at its website said the group is now managed by Maghzum Myrzaghaliev, who previously served as energy minister, adviser to President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and head of the board of the oil company Kazmunaigaz.

Kulibaev, one of the richest people in the world, is married to Nazarbaev’s middle daughter, Dinara, with whom he owns the largest bank in Kazakhstan and assets in several other businesses. Forbes magazine estimates their combined wealth to be more than $8 billion.

Kulibaev, 57, had already left other prominent executive positions since unprecedented anti-government protests turned to mass unrest across the oil-rich Central Asian nation, leaving at least 238 people dead.

This includes his departure in February last year from the board of directors of Russia's Gazprom energy giant after serving for more than 10 years and his departure in January from the post of chairman of Kazakhstan's National Chamber of Entrepreneurs, Atameken.

The departures follow a pattern of purges of relatives of Nazarbaev, 83, who ruled Kazakhstan for almost 30 years but who was widely believed to have remained in control behind the scenes after handing power to Toqaev in 2019. However, after deadly unrest in 2022, Nazarbaev and his inner circle lost influence in the country.

Two other sons-in-law of Nazarbaev, Qairat Sharipbaev and Dimash Dosanov, were pushed out of top jobs at major state energy companies, QazaqGaz and KazTransOil, respectively, at the time.

Several other Nazarbaev relatives also lost top positions in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

In September, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office said it had launched a probe against Nazarbaev's nephew, Samat Abish, on a charge of abuse of office while serving as the first deputy chairman of the Committee of National Security (KNB), the post he was dismissed from after the deadly mass unrest.

In September 2022, Nazarbaev's once-powerful nephew Qairat Satybaldy was sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges.

The protests in January 2022 were violently dispersed by police and military personnel, including troops of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization that Toqaev invited into the country claiming that "20,000 extremists who were trained in terrorist camps abroad" attacked Almaty.

The authorities have provided no evidence proving Toqaev’s claim about foreign terrorists.

Facing An Uncertain Future, Afghan Girls Finishing Sixth Grade Leave School In Tears

The ultra-fundamentalist Islamist Taliban rulers have since banned girls from attending school from grade seven onward.
The ultra-fundamentalist Islamist Taliban rulers have since banned girls from attending school from grade seven onward.

Hundreds of thousands of sixth-grade girls in Afghanistan attended the last day of the school year, many with tears in their eyes as they face an uncertain future because of Taliban policies that forbid them from further schooling and restrict their basic human rights.

"These last few days of our studies are very stressful and difficult,” Kainat, a sixth-grader in Kabul, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi on December 8, the last day of the current school year before the winter break. "We all cried because none of us will be able to study further. Our teachers tried to console us by saying that school doors might reopen for us some day.”

But for Kainat and the rest of the war-torn country's females, that day may not come for some time.

Despite pledges of a less-authoritarian rule than in their previous time in power, Taliban militants have sharply restricted the rights and freedoms of Afghan girls and women since taking over the government as international troops withdrew following two decades of intervention.

The ultra-fundamentalist Islamist Taliban rulers have since banned girls from attending school from grade seven onward. They have severely curtailed their employment prospects, mobility, and any public role in society, defying international pressure, domestic protests, and efforts to persuade the militants from rescinding their brutal policies.

The ban on education was prompted by the religious views of the Taliban Chief Justice Abdul Hakim Haqqani and endorsed by the group's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.

Fatima Siddiq, a primary school teacher in Kabul, told Radio Azadi that the hopelessness felt by girls as they leave the school is haunting.

“I am also a mother of three daughters who will no longer be able to continue their education,” she said. “How is it possible that the [Taliban] government is unable to fulfill its promise of reopening schools?”

The Taliban's policies are deeply unpopular among most Afghans. Even though dissent is often met with a harsh response by authorities, some people are still willing to criticize the government because the policies are seen as destructive.

In the Muslim nation of some 40 million people, activists and rights advocates accuse the Taliban of implementing "gender apartheid" by denying women education, work, freedom of movement, and deciding how they can appear in public.

But it's not only females who are bearing the brunt of the government's policies.

In a new report released on December 6, the global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that education for boys in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule is at risk, too.

The report, titled Schools Are Failing Boys Too, says curriculum changes, the firing of female teachers, corporal punishment, and other practices risk their education over the longer term as well.

Sahar Fetrat, a women’s rights researcher at HRW and the author of the report, says the Taliban has caused “irreversible damage” to the education of both Afghan boys and girls.

“By harming the whole school system in the country, they risk creating a lost generation deprived of a quality education,” she said.

U.S. Imposes Sanctions On Dozens Of People Over Rights Abuses In Nine Countries

The United States has imposed sanctions on dozens of people in several countries, including in Afghanistan, China, and Iran, cracking down on human rights abuses ahead of Human Rights Day on December 10. The U.S. Treasury Department in a statement on December 8 said it had imposed sanctions on 20 people over human rights abuses in nine countries. The actions include sanctions on members of the Taliban over their links to the repression of women and girls and on two Iranian intelligence officials who allegedly recruited people for operations in the United States.

Belarusian Court Labels RFE/RL Social Media Accounts 'Extremist'

A court in the southeastern Belarusian city of Homel on December 7 labeled the Telegram, YouTube, X, and TikTok accounts of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda, as "extremist." Earlier, Belarusian authorities added to the list of extremists Svaboda's logo, its accounts on the Facebook, Instagram, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki social networks, as well as the TikTok accounts of RFE/RL's Russian and Ukrainian services. Svaboda's website has been blocked in Belarus since August 2020 when unprecedented protests erupted over the official results of the presidential election that announced authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka the winner. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.


IOC Approves Participation Of Russian, Belarusian Athletes As Neutrals

Russians and Belarusians who qualify in their sport for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris can take part as neutrals, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on December 8.

The Executive Board of the IOC said in a statement that “Individual Neutral Athletes (AINs) who have qualified through the existing qualification systems of the International Federations (IFs) on the field of play will be declared eligible to compete at the Olympic Games Paris 2024."

The board said it took into consideration a number of factors, including "the view of the overwhelming majority of athletes not to punish fellow athletes for the actions of their government."

The individual neutral athlete designation means athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport will be allowed to compete but will not be allowed to display flags or emblems and their anthems will not be played during the event.

The IOC also said athletes who actively support the war in Ukraine and those contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military are ineligible.

In addition, no teams from the two countries will be allowed, and no Russian or Belarusian government or state official will be invited to or accredited for Paris 2024.

Russia's Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin called the decision discriminatory and unacceptable.

"Participation in the Olympics is an athlete’s dream," Russia's Sports Minister Matytsin was quoted as saying by TASS. "But the conditions are discriminatory and go against the principles of sports. By doing so, they harm the Olympic Games themselves, and not Russian sports. The approach is absolutely unacceptable."

Despite the IOC decision, World Athletics remains firm in its decision to block Russians and Belarusians from competitions.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said at a press conference in Paris that there would be no Russians or Belarusians competing as neutrals in track-and-field events at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

"You may well see some neutral athletes from Russia and Belarus in Paris, it just won't be in athletics," Coe said.

World Athletics said earlier in a statement that all athletes, support personnel, and officials from Russia and Belarus remain barred from all World Athletics events.

"We will continue to monitor the situation, but unless there is a major change in circumstances between now and the Olympic Games, this exclusion will apply to Paris 2024,” the statement said.

The statement noted that it is the responsibility of the international federations to decide which athletes within their sport are eligible to compete.

The organizers of the Paris Olympics, which are to open in July, said they took note of the IOC's decision, issuing a statement saying that "qualification for the Olympic Games Paris 2024...falls under the responsibility of the IOC and the International Federations.

"Paris 2024’s responsibility is to host athletes who have qualified for the games under the best possible conditions, regardless of their nationality," the statement, which expressed "solidarity" with Ukraine, said.

Ukraine has opposed the presence of Russian competitors, even as neutrals, at the Paris Olympics.

Out of 4,600 athletes globally who have qualified for the Paris Olympics so far, eight are Russians and three hold Belarusian passports, the IOC statement said, adding that more than 60 Ukrainians have qualified.

With reporting by Reuters

Lithuania Investigates Granting Of Citizenship To Relatives Of Russian Tycoon Abramovich

Roman Abramovich
Roman Abramovich

Lithuania's Interior Ministry said on December 7 that a commission has been established to investigate how relatives of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich were able to obtain citizenship in the Baltic nation. The Center for Corruption and Organized Crime Research (OCCRP) and its partner in Lithuania, Siena, reported this week that Abramovich's 30-year-old son, Arkady, and 31-year-old daughter, Anna, are holders of Lithuanian passports, which are used to evade Western sanctions. In January, The Guardian wrote that Roman Abramovich transferred ownership of $4 billion in trusts to his seven children three weeks before Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Iranian Opposition Figure Says Student Crackdown 'Unprecedented,' But Will Fail

Zahra Rahnavard (file photo)
Zahra Rahnavard (file photo)

Prominent Iranian opposition figure Zahra Rahnavard says the government crackdown on students angry over a lack of freedoms and enforcement of rules such as a dress code is "unprecedented" but ultimately will fail to stifle the dissent.

Rahnavard, who has been under house arrest for over 13 years along with her husband, Mir Hossein Musavi, made the comments in a message timed to coincide with Student Day in Iran, marked on December 7. The text was published on the Kalameh news website, a platform known for its opposition to the Iranian regime.

"No government in Iran has been able to stop the student movement from influencing the fate of the nation," she wrote.

"On the contrary, it has been academics who, with knowledge, culture, and art, development and modernity, along with defending justice, freedom, and the independence of Iran, have had the most impact in the fear of repressive governments," she added.

She also criticized the government's recent actions against university students and faculty, detailing incidents of violence, harassment, and repression on university campuses. These actions, according to Rahnavard, have led to a tarnished international reputation for the Iranian government.

Universities and students have long been at the forefront of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran. In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily newspaper, prompting a brutal raid on the dorms of Tehran University that left one student dead.

Over the years, the authorities have arrested student activists and leaders, sentencing them to prison and banning them from studying.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last year while being detained for an alleged head-scarf violation in September last year has once again made campuses a hotbed of dissent.

The activist HRANA news agency says at least 700 university students have been arrested during the nationwide protests sparked by Amini's death in September 2022.

Rahnavard was previously a professor at Alzahra University and says she "has been a victim and deprived of a university presence for over 14 years."

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

Russia Adds U.S. Journalist Gessen To Its Wanted List

Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen

Russia's Interior Ministry has added Russian-American journalist, writer, and outspoken Kremlin critic Masha Gessen to its wanted list. Gessen's name appeared on the ministry's list on December 8 without specifying what the journalist is wanted for. Media reports said earlier that a probe against Gessen was launched in late August on a charge of distributing "fake" information about Russia's armed forces. The charge stemmed from Gessen's interview with Russian journalist Yury Dud about alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians in Ukraine, the reports said. Gessen led RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2012-13. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Azerbaijan Tipped To Host COP29 Climate Talks, Says Russia Backs It

The COP28 climate summit in Dubai
The COP28 climate summit in Dubai

Azerbaijan is tipped to host next year's UN climate summit after striking a deal with longtime adversary Armenia over its bid. Diplomatic sources told Reuters the Azerbaijani bid looked set to win support from other nations, though the issue is still being negotiated at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai. The decision about who will take over from current COP28 host, the U.A.E., has been in an unprecedented geopolitical deadlock after Russia said it would veto any EU country's bid. Azerbaijan confirmed on December 7 that it had struck a deal with Armenia that allows Baku to bid to host the talks.

Russian Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin Placed In Stricter Regime Unit At Penal Colony

Ilya Yashin
Ilya Yashin

Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who is serving an 8 1/2-year prison term for his criticism of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, has been placed in a stricter regime unit in his penal colony after serving five days in solitary confinement, his Telegram channel said on December 8. Yashin is not allowed to use a phone to call his relatives now; parcels and visitations are also restricted. Yashin said earlier that he was under pressure after he challenged the Kremlin in video testimony last week at a court hearing that fined him for failing to follow so-called "foreign agent" requirements. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Turkmen Activist Believed To Be Missing In Russia

Turkmen activist Malikberdi Allamyradov
Turkmen activist Malikberdi Allamyradov

Independent websites monitoring developments in Turkmenistan quoted friends and colleagues of noted Turkmen opposition activist Malikberdi Allamyradov as saying that he has been missing since December 4, adding that traces of blood and a possible struggle were discovered in his residence, while the wires to security cameras on the premises were cut. Allamyradov used to study at a university in Russia's Republic of Kalmykia. Fearing for his safety, he moved to the Moscow region. Last year, after he held a single-person picket in Moscow criticizing the Turkmen authorities, Russian police detained him and he barely escaped deportation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, click here.

Kazakhstan In Takeover Of ArcelorMittal Subsidiary Following Deadly Coal Mine

Kazakh Industry Minister Qanat Sharlapaev (file photo)
Kazakh Industry Minister Qanat Sharlapaev (file photo)

Kazakh Industry Minister Qanat Sharlapaev said on December 7 that the Central Asian nation's government had bought ArcelorMittal's subsidiary for $286 million following a coal mine accident in the central region of Qaraghandy in October that killed 46 miners. In 2006, two accidents at mines under ArcelorMittal’s control killed 51 people. ArcelorMittal, led by the Luxembourg-based Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal, had controlled coal mines in the Qaraghandy region for 30 years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Germany Delivers Fresh Military Aid Package To Ukraine

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (right) and Ukraine's Defense Minister Rustem Umerov in Kyiv on November 21.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (right) and Ukraine's Defense Minister Rustem Umerov in Kyiv on November 21.

Germany has delivered a new package of military aid to Ukraine that includes shells, drones, and vehicles, the government in Berlin said in a statement. It said the new package included 10 Vector reconnaissance drones, 1,750 artillery shells, 70 grenade launchers, six patrol cars, and eight trucks, as well as 100,000 military first-aid kits. Germany is second only to the United States in terms of military aid provided to Kyiv. Last month, Germany pledged a further 1.3 billion euros ($1.42 billion) in military aid for Ukraine during a visit to Kyiv by Defense Minister Boris Pistorius. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Police In Belarus Detain Two Journalists Amid Crackdown

Police detained the chief editor of the Ranak television channel, Yulia Dauletava, and correspondent Lyudmila Andenka on extremism charges.
Police detained the chief editor of the Ranak television channel, Yulia Dauletava, and correspondent Lyudmila Andenka on extremism charges.

Police in the southeastern Belarusian city of Svetlahorsk on December 8 detained the chief editor of the Ranak television channel, Yulia Dauletava, and correspondent Lyudmila Andenka on extremism charges as a crackdown on independent journalists and democratic institutions continues. In September, the Interior Ministry labeled Ranak as an "extremist group." Also on December 8, the British government added 17 Belarusian prosecutors, judges, and investigators to its sanctions list for their roles in a crackdown on dissent and independent media. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.

Ninety-Six Kyrgyz Women, Children Repatriated From Syria

Kyrgyz authorities said in 2018 that 850 Kyrgyz nationals had joined terrorist organizations in Syria in Iraq. (file photo)
Kyrgyz authorities said in 2018 that 850 Kyrgyz nationals had joined terrorist organizations in Syria in Iraq. (file photo)

The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said on December 8 that 96 Kyrgyz citizens, including 31 women and 65 children, returned to Bishkek from Syria with assistance of international organizations. Earlier in October, 21 Kyrgyz women and 62 children return to the Central Asian nation through a special program. Before that, two repatriation missions had been organized since January 2023, during which 49 and 105 children returned to Bishkek. Kyrgyz authorities said in 2018 that 850 Kyrgyz nationals, including about 140 women, had joined terrorist organizations in Syria in Iraq, of whom 150 were killed there. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Kyrgyz Activist Who Protested National Flag's Change Detained

Kyrgyz activist Aftandil Jorobekov (file photo)
Kyrgyz activist Aftandil Jorobekov (file photo)

Kyrgyz activist Aftandil Jorobekov, who openly protested against amending Kyrgyzstan's national flag, has been detained after being charged with calling for mass disorder and disobeying the authorities' legal requirements, his lawyer told RFE/RL late on December 7. The bill that was approved by lawmakers in its first reading last week says that the wavy yellow sunrays on a red field on the current flag give the impression of a sunflower. The Kyrgyz word for sunflower is kunkarama, which also has a second meaning -- "dependent." The bill would allow the "straightening" of the sunrays to make it look more like a sun. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Kazakh Court Upholds Decision To Fine RFE/RL For 'Distribution of False Information'

The Almaty City Court on December 7 rejected an appeal by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, locally known as Radio Azattyq, against a lower court decision last month to fine the media outlet 103,500 tenges ($220) for "violating a law on the distribution of 'false information.'" The charge was based on a complaint filed by Alisher Turabaev from the southern city of Shymkent, who said Azattyq "wrongfully" described the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as Russian-led in one of its reports. The media outlet rejects the charge. The law, enacted this year, has been called “a soft censorship tool” by rights defenders. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Finland Refuses Kyiv Request To Extradite Russian Ultranationalist Detained In Helsinki

Russian ultranationalist Yan Petrovsky (file photo)
Russian ultranationalist Yan Petrovsky (file photo)

Finnish media reports on December 8 said the country's Supreme Court refused to extradite to Ukraine Yan Petrovsky, a Russian ultranationalist and former commander of the Rusich saboteur group, which fights alongside Russia's armed forces against Kyiv. According to the reports, the court justified the ruling by noting the poor conditions in Ukrainian penitentiaries, adding that Petrovsky may face humiliation and torture while in Ukrainian custody. Petrovsky is wanted in Ukraine on suspicion of committing war crimes in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014-2015. He was arrested in Helsinki on Kyiv's request in August. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North Realities, click here.


Putin Says 'I Will Run' When Asked About Russia's Presidential Election In March

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Khashegulkov during a ceremony to present Gold Star medals to service members in Moscow on December 8.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Khashegulkov during a ceremony to present Gold Star medals to service members in Moscow on December 8.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will run again for office in Russia's March presidential election in which he is expected to easily win a new six-year term and extend the longest rule of a Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Putin, 71, made the long-anticipated announcement on December 8 following a ceremony in the Kremlin, where he awarded soldiers who fought in the war in Ukraine with Russia's highest military honor, the Hero of Russia Gold Star.

The setting -- St. George Hall, which the president said, "embodies the greatness of Russia's military glory" -- with uniformed soldiers present may indicate he will campaign as a war leader, Brian Taylor, a political science professor and Russia expert at Syracuse University in New York, told RFE/RL.

"It sort of puts the war front and center as part of his motive for seeking another term. The fact that they chose to do this makes the connection to the war much more explicit," he said.

Taylor said there had been an expectation that Putin would try to put the war in the background during the campaign and play the role of the "benevolent czar," dishing out pension and other benefit increases ahead of the vote.

But the Kremlin may have decided it cannot totally ignore the war as part the campaign, "so they put it out there very directly in the way it was announced today," Taylor said.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine, now in its 22nd month, has been a disaster for Russia, taking the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers, upending the country's economy, and ruining relations with the West. Putin has outlawed criticism of the war and the armed forces to crush any opposition.

Putin's announcement was prompted by Artyom Zhoga, the speaker of a de facto regional parliament in Ukraine's Russian-occupied Donetsk region, who asked the Russian leader to run in the elections slated for March 17, claiming to be speaking for "all the people" in the Donbas.

"I won't hide it. [I have had] different thoughts at different times," Putin told Zhoga and others gathered around him in an elaborate room inside the Kremlin. "But you are right. Now is such a time when it is necessary to make a decision. I will run for president."

The Russian leader's television appearances are highly choreographed and the announcement was no exception.

"Everyone knew this was coming and the only questions were when and how exactly the announcement would be made," Taylor told RFE/RL.

"Usually, things like this don’t happen by accident in Russian politics," he said.

Aside from Zhoga, Putin was surrounded by a teacher, doctor, soldier, and a miner -- the heart of his constituency -- when he made the comment. They all requested he run, saying they were "together with Putin."

Putin's statement came one day after Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, set the date for the election. The Central Election Commission (TsIK) later announced that the vote will last for three days -- from March 15 to March 17.

Russian elections are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and are neither free nor fair but are viewed by the government as necessary to convey a sense of legitimacy. They are mangled by the exclusion of opposition candidates, voter intimidation, ballot stuffing, and other means of manipulation.

Last month, Putin signed into law a bill on amendments to the law on presidential elections which restricts coverage of the poll, while also giving the TsIK the right to change the election procedure in territories where martial law has been introduced.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby mocked Putin's announcement, suggesting that the result was unlikely to be in doubt.

"Well, that's going to be one humdinger of a horse race, isn't it?" Kirby told reporters when asked about Putin's bid to extend his grip on power. "That's all I've got to say on that."

Putin became eligible to take part in Russia's next two presidential elections after he rammed through constitutional changes in 2020 that paved the way for him remaining in office until 2036.

Putin has been prime minister or president since 1999, slashing democratic norms and freedoms with every new term. If he serves another full term, he would surpass the nearly 30-year reign of Stalin and become Russia's longest-serving leader since Catherine the Great (1762-1796).

Jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and his supporters have urged Russia's 110 million eligible voters to cast ballots for "any other candidate" even though "the final results will be rigged."

"[Putin] will destroy Russia. He has to leave," Navalny wrote in a blog post.

No serious challenger is expected to emerge as two of the country's best-known opposition voices, Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza, are both in prison serving lengthy sentences that they and their supporters say are politically motivated.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, 79, a perennial candidate who consistently loses, has announced his intention to run. So, too, has former State Duma Deputy Boris Nadezhdin, 60; a former military leader of Kremlin-backed separatists in Donetsk, Igor Strelkov (Girkin), 52; and Yekaterina Duntsova, 40, a jailed journalist from Rzhev.

Candidates must meet certain criteria and can easily be disqualified by the Kremlin-controlled TsIK for any number of reasons.

Taylor said Putin likely won't allow a challenger who is much younger than himself because "the contrast will be too stark."

The Kremlin is seeking to ensure Putin wins with more than 80 percent of the vote, the online news outlets Meduza and Verstka have reported. Putin won with 77 percent of the vote in 2018, the highest of his four victories.

Taylor, who called the election results a "foregone conclusion," said the Kremlin faces a struggle in trying to achieve both a high voter turnout and a landslide victory for Putin.

The higher the turnout, the more manipulation that will likely be required.

"They want to make it look like it is an election. They want to make it look like Putin’s support is completely genuine and overwhelming. Those things work at cross purposes. If they want an overwhelming response, then it becomes less genuine. So that is the dance they have to do over the next three months," he said.

The election will also be held in what Russia calls its new territories: four regions of Ukraine that Moscow claims to have annexed last year after launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

While Russia claims the regions -- Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhya -- it only partially controls them, and Kyiv has pledged to retake the annexed territories.

With reporting by Todd Prince, TASS, Interfax, SOTA, and RIA Novosti

Another Plane Forced Into Emergency Landing In Siberia Due To Engine Malfunction

A plane taxis on the runway at Novosibirsk airport. (file photo)
A plane taxis on the runway at Novosibirsk airport. (file photo)

A plane urgently landed in Siberia due to an engine malfunction on December 8, the second such incident in the last 24 hours, amid severe sanctions faced by Russia's aviation sector imposed by the West over Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. A Boeing 737 belonging to the S7 air company heading from Novosibirsk to Moscow was forced to land shortly after taking off, according to the Eastern Interregional Investigation Department for Transport. None of the 176 passengers abroad was injured. A day earlier, a Tu-204 cargo plane landed in the Siberian region of Buryatia due to an engine malfunction. No casualties were reported. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

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