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Iraq's Sadr In Turkey For Talks With Erdogan

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr
ANKARA (Reuters) -- Influential Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on May 1 to discuss the political process in his country, government officials said.

Sadr is rarely seen in public and was believed to have been in Iran prior to the visit.

Ties have been strained between Ankara and Baghdad over Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq from where they stage attacks into Turkey.

President Abdullah Gul was the first Turkish head of state to visit Iraqi in 33 years in March in an effort to improve relations.

"The political process is increasingly normalised in Iraq.... He is here for political consultations with the Turkish authorities on these matters," a Foreign Ministry official told Reuters.

Diplomats and analysts say Turkey, like the United States, is concerned by Shi'ite Iran's growing influence over Iraq.

An anti-American firebrand, Sadr has a huge following among Iraq's Shi'ite poor, and his allies won enough seats in the January 31 polls for Iraq's provincial councils to remain a political player. Shi'ites are the majority Muslim sect in Iraq.

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U.S. Sees China Posing Greater Challenge To World Order Than Russia

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has laid out the Biden administration’s China policy, which aims to lead the countries now jointly opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into a broader coalition to counter what Washington sees as a more serious threat posed by Beijing.

In a speech in Washington on May 26, Blinken said that, while the U.S. sees Russia's war in Ukraine as the most immediate threat to international stability, the Biden administration believes China poses a greater danger.

“Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order -- and that is the one posed by the People’s Republic of China,” Blinken said.

He made the case that the global response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine can serve as a template for dealing with China's efforts to shape a new and unpredictable world order.

China has benefited greatly from the existing international order based on rules and institutions that have guided relations since the end of World War II, but it is now trying to subvert it under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, Blinken said.

“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order -- and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it," he said.

It is undermining rather than reinforcing and revitalizing the laws, agreements, principles, and institutions that enabled its success, according to the top U.S. diplomat.

Blinken laid out a three-pillar approach for the administration to marshal its resources and allies to push back on China's assertiveness around the world.

Investment in domestic U.S. infrastructure and technology along with a stepped-up diplomatic outreach to potentially vulnerable countries are among the key elements of the policy, Blinken said.

He made clear that the U.S. is not seeking to change China's political system, but will "shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open and inclusive international system.”

There was no immediate reaction to the speech from the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Blinken emphasized that China, the No. 2 world economy after the U.S., plays a crucial role in global economics and in solutions to problems such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

This means that the United States and China have no choice but to deal with each other, making it "one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any that we have in the world today."

The speech followed President Joe Biden’s visits to South Korea and Japan during which Biden raised eyebrows when he said that the United States would act militarily to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of an invasion by China.

Blinken restated that Washington has not changed its “One China” policy, which recognizes Beijing but allows for unofficial links with and arms sales to Taipei.

“We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side," he said, adding that “we do not support Taiwan independence.”

With reporting by AP

U.S. Envoy TO OSCE Condemns 'Barbarity' Of Russia's War In Ukraine

U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter (file photo)

The U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has condemned the “sheer barbarity, sadistic cruelty, and lawlessness” of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Ambassador Michael Carpenter also warned in a speech to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on May 26 against allowing Russia to achieve “success” in Ukraine.

If it did, he said there would be "more horrific reports from filtration camps, more forcibly displaced people, more summary executions, more torture, more rape, and more looting. There would be many more damaged or destroyed cultural objects, hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings. More death and destruction,” Carpenter said, according to a copy of his speech posted on the U.S. mission’s website.

Carpenter called on OSCE member countries to provide Ukraine with “the support it needs right now to defend itself against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s revanchist delusions.”

The U.S. envoy scathingly criticized Russia for conducting a “scorched earth campaign” that he said was not only an attack on Ukraine, but also an attack on the principles of the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and the Geneva Conventions, and “on the most basic norms of human decency.”

Carpenter said that, while Russia will be able to object to his statement, many people who have suffered in Ukraine at the hands of Russian troops are not able to raise a “point of order” to protest as he anticipated Russian representatives at the council would do.

Citing several examples of violence against civilians, saying the “stark and ugly truth is that until Ukraine wins this war, Russia will never give up on using the most brutal methods to conquer Ukraine.”

With reporting by AP

Iranians Struggle To Cope With Crippling Inflation

Iranians Struggle To Cope With Crippling Inflation
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With a dramatic rise in food prices, many Iranians have grown increasingly hopeless as they struggle to make ends meet. The cost of bread, cooking oil, and eggs more than doubled after the government cut subsidies for basic food items. Protests over hyperinflation have largely been quelled by the authorities. But Iranian consumers who spoke anonymously remain angry and desperate.

Belarusian Police Detain Parents Of Opera Singer, Search Home Of Other Musician's Ex-Wife

Belarusian soprano Marharyta Lyauchuk and opposition blogger and songwriter Andrey Pavuk, Vilnius, undated

Police in Belarus have detained the parents of well-known opera singer and opposition activist Marharyta Lyauchuk and searched the home of the former wife of noted opposition blogger and singer Andrey Pavuk.

Lyauchuk, who is currently in self-imposed exile in Lithuania, told RFE/RL that her parents were detained on May 26 in Stradzech, the village where they live in the western Brest region.

According to Lyauchuk, a neighbor who was present when officers searched her parents' house told her that they were handcuffed and taken away by law enforcement officers.

Pro-government Telegram channels said the pair were detained for "disobeying police." In July last year, Belarusian authorities launched a criminal case against Lyauchuk, accusing her of "desecrating the country's national flag." The charge stemmed from a video placed on Lyauchuk's YouTube channel.

Separately, the home of Pavuk's former wife was searched by police on May 26.

Volha Pavuk, who is also currently out of the country, told RFE/RL that her neighbors in the southeastern town of Aktsyabrski informed her about the search. Officers told the neighbors that it was conducted due to "a criminal case launched against Andrey Pavuk."

Pavuk, his former wife, and their children left the country in the wake of anti-government protests questioning the official results of an August 2020 presidential vote that handed a sixth consecutive term in office to strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Pavuk was charged in absentia with publicly insulting a prosecutor and disclosing the personal data of a prosecutor’s aide. He denies the charges.

Lyauchuk and Andrey Pavuk have held several joint singing sessions that were critical of Lukashenka and his government and placed them on YouTube.

Both have been added to the Belarusian Interior Ministry’s registry of wanted persons.

Russia Reportedly Seizes More Than $20 Million From Alphabet's Google

(illustrative photo)

Russian bailiffs have reportedly seized more than 7.7 billion rubles ($123.2 million) from Alphabet's Google that it had been ordered to pay as part of a fine calculated on the basis of its turnover.

Russian news agencies said on May 26 that Google's name disappeared from the registry of debtors of the Russian Federal Bailiffs' Service (FSSP), concluding that it means the fine had been paid off.

Neither Google nor the FSSP have commented on the issue.

Google's Russian arm said last week that it planned to file for bankruptcy after authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to pay staff and vendors. Free services such as the company's search engine and YouTube have continued operating.

The decision to fine Google was made by a Moscow court in December for what the court said was the repeated failure to delete content that Russia deems illegal.

The fine was then said to be calculated as a percentage of Google's annual earnings, the first revenue-based fine of its kind in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin has accused social media platforms and other tech giants of flouting the country's Internet laws and has initiated a push to force foreign firms to open offices in Russia and store Russians' personal data on its territory.

Many critics say the move is an attempt by Russian authorities to exert tighter control over the Internet and quell dissent.

Last month, a court in Moscow impounded property and froze bank accounts of Google's Russian arm as a guarantee against a possible court decision regarding a lawsuit filed against Google by a subsidiary of Gazprom-Media holding.

Based on reporting by TASS, Interfax, and Reuters

Trial Of Kazakhstan's Ex-Health Minister On Embezzlement Charges Starts

Former Kazakh Health Minister Elzhan Birtanov (file photo)

NUR-SULTAN – Former Kazakh Health Minister Elzhan Birtanov, who was removed from the post in 2020 amid a surge in coronavirus cases, has gone on trial on embezzlement charges.

The trial started on May 26 in the Saryarqa district court of Nur-Sultan. Birtanov and his co-defendant, former Deputy Health Minister Olzhas Abishev, pleaded not guilty.

The two are suspected of embezzling about 500 million tenges ($1.2 million) that had been allocated by the government for the digitization of the Health Ministry.

After he fired Birtanov in June 2020, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev criticized him for what he called his failure to tackle the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

Toqaev also ordered the establishment of a special commission to investigate his activities as health minister, a post Birtanov had held since 2017.

Residents In Southern Iranian City Of Abadan Stage Protests Following Building Collapse

The protest came following the collapse of a building in Abadan that killed at least 19 people.

Hundreds of residents took to the streets of Abadan, the capital of the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan, late on May 25, chanting slogans against the Iranian authorities.

The protest came following the May 23 collapse of an unfinished building in Abadan that killed at least 19 people and injured nearly 40, according to official figures.

Rescuers are still searching for dozens of people who are believed to be trapped beneath the collapsed building.

An emergency official interviewed earlier this week on state television suggested that some 50 people may have been inside the building at the time of the collapse. However, it wasn't clear if that figure included those already pulled from the rubble.

Many in the city are angered by the incident, blaming city officials for the deadly accident.

An angry crowd at the site chased and beat Abadan Mayor Hossein Hamidpour immediately after the collapse, according to the semiofficial ILNA news agency and online videos.

Critics say the building work was poorly constructed due to efforts to save on costs.

Videos posted online on May 25 showed crowds mourning those killed while beating their chests.

Some chanted that the 1979 revolution was a mistake, while others said, “Death to incompetent authorities.”

The head of Khuzestan Province's judiciary has ordered a probe into the accident.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has offered his condolences and appealed to local authorities to investigate the case. Iran’s vice president in charge of economic affairs, Mohsen Rezaei, and Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi visited the site.

With reporting by AP and dpa

Russia Warns It Will Expel U.S. Journalists If YouTube Blocks Briefings

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova (file photo)

Russia's Foreign Ministry has warned it will expel a U.S. journalist or media outlet if the YouTube streaming platform blocks any more of its press briefings.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 26 at a roundtable discussion devoted to "the role of Internet platforms in Russia's standoff with the West" that several of her briefings had been blocked by YouTube.

"What we did [after the briefings were blocked] was this -- we simply came and said, 'If you block another briefing, one journalist or one American media outlet will go home.' That's it.... If another briefing is blocked, we will name a certain name or a certain media outlet that will go away home," Zakharova said.

She did not specify when or which of her briefings were blocked on YouTube.

It is the second warning to foreign journalists in as many days by Zakharova.

The day before, Zakharova told reporters that Moscow is preparing measures to use against "unfriendly actions" by English-language media toward Russian media. She did not specify what those actions were.

After Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the European Union suspended the broadcasting activities of some Russian state-backed media, including RT, a leading Russian broadcaster abroad, over questions on the impartiality of its coverage of the war.

Iran Says 'Accident' At Military Complex Kills Engineer

A satellite photo of facilities at he Parchin military site in Iran

Iran's Defense Ministry says an "accident" in the Parchin area near Tehran occurred at one of its research units, killing one person and injuring another.

Parchin, some 60 kilometers southeast of Tehran, is a military base where the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has previously said it suspected Iran conducted tests related to nuclear detonations more than a decade ago.

"On Wednesday evening, in an accident that took place in one of the research units of the Defense Ministry in the Parchin area, engineer Ehsan Ghad Beigi was martyred and one of his colleagues injured," the ministry said.

It did not elaborate on the cause of the accident or provide any further details, saying an investigation was under way.

Iran in 2015 allowed the IAEA to take environmental samples at Parchin to make an assessment of "possible military dimensions" of its nuclear program.

Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, but it is now enriching uranium to up to 60 percent purity -- its highest level ever and a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.

In June 2020, an explosion caused by a tank leak occurred in the Parchin area at a gas storage facility.

Western concerns over the Iranian atomic program led to sanctions and eventually to Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 withdrew from the accord and reimposed harsh economic sanctions. Talks to revive the agreement resumed in Vienna last year but have lately stalled.

U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley said on May 25 that the prospects of reviving the 2015 deal were "tenuous" at best, telling a Senate committee that it is more likely than not that talks will fail.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

U.K.'s Truss To Caution On 'Appeasing' Russia In Speech During Bosnia Visit

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Kyiv, February 17, 2022

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to warn against the "appeasement" of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a speech during a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina on May 26 and tell Western allies and partners there must be no "backsliding" in support for Ukraine.

"Russia's aggression cannot be appeased. It must be met with strength," Truss will say, according to excerpts of the speech to be delivered to Bosnian armed forces at Sarajevo's Army Hall.

Truss will use the speech to rally allies to deliver more weapons and targeted sanctions against Moscow and argue "we must all learn the lessons of history" in standing up to Putin, ensuring he loses in Ukraine.

"We must not allow a prolonged and increasingly painful conflict to develop in Ukraine.... We must be relentless in ensuring Ukraine prevails through military aid and sanctions. We can't take our foot off the accelerator now," she will say.

Britain's top diplomat will also use the speech to reaffirm her country's commitment to peace and stability in the Western Balkans "in the face of Russian malign influence."

Truss is expected to take a step toward this by announcing during the speech her aim to mobilize $100 million of U.K.-backed investment in the Western Balkans by 2025 through an investment partnerships agenda.

"Bosnia and Herzegovina's future lies in sovereignty and self-determination, in greater partnership with NATO and countries like the U.K.," Truss will say.

Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Moldovan Foreign Minister Says Dodon Arrest Strictly Tied To Fight Against Corruption

Ex-President Igor Dodon is detained in Chisinau on May 24.

Moldova's foreign minister says the detention of former President Igor Dodon on suspicion of treason and corruption is about Moldova's fight against corruption and "unrelated to geopolitical events."

Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu said on May 26 that the arrest of Dodon, whose home was searched earlier this week, is related only to the election of a government that has pledged to root out corruption.

"The fight against corruption starts from the top, from combating corruption among the political class among the oligarchs," Popescu said in an interview with RFE/RL.

Popescu said there was evidence in the form of a video that is available online purporting to show Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, receiving a bag of money from an oligarch.

The case against Dodon is not the only one that has been launched, Popescu said. There have been several indictments, and Moldova is seeking the extradition of "several oligarchs...who have stolen a lot of money from Moldova and have escaped to other countries," he said.

He also responded to comments by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, who said on May 25 that Moscow would not like to see Moldovan authorities begin "settling scores with their former political rivals."

Popescu said Moldovan authorities are "subject to a political mandate from our population, and we don't find these statements as being relevant, useful, [or] correct."

The Kremlin and the Russian government have both warned that Moscow is closely monitoring Dodon's case and whether his rights are being respected.

Moldovan prosecutors have asked that Dodon be placed in pretrial detention for 30 days.

Prosecutors on May 24 searched Dodon's home and confiscated luxury goods, foreign currency, receipts, and other documents.

He was later arrested for 72 hours as part of a judicial investigation into suspected treason, corruption, illicit enrichment, and illegal party financing.

"Anti-corruption prosecutors have filed their request that Dodon be detained for 30 days and the court is due to assess their request," Mariana Cherpec, a spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office, said on May 25.

Dodon was president from 2016 to 2020, when he lost to pro-Western Maia Sandu, a U.S.-educated former World Bank official.

Dodon, 47, has denied all the accusations against him and blamed Sandu for wanting to distract people from the country's economic woes.

In Chisinau, dozens of members and sympathizers of Dodon's Party of Socialists took to the streets on May 25, calling for his release and accusing the authorities of political persecution.

Sandwiched between Ukraine and EU and NATO-member Romania, Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

Chisinau has firmly backed Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia maintains more than 1,000 troops in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester.

Moldova formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion.

With reporting AFP and AP

Ukrainian Officials Describe Intensity Of Battles In East As Russia Ties Unblocking Of Ports To Sanctions Relief

A Russian mortar shell lands near the road leading to the city of Lysychansk in the Donbas as a car passes on May 23.

The military situation in eastern Ukraine is even worse than people say it is, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has said as Russian forces continue to thrust ahead in the Donbas.

Kuleba made the statement during a live question-and-answer session with Twitter users in which he also said the country needs heavy weapons now to effectively fight Russia and said peace talks with Moscow were not really taking place.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told a press briefing that battles in the east had reached "maximum intensity," with Russian forces storming positions simultaneously.

"We have an extremely difficult and long stage of fighting ahead of us," she said.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 26, said during the call he felt not even a glimmer of hope for peace.

Draghi told a news conference that he did, however, feel a readiness on Putin's part to try to find a solution to the international food crisis.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

According to the Kremlin, Putin told Draghi that Russia "is ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through the export of grain and fertilizer on the condition that politically motivated restrictions imposed by the West are lifted."

Britain immediately accused Russia of "trying to hold the world to ransom," insisting there would be no sanctions relief.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Putin had "essentially weaponized hunger and lack of food among the poorest people around the world."

Speaking during a visit to Sarajevo, she said any appeasement "will simply make Putin stronger in the longer term."

The White House said there were no talks being held about relaxing sanctions on Russia in order to get grain exports.

Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, but Russian forces are currently blocking Ukraine's Black Sea ports, endangering world food supplies.

The international community has been calling on Russia to unblock the ports and allow the export of Ukrainian grain.

The Russian Defense Ministry has proposed a corridor to allow foreign ships to leave Black Sea ports and another to allow vessels to leave Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.

Kuleba said his country was ready to agree on safe corridors in principle but was not sure if it could trust Russia.

The question is how to ensure that "Russia will not violate the agreement on the safe passage and its military vessels will not sneak into the harbor and attack Odesa," he said.

Russian forces briefly reached the last highway out of two key cities which they have been attempting to encircle as Western leaders reiterated that Putin will not win the war.

Russian forces shelled 40 towns in the easternmost pocket still held by Kyiv in the Donbas, Ukraine's military said on May 26.

Russians were advancing on the key twin cities of Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk, which lie on either side of the Siverskiy Donets River, with the fighting reaching the limits of Syevyerodonetsk.

Serhiy Hayday, the governor of the Luhansk region, acknowledged that Ukrainian forces were retreating, but said the last road out of Lysychansk and Syevyerodonetsk remained outside of Russian control.

"The Russian Army has thrown all its forces into the fight to capture the Luhansk region. There is heavy fighting on the outskirts of Syevyerodonetsk in one direction. They are simply destroying the city," Hayday said.

Hayday said in an interview posted on social media, that "some 50" Russian soldiers had reached the highway linking Lysychansk to Ukrainian-held Bakhmut, and "managed to gain a foothold for some time" before being "thrown back."

Hayday said Ukrainian forces "are slowly retreating to more fortified positions," and indicated that further Ukrainian withdrawals would follow as "we need to win the war, not the battle."

The head of the local military-civil administration in Syevyerodonetsk said the city had been under "constant fire" for the past week-and-a-half, and 90 percent of housing had been damaged by the fighting.

Oleksandr Stryuk, speaking to Ukraine's NV radio station, said some 12,000-13,000 people are still thought to be in the city that had a pre-war population of 100,000 -- many of them sheltering in basements.

The fall of the two cities would leave the whole of the Luhansk region under Russian control, one of the Kremlin's goals in its war.

A senior U.S. Defense Department official said at a briefing on May 26 that Russian forces had made incremental progress in the northeastern Donbas region.

The strategy of encircling the whole Donbas region hasn’t worked, the official said, so the Russians have started trying to pinch off the far eastern elements of the Ukrainian forces between Syevyerodonetsk and Popasna. It is still an effort to encircle Ukrainian forces and cut them off but on a smaller scale, the official said.

The official also provided an accounting of the equipment losses of the Russian forces in the war thus far, saying they were "not insignificant."

The losses include almost 1,000 tanks, 350 artillery pieces, almost three dozen fighter aircraft, and more than 50 helicopters. But the official said the Russian military still has a lot of capability left.

Despite its current momentum, Russia cannot win, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the World Economic Forum in Davos on May 26.

Scholz said that three months of war, "the capture of the whole of Ukraine seems further away now than at the beginning of the war."

"Putin must not win his war, and I am convinced he will not win," Scholz said.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, CNN, and the BBC

U.S. Lawmakers Say Plenty Of Bipartisan Support For Ukraine In Congress

U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks (right) speaks as Representative Michael McCaul (left) listens in Prague on May 25..

Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives say bipartisan support for Ukraine remains strong in Congress, which last week passed another massive aid package for the country -- $40 billion worth of weapons and other aid to help the country in its fight against Russia.

Representative Michael McCaul (Republican-Texas) said members were aware of the horrific circumstances caused by the war and when they visit countries such as Romania, Poland, and Moldova, which have taken in millions of people who have fled the war, they always return "in a very bipartisan manner."

McCaul, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Representative Gregory Meeks (Democrat-New York), the committee's chairman, spoke in an interview on May 25 at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague.

The visit followed passage of the $40 billion bill to send military, economic, and food aid to Ukraine that President Joe Biden signed into law last week. It came two months after the passage of a $13.6 billion aid bill for Ukraine and passed the House overwhelmingly by a vote of 368-57.

But all no votes came from Republicans, fueling warnings about isolationist tendencies in the current election year.

McCaul denied that the vote revealed any fractures in the bipartisanship that Congress has shown for Ukraine. Some members had concerns about the size of the package, whose original price tag was $33 billion, he said. Others objected to the short amount of time they had to read it before voting.

"I think most of the no's on that bill were based on process and not substance," McCaul said. "So there's still very, very strong bipartisan support for Ukraine against the horrors of what Mr. Putin is doing."

Ukraine Can Rely On Republican Lawmakers, Says Ranking Member McCaul
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McCaul said the people of Ukraine can rely on the U.S. Congress and even after the midterm elections in November there will still be enough votes among Democrats and Republicans to reach a majority.

"I think Ukraine's earned that," he said, adding that by many accounts Ukraine is "actually winning this war against what we though was a major world power."

Meeks said the $40 billion aid bill was passed to ensure that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the people of Ukraine have the military protection they need to save their country.

He said the United States was now working "in a in a fashion that is unprecedented" to move weapons as quickly as possible and coordinating closely with allies to ship the equipment that the Ukrainians have requested. He noted that the package included between $4 billion and $5 billion for humanitarian concerns.

Chair Of U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Hopes For 'Different' Russia After Ukraine War
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Both lawmakers expressed concern about Ukrainian ports being blockaded by Russian forces.

Meeks said the situation was discussed during the congressmen's visit to Moldova, which is concerned about the situation along with other countries of the world.

“We're talking about the possibility of starvation in various other parts of the world, particularly on the continent of Africa and other underdeveloped areas,” Meeks said. “We're talking about the inclusion of inflation all over the world, the cost of food and bread.”

He said that’s why it’s important to give Ukraine what it needs to help it open those ports as the United States approaches problems caused by the war not thinking solely about itself but “the entirety of an interconnected world.”

U.S. Envoy Says Prospects For Reviving Iran Nuclear Deal 'Tenuous' At Best

Robert Malley waits to testify about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25 in Washington.

The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, says that the prospects of reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are "tenuous" at best, telling a Senate committee that it is more likely than not that talks will fail.

"As of today the odds of a successful negotiation are lower than the odds of failure and that is because of excessive Iranian demands to which we will not succumb," Malley told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 25.

Malley, who has led more than a year of indirect talks with Iran, said the United States still supports a return to the 2015 nuclear accord and is ready to lift sanctions if it secures an agreement.

But if the currently stalled talks to revive it fail, the United States is "ready to continue to enforce and further tighten" sanctions and "respond strongly to any Iranian escalation, working in concert with Israel and our regional partners."

While saying that "all options are on the table," Malley made clear that President Joe Biden does not support military action, saying "by far the best option is a diplomatic one."

He also said the United States would reject demands that go beyond the scope of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the original deal between Iran and six major powers is formally known.

One of Iran's demands is the removal of the U.S. designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, a step Biden has rejected.

The Biden administration has been working to revive the JCPOA since taking office last year. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed sweeping unilateral sanctions, including on Iran's oil.

Malley said that Trump's "maximum pressure" approach had failed, and Iran had stepped up its nuclear program since the United States pulled out of the deal.

Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey) noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned in January that only "a few weeks" were left before Iran's program would advance to the point that the JCPOA was no longer beneficial.

"We continue to wait and hope. But hope is not a national security strategy," said Menendez, who opposed the original agreement and said he did not understand why the Biden administration is still willing to negotiate.

Other opponents of JCPOA argue that Iran's progress toward the ability to weaponize what it says is a civilian nuclear program means it's too late for any accord to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week that Iran had amassed about 40 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity, which is a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels.

"I think we must prepare for the increasingly obvious reality we face in 2022 -- a return to the 2015 nuclear deal is not around the corner, and I believe it is not in the U.S. strategic interests," Menendez said.

"We need to tackle what comes next," he added.

Despite past U.S. statements that the time to resurrect the deal was running out, Malley said Washington would keep trying to revive it.

The technical assessments remain "that the nonproliferation benefits of the deal are worth the sanctions relief that we would provide," he said.

He also offered strong criticism of Iran's crackdown on recent protests against austerity measures.

"I don't think this is a strong regime that is basking in being able to circumvent sanctions," Malley said. "It is a regime under duress and that's because of its own mismanagement and our sanctions."

The Treasury Department on May 25 announced that it was broadening the sanctions to include a network backed by the IRGC Quds Force and Russian officials that it said had shipped hundreds of millions of dollars of oil in defiance of U.S. sanctions.

The oil-smuggling network "has acted as a critical element of Iran's oil revenue generation, as well as its support for proxy militant groups that continue to perpetuate conflict and suffering throughout the region," the Treasury Department said in a news release.

The United States will "continue to strictly enforce sanctions on Iran's illicit oil trade," even while it continues to seek a return to full implementation of the JCPOA, the Treasury said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Moscow Journalist Who Protested Invasion Of Ukraine Receives Havel Dissent Prize

Marina Ovsyannikova interrupts a live news bulletin on Russian state TV on March 14.

A Moscow journalist who protested Russia's invasion of Ukraine by interrupting a live news broadcast on Russian state television in March has been awarded the Vaclav Havel International Prize For Creative Dissent.

In a ceremony in Norwegian capital on May 25, Marina Ovsyannikova received the award, given annually at the Oslo Freedom Forum to honor "those who, with bravery and ingenuity, unmask the lies of dictatorship, and who put forth work that exemplifies tremendous courage and creativity."

Ovsyannikova, 43, burst onto the set of the Vremya news program on Russia's Channel One on March 14 while holding a poster reading in part "Stop the war. Don't believe propaganda. They are lying to you" in Russian. She also shouted in Russian: "Stop the war. No to war."

While it triggered a wave of support worldwide, the Kremlin condemned her action. She has been charged with "discrediting" the armed forces.

Since her protest, Ovsyannikova left Russia for Germany and was hired in April as a freelance correspondent for Die Welt.

NOTE: This article has been amended to correct the name of the prize and the institution that awarded it.

Tajik Rights Defender 'Confesses' On State TV To Organizing Deadly Riots Despite Earlier Denial

Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva (left) and Kholbash Kholbashov were shown on state TV "confessing" to organizing anti-government protests.

DUSHANBE -- Tajik journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva and her husband, Kholbash Kholbashov, have been shown on state-run television "confessing" to organizing deadly unrests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region, despite saying days earlier that she had nothing to do with the protests.

Late on May 24, Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were shown on the Tojikiston television channel saying that they, along with opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov, and an informal regional leader, Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, had planned and organized the protests, which the authorities in the Central Asian country have called "terrorist actions."

It was not clear whether the statement was made under duress, but on May 17, a day before she was arrested, the 65-year-old Mamadshoeva, who is also a rights activist, told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in the region's capital, Khorugh, and the Rushon district.

Authorities say in the footage showing the so-called "confessions" that an unspecified Western country was involved in organizing the unrest.

Mahmadboqirov was killed on May 22 in Khorugh. His relatives say law enforcement officers killed him, while the authorities insist he was killed "when criminal groups were settling scores."

Sherzamonov told RFE/RL that he had nothing to do with the planning of any riots in Gorno-Badakhshan, and that he suspects Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were forced to make the statement on television.

Tajik authorities have said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during the clashes between protesters and police. Residents of the Rushon district, however, have told RFE/RL that 21 dead bodies had been found at the sites where the clashes took place.

Deep tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Still, protests are rare in the tightly controlled state of 9.5 million, where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.

Mahmadboqirov and other influential leaders in the region fought against the government during that conflict but were integrated into state structures as part of a peace deal that Russia helped broker.

The latest protests were initially sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of Khorugh.

The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting the authorities to launch what they called an "counterterrorist operation."

What's Behind The Continuing Violence In Gorno-Badakhshan?
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The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.

Gordo-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.

While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is a mere 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.

Date Set For Trial Of RFE/RL Freelance Correspondent In Belarus

Andrey Kuznechyk continues to maintain his innocence.

MINSK -- A trial date has been set for RFE/RL freelance correspondent Andrey Kuznechyk, whose relatives and colleagues have not been informed about charges he faces since his arrest last year in Belarus.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists said on May 25 that Kuznechyk's trial will be held behind closed doors in the eastern city of Mahilyou on June 8.

Kuznechyk was initially sentenced to 10 days in jail on November 26, 2021, on hooliganism charges that he denies.

On December 6, when his sentence ended, he was not released and was handed another 10-day jail term, also on a hooliganism charge.

After serving that jail term, Kuznechyk was again not released and instead was charged with an unspecified crime.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

Kuznechyk's relatives told RFE/RL at the time that the journalist continued to maintain his innocence.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has said the extension of Kuznechyk's sentence "on absurdly fabricated charges" should be considered a crime in itself.

"Andrey's state-sponsored kidnapping continues, all in furtherance of the Lukashenka regime's efforts to block independent information from reaching the Belarusian people. Andrey should be allowed to return to his family immediately," Fly said in a statement on December 6, referring to authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

On December 23, Fly again condemned the Belarusian government's actions against free media and stated that Kuznechyk was among "hostages taken by this lawless regime, not criminals. Factual reporting is not an 'extremist' activity, and journalism is not a crime."

Kyiv, Washington Oppose Decree Fast-Tracking Russian Citizenship For Residents Of Newly Occupied Ukrainian Territories

A decree allowing residents of two Ukrainian regions, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya, to obtain Russian citizenship has prompted objections from Kyiv and the U.S. State Department.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in a statement protested the "illegal issuing of passports," calling it "a flagrant violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as norms and principles of international humanitarian law."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price voiced concern that the plan was part of "Russia's attempt to subjugate the people of Ukraine -- to impose their will by force."

"That is something that we would forcefully reject," Price told reporters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 25 signed the decree affecting residents of the two Ukrainian regions, parts of which have been occupied by Russian forces during Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The decree states that residents of the two regions can receive Russian passports through a simplified procedure that was introduced in 2019 for residents of parts of Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions that were controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.

After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, its forces managed to take a huge part of the Kherson region, including the region's capital, Kherson, and about half of the Zaporizhzhya region, with the regional capital, Zaporizhzhya, remaining under Ukrainian control.

Putin and other Russian officials have insisted that the invasion's goal was not to occupy Ukraine.

Moscow and pro-Moscow officials now say the regions could become part of Russia.

"The simplified system will allow all of us to clearly see that Russia is here not just for a long time but forever," the Moscow-appointed deputy leader of the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency.

"We are very grateful to Russian President Vladimir Putin for all he is doing for us, for protecting Russian people in historically Russian lands that have now been liberated," Stremousov said.

Applicants are not required to have lived in Russia and do not need to provide evidence of sufficient funds or pass a Russian-language test. It will take about three months to process applications, Stremousov said, adding that the Kherson region has also begun work on setting up centers to issue Russian passports.

Authorities in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula illegally annexed from Ukraine by Moscow in 2014, have said that they are ready to set up passport-issuance centers for Ukrainian citizens who choose to obtain Russian passports.

Meanwhile, Moscow says it is preparing measures to use against "unfriendly actions" by English-language media toward Russian media.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters in Moscow on May 25 that Russia "will always respond to all unfriendly actions against Russian media."

"We are currently working out a whole package of measures against media, journalists from Anglo-Saxon media outlets, taking into account repressive measures undertaken against Russia media outlets," Zakharova said, adding that Russia's responses might be asymmetrical.

She gave no further details.

After Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the European Union suspended the broadcasting activities of some Russian state-backed media, including the leading Russian external broadcaster, RT, questioning the impartiality of their coverage of the war.

With reporting by AFP

Jailed Kyrgyz Ex-President Atambaev Transferred To Hospital In Bishkek

Almazbek Atambaev appears in a Bishkek court on April 19.

BISHKEK -- Jailed former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev has been transferred from a prison to the National Cardiology Center in Bishkek for a medical check-up.

Atambaev's lawyer, Zamir Jooshev, told RFE/RL that his client was moved to the clinic on May 25 following a court decision last month.

Atambaev's son, Kadyr Atambaev, told RFE/RL that his father had back problems and often loses the feeling in his limbs.

Last month, Atambaev refused to take part in his trial on a charge of attempting to seize power during anti-government protests in October 2020, citing his medical condition. At times he disrupted proceedings in the courtroom.

The charge against Atambaev stems from his participation in anti-government rallies in October 2020 that were sparked by a controversial parliamentary election seen by many as rigged.

Atambaev, who was serving an 11-year prison term he was handed earlier that year for his role in the illegal release of a notorious crime boss, Aziz Batukaev, was released during the protests and joined them along with several other politicians. He was later rearrested.

The 65-year-old Atambaev, who denies any wrongdoing, was arrested in August 2019 after he surrendered to police following a deadly two-day standoff between security forces and his supporters.

The move to detain Atambaev was sparked by his refusal to obey three summons to appear at the Interior Ministry for questioning about Batukaev's release.

The standoff between security forces and his supporters resulted in the death of a senior security officer and more than 170 injuries -- 79 of them sustained by law enforcement officers.

Atambaev is also part of another trial linked to the 2019 violence.

He and 13 others are charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening or assaulting official representatives, hostage taking, and the forcible seizure of power.

Russian Duma Approves Bill Raising Age Limit For Military Personnel To 65

Russia's State Duma approved the final of three readings on May 25.

MOSCOW -- Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, has approved a bill that would raise the upper age limit for military personnel serving in the Russian Army on a contractual basis.

According to the bill, which had all three readings approved on May 25, men up to age 65 will now be eligible to serve in the army. The new limit also applies to foreign nationals wishing to serve in the army as well.

Current law allows Russian men up to 40 years of age and foreigners up to 30 to serve in the army.

The bill's authors, lawmakers Andrei Kartapolov and Andrei Krasov, said the raised limit would help attract new specialists with "required skills," namely medical personnel and engineers.

The bill was approved amid Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24.

Russia has met fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces, with many Western intelligence officials saying Moscow expected a quick end to the fighting. Instead, they say, its troops have suffered thousands of casualties as the war got bogged down.

Russia has not recently revealed a death toll for the invasion. On March 25, it said 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting.

Russia Warns Moldova Over Ex-President As Supporters Protest Detention

Members of Moldova's Information and Security Service (SIS) escort former Moldovan President Igor Dodon (center) to a van after he was detained at his house in Chisinau on May 24.

Russia has warned Moldova again that it will "closely" follow the case of pro-Russian ex-President Igor Dodon, who was detained on suspicion of treason and corruption, as his supporters took to the streets to demand his release.

Moldovan prosecutors on May 24 searched Dodon's home, office, and cars, during which luxury goods, foreign currency, receipts, and other documents were found.

They later announced that Dodon had been arrested for 72 hours as part of a judicial investigation into suspected treason, corruption, illicit enrichment, and illegal party financing.

Dodon says he has done nothing wrong and blamed President Maia Sandu for wanting to distract people from the country's economic woes.

Dodon, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was president of Moldova from 2016 to 2020. He was defeated in November 2020 by Sandu, a U.S.-educated politician who ran on a ticket of closer relations with the West.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said that Dodon's detention was Moldova's "internal affair."

"At the same time, we would not like the current authorities to start settling scores with their former political rivals in the current situation," Rudenko told a news conference.

He said Russia would "closely monitor" the case to make sure that "all of Dodon's rights" are respected and that they comply with international standards.

It was the second day in a row that Moscow had cautioned Moldova about Dodon's treatment.

In Chisinau, dozens of members and sympathizers of Dodon's Party of Socialists, took to the streets on May 25 calling for his release and accusing the authorities of political persecution.

"Dear citizens, I want to assure you that for every element of interest to the prosecutors I have the necessary explanations that remove any suspicion of corruption or breaking the law," Dodon said in an online message.

"This politically motivated case is fabricated."

Sandwiched between Ukraine and EU and NATO-member Romania, Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

Chisinau has firmly backed Kyiv after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Moldova formally applied for European Union membership in March after Russia's unprovoked invasion.

With reporting AFP and AP

Kyrgyz Blogger Handed Suspended Sentence On Fraud Charge, Released From Custody

Kyrgyz blogger Gulzat Alymkulova, aka Gulzat Mamytbek (file photo)

BISHKEK -- Gulzat Alymkulova, a well-known Kyrgyz blogger known online as Gulzat Mamytbek, has been handed a suspended sentence on a fraud charge and released from custody.

The Birinchi Mai district court in Bishkek found Alymkulova guilty of fraud and handed her a five-year prison term with the sentence suspended for three years.

The sentence means the blogger will live under parole-like restrictions for three years. Any violations of the terms of her sentence and she could be forced to serve the five-year prison term.

Alymkulova was arrested on October 25, 2021, upon her return to Bishkek from a trip abroad.

City police officials said at the time that seven Bishkek residents had filed lawsuits, accusing her of collecting some $110,000 from them in 2020 and promising quick gains on the sum before disappearing without a trace.

Neither Alymkulova, who has written about sensitive social issues in her blog posts, nor her representatives have commented on her arrest and the charge against her.

Nike, Marks & Spencer Leave Russia Over War In Ukraine

Marks & Spencer said it was unable to import its goods to Russia because of the war in Ukraine. (file photo)

U.S. sports apparel giant Nike and venerable British multinational retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) say they are quitting the Russian market over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

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.

IRG Chief Executive Officer Tikhon Smykov said in a letter to employees on May 25 that "after all the goods are sold, IRG will have to shut down all of its shops that are under the [Nike] name."

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.

M&S, which specializes in the sale of clothing, beauty, home products, and food, announced on May 25 that it would fully cease its operations in Russia after suspending them in early March.

M&S said it was unable to import its goods to Russia because of the war in Ukraine.

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

Within the past 10 days, Starbucks Corp and McDonald's also announced they were quitting Russia.

With reporting by Vedomosti

Moscow Offers Safe Passage Of Ukrainian Food Exports In Exchange For Easing Of Sanctions

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko (file photo)

A senior Russian government official says Moscow could allow vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine's Black Sea ports in return for the lifting of some sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Ukrainian ports have been blocked since Russia launched its war against Ukraine on February 24, leaving more than 20 million tons of grain stuck in silos in the country.

Russia and Ukraine account for almost one-third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn and sunflower, and the blockage of its ports is contributing to a growing global food crisis.

"We have repeatedly stated on this point that a solution to the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko was quoted as saying by Interfax.

"And it also requires the demining by the Ukrainian side of all ports where ships are anchored. Russia is ready to provide the necessary humanitarian passage, which it does every day."

Russia is in touch with the United Nations on the issue, Rudenko was quoted as saying by another news agency, RIA.

However, Rudenko was also quoted by Interfax as warning against any possible escort by Western ships of Ukraine's vessels carrying grain, saying that it would "seriously exacerbate the situation in the Black Sea."

Rudenko also denied reports in the Western media that Russian forces are stealing grain from Ukrainian ports.

"We completely reject this. We don't steal anything from anyone," he told reporters.

CNN previously published satellite photos allegedly confirming that Russia is exporting grain from Ukraine through Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow illegally annexed in 2014.

Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax

Bishkek Court Cancels $3.2 Billion Fine Imposed On Centerra Over Kumtor Mine

The Kumtor gold mine has been the target of financial and environmental disagreements for years. (file photo)

BISHKEK -- A court in Kyrgyzstan has canceled a lower court decision to fine Canadian company Centerra Gold 261.7 billion soms ($3.2 billion) for what were described as violations of environmental laws when it ran the Kumtor gold mine.

The Bishkek City Court did not explain its decision when handing it down late on May 24.

In May 2021, the Oktyabr (October) district court in Bishkek found the Canadian gold miner guilty of indulging in the illegal practice of placing waste rock on glaciers.

The court ruling followed the passing of a bill by the Central Asian nation's lawmakers that allowed the federal government to temporarily seize the Kumtor mine.

Last month, Kyrgyzstan took over the mine after President Sadyr Japarov's government reached an out-of-court settlement with Centerra Gold.

On April 4, Centerra made the agreement public, showing it received all of its common shares held by the state-owned company Kyrgyzaltyn, while Kyrgyzaltyn got a 100 percent stake in the company’s two Kyrgyz subsidiaries, Kumtor Gold Company CJSC and Kumtor Operating Company.

Kumtor had been the target of financial and environmental disagreements for years before turning into the subject of a control battle between the Kyrgyz state and Centerra Gold.

Japarov's government insisted that Centerra's operations endangered human lives and the environment, which the company denied.

In May 2021, the Canadian firm said it had "initiated binding arbitration to enforce its rights under long-standing investment agreements with the government."

Many Kyrgyz lawmakers have expressed concern about an alleged lack of transparency at Kumtor since the Kyrgyz government took control of the gold mine.

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