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Is NATO Expansion Into The Former Soviet Space Dead?

Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili (left) tried to put a positive spin on NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's news.
Dmitry Rogozin could barely contain his glee.

Shortly after NATO declined to grant Georgia and Ukraine their coveted Membership Action Plans (MAPs) at a foreign ministers' meeting this week, the firebrand nationalist who is Russia's envoy to the Atlantic alliance was gloating in front of the television cameras.

"Ukraine and Georgia did not get their plans. Those who took an ice-cold position toward Russia have been thwarted," Rogozin said in an interview on Russian television on December 2.

And at first glance, Rogozin appears to have reason to celebrate. It was the second time in eight months that the Western alliance balked at giving Georgia and Ukraine MAPs, detailed and tailor-made blueprints for military and political reforms that constitute a key step before formally joining the alliance.

Both times -- at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April and at this week's foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels -- the allies appeared to back down in the face of fierce Russian resistance to Tbilisi and Kyiv's bids.

And as Rogozin delighted in pointing out, in both instances the Western alliance was deeply divided with the United States, Great Britain, and a group of Eastern European members supporting expansion, and Germany, France, and Italy staunchly opposing it.

"The divisions in NATO are openly visible. And these will deepen every time NATO tries to expand," Rogozin said.

So is this the end of NATO expansion into the former Soviet space? Not so fast, say analysts familiar with the process.

"I think it is the end of the dream of fairly rapid NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia," says Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern European correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War: How The Kremlin Menaces Russia And The West."

"I think we'll continue to see NATO working quite hard on Ukraine and Georgia, but on specific programs of military reform and modernization. But it won't have a label attached with the word membership."

Changing Geopolitical Landscape

It would be a mistake to assume that the current geopolitical landscape is permanent, analysts say. A new U.S. administration under President-elect Barack Obama will take office in January and will likely have more clout in Europe than that of deeply unpopular outgoing President George W. Bush. Falling oil prices, meanwhile, are battering Russia's economy and reducing Moscow's ability to throw its weight around abroad.

"I think that with President Obama, there will be more understanding between Europe and America. And I'm not sure [this means] that the Russians will have something to be happy about," says Eugeniusz Smolar, director of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations.

In Bucharest, NATO made a formal pledge to Georgia and Ukraine that they would eventually become members, despite denying them MAP status. That pledge was reiterated again in Brussels this week. The alliance also said it would work closely with each country to help them complete necessary reforms via the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels on December 3, Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili put an optimistic spin on what was clearly a disappointing decision.

"We do feel very firmly that we are much closer to the ultimate goal that we have, which is membership of this organization, in the way how the Bucharest decisions have been reaffirmed," Tkeshelashvili said.

Nitty-Gritty Reform


Georgia and Ukraine's best hope for eventually winning NATO membership, analysts say, is to push ahead with military reforms and hope the international environment turns more favorable to their aspirations.

"I think the hope in NATO and in the incoming Obama administration is that after a few years of nitty-gritty military reform, maybe after a few years both Georgia and Ukraine will look like more credible candidates and maybe the wider political climate will be more favorable," Lucas says.

In addition to reforming their militaries to meet NATO standards, both countries also have a lot of work to do on the political front.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili damaged his country's democratic credentials and harmed its NATO bid in November 2007 when he broke up massive antigovernment demonstrations in Tbilisi and temporarily closed down independent media outlets. Georgia's five-day war with Russia in August and Saakashvili's often erratic conduct during that conflict have also given many in the Western alliance pause.

Ukraine, where a majority of the population oppose membership, is mired in a political crisis and constant bickering between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

"If you imagine in three years' time, if we have a stable government in Ukraine, a different Georgian leadership, a Russia that is preoccupied with its own problems, and a more popular American administration, NATO expansion might not look so crazy," Lucas says. "I'm not saying that any of those is certain, but they are all possible, or even probable."

All Of The Latest News

Iran's Security Council Says 200 People Died In Recent Protests

Iranian demonstrate in the western city of Sanandaj.

Two hundred people have lost their lives in Iran during nationwide protests that started in mid-September, an Iranian state security body said on December 3, a considerably smaller toll than that advanced by rights groups. "Two hundred people lost their lives in the recent riots," the Interior Ministry's Security Council said. An Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander recently put the number of dead at 300. The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters had been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Sofia Angry At Dutch Refusal To Let Bulgaria Into Schengen

Radev and Demerdzhiev have said that Bulgarian border authorities are making "extraordinary efforts to ensure the security" of European Union borders.

The Bulgarian government has criticized the Netherlands' decision to block the southeastern EU member's accession into Europe's passport-free Schengen zone, calling it an act of "cynicism."

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's government on December 2 announced that it will agree with Romania and Croatia's joining the Schengen zone, but will block Bulgaria's admission.

It said its veto was prompted by Bulgaria's failure to achieve satisfactory results in the fight against corruption and organized crime.

The EU justice ministers will decide on accepting Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania in Schengen at a meeting on December 8 and 9.

The acceptance of new members in Schengen requires unanimity.

"Instead of European solidarity, Bulgaria receives cynicism," Bulgarian President Rumen Radev wrote on Facebook.

"Our efforts do not deserve neglect! Our efforts do not deserve insults," Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev said.

"The Netherlands has no right not to want us in Schengen. The way they did it is absolutely unacceptable, unfounded politically and legally," Justice Minister Krum Zarkov told Bulgarian TV .

Radev and Demerdzhiev have said that Bulgarian border authorities are making "extraordinary efforts to ensure the security" of European Union borders.

Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said on December 2 that it was "too early" to change the Netherlands' position regarding Bulgaria.

Hoekstra said the Netherlands can reconsider the issue only when it becomes clear that Bulgaria has an effective rule-of-law mechanism capable of dealing with corruption and organized crime.

Austria also expressed reservations about Bulgaria's Schengen membership. Chancellor Karl Nehammer said that his country supported the membership of Croatia, but was against the accession of Bulgaria and Romania.

The European Commission has said several times that Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia fulfill the criteria and are ready for membership in the Schengen area. The European Parliament called for the countries to be accepted into the zone without further delay.

The Schengen area allows people to move freely, without identity checks, across the internal borders of 26 member states, four of which are not part of the EU.

Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Ireland, and Cyprus are the only EU countries that are not part of the Schengen area, while non-EU countries Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein are members.

Updated

Price Cap On Russian Oil Should Be Lowered To $30 Per Barrel, Ukraine Says

Storage tanks at Chernomortransneft's oil terminal Sheskharis near the southern city of Novorossiisk, Russia

Ukraine has welcomed a $60 price cap on Russian oil agreed by the European Union, the Group of Seven (G7) group of advanced economies, and Australia, but said it should be lowered to $30 per barrel to hit Russia's economy harder.

"We always achieve our goal and Russia's economy will be destroyed, and it will pay and be responsible for all its crimes," the head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram.

"But it would be necessary to lower [the cap] to $30 to destroy the enemy's economy quicker," Yermak added.

EU ambassadors reached a deal for the $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil on December 2 after breaking a deadlock over the price, with Poland saying it was not low enough.

The G7 and Australia later on December 2 joined the EU in adopting the $60 price cap.

The move is meant to help achieve the goal of restricting Russia's primary source of funding for the war in Ukraine while preventing a spike in global prices.

The cap will keep global markets well supplied while "institutionalizing" discounts created by the threat of such a limit, a senior U.S. Treasury official said on December 2.

Poland had refused to back the price-cap measure over concerns the ceiling was too high, before its ambassador to the EU confirmed Warsaw's agreement on December 2 in the evening.

Europe needed to set the cap by December 5, when an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea and a ban on insurance for those supplies take effect.

The embargo will prevent shipments of Russian crude by tanker vessel to the EU, which account for two-thirds of imports, potentially depriving Russia's war chest of billions of dollars.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the price cap "will help us achieve our goal of restricting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's primary source of revenue for his illegal war in Ukraine while simultaneously preserving the stability of global energy supplies."

The price cap "will immediately cut into Putin's most important source of revenue," Yellen said.

The announcement is the culmination of months of effort by a coalition of countries, and Yellen commended the "hard work of our partners in achieving this outcome."

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Ukraine Grain Exports Down 30 Percent So Far In 2022/23

A cargo vessel carrying Ukrainian grain transits the Bosphorus, in Istanbul, Turkey, last month.

Ukraine has exported almost 18.1 million tons of grain so far in the 2022/23 season, down 29.6 percent from the 25.8 million tons exported by the same stage of the previous season, Agriculture Ministry data showed on December 2. After an almost six-month blockade caused by the Russian invasion, three Ukrainian Black Sea ports were unblocked at the end of July under a deal between Moscow and Kyiv brokered by the United Nations and Turkey. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Putin Could Use Peace Talks To Restock His Army, U.K. Warns

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly (file photo)

Peace talks could be used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to restock his army in Ukraine before launching another attack, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in an interview with The Telegraph. Cleverly said Putin could pretend to engage in negotiations while training more troops and sending more ammunition, the newspaper said on December 2. There is a risk that a cease-fire would be used by Putin to "refit his damaged armed forces and to rearm his armed forces," The Telegraph quoted Cleverly as saying. To read the original story from The Telegraph, click here.

Russian Shelling Again Cuts Power In Kherson As Ukrainian Officials Warn Of Tough Months Ahead

A man stands near burning garbage in front of an apartment building during a scheduled power cut in Kyiv.

Russian troops have resumed the shelling of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, cutting the electricity supply to the recently liberated city, as fierce fighting continues in the east and officials cautioned that Ukraine faces a tough winter because of the Russian missile attacks on its infrastructure.

"Russian invaders shelled Kherson -- damaged power grids. The city was left without electricity again," Governor Yaroslav Yanushevych said on Telegram, adding that technicians were already at work trying to repair the damage and restore power to the recently liberated city located on the right bank of the Dnieper River.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Kherson was returned to Ukrainian control on November 11, as the Russian military retreated to the left bank of the Dnieper. Russian artillery took new positions across the river and has been regularly pounding the city with artillery and rockets.

Three people were killed the previous day in the city by Russian shelling, Yanushevych said.

Millions of Ukrainians are struggling without electricity and heating at the onset of winter following waves of Russian strikes across the country, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said on December 2 that further attacks on Ukraine's infrastructure were "inevitable."

Ukrainian officials have responded with defiance, vowing to do everything to contain the damage.

Maksym Tymchenko, chief executive officer of DTEK, a major power company, said on December 2 that all six of DTEK's power stations had been attacked, some of them several times. The company has managed to bring them all back to the grid, he said.

Tymchenko voiced confidence that there was no chance "for the Russians to plunge Ukraine into darkness."

Yet, there was a power-generation deficit and issues with electricity transmission, Tymchenko told the Kyiv Security Forum.

He said that in Kyiv, the company was trying to introduce "rolling controlled blackouts: three-four hours of electricity supply, followed by four hours break. This situation will continue, we hope, until next week only, if there are no further attacks. But we are prepared for further attacks."

Additionally, he said, "We managed to accumulate enough coal stock for the country, not just for our company. We have enough gas storage to use gas for power generation. So we have enough capacity for the whole country."

"Transformers, substations, high-voltage transformers: these are what we've been in deficit of, and what we appeal to our international partners for. Some of the equipment is already on the way to Ukraine," he said.

Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the forum that last week Kyiv had faced an almost total blackout. "There was no heat and water supply. And about 4,000 employees of utility companies worked day and night to restore them."

Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told the forum that the months ahead would be difficult.

"The enemy still has significant resources, but there are more and more signs that he needs a pause at any cost," he said.

As fierce fighting continues in the east, where Kyiv's forces fought off waves of attacks in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, the military reported on December 3 that over the previous day it shot down an enemy helicopter and six drones.

The General Staff said in its regular update that Russian forces launched five missile strikes, 27 air strikes, and 44 rocket attacks at civilian infrastructure and Ukrainian Army positions along the contact line.

Meanwhile, Britain's Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update that Russia is likely planning to encircle Bakhmut in the Donetsk region with tactical advances to the north and south.

Although the capture of Bakhmut would have limited operational value, it could allow Russia to threaten Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, the ministry said on December 3. "There is a realistic possibility that Bakhmut's capture has become primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia," it said on Twitter.

The battlefield reports could not be independently verified.

With reporting by Reuters and CNN

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Urges Decision On Patriot Missile System

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)

Ukraine’s foreign minister says the “time has come” for a decision on whether to provide his country with the Patriot missile defense system. “We began our conversation about Patriots in the very beginning of the war -- even actually before the war,” Dmytro Kuleba told CNN in an interview published on December 2. “But now, the time has come to make decisions.” Kuleba said that he had spoken with his American and German counterparts about the system, which he said “would be a huge help.” A decision has not yet been made at the Pentagon or at the NATO level.

Updated

G7 Joins EU In $60-Per-Barrel Price Cap For Russian Oil Delivered By Sea

The price cap would work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian seaborne crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap. (file photo)

The Group of Seven (G7) and Australia have joined the European Union in adopting a $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian oil, a move that the countries say will help achieve the goal of restricting Russia's primary source of funding for the war in Ukraine while preventing a spike in global prices.

EU ambassadors reached a deal for the $60-per-barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil earlier on December 2 after breaking a deadlock over the price, with some countries saying it was not low enough.

The decision must still be approved by EU members but is expected to go through. Europe needed to set the cap by December 5, when an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea and a ban on insurance for those supplies take effect.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement that the price cap, which was led by the G7, "will help us achieve our goal of restricting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's primary source of revenue for his illegal war in Ukraine while simultaneously preserving the stability of global energy supplies."

The price cap "will immediately cut into Putin's most important source of revenue," Yellen said.

The announcement is the culmination of months of effort by a coalition of countries, and Yellen commended the "hard work of our partners in achieving this outcome."

The agreement comes after a last-minute flurry of negotiations that saw Poland holding up the agreement as it sought to set the cap as low as possible. Following more than 24 hours of deliberations, Warsaw finally relented late on December 2.

A joint G7 coalition statement said the group was "prepared to review and adjust the maximum price as appropriate," taking into account market developments and potential impacts on coalition members and low and middle-income countries.

The price cap will work by prohibiting shippers and insurance companies from handling cargoes of Russian crude unless it is sold at or below the price cap.

The world's key shipping and insurance firms are based in G7 countries, giving them leverage to set the price cap and make it difficult for Moscow to sell its oil for a higher price.

With reporting by AP

Snowden Receives Russian Passport, Takes Citizenship Oath

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden (file photo)

Former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who fled prosecution after revealing highly classified surveillance programs, has received a Russian passport and taken the citizenship oath, Russian news agencies quoted his lawyer as saying on December 2. Snowden’s lawyer said he got the passport and took the oath on December 1, about three months after Russian President Vladimir Putin granted him citizenship. Snowden leaked documents in 2013 on the National Security Agency’s collection of data passing through U.S. public communications networks and released details about the classified U.S. intelligence budget and the extent of American surveillance of foreign officials. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Bosnian Court Abolishes Republika Srpska's Law On Medicines

The Constitutional Court had temporarily abolished the law prior to its final decision. (file photo)

The Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina has abolished Republika Srpska’s law on medicines and medical devices, declaring it unconstitutional.

The law envisioned the formation of Republika Srpska’s own agency for medicines, which would usurp the state’s authority, the court ruled on December 2. According to the constitution, state level jurisdictions cannot be moved to the entities’ level, and the state law on medicines can be altered only by Bosnia’s parliament.

"There are no provisions in the constitution of [Bosnia] upon which it could be concluded that the disputed laws, passed by the National Assembly of Republika Srpska, are constitutional. According to the constitution…entities are obliged to respect the decisions made by the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” the court’s decision said.

The Constitutional Court had temporarily abolished the law prior to its final decision. It also abolished several provisions in May regarding “the return of transferred jurisdictions” from Bosnia to Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity that makes up half of Bosnia alongside the Bosniak and Croat federation.

The Republika Srpska government had been expected to send more laws to the entity’s assembly aimed at taking over jurisdictions on taxation, criminal law and defense and security. However, the assembly decided to postpone these actions for six months.

The Constitutional Court on December 2 also declined the appeal of Zeljko Komsic, a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, to adopt a temporary measure regarding the amendments to Bosnia’s election law imposed by the high representative for Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, on October 2 shortly after the polls closed on Bosnia’s general election.

Komsic’s appeal said Schmidt’s step to impose the decision after the voting concluded was a “direct assault on the integrity of the election process" because voters possibly would have voted differently had they known how the elections law was going to be changed.

“By the opinion of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the applicants have not clearly stated, outside the realm of the abstract, what sort of irretrievable damage could be done if the disputed decision were to remain in place, nor have they produced evidence on the validity of their claims,” the court stated.

UN Nuclear Chief Says Iran Ties Need To Get Back On Track

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Grossi (file photo)

Iran appears to be at odds with the UN nuclear watchdog over information it should be providing regarding its atomic program, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on December 2. "We don't seem to be seeing eye-to-eye with Iran over their obligations to the IAEA," Rafael Grossi told a conference in Rome, adding that he was concerned over a recent announcement by Tehran that it was boosting its enrichment capacity. "We need to put our relationship back on track," he said. Grossi said he was "still hopeful" Tehran would give an explanation for the unexpected discovery a few years back of traces of uranium at three undeclared sites. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

U.S. Designates China, Iran, Russia As Countries Of Concern Under Religious Freedom Act

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (file photo)

The United States has designated China, Iran, and Russia among other nations as "countries of particular concern" under the Religious Freedom Act, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on December 2. “Our announcement of these designations is in keeping with our values and interests to protect national security and to advance human rights around the globe,” Blinken said in a statement. The Taliban and the Vagner Group were added to the blacklist as entities of particular concern. To read the original story from Reuters, click here.

Iranian Students Accuse Authorities Of Poisoning After Spate Of Incidents

Universities in Iran have become one of the main centers of ongoing anti-government protests in the country. (file photo)

Several Iranian student associations have accused authorities of deliberate "serial poisoning" after reports that a large number of students from at least four Iranian universities across the country fell ill.

In a report on December 1, the Union Councils of Iranian students reported that several schools experienced outbreaks of poisoning after eating at cafeterias, including Kharazmi University in Karaj, near the Iranian capital, where the number of those poisoned was so high that the university's clinic could not handle all of the patients.

Similarly, the Telegram channel of the United Students group also reported that several students at Allameh University in Tehran were poisoned after consuming food in the university canteen.

Students across the country have been at the forefront of protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly. The authorities have cracked down violently on the university protests, beating and detaining dozens of students.

The channel, which covers university news, alleged the poisonings were "intentional" and an attempt by officials to intimidate the students.

"You cannot stop the student movement with these things," it said. It did not provide any evidence to back up its claim.

Universities and students have long been at the center of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran.

In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily, prompting a brutal raid on the dormitories 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.

Anger over Amini's death has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Some university professors and lecturers have expressed solidarity with the protesters.

The activist HRANA news agency said that, as of November 29, at least 459 protesters have been killed during the unrest, including 64 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

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

Dozhd TV Channel Fined, Warned Of Possible Loss Of License In Latvia

(file photo)

The Latvia-based independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain) has been fined 10,000 euros ($10,468) for using a map of Russia with Ukraine's Moscow-annexed Crimea on it and calling Russian armed forces invading Ukraine "our army."

The chairman of Latvia's National Council on Electronic Media (NEPLP), Ivars Abolins, tweeted on December 2 that it was Dozhd's second violation of regulations in recent months, adding that a third violation of that kind would lead to the suspension of the television channel's license.

Abolins also wrote on Twitter that a probe had been launched into an administrative violation by Dozhd in a report about Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine, in which an anchor, who was later fired, appeared to express support for the Russian military.

Anchor Aleksei Korostelyov on December 1 called on the Dozhd audience to write about cases of violations of Russian laws during the recent mobilization in Russia and about war crimes. In making the request, he said:

"We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare necessities on the front line."

The chief of Dozhd's information service, Yekaterina Kotrikadze, offered apologies on December 2 and said that Korostelyov was fired for his on-air statements.

Editor in Chief Tikhon Dzyadko said his television channel "has never been, is not, and will never be involved in assisting Russian armed forces with equipment."

NEPLP granted Dozhd a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Dozhd's website was blocked in Russia on March 1 under a demand by the Prosecutor-General's Office.

Russia further tightened its grip on media freedom after launching its full-scale attack against Ukraine on February 24.

Iranian Climbing Champion Rekabi Says Police Demolished Her Family's Home

Elnaz Rekabi’s participation without the head scarf in the Asian climbing championships was seen by some observers as a move to show solidarity with ongoing anti-government protests.

The family of Elnaz Rekabi, the Iranian rock-climbing champion who sparked a controversy by competing in the Asian climbing championships in Seoul without a head scarf, announced that police officers have violently demolished their family villa.

Rekabi's supporters had expressed concerns about her safety after her return last month amid unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a hijab improperly.

The BBC quoted an informed source as saying that the authorities of the Islamic republic have also fined the Rekabi family 168,000,000,000 Rials ($4,700).

Officials have not yet provided an explanation for knocking down the dwelling.

Rekabi’s participation without the head scarf in Seoul was seen by some observers as a move to show solidarity with ongoing anti-government protests.

However, in a post that appeared on her Instagram page on October 18, she apologized and explained that "due to poor scheduling and an unexpected call for me to climb.... I inadvertently had a problem with my cover."

It could not be verified whether Rekabi made the post independent of pressure from Iranian officials, and some government critics said the apology appeared in line with previous similar confessions by offenders who were pressured by authorities to recant. There were also unconfirmed reports that Rekabi's brother had been detained by police.

The 33-year-old said in an Instagram post that she competed without the hijab, which is mandatory for Iranian women to wear in public, "due to poor scheduling and an unexpected call for me to climb."

She added that she returned to Iran with the team "according to a pre-arranged schedule."

The controversy comes after months of unrest across Iran -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into police custody for allegedly breaking hijab rules.

Since the start of the protests, several Iranian sports champions and prominent public figures, including soccer star Ali Daei, have been summoned or arrested by the authorities and had their passports confiscated after showing support for anti-government protests.

The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of nine after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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

Brother Of Russia-Imprisoned American Says Contact Resumed

Imprisoned American Paul Whelan

The family of Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, said on December 2 that he has resumed contact after unexpectedly becoming unreachable in November. Whelan's brother, David, said that Paul had called his parents early U.S. time on December 2, the first time any family member had spoken with him since November 23. The family had been told he was moved to a prison hospital, but the reason for that was unclear because he had not spoken of health problems. In the call, he did not explain why he was at the hospital, David Whelan said. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Zelenskiy Says More Measures Coming After Decree Banning Religious Organizations With Links To Russia

Kyiv's move comes after Ukraine's Security Service carried out a raid last month on a historic Orthodox monastery in Kyiv over suspected "activities" by Russian agents.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said measures to guarantee Ukraine's "spiritual independence" will continue after Ukraine on December 2 banned the activities of religious organizations “affiliated with centers of influence” in Russia.

"These days we have taken some steps to guarantee the spiritual independence of our people. I see that people support these steps,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video message, pledging to implement more steps.

Zelenskiy earlier on December 2 signed a decree enacting a decision to impose personal sanctions against representatives of religious organizations associated with Russia, which invaded Ukraine more than nine months ago.

The decree additionally provided for examining links between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, one of two Orthodox bodies in Ukraine following a schism that in 2019 resulted in the establishment of one with independence from the Russian church.

The Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council on December 1 told the government to draft the law following a series of raids on parishes that Kyiv said could be taking orders from Moscow. The government has two months to submit to the Verkhovna Rada a corresponding draft law on making it impossible for such religious organizations to operate in Ukraine.

In an addendum to the decree, sanctions were introduced against the vicar of Kyiv's Pechersk Lavra, other Russian Orthodox Church leaders, and former lawmaker Vadym Novinsky.

The sanctions packages contain 12 types of restrictions, including a complete block of assets and a ban on trade operations.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has conducted searches recently at the facilities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in which law enforcement officers discovered "a large number of anti-Ukrainian materials” and documents confirming the presence of Russian citizenship in the leadership of diocesan structures.

The SBU continued its raids on December 2, saying it searched at least five parishes belonging to a branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church urged the government "not to ignite an internal war" and called the accusations of collaborative activities "unproven and groundless."

Journalist In Tatarstan Jailed, Fined For Reposting Online Call For Anti-War Rally

A journalist in Russia's Tatarstan, Nailla Mullayeva, has been sentenced to six days in jail and fined $490 on a charge of discrediting the Russian armed forces and violating the law on public gatherings. Mullayeva's lawyer said the charge stemmed from his client's reposting of an online call for an unsanctioned rally against the war in Ukraine in September. Police searched Mullayeva’s home twice before her arrest this week. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Russian Police Investigate Private Animal Shelter After Dozens Of Mutilated Dogs Found Dead

Police in Russia's southwestern Astrakhan region have started an investigation into an animal shelter after activists found dozens of mutilated dead dogs in the facility and nearby. The shelter, owned by the wife of a former Astrakhan city lawmaker, Andrei Nevlyudov, has received significant amounts of money from the city to catch stray dogs, provide them with medical assistance, and find homes for them. Activists said on December 1 that some 60 dogs that were found dead and mutilated are registered as alive in the shelter's documents. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Moscow Court Issues Arrest Warrants For Two Former Coordinators Of Navalny Groups In Siberia

Sergei Bespalov, who has worked as a coordinator for Aleksei Navalny's headquarters in Irkutsk, is one of the two men for whom arrest warrants have been issued. He currently resides outside of Russia.

A court in Moscow has issued arrest warrants for two former coordinators of groups in Siberia associated with jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. The Basmanny district court's ruling on December 2 resulted in warrants being issued for Stanislav Kalinichenko from Kemerovo and Sergei Bespalov from Irkutsk. Both are accused of organizing the activities of an extremist group. Both activists, who are currently outside of Russia, were earlier designated as extremists and added to the Interior Ministry’s wanted list. To read the original story from RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Belarusian Journalist, Wife, Colleague Handed Prison Terms Over Reporting On Border Crisis

Belarusian journalist Dzmitry Luksha and his wife, Palina Palavinka were sentenced to four and 2 1/2 years, respectively.

MINSK -- A court in Minsk has sentenced journalist Dzmitry Luksha; his wife, Palina Palavinka; and cameraman Dzyanis Yarouski for their reporting on a migrants' crisis along the Belarusian-Polish border last year.

The Minsk City Court on December 2 sentenced Luksha, a freelance correspondent for Kazakhstan's Khabar 24 television channel, and Palavinka to four and 2 1/2 years in prison, respectively, after finding them guilty of discrediting Belarus and "actively participating in group activities that blatantly disrupt social order."

Yarouski was sentenced to 18 months in prison on the same charges.

A fourth defendant in the case, Kanstantsin Nikanorau, was handed a parole-like sentence on a charge of discrediting Belarus.

The charges against the four stemmed from Luksha's video reports from the Belarusian-Polish border for Khabar 24.

The reports covered the situation along the border, where thousands of migrants mostly from the Middle East tried to illegally enter EU-member Poland from Belarusian territory.

European nations have condemned the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, for masterminding the crisis in response to Western sanctions imposed on him over an ongoing crackdown on dissent and independent media that followed his disputed win in a 2020 presidential election.

Separately on December 2, the Minsk City Court started the trial of another journalist, Henadz Mazheyka, who is accused of insulting Lukashenka and inciting hatred over his report about a police shootout at a Minsk apartment last year that left an IT worker and a KGB officer dead.

Little is known about the September 2021 shooting that resulted in the deaths of Andrey Zeltsar, who worked for U.S.-based IT company EPAM, and KGB officer Dzmitry Fedasyuk.

Multiple individuals have received prison terms in recent months on charges related to comments about the incident.

Mazheyka pleaded not guilty.

Exiled Former Tajik Vice President Narzullo Dustov Dies In Tashkent At 82

Narzullo Dustov served as Tajikistan's vice president in 1991-1992.

Former Tajik Vice President Narzullo Dustov, wanted in his native country over the organization of a mutiny against the government in 1998, died in Uzbekistan last month at the age of 82. Former Chairman of the Socialist Party of Tajikistan Mirhusain Nazriev told RFE/RL on December 2 that Dustov died on November 1 of cancer. Dustov served as Tajikistan's vice president in 1991-1992. The post was later eliminated. His former ally, Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, who also led the failed deadly mutiny, fled the country for Uzbekistan, as well. To read the original story of RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Updated

Several Ukrainian Diplomatic Missions Receive 'Bloody' Parcels

Police stand outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Madrid after a blast injured one employee while handling a letter on November 30.

Ukrainian diplomatic missions in several countries have received “bloody parcels” containing animals' eyes, the country's Foreign Ministry said on December 2.

Spokesman Oleh Nykolenko added on Facebook that the parcels were soaked with an unspecified liquid "of a specific color and smelled correspondingly."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

According to Nykolenko, the parcels were delivered to Ukrainian diplomatic missions in Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Croatia, Austria, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The packages arrived amid Russia's continued invasion of Ukraine, and Nykolenko said "we are studying the meaning of this message."

Police in the Czech Republic said earlier in the day that Ukraine’s consulate in the country’s second-largest city, Brno, received "a suspicious letter" similar to letter bombs sent to high-profile targets in Spain in recent days.

The police said later that "an animal tissue" was found in the package.

Nykolenko said that unknown individuals called the Ukrainian Embassy in Kazakhstan saying that there was a bomb in the mission's building, which turned out to be false.

He added that the Ukrainian Embassy in the United States received a letter harshly criticizing the Ukrainian government.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the situation "a well-planned campaign of terror and intimidation of Ukraine's embassies and consulates."

"Not being able to stop Ukraine on the diplomatic front, [Russians] try to intimidate us. However, I can say with confidence that these attempts are futile. We will continue to effectively work on Ukraine's victory," Kuleba said.

A day earlier, bomb disposal experts in Spain defused a letter bomb at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, the sixth such device sent to high-profile targets in Spain in the past several days.

The campaign began with a letter bomb sent to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez last week. Similar devices have been sent to the Defense Ministry, an air force base, a weapons manufacturer, and the Ukrainian Embassy.

Orban Says Hungary Opposes Global Minimum Corporate Tax

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses workers at the car-manufacturing plant of Audi Hungaria Kft., an affiliate of German carmaker Audi AG, in Gyor, Hungary, in 2020.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Hungarian public radio on December 2 that Budapest continues to be against a global minimum corporate tax rate, arguing it would reduce the number of jobs in Hungary, which has used its low-tax regime to attract investment. Hungary's 9 percent corporate tax rate and government subsidies have brought major investments by German carmakers and Asian battery manufacturers. "This is a job-killing tax hike, which, if implemented with Hungary's approval, would wipe out tens of thousands of jobs," Orban said. To listen to Orban's interview with Radio Kossuth, click here.

Updated

IAEA Chief Says Progress Being Made on Zaporizhzhya Safety Zone

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other in recent months of targeting the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which Russian forces took control of shortly after their invasion of Ukraine in February. 

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), says progress is being made to reach a deal to create a safe zone around Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which has come under repeated shelling during the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces since late February.

Speaking to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in an interview published on December 2, Grossi said he is committed to finding a solution to ensuring the safety of Europe's largest nuclear power station, "hopefully by the end of the year."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"On the safety of Zaporizhzhya there is a concrete proposal and important progress has been made," the head of the United Nation's nuclear watchdog told the newspaper.

"My commitment is to reach a solution as soon as possible.... Our aim is to avoid a nuclear accident, not to cause a militarily favorable situation for one or the other," he added.

Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other in recent months of targeting the plant, which Russian forces took control of shortly after their invasion of Ukraine in February.

The reactors at the Soviet-designed plant have been shut down, but there is a risk that nuclear fuel could overheat if power supplies to the plant's cooling systems are cut off.

The plant has been forced to operate on backup generators a number of times since the Russian invasion, but no radioactive emissions are believed to have leaked since Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Grossi said the two sides are now "in agreement on some fundamental principles" around securing the plant.

"The first is that of protection: It means accepting that you don't shoot at the facility, nor from the facility. The second is the recognition that the IAEA represents the only possible way" to ensure the safety of the plant, he said.

Grossi said it's possible he could soon meet with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to work out details of a deal.

Rosatom Chief Executive Officer Aleksei Likhachev was quoted by Russian state media as saying Moscow's representative at the IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov, is "actively working" on the issue, though he said "the decision is not on the Russian side" as the Russian government has outlined its position on creating a safety zone around the plant.

The safety zone should be set up "as soon as possible," he added.

With Russian strikes over the past weeks decimating Ukraine's energy infrastructure, Grossi said he is concerned about other nuclear plants in Ukraine, which have at times lost external power, creating potentially dangerous situations.

"The Ukrainian authorities have made a formal request to have a permanent presence of the IAEA in these plants, as in Zaporizhzhya. In this way, the agency's personnel will be deployed throughout Ukraine and will ensure that nuclear power plants are not used by anyone as weapons of blackmail in the conflict," he said.

Based on reporting by La Repubblica

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