OSCE Urges Kazakhstan To Ensure Fair Trial For Activist
Kazakhstan's human rights record has come under close scrutiny this year as the ex-Soviet nation prepares to take over the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in 2010.
A Kazakh court this month sentenced human rights campaigner and government critic Yevgeny Zhovtis to four years in prison for violation of traffic regulations following a July accident when he fatally hit a pedestrian on a highway.
Zhovtis, 54, has linked the harsh sentence handed down to him in a brief trial to his professional activities and called the verdict politically charged.
He was accused of failing to make an emergency stop. He said he was blinded by the lights of oncoming cars and could not have prevented the accident.
"We already conveyed our concerns to the Kazakh government about reports of numerous violations of Zhovtis' right to a fair trial in the run-up to his conviction," Douglas Wake, the first deputy director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, told reporters.
"While we are not suggesting that Zhovtis should receive any special treatment, it is essential that fair trial standards are fully respected during the appeals process."
Zhovtis has filed an appeal but a date for the hearing is yet to be decided.
Kazakhstan has seen an increase in media restrictions and a series of controversial prosecutions ahead of the OSCE chairmanship, Western observers and human rights campaigners say.
The United States and the European Parliament have earlier expressed concern over Zhovtis' case and human rights groups such as Freedom house have called his trial unfair.
The Kazakh opposition has on a number of occasions accused the government of using trumped-up charges to jail or silence critics of President Nursultan Nazarbayev who has run the country since 1989, a charge the government denies.
Russian Suspected Of Evading Sanctions Escapes From House Arrest In Italy While Awaiting Extradition To U.S.
Artyom Uss, the son of a Russian regional governor who was set to be extradited from Italy to the United States to face charges of violating an embargo against Venezuela and bank fraud, has escaped from house arrest near Milan, Italian media reported on March 23.
Uss disappeared after he removed an electronic bracelet, reports by La Republica, La Stampa, and ANSA said, adding that police are looking for him.
Italian officials have yet to make a statement on the situation.
Two days earlier, a court in Milan approved a motion to extradite Uss to the United States, where he would face decades behind bars if convicted.
Uss was arrested in October at a Milan airport at the request of the United States. Shortly after he was detained, a court in Moscow issued an arrest warrant for Uss, accusing him of money laundering. The move appeared aimed at heading off his extradition to the United States.
Uss, whose father, Aleksandr Uss, has served at the governor of Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai region since 2018, asked to be handed to the Russian authorities in January. The court in Milan rejected his request and on March 21 approved his extradition to the United States on charges of violating an embargo against Venezuela and bank fraud.
But the court ruled against handing him over on charges of smuggling military technology to Russia and money laundering. The judges wrote in a statement that they refused extradition due to a lack of evidence for the first charge and the issue of double jeopardy for the second.
U.S. prosecutors said in October that another suspect in the case against Uss, Yury Orekhov, was arrested in Germany.
A 12-count indictment was unsealed on October 19 in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging the two men along with three other Russian nationals -- Svetlana Kuzurgasheva, Timofei Telegin, and Sergei Tulyakov. In addition, two Venezuelan nationals -- Juan Fernando Serrano Ponce and Juan Carlos Soto -- were charged for brokering illicit oil deals for a Venezuelan energy company.
According to the statement, Uss and Orekhov owned Nord-Deutsche Industrieanlagenbau GmbH (NDA GmbH), which bought U.S. military technologies and dual-use technologies, including semiconductors and microchips that are used in military jets, missile systems, modern ammunition, radars, and satellites. Kuzurgasheva served as the company's executive director.
The items bought in the United States by the company in question were then passed on to Russian companies -- Radioavtomatika, Radioexport, and Abtronix -- owned by Telegin and Tulyakov.
The U.S. Attorney General’s Office said the items were discovered in Russian military vehicles and in equipment captured by Ukrainian forces during Russia's ongoing full-scale aggression against Ukraine.
According to the indictment papers, Uss and Orekhov also used NDA GmbH to illegally smuggle hundreds of millions of tons of oil from Venezuela to companies in China and Russia, including one that might be linked to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who is under U.S. and European Union sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
With reporting by Reuters, La Republica, La Stampa, and ANSA
Lawmakers In Iceland Recognize Soviet-Era Famine In Ukraine As Genocide
Iceland's lawmakers have recognized the Holodomor -- the 1932-33 famine caused by the policies of the Soviet government in Ukraine -- as genocide. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy expressed gratitude to Iceland on March 23, calling the move "a clear signal that such crimes do not go unpunished and do not have a statute of limitations." Earlier this month, lawmakers in Belgium and Bulgaria also recognized the Holodomor as genocide. The Holodomor took place as communist leader Josef Stalin's police units forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs. Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.
EU Leaders Endorse Joint Ammunition Purchases For Ukraine
European Union leaders have endorsed a plan for sending Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months to help the country counter Russia’s invading forces. EU foreign and defense ministers approved the plan for a fast-track purchasing procedure earlier this week, and the leaders of the bloc’s 27 member nations gave it their political blessing at a summit in Brussels on March 23. “Taking into account the security and defense interests of all member states, the European Council welcomes the agreement...to deliver ground-to-ground and artillery ammunition to Ukraine and, if requested, missiles,” a statement at the conclusion of the meeting said. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Iranian National Team Soccer Assistant Coach Fired For Online Posts Supporting Protesters
An assistant coach with Iran's national soccer team has been fired amid a campaign by hard-liners to oust him over social media posts he made criticizing the government's response to protests sparked by the death of a young woman while in police custody.
Rahman Rezaei, a former star player on the Iranian men's national soccer team, had come increasingly under fire after being named last week as an assistant coach for his comments online about the regime's crackdown on demonstrators, including one last October where he said, "Enough is enough. You should be tried in the nation's courts."
On March 20, an official of the Sports Ministry wrote on Twitter: "Do you think that someone who insults the Islamic republic so brazenly can be trusted to serve honestly under the holy flag?"
Soon after, the semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, announced Rezaei's dismissal.
FIFA, world soccer's governing body, has repeatedly warned the Iranian Football Federation over government interference in national team affairs. There was no immediate comment by FIFA.
Since the start of nationwide protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in September while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly, numerous Iranian celebrities and sports personalities have been interrogated and had their passports confiscated after voicing support for the protests.
The unrest has put women's rights in Iran and the lack of freedoms in general in Iran in the spotlight.
Authorities have responded to the unrest with a wave of brutal and often deadly repression.
Another Iranian professional soccer player, Amir Nasr-Azadani, has been sentenced to 16 years in prison for "assisting in waging war against God." Nasr-Azadani had faced a potential death sentence.
Ali Karimi, a former soccer player with Bayern Munich and once the captain of Iran's national soccer team, has also been a target of the government for his support of the protesters and his posts on social media, including on Instagram, where he has nearly 15 million followers.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described efforts by celebrities to support the protesters as "worthless" and has called for judicial action against them.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Thousands more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Kyrgyz Activist Fined For Inciting Hatred Calls Ruling Politically Motivated, Plans To Appeal
A court in Bishkek on March 23 fined a noted civil rights activist, Aijan Myrsalieva, 100,000 soms ($1,145), after finding her guilty of inciting hatred. Myrsalieva told RFE/RL that she considers the ruling politically motivated, adding that she will appeal it. Myrsalieva, who is also known as Myrsan, was charged in July. She is known for her harsh online criticism of Kyrgyz authorities. International and domestic rights watchdogs have accused the Kyrgyz government of increasing pressure on independent journalists and bloggers in recent months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.
Bishkek City Court Upholds Pretrial Detention For Former Kyrgyz Kumtor Gold Mine Manager
BISHKEK -- The Bishkek City Court has upheld a lower court decision to keep in pretrial detention the former interim manager of Kyrgyzstan's Kumtor gold mine, Tengiz Bolturuk, who is being held on charges of financial misdeeds that he has rejected.
The court announced its decision on March 23. The same day, Bolturuk's wife, Ilmira Alpysbaeva, said she was ending a hunger strike she started several days earlier to demand her husband's transfer to house arrest.
"I have children. My hunger strike does not bring any results. My husband is innocent," Alpysbaeva said.
On March 10, the Oktyabr (October) district court rejected Bolturuk's request for a transfer to house arrest even though Alpysbaeva was insisting her husband's health condition had dramatically worsened since his arrest in September.
The State Committee for National Security (UKMK) arrested Bolturuk and two of his associates -- Aisha-Gul Janalieva and Ryspek Toktogulov.
They were sacked in late August after the UKMK launched a probe against them, saying the auditing chamber found financial violations in their activities.
The UKMK said at the time that Bolturuk and his assistants allegedly caused financial damage to the State Treasury assessed at 1 billion soms ($11,440,000).
Bolturuk has rejected the charges.
Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz state-owned gold mining company regained full control of the Kumtor gold mine earlier last year under the terms of a deal with the Canadian company Centerra Gold signed in April 2022.
Bolturuk, who previously represented Kyrgyzstan at the Centerra Gold, was the interim manager of Kumtor at the time.
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.
The Kyrgyz government has insisted 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.
Slovakia Sends First Four MiG-29 Fighter Jets To Ukraine
Slovakia has delivered the first four of a total of 13 Soviet-made fighter jets promised to Ukraine, the Slovak Defense Ministry said on March 23. "The first four MiG-29 fighter jets have been safely handed over to the Ukrainian Armed Forces," the ministry said in a statement, adding that the transfer was carried out by Ukrainian pilots. "In the coming weeks, the rest of the planes will be handed over to Ukraine," the statement said. Slovakia’s government approved the transfer of its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets last week.
NHL Team Will Not Wear Pride-Themed Jerseys Due To Russian LGBTQ Law
The Chicago Blackhawks will not wear Pride-themed warmup jerseys before their Pride Night game against Vancouver because of security concerns involving a Russian law that expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country. The decision was made by the NHL following discussions with security officials within and outside the franchise, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to the AP on March 22 on condition of anonymity. Chicago defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is from Moscow, and there are other players with family in Russia or other connections to the country. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Sweden To Seek Explanation From Hungary On NATO Delay
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on March 23 that he would seek an explanation from Hungary as to why its parliament is delaying ratification of Sweden's NATO bid but not Finland's. "I'm going to ask why they are now separating Sweden from Finland. These are signals we have not received before, so I'm absolutely going to raise this with [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban today," Kristersson told public broadcaster Sveriges Radio. To read the original story by AFP, click here.
Iran Sentences Five To Death For Alleged Spy Operations With Israel
Five Iranians -- four men and one woman -- in the northwestern Iranian city of Urmia have been sentenced by a court to death for allegedly engaging in intelligence cooperation and espionage activities that benefited Israel.
Hengaw, a Norway-based group that monitors rights violations in Iran's Kurdish regions, said one of those sentenced to death is Mansur Rasuli, whose interrogation by Mossad agents in Iran made headlines last year.
At least five other people have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the case, the report added.
Last year, Israeli media reported that agents for the Mossad security service captured and interrogated a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps inside Iran.
Later, a video was released in which a person who identified himself as Rasuli admitted he wanted to assassinate an Israeli diplomat working in the country's consulate in Istanbul, as well as a U.S. general stationed in Germany and a journalist in France.
Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war. Tensions have been nearing a boiling point in recent years.
In November, the semiofficial Mehr News agency reported that Iran sentenced to death four people accused of collaborating with Israel. The four were accused of having interrogated people in Iran with intelligence cooperation from Mossad, the Israeli secret service.
Tensions have also flared between the two countries as negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers remain deadlocked. In the absence of a deal that would curb Iran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, Tehran has reduced its commitments and expanded its nuclear activities.
Iran has been roiled in recent months by nationwide protests sparked by the death of a young woman while she was being held in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.
Tehran has blamed Israel, the United States, and other Western countries for the unrest, which has seen security forces kill more than 500 people, according to human rights groups, including dozens of minors.
Officials have not shown any evidence to back up their accusations that the West has been involved in the anti-government uprising.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Hungary Would Not Arrest Putin Under ICC Warrant, Says Orban's Chief Of Staff
Hungary would not arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin if he entered the country, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said, adding that it would have no legal grounds. Hungary signed and ratified the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court (ICC), which issued an arrest warrant accusing Putin of the war crime of illegally deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine. But when asked if Putin would be arrested if he came to Hungary, Gergely Gulyas told a briefing that the Rome Statute had not been built into the Hungarian legal system. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Prosecution Witness At Trial Of Navalny Associate In Bashkortostan Says She Was Pressured
UFA, Russia -- A prosecution witness at the high-profile trial of Lilia Chanysheva, the former leader of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in Ufa, the capital of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan, has testified in court that she has been pressured by officers of the Interior Ministry's anti-extremist directorate.
The witness said at a hearing on March 22 that investigators also tried to recruit her as an informant during the preliminary investigations of Chanysheva’s case, Chanysheva's lawyer, Sergei Makarenko, told RFE/RL on March 23.
"The judge had to call a five-minute break after one of the witnesses started crying while answering questions. She said after she calmed down that the investigators imposed serious psychological pressure on her during a preliminary investigation, threatening her with repercussions. The witness also testified that she does not consider Chanysheva's activities in the Ufa headquarters of Navalny’s team illegal, emphasizing that Chanysheva is not guilty," Makarenko said.
Navalny's team said in a post on Telegram that the witness also testified that officers from the Interior Ministry's anti-extremism directorate forced her to sign a recruitment agreement, according to which she was supposed to become an informant with a monthly salary of 12,000 rubles ($155), about which she said she immediately informed Chanysheva at the time.
The witness, whose identity RFE/RL chose not to disclose, told RFE/RL that she was "ashamed" to testify at the trial.
"I am just horrified that I was even summoned to the trial. I thought I would manage to avoid the disgrace. I consider it torture of my conscience.... I actually answered all the questions of the investigator honestly, because Lilia [Chanysheva] did not do anything illegal. I know her as a decent person, and certainly I said at the trial that I consider the charges against her to be without grounds," the witness said.
She added that she "wanted to offer apologies to Lilia for this shame."
"I was not strong enough to keep silent during questioning. I chose my own safety, and now I wake up every day with these thoughts," the woman said.
Makarenko said the judge agreed with a prosecutor's request at the trial that the incident with the witness would not be shared with media, but he decided to make the situation public.
Chanysheva, 41, who was arrested in November, headed the local unit of Navalny's network of regional campaign groups until his team disbanded them after a Moscow prosecutor went to court to have them branded "extremist."
The court accepted the prosecutor's request, effectively outlawing the group.
Chanysheva's defense team said at the time that her arrest was the first since the movement was banned. The charges appear to be retroactive since the organization she worked for disbanded before it had been legally classified as extremist.
In January, Amnesty International urged Russian authorities to release Chanysheva "immediately," insisting that the extremism charges are absurd and should be dropped.
Navalny himself has been in prison since February last year, while several of his associates have been charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of his associates have fled the country.
Lawyer Who Defended Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Ihar Losik Handed 15-Day Jail Term
Artsyom Syamyanau, a Belarusian lawyer who defended jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik, was sentenced to 15 days in jail on March 22 on a charge of disobeying requests by authorities. A day earlier, Syamyanau and several other Belarusian lawyers who have defended journalists and opposition politicians in Belarus were detained in Minsk. Details of the detentions remain unclear. Syamyanau also defended Valyantsin Stefanovich of the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center who, along with Vyasna's chairman, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski, and another colleague, Uladzimer Labkovich, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms earlier this month. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
Belarusian Journalist Gets Three-Year Prison Sentence Over Article About Deadly KGB Raid
MINSK -- A Belarusian journalist who wrote about a deadly raid by officers of the Committee of State Security (KGB) on a Minsk apartment in September 2021 has been sentenced to three years in prison.
On March 23, the Minsk City Court sentenced Henadz Mazheyka, a former correspondent for the Belarusian edition of the Moscow-based Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, after finding him guilty of inciting social hatred and insulting authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Mazheyka was arrested in October after he was extradited from Russia. He was initially charged with inciting social hatred. Investigators said later they had found audio of Mazheyka “insulting Lukashenka” and filed an additional charge against the journalist.
Mazheyka is one of dozens of Belarusians detained across the country on similar charges related to a shooting in Minsk in late September 2021 in which an IT worker and a KGB officer died.
The arrests were connected to comments posted on social media about the incident.
Belarusian authorities blocked Komsomolskaya Pravda's website after Mazheyka's article was published about Andrey Zeltsar, an employee of the U.S.-based EPAM Systems IT company, who was shot dead during the incident.
In the article, a classmate of Zeltsar remembers him as a decent person.
Little is known about the shooting, during which Zeltsar allegedly shot and killed KGB officer Dzmitry Fedasyuk.
Authorities claimed at the time that “an especially dangerous criminal” had opened fire on security officers after they showed up at his apartment looking for “individuals involved in terrorist activities.”
Lukashenka has issued thinly veiled threats to people who post comments on social media praising Zeltsar and criticizing Fedasyuk, saying, "We have all their accounts, and we can see who is who."
Multiple individuals have received prison terms in recent months on charges related to comments about the incident.
Russia-Installed Law Enforcement Officers In Annexed Crimea Detain Crimean Tatar Activist, Son
Russia-installed law enforcement officers in Ukraine's Moscow-annexed Crimea have detained Crimean Tatar activist Mustafa Mustafayev and his son after searching their home on March 23, the Crimean Solidarity human right groups said. It is not clear why and on what charges the search and the detentions were based. Since illegally annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia has imposed pressure on Crimean Tatars, the peninsula's indigenous ethnic group, many of whom openly protested the annexation. Dozens of Crimean Tatars have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms by Russian authorities on extremism charges since then. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Moscow Research Institute 'Postpones' Meeting With Nobel Laureate Muratov Amid Protests By War Supporters
MOSCOW -- The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MFTI) says a planned meeting of its lecturers and students with Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov has been postponed amid online protests against the meeting by supporters of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
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Muratov, the editor in chief of the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, has openly called for Moscow to stop its war against Ukraine.
MFTI Rector Dmitry Livanov said in a March 23 statement that the forum with Muratov -- titled Conflict Of Generations After February 24 -- was postponed as "it was impossible to avoid politicizing the talk."
The discussion was scheduled for March 28. February 24 refers to the day the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
"Despite huge interest among [MFTI staff and students] for the talk with Dmitry [Muratov], just the announcement of the event caused a storm of negative emotions, mostly from people who have nothing to do with MFTI," Livanov's statement said. "I would like to emphasize that Dmitry Muratov was not added to the Russian Justice Ministry’s registry of foreign agents and there are no legal obstacles either for his talking with students, nor his teaching activities."
Livanov's statement came two days after several Telegram channels supporting Russias war in Ukraine called to cancel the meeting with Muratov, accusing him of having a pro-Ukrainian stance.
Muratov said in an interview with the Novaya gazeta Europe Telegram channel that when he was invited to the meeting at the MFTI in January he anticipated such a reaction from what he called "ultras."
"I surely understand the reason why the university informed me and the students about the postponement of the meeting," Muratov said.
Last month, the Moscow City Court upheld a lower court decision to withdraw the licenses of Muratov's Novaya gazeta newspaper and its Novaya rasskaz-gazeta magazine, two of the last independent media outlets in the country, amid a crackdown on the free press during the Kremlin's war against Ukraine.
Two Earthquakes In Tajikistan Damage Hundreds Of Houses, Kill Livestock
DUSHANBE -- Two earthquakes hit Tajikistan on March 23, damaging hundreds of houses and killing more than 100 sheep and cattle.
Umeda Yusufi, spokeswoman of the Central Asian nation's Committee for Emergencies, said in a statement that the first earthquake’s epicenter was near the village of Paldorak in the Kuhistoni Mastchoh district of the northern region of Sughd.
The first earthquake struck overnight and had a magnitude of 5 or 6 at its epicenter, Yusufi said. It was also felt at lower magnitudes in the captal, Dushanbe, and in the Rasht region and the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The second earthquake occurred hours after the first at around 8 a.m. It also struck in the Kuhistoni Mastchoh district but was weaker than the first.
According to Yusufi, there were no casualties caused by the earthquakes.
An official of the Paldorak village, Rajabmahmad Badalov, told RFE/RL that some 300 houses were damaged by the earthquake and more than 100 heads of livestock perished.
Badalov also said many residents of the village prefer to stay outside, fearing aftershocks, and will spend the next night in their cars.
Yusufi told RFE/RL that the government set up a special commission to estimate the damages cause by the earthquakes. Prime Minister Kohir Rasulzoda and the Sughd region's governor, Rajabboi Ahmadzoda, are currently in the area affected by the earthquakes.
Two days before the March 23 earthquake, an earthquake in Tajikistan forced many people in the former Soviet republic to stay outside for several hours.
Tajikistan is located in one of the most seismically dangerous areas in Asia. Each year hundreds of earthquakes are registered in the mostly mountainous country, which often cause deadly mudslides or snow avalanches.
Last month, avalanches caused by heavy snow in the eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region killed 17 people.
Ukrainian Military Says Russian Forces Have Left Town In Kherson As Zelenskiy Visits Region
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces says all units of the Russian Army that were stationed in the occupied city of Nova Kakhovka in the southern Kherson region have left.
A statement from the General Staff on March 23 said the Russian forces left Nova Kakhovka as of March 22. It added that the Russian forces looted homes before they departed, taking large quantities of household and electronic appliances, jewelry, clothing, and mobile phones.
The claims could not be independently verified.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
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Nova Kakhovka lies on the east bank of the Dnieper River, where Russian forces redeployed in November after abandoning positions on the west bank.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy earlier on March 23 visited the partially occupied southern region of Kherson as Kyiv's forces continued to battle Russian troops in the east amid what the Ukrainian military said were the first signs of Russian "exhaustion" in the fierce fighting for the city of Bakhmut.
Ukrainian defenders repelled 83 Russian attacks over the past 24 hours, most of them directed at Bakhmut, the city in the Donetsk region that has become the epicenter of Moscow's offensive in the east, the General Staff said in its morning bulletin on March 23.
Russians kept their pressure on other settlements in Donetsk, such as Lyman, Avdiyivka, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk, the military said, adding that "the enemy is losing a significant amount of manpower, weapons, and military equipment."
The claims could not be independently verified.
General Oleksandr Syrskiy, commander of Ukraine's ground forces, said on March 23 that the Russians' relentless push in Bakhmut is beginning to take its toll on their strength and that Ukrainians are preparing to take advantage of their enemy's perceived weakness "very soon."
WATCH: Zaporizhzhya was one of several Ukrainian cities attacked on March 22 in Russia's latest wave of air strikes on the country. Several residential buildings were destroyed in the city, resulting in more than 30 casualties.
"The aggressor has not given up hope of taking Bakhmut whatever the cost, despite losses in manpower and equipment. Russia's main fighting force in this area is the Wagner mercenary group," Syrskiy said on Telegram.
"Not sparing anything, they are losing significant strength and becoming fatigued. Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, like we did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balaklia and Kupyansk," he said.
British military intelligence has also suggested that Moscow's relentless pressure on Bakhmut, which has been mostly turned to rubble, is beginning to lose momentum in the face of Ukraine's staunch defense amid serious losses sustained by both sides.
But Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, cautioned that Bakhmut is still seeing intense combat.
"So far, Bakhmut remains the epicenter of hostilities, the main target of the enemy's attack," Cherevatiy told national television, answering a question about whether the Russian offensive near Bakhmut has weakened.
Cherevatiy added that the second-most intense fighting was taking place on the alignment between Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region, and Lyman, in Donetsk.
Zelenskiy on March 23 visited Kherson, one of four regions that Moscow has groundlessly claimed to have annexed, pledging to restore the region's badly damaged infrastructure as fast as possible.
"We will try to rebuild before winter. Our priority is to restore electricity. Drinking water will also be provided according to the schedule.... I believe that everything will be fine," Zelenskiy said, according to the Ukrainian presidency's webpage.
Zelenskiy's visit to Kherson, the site of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that liberated much of the region in November, marked his second trip to Ukrainian regions in as many days, after he met troops near Bakhmut on March 22, handing them decorations and visiting a military medical facility in the northern Kharkiv region.
WATCH: Residents who have remained in the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiyivka are now deciding to move somewhere safer as danger grows. The badly battered municipality has seen growing Russian artillery shelling. As the enemy makes small gains in areas around Avdiyivka, Ukrainian soldiers, medics, and police remain committed.
His visits came after Russian air strikes on Ukrainian cities killed at least 10 people, including eight who died when two dormitories were hit at a school in Rzhyshchiv, south of Kyiv, and one in Kherson city, where missiles struck a cardiology hospital.
Zelenskiy said Moscow's indiscriminate attacks on civilians shows Russia is not interested in peace and accused Russia of "bestial savagery" for targeting civilians.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not appear to be interested in immediate peace and was engaged "in a war of attrition."
In an interview with The Guardian, the NATO chief said Putin was "reaching out to authoritarian regimes like Iran or North Korea and others to try to get more weapons."
He said Russia was boosting its military production capacity and cautioned that Ukraine's Western allies must be prepared to supply Kyiv with weapons, ammunition, and military equipment for a long period of time.
"President Putin doesn't plan for peace. He’s planning for more war," Stoltenberg said.
European Union leaders were poised on March 23 to endorse a plan for sending Ukraine 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition within the next 12 months.
EU foreign and defense ministers approved the plan for a fast-track purchasing procedure earlier this week, and the leaders of the bloc's 27 member nations will give it their political blessing at a summit in Brussels, according to several senior EU diplomats.
Zelenskiy thanked leaders for the initiative during a video call.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa
IOC's Bach Defends Stance On Russian, Belarusian Athletes Amid Pro-Ukraine Protest
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach on March 22 defended the IOC's efforts to create a pathway for Russian and Belarusian athletes to return to competition. Bach reiterated the IOC's position that it would be discriminatory to exclude Russians and Belarusians based on citizenship alone and argued that the Olympics can help promote dialogue. German Public broadcaster WDR reported that nearly 200 pro-Ukraine protesters gathered outside the venue where Bach spoke, calling for Russia to be excluded from the Olympics. The IOC has argued in favor of letting the two countries' athletes compete as neutrals. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Urges Brussels To Speed Up EU Enlargement Process
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has spoken out in favor of EU enlargement, saying that, if the countries in the Western Balkans were already in the European Union, migration problems could be handled more efficiently.
During a visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina on March 22, Szijjarto said that, if the Western Balkans were already EU territory, “we could deal with the problems and difficulties of migration that we face today much more efficiently, and the EU would be stronger.”
More than 265,000 migrants were stopped on Hungary’s southern border last year, Szijjarto said, adding that migration is the main point of cooperation between the Hungarian Interior Ministry and the Bosnian Security Ministry.
“We know that the better and more efficient the cooperation in the Western Balkan countries, the more efficient the migration management is," he said.
Hungary also wants the EU enlargement process to speed up because the stability of Bosnia “is also of great importance for us.”
The EU has promised Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia closer relations, but the integration process has been stalled for years. The EU last admitted a new member, Croatia, in 2013.
“We expect Brussels to take concrete steps on the path of faster accession of [Bosnia] to the EU," Szijjarto said after meeting with Bosnian Foreign Minister Elmedin Konakovic in Sarajevo.
He also addressed sanctions imposed by the EU on Western Balkan countries, saying they had been unsuccessful. Szijjarto's comments echoed those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has called for the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia imposed over its war in Ukraine.
Critics have said Hungary's position on sanctions has placed short-term economic issues ahead of long-term security, democracy, and human rights.
Szijjarto added that Bosnia and Hungary achieved trade worth 600 million euros ($652 million) last year, which is an increase of 20 percent compared to the previous year.
Konakovic said that cooperation with Hungary is good, the volume of trade is growing, and new opportunities are opening up. He also thanked Szijjarto for supporting Bosnia’s EU candidate status and said Hungarian experts are helping Bosnia in the process.
Szijjarto said later at an energy summit in Trebinje that Hungary does not intend to stop purchasing natural gas from Russia. In the current geopolitical situation, a safe supply of natural gas to Hungary is impossible without Russian sources, he said.
"We are trying to diversify the supply, but with the purchase also from Russia. This is in our interest," said Szijjarto.
After Russia launched its war on Ukraine in February 2022, Brussels imposed several rounds of sanctions limiting the sale of Russian oil and natural gas in Western markets but allowed some carve outs for pipeline deliveries.
Szijjarto said that Hungarians want peace in Ukraine, but Budapest is in a specific situation regarding energy. He added that Hungary needs more time for its diversification efforts to be successful.
Konakovic said Bosnia is very eager to cooperate in the field of energy with all stakeholders.
Christian Schmidt, the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, also met with Szijjarto during his visit to Sarajevo. They discussed political developments in Bosnia with emphasis on the country’s progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration.
With reporting by Ermin Zatega from RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Sarajevo.
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Maria Pevchikh Named Chief Of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation After Volkov Stepped Down
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Navalny's social networks said on March 22 that Pevchikh is now the new leader of ACF International.
Pevchikh, who lives outside Russia, first became known as an associate of Navalny in 2020 when Navalny was poisoned with what European laboratries later determined was a Novichok-type nerve agent. She was leading the Navalny group’s investigative department at the time and was involved in the team’s most high-profile investigative reports revealing corruption among Russia’s top officials, including President Vladimir Putin.
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Pevchikh was one of the producers of a film about Navalny that won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards earlier this month.
Volkov, who currently resides in an unspecified EU country, announced the suspension of his activities on March 9 after making "a big political mistake" by signing the letter regarding several London-based oligarchs.
The letter addressed to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell asked for sanctions imposed over Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine on Russian businessmen Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, German Khan, and Aleksei Kuzmichyov to be lifted.
The four businessmen are considered antiwar and have contributed to helping Ukraine and humanitarian causes. But they have not openly and clearly condemned the Kremlin's invasion in what some say is out of fear for their businesses in Russia.
Navalny, who is currently in prison serving sentences widely considered to be politically motivated, commented on Volkov's situation on March 22, saying that "Volkov made a mistake" and "took responsibility for it."
"I am grateful to Leonid for his quick and responsible reaction within the spirit of our principles. This is very important.... I also want to apologize to supporters, ACF donors, and the advisory board. We have corrected this mistake, but there has been a mistake, which makes me also responsible for it," Navalny's statement said.
The opposition politician also emphasized his group’s "full commitment to the idea of imposing sanctions against" Putin and his associates.
Volkov's announcement came after Aleksei Venediktov, who headed Ekho Moskvy, one of Russia's leading media outlets until it was taken off the air in March 2022 amid a Russian crackdown on independent media covering the invasion of Ukraine, published Volkov’s letter to Borrell. It was also signed by several self-exiled Russian journalists, public figures, and politicians.
Venediktov also published another letter also signed by Volkov and others that urged the European Commission to lift sanctions imposed on the Russian businessmen.
Volkov initially denied he signed the letter, claiming that his signature was forged. However, he later admitted to signing both of the letters.
Venediktov's decision to publish the letters appeared to be retaliation for an investigative report issued earlier by Navalny's group that listed Venediktov among pro-Kremlin journalists who received significant sums of money from Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
Venediktov accepted that his company, Education-21st Century, had received money from the Moscow mayor's office for a project that was stopped right after the Justice Ministry labeled Venediktov a "foreign agent."
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Rebuilding Ukraine's economy after Russia's invasion more than a year ago is now expected to cost $411 billion, a new study by the World Bank, United Nations, European Commission, and Ukraine found. The estimate released on March 22 covers the period spanning one year from Russia's invasion and quantifies the direct physical damage to infrastructure and buildings, the impact on people's lives, and the cost to "build back better," the World Bank said. The amount is 2.6 times Ukraine's expected 2022 gross domestic product and is up sharply from an estimate of $349 billion released last September. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
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