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Obama Welcomes World Leaders For Nuclear Security Summit

Meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev (left), U.S. President Barack Obama said the two share a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
Meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev (left), U.S. President Barack Obama said the two share a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
WASHINGTON -- Leaders of 47 countries have gathered in Washington for the start of an unprecedented, two-day nuclear security summit convened by U.S. President Barack Obama and aimed at advancing his nonproliferation agenda.

On April 11, speaking alongside South African President Jacob Zuma after meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Obama described the main aim of the gathering.

"The central focus of this nuclear summit is the fact that the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term, and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama said.

"Unfortunately, we have a situation in which there is a lot of loose nuclear material around the world," Obama added. "And so the central focus of this summit is getting the international community on a path in which we are locking down that nuclear material in a very specific time frame, with a specific work plan."

The extraordinary gathering is another step toward Obama's stated goal of a world free of nuclear weapons -- something he acknowledges probably can't be achieved in his lifetime.

Building Nuclear Momentum

At a press briefing on April 9, senior White House official Ben Rhodes said the fact that 47 world leaders have flown to Washington to attend the summit demonstrates the gravity of the threat posed by nuclear-armed terrorists.

Rhodes described it as "unprecedented given the fact that nuclear security has not been addressed by this many nations at this level before." He added the "largest gathering of countries" hosted by a U.S. president "dedicated to a specific issue like this" since the 1946 UN conference in San Francisco.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a landmark disarmament treaty in Prague last week.
The summit comes just days after Obama signed a major new nuclear-arms-reduction treaty with Russia, and a week after he unveiled a new national strategy that reduces the circumstances under which the United States would use a nuclear weapon.

The combination of the three has created undeniable momentum behind the U.S. president's nonproliferation agenda.

"All of these nuclear actions reinforce one another," Rhodes said. "We believe that they strengthen international cooperation in this critical area. We believe that they incentivize nations to cooperate and to live up to their obligations while isolating those who don't. And ultimately, they do a great deal to enhance the security not just of the United States, but of the world."

The White House says its goal for the summit is to forge agreement on how to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists and nonstate actors. A final joint statement is expected to outline how participating nations will help prevent the transfer of nuclear materials and technology.

Administration officials say they want a plan of action, specific commitments from countries, and to build momentum for what they describe as "a very aggressive and international effort" to support Obama's focus on nuclear security.

Securing Nuclear Material

Discussions at the summit will focus on how to secure what are known as "vulnerable nuclear materials" -- the ingredients that can be used for nuclear weapons: separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

"Those are the two materials that can be used for nuclear explosives, and if we are able to lock those down and deny them to nonstate actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism," explained Obama's coordinator for WMD counterterrorism and arms control, Gary Samore.

The White House says terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, are pursuing those materials to try and build a nuclear weapon and their intention to use such a weapon is well established.

In an interview with ABC News broadcast on April 11, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Obama organized the summit "to get the world's attention focused...[on] continuing efforts by Al-Qaeda and others to get just enough nuclear material to cause terrible havoc, destruction, and loss of life somewhere in the world."

Obama's drive to get the governments of the world to secure all their nuclear weapons material is a laudable but tricky goal, says Charles Ferguson, the head of the Federation of American Scientists, a group founded in 1945 by scientists who helped develop the first U.S. atomic bombs.

"We have to stop and ask, what does that really mean?" Ferguson asks. "And it sounds great -- you can put it on a bumper sticker -- but when you really try to analyze it, you say, 'Well, what do we mean by "all?"' What are we including there? Are we just including fissile material -- nuclear materials -- from nuclear weapons programs? Are we including weapons-useful material used in civilian programs? And if that's the case, then [that's] where we run into some serious disagreements, even among allies."


Iran will also feature prominently in summit discussions, as the United States tries to solidify international support for a new round of tough, targeted sanctions against the regime in Tehran for defying demands to prove that its nuclear program is not aimed at developing weapons.

Along with North Korea, Iran was not invited to the summit because it is considered in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Syria -- whom the U.S. has just renewed diplomatic ties with -- also didn't get an invitation, because Washington believes Damascus has nuclear ambitions.

Israel, which has never acknowledged that it has a nuclear arsenal, canceled plans to send Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was reportedly worried that Turkey and Egypt would use the summit to challenge him over his government's lack of candor. Instead, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor will attend.

Bilateral Sidelines

On April 11, before the summit opened, Obama held private one-on-one meetings with the leaders of Pakistan and India -- two neighboring nuclear states with a history of rocky relations.

Obama also met with Kazakhstan President Nazarbaev, who halted his country's nuclear weapons program and has his own aggressive agenda for helping rid the world of nuclear weapons.

A White House statement released after the two men met said that Obama thanked Nazarbaev for Kazakhstan's offer to host an international nuclear fuel bank and noted that the two men share a vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Michael McFaul, Obama's senior adviser on Russian affairs, told reporters that Obama praised Nazarbaev "as really one of the model leaders in the world on nonproliferation and nuclear-safety issues."

Tonight, Obama hosts a working dinner for the group. During the day, he has bilateral meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian, among others.

With Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in town for the summit, observers are also watching to see if Obama briefly deviates from summit business to try and restart stalled talks on the Turkish-Armenian normalization agreements that were signed in October 2009.

RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash contributed to this report

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Russia Adds Arrested Musician Eduard Sharlot To Terrorist List

Eduard Sharlot was initially arrested and handed 13 days in jail for hooliganism. (file photo)
Eduard Sharlot was initially arrested and handed 13 days in jail for hooliganism. (file photo)

Russia's financial watchdog, Rosfinmonitoring, on July 23 added to the list of terrorists and extremists musician Eduard Sharlot, who was arrested in November on his return from Armenia, where he publicly protested against Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Sharlot was initially arrested and handed 13 days in jail for hooliganism. He was later placed in pretrial detention on charges of rehabilitating Nazism, insulting believers' feelings, and publicly damaging an official document. The charges stem from a video Sharlot posted on Instagram in June 2022 showing him burning his Russian passport and condemning Moscow's aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.

Jailed Former Navalny Team Member Faces New Charge

Olga Komleva is a former member of late Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in Bashkortostan. (file photo)
Olga Komleva is a former member of late Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's team in Bashkortostan. (file photo)

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Uzbek Court Again Rejects Appeal Of Karakalpak Activist

Karakalpak activist and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov (file photo)
Karakalpak activist and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov (file photo)

The Supreme Court of Uzbekistan has again rejected the appeal by Karakalpak activist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov against the 16-year prison term he was handed over mass antigovernment protests in the country's Karakalpak Autonomous Republic in 2022. Tajimuratov's lawyer, Sergei Mayorov, said on July 23 that his client had filed a second, so-called revised appeal with the Supreme Court after it had rejected his initial appeal in June last year. Mayorov added that the hearing late on July 23 was held without his client's presence as the court did not allow Tajimuratov to participate in the hearing via a video link. Mayorov added that he is not aware of Tajimuratov's exact whereabouts. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Kazakh Anti-War Activist Gets 10 Days In Jail Over Online Rap Song

Kazakh activist Maria Kochneva (file photo)
Kazakh activist Maria Kochneva (file photo)

A Kazakh court on July 23 sentenced anti-war activist Maria Kochneva to 10 days in jail for performing a rap song online that was critical of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Kochneva told RFE/RL she will appeal the ruling, which she called politically motivated. Kochneva's performance sparked an outcry on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels earlier in July. Kochneva has said she and her relatives have received anonymous threats since her song was posted online. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Russian Anti-War Activist Released From Extradition Center In Kazakhstan

Russian anti-war activist Natalya Narskaya (file photo)
Russian anti-war activist Natalya Narskaya (file photo)

The Kazakh Bureau for Human Rights said on July 23 that Russian anti-war activist Natalya Narskaya was released from an extradition detention center in Almaty after spending exactly one year there. Kazakh law allows those facing possible extradition to be held for no more than 12 months. Narskaya, who fled Moscow in 2022, was arrested in Kazakhstan at Russia's request. Kazkah human rights defenders have helped prevent her extradition to Russia, where she is wanted for publicly condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Narskaya is said to have developed psychological problems while in custody. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

Kuleba Says Moscow Not Ready For Peace Talks 'In Good Faith'

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba (file photo)

Ukraine remains ready to hold talks with Russia provided Moscow proves it's ready to negotiate in "good faith," but Kyiv has yet to see such inclination from the Kremlin, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reiterated on July 24 during talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

At the invitation of Wang, Kuleba is on a three-day visit to China, his first since Russia's 2022 full-scale invasion, for talks to explore a possible Chinese role in ending the war.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"I am convinced that a just peace in Ukraine is in China's strategic interests, and China's role as a global force for peace is important," Kuleba said, according to a Ukrainian Foreign Ministry statement, in opening remarks at the meeting with Wang in Guangzhou, a major commercial and manufacturing center in southern China.

Kuleba "presented the consistent position of Ukraine, that is its readiness to conduct negotiations with the Russian side at a certain stage, when Russia is ready to conduct negotiations in good faith, but emphasized that currently such readiness has not been observed on the Russian side," the statement added.

Kuleba's trip came as a surprise to some observers, given Beijing's close relationship with Moscow and diplomatic maneuvering that has often seen Chinese diplomats keep their distance from high-level Ukrainian officials.

Ukraine last month held an international summit without Russian representation in Switzerland to promote its vision of peace.

The gathering hosted delegations from 100 countries and Washington was represented by Vice President Kamala Harris, the front-runner to obtain the Democratic Party's nomination for the November presidential poll following President Joe Biden's announcement that he will not run for reelection.

China, which did not attend the Swiss summit, published a separate six-point peace plan with Brazil in the weeks leading up to the gathering which called for a separate international peace conference to be held that would have representation from both Kyiv and Moscow.

Kuleba, who reportedly said Ukraine had "carefully studied" the Chinese plan, also informed Wang "about the results of the peace summit in Switzerland and explained the logic of further steps in the implementation of the peace formula as a way to a fair end to Russian aggression," the statement said.

In an Instagram post ahead of the visit, Kuleba said: "We must avoid competing peace plans. It is very important that Kyiv and Beijing conduct a direct dialogue and exchange positions."

Wang in turn told Kuleba that Bejing believes that all conflicts should be resolved "at the negotiating table," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

He added that recently, both Ukraine and Russia had sent signals that they are willing to negotiate "to varying degrees."

"Although the conditions and timing are not yet ripe, we support all efforts conducive to peace and are willing to continue to play a constructive role in cease-fire and the resumption of peace talks," the statement quoted Wang as saying.

China's invitation to Kuleba came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy voiced rare criticism directed at Beijing, saying that China's efforts were undermining the Swiss peace talks by pushing some countries to not attend and others to not sign the final communique.

Kyiv has been hesitant to criticize China, with Zelenskiy often encouraging Beijing to play a role in reaching a peace settlement.

China says its ties with Russia are built on the basis of nonalliance and do not target any third party.

Despite expressing neutrality toward the war in Ukraine, China has emerged as the Kremlin's leading international supporter by supplying Russia with key components that Moscow needs for its production of weapons and as a vital consumer for oil and gas that has helped boost the Russian economy.

Western governments have also accused China of providing crucial support to Russia during the war, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg saying Beijing's assistance to Moscow has made it a "decisive enabler" of the war.

Some 3,400 Tajik Nationals Turned Back From Russian Airports In Past 6 Months

Tajik migrants stranded at Moscow's Vnukovo airport in early July
Tajik migrants stranded at Moscow's Vnukovo airport in early July

Some 3,400 Tajik migrant workers have not been allowed to enter Russia and turned back to Tajikistan from Russian airports over the last six months, the director of the Tajik Civil Aviation Agency, Habibullo Nazarzoda, told reporters on July 24. According to Nazarzoda, Tajik citizens were not allowed to enter Russia due to alleged problems with their documents. Since Russia arrested several Tajik nationals suspected of being involved in a terrorist attack at an entertainment center near Moscow that left more than 140 people dead in late March, Tajik migrant workers have faced increased restrictions inside Russia and when traveling to Russia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

Germany Carries Out Raids, Bans Group Accused Of Links To Iran

A police officer is seen in front of the Blue Mosque, housing the Islamic Center of Hamburg, in Germany on July 24.
A police officer is seen in front of the Blue Mosque, housing the Islamic Center of Hamburg, in Germany on July 24.

The German government on July 24 banned a Hamburg-based organization accused of promoting the Iranian leadership's ideology and supporting Lebanon's Hizballah militant group, as police raided 53 properties around the country. The ban on the Islamic Center Hamburg, or IZH, and five suborganizations around Germany followed searches in November. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said evidence gathered in the investigation "confirmed the serious suspicions to such a degree that we ordered the ban today." The IZH "promotes an Islamist-extremist, totalitarian ideology in Germany," while it and its suborganizations "also support the terrorists of Hizballah and spread aggressive antisemitism," Faeser said in a statement.


2 Injured In Moscow Car Blast, Interior Ministry Says

A damaged car is seen in a parking spot following a blast that reportedly injured an officer from Russia's GRU military intelligence, in Moscow on July 24.
A damaged car is seen in a parking spot following a blast that reportedly injured an officer from Russia's GRU military intelligence, in Moscow on July 24.

Two people were injured in the explosion of a device planted in a car in northern Moscow, Russia's Interior Ministry announced on July 24. Ministry spokeswoman Irina Volk said the explosion occurred when a man and a woman got into a parked Toyota Land Cruiser. The man's feet were reportedly torn off, while the woman received shrapnel wounds. The victims were hospitalized, Volk said, adding that a criminal investigation has been opened. BAZA Telegram channel, which is linked to Russian security services, said that "presumably" one of the two victims was an officer of the Russian military intelligence.


At Least 2 Killed In Russian Strikes On Ukraine As Danube Port Infrastructure Damaged

Several missile strikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, killed at least one civilian on July 24.
Several missile strikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, killed at least one civilian on July 24.

Russian shelling and missile strikes on Ukrainian regions on July 24 killed at least two people, injured several others, and damaged infrastructure in the Danube port of Izmayil, regional officials reported.

An elderly woman died in the southern city of Kherson during Russian shelling overnight, the regional military administration reported.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"At night, the Russian Army hit a residential building in the Dnipro district of Kherson. Unfortunately, a 77-year-old woman was killed and her body was found under the rubble of her own home," it said on Telegram.

Several missile strikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, killed at least one civilian, Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on Telegram.

"The first strike targeted an industrial zone in one of Kharkiv's districts.... The second hit a private enterprise area, setting a building on fire. There are reports of one dead person," Terekhov said.

Kharkiv Governor Oleh Synyehubov said separately that an industrial building was set on fire in the attack on the city's Nemyshlyanskiy district.

Oleh Kiper, the governor of the southern region of Odesa, reported that Russian drones struck the area of the Danube port of Izmayil, which is critical for Ukraine's grain exports.

"The port infrastructure and an apartment building were targeted by the Russians," Kiper wrote on Telegram, adding that three people were injured. Kiper said the attack damaged several port installations and a fire broke out, but it was eventually put out by firefighters.

In Bucharest, the Defense Ministry of Ukraine's NATO neighbor, Romania, said that following the attacks on Izmayil, which is located on the Danube's left bank just across Romania's Tulcea county, it scrambled two warplanes in the area.

"Two F-16 fighter jets took off at 2:19 a.m. local time from Borcea Air Base to monitor the situation. The two aircraft returned to the base at 4:20 a.m.," the ministry said in a statement. Romania's Borcea Air Base is located some 135 kilometers southeast of Izmayil.

Earlier, authorities in Tulcea county issued alerts after several drones were observed close to the border. Debris from Russian drones has fallen on Romania's territory several times in the past.

Ukraine's air force said that its air-defense systems shot down 17 of the 23 drones launched by Russia at Ukrainian targets. According to the commander of Ukraine's air force, General Mykola Oleschuk, most drones were downed over the Odesa region.

Meanwhile, Russia's Defense Ministry said its air-defense systems downed three Ukrainian drones over the Belgorod region.

Ukraine, whose civilian and energy infrastructure has been devastated by incessant Russian missile and drone attacks, has in turn targeted oil refining installations and other fuel-producing facilities inside Russia that work for the military.

In an interview with The Guardian, Ukraine’s top military commander, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, said on July 24 that so far, Ukrainian drones have targeted "about 200 critical infrastructure sites" such as factories, fuel dumps, and ammunition depots deep inside Russia, all of which were connected with "military logistics."

Ukraine has also claimed that its sea drones have sunk or disabled one-third of all Russian warships in the Black Sea.

"It really became a trap for them and for some [vessels] a grave," Sryskiy told The Guardian.

U.S. Embassy Urges Russia To Free RFE/RL's Kurmasheva After 6 1/2-Year Sentence

Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan in May.
Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan in May.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has called for the release of Alsu Kurmasheva, a veteran RFE/RL journalist who holds dual U.S.-Russian citizenship, after she was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison by a Russian court on charges she, her employer, the U.S. government, and her supporters reject as politically motivated.

Responding a day after news of Kurmasheva's sentencing broke, the embassy said it was "a sad day for journalism in Russia."

"We once again call on the Russian authorities to release Alsu and other imprisoned journalists and prisoners of conscience," the embassy said in a post on social media on July 23.

"The suppression of dissenting voices harms all Russians. A free and independent press is at the heart of democracy, enabling voters to make informed decisions and holding public officials accountable," it added.

The court convicted Kurmasheva on a charge of spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

RFE/RL President and CEO Stephen Capus called the trial and conviction -- first reported by AP -- "a mockery of justice," adding that "the only just outcome is for Alsu to be immediately released from prison by her Russian captors."

"It's beyond time for this American citizen, our dear colleague, to be reunited with her loving family," Capus said in a statement.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said late on July 23 that Kurmasheva's case was purely a criminal matter.

"Despite the fact that in the West this topic is presented as an alleged persecution of a journalist, I would like to note that in relation to Kurmasheva, such statements, to put it mildly, are not true," TASS quoted Zakharova as saying. "Her case is being considered exclusively as a criminal case."

Kurmasheva, a 47-year-old mother of two, was arrested in Kazan in October 2023 and first charged with failing to register as a "foreign agent" under a punitive Russian law that targets journalists, civil society activists, and others. She was subsequently charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

RFE/RL and the U.S. government say the charges are reprisals for her work as a journalist for the broadcaster in Prague.

"She’s a dedicated journalist who is being targeted by Russian authorities for her uncompromising commitment to speaking the truth and her principled reporting," U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on July 22 after the news of her conviction.

"Journalism is not a crime, as you have heard us say on a number of occasions, and we continue to make very clear that she should be released," he said.

The Kremlin has not commented on the conviction. In the past, it has said it is not closely following the case and that it wouldn't commen, as Russia's justice system must be allowed to work through the case.

The verdict came on July 19, the same day that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was found guilty of espionage charges -- which he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as politically motivated -- by a court in the city of Yekaterinberg.

A White House statement on July 19 said Gershkovich was targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American.

Unlike Gershkovich and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence also on espionage charges, Kurmasheva has not been designated by the U.S. government as "wrongfully detained."

Such a designation ensures that the case is assigned to the office of the special envoy for hostage affairs in the U.S. State Department, raising the political profile of the prisoner's situation and allowing the U.S. administration to allocate more resources to securing their release.

The U.S. National Press Club -- a professional association of American journalists -- and 18 other media freedom groups called on President Joe Biden in an open letter on May 31 to press for the recognition of Kurmasheva as a "wrongfully detained" person.

"She meets all the criteria. This should happen immediately. It should have happened months ago," the letter said.

"We have listened to the State Department twist itself into a pretzel explaining how there are other factors to be considered besides the criteria, but we have yet to hear a clear reason why [it] cannot declare her wrongfully detained," it added.

Miller did not address the issue of Kurmasheva's designation with reporters, saying only that the Biden administration remains focused on her case.

Russia has been accused of targeting Americans by detaining them on trumped-up charges to later use as bargaining chips in talks to bring back Russians convicted of crimes abroad.

Some analysts have said the move to expedite the cases of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich could be a sign that talks are heating up between Moscow and Washington on a possible prisoner exchange. There has been no word on such talks from either Washington or Moscow.

RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko
RFE/RL's jailed journalists (left to right): Alsu Kurmasheva, Ihar Losik, Andrey Kuznechyk, and Vladyslav Yesypenko

Kurmasheva is one of four RFE/RL journalists -- the other three are Andrey Kuznechyk, Ihar Losik, and Vladyslav Yesypenko -- currently imprisoned on charges related to their work. Rights groups and RFE/RL have called repeatedly for the release of all four, saying they have been wrongly detained.

Losik is a blogger and contributor for RFE/RL's Belarus Service who was convicted in December 2021 on several charges including the "organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order" and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Kuznechyk, a web editor for RFE/RL's Belarus Service, was sentenced in June 2022 to six years in prison following a trial that lasted no more than a few hours. He was convicted of "creating or participating in an extremist organization."

Yesypenko, a dual Ukrainian-Russian citizen who contributed to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, was sentenced in February 2022 to six years in prison by a Russian judge in occupied Crimea after a closed-door trial. He was convicted of "possession and transport of explosives," a charge he steadfastly denies.

Russia Using Disinformation To Undermine Moldova's Upcoming Elections, Officials Tell U.S. Panels

Moldova is preparing for a vote on October 20 that will include a referendum on membership in the European Union. (file photo)
Moldova is preparing for a vote on October 20 that will include a referendum on membership in the European Union. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- Russian disinformation threatens to interfere with Moldovan elections later this year just as the country begins to make significant progress on reforms under pro-Western President Maia Sandu, U.S. and Moldovan officials said at separate events in Washington on July 23.

Moldova is preparing for a vote on October 20 that will include a referendum on membership in the European Union.

Sandu, who defeated pro-Moscow socialist Igor Dodon in 2020 and has since said that Moldova’s future is in the EU, will seek reelection, a test for the country wedged between Ukraine and Romania.

The election will be "historic and pivotal" for the country of 2.5 million people where the transition to democracy and a market economy has been slower than in many post-Soviet states, Moldovan Ambassador Viorel Ursu said.

Ursu said Moldova, which is also contending with about 1,000 Russian troops in its breakaway Transdniester region and coping with an influx of about 1 million refugees from Ukraine, remains in a vulnerable position, as Russia uses it as "a testing ground" for disinformation, which he said "is everywhere" and getting more advanced.

He noted that Russian disinformation used to be in Russian but in the last six months has started to arrive in perfect Romanian, which is similar to the Moldovan language and is spoken by a majority of the population.

He also said he expects an increase in deep fakes in the week before the election, leaving no time to debunk them.

At a hearing later on July 23, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Christopher Smith told members of Congress that the election will be a "historic opportunity" for Moldovans but there will also be much at stake as the country faces Russian aggression, interference, and disinformation.

"We see very clear action by the Russians to undermine this upcoming election and referendum. They are engaging networks of interference financed by the Russian state...designed to deprive the Moldovan people of their right to choose their future," Smith told a subcommittee of the House Foreign Relations Committee.

Subcommittee Chairman Thomas Kean (Republican-New Jersey) said Moldova had been on track to be a post-Soviet success story, but now faces the question of whether it will continue down a Western path or fall back into the Kremlin's sphere of influence.

Smith told Kean that Russia uses a variety of methods to spread disinformation, including campaigns funded by Russian oligarchs that pay people to protest. Russia has also tried to undermine turnout by spreading false information that Moldova will be dragged into the war in Ukraine, he said.

"The goals that we have seen them articulate make clear that they are doing this in order to get a pro-Kremlin candidate in office," Smith said.

Smith said the United States had assisted Moldova to bolster its security and territorial integrity, integrate its economy, and implement sanctions designed to counter Russia's malign influence.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the United States has backed Moldova's fight against corruption and its efforts to get closer to Europe with $824 million in aid, he said. That compares with the European Union’s 2.4 billion euros ($2.6 billion) since 2021 for similar programs.

Alexander Sokolowski, deputy assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, told the committee that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had stepped up programming to support the diversification of Moldova’s energy sources and foster increased trade with the European governments.

Moldova now meets 100 percent of its natural gas needs with non-Russian supplies, but the supply of electricity continues to be a concern, as the country gets between 70 percent and 90 percent of its electricity from a plant in Transdniester, Sokolowski said.

The committee also heard a report on U.S.-Georgia bilateral relations from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Joshua Huck, who said the United States continues to support civil society in Georgia but has seen an anti-democracy shift with the recent adoption of a "foreign agents" law similar to one that Russia has used to suppress dissent.

Smith said by contrast Moldova is addressing human rights and practical issues that relate to the economy, adding that the United States sees "tremendous progress when it comes to their commitment."

Russian Internet Pioneer Handed 2-Year Prison Sentence

Aleksei Soldatov (left) in 2015
Aleksei Soldatov (left) in 2015

One of Russia's Internet pioneers has been sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of abuse of office that he has rejected. Aleksei Soldatov, who served as deputy minister of communications in 2008-10, was convicted on July 22 on charges related to a deal to transfer a pool of IP addresses to a foreign-based organization. Soldatov and his lawyers rejected the charges as unfounded. In 1990, Soldatov, a nuclear physicist by training, led the Relcom computer network that made the first Soviet connection to the global Internet. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soldatov helped establish other organizations that provided the technical backbone of the Russian Internet.

Belarusian Athlete Who Fled 2021 Olympics Disavows Former Team As She Prepares To Compete For Poland

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya poses for a picture with a red and white flag, which is a symbol of the opposition movement in Belarus, during a competition at a stadium in Szczec, Poland, in August 2021.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya poses for a picture with a red and white flag, which is a symbol of the opposition movement in Belarus, during a competition at a stadium in Szczec, Poland, in August 2021.

Former Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who escaped being forced to return to Minsk prematurely from the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 after she criticized her coaches, says she wants nothing to do with Belarusian athletes set to compete at the Paris Olympics.

"To represent today's Belarus at the Olympic Games in Paris means to represent today's Belarusian government," Tsimanouskaya told RFE/RL in an interview.

Tsimanouskaya, who is now a Polish citizen and will compete for her new country in Paris, said she will not approach Belarusian athletes in Paris because she does "not want to have anything to do either with the Belarusian government or the current national flag."

The International Olympic Committee is allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete only as neutrals at the Paris Olympics and as such they will not be allowed to display flags or emblems and their anthems will not be played. They also will be barred from taking part in the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony on July 26.

In addition, no teams from the two countries will be allowed, and no Russian or Belarusian government or state official has been invited or accredited. The number of Belarusian athletes at the games is expected to be very small.

Tsimanouskaya took refuge in August 2021 in the Polish Embassy in Tokyo after refusing to allow Belarusian team officials to force her onto a flight to Minsk after she voiced criticism of their coaching decisions.

She was granted a humanitarian visa by Poland and boarded a plane to Europe and reached Warsaw. She said at the time that she feared for her safety if she returned to Belarus.

She told RFE/RL that the current national flag of Belarus would not be the one that she would raise if she were competing at the Olympics for her native country.

"I would like to raise the national flag of Belarus," she said, referring to the historical white and red flag that has been used by opposition groups for decades.

The flag, whose origins are in the short-lived Belarusian Democratic Republic in 1918-1920, was reinstated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka replaced it one year after he came to power with a flag similar to the one used in Soviet times.

Tsimanouskaya said that after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she stopped any contacts with the majority of Belarusian athletes, as they supported the war.

"There are only two people among the Belarusian national team with whom I can keep communicating," Tsimanouskaya said.

The Crisis In Belarus

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

Tsimanouskaya also said that she is very grateful to Poland for everything the country has done for her and her family but emphasized that it's not easy for her to feel completely at home in Polish society due to peculiarities of culture and language.

Tsimanouskaya's plight at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 drew international attention to repression in Belarus a year after massive protests erupted when Lukashenka claimed victory in the presidential election in August 2020. The Belarusian opposition and many Western government say the election was rigged.

Lukashenka has moved to align Belarus closely with neighboring Russia, including allowing the Kremlin to stage military operations from Belarusian territory since the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

In addition to Tsimanouskaya, other Belarusian athletes and coaches have left the country.

In August 2021, a coach of the Vitsyaz handball club in Minsk, Kanstantsin Yakauleu, fled to Ukraine weeks after he served 15 days in jail for taking part in an anti-government rally.

Belarusian heptathlete Yana Maksimava and her husband, Andrey Krauchanka, who won an Olympic medal in 2008 in Beijing, also announced in 2021 that they had decided to stay in Germany with their child due to the ongoing crackdown in Belarus.

Bulgarian President Admits Blocking Pro-Western Envoy To Kyiv

President Rumen Radev had quietly opposed the appointment of Nikolay Nenev as ambassador to Kyiv dating back to at least April, the president said. (file photo)
President Rumen Radev had quietly opposed the appointment of Nikolay Nenev as ambassador to Kyiv dating back to at least April, the president said. (file photo)

SOFIA -- Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has acknowledged blocking the appointment of a pro-Western former defense minister as Sofia’s ambassador to Kyiv, underscoring a long-running division between the head of state and successive governments over support for Ukraine in its battle against invading Russian forces.

Radev's July 23 statement followed reports that the caretaker government of Prime Minister Dimitar Glavchev used a workaround that doesn't require the president's signature to plug a diplomatic gap that had existed since the early months of the 29-month-old full-scale war in Ukraine.

Radev, a 61-year-old retired general and two-term president whose critics accuse him of holding pro-Kremlin positions, alleged that the government circumvented the constitution to appoint Nikolay Nenchev as the envoy to Kyiv.

Glavchev, who was appointed prime minister on a caretaker basis by Radev in April and also serves as foreign minister, responded that Nenchev's appointment as temporary ambassador was conducted in accordance with Bulgarian law.

Radev said the previous prime minister, Nikolay Denkov, had been "insistent" on Nenchev's appointment to the Kyiv post in their final regular cabinet meeting in April.

"I firmly refused because the candidate does not have the required professional qualities or expertise for this important post," Radev said.

Radev has clashed with multiple Bulgarian governments amid two years of inconclusive elections in the EU and NATO member state over Sofia's provision of military aid to Kyiv. He has referred to supporters of such aid as "warmongers."

Nenchev, who was defense minister in 2014-17, is a generally pro-Western figure who has publicly argued in favor of military aid for Ukraine.

RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service requested comment from the Foreign Ministry and from the cabinet, but those requests went unmet by the publication of this article.

Nenchev did not return RFE/RL's phone calls.

Sofia temporarily closed its embassy in Kyiv as a precaution after Russian troops invaded in February 2022, and former Bulgarian Ambassador Kostadin Kodzhabashev's mandate expired before the mission was reopened in September 2022.

The Bulgarian ambassadorial post has remained vacant ever since.

A former Bulgarian foreign minister who heads a think tank in Sofia that advocates for transatlantic defense and security ties, Solomon Passy, sparked the public spat when he disclosed the Nenchev appointment on July 22.

Vice President Iliana Iotova, a Radev ally, said Passy's revelation had "presented us all with a fait accompli, because I understand that this appointment must become a reality within days." She said it risked "lowering" Sofia's representation in Kyiv.

Tensions between Radev and Nenchev reportedly date back to Radev's days as the commander of the air force, with Nenchev serving as defense minister.

Radev boycotted this month's NATO summit in Washington, reportedly over his exclusion from talks on a final communique laying out alliance members' positions on the war in Ukraine.

Russia Adds 15 More British Citizens To Its Sanctions List

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on July 23 it had added to its sanctions list another 15 British nationals, including what it called representatives of defense-industry entities, military analysts, and publicists who push "anti-Russian" narratives in the media. According to the ministry, the list also includes people "involved in training Ukrainian military personnel," and those who provide Kyiv with weapons. Among others, the list includes Robert Paxman, the CEO of Paradigm Security Solutions Limited; Angus Cockburn, a member of the board of BAE Systems PLC; and Thomas Sharpe, an analyst at The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Ukrainian Lawmakers Approve Presidential Decrees Extending Martial Law

A Ukrainian lawmaker casts a vote during a session of parliament in Kyiv. (file photo)
A Ukrainian lawmaker casts a vote during a session of parliament in Kyiv. (file photo)

Ukrainian lawmakers on July 23 approved bills to support decrees issued by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to extend martial law and a general military mobilization for 90 days starting on August 12. Lawmakers Yaroslav Zheleznyak and Oleksiy Honcharenko said on Telegram that 339 lawmakers voted to extend martial law, while 338 supported the extension of mobilization. Zelenskiy is expected now to endorse the bills into law. Martial law and the general mobilization were last extended in May, the 11th extension since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Lawmakers Approve Bills On Labeling Any Foreign Organization 'Undesirable'

Deputies attend a plenary session of Russia's State Duma in Moscow. (file photo)
Deputies attend a plenary session of Russia's State Duma in Moscow. (file photo)

The Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, on July 23 approved in the second and third readings bills that would allow any foreign entities, including those established by state organs of third countries, to be declared "undesirable." The bills will not affect international intergovernmental organizations of which Russia is a member, or organizations incorporated into the government structures of foreign countries. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia violated the European Convention on Human Rights when it labeled several foreign organizations operating in Russia, including RFE/RL, as "undesirable." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Russia Accuses Detained Russian-German Lawyer Of Treason

Moscow's Lefortovo prison (file photo)
Moscow's Lefortovo prison (file photo)

Russia has accused a dual Russian-German national and lawyer, German Moyzhes, of treason, the TASS news agency reported, citing law enforcement agencies. TASS said that Moyzhes had helped Russians obtain European residency permits. He is being held in pretrial detention in Moscow's Lefortovo prison after being transferred from a detention center in St. Petersburg, the agency said. TASS did not say when his trial would begin and Reuters could not immediately contact his lawyer. Moyzhes joins a growing list of foreign nationals and dual citizens detained in Russia who have found themselves caught up in a crisis in relations between Moscow and the West during the Ukraine conflict.

Belarusian Foreign Minister Arrives In North Korea Amid Warming Ties

Belarusian Foreign Minister Maksim Ryzhankou (file photo)
Belarusian Foreign Minister Maksim Ryzhankou (file photo)

Belarusian Foreign Minister Maksim Ryzhankou arrived in North Korea on July 23 following a visit to Beijing earlier this week, according to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. Ryzhankou will spend two days in Pyongyang in what a press release called a "reciprocal visit," although no announcement was made about a previous North Korean visit to Minsk. Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Yauhen Shastakou visited in April, which then-Foreign Minister Syarhey Aleynik said had "a bilateral agenda with an emphasis on humanitarian cooperation." According to the North Korean news agency KCNA, Shastakov emphasized "traditional relations of friendship and cooperation" with Pyongyang. To read the original story on RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, click here.

Russian's Conviction Of Distribution Of False Information About Military Cancelled

Sergei Vedel appears in court in Moscow in April 2023.
Sergei Vedel appears in court in Moscow in April 2023.

The Moscow City Court has annulled the conviction and sentence of former police officer Sergei Vedel (aka Klokov) who was handed seven years in prison in April 2023 on a charge of distributing "fake information" about Russia's armed forces involved in Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The court's collegiate on appeals ruled on July 23 that Vedel's case must be sent back for retrial and ordered him to remain in custody at least until September before his case is retried.

Vedel was the first Russian citizen to face the charge in 2022 right after Russia adopted a law criminalizing any expression of opinion about the war in Ukraine that differs from official statements by Moscow. The law has been used to stifle even minor expressions of dissent.

Vedel's defense team has insisted the charge is illegal as it came about from recordings of private telephone conversations he had with friends, relatives in Ukraine, and colleagues, and therefore cannot be defined as distributing information.

Investigators say that the Ukrainian-born Vedel in three private telephone conversations said that Russian military losses in Ukraine were much higher than official statistics showed. He also said that Russia's military was killing civilians and that Ukraine's government was not led by Nazis, as Russian officials and propaganda have said in justifying the war.

Vedel, who was born and raised in the town of Irpin near Kyiv, was arrested on March 18, 2022, after his telephone conversation with a Ukrainian police officer in Kyiv, who is his 67-year-old father's friend, was intercepted.

During the conversation, Vedel asked the police officer in Kyiv to get information about his friends and their families residing in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv.

Vedel admitted to making the statements and offered apologies to the court.

Russian troops were forced to leave Irpin and Bucha in late March 2022 after they failed to capture the Ukrainian capital, leaving behind the bodies of hundreds of dead civilians in the streets.

Kyiv, rights groups, and the United Nations have described the Russian military's actions in Bucha, Irpin, and some other towns as war crimes.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in its attacks on Ukrainian targets, and has repeatedly denied its forces have committed any war crimes even with mounting evidence that it has targeted hospitals, residential areas, cultural centers, and other nonmilitary installations.

With reporting by Setevyye svobody

Kazakh President Refuses To Pardon Jailed Former PM Masimov

Karim Masimov was a close ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev. (file photo)
Karim Masimov was a close ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev. (file photo)

ASTANA -- Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has agreed with the presidential commission on clemencies to reject a pardon request filed by Karim Masimov, a once-powerful politician who was prime minister twice and is now serving 18 years in prison on charges of high treason and attempting to seize power during unrest in 2022.

The website said on July 23 that it received a statement from the presidential administration saying that Toqaev's final decision had been delivered to Masimov.

Masimov officially asked Toqaev for clemency in March.

Last month, the presidential commission on clemencies said that it had decided to reject Masimov's request and recommended Toqaev not pardon him.

Officials said at the time that despite the appeal, Masimov still faced charges of bribe taking and money laundering, which were then under investigation.

Masimov, a close ally of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was jailed in April 2023 over his role in the deadly events that followed unprecedented anti-government protests in the former Soviet republic in January 2022.

The unrest began in the southwestern town of Zhanaozen over a sudden fuel price hike. But the demonstrations, buffeted by anger over corruption, political stagnation, and widespread injustice, quickly grew.

Much of the protesters' ire appeared directed at Nazarbaev, who ruled Kazakhstan from 1989 until March 2019, when he handed over power to Toqaev.

However, Nazarbaev was widely believed to remain in control behind the scenes.

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

The authorities have provided no evidence backing Toqaev's claim about foreign terrorists.

Masimov was the head of Kazakhstan's Committee for National Security when the protests took place.

With reporting by

Russian Journalist Zygar Sentenced To 8 1/2 Years In Absentia

Mikhail Zygar speaks at the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Awards at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 2014.
Mikhail Zygar speaks at the Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom Awards at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 2014.

A Moscow court on July 23 sentenced writer and former chief editor of TV Dozhd, Mikhail Zygar, on a charge of distributing false information about Russia's military. The charge stemmed from Zygar's online posts about alleged atrocities committed by Russian armed forces against Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha near Kyiv in 2022. Zygar, who left Russia in 2022, has condemned the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine in his video blogs. Zygar's books -- All The Kremlin's Men, All Are Free, and The Empire Must Die -- became bestsellers in Russia and were translated into English. To read original story by Current Time, click here.

New Trials, Sentences In Belarus Amid Ongoing Crackdown On Dissent

The Kastrychnik district court in Hrodna
The Kastrychnik district court in Hrodna

Belarusian activist Lizaveta Makrydzina has gone on trial over her participation in 2020 mass rallies challenging the results of a presidential election that announced the country's authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka as the winner in the face of opposition claims the voting was rigged.

The Kastrychnik district court in the western Belarusian city of Hrodna started the trial of the 25-year-old IT specialist on July 23.

Makrydzina was arrested after she came to Belarus for a visit from Poland, where she settled several years earlier. She was charged with taking part in unsanctioned rallies. If found guilty, she faces up to three years in prison.

Separately on July 23, the Vitsebsk regional court in the country's northeast started the trial in absentia of businessman Uladzimer Zakharau, the Vyasna human rights center said.

Zakharau was charged with discrediting Belarus and the evasion of taxes and insurance fees.

His supporters and human rights groups say the charges are politically motivated.

The MAYDAY website said on July 23 that a court in the eastern city of Mahilyou sentenced political prisoner Paval Belaholau to three years and four months last month for "slandering" Lukashenka.

According to MAYDAY, Judge Tatsyana Rakhmanenka sentenced the 35-year-old activist on June 20 after finding him guilty of posting a "false" comment on YouTube about Lukashenka, who has run the country with an iron fist for 30 years.

Belaholau was previously handed a 30-month prison term in 2022 on a charge of insulting an official and inciting social hatred online during the unprecedented anti-Lukashenka rallies in 2020. Human rights groups recognized Belaholau as a political prisoner at the time.

Lukashenka, 69, has been in power since 1994. He has tightened his grip on the country since the August 2020 election by arresting -- sometimes violently -- more than 35,000 people. Fearing for their safety, most opposition members have fled the country.

The West has refused to recognize the results of the election and does not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.

Many countries have imposed sanctions against Lukashenka's regime in response to the suppression of dissent in the country.

Moscow Court Fines In Absentia Chief Of International Anti-Corruption Foundation

Maria Pevchikh (file photo)
Maria Pevchikh (file photo)

A Moscow court on July 23 ordered the self-exiled chief of the International Anti-Corruption Foundation, Maria Pevchikh, to pay a 30,000-ruble ($340) fine for failing to fulfill the duties of a "foreign agent." Pevchikh was added to the "foreign agent" registry in May. Repeated violation of the "foreign agent" law may lead to a criminal charge. In January, a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for Pevchikh on charges of distributing false information about Russia's military, organizing an extremist group, and vandalism. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

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