Poles Mourn Lost President
(WATCH: The wreckage of the plane crash. Source: Reuters.)
(RFE/RL) -- Poles are in mourning today following the death of President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other Polish government, military, and church officials in a plane crash in western Russia.
A week of mourning has been called in Poland and a two-minute silence will be held at 1200 local time. Kaczynski's body is expected to arrive back in the country today.
Bronislaw Komorowski, the head of Poland's lower house of parliament, has taken over as interim head of state.
Investigations have been launched in Russia into why the presidential jet, an older Soviet Tupolev Tu-154, clipped the tops of trees, crashed and broke up in flames on April 10 as it approached the runway at the Smolensk airport.
Russian officials have suggested that heavy fog or an error by the Polish crew may have played a role in the crash, which killed all 97 passengers and crew on board. Both "black box" flight data recorders from the aircraft have been found.
In a cruel twist of fate, the delegation -- which included much of the upper echelons of the country's political and military elite -- was en route to pay homage to the victims of the Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish military officers and civic leaders were executed by the Soviet secret police in April 1940 during World War II.
President Kaczynski had wanted to attend the April 7 commemorations at Katyn, headed by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. But Kaczynski -- a frequent critic of the Kremlin -- did not receive an invitation from Moscow, prompting his trip on April 10.
Among the other officials on board the Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft and presumed dead were Central Bank governor Slawomir Skrzypek, Army Chief of Staff General Franciszek Gagor, and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer.
Also on board were the head of the National Security Office, the deputy parliamentary speaker, the civil rights commissioner, two presidential aides, and three lawmakers. (Click here for a list of the known dead so far.)
'This Tragic, Cursed Katyn'
Aleksander Kwasniewski, Kaczynski's predecessor as president, bitterly noted what he called "the horrible symbolism" of the two tragedies, which took place seven decades apart. "This tragic, cursed Katyn," he said. "It's hard to believe. You get chills down your spine."
In an emotional address to the Polish people, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed his condolences, declared April 12 a day of national mourning in Russia, and promised to work closely with the Polish authorities in investigating the tragedy.
"In recent days, we together conducted memorial services in Katyn. We together mourned the victims of totalitarian times. Lech Kaczynski was flying to Russia to personally pay homage to the fallen Polish officers, as a president and as a citizen of his country. All Russians share your grief and mourning," Medvedev said.
Medvedev placed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who visited the scene, in charge of the investigation of the crash.
Journalist Marcin Wojciechowski, a correspondent for the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" spoke to RFE/RL from the scene of the crash: "Rescuers are continuing their work. They aren't moving the remains of the dead yet so experts can investigate the causes of the tragedy. Police and prosecutors are on the scene. Firefighters put out the blaze fairly quickly."
In Warsaw, Prime Minister Donald Tusk called an extraordinary meeting of his cabinet. Tusk called the crash, "the most tragic event in Poland's postwar history" and said he would immediately fly to the crash site in Smolensk. He also reassured Poles that despite the loss of so many top officials, the state will continue to function.
Kaczynski's death marked the first time a Polish president has died in office since 1922, when Gabriel Narutowicz was assassinated by a nationalist after being in office for just five days.
In Poland, tens of thousands of mourners have turned out in central Warsaw to lay candles and flowers outside the presidential palace. Black ribbons appeared in many windows in the Polish capital.
Adrianna Parowska was among those who gathered to pay their respects. "I came here and like others from Warsaw, we are all in shock. We are here to be together, to console each other. It's a great shock because the elite of our nation went there to remember the dead from 70 years ago," she said.
"Right now Poland is really in trouble. We are all in shock and our thoughts are with the families of the dead. Actually, it's very hard to say anything."
In Russia, the Rossiya-24 television channel showed hundreds of people around the monument to the victims of the Katyn massacre, many holding Polish flags, some weeping.
Kaczynski, 60, is survived by his daughter Marta and two granddaughters. He became president in December 2005 after defeating Tusk in that year's presidential election.
Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw have been dominant forces in Polish politics for years. Jaroslaw Kaczynski was not on board the plane that crashed. Polish media said he was due to visit the crash site.
Kaczynski was a one-time ally of Solidarity hero Lech Walesa and a co-founder of the rightist Law and Justice party with his brother. He resigned from the party when he became president in 2005 but continued to support it.
His death brings political uncertainty. A presidential election had been due in October but now must be held within two months, according to the constitution. In a televised address, Poland's acting President Komorowski said he will announce the date of the election after talks with all political parties.
Kaczynski had said that he planned to seek a second term in elections scheduled for October. He was expected to face a difficult race against Komorowski, the candidate of Tusk's governing Civic Platform party.
While the president's role is largely symbolic, the holder can veto government legislation. Kaczynski infuriated the government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk several times by blocking key legislation.
Spotty Safety Record
The presidential aircraft, a Tu-154 painted in the official Polish colors of red and white, was at least 20 years old.
Investigators, who have recovered the plane's two flight data recorders, are trying to determine the cause of the crash, which was recorded at 10:50 am local time.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 66 crashes involving Tu-154s, including six in the past five years. Russian carrier Aeroflot recently withdrew its Tu-154 fleet from service. Polish officials have long sought to replace the ageing planes that carry the country's leaders but said they lacked the funds.
Possible pilot error is being examined. Lieutenant General Alexander Alyoshin, the deputy head of Russia's air force, told Russian news agencies that air traffic controllers had repeatedly advised the pilots to land at another airport, due to the poor visibility. But he said the crew ignored the warnings.
World leaders have expressed shock and sadness over the deaths of President Kaczynski and the Polish delegation, with many statements paying tribute to the Polish leader's patriotism and support for freedom.
Speaking to journalists in Lochgelly, Scotland, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said "the whole world will be saddened and in sorrow" over the deaths of Kaczynski, his wife, and the other passengers on the flight.
The White House said U.S. President Barack Obama has called Tusk -- whom he had just met in Prague on April 8 at a dinner with Eastern European leaders -- to express the "deepest condolences to the people of Poland."
"Today’s loss is devastating to Poland, to the United States, and to the world. President Kaczynski was a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement, and he was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity," Obama said in a written statement released by the White House.
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The Prosecutor-General's Office said on December 6 that an investigation of the case against Darya Losik had been completed and sent to court, meaning that her trial is expected to start soon.
According to the statement, the charge against Darya Losik stems from an interview she gave to the Poland-based Belsat television channel that has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk. During the interview, she "positioned herself as the wife of a 'political prisoner,'" the statement said.
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Darya Losik was detained in October after police searched her home.
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In a written declaration released after the meeting, the EU “reconfirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans” and called for the acceleration of accession talks.
Brussels wanted to use the one-day gathering -- the first EU-Western Balkans summit to be held outside the European Union -- to tell leaders from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia to provide concrete signals, rather than just vague promises, that they will join that the 27-country bloc one day.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama jointly chaired the summit with European Council President Charles Michel, and thanked him and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for their support and determination to ensure membership talks with the Western Balkans did not “die in agony."
Von der Leyen warned that Russia and China are trying to exert influence in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
"Will autocracies and the law of the strongest prevail? Or will democracy and the rule of law prevail?" von der Leyen said as she arrived at the summit. "This wrangling is also noticeable in the Western Balkans -- Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence," asking whether the Western Balkans are "on the side of democracy - that is the European Union, your friend and partner" or want to take a different path.
The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has reiterated that stepping up the bloc's engagement with the six countries is more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security given Russia's war in Ukraine.
Tensions have also mounted in the Balkans since the start of the conflict and the EU wants to avoid other flashpoints close to its borders. Brussels is also wary of the battle to increase influence in the region by Moscow and Beijing.
"In the Western Balkans, several crises are looming, and partners feel the immediate damaging impact of Russia's aggression against Ukraine," Borrell said last month.
"The shock waves of this war are hitting the Western Balkans. To counter that, we are stepping up our engagement as the Western Balkans remain our geostrategic priority -- the closest and most important geostrategic priority."
The declaration adopted after the summit emphasizes the call for speeding up the accession process, while a separate paragraph is dedicated to the war in Ukraine.
In return for the EU's commitment to a "membership perspective" for the Western Balkans, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkans partners and wants them fully aligned with its foreign policies, according to the declaration.
Five out of six Western Balkan countries back the EU's sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine, but Serbia is yet to endorse the punitive measures.
"On the issue of sanctions, we have a disagreement with Serbia," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said after the meeting.
The attendance of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has cultivated ties with Russia, was uncertain until the day before the summit.
Vucic said after the summit that the talks were mostly devoted to energy but also covered Serbia's decision not to impose sanctions on Russia. Vucic said that it was "not natural" for Serbia to introduce sanctions against Russia.
He added that, after his initial hesitation about whether to attend, his decision to participate was a good one, and he had "the most open and honest conversation so far" with EU and Western Balkan officials. He said that Serbia did not agree with the declaration that was adopted at the close of the summit, but he personally had nothing against it.
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The request was made on December 5 at the post-verdict sentencing stage of the trial at the Moscow City Court.
In late September, a jury found Rauf Arashukov guilty of organizing the 2010 murders of Fral Shebzukhov, an adviser to the leader of the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia, and Aslan Zhukov, deputy chairman of a youth movement in the mostly Muslim region.
The jury also found Arashukov's father, Raul Arashukov, guilty of ordering the two killings. Raul Arashukov was a lawmaker in Karachai-Cherkessia and an adviser to the chief executive of a Gazprom subsidiary.
Rauf Arashukov, 36, was detained in late January 2019 at a dramatic session of the upper house, after fellow lawmakers voted to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.
The younger Arashukov was also charged with participating in a "criminal community" and witness tampering.
He represented Karachai-Cherkessia in the Federation Council. His membership in the regional branch of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party was suspended after his arrest.
His 62-year-old father was also arrested at the time along with several other people, including Rauf Arashukov's cousin.
Both Rauf and Raul Arashukov pleaded not guilty. The former lawmaker has insisted that the case against him and his father is politically motivated.
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The Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.
Viktar Babaryka, a would-be presidential candidate who was imprisoned for alleged corruption last year, wrote on Telegram that Kalesnikau met his daughter under supervision of guards in the penitentiary's infirmary on December 5, where Kalesnikava was transferred over the weekend. She will remain in the infirmary for at least 10 days.
Babaryka quoted medical personnel as saying that Kalesnikava, who lost a significant amount of weight, had a ruptured ulcer.
Kalesnikava was rushed to the hospital from a prison in the city of Homel, 300 kilometers southeast of Minsk, on November 29.
Kalesnikava rose to prominence after she joined forces with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veranika Tsapkala to form a trio of women who led historic demonstrations against Belarusian authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2020.
Kalesnikava, 40, the only one of the three still in the country, has been imprisoned over her role in the mass protests that have lasted for more than two years. She was arrested in September 2020.
Kalesnikava and another opposition figure, Maksim Znak, were sentenced to prison terms of 11 years and 10 years, respectively, in September 2021 after being found guilty on charges of conspiracy to seize power, calls for action to damage national security, and calls for actions damaging national security by trying to create an extremist group.
Both had pleaded not guilty and rejected the charges.
Human rights watchdogs in Belarus have recognized Kalesnikava and two other associates also being detained as political prisoners and have demanded their immediate release.
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Latvia Cancels License Of Exiled Independent Russian TV Dozhd
Latvia's electronic media authority has revoked the broadcasting license of the independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain), the authority's chief announced on December 6.
The decision, due to come into force on December 8, was made "in connection with the threat to national security and public order," National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) Chairman Ivars Abolins said.
The TV channel's management "does not understand and is not aware of the significance and seriousness of the violations, and therefore cannot operate on the territory of Latvia," Abolins said.
Dozhd said in a statement that the move was "unfair and absurd."
"The TV channel will stop broadcasting on cable but will remain on YouTube. We continue to work and believe all accusations against us to be unfair and absurd," Dozhd said on Twitter.
The NEPLP granted Dozhd a broadcast license in June after it was forced to suspend operations in Russia in March amid pressure linked to its coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
On December 2, Dozhd was fined 10,000 euros ($10,468) for using a map of Russia with Ukraine's Moscow-occupied Crimea on it and calling Russian armed forces invading Ukraine "our army."
The same day, Latvia's state security service said it had launched an investigation in connection with statements "which raise suspicions about the assistance provided by this TV channel to the soldiers of the Russian occupation forces in Ukraine."
Dozhd anchor Aleksei Korostelyov on December 1 called on the station's audience to write about cases of violations of Russian laws during the recent mobilization in Russia and about war crimes.
In making the request, he said, "We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare necessities on the front line."
The security service said in a news release, "No provision of support to the aggressor Russia is justifiable," adding that anyone helping the Russian forces was subject to criminal liability.
Other news organizations have also relocated operations to Riga.
Following the forced suspension of its operations in Russia in March, RFE/RL opened a news bureau in the Latvian capital, which is also currently hosting Novaya Gazeta Europe and German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle's Moscow bureau.
The city has also hosted independent news website Meduza since 2014.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Bulgaria Denies Border Police Fired At Refugees Illegally Crossing From Turkey
Bulgaria has denied that its border police fired at refugees on the border with Turkey a day after the release of a video showing a man being shot at the border.
The denials are included in statements on December 6 from Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, Acting Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev, and the press center of the Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry statement said there was no evidence that Syrian refugees were shot at the Bulgarian-Turkish border on October 3, when border patrols prevented an attempted border crossing by a group of about 65 people.
The ministry said the group retreated back to Turkish territory after spotting the border patrol but returned “displaying aggressive and hostile behavior which escalated into physical violence," resulting in the injury of a border police officer, who was hit by a stone, and damage to a police vehicle and the windows of a guard booth.
Noting that the incident was two months ago, Geshev said he hoped it would not be used “situationally to harm the people because Bulgaria does not deserve that.” Bulgaria is “a European country and we use European standards," Geshev said on December 6, adding that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has not established that a shooting against refugees took place, and saying this was similar to the conclusion of the Interior Ministry.
The video, which was released on December 5, showed an asylum seeker collapsing to the ground after being struck by a bullet that penetrates his hand and lodges in his chest. In a separate video recorded days later, the man identified himself as 19-year-old Abdullah el-Rustum of Syria. He said he was shot by Bulgarian border guards after his group was caught illegally entering Bulgaria and pushed back to Turkey.
The videos were part of a joint investigation by several European media outlets, including RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Demerdzhiev confirmed at a briefing on December 5 that there was no evidence that shots were fired by officers of the Interior Ministry. The acting minister described the journalistic investigation as biased.
"There is no evidence in this incident that a shot was fired by a Bulgarian border policeman or that active actions were taken that in any way violated the human rights of anyone," Demerdzhiev said.
His statement confirms the official position of the Interior Ministry on the incident, which had been sent to RFE/RL. According to the statement, the refugees showed "aggressive and hostile behavior, which escalated into physical violence -- throwing stones and burning objects at the Bulgarian police officers, their official car, and the security booth."
The ministry’s press center adds that it was not clear in the video from which direction the shot that wounded Rustum came. However, it emphasized that after the investigation it became clear that “no shots were fired from our side."
The European Commission on December 6 urged Bulgaria to thoroughly investigate the shooting. European Commission spokeswoman Anitta Hipper told reporters that Brussels expects authorities in the EU member country to investigate any allegations and to follow up swiftly and effectively.
The Bulgarian government has said its border guards have encountered more aggression from people trying to illegally enter the country. Officials last month reported that a Bulgarian police officer was shot dead by an unidentified person at the border with Turkey and two police officers were killed in August when they were hit by a bus carrying migrants.
With reporting by AP
U.S. Not Encouraging Strikes In Russia, State Department Says After Another Russian Air Base Hit
Another Russian airfield was set ablaze by a drone strike on December 6, a day after Russia said two of its air bases, including one located hundreds of kilometers from Ukraine, had been hit by drones.
The U.S. State Department said there was no confirmation the strikes were carried out by Ukraine, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States has "neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia."
He added that it is important to understand what Ukrainians are living through every day with the "ongoing Russian aggression," accusing Russia of "weaponizing winter" through attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, around 90 kilometers north of the Ukraine border, released pictures of black smoke above an airfield, where the governor said an oil storage tank had gone up in flames.
Ukraine did not directly claim responsibility for the strike or two on December 5 that targeted a Russian military air base about 600 kilometers east of Ukraine in the Saratov region and another at an airfield outside Ryazan southeast of Moscow.
Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the air base in Saratov is Russia's only base fully equipped for the long-range bombers Russia has used in its campaign to damage Ukraine's energy grid.
A senior Ukrainian official quoted on December 5 anonymously by The New York Times, said the drones were launched from Ukrainian territory and at least two planes were destroyed at one of the Russian bases and several more were damaged.
“All this complicates the operation against Ukraine,” Arestovych said. “Yesterday, thanks to their 'unsuccessful smoking,' we achieved a very big result," he said, poking fun at an earlier claim by Russia that explosions at one of its bases had been caused by carelessness with cigarettes.
Russia responded to the December 5 attacks with what it called a "massive strike on Ukraine's military control system," though it did not identify any specific military targets. The Russian missiles destroyed homes and knocked out power as part of the ongoing campaign against Ukraine's civilian infrastructure.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on December 6 that strikes on Ukraine’s energy and transport infrastructure were militarily justified.
The strikes have hit “system of military command, armament plants, and objects connected to them in order to break Ukraine's military potential,” he said.
He claimed that Russian military operations were continuing successfully, and that Moscow's forces had taken a number of settlements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions while inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainian side.
Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Malyar said very heavy battles were taking place in the Donetsk region, "and the price is very high."
"For us, the epicenter of hostilities today is the Donetsk region, and the enemy has concentrated most of its forces there,” she said.
It was the sixth time in memory that Russian forces had tried to push to the borders of the Donetsk region and failed, she added.
"We must understand that when we liberate the temporarily occupied territories, it is a victory. When we stand firm and don't let the enemy in, it's also a victory," Malyar emphasized.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine earlier reported that Russian troops were concentrating their main efforts on conducting offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka areas of the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian forces fought off a fresh round of Russian attacks in the east, Ukraine's General Staff said on December 6, as Russian troops continued their relentless offensive in the Bakhmut and Avdiyivka areas of Donetsk region, and tank and artillery bombardment hit some 20 settlements in the area, including Soledar, Verkhnokamyanske, Andriyivka, and Yakovlyivka.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who visited troops on the front line in the Donbas region, praised soldiers in a selfie video filmed near Bakhmut. He presented medals and shook hands with troops in a hangar.
The president's office said Zelenskiy made the December 6 visit to hand the soldiers state awards on Ukraine's Day of the Armed Forces.
"Today is the day of our gratitude. This is exactly the meaning of December 6 -- and it is forever," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. Ukrainians celebrate the Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine "with words of gratitude, feelings of gratitude, tears of gratitude," he said.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and dpa
Romania Starts Sending Natural Gas To Moldova Through Pipeline
Romania has started transporting natural gas to Moldova, which is struggling to meet energy demand amid Russia's war against Ukraine. Gas began arriving on December 3 through a pipeline connecting Iasi in eastern Romania with the Moldovan border town of Ungheni, state news agency Agerpres reported, citing Romanian gas distributor Transgaz. The 43-kilometer pipeline, unveiled in 2014 to reduce dependence on supplies from Russia, has not been used until now. Moldova connected it in 2019 to supply Chisinau, and the compressor stations were commissioned in 2021. To read the full story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.
Montenegro Reaffirms Its Support For Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic Path
The prime minister of Montenegro and president of Ukraine have signed a joint declaration on Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic perspective. Dritan Abazovic and Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed the declaration on December 5 in an online meeting. Montenegro is the third country in Europe after Belgium and the Czech Republic to sign the declaration. It reaffirms Montenegro's support for Ukraine's efforts to become a full-fledged part of the Euro-Atlantic society, the government of Montenegro said. Zelenskiy thanked all Montenegrins for their support and for accepting Ukrainian refugees. Abazovic said that Ukrainians are fighting for their sovereignty and a chance to live in democracy. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.
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Kyiv Claims Russia Used Banned Chemical Weapon7
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U.S. Not Encouraging Strikes In Russia, State Department Says After Another Russian Air Base Hit