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Pro-Moscow Parties Win Poll In Rebel Georgian Region

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity votes in Tskhinvali on May 31.
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Parties supporting the pro-Moscow leader of Georgia's rebel South Ossetia province won parliamentary elections by a landslide, the region's chief spokeswoman has said.

The May 31 vote, denounced by Georgia as illegal, is the region's first election since Russian forces repelled a Georgian attempt to retake the region by force last August and pushed deep into Georgian territory.

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity has hailed the election as a vindication of South Ossetia's independence -- recognized only by Russia and Nicaragua.

"Preliminary results show Unity is leading, followed by the Communists and the People's Party," South Ossetia's minister for press and information, Irina Gagloyeva, told Reuters by telephone from the region's capital, Tskhinvali.

All three parties support Kokoity, a 44-year-old former wrestler. Official results will be published later on June 1, she said, adding: "Turnout was at least 75 percent."

The opposition Fatherland Socialist Party, which is harshly critical of Kokoity, finished a distant fourth.

"No major violations were registered," Gagloyeva said, responding to earlier opposition speculation that Kokoity would rig the vote to change the constitution to allow him to seek a third term. "Journalists and numerous observers could see this."

"As for the opposition, it only sees what it wants to see," she said. "This is their daily bread -- to talk about things that never happened."

Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- another rebel Georgian region -- as independent states after its five-day war with Georgia in August last year.

The opposition says Kokoity has crushed dissent and squandered the funds sent by Moscow for rebuilding.

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Millions In Extra Funding Pledged For ICC Work In Ukraine

British Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the countries "share the belief that President Putin and the wider leadership must be held to account." (file photo)

An international conference in London has raised 4 million pounds ($4.9 million) to support the International Criminal Court (ICC) in its investigations into alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Justice ministers from over 40 countries met in London on March 20 after the court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him in the abduction of children from Ukraine. British Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the countries "share the belief that President Putin and the wider leadership must be held to account," adding, "Let's make sure that we back up our words with deeds." To read the original story by AP, click here.

Iran's Protest Anthem Played At White House Norouz Celebration

First lady Jill Biden accepts the award for best song for social change on behalf of Shervin Hajipour for Baraye at the 65th annual Grammy Awards on February 5.

A video of Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour performing the protest anthem Baraye played on March 20 at a White House celebration marking Norouz, the Persian New Year. The video was played just before President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden hosted the event. Biden told the audience that the traditional New Year inspired "hope for women of Iran who are fighting for their human rights and fundamental freedoms." The song instantly became associated with the political upheaval in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody for an alleged violation of Iran's hijab law.

EU Extends Iran Sanctions To Judges, Clerical Council

European ministers agreed to add eight Iranians and one of the Tehran government's most powerful bodies to EU sanctions lists, alleging human rights violations. The individuals -- including clerics, judges, and a broadcaster -- are accused of playing leading roles in Iran's crackdown on anti-government protests. The EU said it was in particular "sanctioning members of the judiciary responsible for handing down death sentences in unfair trials and for the torturing of convicts." The government institution, the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution, was said to have "promoted several projects undermining the freedom of girls and women and discriminating against minorities."

Iranian Teachers' Union Warns Government Over Failing To Meet Its Demands

In recent years, Iranian teachers have taken to the streets across the country to demand better pay and working conditions.

A teachers' union in Iran has warned the government that if its demands are not met, its members will take to the streets in May, adding to the social and economic unrest that has plagued the country for almost a year.

The Coordinating Council of Teachers' Syndicates said in a statement on March 19 that imprisonment, dismissal, deportation, and court sentences have failed to deter teachers from their desire to accompany the people of Iran in the direction of fundamental changes in the Islamic republic.

"The tyranny can no longer stand against The Power of Powerless", the statement added, referring to a political essay written by the Czech communist-era dissident Vaclav Havel.

In recent years, Iranian teachers have taken to the streets across the country to demand better pay and working conditions. In response, the authorities have summoned, detained, and jailed a growing number of protesters and activists, actions that have failed to stop the rallies.

The statement, published just ahead of the beginning of the Persian New Year on March 21, referred to the last year as "a year full of glory and complaints" and added that "the stance of teachers and students together will promise days full of awareness."

Unrest has rattled Iran since last summer in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into demonstrations, which officials across the country have since tried to quell with harsh measures.

The activist HRANA news agency said that more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Thousands have been arrested in the clampdown, with the judiciary handing down harsh sentences -- including the death penalty -- to protesters.

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

Blinken Offers U.S. Support To Facilitate Bilateral Peace Between Armenia, Azerbaijan

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian (file photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has offered support in facilitating bilateral peace discussions with Azerbaijan in a phone call on March 20 with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.

The U.S. State Department said that in the call Blinken "reiterated U.S. support for direct talks and diplomacy to support a lasting and sustainable peace in the South Caucasus and stressed that there is no military solution."

The statement also said Blinken thanked Pashinian “for Armenia’s continued commitment to peace and encouraged concrete steps forward in finding solutions to outstanding issues.”

According to the press service of the Armenian prime minister's office, Blinken reiterated his call for the immediate unblocking of the Lachin Corridor, the mountain road that links Armenia and the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, and stressed that the United States is ready to continue supporting the process.

Pashinian and Blinken exchanged views on the prospects for the settlement of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and the opening of communication ties in the region, according to the prime minister’s press service.

Pashinian also expressed concern over the recent aggressive rhetoric of Azerbaijan.

Tensions have flared recently as the Lachin Corridor has been blocked by government-backed Azerbaijani protesters since December 12.

The availability of food in Nagorno-Karabakh has become acute due to irregular deliveries, and prices for food and other goods have risen significantly. There have also been periodic interruptions in the supply of gas and electricity.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed Nagorno-Karabakh at a meeting in Moscow with his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan. Lavrov said that the problem of the Lachin Corridor should be considered exclusively in the context of trilateral statements, and emphasized that each side has its own obligations.

He did not specify what Armenia should do in connection with the opening of the corridor but said the issues of rights and security guarantees for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh should be resolved between representatives of Karabakh and Baku.

Lavrov also lashed out at Brussels and Washington for "imposing their supervision" on the peace talks between Yerevan and Baku, accusing the West of "undisguised attempts...to undermine the region's security architecture" and "tear Russia away" from the region.

Lavrov's meeting with Mirzoyan came days after Pashinian said he had complained to Russian President Vladimir Putin about "problems" with Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh, warning of an escalation in the region.

Baku and Yerevan have been locked in a conflict over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for years, and the United States and European Union have recently taken the lead role in peace talks between them.

Armenian-backed separatists seized the mainly Armenian-populated region from Azerbaijan during a war in the early 1990s that killed some 30,000 people.

Diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict brought little progress and the two sides fought another war in 2020 that lasted six weeks before a Russia-brokered cease-fire, which resulted in Armenia losing control over parts of the region and seven adjacent districts.

Armenia's Defense Ministry on March 12 rejected as "untrue" an accusation from Azerbaijan that Yerevan is transporting military equipment to the Nagorno-Karabakh region over ground routes bypassing the Lachin Corridor.

Nagorno-Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan.

Russia Adds Institute For Statecraft To 'Undesirable Organizations' List

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office announced the decision on March 20. (file photo)

Russia has declared the Institute for Statecraft of Great Britain an "undesirable" organization amid an ongoing crackdown on international and domestic NGOs, civil society, and independent journalists. The Prosecutor-General's Office announced the decision on March 20, saying that the group's activities pose a “threat to the basis of [Russia's] Constitutional order, territorial integrity, and security." The "undesirable organization" law, adopted in 2015, was part of a series of regulations pushed by the Kremlin which squeezed many nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from foreign sources. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

EU Member States Agree To Send 1 Million Ammunition Shells To Ukraine

Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (file photo)

European Union member states have agreed to supply 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition to Ukraine, Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said while attending a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels. "We have reached a political consensus to send to Ukraine one million rounds of 155-millimeter-caliber ammunition," he told reporters, adding that the shells would be sent within 12 months. "There are many, many details still to (be) solved but for me, it is most important that we conclude these negotiations and it shows me one thing: If there is a will, there is a way." To read the original report by Reuters, click here.

Russia Launches Probe Of ICC After It Issues Arrest Warrant For Putin

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Ahmad Khan (file photo)

Russia's Investigative Committee said on March 20 that it has started investigating International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Ahmad Khan and the court's three judges after an arrest warrant was issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin last week. According to the committee, The Hague-based court’s officials are suspected of "preparation of an attack on a representative of a foreign state who is under international protection to complicate the international situation." The ICC issued the arrest warrant for Putin and his commissioner for children's rights on March 17. The two are accused of committing a war crime by unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Iranian Rights Violations May Amount To Crimes Against Humanity, UN Expert Says

Javaid Rehman, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran (file photo)

Iran's authorities have committed violations in recent months that may amount to crimes against humanity, a UN-appointed expert told the Human Rights Council on March 20, citing cases of murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, rape, sexual violence, and persecution. Iran has been swept by protests since the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in custody last September. Addressing the Geneva-based council, Javaid Rehman, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, said he had evidence that Amini died "as a result of beatings by the state morality police." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Britain Sanctions More Iranian Officials Involved In Rights Abuses, Financing IRGC

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly

Britain on March 20 sanctioned more Iranian officials responsible for financing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and for committing human rights abuses. They include five members of the body that manages the IRGC's investments and two IRGC commanders from Tehran and Alborz provinces who committed "gross human rights violations," the Foreign Office statement said. "Today we are taking action on senior leaders within the IRGC who are responsible for funneling money into the regime’s brutal repression.... We will continue to stand with the Iranian people as they call for fundamental change in Iran," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said.

Jailed Iranian Activist Says 'Overthrow' Of The Regime Is 'Logical' Step

Iranian political activist Bahareh Hedayat

In a message on the eve of the Persian New Year to honor the hundreds of victims killed in recent nationwide protests, leading jailed Iranian political activist Bahareh Hedayat said the "overthrow" of the Islamic regime as a "logical" step following months of unrest.

In a letter written from the women's ward of Tehran's notorious Evin prison, Hedayat said on March 19 that while toppling the Islamic government was not the initial intent of the movement sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody for an alleged violation of the hijab law, "this demand has become the objective on a scale that cannot be ignored.”

Hedayat, who is currently in prison for participating in the anti-government protests that erupted after Amini's death last September, listed the names of several protesters who were killed during the unrest, as well as four protesters who were sentenced to death and then executed as part of the judiciary's crackdown aimed at intimidating the demonstrators, thousands of whom have been arrested.

She added that the Islamic authority "has become the most immoral element of Iranians' daily lives and its survival is a denial of our survival, our children's survival, and our land. Therefore, the logic of overthrow is still in place."

The letter emphasizes the protesters' determination to "take back Iran" after the death of Amini.

Along with the execution of four protesters, Iran's judiciary has handed several others death sentences after what rights groups and the U.S. government have called "sham trials."

The executions and death sentences are part of the government's brutal, and often violent, crackdown on demonstrators. Lawmakers have pushed for harsh punishments to try and quell what has become the biggest challenge to the country's leadership since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Hedayat is a student activist and women's rights campaigner in Iran who has been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms several times. Most recently, she was arrested on October 3 during the nationwide protests.

The activist HRANA news agency has said that more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

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

Grenade Blast Kills Mother, Five Children In Central Afghanistan

Five children along with their mother were killed when a grenade exploded in Afghanistan’s central Ghor Province, local officials said on March 20. Abdulhai Zaeem, the provincial director of information and culture, told the dpa news agency that the incident happened on March 19 in the provincial capital Firozkoh, while the children were playing with a hand grenade inside their house. Unexploded military supplies left from decades of war often cause casualties among children in Afghanistan. On March 17, two children were killed and two others wounded when they were hit by an unexploded mortar shell in Logar Province.

Kazakh Ruling Party Dominates Vote, OSCE Sees Some Progress, Some Candidates Cry Foul

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev votes in Astana during his country's parliamentary elections, which were held on March 19.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The ruling Amanat party appears to have won a majority of seats in a general election in Kazakhstan that international observers said showed some progress over previous votes while a number of opposition politicians claimed that the balloting was unfair.

Preliminary official results are expected from the Central Election Committee on March 20, a day after exit polls said Amanat had taken about 53 percent of the votes cast for the 98 seats in the lower house. At least three other parties surpassed the 5 percent threshold in order to enter parliament, according to the polls, with one showing as many as six parties winning seats.

Slightly more than half of the 12 million eligible voters went to the polls, according to the Central Election Committee. The parliamentary elections took place at the same time as local elections across the vast, oil-rich country and complete a political cycle after bloody unrest last year left at least 238 people dead.

“Democracy is a process that requires constant attention and dedication. We have noted some welcome improvements, including related to election laws, but Kazakhstan will only achieve the stated political goal of democratic development if far-reaching reforms continue,” Irene Charalambides, special coordinator and leader of the short-term observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said on March 20.

“In particular, greater attention to protecting everyone’s fundamental freedoms is needed. Most notably, the restrictive media space and limited campaign coverage did not match candidates’ efforts to engage in a more dynamic contest,” she added.

The vote follows a referendum in June that marked the end of special privileges for the country's former longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbaev and snap presidential elections in November that handed 69-year-old incumbent Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev a fresh seven-year presidential term.

The early elections were the first since 2004 in which candidates without party affiliations could stand for seats in the lower house, called the Mazhilis, as part of a package of electoral reforms initiated by Toqaev in the wake of the unrest in January 2022.

But only 29 of the parliament’s seats are available to the single-mandate candidates, with the rest reserved for party list candidates.

Several candidates in the country's largest city, Almaty, said on March 20 that they would not recognize the results because of "various violations" of voting laws.

Journalist and activist Inga Imanbai told reporters at a news conference with two other independent candidates to the parliament and a candidate to Almaty city council, that a court appeal would be launched because "the votes of independent candidates were stolen."

The four listed various violations, including the improper counting of ballots and government pressure on public employees to vote for certain parties.

"I went to the elections with hope. But I was wrong. However, we will continue to fight for our rights," said Ravqat Mukhtarov, who was a candidate to the Almaty municipal council.

The return of single-mandate district races added some dynamism to a vote dominated by system candidates in a country where no elections have been deemed free or fair by international election monitors since Kazakhstan gained independence more than 30 years ago.

Still, several opposition-minded figures were excluded from races at the parliamentary and city council level on administrative pretexts, while others complained of government pressure on their campaigns.

Of the seven parties that competed, the most well-established was Amanat, a renamed version of the Nur Otan party bossed by octogenarian Nazarbaev, who remained powerful even after stepping down and allowing Toqaev to succeed him in 2019.

The OSCE noted that "limits on the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms remain and some political groups continue to be prevented from participating as political parties in elections."

While the voting "was organized in a smooth manner overall," the OSCE said "significant procedural irregularities were observed."

“The increased competition, particularly with self-nominated candidates, is a significant development. However, legal and practical hurdles continue to detract from a fully open race among equals,” said Reinhold Lopatka, the leader of the delegation from the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly.

“In the future, the publication of results for each polling station will be important for improved transparency and public confidence.”

Last year’s crisis effectively ended the political career of Nazarbaev, who relinquished his remaining positions to Toqaev, while denying rumors of a rift with his protege.

Russian Justice Ministry Requests Disbandment Of Moscow-Based SOVA Analytical Center

The SOVA center primarily carries out sociological research on nationalism and racism in Russia. (file photo)

The Moscow-based SOVA analytical center said on March 20 that Russia's Justice Ministry has asked a court to disband the think tank as a crackdown on providers of independent information continues. According to SOVA, the ministry's March 10 request was based on allegations that the organization had violated its charter by organizing or taking part in 24 events held outside of its place of registration, which is Moscow. Sova said it will appeal the move. The SOVA center conducts sociological research mostly focusing on nationalism and racism in the Russian Federation.

Updated

Rights Group Says Jailed Belarusian RFE/RL Journalist Losik 'Attempted Suicide'

Ihar Losik

The Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) rights group has cited several sources as saying that jailed RFE/RL journalist Ihar Losik has been taken to a prison medical facility after being found with "cuts to his hands and neck."

The human rights group said on March 20 that Losik was "rescued" after what it characterized as an "attempted suicide," though it was not clear how or to what extent Losik was injured or when the incident occurred. His parents told RFE/RL that, without explanation, they had stopped receiving letters from him more than a month ago.

According to Vyasna, Losik, who on March 21 will have been behind bars for 1,000 days, was in a punitive solitary confinement holding a hunger strike in correctional camp No. 1 in the city of Navapolatsk in the country's northeast when he was found with the wounds.

Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison in December 2021 on several charges, including "organizing mass riots, incitement to social hatred," and several other charges that remain unclear.

The journalist has maintained his innocence and calls all charges against him politically motivated.

The husband of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, as well as four other bloggers and opposition politicians and activists, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms along with Losik at the time.

In January, Losik's wife, Darya Losik, was sentenced to two years in prison on a charge of facilitating extremist activity. The charge stemmed from her interview to the Poland-based Belsat television channel, which has been officially labeled as an extremist group by Minsk.

The couple's 4-year-old daughter, Paulina, is currently in the custody of Darya Losik's parents.

Ihar Losik's parents told RFE/RL on March 20 that 10 days ago their son's lawyer was not allowed to meet his client in the prison.

The lawyer, whose name has not been made public, said he was told he was not allowed to see Losik on March 10 because his client did not apply in advance for the meeting and was supposedly working in the prison and could not be excused.

Ihar Losik's father, Alyaksandr Losik, told RFE/RL that he was currently discussing the situation with the lawyer, with whom he plans to go to Navapolatsk to try to see his son and find out what really happened to him.

It is unclear if Alyaksandr Losik and the lawyer will be allowed to meet with the imprisoned journalist, who has been recognized as a political prisoner by human rights organizations.

The United States has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Ihar and Darya Losik, while RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has also demanded the couple's immediate release and condemned their imprisonment.

Top Afghan Taliban Leader Issues Decree Against Nepotism

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada

The supreme leader of the Taliban has issued a decree against nepotism, barring officials in Afghanistan's Taliban administration from hiring relatives in government positions. The shadowy leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, also ordered all Taliban officials to sack their sons and other relatives who are working in their administration. The decree was posted late on March 18 on the Taliban government's Twitter account. It did not elaborate on the reasons behind the decree, but it followed rumors that many Taliban officials have appointed their relatives to high-ranking government positions rather than professionals or those with experience needed for the posts. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Pakistani Police Arrest Dozens Of Supporters Of Former Prime Minister

Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan gather outside a court in Islamabad on March 18.

Pakistani police have arrested dozens of supporters and aides of former Prime Minister Imran Khan as part of a crackdown on those involved in recent clashes with the security forces, Khan's party and police said on March 20. Supporters of Khan's party, Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI), clashed with police in the city of Lahore last week as they attempted to arrest him at his home, and later with police in Islamabad as he arrived to appear before a court on March 18. "Around 285 PTI supporters have been arrested in Lahore and Islamabad," said Khan's aide, Fawad Chaudhry. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Indonesia May End Visa-On-Arrival Policy For Russians, Ukrainians Amid Violations

Russians and Ukrainians have flocked to the Southeast Asian country’s popular resort island of Bali following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine to seek safety and avoid mobilization.

Indonesia may end its visa-on-arrival policy for citizens of Russia and Ukraine following reports of a wave of behavioral-related incidents and visa violations, CNN reported. Russians and Ukrainians have flocked to the Southeast Asian country’s popular resort island of Bali following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine to seek safety and avoid mobilization. About 58,000 Russians traveled to Bali in 2022, with another 22,500 arriving in January alone. About 10,000 Ukrainians arrived over that same period. Many of them have stayed beyond 60 days -- the maximum allowed under Indonesia visa rules -- and have taken up work as guides, hairdressers, and taxi drivers without authorization. To read the original story by CNN, click here.

Updated

Montenegrin President Djukanovic To Face Milatovic In Runoff On April 2

Milo Djukanovic, the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists, has effectively led Montenegro as president or prime minister since 1991.

PODGORICA -- Longtime Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic will face off next month against a candidate nearly half his age after failing to secure a majority in the first round of a presidential election held in the former Yugoslav republic on March 19.

Djukanovic garnered 35.3 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results, edging out Jakov Milatovic, the former economy minister, who received 29.2 percent.

The leader of the pro-Russian Democratic Front, Andrija Mandic, ended up in third place with 19.3 percent of the votes, while Aleksa Becic, the former speaker of parliament, came in fourth with 10.9 percent.

About 64 percent of the country's 542,000 registered voters went to the polls, according to the central election committee.

A runoff between Djukanovic and Milatovic to be held on April 2 could prove pivotal as to whether Montenegro can escape two years of political stalemate and return to the path of reform.

The 61-year-old Djukanovic, the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists, has effectively led Montenegro as president or prime minister since 1991.

He is running on the slogan "Our President," but his three decades in power have been dogged by perceptions of rampant organized crime and corruption.

Milatovic, 37, is a leading member of the Europe Now movement. He served as economy minister in a government cobbled together by the influential Serbian Orthodox Church.

He campaigned on boosting prosperity in a country that averaged nearly 3 percent growth for two decades before huge volatility over the past three years caused in part by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine that drove energy prices to record highs.

Europe Now shot into the national spotlight with a strong showing in last year's local elections in the capital, Podgorica, within months of being formed.

Polling in Montenegro is frequently unreliable, although some surveys have suggested that broad opposition to Djukanovic far outweighs support.

Observers said the election was competitive, though the vote showed that reform of the electoral legislation is necessary.

"There are still numerous gaps and ambiguities in the law. This allows authorities to make arbitrary decisions and participants to circumvent the rules. These are problems that need to be solved urgently," the head of the joint UN-OSCE observer mission, Tomas Mesaric, said on March 20.

Following his first-place finish on March 19, Djukanovic said his 6-point lead gave him a “serious advantage” over Milatovic in the next and final round.

However, Milatovic could potentially count on the support of Mandic and Becic as all three share close ties to the Serbian Orthodox Church, experts say.

A Milatovic victory would potentially represent a new era in Montenegro's political life.

In an interview with RFE/RL shortly before the first-round vote, Kenneth Morrison, a specialist in modern Southeastern European history and politics at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom, said that few presidential elections in Montenegro have been as important as this one.

The last comparable national choice came in 1997, he suggested, when, as prime minister, Djukanovic unseated a staunch ally of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic for the presidency to put Montenegro on the path toward independence in 2006.

"This election could be equally pivotal in that the outcome could determine the country's future trajectory," Morrison said.

Updated

Putin Hosts Xi At Kremlin With China's Proposal On Ukraine War On Agenda

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 20.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, called each other "dear friend" and exchanged compliments at the Kremlin after Xi arrived for his first visit to Russia in four years amid Moscow's deepening international isolation over its invasion of Ukraine.

Putin and Xi smiled and shook hands before making brief statements at the start of their meeting on March 20, which kicks off a three-day visit that the two countries say is an opportunity to deepen their "no-limits friendship" and rebuff what they say is Washington's attempt to isolate them and hold back their development.

The meetings with Xi, who arrived earlier on March 20, gives a rare opportunity to President Vladimir Putin to claim that Russia is not completely walled off from the rest of the world despite his being targeted by an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes.

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 counteroffensives, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war, click here.

"We hope that the strategic partnership between China and Russia will on the one hand uphold international fairness and justice, and on the other hand promote the common prosperity and development of our countries," Xi said as he and Putin began their meeting.

The meeting ended after more than four hours, including a dinner at which Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin would likely offer Xi a "detailed explanation" of Moscow's actions in Ukraine. Broader talks between Russian and Chinese officials on a range of subjects are scheduled to take place on March 21, he added.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington that Xi and Putin seem to be connected in "a bit of a marriage of convenience" rather than one of affection.

"These are two countries that have long chafed at U.S. leadership around the world," he said.

The White House remains concerned that China might provide lethal weapons to Russia, Kirby said. He also said Washington encouraged Xi to press Putin directly "on the need to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity" and said Xi should speak with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy about the impact of the war on Ukraine.

Xi's visit comes just weeks after China announced a proposal for a political settlement in Ukraine that Western countries said echoes Russian talking points, including blaming the West for the unprovoked invasion. The Chinese plan called for a cease-fire and peace talks among other provisions.

Putin, speaking at the start of the meeting, welcomed China's plan.

"We are always open to negotiations," Putin told Xi. "We will certainly discuss all these issues, including your initiatives which we treat with respect, of course."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced skepticism over the proposal, warning that it could be a "stalling tactic" to help Russia on the ground in Ukraine.

"The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia, supported by China or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms," Blinken told reporters at the U.S. State Department.

Blinken also denounced Xi's visit, saying the timing showed Beijing was providing Moscow with "diplomatic cover" to commit further crimes.

In an article published on March 20 in the Russian publication Russian Gazette, Xi said that China has remained "impartial" and “actively promoted peace talks” but presented no clear proposals in regard to its peace plan.

Ahead of the visit, Putin touted his relationship with Xi and boasted that Moscow-Beijing relations had never been stronger.

In a March 19 article for The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Putin tried to portray Russia and China as close allies united against U.S. hegemony and NATO expansion, including into the Asia-Pacific region.

Putin papered over his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, falsely referring to it toward the end of the article as a domestic "crisis" provoked and fueled by NATO.

In his article, Putin thanked Xi for his "balanced" position on the war and said he was open to China playing a role in bringing it to an end.

Putin has tried to justify his war of aggression against Ukraine on various grounds, including claiming NATO expansion was a threat. In an attempt to connect their respective security concerns, Putin warned that NATO was a threat to China as well.

In a statement published in Russian media ahead of the visit, Xi made only a thinly veiled mention of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, saying that "there has been an all-round escalation of the Ukraine crisis."

While noting that China had made "several proposals" on ending the conflict, Xi said that "there is no simple solution to a complex issue" and that both parties need to "embrace" a common vision to resolve the crisis.

Putin and Xi have met about 40 times in various capacities over the past 13 years.

Putin described the Russian-Chinese partnership as one of equals, saying there is no "leader and follower." However, many experts say that China, the world's second-largest economy and a quickly growing military power, is the clear senior partner in the relationship.

China's senior status within the relationship is only growing as Russia's economy suffers under the weight of Western sanctions, deepening the Kremlin's reliance on Beijing for trade, experts say.

China has become a crucial transit route for Russia to import goods banned by the West.

Economic ties, including Russian energy exports to China, will be another key topic of talks.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
Updated

Battle For Bakhmut Grinds On As EU, U.S. Announce Plans To Send Ammunition To Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian forces at the front line near Bakhmut on March 18.

Ukrainian forces repelled fresh Russian attacks on Bakhmut over the past 24 hours, Kyiv said, as the battle for the ruined city in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk continued to exact a heavy toll on both sides as the European Union and the United States pledged to supply Ukraine with badly needed ammunition.

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Russian forces launched 69 attacks over the past day on Bakhmut and the nearby locations of Avdiyivka, Lyman, Maryinka, and Shakhtarsk, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in its daily report.

The defense of Bakhmut continues, said Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, noting that this week marks two months since the fighting for Bakhmut intensified.

"No one believed that under such intense enemy attacks the city could be held for more than a week, two at most," she said. "But thanks to the courage and heroism of thousands of our soldiers, as well as the skillful leadership of our generals and officers, the defense of Bakhmut is holding and the possibilities have not yet been exhausted."

Russian forces continued to shell civilian settlements in the Donetsk and Zaporyzhzhya regions, causing casualties among the civilian population and damaging infrastructure, the military said.

The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group said his forces controlled "around 70 percent" of Bakhmut and were "continuing operations to complete the liberation of the city."

In a letter to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu published on social media, Yevgeny Prigozhin appealed for equipment necessary to rebuff a Ukrainian counteroffensive he said was due in late March or in April.

Russian and Ukrainian forces have invested heavily in the battle for Bakhmut, even though analysts say the city carries little strategic value.

In the Moscow-occupied part of the southern region of Kherson, Russian forces manning checkpoints have been pushing civilians to take up Russian passports, threatening them with violence and imprisonment, the Ukrainian military report said.

The western part of Kherson, including Kherson city, was liberated by Ukrainian forces in November as Russians retreated across the Dnieper River.

In Brussels, EU foreign and defense ministers agreed to provide 2 billion euros' worth ($2.13 billion) of artillery shells to Ukraine under a deal that will include joint EU ammunition purchases, while the United States announced $350 million in new military aid for Ukraine.

The EU initiative aims to provide Ukraine with 1 million shells in the next 12 months as well as to replenish EU stocks, while the U.S. assistance includes a large amount of ammunition for various weapons systems.

"Russia alone could end its war today. Until Russia does, we will stand united with Ukraine for as long as it takes," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the additional ammunition for High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), Bradley armored fighting vehicles, howitzers, and anti-tank weapons.

"As Russia's unconscionable war of aggression against Ukraine continues at great human cost, we are again reminded of the boundless courage and steadfast resolve of the Ukrainian people, and the strong support for Ukraine across the international community," Blinken said.

The announcement of the additional aid came as Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Moscow to discuss a proposal by China to stop the war that has been met with cynicism by Washington, which sees the plan as a way to validate Russia's gains on the ground.

Kyiv has said it needs 350,000 shells every month to stave off Russia's offensive in the east and to be able to prepare for a counteroffensive this spring.

EU member states have so far given $13 billion worth of military support to Ukraine since the start of Russia's unprovoked invasion.

The bloc's foreign ministers were due at their meeting in Brussels to address Moscow's accountability for forcibly deporting Ukrainian children to Russia as well as measures to facilitate Ukrainian exports.

On March 17, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for his role in the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia.

The court also issued an arrest warrant for Russia's commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa

Russia's FSB Raids Moscow Bar After Owners Held Fund-Raising Event For Ukrainian Group

Eyewitnesses said the FSB officers tried to humiliate the workers and customers in the bar, forcing them to sing songs by pro-war artists and paint the letter Z, a symbol of support for the invasion that opponents see as a fascistic emblem.

Officers from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) raided two Moscow bars, temporarily detaining dozens of workers and customers, after its owners last year allegedly held a fund-raising event for a Ukrainian group.

Members of the FSB anti-terrorism unit raided La Virgen Taqueria and Underdog on March 17, temporarily detaining at least 40 people, according to customers who were present. All were eventually let go. Police allegedly used force against some detainees, eyewitnesses said.

The owners allegedly held a fund-raising event last year for Kyiv Angeles, a Ukrainian volunteer organization that delivers food and medicine to Ukrainian citizens as well as equipment to the armed forces. The bar owners claim the funds went to a Ukrainian animal shelter.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has come down hard on any signs of domestic opposition to his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine or Russian sympathy toward Ukrainians resisting his war.

Last year he outlawed criticism of the invasion and the Russian military, and since then many citizens have been handed stiff prison terms for violating those laws.


Following the March 17 raid, Pavel Kosov, one of the bar owners, announced he was exiting his investment in the establishments.

He and other owners were detained and questioned last year over the fund-raiser, their lawyer said at the time. It is unclear why the FSB returned on March 17.

In a statement posted on Telegram by their lawyer Konstantin Yerokhin, the owners said they were demoralized and frightened and claimed some of their customers have received multiple threats.

"We are afraid of another raid and other negative developments and are ready to do everything necessary to avoid that," they said in their statement.

Eyewitnesses said the FSB officers tried to humiliate the workers and customers in the bar, forcing them to sing songs by pro-war artists and paint the letter Z, a symbol of support for the invasion that opponents see as a fascistic emblem.

The FSB officers took two payment terminals from the bars and other equipment containing financial information, their lawyer said.

Underdog said it would be closed for an undisclosed period of time while La Virgen Taqueria reopened on March 19 after being closed for two days.

Serbian President Says ICC Arrest Warrant For Putin Will Prolong The War

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks to the media in Ohrid, North Macedonia, on March 18.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has criticized an international arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court will prolong the war in Ukraine. "My question is now that you have accused him of the biggest war crimes, who are you going to talk to now?" Vucic told journalists on March 19. Unlike most European countries, Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Moscow after Putin launched his unprovoked war against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, click here.

Iran's Foreign Minister Says He Has Agreed To Meet Saudi Counterpart

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (right) greets his Qatari counterpart, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, in Tehran on January 29. In recent weeks, Iran has expressed interest in holding meetings with regional leaders.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on March 19 that he had agreed to meet his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Adel Al-Jubeir, proposing three locations during a news conference. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on March 10 to reestablish relations and reopen embassies within two months after years of hostility, following talks in China. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistani Police File Terrorism Charges Against Ex-PM Khan

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks with reporters in Lahore on March 17.

Police in the Pakistani capital filed charges on March 19 against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, 17 of his aides, and scores of supporters, accusing them of terrorism and several other offenses after the ousted premier's followers clashed with security forces in Islamabad the previous day. For hours on March 18, Khan's followers clashed with police outside a court where the former prime minister was to appear in a graft case. Riot police wielded batons and fired tear gas while Khan's supporters threw fire bombs and hurled rocks at the officers. To read the original story by AP, click here.

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