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Russia Says No Summit With Ukraine Until Issues Resolved

Russian-speakers in Crimea continue to be a divisive issue.
Russian-speakers in Crimea continue to be a divisive issue.
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- The Russian president cannot meet his Ukrainian counterpart until issues plaguing relations are resolved, the Kremlin has said.

The terse statement was the latest in a long series of criticisms aimed at Ukraine's pro-Western leadership, particularly President Viktor Yushchenko's drive to secure NATO membership for his former Soviet republic.

It also amounted to a rebuff to an invitation Yushchenko had issued by telephone for President Dmitry Medvedev to visit Kyiv before the end of the year.

The statement said the leaders had spoken on September 14, with the Russian side pointing to "a whole string of problems in bilateral relations requiring thorough, constructive work by experts to be resolved without politicization....

"It was noted that concrete dates for high-level contacts can be discussed once these issues have been resolved."

Relations between Kyiv and Moscow have been strained since the Orange Revolution brought Yushchenko to power in 2004, defeating a candidate backed by the Kremlin.

Russia's Foreign Ministry this week accused Ukraine of pursuing policies "that we can only assess as unfriendly towards Russia."

Russia is particularly aggrieved at the prospect of both Ukraine and Georgia one day gaining entry to NATO -- as pledged by alliance leaders at a summit in April.

It is also unhappy at Yushchenko's denunciation of Moscow's intervention in Georgia last month and his calls for the departure of Russia's Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula once its lease on a naval base expires in 2017.

Other irritants include Ukraine's reassessment of the Soviet-era version of the region's 20th-century history and accusations that Ukraine's policies victimize Ukraine's many ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers.

Yushchenko and other Ukrainian leaders say membership of international alliances is an internal matter and deny any suggestion of discriminatory policies against Russians.

In a statement issued in Kyiv earlier on September 14, Yushchenko's office said the president had raised what it called a Russian proposal for the two leaders to meet in Kiev later this year and that Medvedev had accepted.

It also said the two leaders welcomed forthcoming talks on the future of the Black Sea Fleet and "confirmed Ukraine's readiness to proceed with constructive dialogue."

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After 'Trump Card' Exposed, North Macedonia Scammers Retreat, Try To Cover Digital Tracks

Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.
Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.

BELGRADE -- Around one-third of the encrypted Telegram channels being used by Macedonian sellers to organize online sales of fake "Trump" debit cards have been deleted, two days after an RFE/RL investigation traced the digital footprints between pro-Trump Americans and a Balkan hub of fraud and disinformation.

The cards are part of a multimillion-dollar scam organized among closed chat groups for marketing alongside real and bogus news items designed to appeal to conservatives eager to see ex-President Donald Trump win reelection in November.

In many cases, the sale of tokens, coins, and bills with Trump's likeness are predicated on hopes that a return to power would supercharge the value of such souvenir items or even make them legal currency.

Neither the Republican presidential hopeful nor any of his organizations appear to have any connection to the manufacturers, platforms, or sellers.

"On our return, we'll be three times stronger, don't worry," read a February 26 message on one of several closed Telegram groups where Macedonian speakers previously communicated to further the scheme.

The channel's owner has erased all its content and deactivated the platform.

Twenty-three of the 88 websites uncovered by a digital team from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that infiltrated the closed Telegram groups have been shut down and payment options in 10 cases have been deactivated.

The network involved 69 individuals, two-thirds of them with digital trails placing them in Veles, a longtime center of "fake news" and inauthentic digital activity in North Macedonia.

Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.

Purchasing schemes frequently led buyers to the CopeCart payment platform, which is registered in the United States. CopeCart representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

RFE/RL also found that 33 Macedonian citizens who were selling cards or coins featuring Trump's likeness had withdrawn their products from the CopeCart platform.

Veles became synonymous with opportunism around the Trump movement ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with more than 100 political websites there spreading fake news or appeals on particularly divisive topics.

The sites generated millions of views per month on Facebook.

Security Beefed Up At Moscow Cemetery Where Navalny's Burial Planned

Security has been beefed up at the Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow, where opposition politician Aleksei Navalny, who died in a remote Arctic prison almost two weeks ago, is expected to be buried on March 1. Several police points were set up near the cemetery and a nearby subway station, while security cameras have been installed on each streetlight around the cemetery. Entrance to the cemetery has also been tightly restricted, the RusNews and Mozhem Obyasnit Telegram channels reported. Navalny's body was released to his mother more than a week after his death. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

U.S.- Russian Citizen's Appeal Against Treason Charge Rejected

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

A court in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on February 29 rejected an appeal filed by Russian-American Ksenia Karelina (aka Khavana) against her arrest on a treason charge.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said last week that a woman holding both U.S. and Russian citizenship was arrested in Yekaterinburg on suspicion of treason after she was accused of raising funds for Ukraine's military.

According to the FSB, it "suppressed the illegal activities of a 33-year-old resident of Los Angeles, who has dual citizenship of Russia and the United States, and was involved in providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against the security of our country."

The FSB did not name the woman, while Russian media reports identified her as both Ksenia Karelina and Ksenia Khavana, her married name.

The rights group Pervy Otdel says Karelina allegedly transferred $51.80 from her U.S.-based bank account to the Razom for Ukraine foundation, which helps Ukrainian civilians. It says its only military-oriented program is one that purchases medical kits for nurses on the front line in the ongoing war with Russia.

Washington has repeatedly criticized Russia for targeting and arresting U.S. citizens accusing Moscow of detaining them with the aim of exchanging them for Russian nationals being held in U.S. prisons.

In late March last year, the FSB in Yekaterinburg arrested U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges.

Another U.S. citizen, former Marine Paul Whelan, is also held in Russia on espionage charges. Gershkovich, Whelan, and the U.S. government reject the charges as politically motivated.

While Gershkovich is still in pretrial detention, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.

A third U.S. citizen, RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who also holds Russian citizenship, has been in pretrial detention on a charge of violating the so-called "foreign agent" law. The U.S. government and her employer say the charge is in reprisal for her work.

Indictments for treason reached a record number in Russia last year. According to official data, the courts have received 63 treason cases, 33 of which have already resulted in convictions.

Human rights activists say they expect the number will be even higher this year as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine reached the two-year mark on February 24.

With reporting by Reuters

EU Envoy Urges Faster Reform Pace In Western Balkans, Touts 6 Billion Euro Development Plan

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left), European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi (center) and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (right) talk during a photo in Tirana on February 29.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left), European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi (center) and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (right) talk during a photo in Tirana on February 29.

TIRANA -- European Union Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi on February 29 told a summit of Western Balkan leaders in Tirana that the bloc's six billion euro ($6.5 billion) development plan for the region could double their countries' economic output over the next decade if timely reforms are implemented.

The plan envisaged by the EU would cover the next three years and is meant to speed up both the region's economic growth and its integration with the EU norms and legislation that would eventually bring membership in the bloc.

The funds' disbursal is conditioned by the speed of the reform process in the six countries that make up the Western Balkans and which are at different stages on their road toward membership.

"We have full confidence in all the Western Balkans countries that they will be able to benefit from this plan, which has the potential to contribute to the doubling of the economies of the region in the next 10 years," Varhelyi said at the start of the summit attended by the leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

The host of the summit, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, welcomed the plan, which was approved by the European Commission in November.

“The new opportunity of this out-of-the box plan represents not only the EU's recognition of our decade-long efforts to build a common future against the savage winds of the past, but also challenges us to demonstrate our readiness for a shared European destiny,” Rama said in his opening remarks.

The new plan for economic growth in the countries of the Western Balkans, which was approved by the European Commission on November 8, 2023, is based on four pillars.

The first pillar deals with the strengthening of the region's integration in the EU single market, while the second pillar refers to the deeper integration of the six countries' economies through a common regional market.

The third pillar envisages the acceleration of fundamental reforms, including the strengthening of the rule of law, which would attract foreign direct investment and improve regional stability.

The fourth pillar refers to an increase in financial aid to support reforms that actually envisages the disbursement of the 6 billion euros to the six countries.

Serbia and Montenegro launched membership negotiations a few years ago, followed by Albania and Macedonia in 2022, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have only begun the first step of the integration process.

Another country from the region, Croatia, was the last to become an EU member in 2013.

Former Wagner Fighter Recruited From Russian Prison Gets 17 Years For Sexual Assault

Sergei Shakhmatov (right), who had spent a total of 15 years in prison for fraud and theft, was granted clemency in return for taking part in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Sergei Shakhmatov (right), who had spent a total of 15 years in prison for fraud and theft, was granted clemency in return for taking part in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

A former fighter from the Wagner mercenary group, who was recruited from prison to fight in Ukraine, was sentenced to 17 years in prison on February 28 after a court in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk found him guilty of sexually assaulting two schoolgirls last year. Sergei Shakhmatov, who had spent a total of 15 years in prison for fraud and theft, was granted clemency in return for taking part in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The number of crimes in Russia committed by former Wagner recruits and other former military personnel has been on the rise since early 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.

Russian Blogger Shtefanov Flees Russia Fearing For Safety

Blogger Aleksandr Shtefanov received numerous threats after issuing a documentary titled Mere Denazification in February 2023.
Blogger Aleksandr Shtefanov received numerous threats after issuing a documentary titled Mere Denazification in February 2023.

Aleksandr Shtefanov, a noted Russian blogger and the author of a documentary about Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, fled Russia fearing for his safety. Shtefanov wrote on Telegram on February 29 that he made this "difficult and unpleasant" decision after "the murder" of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in prison and the imprisonment of anti-war sociologist Sergei Kagarlitsky earlier in February. The Justice Ministry added Shtefanov to the “foreign agents” registry in August. After Shtefanov issued his documentary Mere Denazification in February 2023, he received numerous threats from Moscow-installed officials in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine's Donetsk region. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Six Die Of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning In Tajikistan Amid Electricity Shortage

The February 28 funeral ceremony for a family of six who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Tajik capital.
The February 28 funeral ceremony for a family of six who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Tajik capital.

Emergency officials in Tajikistan say a family of six has died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the capital, Dushanbe, while heating their home with wood and coal amid an electricity shortage in the Central Asian nation. The couple and their four children were buried on February 28. Dushanbe residents have complained about electricity outages in recent days. An official at the Dushanbe electricity grid told RFE/RL that the outages were imposed due to a decrease in the water levels of rivers feeding into the Nurek hydropower station, causing a reduction in energy output. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

U.S. 'Too Slow' To See Putin Was 'Different Character' When He Returned To Presidency: Former Obama Adviser

Former Top Obama Adviser Foresees 'A Lot Of Challenges' For Putin
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A former top adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States should have been quicker to recognize a change in Vladimir Putin when he returned to the Kremlin as president in 2012 and more outspoken in confronting his corruption.

In an interview with Current Time, Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama's deputy national security adviser, recalled hours of meetings when Putin did little more than list grievances about topics such as NATO enlargement and actions the Kremlin leader cast as the United States humiliating Russia.

"He would go on and on and on. He'd give these kind of legalistic presentations about how Russia was wronged," said Rhodes, who served eight years in the White House under Obama. "You could sense that this [was] a man motivated by a sense of grievance, and humiliation, and frankly, insecurity in a way," Rhodes said in the interview recorded on February 21.

Rhodes said this signaled that Putin was turning toward "a greater degree of nationalism and autocracy," and that it should have sounded louder alarm bells within the U.S. administration.

"I think we were too slow to see just how different a character he was," said Rhodes, who now writes books, hosts a podcast, and contributes to U.S. broadcaster MSNBC. "We could have been more aware that this was a different character."

Putin wanted to "convey what a strong man he is" and forge an identity of someone who stands up to the United States and other Western countries in a way that he saw as "restoring some lost Russian greatness." He'd been moving in that direction his entire time as a leader of Russia, Rhodes said, but it seemed to accelerate after he returned to the office of president.

The election in 2012 was marked by allegations of fraud and was greeted by protests, including some led by his most vocal opponent, Aleksei Navalny, who died on February 16 in a Russian prison.

Seeing the protests and thinking about his own place in history, Putin came back to the presidency "more aggressive, more belligerent, more surrounded by 'yes' men," Rhodes said.

"All of those things I think have contributed to him being willing to take these kinds of risks that we've seen...above all in Ukraine," said Rhodes, who concurs with other observers of Putin's behavior who believe that a kind of paranoia set in that made it impossible for Putin to "give an inch," fearing that if he did "the whole thing could come crumbling down."

Rhodes said he believes that accounts for the treatment of opposition figures like Navalny, whose death prison authorities said was from natural causes though his Anti-Corruption Foundation said he was murdered. Many Western governments have blamed Putin directly for his death.

Rhodes also acknowledged that people have debated whether the Obama administration should have done more to help Ukraine after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and been more bold about confronting Putin. But he said "the reality of global politics is I'm not sure that any of that would have made a difference…given his psychology."

The most disturbing thing he noticed about Putin, Rhodes said, was that he never got the sense the Russian leader had the ability to empathize with suffering.

Rhodes recalled how the White House would push to get humanitarian aid into some parts of Syria, where war broke out in 2011, and "and there just wasn't any sense that this is a man [who is] able to feel…a degree of empathy for people that are suffering." To Putin, "it was all clinical."

Instead of talking about the people's needs and their suffering, Putin would steer the conversation to "higher levels of geopolitics and history," Rhodes recalled, saying that was unsettling to him.

Putin's inability to feel any empathy for anyone "is probably the tragedy of the whole thing."


In Address To Russians, Putin Warns Of 'Tragic' Consequences If West Sends Troops To Ukraine

Speaking delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address to Russians on February 29.
Speaking delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address to Russians on February 29.

President Vladimir Putin gave his state of the nation address to Russians on February 29, outlining his view on how the war against Ukraine is progressing and Russia's relations with the West, which he threatened with "tragic" consequences if it sent troops into Ukraine.

Speaking less than three weeks before a presidential election he is expected to easily win as he faces no opposition candidates, Putin didn't stray far from well-worn narratives and propaganda, saying the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was needed to defend Russia's sovereignty and security.

"Despite all the trials and bitterness of losses, people are adamant in this choice," he said of the "special military operation," as the Kremlin calls the invasion it launched in February 2022. In Russia, it is illegal to call the conflict a 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.

Putin's address in front of audience of both chambers of parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council, as well as other invitees, lasted just over two hours and touched on a broad array of issues.

In the first part of the speech, he accused the West of "trying to drag us into an arms race" by "trying to wear us down," before moving on to his global outlook and then domestic issues such as economic development.

“The West is not just trying to hold back our development; instead of Russia, they need a dying space,” he said, adding that at the same time the West “miscalculated.”

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking after a summit of continental leaders in Paris, said that despite a current lack of consensus, "nothing," including sending Western forces to fight on the Ukrainians' side, should be ruled out to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine.

Putin said such a move would result in "consequences for the interventionists" that will be "much more tragic."

He also said that such involvement by the West would heighten the possibility of a global nuclear war.

"Russia has weapons which can hit targets on their territory and what they are now suggesting and scaring the world with, all that raises the real threat of a nuclear conflict that will mean the destruction of our civilization,” Putin said.

“Don't they understand it?.... Those people haven't been through any tough challenges and they have forgotten what war means,” he added.

While rejecting Western reports that Moscow was considering the deployment of space-based nuclear weapons, Putin did say that Russia's nuclear forces are at "full readiness" and that his military has deployed new weaponry in the Ukrainian battlefield.

He also said that the new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile has entered service with Russian nuclear forces, while the country is completing testing of the Burevestnik atomic-powered cruise missile and the Poseidon atomic-powered, nuclear-armed drone.

The speech comes before the March 15-17 balloting, which the Kremlin hopes to use as a show of national unity in support of Putin and the invasion of Ukraine.

Russian elections are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and are neither free nor fair but are viewed by the government as necessary to convey a sense of legitimacy.

The Kremlin's tight grip on politics, media, law enforcement, and other levers means Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, is certain to win, barring a very big, unexpected development.

An hour into his speech, Putin had not mentioned Aleksei Navalny, the popular opposition politician who died two weeks ago in an Arctic prison under suspicious circumstances.

Navalny attempted to run against Putin in 2018 only to be barred by the TsIK over a conviction in a fraud case in what is widely seen as a politically motivated conviction.

Boris Nadezhdin, who spoke out against the war in Ukraine, appeared to be headed toward securing status as a candidate until the Central Election Commission (TsIK) barred him saying too many of the support signatures he submitted were not verified.

The TsIK routinely refuses to register would-be opposition candidates on the pretext that they submitted an insufficient number of valid signatures.


Pakistan's Newly Elected Lower House Lawmakers Sworn In After Election Marred By Rigging Claims

Supporters of the Hazara Democratic Party, Pashtunkhwa National Awami Party, National Democratic Movement, and the Awami National Party protest rigging in the election in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 28.
Supporters of the Hazara Democratic Party, Pashtunkhwa National Awami Party, National Democratic Movement, and the Awami National Party protest rigging in the election in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 28.

Pakistan's newly elected lower chamber of parliament, the National Assembly, convened its first session on February 29 where newly elected lawmakers were sworn in, three weeks after an election marred by widespread allegations of rigging.

The oath to the newly elected parliamentarians was administered by outgoing Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in the assembly hall in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

The house will elect its new speaker and deputy speaker on March 1 while the prime minister will be elected on March 4.

In the February 8 vote, candidates backed by jailed ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was barred from running, won most seats but fell short of a simple majority needed to form a government.

Khan, 71, a retired cricket superstar who was prime minister in 2018-22, still enjoys huge popularity, but he is in prison after convictions on numerous corruption charges and has been barred from holding office for a decade.

Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote that he says was orchestrated by the powerful military, has rejected the charges as politically motivated.

The government suspended mobile phone and Internet services during the election day in many parts of the country. The Interior Ministry said that it was done to ensure security.

Lawmakers from Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party shouted "Vote thief!” as Shehbaz Sharif, who replaced Khan in 2022 and is expected to again form the government, entered the parliament building on February 29.

The National Assembly of Pakistan comprises 336 members out of which 266 are elected whereas 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 seats for religious minorities.

These reserved seats are allotted to the parties as per their representation in the lower house.

Khan’s political rivals made a power-sharing deal after the election, naming Sharif as their candidate for prime minister.

With reporting by AP and AFP

Ukrainian Military Says Soldiers Killed In Special Operation In Occupied Kherson

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a sign reading "Snake Island, ours" on Snake Island in the Black Sea on December 18, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier walks past a sign reading "Snake Island, ours" on Snake Island in the Black Sea on December 18, 2022.

An unspecified number of Ukrainian special forces soldiers were killed during an operation in the occupied part of Ukraine's southern region of Kherson, the Special Operations Forces of the Ukrainian military said in a statement on February 29. Ukrainian broadcaster Suspilne reported that a group of Ukrainian troops died during an attempt to gain a foothold on the Tendriv spit in the northern part of the Black Sea, near the coast of occupied Kherson. Occupation officials quoted by Russian news agencies said Russian forces "destroyed a group of Ukrainian saboteurs while trying to land on the Tendriv spit." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Strikes Cause Injuries Among Civilians In Eastern Donetsk

Ukrainian soldiers conduct exercises at a training ground near the front line in the Donetsk region on February 23.
Ukrainian soldiers conduct exercises at a training ground near the front line in the Donetsk region on February 23.

Russian troops shelled the Pokrovsky and Bakhmut districts of the Donetsk region causing multiple injuries among the civilian population, the Prosecutor-General's Office reported on the evening of February 28.

The shelling struck a village in the Pokrovsky district and the cities of Kurakhove and Chasiv Yar, the Prosecutor-General’s Office said.

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.

A 62-year-old woman who was walking on a street in the village was hospitalized with a head injury and a fracture, the office said. In Kurakhove, the victim was a 22-year-old saleswoman who was hit by rocket fire in a trade pavilion. She was hospitalized with brain injuries.

The attack on Chasiv Yar involved a drone that hit around 3 p.m., injuring a 40-year-old man. An hour later, Russian forces also struck the city of Siversk, inflicting life-threatening injuries on a 69-year-old woman who was near her home at the time of the attack.

Unconfirmed reports circulated on February 28 saying that the Ukrainian Armed Forces launched a strike with a high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) at a concentration of Russian military personnel in the village of Yelenovka in the Donetsk region.

Several Telegram channels -- both Ukrainian and Russian -- reported the incident. Various sources mentioned dozens of dead and injured Russian military personnel.

The shelling was also reported by former Verkhovna Rada deputy Oleg Tsarev, who has supported separatists in the Donbas region since 2014.

He declined to provide details "so as not to please the enemy," he said.

If the reports are confirmed, it would be the third time within a week that a Ukrainian military strike reportedly hit a concentration of Russian troops.

Neither the Ukrainian command nor the Russian Defense Ministry commented on any of the strikes.

Imran Khan's Party Urges IMF To Ensure Pakistan Election Audit Before More Bailout Talks

The party of Pakistan's jailed former prime minister, Imran Khan, has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ensure that an audit of the disputed February 8 elections is carried out before any more bailout talks take place. Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party said on February 28 that it had sent a letter on the matter to the IMF's Pakistan representative. Pakistan is struggling to stabilize its economy after securing a $3 billion standby arrangement from the IMF last year, and it is expected to need more funding after a new government is formed.

Kyrgyz Lawmaker Proposes Stripping Jeenbekov Of Ex-President Status

Former Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov
Former Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov

BISHKEK – A Kyrgyz lawmaker proposed on February 28 stripping former leader Sooronbai Jeenbekov of his status of ex-president over his alleged links to the fugitive former deputy chief of the Customs Service, Raimbek Matraimov.

The lawmaker, Akylbek Tumonbaev, emphasized that several lawmakers have resigned and some ministers have lost their posts over their connections to Matraimov, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Tumonbaev said it was Jeenbekov who brought Matraimov “to the political scene, but his name has not been made public.” Jeenbekov, meanwhile, “is living on the state budget's expenses,” Tumonbaev told a session of parliament.

To strip him of his ex-president status, representatives of his party, the Social Democratic party, in the parliament must first agree on the move and then a special parliamentary commission must be created to implement the decision, according to lawmaker Nurlanbek Azygaliev.

Two of the five former Kyrgyz presidents -- Jeenbekov and Roza Otunbaeva -- have the official status of ex-president, which guarantees them, among other privileges, immunity to legal prosecution.

Other former Kyrgyz leaders -- Askar Akaev, Kurmanbek Bakiev, and Almazbek Atambaev -- were deprived of the ex-president status due to criminal cases launched against them.

Jeenbekov was elected president in 2017. In October 2020, he announced his resignation amid protests against official results of parliamentary elections that demonstrators called rigged. The results of the parliamentary elections were later canceled.

Tumonbaev's proposal comes as police and security officers are targeting relatives and close associates of Matraimov, who in 2020-21 was at the center of a high-profile corruption scandal.

Last month, the State Committee for National Security added Matraimov to its wanted list on charges of abduction and the illegal incarceration of unspecified individuals.

Matraimov, who escaped imprisonment in 2021 by paying 2 billion soms ($22.4 million) to Kyrgyzstan’s state treasury, faced the new charges after Kyrgyz police shot dead criminal kingpin Kamchybek Kolbaev in October.

Last week, the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission annulled the mandates of two lawmakers with close ties to Matraimov -- his brother Iskender Matraimov and associate Nurlan Rajabaliev -- at their own requests.

Raimbek Matraimov faced the new charges after Kyrgyz police shot and killed Kolbaev, who had been added by Washington to a list of major global drug-trafficking suspects in 2011.

Former Coach Of Belarusian Athlete Banned For Five Years

Yury Maisevich
Yury Maisevich

The former coach of Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has been banned for five years by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), which investigated allegations that Tsimanouskaya’s coaches attempted to force her to return home during the Tokyo Olympics after she criticized them. Yury Maisevich took actions that were "a clear affront to the athlete's dignity” and an abuse of power, the AIU said in announcing its findings on February 28. Tsimanouskaya, who now competes for Poland, claimed she was forcibly taken to an airport after refusing to follow the team's orders during the Olympics in 2021.

U.S. Semiconductor Firms, Having Outsourced Production Overseas, Struggle To Trace Evasion

Russia’s military industrial complex is heavily reliant on Western technology, including semiconductors, for the production of sophisticated weapons. (file photo)
Russia’s military industrial complex is heavily reliant on Western technology, including semiconductors, for the production of sophisticated weapons. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. semiconductor firms must strengthen oversight of their foreign partners and work more closely with the government and investigative groups, a group of experts told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, saying the outsourcing of production overseas has made tracking chip sales more difficult, enabling sanctions evasion by Russia and other adversaries.

U.S. semiconductor firms largely produce their chips in China and other Asian countries from where they are further distributed around the world, making it difficult to ascertain who exactly is buying their products, the experts told the committee at a hearing in Washington on February 27.

The United States and the European Union imposed sweeping technology sanctions on Russia to weaken its ability to wage war following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia’s military industrial complex is heavily reliant on Western technology, including semiconductors, for the production of sophisticated weapons.

“Western companies design chips made by specialized plants in other countries, and they sell them by the millions, with little visibility over the supply chain of their products beyond one or two layers of distribution,” Damien Spleeters, deputy director of operations at Conflict Armament Research, told senators.

He added that, if manufacturers required point-of-sale data from distributors, it would vastly improve their ability to trace the path of semiconductors recovered from Russian weapons and thereby identify sanctions-busting supply networks.

The banned Western chips are said to be flowing to Russia via networks in China, Turkey, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

Spleeters said he discovered a Chinese company diverting millions of dollars of components to sanctioned Russian companies by working with U.S. companies whose chips were found in Russian weapons.

That company was sanctioned earlier this month by the United States.

'It's Going To Be Whack-A-Mole'

The committee is scrutinizing several U.S. chip firms whose products have turned up in Russian weapons, Senator Richard Blumenthal (Democrat-Connecticut) said, adding “these companies know or should know where their components are going.”

Spleeters threw cold water on the idea that Russia is acquiring chips from household appliances such as washing machines or from major online retail websites.

“We have seen no evidence of chips being ripped off and then repurposed for this,” he said.

“It makes little sense that Russia would buy a $500 washing machine for a $1 part that they could obtain more easily,” Spleeters added.

In his opening statement, Senator Ron Johnson (Republican-Wisconsin) said he doubted whether any of the solutions proposed by the experts would work, noting that Russia was ramping up weapons production despite sweeping sanctions.

“You plug one hole, another hole is gonna be opening up, it's gonna be whack-a-mole. So it's a reality we have to face,” said Johnson.

Russia last year imported $1.7 billion worth of foreign-made microchips despite international sanctions, Bloomberg reported last month, citing classified Russian customs service data.

Johnson also expressed concern that sanctions would hurt Western nations and companies.

“My guess is they're just going to get more and more sophisticated evading the sanctions and finding components, or potentially finding other Huawei,” Johnson said.

Huawei is a leading Chinese technology company that produces chips among other products.

James Byrne, the founder and director of the open-source intelligence and analysis group at the Royal United Services Institute, said that officials and companies should not give up trying to track the chips just because it is difficult.

'Shocking' Dependency On Western Technology

He said that the West has leverage because Russia is so dependent on Western technology for its arms industry.

“Modern weapons platforms cannot work without these things. They are the brains of almost all modern weapons platforms,” Byrne said.

“These semiconductors vary in sophistication and importance, but it is fair to say that without them Russia … would not have been able to sustain their war effort,” he said.

Byrne said the depth of the dependency on Western technology -- which goes beyond semiconductors to include carbon fiber, polymers, lenses, and cameras -- was “really quite shocking” considering the Kremlin’s rhetoric about import substitution and independence.

Elina Ribakova, a Russia expert and economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said an analysis of 2,800 components taken from Russian weapons collected in Ukraine showed that 95 percent came from countries allied with Ukraine, with the vast majority coming from the United States. The sample, however, may not be representative of the actual distribution of component origin.

Ribakova warned that Russia has been accelerating imports of semiconductor machine components in case the United States imposes such export controls on China.

China can legally buy advanced Western components for semiconductor manufacturing equipment and use them to manufacture and sell advanced semiconductors to Russia, Senator Margaret Hassan (Democrat-New Hampshire) said.

Ribakova said the manufacturing components would potentially allow Russia to “insulate themselves for somewhat longer.”

Ribakova said technology companies are hesitant to beef up their compliance divisions because it can be costly. She recommended that the United States toughen punishment for noncompliance as the effects would be felt beyond helping Ukraine.

“It is also about the credibility of our whole system of economic statecraft. Malign actors worldwide are watching whether they will be credible or it's just words that were put on paper,” she said.

Azerbaijani Soldier Detained After Crossing Into Armenia

An Azerbaijani military post near the Armenian border is seen from the village of Tegh. (file photo)
An Azerbaijani military post near the Armenian border is seen from the village of Tegh. (file photo)

An Azerbaijani soldier was detained early on February 28 after crossing into Armenia for unknown reasons, Armenian officials said, adding that another Azerbaijani soldier managed to escape the site near the border village of Tegh. Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry identified the soldier as Ruslan Panahov, saying that he entered the Armenian side of the border by accident after he lost his way due to bad weather. In April last year, two other Azerbaijani soldiers were detained after they crossed into Armenia. One of them was then convicted of murdering an Armenian civilian. The two were released in a prisoner swap in December. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

Nobel Committee Calls Imprisonment Of Veteran Russian Rights Defender 'Politically Motivated'

Oleg Orlov attends his verdict hearing in Moscow on February 27.
Oleg Orlov attends his verdict hearing in Moscow on February 27.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has called the imprisonment of Oleg Orlov, the co-chairman of the Russian rights group Memorial, which shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, "politically motivated."

A court in Moscow on February 27 sentenced the 70-year veteran rights defender to 2 1/2 years in prison of charge of "repeatedly discrediting" the Russian military involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

"The sentence against Mr. Orlov is politically motivated and provides another proof of the increasing disrespect for human rights and freedom of speech in today’s Russia," Jorgen Watne Frydnes, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in a statement on February 28.

He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin's "regime has for many years tried to silence the leadership of Memorial and other important civil society organizations in Russia, and they are now using the war on Ukraine as a pretext to finish the job. It is important that they won’t succeed."

Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 for its outstanding efforts in documenting war crimes, human rights abuses, and the abuse of power in the former Soviet Union as well as in post-Soviet Russia.

Orlov reiterated his innocence on February 27 in his final statement shortly before the verdict and sentence were announced, stressing that Russian authorities have banned "any independent opinion."

The children and grandchildren of Russian officials "will be ashamed to talk about where their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers served and what they did. And the same will happen to those who, by carrying out orders, are committing crimes in Ukraine. In my view, this is the worst punishment, and it is inevitable," Orlov said.

Orlov was fined 150,000 rubles ($1,630) in October on a charge that stemmed from several single-person pickets he held condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine and an article he wrote criticizing the Russian government for sending troops to Ukraine that was published in the French magazine Mediapart.

In mid-December, the Moscow City Court canceled that ruling and sent Orlov's case back to prosecutors, who appealed the sentence, saying it was too mild.

Earlier this month, investigators updated the charge against the rights defender, saying that his alleged misdeeds were motivated by "ideological enmity against traditional Russian spiritual, moral, and patriotic values."

Memorial has noted the case was reinvestigated hastily, while Orlov said he thought investigators received an order to move quickly with the case to allow for the retrial.

Orlov gained prominence as one of Russia's leading human rights activists after he co-founded the Memorial human rights center following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2004-06, Orlov was a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights Institutions.

For his contribution to human rights in Russia, Orlov was awarded in 2009 with the Sakharov Prize, an international award for individuals or groups who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.


Navalny's Widow Urges EU To Investigate Money Flows Tied To 'Bloody Mobster' Putin

Yulia Navalnaya addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg on February 28.
Yulia Navalnaya addresses the European Parliament in Strasbourg on February 28.

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of the late Russian anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny, has called on European lawmakers to investigate Russia's leadership, which she characterized as an "organized criminal gang" led by President Vladimir Putin and his allies.

Speaking to the European Parliament on February 28, almost two weeks after her husband was pronounced dead at an Arctic prison where he was serving time on what his supporters and the West call trumped-up charges, Navalnaya said an investigation of financial flows in the West would lead European lawmakers straight to Putin.

"You aren't dealing with a politician but with a bloody mobster. Putin is the leader of an organized criminal gang. This includes poisoners and assassins but they're just puppets. The most important thing is the people close to Putin -- his friends, associates, and keepers of mafia money," she said in a speech delivered in English.

"You, and all of us, must fight the criminal gang. And the political innovation here is to apply the methods of fighting organized crime, not political competition. Not statements of concern but the search for mafia associates in your countries, for discreet lawyers and financiers who are helping Putin and his friends to hide money," she added.

Navalny's death was reported on February 16, prompting an outpouring of grief and mounting outrage in Russia and around the world as the authorities refused to release his body to his mother amid suspicions about the cause of his death, which was officially attributed to "sudden death syndrome."

Navalnaya has accused Putin directly of having her husband, one of the president's most vocal critics, killed.

The Kremlin has rejected all accusations that it played a part in Navalny's death, while Navalnaya has pledged to carry on her late husband's work in exposing corruption in Russia and pushing for democratic freedoms and rights that Putin has rolled back during the more than two decades that he has ruled the country.

With Russians heading to the polls in a presidential election scripted to hand Putin another term, Navalnaya has called upon the West to refuse to recognize the March 17 balloting.

"Putin must answer for what he has done to my country. Putin must answer for what he has done to a neighboring, peaceful country. And Putin must answer for everything he has done to Aleksei," she said in her speech to lawmakers in Strasbourg.

In a brief interview with RFE/RL, Roberta Metsola, the president of the European Parliament, paid tribute to Navalny, whose death she said was "horrific."

"The reaction we have seen since his death, the outrage and the clampdown by Russian authorities on anyone expressing that outrage is a symbol to us of the situation that Russia is in at the moment, which is absolutely the case of how we would never recognize the results of the upcoming Russian elections," Metsola said.

European Parliament Chief: 'We Would Never Recognize The Results Of The Upcoming Russian Election'
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Putin -- who has an official annual salary of around $140,000 -- has been accused of amassing a fortune estimated by some at as much as $200 billion, while also doling out billions to his closest allies, through a tangled web of financial entities.

Navalny's team in 2022 published details it uncovered of a $700 million superyacht they said showed the vessel was Putin's.

In early 2021, Navalny's team issued an investigation shining a spotlight on a $1.35 billion estate on the Black Sea's exclusive Gelendzhik Bay that was allegedly built for Putin.

Putin has consistently denied any allegations that he has amassed a fortune. In his income and asset declaration from 2020, he listed a modest apartment, three Soviet-era cars, and a small camping trailer handed down by his late father.

"You cannot hurt Putin with another resolution or another set of sanctions that is no different from the previous ones. You can't defeat him by thinking he's a man of principle who has morals and rules," Navalnaya said, calling for more effective action against the money flows of the ruling elite.

"If you really want to defeat Putin, you have to become an innovator. And you have to stop being boring," she said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Zoriana Stepanenko in Strasbourg

Activists In Several Countries Demand Whereabouts Of Woman Forced Back To Chechnya

Demonstrators rally in support of Seda Suleimanova in Berlin on February 27.
Demonstrators rally in support of Seda Suleimanova in Berlin on February 27.

Activists in several countries around the world rallied on February 27 to demand Russian authorities find Seda Suleimanova, who has not been heard from for more than 150 days since she was detained in St. Petersburg and sent to her native Chechnya, which she had fled because of domestic violence.

The activists picketed Russian diplomatic missions in Buenos Aires, Berlin, Bonn, Warsaw, Mexico, and Tbilisi, holding posters saying "Show Us Seda," "No to Honor Killings," and "Where is Seda?"

Similar actions were held in five Italian cities -- Turin, Milan, Borgoricco, Rovato, and Savona.

In August 2023, police in St. Petersburg detained Suleimanova and her partner, Stanislav Kudryavtsev, at their apartment and took them to a police station, where Suleimanova was informed that she was suspected of stealing jewelry in Chechnya, a charge she rejected.

Seda Suleimanova
Seda Suleimanova

Suleimanova was then transferred back to Chechnya, and attempts by Kudryavtsev, who converted to Islam to be able to visit Chechnya and marry Suleimanova, to locate her failed.

Chechen authorities issued a video showing Suleimanova, who did not say a word, in Chechnya, after which no information about her whereabouts was made public.

Suleimanova had turned to the SK SOS group in October 2022 for help leaving Chechnya, saying that her relatives might kill her for being "insufficiently religious."

Human right defenders say families in the North Caucasus often file complaints accusing fugitive women of crimes, usually theft, to legalize their detention and return to their relatives. Once back, the women face violent abuse.

Domestic violence has been a problem in Russia's North Caucasus region for decades. Victims who manage to flee often say that they may face "punishment," including "honor killings," if they are forced to return.

Usually, local authorities take the side of the accused abusers.

With reporting by SOTA

Former Soviet Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov Dies At 94

Nikolai Ryzhkov pictured in 2019.
Nikolai Ryzhkov pictured in 2019.

Former Soviet premier Nikolai Ryzhkov has died at the age of 94. The news was announced on February 28 by the chairwoman of the Russian parliament's upper chamber, the Federation Council. No cause of death was given. Ryzhkov was a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He led the Soviet government from 1985 to 1991. In 1991, Ryzhkov ran for president, placing second behind Boris Yeltsin. After the Soviet Union's collapse, Ryzhkov served as a lawmaker. He was under Western sanctions for supporting Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Sixth Bulgarian Charged In Britain With Spying For Russia

Three members of the group -- Bizer Dzhambazov (left), Katrin Ivanova (center), and Orlin Rusev -- have also been accused of possessing false documents.
Three members of the group -- Bizer Dzhambazov (left), Katrin Ivanova (center), and Orlin Rusev -- have also been accused of possessing false documents.

A sixth Bulgarian citizen has been charged in Britain with allegedly being a member of a Russian spy network operating in the United Kingdom, British prosecutors said.

The man, identified in the statement as 38-year-old Tihomir Ivanov Ivanchev, was arrested on February 7 as part of an ongoing counterterrorism investigation, Metropolitan Police said in a statement.

Ivanchev, a resident of west London, will be charged with "conspiracy to obtain, collect, record, publish, or transmit documents or information" that could be useful for purposes detrimental to the security and interests of the British state.

Five other Bulgarians who lived in London and Norfolk -- Orlin Rusev, 46, Bizer Dzhambazov, 42, Katrin Ivanova and Ivan Stoyanov, both 32, and Vanya Gaberova, 29 -- were arrested in September last year on similar charges of “conspiring to collect information intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy,” namely Russia.

All six are accused of being part of an alleged Russian spy network that operated in Britain from August 2020 to February 2023 and are due in court in October. The trial is estimated to last four months.

British authorities said Ivanchev and the other five conspired with Austrian citizen Jan Marsalek and other unknown persons.

Marsalek is a fugitive businessman who was chief operating officer of German payment processing company Wirecard, which became insolvent and collapsed in 2020 in a fraud scandal.

Marsalek, who has not been charged in the case, has been on the run and is believed to be in Russia.

Three members of the group -- Rusev, Dzhambazov, and Ivanova -- have also been accused of possessing false documents which, according to the BBC, are passports and identity cards from Britain, Bulgaria, France, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, and the Czech Republic.

With reporting by AP

Navalny's Funeral Service Set For March 1 In Moscow After Days Of Uncertainty

A Russian policeman walks through the gate of the Borisovskoye cemetery on February 28 where the funeral of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny will be held on March 1.
A Russian policeman walks through the gate of the Borisovskoye cemetery on February 28 where the funeral of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny will be held on March 1.

A funeral service for the late Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny will be held on March 1 at a church in the Maryino area of Moscow, where the Kremlin critic once lived, after several days of uncertainty marked by claims by his mother that she was being blackmailed by officials into holding a secret commemoration.

Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on February 28 that, after the service at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God, Navalny will be buried at the nearby Borisovskoye cemetery, a short walk from the banks of the Moskva River.

The distance between the church, which has a square out front, and the cemetery is about 2 kilometers. It was not clear whether there would be a procession from one venue to the other, or if supporters would gather at the church or the cemetery.

Navalny's widow, Yulia, said in a speech to the European Parliament on February 28 that she feared security forces will intervene during the event.

"I'm not sure yet whether it will be peaceful or whether the police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye to my husband," she said.

The announcement of the services comes a day after Navalny's associates said they were having trouble finding a location for the service, which will take place two weeks after the anti-corruption crusader was pronounced dead by officials at the Arctic prison where he was incarcerated.

Navalny's body was released to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, on February 24, more than a week after his suspicious death in prison. The official death certificate said the 47-year-old died of "natural causes." Officials have not commented further.

Before the body was released, Navalnaya said the authorities were setting conditions on where, when, and how her son should be buried.

"They want it to do it secretly without a mourning ceremony," she said, adding that investigators threatened to bury her son at the prison where he died unless she agreed to bury him quietly.

Russian media reports on February 27 said that police briefly detained on unspecified charges Navalny's former lawyer, Vasily Dubkov, who represented his family after his death and accompanied Lyudmila Navalnaya on her trip to the so-called "Polar Wolf" prison to get Navalny's body.

Hundreds of Russians have been arrested as people continued to honor Navalny’s memory at sites across the country.

European Parliament Chief: 'We Would Never Recognize The Results Of The Upcoming Russian Election'
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Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said February 29 was initially chosen as the day for the ceremonies, but that it "quickly became clear" that officials were forcing a different date, likely because President Vladimir Putin is to give a state of the union address that day.

He said Navalny's team was told that people were available to dig the grave on February 28 and March 1, but "not a single person was available" on the day in between.

"The real reason is clear: The Kremlin understands that nobody will listen to Putin and his message on the day of the farewell to Aleksei. We don't care about the message. Aleksei needs to be buried," Zhdanov said.

Zhdanov also said Moscow city authorities were still trying to force Navalny's relatives to move the ceremony to a different location and have a "quiet family funeral." But Zhdanov, in an interview with the Meduza news outlet, said the location would not change, giving everyone who wants to say goodbye to Navalny a chance to do so.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a self-exiled leading Russian opposition figure, said in an interview with RFE/RL last week that a public funeral could trigger “large-scale confrontations” between Navalny supporters and law enforcement.

Navalny died while serving a 19-year prison term on charges including extremism that he, his supporters, Western officials, and rights watchdogs called politically motivated.

Navalny's relatives, associates, and Western officials have blamed Putin for Navalny's death. Russian officials have said no foul play was involved and called the international outrage over Navalny's death while in prison "hysterical."

Investigative journalist Christo Grozev told RFE/RL on February 27 that there was a plan in the works that included talks among three countries -- the United States, Germany, and Russia -- to exchange Navalny, along with the Americans currently held in Russia, for the convicted murderer and former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) Vadim Krasikov.

Grozev, who said he also took part in the negotiations, said Russia had given its consent, however, he did not know whether Putin personally approved the exchange.

"But that was the last ingredient everybody was waiting for," he told RFE/RL.

"By the time Navalny died -- or as I believe he was killed -- it seemed like a very optimistic scenario that could work in the coming months," Grozev said.

According to Grozev, the fact that Germany agreed to exchange Krasikov was a signal to the Kremlin that it would swap for not-so-high-ranking prisoners being held in Russia, which is why the Russians withdrew.

The calculation on Moscow's part was that it might be possible to get Krasikov released without having to free the Americans -- who were never named but are presumed to be Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan -- along with Navalny.

Maria Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, has said she received confirmation that negotiations were in the final stage on the evening of February 15. The next day, Navalny was pronounced dead.

Navalnaya has vowed to continue her late husband's fight for a "free Russia."


Transdniester Separatists Ask Russia For 'Protection' At End Of Meeting Chisinau Rejects As 'Scam'

Transdniester leader Vadim Krasnoselsky (file photo)
Transdniester leader Vadim Krasnoselsky (file photo)

The leadership of Transdniester has called on Russia to take measures to "protect" the breakaway region from what it said was increasing pressure from Moldova's pro-Western government that amounted to an "economic war."

The call was launched during a rare gathering on February 28 in Tiraspol of the separatist region's leadership summoned by separatist leader Vadim Krasnoselski and dubbed the Congress of the Transdniestrian People's Deputies.

It followed speculation that Transdniester, whose declaration of independence more than 30 years ago was not recognized by any legitimate state, might officially ask for "unification" with Russia a day ahead of President Vladimir Putin's February 29 annual address to Russian lawmakers.

The gathering, however, stopped short of asking that Transdniester become part of the Russian Federation and listed a long litany of complaints addressed first of all to Moscow but also to international organizations about Moldova's alleged pressure and violations of the separatists' rights.

"The Congress is asking the Russian Duma and the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russia's parliament) to implement measures to protect Transdniester in the face of the increasing pressure that applied by the Republic of Moldova," the gathering said in its final statement, also claiming that more than 220,000 Russian citizens live in the separatist region.

Moldova's government rejected what it said where "propaganda statements" coming from the meeting. Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Serebrian said on Telegram that the Transdniester region benefits from “the policies of peace, security, and economic integration with the European Union, which are beneficial for all citizens.”

Chisinau declared before the start of the event that "all the discussions in Tiraspol are a scam."

Moldovan government spokesman Daniel Voda said the meeting itself and its demands were "obviously organized by those from the Kremlin to create hysteria, including in the mass media."

President Maia Sandu said earlier that Moldova is determined to resolve the "frozen" Transdniester conflict peacefully and that "small steps" are being taken for the economic reintegration of the region.

A day before the separatists' meeting, U.S. envoy Christopher Smith visited Tiraspol and spoke with Krasnoselski, who told Smith that Chisinau would put economic pressure on the region. Smith, who is deputy secretary in the U.S. State Department's Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, met with Moldovan government officials before going to Tiraspol.

The latest tensions between Chisinau and Tiraspol broke out after Moldova, which under Sandu was invited in 2022 to open membership negotiations with the European Union, slapped new import and export duties on Transdniester in January, prompting protests by the separatist leadership.

The trade duties were introduced as part of Chisinau's move to align itself with EU legislation as it prepares for accession talks with the 27-member bloc.

Mainly Russian-speaking Transdniester, a sliver of land on the eastern bank of the Dniester River between Moldova proper and Ukraine, declared independence in 1990 amid fears that Chisinau would seek reunification with Romania, with which it shares a common language and history.

The two sides fought a short but bloody war in the spring of 1992 that claimed more than 1,000 lives and was quashed by Russian troops stationed in Transdniester since Soviet times, who intervened on the side of the separatists.

Half-hearted attempts at negotiations under various mediation formats, including ones led by the Organization or Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union, yielded no result, turning the dispute into a decades-long frozen conflict.

The February 28 statement issued after the meeting in Tiraspol called on the EU, the OSCE, and the United Nations to "prevent Moldovan pressures" and relaunch negotiations, although neither Tiraspol nor Moscow has been interested in fresh talks for years.

Russia still keeps more than 1,000 troops in Transdniester who ostensibly keep the peace between the two sides and guard a huge Soviet-era weapons depot in the village of Cobasna.

"The problem of Moldova and [Transdniester] is not a new one and the threat of Russian intervention or at least some provocation there is something permanent. I am not surprised. But it shows how dangerous the situation is not only for Ukraine," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said.

Moscow has been the sole economic backer of Transdniester, largely seen as a smugglers' haven. Many residents of Transdniester have also obtained Moldovan citizenship, which allows them to travel unhindered in the EU.

With reporting by AFP

U.S. Says Iranian Operatives In Yemen Aiding Huthi Attacks

Huthi police ride on the back of a pick-up truck during the funeral of Huthi fighters killed in U.S.-led strikes in Sanaa on February 10.
Huthi police ride on the back of a pick-up truck during the funeral of Huthi fighters killed in U.S.-led strikes in Sanaa on February 10.

Operatives from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizballah are working inside Yemen to support Huthi insurgents' attacks on international shipping, the U.S. special envoy for Yemen told a Senate subcommittee on February 27. Iran is "equipping and facilitating" the Huthi attacks, said Tim Lenderking. "Credible public reports suggest a significant number of Iranian and Lebanese Hizballah operatives are supporting Huthi attacks from inside Yemen," Lenderking said. "I can't imagine the Yemeni people want these Iranians in their country. This must stop," he added. The attacks on shipping have triggered retaliatory U.S. and British strikes on Yemen.

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