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Russia Urges Tougher U.S.-Led Action On Afghan Drugs

An Afghan farmer checks his opium poppy fields in Kandahar earlier this year.
An Afghan farmer checks his opium poppy fields in Kandahar earlier this year.
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- High drug use among Russia's youth is a threat to national security, President Dmitry Medvedev has said.

With Russia the world's top consumer of Afghan heroin, the head of its drug enforcement agency also called on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan to do more to stem the flow of drugs.

"The young age of drug users is a threat to the country's national security, a serious challenge to the health of the nation and to the already extremely complicated demographic situation," Medvedev said.

Russia already faces a shrinking population because of poor diet, smoking, and heavy drinking. Russian men have an average life expectancy of 59 years, far lower than in western Europe.

A declining population, coupled with serious health problems, would undermine Russia's economy by reducing the size of its workforce.

"Experts believe the real number of [drug] users ranges between 2 million and 2.5 million," Medvedev told a meeting of top officials who make up Russia's Security Council.

"This is almost 2 percent of Russian citizens, and the most dangerous thing is that two-thirds of this number are youths aged less than 30," he said.

Official data show that some 30,000 drug users, aged 28 on average, die in Russia each year. This compares to a total of around 15,000 dead in the far more populous Soviet Union lost during the whole of its Afghan war in 1979-89.

Western Help Sought

Alarmed by the drug trade and concerned about a spread of hard-line Islamist militancy into the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Russia has taken some steps towards cooperating with the United States in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

It has allowed the United States to move supplies through Russian territory and is looking at ways of increasing international cooperation to stem the heroin trade.

"One just cannot fight this monster alone," Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia's drug enforcement agency, told reporters.

"This is why we believe that as long as we support this [U.S.-led] operation conducted there, we have the right to expect that these forces will fight to destroy these drugs."

UN data show that Afghanistan's opium harvest totaled 6,900 tons, down from 7,700 tons in 2008. But this year's crop still accounts for some 90 percent of the world's supply.

The United Nations believes traders are hoarding stockpiles, perhaps as much as 10,000 tons, or double the annual illicit demand for the drug.

Medvedev said Russia was still lacking a nationwide antidrug strategy and pressed for tougher punishment against those involved in drug-related crimes.

Testing students in all Russian educational institutions for drug addiction could be introduced, Medvedev said. Ivanov said Russia's antidrug strategy would ready in the first half of next year.

"Greater punishment will also be applied for corruption crimes linked to the illegal drug trade... as well as for crimes linked to laundering cash from drug sales," Medvedev said.

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U.S. Says Russia Rejected 'Substantial' Proposal To Free Two Americans

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants' cage at the Moscow City Court on October 10.
U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, arrested on espionage charges, stands inside a defendants' cage at the Moscow City Court on October 10.

The United States says Russia rejected a new proposal to free two detained Americans, Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich and former Marine Paul Whelan. "We have made a number of proposals, including a substantial one in recent weeks," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters on December 5. "That proposal was rejected by Russia," he said. Miller said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden would keep trying to find a way to free the pair, considered "wrongfully detained" by the State Department.

Russian Defense Procurement Network Added To U.S. Sanctions Designations

The U.S. Treasury Department (file photo)
The U.S. Treasury Department (file photo)

The United States on December 5 imposed fresh sanctions targeting a defense procurement network that the U.S. Treasury Department said is led by a Belgium-based businessman and involves numerous Cyprus-based companies as well as businesses in Sweden, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said the businessman, Hans De Geetere, leads the network, which it said is involved in procuring electronics with military applications for Russian end-users.

"Today's coordinated action reflects our collective commitment to enforcing our sanctions and export controls, including holding accountable those who seek to evade these measures," said Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson.

Nelson added that United States and its allies "remain focused on disrupting any attempts by Russia or its trusted agents to gain access to the critical inputs and technologies necessary to support Moscow's defense industry and facilitate its brutal war in Ukraine."

The network is involved in procuring electronics with military applications for Russian end-users and consists of nine entities and five people based in Russia, Belgium, Cyprus, Sweden, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands, the Treasury Department said.

De Geetere operates Belgium-based Knokke Heist Support Corporation Management, Cyprus-based Eriner, Cyprus-based The Mother Ark, and Netherlands-based European Trading Technology, all of which were designated for sanctions by the Treasury Department on December 5.

The treasury also designated companies it said are linked to Eriner and The Mother Ark, including M and S Trading based in Hong Kong and other companies in Cyprus and the Netherlands that it said De Geetere has a hand in running.

In addition to those companies, De Geetere's network includes the Belgium-based company European Technical Trading (ETT), founded and led by his brother, Tom De Geetere.

De Geetere has leveraged the ETT brand in attempted purchases from U.S. and European companies, the Treasury Department said. In addition to his role as the founder and director of ETT, Tom De Geetere has coordinated with his brother to procure engines for drones.

Also designated is Russian national Vladimir Kulemekov, who is linked to De Geetere through multiple business dealings, including coordinating electronics orders for Russian entities. Kulemekov was previously employed by De Geetere and has been identified as a member of Russia's military intelligence agency.

Kulemekov associate Sergey Skvortsov, who has served as the director of a Kulemekov-owned electronics company founded to facilitate Sweden-based contracts between China and Russia, was also designated. Treasury said Skvortsov simultaneously led a separate import-export company that tested electronic components in production.

The sanctions freeze any assets held by the individuals and entities held in U.S. jurisdiction and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Justice also unsealed two separate indictments against De Geetere related to the network, while the Department of Commerce added De Geetere and five entities to its entity list.

Tsikhanouskaya Calls On U.S. To Support Belarusian Opposition, Tighten Sanctions On Lukashenka

Addressing U.S. Congress on December 5, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya accused the Lukashenka regime of accepting about 2,000 children from Russian-occupied Ukraine. She said the opposition has sent "tons of proof" to the ICC and lamented that no action had been taken yet.
Addressing U.S. Congress on December 5, exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya accused the Lukashenka regime of accepting about 2,000 children from Russian-occupied Ukraine. She said the opposition has sent "tons of proof" to the ICC and lamented that no action had been taken yet.

WASHINGTON -- Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on U.S. lawmakers to materially support the Belarusian democracy movement abroad and tighten sanctions on authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a push for a clear U.S. strategy for her country.

In testimony on Capitol Hill on December 5, Tsikhanouskaya also asked U.S. lawmakers to urge the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Lukashenka for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Belarus and back more military aid to Kyiv, saying her nation’s freedom hinges on Ukraine defeating Russia.

Tsikhanouskaya's visit to Washington comes as Congress is embroiled in debate over a bill that would send billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, raising questions how much bandwidth lawmakers and the White House have for Belarus right now. She sought to hammer home that supporting the Belarus opposition is in the U.S. national interest.

"Supporting free Belarus is not charity. It's your investment into the global peace and security," she told lawmakers, using the same pitch that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivered to Congress nearly a year ago as he sought more U.S. aid for his country's fight against Russia.

Tsikhanouskaya asked lawmakers to "provide material assistance" to the Belarusian opposition, their family members, and media. She said members of the Belarusian opposition living abroad, including herself, are paying a “big price” for their dogged pursuit of democracy and “we can’t do it alone.”

Belarusian authorities last week raided about 200 homes belonging to members of the government in exile and their family. The authorities said they would seek to expropriate property. Relatives of several members of the government in exile, including Tsikhanouskaya's husband, are in prison.

She said the opposition needs money to counter the vast resources Russia spends on propaganda and disinformation in Belarus as well as to help its members who have suffered terribly under Lukashenka.

There are about 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus, most of whom were jailed following mass demonstrations to protest the outcome of the August 2020 election. Lukashenka claimed to defeat Tsikhanouskaya with 80 percent in a vote the opposition called rigged. Tsikhanouskaya and other leading members of the opposition fled Belarus to avoid persecution along with thousands of other citizens.

Belarus treats political prisoners harshly and those exiting now are in “awful physical and emotional state,” Tsikhanouskaya said.

“These people need rehabilitation and we need to support the organization of rehabilitation programs so people do not feel that they have been abandoned” after risking their lives for democracy, she told the lawmakers.

Representative Bill Keating (Democrat-Massachusetts) told the hearing that Congress had appropriated $30 million for Belarusian civil society and democracy.

Sanctions

Tsikhanouskaya also called on lawmakers to expand sanctions to include Belarusian wood and steel and to close loopholes that allow Lukashenka to circumvent existing sanctions.

As Tsikhanouskaya testified, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a raft of sanctions targeting several entities and individuals that it said generate revenue for Lukashenka and support Russia's war in Ukraine. The sanctions also target the head of the Belarus Red Cross, accusing him of being complicit in the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Tsikhanouskaya accused the Lukashenka regime of accepting about 2,000 children from Russian-occupied Ukraine. She said the opposition has sent "tons of proof" to the ICC and, lamenting that no action had been taken yet, she asked Congress to push the ICC to open an investigation.

The ICC earlier this year issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

"People have to feel that dictators shouldn't feel impunity for their crimes," she told the lawmakers.

Envoy, Ukraine Aid

Tsikhanouskaya is visiting Washington with other members of the Belarusian exiled government to take part in a new initiative organized by the State Department that seeks to coordinate various U.S. government efforts aimed at supporting the Belarusian democratic movement.

The so-called Strategic Dialogue will take place December 6-7 at the State Department and include members of Belarusian civil society and human rights defenders.

She said she hopes the dialogue will lead to a clear U.S. strategy for Belarus, including its place in a post-Ukraine war security architecture.

Tsikhanouskaya also told Congress she wants the White House to appoint a special envoy for Belarus to help be a “bridge” between the opposition and the U.S. government and to help coordinate a whole-of-government strategy toward Belarus.

“We need to clearly understand what will be the future steps of the U.S. [government] and that's why we need this person,” she told lawmakers.

Tsikhanouskaya urged Congress to approve more military aid for Kyiv, saying the fate of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined.

Congress has been unable to pass new aid for Ukraine for months as Republicans tie the shipment of weapons to Kyiv with border security and U.S. immigration reform. The White House on December 4 warned that current aid to Ukraine will run out by the end of the month if a new bill isn't passed.

“Without a free Ukraine, there will be no free Belarus but also vice versa. We have to remember that without a free, independent Belarus, there will be a constant threat to the security of the whole region of Europe. So help Ukraine to win this war.”

U.S. Targets Belarusian Red Cross Official, Regime's 'Revenue Generators' With Sanctions

Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka (right) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk on November 23. The U.S. Treasury Department stated on December 5 that the Russian government and Belarus's regime "have been working together to coordinate and fund the movement of children from Ukraine to Belarus."
Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka (right) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk on November 23. The U.S. Treasury Department stated on December 5 that the Russian government and Belarus's regime "have been working together to coordinate and fund the movement of children from Ukraine to Belarus."

The United States on December 5 imposed fresh sanctions targeting several entities and individuals that the U.S. Treasury Department says are revenue generators for the regime of Belarusian authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The action aims to increase pressure on the Lukashenka regime for its "brutal suppression of Belarus's democratic civil society, corrupt financial enrichment of the Lukashenka family, and complicity in Russia's unjustified war against Ukraine," the Treasury Department said in a news release.

One of the individuals targeted is Dzmitry Shautsou, secretary-general for the Belarus Red Cross, whom the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said has been complicit in Russia’s efforts to transport Ukrainian children to Russia.

The Russian government and Belarus's regime "have been working together to coordinate and fund the movement of children from Ukraine to Belarus," the Treasury Department said.

Both Ukraine and the Belarusian democratic opposition have labeled the transfers unlawful deportations, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian commissioner for children's rights, for their roles in the unlawful deportations. Moscow has not denied transferring Ukrainian children to Russia but claims it did so for their own protection.

OFAC said it was designating Shautsou for having assisted Lvova-Belova, who has previously been designated for sanctions, in her efforts to transport Ukrainian children to Russia.

The Belarusian Red Cross reported in June that more than 700 Ukrainian children were in Belarus, and in July, the Belarus Red Cross sparked international outrage when Shautsou visited children in the Luhansk region of Ukraine and said on Belarusian state television that the organization has been actively involved in bringing Ukrainian children from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to Belarus.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has called for Shautsou's removal, and the IFRC on December 1 suspended the membership of the Belarus Red Cross.

The Treasury Department announced the sanctions during a visit to Washington by Belarusian Opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, telling lawmakers that Belarus accepted about 2,000 children who had been deported from Russian-occupied Ukraine.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya testifies during a Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs about Belarus on Capitol Hill on December 5.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya testifies during a Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs about Belarus on Capitol Hill on December 5.


Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson said in the news release that the United States will continue to target "actors who facilitate Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine, coordinate the movement of children from Ukraine to Belarus, and support Lukashenka's authoritarian regime."

The sanctions also take aim at what treasury said were the Lukashenka regime's revenue generators and his so-called personal wallets by targeting members of Lukashenka's inner circle, including Alyaksandr Shakutsin, one of the leading businessmen in Belarus who made his fortune through privatization under Lukashenka.

Shakutsin controls a large piece of Belarus's construction machinery production business through his company Amkodor, which is currently planning to produce attack drones and artillery fire systems, the treasury said.

"Despite running a deficit for years, Amkodor has relied on Shakutsin's personal relationship with Lukashenka to secure highly favorable loans and other forms of public support at the expense of the average Belarusian," the department said.

Among the other Belarusian entities designated for sanctions are three state-owned companies that OFAC said have served as "revenue generators" for the regime: the Belarusian Cement Company, Belarusian Production and Trade Concern of Timber Woodworking and Pulp and Paper Industry (Bellesbumprom), and Republican Unitary Enterprise Beltamozhservice (Beltamozhservice).

The designation also names the general director of Beltamozhservice, Vadim Babarikin, and two of Belarus's richest oligarchs, Pavel Topuzidis and Viktor Petrovich, who though their business Tabak Invest control 30 percent of Belarus's tobacco production. The company has been cited in news reports as having been involved in a cigarette-smuggling scheme into Russia that has generated millions of dollars in revenue.

The designation also names companies in the Belarusian defense sector and some of their directors that OFAC said have supported Russia's war in Ukraine.

The sanctions freeze any assets held by the individuals and entities held in U.S. jurisdiction and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.

Kazakh Court Liquidates Charity Foundation Providing Assistance To Victims Of Russian Aggression In Ukraine

The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) said on December 5 that a court in the western city of Atyrau had ruled to shut down the local Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine) charity foundation that provided humanitarian and financial assistance to victims of Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine. The foundation, registered in early August, was liquidated at the request of the Justice Ministry. The foundation's leader, Turarbek Kusainov, told KIBHR that the court's ruling was political and most likely made under pressure from Russia.

Russia Returns Six Ukrainian Children Taken From Ukraine's Occupied Territories

Qatar's ambassador to Russia, Sheikh Ahmed bin Nasser Al Thani (center) and Alexei Ghazaryan, head of the Russian Office of the Commissioner for Children's Rights meet Ukrainian children and their family members before their departure to Ukraine at the Qatari Embassy in Moscow on December 5.
Qatar's ambassador to Russia, Sheikh Ahmed bin Nasser Al Thani (center) and Alexei Ghazaryan, head of the Russian Office of the Commissioner for Children's Rights meet Ukrainian children and their family members before their departure to Ukraine at the Qatari Embassy in Moscow on December 5.

Russia has returned six Ukrainian children taken from Ukraine's territories occupied by Russia, officials of Russia's Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova told the RBK news agency on December 5. According to the officials, the children were returned to Ukraine via the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Qatari Embassy in Moscow. Lvova-Belova and President Vladimir Putin are wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for their roles in the deportation of Ukrainian children. Kyiv said earlier that as of July 1 it had confirmed 19,546 Ukrainian children had been illegally deported by Russia during its invasion. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Nobel Laureate Malala Calls Out Taliban For Making 'Girlhood Illegal' In Afghanistan

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai sits onstage after delivering the 21st Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg on December 5.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai sits onstage after delivering the 21st Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg on December 5.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai decried Afghanistan's Taliban rulers in a speech on December 5 and called on the international community to make gender apartheid a crime against humanity.

In a speech marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, Yousafzai told the audience in Johannesburg, South Africa, that since returning to power in August 2021, Taliban militants have made "girlhood illegal," causing many to despair over a lack of freedoms.

"Just two years ago, women in Afghanistan were working, serving in leadership positions, running ministries, traveling freely. Girls of all ages were playing soccer and cricket and learning in schools. Though all was not perfect, there was progress," she said of the almost two decades between Taliban rule, when international forces provided security to allow governments to rule.

But, she added, that since the U.S.-led troops pulled out in August 2021, the Taliban rulers who seized power "quickly began the systematic oppression of girls and women" by enacting more than 80 decrees and edicts restricting women's rights -- including barring girls from pursuing a high-school education -- in the name of their "false visions."

"In effect, the Taliban have made girlhood illegal, and it is taking a toll," Yousafzai said.

Eleven years ago, Yousafzai, then 15, was shot in the head on her school bus by the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) extremist group, which has pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, though the two groups have separate operation and command structures.

The attack on Yousafzai, who had become a target for her campaign for girls' education, sent shock waves across the predominately Muslim country and provoked international outrage.

At 17, she became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize when she won the award in 2014 along with Indian children's rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.

In her speech honoring Mandela's legacy, Yousafzai said that while the Taliban's restrictions of the lives of girls and women made global headlines at first, "the world has turned its back" since and it is "imperative to call the regime in Afghanistan what it really is: a gender apartheid."

She said world leaders have an opportunity to make a stand on the issue by including gender apartheid in a new UN crimes against humanity treaty that is currently being debated at the United Nations.

"I call on every government in every country to make gender apartheid a crime against humanity," she said.

U.S. Offers Up To $7 Million Reward For Information On Fugitive Russian Artem Uss

Russian businessman Artem Uss was indicted in October 2022 by a federal grand jury in New York along with six co-defendants.
Russian businessman Artem Uss was indicted in October 2022 by a federal grand jury in New York along with six co-defendants.

The United States has offered a reward of up to $7 million for information leading to the arrest of Russian businessman Artem Uss, who fled house arrest in Italy in April while facing extradition to the United States. Uss was indicted in October 2022 by a federal grand jury in New York along with six co-defendants. The indictment charges him and the others with conspiracy in connection with an alleged transnational fraud, smuggling, and money-laundering operation. Uss told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency in April that he was in Russia.

Former Deputy PM Of North Macedonia Barred From Entering U.S. Over Corruption

Kocho Angjushev, considered one of North Macedonia's richest citizens, served as a deputy prime minister for economic affairs from 2017 to 2020 under Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. (file photo)
Kocho Angjushev, considered one of North Macedonia's richest citizens, served as a deputy prime minister for economic affairs from 2017 to 2020 under Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. (file photo)

The former deputy prime minister of North Macedonia, Kocho Angjushev, Kocho Angjushev has been barred from entering the United States for what the U.S. State Department said was his "involvement in significant corruption."

"While serving as Deputy Prime Minister, Angjushev abused his official position to benefit his private business interests, undermining the confidence of North Macedonia’s public in their government institutions and public processes," the State Department said in a statement on December 5.

"Today’s action demonstrates the United States stands with those in North Macedonia who seek accountability of corrupt public officials," it added, noting Angjushev’s wife, Elizabeta, and children, Angel and Ognen, are "generally ineligible" for entry into the United States as well.

The State Department statement did not give specific instances of corruption by Angjushev.

The 54-year-old Angjushev, considered one of North Macedonia's richest citizens, served as a deputy prime minister for economic affairs from 2017 to 2020 under Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

Corruption has long been an issue for the country, which is trying to enact reforms as it strives for membership in the European Union after applying for accession in 2004.

Earlier this year, the U.S. AID agency said corruption in North Macedonia "continues to erode trust in institutions, weakens accountability and transparency, obstructs economic growth, and contributes to political fragility
and instability."

The European Commission said in a report last month that corruption remains "prevalent in many areas and is an issue of concern" and that "no progress was made" on the issue in recent months.

In Transparency International's 2022 Corruption Perception Index, North Macedonia scored 40 out of 100, ranking it 85th among 180 countries in the survey, just above Belarus and Moldova.

Kyrgyz President Postpones New Taxation System For Vendors Amid Nationwide Protests

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov speaks outside the Dordoi market on December 5.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov speaks outside the Dordoi market on December 5.

Amid protests against the introduction of a new taxation system for vendors at marketplaces as of January 1, 2024, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said on December 5 that the move will be delayed by six months due to the "unpreparedness" of the country's Taxation Service for the innovation. Thousands of vendors at marketplaces across Kyrgyzstan have rallied since November 30, demanding the current system -- based on a flat annual sum -- be kept in place. According to the new system, vendors will be obliged to use electronic cash registers and pay tax on each item sold. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Six Nepalese Nationals Killed In Ukraine While Serving In Russian Armed Forces

The government of Nepal said late on December 4 that six Nepalese nationals had been killed in Ukraine while serving with the occupying Russian forces. The government statement also called on Moscow to stop recruiting Nepalese citizens to its armed forces and immediately return any Nepalese nationals remaining in the Russian armed services to the small Himalayan country. According to the statement, Kathmandu is currently working on the release of a Nepalese citizen recruited by the Russian military and captured by Ukrainian forces during battle.

Russia's LUKoil Mulls Sale Of Operations In Bulgaria

LUKoil's operations include Bulgaria's largest refinery, Neftohim, located in the Black Sea port of Burgas.
LUKoil's operations include Bulgaria's largest refinery, Neftohim, located in the Black Sea port of Burgas.

LUKoil, Russia's largest private oil company, says it is reviewing its business strategy in Bulgaria and is not ruling out selling its entire operation in the Balkan EU and NATO member, including the country's largest refinery, Neftohim, located in the Black Sea port of Burgas. In recent months the Bulgarian government has taken steps to curb some of the privileges LUKoil enjoyed for years. Bulgaria's parliament banned the import of Russian oil from March 1 2024, a few months earlier than the derogation from EU sanctions that allowed Bulgaria to import Russian oil until the end of 2024. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.

Hungary's Orban Plans To Meet France's Macron On December 7

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after addressing a joint press conference in Budapest in December 2021.
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after addressing a joint press conference in Budapest in December 2021.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban plans to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on December 7 ahead of a crucial European Union summit next week, Orban's press chief told Reuters on December 5. The meeting comes after Orban demanded on December 4 that a summit of EU leaders next week avoid any decision on Ukraine's coveted goal of getting a green light for membership talks even as the country fights Russia's invasion.

Russian Parliament To Declare Sea Of Azov As Internal Waters

A Russian Navy ship passes the cargo seaport of Mariupol, an occupied Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov, in June 2022.
A Russian Navy ship passes the cargo seaport of Mariupol, an occupied Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov, in June 2022.

Russian lawmaker Mikhail Sheremet told the RIA Novosti news agency on December 5 that the parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, was set to approve a bill on the recognition of the Sea of Azov as an internal Russian body of water by the end of 2023. The Sea of Azov is bounded by Russia to the east, and by Ukraine's coast to the southwest and northwest. Russian troops occupied those areas in the first months of the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Moscow has relocated warships to occupied Ukrainian ports since then. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Kyrgyz, Tajik Officials Say More Disputed Segments Of Border Agreed Upon

In spring 2021, an armed conflict along one segment of the border left 36 Kyrgyz nationals, including two children, dead and 154 injured on the Kyrgyz side.
In spring 2021, an armed conflict along one segment of the border left 36 Kyrgyz nationals, including two children, dead and 154 injured on the Kyrgyz side.

Officials from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan say the two countries agreed on another 24 kilometers of the border between the two former Soviet republics after special talks on the issue were held over the past week.

Tajikistan's State Committee for National Security said on December 5 that the talks were held in the northern town of Buston, near the Kyrgyz border.

According to the Kyrgyz government, the next round of talks regarding other parts of the border will be held on Kyrgyzstan's territory on a day that is still to be determined.

The delimitation and demarcation of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border has been an issue for decades, but turned into an extremely urgent problem in recent years after several deadly clashes took place along disputed segments of the frontier.

In spring 2021, an armed conflict along one segment of the border left 36 Kyrgyz nationals, including two children, dead and 154 injured on the Kyrgyz side.

Tajik authorities officially said that 19 Tajik citizens were killed and 87 were injured during the clashes. However, local residents told RFE/RL's Tajik Service at the time that the number of people killed in the clashes was much higher.

In all, the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is 972 kilometers long, of which 688 kilometers have now been agreed upon, while the rest remains disputed.

Many border areas in Central Asian former Soviet republics have been disputed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The situation is particularly complicated near the numerous exclaves in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan meet.

Tensions in those areas have led to clashes between local residents and border guards of the three countries.

'My Little Pony' Gets Adult Rating After Russia Declares 'LGBT Movement' Extremist

Kinopoisk did not explain the move, but some noted that Rainbow Dash, one of the ponies in the animated franchise mainly targeted at young girls, is depicted with a mane and tail in colors that resemble the rainbow colors that symbolize LGBT rights.
Kinopoisk did not explain the move, but some noted that Rainbow Dash, one of the ponies in the animated franchise mainly targeted at young girls, is depicted with a mane and tail in colors that resemble the rainbow colors that symbolize LGBT rights.

The Russian online movie database Kinopoisk has changed its rating for the popular animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic to suitable for "18+" adult audiences, Mediazona reported, saying the move appears to be associated with "new legislative restrictions."

The adult rating for the children's show follows Russia's Supreme Court declaring last week the "international LGBT social movement" extremist. The decision banned all its activities -- -- even though the movement does not exist legally -- effective immediately.

Kinopoisk did not explain its move, but some social-media channels noted that Rainbow Dash, one of the ponies in the animated franchise mainly targeted at young girls, is depicted with a mane and tail in colors that resemble the rainbow colors that symbolize LGBT rights.

Separately, the Russian social network VKontakte has restricted access to the content of the Russian pop duo t.A.T.u. -- consisting of Lena Katina, now 39, and Julia Volkova, now 38.

VKontakte has blocked access to the t.A.T.u. community's posts, photos, and videos, Sota wrote.

Last year, after the adoption of a law banning LGBT propaganda, community administrators voluntarily deleted all footage of the two singers kissing.

A popular act across the world in the early 2000s, t.A.T.u, shot to fame with the hit Not Gonna Get Us and represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003.

Their single All the Things She Said peaked at the top spot on music charts in Australia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The video for the song caused controversy worldwide because it showed Katina and Volkova, who were both 17 at the time, kissing behind a fence, although neither of them identified themselves as homosexual.

The Supreme Court decision sparked outrage among human rights defenders, with Amnesty International saying the ruling will have "catastrophic" consequences.

"This shameful and absurd decision represents a new front in the Russian authorities' campaign against the LGBTI community," said Marie Struthers, director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, in a statement.

Prosecutor Seeks Almost 20 Years In Prison For Former Russian Minister Abyzov

Mikhail Abyzov attends a court hearing in Moscow in March 2021.
Mikhail Abyzov attends a court hearing in Moscow in March 2021.

The prosecutor at the high-profile trial of former Russian Minister for Open Government Affairs Mikhail Abyzov has asked a Moscow court to convict the defendant on corruption charges and sentence him to almost two decades in prison.

The prosecutor asked the Preobrazhensky district court on December 4 to sentence Abyzov to 19 1/2 years, and his four co-defendants, former top managers of the Novosibirsk region's energy supplying companies, to prison terms between seven and 18 1/2 years.

Abyzov was arrested in March 2019 and charged with organization of a criminal group, fraud, illegal entrepreneurship, and commercial tampering.

His co-defendants, Nikolai Stepanov, Maksim Rusakov, Galina Fainberg, and Aleksandr Pelipasov, were arrested at the same time as suspects in the case.

Abyzov was minister for open government affairs from 2012 to 2018 in the cabinet of former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

He is one of several liberal-leaning former government officials in Russia who has been targeted by criminal investigations in recent years.

Abyzov's arrest was seen by some observers in Moscow as part of a crackdown by Russia's security and intelligence services against reformist politicians.

As a minister in Medvedev's cabinet, Abyzov's duties had included trying to make the Russian government more transparent and accountable.

But Russia's Investigative Committee charges that Abyzov was a member of a criminal organization that embezzled 4 billion rubles, or about $44 million, from the Siberian Energy Company and Regional Electric Grid in Novosibirsk.

Investigators allege that Abyzov and his accomplices stole the money and transferred the funds abroad. They also accused Abyzov of founding the criminal enterprise in April 2011, before he became a government minister.

Abyzov has held several executive positions at major Russian energy firms since the mid-1990s, including a role on the board of directors at the electric-power holding company Unified Energy System.

With reporting by Interfax

Russian Activist Who Disappeared In Georgia Located In Detention Center In Sverdlovsk Region

Rafail Shepelev, who had lived in Georgia since 2021 and did not plan to return to Russia, was tricked into leaving Tbilisi by Russian security services.
Rafail Shepelev, who had lived in Georgia since 2021 and did not plan to return to Russia, was tricked into leaving Tbilisi by Russian security services.

Russian activist Rafail Shepelev, who disappeared in Georgia in mid-October, has been located in a pretrial detention center in Nizhny Tagil in Russia's Sverdlovsk region in the Urals, the human rights project First Department reported.

Shepelev, an activist of the Artpodgotovka (Artillery Bombardment) movement, has been charged with terrorism, First Department reported on its Telegram channel.

Russia labeled Artpodgotovka, a Russian political organization of a left-wing-nationalist character, as an extremist group in 2017 and banned it.

Human rights activists say that Shepelev, who had resided in Georgia since 2021 and did not plan to return to Russia, was tricked into leaving Tbilisi by Russian security forces.

"They lured him from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali (in the Russian-backed separatist region of South Ossetia), detained him there, transported him to Vladikavkaz (in Russia), placed him under administrative arrest, during which they charged him with a criminal offense and put him in the Nizhny Tagil pretrial detention center," First Department said.

Shepelev's documents, including his passport, remained in Georgia.

Shepelev reportedly went missing in Tbilisi on October 12. Irina Ruchko, a friend of Shepelev, told Mediazona that he “left home to take care of errands" without giving details.

The day after Shepelev went missing, an administrative case was opened against him in a court in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz.

He was first sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest for alleged petty hooliganism and was later charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist organization, which can be punished by 10 to 20 years in prison, and of justifying terrorism -- a charge punishable by five to seven years of prison.

In October, another Russian activist, Lev Skoryakin, was discovered in a Moscow detention center after he went missing in Kyrgyzstan.

Putin To Make Rare Trip Abroad With Visit To Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman meet in Riyadh in October 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman meet in Riyadh in October 2019.

In a rare trip abroad as an international arrest warrant hangs over him, Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on December 6 before heading home for a meeting with Iran's president the next day.

The Kremlin said on December 5 that bilateral relations and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will be discussed during the meetings, while issues concerning the oil market, "are also always on the agenda."

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in March issued arrest warrants for Putin and his children's commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for being responsible for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia -- a war crime under international legislation.

While Putin did not make many foreign trips before the warrant was issued, he has curtailed his travel even more since.

He did not attend the G20 summit in India in September, and has limited his recent trips to countries such as China and states of the former Soviet Union.

With the warrant, Putin became the third serving head of state to be targeted in an arrest warrant from the ICC, the world's permanent war crimes tribunal, along with Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.

The Kremlin did not give details of Putin's agenda, but the online news outlet Shot, which first reported the trip, quoted Kremlin foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov as saying the Russian leader would travel first to the U.A.E. before heading on to Saudi Arabia, where talks would include a meeting with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

Putin and the prince have developed close ties over the years as they worked to form a group of leading oil producers, now known as OPEC+, in late 2016. The group has worked to support the price of oil, and last week announced voluntary supply cuts.

Following the one-day trip, Putin will return home and meet Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the Kremlin said.

Putin visited Iran in July 2022, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tehran in October.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Iran has widely been accused of delivering cheap but effective kamikaze drones to Moscow.

While Iran denies the allegations, saying it only sold drones to Moscow before the war started, U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Tehran of supplying Shahed-136 Iranian drones that Russia has used to destroy civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. There has been evidence of Iranian drones rebranded as Russian Geran-2s being used on the battlefield.

And as the two countries have increased military-technical cooperation, Iran's Defense Ministry has routinely showcased its ballistic, cruise, anti-tank, and air-defense missile systems to Russian officials.

This has raised fears Moscow and Tehran could try to expand their existing arms dealing to include more advanced weaponry, know-how, and technology that could boost both Russia's war effort in Ukraine and Iran's ballistic-missile and drone programs.

HRW Condemns Uzbekistan's Sentencing Of Popular Blogger To Eight Years In Prison

Olimjon Haidarov (file photo)
Olimjon Haidarov (file photo)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the sentencing by an Uzbek court of blogger Olimjon Haidarov to eight years in prison on charges of extortion, defamation, and libel. Haidarov, who was arrested in late July, was sentenced in the Ferghana region on December 1. He has rejected the charges as politically motivated. "The court decision to jail Haidarov for eight years, including on freedom of expression offenses, will have a chilling effect on free speech and media freedoms in Uzbekistan," HRW's Mihra Rittmann said in a statement on December 5.

Four Children, Adult Injured In Pakistan Blast

(file photo)
(file photo)

Four children, aged 7 to 10, and an adult were injured in an explosion in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar early on December 5, hospital and rescue officials said. Bilal Ahmad Faizi, a spokesman for the emergency rescue services, said an improvised explosive device went off on a busy road in Peshawar at 9:10 a.m. He said five people, including four children, were injured. Two of the children were in critical condition, Mohammad Asim, a spokesman for the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

Updated

Ukraine's Zelenskiy Cancels Speech To U.S. Senators To Urge Passage Of Military Aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a video address to senators and members of the House of Representatives gathered at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in March 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivers a video address to senators and members of the House of Representatives gathered at the U.S. Capitol in Washington in March 2022.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy canceled an address to U.S. senators on December 5 as debate heated up on President Joe Biden's nearly $106 billion request for funding for the wars in Ukraine and Israel.

Zelenskiy had been expected to make Ukraine's case for continued American military aid as Ukraine braces for a difficult winter on the battlefield and as Russian shelling and strikes continue to kill civilians.

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The Biden administration asked Congress in October to pass the aid package, which would cover not only aid for Ukraine and Israel but also border security, but the Republican-controlled House rejected the request.

Zelenskiy canceled his video address shortly after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) told fellow Republicans to vote against the measure when it comes to the floor.

Earlier on December 5 House Speaker Mike Johnson delivered a hard-line message in which he said U.S. border security is "the battle," adding, "We do that first as a top priority, and we'll take care of these other obligations."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (Democrat-New York) that Zelenskiy had canceled his speech to the classified briefing, which the Biden administration organized to underscore how desperately the aid is needed, warning on December 4 that American aid for Ukraine will dry up by the end of the year.

In a blunt warning, Biden's budget director Shalanda Young told Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson in a letter that the lack of U.S. military aid would "kneecap" the Ukrainian military's efforts, increasing Russia's chances on the battlefield.

"Already, our packages of security assistance have become smaller and the deliveries of aid have become more limited," Young wrote.

"If our assistance stops, it will cause significant issues for Ukraine. While our allies around the world have stepped up to do more, U.S. support is critical and cannot be replicated by others."

In Kyiv on December 5, Dutch Foreign Minister Hanke Bruins Slot said the Netherlands increased its support for Ukraine, announcing 2.5 billion euros (nearly $2.7 billion) to support the country in 2024.

Bruins Slot told journalists after a meeting with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba: "My main message to Minister Kuleba was the same as to all of you here. Be assured of our support."

Bruins Slot said her country opened a training center for F-16s in Romania in November and is working with the United States, Denmark, and other countries to see that Ukraine can deploy the fighter jets as soon as possible.

The developments come as Ukrainian forces are locked in close combat with Russian troops around the industrial city of Avdiyivka. Russian forces have been attempting for several weeks to encircle the city in the eastern region of Donetsk that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Ukrainian troops repelled 23 Russian assaults in the Avdiyivka area, the General Staff said in its evening summary on December 5.

The summary said 70 combat clashes took place at the front during the day. According to the report, the Ukrainian military repulsed five attacks by Russian troops in the Kupyansk direction, 13 in the Lyman area, and nine in the Bakhmut area in addition to the 23 in the Avdiyivka area.

Ukrainian Children's Hospital In Kherson Treats Wounds From Prohibited Weapons
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Ukrainian forces continue to hold back Russian forces in the Maryinka and nearby districts of the Donetsk region, where the enemy carried out 13 attacks with the support of aviation, the summary said.

Ukraine's Air Force said it shot down a Russian bomber over the Black Sea, and a Russian search-and-rescue aircraft was searching for it.

"Currently, the Russian An-26 search-and-rescue aircraft is trying to find Russian pilots in the waters of the Black Sea," Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said on Facebook.

The commander of Ukraine's Air Force, General Mykola Oleschuk, reported the downing of a Russian Su-24M bomber near Snake Island. According to Oleschuk, the Su-24M bomber tried to attack Odesa under the cover of an Su-30SM fighter jet.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Ukraine Says Exports Via Black Sea Corridor Total 7 Million Tons

A cargo ship carrying Ukraine grain transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey.
A cargo ship carrying Ukraine grain transits the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey.

Ukraine says it has exported around 7 million tons of cargo through Black Sea ports despite Russia's blockade. Ukraine's Reconstruction Ministry said on December 4 on Telegram that the 7 million tons of cargo included almost 5 million tons of Ukrainian agricultural products. The ministry said on October 27 that Ukraine had exported 1.3 million tons of cargo through its Black Sea corridor since August, suggesting there had been a sharp increase in November. Ukraine created the corridor to the Bosphorus after Russia refused to renew a deal that had allowed Kyiv to safely export its grain to world markets.

Concerns For Health Of Iranian Political Prisoner Rise Amid Hunger Strike

Tehran's notorious Evin prison (file photo)
Tehran's notorious Evin prison (file photo)

Iranian political prisoners Sepideh Gholian and Mahboubeh Rezaei, incarcerated in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, have warned about the deteriorating health of fellow inmate Zahra Sarv, who has been on a hunger strike since early December to protest against the harsh treatment and injustices she has faced since her arrest in October 2021.

The plight of Sarv, detailed in a letter obtained by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, outlines a pattern of disregard for prisoner rights within the Iranian judicial system.

Despite having served one-third of her sentence, Sarv's conditional release has been repeatedly denied, reportedly due to the objections of her case interrogator.

The situation has reached a critical point, with Sarv being compelled to endure a 6 1/2-year sentence handed to her by Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court on charges of "conspiracy and collusion to act against national security" and "propaganda against the system."

Throughout the legal proceedings, she and her lawyer were denied access to her case file.

Gholian and Rezaei, who have themselves been subject to harsh treatment in prison, have voiced their despair at witnessing Sarv's state of health and well-being decline rapidly in recent days.

Sarv, who says she has been denied proper medical attention even though she suffers from gastrointestinal problems, has gone on hunger strikes several times in the past to protest against her lack of rights and mistreatment.

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

Adding to the dissent, the September 2022 death 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 out 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

Orban Wants EU Membership For Ukraine Stripped From Summit Agenda

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right) greets Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, on his arrival for a meeting in Budapest on November 27.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right) greets Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, on his arrival for a meeting in Budapest on November 27.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has written European Council President Charles Michel to demand that Ukraine's membership in the European Union be taken off the agenda at a summit next week.

In a letter to Michel, who will chair the summit in Brussels, Orban also warned against putting a review of billions of dollars in funding for Ukraine on the agenda, saying both topics are doomed to fail.

Orban urged Michel not to push for a decision at the European Council on these matters in December, "as the clear lack of consensus will inevitably lead to failure."

He insisted that a "strategic discussion" was needed first about Ukraine's EU membership and warned that forcing a decision could destroy EU unity.

The council "must avoid this counterproductive scenario for the sake of unity, which is our most important asset," he said in his second letter to Michel in as many weeks about Ukraine's prospective EU membership. But the letter did not say outright that Hungary would veto any moves to open membership talks with Ukraine.

Decisions on the enlargement of the bloc and a review of its long-term budget, which includes 50 billion euros ($54.1 billion) in aid for Kyiv, must be agreed unanimously by all 27 member countries. Ukraine is counting on the EU funds to help its economy survive in the coming year.

Michel's office declined to comment on Orban's letter, according to the AP.

Michel traveled to Budapest last week after Oban's first letter in which he urged a change in strategy of the European Union's policy toward Ukraine.

After meeting with Orban on November 27, Michel posted a message on X, formerly Twitter, stressing the importance of EU unity, saying it "requires constant effort and it's our main strength."

The European Commission, which supervises the enlargement process, last month recommended that Ukraine be allowed open membership talks once it addresses corruption, lobbying concerns, and restrictions that might prevent its minorities from studying and reading in their own languages.

Orban said allowing accession talks to start even though all preconditions have not been met would mark the end of the European Union's enlargement policy "as an objective and merit-based instrument."

Orban discussed his position on opening European Union accession negotiations with Ukraine last week in an interview with Hungarian state radio in which he said it was not currently in Hungary's interest.

"I would favor the EU reaching a strategic partnership agreement with Ukraine first," Orban said, adding that such a partnership could take up to 10 years until Ukraine could adapt to the EU's requirements.

"When we see that we can cooperate, then let's bring up the issue of membership again, but that will be possible only after many, many years," he said.

Orban is considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest allies in Europe, and his nationalist government has argued against EU sanctions on Russia over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With reporting by AP

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