Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia Pledge Closer Economic Integration
NOVI SAD, Serbia -- Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have agreed to lift barriers to free trade and travel between the three Balkan states.
Meeting in the Serbian city of Novi Sad on October 10, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signed a joint declaration pledging to open their countries' borders to the movement of goods, capital, people, and services.
They invited other Balkan countries to join the initiative, dubbed "little Schengen" after the EU's border-free zone, which they said will help boost economic recovery and foreign investment.
Vucic said representatives of Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia were set to meet on November 10 in Ohrid, North Macedonia, to discuss "concrete" measures.
Zaev said the initiative showed that the Balkans are "no longer a gunpowder barrel," but a region of economic development and stability dedicated to European integration.
Relations between countries in the Balkan region remain tense following the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Russia Stops Sharing Advance Missile Test Info With U.S.
Russia will no longer give the United States advance notice about its missile tests as envisioned under a nuclear pact the Kremlin has suspended, a senior Moscow diplomat said on March 29, as its military rolled missile launchers across Siberia in a show of the country’s massive nuclear capability amid fighting in Ukraine. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies that Moscow has halted all information exchanges with Washington under the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the United States after suspending its participation in it last month. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Construction Contracts For Serbian Open Under Scrutiny In Republika Srpska
Authorities have inspected documents related to the construction of a tennis stadium in Banja Luka for the Serbian Open tennis tournament organized by the family of the world's second-ranked men's player, Novak Djokovic.
Banja Luka Mayor Drasko Stanivukovic confirmed at a news conference on March 29 that the inspections took place after the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament, which is scheduled to take place April 17-23.
Questions have been raised about the procurement process for stadium construction contracts. The construction is being financed by public funds from the city of Banja Luka and the government of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities.
The tournament is usually held in Belgrade but has been moved to Banja Luka for 2023 while the existing grounds in the Serbian capital are renovated.
The construction of the 6,000-seat stadium and the surrounding infrastructure is expected to cost about 12 million euros. Work began in November, although the construction permit was not issued until January 20 and it only covers preparatory work.
Funds were transferred to the Tennis Association of Republika Srpska, which picked the contractors without a public procurement process, even though the funds are entirely public.
The Interior Ministry of Republika Srpska told RFE/RL that the inspection of the documents took place at the request of the Public Prosecutor's Office of Republika Srpska.
The prosecutor's office told RFE/RL that the request came after complaints against Stanivukovic and Republika Srpska Prime Minister Radovan Viskovic.
Both officials were reported on February 9 to the prosecutor's office by Nebojsa Vukanovic, a member of the Republika Srpska parliament, who accused them of negligence in their work as public servants and the inappropriate spending of public funds.
Stanivukovic acknowledged that the prosecutor's office asked to see some records and documentation regarding the tournament. He said he had nothing against the prosecutors doing their job, adding that all documents that the city has related to the construction are publicly available and have been discussed by the City Council.
"I know that we have worked perfectly and honestly and will continue to do so," Stanivukovic said.
The government of Republika Srpska also issued a statement saying the inspections of the documents were "acts prescribed by law."
It said Viskovic supports the arrival of Djokovic and other professional tennis players in Banja Luka but added that it appears this “bothers some people in Republika Srpska because they are trying in every way to minimize and compromise this great sports event, and therefore Banja Luka and Republika Srpska.”
Djordje Djokovic, the brother of the tennis star and one of the principal organizers of the Serbian Open, said on March 7 during a press conference that "neither construction permits nor politics” are part of his job as the tournament organizer.
With reporting by Goran Katic
Ukraine Condemns IOC Recommendations Allowing Russian, Belarusian Athletes To Compete As Neutrals
The Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports has condemned what it called the "partial change of position" of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in international sports competitions.
The ministry statement on March 29 came a day after the executive board of the IOC recommended allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in international competitions as neutral athletes.
"We have consistently advocated and will continue to insist that under the conditions of the unprecedented, unprovoked military aggression of the Russian Federation with the support of Belarus against Ukraine, which contradicts the principles of the Olympic Charter, representatives of the aggressor states should not be present at international sports arenas," the ministry said in its statement.
The ministry also expressed regret that the IOC used concern expressed by UN special rapporteurs over discrimination solely on the basis of the nationality of athletes as an excuse to radically change its “previous well-argued position.”
The ministry added that it will continue to work on barring Russian and Belarusian athletes from international sports competitions, including the Olympics, as long as Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine continues.
The board’s six recommendations, issued on March 28 after a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, say that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.
The recommendations include allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as individual neutral athletes who could not display national symbols. The recommendations also bar teams from the two countries, athletes who actively support the war, and athletes who are "contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military."
The recommendations roll back sanctions imposed by the IOC in February 2022 recommending that international sports federations and organizers of sports events "not invite and not allow” Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials to international competitions.
The IOC board signaled two months ago that it wanted to find a pathway to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris and the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan.
The idea has been criticized by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and several of Ukraine’s allies. Ukraine has raised the possibility of boycotting the Olympics if Russian and Belarusian athletes are allowed to compete.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on March 29 he would work to build a coalition to seek the withdrawal of what he said was a "bad and wrong decision."
IOC President Thomas Bach has indicated he backs allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete as individual neutral athletes. He said on March 28 that athletes should not be punished for their passports.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call that the IOC recommendations “were characterized as containing elements of discrimination, which is unacceptable." He added that Russia “will continue to defend the interests of our athletes in every possible way."
With reporting by Reuters
Missing Iranian Cleric Warns Of His Possible Detention, Death
Four months after the disappearance of Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi, the Sunni imam from the Iranian city of Rask in Sistan-Baluchistan Province who disclosed the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander, a video has surfaced in which he warns of the possibility that he may be "assassinated" or "apprehended."
Naqshbandi disappeared after he was summoned to a court in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad late last year. Since attending a court session in December, his whereabouts have been unknown and his family says they have no information on where he might be detained.
The news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander sparked mass protests in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. The protesters demanded accountability and were met with a violent and bloody response from security forces.
Almost 100 people were killed, and hundreds more injured by security forces in the unrest, which came on top of protests touched off by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Tehran's morality police for an alleged violation of the hijab law.
"If I am killed, those who did not tolerate my words, they are the cause of my murder," Naqshbandi says in the recording, released on his official Telegram social media channel.
He goes on in the video to mention the possibility he will be arrested and tortured.
"If they arrest and imprison me, because they have the power to arrest us again and again, they can also broadcast forced confessions from us in front of the television," he says, appearing to indicate any confession that may come out would not be of his own volition.
The date of the recording, which lasts about 4 minutes and 30 seconds, is not known. The post appeared on the site on March 28.
The disappearance of Naqshbandi came after an apparent attempt to discredit a top Sunni cleric by the local representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In December, a leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency said Khamenei told security and military officials to try and disgrace Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran's Sunni Muslim population, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.
Another prominent Iranian Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdulmajid, is also among those to have been detained.
In a January 19 interview with RFE/RL, Abdulmajid criticized the government for generating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province and a hotbed of the protest movement, and said the protests in the city will continue.
The government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on the months of unrest -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- that erupted following the September 16 death of Amini.
Sunni Muslims make up a majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province and Kurdistan, but account for only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.
Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Eastern European Governments Urge Tech Firms To Fight Disinformation
Ukraine and seven other Central and Eastern European nations on March 29 called on the world's top tech firms to take action to fight disinformation by hostile powers on their social media platforms, which they say undermines peace and stability. In an open letter signed by their prime ministers, the countries said tech platforms such as Facebook should take concrete steps, including rejecting payments from sanctioned individuals and altering algorithms to promote accuracy over engagement. The letter was signed by the prime ministers of Ukraine, Moldova, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
- By RFE/RL
Former Executive Of Russian Gas Company Convicted Of Tax Evasion In U.S.
A former top executive at Russian natural gas producer Novatek has been convicted of tax evasion in the United States.
Mark Gyetvay, who was deputy chairman of Novatek’s management board and its chief financial officer, was convicted of making false statements to U.S. tax authorities, failing to disclose offshore accounts, and failing to file tax returns, the U.S. Justice Department said.
According to court documents and evidence presented at his trial, Gyetvay from 2005-15 “concealed his ownership and control over substantial offshore assets and failed to file and pay taxes on millions of dollars of income,” the Justice Department said in a news release on March 28.
Gyetvay, who lives in Naples, Florida, worked as a certified public accountant (CPA) in the United States and Russia before becoming the chief financial officer of Novatek, a large Russian gas company.
Beginning in 2005, Gyetvay opened two accounts at a bank in Switzerland to hold assets amounting to more than $93 million, the Justice Department said.
“Over a period of several years, Gyetvay took steps to conceal his ownership and control over these funds, including removing himself from the accounts and making his then-wife, a Russian citizen, the beneficial owner of the accounts,” the department said.
Additionally, despite being a CPA, Gyetvay did not file his 2013 and 2014 U.S. tax returns and did not file documents on foreign bank accounts, as required, to disclose his control over the Swiss accounts.
As an American citizen, Gyetvay is required to pay U.S. taxes on his worldwide income, even if he spends most of the year in Russia.
At the time of his arrest in September 2021, Gyetvay called the charges “baseless” and said he had already settled them through a voluntary program. He vowed then to vigorously fight the charges.
Gyetvay was the face of Novatek to the Western investment community for more than a decade, conducting the quarterly earnings conference calls with stock and bond investors, as well as speaking at industry conferences. He now faces more than 10 years in prison at his sentencing on September 21.
Novatek is Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer and analysts say its phenomenal rise from a bit player in the early 2000s to a company that was once valued as high as $79 billion was in large part due to the company’s connections to the Kremlin.
Gennady Timchenko, a major shareholder in Novatek, is considered a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their friendship goes back to the early 1990s.
"Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin," the United States said in a 2014 statement sanctioning Timchenko. Putin has investments in oil trader Gunvor in which Timchenko had been a major shareholder and may have access to Gunvor funds, the United States said.
Timchenko sold his stake in Gunvor shortly before the sanctions were imposed.
Germany To Send Additional 12 Billion Euros In Military Support To Ukraine
The German government has agreed to send an additional 12 billion euros ($13 billion) worth of military support to Ukraine. The Budget Committee of the German Bundestag gave the green light on March 29 for the unbudgeted expenditure. The additional funding includes 3.2 billion euros to be disbursed in 2023 and credit lines for the period between 2024 and 2032 amounting to some 8.8 billion euros. "With the money, Ukraine can directly buy armaments with the support of the German government," three politicians representing the coalition government on the committee said in a statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iranian Teachers Protest Conditions Amid Reports Of Unpaid Wages
Iranian teachers have protested in several different cities around the country over wages and poor living standards as unrest over social and economic issues that has plagued Iran for almost a year continues.
Reports published on social media showed teachers gathered in front of education departments on March 28 in the cities of Tabriz, Bojnurd, Zanjan, Malayer, Ardabil, Kermanshah, and Hamedan demanding better financial conditions. The demonstrations came after a teachers' union had warned the government to meet its demands or face protests.
The rallies also came amid reports from the semiofficial Tasnim news agency that said numerous teachers across Iran had yet to receive their salaries for the previous month.
In recent years, Iranian teachers have taken to the streets across the country to demand better pay and working conditions. In response, the authorities have summoned, detained, and jailed a growing number of protesters and activists, actions that have failed to stop the rallies.
The Coordinating Council of Teachers' Syndicates said on March 19 that imprisonment, dismissal, deportation, and court sentences have failed to deter teachers from their desire to accompany the people of Iran in the direction of fundamental changes in the Islamic republic.
SPECIAL REPORT: The Protests That Shook Iran's Clerical System
The statement, published just ahead of the beginning of the Persian New Year on March 21, referred to the last year as "a year full of glory and complaints" and added that "the stance of teachers and students together will promise days full of awareness."
Unrest has rattled Iran since last summer in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.
Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into demonstrations, which officials across the country have since tried to quell with harsh measures.
The activist HRANA news agency said that more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.
Thousands have been arrested in the clampdown, with the judiciary handing down harsh sentences -- including the death penalty -- to protesters.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Pussy Riot Member Tolokonnikova Added To Russia's Wanted List
A member of the Pussy Riot protest group in Russia, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, has been added to the Russian Interior Ministry’s wanted list.
Tolokonnikova's name appeared on the ministry’s registry of wanted suspects on March 29. The ministry did not specify on what charges Tolokonnikova is wanted.
Media reports cited sources earlier this month as saying that a probe was launched against Tolokonnikova on a charge of "insulting believers' religious feelings."
According to the sources, the charge against Tolokonnikova stems from unspecified online posts. Rights defender Pavel Chikov said then that Moscow police had conducted a series of searches as part of its investigations.
In late December 2021, the Russian Justice Ministry added Tolokonnikova to its registry of "foreign agents." Russian authorities have used the controversial law on foreign agents to stifle dissent.
Pussy Riot came to prominence after three of its members were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time and campaigning for his subsequent return to the Kremlin.
Tolokonnikova and bandmate Maria Alyokhina had almost completed serving their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013 under an amnesty. The two dismissed the move as a propaganda stunt by Putin to improve his image ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics that were held in the Russian resort city of Sochi.
While in prison, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were recognized as political prisoners by domestic and international rights watchdogs. Amnesty International named the two activists prisoners of conscience due to "the severity of the response of the Russian authorities."
After the Pussy Riot stunt, Russian authorities adopted a law criminalizing what it called "insulting believers' religious feelings."
Russia's Wagner Chief Says Battle For Bakhmut Has Damaged His Forces
The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary group acknowledged on March 29 that fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut had inflicted severe damage on his own forces as well as the Ukrainian side. "The battle for Bakhmut today has already practically destroyed the Ukrainian Army, and unfortunately, it has also badly damaged the Wagner Private Military Company," Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio message. British military intelligence said on March 29 that Ukrainian forces had successfully pushed the Russians back from one of the city's main supply routes. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russian Architect Sentenced To More Than Five Years In Prison For Posting 'Fakes' About Ukraine War
A Russian court has sentenced architect Oleg Belousov to 5 1/2 years in prison for discrediting Russia's armed forces with "fake" social-media posts about the war in Ukraine and calls for extremism. The district court in St. Petersburg on March 29 also barred Belousov from administering websites for four years. Belousov, who has a medical condition, was added to Russia's list of "foreign agents" in January. He is one of dozens of Russian citizens prosecuted for criticizing Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine launched in February last year. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.
Montenegro Says U.S., South Korea Requesting Extradition Of Korean Cryptocurrency Fugitive
Montenegrin Justice Minister Marko Kovac said on March 29 that both South Korea and United States are requesting the extradition of Do Kwon, the former CEO and co-founder of cryptocurrency company Terraform Labs, who is suspected in the loss of investments worth more than $40 billion.
Do Kwon and his business partner, Hon Chang-joon, were arrested in Montenegro on March 23 while trying to flee to Dubai with falsified documents, according to the Justice Ministry.
Kovac said South Korea had requested the extradition of both Do Kwon and Hon Chang-joon.
He said that United States also requested Do Kwon's extradition.
"The existence of the international warrant regarding these two persons and the submitted request for extradition creates the ground for the extradition procedure to be initiated," Kovac told a news conference in Podgorica on March 29.
He did not clarify to which of the two countries they will be extradited, adding the ministry will inform the public if any other country sends an extradition request.
"In case we receive several extradition requests, I would like to say that determining which state they will be extradited to will be based on several factors, given the severity of the criminal offense committed, the location, and the time when the criminal offense was committed, the order in which we received the request for extradition, and several other factors," Kovac said.
He added that South Korea and the United States had also requested the laptops seized from the two suspects.
On March 24, Montenegro charged the two with forgery after their arrest.
The two men were taken into custody because they are considered a flight risk, authorities said. The suspects can be detained for a maximum of 30 days, a Podgorica court said.
Do Kwon is wanted by the United States, South Korea, and Singapore for what the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) calls "orchestrating a multibillion-dollar crypto-asset securities fraud."
"We allege that Terraform and Do Kwon failed to provide the public with full, fair, and truthful disclosure as required for a host of crypto-asset securities, most notably for Luna and Terra USD," SEC Chairman Gary Gensler said in a statement in February.
Terra USD was a crypto-asset security referred to as an "algorithmic stablecoin" that supposedly maintained its peg to the U.S. dollar by being interchangeable with Luna, another of Kwon's crypto-asset securities, the SEC said.
"We also allege that [Terraform and Kwon] committed fraud by repeating false and misleading statements to build trust before causing devastating losses for investors," he added.
Many investors lost their life savings when Luna and Terra USD collapsed, falling to a value of near zero. The fallout from the collapse of Terraform Labs also affected the wider cryptocurrency market.
With reporting by AFP
Russian Prosecutor Seeks Life In Prison For School Attacker Who Killed Nine
The prosecutor of Russia's Tatarstan region, Ildus Nafikov, asked the region's Supreme Court to convict and sentence to life in prison a man who killed nine people in an attack on a school in May 2021. The 19-year-old defendant, Ilnaz Galyaviyev, pleaded guilty. Galyaviyev attacked a school in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan, with explosives and a firearm on May 11, 2021, killing four boys, three girls -- all eighth-graders -- and two teachers. A court-ordered psychiatric examination concluded earlier that Galyaviyev is mentally ill. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, click here.
Gulagu.net Rights Group Stops Helping Military Personnel Opposed To War Escape Russia
The founder of the Gulagu.net human rights group, Vladimir Osechkin, announced that his organization is suspending efforts to help Russian military personnel opposed to Ukraine war leave Russia.
Osechkin, who is based in France, wrote on Telegram on March 29 that the decision was made after former Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev, whom Gulagu.net helped flee to France last year, confessed to knowledge of war crimes in Ukraine.
According to Osechkin, Filatyev told Swedish journalist Erik de la Reguera during an interview that he had been aware that some Ukrainians captured by his unit would later be executed.
Osechkin said that Filatyev had never told him and his group about knowing of extrajudicial killings of Ukrainians he and his fellow soldiers captured during the invasion of Ukraine.
Osechkin also said that Filatyev did not mention that element in the book he published after Gulagu.net helped him leave Russia and move to France.
"We also apologize to all who willingly or unwillingly got involved in this situation and assisted Pavel Filatyev at our request. We trusted that man and asked you to help him. We could not have imagined that this man is capable to do something like that," Osechkin wrote.
"This case and experience showed clearly that it is important to thoroughly check all testimonies and statements before deciding to assist or not assist such individuals," he said, adding that his group suspended its program on evacuating Russian military personnel to other countries.
Osechkin also wrote that he will offer his resignation as president of another rights organization, the New Dissidents Foundation, at the group's gathering next month.
"I am ready to bear responsibility for my mistakes and I want my negative experience to help others to avoid similar situations," Osechkin said on Telegram.
Since the start of Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine, Gulagu.net also helped Russian military servicemen Konstantin Yefremov and a former member of the Wagner mercenary group, Andrei Medvedev, leave Russia after they described what they witnessed during the invasion and openly condemned the war in Ukraine.
The Russian military has been accused of committing multiple war crimes in Ukrainian towns and cities. Russia denies the accusations despite abundant evidence to the contrary.
IAEA Chief Grossi Visits Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Plant
Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, visited the Russian-held Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant on March 29, Ukraine's state-owned nuclear company Enerhoatom reported. The visit was Grossi's second to Europe's largest nuclear power plant since the start of its occupation by Russian troops, Enerhoatom's press service said. The visit was part of efforts to avert the risk of an accident at the nuclear plant. On March 27, Grossi met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a working trip to the Zaporizhzhya region. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Russian Rights Defender Not Allowed To Reenter Georgia
Daryana Gryaznova, a Russian rights defender who has lived in Tbilisi since May 2021, has not been allowed to reenter Georgia after she took a trip to Istanbul. Gryaznova's boyfriend said on March 28 that she was sent back to Istanbul after border guards informed her at the Tbilisi airport that she was not allowed to enter the country for unspecified reasons. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, expressed concern over the situation, demanding an explanation from the Georgian authorities. Several Russian activists and journalists have been banned from reentering Georgia in recent months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, click here.
Two Men Killed In Chechnya After Allegedly Attacking Police
Two men were killed in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region of Chechnya after they attacked a police station in the city of Gudermes, late on March 28, opposition Chechen Telegram channels reported. The region's authoritarian Kremlin-backed ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, wrote on Telegram on March 29 that "two criminals" were killed after they were located in Gudermes, refused to give up, and threw a grenade at security forces. One day earlier, the Interior Ministry in the neighboring region of Ingushetia said unidentified men had opened fire at a police station late in the night on March 27, wounding two police officers. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.
Sweden Summons Russia's Ambassador Over 'Legitimate Target' Statement
Sweden's Foreign Ministry said on March 29 it will summon Russia's Stockholm ambassador to complain about an "attempt at interference" with the Swedish NATO application process. Sweden and Finland in 2022 both sought NATO membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and are hoping to complete the process this year. The Russian ambassador in a statement on the embassy's website said joining NATO made the Nordic countries "a legitimate target for Russian retaliatory measures, including those of a military nature." A Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Reuters the ambassador would be summoned. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Siberian Journalist Goes On Trial For Article Related To Ukraine War
The editor in chief of the Novy fokus (New Focus) online newspaper in the Siberian region of Khakasia, Mikhail Afanasyev, went on trial on March 29 charged with discrediting Russia's armed forces. Afanasyev was arrested in April 2022 after his newspaper reported about the refusal of local riot police officers to participate in Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Afanasyev was the first foreign recipient of the Swedish Magazine Publishers Association Award and was twice awarded with the Andrei Sakharov prize. If convicted, he may face up to 10 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.
Hungary Says 'Grievances' Hold Up Ratification Of Sweden's NATO Accession
Hungary is holding up Sweden's admission to NATO because of grievances over its criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's policies, the Hungarian government spokesman said March 29. Bridging the gap will require effort on both sides, Zoltan Kovacs said. Sweden and Finland asked to join NATO last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But the process has been held up by Hungary and Turkey. Swedish representatives "have been repeatedly keen to bash Hungary through diplomatic means, using their political influence to harm Hungarian interests", Kovacs said, referring to Swedish criticism over the erosion of the rule of law by Orban's government. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Azerbaijani PM Known For Criticism Of Iran Wounded In 'Terrorist Attack'
Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on March 29 that lawmaker Fazil Mustafa was hospitalized with gunshot wounds to his shoulder and leg the previous evening after an unknown assailant opened fire at him near his home. DTX called the attack "a terrorist act," adding that Mustafa's life was not in danger. Mustafa is the only representative in parliament of the Boyuk Qurulus (Great Creativeness) party loyal to the government. Investigations into the attack are under way, DTX said. Mustafa is a sharp critic of neighboring Iran's policies toward Azerbaijan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.
Hungary's Foreign Minister Holds Energy Talks With Russian Deputy PM
Hungary's foreign minister held telephone talks with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak about gas and oil shipments and nuclear cooperation, the Hungarian minister said late on March 28. In a statement, Peter Szijjarto said Novak reassured him that despite international sanctions, the Russian party would be able to do maintenance work on the Turkstream pipeline. "Hungary's gas supply will continue without any disruptions," the statement added. Under a 15-year deal signed in 2021, Hungary receives 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia mostly via Bulgaria and Serbia on the Turkstream pipeline. To read the full story by Reuters, click here.
Pakistan Says It Will Skip U.S. Democracy Summit
Pakistan announced on March 28 that it will not participate in this week's U.S.-led Summit for Democracy. The Biden administration has invited 120 global leaders to the summit being held in Washington on March 29-30. It will be co-hosted by the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry in a statement thanked the United States and its co-hosts for the invitation and said Pakistan would engage with the United States and co-hosts of the summit "to promote and strengthen democratic principles."
French Parliament Recognizes Ukrainian Famine As Genocide
The French parliament has voted to recognize as genocide the starvation of millions in Ukraine in the 1930s under Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
French deputies adopted the resolution on March 28 as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine revives memories of the famine known in Ukraine as the Holodomor.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the decision on Twitter, thanking French legislators.
"The totalitarian regime of the Kremlin, past or present, could not destroy and will never destroy truth and justice!" he said.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also thanked the French lawmakers.
"I am grateful to France for recognizing the 1932-33 Holodomor as a genocide of Ukrainians and for honoring the memory of the victims of Stalin and his regime," he said on Twitter.
"With this historic vote, [the French parliament] made it clear that such crimes will never be forgotten and must never be repeated."
Kyiv has urged the international community to declare the mass starvation a genocide.
The European Parliament did so in December and called on Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, to do the same and apologize. It also called on "all countries and international organizations" that have not yet recognized the Holodomor as genocide to do so.
The Ukrainian government and many scholars regard the Holodomor -- Ukrainian for "death by hunger" -- as an act of genocide by Stalin's regime.
The famine took place in 1932-33 as Stalin's police forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs.
Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.
It is estimated that up to 9 million people died as a result of executions, deportation, and starvation during the campaign.
Moscow has long denied any systematic effort to target Ukrainians, arguing a poor harvest at the time wiped out many in other parts of the Soviet Union.
The text adopted in Paris recognizes "the genocidal nature of the forced and planned famine by the Soviet authorities against the Ukrainian population in 1932 and 1933."
The French parliament condemned those acts and "affirms its support for the Ukrainian people in their aspiration to have the mass crimes committed against them by the Soviet regime recognized."
With reporting by AFP
Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Can't Afford To Lose The Battle For Bakhmut, Urges More 'Decisive' International Action
Ukrainian defenders repelled more waves of Russian assaults on Bakhmut, the military said on March 29, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that Kyiv cannot afford to lose the battle for the city in the Donetsk region that has become the focal point of Russia's protracted offensive in the east.
"The enemy continued its assault on the city of Bakhmut," the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said in its daily report. "However, our defenders have been courageously holding on to the city, repelling numerous enemy attacks," it said.
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Bakhmut, along with Avdiyivka, Mariynka, and Lyman, remain the main targets of Russia's relentless shelling, the Ukrainian military said, adding that a total of 57 enemy attacks were repelled over the past 24 hours in the area.
Russian troops also carried out 18 air strikes and three missile strikes, as well as 50 rocket salvoes along the whole front line over the previous day, the military said.
The information could not be independently verified.
Farther south, Russian forces kept shelling the Kherson region, the head of the regional military administration Oleksandr Prokudin said.
"Over the past day, the enemy has shelled the region 34 times -- three times the city of Kherson itself," Prokudin said on Telegram, adding that one person was wounded.
Residential buildings, a hospital, and a factory were among the Russian targets, Prokudin said.
In the eastern Kharkiv region, one man was killed and another was wounded by massive Russian shelling, local police reported.
Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, visited the Russian-held Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant on March 29, Ukraine's state-owned company Enerhoatom reported.
The visit was Grossi's second to Europe's largest nuclear power plant since the start of its occupation by Russian troops, Enerhoatom's press service said.
The visit was part of efforts to avert the risk of an accident at the nuclear plant. On March 27, Grossi met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a working trip to the Zaporizhzhya region.
Meanwhile, Zelenskiy reaffirmed that Ukraine must hold on to Bakhmut at all costs, warning that a win by Russia there would be used by President Vladimir Putin as a stepping stone in garnering international support for a peace agreement that would force Ukraine to accept painful compromises.
Putin would "sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran," Zelenskiy told the Associated Press in an interview published on March 29.
"If he will feel some blood -- smell that we are weak -- he will push, push, push," Zelenskiy said.
Ukrainian military commanders have said their own counteroffensive is not far off but in the meantime they seek to maintain control of Bakhmut.
The Ukrainian military announced on March 28 that it has recently received long-promised Western equipment, including German Leopard 2 tanks.
On March 28, Zelenskiy said in his evening video address that the world must act with more urgency to put a stop to Russia's aggression.
He said he believed the "Russian aggression can end much faster" than some have said. It will end faster "if the world is faster, if the world is more decisive," Zelenskiy said.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
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