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Lukashenka Sworn In To Start New Term As Belarusian President

Belarusian President Sworn Into Office
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WATCH: The inauguration of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (video by Reuters)

By RFE/RL

Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been sworn in to start a new five-year term as president of Belarus at a ceremony held in the Palace of the Republic in Minsk and broadcast live on national television.

The inauguration took place as European and U.S. officials mull new sanctions over Lukashenka's crackdown on street protests following his December 19 reelection, which the opposition and international monitors say was rigged.

Western governments have urged Belarus to free opposition activists rounded up during and after the mass protest in Minsk, including four presidential candidates who ran against Lukashenka.

Police violently dispersed the December 19 mass protest and detained nearly 700 demonstrators. More than 30 of them face lengthy prison sentences on charges of causing mass disturbances.

In the latest development, "Sovyetskaya Belorusia," the official newspaper of the presidential administration, has accused presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau and his journalist wife of plotting a coup. The report accuses the couple of accepting $20 million from "foreign donors" to oust Lukashenka.

The couple were arrested in the postelection crackdown and are now in jail facing a possible lengthy sentence on a charge of organizing mass unrest.

European lawmakers on January 20 adopted a resolution calling on their governments to slap fresh sanctions on Lukashenka's regime.

EU ministers are scheduled to meet on January 31 to decide whether to impose sanctions, including a travel ban against Lukashenka and other top Belarusian officials, plus a freeze on any financial support from the International Monetary Fund.

Washington is also exploring new sanctions on Minsk.

Lukashenka has ruled the country of 10 million with an iron fist since 1994 and was famously described by the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush as Europe's "last dictator."

In an angry speech on January 20, Lukashenka said he would reply to any EU sanctions with the "harshest" retaliatory measures.

He also restated his government's claim that Poland and Germany were behind the attempt to stage a revolt against him, an accusation both countries have dismissed as absurd.

written by Claire Bigg, with agency reports

Special Page: Belarus Crackdown

Crackdown In Belarus


A special page devoted to coverage, views, and multimedia features on authorities' response to public doubts about Belarus's presidential election. Click here

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Scores Hospitalized With Botulism Symptoms In Russia; 3 Arrested

Improperly canned, preserved, or fermented foods are common sources. (file photo)
Improperly canned, preserved, or fermented foods are common sources. (file photo)

Russian authorities detained three people on June 18 in connection with a suspected botulism outbreak, a move that comes as 169 people have been hospitalized thus far with the rare disease, most of whom are from Moscow. Officials link the outbreak to ready-to-eat salads made by popular delivery service Kukhnya Na Rayone. Foodborne botulism is a rare illness that can cause paralysis, breathing difficulties, and sometimes death. Improperly canned, preserved, or fermented foods are common sources. Kukhnya Na Rayone suspended operations over the weekend, saying in an online statement that it no longer offered the salad, which had canned beans in it, and would inspect other food it makes as well.

Russian Journalist Kevorkova's Detention On Terror Charge Extended

Nadezhda Kevorkova (file photo)
Nadezhda Kevorkova (file photo)

A Moscow court on June 18 extended pretrial detention for Russian journalist Nadezhda Kevorkova until at least August 6. Kevorkova was arrested last month on a charge of "justifying terrorism." The 65-year-old journalist reiterated her innocence. Her lawyers requested her transfer to house arrest. The charges against Kevorkova stem from two posts on Telegram in 2018 and 2021. Kevorkova is known for focusing on conflicts in the Caucasus and the Middle East and on Muslims' rights in Russia and abroad. Kevorkova's former husband, Maksim Shevchenko, is a well-known political observer and politician. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Dissident Yashin Moved To Harsher Russian Prison Regime

Ilya Yashin (file photo)
Ilya Yashin (file photo)

Outspoken Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin, serving 8 1/2 years in prison for openly condemning Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has been transferred to a punitive cell unit (PKT) in a prison in the western Smolensk region, his Telegram channel said on June 18. Placement in the PKT is considered the harshest type of incarceration in Russian prisons. Unlike regular parts of prisons where inmates can move around, work, and visit a library or prayer rooms, the PKT limits those incarcerated to serve time in their cell, and they are isolated from the rest of the facility. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

China, Iran, North Korea 'Countries Of Concern' For Russia Support, Blinken Says

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrive for a news conference at the State Department in Washington on June 18.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (left) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrive for a news conference at the State Department in Washington on June 18.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken described China, Iran, and North Korea as "countries of concern" for their involvement in Russia's war economy at a June 18 joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Stoltenberg said Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine "demonstrates and confirms the very close alliance between Russia and authoritarian states like North Korea, but also China and Iran."

Blinken condemned North Korea and Iran for supplying munitions to Russia.

He also called on China to stop supporting the Russian defense-industrial base. Blinken said China "can't on the one hand say it wants better relations with Europe while at the same time funding the biggest security threat since the Cold War."

Blinken said that China provided 70 percent of Russia's machine tools and 90 percent of microelectronics.

China's support has enabled Russia to keep its defense industrial base going -- "to keep the war machine going.... So that has to stop," Blinken said.

Blinken said China “can’t on the one hand say it wants better relations with Europe while eat the same time fueling the biggest security threat since the Cold War. This is what’s keeping the war going.”

If China really means it, "it will stop fueling the war machine."

Stoltenberg used the same language, reiterating a statement at the Wilson Center on June 17, saying: "China cannot have it both ways. This has to stop."

He again called for China to face "consequences" if it keeps backing Russia. It is "too early to say" what kind of consequences China should face for supporting Russia, Stoltenberg said, but added that China "cannot continue to have normal trade relationships with Europe."

"Unless China changes its behavior, it has to be addressed," Stoltenberg said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian said in response to Stoltenberg's comments that NATO should "reflect on itself, rather than attack China."

Lin blamed NATO for Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine and said the "relevant parties" should "stop deflecting the blame and sowing discord."

Blinken and Stoltenberg referred to security as global and emphasized the importance of strengthening Indo-Pacific partnerships at the upcoming NATO summit, scheduled to take place in Washington on July 9-11.

Blinken echoed the words of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and said, "What's happening in Ukraine today may well be happening in East Asia tomorrow."

Stoltenberg and Blinken also mentioned Russian President Vladimir Putin's June 17-18 visit to North Korea, the first such visit from a Russian head of state in 24 years.

Blinken condemned North Korea for providing "significant munitions to Russia for use in Ukraine."

Stoltenberg said NATO was "concerned about the potential support that Russia provides to North Korea when it comes to supporting their missile and nuclear programs."

Sweden Summons Russian Envoy Over Alleged Airspace Violation

A Swedish Gripen jet (file photo)
A Swedish Gripen jet (file photo)

The Swedish Foreign Ministry said on June 18 that it had summoned Russia's ambassador after a Russian SU-24 bomber allegedly violated its airspace near the Baltic Sea island of Gotland. The ministry said it summoned the ambassador to "express its stance against Russia's violation of Swedish airspace that took place on Friday, June 14." Sweden said on June 15 that the Russian aircraft violated its airspace east of Gotland's southern tip. The Swedish air combat command warned the Russian aircraft with a verbal call, Sweden's armed forces said. "When this was not heeded and the aircraft did not deviate from its route, it was dismissed from Swedish airspace by two JAS-39 Gripens," it said. Russia has yet to respond to the allegations.

Activists Condemn Iran-Sweden Prisoner Swap Of Convicted War Criminal Nouri

Hamid Nouri (file photo)
Hamid Nouri (file photo)

International human rights groups and activists have strongly condemned a prisoner exchange between Sweden and Iran that involved Hamid Nouri, a former Iranian prison official convicted in the Nordic country of crimes against humanity.

Nouri, who was exchanged on June 15 for Swedish nationals Johan Floderus and Saeid Azizi, returned to Iran using his alias "Hamid Abbasi," a name linked to the executions of political prisoners in 1988.

Upon his arrival in Tehran, Nouri was met with a mixed reception, a reflection on his controversial past and the contentious nature of the swap.

Floderus is a Swedish EU diplomat held in captivity for two years in Iran on espionage charges that he, the EU, and Stockholm said were fabricated. Azizi was arrested in Iran last November on what Sweden has called "wrongful grounds."

"The Swedish government has thrown dirt into the face of justice in the world by handing over a 'criminal' to the Islamic republic," said Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, noting Nouri's conviction for gross violations of international humanitarian laws.

"This disgrace and scandal will never be forgotten," Ebadi added.

Swedish prosecutors originally detained Nouri in 2019, basing their case on the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of severe crimes irrespective of location.

After a detailed and lengthy trial, Nouri was sentenced in May 2022 to life imprisonment for his role in the massacre of political prisoners during the summer of 1988.

Iran has arrested dozens of foreign and dual nationals in recent years on espionage charges that they and their governments say are groundless. Critics say Tehran uses such arbitrary detentions as part of hostage diplomacy to extract concessions from Western countries, which Tehran denies.

"The Islamic republic will take more innocent foreign and dual nationals hostage, repress people at home, and terrorize those abroad," actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi said.

"The international community needs a new approach. One that deters, not appeases the regime."

Esmat Vatanparast, who lost 11 members of her extended family during the 1988 mass executions -- including her two daughters and three brothers -- told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that "my heart broke today, tears came to my eyes, but I remain hopeful for the people of Iran" after hearing of the exchange.

The exchange was also criticized for failing to include Ahmadreza Djalali, an Iranian-Swedish researcher who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2016.

Vida Mehrannia, Djalali's wife, expressed her dismay, announcing plans to protest in front of the Swedish Foreign Ministry against the exchange, which she labeled "shameful."

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

U.S. Announces New Sanctions On Bosnian Serb Leader Dodik

Milorad Dodik (file photo)
Milorad Dodik (file photo)

The United States on June 18 tightened sanctions targeting Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and his family, taking aim at a network of individuals and firms it accuses of raising money for him. The Treasury Department said in a statement that it was placing sanctions on two individuals and seven entities that provided Dodik with "major sources of revenue." The Treasury Department said Dodik used his official position to direct government contracts to private companies that he oversees along with his son, Igor. Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the United States "condemns Dodik's continued efforts to erode the institutions that have ensured peace and stability for Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region."

Ukrainian Prosecutor Says Russian Troops Beheaded Ukrainian Soldier

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin (file photo)
Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin (file photo)

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said on June 18 that Russian troops beheaded a Ukrainian soldier in the eastern Donetsk region. Kostin said the Ukrainian military spotted the soldier's head on a damaged armored car during aerial reconnaissance. Ukrainian law enforcement officers opened an investigation to establish the facts of the case, Kostin said. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded six cases of extrajudicial executions of Ukrainian prisoners of war between February and July 2023. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other's militaries of battlefield misconduct tantamount to war crimes. To read the original story on RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Prosecutors Seek 14 Years In Prison For Mother Of Tajik Ex-Police Officer Serving Life For Banker's Murder

Sojida Saidmurodova (left) and Dilshod Saidmurovod (combo photo)
Sojida Saidmurodova (left) and Dilshod Saidmurovod (combo photo)

Prosecutors have asked a court in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to convict and sentence to 14 years in prison on corruption charges Sojida Saidmurodova, the mother of former top police officer Dilshod Saidmurodov, who is serving life in prison for kidnapping and killing a banker last year.

A relative of the 65-year-old Saidmurodova told RFE/RL on June 18 that the woman was arrested in September and charged with financial fraud, illegally obtaining a parcel of land, the illegal construction of property, forgery, and obstruction of justice.

In March, Tajikistan's Supreme Court sentenced her son, who used to work at the Interior Ministry directorate dealing with organized crime, and four other men to life in prison in the high-profile case of the abduction and murder of one of the Central Asian country's wealthiest bankers, Shohrat Ismatulloev.

Another 10 defendants were sentenced to prison terms of between one year and eight years for their involvement in Ismatulloev's abduction and murder.

Ismatulloev, the deputy chairman of Orienbank, one of the country's leading banks, was abducted in June 2023. His body was found later in August.

One of the alleged abductors was identified as Rustam Ashurov, who died in a hospital in Moldova in July 2023 after local police wounded him during a shoot-out in which he killed two security officers at Chisinau International Airport.

Moldovan authorities said at the time that Ashurov worked at the Tajik Interior Ministry for seven years but was fired for unspecified criminal activities.

Investigators said the kidnappers were looking to extort money from the banker and tortured him brutally before he died.

Orienbank is the largest private financial institution in the authoritarian Central Asian country and has been linked to the family of President Emomali Rahmon, several sources have told RFE/RL.

Israel Drops Visa Requirement For Kosovo Passport Holders

Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (left) and Kosovar Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz attend the signing ceremony in Pristina on June 18.
Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (left) and Kosovar Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz attend the signing ceremony in Pristina on June 18.

Israel has signed an agreement waiving the visa requirement for citizens of Kosovo, making it the 50th country to allow free entry to citizens of the partially recognized former Serbian province. The agreement was signed by Israeli Interior Minister Moshe Arbel and Kosovar Foreign Affairs and Diaspora Minister Donika Gervalla-Schwarz in Pristina on June 18. Arbel met earlier in the day with Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Serbia, Russia, China, and a handful of EU member states still don't recognize the independence that Kosovo declared in 2008. Israel and Kosovo formalized diplomatic relations in 2021. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kosovo Service, click here.

Russia Buying Spies To Make Up For Expelled Diplomats, Germany Says

(photo illustration)
(photo illustration)

Russia has turned increasingly to blackmail and financial incentives to hire Germans to spy for it after the blow dealt to its intelligence services by Europe's expulsion of some 600 Russian diplomats, Germany's domestic security service said. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said Russian intelligence services were spending big to recruit agents in Germany despite Western attempts to limit their operations since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. "Russia is working hard to compensate for the German government's reduction in the number of Russian agents in Germany," BfV chief Thomas Haldenwang told a news conference. Two German citizens who were charged last August with high treason for spying for Russia had each been paid an estimated 400,000 euros ($428,560) for their services, the BfV said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Kazakh Opposition Activist Shot In Kyiv

Aidos Sadyqov (file photo)
Aidos Sadyqov (file photo)

Kazakh opposition activist and journalist Aidos Sadyqov was shot in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on June 18 by an unknown assailant.

The activist's wife, Natalya Sadyqova, said on Facebook that "the attempted murder of her husband" took place near his house in Kyiv.

She did not give any further details. She was with her husband but was unharmed in the attack.

Kazakh Opposition Journalist Shot In Kyiv
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Ukraine's National Police said an unknown person shot a man in a parked vehicle and fled the scene, but gave no further details.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said it had started investigating the "attempted murder of a journalist, a citizen of Kazakhstan," adding that the victim was hospitalized in "serious condition." It did not name Sadyqov.

Kazakhstan-based human rights defender Inga Imanbai wrote on Facebook that she spoke to Natalya Sadyqova, who told her that her husband was currently in intensive care following surgery.

Sadyqova told journalists later in Kyiv that she was confident that the attack was linked to the work she and her husband have done as journalists.

"I want everyone to understand one thing. The attack is directly related to our journalistic activities," Sadyqova said, adding that earlier in the day she and her husband posted new material on their Base channel on YouTube in which they criticized Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev for his pro-Russian policies.

Sadyqov used to lead a branch of the opposition Azat Social Democratic Party in his native Aqtobe region in Kazakhstan's northwest until 2010.

He later headed a group that was a major force to create a union defending the rights of Kazakh workers at the Chinese-owned CNPC-Aktobemunaygaz oil company.

In 2014, Kazakh authorities launched a case against Natalya Sadyqova, who worked as a journalist for the independent Respublika newspaper at the time, accusing her of slander.

The couple then fled Kazakhstan and have resided in Kyiv since. They obtained political asylum in Ukraine. In 2016, the Kazakh authorities shut down Respublika.

While in Ukraine, the couple launched the Base YouTube channel in Kazakh and Russian, which has frequently examined corruption in Kazakhstan.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Sadyqovs' YouTube channel carried materials criticizing Moscow's aggression and accusing the Kazakh government of pro-Russian policies.

In October 2023, Kazakhstan added Aidos Sadyqov and his wife to its wanted list, accusing them of "inciting hatred." Sadyqov told RFE/RL at the time that the charge was politically motivated.

Finnish Law To Halt Migrants At Russia Border Makes Progress In Parliament

Finnish hunter soldiers attend training with Swedish units as part of NATO's Nordic Response exercise in Hetta, Finland, in March.
Finnish hunter soldiers attend training with Swedish units as part of NATO's Nordic Response exercise in Hetta, Finland, in March.

A Finnish government proposal to temporarily reject asylum seekers arriving at the country's border with Russia could be accepted by parliament if some amendments are made, an influential committee of legislators said on June 18. The announcement by the chair of the Finnish parliament's constitutional committee paves the way for the controversial proposal to be approved in a plenary vote at a later time. The government in May presented legislation allowing border guards to prevent migrants arriving across the long, forested border with Russia from seeking asylum, despite admitting the law would be in conflict with human rights commitments. Finland believes Moscow is promoting the crossings in retaliation for Helsinki joining NATO. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russian Professor Convicted Of Espionage In Estonia

Vyacheslav Morozov
Vyacheslav Morozov

An Estonian court has convicted a Russian citizen and former professor at the University of Tartu of carrying out activities against that Baltic state and sentenced him to six years and three months in prison, Estonian media reported on June 18. Prosecutors accused Vyacheslav Morozov of gathering information on security, defense, and internal subjects as well as related individuals and infrastructure. The director of Estonia's Internal Security Service (ISS), Margo Palloson, told ERR that Morozov had given information to Russian special services on a regular basis before his arrest in January. ERR said Morozov established ties with the University of Tartu in 2010 and before then had worked with St. Petersburg State University. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Tatarstan's Supreme Court Rejects Appeal By Imprisoned RFE/RL Journalist Alsu Kurmasheva

RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on May 31.
RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva attends a court hearing in Kazan on May 31.

The Supreme Court of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan has rejected an appeal by RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva against a decision to extend her pretrial detention.

Judge Rizvan Yusupov on June 18 upheld last month's decision by the Soviet district court in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan, to extend her pretrial detention until at least August 5.

Kurmasheva, a Prague-based journalist with RFE/RL who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenships, has been held in Russian custody since October 18, 2023, on a charge of violating the so-called "foreign agent" law and distributing false information about Russia's military, a charge that could lead to a 10-year prison sentence. She, her employer, and her supporters reject the charges.

During the last hearing on May 31, Kurmasheva said that her health had deteriorated and that she needs surgery. She also said that the last time she heard the voices of her two daughters was in October 2023.

Kurmasheva, who has worked for RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service for some 25 years, left the Czech capital in mid-May 2023 because of a family emergency in her native Tatarstan.

She was briefly detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2, 2023, at the Kazan airport, where both of her passports and phone were confiscated. After five months waiting for a decision in her case, Kurmasheva was fined 10,000 rubles ($112) for failing to register her U.S. passport with Russian authorities.

Unable to leave Russia without her travel documents, Kurmasheva was detained again in October and this time charged with failure to register as a "foreign agent." Two months later, she was charged with spreading falsehoods about the Russian military.

The U.S. government and RFE/RL say the charges are punishment for Kurmasheva's work as a journalist for RFE/RL.

On June 17, U.S. State department spokesman Mathew Miller reiterated previous statements by senior U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, that called on Russia to immediately release Kurmasheva.

He did not, however, elaborate on why Washington has yet to designate Kurmasheva as "wrongfully detained," a designation that would raise the profile of the case against Kurmasheva, effectively labeling it as politically motivated. Two other U.S. citizens held by Russia -- Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan -- have been designated as wrongfully detained.

"We believe that she should be released," Miller said when asked about recognizing Kurmasheva as "wrongfully detained." "I can’t speak to a formal determination at this time. But we’ve been pretty clear about the status of her case and what we think about it."

Miller also expressed concern over Russia's decision to try Gershkovich for alleged espionage in a closed trial, emphasizing that U.S. Embassy representatives will still try to attend the court hearing scheduled for later this month.

Miller said attending was a "high priority for us" but that "ultimately we’re going to try to bring [Gershkovich] home and we’re going to try to bring [fellow detained American] Paul Whelan home, and that continues to be our overriding goal."

Russian authorities have not provided any evidence to support the espionage charges against 32-year-old Gershkovich, which The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently rejected. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Russian officials said this week that Gershkovich's espionage trial in a court in Yekaterinburg would take place behind closed doors beginning on June 26. Gershkovich was initially arrested during a reporting trip to that Urals city in March 2023.

U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich looks out from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Moscow City Court on February 20.
U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich looks out from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Moscow City Court on February 20.

"We will try to attend the trial, as we try to attend the trial of any American citizens who are detained in Russia. But ultimately, I don’t have an answer for you yet whether that’s going to be possible," Miller said.

"Charges against him are completely bogus, as we have made clear, and we believe the Russian government knows that they are completely bogus. That said, we’re going to continue to try to bring him home," he added.

Analysts and Western officials accuse Russia of targeting U.S. citizens for detention for potential use in prisoner exchanges or for other geopolitical purposes.

Russia is believed to be seeking the release of Vadim Krasikov, who is serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 killing of Zelimkhan "Tornike" Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen descent who had fought Russian troops in Chechnya and later claimed asylum in Germany.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, asked in February about releasing Gershkovich, appeared to refer to Krasikov by pointing to a man imprisoned by a U.S. ally for "liquidating a bandit" who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers in Chechnya.

With reporting by Current Time

Jailed Kazakh Activist Launches Hunger Strike

Aidar Syzdyqov
Aidar Syzdyqov

Kazakh opposition activist Aidar Syzdyqov, who was arrested in May on a charge of "selling illegal drugs," launched a hunger strike four days ago, his wife, Aigul Toqpaeva, said on June 18. Syzdyqov has said the case against him is politically motivated. The charges against Syzdyqov were based on a statement by a person who claims he had put money on Syzdyqov's debit card for drugs he allegedly received from him. Syzdyqov has noted that all of his payment cards were blocked after a court in Astana handed him a parole-like three-year sentence in 2021 over links with a banned opposition movement. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.

France Hails Deal To Provide Armenia With Howitzers As 'New Important Milestone'

Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian (left) and French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu (right) in a photo released in conjunction with the CAESAR announcement on June 18.
Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian (left) and French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu (right) in a photo released in conjunction with the CAESAR announcement on June 18.

French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecornu said his country has signed a deal to provide CAESAR self-propelled howitzers to Armenia, a move that's likely to further raise anger in Azerbaijan and Russia toward France.

The contract comes as Yerevan edges closer to the West through military and other ties and further from traditional ally Russia, following Armenia's defeat last year by Caucasus archfoe Azerbaijan to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas internationally recognized as Azerbaijani but controlled for decades by ethnic Armenians.

Lecornu announced the CAESAR deal on June 18 after a meeting in Paris with Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikian, hailing it as a "new important milestone."

He said Paris "continue[s] to strengthen our defense relationship" with Armenia.

The CAESAR is a self-propelled 155-millimeter, 52-caliber cannon whose range with advanced projectiles exceeds 50 kilometers.

It has been used extensively in the ongoing war in Ukraine against invading Russian forces and is compatible with NATO-standard ammunition.

Since Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian took over six years ago, Armenia has gradually shifted its diplomatic and military efforts away from Russia and toward the West.

At the same time, Yerevan has accused longtime power broker Moscow and the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (SCTO) of offering little help to keep Azerbaijan at bay. The CSTO is an alliance of six ex-Soviet states -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

In a sign of rising tensions, Russia last month recalled its ambassador to Armenia for consultations without explanation after Pashinian accused two unnamed CSTO members of helping Azerbaijan prepare for a brief but intense offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.

Russia has worked closely with Belarus in its war on Ukraine, including by staging invasion operations from Belarusian territory.

A week ago, Pashinian said Armenia would formally quit the CSTO, whose members "are not fulfilling their contractual obligations but are planning a war against us with Azerbaijan."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Pashinian’s administration of "leading things to the collapse of Russian-Armenian relations" at the behest of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pashinian discussed the worsening rift when they met in Moscow on May 8 after a Eurasian Economic Union summit.

Armenia and France signed agreements on increased cooperation in military supplies last fall, about a month after an Azerbaijani offensive retook its remaining lands around Nagorno-Karabakh from ethnic Armenian forces supported by Yerevan.

In December, the French Senate urged Armenia to accelerate its familiarity with howitzers as quickly as possible.

Siberian Blogger Detained Hours Before Putin Visit

Yakutsk
Yakutsk

Police in Russia's Siberian Republic of Sakha-Yakutia detained local blogger Pyotr Shepelev on June 18, just hours before a visit to the regional capital, Yakutsk, by President Vladimir Putin. It is unclear why the blogger, who is known for raising social and economic issues faced by the remote region, was detained. He was taking the trash from his apartment when security officers took him into custody. Earlier on June 18, Shepelev wrote on Telegram that two people appeared to be surveying his apartment block, suggesting that it was linked to Putin's visit. The president arrived in Yakutsk on June 18 before flying on to North Korea and Vietnam. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Russian Court Sentences Ukrainian Lawmaker Honcharenko In Absentia

Oleksiy Honcharenko
Oleksiy Honcharenko

A military court in Moscow on June 18 sentenced Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksiy Honcharenko in absentia to 10 years in prison. The court found Honcharenko guilty of justifying terrorism, inciting hatred with the threat of violence, and the distribution of false information about Russia's military. It remains unclear what the lawmaker did to warrant the charges. Honcharenko wrote on Telegram in late April that he had learned about the probe launched against him in Russia, adding that "it is a pleasure to be the first [Ukrainian] MP to be tried in the Russian Federation for alleged war crimes" as "not everyone has such an honorable status." To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Russian Journalist Held For Questioning After His Home Was Searched

Artyom Kriger (file photo)
Artyom Kriger (file photo)

Artyom Kriger, a journalist with the independent SotaVision Telegram channel, has been detained for questioning in an unspecified case. On June 18, Kriger's sister confirmed reports that her brother had been detained after police searched his apartment. Kriger is known for his interviews with Russian politicians. In May last year, his uncle, Mikhail Kriger, was sentenced to seven years in prison on a charge of justifying terrorism. Investigators said Mikhail Kriger made calls online for the "execution" of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the killing of security officers. Mikhail Kriger rejected the charge. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Updated

Romania Now Last Hurdle For Rutte As NATO Chief After Hungary, Slovakia Sign On

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte

Romania remains the final country yet to give its support to longtime Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte becoming NATO's next secretary-general after Hungary dropped its objections following meetings in Brussels and Slovakia's president appeared to signal his country's support.

The transatlantic military alliance is seeking the required consensus among its 32 members for someone to succeed Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg as secretary-general when he steps down in October.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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The United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Turkey have all said they would support Rutte's candidacy.

One of the main holdouts, Hungary, dropped its resistance on June 18 when Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Rutte had agreed to honor an agreement reached with Stoltenberg that that no Hungarian personnel will take part in the activities of NATO in Ukraine and no Hungarian funds will be used to support them.

"In light of his pledge, Hungary is ready to support PM Rutte's bid for NATO Secretary-General," Orban said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Stoltenberg, speaking at a news conference in Washington, said Orban's announcement made it "obvious that we are very close to a conclusion in the alliance. I think that’s good news. I think that Mark Rutte is a very strong candidate."

Rutte said on June 17 that he remained "cautiously optimistic about Hungary."

Earlier on June 18, new Slovak President Peter Pellegrini said his country was prepared to support Rutte for the NATO top job.

"After a final discussion with Mark Rutte and consultation with the Slovak government, Slovakia can imagine Mark Rutte as the NATO chief," Reuters quoted Pellegrini as telling a televised news briefing.

Rutte is now on the verge of the unanimous support he needs to be chosen for the position, with only Romania undeclared among the military alliance's 32 members to approve the Dutch politician for a four-year term.

Slovaks are among the most pro-Russian of EU and NATO members, and left-wing populist Prime Minister Robert Fico halted arms shipments to Ukraine after his appointment as prime minister in October.

Like Orban, Fico has also publicly opposed Ukraine's eventual membership in NATO.

Pellegrini, who is regarded as a Fico ally, was sworn in to replace staunch Ukraine supporter Zuzana Caputova as president on June 15.

Orban has been a staunch critic of sanctions and direct military assistance to Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, and he has continued visits and other diplomatic overtures to Moscow despite Western calls for unity in the face of the Russian threat.

He and his national populist Fidesz party have also spearheaded anti-EU sentiment within and outside the bloc that seemingly contributed to right-wing gains in this month's elections for the European Parliament.

Stoltenberg traveled to Hungary on June 12 and emerged from a meeting with Orban saying Budapest had agreed not to block assistance and military aid to Ukraine, although it would exercise an opt-out.

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has sought the NATO leadership job for himself.

Updated

Ukrainian Drones Struck Russian Oil Facility, Igniting Major Fire, Source Tells RFE/RL

An image from a video of the Azov fire posted by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry on June 18.
An image from a video of the Azov fire posted by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry on June 18.

Ukraine's main security and counterintelligence agency was behind an overnight drone attack that ignited a major fire at an oil depot in the southern Russian city of Azov, a reliable source in the Ukrainian security forces told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on June 18.

The source said a special operation by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) using multiple drones had ignited powerful fires at the Rostov region facility, which houses oil depots and fuel terminals.

Kyiv generally avoids commenting on such incidents but has increasingly resorted to targeting Russian energy infrastructure, mainly oil installations, with its own drone strikes in order to degrade the Russian military's fuel reserves to beat back a 2-year-old full-scale invasion.

The Ukrainian security source said the SBU would continue efforts to chisel away at economic potential that provides resources that help Russia wage war on Ukraine.

Rostov Governor Vasily Golubev said there were no casualties from the drone attacks that ignited the Azov fire.

He also quoted experts as saying there was "no risk of the fire spreading to other facilities, or threats to residents."

The Russian Emergency Situations Ministry posted video of the blaze and said a 5,000-cubic-meter fuel tank had caught fire.

It said more than 70 firefighters with equipment, including a fire train, were trying to extinguish the fire.

Russian officials have blamed Ukrainian drones for multiple attacks on oil installations in recent weeks near the border with Ukraine, in Belgorod and Novoshakhtinsk.

Ukraine has been subjected to near-constant Russian drone and missile strikes on its civilian and energy infrastructure since the start of the full-scale invasion by Russia two years ago.

The Russian air attacks have caused numerous casualties among civilians and huge material damage across the country, including the capital, Kyiv.

UEFA Opens Disciplinary Proceedings, Probe Over Serbian Fan Actions At Euro 2024

Security was increased as fans gathered in Gelsenkirchen before the England-Serbia match on June 16.
Security was increased as fans gathered in Gelsenkirchen before the England-Serbia match on June 16.

European football's governing body UEFA on June 17 announced disciplinary proceedings and a further investigation into alleged misconduct by Serbian fans at the Euro 2024 soccer championships' group-stage match against England in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, a day earlier.

It said the disciplinary charges against Serbia's Football Association involved the throwing of objects and "transmitting a provocative message unfit for a sports event."

Meanwhile, the investigation involves alleged "discriminatory behavior."

The football association of the former Serbian province of Kosovo, whose independence Serbia rejects, filed a complaint alleging that Serbian fans had brandished “political, chauvinistic, and racist messages,” including a flag showing Kosovo within Serbia's borders.

Decisions on both will be made "in due course," UEFA said. Serbia next plays in Munich on June 20 against Slovenia.

Seven of Serbia's fans were detained by German police on June 16 after violence broke out ahead of the same match, which England won 1-0.

Reports said one of the fans had been accused of dangerous bodily harm.

Police had said earlier they had been forced to separate the two sides' supporters.

Before Summit With North Korea's Kim, Putin Vows They'll Beat Sanctions Together

Russian President Vladimir Putin last visited North Korea in 2000, when Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, was still its leader.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last visited North Korea in 2000, when Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, was still its leader.

Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked North Korea for supporting his actions in Ukraine and said their countries will cooperate closely to overcome U.S.-led sanctions as he headed to Pyongyang on June 18 for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Putin’s comments appeared in an op-ed piece in North Korean state media hours before he was expected to arrive in North Korea for a two-day visit as the countries deepen their alignment in the face of separate, intensifying confrontations with Washington. Putin, who will be making his first visit to North Korea in 24 years, said he highly appreciates its firm support of his invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Outspoken Armenian Archbishop Leads Another Anti-Government Rally In Yerevan

Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian addresses supporters in Yerevan on June 17.
Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian addresses supporters in Yerevan on June 17.

YEREVAN -- Thousands of people took part in a demonstration in the Armenian capital on June 17 in support of the Tavush for the Motherland movement, which has been holding rallies calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian over plans to hand over several border areas to Azerbaijan as part of a peace deal.

The demonstration, led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanian, started on Baghramian Avenue, which was closed.

There was also a police presence during the demonstration but no violence was reported, unlike on June 12, when clashes erupted near the National Assembly during a rally by the movement.

Police used stun grenades and detained more than 100 people, and nearly as many were injured in the clashes. Pashinian angered the opposition by defending the use of force, saying it was "legitimate and professional."

Galstanian said at the June 17 demonstration that the people who were injured had not been visited by a "forensic doctor" until the night of June 16 as part of an effort to cover up what happened.

"June 12 is another stigma on the face of this government and its leader," Galstanian said, vowing to start legal proceedings against the perpetrators of the violence.

Opposition deputy Garnik Danielyan also addressed the crowd.

"We will continue the struggle as long as Nikol Pashinian and his regime exist," he declared.

The deputy also referred to an extraordinary session of parliament that failed to take place earlier on June 14 because opposition parties could not secure a quorum.

At least two opposition parties wanted the meeting to discuss a draft on the resignation of the government and the formation of a new one.

National Assembly speaker Alen Simonian told RFE/RL that Civil Agreement faction members declined to attend the session because they did not want to "serve the agenda of the opposition."

Simonian added that the government "is legitimate, therefore they will not discuss the issue of the resignation of the government."

Galstanian told the demonstration that the movement would continue its discussions and "expand the toolkit for the struggle." The movement will meet to discuss "having a new quality country and other ideological issues," he said, adding, "There is no such thing as a retreat for us."

The Investigative Committee said earlier on June 17 that 12 criminal cases had been filed in connection with the clashes on June 12. The cases include charges of mass disturbances and hooliganism filed against eight people. Two of them are under house arrest, and one was banned from leaving the country.

Ruben Melikian, a lawyer for one of the two defendants under house arrest, said the criminal cases against the protesters were political persecution. The authorities are trying to justify the violence that police used against the demonstrators, Melikian said.

The government must answer to Armenia and the international community "because these brutalities of the police are in front of everyone's eyes," Melikian told RFE/RL.

Melikian's client, Tigran Saribekian, is accused of hooliganism. Melikian said Saribekian's ears were injured by a stun grenade. After he was injured, he picked up a piece of wood from the ground and threw it at the police, according to Melikian.

"They are trying to show that some serious crime happened and the police heroically defended it," Melikian said, adding that the portrayal of the police as victims was "artificial."

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