COVID-19: Russia Closes Borders; Serbia Plans $5.5 Billion Aid Package
The global death toll has surpassed 34,000 with over 725,000 infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.
Here's a roundup of developments in RFE/RL's broadcast countries.
Russia is considering extending a nationwide lockdown after Moscow all but confined its 12 million residents to their homes and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church called on worshipers to avoid churches and pray at home instead to stem the coronavirus outbreak.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin asked regional governors during an emergency meeting on March 30 to mirror Moscow's move and consider introducing a partial lockdown in their areas, after Russia recorded its biggest one-day rise in coronavirus cases for a sixth day running.
The government also closed all of the country's borders as of March 30, allowing only Russian diplomats, freight, and other necessary vehicles and people to enter.
"This may now seem to some of you like some kind of game, a kind of Hollywood thriller. This is no game...," Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council, said in a video address on March 30.
"Unfortunately, what is happening now is a real threat to all of us and to all of human civilization," he said.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia has exceeded 1,800, according to a global database maintained by Johns Hopkins University on March 30, with nine fatalities.
Russian officials initially touted quick measures taken, such at strict quarantines for people entering the country and the closure of its border with China, as having blunted a rapid outbreak of the virus.
Indeed, the country appears so far to be less affected than many European countries, but critics and even ordinary Russians have voiced skepticism about the accuracy of official figures and raised questions about the state's testing for the virus.
According to a survey by the Levada Center, only 16 percent of Russians fully trust official information about the coronavirus, while 24 percent said they did not trust it at all.
In a sign of public indifference to the situation, Moscow authorities issued rules on March 30 that state residents will only be allowed to go out to buy food or medicines at their nearest shop, get urgent medical treatment, walk their dogs, or take out the trash. Those needing to go to work will also be allowed to leave their homes, and authorities will introduce a system of passes in the coming days.
Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said on March 30 that city control measures had revealed that some 20 percent of Moscow residents had failed to follow previous quarantine regulations, requiring the tighter restrictions.
According to Sobyanin, a special information system will be developed soon to increase control over the movement of the Russian capital's residents.
"It will enable us to practically fully control citizens' movements and prevent violations that may occur," Sobyanin said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 30 hailed Moscow's lockdown as "necessary and justified."
St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, and more than a dozen other regions from the westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad to the Arctic region of Murmansk and Tatarstan on the Volga River have followed Moscow's example and introduced compulsory self-isolation regimes.
Russia's coronavirus crisis center said on March 30 that the latest fatality from the coronavirus was confirmmed in the western region of Pskov. According to the center, the coronavirus cases were registered in 71 of the country's regions.
The virus has also touched the country's power center.
The Kremlin said that a member of President Vladimir Putin's administration has been infected with the coronavirus, but the person had not been in direct contact with Russia's leader.
Putin also called for the week between March 28 to April 5 to be a non-working week -- essentially a weeklong holiday for the country to "prevent the threat of the quick spread of the illness."
The government also ordered all vacation and health resorts closed until June.
Other restrictions ordered by the government included the cancelation of all international flights.
Iran's death toll from the coronavirus has reached 2,757 with 117 new fatalities over the past 24 hours, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV on March 30, adding that the official number of confirmed cases has climbed to 41,495.
"In the past 24 hours, we had 117 new deaths and 3,186 new confirmed cases of people infected with the coronavirus," Jahanpur said, calling on Iranians to stay at home.
Iran is one of the countries worst hit by the virus, and experts have been skeptical about the veracity of official figures released by the Islamic regime that keeps a tight lid on local and foreign media.
Live Map: The Spread Of The Coronavirus
State media reported on March 30 that inmates in southern Iran broke cameras and caused other damage during a riot, the latest in a series of violent prison disturbances in the country.
Enayatollah Rahimi, the governor of the southern Fars Province, was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency as saying a riot broke out at Adel Abad Prison in the city of Shiraz. Rahimi said no one was wounded and no one escaped.
Iran had temporarily released around 100,000 prisoners as part of measures taken to contain the pandemic, leaving an estimated 50,000 people behind bars, including violent offenders and what authorities call "security cases" -- often people with dual citizenship and Western ties.
On March 29, the government announced the extension of the temporary releases of thousands of prisoners, after several prison riots in recent days and mass escapes from prisons.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic says his government plans to give about 5 billion euros ($5.54 billion) in loans and subsidies to businesses to help them deal with the economic pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.
The government will also make a one-off payment of 100 euros ($111) to every Serbian citizen older than 18, or around 5 million people, Vucic said on March 29.
So far, 13 people in Serbia, a Balkan country of 7 million, have died from the coronavirus and 741 have been infected.
Serbia has introduced a state of emergency and an overnight lockdown for all.
Vucic said the economic plan would prompt an increase in the deficit this year that would be covered from financial reserves and borrowing. The deficit was originally forecast at 0.3 percent of economic output.
Under the plan, agreed with the International Monetary Fund, Serbia's public debt should not exceed 60 percent of GDP, from 52.4 percent at the end of last year, Vucic said.
Serbia last month had 13.4 billion euros ($14.9 billion) in currency reserves, down from 13.7 billion euros ($15.2 billion) in January.
Vucic said the state would use 700 million euros ($780 million) to pay minimum wages of 30,367 dinars ($288.58) and allow tax delays for micro and small enterprises for the three months after the end of the state of emergency to avoid job losses.
Romania has reported six more coronavirus deaths, bringing the total inside the country to 46, as the number of confirmed infections reached 1,952, with 192 more cases registered over the past 24 hours.
A total of 16 Romanians have died from the coronavirus abroad, most of of them in Italy. An estimated 4 million Romanians work in Italy and Spain, two of the world's worst-affected countries.
Romania's government crisis group dealing with the pandemic also said 180 people had recovered from the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus.
As of March 30, a total of 23,103 Romanians have been tested for COVID-19.
Romania, a country of 19.5 million, has been under a state of emergency since March 16. On March 22, authorities imposed a "total quarantine," stepping up restrictions.
Armenia's parliament has passed in the first reading a government-drafted bill allowing the remote monitoring of coronavirus patients placed in self-isolation, a move that has been criticized by the opposition as a violation of privacy.
Armenia has been under a one-month state of emergency since March 16.
The 132-member National Assembly dominated by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's My Step alliance on March 30 voted 57-24 to approve the bill. There was one abstention.
The text is expected to pass in its second and last reading with minor changes on March 31.
The Ministry of Health said the number of coronavirus cases in Armenia had increased by 58 over the past 24 hours, raising the total figure to 482.
Three people are reported to have died of the disease in the South Caucasus country of around 3 million.
Under the bill, the authorities will be allowed to use telecommunication technologies to monitor the location of coronavirus patients placed in mandatory self-isolation.
The patients' phone records and other personal data could also be used to identify their possible contacts.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasian, who presented the bill in parliament, said the measure would apply only to periods of national emergencies caused by epidemics and would not include snooping into telephone conversations.
The measure would help authorities enforce the self-isolation regime for coronavirus patients, including through a smartphone application, and help locate their contacts with the use of personal data provided by telecom companies, according to Badasian.
The minister said that metadata for all customers would be made available in one database, but authorities would focus only on confirmed coronavirus patients and their contacts.
Opposition factions that voted against the bill said the measure was a threat to the protection of personal data. "We are against yielding our freedom and we will vote against it," Edmon Marukian, the leader of the opposition Bright Armenia faction, said before the vote.
Naira Zohrabian, a representative of the opposition Prosperous Armenia party, described the proposed measure as a waste of money.
"Use the tremendous resources that you are going to waste on trying to [geo]locate us on purchasing [coronavirus] testing kits in order to test people entering the country," she said before the vote.
According to legal amendments passed on March 23, violators of self-isolation orders can face fines of up to $2,000. Up to five years' imprisonment is envisaged for cases where a breach of quarantine or self-isolation leads to fatal infections of other individuals.
The Georgian government has decided to impose a night curfew, as part of new quarantine rules aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus in the South Caucasus country.
Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia announced the new measures at a news conference on March 30, saying that "the dynamics of the growth in new cases [of coronavirus] is alarming."
The country of some 3.7 million people has so far reported 100 cases, with no fatalities.
Gakharia said that starting on March 31, a curfew will be imposed nationwide from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., during which pharmacies will be the only shops allowed to open.
The government is also declaring a "general quarantine," during which people will only be permitted to leave homes for essential shopping.
Other new measures include a ban on public gatherings of more than three people and a suspension of public transport, except for taxis, the prime minister said.
Uzbekistan has suspended operations of all airports in Central Asia’s most-populous nation of 32 million to try to help slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that all airports were to cease operations on March 30 and remain closed until April 20.
A special government commission had already restricted all vehicle traffic between Uzbekistan's towns and cities to those with a special permit. The restriction runs for the same period as the airport closure.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Uzbekistan reached 145 as of March 30, including two deaths, according to local health officials.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Interior Ministry said on March 30 that police detained 1,087 individuals across the country for violating a curfew that was introduced five days earlier over the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the curfew, the movement of individuals or vehicles is banned between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. each day.
Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov said on March 30 that the total number of registered coronavirus cases in the country had reached 94 after 10 more people tested positive in the southern Jalal-Abad region.
In Kazakhstan, more than 70 women rallied in the southern city of Shymkent to demand the distribution of free food promised by the local government last week as part of the assistance being given to low-income families amid the outbreak restrictions.
A representative of the Shymkent city administration, Sundet Seitov, told RFE/RL that city authorities have been unable to provide all of the food assistance due to financial shortages.
Last week, a similar rally took place in another southern city, Qyzylorda, where more than 100 people rallied in front of the city food depot demanding food distribution.
The Health Ministry said that as of March 30, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Kazakhstan was 294, including one death.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Romanian, Russian, Tatar-Bashkir, and Uzbek services, Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, dpa, AFP, Digi24.ro, Hotnews.ro, and Prva TV
Draft COP28 Text Proposes Azerbaijan Host Next Summit In 2024
A draft text published on December 10 proposed that next year's COP29 climate summit be hosted by Azerbaijan from November 11-22. The text will need to be adopted by the summit before it becomes official, but it is in line with expectations after Azerbaijan won backing from Eastern European countries on December 9. The text also proposed dates for COP30 in Brazil of November 10-21, 2025.
Top Swedish General Visits Front Lines In Ukraine
The commander in chief of the Swedish armed forces, General Micael Byden, has visited the front in eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian media reports. He inspected positions of the 45th Independent Artillery Brigade and spoke with soldiers, according to a video of the unit shared by Ukrainian media on December 10. The brigade was equipped with Swedish Archer mobile artillery pieces in the autumn. Byden promised the Ukrainians further support. Sweden has traditionally followed a policy of neutrality, but following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the country changed course and is now seeking to join the NATO alliance.
Netanyahu Speaks To Putin, Voices Disapproval Of Iran Ties
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 10 and voiced displeasure with "anti-Israel positions" taken by Moscow's envoys at the UN, an Israeli statement said. Russia backed a UN Security Council resolution for a Gaza truce, which was vetoed by the United States on December 8. Speaking to Putin, Netanyahu also voiced "robust disapproval" of Russia's "dangerous" cooperation with Iran, the Israeli statement said. The Kremlin said Russia was ready to give all possible assistance to alleviate the suffering of civilians and de-escalate the conflict.
Borrell Demands Iran Release Swedish EU Employee As Trial Begins On Spying Accusation
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has demanded Iran immediately release Swedish EU employee Johan Floderus, who is facing trial in Tehran on charges of spying for Israel, accusations the bloc and his family have vehemently denied. Floderus was detained in April 2022 while visiting Iran, his family said. Borrell on December 10 said that "there are absolutely no grounds for keeping Johan Floderus in detention." Sweden's foreign minister said Floderus's trial began on December 9. Floderus works for the EU's diplomatic service responsible for Afghanistan, but it wasn't immediately clear if he holds diplomatic status. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.
Mohammadi Blasts Iran's 'Despotic' Regime In Smuggled Nobel Acceptance Speech
The teenage children of imprisoned Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi accepted the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for their mother at a ceremony in Oslo on December 10, delivering a speech in which she blasted the "despotic" regime in Tehran.
Twins Ali and Kiana, 17, who have lived in exile in France the past eight years, read the speech their mother had managed to smuggle out of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where she has been held since 2021.
The Nobel Committee released a video of the twins' acceptance of the award.
Renowned globally as a staunch advocate for the Women, Life, Freedom movement, Mohammadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on October 6.
The Nobel awards are each endowed with 11 million Swedish kronors (just more than $1 million).
For years, Mohammadi has voiced dissent against the obligatory hijab rule imposed on Iranian women, as well as restrictions on women's freedoms and rights in the country by its Islamic regime.
In the speech read by her children -- who were standing next to an empty chair -- Mohammadi said, "I write this message from behind the high, cold walls of a prison."
"I am an Iranian woman, a proud and honorable contributor to civilization, who is currently under the oppression of a despotic religious government," she said.
"I am a woman prisoner who, in enduring deep and soul-crushing suffering resulting from the lack of freedom, equality, and democracy, has recognized the necessity of her existence and has found faith."
Her message stated that "the Islamic republic regime is at the lowest level of popular legitimacy and this government has responded to people's demands by suppression, execution, slaughter, and imprisonment."
On December 9, Mohammadi announced on the Instagram page that friends abroad maintain for her that she had gone on a three-day hunger strike.
Rights groups in the past have expressed concern about her health in the notorious prison.
With reporting by dpa
Russian Military Police In Armenia Detain Deserter Who Refused To Fight In Ukraine
A Russian conscript soldier who reportedly refused to take part in fighting in Ukraine has been arrested by Russian military police in Armenia. Dmitry Setrakov, who is said to have fled to Armenia sometime after Russia launched its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, was transferred to a Russian military base in the northwestern Armenian town of Gyumri, where several thousand Russian troops are stationed. A criminal case has been launched against him for leaving his unit without permission. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.
Serbia Launches Interconnector To Gas Pipeline In Bulgaria
Serbia on December 10 completed the interconnector to a pipeline in Bulgaria that would allow the Balkan country to diversify its gas supplies and reduce its dependence on Russia. The launch of the interconnector will make operational the pipeline from the town of Novi Iskar in Bulgaria to the Serbian city of Nis, allowing Belgrade to access gas from Azerbaijan and the LNG terminal in the Greek port of Alexandroupolis. The capacity of the pipeline on the Serbian side is 1.8 billion cubic meters a year, which accounts for 60 percent of the country's annual gas needs.
Iran, Saudi Arabia To Negotiate On Direct Scheduled Flights
Iran and Saudi Arabia will start formal talks next week to resume direct scheduled flights between Tehran and Riyadh and other cities, an Iranian official told the state-affiliated news agency ILNA on December 10. Regular flights would be another step toward restoring ties between the two Middle Eastern rivals. A Chinese-mediated agreement in March restored diplomatic relations after years of tensions that threatened the security of the entire region and fuelled conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Russian Activists Protest Crackdown On Journalists, Including RFE/RL's Detained Kurmasheva
KAZAN, Russia -- Activists on December 10 protested against the crackdown inside Russia on independent journalists, including Alsu Kurmasheva, a veteran journalist of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service who has been held in Russian custody since October 18.
Protesters in Kazan held placards including, "Alsu Kurmasheva is a journalist, not a criminal," and "No one should die for the right to tell the truth," before security forces moved in and removed any signs mentioning the detained RFE/RL journalist.
Kurmasheva, a Prague, Czech Republic-based journalist with RFE/RL who holds dual U.S. and Russian citizenship, traveled to Russia for a family emergency in May.
She was temporarily detained while waiting for her return flight on June 2 at the airport in Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan region, where both of her passports were confiscated. She was not able to leave Russia as she awaited the return of her travel documents.
Kurmasheva was fined 10,000 rubles ($103) on October 11 for failing to register her U.S. passport with the Russian authorities, according to local media reports based on court documents they'd seen.
Kurmasheva was detained again on October 18 and this time charged with failing to register as a foreign agent, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
The Investigative Committee said Kurmasheva was being charged under a section of the Criminal Code that refers to the registration of "foreign agents" who carry out the "purposeful collection of information in the field of military, military-technical activities of Russia," which, if received by foreign sources, "can be used against the security of the country."
On December 4, a court in Kazan rejected an appeal filed by Kurmasheva's lawyers against another court's decision in October to fine her 10,000 rubles for "failure to inform Russian officials about holding a second citizenship."
Russia Scolds German Ambassador For War Remarks In Moscow Cathedral
The Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized Germany's ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, for his remembrance of war victims and plea for peace during a church Christmas concert. Lambsdorff addressed a crowd of several hundred people at the Catholic Church's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Moscow on December 9. He said that "war is not inevitable" and commemorated those killed in Ukraine and the Middle East. The diplomat's remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
UN Says Taliban Must Embrace, Uphold Human Rights Obligations In Afghanistan
The Taliban must embrace and uphold human rights obligations in Afghanistan, the UN mission in the country said on December 10 on Human Rights Day and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since seizing power in 2021, the Taliban has erased basic rights and freedoms, with women and girls deeply affected. They are excluded from most public spaces and daily life, and the restrictions have sparked global condemnation. The UN mission, highlighting the Taliban's failures in upholding its rights obligations, said it continues to document extrajudicial killings, torture and ill-treatment, corporal punishment, arbitrary arrest and detention, and other violations of detainees' rights.
Zelenskiy Set To Visit White House After Argentina Stop On Drive To Bolster Support
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy plans to travel to the United States on December 11 after receiving an invitation from President Joe Biden to visit the White House on December 12 on the heels of his visit to Argentina to meet with Latin American leaders.
Biden invited Zelenskiy to the White House "to underscore the United States' unshakeable commitment to supporting the people of Ukraine as they defend themselves against Russia's brutal invasion,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement on December 10.
"As Russia ramps up its missile and drone strikes against Ukraine, the leaders will discuss Ukraine's urgent needs and the vital importance of the United States' continued support at this critical moment," she added.
Zelenskiy's office said on Telegram that the Ukrainian leader would arrive in Washington on December 11 for a "series of meetings and discussions" along with the White House visit the following day.
The talks will focus on defense cooperation between Washington and Kyiv, "particularly through joint projects on the production of weapons and air-defense systems, as well as the coordination of efforts between our countries in the coming year," Zelenskiy's office said.
Zelenskiy has been invited to address U.S. senators at the Capitol on December 12 at 9 a.m., a Senate aide said.
Zelenskiy on December 5 canceled a video address to U.S. senators as debate heated up on 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 U.S. military aid as Ukraine braces for a difficult winter on the battlefield and as Russian shelling and strikes continue to kill civilians.
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 the video address shortly after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) told fellow Republicans to vote against the measure when it came to the floor.
The planned Washington visit would follow Zelenskiy's first trip to Latin America, where he on December 10 thanked regional leaders for their support of his country in its battle against the full-scale Russian invasion and the “fight for freedom and democracy.”
"The support and strong united voice of Latin American countries that stand with the people of Ukraine in our fight for freedom and democracy is very important for us," Zelenskiy said on social media after meeting with the leaders of Ecuador, Paraguay, and Uruguay during his trip to Buenos Aires, where he is attending the inauguration of Argentinian President Javier Milei.
In discussions with Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou, the Ukrainian leader said his country was grateful to the South American country "for supporting Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Zelenskiy's official Telegram channel said the Ukrainian leader also thanked Paraguayan President Santiago Pena "for his decisive support of Ukraine within international organizations."
"With [Ecuadoran] President Daniel Noboa, they discussed the possibilities of developing bilateral cooperation between Ukraine and Ecuador: in the field of security, digitalization, trade in agricultural products," the Telegram statement said.
"It is very important for us to have the support and powerful united voice of the countries of Latin America, which support the Ukrainian people in the war for our freedom and democracy," Zelenskiy was quoted as saying.
The Telegram statement said Zelenskiy congratulated Milei on his election as Argentina's new president.
"This is a new beginning for Argentina, and I express my wish that President Milei and all the Argentinian people will surprise the world with their success. I am also sure that bilateral cooperation between Ukraine and Argentina will continue to expand," Zelenskiy was quoted as saying.
Prior to arriving in Argentina, Zelenskiy made a stopover visit to Cape Verde, a small island state off the west coast of Africa, in his latest bid to shore up support for Ukraine in the Global South for Kyiv in its 21-month-old war against Russia.
Zelenskiy met on December 9 with Cape Verde Prime Minister Ulisses Correia e Silva in what he later called in a social-media post the "first meeting of leaders in the history of our bilateral relations."
Zelenskiy thanked Cape Verde for condemning Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and its backing of Ukrainian initiatives.
Zelenskiy is hoping to convene a "global peace summit" and has promoted a peace plan rooted in the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and recognition of its post-Soviet borders of 1991.
Analysts say Kyiv has been trying to build ties with African, Asian, and Latin American governments, but has found its support for Israel at odds with the positions of some of those countries.
In Cape Verde, Zelenskiy informed the African leader of efforts to develop new grain routes as well as plans to create grain centers in Africa, a statement from Zelenskiy's office said.
In July, Russia refused to extend a UN-backed deal that had allowed Ukraine to export grain and other food items from three designated Black Sea ports. Much of those agricultural exports were destined for parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
After pulling out of the agreement brokered by the UN and Turkey, Russia has attacked Ukraine's Black Sea ports and grain infrastructure, destroying almost 300,000 metric tons of grain, according to a recent estimate by the British government.
An alternative, temporary Black Sea corridor has allowed Ukraine to ship more than 7 million tons of cargo through Black Sea ports despite Russia's blockade, Ukrainian officials said on December 4.
Meanwhile, while in Argentina for Milei’s inauguration, Zelenskiy met briefly with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a bid to resolve differences over Ukraine's bid for European Union membership.
Orban's office confirmed he had met with Zelenskiy and that EU membership issues were discussed, but it did not provide details.
Earlier this week it was reported that Orban had written European Council President Charles Michel to demand that Ukraine's membership be taken off the agenda at an EU summit next week.
That summit in Brussels will decide on whether to start talks with Ukraine and neighboring Moldova -- as recommended by the EU Executive Commission -- on their bids to join the 27-member bloc. EU leaders will also decide on the release of 50 billion euros ($55 billion) in aid for Ukraine.
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.
On the battlefield on December 10, Ukraine reported that Russian shelling in the Kherson region hit residential buildings and wounded two civilians, a 37-year-old man and a 52-year-old woman.
Moscow has denied targeting civilian areas despite widespread evidence of such attacks.
Russian forces in recent weeks have been attempting to regain territory they lost to a Ukrainian blitz offensive last year, with heavy losses reported. Ukrainian losses have also been heavy, but official figures are impossible to obtain.
With reporting by dpa and Reuters
Russia Transfers Seized Stake In Strategic Metals Firm To State Nuclear Energy Company
Russia has transferred a majority stake in a strategic metals firm to the state's nuclear energy company after seizing shares from its private owners.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on December 8 signed an order transferring the shares in Solikamsk Magnesium Plant to Kremlin-controlled Rosatom, according to аn order posted on the government's website.
Russia last year seized an 89 percent stake in Solikamsk, claiming the Urals-based company was illegally privatized in the 1990s.
Russian courts have nationalized dozens of companies -- many strategic -- on that basis since the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, raising fears in the business community about a larger revision of privatizations.
Russia sold off wide swaths of its economy in the 1990s, including energy and metals companies, often in an opaque and unfair manner that gave rise to the so-called "oligarchs."
Solikamsk, which produces 100 percent of Russia's tantalum and niobium as well as 60 percent of its commercial magnesium, was privatized in the 1990s as well.
Tantalum is used in a variety of commercial and critical defense applications such as mobile phones and turbine engines for aircraft, while niobium is used in the production of high-strength steel alloys used in pipelines and transportation infrastructure.
Magnesium has a variety of industrial uses, including as a reducing agent to separate uranium.
President Vladimir Putin promised in the early 2000s shortly after coming to power that he would not reverse the privatizations if Russia's tycoons stayed out of politics and that agreement had largely been maintained with a few major exceptions before the war.
The series of nationalizations -- many but not all based on alleged illegal privatization -- since the war began has sent a chill through the business community, Aleksandr Shokhin, the head of Russia’s industry lobby, told the RBK news agency in September.
"Nobody knows who will be next," he said.
He said there was concern the assets are being seized to hand over to people who are considered more loyal to the Kremlin.
"If an asset goes into state ownership, where does it go? Is it transferred to the management of the 'right' people, 'good' entrepreneurs from some circle? Or is it being put up for privatization?" he said.
Many Russian tycoons have kept a low profile since the invasion of Ukraine, with some relocating abroad, opening themselves to criticism, especially from pro-war members of the elite.
Russia earlier this year seized a controlling stake in Syas Pulp and Paper Mill, one of the largest manufacturers of toilet paper and napkins, after its owner acquired Israeli citizenship and relocated abroad.
Putin last month met with the country's largest businessmen at his residence outside Moscow to discuss Russia's business climate. The issue of nationalization was expected to be raised.
With reporting by Kommersant, RBK, and Reuters
U.S.-Russian Citizen Arrested For Social-Media Posts
Russia has arrested a dual U.S.-Russian citizen on charges of "rehabilitating Nazism" for two critical posts he made on social media.
Yury Malyev was arrested on December 8 in St. Petersburg and ordered to pretrial detention for two months, the Smolnensky district court said in a post on its Telegram channel.
Malyev last year posted on his Odnoklassniki page an image of the St. George ribbon, which represents Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany, along with a caption that included the face of a known gay individual and profanities, according to the court. It gave no further details.
On May 8, the day before Russia celebrates its victory over Nazi Germany, Malyev posted the image of a dead body with a caption that read "how to correctly wear the St. George ribbon."
The court said the latter post showed "disrespect for society and the days of military glory and memorable dates of Russia" and was an "insult" to World War II veterans.
Malyev has "partially" admitted guilt, the court said. He faces up to five years in prison if convicted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has largely snuffed out freedom of expression, clamping down hard on individuals who contest the state's official view of World War II as well as the current invasion of Ukraine.
In 2014, Putin outlawed the dissemination of "false information about Soviet activities" during World War II and seven years later outlawed criticism of veterans of that war.
In December 2022, he signed into law a bill criminalizing the desecration of the St. George ribbon with a punishment of up to five years in prison.
The ribbon dates back to 1769, when Russian Empress Catherine the Great established the Order of St. George. The medal was attached to a ribbon of black and yellow -- later orange.
In 1945, the Soviet Union resurrected the orange-and-black ribbon for a medal to celebrate victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The colors then became part of annual May 9 Victory Day celebrations in the Soviet Union and then in Russia, and they were handed out en masse in Russia starting in 2005.
Nearly a decade later, activists supporting Russia's 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimea and backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine began using the ribbon as a symbol, and it is now widely associated with the Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Ukraine banned the St. George ribbon in 2017.
Russia Seeks To Unfreeze Gold Reserves As It Woos Global South
Russia has said it is studying whether its gold reserves, frozen by the West in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, could be used to help developing countries overcome the impact of climate change.
In a statement made at the COP28 summit in Dubai, where officials from around the world are gathered, Russia's climate envoy suggested the frozen funds could be used to help emerging nations accelerate their fight against climate change.
"We are ready to announce that Russia is looking into the voluntary contribution of finance to the loss and damage fund from the frozen national gold reserves held by international organisations," Ruslan Edelgeriyev, Russia's climate representative, said on the main stage at COP28.
Russia has been seeking to strengthen ties with countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East -- sometimes referred to as the Global South -- after the West cut most ties with Moscow over its brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Those countries, many of which are in the developing stage, are among the hardest hit by climate change. Global South countries have criticized developed countries, especially Western states, for slow rolling aid to help them combat climate change.
Global South countries say developed countries have largely caused climate change through their greater use of fossil fuels, while they suffer the consequences. Developed countries provided about $100 billion in financing to developing countries for climate change last year.
The United States and Europe have frozen about $300 billion in Russian gold reserves held in the West as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine.
Washington and Brussels have yet to decide what they will do with the Russian funds. Some Western officials have called for using the funds to help rebuild Ukraine after the war.
Russia's climate representative may have simply attempted to win over developing countries while stoking their frustration with the West.
Many countries in the Global South have criticized the West for quickly mobilizing tens of billions of dollars in military and financial aid for Ukraine when their calls for help receive marginal attention and resources.
With reporting by Reuters
Kyiv Removes Monument To Bolshevik Military Commander Shchors
The authorities in Kyiv on December 9 dismantled a massive equestrian monument to Bolshevik military commander Mykola Shchors that was erected in the Ukrainian capital nearly 70 years ago. Workers spent seven hours removing the 7-ton monument, which will be stored in a museum. The city administration announced on Telegram that "more than 60 monuments related to the history and culture of Russia and the U.S.S.R. have already been removed from the capital." Shchors was a Red Army commander who fought against the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic and was killed in unclear circumstances in August 1919. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
'Initiative Group' Meets To Plan Putin's Presidential Campaign
Representatives of the ruling United Russia party and the All-Russia Popular Front (ONF) met in Moscow on December 9 as an "initiative group" to discuss their support for President Vladimir Putin's bid for a fifth presidential term. Party secretary Andrei Turchak said United Russia would provide all necessary resources for Putin's campaign. Putin on December 8 signaled that he will seek another term in the election set for March 15-17. Russian elections are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and are neither free nor fair but are viewed by the government as necessary to convey a sense of legitimacy. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Missing For Three Days, Life 'At Risk,' Supporters Say
Supporters of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny say they have had no contact with him for three days.
Maria Pevchikh, chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on December 8 that "Navalny is missing for three days now."
"Navalny’s life is at great risk," she wrote. "He is in complete isolation now."
In a post on Instagram on December 8, Ruslan Shaveddinov, also with the Anti-Corruption Foundation, wrote that the last information about Navalny was that he had fallen ill in his cell after being subjected to harsh conditions, including limited food, a lack of ventilation, and minimal exercise time.
"Navalny's only protection is publicity," Shaveddinov wrote.
Navalny associate Kira Yarmysh wrote on X on December 8 that the opposition leader's lawyers had waited outside the prison all day without being granted permission to visit their client.
She said his allies had not received any letters from him for more than a week, which she said was unusual.
"Our letters to him also have not been delivered," she wrote.
On December 8, Navalny was not connected by video link to a court hearing, with prison officials citing technical problems.
On December 7, Navalny's supporters launched a campaign to oppose President Vladimir Putin's bid to secure a fifth presidential term in Russia's March 2024 election. Navalny has urged Russians to vote against Putin in the election. Putin announced on December 8 that he will seek another term.
Navalny is serving a 19-year prison term after being convicted of creating an "extremist" organization, charges that are widely believed to be retribution for his political activity. In September, he was transferred to a strict-regime cell after being deemed "incorrigible."
He has been placed in solitary confinement more than 20 times since he began his prison term in February 2021.
He has been recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and as a political prisoner by the Memorial human rights group.
Iran Blocks Amini's Family From Traveling To Accept EU Award
Authorities in Iran have prevented relatives of Mahsa Amini, whose September 2022 death in custody sparked nationwide anti-government protests, from leaving the country to accept the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize.
Amini's mother, father, and brother were told on December 8 at Tehran's Iman Khomeini Airport that they had been barred from travelling abroad.
Their passports were confiscated, a source who asked not to be identified told Radio Farda.
The family's lawyer, Saleh Nikhbakht, who was accompanying them, was apparently allowed to travel.
The European Parliament on October 19 awarded the 2023 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Amini and the Women, Life, Freedom movement that was sparked by her death.
"The European Parliament proudly stands with the brave and defiant who continue to fight for equality, dignity, and freedom in Iran," European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said at the time, adding that they award "remembers their struggle and continues to honor all those who have paid the ultimate price for liberty."
The prize, which was set up in 1980 to honor individuals and organizations promoting human rights and basic freedoms, includes a 50,000-euro ($54,000) prize. It will be presented in Strasbourg on December 13.
Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman, died in custody on September 16, 2022, shortly after being detained by the so-called morality police for allegedly violating the country's strict Islamic dress code. Supporters say she was subjected to physical abuse while in custody.
The Iranian authorities launched a brutal crackdown against mass demonstrations that were sparked by Amini's death and which became one of the most daunting challenges faced by the Islamist government since Iran's 1979 revolution.
In October 2022, Amini's family reported receiving death threats aimed at preventing them from participating in the peaceful protests.
Ukrainian Parliament Approves Three Bills Seen As Key To Starting EU Accession Talks
The Ukrainian parliament on December 8 approved three bills necessary to start European Union accession talks. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed all three, describing them as key to Ukraine's application to join the 27-member bloc. "Today, the Ukrainian parliament passed the required legislation in accordance with the European Commission's recommendations on anti-corruption and national minorities," Zelenskiy said on X, formerly Twitter. "We anticipate that EU leaders will appropriately recognize Ukraine's efforts, and that the EU will follow through on its related promises." An EU summit next week is to consider whether to start membership negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.
Kyiv Expects Delivery Of F-16s 'Soon' As Further U.S. Aid Remains Stalled In Congress
Ukraine's defense minister has said his country expects to take delivery of advanced F-16 fighter jets "soon," as the Biden administration warned the U.S. Congress that failure to support Ukraine could mean the United States will have to pay a high price in "national treasure and in American blood" in the future.
In comments on December 8, Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov stressed that preparations to receive the advanced U.S.-made fighters were well under way and that "we will receive them soon."
Kyiv has repeatedly urged its allies to provide the aircraft to counter Russia's air supremacy in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian forces.
"In the short term, we will receive the F-16s," Umerov said. "In the medium term, we have also made more orders for our defense forces. I mean the years 2027 to 2030."
In October, Denmark said it would provide its first batch of F-16s to Ukraine "in March or April" of 2024.
In Washington on December 8, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby urged Republican lawmakers to authorize additional military aid for Ukraine, saying the ongoing controversy over the issue was "a great gift" to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"If you think the cost of supporting Ukraine is high now, think about...how high it's going to be in national treasure and in American blood if we have to start acting on our Article 5 commitments," he said, referring to the part of the NATO Charter that obligates allies to come to one another's defense.
"If [Putin] gets Ukraine, he gets right up against the doorstep of NATO," Kirby said. "Helping [Ukraine] win this war is very much in our national security interest and in the national security interest of all our allies in Europe."
Republican lawmakers in the United States have been refusing to proceed with some $60 billion in increased aid for Ukraine unless Democrats agree to increased immigration restrictions on the country's southern border.
Speaking in Berlin on December 9, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government will continue supporting Ukraine despite its current budget woes.
Putin "should not and must not" expect Germany to reduce aid to Ukraine, Scholz said.
Germany is the second-largest supplier of military aid to Kyiv, after the United States, providing main battle tanks, heavy artillery, and air-defense systems.
In an interview with the BBC on December 9, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska warned of the danger of "Ukraine fatigue," saying her country faced "mortal danger" if the West cut back on support.
"We really need the help," Zelenska said. "In simple words, we cannot get tired of this situation, because if we do, we die. And if the world gets tired, they will simply let us die."
In its daily briefing on December 9, the Ukrainian General Staff reported some 95 "combat clashes" along the front line over the previous 24 hours. In addition, officials said there had been 28 missile attacks and 27 air strikes.
Fighting was heaviest in the Donetsk region around Avdiyivka. Russian forces have been attempting for several weeks to encircle the industrial city, which has become the latest symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
With reporting by dpa
Bulgarian Parliament Approves Additional Surplus Military Aid To Ukraine
The Bulgarian parliament on December 8 voted overwhelmingly to provide surplus air-defense missiles to Ukraine. The vote was 147-55 with seven abstentions. A majority of lawmakers also rejected President Rumen Radev's veto of plans to send 100 surplus armored personnel carriers to Ukraine. Radev said on December 4 that lawmakers needed to assess if the vehicles were expendable and sent the plan back to parliament for a vote. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he was grateful for the parliament's decisions, which "strengthen our Europe and the defense of freedom." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service, click here.
Former Kazakh President's Son-In-Law Resigns As Chairman of KazEnergy Association
Kazakhstan's KazEnergy group -- an association of almost 60 oil and gas companies -- said on December 8 that former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibaev, has resigned as chairman of the group after leading it since it was established in 2005.
A KazEnergy statement at its website said the group is now managed by Maghzum Myrzaghaliev, who previously served as energy minister, adviser to President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and head of the board of the oil company Kazmunaigaz.
Kulibaev, one of the richest people in the world, is married to Nazarbaev’s middle daughter, Dinara, with whom he owns the largest bank in Kazakhstan and assets in several other businesses. Forbes magazine estimates their combined wealth to be more than $8 billion.
Kulibaev, 57, had already left other prominent executive positions since unprecedented anti-government protests turned to mass unrest across the oil-rich Central Asian nation, leaving at least 238 people dead.
This includes his departure in February last year from the board of directors of Russia's Gazprom energy giant after serving for more than 10 years and his departure in January from the post of chairman of Kazakhstan's National Chamber of Entrepreneurs, Atameken.
The departures follow a pattern of purges of relatives of Nazarbaev, 83, who ruled Kazakhstan for almost 30 years but who was widely believed to have remained in control behind the scenes after handing power to Toqaev in 2019. However, after deadly unrest in 2022, Nazarbaev and his inner circle lost influence in the country.
Two other sons-in-law of Nazarbaev, Qairat Sharipbaev and Dimash Dosanov, were pushed out of top jobs at major state energy companies, QazaqGaz and KazTransOil, respectively, at the time.
Several other Nazarbaev relatives also lost top positions in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.
In September, the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office said it had launched a probe against Nazarbaev's nephew, Samat Abish, on a charge of abuse of office while serving as the first deputy chairman of the Committee of National Security (KNB), the post he was dismissed from after the deadly mass unrest.
In September 2022, Nazarbaev's once-powerful nephew Qairat Satybaldy was sentenced to six years in prison on corruption charges.
The protests in January 2022 were violently dispersed by police and military personnel, including troops of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization that Toqaev invited into the country claiming that "20,000 extremists who were trained in terrorist camps abroad" attacked Almaty.
The authorities have provided no evidence proving Toqaev’s claim about foreign terrorists.
Facing An Uncertain Future, Afghan Girls Finishing Sixth Grade Leave School In Tears
Hundreds of thousands of sixth-grade girls in Afghanistan attended the last day of the school year, many with tears in their eyes as they face an uncertain future because of Taliban policies that forbid them from further schooling and restrict their basic human rights.
"These last few days of our studies are very stressful and difficult,” Kainat, a sixth-grader in Kabul, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi on December 8, the last day of the current school year before the winter break. "We all cried because none of us will be able to study further. Our teachers tried to console us by saying that school doors might reopen for us some day.”
But for Kainat and the rest of the war-torn country's females, that day may not come for some time.
Despite pledges of a less-authoritarian rule than in their previous time in power, Taliban militants have sharply restricted the rights and freedoms of Afghan girls and women since taking over the government as international troops withdrew following two decades of intervention.
The ultra-fundamentalist Islamist Taliban rulers have since banned girls from attending school from grade seven onward. They have severely curtailed their employment prospects, mobility, and any public role in society, defying international pressure, domestic protests, and efforts to persuade the militants from rescinding their brutal policies.
The ban on education was prompted by the religious views of the Taliban Chief Justice Abdul Hakim Haqqani and endorsed by the group's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.
Fatima Siddiq, a primary school teacher in Kabul, told Radio Azadi that the hopelessness felt by girls as they leave the school is haunting.
“I am also a mother of three daughters who will no longer be able to continue their education,” she said. “How is it possible that the [Taliban] government is unable to fulfill its promise of reopening schools?”
The Taliban's policies are deeply unpopular among most Afghans. Even though dissent is often met with a harsh response by authorities, some people are still willing to criticize the government because the policies are seen as destructive.
In the Muslim nation of some 40 million people, activists and rights advocates accuse the Taliban of implementing "gender apartheid" by denying women education, work, freedom of movement, and deciding how they can appear in public.
But it's not only females who are bearing the brunt of the government's policies.
In a new report released on December 6, the global rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that education for boys in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule is at risk, too.
The report, titled Schools Are Failing Boys Too, says curriculum changes, the firing of female teachers, corporal punishment, and other practices risk their education over the longer term as well.
Sahar Fetrat, a women’s rights researcher at HRW and the author of the report, says the Taliban has caused “irreversible damage” to the education of both Afghan boys and girls.
“By harming the whole school system in the country, they risk creating a lost generation deprived of a quality education,” she said.
U.S. Imposes Sanctions On Dozens Of People Over Rights Abuses In Nine Countries
The United States has imposed sanctions on dozens of people in several countries, including in Afghanistan, China, and Iran, cracking down on human rights abuses ahead of Human Rights Day on December 10. The U.S. Treasury Department in a statement on December 8 said it had imposed sanctions on 20 people over human rights abuses in nine countries. The actions include sanctions on members of the Taliban over their links to the repression of women and girls and on two Iranian intelligence officials who allegedly recruited people for operations in the United States.
The Ukrainian Fingerprints On A Shadowy Assassination Campaign On Russian Soil2
With Wagner In Disarray, Russian Diplomat With Spy Links Surfaces In Central African Republic3
'Liquidated': Two 'Traitors Of Ukraine' Killed In Separate Incidents4
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine5
Two Russian Officers Sentenced To Four Years For 'Failing To Repulse Ukrainian Attack'6
Germany Delivers Fresh Military Aid Package To Ukraine7
Offhand Remark Or Political Theater? Putin's Announcement Belies Kremlin’s Penchant For Pageantry8
Kyiv Expects Delivery Of F-16s 'Soon' As Further U.S. Aid Remains Stalled In Congress9
Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Missing For Three Days, Life 'At Risk,' Supporters Say10
Iranian Rapper Tataloo Detained Upon Arrival After Being Deported From Turkey