COVID-19: First Deaths In Afghanistan, Kosovo, Romania, North Macedonia
The global coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 339,000 people and killed nearly 15,000 worldwide, 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.
Afghanistan's Health Ministry says a 40-year old man has died from coronavirus, becoming the country's first fatality from the disease.
Afghanistan has 34 confirmed cases of the virus.
Health officials say Iran's death toll from coronavirus has reached 1,685, as the country continues to struggle with mounting cases and an overloaded health-care system.
The Health Ministry said on March 22 that another 129 people had died over the past 24 hours. The ministry also said the country's overall tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 was 21,638.
Iran has been one of the worst-hit countries outside of China and Italy.
With the country reeling from the outbreak, officials have recommended Iranians stay home during the Norouz holiday, which began on March 20 and is one of the biggest holidays of the year for Iranians.
Officials have worried that efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 will be hampered as people travel for the holiday to see friends and relatives.
The government has closed schools at all levels, banned sports and cultural events, and curtailed religious activities.
Many Iranians have also been angered by the temporary closure of Shi'ite sites, prompting some crowds to storm into the courtyards of two major shrines.
In a televised speech to mark Norouz, Iran's supreme leader rejected an offer from the United States for assistance in fighting coronavirus.
"We have many enemies, but the worst is the U.S.... and now they want to help us," Khamenei said.
He said the United States would be better off helping its own people, with hundreds of American deaths being linked to the virus after a spike in cases over the last week.
Khamenei also cited an unfounded conspiracy theory that the virus could be manmade by the United States.
"Possibly your [offered] medicine is a way to spread the virus more," he said.
Two southern Georgian regions will lock down on March 23 as part of an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the country’s prime minister said the previous day.
Giorgi Gakharia said at an emergency news briefing that the Marneuli and Bolnisi regions, both of which border Azerbaijan, would be closed off for entry and exit.
The regions would be supplied with food and medicine, and only grocery stores and pharmacies are to remain open as well.
Critical infrastructure and services would be available as well.
The decision was made after a woman who had contact with at least 90 people after attending a relative’s death anniversary dinner was diagnosed with the COVID-19 respiratory illness.
At this point, doctors were able to identify at least 85 people with whom the infected woman had contact.
The South Caucasus country of 3.7 million had 54 cases of coronavirus as of March 22, with no deaths.
Georgia's parliament over the weekend approved a presidential decree that imposes a one-month nationwide state of emergency in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
President Salome Zurabishvili on March 21 sent the decree to parliament as the number of cases in the former Soviet republic rose to 49. The parliament passed it later that evening.
The president called on citizens to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Georgian Health Ministry in order to slow the spread of the virus and avoid a "new level" of restrictions.
Local authorities say an 82-year-old man has died from coronavirus, Kosovo's first death from the disease.
The Public Health Institute said in a statement on March 22 that the man, who died in a hospital, had underlying health issues, including chronic cardiac and pulmonary problems.
Officials said the tally of confirmed infections in the country stood at 31 as of March 22.
Interactive Coronavirus Map
The death comes as Kosovars grow increasingly impatient with the government, which has struggled to mount a coherent response to the outbreak.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti's shaky coalition government, which took four months to assemble after October elections, is on the verge of collapse because of disagreements over coronavirus measures.
Angry residents of the capital, Pristina, banged pots and pans from their balconies on March 19 to protest the government's actions.
Most of those infected in Kosovo have come from Italy or are related to someone who returned from a European Union member state.
Authorities have closed all schools, borders, bars, and restaurants to curb the spread of the virus. Only supermarkets and pharmacies remain open.
Romanian authorities report that two people have died from the coronavirus, the first such deaths for the country.
The government's Strategic Communications Group said on March 22 that the number of confirmed cases in the country had risen sharply and now stands at 433, up from 322 just a day earlier.
Officials said the first victim was a 67-year-old man who had been suffering from terminal cancer and who died after having been infected on March 18.
The man had returned to Romania 12 days earlier, on March 6, from France, before restrictions on international travel had been imposed. The government did not say when he died or how he had become infected, saying only that he was being treated at a hospital in the southern city of Craiova.
A total of 23 medical workers who were in contact with the man have been tested for the coronavirus. Of the 18 tests that have been returned so far, all were negative, officials said.
The second victim was a 74-year-old who had been diagnosed just the day before and was already being treated for kidney problems. Officials said that person died in a medical facility in the capital, Bucharest.
The government declared a state of emergency on March 16 and on March 21 announced a nighttime curfew.
The curfew will restrict the movement of people from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and go into effect on March 23. It is expected to last through the 30-day state of emergency declared on March 16.
Those exempted include people going to work and those requiring medical assistance.
Interior Minister Marcel Vela and other officials said the measures will also prohibit gatherings of more than three persons outside the home and will mandate the closing of shopping malls and dental clinics. Restaurants and other gathering places were ordered closed earlier in the week.
During the night curfew hours, the only people allowed to move about are medical professionals, those engaging in work activities, shopping for necessary items, and caring for children or the elderly or people walking their pets.
"Everything we have decided to implement is meant to limit the risks to the population," Vela said.
He also warned those who are price-gouging or taking other actions to profit from the crisis.
"We have taken strong actions against those who have tried to speculate on the situation in order to get rich. It's not just illegal -- it's also cynical," he said.
Kazakhstan has 60 confirmed coronavirus cases as of the morning of March 23, following another confirmed infection the previous evening.
The Health Ministry says there are 31 registered cases in the capital, Nur-Sultan, 25 in the largest city, Almaty, and two in the Karaganda and one each in the Almaty and Aktobe regions.
Almaty and Nur-Sultan have been on lockdown since March 19 and a state of emergency was announced earlier this month.
Kazakhstan had already announced the cancelation of Norouz holiday celebrations and a military parade devoted to the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany.
The oil-rich Central Asian country recorded its first cases of COVID-19 on March 13 after three patients tested positive upon returning from separate trips to Germany and Italy.
Kazakhstan shares a 1,800-kilometer border with China where the respiratory illness emerged late last year.
The outbreak has since grown to become a global pandemic, infecting more than 300,000 worldwide and leading to over 14,000 deaths.
Russia has widened its ban on international flights as the number of registered coronavirus cases in the country reached 367.
As of March 23, Russian airlines will only service foreign capitals or large cities like New York and only from Moscow airports, state agency Rosavia said.
Russia will continue to permit charter flights exclusively for the evacuation of citizens stuck overseas, it said.
Nearly 20,000 Russian citizens have been evacuated from countries suffering from a high number of coronavirus cases.
The flight-ban announcement comes as Russia registered another 61 cases of the coronavirus, bringing the country's total to 367.
However, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the Russian capital will not close its metro, a step three Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, took where subways operate. The Moscow metro transports several million people a day to work and its closure would have severe consequences for the city's economy.
The Culture Ministry has recommended that as of March 23 all movie theaters be closed. Earlier in the month, the ministry closed all theaters, philharmonics, circuses, and movie theaters that belong to it.
Russia, the world's ninth-most populous country, has registered relatively few cases of COVID-19 on a per capita basis compared to its European neighbors, raising questions about the accuracy of the tally. Italy has more than 47,000 while Spain has more than 25,000.
Moscow, Europe's largest city with about 12 million inhabitants, has registered just 137 cases of COVID-19. New York City, which has just over 8 million people, has registered more than 8,000 cases.
Russia also shares one of the world's longest borders with China, where the new coronavirus originated. China has registered more than 81,000 cases.
Russian news agency RBK reported last week that the country had experienced a spike in the number of pneumonia cases this year.
While the majority of people who contract COVID-19 suffer only mild symptoms resembling the common cold, severe cases can develop into pneumonia.
Ukraine saw the number confirmed coronavirus cases rise to 73 as the capital, Kyiv, on March 23 is closing all public transportation for noncritical personnel.
The Health Ministry’s Center for Public Health said that as of 10:50 p.m. local time on March 22, there were 26 new cases of the respiratory illness known as COVID-19 in nine regions and the city of Kyiv.
The ministry says it is further monitoring more than 360 suspected cases, including over 239 patients in hospitals.
Health Minister Illya Yemets said on March 22 that he supports declaring a nationwide state of emergency.
“I have been talking about this since the first day of my work in the government. It had to be done from the beginning. If it were to succeed, there would be no such [virus] spread, which is now developing geometrically,” Yemets told 112 TV in an interview.
Meanwhile, one of several planned medical supply flights from China has arrived in Kyiv, the Ukrainian presidential office said on March 23.
It brought an unspecified number of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests as well as 250,000 express tests including different kind of protective medical masks, disinfectants, and “artificial ventilation apparatus and other means necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said.
Each regional laboratory on March 23 will receive the PCR tests.
The procurement was made with the assistance of large Ukrainian business owners.
“This is only the first batch of medicinal cargo from China. Several more flights are planned for this week,” the presidential office said.
There are three deaths related to the virus as schools have remained closed nationwide. Eateries, bars, gyms, theaters, and shopping malls, as well as subways operating in three cities, have been also been kept closed.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov the previous day called for a nationwide quarantine to slow the spread of coronavirus as Ukraine's capital and largest city, Kyiv, said it would shut all public transportation for noncritical personnel.
Avakov, one of the most powerful officials in Ukraine, said the measures already put in place to fight the spread will be “significantly toughened” in the coming days. He said only “critical” industries should remain open and everyone else sent home.
“A total, full quarantine is my position, which I want to ask of each of you. And I will insist on it, according to the power of my position,” Avakov said in a Facebook post on March 21.
Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said in a March 21 video post that only people whose work is vital to the city will be allowed to use public transport. The new measure goes into effect on March 23, he said.
Bulgaria's president has vetoed new nationwide restrictions passed by parliament as part of the state of emergency imposed to fight the spread of coronavirus.
Rumen Radev said on March 22 that he opposed the new proposals, calling them "extremely restrictive" and a threat to civil liberties in the country.
"“The lack of adequate measures will bring about a situation where hunger will prevail over fear and the consequences will be destructive,” he said in a statement that was released announcing his veto.
Parliament passed the proposed measures on March 20 after an initial proposal from the cabinet a week before.
Among the proposed measures that Radev said he opposed were allowing authorities to track mobile-phone users, to ensure people infected with the coronavirus are properly observing quarantine.
The measures also call for giving increased public-safety duties to military units, and for freezing prices for some goods at a three-month average, in an effort to prevent price gouging.
As of March 22, Bulgaria has confirmed 171 cases of people infected with the virus. Three people have died since March 8, when the first death was announced.
Three people have also recovered.
In neighboring North Macedonia, a 57-year-old woman has become the country's first coronavirus fatality.
The woman had caught the infection during a trip to Italy, which has the most cases in Europe. Her son has been infected, too, and is hospitalized in stable condition, health officials said on March 22.
North Macedonia had 114 registered cases of the novel coronavirus as of March 22, officials said.
On March 21, the government said it had decided to impose a curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. beginning on March 22, the first time such a step has been taken since the country's independence in 1991.
In an emergency address, North Macedonia’s prime minister, Oliver Spasovski, said that "we have decided to introduce the most radical measures in order to protect the health of citizens.”
"Starting [on March 22], we will restrict the movement of all citizens. It is forbidden for the population to move outside between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. every day. There is no compromise when it comes to the health of citizens," Spasovski warned.
The prohibitions exclude persons who need medical assistance or whose lives are endangered. Those who need dialysis are allowed to arrive for treatment with up to two other people.
Employees in health-care facilities are also excluded from the curfew, as are members of the Ministry of Interior, the army, fire crews, and workers in municipal hygiene.
President Aleksandar Vucic said the government will extend a curfew that is already in effect by three hours as Serbia attempts to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, making it a 12-hour ban from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.
He said the steps were necessary "for our survival," and he threatened a 24-hour curfew if residents continued to ignore orders to remain indoors.
Serbia has registered 171 cases of the coronavirus and one death as of late on March 21.
In neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, the governments of the two entities on March 21 imposed nighttime restrictions on people outside their homes, with the Muslim-Croat federation ordering a 6-p.m.-to-5-a.m. curfew, and Republika Srpska restricting people to their homes from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Uzbek officials have ordered all companies in the capital, Tashkent, to switch to remote working.
They also made protective masks mandatory in all major cities in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Officials on March 22 said citizens not wearing masks in public in major cities would be fined $22 for the first offense and $67 for repeat offenses.
Uzbekistan, which has a population of 34 million, has just 43 confirmed cases, nearly all in Tashkent.
Sindh, the hardest-hit province in Pakistan, has announced a 15-day lockdown starting March 23.
Sindh has nearly half of the country's 687 registered cases.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, meanwhile, issued orders banning intercity transport starting from March 24.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Ukrainian services and Radio Mashaal, Reuters, AP, RIA Novosti, and TASS
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.
Belarusian Court Labels RFE/RL Social Media Accounts 'Extremist'
A court in the southeastern Belarusian city of Homel on December 7 labeled the Telegram, YouTube, X, and TikTok accounts of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, known locally as Radio Svaboda, as "extremist." Earlier, Belarusian authorities added to the list of extremists Svaboda's logo, its accounts on the Facebook, Instagram, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki social networks, as well as the TikTok accounts of RFE/RL's Russian and Ukrainian services. Svaboda's website has been blocked in Belarus since August 2020 when unprecedented protests erupted over the official results of the presidential election that announced authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka the winner. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
IOC Approves Participation Of Russian, Belarusian Athletes As Neutrals
Russians and Belarusians who qualify in their sport for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris can take part as neutrals, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on December 8.
The Executive Board of the IOC said in a statement that “Individual Neutral Athletes (AINs) who have qualified through the existing qualification systems of the International Federations (IFs) on the field of play will be declared eligible to compete at the Olympic Games Paris 2024."
The board said it took into consideration a number of factors, including "the view of the overwhelming majority of athletes not to punish fellow athletes for the actions of their government."
The individual neutral athlete designation means athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport will be allowed to compete but will not be allowed to display flags or emblems and their anthems will not be played during the event.
The IOC also said athletes who actively support the war in Ukraine and those contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military are ineligible.
In addition, no teams from the two countries will be allowed, and no Russian or Belarusian government or state official will be invited to or accredited for Paris 2024.
Russia's Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin called the decision discriminatory and unacceptable.
"Participation in the Olympics is an athlete’s dream," Russia's Sports Minister Matytsin was quoted as saying by TASS. "But the conditions are discriminatory and go against the principles of sports. By doing so, they harm the Olympic Games themselves, and not Russian sports. The approach is absolutely unacceptable."
Despite the IOC decision, World Athletics remains firm in its decision to block Russians and Belarusians from competitions.
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said at a press conference in Paris that there would be no Russians or Belarusians competing as neutrals in track-and-field events at the Paris 2024 Olympics.
"You may well see some neutral athletes from Russia and Belarus in Paris, it just won't be in athletics," Coe said.
World Athletics said earlier in a statement that all athletes, support personnel, and officials from Russia and Belarus remain barred from all World Athletics events.
"We will continue to monitor the situation, but unless there is a major change in circumstances between now and the Olympic Games, this exclusion will apply to Paris 2024,” the statement said.
The statement noted that it is the responsibility of the international federations to decide which athletes within their sport are eligible to compete.
The organizers of the Paris Olympics, which are to open in July, said they took note of the IOC's decision, issuing a statement saying that "qualification for the Olympic Games Paris 2024...falls under the responsibility of the IOC and the International Federations.
"Paris 2024’s responsibility is to host athletes who have qualified for the games under the best possible conditions, regardless of their nationality," the statement, which expressed "solidarity" with Ukraine, said.
Ukraine has opposed the presence of Russian competitors, even as neutrals, at the Paris Olympics.
Out of 4,600 athletes globally who have qualified for the Paris Olympics so far, eight are Russians and three hold Belarusian passports, the IOC statement said, adding that more than 60 Ukrainians have qualified.
With reporting by Reuters
Lithuania Investigates Granting Of Citizenship To Relatives Of Russian Tycoon Abramovich
Lithuania's Interior Ministry said on December 7 that a commission has been established to investigate how relatives of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich were able to obtain citizenship in the Baltic nation. The Center for Corruption and Organized Crime Research (OCCRP) and its partner in Lithuania, Siena, reported this week that Abramovich's 30-year-old son, Arkady, and 31-year-old daughter, Anna, are holders of Lithuanian passports, which are used to evade Western sanctions. In January, The Guardian wrote that Roman Abramovich transferred ownership of $4 billion in trusts to his seven children three weeks before Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Iranian Opposition Figure Says Student Crackdown 'Unprecedented,' But Will Fail
Prominent Iranian opposition figure Zahra Rahnavard says the government crackdown on students angry over a lack of freedoms and enforcement of rules such as a dress code is "unprecedented" but ultimately will fail to stifle the dissent.
Rahnavard, who has been under house arrest for over 13 years along with her husband, Mir Hossein Musavi, made the comments in a message timed to coincide with Student Day in Iran, marked on December 7. The text was published on the Kalameh news website, a platform known for its opposition to the Iranian regime.
"No government in Iran has been able to stop the student movement from influencing the fate of the nation," she wrote.
"On the contrary, it has been academics who, with knowledge, culture, and art, development and modernity, along with defending justice, freedom, and the independence of Iran, have had the most impact in the fear of repressive governments," she added.
She also criticized the government's recent actions against university students and faculty, detailing incidents of violence, harassment, and repression on university campuses. These actions, according to Rahnavard, have led to a tarnished international reputation for the Iranian government.
Universities and students have long been at the forefront of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran. In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily newspaper, prompting a brutal raid on the dorms of Tehran University that left one student dead.
Over the years, the authorities have arrested student activists and leaders, sentencing them to prison and banning them from studying.
The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last year while being detained for an alleged head-scarf violation in September last year has once again made campuses a hotbed of dissent.
The activist HRANA news agency says at least 700 university students have been arrested during the nationwide protests sparked by Amini's death in September 2022.
Rahnavard was previously a professor at Alzahra University and says she "has been a victim and deprived of a university presence for over 14 years."
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Russia Adds U.S. Journalist Gessen To Its Wanted List
Russia's Interior Ministry has added Russian-American journalist, writer, and outspoken Kremlin critic Masha Gessen to its wanted list. Gessen's name appeared on the ministry's list on December 8 without specifying what the journalist is wanted for. Media reports said earlier that a probe against Gessen was launched in late August on a charge of distributing "fake" information about Russia's armed forces. The charge stemmed from Gessen's interview with Russian journalist Yury Dud about alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians in Ukraine, the reports said. Gessen led RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2012-13. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Azerbaijan Tipped To Host COP29 Climate Talks, Says Russia Backs It
Azerbaijan is tipped to host next year's UN climate summit after striking a deal with longtime adversary Armenia over its bid. Diplomatic sources told Reuters the Azerbaijani bid looked set to win support from other nations, though the issue is still being negotiated at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai. The decision about who will take over from current COP28 host, the U.A.E., has been in an unprecedented geopolitical deadlock after Russia said it would veto any EU country's bid. Azerbaijan confirmed on December 7 that it had struck a deal with Armenia that allows Baku to bid to host the talks.
Russian Opposition Politician Ilya Yashin Placed In Stricter Regime Unit At Penal Colony
Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who is serving an 8 1/2-year prison term for his criticism of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, has been placed in a stricter regime unit in his penal colony after serving five days in solitary confinement, his Telegram channel said on December 8. Yashin is not allowed to use a phone to call his relatives now; parcels and visitations are also restricted. Yashin said earlier that he was under pressure after he challenged the Kremlin in video testimony last week at a court hearing that fined him for failing to follow so-called "foreign agent" requirements. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Turkmen Activist Believed To Be Missing In Russia
Independent websites monitoring developments in Turkmenistan quoted friends and colleagues of noted Turkmen opposition activist Malikberdi Allamyradov as saying that he has been missing since December 4, adding that traces of blood and a possible struggle were discovered in his residence, while the wires to security cameras on the premises were cut. Allamyradov used to study at a university in Russia's Republic of Kalmykia. Fearing for his safety, he moved to the Moscow region. Last year, after he held a single-person picket in Moscow criticizing the Turkmen authorities, Russian police detained him and he barely escaped deportation. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, click here.
Kazakhstan In Takeover Of ArcelorMittal Subsidiary Following Deadly Coal Mine
Kazakh Industry Minister Qanat Sharlapaev said on December 7 that the Central Asian nation's government had bought ArcelorMittal's subsidiary for $286 million following a coal mine accident in the central region of Qaraghandy in October that killed 46 miners. In 2006, two accidents at mines under ArcelorMittal’s control killed 51 people. ArcelorMittal, led by the Luxembourg-based Indian businessman Lakshmi Mittal, had controlled coal mines in the Qaraghandy region for 30 years. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Germany Delivers Fresh Military Aid Package To Ukraine
Germany has delivered a new package of military aid to Ukraine that includes shells, drones, and vehicles, the government in Berlin said in a statement. It said the new package included 10 Vector reconnaissance drones, 1,750 artillery shells, 70 grenade launchers, six patrol cars, and eight trucks, as well as 100,000 military first-aid kits. Germany is second only to the United States in terms of military aid provided to Kyiv. Last month, Germany pledged a further 1.3 billion euros ($1.42 billion) in military aid for Ukraine during a visit to Kyiv by Defense Minister Boris Pistorius. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.
Police In Belarus Detain Two Journalists Amid Crackdown
Police in the southeastern Belarusian city of Svetlahorsk on December 8 detained the chief editor of the Ranak television channel, Yulia Dauletava, and correspondent Lyudmila Andenka on extremism charges as a crackdown on independent journalists and democratic institutions continues. In September, the Interior Ministry labeled Ranak as an "extremist group." Also on December 8, the British government added 17 Belarusian prosecutors, judges, and investigators to its sanctions list for their roles in a crackdown on dissent and independent media. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Belarus Service, click here.
Ninety-Six Kyrgyz Women, Children Repatriated From Syria
The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry said on December 8 that 96 Kyrgyz citizens, including 31 women and 65 children, returned to Bishkek from Syria with assistance of international organizations. Earlier in October, 21 Kyrgyz women and 62 children return to the Central Asian nation through a special program. Before that, two repatriation missions had been organized since January 2023, during which 49 and 105 children returned to Bishkek. Kyrgyz authorities said in 2018 that 850 Kyrgyz nationals, including about 140 women, had joined terrorist organizations in Syria in Iraq, of whom 150 were killed there. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.
Six Nepalese Nationals Killed In Ukraine While Serving In Russian Armed Forces2
Interview: Putin Should 'Be Pretty Careful About Making Bets' In Ukraine3
U.S. Charges Bosnian With Helping Russian Businessman Escape Italian House Arrest4
The Ukrainian Fingerprints On A Shadowy Assassination Campaign On Russian Soil5
With Wagner In Disarray, Russian Diplomat With Spy Links Surfaces In Central African Republic6
'Liquidated': Two 'Traitors Of Ukraine' Killed In Separate Incidents7
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine8
Two Russian Officers Sentenced To Four Years For 'Failing To Repulse Ukrainian Attack'9
Germany Delivers Fresh Military Aid Package To Ukraine10
U.S. Senate Blocks Ukrainian Aid Package Despite Pleas From White House