- By Antoine Blua
Russia Playing 'Pivotal Role' In Democracy Decline, Says New Report
The U.S.-based watchdog group issued its annual report on June 12 monitoring democratic development in 29 nations from the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, and Central Europe.
The authors of the survey, "Nations in Transit 2014: Eurasia's Rupture with Democracy," say Russia has brought the region to "a new, alarming level of repression" during the past year.
Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, the project director for "Nations in Transit" at Freedom House, told RFE/RL that Russia symbolizes the "dramatic decline" in the democratic indicators that are measured by the survey and "in many ways [is] influencing the turn-away from democracy."
The report shows the average democracy score declined again in the region in 2013, as it has every year for the past decade. Sixteen countries suffered downgrades, five improved, while eight didn't register any changes in score.
Corruption increased throughout the area, with half of the 10 assessed European Union member states receiving downgrades.
In the 12 former Soviet countries that are not members of the EU, democracy has been in "steep decline" for over a decade, leaving nearly 80 percent of the region's population living under what Freedom House calls "consolidated authoritarian regimes."
Those include Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
ALSO SEE: Interactive Nations In Transit 2014 Map
Freedom House says the environment for civil society became "more hostile" in Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.
The report says the Kremlin "actively pursued a policy of intensified repression," using a series of new laws to persecute the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, harass independent civil society, expand state control over the media, and bring the Internet to "heel."
Kremlin Inspires Others
Russia also served as the "model and inspiration for policies leading to a retreat from free institutions throughout Eurasia."
Measures similar to Russian laws restricting "homosexual propaganda" and foreign funding of NGOs have been brought up for discussion, proposed, or introduced in a number of countries, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and even EU-member Latvia.
Kazakhstan received a fourth consecutive downgrade in its civil-society rating in 2013 due to "broad extralegal enforcement of its already strict 2011 law on religious activity."
As a result, Habdank-Kolaczkowska says, there were "many, many, many arrests, charges, raids, and confiscations of religious materials" in Kazakhstan throughout 2013.
Habdank-Kolaczkowska says the run-up to Azerbaijan's October 2013 presidential election prompted a "really dramatic" government crackdown on civil-society activists, political opponents, and the media.
In Belarus, the government of Alyaksandr Lukashenka "pummeled civic activism with a sustained crackdown," the survey says.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan continued to earn the report's worst possible rating for civil society -- a 7 on a scale of 1 to 7 -- as they do for most other indicators.
However, civil society proved resilient in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, both of which registered rating improvements in that category.
Habdank-Kolaczkowska says Ukraine's "vibrant" civil society resulted in massive protests in November 2013 and eventually the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Along with Kyrgyzstan, Georgia is the only state in the former Soviet Union whose ratings have consistently improved over the last few years, thanks to the increased pluralism they introduced by more free and fair elections in 2012 and 2013.
The Balkans also registered some positive developments in 2013, including productive EU-brokered negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade over ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo.
But the report says "dysfunctional" governments continued to drive down democracy scores in the region.
The environment for independent media has deteriorated in Macedonia, which fell back into the category of "transitional regimes," while a long-running political stalemate continued to paralyze the central government in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
According to Habdank-Kolaczkowska, Bosnia-Herzegovina has become the "poster child, the warning, for dysfunctional governance."
Croatia Returns Migrants To Bosnia Amid Spike In Illegal Border Crossings
Croatia on March 31 returned a second group of migrants to Bosnia-Herzegovina amid questions about where the migrants should be allowed to apply for asylum.
A group of about 93 people who were deported by Croatia are being housed in a temporary reception center near the town of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. The first group of about 80 migrants arrived at the center from Croatia on March 30.
They were brought to the center accompanied by the Bosnian Border Police in coordination with the State Service for Foreigners' Affairs.
Mustafa Ruznic, the leader of Una-Sana Canton in northwestern Bosnia, told RFE/RL that he asked the Bosnian authorities to provide information about the origin of the migrants and the reason they were relocated from Croatia. He has not yet received an answer.
Croatian police did not respond when asked by RFE/RL to comment on the readmission of the migrants.
A spokesman for the Bosnian Security Ministry told RFE/RL that the migrants were brought to the border crossing under the readmission agreement between Bosnia and Croatia.
"This is a regular procedure, and this is what we are doing toward Serbia and toward Montenegro under agreements with these countries," Admir Malagic said.
The agreement envisages that people who enter Croatia from Bosnia will be returned to Bosnia.
The number of migrants arriving in Slovenia since Croatia entered Europe's Schengen passport-free zone on January 1 has shot up by 300 percent.
Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob in a statement on March 27 after a meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic warned of increased pressure on Croatia and Slovenia as transit countries for migrants who aim to make Italy their target destination.
"We are looking for ways to control the entire corridor from the Bosnian border to the Italian border through trilateral participation in order to establish better control of irregular migration," Golob said.
Plenkovic said after the meeting that the Croatian police were guarding the border according to the law.
"We cooperate with the authorities and police of other countries and prevent irregular migration, and the 6,500 Croatian police officers guarding the border behave in accordance with Croatian laws and European and international norms and standards," Plenkovic said.
He once again stressed that Croatia will not install fences or barbed wire on the border with its neighbors in Southeastern Europe.
According to Slovenian police, in the first two months of 2023 Slovenia recorded 5,162 attempts to enter the country illegally, while in the same period last year there were only 1,295 attempts.
The migrants are mostly from Afghanistan, Morocco, Russia, and Cuba.
Croatian media cited data from the Interior Ministry showing that since Croatia's entry into the Schengen zone the number of asylum seekers has increased by 800 percent compared to the same period last year, but more than 90 percent of them immediately move on to Western Europe.
With reporting by Meliha Kesmer and Sejla Ibrahimovic
Romanian Court Releases Tate To House Arrest
Andrew Tate, an Internet personality who has spent months in a Romanian jail on suspicion of organized crime and human trafficking, has won an appeal to replace his detention with house arrest. The Bucharest Court of Appeal issued the ruling on March 31 after Tate challenged a judge’s decision last week to extend his detention for 30 days, a Romanian government official said. Tate, 36, a British-U.S. citizen, was detained in December in Bucharest along with his brother and two Romanian women. They all won appeal of their detention and will remain under house arrest until April 29. To read the original story by AP, click here.
U.S. Seeks To Keep Yemen-Bound Ammunition Seized From Iran
The United States is seeking to keep more than 1 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. Navy seized in December as it was in transit from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to militant groups in Yemen, the Justice Department said on March 31. "The United States disrupted a major operation by [the IRGC] to smuggle weapons of war into the hands of a militant group in Yemen," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The Justice Department is now seeking the forfeiture of those weapons," the statement said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Leader Of White Supremacist Group Wanted In U.S. Arrested In Romania
The leader of a U.S. neo-Nazi group wanted in the United States for allegedly fomenting violence at political rallies has been apprehended by Romanian authorities in Bucharest.
Robert Paul Rundo, 33, was taken into custody in the Romanian capital with the help of a police special-forces unit after he was spotted at a gym on March 29.
He had a document identifying himself as Robert Lazar Pavic, according to judicial sources. It is not clear when he entered Romania.
The U.S citizen is currently being held by the General Directorate of Police in Bucharest. U.S. authorities have sent a request for his extradition on charges that he conspired to attend political rallies and use combat tactics and physical violence against people and groups that did not support their ideology.
Rundo allegedly assaulted several people, including a police officer, at two rallies in the United States. The charges are in connection with activity that took place between December 2016 and October 2018.
The Bucharest Court of Appeals opened an extradition procedure on behalf of Rundo, and April 25 was set for the next hearing in the case.
Rundo is suspected of promoting white-supremacist ideology for the past three years in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
"The suspect is said to be one of the founders of an organization that supports the ideology of white supremacy, which has publicly presented itself as a group ready to fight, campaigning for a new nationalist movement of white supremacy and identity," a Romanian police statement said.
The Rise Above Movement (RAM) is based in southern California and members believe they are fighting a modern world corrupted by the "destructive cultural influences" of liberals, Jews, Muslims, and nonwhite immigrants.
They describe themselves as a "premier alt-right MMA (mixed martial arts) club." RAM members participated in the so-called Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that led to the death of a counterprotester.
Rundo was detained the following year in connection with events that took place in California but was released after the charges were dismissed, and he left the United States for Europe.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Rundo tried to create a group dedicated to white supremacy in Eastern Europe. The open-source investigative group Bellingcat revealed in 2020 that Rundo was in Serbia and had posted videos of himself and others on Telegram in which they are seen writing white-supremacist messages on walls in Belgrade.
In February 2020, Rundo published an article on a nationalist website in which he wrote that he participated in a march organized by Serbian extremists in front of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
Bellingcat reported that Rundo also participated in a neo-Nazi commemoration that took place in Budapest in February 2020 and was attended by 600 neo-Nazis from Europe. They gathered in the Hungarian capital for what they call Honor Day, commemorating an escape attempt by besieged Nazi forces in 1945.
Two weeks later, Rundo was in Sofia, Bulgaria, for a neo-Nazi march that was banned by local authorities.
In an interview on a neo-Nazi podcast in September 2020, Rundo used anti-Semitic language, referenced to Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kampf, and claimed he left the United States because of nonstop harassment by U.S. authorities.
Lukashenka Defends Placement Of Russian Tactical Nuclear Weapons In Belarus
The authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has defended a Russian plan to place tactical nuclear weapons -- including intercontinental ballistic missiles if necessary -- on Belarusian territory, saying the country is coming under increased threats from the West.
Commenting on the issue for the first time since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the move on March 25, Lukashenka said in his annual address to the nation on March 31 that he had initiated the plan by asking Moscow to move tactical nuclear weapons to his country to ensure it is capable "of defending the sovereignty and independence of Belarus."
Lukashenka, a pariah in Europe and most of the Western world after launching a brutal crackdown against opponents following an August 2020 presidential he claimed to win but they say was rigged, offered no evidence of any specific threats from the West, which has called the possible deployment "irresponsible."
"I would like to add that all of the infrastructure [for tactical nuclear weapons] is ready.... Those are weapons that will contribute to our sovereignty and independence," Lukashenka said, adding that Minsk could exercise control over all nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory.
That appears to contradict Putin, who said during the announcement last week that the tactical missiles would remain under Moscow's control. Military experts have said the deployment will lead to the creation of a permanent Russian military base in Belarus.
"Putin and I will decide and bring strategic weapons here, which those scoundrels abroad must comprehend, those who are trying to blow us up from inside and outside today. Nothing will prevent us from protecting our countries," Lukashenka added.
Belarus is the closest thing Putin's Russia has to an ally, and their ties have tightened further since Lukashenka -- in power since 1994 -- claimed victory in a 2020 election widely seen as rigged and then cracked down violently against massive peaceful protests over the vote.
Minsk has not sent troops to fight alongside Moscow's forces in Ukraine, but Lukashenka allowed Russia to use the country -- which borders Ukraine on the north --- as a staging area for the invasion.
It has also granted Russia full access to its air bases, carried out joint drills, and treated wounded Russian soldiers on its territory.
Speaking about the possible deployment of Russian strategic nuclear weapons, Lukashenka said that he ordered his military to immediately put the former base for Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles in order.
"It's a highly technologically sophisticated structure," he said. "All the infrastructure has been created and is standing ready."
The deployment announcement comes amid soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2022. Waves of economic and diplomatic sanctions have been aimed at Russia, as well as Belarus, for its logistical support for the attack on Ukraine.
Those came on top of sanctions already slapped on Minsk for its crackdown on civil society and dissent following the disputed election.
Addressing Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Lukashenka called for immediate truce talks "without preconditions"
"It is crucial to stop [the war] now, before an escalation of the situation. Declare a truce with a ban on supplies of forces, weapons and equipment," Lukashenka said, stressing a truce cannot be used to bring more weapons to the conflict, as Russia could be forced to use "the most terrible weapon" if it felt threatened.
Given Belarus's role in the conflict and its close ties with Russia, Ukraine has previously rejected offers from Minsk to broker peace.
Belarus has said it has no plans to enter the war.
Kazakh Tycoon Related To Former President's Family Handed Eight-Year Prison Term
ASTANA -- Kazakh tycoon Qairat Boranbaev, whose daughter is the widow of the grandson of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev, has been sentenced to eight years in prison on corruption charges.
A court in Astana's Saryarqa district sentenced Boranbaev and his two co-defendants on March 31 after finding them guilty of illegally obtaining property and embezzlement. The court also stripped Boranbaev of all state awards and ordered the confiscation of all his property and financial assets.
Boranbaev's co-defendants, businessmen Roman Nakhanov and Taiyr Zhanuzaq, were also each sentenced to eight years in prison. The trio had pleaded not guilty.
Boranbaev's daughter, Alima Boranbaeva, and Nazarbaev's grandson, Aisultan Nazarbaev, married in 2013. In September 2020, Aisultan Nazarbaev, who reportedly suffered from drug addiction and had run-ins with the law in the United Kingdom, died in London at the age of 29.
Boranbaev, 56, was arrested after unprecedented anti-government protests in early January 2022 after which the Kazakh regime began to quietly target Nazarbaev, his family, and other allies -- many of whom held powerful or influential posts in government, security agencies, and profitable energy companies.
In September, another court in Astana sentenced Nazarbaev's nephew Qairat Satybaldy to six years in prison on corruption charges.
President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has taken a series of moves since the unrests to push Nazarbaev, who ruled the tightly controlled former Soviet republic with an iron fist for almost three decades, further into the background following his resignation in 2019.
Though he officially stepped down as president, Nazarbaev retained sweeping powers as the head of the country's powerful Security Council. He also enjoyed substantial powers by holding the title of "elbasy" -- the leader of the nation.
Even after Nazarbaev's resignation, many Kazakhs remained bitter over the oppression of his reign.
Those feelings came to a head in January 2022 when unprecedented, nationwide anti-government protests were sparked by a fuel-price hike.
The demonstrations unexpectedly exploded into deadly countrywide unrest over perceived corruption under the Nazarbaev regime and the cronyism that allowed his family and close friends to enrich themselves while ordinary citizens failed to share in the oil-rich country's wealth.
Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of his Security Council role, taking it over himself. Since then, several of Nazarbaev’s relatives and allies have been pushed out of their positions or resigned.
Last month, Toqaev sign a law that canceled Nazarbaev's elbasy title.
Kazakh critics say Toqaev's initiatives were cosmetic and did not change the nature of the autocratic system in a country that has been plagued for years by rampant corruption and nepotism.
EU May Need To Reintroduce Tariffs On Ukrainian Grain, PMs Say
Tariffs on Ukrainian agricultural imports may need to be reintroduced if an influx of products that is pushing down prices in EU markets cannot be stopped by other means, several prime ministers of eastern states said. In a letter to the European Commission, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia said the scale of the increase of products including grains, oilseeds, eggs, poultry, and sugar had been "unprecedented." Ukraine, one of the world's largest grain exporters, had its Black Sea ports blocked following Russia's February 2022 invasion and found alternative shipping routes through EU states Poland and Romania. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Iran's IRGC Says Israeli Air Strike In Syria Kills One Of Its Officers
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) says an Israeli attack in Syria on March 31 killed one of its officers in a sign of Israel's increasing efforts to counter Tehran's foothold in the country. The IRGC "has announced the martyrdom of guardsman Milad Haydari, one of the IRGC's military advisers and officers," in the attack, a statement said. This was the second attack attributed to Israel in Syria in less than two days. There was no immediate comment from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.
Spanish PM Says He Encouraged China's Xi To Speak With Zelenskiy
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 31 to talk to the Ukrainian leadership and learn firsthand about Kyiv's peace formula to help bring an end to Russia's invasion. Sanchez told a news conference in Beijing he had informed Xi, who visited Moscow on March 20-21, that Spain supported the proposals made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. They include a demand to restore Ukraine's territory to the status quo before Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Ukraine Condemns Wimbledon Decision To Lift Ban On Russian Players
Ukraine has condemned the decision to allow Russian and Belarusian tennis players to compete at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.
Tournament organizers announced on March 31 they were lifting a ban imposed in 2022, clearing the way for competitors from the two countries to enter the Grand Slam, which starts on July 3, if they are "neutral" athletes and comply with certain conditions.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba blasted the decision, urging Britain to bar entry to participants from the two countries.
"Wimbledon's decision to permit the participation of Russian and Belarusian players is immoral," Kuleba said on Twitter.
Wimbledon said last year that barring players from the two countries was its only viable option under the guidance provided by the British government.
However, this year's conditions include prohibiting "expressions of support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine" and prohibiting entry by players "receiving funding from the Russian and/or Belarusian states."
With reporting by AFP and Reuters
Police In North Kazakhstan Investigate Group Calling For 'Sovereign Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic'
Police in the North Kazakhstan region say they are investigating a group in the regional capital, Petropavl, called the People's Council. The group announced its creation days earlier saying it promotes "our independence and sovereignty" and "the unbreakable territorial integrity of the sovereign Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic" -- Kazakhstan's former name when it was part of the Soviet Union. After Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Kazakh officials launched several probes linked to online expressions of support for Russia and the idea of reviving the Soviet Union by Kazakh citizens. To read the original story of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Former Putin Speechwriter Gallyamov Accused Of Discrediting Russian Armed Forces
A self-exiled former speechwriter of Vladimir Putin, Abbas Gallyamov, whose name appeared in the Russian Interior Ministry's online registry of wanted persons last week, is suspected of discrediting Russia's armed forces, a charge Russian authorities have been using to stifle any criticism of Moscow's war in Ukraine.
The Setevyye Svobody (Network Freedoms) group, which monitors the rights of online journalists, said on March 30 that it had obtained official documents of the probe against Gallyamov stating that the charge against him stems from his interview with Ukraine's 1+1 television's YouTube project.
Gallyamov gave the interview with the outlet on April 9, 2022, discussing alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops in the Ukrainian cities of Bucha and Kramatorsk.
Setevyye Svobody said the investigation against Gallyamov was launched on January 18 and that his name was added to the wanted list on February 17, more than one month before it appeared on the ministry's website.
If convicted, Gallyamov faces up to 10 years in prison. According to Setevyye Svobody, lawyer Alan Gamazov is representing Gallyamov. It is not clear whether he was appointed by Russian authorities or was chosen by Gallyamov to be his legal representative.
On March 24, the Mediazona website said it found the official notice identifying Gallyamov as wanted on unspecified charges on the Interior Ministry's website. The notice was posted a day after RFE/RL published an extensive interview with Gallyamov.
In the interview, Gallyamov suggested that the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may lead to a revolution in Russia.
He also reflected on his time as a member of Putin's speechwriting team after Putin became prime minister in 2008. He said that at that time, nobody could have predicted "that Russia would turn into some kind of fascist state, as it is now."
Discrediting Russia's armed forces became a crime under a new law adopted after Russia sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
Last month, the Russian Justice Ministry added Gallyamov to its registry of foreign agents, saying he has distributed "materials compiled by foreign agents, expressed ideas against the special military operation in Ukraine, participated as an expert, and respondent on information platforms presented by foreign entities."
Gallyamov, 50, is currently residing in Israel. He worked as a speechwriter for Putin from 2008 to 2010. He was a deputy chief of the administration of then-President of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan Rustem Khamitov from 2010 to 2014.
Ukraine Marks Bucha Massacre Anniversary As Russia Shells Cities In East
Ukraine on March 31 marked one year since Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, leaving behind hundreds of bodies of murdered civilians on the streets of the commuter town near the capital in what Kyiv said was a massacre and a Russian war crime.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy presided over an official outdoors ceremony in Bucha that was also attended by Moldovan President Maia Sandu and the prime ministers of EU and NATO members Croatia, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- Eduard Geger, Robert Golob, and Andrej Plenkovich.
In a video posted on social media, Zelenskiy called the Bucha massacre "a symbol of the atrocities" committed by the Russian military.
Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine
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"We will never forgive. We will punish all those guilty," Zelenskiy said in a statement accompanying the video.
As the Russian military was forced to hastily leave Bucha and Irpin, another town on the outskirts of Kyiv, after a failed attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital, images of the dead bodies scattered on the streets of Bucha sparked a wave of shock and condemnation around the world.
Russia has denied committing the massacres and claimed the deaths were "staged" by Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials estimate about 400 bodies of civilians were found in Bucha, as well as more than 1,000 throughout the region around Kyiv.
Many of the bodies were buried in mass graves.
Ukrainian and international investigators have opened a probe into war crimes in Bucha, Irpin, and other locations in Ukraine where apparent massacres occurred.
"Today the people of Moldova and I stand with the global community in remembering the terror inflicted on the civilians in Bucha one year ago," Sandu wrote on Twitter from Bucha, together with a photo from the ceremony.
"We honor and grieve the innocent. Democracies must work together to ensure that these atrocities are investigated and punished," she added.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bloc "assists Ukraine to investigate such crimes and collect evidence," while Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said Bucha showed the world "the true face of Russian occuption."
"A year ago, Ukraine liberated Bucha and the world woke up to the true face of Russian occupation. Bucha is a crime scene and a symbol for all Russian crimes -- mass killings, deportations, erasing whole cities," Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas wrote in a Twitter on March 31. "There's no going back -- Russia will be held accountable."
IN PHOTOS: The photo of a dead woman's hand, her freshly varnished nails standing out against the mud on her skin, became an iconic image of Russian atrocities in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. Months after the picture was taken, her family and friends are struggling to cope with her loss.
Meanwhile, fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces for control of Bakhmut and other key towns in the eastern region of Donetsk continued unabated as the northeastern city of Kharkiv was targeted with missile and drone strikes overnight, the military said on March 31.
Russia targeted civilian infrastructure in the city of Kharkiv with nine missile strikes launched from S-300 air-to-surface systems and 10 Iranian-made Shahed drones, Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report, adding that nine drones were destroyed.
At least five civilians were wounded, authorities said.
"The enemy continues to ignore the laws and customs of war, using terror tactics against the peaceful citizens of our country," the military said.
WATCH: Ukrainian artillery targets Russian armored guns at a range of up to 28 kilometers in the ongoing battle for Bakhmut. Using a captured self-propelled cannon, a Ukrainian artillery crew is also trying to destroy Russian command posts.
In the southern Kherson region, Russian troops shelled settlements 64 times over the past day, killing one person and wounding two, the regional military administration reported on March 31.
The city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk was also struck by two Russian missiles that damaged eight residential buildings, the military said.
Heavy fighting continued in and around Bakhmut, where the Ukrainian defenders repelled 22 attacks over the past 24 hours, and in Avdiyivka, Lyman, and Maryinka.
A civilian was killed and six others were wounded by Russian shelling the area around Bakhmut, the governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kirylenko, wrote on Telegram on March 31.
Bakhmut, a mining city with a prewar population of 70,000 people, has become the epicenter of Russia's offensive for the control of eastern Ukraine. About 2,000 civilians are thought to be left in the city that has been all but razed to the ground.
In southern Ukraine, the city of Zaporizhzhya was targeted by overnight shelling by Russia that damaged civilian infrastructure, the secretary of the Zaporizhzhya city council, Anatoliy Kurtev, reported on Telegram.
Kurtev said no one was injured.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa
White House Urges Russia To Act Professionally During UN Security Council Presidency
The White House has urged Russia to conduct itself professionally when it assumes its scheduled UN Security Council presidency next month. "Unfortunately, Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and no feasible international legal pathway exists to change that reality," White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on March 30. "We expect Russia to continue to use its seat on the council to spread disinformation" and justify its actions in Ukraine. The presidency rotates to council members month by month. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Azerbaijan Denounces 'Slanderous' Comments By Top Iranian Commander
Azerbaijan has denounced comments by a senior Iranian military commander who said members of the Islamic State militant group had fought for Azerbaijan and were still based in the country. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry on March 30 said the comments made by Kiumars Heydari, head of Iran's regular army ground forces, were "vile, defamatory, and slanderous," adding, "Generally speaking, there are no foreign elements on the territory of Azerbaijan." The ministry's response came a day after security services said they were investigating "a terrorist act" on lawmaker Fazil Mustafa, who has strong anti-Iranian views. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
- By AP
U.S. Mideast Envoy Hopeful Saudi-Iran Detente Will Help Region
The Biden administration is hopeful that warming ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help de-escalate conflicts and crises across the Middle East, a senior U.S. diplomat said on March 30. The detente between the two regional heavyweights could help bring Yemen's civil war to an end, Barbara Leaf said. Earlier this month, Riyadh and Tehran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations -- a move that stirred cautious optimism across the region. "The first order is to see whether Iran will live up to its commitments in terms of Yemen," Leaf said.
U.S. Blacklists Slovak For Allegedly Facilitating Arms Deals Between North Korea, Russia
The United States has imposed sanctions on a Slovakian man who allegedly worked as a broker for Russia in its efforts to purchase arms and munitions from North Korea to support its war on Ukraine.
Ashot Mkrtychev, 56, of Bratislava was involved in arranging sales and barter deals for North Korea to ship weapons and munitions to Russia between late 2022 and early 2023, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a news release.
In exchange, Pyongyang would obtain cash, commercial aircraft, commodities, and raw materials, according to the Treasury Department.
Mkrtychev worked with officials from both sides to makes the deals happen, according to the Treasury.
"Mkrtychev's negotiations with DPRK and Russian officials detailed mutually beneficial cooperation between North Korea and Russia to include financial payments and barter arrangements," the department said, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). "He confirmed Russia's readiness to receive military equipment from the DPRK with senior Russian officials."
Although the department did not say if any deals were completed or describe the specific weapons involved, it said its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions against Mkrtychev.
The United States said last year amid an increase in air strikes on Ukraine that Russia has purchased artillery shells and rockets from North Korea.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said then that North Korea was shipping the ammunition to Russia but making it look like it was sending the arms to the Middle East or North Africa.
Kirby also said North Korea completed an arms delivery to the Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting on the front lines in Ukraine.
Pyongyang has denied the U.S. claims.
Kirby said on March 30 that Russia continues to seek arms from the communist country.
"We have new information that Russia is actively seeking to acquire additional munitions from North Korea," Kirby said after the Treasury announced the sanctions against Mkrtychev.
The OFAC blacklist freezes any assets Mkrtychev holds within the jurisdiction of the United States and bans Americans and U.S. businesses, including banks, of having any dealings with him.
The move comes as Washington steps up sanctions targeting Russia's attempts to obtain military equipment to replenish stocks that have been depleted by the war in Ukraine.
"Russia has lost over 9,000 pieces of heavy military equipment since the start of the war, and thanks in part to multilateral sanctions and export controls, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has become increasingly desperate to replace them," U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in the statement.
Schemes like the alleged arms deal pursued by Mkrtychev "show that Putin is turning to suppliers of last resort like Iran and [North Korea]," she added.
"We remain committed to degrading Russia's military-industrial capabilities, as well as exposing and countering Russian attempts to evade sanctions and obtain military equipment from the DPRK or any other state that is prepared to support its war in Ukraine," Yellen said.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Russian Soldier Jailed In Crimea For Desertion
A court in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea has sentenced a military serviceman to nine years in prison for desertion. The Crimea Garrison Military Court said on March 30 the defendant, whose identity was not disclosed, pleaded guilty and said he desert his unit in Crimea in September because he was unwilling to take part in the war against Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Crimea.Realities, click here.
Russian, 63, Jailed For Seven Years For Anti-War Posts
A court in Moscow has sentenced a 63-year-old man to seven years in prison for two online posts last year condemning Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The Timiryazev district court sentenced Mikhail Simonov on March 30 after finding him guilty of "discrediting the Russian armed forces," a charge Russian authorities have been using against any criticism of the war in Ukraine since it was launched by Moscow in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
UN Court Rejects Iranian Bid To Unfreeze Funds But Faults U.S. For Seizing Other Assets
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has rejected Iran's bid to unblock nearly $2 billion in assets belonging to its central bank that were frozen by the United States over alleged terrorist attacks.
The Hague-based court said on March 30 it did not have jurisdiction over $1.75 billion in bonds, plus accumulated interest, that are held in a Citibank account in New York.
But the court simultaneously found that the United States had "violated" the rights of some Iranians and companies whose assets were also frozen. The ruling ordered the United States to pay compensation, but said the amount should be determined through negotiation.
The ruling comes amid strained relations between the United States and Iran over the use of Iranian drones by Russia against Ukraine, attempts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, and a deadly strike last week involving Iran-backed militias in Syria and U.S. personnel.
The case before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, was initially brought by Tehran in 2016 claiming a breach of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, which promised friendship and cooperation between the two countries.
The treaty was signed long before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed shah, and the subsequent severing of U.S.-Iranian relations. Washington withdrew from the treaty in 2018.
The ICJ ruled that the treaty was in place at the time of the freezing of the assets of Iranian commercial companies and entities, and therefore Washington violated it.
The United States argued the asset seizures were the result of Tehran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism and said the whole case should be dismissed because Iran had "unclean hands."
The court dismissed this defense and ruled the treaty was valid. It said if the countries fail in the negotiation of compensation, they will have to return to the ICJ for a ruling.
In another decision on the assets held at Citibank, the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the $1.75 billion in assets from Iran's central bank because that bank was not a commercial enterprise, and thus not protected by the treaty.
The United States has said the money is to be used to pay compensation to victims of a 1983 bombing in Lebanon and other attacks linked to Iran, which denies supporting international terrorism.
The rulings of the ICJ, the United Nations' top court, are binding, but it has no means of enforcing its rulings.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
Clerics In Historic Kyiv Monastery Defy Eviction Notice, Deny Officials, Journalists Entry
KYIV -- Clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) who have been ordered to leave the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra in the Ukrainian capital on March 30 defied the eviction order and refused to allow officials from the Culture Ministry and journalists into the historic Orthodox Christian monastery.
Scuffles between members of the UOC and journalists broke out outside the 11th-century monastery and UNESCO World Heritage site when clerics pushed reporters away from Metropolitan Pavlo, the monastery's abbot.
The UOC clerics refused to communicate with the journalists, who were at the monastery to cover the standoff, which developed after the agency overseeing the property notified the UOC earlier this month that it was terminating the lease as of March 29.
An RFE/RL correspondent's camera was struck and journalists of the Suspilne (Public) television channel were jostled as the clerics attempted to keep the journalists away from Pavlo.
Pavlo, meanwhile, threatened to hit journalists with a stick, urging them "instead of gabbing away" for "seas of money" to do "real" work, like "milking cows, gardening, etc."
The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine said on March 30 that journalists' rights were violated as UOC followers did not allow them to use their cameras, covering their lenses with different objects, insulting reporters, and pushing them away from the entrance to the monastery, which is owned by the Ukrainian government.
The UOC is a branch of Ukraine's Orthodox Church that was previously under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow. It cut ties with Moscow in May 2022 over Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, but it has been accused of maintaining links to Russia.
Metropolitan Pavlo and other UOC officials also did not allow a commission of the Culture and Information Policy Ministry to enter the monastery, where it was scheduled to inspect buildings as the handover of the property was planned to start on March 30.
A day earlier, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said no force would be used to evict the monks from the monastery.
Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko condemned the "brutal" treatment of the commission members. The government filed a complaint with the police, Tkachenko said in a statement, adding that efforts to inspect the buildings would continue on March 31.
In November, Ukrainian security agents conducted a "counterintelligence" operation at the monastery and other UOC facilities as part of a probe into suspected pro-Russian activity.
The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is the country's main Orthodox Church. A 2020 survey found that 34 percent of Ukrainians identified as members of the OCU, while 14 percent said they were members of the UOC.
With reporting by Reuters
Siberian Actor Slits Wrist On Stage To Protest Anti-War Director's Firing
ULAN-UDE, Russia -- An actor in a theater in the Siberian region of Buryatia has slashed his veins while on stage to protest the firing of the company's artistic director last year over his stance against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Artur Shuvalov of the Russian Drama Theater in Buryatia's capital, Ulan-Ude, slashed his wrist with a knife at the end of a play on March 29 in front of a live audience, saying that he and his colleagues had been under pressure for their attempts to get the theater's artistic director, Sergei Levitsky, back after he openly condemned the war in Ukraine.
Shuvalov said that hours earlier his wife, Svetlana Polyanskaya, who is an actress in the same theater, filed her resignation after coming under constant pressure from management for urging Levitsky's reinstatement.
Shuvalov is currently hospitalized with wounds to his arms. Buryatia Culture Minister Soelma Dagayeva said Shuvalov's life was not in danger.
Since Levitsky was fired last year, the theater's actors have demanded local authorities reinstate him and have held different types of protest, including removing the symbols of Russia's aggression against Ukraine from the theater's facade and raising awareness of the situation in local media.
The actors also complained that the new art director, Vyacheslav Dyachenko, had called them prostitutes by calling them "representatives of the oldest profession in the world," and demanding they perform "simple plays that are comprehensible to ordinary people."
"I do not want to hear that actors are similar to representatives of the oldest profession. I think our audience deserves smart performances, not those demanded by our artistic director. I am sorry. I am tired. I do not have any other choice," Shuvalov said before slashing his wrist, adding that Dyachenko and the theater's executive director, Natalya Svetozarova, would be responsible for his death.
Buryatia government officials said they were investigating the incident, including "events that preceded the incident."
Dagayeva added that Shuvalov's wife resigned of her own free will.
Tajik Opposition Politician's Son Extradited From Germany Sentenced To Seven Years In Prison
A son of Tajik opposition politician Shamsiddin Saidov, who was recently extradited to Tajikistan from Germany, has been sentenced to seven years in prison in Dushanbe after a trial Human Rights Watch (HRW) called unfair.
According to HRW, a court in the Tajik capital sentenced Abdullo Shamsiddin on March 29 after finding him guilty of "public calls to violent change of the constitutional order of Tajikistan."
"The trial started on March 28 and did not adhere to fair trial standards, including the right of defendants to challenge the evidence used against them, based on information available. Authorities should publicly present the evidence used to justify his conviction and in the meantime he should be immediately released from detention," the HRW's statement said.
Tajik authorities have yet to officially confirm the sentencing but Shamsiddin's father, Shamsiddin Saidov, who is currently residing in the European Union, confirmed to RFE/RL that his son was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Saidov is a member of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). In January 2018, he was sentenced in absentia in Tajikistan to 15 years in prison on extremism charges.
Saidov said earlier that his 32-year-old son, who had lived in Germany since 2009, was deported from Germany due to his failure to reregister with the country's migration authorities on time.
The IRPT said at the time the decision to deport Shamsiddin might have been because he provided incorrect data to the immigration service.
The IRPT, long an influential party with representatives in the government and parliament, was labeled a terrorist group and banned in 2015.
Dozens of IRPT officials and supporters have been prosecuted and many of them imprisoned, drawing criticism from human rights groups.
Tajik authorities have been criticized for cracking down on dissent for years.
Captured Russian Soldier Given 12-Year Prison Sentence
A court in Ukraine has sentenced a Russian soldier to 12 years in prison on a charge of violating of the laws of war, the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office said on March 30. The soldier, whose identity was not disclosed, was found guilty of intimidating and victimizing Ukrainian civilians near Kyiv as they fled the area in early March 2022, days after Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Earlier this month, Ukraine handed a similar sentence to Russian Air Force officer Aleksei Loboda for bombing civilian targets in Ukraine's eastern region of Kharkiv in March 2022. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.
Smaiylov Reappointed Kazakh PM
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev reappointed Alikhan Smaiylov to the prime minister's post on March 30 after the newly elected parliament approved his candidacy. A day earlier, Smaiylov's government officially resigned as the parliament that was elected in snap polls on March 19 held its first session. The 50-year-old Smaiylov was promoted to the prime minister's post from the deputy prime minister position in January 2022 after the standing of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev dramatically weakened following unprecedented nationwide anti-government protests that turned to mass unrest, leaving at least 238 people dead. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, click here.
Zelenskiy Says Ukraine Is Preparing Next Steps Amid Pitched Battles In Eastern Regions2
Zelenskiy Makes Surprise Trip To Zaporizhzhya, Meets IAEA Chief3
Amnesty Report Says 'Hypocrisy' Of Western States Laid Bare By Russia's Invasion of Ukraine4
Ukrainian Artillery Hunts Russian Howitzers As Battle For Bakhmut Grinds On5
'Field Wife': Officers Make Life Hell For Women In Russia's Military, A Female Medic Says6
In Hungary, 'Deteriorating Relationship' Seen Behind Biden's Democracy Summit Snub7
Pakistani Armed Groups Obtain U.S. Weapons Left Behind In Afghanistan8
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine9
Interview: What Ukraine Wants From Russia May Be 'Moral,' But Is It 'Practical'?10
'More Of Putin's Blackmail': Analysts Weigh In On Moscow Basing Tactical Nuclear Weapons In Belarus