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Greece Agrees New Austerity Measures

Protesters demonstrating against austerity measures clash with riot police during a general strike in Athens in June.
Protesters demonstrating against austerity measures clash with riot police during a general strike in Athens in June.
The Greek government is to impose tougher austerity measures in a move to secure crucial bailout funds needed to avoid default.

The government agreed on September 21 to cut pensions, extend a property tax hike, and put tens of thousands of public workers on notice.

The decision follows two days of tough talks with the International Monetary Fund and European authorities.

At stake is an 8-billion-euro ($11-billion) tranche of aid which is urgently needed to help pay government bills, including public wages and pensions.

Two labor unions unions have responded by calling for strikes against the austerity measures next month.

compiled from agency reports

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Associate Says Navalny Killed As Exchange Deal To West Neared

Maria Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (file photo)
Maria Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (file photo)

An associate of the late Aleksei Navalny claims a prisoner swap involving the Russian opposition leader was in the final stages before he died in a remote Siberian prison.

Maria Pevchikh, the chairwoman of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a video statement on YouTube on February 26 that Navalny's associates had worked for two years to convince Western officials to negotiate a deal that would include the Kremlin critic and two U.S. citizens held in Russian prisons for Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel in Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) who was convicted of assassinating a former Chechen fighter in Berlin in 2019.

Pevchik did not name the two U.S. citizens to be included in the exchange. Several Americans are currently being held in Russian prisons, including former Marine Paul Whelan, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, and RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva. Navalny would be included in the deal as part of "a humanitarian exchange."

"At the beginning of February, Putin was offered to swap the FSB killer, Vadim Krasikov, who is serving time for a murder in Berlin, for two American citizens and Aleksei Navalny. I received confirmation that negotiations were at the final stage in the evening of February 15. On February 16, Aleksei was killed," Pevchikh said.

"Aleksei Navalny could have been sitting here now, today. It's not a figure of speech," she added.

Pevchikh’s statements have yet to be confirmed or rejected by other sources.

Asked at a regular news conference in Berlin on February 26 about the report, German government spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann said she couldn’t comment.

"We have already received similar questions, and I can't answer anything other than that we can't comment on them,” she told the news conference, according to a senior press officer responding to RFE/RL's e-mail.

Earlier this month, Putin told U.S. commentator Tucker Carlson that "an agreement can be reached" to free Gershkovich, who was arrested in March 2023 in Russia on espionage charges that he, his employer, and the U.S. government have rejected as groundless, in a swap for a "patriotic" Russian national currently serving out a life sentence for murder in Germany -- an apparent reference to Krasikov.

The Wall Street Journal cited Western officials at the time as saying that Putin wanted Krasikov to be released in exchange for U.S. prisoners, including Gershkovich and that Krasikov was central to any deal.

In her video, Pevchikh alleged Putin "wouldn't tolerate" Navalny being set free and instead of swapping him, the Russian leader decided to "get rid of the bargaining chip." She offered no evidence to back up her claim.

She also said Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich acted as an "informal negotiator" between the Kremlin and U.S. and European officials.

"I asked Roman Abramovich through mutual acquaintances how, when, and under what circumstances he did this, and what Putin said. Unfortunately, Abramovich did not answer these questions, but he did not deny anything either," Pevchikh said.

There was no immediate comment from Abramovich. The Kremlin has also not commented on the report.

Navalny's body was released to his family over the weekend, a week after his death was made public by the administration of the so-called "Polar Wolf" prison where he was serving a 19-year term on extremism and other charges that he and his supporters rejected as politically motivated.

No cause of death has been given.

Navalny's mother has accused Russian officials of pressuring her to have a secret burial for her son in order to avoid a massive outpouring of support for one of Putin's most vocal critics.

"The funeral is still pending. We do not know if the authorities will interfere to carry it out as the family wants and as Aleksei deserves. We will inform you as soon as there is news," his spokeswoman, Kyra Yarmysh, said on X, formerly Twitter, on February 24.

She added in a post on February 26 that "we are looking for a hall for a public farewell to Aleksei. Time: end of this work week."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26 it was "absurd" to claim Navalny's family was being pressured.

With reporting by Reuters

Former Russian Actor Gets Life Sentence For Joining Group Fighting For Ukraine

Kirill Kanakhin
Kirill Kanakhin

A military court in Moscow on February 26 sentenced to life in prison on high-treason charge former actor Kirill Kanakhin, who joined the so-called Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) fighting alongside Ukrainian forces against Russian troops. The court issued the sentence in absentia four months after an arrest warrant was issued for Kanakhin. He was previously added to Russia's list of extremists and terrorists. Also in November, a Moscow court sentenced in absentia Denis Kapustin (aka Nikitin), a commander of the RDK, to life in prison in absentia on the same charge. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Russian Tycoon Antipov Reportedly Detained In Fraud Case

The facilities produce high-quality steel used to produce military equipment and ammunition.
The facilities produce high-quality steel used to produce military equipment and ammunition.

Russian media reports said on February 26 that police detained oligarch Yury Antipov in an unspecified fraud case. The reports also said a court in the Sverdlovsk region ruled to nationalize Antipov's shares in a major metallurgical plant in the region, as well as his shares in two metallurgical plants in the regions of Chelyabinsk and Kemerovo. The court said the facilities were obtained through "illegal privatization" in the 1990s. The facilities produce high-quality steel used to produce military equipment and ammunition. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Bulgaria Bans Two Russians From Entering EU

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

Bulgaria has banned two Russian citizens from entering the European Union over their alleged role in a security agency operation in the Balkan country, its state security agency said. Vladimir Nikolayevich Gorochkin, 39, born in Kaliningrad, and 37-year-old Tatyana Anatoliyevna Gorochkina, presented themselves as Bulgarian nationals Denis Rashkov and Diana Rashkova. Bulgaria, a member of the EU and NATO, issued a five-year ban on the two Russians entering the 27-member EU. Bulgaria in September expelled the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia and two Belarusian priests, accusing them of serving Moscow's geopolitical interests.

Scores Of Prominent Iranians Call For Boycott Of 'Staged' Elections

A man and a child walk past campaign posters of parliamentary candidates during the first day of the election campaign in Tehran on February 22.
A man and a child walk past campaign posters of parliamentary candidates during the first day of the election campaign in Tehran on February 22.

Almost 300 political, social, and cultural figures in Iran have publicly denounced the forthcoming parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, calling for people to follow suit and not participate in the "engineered" and "staged" balloting.

"The half-hearted position and status of the institution of elections" in Iran has "reached a more deplorable situation, even compared to the previous elections," the group of 275 people, including Morteza Alviri, Abdolali Bazargan, Alireza Rajaei, Ali Babachahi, Alireza Alavitabar, and Abolfazl Ghadiani, said in a statement on February 25.

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

The statement highlighted the extent of the disqualifications of candidates for the 12th round of elections to the Majlis and said the "deadlock of reforms" points to a deepening crisis within the country's political landscape.

The signatories rejected justifications by some who say that Iranians should still participate even in what is seen as a flawed electoral process, saying that the previous policy of encouraging participation at any cost to push out the Islamic republic's leaders has not only been fruitless, but in fact contributed to the perpetuation of authoritarianism and political stagnation.


Emphasizing the dire state of Iran's current electoral institution, the activists outline a series of prerequisites for holding genuine, fair, and healthy elections.

These include the demand for freedom of speech, for the activities of opposition parties and associations, for the press and media, and the oversight of independent and impartial bodies on election procedures and outcomes.

The activists said those conditions aren't present in the upcoming elections, and therefore they "deem it necessary not to participate in the upcoming elections, which are clearly engineered against the public's sovereignty, and not to give in to this staging."

The statement also warns that without a genuine revival of the institution of elections, real participation in Iran's political process is "unattainable," drawing a bleak comparison to the fate of Lake Urmia, once the largest lake in the Middle East, that has now shrunk to one-10th of its original size.

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

Armenian, Azerbaijani Envoys To Meet In Berlin To Discuss Peace Agreement

Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan (left), U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov (right)meet in May 2023.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan (left), U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayramov (right)meet in May 2023.

The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will meet in Berlin on February 28-29 to discuss a peace agreement between the two South Caucasus countries as agreed in Munich earlier this month, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ani Badalian told RFE/RL on February 26. Local media in Azerbaijan quoted the Foreign Ministry in Baku confirming the meeting time and place. The meeting comes days after the latest flare-up of deadly violence along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

Navalny Associates Say Looking For Place In Russia To Bid Farewell To Kremlin Foe

Flowers are seen placed around portraits of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny at a makeshift memorial in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on February 23 during a rally marking the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Flowers are seen placed around portraits of late Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny at a makeshift memorial in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin on February 23 during a rally marking the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Kira Yarmysh, the former spokeswoman for Aleksei Navalny, said on February 26 that his associates are looking for premises to hold a farewell ceremony for the opposition leader, who died in a remote Russian prison on February 16.

"We are looking for a hall for a public farewell ceremony for Aleksei. Time -- the end of this business week. If you have proper premises, please contact us," Yarmysh wrote on X, formerly Twitter, providing a telephone number that appeared to be inside Russia.

Navalny's relatives have yet to confirm any details of a farewell ceremony and funeral for the anti-corruption crusader.

The Baza Telegram channel, citing unnamed sources at the Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow, said on February 26 that its employees had started preparations for Navalny's burial overnight, adding that the preliminary date for a ceremony was set for February 29.

Baza also published a video it received from a subscriber showing that a parking place at the Borisovskoye cemetery was thoroughly cleared of snow the night before with a large number of police vehicles present. The video was not independently verified.

Several Telegram channels mentioned possible sites where Navalny could be buried, including the Borisovskoye, Khovanskoye, and Troyekurovskoye cemeteries. All are in Moscow.

Navalny's body was released to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, on February 24, more than a week after his suspicious death in an Arctic prison. No cause has been made public for the death of the 47-year-old.

Hundreds of Russians have been arrested as people continued to honor Navalny's memory at sites across the country.

Navalny's relatives, associates, and Western officials have blamed Putin for Navalny's death. Russian officials have said no foul play was involved and called the international outrage over Navalny's death while in prison "hysterical."

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a self-exiled leading Russian opposition figure, said in a recent interview with RFE/RL that a public funeral could trigger "large-scale confrontations" between Navalny supporters and law enforcement.

Navalny died while serving a 19-year prison term on charges including extremism that he, his supporters, Western officials, and rights watchdogs called politically motivated.

Lengthy Prison Sentences For Uzbek Child Deaths Blamed On Indian-Produced Medicine

Dozens of children died after using the Indian syrup.
Dozens of children died after using the Indian syrup.

TASHKENT -- The Tashkent City Court sentenced 23 people -- including an Indian national -- to prisons terms of up to 20 years after a cough syrup imported into Uzbekistan from India killed 68 children in 2022.

In reading out the court's verdict on February 26, the judge said Indian national Ragvendra Pradar, who is the director of the Quramax Medical company that imported the medicine, received 20 years, while the former chief of Uzbekistan’s state pharmacy development agency, Sardor Kariev, received an 18-year prison term and his two former deputies, Amirkhon Azimov and Nodirbek Musaev, were sentenced to 16 years in prison each.

Several other defendants were handed prison terms of up to 10 years in prison, while the remainder received parole-like sentences.

The charges against the defendants included tax evasion, the sale of substandard or counterfeit medicines, abuse of office, negligence, forgery, and bribery.

In December 2022, amid reports about the mass deaths of children blamed on Doc-1 Max syrup, which was produced by Marion Biotech and imported by Quramax, Uzbek authorities suspended the sale of all the company's products.

Uzbekistan's Health Ministry said at the time that Doc-1 Max syrup contained the extremely toxic substance ethylene glycol.

Criminal probes over the affair have been launched in both Uzbekistan and India.

The Indian regulator has canceled Marion Biotech's manufacturing license and arrested some of its employees.

A legal representative of Marion Biotech said at the time the company regretted the deaths.

The defendants in Tashkent went on trial in August last year.

Two months before the Uzbek outbreak, cough and cold syrups made by Indian firm Maiden Pharmaceuticals Ltd were blamed for the deaths of dozens of children in the West African country of Gambia.

A laboratory analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that Maiden Pharmaceuticals' syrups contained "unacceptable amounts of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol," chemicals often meant for industrial use.

Scholz Reiterates No Taurus Delivery To Avoid Ukraine War Involvement

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (file photo)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (file photo)

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has again ruled out delivering German Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine at this time, citing the risk of Germany becoming involved in the war. "It is a very far-reaching weapon. And what the British and French are doing in terms of target control and accompanying target control cannot be done in Germany," Scholz said on February 26 at an editorial conference organized in Berlin by the German news agency dpa. Taurus cruise missiles can hit targets up to 500 kilometers away with great precision. Ukraine wants to use them to cut off the Russian troops' supply lines.

Four Czechs Die In Avalanches In Kyrgyzstan

Avalanches in the mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan occur very often in late winter and spring.  (file photo)
Avalanches in the mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan occur very often in late winter and spring.  (file photo)

Avalanches in Kyrgyzstan's northern district of Ak-Suu killed four Czech citizens over the weekend, Stalbek Usubakunov, a spokesman for the Issyk-Kul regional police department, told RFE/RL on February 26. According to Usubakunov, 19 other Czechs survived the avalanches on February 25. The bodies of the deceased were recovered and brought to a morgue in the city of Karakol. Avalanches in the mountainous area of Kyrgyzstan occur very often in late winter and spring. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

China Introduces Visa-Free Visits For Georgian Citizens

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze

Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze said on February 26 that Georgian citizens can now visit China without visas for a period of up to 30 days. In September, Georgia canceled visas for Chinese nationals visiting the South Caucasus nation after the two countries announced a decision to upgrade their bilateral ties to a strategic partnership. Tbilisi's move to enhance ties with Beijing coincided with rising tensions with both the United States and the European Union over what was seen as the Georgian government's ambivalence towards Russia in the face of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Georgian Service, click here.

Taliban Holds Another Public Execution In Afghanistan

A Taliban fighter and onlookers witness the execution of three men in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province in 2015.
A Taliban fighter and onlookers witness the execution of three men in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province in 2015.

A spokesman for the Taliban government said a man was publicly executed on February 26 at a stadium in Shibirghan, in Afghanistan's northern Jawzjan Province, the fifth public execution since the radical group returned to power in August 2021. Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban's Supreme Court had sentenced the man to death for murder. The man was shot five times with a rifle by the victim's brother, according to an anonymous witness. Last week, two people were publicly executed for murder in the southern city of Ghazni. The UN and rights groups have criticized the practice, calling for its abolition. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Kazakh Activists Mark Second Anniversary Of Ukraine War With Rally In Almaty

People gathered at the monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Almaty as a sign of support for Ukraine on the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24.
People gathered at the monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in Almaty as a sign of support for Ukraine on the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Kazakh activists marked the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine with a rally over the weekend in the Central Asian nation's largest city, Almaty, to show support for Kyiv.

Around 100 activists gathered near a monument to prominent Ukrainian writer, poet, and thinker Taras Shevchenko carrying flowers, balloons, and posters in Ukrainian saying "Glory to Ukraine!" and "Peace to Ukraine, freedom to the world!"

The activists also sang Ukrainian songs, held Ukrainian national flags, and lit candles.

When some of those in attendance unfolded more national flags from Ukraine and Kazakhstan, police officers approached and warned that the gathering was not officially permitted by the city. However, they did not halt the event and no clashes were reported.

The Kazakh government under President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has been trying to maintain cooperation with Ukraine, its Western allies, and Russia since Moscow launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

While not openly condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Toqaev has publicly stated that his country would not recognize parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied by Moscow's forces as Russian territory.

Thousands of Russians have moved to Kazakhstan to avoid a so-called "partial mobilization," which Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in September 2022.

Meanwhile, Kazakh businesses last year set up so called "invincibility" yurts (traditional nomadic felt tents) in Kyiv and several other Ukrainian cities to provide local residents with food, tea, warmth, and the possibility of charging electronic devices.

Kazakhstan has preserved its economic ties with Russia, while the Kazakh-Russian border is over 7,000 kilometers long -- the world's second largest after the U.S.-Canadian border.

While many in Kazakhstan have openly supported Kyiv, the attitude among Kazakh citizens to the ongoing war in Ukraine varies.

Around 3.5 million of some 20 million Kazakh citizens are ethnic Russians and about 250,000 are ethnic Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, more than 1 million Russian citizens residing mostly in Russian regions adjacent to Kazakhstan, are ethnic Kazakhs, some of whom were mobilized to the war in Ukraine and died there.

Prosecutor Seeks Almost Three Years For Veteran Russian Rights Defender

Russian rights activist Oleg Orlov (file photo)
Russian rights activist Oleg Orlov (file photo)

A prosecutor in the high-profile retrial of veteran Russian rights defender Oleg Orlov has asked the Golovinsky district court in Moscow to sentence the co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Memorial human rights center to two years and 11 months on a charge of "repeatedly discrediting" Russian armed forces involved in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Orlov's lawyer, Katerina Tertukhina, said on February 26 that her client is not guilty, while Orlov refused to take part in closing arguments, stressing that he will issue his final statement before the court hands down its decision.

Fifteen diplomats from Western nations attended the hearing, while the courtroom overflowed as scores of activists came to show support for the 70-year-old.

Orlov, whose retrial started on February 16, came to the courtroom holding a copy of the Franz Kafka novel The Trial about a man arrested and tried by a remote court on charges unknown to the defendant.

In October last year, the court fined Orlov 150,000 rubles ($1,590) on a charge that stemmed from several single-person pickets he held condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine, along with an article he wrote criticizing the Russian government for sending troops to Ukraine that was published in the French magazine Mediapart.

In mid-December, the Moscow City Court canceled that ruling and sent Orlov's case back to prosecutors, who had appealed the decision, saying the sentence was too mild.

Earlier this month, Russian authorities added Orlov to the "foreign agents" registry, and investigators updated the charge against the rights defender, saying that his alleged misdeeds were motivated by "ideological enmity against traditional Russian spiritual, moral, and patriotic values."

Memorial has noted that the case was reinvestigated hastily, while Orlov said he thinks the investigators received an order to move quickly with the case to allow for the retrial.

"Despite that rush, we are ready to prove our innocence and our position with reference to the rule of the constitution," Orlov said earlier.

Orlov gained prominence as one of Russia's leading human rights activists after he co-founded the Memorial human rights center following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2004-2006, Orlov was a member of the Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights Institutions.

For his contribution to human rights in Russia, in 2009, Orlov was awarded with the Sakharov Prize, an international honorary award for individuals or groups who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

Memorial was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 for its longtime "fight for human rights and democracy."

With reporting by Mediazona

Kremlin Dismisses Suggestion Of Peace Talks Without Russia As Western Leaders Discuss Ukraine In Paris

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)

Russia has rejected an idea advanced by Switzerland about possible talks in Geneva on a peace plan for Ukraine without Moscow's participation as "ridiculous."

The news came as outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian forces withdrew from a second location in the east of the country.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy voiced hopes on February 25 that a summit of world leaders will be held in Switzerland in the coming months to discuss his vision for peace after Swiss President Viola Amherd had said the previous day her neutral country was ready to host a senior-level peace conference.

"I hope it [a summit] will take place this spring. We must not lose this diplomatic initiative," Zelenskiy said, adding that he expected the resulting peace initiative to be presented to Moscow.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on February 26 called the idea "bizarre."

"As far as we understand, the issue on the agenda is some bizarre so-called Geneva platform -- a conference to discuss Zelenskiy's peace plan.

"We have repeatedly said that at least this is a strange arrangement, because some peace plans are being discussed without Russia's participation, which in itself is not serious and even ridiculous," Peskov said at his weekly news conference.

Meanwhile, some 20 Western leaders and senior officials are gathering in Paris on February 26 to reinforce Europe's determination to back Ukraine as the war entered its third year.

"We want to send [Russian President Vladimir] Putin a very clear message, that he won't win in Ukraine," an adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters about the hastily arranged meeting.

"Our goal is to crush this idea he wants us to believe that he would be somehow winning," the adviser said.

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, confirmed that they had retreated from Lastochkyne, a village some 5 kilometers northwest of Avdiyivka, which fell to Russian troops last week after a fierce monthslong battle.

"This is an orderly and competent retreat," military spokesman Serhiy Tsekhotskiy told RFE/RL. "No need to panic. The most important thing is to save the lives of Ukrainian personnel."

Exhausted Ukrainian forces have been suffering from mounting shortages of heavy weapons and ammunition as desperately needed U.S. military help remains stuck in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which refuses to pass a bill that includes $61 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Separately, at least two people were killed in a Russian air strike in northeastern Sumy region on February 26 as Russia unleashed a fresh wave of drone and missile strikes on Ukraine, regional officials and the military said.

"A private residential building was destroyed, five others were damaged" in the strike on the village of Yunakyiv. "A couple was killed in the strike," Sumy regional authorities said in a message on Telegram.

Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. Three Russian cruise missiles were also destroyed, it added.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Polio Inoculation Campaign Kicks Off In 21 Afghan Provinces

Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination drops to a child during an inoculation campaign in Jalalabad. (file photo)
Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination drops to a child during an inoculation campaign in Jalalabad. (file photo)

An extensive polio vaccination campaign started on February 26 in 21 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the country's Health Ministry said. The Taliban-controlled ministry's spokesman, Sharaf Zaman, said the four-day-long campaign aims to inoculate 7.6 million children under the age of five. Zaman asked local religious leaders to cooperate with the inoculation teams. Some parents in the northwest refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated against polio, an infectious disease that can cause paralysis and lead to death. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world where polio has not been completely eradicated. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Updated

Denmark Ends Probe Into Nord Stream Blasts, Blames 'Deliberate Sabotage'

Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, which all but destroyed the pipelines. (file photo)
Western officials initially blamed Russia for the blasts, which all but destroyed the pipelines. (file photo)

Denmark on February 26 announced that it had ended an investigation into the explosions that partially destroyed the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in 2022 and that Western countries initially blamed on Moscow.

"The assessment is that there is no necessary basis to further pursue a criminal case," Danish police said in a statement. However, it added that "based on the investigation, the authorities can conclude that there was deliberate sabotage of the gas lines."

The announcement follows a decision by Swedish prosecutors earlier this month to drop their probe, saying they had no jurisdiction to continue the investigation into the underwater blasts that damaged the pipelines, which were built to bring Russian natural gas directly into Germany and supply the rest of Europe.

While Western countries pointed the finger at Russia, Moscow denied any involvement and blamed the United States, Britain, and Ukraine for the blasts. Those countries have denied involvement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on February 26 said the situation regarding the investigations was "close to absurd."

"On the one hand, there is recognition of deliberate sabotage, on the other hand, there is no further progress," Peskov said, adding that Denmark had refused requests to provide information about its investigation. Moscow had previously complained that its investigators were not allowed to participate in the probe.

Neither of the pipelines is currently in operation amid a standoff between Moscow and Brussels over Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The blasts occurred on September 26, 2022, on the Baltic seabed east of the Danish island of Bornholm and were seen as an attack on European energy infrastructure seven months after Russia launched its invasion.

The source of the explosions, which were discovered when residual methane gas bubbled up to the surface, has been an international mystery, but evidence uncovered last year by European news organization pointed to
the possible involvement of Ukrainian operatives.

German investigators last year searched a motor yacht that had been docked in Bornholm just before the blasts and reportedly found traces of explosives on the ship, called the Andromeda.

In May 2023, German police raided an apartment in the eastern city of Frankfurt an der Oder, investigating a woman whose former boyfriend was a Ukrainian soldier.

According to reports by Die Zeit and The Wall Street Journal, the soldier was among the crew members on the Andromeda prior to the blasts.

Asked about the state of the investigation earlier this month, a German police spokesman told RFE/RL: "I can inform you that our investigations are ongoing. No further information will be shared at this point.”

The German federal prosecutor’s office repeated that statement on February 26, according to the AP.

The Ukrainian government has repeatedly denied responsibility for the attack.

Nord Stream is majority-owned by Russia's Gazprom and its pipelines were built by Russia to bring its gas directly to Europe via Germany, bypassing Ukraine, Poland, and other countries that had hostile ties with Moscow.

While the first pipeline was operational at the time of the blasts, the second had not received final approval from German regulators.

The United States had warned for years that the pipelines were a security risk for Germany and other European states, making the countries beholden to Russian energy exports.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Two Killed In Russian Air Strike On Ukraine's Sumy Region

Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. (file photo)
Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. (file photo)

Two people were killed in a Russian air strike in the northeastern Sumy region on February 26 as Russia unleashed a fresh wave of drone and missile strikes on Ukraine, regional officials and the military said. "A private residential building was destroyed, five others were damaged" in the strike on the village of Yunakyiv. "A couple was killed in the strike," Sumy regional authorities said in a message on Telegram. Ukrainian air defenses shot down nine out of the 14 drones launched by Russia early on February 26, the military said. Three Russian cruise missiles were also destroyed, it added. To read the original stories by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here and here.

Updated

Belarusian Parliamentary Elections Seen As Dress Rehearsal For Presidential Poll

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka casts his ballot during a heavily criticized parliamentary vote on February 25.
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka casts his ballot during a heavily criticized parliamentary vote on February 25.

Parliamentary elections in Belarus are being viewed as a dress rehearsal for the presidential election that is scheduled to take place next year in which the country's authoritarian leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is expected to be the only viable candidate.

Lukashenka's pledge to run again -- repeated on February 25 after he cast his ballot -- was not seen as an off-the-cuff comment.

"Tell them (the opposition) I'll [run]," Lukashenka said in response to a question about the 2025 presidential election, according to BelTA, adding that there could be pressure from the opposition to hold elections sooner, but voters should not worry because the elections will be carried out "the way it is necessary for Belarus."

The expectation is that there will be no real opposition candidates in the race, and if there is an alternative to Lukashenka, it will be only a nominal one. Lukashenka has been in power since 1994, and under his rule, Belarus has become an increasingly repressive state, being called by some Western diplomats "Europe's last dictatorship."

Election authorities in Belarus said earlier that all 110 mandates of the lower parliament chamber had been occupied following the tightly controlled parliamentary elections held on February 25, which were held under heavy securityamid calls for a boycott by the country's beleaguered opposition.

The Central Election Commission said that voter turnout was nearly 74 percent amid reports of people being intimidated into going to polling stations against their will.

The vote was criticized by the U.S. State Department, which called it a "sham" election held amid a "climate of fear."

Only four parties, all of which support Lukashenka's policies, were officially registered to compete in the polls -- Belaya Rus, the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Party of Labor and Justice. About a dozen parties were denied registration last year.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has claimed her victory over Lukashenka in the 2020 presidential election was stolen, described the elections as a "farce" and called for a boycott, saying the regime had only allowed "puppets" onto the ballot.

Tsikhanouskaya on February 26 took part in a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, reminding the council that the situation in Belarus remains serious and that thousands of political prisoners suffer in prisons in inhumane conditions.

The international community's response to the crisis in Belarus and similar repressive regimes should be decisive and unwavering, she said, and any actions taken against these regimes should have a real impact on the ground.

The general elections were the first to be held in Belarus since the 2020 presidential election, which handed Lukashenka a sixth term in office. More than 35,000 people were arrested in the monthslong mass protests that followed the controversial election.

Ahead of the voting in parliamentary and local council elections, the country's Central Election Commission announced a record amount of early voting, which began on February 20. Nearly 48 percent of registered voters had already voted by February 24, according to the commission, eclipsing the nearly 42 percent of early voting recorded for the contentious 2020 presidential election.

Early voting is widely seen by observers as a mechanism employed by the Belarusian authorities to falsify elections. The Belarusian opposition has said the early voting process allows for voting manipulation, with ballot boxes unprotected for a five-day period.

The Vyasna Human Rights Center alleged that many voters were forced to participate in early voting, including students, soldiers, teachers, and other civil servants.

“Authorities are using all available means to ensure the result they need -- from airing TV propaganda to forcing voters to cast ballots early,” said Vyasna representative Paval Sapelka. “Detentions, arrests and searches are taking place during the vote.”

The Belarusian authorities stepped up security on the streets and at polling stations around the country, with Interior Ministry police conducting drills on how to deal with voters who might try to violate restrictive rules imposed for the elections.

For the first time, curtains were removed from voting booths, and voters were barred from taking pictures of their ballots -- a practice encouraged by activists in previous elections in an effort to prevent authorities from manipulating vote counts.

Polling stations were guarded by police, along with members of a youth law enforcement organization and retired security personnel. Armed rapid-response teams were also formed to deal with potential disturbances.

Lukashenka this week alleged without offering proof that Western countries were considering ways to stage a coup and ordered police to boost armed patrols across the country in order to ensure "law and order."

For the first time, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were denied access to monitor the vote in OSCE-member Belarus.

Updated

Karakalpak Activist Awaiting Extradition To Uzbekistan Gets Asylum Seeker Status In Kazakhstan

Aqylbek Muratov (aka Muratbai)
Aqylbek Muratov (aka Muratbai)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Karakalpak activist Aqylbek Muratov (aka Muratbai), who was arrested in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty, at Uzbekistan's request earlier in February has been given asylum seeker status in Kazakhstan.

A relative of Muratov, Fariza Narbekova, told RFE/RL on February 26 that Kazakh officials had given him an asylum seeker's certificate three days earlier.

A court in Almaty had previously ruled that Muratov must stay in detention for at least 40 days while a court decision on his possible extradition to Uzbekistan was pending.

Muratov, an Uzbek citizen who has legally resided in Almaty for ten years, is known for his activities defending the rights of Karakalpaks living in Kazakhstan. He also raised awareness among international audiences about the situation in his native Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, which is in Uzbekistan.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement on February 25 saying "the criminal case brought against Muratbai in Uzbekistan is a clear-cut case of retaliation against an outspoken human rights activist." HRW demanded his immediate release.

A lawyer for the Almaty-based Kazakh Bureau for Human Rights group, Denis Dzhivaga, told RFE/RL earlier that his organization would provide Muratov with legal assistance.

According to Dzhivaga, Muratov's detention was similar to the arrests of other Karakalpak activists that took place in Kazakhstan following mass rallies in Karakalpakstan's capital, Nukus, in July 2022. Thousands protested against Tashkent's plans to change the constitution, which would have undermined the republic's right to self-determination.

The protests were violently dispersed. Uzbek authorities said at the time that 21 people died during the protests, but the Austria-based Freedom for Eurasia human rights group said at least 70 people were killed during the unrest.

In January last year, an Uzbek court sentenced 22 Karakalpak activists to prison terms on charges that included undermining the constitutional order for taking part in the protests.

In March 2023, another 39 Karakalpak activists accused of taking part in the protests in Nukus were convicted, with 28 of them sentenced to prison terms of between five and 11 years. Eleven defendants were handed parole-like sentences.

The violence forced Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.

Karakalpaks are a Central Asian Turkic-speaking people. Their region used to be an autonomous area within Kazakhstan before becoming autonomous within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1930 and then part of Uzbekistan in 1936.

Updated

Hungary Becomes Last Member To Approve Sweden's NATO Accession

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Budapest on February 23.

Hungary's parliament on February 26 approved a bill to allow Sweden to join NATO, clearing the way for the Nordic country to join the Western defense alliance as war rages in Ukraine.

Hungary was the last member of the alliance to ratify Sweden's membership after months of foot-dragging on the matter by the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Lawmakers voted 188-6 in favor of the move, ending more than a year of delays by Budapest that had angered NATO allies.

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said it was a "historic day" and Sweden stands "ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security."

Kristersson also predicted Russia's reaction would be negative.

"The only thing we can expect with any certainty is that they don't like Sweden becoming a member of NATO, nor Finland," he said at a news conference.

Sweden and Finland ended their long-standing stance of nonalignment and applied to join NATO shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.

While Finland became the 31st member of NATO in April last year, Sweden's bid to become the 32nd member had been held up by Turkey and Hungary. Turkey only ratified it last month.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Sweden will make the alliance "stronger and safer," and the United States said the vote was a welcome move.

"We certainly do welcome the vote in the Hungarian parliament today and look forward to it being finalized," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

Orban had asked lawmakers to approve Sweden's bid.

"The Swedish-Hungarian cooperation in the military industry and Sweden's accession to NATO will strengthen Hungary's security. Therefore, I am asking my fellow lawmakers to vote today for the parliamentary resolution on Sweden's accession to NATO," Orban told parliament earlier on February 26.

Orban is expected to sign the bill on Sweden's entry into NATO in the coming days.

The parliamentary session on February 26 also took up the nomination of Tamas Sulyok to be the next president following the resignation earlier this month of Katalin Novak.

Deputy speaker Sandor Lezsak announced that the parliament elected Sulyok, head of the Constitutional Court, as president in a secret ballot. Sulyok, who is to be inaugurated on March 5, was then sworn in as president-elect.

Novak, a longtime ally of Orban, resigned on February 10 after coming under pressure for pardoning a man convicted of helping to cover up sexual abuse in a children's home. The scandal triggered a huge street protest in early February.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Ukraine Can Win War With Russia But Needs Support From West, Says U.S. National-Security Adviser

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said that "Ukraine still has the potential if we give it the tools and resources it needs to win this war." 
U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said that "Ukraine still has the potential if we give it the tools and resources it needs to win this war." 

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said Ukraine can still win its war with Russia but that it must get “the tools it needs” from its Western allies. Sullivan on February 25 said Kyiv’s forces lost the recent battle for Avdiyivka due to a lack of ammunition. He said that is why Kyiv needs the $60 billion aid package that received "a massive bipartisan vote in the Senate. The House of Representatives should step forward and pass it." He added that "Ukraine still has the potential if we give it the tools and resources it needs to win this war." To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.


Deputy Prime Minister Says 160 Tons Of Ukrainian Grain Destroyed In Poland

Police officers, customs officers, and railway workers stand next to piles of corn spilled from train cars in the Polish village of Kotomierz, near the Ukrainian border, on February 25.
Police officers, customs officers, and railway workers stand next to piles of corn spilled from train cars in the Polish village of Kotomierz, near the Ukrainian border, on February 25.

Around 160 tons of Ukrainian grain was destroyed at a Polish railway station amid large-scale protests in what Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov on February 25 called an act of "impunity and irresponsibility." Polish farmers protesting this month against what they say is unfair competition from Ukraine and EU environment regulations have blocked border crossings with Ukraine and spilled Ukrainian produce from train wagons. EU agriculture ministers are due to meet in Brussels on February 26 to discuss proposals aimed at changing some regulations at the heart of recent discontent.

Taliban Releases 84-Year-Old Austrian Man Detained In Afghanistan Last Year

Austrian Herbert Fritz had been held in a Kabul prison since being arrested last year. (file photo)
Austrian Herbert Fritz had been held in a Kabul prison since being arrested last year. (file photo)

An Austrian man, 84, who had been arrested in Afghanistan has been released by the Taliban, the Austrian government said on February 25. The Austrian Foreign Ministry said Herbert Fritz arrived in Doha, Qatar, from Afghanistan. A spokeswoman said the man had been held in a Kabul prison. An Austrian newspaper last year reported that an Austrian man had been arrested in Afghanistan and that he was a far-right extremist and co-founder of a minor far-right party that was banned in 1988. It said he was arrested after a far-right magazine published an article he wrote titled Vacation With The Taliban in which he gave a positive view of life under Taliban rule.

Updated

Zelenskiy Says 31,000 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed In War, Expresses Hopes For Swiss Peace Summit

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the February 25 news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the February 25 news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.

KYIV -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on February 25 said that 31,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed since the start of Russia’s invasion two years ago -- his first official acknowledgement of the country’s combat losses -- while expressing hopes that a summit of world leaders will be held in Switzerland in the coming months to discuss his vision for peace.

"Thirty-one thousand Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in this war," Zelenskiy told a news conference in the Ukrainian capital marking the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, which began on February 24, 2022.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL's Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia's full-scale invasion, Kyiv's counteroffensive, Western military aid, global reaction, and the plight of civilians. For all of RFE/RL's coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here.

“Not 300,000, not 150,000, not whatever [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his deceitful circle have been lying about. But nevertheless, each of these losses is a great sacrifice for us," he said.

Zelenskiy said he would not discuss the number of wounded, citing security reasons.

The number appears to be the first official detailing of the death toll for Ukrainian soldiers, although the figure cannot be independently verified. The last time Kyiv spoke of the number of combat losses was at the end of 2022, when presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said 10,000 to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed.

The New York Times in August 2023, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed and 100,000 to 120,000 had been wounded by that date. The report also said Russia had suffered 120,000 troops killed and 170,000 to 180,000 injured.

Zelenskiy claimed Russia has lost 180,000 soldiers killed and 500,000 wounded in the war, figures much higher than other estimates but impossible to confirm. Russia does not disclose its war losses.

On February 24, Swiss President Viola Amherd said neutral Switzerland hopes to host a senior-level peace conference in the next few months.

"I hope it [a summit] will take place this spring. We must not lose this diplomatic initiative," Zelenskiy said.

He added that he expected the resulting peace initiative to be presented to Moscow.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine's victory in the war depends on continued Western support, which has faced resistance mainly from Republican Party lawmakers in the United States.

Zelenskiy Says 31,000 Ukrainian Soldiers Killed Since Start Of Russia's Full-Scale Invasion
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He told the news conference that he is "sure" a crucially needed aid package will eventually be approved in the U.S. Congress.

"Whether Ukraine will lose, whether it will be very difficult for us, and whether there will be a large number of casualties depends on you, on our partners, on the Western world," Zelenskiy said.

He said that "there is hope for Congress. And I am sure that it is going to be positive. Otherwise, I couldn't conceive of the world we would begin to live in."

Zelenskiy urged his citizens to remain unified despite the hardships caused by the Russian invasion.

"Now is the most difficult moment for our unity. If we all fall apart, from the outside and God forbid inside, then this will be the weakest moment. It has not happened yet," he said.

Zelenskiy has faced pressures from within the country, as well as from foreign sources, for the perceived lack of progress by Ukraine’s forces in recent months.

He insisted there is a "clear path" forward for a new offensive but said he would not publicly discuss the matter, claiming the Kremlin was able to get details of Ukraine's previous counteroffensive plan before it began.

"Our counteroffensive action plans were on the Kremlin's table before the counteroffensive actions began...because of information leaks," he said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and The New York Times

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