Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan Criticized For Suppressing Democracy
This is the conclusion reached by Freedom House in its annual "Nations in Transit" report, which examines democratic transition in the former communist world.
The study blames energy-rich states for hampering the development of democracy in the region. It singles out Russia, which it brands "the leading antidemocratic force" in the post-Soviet region.
Freedom House says Russia's ruling elite further tightened its grip on the political scene, the electoral process, and the media thanks to an "iron triangle" of official state power, industry, and security services.
Thanks to the influence of state institutions and state-owned companies, the report says, Vladimir Putin was able to preserve the status quo by handing the presidential baton this year to his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
But while Putin himself retains huge political influence as prime minister, the report casts doubts on how the nascent "Russian experiment in authoritarian capitalism" will fare without Putin at its helm -- without a solid institutional basis for development, the system has reached a "point of fragile stability."
These domestic changes are gradually shaping Russia's foreign policy, with the emergence of what the study calls a "more assertive and belligerent" stance toward its neighbors.
Freedom House says the Kremlin has consistently undermined the efforts of aspiring democracies such as Georgia -- through support of its separatist regions and economic embargoes -- and allowed an unprecedented cyberattack on its neighbor and new EU member Estonia.
Other countries in the region are emulating Russia's increasingly authoritarian political model.
The report points the finger at Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, two other countries whose vast energy resources have fuelled economic growth. According to Freedom House, in the past decade Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have witnessed a sharp decline in civil society, electoral process, and media and judicial independence.
Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, tells RFE/RL that Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, as well as Russia, have been moving away from democracy in recent years.
"In some of the critical areas of institutional accountability and transparency, the three leading energy-rich countries of the region show a pronounced downward trajectory in our evaluation of them," Walker says.
But energy resources are a factor rather than a cause. The report says these countries' energy riches have acted as "authoritarian propellant" that enabled elites to consolidate their rule at the expense of independent voices.
It also warns of a deepening geopolitical rift between democracies that consume hydrocarbons and states that produce them, as Western nations have yet to develop a common strategy on how to deal with their increasingly authoritarian energy suppliers.
The problem is compounded by the fact that what the report calls "democratically unaccountable countries" are forming alliances and networks outside the Western community, and assaulting international rules-based institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Authoritarian governments within the OSCE last year succeeded in handing the organization's rotating presidency to Kazakhstan, which will become the first nondemocratic state to assume the post when it takes over as OSCE chairman in 2010.
Kazakhstan's nomination came as President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who has been in power for 17 years, pushed through constitutional amendments that removed the president's two-term limit before calling elections two years ahead of schedule. Nazarbaev's party captured all seats in the country's legislature in the August 2007 vote.
Walker says the apparent link between energy and authoritarianism in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan is striking. "The downward turn is so comprehensive, this was something that really jumped out from the data and led us to believe that there is something to this idea that resource-based pathologies are emerging in these settings."
Freedom House also notes worrying "reform fatigue" in young democracies. Independent anticorruption groups, for instance, have come under attack in new EU states like Slovenia, Romania, and Latvia.
The report says Georgia's reform ambitions, too, came "under extreme duress" when thousands of protesters took to the streets in late 2007 to oppose President Mikheil Saakashvili -- the largest street protest since the Rose Revolution that swept him to power in 2003.
In response, the Georgian government violently dispersed the protesters, temporarily shut down an opposition television channel, and declared a state of emergency that restricted public gatherings and limited news broadcasts to state-controlled television.
"In Georgia last year we saw extraordinary stress put on the political system," Walker says. "And this was, I think, highlighted by the state of emergency that was called in November of last year. And this led to really one of the biggest challenges to a democratic aspirant in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union."
Walker says Georgia once was a country that seemed likely to become a liberal democracy. Now, he says, the country's future isn't so clear.
Freedom House however adds that the country's opposition has yet to "disprove the norm in the former Soviet Union" by offering a mature alternative to the current government.
Iranians Use Sadeh Festival To Protest Against Lack Of Freedoms
Iranian protesters have staged fresh anti-government demonstrations by taking to the streets during the Sadeh festival, a traditional ancient celebration in which fire is used to defeat the forces of darkness and cold.
Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood celebrated the Sadeh festival by lighting huge fires, saying they showed the depth of their anger toward the government's intrusion on their freedoms and chanted “death to the dictator,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Similar scenes were repeated in the Iranian cities of Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Kerman, and Mashhad.
Sadeh in Persian means "hundred" and refers to the 100 days and nights remaining until the beginning of spring.
The festival, which took on an extra meaning this year after several months of unrest that threatens to tear the country apart as protesters fight for women's and human rights.
The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for "improperly" wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.
Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have met the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.
Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.
The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Azerbaijan Asks International Court Of Justice To Order Armenia To Help Demining Effort
Azerbaijan has asked judges at the International Court Of Justice (ICJ) to order Armenia to help demine areas it previously controlled and stop planting explosive devices which prevent Azerbaijani nationals from returning to their former homes. Azerbaijan asked the court, as part of an ongoing larger case, to issue an emergency ruling ordering Armenia to give the locations of the devices to allow for safe demining and stop putting in new mines. Armenia's representative at the ICJ denied that his country had laid landmines outside its sovereign territories, "let alone in civilian areas." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Russian Olympic Chief Says Athletes Must Compete Without Restrictions
The head of Russia's Olympic Committee says athletes representing Russia must not be subjected to different conditions from those of other countries amid a growing row over their participation in the 2024 Paris Olympics. "Russians must participate exactly on the same conditions as all other athletes. Any additional conditions or criteria are unwelcome, especially any that have political overtones, which are completely unacceptable for the Olympic movement," Stanislav Pozdnyakov said on January 31, according to Russian news agencies. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said last week that it was examining a "pathway" for Russians to take part in the Paris Olympics next year, probably as neutral athletes rather than under their national flag. To read the original story by AFP, click here.
Prosecutor Seeks Nine Years For Putin Critic In Trial Held In Absentia
The prosecutor at a high-profile trial in absentia of one of Russia's best-known TV journalists, Aleksandr Nevzorov, has asked a court in Moscow to sentence the outspoken Kremlin critic to nine years in prison on a charge of discrediting the armed forces involved in the ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The prosecutor also asked the Basmanny district court on January 31 to bar Nevzorov from posting anything on the Internet for four years.
The Investigative Committee launched a probe into Nevzorov in March last year over statements he made on Instagram and YouTube that criticized the armed forces for a deadly assault on a nursing home in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and the alleged torturing and killing of civilians in the town of Bucha.
In May, a court in Moscow ordered that Nevzorov be detained for two months should he return to Russia.
Nevzorov's property in the northwestern Leningrad region was impounded in what the Basmanny district court said was a move to secure compensation for any possible fines Nevzorov will be ordered to pay if convicted.
Nevzorov is currently on a tour across Canada with lectures about Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine. He permanently resides in one of the European Union member-states.
In June last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a decree granting Ukrainian citizenship to Nevzorov and his wife Lidia "for transcendent services" to Ukraine.
In the days after launching his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation that calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.
The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian military that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.
It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.
Nevzorov, who continues to sharply criticize Putin and his government over the Moscow-launched war in Ukraine on his YouTube channel, has rejected the charges saying he has a right to express his own opinion.
Russia issues Decree To Check Cars For Weapons In Regions With 'Terrorist Risk'
Russia will begin checks for weapons and explosives in cars in regions considered to have a high terrorist threat level, according to a presidential decree published on January 31. The decree says "inspections of vehicles using technical means for detecting weapons and explosives" will begin in regions where "a level of terrorist threat has been confirmed." Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has been at a "yellow" level terrorist threat, which corresponds to confirmed information about a planned terrorist act, in a number of regions that border or are near Ukraine. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Court Rejects Belarusian Oppositionists Appeal Against Their Imprisonment
MINSK -- The Minsk City Court has rejected appeals filed by the leader of the Belarusian opposition United Civic Party (AHP) Mikalay Kazlou and his two associates against their imprisonment for participating in a march protesting the official results of a disputed August 2020 presidential election.
The court ruled on January 31 that the sentences of Kazlou, the leader of the AHP's branch in Minsk, Aksana Alyakseyeva, and human rights defender Antanina Kavalyova remain unchanged as they were properly adjudicated by the Pershamayski district court of Minsk in November.
Kazlou was handed 30 months in prison, Alyakseyeva, received 18 months in prison, and Kavalyova was sentenced to one year in prison after Judge Anastasia Kulik found them guilty of taking part in actions that disrupted civil order.
The trio was arrested in late July. Kazlou pleaded not guilty, Kavalyova pleaded partially guilty, and Alyakseyeva pleaded guilty.
On October 31, another court in Minsk sentenced three other AHP members -- Andrus Asmalouski, Dziyana Charnushina, and Artur Smalyakou -- to prison terms of between two and three years on the same charges.
The crimes in both cases stem from a rally on August 23, 2020, that was attended by at least 100,000 people who challenged the results of the presidential poll and a brutal police crackdown that started shortly after Lukashenka was declared the winner. The opposition says the election was rigged.
Security forces used deadly force as they violently detained tens of thousands of people.
Many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been jailed or forced into exile since the August 2020 presidential election. Several protesters have been killed and there have also been credible reports of torture during a widening security crackdown.
Belarusian authorities have also clamped down on civil society, shutting down several nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the police crackdown ordered by officials.
AHP is one of the oldest opposition political parties in Belarus and has been in operation since 1995.
Iranian Restaurant Shut Down After Woman Sings At Opening
Iranian authorities have shut down a restaurant in the city of Mahshahr after a female singer performed there, signaling a crackdown on events the authorities deem contrary to Islamic values continues.
The latest incident was sparked by a video published on social media showing a female singer performing at the opening ceremony of a new restaurant in Mahshahr, in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.
After the video went viral and was praised by Iranian social-media users, Farshad Kazemi, the police chief in Mahshahr, announced the restaurant had been sealed shut because of the performance.
Kazemi also added that a legal case had been filed against the owner.
Female singers are not allowed to perform in Iran, and musical concerts face many obstacles since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In recent weeks, numerous reports have been published about the sealing of businesses, restaurants, cafes, and in some cases even pharmacies, for not observing Islamic laws and mandatory hijab rules.
The wave of business closings comes amid the monthslong public anger that erupted after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in September while in custody after being detained by morality police in Tehran for "improperly" wearing a head scarf.
Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Georgia's Saakashvili Being Transferred To Intensive Care In Hospital, Associates Say
TBILISI -- Jailed former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is being treated in a private clinic in Tbilisi for health problems, is being transferred to an intensive-care unit, his associates say, a claim the hospital's personnel are denying.
Saakashvili's lawyer, Shalva Khachapuridze, along with opposition politician Giorgi Chaladze, said on January 31 that Saakashvili's state of health had worsened further, prompting his move to an intensive-care unit of the Vivamedi hospital.
However, hospital director Nino Nadiradze told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that the former leader remained in his hospital room and had not been moved.
Saakashvili's mother, Giuli Alasania, said earlier in the day that her son, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 several days ago, "again fell unconscious" overnight and that his body temperature had risen to 39 degrees Celsius.
Medical personnel have yet to confirm her statement.
On January 28, Vivamedi's chief physician, Zurab Chkhaidze, told journalists that Saakashvili had dramatically reduced his food consumption and was rejecting medical treatment.
Chkhaidze then called on Saakashvili's relatives to convince him to obey the doctors' recommendations.
The imprisoned ex-president has been treated at the Vivamedi facility since May 2022. Doctors said earlier this month that Saakashvili contracted a mild form of COVID and therefore did not need treatment in intensive care.
Saakashvili, who was president from 2004 to 2013, is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power, a charge that he and his supporters say was politically motivated.
His medical team says his health has worsened significantly since he went to prison in October 2021 and staged repeated hunger strikes to protest his incarceration.
His lawyers have sought to have his sentence suspended so he can be transferred abroad for more intensive care.
In early December, Saakashvili's legal team distributed a medical report that said he had been "poisoned" with heavy metals while in custody and risked dying without proper treatment.
But Georgian officials have raised doubts about how critical his health situation is.
Saakashvili is currently on trial on separate charges of violently dispersing an anti-government rally in November 2007 and illegal border crossing. He has rejected those charges as well, calling them trumped-up.
Britain Says It's Not Practical To Send Ukraine Fighter Jets
Britain does not believe it is practical to send its fighter jets to Ukraine, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on January 31, after Kyiv indicated it would push for such Western planes. "The U.K.'s...fighter jets are extremely sophisticated and take months to learn how to fly. Given that, we believe it is not practical to send those jets into Ukraine," the spokesperson told reporters. "We will continue to discuss with our allies about what we think what is the right approach." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Lithuanian President Urges West To 'Cross Red Lines,' Consider Sending Fighter Jets To Ukraine
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda has urged the West to keep all options open to requests from Ukraine for weaponry, including fighter jets. Nauseda said in an interview with Lithuanian television on January 31 that fighter aircraft and long-range missiles were "essential military aid" and "at this crucial stage in the war, where the turning point is about to happen." "These red lines must be crossed," he added. The United States and Germany have so far ruled out such demands from Kyiv, though France says it is not against it in principle.
Russian Businessman Klyushin Goes On Trial In U.S. On Insider-Trading Charges
Kremlin-linked Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin, who was extradited from Switzerland to the United States in December 2021, has gone on trial in Boston on charges of involvement in a global scheme to trade shares based on confidential information from hackers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Frank said as the trial started on January 30 that the 42-year-old businessman, along with his associates, had made about $90 million trading stocks based on information stolen by hackers concerning hundreds of publicly traded companies.
Klyushin was charged with conspiring to obtain unauthorized access to computers and to commit wire fraud and securities fraud.
He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
"The defendant had tomorrow's news, tomorrow's headlines, today," Frank said in his opening statement. "And he exploited it for tens of millions of dollars in profits."
Klyushin's lawyer, Maksim Nemtsev, rejected Frank's opening statement, saying there was "zero evidence" to back up the accusations.
Klyushin owns M-13, a Russian company that offers media monitoring and cybersecurity services. According to Russian opposition media, he is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin's first deputy chief of staff, Aleksei Gromov.
The judge in the case, however, has barred any references to Putin during the trial.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said two of Klyushin's co-defendants -- Ivan Yermakov and Nikolai Rumyantsev -- had been charged with "conspiring to obtain unauthorized access to computers, and to commit wire fraud and securities fraud and with obtaining unauthorized access to computers, wire fraud and securities fraud."
In 2018, U.S. courts charged Yermakov, a former officer in Russia's GRU military intelligence, for his alleged role in hacking and disinformation operations related to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and for similar activity targeting international anti-doping agencies, sporting federations, and anti-doping officials, it said.
The two other suspects, Mikhail Irzak and Igor Sladkov, have been charged with "conspiracy to obtain unauthorized access to computers, and to commit wire fraud and securities fraud, and with securities fraud."
Only Klyushin has been taken into custody in the case. The other four suspects remain at large.
With reporting by Boston Globe and Reuters
Russian Gets 12 Years For Throwing Molotov Cocktails At Conscription Center
A court in the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg has sentenced a man to 12 years in prison for throwing Molotov cocktails at a military conscription center in the Siberian autonomous district of Khanty-Mansi. The Central Military District Court identified the man as Vladislav Borisenko. It is the first time an arson attack against a military conscription center was classified as a terrorist act. There have been dozens of such attacks since Russia launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.
NATO, Japan Pledge To Strengthen Ties In Face Of 'Historic' Security Threat
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have pledged to strengthen ties, saying Russia's invasion of Ukraine and its growing military cooperation with China had created the most tense security environment since World War II. The comments came in a statement issued during Stoltenberg's trip to Japan following a visit to South Korea on which he urged Seoul to increase military support to Ukraine and gave similar warnings. "The world is at a historical inflection point in the most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II," the two leaders said in the statement. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Uzbek Journalists, Other Karakalpak Activists Given Prison Sentences For Protests
BUKHARA, Uzbekistan -- A court in the southwestern Uzbek city of Bukhara has handed sentences to 22 people -- including lawyer and journalist Dauletmurat Tajimuratov -- accused of undermining the constitutional order for taking part in unprecedented anti-government protests in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region last year.
The Bukhara regional court on January 31 sentenced Tajimuratov to 16 years in prison after finding him guilty of allegedly plotting to seize power by disrupting the constitutional order, organizing mass unrest, embezzlement, and money laundering.
Tajimuratov is a lawyer for the El Khyzmetinde (At People's Service) newspaper, where he was previously the chief editor.
Four defendants, including another journalist, Lolagul Qallykhanova, were handed parole-like sentences and immediately released from custody.
Other defendants were sentenced to prison terms of between three and 8 1/2 years. It remains unclear how the defendants pleaded.
Uzbek authorities say 21 people died in Karakalpakstan during the protests, which were sparked by the announcement in early July last year of a planned change to the constitution that would have undermined the autonomous republic's right to self-determination.
The violence in Nukus, the main city in Karakalpakstan, forced President Shavkat Mirziyoev to make a rare about-face and scrap the proposal.
Mirziyoev accused "foreign forces" of being behind the unrest, without further explanation, before backing down from the proposed changes.
The trial started in late November in Bukhara, around 600 kilometers from both Nukus and the capital, Tashkent.
Mirziyoev came to power in 2016 after the death of his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov.
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.
Karakalpakstan is home to fewer than 2 million people in a country of 35 million, but it covers more than one-third of Uzbekistan's territory.
The European Union has called for an independent investigation into the violence.
Russia Fines Amazon's Twitch $57,000 Over Ukraine Content
A Russian court on January 31 fined the Twitch streaming service 4 million rubles ($57,000) for failing to remove what it said were "fakes" about Russia's military campaign in Ukraine, the Interfax news agency reported. Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Moscow has long objected to foreign tech platforms' distribution of content that falls foul of its restrictions, with Russian courts regularly imposing penalties. To see the original story by Reuters, click here.
Ukraine Criticizes Croatian President For Comments On Crimea
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry has called a statement by Croatian President Zoran Milanovic that Crimea will never return to Ukrainian control "unacceptable." Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko wrote on Facebook on January 31 that "we consider the statements of the president of Croatia, who actually questioned the territorial integrity of Ukraine, as unacceptable." The post was in response to a comment by Milanovic a day earlier that it was "clear" Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, will "never again be part of Ukraine."
Biden To Speak With Zelenskiy As Ukraine's Calls For Fighter Jets Grow Louder
U.S. President Joe Biden says he will speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy about Ukraine's latest request for sophisticated weapons a day after saying no to sending F-16 fighter jets.
Kyiv has been pressing harder for the advanced jets since winning a pledge from Western allies last week for tanks. The United States and its European allies have so far refused to send fighter jets and other weapons that could be used to attack deep inside Russia.
Biden responded negatively when asked by reporters on January 30 if Washington would send F-16s. He told reporters on January 31 that he and Zelenskiy were “going to talk" but gave no further details.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who was to meet with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov in Paris on January 31, sent a mixed message, telling reporters on January 30 that "nothing is excluded" when it comes to military assistance.
But Macron, speaking in The Hague, said conditions would have to be met before fighter jets would be sent.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also did not rule out a possible supply of F-16s to Ukraine in comments he made on January 30. But on January 31, Polish Deputy Defense Minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz told the AFP news agency that Poland currently is not having "official discussions" on transferring any of its own F-16s to Ukraine.
Britain, which earlier this month pledged to provide tanks to Ukraine, on January 31 rejected sending fighter jets. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak believes it is “not practical” to provide them, according to a Downing Street statement. It said training Ukrainian forces on “extremely sophisticated” Typhoons and F-35s would take too long, but it does not oppose allies sending their own jets.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda urged the West to keep all options open to requests from Ukraine for weaponry, including fighter jets.
Nauseda said in an interview with Lithuanian television on January 31 that fighter aircraft and long-range missiles are "essential military aid" and "at this crucial stage in the war, where the turning point is about to happen, it is important that we act without delay."
The stepped-up calls for the aircraft come with Russia showing no sign of letting up in its attacks.
Several air raid alerts were issued across Ukraine on January 31 in anticipation of possible fresh Russian air strikes on civilian and energy infrastructure as heavy fighting continued unabated in the east.
A total of three large-scale air raid warnings were announced late in the morning and early in the afternoon for all Ukrainian regions. They were subsequently canceled and there have been no reports of Russian strikes since.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat said the announcement of the air alert was connected with flights of Russian MiG-31K fighters, which can carry hypersonic Kinzhal Dagger missiles. He said on Ukrainian television that "air alarms are announced when this type of aircraft takes off."
"The fact that they were not long indicates that these were ordinary training flights," he added.
Such training flights can be carried out both for the purpose of putting psychological pressure on Ukraine and on Europe, Ignat said.
In recent months, Russian missile strikes have targeted critical infrastructure and civilian installations, causing extensive damage to Ukraine's electricity grid in the depths of winter and claiming victims among civilians.
Moscow has repeatedly denied it targets civilians despite widespread evidence to the contrary.
On the battlefield, British intelligence said Russians have launched a "more concerted" assault on Vuhledar, a coal mining town in Donetsk that has become the latest focal point of the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.
However, in its daily bulletin on January 31, the British Defense Ministry said that Moscow lacked the numbers to press a notable advance in the area.
"There is a realistic possibility that Russia will continue to make local gains in the sector. However, it is unlikely that Russia has sufficient uncommitted troops in the area to achieve an operationally significant breakthrough," it said on Twitter.
Ukraine's General Staff reported three Russian air strikes and four missile strikes, as well as more than 60 salvos from rocket systems that targeted Ukrainian settlements.
"The enemy continues to conduct offensive actions in the Lyman and Bakhmut directions, suffering heavy losses," the General Staff said in its morning report.
"[The enemy] conducted unsuccessful offensive actions in the Avdiyivka and Novopavliyivka directions. In the direction of Kupyansk and Zaporizhzhya, the enemy is struggling to defend its positions," it said.
Russia claimed to have captured a village on the northern edge of Bakhmut with the help of aerial support. There was no immediate response to the claim from Kyiv.
With reporting by Reuters and AFP
Watchdog's Corruption Score For Eurasia Sinks In 2022, Remains Well Below Global Average
Corruption remains rampant in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, according to the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) compiled by Transparency International, which called for leaders in the region to finally address the problem.
The annual CPI, released on January 31, shows that many countries' corruption score reached historic lows in 2022. It also showed that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was the "most violent result of unchecked corruption and kleptocracy" in all of 2022, said Altynai Myrzabekova, Eastern Europe and Central Asia regional adviser for Transparency International.
"It's time for a wake-up call for Eastern European and Central Asian leaders to finally commit to addressing pervasive corruption and support democracy, stability and basic freedoms for all people across the region," Myrzabekova said in a news release accompanying the report.
Years of inaction against corruption have allowed kleptocrats to take control, undermined democratic processes, restricted civic space, and weakened public institutions, fueling violence, conflict and instability in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the report concludes.
The CPI scores 180 countries and territories on perceptions of public-sector corruption using data from 13 external sources, including the World Bank, World Economic Forum, consulting companies, and think tanks.
The Eastern Europe and Central Asia average declined in 2022 one point to 35, with 100 the highest score possible. Georgia, (56), Armenia (46), and Montenegro (45) were the only countries from the region that scored above the global average of 43.
Turkmenistan (19), Azerbaijan (23), and Tajikistan (24), had the lowest scores in the Eurasia region. Turkey (36), Bosnia-Herzegovina (34), and Azerbaijan all scored historic lows for the year.
Serbia's score of 36 was also a low for the Balkan country, where Transparency International said politicians had significant influence over the judiciary, which has impaired a number of important organized-crime cases, including those with alleged involvement of high-level officials.
Kazakhstan's score of 36 was one point below its score last year, while three countries in the region – Armenia, Moldova (39), and Uzbekistan (31) -- have significantly improved their CPI scores.
"The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was a stark reminder of the threat that corruption and the absence of government accountability pose for global peace and security," Transparency International said.
Kleptocrats in Russia (28) have amassed great fortunes by pledging loyalty to President Vladimir Putin in exchange for profitable government contracts and protection of their economic interests, the organization said.
The absence of any checks on Putin's power allowed him to pursue his geopolitical ambitions with impunity and has destabilized the European continent, Transparency International said.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine (33) had a low score but was undertaking reforms and steadily improving, according to Transparency International. Even after fighting started, the country has continued to prioritize anti-corruption reforms and adopted a new National Anti-Corruption Strategy last June.
"However, wars disrupt normal processes and exacerbate risks, allowing corrupt actors to pocket funds meant for recovery, as was seen in mid-January when investigations exposed war profiteering by the defense and communities and territories development ministries," Transparency International said.
The scandal underscores the need for reforms to prevent such violations in the future, the organization said, noting that the country’s anti-corruption mechanisms are thus far holding public officials accountable.
The CPI global average remains unchanged at 43 for the 11th year in a row. Denmark (90) tops the index this year, with Finland and New Zealand following closely, each with a score of 87.
South Sudan (13), Syria (13), and Somalia (12), all of which are embroiled in conflict, remain at the bottom of the CPI.
The report also showed that 10 countries since 2017 have significantly declined on their CPI scores. These are Luxembourg (77), Canada (74), the United Kingdom (73), Austria (71), Malaysia (47), Mongolia (33), Pakistan (27), Honduras (23), Nicaragua (19), and Haiti (17).
Biden Says U.S. Will Not Send Fighter Jets To Ukraine; Macron Appears More Open To Idea
U.S. President Joe Biden on January 30 said the United States will not send F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, even as French President Emmanuel Macron said France didn't rule out sending them if certain conditions were met.
Biden replied "no" when asked by reporters at the White House if he was in favor of sending the jets, which are the latest weapons requested by Ukraine's leaders after they received promises last week that Germany, the United States, and other Western allies would send heavy tanks.
Macron was asked on January 30 at a joint news conference in The Hague with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte if France was considering sending fighter jets.
"Nothing is excluded," but conditions would have to be met first, Macron said.
This includes ruling out that fighter jets would be used "to touch Russian soil" and that providing them would not weaken the French military, Macron said.
Ukraine would have to formally request the planes, said Macron, who is scheduled to meet Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov in Paris on January 31.
Rutte said Ukraine hadn't formally requested F-16 fighter jets from the Netherlands, and there currently was "no talk about delivering F-16s to Ukraine. No requests."
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told lawmakers earlier this month that there were "no taboos" about sending the warplanes.
Rutte echoed Hoekstra's words, but said, "It would be a very big next step."
Meanwhile in Berlin, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany said Kyiv had not yet asked Germany to supply it with fighter jets but pointed out how important they would be.
Fighter jets are part of Ukraine's efforts to defend its airspace and defend against the missiles fired at Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, Oleksiy Makeyev told broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
His comments came after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reiterated on January 29 that Germany will not send fighter jets to Ukraine.
Scholz last week agreed to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and to allow other European countries to send theirs after weeks of intense debate and mounting pressure from allies.
"I can only advise against entering into a constant bidding war when it comes to weapons systems," Scholz said during a news conference in Santiago de Chile, adding that serious debate is necessary and not a “competition to outdo each other.”
But Makeyev continued to add pressure, saying, "Every day that we discuss and debate internally or negotiate the rules of engagement with partners, Ukrainian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians are dying."
With reporting by AFP and dpa
Outgoing Czech President Says Serbia Can Be Mediator In Ukraine Conflict
Outgoing Czech President Milos Zeman has said Serbia's refusal to impose sanctions on Russia could be an advantage for the possible role of mediator in the war in Ukraine.
Speaking on January 30 in Belgrade, Zeman said that "the mediator must not clearly stand on one or the other side," making Serbia's position a potential advantage.
Zeman, speaking at a joint press conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, said China and Turkey were other countries that could be mediators in the war.
Turkey has formally offered multiple times to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. There's been no indication that either side in the conflict is prepared to accept any mediation offers.
Vucic said that both he and Zeman condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, adding that Serbia was unique in Europe for not having imposed sanctions on Russia.
"We never hide that," Vucic said.
At the same time, he announced greater humanitarian aid and support for Ukraine.
"We will participate in the construction of certain cities and towns in Ukraine. We have already received an offer from their ambassador," Vucic said.
Vucic also said that "the people of Serbia will never forget" Zeman's apology for the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999.
"He showed courage that no one in Europe has. He showed how great and brave people can make history. What he said two years ago remains in the hearts of our citizens," Vucic said.
Zeman apologized in 2021 during a meeting with Vucic in Prague for the bombing for which he gave his consent on behalf of the government as then-prime minister of the Czech Republic.
NATO launched the bombing because of crimes committed by Serbian forces and the exodus of the Albanian population during the war in Kosovo.
The bombing lasted 78 days and ended with an agreement under which Serbian military and police forces withdrew from Kosovo.
"Two years ago, during [Vucic's] visit to Prague, I asked to be forgiven. I did that only once in my life," Zeman said on January 30.
Zeman, whose visit to Serbia is part of a farewell tour at the end of his five-year mandate, caused major divisions in the country with his actions, including advocating for closer ties with Beijing and, until Russia invaded Ukraine, with Moscow.
Zeman's successor, retired Czech Army General Petr Pavel, was elected on January 28 in a second round of voting. Pavel won after a campaign that featured strong support for NATO and the European Union and support for aid to Ukraine.
North Macedonia, Bulgaria Say No 'Incidents' Tolerated At Upcoming Event In Skopje
The interior ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria have met to discuss tensions between their two countries and measures aimed at preventing violence during the upcoming celebration of the 151st anniversary of the birth of revolutionary Goce Delchev, who is claimed by both Skopje and Sofia as a hero.
Oliver Spasovski, interior minister of North Macedonia, and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Demerdziev, met on January 30 in Skopje to reduce tensions between the two countries, vowing that "no incident" will be tolerated during the celebration of the anniversary of the birth of Delchev on February 4 in Skopje.
Delchev is claimed by both countries as a hero in the fight for the liberation of Macedonia from Turkey.
Tensions were heightened earlier this month after the beating of a man who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative.
The announcement that a larger number of Bulgarian citizens will attend the celebration of the Delchev's birth caused further concern.
Macedonian authorities have assessed the celebration as a high-risk event.
"We want to send a message that no incident will be allowed. The Macedonian police force is taking all necessary measures and will not allow incidents to ensure a befitting honoring of our great Goce Delchev," Spasovski said.
Demerdziev said that the Bulgarian side will also take appropriate measures.
"I will not allow provocations to be caused and unwanted events to occur. We have reached an agreement that everything will be in the best possible order, and not to allow some people to fan the flames between the two nations," Demerdziev said.
The two ministers also addressed the beating of Hristijan Pendikov, who was attacked in Ohrid on January 19.
The Bulgarian minister said that he and Spasovski reached an understanding that such incidents should not be allowed in North Macedonia and he was assured that the case will be investigated fully and objectively.
Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Skopje after the incident.
Relations between the Balkan neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic ties that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's negotiations to join the European Union.
Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year.
Belarus's Lukashenka In Zimbabwe On Trip Aimed At Increasing Cooperation With Russian Ally
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrived on January 30 in Zimbabwe on a visit to cement economic and political ties between the two countries that are both close allies of Russia. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and hundreds of singing and cheering supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party welcomed Lukashenka at the airport in Harare. The visit, according to the Zimbabwean Foreign Ministry, is aimed at boosting "strong cooperation in political, economic, mining, agriculture, and disaster risk management." Belarus has provided Zimbabwe with farm equipment under a deal reached after Mnangagwa's visit to Minsk in 2019. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Pretrial Detention Of Former Chief Of Navalny's Team In Bashkortostan Extended
A Moscow court has extended the pretrial detention of Lilia Chanysheva, the former chief of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's office in the city of Ufa in Bashkortostan.
The court ruled on January 30 that Chanysheva, whose pretrial detention expires on February 3, will remain in custody at least until April 3.
The 40-year-old activist was arrested in Ufa in November 2021 and later transferred to a detention center in Moscow.
Chanysheva headed the local unit of Navalny's network of regional campaign groups until his team disbanded them after a Moscow prosecutor went to court to have them branded "extremist."
The court accepted the prosecutor's request, effectively outlawing the group.
Chanysheva's defense team said at the time that her arrest was the first since the movement was banned. The charges appear to be retroactive, since the organization she worked for disbanded before it had been legally classified as extremist.
International and domestic human rights groups have urged Russian authorities to release Chanysheva, saying that the extremism charges are absurd and should be dropped.
Navalny himself has been in prison on charges he and his supporters call politically motivated since February 2021.
Several of his associates have been charged with establishing an extremist group. Many of them have left the country.
Several former activists who worked for Navalny's groups fled the country shortly before and after Chanysheva's arrest.
Iranian Pharmacist, Cleric Square Off Over Hijab, Authorities Close Her Shop
Authorities in the northern Iranian city of Amol have shut down a pharmacy after the female owner and a local cleric got into a confrontation over wearing a head scarf, an issue that has sparked nationwide unrest in recent months.
A video that has gone viral on social media shows the owner of the pharmacy, identified as Dr. Forough Haghpanah, being confronted by a cleric who warned her to cover her hair in line with the law of the Islamic republic.
Following the argument, the pharmacy staff refused to provide services to the cleric, who started recording the scene with his mobile phone and describing the incident.
Mohammad Sadegh Akbari, the chief justice of Mazandaran Province, announced that the pharmacy had been shut down "for failing to comply with the hijab law and for not providing services to a customer."
Akbari also added that a legal case had been filed against the owner.
The news comes amid monthslong public anger that erupted after the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody after being detained by morality police in Tehran for "improperly" wearing a head scarf.
Since Amini's death, Iranians have flooded the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.
In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.
The hijab first became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Croatia's President Criticizes Tank Deliveries To Ukraine
Croatia's president has criticized Western governments for supplying Ukraine with heavy tanks and other weapons in its campaign against invading Russian forces, saying those arms deliveries will only prolong the war. Zoran Milanovic told reporters in the Croatian capital that it was "mad" to believe that Russia can be defeated in a conventional war. Milanovic won an election in Croatia in 2019 as a left-leaning liberal candidate, a counterpoint to the conservative government currently in power in the EU and NATO-member state. But he has since turned to populist nationalism and criticized Western policies toward Russia as well as the Balkans. To read the original story by AP, click here.
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