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Lawyers For Kyrgyz Investigative Journalist To Appeal Court Decision To Deport Him To Russia

Kyrgyz investigative journalist Bolot Temirov (left) in court on November 17
Kyrgyz investigative journalist Bolot Temirov (left) in court on November 17

Lawyers for prominent Kyrgyz investigative journalist Bolot Temirov said they will the appeal to the Supreme Court a lower court's decision to deport the reporter to Russia after finding him guilty of illegally obtaining a Kyrgyz passport.

"We will file an appeal to the Supreme Court next week and ask it to overturn the wrongful ruling by the Bishkek City Court," defense lawyer Bakytbek Avtandil-uulu told RFE/RL on November 25.

"The case against Temirov is clearly politically motivated," he added.

Temirov, who has extensively reported about corruption among government officials in Kyrgyzstan, was deported to Moscow within hours of the ruling on November 23. His lawyers said that immediately after the decision was pronounced, Temirov was detained by men in civilian clothes and forcibly escorted from the courtroom.

Speaking to RFE/RL by telephone from Moscow on November 24, Temirov, 43, said he was treated as a "criminal" by officers who took him to Bishkek's Manas International Airport. He described being hurriedly flown to Moscow without any documents.

The journalist said he was staying with his mother and relatives in Moscow and needed time to familiarize himself with Russian law following his arrival in a country he hadn't been in for seven years.

The court's decision to deport Temirov has been condemned by a UN rights envoy, press freedom defenders, and Western governments.

The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek tweeted that the ruling "disregards democratic principles."

"Journalists should be allowed to work without fear of retaliation," it said. "Freedom of expression is protected under the Kyrgyz Constitution -- these rights must be upheld."

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said he was "dismayed" by the decision and urged Kyrgyzstan to maintain its "vibrant civil society" and avoid "staining" its reputation with "attempts to stifle freedom of expression."

The EU's office said it was "deeply concerned" by the verdict and Temirov's "harsh immediate detention."

"This action goes counter to Kyrgyzstan's international commitments on independent media, freedom of speech and guaranteeing the personal safety of investigative journalists," it said.

Temirov maintains his innocence and says criminal charges were brought against him after he published the results of his investigation suggesting corruption among top officials of the Central Asian nation.

Kyrgyz authorities have denied that probes against Temirov are politically motivated.

Earlier this month, Temirov was shortlisted for the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Awards 2022.

Temirov was among 12 people recognized by the U.S. State Department last year as anticorruption champions.

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Russian Who Smuggled Military Technology Pleads Guilty In U.S. Court

A Russian man pled guilty on February 29 to U.S. charges that he smuggled large quantities of American-made, military-grade microelectronics to Russia, U.S. justice officials said in a statement. Maksim Marchenko, 51, was arrested in September. He and two other Russians were accused of using shell companies to conceal the fraudulent procurement of microelectronics. Marchenko pled guilty in a New York court to one count of money laundering, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and one count of smuggling goods from the United States, which carries a maximum 10 years. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 6.

Imam Acquitted Of Insulting Bosnian Serb Entity

Muharem Stulanovic (left) and his lawyer Duško Tomic speak to reporters outside the court in Banja Luka on February 29.
Muharem Stulanovic (left) and his lawyer Duško Tomic speak to reporters outside the court in Banja Luka on February 29.

A court in the Bosnian Serb entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina on February 29 acquitted imam Muharem Stulanovic of the charge of "harming the reputation and honor of the Republika Srpska and its peoples."

Stulanovic was charged with the crime after he called Republika Srpska a "genocidal creation" in January 2023 during a religious ceremony at the Faculty of Islamic Pedagogy in Bihac, where he is a professor.

The decision of the court in Banja Luka follows a ruling by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which last month declared the charge unconstitutional.

"A persecution that should not have happened has ended," Stulanovic told RFE/RL after the trial.

Stulanovic's lawyer, Dusko Tomic, said the verdict was a victory for both the Constitutional Court and Bosnia.

"It has been confirmed once again that the judiciary respects the decisions of the Constitutional Court," Tomic said.

But Tomic also asserted that Republika Srpska's Prosecutor-General's Office did not comply with the decision of the Constitutional Court by failing to drop the charge against Stulanovic before the trial even started on January 10.

The case against him is the first confirmed indictment by the Prosecutor-General's Office of a person for calling Republika Srpska a "genocidal creation."

Stulanovic was charged based on Entity Criminal Code changes by Republika Srpska's assembly in July 2021 after amendments to the State Criminal Code imposed by then-High Representative Valentin Inzko prohibiting the denial of genocide and other war crimes, as well as the glorification of war criminals.

There was heightened interest in the trial after the decision of the Constitutional Court ruling last month and after Republika Srpska last year adopted a law saying the decisions of the Constitutional Court would not be enforced in the territory of the entity.

Ethnic Serbs in Republika Srpska have for years resisted Bosnia's central authorities, and the entity's assembly voted in June to suspend recognition of any decisions by Bosnia's multiethnic Constitutional Court.

Christian Schmidt, the international community's current high representative in Bosnia, annulled that law in July, a move that has been rejected by Republika Srpska, as were other decisions by Schmidt.


Iran Cracks Down On Calls For Election Boycott

A woman walks past campaign posters for the parliamentary elections in Tehran.
A woman walks past campaign posters for the parliamentary elections in Tehran.

Several people have been detained in Iran for allegedly calling for a boycott of parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections scheduled for March 1.

A young woman was arrested on February 28 for "opposing electoral participation" in Tehran's Valiasr Square during an event called "Free Tribune," witnesses told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

They said the woman estimated to be in her 20s protested in front of a state television camera, symbolically removing her head scarf while declaring, "Vote or no vote, we will not vote."

A street vendor, who claimed to have witnessed the event, said the woman was quickly surrounded and subsequently detained by several security personnel after she waved her scarf over her head in protest.

Other eyewitness accounts detailed the intervention of two female officers, who covered the young woman with a chador cloak, while five male officers forcibly escorted her to a van.

The woman, described as having dyed, long hair and a slim build, was reportedly shouting for the officers to release her. Security forces present at the scene issued warnings to bystanders not to film the arrest and to disperse.

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.

Many Iranians have said they will not vote in what they said will be "meaningless" elections that are likely to consolidate the power of the country's hard-liners.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Iran's elections could not be considered free and fair.

"I suspect that a great number of Iranians have no expectation that those elections will be free and fair," Miller told reporters at the State Department on February 29.

"As you probably already know, thousands of candidates were already disqualified in an opaque process and the world has long known that Iran's political system features undemocratic and nontransparent administrative, judicial, and electoral systems.”

In the lead-up to the election, "Free Tribunes" have been organized by student groups in Tehran, where sentiment against the elections has spilled out.

Similar events have taken place -- in public and online -- in several areas of the country.

In the West Azerbaijan Province, police chief Rahim Jahanbakhsh announced the arrest of 50 people responsible for managing social-media pages that authorities say incited public unrest and discouraged election participation.

The arrests, Jahanbakhsh noted, were conducted in coordination with judicial authorities, though the identities of those detained remain undisclosed.

Jahanbakhsh also warned that publishing any content deemed provocative on social media would be considered a criminal offense.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tried to push the importance of high voter turnout in the elections after more than a year of unrest that had boosted growing skepticism over the efficacy of participating in the electoral process.

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader
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Independent polling on electoral participation is restricted in Iran, with government-conducted surveys rarely made public.

However, a leaked poll from a state-affiliated center suggested a mere 30 perecnt of voters may turn out for the upcoming elections, a figure that was swiftly retracted from publication. In the previous parliamentary elections in 2020, voter turnout was reported at a historic low of approximately 42.6 percent.

Prominent figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, have said openly they will boycott the elections, calling them superficial and predetermined. Similarly, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, has voiced his refusal to vote, criticizing the supreme leader's indifference to the country's crises.

The elections also mark the first balloting since the widespread "Women, Life, Freedom" protests, ignited by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police. The protests led to a heavy-handed response from the government, including widespread arrests and crackdowns on demonstrators. At least 500 protesters were killed.

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

Ukraine Says 19 Russian Soldiers Killed In Missile Strike In Donetsk Region

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

The General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces said on February 29 that 19 Russian soldiers were killed and 12 wounded in a missile strike on a group of Russian troops in the town of Olenivka in the Russian-occupied part of the Donetsk region. According to the statement, a deputy commander of a Russian military unit was among those killed, while the unit's commander was among the wounded. The statement has not been confirmed by Russia's military.

Russians Jailed In Mass Cider-Poisoning Case

Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are common in Russia.
Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are common in Russia.

A Russian court on February 29 sentenced former police officer Ivan Grebyonkin and father and son Aleksei and Dmitry Yegorov to prison terms of between 3 1/4 and 3 1/2 years for their involvement in making and selling cider tainted with methanol, a highly poisonous type of industrial alcohol, that killed 40 people last summer in the regions of Samara, Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanovsk, and Udmurtia. Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are common in Russia as people look to save money. In 2021, 34 people were killed by surrogate alcohol in the Urals region of Orenburg. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

German-Iranian Woman Returned To Tehran Prison After Medical Furlough Cut Short

Nahid Taghavi after her release
Nahid Taghavi after her release

A German-Iranian woman has been ordered back to jail in Tehran after several weeks of medical leave despite mounting concerns over her health, her daughter said on February 29.

Nahid Taghavi, 69, was sent back to Evin prison "arbitrarily and for no clear reason" on February 28, said Mariam Claren on X, formerly Twitter.

Taghavi's supporters have previously said she suffers from a herniated disc, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Claren said she developed "a painful eye disease in the last weeks, which must be strictly monitored by doctors."

Taghavi, held in Iran since 2020 on national security charges, was granted a medical furlough on January 9 under strict conditions, including that she wear an electronic tracking device and remain within 1 kilometer of her home in Tehran.

Her daughter said the conditions made it almost impossible for her to receive necessary medical care.

Taghavi, an architect, was convicted in 2021 of "leading an illegal group." She was sentenced to 10 years in jail, according to her lawyer. She has been forced to endure prolonged solitary confinement.

The German Foreign Ministry condemned the decision to send Taghavi back to jail, which it said was "taken in blatant disregard of her health."

The ministry said Taghavi was seriously ill and should be receiving medical treatment.

"Her furlough was terminated abruptly, without her even being able to receive the necessary medical treatment," the ministry said, adding that Germany will "continue to work tirelessly for her release."

Human rights groups and Western governments have accused Iran of imprisoning foreign nationals and dual citizens in order to pressure other countries into releasing jailed Iranians in prisoner swaps.

Tehran has repeatedly said it does not recognize dual nationality and denies holding foreign nationals for political reasons.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Two More Billionaires Renounce Russian Citizenship In Wake Of Ukraine War

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

Forbes reported on February 29 that billionaires Andrei Baronov and Ratmir Timashev have become the latest tycoons to renounce their Russian citizenship since Moscow launched its ongoing invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. According to Forbes, Baronov and Timashev are now citizens of Cyprus, with Baronov residing in Switzerland and Timashev in the United States. Baronov has criticized the war, saying it caused him "deep suffering." Timashev did not comment. Other tycoons who have given up their Russian citizenship since February 2022 include Vasily Anisimov, Timur Turlov, Ruben Vardanyan, Yury Milner, Nikolai Storonsky, Oleg Tinkov, and Igor Makarov. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Vucic Says Serbia's Noncompliance With EU Position On Navalny's Death Not A 'Tragedy'

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic walks out of a car on the day of the Ukraine Southeast Europe Summit in Tirana on February 28.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic walks out of a car on the day of the Ukraine Southeast Europe Summit in Tirana on February 28.

Belgrade has not signed on to an EU declaration assigning responsibility for the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny to President Vladimir Putin, a move Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said wasn't a "tragedy."

Navalny died on February 16 in an Arctic prison in Russia under suspicious circumstances. Russian officials said he died of natural causes, the so-called "sudden death" syndrome, while taking a mandatory walk, without giving other details.

Officials then refused for days to release Navalny's body to his mother, raising further suspicion on the cause of his death.

In a joint declaration on February 16, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Navalny "was slowly murdered by President Putin and his regime, who fear nothing more than dissent from their own people."

Diplomatic sources in Brussels told RFE/RL that under EU procedures, third countries that do not officially confirm their alignment with the bloc's common position on an issue are considered as noncompliant.

The deadline for third countries to have declared alignment with the EU's position on Navalny's death expired on February 28 without Belgrade confirming its acceptance of Brussels' stance, sources told RFE/RL, adding that other Western Balkans countries did officially align with the EU's position.

Two exceptions, besides Serbia, were Turkey and Armenia, the sources said.

Serbia's noncompliance should not be seen as "a great tragedy," Vucic told journalists on February 29 in Tirana on the sidelines of a Western Balkans summit.

"Until now, we have not agreed on such issues, and now I really can't tell you about this case, because I don't know. But, I know that we haven't done that so far, I would be surprised if it were different," Vucic said.

"I think it is very important that Serbia calculates carefully, conducts its own independent policy and evaluates each case separately," Vucic said.

Serbia's Ministry for European Integration and the Foreign Ministry did not respond to RFE/RL questions about the EU declaration regarding Navalny's death.

Serbia, which is a candidate country for membership in the 27-member bloc, has not complied with any of the restrictive measures or declarations against its traditional ally Russia that the EU has introduced since the Kremlin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Novaya Gazeta Editor In Chief Charged With Discrediting Russia's Military

Sergei Sokolov (file photo)
Sergei Sokolov (file photo)

The Moscow-based Novaya gazeta newspaper said on February 29 that police detained its chief editor, Sergei Sokolov, and charged him with discrediting Russia's military. The charge, which stemmed from an unspecified report, is administrative and could lead to jail time or a fine. Sokolov, who for many years led the paper's investigative team, became editor in chief in September after the newspaper's founding chief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, stepped down following a Justice Ministry decision to add hm to the "foreign agents" registry. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

After 'Trump Card' Exposed, North Macedonia Scammers Retreat, Try To Cover Digital Tracks

Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.
Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.

BELGRADE -- Around one-third of the encrypted Telegram channels being used by Macedonian sellers to organize online sales of fake "Trump" debit cards have been deleted, two days after an RFE/RL investigation traced the digital footprints between pro-Trump Americans and a Balkan hub of fraud and disinformation.

The cards are part of a multimillion-dollar scam organized among closed chat groups for marketing alongside real and bogus news items designed to appeal to conservatives eager to see ex-President Donald Trump win reelection in November.

In many cases, the sale of tokens, coins, and bills with Trump's likeness are predicated on hopes that a return to power would supercharge the value of such souvenir items or even make them legal currency.

Neither the Republican presidential hopeful nor any of his organizations appear to have any connection to the manufacturers, platforms, or sellers.

"On our return, we'll be three times stronger, don't worry," read a February 26 message on one of several closed Telegram groups where Macedonian speakers previously communicated to further the scheme.

The channel's owner has erased all its content and deactivated the platform.

Twenty-three of the 88 websites uncovered by a digital team from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that infiltrated the closed Telegram groups have been shut down and payment options in 10 cases have been deactivated.

The network involved 69 individuals, two-thirds of them with digital trails placing them in Veles, a longtime center of "fake news" and inauthentic digital activity in North Macedonia.

Informed by RFE/RL of the transactions and the false claims by the sellers, Macedonian and U.S. law enforcement authorities have not commented directly.

Purchasing schemes frequently led buyers to the CopeCart payment platform, which is registered in the United States. CopeCart representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

RFE/RL also found that 33 Macedonian citizens who were selling cards or coins featuring Trump's likeness had withdrawn their products from the CopeCart platform.

Veles became synonymous with opportunism around the Trump movement ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with more than 100 political websites there spreading fake news or appeals on particularly divisive topics.

The sites generated millions of views per month on Facebook.


Security Beefed Up At Moscow Cemetery Where Navalny To Be Buried

Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's funeral service and burial is set to take place in Moscow on March 1 amid heightened security and other tactics that appeared aimed at discouraging people from attending.

Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on X, formerly Twitter, that the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. local time on March 1 at the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God in the Moscow district of Maryino, where Navalny used to live.

"Despite all the opposition, farewell to Aleksei will definitely take place tomorrow,” she said on X on February 29. “Funeral service at 14:00, funeral at 16:00. If you are in Moscow, come.”

For those who can’t make it, Yarmysh said the funeral would be live-streamed on YouTube.

It was not clear how many people would attend and how the authorities would ensure crowd control.

Hundreds of Russians have been arrested just for laying flowers at memorials to Navalny across the country.

Ivan Pavlov, a prominent Russian civil rights lawyer who has left the country, said Russian authorities will see the funeral as "an undesirable mass event" and will try to keep participation low.

"I'm sure there will be police cordons and video surveillance from all sides," he said. "As a preventive measure, they'll summon known activists to police stations or visit them at their homes to give warnings. We've already seen it."

Fearing Crackdown, Rights Group Offers Tips On Avoiding Police At Navalny Funeral
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At large Orthodox ceremonies, mourners are typically given a chance to file past the open casket, and the service is presided over by a priest and accompanied by a choir.

He will be buried after the service at the Borisovskoye cemetery, which is about 2 kilometers away on the other side of the Moskva River.

Security has been beefed up at Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow and a nearby subway station, while security cameras have been installed on each streetlight around the cemetery.

The entrance to the cemetery has also been tightly restricted, the RusNews and Mozhem Obyasnit Telegram channels reported.

Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, also said there was a rumor in the media that only relatives would be allowed to attend the funeral service.

"We do not have any such information. All we know is that the church will be open to everyone."

Navalny's team also put out an appeal to the Kremlin critic's supporters around the world to gather at 7 p.m. in their time zones.

"We understand that not everyone will have the opportunity to come to Moscow to say goodbye to Aleksei Navalny on March 1," his team said on Telegram. "To honor his memory, go to the memorial in your city at 7 p.m. local time."

The post includes a list of some cities and urges people to create a memorial if there isn't one in their city or town.

Navalny's body was released to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, on February 24, more than a week after his death from "natural causes" at a prison in an Arctic region of Russia. He was 47. Officials have not commented further.

Before the body was released, Navalnaya said officials were setting conditions on where, when, and how her son should be buried. She said the authorities wanted the family to agree to buy him quietly and threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if she didn't agree.

Zhdanov also accused the Kremlin of thwarting their attempts to organize a bigger event on February 29.

Zhdanov said February 29 was initially chosen as the date for the funeral, but it became clear that officials were forcing a different date. Zhdanov said this was probably because it would have conflicted with Putin's state-of-the-nation address.

Putin delivered the address as scheduled on February 29 and did not mention Navalny in his speech.

U.S.- Russian Citizen's Appeal Against Treason Charge Rejected

(illustrative photo)
(illustrative photo)

A court in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg on February 29 rejected an appeal filed by Russian-American Ksenia Karelina (aka Khavana) against her arrest on a treason charge.

Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) said last week that a woman holding both U.S. and Russian citizenship was arrested in Yekaterinburg on suspicion of treason after she was accused of raising funds for Ukraine's military.

According to the FSB, it "suppressed the illegal activities of a 33-year-old resident of Los Angeles, who has dual citizenship of Russia and the United States, and was involved in providing financial assistance to a foreign state in activities directed against the security of our country."

The FSB did not name the woman, while Russian media reports identified her as both Ksenia Karelina and Ksenia Khavana, her married name.

The rights group Pervy Otdel says Karelina allegedly transferred $51.80 from her U.S.-based bank account to the Razom for Ukraine foundation, which helps Ukrainian civilians. It says its only military-oriented program is one that purchases medical kits for nurses on the front line in the ongoing war with Russia.

Washington has repeatedly criticized Russia for targeting and arresting U.S. citizens accusing Moscow of detaining them with the aim of exchanging them for Russian nationals being held in U.S. prisons.

In late March last year, the FSB in Yekaterinburg arrested U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich on espionage charges.

Another U.S. citizen, former Marine Paul Whelan, is also held in Russia on espionage charges. Gershkovich, Whelan, and the U.S. government reject the charges as politically motivated.

While Gershkovich is still in pretrial detention, Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in June 2020.

A third U.S. citizen, RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who also holds Russian citizenship, has been in pretrial detention on a charge of violating the so-called "foreign agent" law. The U.S. government and her employer say the charge is in reprisal for her work.

Indictments for treason reached a record number in Russia last year. According to official data, the courts have received 63 treason cases, 33 of which have already resulted in convictions.

Human rights activists say they expect the number will be even higher this year as Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine reached the two-year mark on February 24.

With reporting by Reuters

EU Envoy Urges Faster Reform Pace In Western Balkans, Touts 6 Billion Euro Development Plan

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left), European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi (center) and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (right) talk during a photo in Tirana on February 29.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left), European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi (center) and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (right) talk during a photo in Tirana on February 29.

TIRANA -- European Union Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi on February 29 told a summit of Western Balkan leaders in Tirana that the bloc's six billion euro ($6.5 billion) development plan for the region could double their countries' economic output over the next decade if timely reforms are implemented.

The plan envisaged by the EU would cover the next three years and is meant to speed up both the region's economic growth and its integration with the EU norms and legislation that would eventually bring membership in the bloc.

The funds' disbursal is conditioned by the speed of the reform process in the six countries that make up the Western Balkans and which are at different stages on their road toward membership.

"We have full confidence in all the Western Balkans countries that they will be able to benefit from this plan, which has the potential to contribute to the doubling of the economies of the region in the next 10 years," Varhelyi said at the start of the summit attended by the leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

The host of the summit, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, welcomed the plan, which was approved by the European Commission in November.

“The new opportunity of this out-of-the box plan represents not only the EU's recognition of our decade-long efforts to build a common future against the savage winds of the past, but also challenges us to demonstrate our readiness for a shared European destiny,” Rama said in his opening remarks.

The new plan for economic growth in the countries of the Western Balkans, which was approved by the European Commission on November 8, 2023, is based on four pillars.

The first pillar deals with the strengthening of the region's integration in the EU single market, while the second pillar refers to the deeper integration of the six countries' economies through a common regional market.

The third pillar envisages the acceleration of fundamental reforms, including the strengthening of the rule of law, which would attract foreign direct investment and improve regional stability.

The fourth pillar refers to an increase in financial aid to support reforms that actually envisages the disbursement of the 6 billion euros to the six countries.

Serbia and Montenegro launched membership negotiations a few years ago, followed by Albania and Macedonia in 2022, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have only begun the first step of the integration process.

Another country from the region, Croatia, was the last to become an EU member in 2013.

Former Wagner Fighter Recruited From Russian Prison Gets 17 Years For Sexual Assault

Sergei Shakhmatov (right), who had spent a total of 15 years in prison for fraud and theft, was granted clemency in return for taking part in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Sergei Shakhmatov (right), who had spent a total of 15 years in prison for fraud and theft, was granted clemency in return for taking part in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

A former fighter from the Wagner mercenary group, who was recruited from prison to fight in Ukraine, was sentenced to 17 years in prison on February 28 after a court in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk found him guilty of sexually assaulting two schoolgirls last year. Sergei Shakhmatov, who had spent a total of 15 years in prison for fraud and theft, was granted clemency in return for taking part in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The number of crimes in Russia committed by former Wagner recruits and other former military personnel has been on the rise since early 2023. To read the original story by RFE/RL's North.Realities, click here.

Russian Blogger Shtefanov Flees Russia Fearing For Safety

Blogger Aleksandr Shtefanov received numerous threats after issuing a documentary titled Mere Denazification in February 2023.
Blogger Aleksandr Shtefanov received numerous threats after issuing a documentary titled Mere Denazification in February 2023.

Aleksandr Shtefanov, a noted Russian blogger and the author of a documentary about Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, fled Russia fearing for his safety. Shtefanov wrote on Telegram on February 29 that he made this "difficult and unpleasant" decision after "the murder" of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny in prison and the imprisonment of anti-war sociologist Sergei Kagarlitsky earlier in February. The Justice Ministry added Shtefanov to the “foreign agents” registry in August. After Shtefanov issued his documentary Mere Denazification in February 2023, he received numerous threats from Moscow-installed officials in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine's Donetsk region. To read the original story by Current Time, click here.

Six Die Of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning In Tajikistan Amid Electricity Shortage

The February 28 funeral ceremony for a family of six who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Tajik capital.
The February 28 funeral ceremony for a family of six who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Tajik capital.

Emergency officials in Tajikistan say a family of six has died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the capital, Dushanbe, while heating their home with wood and coal amid an electricity shortage in the Central Asian nation. The couple and their four children were buried on February 28. Dushanbe residents have complained about electricity outages in recent days. An official at the Dushanbe electricity grid told RFE/RL that the outages were imposed due to a decrease in the water levels of rivers feeding into the Nurek hydropower station, causing a reduction in energy output. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Tajik Service, click here.

U.S. 'Too Slow' To See Putin Was 'Different Character' When He Returned To Presidency: Former Obama Adviser

Former Top Obama Adviser Foresees 'A Lot Of Challenges' For Putin
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A former top adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States should have been quicker to recognize a change in Vladimir Putin when he returned to the Kremlin as president in 2012 and more outspoken in confronting his corruption.

In an interview with Current Time, Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama's deputy national security adviser, recalled hours of meetings when Putin did little more than list grievances about topics such as NATO enlargement and actions the Kremlin leader cast as the United States humiliating Russia.

"He would go on and on and on. He'd give these kind of legalistic presentations about how Russia was wronged," said Rhodes, who served eight years in the White House under Obama. "You could sense that this [was] a man motivated by a sense of grievance, and humiliation, and frankly, insecurity in a way," Rhodes said in the interview recorded on February 21.

Rhodes said this signaled that Putin was turning toward "a greater degree of nationalism and autocracy," and that it should have sounded louder alarm bells within the U.S. administration.

"I think we were too slow to see just how different a character he was," said Rhodes, who now writes books, hosts a podcast, and contributes to U.S. broadcaster MSNBC. "We could have been more aware that this was a different character."

Putin wanted to "convey what a strong man he is" and forge an identity of someone who stands up to the United States and other Western countries in a way that he saw as "restoring some lost Russian greatness." He'd been moving in that direction his entire time as a leader of Russia, Rhodes said, but it seemed to accelerate after he returned to the office of president.

The election in 2012 was marked by allegations of fraud and was greeted by protests, including some led by his most vocal opponent, Aleksei Navalny, who died on February 16 in a Russian prison.

Seeing the protests and thinking about his own place in history, Putin came back to the presidency "more aggressive, more belligerent, more surrounded by 'yes' men," Rhodes said.

"All of those things I think have contributed to him being willing to take these kinds of risks that we've seen...above all in Ukraine," said Rhodes, who concurs with other observers of Putin's behavior who believe that a kind of paranoia set in that made it impossible for Putin to "give an inch," fearing that if he did "the whole thing could come crumbling down."

Rhodes said he believes that accounts for the treatment of opposition figures like Navalny, whose death prison authorities said was from natural causes though his Anti-Corruption Foundation said he was murdered. Many Western governments have blamed Putin directly for his death.

Rhodes also acknowledged that people have debated whether the Obama administration should have done more to help Ukraine after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and been more bold about confronting Putin. But he said "the reality of global politics is I'm not sure that any of that would have made a difference…given his psychology."

The most disturbing thing he noticed about Putin, Rhodes said, was that he never got the sense the Russian leader had the ability to empathize with suffering.

Rhodes recalled how the White House would push to get humanitarian aid into some parts of Syria, where war broke out in 2011, and "and there just wasn't any sense that this is a man [who is] able to feel…a degree of empathy for people that are suffering." To Putin, "it was all clinical."

Instead of talking about the people's needs and their suffering, Putin would steer the conversation to "higher levels of geopolitics and history," Rhodes recalled, saying that was unsettling to him.

Putin's inability to feel any empathy for anyone "is probably the tragedy of the whole thing."


In Address To Russians, Putin Warns Of 'Tragic' Consequences If West Sends Troops To Ukraine

Speaking delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address to Russians on February 29.
Speaking delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address to Russians on February 29.

President Vladimir Putin gave his state of the nation address to Russians on February 29, outlining his view on how the war against Ukraine is progressing and Russia's relations with the West, which he threatened with "tragic" consequences if it sent troops into Ukraine.

Speaking less than three weeks before a presidential election he is expected to easily win as he faces no opposition candidates, Putin didn't stray far from well-worn narratives and propaganda, saying the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was needed to defend Russia's sovereignty and security.

"Despite all the trials and bitterness of losses, people are adamant in this choice," he said of the "special military operation," as the Kremlin calls the invasion it launched in February 2022. In Russia, it is illegal to call the conflict a war.

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Putin's address in front of audience of both chambers of parliament, the State Duma and the Federation Council, as well as other invitees, lasted just over two hours and touched on a broad array of issues.

In the first part of the speech, he accused the West of "trying to drag us into an arms race" by "trying to wear us down," before moving on to his global outlook and then domestic issues such as economic development.

“The West is not just trying to hold back our development; instead of Russia, they need a dying space,” he said, adding that at the same time the West “miscalculated.”

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking after a summit of continental leaders in Paris, said that despite a current lack of consensus, "nothing," including sending Western forces to fight on the Ukrainians' side, should be ruled out to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine.

Putin said such a move would result in "consequences for the interventionists" that will be "much more tragic."

He also said that such involvement by the West would heighten the possibility of a global nuclear war.

"Russia has weapons which can hit targets on their territory and what they are now suggesting and scaring the world with, all that raises the real threat of a nuclear conflict that will mean the destruction of our civilization,” Putin said.

“Don't they understand it?.... Those people haven't been through any tough challenges and they have forgotten what war means,” he added.

While rejecting Western reports that Moscow was considering the deployment of space-based nuclear weapons, Putin did say that Russia's nuclear forces are at "full readiness" and that his military has deployed new weaponry in the Ukrainian battlefield.

He also said that the new Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile has entered service with Russian nuclear forces, while the country is completing testing of the Burevestnik atomic-powered cruise missile and the Poseidon atomic-powered, nuclear-armed drone.

The United States denounced Putin's comments as "irresponsible" but said it did not have any sign that Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.

"It is not the first time we have seen irresponsible rhetoric from Vladimir Putin. It is no way for the leader of a nuclear-armed state to speak," State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

Putin's speech comes before the March 15-17 balloting, which the Kremlin hopes to use as a show of national unity in support of Putin and the invasion of Ukraine.

Russian elections are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and are neither free nor fair but are viewed by the government as necessary to convey a sense of legitimacy.

The Kremlin's tight grip on politics, media, law enforcement, and other levers means Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, is certain to win, barring a very big, unexpected development.

An hour into his speech, Putin had not mentioned Aleksei Navalny, the popular opposition politician who died two weeks ago in an Arctic prison under suspicious circumstances.

Navalny attempted to run against Putin in 2018 only to be barred by the TsIK over a conviction in a fraud case in what is widely seen as a politically motivated conviction.

Boris Nadezhdin, who spoke out against the war in Ukraine, appeared to be headed toward securing status as a candidate until the Central Election Commission (TsIK) barred him saying too many of the support signatures he submitted were not verified.

The TsIK routinely refuses to register would-be opposition candidates on the pretext that they submitted an insufficient number of valid signatures.

With reporting by Reuters

Pakistan's Newly Elected Lower House Lawmakers Sworn In After Election Marred By Rigging Claims

Supporters of the Hazara Democratic Party, Pashtunkhwa National Awami Party, National Democratic Movement, and the Awami National Party protest rigging in the election in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 28.
Supporters of the Hazara Democratic Party, Pashtunkhwa National Awami Party, National Democratic Movement, and the Awami National Party protest rigging in the election in Quetta, Pakistan, on February 28.

Pakistan's newly elected lower chamber of parliament, the National Assembly, convened its first session on February 29 where newly elected lawmakers were sworn in, three weeks after an election marred by widespread allegations of rigging.

The oath to the newly elected parliamentarians was administered by outgoing Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in the assembly hall in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.

The house will elect its new speaker and deputy speaker on March 1 while the prime minister will be elected on March 4.

In the February 8 vote, candidates backed by jailed ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was barred from running, won most seats but fell short of a simple majority needed to form a government.

Khan, 71, a retired cricket superstar who was prime minister in 2018-22, still enjoys huge popularity, but he is in prison after convictions on numerous corruption charges and has been barred from holding office for a decade.

Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote that he says was orchestrated by the powerful military, has rejected the charges as politically motivated.

The government suspended mobile phone and Internet services during the election day in many parts of the country. The Interior Ministry said that it was done to ensure security.

Lawmakers from Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party shouted "Vote thief!” as Shehbaz Sharif, who replaced Khan in 2022 and is expected to again form the government, entered the parliament building on February 29.

The National Assembly of Pakistan comprises 336 members out of which 266 are elected whereas 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 seats for religious minorities.

These reserved seats are allotted to the parties as per their representation in the lower house.

Khan’s political rivals made a power-sharing deal after the election, naming Sharif as their candidate for prime minister.

With reporting by AP and AFP

Ukrainian Military Says Soldiers Killed In Special Operation In Occupied Kherson

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a sign reading "Snake Island, ours" on Snake Island in the Black Sea on December 18, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier walks past a sign reading "Snake Island, ours" on Snake Island in the Black Sea on December 18, 2022.

An unspecified number of Ukrainian special forces soldiers were killed during an operation in the occupied part of Ukraine's southern region of Kherson, the Special Operations Forces of the Ukrainian military said in a statement on February 29. Ukrainian broadcaster Suspilne reported that a group of Ukrainian troops died during an attempt to gain a foothold on the Tendriv spit in the northern part of the Black Sea, near the coast of occupied Kherson. Occupation officials quoted by Russian news agencies said Russian forces "destroyed a group of Ukrainian saboteurs while trying to land on the Tendriv spit." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Strikes Cause Injuries Among Civilians In Eastern Donetsk

Ukrainian soldiers conduct exercises at a training ground near the front line in the Donetsk region on February 23.
Ukrainian soldiers conduct exercises at a training ground near the front line in the Donetsk region on February 23.

Russian troops shelled the Pokrovsky and Bakhmut districts of the Donetsk region causing multiple injuries among the civilian population, the Prosecutor-General's Office reported on the evening of February 28.

The shelling struck a village in the Pokrovsky district and the cities of Kurakhove and Chasiv Yar, the Prosecutor-General’s Office said.

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A 62-year-old woman who was walking on a street in the village was hospitalized with a head injury and a fracture, the office said. In Kurakhove, the victim was a 22-year-old saleswoman who was hit by rocket fire in a trade pavilion. She was hospitalized with brain injuries.

The attack on Chasiv Yar involved a drone that hit around 3 p.m., injuring a 40-year-old man. An hour later, Russian forces also struck the city of Siversk, inflicting life-threatening injuries on a 69-year-old woman who was near her home at the time of the attack.

Unconfirmed reports circulated on February 28 saying that the Ukrainian Armed Forces launched a strike with a high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) at a concentration of Russian military personnel in the village of Yelenovka in the Donetsk region.

Several Telegram channels -- both Ukrainian and Russian -- reported the incident. Various sources mentioned dozens of dead and injured Russian military personnel.

The shelling was also reported by former Verkhovna Rada deputy Oleg Tsarev, who has supported separatists in the Donbas region since 2014.

He declined to provide details "so as not to please the enemy," he said.

If the reports are confirmed, it would be the third time within a week that a Ukrainian military strike reportedly hit a concentration of Russian troops.

Neither the Ukrainian command nor the Russian Defense Ministry commented on any of the strikes.

Imran Khan's Party Urges IMF To Ensure Pakistan Election Audit Before More Bailout Talks

The party of Pakistan's jailed former prime minister, Imran Khan, has asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ensure that an audit of the disputed February 8 elections is carried out before any more bailout talks take place. Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party said on February 28 that it had sent a letter on the matter to the IMF's Pakistan representative. Pakistan is struggling to stabilize its economy after securing a $3 billion standby arrangement from the IMF last year, and it is expected to need more funding after a new government is formed.

Kyrgyz Lawmaker Proposes Stripping Jeenbekov Of Ex-President Status

Former Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov
Former Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov

BISHKEK – A Kyrgyz lawmaker proposed on February 28 stripping former leader Sooronbai Jeenbekov of his status of ex-president over his alleged links to the fugitive former deputy chief of the Customs Service, Raimbek Matraimov.

The lawmaker, Akylbek Tumonbaev, emphasized that several lawmakers have resigned and some ministers have lost their posts over their connections to Matraimov, whose whereabouts are unknown.

Tumonbaev said it was Jeenbekov who brought Matraimov “to the political scene, but his name has not been made public.” Jeenbekov, meanwhile, “is living on the state budget's expenses,” Tumonbaev told a session of parliament.

To strip him of his ex-president status, representatives of his party, the Social Democratic party, in the parliament must first agree on the move and then a special parliamentary commission must be created to implement the decision, according to lawmaker Nurlanbek Azygaliev.

Two of the five former Kyrgyz presidents -- Jeenbekov and Roza Otunbaeva -- have the official status of ex-president, which guarantees them, among other privileges, immunity to legal prosecution.

Other former Kyrgyz leaders -- Askar Akaev, Kurmanbek Bakiev, and Almazbek Atambaev -- were deprived of the ex-president status due to criminal cases launched against them.

Jeenbekov was elected president in 2017. In October 2020, he announced his resignation amid protests against official results of parliamentary elections that demonstrators called rigged. The results of the parliamentary elections were later canceled.

Tumonbaev's proposal comes as police and security officers are targeting relatives and close associates of Matraimov, who in 2020-21 was at the center of a high-profile corruption scandal.

Last month, the State Committee for National Security added Matraimov to its wanted list on charges of abduction and the illegal incarceration of unspecified individuals.

Matraimov, who escaped imprisonment in 2021 by paying 2 billion soms ($22.4 million) to Kyrgyzstan’s state treasury, faced the new charges after Kyrgyz police shot dead criminal kingpin Kamchybek Kolbaev in October.

Last week, the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission annulled the mandates of two lawmakers with close ties to Matraimov -- his brother Iskender Matraimov and associate Nurlan Rajabaliev -- at their own requests.

Raimbek Matraimov faced the new charges after Kyrgyz police shot and killed Kolbaev, who had been added by Washington to a list of major global drug-trafficking suspects in 2011.

Former Coach Of Belarusian Athlete Banned For Five Years

Yury Maisevich
Yury Maisevich

The former coach of Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya has been banned for five years by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), which investigated allegations that Tsimanouskaya’s coaches attempted to force her to return home during the Tokyo Olympics after she criticized them. Yury Maisevich took actions that were "a clear affront to the athlete's dignity” and an abuse of power, the AIU said in announcing its findings on February 28. Tsimanouskaya, who now competes for Poland, claimed she was forcibly taken to an airport after refusing to follow the team's orders during the Olympics in 2021.

U.S. Semiconductor Firms, Having Outsourced Production Overseas, Struggle To Trace Evasion

Russia’s military industrial complex is heavily reliant on Western technology, including semiconductors, for the production of sophisticated weapons. (file photo)
Russia’s military industrial complex is heavily reliant on Western technology, including semiconductors, for the production of sophisticated weapons. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. semiconductor firms must strengthen oversight of their foreign partners and work more closely with the government and investigative groups, a group of experts told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, saying the outsourcing of production overseas has made tracking chip sales more difficult, enabling sanctions evasion by Russia and other adversaries.

U.S. semiconductor firms largely produce their chips in China and other Asian countries from where they are further distributed around the world, making it difficult to ascertain who exactly is buying their products, the experts told the committee at a hearing in Washington on February 27.

The United States and the European Union imposed sweeping technology sanctions on Russia to weaken its ability to wage war following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia’s military industrial complex is heavily reliant on Western technology, including semiconductors, for the production of sophisticated weapons.

“Western companies design chips made by specialized plants in other countries, and they sell them by the millions, with little visibility over the supply chain of their products beyond one or two layers of distribution,” Damien Spleeters, deputy director of operations at Conflict Armament Research, told senators.

He added that, if manufacturers required point-of-sale data from distributors, it would vastly improve their ability to trace the path of semiconductors recovered from Russian weapons and thereby identify sanctions-busting supply networks.

The banned Western chips are said to be flowing to Russia via networks in China, Turkey, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

Spleeters said he discovered a Chinese company diverting millions of dollars of components to sanctioned Russian companies by working with U.S. companies whose chips were found in Russian weapons.

That company was sanctioned earlier this month by the United States.

'It's Going To Be Whack-A-Mole'

The committee is scrutinizing several U.S. chip firms whose products have turned up in Russian weapons, Senator Richard Blumenthal (Democrat-Connecticut) said, adding “these companies know or should know where their components are going.”

Spleeters threw cold water on the idea that Russia is acquiring chips from household appliances such as washing machines or from major online retail websites.

“We have seen no evidence of chips being ripped off and then repurposed for this,” he said.

“It makes little sense that Russia would buy a $500 washing machine for a $1 part that they could obtain more easily,” Spleeters added.

In his opening statement, Senator Ron Johnson (Republican-Wisconsin) said he doubted whether any of the solutions proposed by the experts would work, noting that Russia was ramping up weapons production despite sweeping sanctions.

“You plug one hole, another hole is gonna be opening up, it's gonna be whack-a-mole. So it's a reality we have to face,” said Johnson.

Russia last year imported $1.7 billion worth of foreign-made microchips despite international sanctions, Bloomberg reported last month, citing classified Russian customs service data.

Johnson also expressed concern that sanctions would hurt Western nations and companies.

“My guess is they're just going to get more and more sophisticated evading the sanctions and finding components, or potentially finding other Huawei,” Johnson said.

Huawei is a leading Chinese technology company that produces chips among other products.

James Byrne, the founder and director of the open-source intelligence and analysis group at the Royal United Services Institute, said that officials and companies should not give up trying to track the chips just because it is difficult.

'Shocking' Dependency On Western Technology

He said that the West has leverage because Russia is so dependent on Western technology for its arms industry.

“Modern weapons platforms cannot work without these things. They are the brains of almost all modern weapons platforms,” Byrne said.

“These semiconductors vary in sophistication and importance, but it is fair to say that without them Russia … would not have been able to sustain their war effort,” he said.

Byrne said the depth of the dependency on Western technology -- which goes beyond semiconductors to include carbon fiber, polymers, lenses, and cameras -- was “really quite shocking” considering the Kremlin’s rhetoric about import substitution and independence.

Elina Ribakova, a Russia expert and economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said an analysis of 2,800 components taken from Russian weapons collected in Ukraine showed that 95 percent came from countries allied with Ukraine, with the vast majority coming from the United States. The sample, however, may not be representative of the actual distribution of component origin.

Ribakova warned that Russia has been accelerating imports of semiconductor machine components in case the United States imposes such export controls on China.

China can legally buy advanced Western components for semiconductor manufacturing equipment and use them to manufacture and sell advanced semiconductors to Russia, Senator Margaret Hassan (Democrat-New Hampshire) said.

Ribakova said the manufacturing components would potentially allow Russia to “insulate themselves for somewhat longer.”

Ribakova said technology companies are hesitant to beef up their compliance divisions because it can be costly. She recommended that the United States toughen punishment for noncompliance as the effects would be felt beyond helping Ukraine.

“It is also about the credibility of our whole system of economic statecraft. Malign actors worldwide are watching whether they will be credible or it's just words that were put on paper,” she said.

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