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Lukashenka Confident He'll Remain In Power

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has made jokes at the idea that this month's presidential election could weaken his grip on power.

When asked by a reporter in the Kremlin about a possible change of power in the polls, Lukashenka said: "What political changes? What are you hinting at? You must be fed up with me."

He added that "There will definitely be political changes, I am sure you meant political changes in general, but no change of power in Belarus."

Lukashenka is seeking a fourth term in the December 19 election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has never recognised an election in Belarus as free and fair.

(Reuters)

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Iranians Use End Of 40-Day Mourning Period To Protest Against Government

The end of the traditional 40-day mourning period following a protester's death has been turned into a stage for anti-government demonstrations.

Iranians continue to gather at the graves of those who have been killed by security forces in ongoing nationwide protests that have rocked the country since the death of a woman in police custody, calling for regime change despite a brutal crackdown on dissent by the authorities.

Since Mahsa 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.

In recent weeks, protesters have turned the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period following a protester's death into a stage for anti-government demonstrations.

Videos published on social media on January 26 showed crowds at the grave of Hamidreza Rouhi, a university student who had a modeling career since childhood and was shot dead during a demonstration in the Iranian capital, Tehran, on November 18.

They chanted "Death to the dictator!," a reference to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as they gathered to honor Rouhi.

In the western city of Khorramabad, people flocked to the cemetery where Nika Shakrami -- a 16-year-old killed after participating in anti-government protests in Tehran on September 20 -- was buried.

Similar scenes were repeated in the central city of Arak, where Mehrshad Shahidinejad was buried. Shahidinejad was a 19-year-old aspiring chef who was reportedly killed after being arrested during a protest.

Reports also indicate that a group of people and family members of Mohammad Mehdi Karami visited a cemetery in the city of Eshtehard to lay flowers at the graves of Karami and another protester, Mohammad Hosseini.

The were hanged in prison on January 7 following threats by Iranian authorities of harsher penalties to those who participate in the unrest.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of January 15, at least 522 people had been killed during the unrest, including 70 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.

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

Two Iranian Professors Dismissed After Supporting Student Protests

Anger over Amini's death on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights.

Two Iranian university professors have been fired from their jobs following their support of students in nationwide protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody.

The Hakim Sabzevari University Students Union Council announced on January 26 that Hassan Bagherinia, a member of the psychology faculty, had been suspended.

In a letter to the president of the university, the council described Bagherinia's suspension as unfair and said that "in these days when the truth is clouded, he has not remained silent and has always supported the people."

Meanwhile, the Union Council of Iranian Students announced that Amir Nikpey, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Beheshti University, had also been dismissed.

According to the council, Nikpey is the fourth professor to be fired from Beheshti University after Negar Zilabi from the faculty of theology, Mohammad Ragheb from the faculty of literature, and Eslam Nazemi from the faculty of computer engineering.

Anger over Amini's death on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights.

Numerous protests have been held at universities, particularly in Tehran, where many students have refused to attend class. Protesting students have chanted "woman, life, freedom" and "death to the dictator" at the rallies. Some female students have removed and burned their head scarves.

In most of the protests, students have asked the professors to support them, and some university professors and lecturers have expressed solidarity with the protesters.

In a rare act of protest, Encieh Erfani resigned from her post at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Basic Sciences, which is located in the northwestern city of Zanjan.

"Student protesters were chanting, 'the streets are soaked with blood, our professors are silent,'" she told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "So I submitted my resignation."

Universities and students have long been at the forefront of the struggle for greater social and political freedoms in Iran. In 1999, students protested the closure of a reformist daily, prompting a brutal raid on the dorms of Tehran University that left one student dead.

Over the years, the authorities have arrested student activists and leaders, sentencing them to prison and banning them from studying.

The activist HRANA news agency said that as of January 26 at least 700 university students had been arrested during the recent unrest.

Many have faced sentences such as imprisonment, flogging, and dozens of students have been expelled from universities or suspended from their studies, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

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

Kazakh Teenage Girl Beats Russia's Noted Chess Grandmaster Karyakin

Bibisara Asaubaeva competes at the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022 in Mahabalipuram, India, in August 2022.

An 18-year-old female Kazakh chess player has beaten Russian grandmaster Sergei Karyakin at the Chess Stars International Tournament in Moscow.

Bibisara Asaubaeva, the first Muslim woman in history to become women's World Blitz chess champion twice, defeated Karyakin in the tournament's rapid format on January 26.

Asaubaeva, who currently holds the titles of international master and woman grandmaster, is competing for the tournament's prize pool of $216,247.

The blitz competitions are next up and will be held on January 28-30.

Karyakin commended Asaubaeva's performance, calling her a "world champion who plays very well."

Last year, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) disqualified Karyakin for six months for publicly supporting Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The 33-year-old Karyakin has supported Russia's invasion of Ukraine since it started on February 24, 2022, which has been harshly criticized by many in the chess world.

Karyakin, who was born in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that was illegally annexed by Russia eight years ago, represented Ukraine until 2009.

With reporting by Kazinform and KazTAG

EU Prolongs Economic Sanctions Over Russia's War In Ukraine Until July 31

The Council of the European Union on January 27 extended sanctions targeting specific sectors of Russia's economy by six months, until July 31. The sanctions, first introduced in 2014, were significantly expanded since the start of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the council said in a statement. They include restrictions on trade, finance, technology, industry, transport, and luxury goods; a ban on the import or transfer of seaborne crude oil and certain petroleum products from Russia to the EU; a de-SWIFTing of several Russian banks; and the suspension of Russian broadcasting activities.

EU Seeks Effective Justice For 'Horrific' Crimes In Ukraine War

An empty coffin is placed next to a grave after the exhumation of bodies in the mass graves dug during the Russian occupation in the city of Izyum in eastern Ukraine.

The EU wants swift accountability for the "horrific" crimes in Ukraine, EU justice ministers said on January 26, even as they differed over the methods about how to bring prosecutions, seek evidence, or fund war-damage repairs. The bloc's 27 justice ministers met in Stockholm ahead of the February 24 anniversary of Russia's attack on Ukraine. "Nobody doing this kind of war crimes shall go free. It's very, very important that we will find a way to hold responsible people accountable," Swedish Justice Minister Gunnar Strommer said. "The question is, how can we deal with this in a practical and efficient way." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Moscow Blocks CIA, FBI Websites, Citing 'False' Information About Russian Armed Forces

Russia's media regulator blocked the websites of the CIA and the FBI after the CIA posted a message on Facebook asking Russians to contact FBI agents. (illustrative photo)

Russian media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked the websites of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the State Department's national security rewards program, according to the Roskomsvoboda project. There was no immediate comment from Washington, but earlier this month the intelligence service posted a message on Facebook saying Russia's military mobilization could radically change the lives of Russians and asked them to contact FBI agents as "it is in your power to change this." The FBI regularly launches advertising campaigns on social networks in different languages, including Russian. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Rogue Russian Priest Gets Additional Prison Term On Hatred Charge

Russia Rebel Monk

MOSCOW -- An ultraconservative, coronavirus-denying Russian priest who was stripped of his religious rank and sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in 2021 has been handed an additional sentence of 5 1/2 years in prison on charge of inciting hatred toward Catholics, Muslims, and Jews.

The Babushkin district court ruled on January 27 that it was combining the two sentences, meaning the general prison term for Nikolai Romanov, also known as Father Sergiy, will amount to seven years.

The additional charge against Romanov, who is already in prison after being convicted of vigilantism, violating the right to religious freedom, and encouraging suicide, stemmed from his six online posts about religions other than Orthodox Christianity.

His co-defendant Vsevolod Moguchev, who placed Father Sergiy's sermons on his YouTube channel, was also found guilty of inciting hatred and sentenced to five years in prison.

Father Sergiy was arrested in December 2020 after law enforcement raided his convent in the Sverdlovsk region. Parishioners and some clergy skirmished with the police during the arrest of the rogue priest, who was then sent to a detention center in Moscow.

The priest made headlines in June 2020 after he took over the Sredneuralsk Women's Monastery in the Urals by force with help from Cossack guards.

He was later stripped of his religious rank by the Diocesan Court in the Sverdlovsk region for what the court called disobedience toward Russian Orthodox Church authorities.

Father Sergiy is known for his public praising of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, calling the coronavirus pandemic a Western plot, and publicly condemning the Russian Orthodox Church's order in April 2020 to stop church services to prevent the spreading of the virus.

After forcibly taking over the convent, Father Sergiy issued political statements saying that constitutional amendments proposed by President Vladimir Putin "would legalize a slave-owning system."

The constitutional changes approved in 2020 allow Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister for more than 21 years, to stay in power until 2036 if he chooses to run again after his current term ends in 2024.

Armenian Officer Arrested For Negligence Over Fire That Killed 15 Soldiers

The scene of the blaze

An Armenian military officer has been arrested over a deadly fire last week that killed 15 soldiers and critically injured three others in the South Caucasus country. The Prosecutor-General's Office said on January 27 that Gor Aghabekian, the deputy commander of the military unit, who was responsible for fire-safety rules, was sent to pretrial detention for at least two months on a charge of negligence that led to the deaths. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Armenian Service, click here.

U.K. Court Says Russian Businessman Cannot Pause $850 Million Fraud Case Over Sanctions

Boris Mints and his sons Dmitry, Aleksandr, and Igor are being sued by National Bank Trust, which is 99 percent owned by Russia’s central bank, on behalf of Bank Otkritie, once Russia's largest private lender before its 2017 collapse. (file photo)

The High Court in London has ruled a prominent Russian businessman cannot pause an $850 million fraud lawsuit brought by two Russian banks because of British sanctions. Boris Mints and his sons Dmitry, Aleksandr, and Igor are being sued by National Bank Trust, which is 99 percent owned by Russia's central bank, on behalf of Bank Otkritie, once Russia's largest private lender before its 2017 collapse. Lawyers representing the Mints family -- who deny the fraud allegations -- say the lawsuit should be indefinitely put on hold because, if the banks win at trial, damages could not be paid, as Bank Otkritie is under British sanctions. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Russian Police Officer Gets Eight Years In Prison In Absentia Over Posts About War In Ukraine

Oleg Kashintsev, a former Russian policeman, holds a placard reading "Free Navalny! Putin is a killer!" on Moscow's Red Square in 2021.

A Moscow court sentenced in absentia police officer Oleg Kashintsev to eight years in prison on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces by spreading "false" information about Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Kashintsev's lawyer said on January 27 the court also stripped Kashintsev's major rank and barred him from administering social networks and from serving in police ranks for four years. Kashintsev fled Russia several months ago. His case is the first about "fake" news on Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine that was tried in absentia. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

Journalist Ponomarenko, Charged With Discrediting Russian Army, Returned To Pretrial Detention

Siberian journalist Maria Ponomarenko was arrested in April last year and faces up to 10 years in prison for her online posts.

Siberian journalist Maria Ponomarenko, who was under house arrest on a charge of discrediting Russia’s armed forces with "fake" social media posts about the war in Ukraine, has been transferred to a pretrial detention center on January 27 after she quarreled with her ex-husband overnight. Ponomarenko was arrested in April last year and faces up to 10 years in prison for her online posts. Earlier in January, a court in Barnaul rejected her request to be transferred to pretrial detention to protest against the military mobilization by the Russian government. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Kyrgyz, Uzbek Presidents Sign Raft Of Documents, Including Border Delimitation

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov signed more than 20 bilateral documents on January 27.

More than 20 bilateral documents have been signed during talks between Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, in Bishkek. Among the documents signed on January 27, the last day of Mirziyoev’s two-day visit to Kyrgyzstan, was a protocol on the exchange of resolutions to ratify November agreements on delimitation of several disputed segments of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. More than 20 Kyrgyz politicians and activists were arrested in October after they protested the border deal. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, click here.

Russia Shifting War Focus To 'NATO And The West,' Says EU Official

Stefano Sannino, secretary-general of the European Union’s European External Action Service, told reporters in Tokyo that Putin had "moved from a concept of special operation to a concept now of a war against NATO and the West." (file photo)

A senior EU official says Russia has taken its war against Ukraine to "a different stage" through indiscriminate attacks on civilians and nonmilitary targets, while criticizing Moscow for triggering recent moves by Germany and the United States to send advanced tanks to Ukraine. Stefano Sannino, secretary-general of the European Union’s European External Action Service, told reporters in Tokyo that Putin had "moved from a concept of special operation to a concept now of a war against NATO and the West." He said German and U.S. tank provisions are meant to help Ukrainians defend themselves rather than making them attackers. To read the original story by AP, click here.

One Person Shot Dead At Azerbaijan's Embassy In Iran; Baku Evacuates Staff

One person was killed and two others were wounded when an attacker opened fire on a guard post outside Azerbaijan's embassy in Tehran on January 27.

One security official has been shot dead and two guards wounded when an attacker armed with a Kalashnikov-style automatic rifle stormed Azerbaijan's embassy in Iran's capital, Tehran.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev called the January 27 assault "an act of terrorism" and Baku quickly announced it was evacuating the embassy while blaming Iran for the incident.

"The attacker broke through the guard post, killing the head of security with a Kalashnikov assault rifle," Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said.

Iranian state TV quoted Tehran Police Chief Hossein Rahimi as saying the attacker was arrested and that he had "personal and family problems."

Rahimi said the attacker entered the embassy with two children. However, surveillance footage from inside the embassy released in Azerbaijan appeared to show the shooter entering the building alone. The footage bore a timestamp matching the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry's statement.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Nasser Kanaani, said Tehran strongly condemned the attack, which was under investigation with "high priority and sensitivity."

Iran and Azerbaijan have a common border. Relations between the two countries have been tense amid the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

"I fiercely condemn the terrorist attack perpetrated against our embassy in Tehran today," Aliyev said on Twitter.

"We demand that this terrorist act be swiftly investigated and the terrorist be punished.... Terror against diplomatic missions is unacceptable!"

Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Ayxan Hacizada told local media that "all responsibility for the attack lies with Iran" as a recent anti-Azerbaijani campaign in Iranian media had "emboldened the attack."

"Unfortunately, the latest bloody terrorist act demonstrates the serious consequences of the failure to give the necessary attention to our constant appeals in this regard," Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

Jury Convicts Uzbek New York Bike Attacker, Weighs Death Penalty

Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek national who moved to the United States in 2010, was convicted on all of the 28 counts he faced. 

A U.S. jury on January 26 convicted an Uzbek man who used a truck to kill eight people on a Manhattan bike path in 2017 on murder and terrorism charges in the first federal death-penalty trial of U.S. President Joe Biden's administration. After finding Sayfullo Saipov guilty of committing murder with the goal of joining the Islamic State militant group, the Manhattan jury will return on February 6 to consider whether the death penalty is appropriate punishment. Saipov, an Uzbek national who moved to the United States in 2010, was convicted on all of the 28 counts he faced. To read the full story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

Russia Steps Up Offensive In Ukraine As West Displays United Front In Support Of Kyiv

A Ukrainian tank fires toward Russian positions near the town of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region on January 26.

Russian forces have pressed on with a multipronged offensive in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as Kyiv's Western allies continue to display a united front in their support.

Ukraine's military said on January 27 that heavy shelling was seen in Ukraine's north, northeast, and east amid expectations that Russia is gearing up for a renewed offensive sometime in the coming months.

In the face of those expectations, Ukraine's Western allies continue to pledge military equipment and aid to shore up Kyiv's defenses as the first anniversary of the conflict, launched by Russia on February 24 last year, approaches.

U.S. national security spokesman John Kirby said Washington anticipates an "intense period of fighting" in the coming months," adding that there was "no sign" of the war stopping.

The European Union on January 27 extended its economic sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine for another six months, as EU justice ministers vowed to seek swift accountability for the "horrific" crimes in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said his country was earmarking another 90 million euros ($100 million) in military support to Ukraine, its largest aid package to Ukraine to date.

"Ukraine must be able to defend itself against brutal Russian aggression," he wrote on Twitter.

Ukrainian troops repelled attacks in 11 locations in the two eastern regions over the past 24 hours, a day after Moscow unleashed another wave of missile strikes across Ukraine, killing at least 11 people and damaging energy infrastructure despite Kyiv's air defense destroying most of the incoming projectiles.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

"The defense forces over the past day repelled the invaders' attacks in Ploshanka, Nevske, and Chervonpopyivka in Luhansk, and Verkhnyokamyanske, Paraskoviyivka, Bakhmut, Klishchiyivka, Vodyane, Nevelske, Maryinka, and Vuhledar in Donetsk," Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report, which

Oleh Synehubov, governor of the northeastern region of Kharkiv, said that "fierce fighting" continued along the front lines in the area. "Our defenders are firmly holding their positions and inflicting losses to the enemy," he said.

RFE/RL could not independently verify the reports.

Poland announced on January 27 that it will send an additional 60 tanks to Ukraine to strengthen its defenses. It comes on top of media reports that NATO members will donate around 100 German-manufactured Leopard 2 tanks.

Separately, the United States and Britian have promised to contribute 31 M1 Abrams and 14 Challenger 2 respectively, bringing the total tank donations this month to about 200. Ukraine said it needs 300 tanks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiyin his nightly video address on January 26 thanked "everyone in the world who is truly fighting against terror together with us" and reemphasized the need for "speeding up" the delivery of heavy tanks to his country.

The United States said it could take "many months" before the Abrams can be delivered to Ukraine, while the Leopards could take a few months as well, due to the need for training and logistics build-out, experts said.

The 60 tanks promised by Poland could be deployed sooner. They include 30 PT-91, a modernized version of the Soviet-era T-72, which is the main tank used by Ukraine and thus requires little training or additional logistics support

Canada was the latest country to declare its intention to give Ukraine tanks. Ottawa will send four Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, the Canadian defense minister said, after Germany this week allowed other countries to reexport the German-built tank.

Poland, the Netherlands, and Spain previously announced their readiness to transfer some of the Leopard 2 tanks in their stocks to Ukraine, something they can only do with manufacturer Germany's express permission.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said that they need 300 tanks as they seek to drive Russian forces from their territory. Ukraine lost more than half of its 850 tanks during the 11-month, according to Oryx, a website that uses open-source tools to count destroyed equipment.

However, Ukraine will need weeks to months to train on those new weapon systems and build out supply chains to service them.

As the PT-91s are similar to the T-72, they could be quickly deployed with little additional training.

NATO's Eastern European members have sent hundreds of modernized T-72 tanks and tank parts to Ukraine since February, with Poland having sent about 250 tanks, according to Morawiecki.

According to two diplomatic sources quoted by Reuters, France and Italy are close to finalizing the technical details to supply an SAMP/T air-defense system to Ukraine.

Zelenskiy said that "there are already 12 countries in our tank coalition" to provide advanced Western battle tanks to help Ukraine's defense against Russia's 11-month Russian invasion.

Zelenskiy was also pressing for the Western supply of long-range missiles and aircraft to Ukraine.

Morawiecki was quoted by dpa as telling a French broadcaster on January 26 that his country would be willing to send fighter jets to Ukraine if Warsaw's NATO allies decided on such a move.

Those weapons would help Ukraine counter Russian missile attacks that have knocked out much of Ukraine's energy infrastructure over the past several months. The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands earlier promised a total of four Patriot air-defense systems.

Kirby said there were no plans at the moment for the United States to send aircraft to Ukraine.

In addition to offering military and financial aid to Ukraine, the West continues to seek reparations and justice for Russia's unprovoked invasion.

EU justice ministers gathered in Stockholm on January 27 said the 27-member bloc wants swift accountability for Russia's "horrific" crimes in Ukraine, even as they differed over the methods about how to bring prosecutions, seek evidence or fund war damage repairs.

The same day, the Council of the European Union extended sanctions targeting specific sectors of Russia's economy by six months, until July 31.

"They currently consist of a broad spectrum of sectoral measures, including restrictions on trade, finance, technology and dual-use goods, industry, transport and luxury goods," the statement said.

Sanctions also include a ban on the import or transfer of seaborne crude oil and certain oil products from Russia to the EU, as well as the de-SWIFTing of several Russian banks.

The suspension of the broadcasting activities and licenses of several Kremlin-backed disinformation outlets is also part of the restrictive measures.

The Kremlin has reacted with fury to the latest gesture of Western solidarity with Ukraine, saying it saw the promised delivery of advanced tanks as evidence of escalating "direct involvement" of the United States and NATO in Russia's war of aggression, something both deny.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa and CTV

U.S. Envoy To OSCE Warns Russia Trying To 'Wipe Out' Ukrainian Sovereignty, Incorporate Belarus

Michael R. Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, said Russian President Vladimir Putin had "made clear" that he thinks both Ukraine and Belarus "belong" to Russia. 

The U.S. envoy to the OSCE warned at a meeting of the organization's Permanent Council on January 26 that Russia is trying "to wipe out the sovereignty of an entire, independent nation" in Ukraine.

Ambassador Michael Carpenter added that Russia was also seeking to do much the same thing with neighboring Belarus, following a historical pattern of denying the existence of sovereign nations and trying to "incorporate them into their empires."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin had "made clear" that he thinks both those nations "belong" to Russia.

"The United States flatly rejects Russia's efforts to dismiss and repress Ukraine’s distinct culture, history, and statehood," Carpenter said. "We also strongly support the sovereignty and independence of Belarus, which has a proud history and its own rich culture as well."

Putin's forces covertly occupied Crimea ahead of its annexation in 2014, when Russia-backed armed separatists also captured wide swaths of eastern Ukraine.

After massing Russian troops at the Ukrainian borders with Russia and Belarus in late 2021 and early 2022, Putin ordered tens of thousands of soldiers and armored vehicles to launch a full-scale invasion on February 24.

Ukrainian officials have chronicled what they say are tens or hundreds of thousands of atrocities and other abuses against civilians, and international war crimes investigators are documenting many allegations along with physical evidence in formerly occupied territory.

Carpenter said that "Putin’s language and view of Ukraine and its people is essential to understanding the brutal conduct of Russia’s forces in Ukraine."

The Kremlin leader has increased pressure on Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka since the latter declared himself the winner of sixth term in a flawed presidential election in 2020, a vote that sparked massive street protests and Western condemnation.

Lukashenka has been further isolated internationally since allowing Russian troops to stage their invasion from Belarusian soil.

"Russia's leadership has openly and repeatedly professed the belief that Ukrainian and Belarusian identity do not exist outside of Russian culture," Carpenter told the OSCE Permanent Council.

Tsikhanouskaya Calls On Croatia To Distinguish Lukashenka's Regime From Belarusians

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya started her two-day visit to Croatia on January 26. She was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and parliament speaker Gordan Jandrokovic. (file photo)

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus, has called on Croatia "to distinguish between" the Belarusian people and the regime of the authoritarian ruler of her country, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and to do the same between Belarus and Russia.

Tsikhanouskaya said after talks with Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlic-Radman in Zagreb on January 26 that "dictator Lukashenka is fully responsible for taking part in [Russia's] war against Ukraine."

She said the vast majority of Belarusians oppose the war and support Ukraine.

"Another message: Belarus is not Russia," she said. "Belarus has always been part of the European community; we strive for that. And we see our future in friendship with Croatia."

She described Belarus as currently "under a creeping occupation."

Tsikhanouskaya expressed thanks to Grlic-Radman for "his active support to a democratic Belarus in the European Union, the European Council, and the OSCE,” as well as for Croatia's support of Ukraine.

"Today we discussed how to prevent involvement of Belarusian troops' participation in the war against Ukraine, how to help Belarusian guerillas and volunteers, to strengthen the isolation of Lukashenka on the international arena," Tsikhanouskaya said.

Tsikhanouskaya started her two-day visit to Croatia on January 26. She was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and parliament speaker Gordan Jandrokovic.

On January 26, Belarusian state-controlled Telegram channels said that Tsikhanouskaya's Office and the Coordination Council of Belarusian opposition were extremist organizations.

With reporting by BPN

Workers At Chinese-Serbian Copper Mine Block Roads To Press Wage Demands

Workers from the Chinese Zijin Copper company in Bor, Serbia, block the entrance to the factory demanding higher wages and working conditions.

Hundreds of workers at a joint Chinese-Serbian copper mine in Bor, in eastern Serbia, blocked access to the facility on January 26 to protest for higher wages and a new collective bargaining agreement with the mine's Chinese majority owners.

The demonstrators blocked four entrance gates to the mining and smelting complex.

"We are only blocking heavy trucks -- we let in the ambulance, firefighters, and police. Anyone can walk by foot and get to work," Dragan Elek, from the smelters trade union organization, told RFE/RL.

Chinese Zijin Copper bought around two-thirds of the Bor mining facility from the Serbian state in 2018 and employs some 6,200 people to exploit copper, gold, and other ore deposits in eastern Serbia.

A similar protest was staged earlier this month.

Workers are demanding the 14.3-percent pay rise that was proposed by the tripartite Socio-Economic Council representing labor, management, and the Serbian government. They also want a new collective agreement.

"Primarily, we want to preserve our budgets and our dignity," Miodrag Milic, one of the protesting workers, told RFE/RL.

The Zijin Copper company issued a statement pledging in 2023 to increase wages by 10 percent.

The Chinese Bor operations have already faced legal challenges based on accusations of noncompliance with environmental standards.

Russia's Path To 2024 Olympics Takes Shape; Ukraine Objects

Athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee attend a welcoming ceremony after returning from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Red Square in Moscow, on August 9, 2021.

Russia's path to sending a team to the Paris Olympics next year became clearer on January 26 amid fierce objections from Ukraine. The International Olympic Committee indicated on January 25 that it favors officially neutral teams from Russia and its ally Belarus at the 2024 Olympics despite a plea from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to exclude them entirely. A day later, Russia and Belarus were invited to compete at the Asian Games, a key Olympic qualifier. To see the original story by AP, click here.

Canada To Send Four Leopard 2 Tanks To Ukraine

A Leopard 2 tank (file photo)

Canada will send four Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand said on January 26, after Germany this week allowed other countries to re-export the German-built tank. "This donation, combined with the contributions of allies and partners, will significantly help the armed forces of Ukraine" in their defense against the Russian invasion, Anand told reporters in Ottawa.

U.K. Aiming To Deliver Tanks To Ukraine By End Of March

Britain this month became the first Western ally to promise heavy assault vehicles for Ukraine with a plan to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks. (file photo)

Britain's government said on January 26 that it was aiming to send tanks to Ukraine at the end of March, with training starting next week. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters that "everything is going according to plan" after Britain this month became the first Western ally to promise heavy assault vehicles for Ukraine with a plan to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks. Germany and the United States swept aside longstanding misgivings and followed suit on January 25.

North Macedonia Says Bulgaria Recall 'Disproportionate' As Balkan Tensions Bubble Over

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov (left) and North Macedonia's foreign minister, Bujar Osmani, visited Hristijan Pendikov in the hospital on January 22 after he was attacked and beaten over the weekend in Ohrid, North Macedonia.

SKOPJE -- North Macedonia's foreign minister, Bujar Osmani, has described Bulgaria's decision to recall its ambassador to Skopje as "disproportionate" if it is a response to a weekend attack on a minority Bulgarian in the city of Ohrid.

Hristijan Pendikov, a Macedonian citizen who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative, was attacked and beaten last weekend in that Macedonian city.

Sofia announced the diplomatic withdrawal on January 25, with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolay Milkov saying it would remain in effect until Sofia sees signs of change.

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 EU negotiations.

Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year but only after slightly reshaping the Macedonian EU accession framework.

The day after the attack on Pendikov, he was flown to Bulgaria on a Bulgarian government plane to undergo surgery for his injuries.

Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski called a meeting of the Security Council on January 23, after which he said he would ask the government to ban the entry into the country of several Bulgarian citizens he said were leading a campaign against North Macedonia and were connected to Russian intelligence services.

Osmani blamed the attack on Pendikov on individual perpetrators and said Macedonian officials had done all they could to respond to the attack.

"The state immediately identified the perpetrators, [and] one of them is in custody," Osmani told the Macedonian Desk of RFE/RL's Balkan Service on January 26. "There were condemnations by the president, the prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs. I went to Sofia [and] we expressed what the state should show our citizens, so I don't see what the connection would be between one case and the reaction."

Milkov suggested on Bulgarian state television that Sofia would "review" joint projects with its North Macedonia and said "things cannot continue as they have been."

He added that "things have changed" between the neighbors.

Osmani rejected generalizations about a state's behavior based on a single incident.

He also said he thought the Bulgarian government's actions were related to elections there scheduled for early April -- the country's fifth in less than two years.

"The Republic of Bulgaria is entering the election process," Osmani said, adding that a political vacuum over the past two years has been an "aggravating circumstance" with respect to "sensitive issues."

He said "the season of provocateurs, thugs, and political profiteers is open and now everyone is in trouble."

The European Commission is currently reviewing all 33 of North Macedonia's accession chapters to determine what North Macedonia must achieve to prepare to become an EU member.

Any existing member state -- including Bulgaria -- can veto the opening and closing of such chapters in negotiations.

Bulgarian cultural clubs became a flashpoint for tensions between the countries as their numbers and visibility increased last year.

Other recent celebrations of historical figures have further stirred tensions.

A large contingent of Bulgarian nationals is expected to travel to North Macedonia to mark the 151st anniversary of the birth of revolutionary Goce Delcev on February 4.

Earlier this week, the Macedonian government instructed the Interior Ministry to take measures to keep the event safe.

U.S. Lists Russian Vagner Mercenary Group As 'Transnational Criminal Organization'

Vagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has been increasingly public in his efforts to take credit for battlefield gains. He has also been filmed recruiting Vagner fighters from Russian prisons, promising pardons in exchange for battlefield action.

The United States has designated the Vagner Group a "significant transnational criminal organization" and targeted individuals and entities within the Russian mercenary enterprise's global network in line with an executive order.

The U.S. Treasury said on January 26 that additional new sanctions in connection with the designation target six individuals and 12 entities, including a Chinese satellite-imagery provider and companies and people in the Central African Republic (CAR) where Vagner has active paid fighters, as well as in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.).

A Treasury statement described the listing by its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as part of an effort "to degrade the Russian Federation's capacity to wage war against Ukraine."

Thousands of Vagner troops are fighting in Ukraine, and Vagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has been increasingly public in his efforts to take credit for battlefield gains. He has also been filmed recruiting Vagner fighters from Russian prisons, promising pardons in exchange for battlefield action.

Ukrainian and Western officials have blamed Vagner troops for atrocities against civilians in Russia's invasion, which is now in its 12th month.

"As sanctions and export controls on Russia from our international coalition continue to bite, the Kremlin is desperately searching for arms and support -- including through the brutal [Vagner] Group -- to continue its unjust war against Ukraine," the statement quoted Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as saying.

The Treasury said Vagner personnel "have engaged in an ongoing pattern of serious criminal activity, including mass executions, rape, child abductions, and physical abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali."

It noted that the OFAC in 2017 concluded that Vagner was complicit in actions that threatened Ukraine and was singled out in November by the State Department for its contribution to the now nearly year-old full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

"As Russia’s military has struggled on the battlefield, Putin has resorted to relying on the [Vagner] Group to continue his war of choice," the Treasury said of the Ukrainian invasion effort.

The sanctions will also target the Joint Stock Company Terra Tech (Terra Tech) and China's Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute Co. LTD (Spacety China).

It also named an alleged Vagner front company called Officer’s Union for International Security (OUIS) and its director, along with a Russian Vagner employee it said was advising C.A.R.'s president, along with U.A.E.-based Kratol Aviation.

It said that "to further degrade Russia's war machine" it was sanctioning JSC Aviacon Zitotrans (Aviacon Zitotrans), unmanned aerial vehicle maker AO Ural Civil Aviation Factory (UCAF), and state-owned Joint Stock Company National Aviation Service Company (NASC), along with a handful of other entities.

Sakharov Center Says It's Being Evicted From Moscow Premises

A roundtable event at the Sakharov Center in Moscow in 2019

MOSCOW -- The Sakharov Center in Moscow, the human rights entity named after Nobel Prize-winning Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, says it is being evicted from its three premises in the Russian capital.

The Sakharov Center's staff said in a statement on January 26 that Moscow's Property Department had informed it two days earlier that it was canceling the group's lease agreements, including one to its main building, an exhibition hall, and one to Sakharov's former apartment.

The department explained the decision by saying that amendments to the controversial law on foreign agents, which took force on December 1, forbid organizations and individuals labeled as foreign agents from receiving any state support. All the premises were provided to the Sakharov Center free of charge.

"For a quarter of a century, the center has been a place that united thousands of Russian citizens who are not indifferent to the fate of the country, the values of freedom and human rights," the statement from the Sakharov Center said.

"This legal collision proves yet again that the state policy's idea is liquidation of the independent organizations that fight for social interests," it added.

The center was given its first premises by Moscow authorities in 1993.

The personal archive of Andrei Sakharov is currently kept in the center's apartment location on Moscow's Zemlyanoi Val Street.

Exhibits about the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, Polish journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, British cinema director Tom Stoppard, Lithuanian writer and dissident Tomas Venclova, and prominent Soviet and Russian dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky all were featured at one time or another.

The center was also a place where people bid last farewell to well-known Soviet dissidents and post-Soviet Kremlin critics such as Sergei Kovalyov, Boris Nemtsov, Yury Ryzhov, Valeria Novodvorskaya, and Yury Afanasyev.

The Sakharov Center "created the only historic exposition in the country that told the history of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian regime...to help society reevaluate the tragic pages of its history and realize that the repetition of political repressions, deportations, aggressive foreign policy is perilous for the country," the Sakharov Center statement said.

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